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Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Forest of Memories...

The other day while rummaging through a folder of odds and ends, articles, newspaper clippings, and various print curiosities I've salted away over the years, I happened upon a cartoon. It works upon a familiar theme of cartoonists: two castaways on a desert isle, and as is the case with my discovery, a husband and wife. Barefoot and disheveled, the couple are wiling away their time on a small bulge of sand barely above sea level. Waves nibble at the tideline nearly licking their toes. Remnants of a doomed vessel, the "SS Banana": life rings, an oar, partial skeleton of hull litter the fringes of the tiny sandpile. A starfish (plus a distant pair of seabirds) are the only other visible life. The husband, peppered with beard, is roasting a fish over a small fire as if it were a marshmallow. Sprawled behind him like the hag of the sea, his missus (given her portly figure, it's obvious the seafood diet has yet to take effect) has her own priorities: "It will soon be Christmas," she says, "When are you going to get a tree?"

Aside from the desert isle scenario, hers is a question much on our minds this time of the year, and it prompted me to ask my missus if the tree of the season wasn't our fifty-second. "The fifty-third," she replied. "Our first Christmas tree was in my apartment, the one we shared after we were married." I had forgotten. Ah, yes, betrothed we were when we enjoyed that first tree. Nine days after Christmas we were married.

I think of them now, those Christmas trees.... Fifty-three Douglas firs, always Doug fir, our holiday icon of choice. Today, had they remained rooted in the soil of their planting, not severed and dragged indoors, the lot of them would make a small forest, a teeming ecosystem, fir-fragrant cover for forest animals and birds, a quiet sanctum in which the pensive hiker could escape the tumult of the world. But for our fifty-three that was not to be. They were destined to become a forest of another sort, a forest of memories.

There was that tree I purchased from a lot and carried several blocks to our Seattle apartment to make amends over a falling out we had about Christmas, its stress, and our tight budget. And then that tree whose trunk a lightning bolt would have been hard pressed to trace--our "scoliosis Christmas tree" we called it. We've had trees so tall they scraped the vaulted ceiling of our rec room, had to be wired to the wall to prevent toppling. And there were trees whose needles dropped less than a week into their indoor Christmas journey, transforming our carpet into the duff of a forest floor. One tree, if memory serves, had to be brought indoors to thaw when its trunk, submerged in a five gallon bucket, froze solid during a cold snap.

Of our holiday forest only one tree came from the wilderness. That was the year we spent in a rented cabin on the sparsely inhabited fringe of the North Cascades Wilderness. A dollar bought us a Forest Service permit to seek out and cut the tree of our choice.

One day at dusk we trudged up a snow laden hillside (where our tracks intersected those of a roaming cougar) to a small clump of firs, each dwarfed it seemed by their towering Ponderosa pine neighbors and bagged the perfect tree for our Christmas. Our prize nearly swallowed up our VW bug and fir-camouflaged we plowed our way back to our cabin where we had to lop off nearly one-third of the tree to make it fit the low ceilings.

After our friend Dick Hetland presumed himself a conifer connoisseur and carted home his pick of the lot, wife Nan exercised her veto, demanded he discard the ugly thing, select another and reminded him in the future that tree selection was a joint venture. Dick and Nan's polarity in artistic tastes ushered in a period when the Hetlands and our family drove our daughters to neighboring tree farms where after considerable scrutiny, wind chill exposure, and ring-around-the rosy with each and every tree in the grove was the saw employed, the season's "perfect" tree selected.

In the past we have bartered for trees from Dale Reiner's tree lots (To Tree or not to Tree), the Doug fir of our choice in exchange for a quart of local honey gathered in the Valley by my industrious bees. These days, however, we select the season's centerpiece from local box stores, each year crossing our fingers that our choice will last the season without denuding itself and embarrassing the household, thus putting us on par with our friends the Hetlands and what we jokingly termed their "tree of the week" protocol.

Now the tree is in its stand and perpendicular--not plumb bob perpendicular, perhaps--but to the eyes of the householders close enough.
Next come the ornaments one by one, each in itself an attic-archived memory. There's the Micky Mouse medallion from Disney World. The silver-tarnished pine cone from Wallace, Idaho, a stopover to and from "The Field of Dreams." The frosted orb from the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio, Colorado, a literature inspired bucket list destination.

The Welsh Corgi angel dog, in memory of a pet. The candy-apple red glittered "kinky boot" from my cousin, a shoe salesman at Nordstrom's. Delicate snowflakes crocheted by mother-in-law, her memory preserved in each loving stitch. A pair of miniature mittens, crocheted with blue boy, the first grandchild. The golden heart ornament we "filched" (with our waiter's permission--and blessing) from a holiday tree in the window of Seattle's Icon Grill, a gilded memento of our fiftieth wedding anniversary.
The photo ornaments which spotlight and chronicle our daughter's journey across her many Christmases with us. Tradition dictates her ornament be the first hung on the tree each year, an elementary school art project in the likeness of a pear, a marvel in paper mache slathered one coat upon the next in yellow tempera.

And so down the years each Christmas tree serves up for us all a memory of its own, adds its uniqueness to that forest, a forest of memories, wood fuel to fire the nostalgia of Christmases past, gifts that need no wrapping.

                                  *                    *                  *                  *

Once a car stops and the rich mill owner's lazy wife leans out and whines: 
"Giveya two-bits cash for that ol tree."

Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: "We wouldn't take a dollar."

The mill owner's wife persists. "A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That's my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one."

In answer, my friend gently reflects: "I doubt it. There's never two of anything." 

                         Truman Capote's Aunt Sook in A Christmas Memory

Editor's note: In the course of composing this post, the tree-laden VW ornament pictured above accidentally slipped from my hand during its photo session, hit the floor and shattered to pieces. The ornament was a gift from my mother. Years ago she happened upon the ornament and because it reminded her of our wilderness tree hunt and tree-smothered car, presented it to us that Christmas. Now the ornament itself has sadly passed into memory and cast a bittersweet cloud over this post.

