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Friday, August 30, 2013


How much time do you think it took to do this?dangling waste of time

Can you think of any other activities where that time could  have been put to more productive use?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Garden as Therapy…

Good morning, gloryAnd they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day:...

Genesis 3:8

I have a good friend I’ve mentioned from time to time in The Ripple. She turned ninety-seven last March and though she is not a national treasure, she is a treasure to me. Our friendship began before I turned twenty, so I have known her almost all my life. When I think of my friend, I think of  the pioneer days and the Great Depression years when life, compared to today’s Easy Street existence, was knock down hard. One of five children, all girls, my friend and her sisters were daughters of a dry land wheat farmer who eked out a tooth and nail existence on the Waterville Plateau in Douglas County, Washington. During the Depression years and beyond, her father fought a constant battle with the elements, both natural and economic, in order to make a living from the arid scabland and provide for his growing family.

Quite the letter writer my friend is…I receive two, sometimes three letters a month. I’ve saved most all of them; they would likely fill three shoeboxes, two certainly. Several years back she suffered a stroke and as a result her handwriting suffered, as well. I suppose the proverbial “hen’s scratchings” describes her penmanship these post stroke years. No matter how many times you read them, some phrases, in spite of the context, remain unintelligible. Hardly a letter arrives in which she doesn’t apologize for her spelling and handwriting. Due to the circumstances of her growing up on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, she has only an eighth grade education: high school was not an option; the nearest one was twelve miles away. But I blame the stroke for most of her difficulty in stringing the right words together (“I guess at most of my words,” she often admits).

In our letters we exchange notes about our gardens (hers always outpace mine…Eastern Washington sun, you know). Her last two letters saddened me, not because my friend’s faculties are slipping a bit, her words jumbled in places, not that I couldn’t understand all the passages, but because of a sentence I understood well enough to realize a milestone event had happened in her life. “We have no Gardmen [garden],” the sentence began. She went on to say her grandson let the weeds “take” it, then brought the tractor in and tilled the entire plot under,vegetables and all. Although you’ll not find a more positive ninety-seven year old anywhere, I could read the disappointment beneath her words.This year’s garden for her, as the last’s, was a joint effort by her and her grandson’s family. Decades of hard work have worn her down. “The Ol’ Gal is wore out,” she said in one letter. “Bone on bone,” about her hip joint in another. And “One leg I have to lift to sit down.” She gets about these days with the help of a walker…problematic for the stooping and standing gardening demands. With the help of her family my friend has been able to have her vegetable garden in the past. But not this year.

Each spring for as long as I can remember, she’s planted a garden. Even though she and her husband worked their twenty acre apple orchard, she always made time for a garden, the produce from which she canned, froze and shared with neighbors. Usually by the end of February, my friend’s windowsills were already brimming with tomato starts. Come time to plant them outdoors, many had even set fruit. This spring, too, the tomato starts lined the sills, but now the sad milestone for my friend.

Grandson is devoted to his grandmother. Nowadays much of her care is his responsibility: doctors’ appointments, retrofitting Grandmother’s home so she can continue to live in it, arranging for drop-in caregivers, grocery shopping (his wife stops by with an evening meal from time to time)…all the while working a wheat ranch and being a husband and father to two children. And so the garden was just one more added burden; I understand full well; you do what you can, but it’s life that has the final say. “Its easier to go buy what you want,”he told his grandmother. That my friend has no garden to tend and harvest this season is upsetting enough, but equally bothersome is the fact her grandson appears unaware of the fact that a garden offers so much more, I believe, than a basketful of vegetables at the end of the season. Grandson truly doesn’t understand the Zen of the garden.A riot of color

Oftentimes as you go about your daily life, you feel as if you’re midstream, struggling mightily to stay afloat, unable to move forward, but the garden is a place where your efforts are rewarded, your successes realized; you can see you’ve made your mark. The adventure begins with the first furrow planted. You look for the earth to buckle above the stirring seed, the first fiddlehead of bean curling from the soil, the blade of corn piercing the dirt, the sprouting pea….Then the garden beckons daily. garden in AugustYou create a new world each year, plant by plant, row by row: your very own realm to explore, a landscape that changes day by day, week by week. Perhaps encouraged by the pull of the moon and stars, each morning the garden seems a new and different place.

Cup of coffee in hand, I walk the rows in the cool of the morning. There are always surprises: that first pink blush on a green tomato (it wasn’t there Soon for saladyesterday); a cornstalk beginning to tassel; the first tiny string bean, yet only a crescent nail paring; a dot of color in the sweet pea row, the first blossom of the season; a tiny blimp of cucumber; a squash blossom hosting an early rising bee. (Is the Savoy cabbage finally beginning to head?)

