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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Tree Hugging...

There was a match found for me at last. I fell in love with a scrub oak. 
                                       Henry David Thoreau

I willingly confess to so great a partiality for trees as tempts me to respect a man in exact proportion to his respect for them.
                        James Russell Lowell

The best time to plant a tree: twenty years ago. Or today....

Countless times over the years I have driven past this stately giant. I like to call it my favorite tree. Regardless if you're headed either east or west, the tree is hard to miss. It towers above the vine maple and other roadside shrubbery, majestic, mast-like, a tree my two brothers, loggers in another life would have called "a big stick." Most likely the tree was impressive at the time of my birth and barring some cataclysmic wildfire or, heaven forbid, timber sale, it will be standing long after I have passed on.

Pinus ponderosa, my pine tree. One could not find a more perfect specimen among forests of its kind; you might say it is a Pinus in the classic style. The tree stands on the north side of Highway 2 some fifty feet off the shoulder.  East bound the highway curves beneath a railroad overpass, my cue to look for the tree's familiar spire. The highway straightens and I see my tree, its trunk plumb bob straight,  signature bark furrowed and creviced. " Ah, there you are, old friend," I think and if I'm not driving, I take in the welcome view as we pass, crane my neck for one last look to watch the pine fade from view.

The noble Ponderosa is the tree of the West, the American frontier, so archetypally western that a fictional ranch in a T.V. series bears its name. Old growth Ponderosas are immune to wildfires as their branches grow far above the understory ladder vegetation that fuels fires. The tree's thick bark renders it nearly fireproof, subject to a superficial scorching only as the fire burns about its feet. Native Americans use its tri-cluster needles in basket making. When a breeze sifts through a pine grove, the needles become musical instruments, fragrant aeolian harps, that sigh the ancient song of the Ponderosa.

To my favorite pine: let me share some recollections and memories. In my Boy Scout days I used your sap as a fire starter. Thanks. The fragrance of sunbaked pine duff on a hot summer day brings to mind childhood and the school bus trips to July swimming lessons, windows down, pine scented air wafting through the bus, cooling our hot faces. Apples in my boyhood days were freighted from the field in pine boxes, boxes I tediously repaired for two cents apiece during summers. The box sides came from the mill in bundles, twenty or so strapped with a wire band. I'd pop the band with my box hatchet, releasing the fragrant odor of fresh milled pine, the sawdust still damp between the boards. You gave us winter firewood, too, slabwood sawed to square the logs and cut in fireplace lengths, hauled by Mumma's Trucking and dumped in a pile next to the yard. We burned it green, fresh from the summer's harvest at Martha's Mill. Winters I pried many a frozen slab out of the snow covered pile and laid it by the hearth to warm.

One late spring when the river was in flood a monstrous ponderosa saw log escaped upriver and drifted by our riverbank. I secured it with a rope and after the waters receded, the log took up residence on the bank, lay there for two or three years. Periodically when I had frustrations to vent or felt the need for exercise, I'd take my maternal grandfather's hefty single bit ax, his legacy to me, and lay into that big log, make the chips fly. Each year I'd deepen the notch a couple of inches, perhaps nearly a foot of log chopped away. One spring when the river was on the rise, I untethered the log and let the rising waters carry it downriver, out of my life, our time together represented by that shallow, random notch.

And my old dairyman woodworker neighbor was laid to rest in a pine casket, handcrafted by its occupant during healthier times, preparing for the end game he knew must inevitably come.

H.D. Thoreau during his experiment in simplicity and bean farming at Walden Pond reported in winter he "...tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines...." Yet year after year I've passed that majestic conifer, never once stopping to introduce myself, make the tree's acquaintance up close and personal.

We pull over on the shoulder where a wide spot awaits as if it were a convenience stop for tourists visiting an historic site, which for me, I guess it is. I cross the road, camera in hand, for our first meeting, an historic event for us both.

I make my way down the shoulder and thrash about through the tangle of vine maple and brush until I'm within arm's reach of my tree's iconic trunk. While the pine doesn't seem to mind the commotion, a snowshoe hare, mottled, in transition from winter's garb to summer's, though definitely curious at my presence, decides that discretion is the better part of valor and darts down a bunny trail, leaving just the tree and me to ourselves.

