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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Dickens of a Tale...

A favorite question in trivia games this time of year is to challenge a contestant to name all the spirits who visit Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, a fairly easy question if one is familiar with the most seasonal of Christmas stories in the English Language, A Christmas Carol (the answer is "4"; can you name them?). A more challenging question, however, might be: "What Dickens' novel hints at or includes a story that is without a doubt the prototype for the most beloved Christmas story in the English Language?" This question is on a much higher plane of difficulty and unless you have read the entire collection of Dickens' novels, the answer is certain to elude you.

Though The Ripple is not one to boast, I'll share the fact I have read all eighteen Dickens' novels, plus A Christmas Carol and the shorter stories "The Cricket on the Hearth" and "The Chimes." Though I've always enjoyed Dickens' stories, I was a casual fan until years ago a colleague suffered a career-ending brain aneurysm. Out of respect for a friend and talented educator, I promised myself I'd pick up the torch and fulfill his goal to read the entire body of Dickens' works. So, concerning the question of which of Dickens' eighteen novels contains the fabric for A Christmas Carol, I've done all the legwork for you, and now for the answer which will have trivia players believing you're a scholar of Victorian lit.

The tale that morphed into the Christmas story as familiar and beloved as that favorite ornament you hang on the tree each year appears in Dickens' very first novel, the book that launched his literary career and secured his finances to the point he could devote the rest of his life to writing. If one were looking for the question and answer that are the subjects of this post and set out to read Dickens' entire body of literature, he need only to have read The Pickwick Papers halfway through to discover a narrative told by one Mr. Warble, "The Goblins that Stole a Sexton."

It is Christmas Eve and Gabriel Grub, confirmed misanthrope (Ebenezer Scrooge) and sexton for the village church, grumbles his way through festive streets, each house alight with Christmas cheer from which issue aromas of Christmas feasts in the making. Caroling children throng the doorsteps, their excited voices resounding the Christmas spirit. Gabriel, described as "a sullen, morose," fellow, has little time for such gaiety ("Christmas! Bah, Humbug!") and is en route to the churchyard to dig a grave to lift his spirits. As Grub trudges along, he sings a different carol:

                                Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,
                               A few feet of cold earth, when life is done;
                               A stone at the head, a stone at the feet,
                               A rich, juicy meal for the worms to eat.
                               Rank grass above,and damp clay around,
                               Brave lodgings for one, these, in holy ground.

His night's work finished, Gabriel seats himself on his favorite tombstone and takes a long pull on the bottle he has brought along. Just then the old curmudgeon hears a "Ho! Ho! Ho! and turns to see a goblin sitting on an adjacent grave marker. The goblin inquires after Gabriel's business in the churchyard and when he learns the sexton has been digging a grave, he wants to know what manner of man it is who visits graveyards and digs graves on the merriest night of the year. Before Grub can answer, a host of goblins choruses his name: "Gabriel Grub, Gabriel Grub!" The King of the Goblins chides Grub for being so mean-spirited: "You miserable man!" King Goblin and his unearthly host snatch Gabriel away to their underground lair where at the very end of a cavern the goblins conjure up a cloud upon which their captive is shown a number of visions.The first projects a poor family before a warm fire in their small, but clean, apartment. The children welcome their father home from work. Though he's tired, he attends to his children who flock to his knee. The scene is one of love, happiness, and comfort.

Then the scene shifts to a small bedroom in which the family stands vigil over a dying child.The child dies before Gabriel's eyes and the family grieves (sounds familiar, doesn't it?). The cloud shifts to another scene which portrays the world of nature, its beauty and the wonderful creatures that live in it. Between scenes the goblin king calls Grub a "miserable man" and he and his followers kick Gabriel unmercifully. Another scene: poor folk going about their daily lives, cheerful and optimistic in spite of the hardships life throws their way. Vision after vision until the sexton has a change of heart and remarks at his revelation: "...that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth; and setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all." No sooner had Gabriel reached his conclusion than the goblins disappeared one by one and he slipped into a deep sleep. He awoke in the churchyard on the same slab of stone, an empty bottle at his feet, "but he was an altered man." ["I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all Three shall live within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach." Ebenezer Scrooge]

The Pickwick Papers was written and serialized 1836-7, but A Christmas Carol did not appear until 1843, six years later. During those six years the tale of Gabriel Grub and the goblins gestated in the creative mind of Charles Dickens, shifted like the visions shown the sexton in Goblin Cave and six years later emerged as the wonderful Christmas story known the world over. And there's your trivia question ripe for the asking.

The Ripple wishes one and all the very merriest of Christmases.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Black is the New Green: From the Editor's Desk...

"A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!" 

Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens

This is the time of the year I hire an extra security guard to stand watch over my wallet; it has come under siege from all quarters. The mailbox bulges with catalogs. Pages of glossy photographs push merchandise confirming white elephants are alive and well, no longer on the endangered species list. Sandwiched in between them are packets from one charity after another reminding me this is the season for giving--as if the needy were invisible the other ten months of the year--as if I could use all those address labels in two lifetimes....

At their posts, standing sentinel over the red tripods and kettles, Salvation Army surrogates halfheartedly shake loose a jingle or two out of their little bells, leveraging guilt to squeeze a few coins out of shoppers. Surrogates? Yes, General Booth's army has outsourced its bell ringers, gone secular in keeping with the spirit of getting and spending. No more that little dumpling of a Salvationist, ruddy cheeked, braving the cold, her uniform replete with bonnet, red shield and epaulletes. No longer does she swing her bell with cheerful resolve for hours on end, standing the while on those black regulation high heels fat as my wrist. Her replacement? Some fellow wearing an L.L. Bean jacket lounging in a folding chair, sipping a holiday cup of Starbucks which, by the way, he's holding in his bell ringing hand...a disingenuous "Merry Christmas" to you, too, sir. Enjoy your seasonal paycheck."

                       "The world is too much with us.
                        Getting and spending we lay waste our powers..."
                                              William Wordsworth

But there's nothing more insidious this time of year than the concept of "Black Friday," corporate retail's strong-arm campaign against the American consumer. Not only has Black Friday cast a pall over Thanksgiving, but it's nearly relegated the day of thanks (not unlike the marshmallow-topped yams) to the holiday back burner. Black Friday is an all out assault on our wallets, our bank accounts...our nest eggs. Now it's in your face Black Friday every calendar day post-Thanksgiving until after the Friday before Christmas. Car dealerships dangle "Black Friday" month in front of shoppers. Furniture stores, the big retailers, everyone with something to sell has hopped on the "Black Friday" bandwagon. Black Friday, I'm told, now begins on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It's "noir" Friday in your face (I have several containers of Black Friday honey if you're interested; it's Black Friday every day until the supply runs out).

