A Squabble of Angels

The Potter brought me half a crab yesterday for dinner, one of the kinder things he’s done for me lately, so this afternoon I headed down to the beach with the leftover shells and scraps. Down the driveway, across the road, and onto the small deck where I opened the bag and tossed the scraps over the railing. They made a small clatter on the gravel beach. Almost instantly a flock of about a dozen sea gulls materialized, circling and shrieking above me. Where had they come from? I saw others heading our way. My head spun as I looked up at them, circling around and around, so close. From that angle their wings are enormous. I waited for them to land, but not one did. I stepped farther back between some bushes, but they never descended and after a few minutes, one by one, they flew away. Disappointed by the menu? Perhaps scraps from half a crab isn’t worth the bother of a landing? One hopeful gull floated just offshore.

Or perhaps they have some collective, inherited memory of the old man in our neighborhood who every day tossed bread from a day old bakery to the gulls, way more enticing than a few crab shells. That was some 50 years ago in this same spot. He always attracted a big gull group, too.

“What good are they to me,” he’d grumble, “they don’t even lay eggs.” Our family had chickens in a pen nearby.

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Gulls feeding on a Salish Sea mudflat at low tide

Looking up at them today, their big white angel wings were beautiful, hardly an image for the scrappy bird they are. They’ll eat almost anything and are found in huge swarms (bigger than flocks!) at landfills and garbage dumps. I wrote a small booklet once about Pacific Northwest gulls, but I still enjoyed Sandi Doughton’s article about gulls last month in the Sunday Seattle Times magazine section. She reported some of their less than angelic nicknames, “Flying Rats,” and “Dump Ducks.” A flock of gulls, she reports, is called a “squabble.” They do fight a lot, but almost never kill another, she wrote.

Gulls are gifted at “riding” air currents. These air currents can be produced by big ships, or even by ferries. If you’ve watched gulls gliding beside the ferry you’re riding,, they’re simply catching a ride. They have been known to follow ships across the Atlantic, free-loading scraps–and air currents–all the way.

Today as we realize how fragile our lives on Earth are, the words below are probably even truer than when I wrote them some 40 years ago.

FERRY RIDE
I catch my breath
as I glance up from my newspaper.
You’re a pearl drifting,
suspended beside my window.
Boat and air move us together
as one. We share
one destination.

The Stories We Tell

When I tell people I once had shingles in my mouth, they almost always take a step backward, away from me. That’s even before I mention that it’s the most painful thing I have ever experienced. I take pity on them at that point and quickly assure them that as soon as the doctor started me on the anti-viral, it cleared up. Then the look of horror on their faces fades and they relax. It’s one of my best stories and I seldom miss an opportunity to tll it, a (painfully) true story.

I told it two different times to strangers in the waiting room of the Safeway Pharmacy as I was waiting to get my second shingles shot plus a flu shot (one in each arm). I discovered that it is a fantastic place to tell this particular story. It’s the ideal setting. People are unusually receptive and shocked. I think the first woman who heard it actually backed up two steps. The second couple I told it to were sitting down, which was fortunate–they were unusually horrified.

It’s such a shame I can’t use it in more social situations when the conversation lags. Unfortuanately, it’s seldom as appropriate as it is in the Safeway Pharmacy Waiting Room.

I toyed briefly with the idea of going back to that waiting room the next day with a thermos of hot tea and maybe a doughnut and sitting for the whole morning. It’s flu shot season and I could tell that story over and over and over and then monitor the reactions I get. My life has been fairly uneventful. I don’t have a a lot of story-working material.

Is that true? Am I out of stories?

When I glanced out the front window this morning, the snowball bush was quivering–all the leaves looked like they were dancing, and without a breath of wind. What was happening? Finally I caught sight of a tiny brown bird, barely bigger than a hummingbird. That flock of bushtits had set the whole bush quivering!

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The last few blueberry leaves

And I complained last week that the blueberry bushes out the kitchen window had shown no signs of changing color. Today they are a flaming red. How do they manage that so quickly?

Last night I read an essay about mountain lions, those beasts that are as long as the jungle lions, when measured nose to tail because their tails are so long. They’re curious, like the coyote that will sit up on the hill behind my house and watch me. At the time the essay was printed (1988), the author reported that only one person in this country had ever been killed by a mountain lion, a 14-year-old boy. Previous owners of my house used to watch mountain lions pad by the house at night, make their way down to the beach, and then come back up their trail and disappear into the woods behind the house.