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Place for Everything; Everything in its Place...

We were only separated two days, but I thought about you hour on the hour, even awoke in the night wondering--and worrying where you were. Previously I've always known that after a short search you'd turn up safe. Your recent disappearance, however, made me fear I'd lost you forever.

Until your latest vanishing we were inseparable, remarkable for a relationship that began decades ago...and in a tavern no less. I gambled, "Old Timer," and you were my prize--in fact the first thing I'd ever won in my life. The middleman in our relationship in those days long before lottery kiosks or scratch tickets were "just a gleam in the eye" of the State's general fund was a tavern punch board. I took a chance on you, old friend, sprung for one dollar, if memory serves. I paid the bartender, chose a remaining chance, and punched out a tiny scroll of paper. The number on the strip I unraveled was among the winning numbers listed on the board. When I presented the scrap of paper to the bartender, he said "Hummmph," turned and rummaged around on the cluttered shelves, budged a huge jar of pickled eggs to one side, and hauled you out. I can't remember if you came to me bare naked or in a box, but there you were heavy in my hand, a single bladed "jack" knife, "pocket" knife, "toad stabber"...and ever since you and I have been companions. "I'll give you five bucks for it," the barman offered. I smiled, shook my head and slipped you into my jeans pocket, your second home all these years. When not in my company, you reside in the top drawer of my writing desk. But of late I've gotten careless, taking to leaving you lying about the house just about anywhere. And so now you're lost.

We've spent hours, you and I, whittling away sliver after sliver until the wood shaped the way we wanted. You have slivered off the silver to fashion rings from silver dimes, carved a wizard's face into a peach pit half for a Boy Scout's neckerchief slide, peeled and fashioned the crotch from a willow tree into a slingshot. And let's not forget the countless yards of cardboard you've sliced for recycling purposes.

Over the years we have shaved wood into balls, carved an alder peace symbol, whittled away propellers on a stick (hand launched helicopters).

To date we have carved six and a half peach pit monkeys, quite a challenge for man and jackknife (no Dremel tools for us purists). In fact you were the unnamed principal in a previous Ripple post ("Just Whittlin' the Time Away").

At our family reunions you and I won every game of Stretch (Mumbley Peg) forcing one brother after another to do the splits until they nearly sprung their crotches. "Wanna use my knife?" I'd offer at gift opening occasions where you sliced through tape and wrapping paper with ease and scalpel-like precision. You have had so many sessions with the whetstone your thin blade has been ground concave. Slightly sprung from years of use, your blade no longer neatly folds into the handle bay, and these days I reach into my jeans' pocket gingerly lest I prick a finger in seeking you out. And, yes, you have drawn blood over the years, Old Timer---but mine only, the fault never yours. Always a careless slip of the hand or flagrant disregard of the woodcarver's adage: "Always whittle away from yourself." Whenever we began another peach pit monkey project, I thought to carry a couple band-aids in my wallet in case a random slip of your blade sliced a finger (not so much to staunch a wound but to avoid staining the project).

An article in The New Yorker magazine about missing or misplaced items stated that roughly six months of our lives are spent searching for things lost. Not only do we spend time actively searching for whatever's missing, but between these questing forays, we mentally rehash seek and rescue scenarios: "When and for what purpose did I last use the item? "When and where did I last have or see the item?" "Where have I found the lost item before?" And throughout the day (or waking hours of the night) these are the questions you ponder. All this I did and more. My biggest fear was you were now rusting away in the backyard grass somewhere only to be found by the riding lawnmower this spring. Perhaps you slipped from the pocket of my sweats or shirt? Seems to me I'd have heard a thump when you hit the ground. Regardless, I traced my last whereabouts outdoors--not just once but several times. Except for the exercise my search was futile.

I lost a paring knife several years ago. While turning the compost heap a year or two back, the little knife, much of its wooden handle rotted away, showed up in a spadeful of cured compost. I had long since forgotten about it. Our late neighbor Tina Streutker found a missing diamond ring in her compost heap. She figured it had slipped off her finger and was swept up in the vacuum during a routine carpet cleaning. She was in the habit of emptying the cleaner bag in the compost pile and gardener that she was, what she lost, she found sparkling away in shovelful of compost.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude offered this reasonable explanation of how things come to be lost:

"...every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and repeated the same words at the same time. Only when they deviated from meticulous routine did they run the risk of losing something....Fernanda, on the other hand looked for [her wedding ring] in vain along the paths of her every day itinerary without knowing that the search for lost things is hindered by routine habits and that is why it is so difficult to find them...."

The other day it rained, one of those late fall gully washers that overwhelmed the gutters and sent me rushing for a raincoat and ladder to unplug a couple clogged downspouts. When I set them to gushing again, I returned to the garage where I shed the raincoat, draped it over the riding mower to drain, and in the process of spreading out the sleeves, I spied something on the flat surface of the engine's recoil starter. And there you were, Old Timer, lying there forlorn, blade fully extended as if to say, "Whenever you find me, I'm at your service." A joyful reunion...and mystery solved: I had placed you there after you pried the dried cheese from the mousetrap bait plate which I needed to refresh with fresh cheddar. I reset the trap and went about my business, which a few short hours later became a preoccupation over your disappearance...wondering where you were and if I'd ever find you again.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Last Tomato...

Snow came to the Valley today, wet, heavy stuff that stuck to the ground until early afternoon. It's November and the swirling bunny tails serve to remind us that the winter solstice is just around the corner. From the kitchen window I watched the white tufts sift through the bare branches of the backyard maple. A handful of summer tomatoes lining the window sill seemed to shiver at the spectacle outside. This reminded me...