The days of those two  magical wish books, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck's winter catalogs are gone forever, swallowed up by the black hole known as Black Friday. We Americans have so much to be thankful for, and it's my hope we honor Thanksgiving in the spirit for which it was intended. So, readers, regardless of  this plague of blackness, The Ripple wishes you all a "Happy Thanksgiving." And if you do happen to fall into the Black Friday abyss and have any money left over for Cyber Monday, give thanks for that, too.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Down on the Frohning Farm...

I had occasion this past week to check out the effects of the Skykomish River's unwelcome visit at the Frohning Family Farm. Prompted by a call out from social media, I was on a meals on wheels type of errand: to deliver some baked chicken and potato salad to the cleanup crew and other volunteers who had pitchforked and shoveled themselves up an appetite at the farm. Because the southbound route to Frohning Road was accessible only by watercraft, I had to circle the Loop to the low road and even then had to creep north through two pools of residual floodwater. First, I'll relate how things went down and then share Matt Frohning's story of how the floodwaters came up.

I left the food with Sandy and Terri who directed me to the dairy barn where Matt was hard at work cleaning up the mess left behind by the bullying Sky. I'm no stranger to the Valley's dairy barns and knew enough to wear my barn boots for the on-site visit. So glad I did: the road to the barn was a quagmire, as you might suppose...and of not just mud, either. After all, the farm's a dairy, right? I headed to the barn, threading my way through the Frohnings' flock of free range chickens. A couple of roosters eyed The Ripple's credentials and cleared me to pass.

In the barn I found Cameron hard at work switching out the flood-soaked bedding one stall at a time."The cows were standing in two feet of water here in the barn," he told me. All waterlogged bedding had to be shoveled from each stall and replaced by fresh, dry wood shavings. Cameron was working on the second bay when I arrived. We had a brief conversation before Matt tractored in a hopper full of fresh shavings which he funneled into each one stall at a time. He emptied the hopper, throttled back the tractor, stopped to  tattle-tale on the Sky, and relate the rest of the story. The gist of our exchange follows:

"I went to bed at 8:30, hoping to get a good night's sleep, awoke at 11:30 and found the Sky knocking on our barn door. I called Jim Werkhoven to warn him the river was on the rampage, but no answer [Jim and Delores were at an industry meeting, high and dry in Minneapolis]. By 12:30 the water was up to the floorboards on the tractors and I moved them to higher ground. Fortunately the river crested, so I didn't have to move the herd to higher ground. I don't think I've ever seen the river come so fast," Farmer Frohning told me, "and from that direction." Not surprising because after each flood event, the river's hydraulics change. One has only to peer over the railings of the Lewis Street Bridge to see the mounding gravel bars that displace water and push floods to new levels in the Valley with each subsequent inundation.

At this point our conversation takes a strange twist, turns to last summer's drought, irrigation, water rights and such. Matt tells me the farm has water rights he never knew existed. This past week, however, it appears the Skykomish River owned the water rights and at Mother Nature's mandate, darn well exercised them. But I know and respect Matt Frohning and have this message for the Sky, other rivers and their floodwaters. Ebb and flow as you will. In Matt Frohning you've met your match. Rogue river, you'll learn not to trifle with the likes of dairyman Frohning. He's beaten you time and again. In the end he'll prevail.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Post Diluvium...

When I crossed the Lewis Street Bridge today, it was hard to imagine that just three short months ago bathers were wading the Sky from bank to bank. Looking down at the roiling, brown water of a river that day before yesterday scoffed at containment and even at this posting is yet lapping hungrily at its banks, made me wonder if I was the same person who shared his fear about the well running dry.

The sun came out today, a welcome change from overflowing gutters and ponding on the property where ponds have never been before. A good day to be afoot in the Valley and so out I went to see what had washed away or, as I discovered, was still awash. Floodwaters shimmered in the November sun. I noted the silt-laden vegetation marking high water marks...the familiar signs of Valley hydraulics in flood season.
The grass shouldering the road west of Swiss Hall was flattened, roots showing white in some places, victims of the flood currents rushing over the asphalt. What I first thought was roofing material from Swiss Hall turned out to be debris washed up on the roadway by the rampaging river. Further down the road receding flood waters had piled and dropped more detritus.

Sargeant Road is my routine turnaround spot, but I noticed the flashing lights of a Werkhoven bucket loader tiptoeing its way through a lake of floodwater pooled in the road in front of the silage bunkers. Parked up to its hubs was a tractor, hose trailing from a pump powered by the PTO. I thought I'd continue my exercise and inspect up close and personal the Sky's impact on the Valley's milk supply. I first noted the dairy's sand auger grounded and out of commission. Then the familiar figure of Andy Werkhoven skirted the dairy's new--and unwelcome--water feature. Most of my encounters with Andy find him up to the top of his barn boots in some sort of liquid...effluence from the dairy barns, for instance. Today it was the Sky's floodwater. Andy saw me working my camera, recording the waterlogged scene and yelled: "You can title that picture 'A Pain in the Ass.'"

Those are Andy's words, not mine. I'm just reporting the news....

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Maxing out the Garden...

For years I've thought about growing one of those huge pumpkins, had visions of it ballooning up in the pumpkin patch like a harvest moon. So why haven't I? One reason: I don't own a tractor with a bucket loader, would have no way to harvest the thing. After all, record breaking pumpkins can easily top half a ton. (This year's record: 2,145.5 pounds grown by a gardener in Wisconsin.) Every year the season's winner tops the previous by two or three hundred pounds, it seems. This year to impress the grandson, I  thought I'd give it a try. I could always remove the behemoth from the garden in chunks if I had to, take an ax to it, slice it up like I was flensing slabs of blubber off a whale.

I planted two varieties: Atlantic Dill and Big Max. As a backup, just in case the big gourds failed to produce, I planted my old standby variety: Connecticut Field which year after year always yields a crop for Halloween.There is a science to raising record breaking "tonnage" pumpkins, techniques like spritzing the vines with milk, erecting shades over the fruit to protect it from the weather, and before the gourd is too big to handle, placing it on a solid base so it won't sink into the soil. All competitors, however, seem to agree on one point: all fruit should be removed from the vine except for one, that special gourd into which you channel all your gardening karma, your hopes, your dreams of pumpkin glory, that one truly fat boy that will not only tip the scales but hopefully break them. As I'm just your ordinary gardener, no scientist or horticultural genius--and no owner of a front end loader--I set my sights on a less lofty goal: a pumpkin the grandson would exclaim, "Oh! Wow!"when he saw it.

Not long into the growing season a Big Max showed promise, and I set about lopping off all subsequent fruit from the vine. It wasn't long until the pumpkin showed above the leaves, squatting in the patch like an orange boulder left behind by a receding glacier. At season's end I had the largest pumpkin I had ever grown on the place. I had no means to weigh it, could hardly budge the thing, but I compared mine to those on sale at Fred Meyer's, plump teasers scattered around and about the mountain of pumpkins guarding the east entrance. My Max must surely tip the scales in the 140-150 pound range which explains why I had a devil of a time rolling it into the wheelbarrow and transporting it to the deck where its fate has yet to be determined.

