Wednesday, November 23, 2011

So Wet...and Thanks for All the Fish

Drip drop splash,
drip drop splash,
drip drop splash
went the rain all day.

That's the first page of one of our favorite kids' books, Rain Drop Splash by Alvin Tresselt. Although as it is mid-November in Seattle, you can change that to "went the rain all day, and all night, and all week, and for quite a few weeks yet to come, and boy are we lucky it isn't snow." In the past 24 hours, some areas have gotten as much as 6 inches of rain (in Seattle, about half that).

Just stepping outside gets you pretty wet, and once you're soaked you can't really get any wetter, so I figured it was a good time to go up to Carkeek and check out the return of chum salmon to Piper's Creek, which wends its way through the evergreens, maples, and alders of this lovely city park.

Also it seemed fitting to do so because tomorrow's Thanksgiving, and though we aren't doing the big turkey-fest with the whole family til Saturday, the three of us will be celebrating nonetheless with a fine Copper River sockeye salmon for dinner. Sloshing through puddles to pay tribute to salmon also made for a good excuse to slip away from work and deadlines for a while.

Whenver I take the time to do things like this, I wonder why I don't escape more often. We've got a plethora of parks and green spaces in Seattle. Here, just a few minutes from my urban household, is a creek tumbling through the watershed and into the Sound, through a forest that hasn't been logged in 80 years and so boasts some of the look and feel of old growth.

I didn't think I'd be lucky enough to spot a salmon, but I did: one lone fish, which looked to be about as long as my arm, resting on a gravel bank. The creek rushed along bluffing that it was a mighty river, swollen with the ongoing rain, and the fish looked absolutely knackered. It was panting fish-style, gills heaving.

Salmon look pretty ragged by the time they finish migrating upstream and spawning, and this one was no exception. Its tail appeared to be stripped of skin, which led me to think it might be a female. (According to a Washington State governmental site, "The caudal fin and peduncle of females not only becomes abraded but skin, muscle tissue and fin rays are eroded." The female's digging of gravel nests, called redds, probably accounts for some of this wear and tear.

What these poor fish endure! This gal had probably left Piper's Creek about four years ago; swum out to the Pacific; avoided ducks, herons, bears, and other predators; then fought her way back up the creek, all the while undergoing physiological changes related to reproduction and ageing that would send a human off to a support group (skin thickening, jaw elongation, teeth eruption, abdominal swelling, scale absorption).

It's estimated that in just two weeks, a salmon ages as much as a person does over a span of 20 to 40 years.

Only once did this fish move--it thrashed its tail frantically for a few seconds and lunged a yard upstream before lying still again.

I wondered if it had already spawned and now would just blindly forge upstream for a while longer before becoming a Thanksgiving meal for a raccoon or other wild creature.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Strawberry Tree Fruit: Betcha Can't Even Eat Just One

There is no such thing as a banana tree. (Bananas are the fruit of a tree-sized flowering herbaceous plant.) Pineapples don't grow on trees, either (they, too, spring from herbaceous plants). So you would be right to raise an eyebrow and look all cartoony-skeptical at the mention of a strawberry tree.

Yes, Virginia, there is a strawberry tree, though it does not grow strawberries nor is it always grown as a tree. (Discuss amongst yourselves.) Ours has been growing in our garden for about 15 years. It's about 10 feet high or so, with multiple stems springing from its base. There are so many reasons to like this plant that I feel a powerful urge coming over me to make a bulleted list:

1. It's evergreen. An admirable trait--it's nice to see more than sticks in the yard in winter. Also it provides a buffer year round between my yard and the neighbor's so that we both have a bit of a privacy screen.

What's not to like about a shrub that grows pompoms?
2. Not only is it evergreen, but it also flowers and fruits between October and January. The flowers are pretty inconsequential--little white bell-shaped blossoms, sweet but unremarkable--but the fruits! They're ridiculous--absolutely Seussian in their color and shape: egglike, bumpy berries that are bright yellow at first and ripen into candy-red.

They appear at the same time as the flowers because it takes them a year to grow and ripen--so a winter tree bears the fruit of last year's flowers as well as the start of next year's crop.

3. Sadly, the berries are a bland, mealy mouthful, so though they're edible, they're certainly not palatable (though in some cultures they're used to make wine and jam). Even our Labrador knows that (after having suffered the aftereffects of gobbling up a bucketload of fallen fruit in the past...she hasn't touched one since). But they're stunning when capped with snow, so they're definitely a feast for the eyes.

4. It happily grows in our Pacific Northwest climate. It likes cool, damp weather and withstands dry summers and drought, making it the perfect tree for our area. The strawberry tree is native to Mediterranean regions and parts of western Europe, particularly Ireland, which has a climate much like ours, so no wonder it feels at home here.

5. Another reason it may feel at home is that one of its cousins is a signature native tree here and is also sometimes called the strawberry tree. This branch of the family tree is the Pacific madrone, which also grows round, warty red berries and is best known for its red, peeling bark. The relationship shows up in their scientific names: the "Irish strawberry tree" is Arbutus unedo, the Pacific madrone is Arbutus menzeissii.

