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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year to You and Your's [sic]...

It's gratifying during the holiday season to receive cards and gifts from relatives and friends. Some cards include a "year in review" letter which I rarely read as the busy lives of others, their comings and goings, photos taken in the exotic places they've visited during the year, serve to remind me of the bland and cloistered life I live. The intent of this post, however, is not to lament the "gusto lives" of others but to address, compared to a trip to Machu Picchu or a tour of the monarch-laden forests in Mexico, the picayune subject of punctuation. After thirty-one years in the classroom unraveling the idiosyncrasies and vagaries of the English Language for school children, it's hard to let go the need to right the wrongs of English usage.

So, readers, let us plunge into today's lesson: the apostrophe. And, yes, whereas the word is "all Greek," it needn't be all Greek to those whose willy-nilly use of it bring out the English teacher in me. (Just the other day I had occasion to point out to the young ladies at my bank that I'd never before seen the surname of Santa and Mrs. Claus spelled as "Clause.")

As a subject, the apostrophe is no stranger to The Ripple. June twenty-third, 2013, I posted "Apostrophe to a Sign" in which I championed a cause for adding an apostrophe to some new Valley signage. Unlike periods and commas which appear fairly secure in the writer's comfort zone, the apostrophe is a conundrum, a puzzle, a snare and a pitfall to those who use the written word.

The apostrophe's purpose, as is the case with its fellow punctuation marks, is to clarify meaning in written text. Oral expression uses the subtleties of voice (inflection and pitch for example) to make the speaker's message clear.

While the apostrophe is employed a number of ways (omission of letters or figures...pluralizing letters or figures), one of its principal uses is to indicate ownership or "possession," especially where nouns are concerned. Ms. Sidney Mundy, my sage college English professor, stated the apostrophe was superfluous: the context of the sentence made ownership of something clear. ( Consider "the cats tail tripped the rat trap." No confusion here as to whose tail it was.) The conventions of written expression, however, require the writer, whenever he writes possessive nouns, to sprinkle them correctly with apostrophes.

Consider, then, those Christmas cards and gifts.What is a "grammar cop" to make of the salutation "Merry Christmas from the Smith's"? The apostrophe sensitive reader wonders "the Smith's what? Merry Christmas from the Smith's house, Smith's car, Smith's dog, Smith's driveway?" Even so, shouldn't the apostrophe be stuck after Smith's "S?" Context seems to indicate the well-wisher is more than one Smith. Aha! Just another case of a rogue apostrophe, a "lost and lorn" misplaced squiggle. False alarm. No ownership intended. Just a simple case of a noun plural: "We Smiths wish you a Merry Christmas." No harm or confusion meant.

To you Smiths, Smith's, Smiths,' a thank-you for your holiday greetings and well-wishes and a very hearty Happy New Year to you and yours, your's, yours' from The Ripple.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Curious Case of the Fallen Hummer: or A Bird in the Hand...

Over the weekend we hosted the family Christmas party. The day was unseasonably cold. A breath of frigid air from the Arctic vortex gripping most of the nation leaked into our mild maritime climate. For two or three days daytime temps didn't rise above freezing. The chickens' water bucket froze solid during the night as did the hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window. I took to bringing both bucket and feeder in at night and setting them out in the morning frost free.

Thanks to our local hummingbird species--Anna's--we have a front row window seat of hummer activity year round. Winters, during rare periods of sub-freezing temperatures, a male Anna's perches sentinel in the backyard maple within twenty feet of the kitchen window food source. During the day I like to play "Where's Waldo" with the tiny bird, where after close scrutiny of several bare twigs either the dull green sheen of his back or a twist of head and beak give him away.

On party day my brothers had retired outdoors to the deck and were engaged in a lively competition, a bit of oral frivolity involving olives tossed high in the air, when brother Keith noticed what he thought was a leaf drop suddenly from a maple branch. When he went to investigate, Keith found a male Anna's hummer lying motionless in the grass. He gently scooped it up and to share his discovery, called me over. Other than appearing stunned, the bird looked to be uninjured: eyes open, wings not all appearances unharmed, just stunned. Stunned how? It didn't fly full tilt into a window pane but landed on a lawn that's now mostly moss. I took the bird from him, not knowing quite what to do with a handful (and a very small one at that) of hummingbird and took it inside.

