Beautiful Lettuce


This is Red Iceberg. It wintered over as a seedling in the plastic garden tunnel, and erupted into life once the warm sun hit it. I transplanted several frost-blasted lettuce seedlings into a newly prepared bed containing soil amendments and my secret proprietary blend of organic fertilizer. Then I watered regularly. A crisp green heart is forming, surrounded by these lavish bronze leaves.

Most gardeners of my acquaintance have preferences–certain plants they really like to grow. I confess that lettuce is one of mine. I love garden catalogs that feature pages of lettuce varieties. I read about them all, heirlooms and new cultivars. Some do best during cool weather, and others adapt to hot weather without bolting. Some have wacky names like “Flashy Trout’s Back” and others have plain names like “Green Salad Bowl”. Some lettuces form heads, others stay leafy. Compared to store-bought lettuce, homegrown actually tastes like something. The Red Iceberg is nothing like that anemic stuff from the supermarket. It has crisp texture and a noticeable flavor. Why would you not grow lettuce? Spring and summer are the perfect time for salads.

Knowing that I would write about my fondness for lettuce, I did some research. Lettuce was known in antiquity, originating in the Near East. The Romans served it at the beginning of a meal to stimulate the appetite. The Egyptians associated lettuce with male fertility since the plant grows upright and exudes a milky liquid. (You can Google the history of lettuce yourself if you don’t believe me.) Lettuce traveled northward into Europe and evolved into French and Italian varieties, German and Dutch and English. Lettuce migrated to North America along with settlers from these countries. My parents always planted a row of red leaf lettuce, and my mom would make a warm dressing from bacon and cider vinegar that was poured over the fresh leaves, slightly wilting them. You had to eat this right away. I think it is a recipe from our German heritage.

I stagger plantings of lettuce through the season until it is too hot for it to germinate. When there is a surplus, I give bags of washed lettuce leaves to friends. I wallow in salads of green, red, bronze and speckled all summer long, first with crunchy radishes and later with ripe tomatoes and tender cucumbers. Lettuce is loaded with vitamins and minerals. I would grow it year round if I could. Instead, I sow a late planting, knowing that some will get started, freeze, then take off again in early spring. Now, it even seeds itself around the garden and I find volunteer lettuces everywhere. It pleases me to move them around and nurture them until they are ready to eat.

Right now I am awash in beautiful lettuce, with more to come.

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After a Long Winter


Spring has been slow to arrive this year, which makes winter feel all the longer. To alleviate impatience and cabin fever, a person has to go looking for spring.

I followed a convoluted route along backroads of the Kittitas Valley to the foothills. These roads make their way past farms and ranches and pastures and fields and housing developments, crossing swollen creeks and irrigation ditches. Horses and mules are still shaggy with rough winter coats, standing with their backsides toward the wind. A few deer look up from nibbling on fresh green grass. When I park and open the truck door, the sound of rushing water fills the air as Naneum Creek bustles past with its load of snowmelt. My nose catches a faint whiff of honey from the cottonwood leaves unfurling along the stream. I cross on a culvert and start climbing. The flowers appear right away, sagebrush buttercups and Lithophragma sp., the prairie star. The soil is moist and lichens on the basalt outcrops are fluffed up from recent rain. I hear the distant call of a meadowlark, and the quiet soft whistle of a bluebird. Insects blur the air in front of my face, startling me. It’s been months since I waved a bug away. I’m completely hooked now,and compelled to keep climbing the hill to see what else is blooming. I want to greet all my flower friends.

The desire to go walking to look at wildflowers goes back to childhood. By this point in my life, it has taken on the feel of a ritual. Something I must do or feel incomplete. Perhaps it all started with my grandmothers. Both of them lived near patches of forest in western Washington. I have distinct memories of walking with both of them, being shown flowers and introduced to them by name. Soon I knew to look for skunk cabbage and trilliums around Easter time. After being cooped up all winter, trapped in the house, the classroom and school bus by days of cold pelting rain, now there were times when it was possible to go out in coat and rubber boots. It was still cold and damp but the woods were different. Green shoots appeared on the forest floor amid the tangles of salal and blackberry briars. Everything uncurled, unfurled, untwisted, emerged from the wet earth. Birds sang. As I grew older, I made the pilgrimage by myself. Silently I would say hello to johnny jump-up’s cheerful yellow face and the gracious form of pink spring beauty. When I went to work in the woods as a young woman, I kept doing this. When I moved to a dry place in the rainshadow of the Cascades, I transferred my spring ritual to the shrub steppe.

