Friday, December 31, 2010

Signs of...Well, Just Signs--the Top Ten of 2010

Fast away the old year passes, indeed. Here it is, just hours away from being 2011, and having just read today's newspaper, I realize that top-ten lists are unrolling right and left, but unlike the writers of these lists I failed to keep track of anything this year. Movies? Books? Types of tea? Invertebrates? Ice-cream flavors? Best names for potential new pet cats? Weirdest patterns observed on novelty socks? Sadly, no...I neglected to keep lists of any of these scintillating topics, despite being rather compulsive by nature.

In a last-minute-homework-spree sort of way, though, I found I could produce a Top Ten list of The Best Signs Personally Viewed in 2010, with photographic evidence to boot. And so, here they are, with best wishes for a very happy new year.

Everything you need to know about Heterocephalus glaber, described as resembling
"saber-toothed sausages." (Pacific Science Center, naked-mole-rat exhibit)

Sign at the Horsemanship School in Redmond.

Always pays to read the fine print and anything in parentheses.
(Sign in shop window, Forks, WA.)

According to the Preservation Institute, "the total number
of insects killed by cars in the United States each year is
60,000,000,000,000 (60 trillion)."(gas station, Mukilteo, WA)

Why are two of the crabs in such blissful ignorance of their fate?
(Sequim, WA)

Huh. No wonder the wait in the ferry line is so long. Only one car fits in the ferry at a time.
(Kingston, WA)

Part of the "Hall of Mosses" sign in the Hoh Forest, western WA.
A favorite because (1) the trees draped with epiphytes along this
trail apparently are burdened with spikemoss, which isn't a moss
(that's one creeping over the edge of this sign), and (2) my husband
accidentally read the sign as "Hall of Moses."

Phew. Lucky me.
(Pacific Science Center)

The excellent Elephant Car Wash sign, rotating since 1956 in Seattle.

I saved the best for last.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Signs of Spring a Week Post-Solstice

Seattle isn't getting any interesting winter weather right now--nothing headline-grabbing like the blizzard that ate New York or grounded so many jets in Europe--but the temperature is definitely putting the "brrr" in "Decembrrrr." And it was pretty weird outside about five minutes ago, with snow sheeting sideways at a 45-degree bright sunshine.

Everything's soberly clad in tones of dark pine green, slate gray, ice blue, and brown. But surprisingly, we're seeing some lime-green spears of spring color here and there. They're not the usual suspects, either, such as crocuses, primroses, and hellebores.

Somehow, the message that we're going to have a very cold, snowy, hard winter in the Pacific Northwest didn't get through to assorted plants--or else they know something we don't. Or they're just tougher than we think.

It's odd to see these sparks of life just steps away from, say, a towering oak tree still rattling with dry brown leaves or clumps of exotic grasses that resemble fistfuls of ice needles.

I'm pretty sure these are daffodils poking their heads up from the sodden soil
and leaf litter, though they look a lot like those eerie giant tube worms that live deep
in the ocean around hydrothermal vents. We had record-setting warm temperatures
in January last year, with daffodils blooming mid-month, so perhaps this patch of
flowers is giddy with that memory.

The garden is spiked with crocosmia that I wouldn't
have expected to see just yet--it seems as if they'd
just faded away yesterday and really should go back
to bed for another 40 winks.

Here's one I'm not surprised to see on the verge of blooming: these are the
flower buds of a V. tinus "Spring Bouquet." Its name notwithstanding, it
typically blooms in winter. How do I love this plant? Let me count the ways: pretty,
understated flowers; purple-black berries that hang on for months; bright
evergreen foliage; thrives on little water; doesn't get woody and stalky; asks
for nothing and gives a lot in return.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Terribly Sad but Eventually Joyful Story of the Wind-up Donkey

Poor old Dobbin.
Once upon a time there was a little girl growing up in the 1960s. When she was 10 years old, she accompanied her mother and her grandparents on a trip to Ireland, the beautiful emerald island where her grandparents were born and raised.

Being 10, she was completely and utterly smitten with horses, and had eyes for little else. Cathedrals? Celtic ruins? Ancient monasteries? OK, pretty cool. But show me some horses now, please.