Although I inserted the bird's slender beak in an eyedropper full of syrup, it would not drink. I closed my hand tighter, thinking my body heat might bring the little guy around. Just its shimmering ruby head and stiletto beak were exposed. For a few minutes I wandered around the house cuddling the tiny bird in my hand. In a show-and-tell mode I went from one household guest to another: "Look what I have here." Five or six minutes of public display was all it took and then a fluttering in my closed fist like I was shaking hands with a prankster holding a buzzing vibrator button. The little fellow had revived and was demanding release which I was only too happy to grant. I stepped outside, opened my fist...a pause, and then the bird shot from my hand, darted up in the maple tree, and perched on a twig. It had hardly escaped before it zoomed in to protect the feeder from an upstart female.

Grateful on the one hand, puzzled on the other, I tried to make sense of it all. When I shared the incident with a birder friend of mine, he said regional hummingbirds survive our harsh winter climate by entering a state of torpor which enables them to regulate their metabolism to conserve energy and body heat, a physiological phenomenon where, like flicking a switch, hummers can literally shut down the life within them. Perhaps at that moment I had observed a state of hummingbird torpor? But why would such a tiny, vulnerable creature do such a thing? Switch himself off and drop twenty feet to the ground possibly to be picked off by a marauding cat? Such behavior seemed so un-Darwinian. I have also heard that a hummer can starve to death in an hour's time if it doesn't find nourishment. Not sure if science substantiates that, but I'm inclined to side with my wife's theory. She believed because of all the olive tossing on the deck, plus the bustle of activity around the kitchen sink, the little male was afraid to access his food source and succumbed to a hypoglycemic tailspin.

All theories aside, my heart lifted when that little bird left the warmth of my hand and returned, apparently unscathed to our kitchen window to remind us once again that some day summer will return.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Pemmican...And You Can Too...

Travel back back with me to the time our First Nation neighbors were called "Indians," not Native Americans or the more contemporary Indigenous Peoples. I was ten years old and going through a phase where I was enthralled by anything and everything "Indian."
As with most cases of juvenile fancy, mine was a romantic vision, the vision of James Fenimore Cooper's "The Nobel Savage." The old chiefs, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Joseph were my heroes. I read everything Indian I could, scavenged the riverbank on weekends for arrowheads, imitated Indian woodlore: fashioned a pipe bowl from clay (smoked Indian tobacco...sick for three days), foraged afield for camas root and coyote berries, munched on live grasshoppers (a nice crunch offset by a stomach-churning taste). Clad only in a homemade breechclout and moccasins made from a pair of Dad's discarded khaki pants, I romped about the neighborhood, scandalizing the neighbors.What most impressed me about Indians was their fierce independence on aboriginal survival skills, their hunting and foraging for sustenance in an oftentimes unforgiving natural world, the most challenging season of which was wintertime.

A principal staple for the "short, white days" was the Indian survival bar: pemmican. You didn't have to read far into a book about Indians before you happened upon a reference to the food. (Just the other day I read an excerpt from James Welch's Fools Crow, had scarcely read two pages when I came across the word used in the storyline not as sustenance for the living but for a child dead of smallpox about to begin its journey to the shadowlands.)

Pemmican: pimihkan, from the Cree dialect, is a natural food solely of Native American origin consisting of meat fiber and berries bound together with animal fat. Pemmican's appeal was twofold: its ingredients were readily available to North American Indians and the foodstuff, needing no preservatives or refrigeration, had a shelf life of years. The meat from buffalo, deer, elk, and bear provided the protein component of pemmican. Berries, harvested and dried from summer berry crops, flavored the meat ingredient. The jerky and berries were finely ground with mortar and pestle and the resulting compound bound together with molten animal fat, pounded flat, and then cut into strips to be stored for future consumption.

Perhaps it was a "second childhood" moment that piqued my interest in pemmican, but the truth of the matter was I saw a recipe for it on the internet, a "survivalists" website and thought with the holidays and winter approaching, "Why not make a batch?" The recipe called for only three ingredients...simple enough, (just like a P-B and J sandwich, right?): one cup each of dried meat, berries, and animal fat. Besides, with several gallons of summer blueberries in the freezer, I had one-third of the ingredients already covered.

As with most simple things like " three step instructions" or "just three ingredients," my pemmican experience became a week long adventure. I retrieved the dehydrator from its summer storage and put it to work drying a gallon bag of frozen blueberries. Three days it took to turn those plump morsels into desiccated kernels. I wanted my product to be as "Indian" as possible, so for the dried meat component I headed to Kelso's Custom Meats in Snohomish where I had seen buffalo meat for purchase. I knew I could count on Kelso's for my "animal fat" (suet) because they had provided that ingredient for my mincemeat recipe.

Once he learned what I was up to, Brian at Kelso's was eager to help. I told him I wanted to make the recipe in "the old way" if possible and did he have any buffalo meat? "Can't get it anymore," he said. "Deer or elk?" He couldn't help me there either. "Bear?"
(I was reaching now.) Brian smiled and shook his head. "Sorry."He then suggested lean beef, a cut popular for making jerky. Brian sliced two pounds of beef into quarter inch pieces. The suet was no problem. I headed home with two pounds of each to continue on down the pemmican trail.