Evening. The wilting garden has shaken off the heat of the day, perked up in the shade. sunset on the gardenGarden walk time again, and cool beverage in hand, I wander the rows, looking for surprises, inspecting the day’s progress, all the while making mental notes of tomorrow’s priorities: what rows need weeding, plants staking or watering. I set the glass down on a post (where I find it again two days later), and take out some of  the day’s stress on a stalk of pigweed or lamb’s quarter insinuating its weediness on a row of shell beans, squash vines or hilled potatoes. I grip the culprit at ground level, pull. Momentarily the weed resists and then the satisfying give as the roots release. I shake the dirt from them and cast the weed aside, leave it at the mercy of tomorrow’s sun.

“We have no Gardmen,”my friend lamented. No more the satisfaction of the journey from seed to harvest. No more tomatoes on the window sills. No more squash to give to neighbors. No more cucumbers to pickle and share with family and friends. Even the weeds, gone. In my letters I share my garden with my friend as the season progresses, what has ripened, what I have canned, frozen, dried, or pickled. My garden is the only garden she has now. The weeds have taken hers; the windowsill tomatoes, the potato vines, squash, cucumbers, strawberries…everything shredded by the rototiller. The Zen of the garden and part of her life only memories now.master gardner

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Salt of the Earth and Lactic Fermentation…

Bean dripThe bean poles are dripping beans and that calls for action. The Ripple is all about variety, a change of scenery, a “pushing to the edge of the envelope,” so to speak. You plant the beans, you weed the beans, you trellis the beans, you water the beans: you devote valuable life minutes to the beans. About all that’s left for the beans, then, is harvesting and canning. But wait a minute…there are other methods of preserving one’s bean crop, of laying by the beans of summer for the meals of winter. I posted about beans in a September post two years ago: “Spilling the Beans About Beans,” (9/12/2011). Consider this post a “post script” to its predecessor.

One alternative to canning and freezing garden produce is by dehydration. I mentioned a Mother Earth News tip about “leather britches,” bean pods threaded through their middles with kite string or pea twine and fashioned into bean leis and hung up to dry. No fancy dehydrator necessary; no electricity consumption: I hung my britches behind the woodstove where they soon shriveled from the radiant heat. Unstring a handful of the crispy shells, toss them in the Saturday soup, and soon they’ll reconstitute, feel right at home bubbling away on the stove with the rest of the vegetables. Not only a good way to prevent bean wastage but quite convenient, too.

Last fall my friend Jim gave me a half gallon jar of pickled green beans.  Natural curiosity, by the way, is just one of Jim’s admirable traits. Take gardening  for instance: Jim is always trying something new, some cutting edge method in tilth (“no till gardening,” for example ). Ever the enthusiast, Jim is, of the new crop, the exotic variety, the best shell bean, the ideal winter squash, dent corn for the perfect cornmeal (I believe this year Jim is exploring the world of the Jerusalem artichoke). Now I’m a gardener myself, and I’ll be the first to admit where green beans are concerned, there’s not a whole lot of excitement one can derive from a thriving bean pole. Enthusiasm, perhaps, or in the case of next year’s crop—anticipation: Tony Broers has promised me seed from his foot-long bean variety. (The other day I asked Tony if  he could spare one bean  for show and tell. “Take four, he chuckled, “and have yourself a meal.”) 

“Kraut beans,” I called them when Jim presented me the jar.“Kraut” because they have the sauerkraut pucker factor and because the beans were processed the same way: in a salt brine.

For you chemists out there, it’s called“lactic fermentation.” Back when the world was young and science just a toddler, someone discovered that the salt of the Earth, when applied in liberal amounts to meat and garden produce, would preserve them until they could be replenished the next growing season. These were the years between the last Ice Age and the first refrigeration patent in 1834 and the 1933 first edition of the Ball Blue Book Easy Guide to Tasty, Thrifty Canning and Freezing.

Lactic Fermentation. That’s what happens when you chop cabbage, salt it, and crock the mixture until sour happens. It’s all chemistry, of course, and therefore entails a whole lot of technical terms that for me get in the way of the destination. I’m all about process and  product; how the process works I’ll leave to the PHDs in chemistry; that the whole thing works is what I’m about.