Just yesterday in the produce section at Fred Meyers, I rolled my shopping cart past a lady shopper and couldn't help notice a half dozen tomatoes among the other items in her basket. During gardening season a smugness comes over this Valley gardener whenever I see shoppers buying produce I harvest daily from the backyard garden. Smugness? Perhaps "sense of gratitude" is the better phrase: "smug" seems condescending and a man who labors in the soil should be above such thoughts. Agreed?

I think about the lady's tomatoes, how looks can deceive: they appear to be top rate produce: "vine ripened," perfectly shaped...for all appearances not unlike my remaining windowsill crop. But I know from experience, flavor, like beauty, is only skin deep. Since mid-August we've gathered vine ripened tomatoes from the garden patch: fruit encouraged by Valley sunshine and river bottom soil, each ruby orb gushing rich tomato flavor. Those tomatoes in our lady's basket? Hothouse or hydroponic produce, most likely...bland, dry, pasty textured. And as the windowsill crop dwindles, our winter salads sadly will soon be like hers.

The garden went in late this year. As the corn farmers of the mid-west would say, "Too wet to get in the fields." Such was the case here. I figured with our short growing season chances for harvesting a decent tomato crop were nil. That brought to mind a Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegone tale about the late frost that took some neighbors by surprise and brought on a tomato famine come harvest time. "Well, didn't you cover your plants? (Now there's smugness for you.) We covered ours...suspected there'd be frost that night. Didn't you know? Help yourself to some of ours. We have plenty." Oh, the indignity for the backyard gardener! Tomatoes from a neighbor! I'd sooner steal the plastic ones from that lady's shopping cart than accept tomatoes gifted by a fellow gardener.

Fifty-seven days without rain saved our bacon, (or should I say "our BLTs"), retained my pride, kept me from committing petite tomato larceny. My go-to variety, Early Girl, set a bumper crop. As Early Girl tends to be susceptible to late summer blight, I took some proactive measures in mid-August, applied a copper fungicide (Certified Organic) and a week or two later sealed the deal by removing most of the blight-prone foliage from the vines. By early September I was harvesting two to three pounds of fruit a day.

For two or three weeks the steam and pressure canners labored hard to keep up with the jars of sauce, salsa, and stewed tomatoes. Every so often I'd give the kitchen range a break by quartering, bagging, and freezing zip-loc bags full of flavorful fruit. We juiced tomatoes; we sliced tomatoes into our evening salads; we layered tomatoes on toast for our lunch repasts; we ate tomatoes fresh as one would apples; we stirred tomatoes into dollops of cottage cheese; we dipped tomatoes in egg wash, flour and corn meal, and fried them. The tomato crop did indeed runneth over....

As of this post a solitary tomato is all that remains of the summer crop. We used two of the remaining three this past weekend: salsa verde with garden jalapenos and onions and lime Doritos for dipping while we watched the home team struggle for naught on the gridiron. One last salad for the sole remainder of the crop and then eight and a half more months of those plasticized tomato impostors from Freddie's.

But for now--at the risk of sounding smug--our pantry and freezer brim with tomato bounty, surplus enough to tide us over until next year's vines are laden once again.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Musings Autumnal...

Today I took down the butter dish to prepare the foundations for my lunchtime sandwich. To my surprise the butter was hard, not the malleable, soft collapsed mound it's been all summer. And I had to don a sweat shirt this morning. It seemed just a few short days ago, my first chore of the day was to open all the windows and screen doors to let in the cool of the morning; I knew in the afternoon even with the ceiling fans whirring away the house would be uncomfortably warm. Today I opened the same around noon to let in some heat from the outdoors. Now that I think of it, last week I even tried on some long pants hoping to find a pair that fit, a sign my summer short pants are soon to be retired. And that hankering for an iced coffee? It's been a few days now....

Just a couple weeks back, it seems, I groused because I had to stay up past my bedtime to wait for the chickens to roost so I could coop them for the night. These days they're snug in the coop by the time I finish dinner. The Stellar's jays, those raucous marauders, pests I haven't seen all summer are everywhere now, sorting hazelnuts, culling the empty ones, making daily forays to the walnut tree to scope out the season's crop, cussin' me every time I exit the house. The squirrels have returned, romping here and there about the place, hoping to give the rascal jays some serious competition. Despite entrance reducers, hornet activity is frenetic around the hive entrances, voracious little scavengers seeking drone and worker carcasses, winter's meat, sustenance for their overwintered queens.

Like thin red lines of heroes, tomatoes line the windowsills awaiting their transformation into salsa, juice, and sauce. The steam canner and pressure cooker are on high alert. The garden is pregnant with produce: corn, peppers, cabbage, tomatillos, squash, beans, beets, eggplant...time for the ants to ramp up their industry because they--we-- all know just what's lurking around around the corner.

2017 to date has been one for the record--or records: record breaking rainfall last spring; summer, one of drought, fifty-seven days without measurable rainfall (the record? 51 days set in 1951, last century; never before have I hauled so many buckets of water to thirsty plants, shrubs and trees). The streak for most consecutive days of temps above seventy degrees just a memory as of this summer. Yesterday morning I headed to the coop to let out the girls and was amazed to see what I thought was a light blanket of frost on the hay clippings in the neighbor's field. The touch test confirmed my suspicions. "9/15/2017: first frost" I marked on the calendar, the earliest date Ol' Jack's made an appearance in the forty-six years we've lived in the Valley. (Thirty-nine degrees at 7:30; a week ago morning temp was seventy degrees). Climate change, shifting Gulf Stream currents, El Ninos, La Ninas...whatever...this has been a year that challenges memory. One can only guess what further surprises Ma Nature has in store the remaining months of the year.

And while I've yet to see hordes of woolly bear caterpillars looping their way across the Tualco Loop asphalt, I've seen other signs the Earth has tilted: the bedroom is still dark at 6:30 a.m., the porch light still aglow. Loads of firewood trailer by the place daily. The chill in the house this morning prompted me to haul and stack a ton of wood pellets in the garage .