One day, her grandfather and mother took her on a long train trip across Ireland to a lovely landscape dotted with lakes--the famous lakes of Killarney. (You may now hum "Christmas in Killarney" for a bit. We'll wait.)

The little girl, however, would have no memory of the lakes and their wonders, because--oh, joy!--the trip around the lakes would be made in a horse-drawn conveyance called a jaunting cart. What she remembers of this trip is that the horse was a bay, that his name was Bub, and that the driver let her feed Bub sugar-cubes filched from a restaurant.

Fast-forward a few decades, and the little girl is now a middle-aged writer who should know better than to adopt the cloying approach of writing about herself in the third person, so we'll just drop that pretense altogether now, right? Phew. What a relief.

Anyway, I somehow managed to hang on to the souvenir I bought on that trip for 50p: a small gray donkey who, when wound up with a metal key, bobbed his head and twirled his tail with such vigor that he would rattle around on the tabletop in tight circles.

Though small, the donkey was a Percheron-sized steed when he was placed with petite Dawn dolls (mini versions of Barbies), and my Irish cousins and I sent the whole gang off on many adventures during my stay there.

("OK, so where's the sad part? The drama? The pathos?" Hold your horses. It's coming.)

A few years ago, a friend stopped by during Christmastime. She admired the little donkey, who had become a Yuletide mantelpiece addition ever since the Dawn dolls had given up their modeling/equestrian careers and gone on to host morning talk shows or something.

As we stood at the door exchanging farewells, which included my nostalgic musing on the donkey's origins, she marveled at how long I'd had the little fellow and exclaimed, "I can't believe he even still works! That's remarkable!"

No sooner had the exclamation point after "remarkable" left her lips then we heard a dreadful grating, shattering sound and a metallic pop.

Glancing back into the room, we saw this: My husband. A metal key in one hand. The key in the donkey's back. Which was in his other hand. On his face, a look of sheer terror.

His time had come. (The donkey's, that is. My poor husband was just the unfortunate human who chanced to turn the key at the moment that the donkey's ancient metal innards splintered. But the timing was exquisite.) After more than three decades of tail-twirling, and head-bobbing, Donkey's dancing days were at an end.

Grumpy, Pee-Wee, and Dotty.
He still appears at Christmastime, hanging out with three other vintage wind-up animals--a puzzled Dalmatian, an absolutely furious reindeer, and another donkey, one that slightly resembles Pee-Wee Herman after playing a nasty trick.

My Better Half is a still-waters-run-deep sort of person, so I don't know if he dreads the annual reappearance of the donkey, who's usually picked up at some point in the festivities and shaken so he rattles like a metal cup full of rice.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Deck Them Halls

Christmas is great, but it's the week or two before Christmas I like best, when all the decorating, baking, plotting, and planning peak. The anticipation is the best part of Christmas, I think, though I suppose I'd be at odds with most kids, judging by how slowly my daughter thinks the week is going.

But unpacking ornaments and other decorations is at least as much fun as opening gifts and sometimes just as surprising (if you've forgotten that you owned a particular item) and rather like going through old scrapbooks and photo albums, because so many of them are imbued with memories or little stories of their own.

One of our favorite Christmas traditions is the setting-up of a little Christmas village scene. This tradition goes back to my mom's home, where my uncle used to assemble a sprawling metropolis with a downtown that clustered around the Christmas tree and spread out into the suburbs over by the fireplace and around the coffee table.

It must've been a great place to live if you were a miniature reindeer or angel--it had a mirror lake, and there weren't any kids or pets around to add weird things to the village or pluck someone randomly from the streets.

Our villagers have to settle for a high-density village atop the television and stereo cabinet. They make do with an aluminum-foil river and snowbanks made of old polystyrene packaging. The streets are lined with sixty-odd-years-old cardboard houses sprinkled with glitter.

These houses won't win any awards for energy efficiency--there's a huge hole in the back of each one for a tiny lightbulb, and the tinted plastic windows in front that once helped produce an amber hue when the house was lit were long ago punched in by the prying fingers of my older brother and I as kids. But since the best string of lights I found for them is a set of battery-operated jack-o'-lanterns no bigger than chickpeas, the little houses do shine once more with a warm, welcoming glow.

Little brushy trees dot the village, too, and at this time of year nobody can find a parking space because of all the angels marching around. (Sometimes there are herds of flocked reindeer running amok, too, but this year they've yarded up on the mantelpiece.)