I’m perfectly satisfied to stand on the right hand side of the equation as in the cartoon I once saw where two scientists stand looking at figures on a chalkboard and in place of the equal sign are the words: “And then a miracle happens.” In fact it was the math involved that soured me on high school chemistry; the experiments I loved; the mixing of exotic chemicals was a joy…the resulting strange smells that prompted crass jokes and accusations. Then the “after”math to figure out how much of this caused so much of  that byproduct. At this point in the class I usually started fiddling with the nozzles that supplied gas to the bunsen burners (which explains in part why I earned my only “progress in this class stalled”report during my lackluster high school career where I pretty much straddled the hump of the bell curve until graduation).

Part of the chemical interaction in the salt cure method involves an anaerobic reaction, something I know a little about because of the Werkhovens’ methane-producing digester in the Valley; however, for those among you fascinated by the science of things (you who made better marks in chemistry than I, for example), I’ve provided a link that should fill in the gaps on the subject.

Turn your back on beans for a day or two and suddenly they’re like leather britches on the vine. Jim’s beans, tasty as they were, leaned a bit toward the tough side (a fact he candidly admitted). Beans at the bottom of the pole mature first, so to forego the expense of a sore back and tough beans, I selected tender young pods from the vines clinging to the top of the pole. I’m a poor judge of quantity and end up picking enough beans for a gallon jar, maybe more. The recipe, which I found in the book Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999), recommends not washing the beans unless they’re especially dirty (another reason to forage at the top of the pole), the reason, I believe, is most garden produce has natural yeasts that cling to the skins. These little yeast organisms help expedite the fermentation process.preserving the old way

I mix the brine: two tablespoons of salt per quart (I make a quart and a half—for displacement, understand), and while it comes to a boil, I snip the ends from the pods and like coins in a fountain, toss the pods in the half gallon jar. loosely packed beans(“Pack the beans loosely,” the directions state: the reason, I’m guessing, is to provide the brine maximum access to the beans). I allow the brine to cool and then pour it over the beans until they’re entirely covered, then tightly latch the seal. “Store the beans in the cellar,” is the final directive. Problematic for us: we have no cellar. A flood plain and a cellar seem incompatible entities;  however, for a premium product, lactic fermentation works best in a constant temperature environment. jar of sring beans

(As an arena for processing sauerkraut, the garage is less than ideal…too much at the mercy of  fall temperatures: too cool, or too hot—certainly not constant--I’m never quite sure when the process will be complete, the cabbage at last krauted.'kraut beans

It’s been three weeks since I crocked the beans and so far, so good. I surreptitiously cleared a space on a shelf in the spare bedroom, the coolest room in the house thanks to the shade of the backyard maple tree. Now if it were the three gallon crock with twenty pounds of fermenting cabbage, I doubt I could pull off using the spare room as a root cellar…especially if company came to call for the night and discovered their guest suite a gas chamber. But now the half gallon of beans is discretely simmering away in the dark …right above the stored luggage. Around holiday time, I figure, the beans should be nicely soured. Out of the closet they’ll come…just in time to join the festivities.fermenting beans

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Things that Flutter in the Valley Night…

mothingWhen I was a young reader (before the “young adult” section appeared in the bookstores), a favorite book of mine was Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. A typical hard knocks tale, Stratton-Porter tells the story of a young girl named Elnora Comstock. The only child of embittered mother Katharine who blamed her daughter for her father’s tragic death (he drowned in quicksand on his way to play fiddle at a local dance the night Elnora was born. Katharine couldn’t be there to rescue him and thus blames her daughter). The Comstocks lived on a small farm adjacent to the great Limberlost Swamp and Forest in rural Indiana. Because of her mother’s cynical attitude—no fun, no frills—Elnora hasn’t much of a childhood to speak of. There is little money in the Comstock household in spite of the fact Katharine owns woods whose valuable timber she staunchly refuses to sell, and the little family lives in near poverty.

A talented young woman hungry for knowledge and an education, Elnora is determined to attend college. Katharine, on the other hand, believes education is just another frill; Elnora’s time and labor could be put to better purpose on the farm, help keep the household afloat. Elnora has her supporters, though. Her neighbors, the Sintons, sympathetic to her harsh home life, believe in the girl. They become her advocates and determined to assist Elnora attain her goals, intercede on her behalf where Katharine is concerned. I admired Elnora for her pluck and optimism, and if I already didn’t have a literary girlfriend in the character of Becky Thatcher, (Oh, how I envied Tom Sawyer…perhaps because his Becky had blonde hair in my illustrated copy of the book), I most certainly would have chosen Elnora.

