Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ectomycorrhizae and Old Nettle Patch

As my son lingered at the door on his way out after Sunday dinner, the conversation shifted to ectomycorrhizal fungi, or, in layperson's terms, fungi which form a sheath around the root tips of a plant. Yeah, I know — hardly your typical post-dinner conversation. But really, it had its beginning in the early 1990's, when my son — a young child then — would help me in the garden.  He seems to have inherited my passion for the natural world, and saves tidbits from his ongoing research to share with me over Sunday dinner.

The subject these past few months has centered on that which goes on within the soil, how the network of fungi is integral to the health of any woodland area. It's an interdependent relationship: the fungi absorb (and benefit from) various organic substances from trees, and in turn, trees are enabled by the fungi to absorb water and minerals. So think of it this way: every time you drive a shovel into the soil, if the ecosystem is a healthy one, you're severing a vital energetic pathway.

Ack. A lot of that went on in my vegetable patch this weekend, making way for lettuces and carrots. It's painful to be reminded that the pre-agrarian culture, a mere 12,000 years ago, was a helluva lot more kind to Mother Earth.

Anyway, after my son left, I began to ruminate about the woods (long gone) of my childhood. These weren't anything remotely wild, really, although to us they were the Universe of the Wild, a handful of acres. Second growth Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, hazelnuts and alders. A fraction of a forest. A micro-fraction. No water source, but I believed if I looked hard enough I'd discover a secret spring. (Sorry to say I apparently didn't look hard enough.) I knew where tiger lilies bloomed in a secret glad in June. Decomposing stumps of the old trees rose up like long-abandoned castles, inhabited by ants and spiders. When the bracken ferns unfurled every spring, I'd inch myself on my back under the frilled canopy and view the sky through a green lens.

And all throughout these childhood years, running the dirt paths
in and out of sunlight, dodging stinging nettles
growing perilously close to bare legs,
ducking under the silk of spider-webs spun new each morning —
all around and underground was this extraordinary and vast network of fungi
having a conversation with the trees,
trees we named (Whispering Winds, Old Nettle Patch)
and climbed and sang in ("The Strife is O'er" and "I Got a Robe", among others).

Mycorrhizae: symbiotic relationships between fungi and plants.

When my son and I talk about this, I get teary-eyed. Sometimes it feels like I've known this forever, on some level. Now I have a name for it. But I think the connections, the inter-connections, go much further. I believe we're only beginning to understand this. Will we pull ourselves out of our extinction-spiral in time to learn?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Rookery

April. Impossibly April. Pondering, as always, the mystery of time passing. The ephemeral nature of everything experienced.

Jim Harrison, one of my favorite writers and who passed away last week, wrote, "Time is a mystery that can tip us upside down."

Upside down, inside out. Every minute.

I've been walking down to the heron rookery, just minutes from my house, a ravine of big-leaf maples with 14 nests sprawling at treetops. Primeval and magnificent, with a wingspan of nearly 6 feet, they hunker on their twiggy aeries, fussing at bits of branch, occasionally rising up to stretch. I saw a male bring a gift of a fish to a brooding hen. Their c-r-a-w-k c-r-a-w-k is jarring and rough-edged, and seems to emanate from a long-ago eon, as if I'm listening back in time.

C-r-a-w-k.

The ravine is almost a secret, lying low at a deadend street under a steep embankment. No chance for anyone to happen upon it without intent.

I could spend all summer there.
I could be 7 again, all summer.

Seven in the Woods

Am I as old as I am?
Maybe not. Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
Yesterday I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars. Who
was I, half-blind on the forest floor
who was I at age seven? Sixty-eight
years later I can still inhabit that boy’s
body without thinking of the time between.
It is the burden of life to be many ages
without seeing the end of time.

—Jim Harrison

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Magnified

I rummaged in the basement until I found the microscope that was a gift to my sons from their grandmother all those many Christmases ago. No easy task, that, being disguised in a box within a box, oddly. Carefully wrapped in plastic, brand-spanking new, almost.

Anyway.

Carried it up to the kitchen table (where it hasn't sat for at least 20 years) and spent a good part of Sunday evening peering single-eyed down the magnifying column at a grasshopper antennae, silk fibers, and penicillin, among other things. 4x, 10x, 40x. Standard-grade elementary school microscope, but it made me nearly delirious with glee. I mean, when was the last time you looked at a fern spore up close?

One of my prized possessions is a jeweler's loupe — indispensable when removing splinters, although viewing one's fingers in that magnification is a bit terrifying. (And you thought your hands were clean....) Yet also valuable when scrutinizing a dead bumblebees fur, or a moth's forewing. Or the veiny underside of a geranium leaf.

The desire, I believe, to look deeper, to see further. When the river runs dry, I want to know what has lurked in the depths. When the tree tumbles earthward in a great wind, I want to see the layers of soil beneath.