Tomorrow promises nearly an inch of rain and a rainy week to follow. I have pullets that have yet to experience the wet stuff that falls from the sky. I wish them well. And as for the rest of us, it's time to rummage about the house, dig out those dusty umbrellas and shake loose the moths. Happy Autumnal Equinox, Valley folks. And good luck wrestling with your long pants.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Technology for the Birds or the Whistlin' Gypsy...

Midday and a hot July one here on our slim acre. Between the obnoxious rumblings of the weekend Harleys riders we heard repeated shrill whistles issuing from the trees along the property line. Our first thought was someone at the horse barn next door was whistling dog commands, some sort of canine training in progress.  But the whistles came at regular intervals, were too precise, too perfect for human efforts, tuned only in a way Mother Nature would program a bird call. We had never heard any such sound on the place before.

I went out back to investigate, thought maybe the new neighbors owned some exotic bird and this hot day had set its cage outside to enjoy the shade.   (The other day I had seen them carrying a newly constructed cage to the backyard.) A parrot perhaps, or a cockatoo, myna...some mimicking type of bird? The whistles seemed to issue from that general area. As I prowled around out back, whatever creature produced the shrilling moved down the property line whistling as it went. I followed the sound back to the house where, I-Phone in hand, my wife was waving at me. "Is this what we're hearing?" she asked, holding out her "hand held device" from which issued the selfsame whistle coming from the trees next door. "bob white! bob white! bob white." I could hear it clearly now, as if a stranger were whistling in my face. She had solved the mystery. Ah, technology! The whistlin' mystery bird was a northern Bob White quail.

For years I've kept a backyard bird tally, a checklist of all the avian species we've seen either on or from our property and while I've checked off one quail species, the California quail, a few of which we've seen over the years, I have yet to check off a Bob White. Besides, my Washington State field guide does not even list the bird whose normal range is in the southeastern states. Seeing is believing, the saying goes, and I had yet to see our visiting Bob. How to get the bird out of the bush without frightening it away was the challenge.

The next hour was interesting, a reprieve from what had been an otherwise uneventful day in late July. Our whistlin' visitor was "bob whiting" from a big leaf maple adjacent to our bedroom. I crept carefully to a vantage point hoping to glimpse the bird among the foliage. Meanwhile, my wife quietly slid open a bedroom window and propping her phone on the sill, played the You Tube recording of a Bob White's whistle, hoping to coax the bird into the open. The quail began a dialogue with the phone and its replies came closer. Suddenly it rocketed out of the maple in characteristic quail fashion and flew in the direction of the front lawn. It landed at the end of our landscaped mound and quickly scurried behind it. And that was that, we thought.

It turned out not to be so. We still wanted to see the bird up close and personal if possible, so we cranked up the I-Phone again, looped the You Tube video, moved the phone to the front bedroom window, and waited. A short time later "bob white, bob white" echoed from the rhody bushes under the window. We sneaked a peek through the window screen and there the little fellow was, echoing the electronic bird: the phone would tweet and Bob would retweet . I wanted a photo record of the bird's presence but knew it would jet away at any movement. After all, he was a "quail," wasn't he?

For a quarter of an hour we let the electronic bird and quail whistle at each other. We felt a twinge of guilt at having duped little Bob as he no doubt was lonely and longed for some Bob White companionship. For an hour or so after we shut off the phone, he continued to whistle, which saddened us a bit. The whistles came less often and from farther away until they ceased, leaving us with a hot afternoon and the ever present roar of those Harleys.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Someone there is who loves a wall...

Walls have been much in the news these last several months and The Ripple is proud to report the Valley has not lagged behind in this arena. I've been watching one go up at the stately residence that is the Broers' Family Farms. Boulder by boulder, each especially chosen and cherry picked into place like pieces of a Stone Age puzzle, fit and snug, the wall stretches the entire length of the berm upon which the residence rests.

The old wall had been all but swallowed up by a verdant bank. Years of "wave action" from seasonal floods lapping at the foot of the wall and a Valley soil that never seems to rest (moles: those pesky soil shifters?) I assume had either compromised the wall or rendered it sub par to the Broers' rigorous aesthetic standards. Thus Broers' new wall is the latest stage of the ongoing restoration and upgrade of this old Valley farmstead.

As of this post the landlocked (at this season), trim little farmhouse now perches like a seaside cottage atop a boulder-butressed  "seawall,"daring a flood-plained Valley to throw its best diluvian punch which, like the"waters off a duck's back," it will easily repel.

There is a time and place for walls. (After all, they support the roofs of our homes, don't they?) In   Broers' case it's wall against wall: that of stone against that of water. The Ripple is all in favor of walls that retain. Walls that restrain...well, not so much.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Valley Resident Deported...

No doubt you've heard it said that the criminal returns to the scene of the crime. That commonplace phrase lends credence to the truth of the matter, the matter, in this case, being the "egg missing in broad daylight." It turns out I didn't have to puzzle over the mystery long. No need to hire a private investigator or arrange for a video camera stakeout...the brazen perp returned to the chicken run the very next day. There he was in all his gray glory, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, scurrying about "in broad daylight," a trespasser clearly embarrassed at being discovered in the chicken run.

I never did see the squirrel's escape route; I was too into the moment wondering just what means of prestidigitation a squirrel could employ to make a grade AA egg vanish without a trace. And the squirrel had to be the culprit...too coincidental, a vanished egg and a gray trespasser. To corroborate my suspicions, I needed to do a bit of forensic research, and where better to find evidence of squirrels behaving badly than the internet. Video after video on You Tube showed squirrels raiding hen houses, cradling the eggs in their forelegs and sashaying away with them; some robbers had no qualms about scooping an egg from beneath a setting hen and then making their getaway. I learned, too, that squirrels eat all sorts of eggs...apparently shell and all.