I laid the thin beef slices on foil-lined baking sheets, preheated the oven to 180 degrees, and slid in the trays. Directions expressly warned against cooking the meat but drying it instead until the slices snapped or cracked; recipe said six to eight hours. It took seven hours for the meat to reach the "snap/crackle" stage. And I had to dry two batches.

Once again the "old ways" proved difficult. Our kitchen lacked a mortar and pestle for grinding the berries and meat. The wooden pestle used with the colander was no match for the dried blueberries. I might as well have been grinding gravel. Neither did the pestle work on the dried beef even though I first chopped it finely with a kitchen knife. To proceed, the "old ways" gave way to the "new ways." Even then I had to improvise as we had given away our food processor a few years back. A hand blender and a deep pot (for steaming asparagus) came to my rescue. Even on low speed, shards of blueberry and jerky shrapnel ricocheted from the pot (should have used protective eye wear). A towel wrapped around the blender corralled the contents until the berry/meat mixture was pulverized. A hot woodstove quickly rendered the suet into liquid.

I strained off one cup of fat and stirred it into the ground meat and berries. For sweetening I folded in four ounces of honey and added a tablespoon of salt to bring out the flavor (one teaspoon would have served). On a sheet of waxed paper the pemmican formed easily, like rolling out bread dough.

The mound, which I molded into a half inch thick brick, quickly congealed rock solid. The next day I divided the brick into strips one inch wide and four inches long, wrapped two each in plastic wrap and then zip-loc bags for storage.

I was anxious to try my first pemmican. My review? You would need strong teeth to grind up a bite. The animal fat dominated the flavor, overpowering the berries and honey. Although the salt enhances the shelf life of the product, I went overboard with that ingredient. Unless you're a survivalist, I doubt pemmican will ever make a comeback. After all the staple was intended for survivalist fare, not haute cuisine, as a hedge against starvation during the long, harsh Great Plains' winters. When the human body cries for sustenance, taste and flavor are of little consequence, and no doubt pemmican came to the rescue of many a starving Indian or mountain man. Considering what the doomed Donner party had on its last desperate menu, pemmican, for the stranded pioneers, would have been gourmet dining.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Gladys Has Some "Work" Done...

"Thirty-nine and holding, a-holdin' onto everything I can...."
                                                                            Jerry Lee Lewis

There comes a time in a woman's life when she experiences a mid-life crisis of sorts.
Perhaps "crisis" is too strong a word; "conspiracy" might be a better one: when her mirror conspires against her and her clothing sends back mixed messages. The mirror works its subtleties (Hey, I'm just the messenger here...): a new crop of wrinkles...the older ones more deeply furrowed. And the chin, a new, pendulous look, the skin decidedly dewlapping under her jaw, the corners of her eyes present like river deltas seen from the International Space Station. And is that a trace of mustachio sprouting from the ridges of her philtrum? Her clothes just don't fit like they used to: it's a wrestling match each time she puts on her jeans which for some time now she hasn't been able to "slip" on. Come buttoning time her waistline protests the strangling snugness; her fingers protest the extra stress. At the shopping mall she no longer notices the occasional male shopper fix her with a stare, his eyes linger flatteringly a bit longer than they should. Now even window display manikins are more ogled than she.

Thus her decision: time to cinch things up a bit, mortar over a wrinkle or two, shore up the sagging anatomy, punch down that swelling muffin top, subject herself to a blast or two from the laser. She's not about to go through the next ten or twenty years looking like she's aged ten or twenty years. And so she goes where she needs to go; does what she needs to do; has some "work done...."

Gladys turns forty this year, and the old dame has been around the Loop a time or two. Who knows how much mileage her old frame chocked up before she started hauling me around the Valley. She's had her share of humiliation, too. Age discrimination, I guess you'd call the time she was parked roadside while I talked with a neighbor and a wannabe Tour de Francer pedaled by, looked at her and sneered, "Nice ride." Those forty years have taken their toll on my Valley companion. One clear morning a while back, I wheeled Gladys out of the garage and discovered her rear tire was flat. The tire would not take air, so I removed the wheel, pried the tire from the rim, and using the skills learned in my youth (like swimming, you never forget), yanked the tube, and by refilling it, located a small tear by the valve stem. I purchased a patch kit from Freddie's, fashioned a patch and cemented it over the rip. But to no avail: the tube would not hold air.