So perhaps I still have a few other stories to share, although few of them rise to the drama of the shingles experience.

This is my 100th blog (I write one almost every month), and I had wondered if I was running low on stories. Maybe I can come up with just a few more yet.

Pet Walk 2019

It would be great fun to start by listing off all the different breeds I saw that day this summer, but like breeds of cars, I can’t identify dog breeds either. But let me tell you, there were dozens of different kinds. I swear I saw one woman leading a big brown bear on a leash!

I was at first impressed by how many people had brought babies in strollers and then suddenly realized that most of those strollers cradled small dogs. I watched as one woman stopped, took the little terrier (or what I thought to be a terrier) out of the stroller and let him walk, joining another larger terrier. Maybe mom?

Pet Walk happens every so often down along my road and even though I am not a dog person, I always take my walk then so I can see them. It is one of the most entertaining events during the summer in my neighborhood. Theoretically a “pet walk,” I have only been aware of dogs in this annual event. This year, like others, people were convivial, pleasant, unhurried, visiting among themselves. Some walked in groups or couples, others were alone. Everyone was smiling.

But the dogs were even happier. Among all those dozens of dogs I saw, I heard only one quick bark. All the different sizes and breeds and colors and textures and I saw not one dog fight. On the contrary–they were having the times of their lives–mixing, sniffing, scampering, dancing, prancing, plodding, and pulling their owners by their leashes (yes, just who were the ones on leashes?). Some were obviously exotic, expensive breeds, freshly groomed, and others looked like they had come from a back alley, but they all got along. It was enough to make me just a little embarrassed to be human.

It would have been great to get a photo to show you–they were so photogenic, and I did have my camera. But I felt like a stranger taking a photo of someone’s child, way too intrusive. I would have felt like I would need to ask for a release to use the photo.

The comedian Gilda Radner once said, “I think dogs are the most amazing creatures; they give unconditional love. For me, they are the role model for being alive.” I know every human creature in that walk would have agreed.

What Tracks Will We Leave?

Can you imagine walking through a beautiful wilderness area and not seeing any wildlife? No birds, no insects, no small animals? My friend April, a college science professor, just returned with her family from a trip to Europe. They hiked and rode horses through beautiful mountainous areas. She was stunned to see so few animals. She said the forested areas they hiked through “felt like shells or facades.” She called them “monocultures, empty inside.” The birds they saw were common birds we see in parks. She said it felt like “an ecosystem in collapse.”

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Last night as I went to close the back door I saw five large raccoons come down the hill behind my house and meander toward the back door. No, they weren’t about to knock–they were going to head between the house and the garage to get on their trail down to the orchard.

This morning as I picked the pole beans at the top of their support poles, a hummingbird stopped at a blossom right above me. I didn’t move and it worked its way closer and closer down the vine, stopping at each red blossom. It was a few inches from my hand and a foot or two from my face before it spun off.

I often see either a bald eagle or an osprey circle the bay in front of my house. We never saw eagles 45 years ago! What a successful return!

I will try to never take these encounters for granted again. I will greet the big bumble bees, and admire an unusual beetle. And I will not sit quietly when endangered species laws are trampled.

“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.”–a Dakota proverb

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” — His Holiness the Dalai Lama

 

Blessing Our Socks Off!

When a neighbor suggested I join an online neighborhood group, I thought it was a great idea. I’m for anything that brings people together and facilitates connections. And it’s been that–the offer of a free pile of firewoood, a notice of a little terrier that’s wandered away, the announcement of the garden club’s plant sale, a request for a reliable plumber.

Occasionally it becomes very personal and some of those are the best. This and a photo from a new grandparent of twins: “Born seven weeks early one month ago, are finally heading home. This was their first time together after being kept separate at Swedish Hospital their first four weeks. See them holding each other’s hands while lying on their dad’s chest–so sweet….”

Some of them make me laugh out loud, like this one: “Amazon mistakenly sent me a digital ovulation kit and given that I am awaiting the arrival of my first grandchild, I’m pretty sure that someone else can make better use of it….”

Some of them have astounded me. I had no idea so many lost and found cats and dogs are out there! It makes me wonder about some kind of elaborate canine/feline conspiracy. Also earrings and cellphones. One of the first notices I read was someone asking us to watch for a lost earring on one of our mud and gravel beaches. This notice appeared just a few weeks ago:  “My HS senior daughter is desperately needing to borrow a metal detector this week to locate her phone lost in the footing of a riding arena. Alternatively, she would be happy to have you join her on this treasure hunt. She would be forever grateful!”