This time of year pumpkin flavors everything. And pumpkin pie season is fast approaching. I wonder how many potential pumpkin pies my grandson Atticus is sitting on?
Pumpkin lattes? Pumpkin bread? Pumpkin cookies? Pumpkin soup? Baked pumpkin seeds seasoned with garlic salt? Yes, its one big pumpkin, but considering the world's largest pumpkin pie weighed 3,699 pounds, was twenty feet in diameter (9/25/2010 at the New Bremen Pumpkinfest, New Bremen, Ohio), I doubt my Big Max would supply one thin slice, hardly a mouthful.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


two halves don't make a wholeGrandpa Mike’s term for “muskmelon,” (“cantaloupe” to melon lovers). English was not Grandpa’s mother tongue so I’m not sure if his native Hungarian made “musk” into “mush,” but I do know the fruit he brought home from “the A &P” always had a mushy texture. Grandpa Mike not only was a fancier of melons, but a bargain hunter as well, and the casaba, honeydew, or cantaloupe he purchased were always just a half dozen hours away from the compost heap. If the stem end of the melon lacked a mold blossom, the fruit was not likely to end up in Grandpa’s shopping cart. Come to think of it, perhaps Grandpa Mike actually meant “mush”melon: that was pretty much the melon’s condition when he lifted it from the shopping bag.

The experienced Pacific Northwest gardener knows melon cultivation is a fruitless (excuse the pun) enterprise; our short growing seasons aren’t melon friendly.To set fruit, melon vines require warm nights, considerable sunshine and soil heat. A  greenhouse environment might uncork a few melons but no such luck in the northwest garden proper. A season or two ago in a sunlight friendly section of the garden I set out a half dozen cantaloupe plants in green plastic mulch. The result? Plenty of healthy vines and a sizeable bouquet of pale yellow, star-like blossoms, but even with an abundance of honeybee pollinators, not a single flower set fruit. Imagine my surprise then this summer to find a softball-sized cantaloupe squatting beneath our garden wagon, a twofold surprise: first, that one grew to maturity here; second, that I harvested a melon at all… because I never planted a single seed.

The south side of our house is an excellent place for heat-loving vegetables and to take advantage of the southern exposure, I’ve placed four whisky barrel halves for planters. I’ve grown corn, okra, tomatoes and eggplant successfully (the okra? I might be stretching things a bit, but I did harvest enough pods to make one meal of Shreveport gumbo). Eggplant grows very well in my sunshiny south location, and each summer I’ve reserved a pair of eggplants for each of the first two barrels; however, if I didn’t amend the soil from my compost heap each spring, this post would never have been written. Soon after I transplanted my eggplant pair in the first barrel, I noticed some alien plant making itself at home between the eggplants. Its signature pair of oval-shaped primary leaves signaled some variety of squash: zucchini maybe, or pumpkin. My curiosity piqued, I decided not to yank the “weed,” but give it a chance to reveal its identity. Besides, the eggplant didn’t seem to mind the company. 

A month went by before I saw the first telltale blossom, pale yellow, star-like. Too pale for a cucumber blossom; too small for squash or pumpkin…some sort of melon certainly, but I wasn’t sure if the vine was watermelon or a “mushie.” The vine made itself at home, twining around the eggplants, threading  itself among the collards (none of which I planted either), trailing down the barrel staves and creeping onto the driveway--at which point I frequently had to redirect its forward progress.

As the summer moved forward—the vine was flowering heavily now—I checked the blossoms. Both male and female bloomed along the vine, but as in my former attempts, nothing set; the flowers withered, dropped off. The eggplant set and we had our first eggplant casserole of the season but not so much as a nubbin of a melon anywhere. Sometime late in August I stopped checking. A couple weeks later I yanked out the vine and to my surprise, bumping along at the end of it was the softball-sized melon. Though it was not even large enough to be a “personal melon”—as the produce folks in the grocery stores call them--I stripped it from the vine, and set it aside by its eggplant buddies. A week or so later, more out of curiosity than anticipation, I took the thing to the kitchen and sliced it in half.

Excepting its doll house size, the inside of this little cutie was melon perfect: the seed mass full of mature seeds, the flesh soft, salmon colored, and sweetly flavored. Half the melon satisfied my fruit requirement for each breakfast. I savored one half per meal, one spoonful at a time. Six mouthfuls each—I counted them.bite size melon (2)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Meeting at Bridge 155

Ginger M., Dave Somers, Kevin OlsonSuppose you wake up one morning or come home from work, say, and find your lawn staked out almost to your front doorstep? Those orange stakes signal your life is about to change. That’s the predicament in which Kevin Olson and Vicky Olson found themselves this past week. I posted about the Olsons’ situation after a chance meeting with Kevin in the produce section of Fred Meyers (“Upgrades Planned for Tualco Valley Speedway,” 7/18) when he told me about the County’s intent to replace Bridge 155 over Riley Slough. Until last week the County’s project was just a concept on twenty-seven pages of paper with cost projections, timelines, numbers and measurements, facts themselves worthy of concern for the Olsons.encroachment But seeing those garish orange stakes, the physical manifestation of encroachment on life and property, really bring home the stark facts of the matter. I know: we’ve had stakes near and on our property, and they’re wooden slivers that fester your peace of mind.

I’m standing by the Olsons’ home on the north side of Bridge 155  on the upper Loop Road. County district five councilman and Council Chair Dave Somers has set aside time to meet with Kevin to discuss the County’s proposed bridge replacement project. Kevin has invited The Ripple to attend the meeting.

It’s an Indian summer day: blue sky, shafts of morning sunlight filter through the maple trees across the road. Except for an occasional vehicle passing by, the quiet of Riley Slough soothes. Kevin’s rustic cottage complements the pastoral setting, plank siding, unpainted, the place nearly picture puzzle perfect. Whenever Gladys and I roll by, the coziness of this little cottage nestled on the bank of Riley Slough impresses us. Primroses in the window boxes announce spring; colorful hanging baskets accent the summer; the lawns always kempt and well-tended.A homey touch And so out of place now are those threatening day-glo orange stakes and surveyor’s figures splashed on the cement drive in front of the barn.