Many of the angels and other small people in the village are quite old--some are probably about 80 years old, others are youngsters of 50 or so. All of them came from Germany--either from prewar times, or subsequently the East and West versions of that country. Many were made by Wendt & Kuhn, a family-owned company that started making angels and other Christmas figures back in 1915 and is still going strong today.

A lot of these figures are showing their age--they're missing paint, or wings, or even arms (not that that stops them from playing the trumpet, as my daughter pointed out as she set up one brave little marcher). More recently, a few have survived horrendous attacks on the village, catastrophes that are surely recorded in their ancient lore--attacks perpetrated by 17-pound housecats leaping up and onto their tranquil thoroughfares.

We've never actually witnessed these nightmarish scenes--we've only seen the aftermath: streets lined with fallen angels, small people and animals fallen to their deaths on the floor, lightning-bolt claw marks scraped in the tinfoil river as a cat, shocked by the sight of a village atop the cabinet, fell backward while desperately trying to gain a foothold.

Fortunately, this year the cats seem interested only in sipping water from the Christmas tree's stand and, perhaps being a bit older, wiser, and more achy, have not (yet) launched an attack on the villagers.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Follow That Dog (Book)!

Many a bookseller has been asked to locate a book based on the barest of clues. (“It has a green cover—I think—and the author’s name begins with an S. Or an F. I think.”)

I frequently find myself playing the role of the bookseller when dim fragments of memory drift across my mind, dropping hints about books I enjoyed as a child but not being very helpful with specifics.

One such book has nagged at me for three decades. I can remember exactly where I was whenever I took it off the shelf in the children’s section of the Huntington Library on Long Island in New York. I remember being shorter than the bookcase (which was only about 4 feet tall) and that it would’ve been a Friday night, when my father regularly took us kids to the library. I could feel the book in my hands. I remembered it was about a dog. And a girl.

But that was it.

It was pretty hopeless to think that I’d ever track it down. For one thing, books about dogs and kids aren’t exactly in short supply. For another, I was reading this book in the 1960s, at a time when I was enjoying Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” books—but unlike Ramona, the girl in this book hadn’t become a perennially loved character.

Oh, I made a few feeble forays on the Web to find it. But typing “dog book girl” into Amazon produced more than 1,500 results, and I certainly didn’t have the time or energy to fossick through them. I accessed the Huntington Public Library online, but as I suspected, the book had long since been weeded from their collection.

About a year ago, a random neuron fired somewhere and piped, “Red eft!” Red eft? Right—the girl in the book might have had a pet red eft at one point. I remembered how cool it was to have this information on hand when my family went camping one summer and we found a soft, scarlet, lizardlike animal in a puddle in the woods; I recall the sense of competence in telling my parents it was a red eft. (And, yeah, less nobly, feeling totally smug and superior, because my three siblings were present when I declaimed “red eft” in what I thought was a very wise and considered manner.)

Typing in “dog book girl red eft,” however, was a pretty random experience.

Then, one day, I stumbled on the site WorldCat, which bills itself as the world’s largest library catalog. Plugging in “dogs” as the keyword and limiting the search to books for children published between 1950 and 1960, I turned up several hundred titles—a manageable number. (Surprising to find any dog books on a site called WorldCat...)

I scrolled through them all and jotted down any titles that sounded remotely related to my long-lost book.

No jars were rattled on the dusty shelves in the deepest crawlspace of my mind until I got to the W’s and read the name “Catherine Woolley.” Woolley. I had a vague memory of wondering, as a kid, what it would be like to have an adjective as your last name.

Checking out this author’s book Ellie’s Problem Dog on Amazon didn’t help, however, so I scurried over to eBay—and I still would never have puzzled out if this was the book or not if one bookseller hadn’t included this image in his listing:

That dog jumping over the fence dragged down yards and yards of cobwebs in my mind; his barking woke up the slumbering memories and his tail-wagging whisked away the dust of ages. That was the dog, this was the book, the price was right—sold!