Only occasionally do I jump into the action. Last month a woman asked about her lost keys and mentioned the site where she thought she’d dropped them. I’d noticed keys on top of a fence post while on my walk that morning. A phonecall or two and she had them back. Maybe a lost earring on a beach isn’t such a long shot?

I did not know what “trolls” were until I joined this site. None appeared at first, but as more and more people have joined, they’ve started to crawl out from their muddy ditches. I’ve never experienced trolls on my FaceBook page–people so kindly put up with my posts about children held in cages and my rantings about attacks on scientists who are working on climate change.

But the trolls have come out on this neighborhood site. Recently we had a lengthy but interesting discussion about drones operating in neighborhoods and invading private spaces. Then a troll or two entered and attacked. They use inflammatory words and are super skilled at name-calling and putdowns. One or two people reacted to that, but many simply ignored them and went right on with the discussion. Impressive!

In spite of wading through multiple warnings about strange cars, wandering bears (and endless speculation on whether there’s more than one or not), car prowlers, coyote sightings, mail thefts, break-ins, and lost earrings, I continue to read it. The ones that keep me reading are ones like this one from last week: “Yesterday a neighbor fell and hit her head as she wrestled with her compost bin while she mowed her lawn…..The wonderful crew from the 10th Avenue Station responded and felt it was a good idea to take her to the ER, just to make sure she was okay….I noticed the engine was still there after the aid car left, so I went into her yard to make sure everything was ok. What I found blessed my socks off! Two of the firemen stayed behind and finished mowing her lawn! How blessed are we here in Poulsbo to have such wonderful people caring for our community! Way to go NKFD! We love you!”

This is social media at its best.

Happy Be Thy Course

I didn’t know until recently that you could call me a deltiologist. I collect postcards, although I usually collect only those from around 1900-1915, the “Golden Age” for postcards. Phone service was still limited then, especially in rural areas, and postcards were easier and speedier than writing letters. Germany, with their gifted lithographers, was producing most of our postcards before World War I. This is one reason I enjoy them–they are so beautiful! Look at this elegant one, postmarked 1919. If you look carefully, you might see the sender has written her initials down on the bottom righthand side.

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The other reason I enjoy collecting them is for the written messages on the back sides. They often give me just a little glimpse into what life was like then. Sometimes when I read them I feel like a mouse sitting in the corner of the parlor and listening in on the conversations. I’ve seen more than one writer mention going for a ride in a car, oviously a big deal. I can often sense concern and love in these quick notes.

What’s on the backside of this beautiful one? “Happy be thy course” transformed into a stern lecture that made me squirm. It was mailed from Indiana to a woman in Iowa, “Dear Cousin: What in the world is the matter with you? Have you forgotten your Indiana cousins? We haven’t heard from you for months! I have sent you a card and a letter and you never answered and Aunt Lizzie said she hadn’t heard. Have you left the country? We are all well. Now answer right away for I’m anxious to hear from you. Ethel.” In Ethel’s defense, people had good reason for concern. So many cards I’ve collected mention diseases and illnesses, like boils, typhoid, grippe, jaundice, German measles, and mumps. Even a toothache could be life-threatening during those years.

Another postcard mailed in 1910 had a more playful message. It’s addressed to a woman in Washington State from a man in Oregon. I’m guessing he might be a brother? He writes, “If it takes a second and a half for a 2 year old ostrich with a neck three feet long to swallow a quart can of salt mackerel, How many false teeth could you make out of an elephant’s trunk if the ostrich choked? We had the baby’s picture taken we will send you one. We are all well fine and dandy. Geo”

After World War I, phone lines were extended out into rural areas, we no longer had the production from the skilled German lithographers, and postcards fell out of fashion.

What didn’t fall out of fashion is the love and caring that shines through so many of these messages, as well as a spirit of strength and endurance in the face of adversity. These remain our legacy. Watch for them in our electronic messages today!

 

 

May Photo Shoot

Remember February in Northwest Washington this year? The snowiest month in 50 years? My rhododendron looked like it was all set to bloom when the snow hit.

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But this is May! Now and then a month comes along and demands the camera’s attention–please, no words. May is that showy month, so here it it is:

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Rhododendrons love the month of May!