In addition to the camera I have brought along a tape measure to record the tree's circumference, the extent of my foray into dendrology. When I was a boy, my fifth grade class visited a logging camp where a forester demonstrated how to determine the age of a tree by using an increment borer. The tool enables the dendrologist to remove a core from the tree. The rings in the core reveal the tree's age. An increment borer is not among the few tools I own and besides, on this, our first date, how rude to poke a hole in the tree's belly. About chest level I tack a small nail into the thick bark, hook the end loop of the tape measure over it, and slowly unspool the tape as I walk around the bole. Back to the nail where I mark the measurement on the tape: circumference 133.5." Approximately eleven feet around, my pine. How tall the tree is I have no idea. When I gaze up the trunk, the top is hidden by the high branches, hard to estimate its height. Of a tree's length Abraham Lincoln said, "A tree is best measured when it's down." It is my sincere hope this old growth giant is never measured in my lifetime.

If Thoreau could fall in love with an oak tree, I reasoned, why couldn't I be smitten likewise with a Ponderosa pine? Not sure my affection for the old pine is true love, but I'm not ashamed to admit I did throw social distancing to the winds and gave the old pine a hearty hug.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Forensic Beekeeping...Meanwhile the S.W.A.T. Team's on Standby...

Finally--my tiller is up and running, and I'm playing catchup with the spring turning. I'm thankful to have my hands now guiding a machine instead of handling the shovel to turn the soil as I had to do in the sweet pea patch. It seems just as one problem is solved here on our one slim acre, another is sure to take its place. Is that what's called "karma?"

I'm tilling away on a warm afternoon when I'm suddenly confronted by a rogue honeybee. This pugnacious little lady was not about to practice social distancing, either. She was in my face, up close and personal, ricocheting off my ball cap, right there under my nose. When one is operating a machine that might, if he's not careful, grind up one foot...or both, distractions are not a good thing. Now this beekeeper has been around the block a time or two and a rogue bee is nothing new. Sometimes I deal with the cantankerous bee mano a mano. (An error, perhaps, as the opponent is female.) "Ok, then, let's have it out. Give me your best shot." And I back up against a shrub, tree, or the woodpile to protect my posterior against sneak attacks. We go at it then, my ballcap my weapon and you know what hers is. I usually swat my way into the winner's circle by knocking her to the ground and stomping her, but sometimes she slips through and scores a direct hit. And that is the end of it usually.

Usually. But not always. Once in a while an entire hive will turn rogue on you, and instead of contending with just one malcontent, you'll suddenly be under siege by a half dozen or more. Then it's either retreat or finish your outside chores wearing your bee veil. (If you've ever tried gardening while wearing a veil, you'll know how that works.) Mother Nature works in mysterious ways and for some reason a honeybee queen's genetics set the temperament of a hive. In an earlier post I referenced what beekeepers refer to as a "hot" hive (The wicked queen is dead). The solution is to remove that queen's wayward genetics from the rest of the crew and replace her with milder, gentler royalty. By the time the new queen's first brood cycle is complete, the hive has taken on a more amenable personality.

If a beekeeper does routine inspections of his "flock," he's certainly aware which hive, if any, is a hot one. A hive of such ilk makes no attempt to mask its nastiness. A beekeeper and his charges must coexist peacefully. I'm not the only one who lives on our one slim acre and there is the occasional visitor. In short, who's to be master of the place: me or the bees?

The rogue bee has brought reinforcements twice during my tiller sessions. I took out a couple but there are so, so many more; they'd just keep on coming. The problem is I've been working my bee yard all spring and the ladies and I have gotten along just swimmingly. Now, for some reason, the dynamics have changed and I asked myself why? Mine is a low budget enterprise: I can't afford to hire a PI to look into the issue and have to sort through it myself: DIY forensic beekeeping, if you will. So what's changed, I ask:

1. I haven't operated the tiller this spring until recently; the machine appears to incite them.
2. I have new bees on the place, one three pound package and their new queen.
3. Two additional queens, also, in two nucleus hives I've added to the yard.
4. All the colonies have ramped up their populations: many, many more bees on the place.