Councilman Somers, escorted by property owner Ginger Mullendore, strolls up the road to meet us...a half hour late…bad accident on Highway 2. Dave is soft-spoken, a good listener.Surveyor graffiti The fact he’s not wearing a tie and arrives on foot instead of rolling up in an “XMT” County vehicle puts us at ease. Dave is here to address a constituent’s concern, to assess the issue up close and personal. The meeting, necessarily, is one-sided: Somers is here to listen, gather information, and see what he can—if anything-- do to help. Kevin has done his research, asks pertinent questions he’d like answered, issues he’d like explained. Of paramount concern is the County’s right-of-way. Kevin believes it’s twenty feet from centerline; County claims thirty feet. Dave says rights-of-way vary, from twenty to thirty feet depending on the locale. He’ll check it out and asks if the County has contacted Ginger about buying the property the project would claim (they haven’t). new right-of-wayNext question: average daily traffic (ADT). Kevin claims the ADT figures are too high, would like to know where the counters were placed and the dates. If the bridge replacement was safety driven, The Ripple wanted to know if structure integrity was the County’s concern or was it the issue of a blind corner at the north bridge approach? (Seems a misuse of funds If the latter is the case: only one accident has occurred in the vicinity, back in 2007…and that incident south of the bridge.) Somers shared that the County is moving forward to replace its wooden bridges (#155 was built in the 1930’s). Kevin asks a funding question: to qualify for Federal funding (the current administration has allocated funds for states to repair/replace failing highway infrastructure) are there certain parameters to which states must adhere before federal funding is forthcoming? In cases involving federal funds, Somers believed states and counties had to share project costs and match funding. The price of the project? 4.4 million dollars. I tell Dave if St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City could be renovated for 3 million, it seems that Bridge 155 could be totally refurbished for far less than the 4 million price tag of a replacement—and the Olsons could keep their cottage and not have their lives turned upside down.

We pointed to the “Salmon Crossing” sign at the south end of the bridge, another point Kevin discussed with the County engineers. Their response: “Oh, we mitigate those issues all the time.” If County engineers are so adept at mitigation, we wondered, why couldn’t they “mitigate” the new bridge corridor to the east instead of the west? That way no homes or structures would be impacted by the project.Sufficient for the Valley Or repair the undercarriage of #155, which, by the way, engineers have determined currently can support forty tons safely. (Furthermore, The Ripple asks, if the County is so concerned about safety along the Tualco Road corridor, why don’t they “mitigate” the sharp curves at and east of Swiss Hall; both corners are debris fields because of frequent accidents on those two corners…and how about mitigating the excessive speed along the aptly named Tualco Valley Speedway?)new bridge approach

So for now we wait for feedback from Councilman Somers. But those stakes in Kevin’s front yard mean the bridge project is on the move; those stakes at this juncture mean the Olson family will be forced to relocate in the near future; those stakes mean adding an additional quarter mile of straightaway which will most certainly do nothing to “mitigate” speeding along that stretch of Tualco. I think about the elderly lady in Ballard who refused to sell her little house to developers…but she was dealing with the private sector, not a government agency with eminent domain their trump card. Understandably so, Kevin is mounting a petition drive to protest the project. Gladys and I most certainly will sign…but meanwhile we wait….

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Now I LAY me down to sleep…

Mt. Ranier in summerPostcard: “Lay down, Fido, lay down.” Why your dog doesn’t mind: he doesn’t understand bad grammar.

I was watching the evening news yesterday, one of the major networks, mind you, a prominent local affiliate station, one that frequently touts its winning the coveted Edward R. Murrow award for excellence in journalism. A promo for one segment led with the teaser “woman lays down on freeway.” Friends of The Ripple, I know there is grave news out there, ponderous news. The planet is in chaos: global warming, President Putin has his eyes on Syria; there’s ISIS; refugees are fleeing the war torn Middle East in droves; and according to recent polls, the poster boy for Rogaine is looking to the White House for a place to hang his hairpiece and leads the polls. But I’ve long maintained it’s the little stuff that sticks in your craw, wears you down, frays nerves and chips away at your serenity.

Slovenly English, the bane of the retired English teacher, one who for years did battle with high school sophomores, teaching them English as a second or foreign language…the pedagogical phoenix rises from behind the desk to address an issue of grammar. Or perhaps I’m channeling Mrs. Greaves, my revered eighth grade English teacher whose use of mnemonics still resonates six decades later. “The old hen LAID an egg,” she said, when during “language” the matriarch of my elementary school set the class to wrestling with the English verbs LIE/LAY.

Yes, it’s like fingernails across the chalkboard when I hear the forms of these two words confused…and their misuse is epidemic. Now, class, listen up (there will be a test). The verb LIE (present tense LIE/LIES; past tense LAY/LAYS; and LAIN [forms used with HAVE/HAS]) Webster’s defines as “to rest or recline in a horizontal position.” One doesn’t LAY down, he/she LIES on the ground, the bed, the table, the roof, his/her back. A golf ball coming to rest in the rough or a bad spot on the green, takes a “bad lie,” not a “bad lay.” In short, it “rests” in a challenging spot for the duffer. Newcomers to the Valley may check out the “lay of the land,” its geography, terrain…how the land “lies.”

The verb LAY (present tense LAY/LAYS; past tense LAID; and LAID [forms used with HAVE/HAS]) according to Webster LAY means “to place or put down; to put forth or deposit,” as per the erudite Alma Greaves: “The chicken LAYS an egg.” LAY…I think of the Richard Brautigan poem: “Lay the Marble Tea” in which LAY refers to the placing or depositing of the utensils and vessels used in the ritual of conducting the formal English tea. Class, now remember: LIE is used when one or something changes position, most usually from the vertical to the horizontal as in “lie down,” or “lie on some horizontal surface.” Use LAY when someone/something does something to something: “Doc, LAY your cards on the table”: Doc (someone) LAYS (does something to (cards: something). And class, don’t let the fact that present tense LAY is the same as the past tense of LIE throw you .

Yes, LIE/LAY…whatever…so what, right? But as I’d lecture my students ad nauseam: “Language is a great impression maker. People will and do judge you by what you say and how you say it. Like it or not, ‘tis a fact.” First, slovenliness in speech, then what: not returning your shopping cart to its corral, throwing that fast food wrapper out the window, wearing pajamas when you shop…on to petite larceny, proceeding to felonious conduct, next sociopathic behavior and then landing a spot on the Ten Most Wanted list?

And class, just before the bell, let me leave you with the thought for the day…and this post, from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition:

“Some commentators are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the rise socially. But if it does rise to respectability, it is sure to do so slowly: many people have invested effort in keeping lay and lie distinct. Remember that even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.”

So much for the grammar refresher. For now, I’ll let the matter lie. Or is that lay?

Thursday, September 3, 2015


I don’t want a pickle,

Just want to ride my motorcycle,

And I don’t want a tickle

‘Cause I’d rather ride on my motorcycle,

And I don’t want to die--

Just want to ride on my motorcycle.