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The iris, about to bloom, is one of my favorites.

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I don’t know which is more exciting–this plant’s name, Spotty Dotty, or this close-up photo of its leaves. We saw this little hybrid of the native Mayapple family at the Bloedel Gardens on Bainbridge Island. It will grow about 12-18″ high.

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Another photo from the Bloedel Gardens–a unique planter!

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We had calla lilies at our wedding, provided by the church women’s gardens. When we divorced years later, my mother, bless her soul, thought the calla lilies in my yard needed to go. I kept them, tucked in and almost over-powered by the red rhody, the voodoo lily and the fern.

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I wish I could include the skunk cabbage aroma here. You would recognize it! We saw these new leaves coming out so shiny and bright in April–but they’ll blossom in May.

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Rhodies and azaleas compete for space and my attention along the side of my house.

May reminds us that it’s a beautiful Earth, worthy of our protection. Is that possible? Can we take the difficult and costly steps to protect it? Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980), a naturalist, photographer and writer, said, “The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.”

Promises

The day I was born my mother was planting peas. No, she didn’t deliver me in a pea patch, but she might as well have. I lose my head every spring when I wander into my local nursery to check out the seed racks. I am normally thrifty, clear-headed, focused, and sensible, but when I start circling those racks of little packages with their lively, colored illustrations, I go into a trance. You could come rushing up to me and exclaim, “I think someone is stealing your car!” and I would say, “Uh huh….did you see these new White Night Hybrid Eggplants? Aren’t they absolutely elegant?”

I don’t believe in planting annuals, but every single flower seed packet was reaching for my hand when I ventured into the nursery early this spring–blues and reds, pinks and yellows. And veggies–green peas of all kinds and a gazillion kinds of squash, yellows and greens.

Each one of those packets held the promise of a delicious or beautiful harvest.

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To be honest, seeds are not even that satisfying to plant. You work to prepare and lay out your planting area, bend and sprinkle the seeds, cover them up, and the beds look the same as when you started. It’s not like weeding, where you immediately see the results of your work.

It’s in the promise of those package pictures.

My mother, when I was about 15 years old, gave me a garden plot to plant one spring, and suggested I design a flower garden. It was at one end of her vegetable garden, quite a large area. For some inexplicable reason, I chose to plant the whole thing in different varieties of delphiniums. Whites, blues, lavendars, and all the different blends of those colors–several different packets of seeds. I sketched out a diagram of what variety would go where. The delphiniums did grow and they developed lovely flowers, stately and tall. I think I might have added some stone paths, but I don’t have a clear memory of the results. What sticks in my mind is the plotting and planning ahead of time.

Maybe it was the promise that the planning gave me?

The oldest viable seed that has grown into a plant was a Judean date palm seed, about 2,000 years old. It was recovered from Herod’s palace on Masada in Israel. And the earliest fossil seeds are from West Virginia, about 365 million years old. They are from a fern-like plant. None of these involved colorful seed packets, by the way.

No such seeds in my garden this year. The Potter always likes an experimental vegetable, so he picked out two from colorful little pictures in a seed catalog–cylinder-shaped beets and a “Lime Crisp Cucumber” with light green skin. I’ve never had great success with either beets OR cucumbers, but the package descriptions promise that both will be spectacular. I was born under the promise of peas, so “spectacular” they will be!

 

Best Gift Ever?

OK, here’s a familiar question you might not have thought about lately–what was your best gift ever? No, not the gift of a massage on your birthday that felt good for at least the next two days. Nor the box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day last month that disappeared faster than ice cream cones on a sweltering August day. Your best gift EVER?

Yes, I hear some of you–perhaps the birth of a child or the support of a friend during a difficult time. And I, too, really appreciate the gift of those first days of spring when you can go outside in shirt sleeves–no coat! All good gifts, I grant you.

But my best gift ever? A roll end of newsprint my mother gave me back in the early ’70’s. Newspaper rolls, if you had a newspaper office nearby, were readily available free because the printing plants never used all the paper on a roll. They took them off the presses before they were completely empty, and they still had an amazing amount of blank paper on them. Publishers were anxious to give them away in order not to have to pay to get rid of them. I think this is still true, although some now charge for them.

This roll was a whopper–about as long as my leg, a little heavy, but it served me well for almost 50 years. I used it over and over with my children. We traced around their small bodies and made cut-out shapes that they colored. We made towns and roads and racetracks for their Matchbox cars. We made zoo enclosures for little plastic animals. More than once, in desperation, I unrolled a length on the dining room table with some crayons and said, “Go to it!”