I disembedded a microscope from my underground storage — plucked out of what could so easily become rubble — so that I could see into the chambers of a fruit fly's heart.

Life is anything but ordinary.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Treefall

It's been a week of tousling winds, and armloads of pink-fluttered branches are on the ground.




Despite the passing sadness of an uprooted tree, there's a thrill in seeing up-close the upper branches in all their lichened-glory, laid out on the grass, all secrets exposed. (And I'm reminded how much I miss climbing trees.)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Crust of Bread and Cluck

The Swiss chard is beginning to leaf out, and I snipped a handful of red-veined leaves, slivered them into a chiffonade, added to a green salad. A little balsamic vinaigrette with crushed garlic, a few chives so newly above the soil line that it almost felt unkind to cut them. Can spring really be not so far away?

Winter beats the spirit out of me, reliably. This year was a little better, thanks to my recent hen acquisition. Here we are on the cusp of March and I'm walking home from work in daylight. I swear I hear angel's harps when the light returns, and I don't even believe in heaven. Harps and a chorus of harmonic voices as godlight spills from the darkness. Hallelujah thank you Jesus and I'm on my knees shouting AMEN AMEN AMEN.

Ahem.

I was out in the alley this afternoon trimming back the dead stalks of the helianthus salicifolius, accompanied by a single chicken (Fallopia) who was visibly disoriented in the absence of her two sister-hens (who refused to go out the back gate with us). They are a tight-knit social group, my girls, and the chicken-duo who remained in the yard were scouting out ways to escape to their dirt-bath wonderland on the other side of the house.

Anyway, a neighbor child who is perhaps six was standing in the back of his dad's red pickup (which was parked in the alley) blowing bubbles. Do you know how much I loved this? The red pickup, the boy-child, the bubbles, the solitary hen? (A loaf of bread approaching crisp-crust bliss in the oven.) The only sound was the muttercluck of Fallopia as she scratched the dirt for bugs.

I filled a giant bin with slender sunflower stalks and errant blackberry vines, upearthed some buttercups and dandelions. And it wasn't raining. IT WASN'T RAINING. (We've had record rainfall this winter.) The mud has even begun to recede — it's been nothing but a slick of mudsoup for months.



















If you had told me five years ago that my life would become reduced* to simple and completely delightful pleasures such as this, I wouldn't have believed a word of it.

*Reduced as in the cooking meaning of the word: to boil down in order to intensify the flavor. An approach to life, really. After all the prep-work of one's 20's, 30's etc., after one's vegetables have been chopped, as it were, and simmered in the broth of days, months, years, then one gets to boil it all down to the essential, to the essence of what is best, and absolutely most delicious —

After herding the chickens back to the coop, I went in and cut myself a chunk of bread,  butter melting into the warm crumb. Poured a glass of wine. I know for a fact that it doesn't get better than this.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Behemoth, Part 2

Every day there are a few less logs on the parking strip and a heap more sawdust. I imagine someone comes during the workday hours and chainsaws a hunk away. There's no "free wood" sign, but it's diminishing nonetheless.

The best part, though, is the scent: part apple, part vanilla, part fresh-cut wood. It's not like anything else I've ever smelled, really. Honestly, it's more itself than any other scent or amalgam of scents, and I note the distance at which I become aware of it, breathing mindfully. And then I stop when I arrive at ground-zero-log, give the rough trunk a few pats, inhale some more, then head out for home.

I know that in a matter of days these pine-bones will disappear, most likely to be carbonized in someone's fireplace, sent skyward with a puff and a spark. The sawdust will linger for a while before being taken-in by the earth, rain-washed down to brown soggy mulch.

I'll walk here on out in the absence of shade, the air gone stale as old tires.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Behemoth

This old beauty came down yesterday, attended by ropes and chainsaws. I walk by it every day, and mourn its death. I leaned into the giant log-trunk lying beside the sidewalk, patted the rough beauty of the bark. There was so much of it; almost too much to take in. What I really wanted to do was lay down upon its mass. The scent was of ripe fruit — at once surprising and intoxicating. I hope this jumbled log stack remains for a bit, but seeing that it's the city, with ordinances and such, I imagine it will soon disappear. No photos of the amputated stump though — it seemed a sacrilege, an indignity to stand before it with my modern technology and bare its truncated soul.



Thursday, February 4, 2016

Everyday Eggs & Toast

Been ruminating of late on the ordinariness of most days — every day, really. The quotidian, the expected, and the realization of expectations. You put four quarters in the slot and — klunk — down rolls the can of pop. (I think maybe I'm dating myself here on my recalled version of a vending machine, but whatever.)

Within that ordinary lies comfort and ease, as well as boredom and disappointment. Was this what I signed up for?