Where problems mechanical are involved, there comes a time (to quote the famed Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, "And I've had a lot of 'em"), when you realize you are way out of your league; your tools just scoff at you. Such was the case with Gladys's condition. The rear wheel itself was a disaster. A couple of spokes were missing. One spoke had snapped and wound itself around the axle like a spring. The remaining spokes were loose. A bike physician said finding a replacement wheel for a three-speed girl's 1976 Columbia Tourist III would be near to impossible. The wheel would have to be reconstructed. Only a complete face lift could repair Gladys's rear end.

Gladys was a "rescue" bike. I paid fifty dollars for her. Wheel reconstruction would cost $105, the Dr. said. Did I want to pay double her cost to get her healthy again? It didn't take moment's pause for my decision. We have a history, Gladys and I. I wasn't about to let a few extra dollars spoil our decades-old relationship. After all, you can't put a price on nostalgia.

Presently Gladys is recuperating in the garage, awaiting her reconstructed rear wheel. Any "Get Well" wishes or "Speedy Recovery" sentiments on her behalf may be sent to her C/O The Ripple.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Stupidity Street...

The other night I was reading to the four-year old grandson from his favorite poetry anthology. As I read poem after poem at random, one title leaped out at me. I chose not to read the poem as it was above the listener's understanding. A title for this post has been on my mind for months now, but I have set it aside in favor of one that's more to the point.

A year or so ago an article in a local newspaper caught my attention. The city of Monroe had been awarded a federal grant to address storm water management on Main Street. To alleviate flooding from an outdated drainage system that an excess of rainwater at times overwhelmed, the city would use the monies to install french drains overlaid by a porous layer of concrete, allowing the puddling to percolate through to the drains. "Good idea," was my first response: when the government offers you a check, take it to the bank before it "percolates" elsewhere. And it's my opinion no one--me in particular--enjoys shopping in wet socks.

The hydrology issue thus addressed and paid for, the town council decided "Why stop here?" And then the weirdness began. "We need to bring more business to the downtown," the City Council declared. This, mind you, from a smug group of officials who sanctioned the construction of a Walmart, thereby diverting Main Street shoppers north of Highway 2 to Sam's Club. "Let's widen the sidewalks, (give two blocks of Main Street a Parisian ambiance--a promenade, of sorts), reconfigure parking in the 'business' section of town...diagonal parking north side only; parallel parking south side. And let's see to it the work is done during summer months, the busiest time of the year for Main Street merchants. Meanwhile, since we have the welfare of the community at heart, we'll employ public monies to fund our art project." (After all, the government is an unlikely source of funding for "aesthetic" improvements.)

When all the water had percolated and the construction dust cleared, the two blocks of Main Street between Ferry and Blakeley Streets were born again. Merchants and vendors have more room to set up outdoor displays during the few weeks of the summer when it doesn't rain. Main Street Cafe set up a little sidewalk bistro blocking the promenade, slaloming the strollers around the obstruction between the vehicles and the unsightly black posts positioned as barriers curbside (because there is no curb) to keep parked cars from the sidewalks and vehicles parking from crashing into storefronts.

The downtown makeover is a study in unintended consequences. The city "elders" certainly didn't consider the fact that Monroe is still a rural farming community and that the vehicle of choice for many a citizen is a brawny pickup truck which on the north side of Main he'd have to park diagonally. These behemoths have over-sized beds, bumpers, and trailer hitches and when parked on the north side of Main, spill into the road, thus making westbound traffic zigzag its way for two blocks.

Not only does the traveler have to worry about hanging up on a protruding hitch, but he must also avoid oncoming traffic when he is forced into their lane to skirt the obstacles to his right. Large trucks have taken to the side streets rather than navigate around the barrier posts that impede turning onto and from Main Street. During one trip to town I was delayed at the Main Street stoplight when a forty foot land yacht jockeyed back and forth trying to make the turn left from Lewis Street onto Main.

I've asked a few merchants to share their opinions of their new downtown. Some just shook their heads. Others rolled their eyes. Not one positive reaction from anyone I consulted. Carl at Main Street Books said business came to a near standstill during construction and currently is off thirty per cent. His neighbor at My L.A. Fashion said her store and window displays are completely hidden when one of the "monster" trucks parks in front. She directed to my attention to the recharging stations the City installed for electric vehicles and told me they're mainly used by the homeless to recharge their cell phones. "Better not text while you're walking," she said, pointing out the street lights that sprout from the middle of the new sidewalks, "or you'll end up nursing a big knot on your head." Her concluding remark: "Even if they do notice my store, customers are reluctant to hold up traffic while they attempt to parallel park." One of the tellers at Union Bank shared that during her shift she hears considerable horn honking at that corner because the diagonal parking at the corner of Blakeley Street blocks
the view of Main Street, forcing the side street traffic to creep blindly into the intersection where angry motorists honk at their intrusion.