             Billy Joel/Arlo Guthrie

noise on two wheelsAre you getting much sleep these warm summer nights? Nearly three weeks of 90 degree plus weather has us bedding down with the covers flung back and windows gaped open, hoping to coax a wayward Valley breeze into the bedroom. For years I’ve scoffed at the summer season commercials promoting AC. AC, here, in the cool, Pacific Northwest? Paying big bucks to keep three, maybe four days of solar discomfort at bay? Suck it up, I’ve always said. Get tough. Walk it off. What a bunch of whiners. This summer, however, has been a whole different animal, and I’ve found some cooling relief from a small desk fan whirring over me from the nightstand. A little cooling as the perspiration dries…. But I still lack the sleep I need and these sweltering nights aren’t the reason:

Did you know Harley Davidson has a wake-up app? Yes, among the multitude of products bearing the Harley Davidson logo, there’s the “straight pipes, set you bolt upright in bed ” feature. Harley merchandiseFor the second consecutive summer this app has roused me shortly after four a.m. three to four times weekly. Nearly four o’clock on the dot the rumble begins and then down High Rock like a rolling earthquake comes the drone of an unmuffled motorcycle. It rolls to a stop where High Rock meets SR 203 and sits there at a spluttering idle for a minute or so until the rider kills the engine. At 4:04 or thereabouts I hear another rumble approaching from the north. Almost immediately the resting cycle resumes its rumble, pulls onto the State Road and blasts past the house. Fast on its heels comes a second motorcycle, a tad bit more muffled than the first and the two bikes roar off down the road leaving me wide awake and thinking unkind thoughts. The routine has its variations: sometimes both cycles shut down for a moment (a bit early to work perhaps?) and on one occasion I heard the mosquito-like whine of a crotch rocket winding up on the Tualco Road straightaway behind the house. It rendezvoused with the other two and in concert the trio roared off into the dark like a host of stock cars.

In attempt to squelch this decibel deluge, I routinely awake about 3:20, use the triple pane muffle effect, and shut the bedroom windows.  Now, however, sleep’s impossible. I lie there anticipating that inevitable downhill rumble. Will it be just the one irritating bike? Two? Or the full complement of three this morning? Regardless, I know I must at least suffer the loudest of the three as it blasts by the house. Then I must exit my angry place before I finally drift off to sleep.

I’ve seen the movie Easy Rider, saw Peter Fonda slip off his wrist watch and fling it to the four winds. (No time constraints for Captain America.) Ah, the freedom of the open road, all that hair (Dennis Hopper on his chopper) dallying with the slipstream. Adventure over the next rise, around the bend; nowhere you need to be and all the time in the world to get wherever that is…. But can’t you, I plead, be a free spirit without making so much doggone racket? Must all that freedom come at a cost to others? Are mufflers a factory option on those gleaming machines? I suspect not…so just what is it that makes a biker so muffler averse? The wind’s the same; the freedom’s the same; the power, the speed, the thrill, all the same? So why not purrrr your way on down the road? I know some of you bikers must be annoyed by all that noise, too, or why would you try to drown out engine noise by playing your on board radios at top volume?

I’ve seen a car around town sporting the sticker “Loud pipes save lives.” As far as The Ripple is concerned, the only truth to that declaration is, yes, the cacophony of those passing machines without a doubt does attract attention. loud pipes...I happened upon an online article listing the several ways bikers can protect themselves in and around traffic. As a safety precaution, nary of mention of loud pipes, so why “deep six” your mufflers? No, that unfettered noise, in my opinion, is an obnoxious declaration of male ego: “I make a racket; therefore I am.” bikerAural kudzu, auditory graffiti…no other way to put it. I’ve shared my feelings with a friend of mine, a confirmed biker whose chosen ride is a BMW cycle. “Unless you saw me drive by, you wouldn’t even know I was in the vicinity,” he laughed, a tacit statement about the raucous machines the other camp prefers.

A bit of irony on this topic: did you know the Monroe Public Library has reserved four parking spaces for motorcycles? These spaces offer the closest parking—like handicapped spaces—to the library’s entrance. The irony? That an institution which prides itself on “shushing” noisy patrons would allow these boisterous machines to park within a stone’s throw of what once was considered the bastion of silence. Strange, too--I’ve never noticed a single two-wheeled vehicle of any sort parked in one of these slots. I’ve been meaning to ask one of the library’s staff about the motorcycle parking.muffled bikes only Perhaps a local chapter of that famous motorcycle club has its own book club? Or has there been a resurgence of interest in Robert Pirsig’s existential Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? (The “existential motorcyclist”…isn’t that an oxymoron?)

Rain has moved back into the Valley this week, a much wished for reprieve from the summer’s drought. Not only is Mother Nature’s liquor a boon for our parched lawn and garden, but for this noise-induced insomniac it means return to blissful sleep. Rain has brought quiet to the Valley. This long, hot summer the highway out in front, weekends in particular, might just as well have been the highway to and from Sturgis, South Dakota, during rally week. Rain. With it comes the soothing, gentle swish of car tires passing on wet roadways. Blessed rain—the motorcyclists’ anathema. Heaven-sent rain. Mother Nature’s way of saying : “ Hey, you in the leather pants and jacket, cool those straight pipes, give them a rest. It’s time for a little peace on earth.”pipes at rest

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Bottom’s Up or the Parching of the Valley…

Riley's BottomAll day I’ve faced the barren waste

Without a taste of water…

Cool, clear water.

Old Cowboy Western tune

Going into Fred Meyer’s the other day, I passed a man exiting the store, his cart heaped to the brim with cases of bottled water. Just inside the door two or three customers were lined up at the fresh water kiosk. I’ve since read that east of here one of the two wells that supplies water to the little town of Startup has gone dry. I cross the Skykomish River almost daily and these days it appears more bed than river. Where there used to be swimmers, there are now waders. Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma have issued voluntary water conservation measures, urging their customers to cut back on daily water usage ten percent. All this because our endless summer has been a rainless one, and with last winter’s snowpack less than ten percent of normal, our rivers will only dwindle, become creeks, trickles even.

I can only remember one similar summer in the forty years we’ve lived here, but I also recall more rain that season during the “dry months” and though the preceding winter’s snowpack was subnormal, it was not ninety percent below normal. Usually water issues here in the Valley stem from an excess of the stuff not a dearth of it, especially the late fall months when some years past during the night I’d rise hourly and cross the road, flashlight in hand, to see what Riley Slough was “up to.”

And crossing the lower Loop Road over the bridge just two days ago where I normally see a great blue heron, knobby knee deep, or a pair of ducks, (and last summer a busy beaver),… where usually the marsh grasses ebb and flow in the gentle current like a sea hag’s hair, and minnows dimple the surface, I glanced down and was shocked to see a strange sight: Riley’s bottom. Yes, a small gravel bar, surrounded by pools and puddles, is all that currently (or should that be “current less?”) remains of Riley Slough at the crossover. No fish crossing or spawning there this fall; scarcely enough water to wet a minnow.

When the waters are parted, or in Riley’s case, dried up, oftentimes long lost civilizations emerge. Lake Mead’s drought subsidence has yielded up three submerged ghost towns, allowing the ghostly residents to wring the water from their sheets for the first time in years. When our state’s Wanapum Dam on the Columbia was found to have a crack in its spillway, repairs required the reservoir to be drawn down twenty-six feet, a subsidence that left structures submerged for fifty-two years high and dry. (That old swing set the glider component of which nearly crushed my fingers must still be rusting away forty feet below the surface of reservoir behind Douglas County’s Wells Dam Hydroelectric Project.) Hoping to see some long submerged artifact, I peered over the railing at Riley’s bottom but instead of an ancient native firepit or moccasined footprint, I saw nothing but rocks and gravel.