It was Elnora’s means of funding college, however, that really drew me into the story. A love and curiosity for the natural world attracted her to the insect-rich environment of the Limberlost. By day she collected butterflies and by night exotic moths. She sold her specimens to eager collectors who paid her well for her work. One collector known as The Bird Lady was Elnora’s best moth customer. The rare signature moth The Bird Lady desired was the Imperial moth. If Elnora could capture one, she’d be paid handsomely for the prize. Her quest for the Imperial plays a significant role in the storyline. Whether or not Elnora captures the exotic moth, wins over her mother, raises the funds for college, and finds romance in the process, I’ll leave the book’s future “young adult” readers to discover.

Moths. Those fluttering engines of the night, those nibblers of wool sweaters (first the moth, then the cedar chest), those daredevils of luminescence and flame. Compared to butterfly species, their numbers are legion. Strange bugs, moths. Short-lived for the most part (some species don’t even feed and have no stomachs), they emerge from their cocoons, flutter off  immediately, find a mate. Then they die.

Three years ago a family member gifted me with a moth collecting kit. The setup consists of a nylon sheet of special design, a collapsible metal frame from which to hang it, and a black light. moth sheetThe sheet serves as both light reflector and collecting surface. On warm summer nights I set up the sheet in the backyard, hang the black light from the frame, and wait to see what comes fluttering out of the Valley night. My Pennsylvania friend Ron sends me moths from the east coast. Ron switched out his incandescent porch light for a halogen bulb, and the big moths are drawn to it…well, like “moths to a flame.” Thanks to Ron, I have a half dozen luna moths in my collection.Luna moth The luna is a beautiful, large moth, pale-green with long delicate, swooping tails and antennae like ferns. Perhaps the most familiar of moths, the luna is to the moth world what the Monarch is to the world of butterflies. The luminescent moth that floats gently through the bedroom window of the restless sleeper in the sleep aid ad and glides about the room until the insomniac drifts off to sleep, blissful smile on her face…’is a luna moth. And shades of Elnora Comstock, to my surprise, one of Ron’s shipments included two Imperial moths.Imperial moth

It’s ten o’clock. Although the night is warm, I’m wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. It’s mosquito season and the pond across the road is a mosquito hatchery. My forehead, an inviting landing strip, I’ve slathered with repellent. Face and neck, too…and the backs of my hands. Earlier in the evening I hauled out a lawn chair and a small table. Now I sit in the glow of the black light wearing my headset radio tuned in to the twenty-four hour classical music station listening to “music to moth by.” Beside me on the table perches a flashlight (for close up inspection of bugs) and a fume jar primed with ethyl acetate should a specimen need to be euthanized. An insect net lies across my lap. Bugs have already flocked to the light: a squadron of small water beetles apparently disoriented by the light have lost their way to the pond. Dazed and bewildered, they pepper the apron of the sheet. A pair of honeybees, out past curfew, also cling to the sheet.tiger mothI’m hoping some exotic moth visits the sheet, a tiger moth, perhaps, like the one that turned up on a neighbor’s porch a few years back. Or a sphinx moth with its streamlined body. You just never know…that’s where the fascination lies.



Sphinx mothSuddenly the sheet dimples, a sign some hefty bug has struck it, and a plump ten-lined June bug tumbles to the sheet’s apron, lies there on its back, bristly legs flailing the air. For a full five minutes I watch the beetle saw futilely away at the void. Then something sparked in its tiny beetle brain. As if they were spring-loaded, the wings pop open, and the bug somersaults upright. I pick up the flashlight and go to investigate, direct the beam at the beetle. The June bug is far from a pretty thing. Ominous-looking, prehistoric, even, the most curious spectator would hesitate to pick one up. The beetle looks like a bad scratch waiting to happen. The bug has strange, paddle-like antennae that put me in mind of Groucho Marx’s eyebrows. It took the critter a few moments to realize it now had traction. Then the beetle began to wobble slowly across the apron of the sheet. It moved like a robot built by a child who had, just for fun, decided to make each of the six legs a different length. I watched the bug’s labored progress until it finally reached the end of the sheet, tripped and fell off the edge into the grass, and disappeared into the darkness.

The June bug’s appearance turned out to be the highlight of the evening. A more subdued activity followed in the form of several moths that began to bat and slap at the sheet. Close scrutiny with the flashlight revealed what I initially thought were two different species of moths—the smaller of the two darker than the larger—were actually one and the same. clinging mothsI reached this conclusion when the dark ones (males) lost no time pairing up with the larger beige-colored moths (females) and soon the nylon sheet was host to a love fest of two dozen or more mating pairs (four or five little clumps, however, turned out to be threesomes; I guess they all had stomach enough for that kind of activity). I settled back in the lawn chair and let the moths proceed with their business.