I fired up the tiller on a cool, cloudy day and the bees left me alone. Understandable as weather like that few foragers venture out. But summer is coming and with it warmer, cloudless days...and I'm not about to till in the dead of night. So while I figure things out, I guess I'll have to call in the S.W.A.T. team: just me and my ball cap.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Wildflowers between April Showers...

Last week we left our one slim acre and traveled east to lend a nurturing hand to my Aged P (an aged parent, as per Charles Dickens' Great Expectations). These days our ninety-six year old mother needs some assistance and my brothers and sisters and I have been coordinating shifts. During my five day shift while my mother took her midday nap I would take some exercise. My midday walks led me up a familiar stretch of country road I used to walk as a boy back in the day I didn't have a lift to town five miles away. It was a lonely road those days, a busted up stretch of pavement where snow banks piled up roadside in winter and sweet clover grew in summer higher than my head. But no one was a stranger those days. And even if you were, drivers would still lazily lift a hand and  forefinger in greeting as they leisured by. Many memories as I walked along. It was this stretch of road where I was adopted by a yellow and orange tabby kitten I named Winnifred although Winnie, I later learned, was not a "Winnie" but a "Fred."

Years later I traveled the same stretch by bicycle, a boy's full-sized Columbia 36"wheel bike my parents purchased second hand from a party in a neighboring town. The money most likely came from my allowance but I have no memory of it. In its day the Columbia was a top of the line model, replete with a buzzer style horn that never buzzed and a headlight that never lit. The balloon tires tended to go rogue on sandy stretches of road and throw its rider in the dust. Our relationship was one fraught with flat tires and a considerable amount of walk and push.

My walk took me a mile or so up a gentle grade to where the road crossed a canyon in which I hunted groundhogs in the spring and quail in the fall during my nimrod days. The day before I noticed a scattering of early sunflowers (American balsam root) on a west facing slope, their cheerful, golden faces announcing spring.

When I was a boy and the sunflowers bloomed, I would hunt the hills for spring wildflowers, gather some, take them home to my mother, and present her with a wilted fistful of spring. Today six decades later the sunflowers beckoned again, an invitation to search the sagebrush slope for the first wildflowers of spring. Why not, I thought, as I spied a game trail that tracked down slope to the roadside. I struggled up the trail, grasping branches of sage for support, pulling my way uphill. My feet seemed to catch on every little twig, wander into every badger hole, trip me up on uneven ground. Stopping often to catch my breath, I stumbled my way through the brush to the patches of sunflowers, peered beneath clumps of sage for sprigs of new grass where I knew the wildflowers would be. And there they were, not many, as it was a bit early for them, my favorite wildflowers, their beak-like blossoms perched on fragile stems:"shooting stars," (Dodecatheon pulchellim) our favorite name for them although other gatherers called them bird beaks or bills because of the dark purple, pointed bases extending from swept back pink petals. These striking little dainties belong to the primrose family. A careful search of the area yielded only a couple dozen, far from the days of fistfuls. I had hoped to find delicate "baby faces"(Lithophragma glabrum), tiny white doilies with reddish navels but they were nowhere to be found. I did not want to make the two mile return trip on all fours, so I quit my search and stumbled back the way I'd come. Just as I was about to negotiate the game trail descent, I happened upon a few stalks of bluebells (Mertensia longiflora) which I plucked and added to my sparse handful....

Which I delivered to my mother a half hour later. To see the smile on her face was well worth my struggle in the sagebrush. I'm fairly certain my fistful of spring reminded her of the wildflowers she sought and plucked herself when she was a girl. For this gatherer the flowers were those of memory, too, but if I told you I gathered them with the ease I did in childhood, instead of from a seasoned three score and fifteen years, it would be a bald-faced lie.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Shoveling in the Sweet Peas...

One of my favorite Grant Wood paintings bears the title "Spring Turning," the subject a newly furrowed Midwest cornfield, soil most certainly turned by horse drawn plow, each furrow neatly curled upon the next, following the contours of the land. The painting is so much more than that: it's a celebration of spring, a sign of renewal, a one dimensional statement on canvas that "Hope springs eternal." And the newly turned, warmed soil opening itself to welcome the seed.