How many of us go about our to-and-fro trudge to the factory, eat dinner, view a screen, go to bed — the seemingly endless repetition that makes up our routine? Then there's the distraction of a movie on the weekend, a meal someplace other than the kitchen table. A pause in the order of things, a repositioning, only to start it all up again when the week commences. It goes and it goes.

And then there's the unexpected rut in the road, one wheel stuck and grinding the mud.

I found out today that a man I know has end-stage liver failure. Weeks left of his ordinariness, months if he's lucky. A man with an astonishment of talent and perception whose path forward stumbled and collapsed, an abandonment of possibilities. I'm struggling with both grief and anger — anger at the insidiousness of mental illness and alcoholism. Despair as I witness the abbreviation of yet another life.

I'll take the ordinary.
Yes ma'am.
Serve it up for breakfast, I'm hungry.


Monday, February 1, 2016

In the Dark

We lost power Saturday evening for about an hour — dead in the middle of a dark winter night. I was upstairs on my computer when everything switched off. Completely black. I cautiously made my way to the windows which look out onto the street, and the darkness outside was dense and impenetrable — and completely beautiful. With the light from my iPhone lighting my steps, I descended the stairs to the kitchen, and went out the door, careful on the steps, to stand outside under an umbrella of stars.

I couldn't help but notice how different this darkness was from the ordinary, streetlamp-lit darkness we're used to. While the usual urban night always seems cold and harsh, this total darkness was soft and inviting. It settled upon me like a velvet blanket, at once comforting and familiar, despite the mid-winter chill.

How long has it been since I've been away from the electrically-lit night? Too long. It's been a decade-plus since I've been camping. But this darkness was different from forest darkness. This seemed almost a relief, a letting-go from the requisite grid of city standards. A deep exhalation amid electrification, an oasis of calm in an over-lit world.

Tonight, walking home in the dark, I encountered a neighbor on the sidewalk.

"Oh, hi T."

"Hi L."

"Happy February 1st!"

"Yes, and oh, it seems darker every year, doesn't it?"

"I suppose it does, but then, we're just getting older, and the darkness is within us."

Here I've been all these past few months railing about the lack of daylight, as if it were something never before experienced. Do we forget, from year to year, that this is the normal pattern? I think we want to forget. I know I certainly do.

And yet there I was, standing outside late on Saturday night, reveling in the wonder of a power failure.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Blue Cats and Eggs

I dreamed that a two-tone blue cat came to live with me. She was a deep dark blue with a large sky-blue patch over her shoulders. My mother was there too, and she said, "Keep her. You won't see another cat like her again."

My mother's name was Alice. I also once had a cat named Alice, so-named by my eldest son when he was five. Alice (the cat) was a cranky tiny tortoiseshell whose language was Teeth. My sons learned her dental vocabulary, and avoided puncture wounds. She lived to 17 years, blind at the end, and no less irritable. We adored her.

She visited me last night too, one dream after the blue cat. Jumped up on my bed, and my only thought was why has it been so long since she's done this? And then the aha! moment: oh, right. She's dead. Nonetheless, we had a sweet sleep-visit, after an 8 year absence.

I believe we were meant to dream the winter away, drowsed in hibernal caves, a layer of fat to sustain us. Nights I return home after work, invent a meal, pencil-in a few words of the Sunday NYTimes crossword (it takes me all week). And then what? All I want is sleep.

All this electric interference — LED's and fluorescents and incandescents — all they do is meddle with the melatonin. Somewhere along the way we went wrong. I admit: I even have my hens on a timed light so that their laying continues through the dark months. I'm not altogether comfortable with that, but then again what are they but gallinaceous extensions of our anthropocentric existence? If I live by the glowing filament then, by god, so will they. I thank them for the eggs. 


Saturday, January 9, 2016

Moss Farming

I want to be a moss farmer and I want the farm to be at the end of the road in the second photo, just beyond the line of trees. (The second photo is one of the new pieces to come out of the studio this week, from a photo Melinda took in The Palouse in Eastern Washington. Wheat country. I doubt there's much moss of any kind there.)

This is the song I hear when I look at that landscape.
I will be "The Happy Farmer" (by Robert Schumann), the happy moss farmer:

.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"American Made Show 2016" Preview

This afternoon I put the last of the glass that's shipping out tomorrow in the "kitchen kiln",  the tail end of 200+ pieces, every last one fussed over with a microscopic attention.

Every year this studio, led by the ever-dazzling Mary-Melinda Wellsandt, manages to invent new designs to augment the existing line. It's never a given that it's going to happen, and usually sometime in early fall, the ruminations begin. I schedule creative time for Melinda, and she motors off to the Oregon Coast for a series of long weekends, camera and computer at the ready. (And mostly likely some really good gin.)

The first of such weekends this year was abruptly ended by torrential rainfall. Weekend #2 was derailed by engine failure in her car.