6. The latter binomial honors an 18th-century naturalist named Archibald Menzies. The strawberry tree's binomial has a more interesting origin: unedo is believed to derive from a Latin phrase meaning "I eat only one." I like to imagine some ancient toga-clad person eagerly popping a strawberry-tree berry into his or her mouth, only to stop chewing and suddenly look rather alarmed upon discovering that the fruits, unlike Lay's potato chips, will never support the slogan "betcha can't eat just one."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Eleven Eleven Eleven Elevenses

What were you doing at 11:11 today, on the lovely palindromic date 11.11.11?

My mom, my daughter, and I were actually enjoying elevenses at 11:11, at the scrumptious Bainbridge Bakers on Bainbridge Island.

Here's what we very slowly and appreciatively consumed, with absolutely no regrets or thought given to 11.12.11:
Clockwise from top at 11:11:
Cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled muffin/doughnut hybrid; lemon tart;
strawberry-rhubarb turnover.
Afterward, my daughter and I tried to manipulate the temperature/humidity gauge in my mom's apartment to make it read "66.6/66%" (moving it away from the heater, putting it in the fridge, and breathing on it to increase the humidity reading) so that we could officially have the most demonic temperature/humidity gauge on Earth, with limited success. We did achieve 66.4/66 for a few seconds, though.

And while we're at it, here are 11 fun facts about 11, put together totally with a bias toward the things we like, such as horses and food and cumbersome words.

Top 11 List

1. 11 is a prime number.

2. If you divide a number by 11, reversing its digits will yield another multiple of 11. And that's all the math you're going to get out of me.

3. There are currently active or retired U.S. racehorses named Eleven Eleven, Elevenfiftyeight, Elevenlittledevils, Elevenseventynine, Elevenseventyseven, and Eleven Twentythree, but there is no registered racehorse named simply Eleven.

4. "Eleven benevolent elephants" is a wicked tongue twister. Try it.

5. At the start of The Lord of the Rings, hobbit Bilbo Baggins is celebrating his eleventy-first birthday.

6. In Sweden, people partake of a late-morning snack called "elva-kaffe" ("eleven coffee").

7. About 4 million kids celebrated their 11th birthday in the United States in 2011.

8. 11.11 is the birth date of one Alice Huyler Ramsey, first woman to drive a car across the United States; she was born in 1886 and lived until 1983. (Poor woman--she was born in Hackensack, NJ; drives across the states; eventually passes on in a town in California; ends up being buried in Hackensack. Wonder if she's ticked off at being rerouted back east after making all that effort to go cross-country...)

9. On the previous 11.11.11--that of 1911--a swath of the central United States suffered an unprecedented cold snap, an event that became known as The Great Blue Norther. The freaky weather caused some cities to break both their record high and low temperatures on the same date.

10. An 11-year-old girl who won a contest to be Mayor for a Day in a Texas town renamed the local Main Street "Justin Bieber Way" as her first order of business.

11. Fear of the number 13 is known as triskaidekaphobia, a word cobbled out of Greek words by a founding American psychoanalyst of the early 1900s. Humble 11, however, hasn't got such a name (perhaps because it's not feared by many?). If you fear 11, however, feel free to call it "enakaidekaphobia." 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fine Equine Design

Is your home steeped in an old-world, timeless, monied ambience? Do your furnishings suggest familiarity with the polo field or private boxes at the track? They could, you know. Just such a lifestyle was featured on a page in the September 2011 issue of Seattle magazine, which was devoted to local shopping and new, intriguing venues for a variety of goods.

According to the copy for a set-up shot at The Stables (which really was a stable once upon a time, back when Boeing Field was a racetrack called the Meadows in the early 1900s*), equestrian interiors intrinsically boast a "regal, traditional look," and "horse-themed home goods add an air of sophistication to any abode."

(*Hmm. In the early 1990s, Longacres--a beautiful, old racetrack in nearby Renton--was likewise knocked down by Boeing and the land turned into a customer service training center. I detect a pattern here.)

Here's a link to their photo of "equestrian elegance" in the home. The furniture is heavy on mahogany, brass, and leather, as you might expect, and features "tasteful thoroughbred accents" such as horse prints as well as vintage leather buckets and plaster horse heads. The lord of the manor, of course, is kitted out for a ride aboard Fidalgo, his strapping Dutch Warmblood hunter, who no doubt waits just outside the door, champing at the bit, restrained by a groom.

I thought, in the spirit of things, that I'd share other touches you can add to your dwelling so that it could possibly be as "elegantly equestrian" as our own, where the horse theme is heavily represented.

Old stick-horses Princess (a dehorned unicorn) and
Ginger (who whinnies if you squeeze her ears--wouldn't
you?) make an elegant ensemble just off the cellar stairs.
Original artwork by an artist specializing in equine themes lends a note of
elegance to the central (i.e., only) hallway.
Vintage toy horses from Germany bring old-world elegance to the library
(a.ka. "home office").
The equine theme is carried over into the bathroom, where random,
long-lost horse stickers carried in on shoes occasionally appear, adhered
to the century-old tile floors.
Vintage tack enjoys a second life as casually placed
decor. Here we see an old pony saddle dug out of
an English barn evocatively draped atop a chest
freezer as if carelessly deposited there after a
hard day's riding to hounds.
A battery-operated Butterscotch the Pony lends the ultimate
touch of the ineffeable sophistication that Equus caballus
brings to the interior of a home.
Perhaps someday, when we have a few thousand to spare, we will add this noble
rearing horse to our estate. Here the stallion brings unquestionable sophistication
and elegance to the seafood section of a local grocery store.