March 31. The target day for me to plant the traditional row of sweet peas. Planting them the last of March, early April insures a bounty of fragrant bouquets by late July. I have all new seed this year, some fresh genetics as the saved seed for last year's crop did not perform well. It's eager to go in the ground any time, but sadly the garden is not ready to receive it. My mechanized plow horse is in the shop, awaiting new oil seals so its vital fluids don't seep out. Our world has gone crazy these days. No telling when I'll be able to have my machine back for the spring turning.

Back in the Victory Garden days gardeners did not have access to gas powered tillers, nor were their garden plots large enough for plow and plow horse. The garden patch was turned by spade, one shovel bite and turn at a time. Although I can't remember doing so, as a boy growing up by the river, I must have spaded up my small garden plot to prepare it for planting. My old beekeeper friend Lester Broughton had an ample garden plot on the second of his two lots in town. Each year he raised blue sweet corn, pole beans, and beets (for the greens). Come spring he'd march to the garden with a spade and spend the better part of a day turning the entire plot by hand and he an old man. Though I offered to bring my tiller and work the plot for him, he would have none of it. Like most old men Lester was set in his ways.

Recently I shared my dilemma with the environmentally sensitive Nancy L. Not only does Nancy L have a low tolerance for litter and trash that accumulates on the roadsides of our Valley, neither does she suffer slackers. "Why don't you use a shovel and work up the row?" she recriminated. "That's what I have to do each spring." Well...this old man has his pride, too. And a shovel.

This morning. Shovel and turn. Shovel and turn. One shovel full at a time, three shovels full wide, until I had unearthed a twenty foot section. With no tilling path to follow, I had the tendency to stray from the straight line and bear to the left. I could see the faint trace of last year's sweet pea stubble and used it to keep me on course. Then came the raking, ridding the turned earth of rooted weeds and other litter, smoothing the soil into a level seedbed. Next I furrowed the bed between two fenceposts, planted and covered the seed. As I went about my task, I considered that I'm now about the same age as old Lester when he spaded up his garden and planted his corn, beans, and beets.

At the risk of being called a slacker, I've decided to spade and rake the row in three stages. The first is done. Tomorrow I'll spade up the second. After all, I'm an old man.... And like Lester, set in my ways.

Monday, January 13, 2020


I'm not much of a list person. Perhaps I'd get more done if I were, but I'd rather go about the day scattershot and what gets done, gets done. I've often thought about keeping a small notebook in my pocket as I go through the day making a list of the things I notice need doing around the place. But then there's the problem of the pen or pencil. I'd probably lose the first or bust the lead off the second when I sit or stoop over. A list, though, is a stressful thing. A list purports. A list demands you do something and usually in a certain order. I suppose you could make a list of fun, relaxing things to do, but these things usually take care of themselves, don't they?

It seems we always have a list stuck to the refrigerator. "We're out of catsup." "Put it on the list." We need more bacon, cereal, butter, eggs...toilet paper." Put 'em on the list." We even had to add "post-it" notes to the post-it note as we had listed ourselves out of post-it notes. I'm more acceptable of grocery lists as they mostly list foodstuffs, of which, by the way, I'm an avid fan. I find browsing the aisles of the grocery much less intimidating than the plumbing project I've put off or climbing a ladder which usually involves a paintbrush or backed up gutters.

Of those who make and use lists, I find there are two kinds: the first meticulously check off each item as it's gathered. This, of course, requires a writing utensil and you know where I stand in that regard. The second, to which I belong, gathers the goods one at time, making a mental note of each as it's added to the cart. Attending to a list in this manner often leads to considerable backtracking and willy nilly rambling through the aisles. But I don't mind: I'm in the company of food.
Those who are familiar with the shelves of produce may even "route"their list, thus directing themselves through the store with ease as they gather one item after the next.

Shoppers oftentimes leave their lists behind, either drop them accidentally or just discard them in their carts. I find such littering makes great reading; not really an invasion of privacy as no one includes his or her names on the list. It's entertaining to peruse the items and guess what's for lunch or dinner. Some lists even include a meal's menu, meatloaf, for instance. If the shopper is in a hurry, I suppose such forethought cuts a few minutes off the task, but I don't mind browsing around; it's food, after all.