It wasn’t in the house five minutes before I sat down and read it cover to cover again. Was it worth waiting for? It was decidedly more old-fashioned than I recalled, but that wasn’t too surprising—it was written in the ‘50s, when parents weren’t working so hard to be their kids’ best friends and kids weren’t trying on the role of teenager by age 7. But the atmosphere in the book is very like the one I grew up in in the ‘60s—warm, supportive, secure, shielded from the world’s alarming events—and so it felt very much like a visit home.

As for that red eft? It turned out to be a red herring. No eft in this book. It may, however, be lurking in Ellie’s Schoolroom Zoo—the next title to be tracked down.

(Catherine Woolley, also known by the pen name Jane Thayer, wrote 87 books ranging from picture books to chapter books for children in the 7-to-11 age range. Among her best-known works are the Ginnie and Geneva series (which I adored as a girl), A Room for Cathy, The Popcorn Dragon, and The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy. She also wrote Writing for Children in 1989, a no-nonsense, bare-bones assessment of the craft that was as down to earth as her stories.

Woolley started writing children’s books in the 1940s after working as an editor and PR writer in New York City. Many of her books were composed on an old Remington typewriter while living in Truro, Massachusetts. She was 100 years old at the time of her death in 2005.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Horsetails: Scarves to Dye For

When last we left the garden in the tenacious grip of the horsetails two months ago (a stirring saga that no doubt has caused you to perch on the edge of your seat since that time), the persistent Permian plant had persevered in its pernicious plot to plunder plentiful patches in our petite Ponderosa.

Fortunately, as happens every year, winter arrived and reduced every horsetail to a friable beige skeleton.

But as you may recall (indeed, have you thought of anything else?), we'd experimented with using horsetails as scrub brushes (a little pioneer/camper trick that was a ho-hum exercise requiring lots of elbow grease when attempted on a badly burned pot in the kitchen) and were curious to see what kind of dye could be produced using the plant (this being the other clever horsetail exploitation that pioneering types engaged in).

So we pulled an armload of horsetails and stuffed them into a big red stockpot filled with water.

Then we boiled and simmered them for a while. During this stage, it was fun to alarm people by telling them, "Look what we're cooking for dinner!" 

I can tell you this: simmering horsetails on the stove makes your house smell like wet hay.

After it cooled, we used a skimmer and then a strainer to remove the horsetails, then poured the liquid through a funnel into an empty plastic juice bottle. It looked nasty, like some 18th-century snakeoil salesman's concoction, and packed quite a pong.

I left the bottle, by prior agreement, on a friend's doorstep, clearly labeled "horsetail dye" so that it would not be mistaken for either apple juice or a very large biological/medical sample.

She used it to dye silk scarves, onto which she later felted patterns (she also makes natural dyes out of tea, onion skins, red wine, beets, spinach, and other sources).

Surprisingly, horsetails do not produce a vivid lime green to rival their normal color. Instead, they produce a very subtle, pale vanilla-yellow hue.

If only they graced the garden like a silk scarf instead of looking like a crowd of frenzied Triffids when they're in season.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Naughty Squirrels

It isn't only birds that show up at birdfeeders. Oh no. Anybody who's ever poured sunflower seeds into a plastic tube and hung it on a tree limb knows that squirrels love them, too.

The squirrel who frequents our garden is even fonder of the suet feeders. This fellow enraged the flickers and bushtits by perching on the backyard suet feeder and hanging upside down from it as he fed.

I bet he picks all the best stuff out of the suet; if he were a person, he'd be the sort who bites off the bottoms of all the chocolates in a box to see what's inside, then puts them back if they're not to his liking and looks for another.

(Yes, there are such ghastly people. They're usually kids.)

But he's got better manners than squirrels who've lunched at our feeders in the past. One year, a trio of squirrels attacked the tube feeder, pulling out all the perches and finally hauling the entire feeder to the ground, where they mauled it and tore apart the plastic tube before devouring all the seeds.

They weren't Squirrels from Another Planet, but they were invaders of a sort. Squirrels in our northwestern city are Eastern gray squirrels, which were imported here back in the day. The native Western gray squirrel lives in oak-conifer woodlands and, according to my field guides, is intolerant of humans and hence unlikely to be staring saucily through your windows as it chows down on seeds.

Nor would it ever climb up your jeans-clad leg and demand food, like the squirrel who lived in the backyard of our first home 21 years ago. Having had a lifelong dread of rabies (inflicted by too much hypochondriac reading as a child), I didn't encourage this squirrel's boldness, but did settle for allowing it to sit close by and accept peanuts tossed to it.