Just last weekend I watched a segment about water on CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” The piece highlighted a Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. None of the “rez” residents have running water in their homes. Within the reservation’s borders there is only one well with potable water. Navajo with vehicles drive upwards of fifty miles one way to fill five gallon buckets with water then drive the fifty miles back with their water ration.  Navajo who don’t own vehicles obtain their water from the Reservation’s sole water truck which because of the territory and families it serves delivers water once a month. That delivery of two to three fifty gallon barrels per stop must last a family until the next delivery. I saw a family of four—grandmother, mother, and two grandchildren—wash their hair in a plastic tub, each using the same water so as not to waste a drop. The reservation is not without other wells, but the Navajo who drank from them became ill from contaminated water, residue from uranium mining of the 40’s and 50’s. Hydrologists believe aquifers 600 feet underground are also rife with pollutants. Deeper wells are needed but there’s the cost (always the cost): the state and county believe it’s the Fed’s responsibility to foot the bill for deep wells; the Fed passes the buck back to the state…states’ rights, you know… the state's responsibility. I think of our great republic where the average American uses 100 gallons of water a day while on American soil descendants of our indigenous peoples—and the WWII Code talkers-- as if they were a 3rd World Country people, must share the same water to wash their hair.

                                                                                                                                                        …Where the water’s running free,

                                                                                                                                                       and it’s waiting there for you and me,

                                                                                                                                                      cool, clear water… (same old western tune)


As Gladys and I wobbled home, I saw the Valley under serious irrigation: the dairies’ big manure sprinklers spraying clear water on the hayfields, Willie Green’s acres of leaf crops drinking up the water from irrigation pipelines, sprinklers going in chard and kale fields (saving our food, my brother says), and Van Hulles’ pastures. I think about a conversation I had with Shay Hollander who floated the Sky from the first launch site on Ben Howard Road. Shay said it took his party nearly three hours to float to Monroe, twice the normal amount of time. I think about our shallow water table and drilled well which has delivered like “Old Faithful”for forty years—only twenty-seven feet deep. (Our old dairy farmer neighbor Herman Zylstra witched our well and when Rob Aurdal drilled it, Herman urged him to drill another four to five feet deeper. “Don’t need to,” Rob replied. “They’ll have all the water they need right here.” And with that, Rob packed up his drilling rig and drove off into the sunset. Old timers have told us we’ll not lack for water as long as there’s water in the Sky. But now waders are crossing the river at will and river bars used to rushing current bask exposed in the ninety degree heat. I’m not saying I want to be on flood watch hour on the hour. But I would like to wash my hair more than once a month. There’s not much of it left. Just a few drops of water is all I'd need… a few drops of cool, clear water.                                                                                                  

                                                                                                                                                     He’ll hear our prayer

                                                                                                                                                    And show us where there’s water,

                                                                                                                                                    Cool clear water

                                                                                                                                                                                  ( there’s that old tune again…)

Friday, August 7, 2015

…in the Cool of the Morning…

strings of pearlsAt six a.m. the world hasn’t had time to make trouble.

Sparrow, “Small Happiness,” The Sun magazine (July 2015)

Too many ninety degree plus days this summer and all this heat has certainly gone to my head. Case in point: I recall a dialogue between two acquaintances on the light-hearted subject of death. Party number one mused  sorrowfully that he’d miss certain things when he was dead. Party number two exclaimed: “What are you talking about? You won’t miss anything! You’ll be dead!” An abrupt end to that conversation.

Right about that, I thought, and at that point decided to take charge of their aborted exchange, redirect the tack of the subject, and set my compass to a more positive heading: “What are the those small things during the day I enjoy?”  In other words, “live in the moment.” I set myself the task of coming up with something that gave me a small happiness during the day. Day One: being able to awake, rise, and greet the new day. Day Two: Ahhhh, that first sip of morning coffee. Day three: sitting out in the evening, watching the commercial jetliners pass overhead en route to Sea-Tac, thinking about the passengers, the places they’ve been, their happy reunions at the airport with loved ones. (This small thing is a big deal to one who nearly lost the sight in his right eye twelve years ago). Day Four: continuing the vision thread, the garden these days is bursting with color, dahlias, zinnias, nasturtiums, morning glory; I see the colors through the eyes of an impressionist painter.morning glories

I’m up early, in the cool of the morning and cup of coffee in hand, have fed and watered the livestock (four chickens) and am now sauntering through the rows of garden produce. The day will be another scorcher, in the high 90’s, they’ve predicted. We’ve not had any measurable precipitation since June 1. At day’s end the cucumbers and squash vines are steamrollered by the weight of the sun. Ten minutes in the garden brings the handkerchief to the brow; the shirt clings to the skin, prelude to an afternoon shower. zinnia patch

But now I’m enjoying the gift of dew the night has left the Valley, and before Ol’ Sol wreaks its vengeance on the day, I wander the rows of beans and corn, sloshing coffee as I go. Dew: yes, the Valley does do dew; hardly a summer morning without droplets pendant from tips of leaves. Pearly teardrops pooled in the crowns of new corn remind me of my old friend Lester Broughton who was Valley-wise even though he lived in town. The first year we owned this slim acre, before our house was built, before the well was drilled, we planted our first garden, and I shared with Les the concern that we lacked means of irrigation. “Don’t need to worry about water,” he replied. “You get dew every night. That’s all the water the corn needs.” And he was right. Dew… I think about the naturalist Charles Darwin who observed that in the arid plains of Patagonia lizards and mice survive in substantial numbers without rain, subsisting on droplets of dew that collect during the night.

A month and a half without rain here in the Valley. Nearly a dozen days of ninety degree plus temps. But this morning the thirsty garden drinks. I have my coffee; the garden sips its dew.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Upgrades Planned for the Tualco Valley Speedway…

Bridge 155As Gladys and I approached Riley Slough Bridge # 155 a couple mornings ago, I remembered a conversation I’d had with Kevin Olson at Fred Meyer’s the other day. After we exchanged a few routine pleasantries, Kevin blurted out the question: “Say, do you know where the County Sheriff’s office is located?” I didn’t. Such a strange question…right out of the blue. Kevin told me the office had moved to some other location. On these hot days, Kevin told me, kids are swimming at High Bridge and when they return, some do so at a high rate of speed, racing even, on the straight stretch approaching the bridge.R.S. Bridge approach N Kevin lives on the northwest side of Bridge 155 and cars speeding across the bridge and past his doorstep puts his safety in jeopardy. He told me during one trip to the mail box his wife had to scramble out of the way of one of the racing vehicles, no easy thing to do since she’s nursing a sore knee. Kevin thought he’d drop by the sheriff’s office, let them know about the problem to urge law enforcement to do a little extra patrolling out in the Valley. I shared with him my incident on the Lower Loop bridge when a birder and I had to hug the rail to avoid being struck by a vehicle driven by a young male. He and his passenger breezed by us at fifty mph plus as if we weren’t even there. Yes: The Tualco Valley Speedway (TVS) where the posted thirty-five mph speed limit is not just a suggestion; it’s a joke…as is the fact there’s little or no enforcement of it.