Now I have the best of both worlds. I can start my flower visits in the low dry country almost as soon as the snow melts. As spring progresses, I follow the blossoms through the yellow pine woods until it is June and the snow is melting in the conifer forests on the mountain slopes. There I will find my old friend trillium, and the calypso orchid that my Gramma Mueller called lady slipper. To her it was a rare and precious creature, to be carefully revered. Now I know of places where they turn the ground under the cedars pink with their exotic flowers. No matter how many times I see them, I still feel that little twinge of magic in my chest. A goodly chunk of my heart is rooted in childhood wonder, carried for years like a flame that refuses to be stomped out.

I am not finished with my walk. I keep climbing up the hill above Naneum Creek. Here are clumps of ferny foliage that will produce the bright yellow disks of Hooker’s balsamroot, the spreading stems of big-headed clover, strange reddish fuzz with the beginnings of prairie smoke buds. Mats of creeping phlox, already beginning to show a few flowers. Larkspur leaves. At last I find what I truly long for–a patch of lithosol lavishly scattered with coyote tears. There are so many that they turn the hills golden. Under the stiff sage, the sagebrush violet blooms. I hunker down for a close look at the blue-green lobed leaves, the two-tone purple flowers with the whiskery stripes leading to the center. I smile. Hello, violets. Hello.

Inside of me, things fall into place. The yearly ritual has been observed. It is not what is blooming, but who. As I grow older, I find my point of view shifting away from an objective world toward a more animistic and perhaps native perspective. My world is populated with a lot of whats, but also a lot of whos. The life forms around me are characters and I have grown familiar with many of them. It helps to have learned their names, but it’s not necessary. The feeling of connection and belonging are necessary.

Spring really is underway. There are more hellos to say–I am looking forward to the return of the thrushes.

Equinox and Happiness

The book is Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life by Diane Durston. This morning I opened it at random as I sometimes do, and this is what I read– “I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for body and mind.” Albert Einstein said that. On the opposite page is a quote from the Dalai Lama–“If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. Having few desires, feeling satisfied with what you have, is very vital: satisfaction with just enough food, clothing, and shelter to protect yourself from the elements. And finally, there is intense delight in abandoning faulty states of mind and in cultivating helpful ones in meditation.”

Wow. And then during my morning internet reading session came the news that today is the International Day of Happiness. I had no idea there was such a thing. It’s already a good day, being the vernal equinox and my birthday–the one day of the year when I feel I can be most self-indulgent. To contemplate happiness on top of that makes for a potent combination.

If I have a philosophy of life, it would have to be described as wabi-sabi. It’s an untranslatable Japanese term, an aesthetic notion that evolved with the tea ceremony. It has come to refer to that which is imperfect and unfinished, maybe tarnished with age and a little melancholy, like the sound of geese flying over in the autumn. Wabi-sabi prefers the natural and organic, so anything that is made by human hands should reflect the natural world. Wabi-sabi has time; it is the opposite of hurrying. Wabi-sabi pays attention to the small and insignificant. Wabi-sabi does not differentiate between the material and the spiritual. This approach is a source of contentment as I go about my life. The secret to happiness was revealed to me in a flash of insight a couple years ago when I realized that all I had to do was abandon faulty states of mind. I could be happy simply by making up my mind that I am happy.

There are plenty of things in the world to be unhappy about. Ignorance, greed and injustice are not reasons to rejoice. However, enough snow has melted to reveal snowdrops. I am happy to see them. They remind me of my gramma, who urged me to dig a clump of the bulbs from her garden. A sad poignancy rises in my chest to remember her–she was one of my greatest friends and teachers. But I also remember the unassuming simplicity of her life and her generosity, and I aspire to live the same way. So I cherish the snowdrops. It is spring and I have everything I need.

Whom To Revile

These are immigrants. The photo was taken around 1888 at a new house built in a German community near Puyallup, Washington. The young boy with his hand on his father’s arm was the father of my grandfather.

They came from a place called Stöckse, Neidersachsen which is in the northwest corner of Germany near the border with the Netherlands. My great-great grandfather was a forester for a Saxon baron and cared for the trees on a large estate. Because of this, he was recruited to work on for a German sugar company in Hawaii (then a sovereign kingdom). They were looking to improve sugar cane production with irrigation, and the idea was that trees would hold the water from the rain and release it slowly. The family made the decision to move. The fact that boys could be conscripted into the army at age 14 certainly was a consideration. With three sons, it was likely that some or all of them would be cannon fodder in Kaiser Wilhelm’s wars. Also, the story goes, an old aunt advised them that they would never have anything in Germany so they might as well leave. They could also never have anything in Hawaii since haoles couldn’t own land, but the west coast of the United States was not far away. There was hope of building a new life there.