The boondoggle that is the "new" heart of Monroe puts me in mind of what someone said of the camel: it was a critter created by a committee. You might say that a "Confederacy of Dunces" (the intended title of this post) has turned the two blocks of Main Street between Ferry and Blakeley into the fanciest, most expensive alley in town.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

First Fall Casualty...

Today I conducted a routine inspection of two colonies in my bee yard and the news was not good.
Less than twelve hours into the autumnal equinox and already one colony is certain to be a mite casualty. Just two short weeks ago an inspection of the hive presented a healthy population of bees and was queen-rite with two or three deep frames full of eggs and newly hatched larvae.
That was two weeks ago, but today the story was much different. I had been monitoring the hive (photo: Hive B) carefully for the last month and knew there was an issue with Varroa mites, several of which I observed clinging to adult bees, sign of a serious infestation. When I removed the lid, I should have seen a healthy, flourishing population (photo: Hive A). Instead of a mass of bees covering the frames, only a smattering remained. For nearly sixty decades bees have been a part of my life and with this mite thing, I'm at my wit's end.

In the late 1980s mites came into our Valley and changed the entire dynamics of beekeeping. Consensus has it that Varroa is now a permanent part of the beekeeping landscape, a fact of life in one's backyard apiary...certainly the case with mine. Just last week I stopped by the Beez Neez Apiary Supply to purchase containers for this year's honey crop.While waiting for Ben to fill my order, two men, father and son, came in carrying two Langstroth deep frames for inspection. The frames, one from each of two hives, had spotty pockets of capped brood, all dead. Both frames had normal honey arches with capped honey. One look at the frames and I knew mites were to blame. "There were no bees in either hive," they said. "Don't know where they went...they just disappeared." Their plight was now mine: my hive, to all appearances thriving two weeks ago, was now destined to extinction.

The frustration for us beekeepers is this late summer dwindling (as if "spring" dwindling wasn't challenge enough). Hives that survive the winter, experience the normal spring build up, and are booming during the summer months, seem to hit the wall in early to mid-August. This stands to reason when you think about it: as colony population builds, so do the Varroa...more brood for them to feast upon, which the voracious critters do until at last they overpower the hive.

(Note photo below: newly emerged adult bee with wings chewed by mites, attacked while in its incubation stage.)

This observation has led me to be diligent with mite management; you know the little varmints are and will be ever present in the beeyard and the latest literature and research suggest the beekeeper use IPM (Integrated Pest Management) to keep mites at a manageable level to ensure a colony successfully overwinters. This balance of mite vs. colony population swings in the way of the mites in mid-August, so I began treatment with the organic miticide Hop Guard (HG) the second week of August. The hive at issue not only had two treatments of HG in August but also the drone comb frame application (although with less dedication, I have to admit). When I noted the clinging mites and the drone larvae infestation, I treated the colony with a formic acid pad. All to no avail. The mites have prevailed and the colony is doomed:  I'm at a loss at what to do at this point, which will prove to be too late anyway. What is staggering to me is just how fast mites can dispatch a colony. It's like the "Zero to 60" vehicle ads. Two and a half weeks ago the second brood chamber was full of bees and at least two full frames of eggs and larvae. When I removed the lid today only a few bees were clinging to the frames and just small portion of one comb had eggs and larvae present. My guess is the decline in nurse and attendant bees caused the brood to die. "Aggravatin,' ain't it?"

Hive #2  seems in peril, also. As to the cause, I'm not certain. This colony went queenless over a month ago. An inspection showed a number of queen cells, enough to be swarm cells, although in early August swarm possibility seemed a non issue. Two of the queen cells were capless and I spotted a virgin queen milling about on one of the combs. Today I fully expected to see a nice brood pattern with brood in all stages of development. No such luck. I inspected a number of combs in both brood chambers. All I saw were the smooth, shiny bases of the cells; no sign of brood rearing whatsoever. The population seems to be holding steady, sign that mite population for the present must be at a manageable level. I decided to give the hive one last chance to raise a queen, removed a frame of eggs and larvae from another hive, and inserted it in the center of the second brood box. If the hive does raise a queen, fall weather will most likely prevent her from taking her mating flight. My prognosis is this hive will go the way of  hive #1.