The particular squirrel who shares our garden lives a life frequently punctuated by games of Chase-the-Squirrel initiated by Luna the Labrador. Sometimes she bounds into my office to beg to be let outside because she's spied him up in the birch tree.

She hasn't got a prayer of catching him--the garden abounds in branchy escape routes--but she enjoys the chase. I don't think the squirrel is impressed, but I don't think he's terrified; he tends to retreat up a tree to finish his snack, casting disdainful glances at Luna as she circles the trunk and dances on her hind legs.

"Just you wait."
Interestingly, I just read in the definitive work "Squirrels of the West" (what, you don't have a copy?) that Eastern gray squirrels, though ardent buriers-of-nuts like many other tree squirrels, aren't the little Johnny Appleseeds that these other squirrels are.

If they forget about one of their caches, it's not likely to renew the Earth with a fresh crop of saplings, because the little devils "determinedly nip off the germinating end of the nuts before burying them."

Who knew! Methinks it's time for the oak trees to doublecheck the fine print in their contract with the squirrels.

Still, I don't mind having our squirrel around. I'd much rather have a squirrel on the feeder than a rat. Yeah, that was a pretty sight one wintry morning two years ago: sit down at the dining room table, sip a nice mug of coffee, glance outside to see what pretty birds are on the snowcapped feeder--only to see a big ol' rat huddled on it. Give me squirrels any day.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Winter Birds and Hawks on High

Spring may usher in a waterfall of warblers and other migratory birds, but winter's when my garden hosts the most avian variety. Warblers & Co. favor the thickly wooded parks up the hill and to the north of us in spring. In winter, though, slim pickings encourage species I don't usually see in my garden to stop by for a visit.
Townsend's warbler. Image from Wiki Commons credited to 

As noted in my previous post, a big snowstorm, below-freezing temperatures, and a well-stocked birdfeeder lured crowds of the usual suspects to our garden last week. As soon as the snow disappeared, so did the birds; they spread out to do their usual rounds instead of relying solely on what our yard had to offer. An aftereffect, however, may be that new birds have added our plot of earth to their daily checklist--at least I hope so.

One of these "snowbirds" is the Townsend's Warbler who visited last week. I saw a male of this species two years ago when our city was snowbound; this one was a female. I thought I saw her flitting through the tall shrubs out front this week but couldn't be sure.

The other is the beautiful Varied Thrush. The only other time I have seen a Varied Thrush in my garden was during the epic two-week snowpocalypse of winter 2008-2009. He flew out to perch in a street tree and soon drew a crowd of spectators, who pointed up at him and wondered about what he was. "I've never seen a robin that looked like that before," said one person, who recognized the bird as a thrush of some sort even if she didn't know it was not the same thrush species as the American robin.

Varied Thrush. Photo by Walter Siegmund from Wiki Commons.
So yesterday I was thrilled to spy a Varied Thrush in the garden under the birch tree, energetically tossing aside wet leaves as he searched for food in the company of a flock of juncos. I tried to get a picture, but as always, my career as a wildlife photographer was stymied by (1) having a small camera, (2) trying to shoot through wavy panes of 90-year-old window glass, and (3) fending off two curious cats constantly hopping up onto the windowsill to meow and put their faces into the camera lens or bump their foreheads against my arm.

So all I got was a blurry image of a Varied Thrush's tail sticking out from behind a tree trunk.

Cooper's Hawk. Photo by H. Gilbert Miller, from via Wiki Commons.
I didn't even try to get a shot of today's exciting bird sighting: a Cooper's Hawk wheeling over the street at just above the height of a telephone pole. All I could see was his silhouette, but it was just like an illustration from a field guide come to life. His flap-flap-glide, flap-flap-glide flight was straight out of the book, too. Usually I only glimpse him as a streak pursued by angry crows, so it was nice to see him taking his leisure on this chilly morning.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Frozen Birds (and We're Not Talkin' Turkey)

A house finch contemplates the menu. We used to have lots
of these pretty finches in our summer garden, but they vanished
after a Cooper's hawk began frequenting the area, as did most of
the English sparrows. They pay us visits in winter, though.
The chickadees, juncos, and wrens who stuffed themselves at our feeders Tuesday morning got a much-needed energy boost to sustain them not only throughout the frigid day but also overnight, when temperatures dropped to a record-setting low for this date, settling in at a numbing 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

School was canceled for a second day in a row, which made for a lovely, dawdly sort of morning spent in PJs and bathrobe with a hot cup of coffee and the newspaper at hand. This slow time allowed for leisurely birdwatching at the feeders (which are stationed within easy viewing from the living room and kitchen windows; didn't want to actually go outside--that would be "brrr-watching").

