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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.