So in 1881, several German families departed Hamburg on the small barkentine Ceder to sail halfway around the world to Kauai. My great-grandfather was six months old, and his diapers were washed in salt water for many weeks. The passage around Cape Horn was rough, and the Pacific Ocean is wide and empty. By the time the people disembarked at Lihue, Kauai, they were weak from lack of food and water and perhaps loss of hope.

The family of Friederich Mueller stayed seven years. They helped build a small community on a hill adjacent to the cane fields and a Lutheran church reminiscent of the ones they had left in Saxony. Then the eldest son was sent to Washington Territory to buy land and build a house. When this was done, the rest of the family came. They became naturalized citizens of the United States. A strong German community existed into the early 20th century, where people spoke their language, attended their church, kept their customs, intermarried, and slowly wove their lives into the fabric of America.

When World War One broke out, there was deep distrust of Germans. Slurs and vandalism were directed at German Americans. Some were suspected of being spies and collaborators. I can imagine that the immigrants wanted to mind their own business and get on with their lives in a new land–after all, that’s why they came here. But they were reviled anyway. Same thing happened during World War Two. When the government came for my great-grandfather, he was shocked to learn that he was not a naturalized citizen, having come when he was so young. He immediately applied for citizenship and it was granted. My Grampa said that it was one of the proudest days of his father’s life, when he officially became an American.

There are millions of family stories like this in our country if you go back far enough and look. And there has been plenty of reviling of immigrants, and discrimination. No Irish Need Apply. No Jews. No Catholics. Yellow Peril. Some immigrants came here unwillingly and were put to work for masters who thought they were less than human. For every American immigrant success story, there is also one about cruelty and misunderstanding. There is a slur for every race, every nationality.

I am writing this because I have trouble swallowing hypocrisy. America for Americans? And who are the Americans? Perhaps they are the ones who were here first, even though anthropologists tell us that they also emigrated here. Do you have to be descended from the families that crossed on the Mayflower? Fought in the Revolutionary or Civil wars? Or perhaps those who fled famine in Ireland or pogroms in Europe? Do you have to be white? All of us come from families that came to this continent from another place, with the hope of creating a better life, living in a world where children can grow up to be whatever they want, where there is freedom of worship and freedom from oppression.

History is a lens, which can be clear or distorted. We can look at history to identify patterns and pitfalls, with the hope that we can avoid repeating mistakes and injustices. The stories we tell ourselves as a nation can help or harm. These days I hear a lot of harm coming from the mouths of people who should know better, and from the people who listen to them and hear what they want to hear. I see mistakes and injustices repeating.

Looking at my German heritage is humbling. I cannot imagine having to submit to the aristocracy, or have no hope of bettering myself. I cannot imagine months on a cold wet ship or stumbling out onto a tropical island feeling a hell of a long way from home. I cannot imagine being called horrible names because of who I am. While I may long to know more about the German culture that produced me, I understand the need to assimilate and get along. I understand the part of me that was taught to be German–hard-working, stubborn, sober, competent with my hands, connected to the land. I also understand the part of me that is American, that longs to be different from what I’ve always thought of as a narrow point of view. I’ve always been curious about other countries and cultures. The sameness of being a white person in a white community, of growing up on meat and potatoes, of a Protestant work ethic–boring! For me, entry into other cultures is through food. When I was young, I thought tacos were exotic. Spaghetti was Italian food. I never had Chinese food till I was a teenager. I loved all of it! Curiosity about food leads to an interest in the culture that creates it, the history, the language, the arts. Now I live in a place where I can find Mexican food cooked by Mexicans, and delicious aromatic Thai dishes cooked by an Asian woman. The internet brings me recipes from around the world, and one of my favorite winter soups comes from a traditional African dish. While potatoes, sauerkraut and sausage is still my German comfort food, I will never go back to straight meat and potatoes.

I find that I am unable to revile immigrants. I find nothing to fear from them. A woman I know left Cambodia as a child. When the family was running from the Khmer Rouge, she remembers hunting for frogs to eat. Or having nothing to eat at all. I have always had enough to eat–why would I deny that to anyone based on our differences? Under our skin, we are all human. And that is the thing about the United States–even though we are told stories about scarcity, they are not true. There is great wealth here, in spite of the uneven distribution and incredible waste. We can afford to be generous and open to other human beings.

Spaghetti is American food. Hummus and naan and sushi are too. I want to hear more helpful stories.

Locked In

flockedMarch 1st–here in the lowland (1900 feet above sea level) the wind is blowing, a sure sign of spring along the east slope of the Cascades. The sun emerged this morning and shone brightly. While there is still plenty of snow on the ground, it is thawing and settling during the day and freezing at night. The solstice is twenty days away, and a person begins to feel hopeful that the season is changing.