And WHAT a ruckus there was. Somebody squealed and let slip that the eatin' was good in this little side yard, because there were many more birds and considerably more species tucking into the meal today.

English sparrows joined the crowd, shouldering aside the juncos at the suet feeder. A lone female Townsend's warbler slipped in among them briefly, her svelte form like a gazelle's in a herd of cape buffalo.

A strutting song sparrow showed up to claim his share along with three of his lady friends. A vivid male house finch perched to methodically consume sunflower seeds. The Bewick's wren seemed alarmed when he showed up; he looked disgusted by the commotion and huffed off like a gourmet irritated by commoners cramming into his favorite restaurant because it got a favorable review in The New York Times.

Plump, sated robin redbreast.
Meanwhile, the big suet feeder hanging from the birch tree near the kitchen window swayed violently under the three-pronged attack by a trio of hefty flickers. Above them, two dozen or so robins huddled on the birch's branches, puffed up to the size of grapefruits. They'd just completely stripped the cotoneaster bush of all its blood-red berries and were not just glutted but also, perhaps, a bit tipsy.

The appearance of a starling momentarily startled the small birds, but as he was interested only in digging his beak into the suet, they quickly returned to foraging. But when two crows showed up to see what all the fuss was about, that did it. Everybody scattered.

Everybody, that is, except the chickadees. They kept a wary eye on the crows (who didn't hang around long) but didn't stop grabbing seeds and fleeing to cache them elsewhere for use throughout the season. (I saw one tuck a seed securely behind the wooden frame of our neighbors' window.) It's not uncommon for a chickadee to cache upward of 100,000 seeds and other tidbits. If they were human,  they'd have been champion Green Stamp savers.

Here's the starling, resplendent in his winter finery of dark
feathers stippled with the stars that give the species its name. I
recently learned that the base of a male's beak is blue and a
female's is--yes, pink! When I blow up this photo, this bird's
beak looks blue at the base, so I'll go out on a suet feeder
and say he's a boy.
I'm thankful the birds all got a good meal under their feathers to help them get through another bone-chilling night, and that the only frozen birds around here are the two turkeys I got for free at a local grocery store and stuck into the freezer for cooking early next year, in an inspired bit of chickadee behavior on my part. (I thought of putting them behind the neighbor's window frame, but they wouldn't fit.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

First Snowfall

Snow, snow, yes or no? That was the big question on nearly everybody's mind yesterday here in the Pacific Northwest. Especially kids' minds. I could swear the pale clouds draped over the city consisted of the condensed exhalations of thousands of children chanting, "Please snow!" Snow would mean not only loads of fun, but also school closings.

A brief snowfall salted their hopes yesterday, but it didn't stick. By 6 a.m. this morning, however, snow was falling thickly, and the world was blanketed not only in white confetti but also the silence that snow brings. School would be half-closed--early dismissals for all.

In an unprecedented bit of organization, I actually managed to fill birdfeeders with sunflower seeds and suet yesterday, so the birds woke to a welcome banquet this morning.

As many as four chickadees are flitting to the feeder, nabbing seeds, and darting away with them to lever off the shells in the safety of the trees. Bushtits, which never go anywhere without bringing a dozen of their friends and family members, are swarming the suet.

And here's something I've personally never seen before: ground-feeding birds perching on the feeders. The juncos are normally content to hop about under the feeders, picking up whatever falls. Today, however, they've wedged themselves onto the tiny perches of the sunflower feeder and are clinging somewhat cautiously to the suet feeder, even when it is upholstered with bushtits. I imagine that's a testament to how cold it is and how cold it will be; 15 degrees Fahrenheit is the latest low predicted.

Just typing that makes me want to go brew up a fresh pot of coffee.

Bushtits: all for one and one for all.