I puzzle over some items on the lists. It's not often you find a shopper partial to parsnips. Or one who plans to purchase two pounds of butter cream icing. (Save me a slice from that cake.) Bosc pears? Do some recipes specify "Bosc?"Why not Bartlett or D'Anjou? "Cold beer." Why would someone buy warm beer? "Prunes."Aha...the organic "cleanser." Some seem out of place on a grocery list. "Flea meds?" (But no pet food?) Some lists are definitely "to-do" lists. "Call Dad." "Return bracelet." "Call Sally when counselor calls me." (Gotta be more to that story.) "Talk to an attorney about revoking power of attorney." (The bare bones of a novel, perhaps?) One was a holiday list. Which holiday? Guess. "Reindeer ears." For "Sawyer": "headphones, tennis shoes, rifle" (Sawyer, don't shoot your eye out! Or anybody else's!) If Shane was lucky he might be gifted an "outfit, beer stuff, bedding, novelty item" (ah, expect a surprise in your stocking, Shane). I've found phone numbers (need a dentist?)) addresses, library book due dates, dimensions and materials for a "weekend" woodworking project.

I'm not totally averse to lists. Let me list a few of my own. New Year's resolution this year: list all the books I read during the year, titles and authors. Last year: variety of garden produce I took to the Sky Valley food bank: types of produce, dates and pounds of each delivery. I list mite treatment dates and number of applications per colony.

And then there is the intimidating "Honey Do" list. Now I'm not saying that was what showed up on the fridge shortly after I retired from wrangling sophomores, but each time I passed by, I felt a gentle coercion as if each item was a squeaking wheel. Over the next few weeks I made a point of showing the list to house guests, by way of sharing with them what was planned for my newly acquired freedom. The list bullied me for a few weeks. Then it mysteriously disappeared. I have no idea what happened to it....

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Tool of the Trade: or Smoke Gets in their Eyes...

It's formal name is "Smoke Engine" but to those of us in the bee business this invaluable tool is
referred to as "our smoker."
Defensively territorial and fiercely protective, each female honeybee is armed with a "sting in its tail,"a strong deterrent for those who would steal her honey or harm her coworkers or queen mother. Beekeepers need a diversionary tool to calm the bees during an inspection or routine maintenance of their hives. Since time immemorial they have used smoke to mollify their charges. Primitive peoples used smoldering chunks of wood to assist them in honey theft. Then there were those old school European beekeepers who wafted cigar or pipe smoke over their bees to calm them.

Back in my halcyon days of beekeeping (I've "messed" with bees since my mid-teens), I read somewhere that when bees are confronted with smoke, they immediately head for their honey stores, begin gorging themselves on their honey stash in order to save it should their home be on fire. An interesting theory to entertain, but I suspect bees react to smoke in much the same way we humans do when campfire smoke drifts in our faces: we immediately shift our positions to clear our eyes and nose of the distracting fumes. Distraction...that's the effect I believe smoke has on bees. Beekeepers employ it to divert attention from their intrusion and send the bees scurrying in the other direction. And here's where the smoker comes into play.

A smoker is little more than a small firebox with a bellows attached to supply more oxygen to the smoldering fuel within. Each compression of the bellows sends a puff of smoke from the smoker's spout. The more expensive smokers come with a heat guard to protect the beekeeper from accidental burns as the firebox heats up in the same fashion as your woodstove (see photo 1). The vent hole at the bottom of the device allows the firebox to draw well and keeps the fuel within smoldering.

When I tend my bees, I always announce my arrival by issuing a few puffs of smoke at the entrance of each colony. Next I pry up the lid and direct a cloud or two of cool smoke across the top bars. This approach sends the bees scurrying down the face of the combs and allows for less interruption when the lid is fully removed. Pop the lid without the smoke and the bees issue an alarm pheromone that the inspector readily smells. A billow or two of cool smoke precludes such a response.

When the bees align their heads between the top bars in a "ready to launch" configuration, a gentle puff or two across the frames neutralizes their launch mechanisms. (A word of caution: the smoker is a tool of combustion and will become a flame thrower if the fuel is superheated; the last thing beekeepers want is to create a blast furnace that will scorch their bees.) I use canvas gloves when inspecting and sometimes give my gloves a good smoking to discourage the bees from taking too great an interest in them.