Once Mr. Bushy Tail exited the chicken run, he nonchalantly parked himself on a round of firewood and flipped his tail at me a time or two, gestures I interpreted, if not obscene, certainly defiant. Murderous thoughts crossed my mind and I was tempted to return with the shotgun and ventilate the gray varmint's thieving hide. Experience told me the culprit would most likely be gone by the time I returned for revenge, so I wandered to the house mulling over my options. I had to do something: my breakfast poached eggs were in jeopardy.

Now my environmentally sensitive friend Nancy L is an old squirrel trapper going way back. I fired off an email to her in which I made clear my problem and in less than two hours she appeared on our deck carrying a live trap baited with a stale peanut. After educating me to the mechanical workings of the trap, she left it along with a brusque directive that should I catch the thief, I was to transport it a few miles up Ben Howard Road, release it where it would be someone else's problem. Under no circumstances was I to let it loose on her side of the river, nor was I to release it in the park by the bridge. Her opinion was there were too many squirrels in town already. Later that afternoon I set the trap and placed it on a scrap of plywood just beyond the chicken run.

The next day, around noon, we returned from an errand in Everett. First off, I went out to check my "trapline" and found it full of squirrel, eyes as big as saucers, tail inflated whisk-broom size. Let's just say there was a frenzy of activity in a very small space, Mr. Bushy clattering around in the trap like rocks in a can kicked down the road. I placed the gyrating trap and the incarcerated in the bed of the truck and with Nancy L's "Take him way up Ben Howard" still fresh on my mind, headed north.

Six miles later I found an abandoned road approach next to a grove of budding cottonwood, a small wilderness any squirrel would love. I carried the trap to the edge of the grove, set it down and opened the trap. The squirrel shot out and vanished into the brush like a wisp of gray smoke.

I would like to say "and that's that," but this morning there was a pair of gray gangstas foraging for birdseed under our backyard maple. I baited the trap with a fresh stale peanut, reset it, and there it sits...awaiting its next passenger.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Curious Case of the Egg Missing in Daylight...

I awoke in the middle of the night thinking about that egg, one of those little mysteries that should make life interesting, but not so interesting it   keeps one from a good night's sleep. The mystery started out not as a mystery at all, an anomaly, rather: a single egg beneath the chicken coop, not in one of the two nest boxes where the girls usually leave payment for their room and board. Accidents happen, I thought. Maybe one of the ladies was taken short: the egg was on its way and the nest box too distant for deposit. Like on the evening news: those roadside freeway birthing events where impatient baby declines hospital and delivery room and opts for an impromptu roadside "coming o". There was precedent for a mislaid egg: when the girls were pullets, one of them laid the first egg under the coop, a "pullet surprise," you might say. But if memory serves, that first effort was the only "extra-coop" deposit for the two-year olds.

I passed by the chicken coop in mid-afternoon and noticed the egg lying all by its lonesome next to one of the coop post supports, thought it a bit odd, but an egg's an egg, right? I would have to enter the chicken run to retrieve it and thought I'd wait until I let the girls out in late afternoon for their daily free ranging.

Later that evening I went to gather the eggs, fully prepared first to enter the run, hunker under the protective netting and scoop up the errant egg. To my surprise, the egg was gone, nowhere to be seen. No trace that it was ever there. No eggshell debris field. Nothing. Vanished. Thus the mystery of the missing egg. It had so disappeared I began to question my sanity. Had I ever seen the egg in the first place? Yes, I had: twice at least, its presence so real, I even hatched a little plan to retrieve it. But as the old saw states: the best laid plans of mice and men....

The little mystery was too big to keep to myself, so I shared it with my wife and we became team Sherlock Holmes/Dr.Watson of the Valley, bent on solving the case. Motive, of course, would be food, hunger, sustenance. That's what the chicken scenario is all about, right? Heretofore we had been the only principals in this arena. Now, however, it appeared we had competition. But we were clueless: no yolk spatter, no shell casings left scattered about. Footprints? Obliterated by chicken feet. The crime scene had been sanitized. And this was not just some thief that came and went in the night, but a brazen act perpetrated in broad daylight.

No suspects in custody, so we conducted a virtual lineup. Topping the "most wanted" list were rats. Unlikely, we thought, a rat could carry an egg out of the run. Weasels are egg suckers, leave shell behind. Skunk? A striped kitty leaves a dis-stinky calling card. 'Possums...not likely because of their size and the secure construction of coop and run. Crows and jays are human-wary, and we're around the place most of the day. Squirrels? They're nut marauders and vegetarians as far as we know, and how could they roll an egg down the coop ramp without breaking it?

The investigation is on-going. As of this post none of the above are beyond suspicion. And given the   season, even the Easter bunny has not been ruled out.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pollen...By the Basketful...

Despite the calendar's proclamation, spring has yet to arrive here in the Valley. At last the pussy-willow is blooming out--almost a month behind schedule. Last year at this time leaf buds were greening on the bush by the compost heap out back. Now the catkins are flush with golden pollen and the bush a frenzy of bees looting their golden plunder. The gold rush is on and the bees are desperate to stake their claims.Weather permitting, of course. The late winter pollen has come and gone: alder, hazelnut, crocus... all sluiced away by rain. The spring pollen supply is essential to spring buildup, the protein boost needed to ratchet up egg laying and brood rearing. And now the bees are playing catch-up.

Just what to call our pussy-willow these days? The spouted twig I planted a half dozen years ago is now twenty feet tall, thus it seems an insult to call the willow a "bush." What height must a plant reach before it qualifies as a bona fide "tree" escapes me. A pussy-willow tree? Surely we have one now.

Pollen. "Bee bread" I've heard it called, the bees' protein source. Mixed with sucrose, whether it be nectar or sugar refined from cane or beets, it becomes the essential pap for larval sustenance, crucial nourishment for young bees destined to become the work force that will gather the summer's nectar for the season's honey crop.