The latest weapon I've added to my IPM's arsenal is oxalic acid (OA) which is applied by means of a flashpan tool inserted into the hive. A twelve volt battery powers the flash pan and in three minutes the measured dosage of OA powder vaporizes, filling the brood chambers with the fumes. The fumes coat the bees and mites with a patina of OA crystals which the bees tolerate but is lethal to the mites. OA fumigation purports to be the cutting edge of Varroa control. We'll see. However, each new trend in mite management could prove to be the panacea and sustains my hope. These days it's essential a beekeeper be an optimist.

But in the meantime the aggravation continues....

Sunday, September 18, 2016

O Pioneer! Dorothy Rae Lewis, March 13, 1916-July 16, 2016

"It takes life to love life."
"Lucinda Matlock," E.A. Masters' Spoon River Anthology

What a run you had, Ol' Gal, a centenarian you were and you wrung life til it hurt every day of those one hundred years. March 13, 1916, you came into the world. What must that desolate Dyer Hill day have been on the cusp of winter and spring? I imagine snow drifted wheat fields and sagelands and a Dyer westerly, cold enough to freeze cattle, rattling the eaves of that rough hewn homestead that heard your first cries. You had your dad Bert Baumgardner's spirit, Ol' Gal, your father, exasperated when basalt cobbles repeatedly tripped his plow, halted his team, shook his fist at the heavens and dared the Creator to come down and fight him like a man.
You were one of five girls: "Bummie's Boys neighbors called you and I'll bet there wasn't a country boy miles around that could keep up with you or your sisters. You scraped together pocket change by trapping skunks, skinning them out and sending the hides to Sears and Roebuck. You told me an occasional cat skin somehow found its way into some shipments. ("There wasn't a cat in the neighborhood," you told me. "Dad would have skinned us alive if he found out.")

You learned your three R's at the White Swan School and received perfect attendance/never tardy certificates in spite of doing morning chores before you walked to school. ("On bitter weather days, Dad would pick us up in the sleigh after school and we'd bundle ourselves in warm blankets for the ride home." An eighth grade education was all you had, Ol' Gal. The nearest high school was fifteen miles away in Mansfield and further education was out of the question. According to your eighth grade diploma you scored highest in "arithmetic," lowest in "spelling." (How many times in your letters, Ol' Gal did you apologize for your spelling? Which of the teachers who signed your attendance certificates slapped your wrist with a ruler because you misspelled "come?")

For the first time since that March day a century ago, Ol' Gal, you are now truly at rest. There is so much I want to say to you, old friend, as you lie there, but writing is difficult because words to describe you and your life just don't seem equal to the task. I've always told myself if I were to write about the inspirational men in my life, you, Ol' Gal, would be among them. Gently I press your hands, folded one upon the other and think about the lifetime of work they've done, your left hand missing the little and fourth finger, severed by a friend's power saw ( you were doing a good deed for a friend because she didn't know how. You had the doctor remove the fourth finger stub because, you told him, you didn't want it catching on things as you went about your work...the severed finger retrieved from piles of sawdust and saved in a jar at your request now lies with you for eternity.)

You were a part of my life for six decades, Ol' Gal, yet as down to earth as you were, in some ways you were a mystery. Things I know for sure: you delighted in work (and work it was that really defined you; on your 100th birthday, four months before you passed, I gave you a box of walnuts.
It took you three days but you shelled them all); you were a good neighbor, helping those in need, whether it meant delivering a child, a meal, mowing a neighbor's yard, or taking the time to put your work aside, sit down and chat; making things grow: your apple trees or vegetable garden (the best in the county, the success of which you attributed to the Farmer's Almanac, but really Ol' Gal, it was that ton of manure you turned under in the plot every spring... admit it now). By mid-February your windowsills were a grove of tomato plants itching to get in the ground the day after the last frost.

You were a collector of stuff, Ol' Gal, "stuffed" stuff: dolls, animals, commemorative plates, salt and pepper shakers, glass figurines, a full-sized wooden doll from Thailand (through whose wooden neck you drilled a hole for a necklace chain and stuck her in a corner where she could stare out at your company through your dad's old wire rimmed glasses.

You were a curator of oddities: a mummified squirrel's foot from a roadkill, a hornet's nest, a life sized cardboard stand up of a scantily clad woman, chainsaw art.... The letters I sent you were addressed to the "Dorothy Lewis Roadside Museum, c/o Dorothy Lewis."
(Our personal joke). Two or three days a week you sold items from your "thrift shop" across the street. I called your flea market "the perpetual garage sale."

And I, a teenager at odds with his parents, you took me in, gave me free room and board while paying me wages for the work I did. ("You write your mom now," you insisted during my two month "vacation" from family. "She loves you, you know."