If you ever see a t-shirt that reads "I smoke burlap," rest assured it's worn by a beekeeper. Burlap is the go-to fuel for a smoke engine: coffee sacks, potato sacks, seed sacks--all work well, burn slowly and provide a nice, cool smoke. Some beekeepers use other fuels to supplement the burlap. I use dry cow "flops," or as I call them, "meadow muffins." This "alternate" fuel must be dry and well-aged.
I gather the bovine by-products in Eastern Washington range land after the cattle patties have sunbaked and lain in the fields for a year or two. Other fuels are wood pellets such as those used for animal bedding or pellet stoves. Forest duff, leaf matter, and evergreen needles are also fuel sources. In the carcinogenically unenlightened days when paper filters were used as vehicle oil filters and folks changed the oil in their own cars and trucks, some beekeepers set the old filters aside to drain and dry and later used them for smoker fuel.

A bee smoker can at times be a cantankerous assistant. Your bees are getting restless. You reach for your smoker to calm them and ah, shucks, it's gone out. Stone cold. And just when it would have come in mighty handy, too. I can think of no better affirmation of Murphy's Law than a snuffed smoker. I've learned to take along extra fuel and matches to the out yard because where the smoker's concerned, if it can go out, it will. And much to the bees' delight and the beekeeper's dismay.

Allow me to introduce my smoke engine. For years it has served me well to the point I've had to replace the bellows recently. It is dented and covered in creosote. I periodically have to scrape the rim and the spout cap to rid the firebox from excess buildup or the lid will seize up and have to be pried open before the next ignition. I've learned never to let it cool with the lid on lest it freeze up and become a frustration.

The smoker is a useful tool that is certain.
However, if used incorrectly it can cause a serious burn or singe the wings of your bees. Use caution afield when igniting your smoker, especially during dry weather when you're working an arid out yard. The tool is easily snuffed by stuffing a wad of grass in its snout. Always leave it outside until it's stone cold to the touch. Structure fires have happened because an unwitting beekeeper set a smoldering smoker on the back porch, in the shed or barn. All smoldering, unburned fuel should be doused with water like the campground fire or shoveled under dirt lest a wayward spark ignite something by accident.

The smoke engine, perhaps the most valuable, frequently used tool in the beekeeper's arsenal: whether you're new to the trade or a sting seasoned veteran, don't leave home without it.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Valley Shorn...

A brief interlude of Indian Summer has brought out the silage trucks in full voice. The road shoulders between here and town are a' flutter with corn chips, the litter of fall, if you will. In their defense, the "corn flakes" are organic and by the end of the month the landscape will absorb them.
Stilled as well is the stentorian growl of field 
tractors after turning over the corn stubble and seeding the fields for an early crop of pasture grass.

Gladys and I glide past cornfields barren now of the waving corn that has kept us company all summer. The sight of fields naked but for row upon row of nubby stalks elicits a strange twinge of loss either from the barrenness of the landscape or the sense that one season is about to give way to another. The starkness of the fields puts me in mind of a couplet from the English poet Alexander Pope: "Time hovers o'er, impatient to destroy/And shuts up all the passages of joy." 

The farming business is at the mercy of Mother Nature and I take some comfort in the fact the weather gods have granted the Werkhoven dairy operation a short window of dry weather in which to harvest their corn and pasture grass. 

The corn crop of seven hundred plus acres is now a mountain of tractor-packed silage in the silage bunkers. As we pedal by the huge mound, the Werkhoven crew, family mostly, spread huge tarps over the pile and secure them with tire-like weights. The silage will cure and ferment for a few short weeks and then become a daily staple of the herd's diet (locally grown in the cows' backyard) to supplement the alfalfa hay trucked in (with voices, I might add, equally grating) from the hayfields in the center of the state.

Though I've several times been witness to this Valley ritual, I remain amazed at how 1000 acres of corn and grass, the work of spring and summer, can be compacted into an area less than  half an acre, a feat that seems to fly full force in the face of physics....
The laborers seemed only too happy to pause a moment from their work to grant The Ripple a photo or two. But not without a quid pro quo, the surety that their enthusiastic waving will be imprinted on the Valley history in The Ripple's pages. I was only too happy to oblige....