Pollen collection is solely the jurisdiction of the worker bee whose hind leg is especially designed for the task. The concave configuration of the third leg, the corbicula, which is surrounded by a bulwark of stiff hairs, serves as a basket for pollen loads. Fore and middle legs "rake" the pollen to the hind leg where the sticky substance is formed into a pollen pill.
When its two "baskets" are flush with pollen, the laden worker beelines it to the hive where its two-pack payload is tamped into cells for future use.

I had hoped to trap some pussy willow pollen this spring as there is a demand for local pollen; some allergy sufferers believe pollen is nature's panacea for spring allergies. A delicate shade of pale gold, pussy-willow pollen is pleasing to the eye, especially when packaged in glass containers. The bees are relieved of the fruit of their labors by means of a pollen trap, an especially designed device that forces the pollen-laden workers to enter the hive through a small gauge mesh.

As they crawl through the wire one leg at a time, the pollen pill is dislodged from the "basket" and tumbles into a muslin-lined collection tray where it is harvested by the beekeeper. It is always with a slight sense of guilt that I deprive my bees of their beebread and butter and am careful not to be too greedy. Two, three consecutive days at the most I restrict the pollen flow and then allow the pollen bearers full access to the hive. This season's weather embargo on pollen foraging has sidelined my pollen collecting. Perhaps in a month or so from the maple and dandelion, but by no means now.

This pollen trail has led me astray of the post's original intent. The Ripple wonders if anyone in the blogosphere would consider it possible to compute the total annual pollen yield of a twenty/thirty foot tall pussy-willow tree. Yield in pounds would be preferable, but if the metric system is your measurement of choice, I''ll settle for an estimate in kilos.

For the beekeeper who wishes a bounty of pollen for his bees' spring buildup, I suggest he plant a pussy-willow or two in his landscape. Pussy-willow is easily rooted: half a dozen twigs in a water-filled quart jar or a pot of wet sand will do the trick. When planting the rooted twigs in their permanent location, exercise a bit of caution: willows are vigorous plants and will easily take over a garden spot if not kept well pruned. Please note, too: willow root systems are "divining" roots; they seek out water, so don't plant a willow near a septic drain field as the system most certainly will become root bound.

I would recommend using willows only in horticultural pursuits...not advisable to put a pussy-willow to use in the manner Imogene Herdman suggests in the delightful Christmas story The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The fractious little urchin bullies the prim and proper Alice Wendlekin ("I am always Mary"), whose role Imogene covets, with the scare tactic: "And next spring when the pussy-willows come out, I'm going to stick a pussy-willow so far down your ear where nobody can reach it. And it'll sit there and grow and grow and grow, so for the rest of your life there'll be a pussy-willow bush growing out of your ear."

Bad enough to have to prune and trim one's ear. And to endure all that humming and buzzing every spring. But for pollen-starved bees, what an unexpected windfall.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Safety First in the Valley...

The paramount concern in the country today appears to be the safety and security of America's citizens: build a wall to keep out the evil ones; hire more security personnel and station them to have its back should the wall not be high enough to thwart the hordes of villains and blackguards lurking without, eager to work their evil on our citizenry; increase security groping at airports, extreme pat downs, if you will, to protect air travelers from the evil that is afoot in the world at large; implement travel bans to insulate the homeland from those bent on wreaking havoc on our way of life, families, and peace of mind; and for the future, promise the country will boast a military the likes of which haven't existed on Earth since the days of the great Caesars. Soon all citizens will be able to have a good night's sleep: safe and secure in the knowledge we can now go about our daily lives without constantly having to look over our shoulders. In short, we will finally be able to roam the country in safety and at last be able to leave our guns at home.

The foregoing pertains, in the main, to the national stage, but those who pass through or reside in the Valley should give thanks to our State's Department of Transportation for its proactive efforts to keep drivers safe, detect any potential snares and pitfalls that may prove a hazard to motorists who use the Valley's Tualco Loop Road.

There's new signage, if you haven't noticed it, an embellishment to the Tualco-North Highrock turn lane. If you aren't too focused on looking left and right (twice on the latter...remember your Driver's Ed instruction) for your opportunity to creep carefully onto SR. 203, you'll see it. Staring you straight in the face on the east side of 203 and firmly bolted to a state-of-the art breakaway stanchion is a yellow warning sign featuring two bold black arrows. One arrow points north toward town; the other to all points south on SR. 203.

I happened along just as a pair of orange vested DOT workers finished the installation. They moved from side to side examining  their work, and apparently satisfied, moved across the road for a repeat performance on a new stop sign for traffic coming to the intersection.

It is not often you have the opportunity to thank those whose job it is to keep you safer. And The Ripple was not about to let this chance slip by. I pulled alongside the two State workers, rolled down my window, and shouted my approval of their labors. "Thanks to your efforts and that sign," I shared, "I'll no longer have the urge to run the new stop sign, shoot across three lanes of traffic on a busy State Road, and plow through a thicket of blackberries into the murk of Riley Slough." One orange vest stood momentarily, smiled, shook his head, and gave me that quizzical look as if to say: "We're just doing our job, 'ours not to question why,'" and resumed work on the new breakaway stop sign.

So on behalf Tualco Valley motorists The Ripple extends a heartfelt thanks for making the Valley a safer place for drivers. Thanks, WSDOT. Thanks for your service.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

You Go, Gulls...

The other day a small flock of  Valley seagulls circled gracefully around Tony Broers' house, then swooped to a landing on the ridge peak where each assumed that stoic gull stance, seemingly as comfortable as if it were standing sentinel on a pier or jetty. "Not a sight you see every day," I thought. (Many a crow, yes, but never a gull.)