And the stories, Ol' Gal,..those hardscrabble years on Dyer. How a young nephew was dragged to death behind a horse, a niece who drowned in a freak ferry accident. The time you were at a dance and your partner accidentally bumped a passing couple and was knocked to the floor by her partner. You snatched your partner from the floor and continued dancing as if nothing had happened, he still semi-conscious. When your husband was unable to put down his longtime pet dog, you picked up a rifle and did what he couldn't. (Any stray dog you caught on your property got the rubber band treatment if the trespasser was male.) You were a loyal friend and neighbor, Ol' Gal, but woe be it unto those who got on your bad side. Then it was a view-obstructing poplar "spite fence." Of the son of a bothersome neighbor you said, "I wish I'd a' shot the S-O-B when I was sixteen. I'd just be gettin' out of jail now and he'd be dead.) There are other stories, too, but I won't tell them. I've said too much already, Ol' Gal, And you'd likely not approve, the private person you were.... (Shhhhh, old friend, I Face Book posting.)

I can never recall seeing you without jet black hair, Ol' Gal. You said one time if you were to look in the mirror and see gray or white, you would shut right down and die.
Now, as you lie there, Ol' Gal, your hair midnight black against the white satin, I think about your pioneer toughness: the time you fell from a ladder harvesting fruit and broke your hip. You crawled to the tractor, trailered a load of apricots to the loading dock, and made your son Ivan stack the boxes in the cold storage unit. THEN you had him drive you to the hospital. You would be up at five a.m. moving waterlines, work all day, stopping briefly to fix lunch and supper for the household, then on a hot summer night you would toil away over a bubbling canner full of peaches. You could do the work of two men. I know. I worked alongside you, struggling to keep up.

Years of letters, postcards (from your world travels), nearly two shoe boxes full. Two or more a month.We always tried to outdo each other on the holiday cards. I would send your Christmas card the day after Thanksgiving. And yours was always the first Christmas card to arrive in our mailbox.You loved sending clippings from newspapers and magazines, articles about bees and butterflies--you knew I liked them--silly pet ads to make me chuckle.You continued to write even though a stroke made writing a frustration for you; letter after letter became a challenge to decipher. Your letters continued, though less frequently, envelopes addressed by your daughter-in-law, Joy. Even though the last few were mostly illegible, I loved receiving them because I knew you were thinking about me. May 25, an early birthday card from you, the last card or letter you'll ever send me. Trips to the mailbox will never be the same.

It was your letters, Ol' Gal, that allowed a glimpse into a spiritual life you held private. In one letter you wrote about a full moon, its beauty, how "They should stop fooling with it. It's God's moon. Leave it alone," you said. I marveled that a woman in her nineties would have those thoughts. You did not want the fuss of a funeral but agreed to a graveside service. When in her teen passion your eldest daughter got religion, you told her to stay in her room for a week and "then see who feeds ya." But you knew what was going on in the world: the Middle East, here at home,the mass shootings, storms, floods, the loss of life, the suffering. One of the most commonsense statements I ever heard you make came after the death of Saddam Hussein. Your comment: "He had 'em all in line, that old man, and they went and killed 'im."

You raised five children and one grandson, O Pioneer.
When your first husband left for parts unknown, your in-laws willed you their orchard because they knew it would flourish under your care. And you did it all, Ol' Gal, every orchard task there was to do and yet found time to drive combine during wheat harvest.You never missed an opportunity to do a good deed, whether it was helping a neighbor laboring in childbirth, sharing the bounty from your amazing vegetable garden, taking a hot fruit pie to a worker's cabin--or sheltering a rebellious young man until he got his head straight.You would never admit it, Ol' Gal, but you made the world a better place. And you gave me so much, good friend: memories, laughs, good meals, companionship, a down to earth perspective on life, living, and the importance of  honest, hard work. And don't forget your construction helmet, my legacy from you, symbol of your work ethic, the many times I saw you laboring away, that aluminum helmet glinting in the sunlight as you pruned, thinned, propped and harvested your apple and vegetable crops.

I have to do it, Ol' Gal, one last little jibe at you. Your wooden horse, remember? The one you requested from the chainsaw artist commissioned to carve the stump outside your house? "A horse," you said, "I'd like a horse."
And a horse you had...for awhile, anyway, until one day you looked out and saw your black stallion sawed down and carted off to the high school where it prances yet today. Forgot, didn't you, the mustang was the school's mascot. Should have asked for a cow, I joked. The look on your face as your horse rolled away would have been priceless. I wish I could have been there to see it. 

I miss you, Ol' Gal. Saying good-bye to you is saying farewell to a part of my life. I hope none of what I've written here offends you, old friend, for how I feel, what I've said, is true. I love you, Ol Gal. And you know how much I hate poplar trees....

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Go Native...