That’s not likely to change. In fact it appears the County is trending more towards making the TVS less a Le Mans type course—one with fewer turns--and more an oval track configuration. “Want to hear a good story?” Kevin asked.  I nodded because there’s nothing The Ripple likes better than a good story. Kevin moved a step closer and shared some news that in the telling set his handlebar mustache a’ quiver.

Sometime in April Kevin noticed a couple County workers milling around Bridge 155. They were toting official-looking clipboards (Kevin didn’t say, but aren’t they always?). Now a government official carrying a clipboard can mean only one thing: change is in the wind. (I remember a few years back when I spied a couple clipboard toting WASDOT workers defacing our driveway with day-glo pink arrows, precursor to a turn lane project that disrupted our lives for six months). Kevin out went to investigate, to see which way the wind was about to blow, so to speak. “The County is going to replace the bridge,” Kevin exclaimed, “They plan to straighten out the blind corner and make the bridge approach a straight shot. You know what that means, don’t you? (I could see the static electricity building in that moustache.) I had hardly come to terms with Kevin’s news when he continued, “They’ll have to take the house and the outbuildings. That’s the only way they could do it!” I had to agree: the jog elbows east. To eliminate the curve, the County would have construct its replacement on the west side of the current bridge. I asked Kevin if the County would purchase the property at fair market value or impose imminent domain. Kevin didn’t know and said the County had yet to contact his landlord.

Kevin has lived in that rustic little cottage through three landlord changes. He survived the flood of 1990 when the slough lapped at his doorstep. In other words he has a history with the property and a new bridge would certainly rearrange his life for him. According to the County engineers the average daily traffic that crosses the bridge is 700 vehicles, a statistic that Kevin finds incredulous. As do I; the Frohnings don’t go for coffee that often. And even with me jumping up and down on that rubber snake across the road to make the little black box clickety–click wouldn’t account for much of an increase. During the ten minutes’ time it took me to take the attached photos only three vehicles crossed the bridge, one of them a farm ATV. “They’re going to spend 4.2 million of our dollars just to accommodate farm equipment and dairy cows?” By this time that moustache was sparking. “If seven hundred vehicles cross that bridge every day…well, they can…they can just…,” he spluttered and went on to suggest the County engineers do something I’m sure isn’t written in their job description. “And besides, the Slough is salmon habitat. What about that?”salmon habitat We both wondered how the County could have sidestepped that issue. I left Kevin fuming somewhere between the bananas and soft fruit sections and finished my shopping.

The Ripple decided to look into the County’s bold plans for Bridge 155. I found the entire project overview on line and will share some of the highlights from the twenty-nine pages of project application (search “Riley Slough Bridge Project” for specifics of the entire project). Timeline: preliminary study 4/’15 (Kevin’s County clipboard personnel); right-of way work starts 7/’16; bridge construction proper begins 8/’18; new bridge opens to traffic 11/’19. The replacement bridge will be a “3-span concrete girder structure on driven piles” (and all this in salmon habitat, mind). The length will stay at 200’ but an additional two feet will be added to the width (28’ to 30’). According to the overview the total cost of the project is 4.4 million, a figure that will no doubt budge taxpayers’ property taxes (and, fellow citizens, don’t forget you’ll soon be funding a new County Courthouse). The County expects bridge crossings to double in the future, from an average of 528 vehicles per day (10 % truck traffic) to over a 1,000. Where those projections come from, I have no idea. Given the jog in the bridge approach thus a blind corner, one might think safety could be a factor in replacing the bridge; however, according to the project stats there has been only one “collision” in the vicinity of the bridge since 2007. The solitary incident happened in  March 30, 2010…and 240’ south of the bridge. A vehicle struck a “tree or stump.” In broad daylight, too. No injuries reported.Bridge 155 S. approach

Consider the TVS for a moment. If the kink in the road is straightened, Valley racers will have an extra quarter mile north of the bridge added to the straight stretch that begins at the intersection of the Upper and Lower Loop roads…a full half mile to “see what this baby’ll do.” County engineers cite their reason for adding an additional two feet to the bridge width as a consideration for “pedestrian safety.” In all the years Gladys and I have pedaled across Bridge 155 we have yet to see a single pedestrian hoofing his way across. However, if you unkink it, maybe they will come…from far and wide…to watch the races.R.S. Bridge approach N

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What is Rarer Than a Day in June?…

D. plexippus 2015The answer? A monarch butterfly here in the Valley. The other day with hardly a flutter of wings, like an orange silk scarf loosed in the wind, one floated in on the afternoon breeze, glided about the garden, drifted from one patch of flowers to another. Choosing our aptly named “butterfly bush” (buddleia), it settled briefly to nectar… just long enough for me to snap a digital record of this highly unusual event. In forty years I’ve seen only one other monarch butterfly in the Valley and that was over twenty years ago.

There is no more iconic  North American butterfly than the monarch (Danaus plexippus). When people who can name or identify no other butterfly (even the cabbage white) hear the word “monarch,” the word “butterfly” immediately comes to mind. But for most laymen, that’s where the knowledge trail ends. From that point any large, colorful butterfly must be a “monarch.” Years ago a small local periodical—The Sky Valley News—or something to that effect printed its summer issue. The cover page featured a full page black and white photo of a “large” butterfly. Beneath its banner ran this headline: “You know it’s summer when the Sky Valley Monarchs are on the wing.” The featured butterfly is a harbinger of summer in the Sky Valley. True. But a monarch? Far from it. The cover page featured instead a western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), a large yellow butterfly with distinct black tiger stripes and a tail on the trailing end of each hind wing. western tiger swallowtailThe headline made me chuckle, and I’ve often shared the paper’s error with others more in tune with the natural world. They chuckle, too. Although the monarch is much in the news these days, most folks are not able to distinguish one large butterfly from another. Oftentimes when I’m afield with my insect net and meet hikers or passersby curious about my activity, once I tell them I’m questing for butterflies, they are quick to inform me they “saw a monarch the other day.” I politely inform them, no, what they most likely saw was an in season western tiger swallowtail.