The strawberry tree's fruits capped with snow
are an eyecatching blend of tropical and Arctic.
Of course, snow is all fun and games and not a threat to survival if
your only job is to find old tennis balls and enjoy the perpetual no-school
status of a well-fed and spoiled Labrador.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beasts on Earth

Now that the temperatures have plummeted to near freezing, and my down coat and gloves have been awakened from their slumber and put back to work, the appearance of Christmas decor in shops and windows feels a bit more appropriate, especially with Thanksgiving just a week away.

I did my best to ignore the Santas, sleighs, and stockings that shoved their way into stores before Halloween had even shouted its first "boo," but now I have released myself from this holiday restriction and can ease into enjoying the season.

(I really do like the Christmas season--the lead-up to the holiday is the best part, actually. It's terribly easy to escape the commercialism and onslaught of ads--just don't listen to the radio or watch too much TV, or spend any time at the mall. Presto: holidays at your own pace, in their right season.)

The first festive footsteps on our stroll into the holidays take us to Swanson's Nursery, a beautiful place just a hop, skip, and a jump northwest of us. Not only do they offer splendid, old-fashioned decor and a lovely cafe in which to meet a friend for coffee, they also set up spacious, hay-filled lodging for a miniature donkey, a camel, and a pair of reindeer.

I love to make this my first Christmastime stop. Over the years, I brought my daughter here many times on an uncrowded weekday afternoon to gaze at the animals before enjoying a cup of cocoa and a cookie in the cafe.

Now that she's in middle school and not available for such afternoon puttering, I visit the animals by myself. Makes me feel a bit wistful. Sometimes the days felt so very long when I was tending a toddler. Now I wonder where they've gone.

Donner and Blitzen, who are always rattling their antlers together as they fussily 
grumble at each other over hay rights. They're both does--the males shed
their antlers earlier than the girls, which means Santa's sleigh is really pulled by
female reindeer. These two always put me in mind of two elderly women
sharing an apartment, constantly rearranging doilies that the other one has mussed.
Curley the Camel, who like all of his kind has beautiful, soft eyes. When he drinks
out of his water bucket, he makes as much noise as a little kid slurping up the
last bit of milkshake at the bottom of a cup in a restaurant.
This little guy is Moe, the miniature donkey. He lives quite companionably with
his taller buddy, Curley. They're quite the Mutt-and-Jeff pair.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ode to a Rice Cooker

Riced in Peace.
 O Cooker, we
Are broken-hearted
That you are
Tragically departed.

You cooked up
Lovely, fluffy rice,
Making mealtimes
Very nice.

With rice, we always
Had good luck:
Your nonstick surface
Never stuck.

Another thing we liked,
O Cooker:
As rice pots go,
You were a looker.

Tubby, short,
And cherry red!
A tragic loss
That you are dead.

And now you face
The fate of all
Things that are
Shaped like a bowl:

Filled with dirt,
You will now not
Cook rice, but be
A flower pot.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Medieval Journey on Phinney Ridge

It didn't seem like an ominous day when I set out for a walk late last week with the dog. But as we trekked up one side of Phinney Ridge and down the other, we encountered signs and omens that perhaps we were on a perilous journey.

First, we found this:

I did not recognize it as The Sword On the Stone, otherwise I would've snatched it up to do battle with what we encountered next:

Fortunately, this monster was sleeping, or we would've been in great peril. As it was, we were able to sneak past it.

I'm not sure what damsel in distress we were supposed to rescue. Last year at about this time, we encountered the terrible Barbie Doll Head Upside-Down in a Tree (sadly, no picture), but I should think we were too late to do her any good.

We did find this when we got home, however--the only rose other than the wild roses to bloom in our garden this year. The rest of the buds on this bush would open up until they were fat, pink softballs, tantalizingly on the verge of bursting open into beautiful flowers--only to turn damp and brown and fall off before realizing their potential.

Seems odd that this one, coming of age at such a soggy, chilly time of year, would be the only one to emerge. Perhaps it has been left for us by some imprisoned princess as a Sign.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Farewell to Fall

I know fall doesn't technically end until just a few days before Christmas, but the fall feeling has definitely already fled here. There are still quite a few blazingly beautiful maples and other trees lighting up the otherwise gray, damp days; many, however, have tossed their leaves, which are now looking less like vivid red and yellow carpets and more like old brown doormats that need to be raked up and composted, the sooner the better.