One sunny day when the canes were in full bloom, I wandered out to my black raspberry patch and was gratified to find eight different species of pollinators hard at work among the blossoms. I counted at least two species of bumble bees, two or three honeybees, a pair of solitary native bees, both different species, a wasp, and a California hairstreak butterfly.

Pollinators, their plight and diminishing numbers are much in the news these days, and while the honeybee and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) claim much of the spotlight, one should note that 80 per cent of pollinated crops in this country is effected by native bees and other pollinators. According to my hymenopterist friend Don Rolfs there are some 600 species of native bees in Washington State alone and at least 4,000 nationwide. When you think about those numbers, consider the vast potential for pollination the nation's horticulturists and agriculturists have in their (and our) favor. Recognizing the pending agricultural crisis, the Federal Government last year initiated the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators, earmarking 82 million dollars for the program.The Strategy addresses three issues:
  • Cut the number of losses of overwintered honeybee colonies to 15 per cent (Note: many beekeepers lose all or a majority of their hives over my case five or six hives.)
  • Increase the population of the monarch butterfly to 225 million butterflies occupying approximately 15 acres in the overwintering grounds in Mexico.
  • Pollinator habitat Acreage: restore 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next five years.
I am of a mind that one can't have too many bees on one's property, especially if he or she gardens or has fruit trees. My honeybees have set the apple crop on our one slim acre to the heaviest in memory. But one doesn't have to tend honeybees to encourage and sustain populations of bees and other pollinators on his property. Perhaps the best examples are tube bees, communal bees (bees that nest in the same vicinity but carry out solitary reproductive cycles) that lay eggs and raise young in tubes.
The orchard mason bee is the most popular and well-known tube bee pollinator. To sustain working adult populations, mason bee cocoons can be harvested in fall, and reintroduced the following spring.

A few years back my brother Kevin gifted me with a creative and practical gift any bee lover would welcome: a nest box packed with six inch bamboo tubes of various diameters fashioned from bamboo canes he cut from his bamboo "forest" at Chipping Twig Farms in Orting.
Mason bees don't do well on our property. Masons only have a range of a hundred yards and nest close to food sources. Bee forage, I suspect, is slim here in early spring when the masons begin their cycle. (The urban bee lover should be gratified to know masons flourish in city neighborhoods because of the diversity of pollen and nectar sources in the urban landscape.) In July, however, native bees throng to the bamboo tube box. At midday half a dozen or more busy insects flit about the box, working the tubes.

Miner bees also flourish on our property. I first noticed little mounds of soil in the garden and alongside the driveway. At first glance I thought them to be worm castings, the byproduct of night crawlers. Closer observation proved the hillocks to be access tunnels dug by miner bees, mining subterranean homes for themselves. One species of miners is a dazzling iridescent green, a striking little beauty less than half an inch long.

Even if you are a rural resident with a mere postage stamp lawn, you can do much to encourage and sustain a pollinator population in your backyard. For one, make your property a bee-friendly habitat: choose and apply organic pest and weed controls where and whenever possible.

And don't forget the bumblebee, that hearty foul weather flier you will find buzzing about the spring blackberry and blueberry blossoms. They will brave light rain and drizzle when honeybees and small natives stay indoors warm and dry. This spring bumbles established a colony in one of our bird nesting boxes. (The Man Who Poked the Bumblebee Nest, 5/4/2016)

Houses for tube bees take up little room. Hang them on your fence, above an exterior entryway, from a backyard tree. Bee houses, tubes included, are readily available at garden shops (nice for gifts, too, especially if you have your own bamboo grove).

A container garden--vegetable and floral--creates a symbiosis between the gardener and his apis-type friends. Alliums, zinnias, certain varieties of dahlia are pollen and nectar rich (alliums are bee magnets). The Butterfly bush or buddleia is a pollinator's delicatessen. Vegetables: cucumbers, zucchini, squash and pumpkins are pollen producers and proliferaters.
As the squash blossoms unfold in the morning sun, honeybees furred and laden with pollen particles valiantly seek the necessary lift for the flight back to the hive. Native bees, I've discovered, are partial to tomatillos and on a late summer day nearly every blossom  in the garden has a striped native bee foraging on it. In today's pollinator-conscious world a brief search is certain to turn up lists of plantings bee lovers might select to create pollinator and butterfly gardens in their backyard and property.

So make your backyard bee-friendly. It's a good way to study bee behavior, a great opportunity to teach the younger generation about bees, allow them to observe nature's "busy bees" up close and personal, help children understand bees are the gardener's friends, not something just to swat at. And bee watching allows the gardener to take a welcome break once in awhile from those seemingly endless gardening chores.