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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Anna's Spring

The family that lives at the head of the valley, a couple of clicks below where Cable Creek emerges from the ring of mountains, lost their seven-year-old daughter, Anna, to liver cancer last June.  We did not know this at the time (we'd met the mother once a few years back) and, I suspect, only a few other families in the valley knew what is often the most private of losses - the death of a child. 

My grandfather's younger brother, Everett, died as a child in the 1880s. The family had a large and heavy framed photograph of Everett, with his name and "In Memorium" in gilt script under his photo - so faded by the time I saw it as a child that I don't know now whether it was taken while he lived or just after he died.  My grandfather hung it in the living room for everyone to see, just as it had been hung in his parents' parlor.  When my grandparents' own child, James, died in 1921 at age 10 of blood poisoning from a blister on his heel, the family was too poor to commemorate his death.  And it's possible that memorializing a child's death had become less common.  I heard my grandparents speak of James only once.  They both wept, remembering.   I had friends in the 1970s who lost a two-year-old daughter to liver disease some ten years earlier, and they discreetly kept a small photo of her in their bedroom.  They spoke of her only the one time I saw her photo.  It was just too painful, they admitted.

Anna's life, from the time of her diagnosis, is commemorated at a Caring Bridge site on the Internet. .  Her mother says, "It is a realtime look into our journey with this nasty, nasty disease."  It is an appropriate way to remember a loved one in this brave, new cyberworld.  And the family has done more.  Her mother again: " Our experience with Anna, the hospital, and seeing first hand childhood cancer, has driven us to start a foundation in Anna's name.   We will keep trudging along with God's help and try to help others.  We consider it passing on the love, prayers and supports we were shown."

After the snow melts and until mid-summer, there is a fresh spring that angles down the eastern slope of the valley and across our land, meandering on before emptying into Cable Creek on the valley floor.  It is called Anna Spring.  I don't know how I know this, or even if it is on the map.  It must have been named for an early settler.  Now, I think of it as commemorating another Anna who loved this valley.


I was 20 and in college when our family's 15 year-old cat died. With my sister in New York and my parents both working, he'd been a lap-sitting companion for my grandmother. She didn't want another cat; she'd been too close to Smokey (or Mudie, in Yiddish). During the next summer, we saw an ad in the local paper for puppies - $5 each.

My father and I drove to see the litter of six. They were a mix of German shepherd and Tennessee black and tan
coonhound. No getting around it, they were cute. But aren't all puppies. We brought back two, one whose hair was predominantly black (with brown eyebrows and muzzle), one whose hair was predominantly brown. At the time, I was reading the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; we named them Holmes and Watson. Getting the puppies was a huge mistake in so many ways. They were too high-energy for my grandmother; as they grew larger they got way too big to sit on her lap; and, over time, the neighborhood changed dramatically. I can't remember whether I was still in college or at my first job, but a few years later the dogs were poisoned in my family's back yard. One died quickly; the other went blind.

I never had another dog. Living in apartments and then a small townhouse. In Laramie, we were surrounded by labs. Now that we're in the Idaho countryside, I sometime think I'd like to get a dog.

Years ago, when we were living in Maryland, a guy who worked for me had his own little menagerie. Two ferrets, a Gordon setter, and two Brittany spaniels. The Gordon was something of a glamour queen; beautiful, and she knew it. The Brits were more like the girls next door, pretty and lively, with a great sense of humor. One day I went to see them at a field exercise and thought, "If I get a dog, it will be a Brit." Maybe someday.

One of our neighbors is a carpenter by trade, and when he's out of town on a job he asks Kerry and me to take care of his critters - Hootie, a big (actually, overweight) black cat with yellow eyes; and Duke, an Australian shepherd. Duke's got a lot going for him (though he's also a bit stocky). He loves people. He loves to play. And when he first sees you, his pointed ears stand up and actually cross.

Duke's favorite game is "chase the ball." After a few nights, I threw out my right shoulder - and then discovered the Chase-it! The combination of a tennis ball and Chase-it is right up there with the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter. It's kind of like an Australian woomera for dogs, just replace the spear with a yellow Big R tennis ball. Takes the strain off the shoulder, elbow and wrist.

After missing his "dad" all day, Duke relishes our visits. He'll jump up and down, and run into the meadow to play "chase the ball." There's a joy in Duke that reminds me of John Belushi in "Animal House." Always something to do. Somthing fun. After about 10 minutes, it's time for a cooling dunk in the pond (he takes the ball in with him so I can't play without him. Then, another 10 minutes, until it's time for us to go home. Duke will dig a shallow hole in which he rests the ball until the next day, and sits on his side of the invisible electric fence, watching us go.