Not so at 6500 feet above sea level, on top of a mountain that creates its own weather. Winter is still locked in place. Pushed upward by the terrain, the air gives up its moisture which freezes onto any surface. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “rime” as :  an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog and built out against the wind. Understanding the reason for the phenomenon takes nothing away from the wonder and fascination I feel whenever I travel through this cold fog and see the trees. “Magical,” I think to myself. Beneath the thick coating of rime the conifers are alive, just barely photosynthesizing above ground. Below ground their roots mingle with each other and other organisms busy with processes of high-elevation life in winter. Some conifers are well-adapted to living in cold harsh places, which to me is the greatest magic of all.

It will be late May or early June when spring comes to this place, when the snow finally melts, wildflowers bloom and insects throng the meadows. Summer in the subalpine zone is one of the rewards for lasting through the long cold winter. Sometimes people ask me why I stay here if I find winter so long and difficult. It’s hard to explain and there probably isn’t a reasonable reason.For one thing, when I get out on the snow and away from the human-built world my soul soaks up the deep silence of winter. It seems right that much of life is at rest. For another thing, spring always comes and it is an energizing season. I can’t imagine living in a place that doesn’t change radically with the turning of the earth. And lastly, it is because I so dearly love those subalpine places with the brief summers. It’s enough.

Visiting Old Friends

pinetree

Sometimes I get a hankering to go see them. I’ve been thinking of them, how nice it would be to spend some time in their company. These particular friends never come to see me–I always have to go see them. And that’s OK. It pleases me to know that they are just fine at home.

It’s a short ski from Highway 97 to where they live. The day I went, it was cold enough to keep the snow from settling and sticking. My skis pushed through the powder almost without effort. Occasionally a few flakes would swirl down from the sky, but there were moments of blue sky as the clouds wafted apart. Before long, I had found my way to the meadow where my friends make their home. The forest is dense all around there, one of those “unhealthy” forests that we hear about from land managers trying to justify ecosystem intervention. The original intervention was 100 years of fire suppression. Without frequent low-intensity fires, ground fuels built up and many small trees fill the spaces in the understory. Mother Nature is creative, and sent defoliating insects to thin the forest since fire wasn’t allowed. Fire came anyway in 2012, and humans scampered through the stand with a light underburn intended to slow the big Table Mountain fire. Since then, the budworms have died off and many of the smaller dead trees are falling down.

None of this has affected my friends. They live in the open, and even if a low-intensity ground fire came along, their thick bark would smolder and likely withstand the flames. Their branches are high overhead, so fire would have to climb up to them.

My friends are much older and wiser than I. They were probably adults when the botanical collector David Douglas came to this part of the world and named their kin Pinus ponderosa. Ponderous pines. Slow-growing, patient, tough as nails. Yet also filled with character as they age, taking on a sway or a lean. Symmetry is not as important to them as it is for true firs or spruce. One or two heavy branches can droop toward the ground, giving them a lopsided demeanor.

The color of their bark reminds me of cinnamon, and the flaky shapes are like puzzle pieces. The shallow furrows in the bark are darker. When I look closely, I can see the dingy sulfur yellow powder of last year’s pollen collected in cracks. Maybe a spider web here or there. Perhaps some dried pitch, hardened and amber. Some people say the bark smells like vanilla, but I swear I have never smelled this. When the sun shines on them, the only scent is warm ponderosa pine. Nothing like it.

I hang out with my friends in their meadow, happy to be with them after a long absence. I snuggle up as close as I can without taking my off my skis and stare up into the crown and out at the sky. Then look past the trunk to neighbors. I’m happy to be there.

Much has been discovered recently about how plants live. What they sense, how they communicate, how they help each other. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia has done ground-breaking work on how forest trees collaborate communally through their roots. I’ve always had an affinity for trees, but all these discoveries have increased my sense of wonder and appreciation of trees as co-inhabitants of the world. They are much more than inert towers of wood that drop needles and cones into my yard and provide perches for birds. Trees are mysterious.

It is unfashionable to be anthropomorphic, but standing next to the pine tree I wonder if it has any awareness of my presence, any inkling of me exuding joy, goodwill and dare I say it, love? Are trees sentient? Not in any animal intelligent way of course, but are they aware of other creatures, we short-lived rapidly-vibrating warm-blooded mobile things like birds and squirrels and humans? I would like to think so, but I truly do not know and am unlikely ever to know.

And that’s OK too. As long as I can visit them–these pines below Tronsen Ridge, the big doug-firs along the Pete Lake trail, those few hemlocks along Spinola Creek, a particular larch tree on the way to Haney Meadow…things will be right in my world. We all rely on old friends to help us keep our perspective, and I’m beyond grateful to all of my old friends.

For more amazing stuff, check out What A Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Suzanne Simard’s TED talk, linked above.