Our Valley boasts a healthy population of gulls, "sea"gulls, that is, which makes one wonder why these classic seabirds have strayed so far from their namesake saline seas to pasture lands and cornfields. It seems seagulls would be uncomfortable "landlubbers" as their principal habitat is large body of salt or fresh water which provides abundant food and rocky coastlines ideal for breeding grounds, both, excepting the seasonal flooding, the Valley lacks. Seagulls, however, are fixtures among the Valley's diverse and abundant avian population: Gladys and I see them nearly every outing.

While I wouldn't dare presume to be an avid birder, I can readily identify most of our Valley's avian species. Not so with gulls, which for me are all lumped into that category. My Birds of Washington field guide lists five species of seagulls, none of which I've checked off  my backyard bird list. Even if one happened to alight on the property, I wouldn't know which of the five paid me a visit.

When I'm afoot in the Valley, my mind tends to wander, and today it's led astray by those stately seabirds perched as if sculpted on my neighbor Tony's rooftop. To my surprise I realize over the years I've accumulated an inventory of seagull experiences. Tony's visitors and The Ripple are just the excuse I need to share them  (or rather unburden) myself.

Back in the early '60s when I scurried about the University of Washington campus in a freshman panic, seagulls were a part of daily life. North of Hec Edmundson Sports Pavilion, Seattle maintained the Montlake Landfill, a vast garbage dump. The landfill sustained a seagull population which must have numbered in the thousands. For post meal exercise a goodly number of these dumpster divers left the heaps and mounds of garbage and made their way to the rooftops of campus buildings where, gorged with excremental deviltry, they would perch. I had a morning humanities class in the old pink lady, Parrington Hall. When classes ended, students would pour from Parrington in a rush trying to make their next class on time. The resulting commotion spooked the napping gulls, all of which rose in alarm, issuing a deluge of whitewash that had all the undergrads bobbing and rushing for cover. (I've always maintained this gull behavior inspired a new style, at least for men: the white trenchcoat.) Those days seagulls were so much a part of UW daily life that The Daily, UW's  newspaper, featured the cartoon character Spencer the Seagull. In each Daily cartoon Spencer posed, stentorian beak foremost, in his goggles and leather aviator's cap, human figures tallied on its side, the latest victims of his scatological bombardment.

Over the years I've watched these inland seabirds go about their Valley business, the strangest of which is the gulls' occasional vortex behavior. I'll notice a whirlwind of a hundred or so spiraling upwards like extras in the cyclone scene in The Wizard of Oz. They whirl upwards in a drifting cone, spin for a while, and then break formation. Why they do this I have no idea. Their grossest behavior: foraging in the green mist of the poo-poo sprinklers, feasting on dairy by-product tidbits, happy as if they were gourmet diners. I've noted, as well, gulls presage imminent Valley storms, their numbers increasing as the incoming storm drives them inland. On one of my walks I was spectator to an act of gull bullying. For no other reason than he could, a bald eagle singled out a gull and harried its poor victim across a cornfield. The gull knew enough about raptor behavior not to let the eagle take the high ground. Pursuer and the pursued continued on across the open field until I lost sight of them in the trees along the river.

Last spring some birder reported sighting a rare gull in the Valley. A black-headed gull (Chroicocephelus ridibundus), an east coast resident, had allegedly been seen in the company of resident Valley gulls. Birders eager to notch another sighting on their life lists rushed to the Valley hoping for a glimpse of this east coast "exotic." On one of my Valley strolls I happened upon a birder friend of mine parked by Swiss Hall, "bird" oculars pressed to his eyes: the object of his surveillance...the black-headed gull. Sandy Frohning told me caravans of birders ("gullibles?") streamed by her house hoping for a glimpse of the vagrant seabird.

Other gull trivia. One of my five-year old grandson's favorite bedtime stories features an old salt named Burt Dow (Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man). Burt's companion on shore or the high seas is the "Giggling Gull," a happy-go-lucky seabird that expresses its levity in three syllables: "Tee-hee-hee" regardless of the seriousness of the matter at hand.

In my days as a struggling undergrad at the UW, to access an afternoon class I parked my used 1957 four-door Bel Aire sedan in a metered slot on 45th Ave (in the day when there were a few parking spaces left in Seattle). It so happened that often that empty space was in front of a Mercedes Benz 300 SL, fire engine red, spotless and shiny as a newly minted penny. The 300 was the first automobile to feature "gull-wing" doors which, when opened, gave the illusion of a seagull in flight. If  I was early to class, I would circle the SL two or three times and dream....

And  Beryl Markham, the first aviatrix to fly transatlantic from east to west made the historic crossing in an aircraft she named the "Vega Gull."

Finally, one of my favorite puns concerns a gull relative. Birders, this one's for you:

Sailor to shipmate: "Why do you have a leash on that seagull?"

Shipmate: "I'm just taking a tern around the deck."

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Just a Stranger Passin' Through...

                                           "I've got a gun in my holster,
                                             A horse between my knees.
                                             I'm goin' to Arizona,
                                             Pardon me boys if you please."

                                                                            Randy Newman
                                                                           "Rider in the Rain"

The Valley. It has been a tedious winter to date, and dangerous too, like the morning I slipped on the frosty deck and like a poleaxed steer, came down unceremoniously across the top steps. If it hadn't have been for the winter padding I'd donned prior, I might yet be wearing plaster clothes, tangled in a web of ropes and pulleys, being served up those mystery meals catered for the hospital bedridden. Now the bruises have faded and my right arm protests only a little when I put it to use.Yes, cold snaps and a couple of snow episodes have made this Valley winter seem interminable.

But not today. I'm afoot in the Valley. The sun has the upper hand. The sky, blue, anticipates swallows. The Valley is green, flush with early spring. It's one of those days, as my old dairyman neighbor Herman Zylstra put it, "When you get new hope."

In a Valley where routines and scenery might, to hurrying passersby, never seem to change, I almost always see something different, a thing of interest directs my thoughts in a strange direction: say, for instance, that heap of boulders Ed Broers has piled like a terminal moraine from an Ice Age past in the field below his "movie star" barn. Yes, the Valley always seems to serve up something of interest....

