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.