And then I did it all over again my my grandkids. I also used it to wrap almost all my gifts over the years, especially for children, and then used markers to decorate the package. I even used it at Christmas as wrap, again with some hand-decorating.

But it had another splendid use. We got a “new” antique door for our bathroom that was almost all glass. Scary, huh? Be assured, we eventually covered it with a curtain, but before we got around to installing that, we covered it with a double thickness (think Charmin) of the newsprint paper. Friends who came that year for a New Year’s Eve party (including children) used markers to decorate it with messages and drawings–usually appropriate. That evolved into a tradition for a number of years, even after the curtain was installed. The paper went back up for that one night.

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Every time I took that roll out of the closet, I thought to myself, “This was my best gift ever, Mom!” She died in December at the age of 101, and the 50-year-old roll ran out two months later. I wish I could tell her–she’d love knowing that.

And what would she say about this best gift ever? I think she’d say something like this: Wrapped up in all that paper over all those years is the best gift of all–the love of family (in whatever form that takes) and dear friends.

In conclusion, an offering from a friend on the 1984 door . We’ll protect her identity here.

THE DOOR
Who could ask for more?!
A water closet supreme–
A throne sitter’s dream
May your ’84 time here
Bring relief & good cheer.

Russian Drivers and Gum Hold it Together

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It only takes a few days of watching the snow fall before we start remembering “The Worst Snowstorm Ever.” Maybe it helps us get through this one? Hey, we’ve survived worse than this!

I’m sure you have your worst ones. Mine was the year that my mother and I decided to take a seaplane from Seattle (where she lived) to Victoria. We’d always talked about it–this was the year! This was also a year when only elite people owned cellphones and weather prediction was not so predictable. Yes, there was a possibility of snow, unlikely to be a big event. A friend dropped me and my suitcase at the bus where I rode the 10 mile stretch to where I’d catch the ferry to Seattle. On the bus ride, some fine snow started. Should I turn around and go home? No, this wasn’t bad. And I’d be catching the bus in Seattle to Mom’s.

The snow got progressively thicker on the ferry ride between Bainbridge Island and Seattle, but my bus was waiting right in front of the ferry terminal! I had it made! I got on the bus and sat and waited. And waited. The seaplane plan was looking iffy. Finally the bus driver let me know that he wasn’t going anywhere–it wasn’t safe to drive.

Panic set in. I had to get off the heated bus, but then what? If I went back on the ferry, the buses might not be running on the other side either. I had no way home. I decided to walk up the street and find a phone and call a taxi–would a driver consider going up Queen Anne Hill, the biggest hill in Seattle, in this weather? If not, then what? I really couldn’t afford a hotel stay in downtown Seattle.

But the first open business I found was a small hotel that looked like even I might have afforded it for one night. When I asked to borrow a phone to call a taxi, the woman at the desk offered their hotel taxi. In only a few minutes, the driver was at the door to pick me up.

He was a tall, rough-looking Russian with a thick accent. He paused when I told him I wanted to go to the top of Queen Anne Hill. He would see what he could do. By this time the city streets were packed with snow and he drove like a maniac. I remember flying through intersections in the very center of the business district, regardless of the color of the traffic light–he let me know that if he slowed down, he might get stuck. Occasionally the wheels would spin, he’d utter some words in Russian, and then we’d get going again. No chains, of course.

He went up the back side of the hill, avoiding Queen Anne Avenue which went straight up. This meant winding around a bit more, but somehow we got to the top of the hill. I insisted he let me off there, even though Mom lived down the other side a few blocks. I remember paying him $25, and feeling so, so relieved to step out of that cab alive.

I walked down the hill in tennis shoes, pulling my suitcase behind me and leaving a crazy trail in the now ankle deep snow.

We never made it to Victoria, and I was housebound there for several days before being able to get out. As it began to thaw and rain, water began to leak into the basement through cracks in a cement wall,  and one or the other of us would get up during the night to mop up water. Mom finally patched some of the cracks with chewed gum which worked amazingly well. Many people on the hill and around the city had drainage problems in that thaw.

We do what we have to do in tough situations, and we learn that we’re stronger than we thought we were. Kind people offer help, a mother’s hug warms the coldest of toes, and even a wild Russian driver can be a godsend.