And it definitely smelled like snow the other morning, after several very cold days on which it seemed that the falling rain might verge into sleet at any moment.

I love the upcoming winter holidays, but I'll miss the beautiful warm colors of autumn.

The witch hazel out back is now the only shrub in the yard displaying glorious color. It's as if
it waited on purpose for all the other plants to shed their leaves so that it could show off all
by itself. Now if only it would flower in January like it's supposed to, and hasn't for years...

Luna the Lab displays her natural camouflaging properties amidst the last of the birch tree's fallen leaves.
Plenty of pumpkins...

...and gourd-geous gourds.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Week of Weird Weather and Wonderful Wildlife

Nope, I didn't see a grizzly with a pumpkin on
the streets. This is Keema, a grizzly who lives
at the zoo, safely behind thick glass.
Typical Pacific Northwest damp fall weather took a holiday on Halloween this past week and also called in sick on several other days, perhaps having exhausted itself by pulling out all the stops on Monday with a record-setting rainfall.

But most surprising was the wildlife. The city gifted me over the past few days with an abundance of sightings, including some critters I'd never glimpsed in our streets before. (And I don't mean the two-legged cows, miniature unicorns, Godzillas, and oversized bees wandering on Halloween night.)

First, there was the bald eagle, sighted on Sunday, a day that was true to its name--blazingly sunny and balmy atmosphere. That day, we decided it was time to tackle the dreaded task of cleaning the gutters. Which we hadn't done in a decade, at least. But when we saw six-inch-tall plants sprouting from the southernmost gutter over the back of the house, we knew we couldn't avoid it any longer.

While teetering atop a ladder scooping up muck and lime-green moss, I chanced to look up and spied the eagle wheeling over our house. Chocolate-brown body, bright white head, spiraling against a turquoise blue sky. It was a fine reward for grubbing about in the gutter.

Bald eagles aren't an uncommon sight in the city--there are even several pairs nesting within its limits. But they never fail to amaze. A Cooper's hawk, on the other hand, is harder to spot. There are probably plenty of them living in city limits, but being smaller birds accustomed to hunting at lower levels instead of riding on rising vortices of warm air, one doesn't see them as often. But this hawk streaked across the road ahead of me as I walked the dog that day. Typically when I've seen a Cooper's in town, it's being chased by crows, but this one seemed to be flying below the corvid radar.

That night, while my dog and I accompanied a large duck, a nun, a witch, and a can of soup on a trick-or-treat tour of the neighborhood, we spotted a strange animal that is scarcely ever seen in the flesh--and actually we're not quite in agreement as to which normally-underground beastie it was.

It was scuttling about near the curb under parked cars after dashing down a driveway. The witch thought it was a lost guinea pig, and rushed over in an attempt to "rescue" it, with the soup can and the duck in tow. But they backed off when the clearly-not-a-guinea pig trundled out from under a car and bored its way back up the driveway, seemingly oblivious to onlookers.

It looked like a very determined fur-covered butternut squash. Luna (the dog) was flabbergasted as the thing practically strolled right under her nose. Normally she lunges at her leash to try and chase squirrels; now, with a squirrel-esque summer sausage practically on her paws, she just gaped in amazement.

A young mountain beaver
(from a U.S.G.S. photo)
I'm thinking it was a mountain beaver, judging by its size, shape, relative speed, and apparent lack of a tail. The soup can is more inclined to the view that it's a Townsend's mole. Both animals are often active at night--the mountain beaver gathering plants, the mole hunting worms or gathering nesting material.

Midday Thursday, I spied another small scurrying scamperer I've never seen in the streets before (though I know they live in the parks): a chipmunk, species unknown. It was skittering about in the yard and on the sidewalk in front of a house one block over that was built to very exacting and expensive "green" standards. Which makes me wonder if all newly built "green" homes come complete with adorable chipmunks.

Weather-wise, the week's wonders included Monday's rainfall of 1.56", a new record for November 1. And Wednesday boasted a high of 74F, the record high temperature for November 3.
If I were superstitious, I'd be looking for signs and omens in a Halloween week of weird weather and wildlife. But, oh, maybe it's just climate change.