One a.m. The Valley has yielded up nothing exotic tonight. The mosquitoes turned in hours ago. I bask in the blue haze of the black light, yawn a bit, twiddle my thumbs, gaze up at a sky full of stars. A cool night breeze passes; the sheet gently sways. I begin to nod as the moths all the while continue making love in the glow of the black light.moth aftermath

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Murder…On a Summer Morning…

Crime sceneI was never much a fan of the murder-mystery…and not because most of it is pulp fiction, Class B literature. No, it’s not that I’m a literary snob but because I never seem able to put two and two together, add one clue to the next, to figure out whodunit. I guess you might call me the Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes)and Paul Drake (Perry Mason) of the murder-mystery scenario. I needed a Miss Marple (Agatha Christie) to sift the evidence for clues, gather all the suspects together in one room, flesh out the details, present the evidence to the congregation, and then point the accusatory finger at the the guilty party.

“Ratiocination”: the process of adding up one clue at a time until a crime or mystery is solved is at the core of the murder-mystery literary genre. The device was the invention of, surprisingly, not  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, but our own American short story master Edgar Allen Poe. His story “The Purloined Letter” served as the prototype of successive mystery stories and novels, and from there the copycats took over.

I readily admit I’m a bit obtuse when it comes to solving mysteries (such as how it came to pass the other day one of our drinking glasses turned up shattered at the end of our driveway), but this morning, to my surprise, I solved a crime…and a murder, no less. I must have come along shortly after it happened, even saw the “perp” fleeing the scene, although at the time I was unaware I was watching a killer escape. It was only when Gladys and I glided past The Barrell Man’s house on our return trip that I noticed the evidence strewn across his yard, put two and two together and realized I had stumbled upon a crime scene.

The first Eurasian-collared doves appeared in the Valley about three and a half years ago last spring—about the same time as the debut edition of The Ripple rolled off the press. The Collared dove—ring doves, we call them because of the Nike-like black slash across the nape of their necks—are immigrants from the southeastern U.S. Why they decided to move to Washington State and the Valley away from those sunny southern climes is a mystery to me. Their obnoxious cooing, aside from the morning rush hour traffic, is one of the first sounds I hear these summer mornings. I grew up in the orchards of Eastern Washington where the gentle cooing of a Mourning dove in the still of the morning was a soothing wakeup call. These ring doves, however, have a most irritating sound. It has the same effect on me as that rapping thing one does with one’s knuckles, you know, that succession of raps that is supposed to conclude with a resounding double rap—except the ring dove call omits the double rap; it aborts in an unfinished sort of way. Hearing those irritating bleats drifting on the morning air assaults the nerves, compromises a bit the pleasure of that first sip of morning coffee. And the pesky things are everywhere in the Valley; I see them on the electrical wires along my bicycle route; I hear their cries as I pass by trees; they splash about in our backyard birdbath. We used to have a small population of Mourning doves in the Valley. A pair used to visit our feeder in the spring, but they come no more; their ring-necked cousins have bullied them to parts unknown.

I saw it gliding silently away from The Barrell Man’s two-thirds of a walnut tree (the remaining third fell victim to a severe spring pruning). A Cooper’s hawk, it was. “Hunting for breakfast,” I thought at the time. Not until my return when I saw the evidence scattered about the lawn did my epiphany occur. The hawk wasn’t hunting for breakfast; it had just finished breakfast. All that remained of its morning repast was a pile of gray feathers. Then I remembered, “Ah, yes…hadn’t I seen a pair of ring doves from time to time foraging beneath the feeder hung in the walnut tree?” Thanks to Mr. Cooper one Valley ring dove will coo incompletely no more.

It was not the first time I had come across such a crime scene. Then, as now, the evidence was a ring of feathers on a lawn. Two springs ago I looked out the kitchen window to see a Cooper’s hawk sitting in the backyard. The bird was feasting away on something, ripping and tearing at its flesh. With each slashing of its beak a dusting of feathers rose and drifted on the breeze. Whatever morsel the hawk was dining upon was obviously beyond any rescue on my part, so I let the bird polish off its meal at its leisure. After Mr. Cooper fled the scene of the crime, I went to investigate. All I found was a ring of mottled feathers, a pair of legs, claws yet attached, and a horny yellow beak. No need to run the DNA; it was obvious there was one less starling to pester the chickadees at the suet feeder. The upshot of this is that serial killers are at work in the Valley, but I doubt very much anyone will miss the victims. feathered evidence