Would a Brittany spaniel be as much fun? I don't know. Maybe I'll get a dog, maybe not. But at least I have Duke to play with now and then.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Kaboodle of Kits

There's a small raccoon that comes to visit most days. Actually, to clean up the food we leave on the porch for the two cats that spend their nights in the garage. We'd wondered whether it was a young boar or a sow. Well, now we know. She's a sow. Today, for the first time, she brought round her three kits. Then, after taking them home - wherever that is - she stayed to eat and build up her milk supply.

Perfect Day for a Ride

Today was chilly, windy, and threatening rain. A perfect day for a bike ride. There's a winding country road behind the apartment complex in which we lived before moving out to our ranch. It skirts a shooting range, runs through some McMansions, and then heads out to farm and ranch country, up past a stable to a ranch with a pond that usually (but not today) hosts a great blue heron, sweeps down at nearly 40 mph to a valley floor, climbs past a small herd of bison and then past a barn with an enormous Washington State University cougar mascot painted on it, heads left past a fire station and starts another climb past an archery range, a flock of Barbados sheep ($1.00 to feed the sheep), and up past a horse ranch, farms, and finally a dead end.

The climb up was mostly into or across the wind. I kept the bike in a small gear, trying to keep my cadence up, eating every 30 minutes to keep my blood glucose levels up (I've been a Type 1 diabetic for nearly a year after having surgery for pancreatic cancer).

On the way back, I had a tailwind/crosswind and made the most of it. I started the long, steep climb in a small gear and spun most of the way up, finishing the climb out of the saddle. Midway back, the rain came, but it was a soft, misty rain. I felt as if I was cycling in the British midlands.

During the ride, I saw two other riders, passing me in the direction from which I'd come. Brothers of the bike. Riders in the rain.

Following the Herd

Tuesday night, a herd of cattle appeared in the meadow behind our house. They were two weeks early.

Davey and Pat, two of our neighbors had grazed a herd of steers in our meadows for a couple of months last year after their grass had been devoured. Seems like our meadows mature a bit later in the spring. So, this year, we added a steer to the herd, and told Davey he could add our upper meadow to his grazing lease. Davey's an efficient guy, a finish carpenter by trade, and a farmer by rearing. He hammered in T-posts all around the upper meadow and strung a line of white PVC-coated fiberglass electric wire about halfway up the posts. He said he'd string the lower wire before he brought the steers on in about two weeks. Great.

We've had a really rainy spring, and the grass was tall and lush. From a distance, where you couldn't discern the grass from the weeds, it looked like a BBC documentary on Irish farming. So, we were looking forward to having the cattle come on. But not so soon.

On Tuesday morning, I awoke to find nine steers from the herd in the meadow behind our house. Problem was, the lower meadow fence hadn't been completed, and our gate to the county road was open. In a sweatsuit and slippers, I hazed the nine back into Davey's land, and shut the wire and slat gate behind them. A job well done, I thought. Until Wednesday, when they showed up back in our meadow. OK, fine. Let them stay in the meadow, chewing their cuds. I shut the gate to the county road and waited for the rain to come. Which, it did. Next time I looked out the back window, they were gone. I drove my Honda ATV, with Kerry on the back, up our driveway, and found them on the backside of the hill overlooking our lower meadow. So, slowly, we hazed them back down to our meadow. Then, later that evening they disappeared again. Kerry and I got back on the ATV, which started having clutch slippage problems (it's now back in the shop), and went looking for the herd.

The next morning, they were gone. Seriously gone. We went up the driveway overlooking the upper meadow. No steers. We went up to our putative house site and looked down the hill toward the lower meadow. No steers. We drove down to the spring and the base of the upper meadow. Still no steers. Back at the house, we strung a lariat between old gate posts across our driveway, and strung orange and pink surveyor's tape from the rope to discourage the steers from coming down into our front yard. Then called Davey and Pat. Got answering machines for both. After a bit, Pat's son-in-law came over to get the lay of the land, and said he'd come back the next morning.

But, Thursday morning, I found the steers - lying comfortably in the meadow north of Davey's property. Happy to let sleeping steers lie, we waited until Davey got home from a carpentry job and hazed the cattle from that neighbor's meadow, onto the county road, and back to his meadow, from where they originally started their odyssey. According to Davey, one of the cattle figured out how to open his gate to the county road, using its tongue to slip off a bungee cord holding the gate sections shut. The gate is now chained shut. Let's see the Houdini steer escape now!

They should be back on our land in about two weeks. On purpose.