Today is no different. As I stroll homeward, I see movement far ahead and out of that movement a horse and rider emerge. As they mosey toward me, I hear music. "A musical horse," I think. "Now this is something...." I can see the rider now, a young woman, wearing heeled boots, jeans, a white hoodie, and as if it were a gun and holster, a water bottle at her hip. Her horse, a big black with its tail in a half braid, carries her gently along. A cap topped with a jaunty tassel covers her head and ears. It is a woolen cap of many colors, hand knitted, it appears. I look at her face. High cheekbones, prominent nose, and bronzed complexion bring to mind "Castillan" ethnicity: Spanish. She is no stranger to horses and, as Louis L'amour might say, rides "tall and easy in the saddle." As she passes I give her a friendly smile which she does not return. Nor does she nod a greeting but maintains a stoic pose as she continues. It's as if she's in another world, this stranger, the Argentine pampas, perhaps, instead of Werkhovens' field of grass. On down the road she and her mount continue, tunes billowing out of her clothing.

I can only stare after her and it's then I notice the small backpack. Poking its head out of the pack was the head of a small dog, brown and furry like a koala, its perky ears bobbing with sway of the horse. Mouth open, tongue lolling out, the pup seemed to be smiling as if to say: "Aren't we a sight?"

And indeed they were. I continued on, my thoughts now occupied by what I'd seen. "Who was this stranger on her high horse," I wondered, "this stranger just passing through?"

Monday, February 13, 2017

Bough Down to Winter...

That rodent meteorologist Punxatawny Phil was spot on with his prescient prognistication of six more weeks of winter. Yes, we knuckled under to a four inch blanket of snow the 6th of February and quite a wet blanket it was. I had an early dentist's appointment that morning and reluctantly left the warmth of my bed to get ready. Here in the Valley we know when our one slim acre has fallen victim to an overnight snowfall. Hardly any traffic on the state highway out front. The bold commuters who braved the road crept by with muffled passage, tiptoed along tentatively. The interplay of snow and darkness rendered a strange refraction of light. The drawn shades glowed with the eeriness of a world outside turned white.

As I hurried to make my appointment, I glanced out the front window, stopped short for a second look, Something was amiss with the lay of the land out there. Then I saw it. The heavy snow had a caused a landscape malfunction: our golden chain tree was no longer standing. The snow had toppled the tree sometime during the night and it now lay splayed out across the snowy lawn. "I didn't need that," I groused, thinking about the labor ahead of me: chainsaw work, snipping and lopping, hauling away the brush to a heap that's already the size of a small mountain.... Anger first, right? Step one of the grieving process. Then I moved on to the mourning phase, remembering the golden chain's dazzling display of dainty yellow pendants, its May promise summer was just around the corner.

I'm not much for record keeping and thus can't say how long that tree has been a part of our landscape. One chronological milestone, however, jogs my memory. Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis passed away May 19th, 1994. The day of her funeral I lowered the flag to half staff. The golden chain was in full blossom that day and the Stars and Stripes swung gently in the May breeze, beautifully silhouetted against a field of trailing yellow blossoms.

The last few years the tree has had health issues. One season it didn't bloom at all, lost its leaves, regrew the foliage, and shed its leaves again. When the tree toppled, no root ball surfaced and though I'm no arborist, I suspect the tree's undercarriage had simply rotted away... thankfully while I was safe in bed, not mowing the lawn in its shadow.

The Ripple, inspired by Robert Frost's poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay,"(March 7, 2010) posted about the fleeting nature of plant life that during its season, whether it be new sprouts or blossoms, presented the color yellow. I think about that poem now as, chainsaw in hand, I go out to address the work ahead: turning a onetime landscape friend that gave me spring joy and beauty into the firewood of winter.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Pondering the Fate of the White House Beehive...

Here in the Valley I've seen beehives and bee yards abandoned, which makes for a sad sight indeed.
One "lost and lorn" hive was consumed by a blackberry thicket, its bees left to navigate their flight through vines and leaves. Neglected for years, left to the mercy of mites and disease, it struggled along on its own. I have no idea what happened to its attendant beekeeper. In another instance a bee yard of twenty or so colonies appeared bereft of a caretaker. I visited the yard last May and found it in disarray: a jumble of boxes, broken feeding jars, and displaced woodware. Only five hives showed any activity. When I asked the property owner what she knew about the yard, all she could tell me was she hadn't seen their caretaker in several months. Twenty colonies. That's considerable capital outlay to let go to ruination. Such negligence of stock and equipment seems downright irresponsible.

As our country transitions to new leadership, I'm concerned about another bee hive these days, this one across the continent in our Nation's Capitol...the White House beehive. Part of our former First Lady's gardening initiative, the hive was the first domestic colony ever on White House grounds. The First Lady's bees pollinated her vegetable gardens and gathered nectar for honey that was served at White House functions. More importantly the bee hive's presence on the grounds represented the past administration's awareness of and concern for the environment, the importance of pollinators in nature's scheme of things, to humankind in particular.

I have yet to see much environmental sensitivity from the President-elect or his appointees. In fact our "Soon To be Born Again" nation promises to tread forward leaving Gulliver-sized carbon footprints: more jobs, more industry, more pollution. This, plus opening up more federal land to mining and mineral exploration both of which lead to habitat destruction and species' decline. Given the recent campaign rhetoric and posturing, it appears crucial issues like climate change, conservation, and the environment will be given short shrift--if any shrift at all.

As our country embarks on the peaceful transfer of power I hope that bee hive on the White House lawn--and what it represents-- doesn't go the way some of our Valley hives have. And as far as "transfer of power" and new appointees, should the President-elect decide to keep the First Beehive but appoint a new beekeeper, I hope I'm among those considered.