Whereupon panic set in. End of the year orders had us bogged down in packing peanuts and bubble wrap. The holiday home sale loomed. And Christmas. (Whoever scheduled Christmas in December, anyway?)

And somewhere between the shipping boxes and tubes of oil paint, between a studio full of bargain-hunting holiday shoppers and stacks of transparencies, once again some new lines were born. Honestly, I couldn't tell you exactly when this happened. There's a fluidity in how Melinda and I work together, a conversation which can takes weeks to finish, where the details get filled in on no set schedule. It just seems to happen, organically.

Tomorrow morning we'll load up and shrink-wrap three pallets of display materials and prototypes. Sometime after 2pm a large truck with a lift gate will rumble down the street, and within a matter of minutes, will disappear with our most precious cargo.

As always, I remain in awe of the work that emerges from this humble setting. And feel an immense measure of gratitude in how my days are spent.



Friday, December 25, 2015

Woods-Walking on Christmas Afternoon

Late in the day my son and I took a long slow walk in the Seward Park woods. Curious that my son, who grew up in an urban setting (and who hikes/backpacks/hunts) feels like he's in the wilderness when up inside the old-growth forest of the park. For me, who grew up in a semi-rural-going-to-suburb setting, I'm altogether too aware of the larger city just beyond us. In fact, when I'm settled deep in a mossy reverie, soft earth underfoot, instead of the city noises fading, they become more acute, more intrusive. Wilderness: no. (But marvelous nonetheless.)

Mushroom season is nearly finished, but we found some impossibly tiny fungi clinging to moss on Douglas fir bark, like secrets. Miniature white caps, barely bigger than dewdrops. And lichen, of course, draped everywhere on bare twigs and branches. Complete enchantment.

I've never walked in the park on Christmas. Decades of over-spilling dinners (platters as well as waistlines over-spilling) have consumed much of the day. But today we had our feast in late morning, which left the rest of the day a wide open yawn. With about an hour of light remaining, on a whim we decided to go. And in that damp wood I discovered a peace and deep-breath contentment that I haven't felt in months.

There was a moment of alarm and disbelief when we discovered that one of the park's oldest trees had toppled in a recent storm. For a few minutes, we both denied that was the case; that indeed the old tree was just up the path. But it wasn't. Severed about twenty feet up, there was new light in the forest where the canopy had been ripped open. Everything felt askew, the balance shifted.

Did you know that the life of a forest tree is measured at 50% while living and 50% after it "dies"? My son reassured me that this magnificent old tree, easily 300 years old, would go on contributing to the life of the forest for another 300 years, giving itself as a nurse log for seedlings, fungi, mosses, insects. I've known about nurse logs my whole life, but never thought of their impact in terms of years: 300 years. That's a long time, measured by my human perspective. The fact of that settled me considerably. I will miss the vertical heft of that old tree-friend, but will now look to the forest floor to see what emerges from its remains.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Into Winter

Solstice, and the rain is never-ceasing. And even though from here on out there are fractions of additional light each day, it all seems like such a tease. One minute more of cloudlight, and I should feel more like rejoicing. But.

At work today I was packing things up for the two wholesale shows coming up in January and February, with the realization that I won't see these particular pieces again until late February/early March. Those dates seem an eternity away, nearly the entire-winter away. And here we are, first day of this dark season, mired down in mud.

The chickens don't seem to mind. Underneath those feathers they're cozy and warm, but their run is, at the moment, dirt-soup. Still getting 2-3 eggs every day. Bawk bawk. In their boredom they've disassembled the compost pile I started 6 weeks ago.

I used to love Christmas, but the years have wrung it out of me.

Taken three weeks ago, perhaps this photo is my balm for bitterness:

Friday, December 11, 2015

On Foot, Mostly

Yesterday was the odd day I drove to work, and it felt indulgent and extravagant to sit in that comfortable moving vessel and glide effortlessly down neighborhood streets for a single mile. Burning fossil fuel. Most days I walk, despite the dramatic storms that have ripped through our city. Even heavy rain I find meditative, and wet clothing dries, in time. I find that the days I drive, I'm left with a restless energy, a desire/need to move through the cold air at a brisk clip. Evenings, my headlamp illuminates raindrops falling in my path: utter enchantment.

I've memorized where the sidewalk has heaved up from encroaching tree roots, where accumulated leaves make for slippery steps. There's the house where a beagle, left alone all day, barks incessantly in the front window. The house with four chickens in the yard — three reds and a single black-feathered hen. The house that's for sale: 1000 sq. feet for $469,000. The house with one side painted rainbow colors, shingle by shingle.

And then this, on the planting strip, dropped from a massive evergreen, like velvet underfoot —






















All to be missed while passing by in enclosed Volvo comfort. And honestly, despite my current obsession with All Things Political, I can't/won't write about it. Seedpods and tree roots and rain are about all I can manage in this space.