Mysterious Mushroom

I've had a growing interest in mushrooms and other fungi during the past few weeks, due in part to our finding those black morels growing on the place, which I wrote about earlier.  It's been an especially wet spring and summer.  Such a variety of mushrooms -- so lovely or so lethal-looking -- I've begun carrying my camera with me on walks.  I ordered the National Audubon Society's Field Guide to Mushrooms, determined to identify what I photograph. Last week I found the most remarkable large black mushroom, I thought certain that an evil black fairy must have used it for a throne. To my disappointment, It shriveled up within a day.  And when my field guide arrived, I couldn't find that black beauty in it.  However, some white egg-shaped mushrooms had sprung up nearby, but I'd forgotten my camera. When I came back a day later, in between rain showers, they were gone.  I was certain the deer had eaten them.  But there were two more black mushrooms.  Today, I solved the mushroom mystery when I was able to finally photograph another egg-shaped mushroom that  popped up this morning.  My field guide identifies it is a shaggy mane mushroom and in the same photo is the black mushroom I couldn't identify --  one in the same at a later stage.  What an amazing transformation on its way to death.  It consumes itself and turns to black ink in order to release its spores.  In fact, in olden days ink was made from this dissolving comprinus comatus.  They are edible if picked young, but must be cooked or dried within a short time after picking because the autodigestion of its gills and cap will pick up speed with picking.  Within a few hours it will have dissolved itself.  However, according to the Internet,  it should not be consumed with alcohol because of it contains comprine, causing symptoms such as flushed face, burning gums, and fear of imminent death - all of which will pass in a few hours.  Sometimes this occurs without alcohol, so I don't think I'll be eating any.  Remember my cautious husband, Jay, our gourmet cook.  Nevertheless, I find it all fascinating!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Lilacs in the Wilderness

On this ranch, there is a steep forested hillside with a northern exposure.  It is covered with dense brush, fir and pine, and old fallen timber, which makes it hazardous to descend or ascend.  Here will be encountered the ancient rusted barbed wire fence and rotting wood posts marking the property line when least expected, nearly unseen in the shadows. The deer and elk have knocked some of it horizontal in their migrations and now know the best spots to cross.  Rotting pines have fallen over it, breaking barbed strands. Young trees have grown through it.  Never a favorite haunt, though it was on this slope that Mom found the elusive calypso orchid many years ago.  Since the loggers opened up the area last summer, it's easier to look down into the ravine.  I felt a thrill then last week when I peered down through the trees and saw something unexpected -- an enormous lilac bush in full bloom growing below among the pine and fir. (Photo taken with telephoto lens.)  It wasn't planted by human hands.  The original homestead was on the other side of the hill.  How then did it come to grow there, unseen by human eyes?  Did the wind carry a lilac seed that landed in the right place.  Perhaps a bird that had eaten some, sat on a pine branch above -- and nature took its course.   And why did it grow alone there?  Where it is dark and mysterious, eternally damp, the steep ground covered in emerald moss, rotting stumps and a variety of fungi - a veritable fairyland.  Ah! Of course!  I should have known.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Morels in Our Big "Backyard"

It's morel mushroom season.

When I was growing up on this ranch, it was, "Don't pick the toadstools . . . don't even touch them," and being a dutiful child, I did not.  In fact, I barely looked at them, fearing temptation.  We know what happened to Snow White with that apple.  So, last year when the forester was surveying our land for some tree harvesting (a necessity to keep our timber exemption for tax purposes), and he said, "You know you've got some morels here," I was dumbfounded.  "I thought they only grew in the Cascades," I replied.  I may not have known what a morel was as a child, but I sure as heck learned about them when I married Jay, a gourmet cook.  "I found some on your neighbor's property," he said. So, we poked about the old apple orchard all May of last year, but nary a one did we see.  The loggers did their work, plowed trails along the hillsides, cut the big trees, did a bit of clean-up and left.  And lo and behold!  Where they left their "footprint," there are black morel mushrooms (morchella elata) popping up their delicious little heads, honeycombed with pits and ridges.  Ever a careful town-raised child and concerned we might eat false morels and die, Jay emailed photos (whole and sliced) of one of our finds to a mycologist at WSU.  His return email, said, "Looks like a black morel to me."  And so we've been enjoying them in a wine sauce over grilled sirloin, in scrambled eggs, and tonight in a cream pasta sauce.  Optimistic, Jay even bought a dehydrator (we can always use it to dry pear and apple slices).  And the morels have kept producing.

Research on the Internet tells us that burn areas and logging sites are great for black morels.  We've been very careful not to pull up the roots.  The question remains:  Will they be there next spring?  We aren't finding them anywhere but in disturbed soil.  Time will tell.  In the meantime - bon appetit!