The monarch’s markings are distinct: orange (not yellow) with black venation (not stripes), its thorax salted with white dots. The monarch is more a glider, a drifter than a flutterer (like the western tiger swallowtail); it uses air currents to good purpose, a trait that enables this unique butterfly to migrate great distances. One of the most memorable experiences in this butterfly fancier’s life was a warm September afternoon spent on my sister’s lawn in Omaha where the monarchs were on the wing. They slalomed through the trees, drifted with the breeze, and costumed in orange and black, they performed an aerial ballet. I was spellbound.A True Valley Monarch

The backyard monarch magic I witnessed was just a small number of a great swarm of insects en route to the oyamel forests of Michoacan, Mexico. The true renown of the monarch is its annual trans-continent migration. The monarchs that entertained me in Omaha that September aftenoon would pass through countless backyards before they arrived at their mountain destination in Mexico where by the thousands they will cling to the mountain firs. There, draped from the branches like autumn leaves, they’ll winter. Come spring, the return trip--unlike spawning salmon—no monarch will complete. But their offspring and their offspring’s offspring will, as far north as—and some beyond—the Canadian border where they’ll summer until their genomic trigger sends them winging southward again.

North America has two populations of monarchs: those east of the Rocky Mountain Divide and the enclave west of the Rockies. The latter population migrates to the eucalyptus groves of coastal California, Pacific Grove, Monterey County. Both eastern and western populations journey thousands of miles annually to reach their respective wintering grounds. Monarchs belong to subfamily Danidae or milkweed butterflies. As the larvae feed on their milkweed host plant, they extract toxins which are stored in their tissues and render them as adults unpalatable to avian predators (unlike the western tiger whose wings by season’s end are shredded by bird strikes).

Monarch populations are dwindling in North America. The biggest cause is habitat destruction. As agriculture, industry and housing projects increase, stands of milkweed disappear. Pesticides and herbicides used to control roadside vegetation kill both monarch larvae and their host plant. Because of extensive logging of the oyamel forests, monarchs’ wintering grounds have been reduced to mere acres. West coast populations are imperiled by the same factors. Monarch conservationists have mounted extensive campaigns to educate Americans to the plight of this truly American icon. Dr. Chip Taylor of Kansas University has founded The Monarch Watch project, a program to study monarch migration patterns and behaviors and educate people on the natural history of this beautiful but imperiled butterfly. Taylor and volunteers tag monarchs and release them in hopes whoever finds them will respond to the contact information on the tags and provide valuable data to help better understand and sustain the species. Tagged monarch the Monarch ProjectSome mid-west farmers are setting aside acreage to allow milkweed to flourish and backyard gardeners are encouraged to add milkweed to their landscaping—and avoid pesticide applications. In fact if it weren’t for our backyard butterfly bush, the rare appearance of our monarch here in the Valley may well have gone unnoticed.

(An added note on this topic. From time to time around town I see the van of a local pest control company. The rig is painted a tasteful green but plastered across the rear panels of the van where one might expect to see a giant mosquito, wasp, or whiskered rat with its ropey tail curling across the back doors is painted instead a large, beautiful monarch butterfly as if to say: “One call and your monarch problems are over.”)

Hinchliffe’s A Butterfly Atlas of Washington State gives only one Snohomish County record for Danaus plexippus. The site is near the border of Snohomish and Skagit Counties. In my collection of Washington State butterflies I have only one monarch from the state, a male I collected in 1989 in Douglas County (a county record according to Hinchliffe’s 1996 Atlas). As for our backyard beauty, “she” has appeared six times in the last two weeks. Day before yesterday she bullied a western tiger from the buddleia; yesterday afternoon she was unwilling to share the bush with an American Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). If she returns—and I hope she does, I have no intention of including her in my collection. Not only did she lift my spirits, she was gracious enough to allow me three photos and gift me with a special memory. Besides, I’ve been to Pacific Grove and Monterey, loved both places. And though her journey will be long, in no way would I deprive her of the experience.Monarch 2015

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Tisket, A Tasket, a Nest in a Basket: a Lesson in Natural History from the Backyard…

last year's junco chicksFor some reason the backyard birds believe our fuschia baskets are hung  there for their nesting convenience. A few years back a robin nested in one, laid a clutch of eggs, and fledged them out. Last year a pair of dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) appropriated a basket and we enjoyed watching the nesting cycle, didn’t mind the least sharing our blooming basket with them. Compared to the conspicuous nesting routines of robins (we usually have a pair nest in our woodshed each year), juncos are subtle nesters; if one weren’t a careful observer of his yard and landscaping, juncos could go through an entire nesting cycle unnoticed. If it weren’t for the fact the baskets hung from the soffits above our deck and needed frequent watering, I doubt we’d have discovered the nest.

The dark-eyed junco, generally referred to as a “snowbird,” is one Little Brown Bird easily identified: the male with his dark chocolate head, that of the missus more milk chocolate. In flight, going away, both flash white tail feathers. During the winter months juncos frequent our backyard feed station in abundance, perhaps the explanation of why so many pairs nest here in the summer. On those rare winters when snow fell on our deck we’d throw out a handful of birdseed for the juncos’ repast—and the cat’s amusement.

The frugal gardener that I am, I cut back the fuschia plants in the hanging baskets and winter them over where they hang during the summer months. During periods of below freezing temps, I move them into the garage or shed until the weather moderates. Usually I can sustain the baskets two or three years, saving the expense of replacing them every spring. When I trimmed the baskets last fall, I was careful to leave the junco nest intact, hoping to have our lodgers return again come summer.

Summer came; the robins nested; white-crowned sparrows; and juncos. But our fuschia nest remained empty. When I saw the first junco fledglings about the place, I thought for sure we were destined to be empty nesters for the summer. I wasn’t aware of a “second settin,’”however; juncos, I learned, have two broods a season, a fact confirmed when the other day I saw flash of brown dart from the maple tree, touch down on the roof, and dive into the fuschia leaves. An inspection of the basket next day told me renovation of last year’s nest was underway. My next inspection two days later showed a complete overhaul of the nest, fresh straw and grass perfectly cupped to junco size.Day one

Tuesday this week I gently removed the basket and discovered the nest held a tidy freckled egg. Even though Ms. junco was nowhere to be seen, I knew she was watching nearby, wondering what business I had fussing with her nest. I learned from last year’s nest cycle that the female leaves the nest unattended during the day, returns at night and sometime before dawn lays another egg. Day 2Sure enough, Wednesday morning a pair of eggs lay in the nest. Thursday, three. Yesterday morning the female didn’t leave the nest. I knew she had laid the fourth egg earlier and had begun to incubate the clutch of four. A gentle shake of the basket dislodged her and off she flew, allowing me to inspect her nest, which, as last year contained the fourth and final egg. Day 3I hated to disturb her, was certain another egg was added to clutch, but having a “loaded” bird nest in a hanging basket that required frequent watering presented a problem. Before mama settled into her two week incubation period, I wanted to give the basket a thorough watering. I rehung the dripping basket and in less than five minutes with a flash of brown, a rustling of leaves, Missus returned.

She stayed there all day. And this morning when I checked the nest through the window, I could see her jaunty little tail among the leaves. For two weeks she’ll set the nest. Except for a watering or two I’ll try not disturb her. Day 4

Two weeks from now when the feeding routine begins, we’ll enjoy watching the male and female “sneak” their way in and out of the nest. It’s local entertainment. And it’s free. These days it doesn’t take much excitement to keep us entertained .