SAFE


Words have incredible power over us. Safe, home, family. All words that signify love and comfort.

Do you feel safe? That question was asked of me when i left the hospital. Did I feel safe? It was repeated after Dr. A’s accident: did I feel safe? We don’t give much thought as to whether we feel safe. It is simply a state of being.

But I thought back through my rather peripatetic life, which was at best a coming and agoing, and an expectation that I would adapt, which I always did. But did I always feel safe? Probably not.
I came along after the Lindberg baby kidnapping and murder, and it was deeply impressed upon me. I was fearful that a kidnapper lurked behind each dark corner. Yet I would deliberately dive into the biggest wave at the beach, and ride my bicycle to the top of the highest hills at Auntie’s house. Facing the devil down I suppose, to show I was just as tough. But I didn’t feel safe.

We grow older with a family we try to protect from the day to day mishaps. We carefully lock our doors and set the burglar alarm, and close up “shop” at night. Does this make us safe?

Each evening I step outside with Charlie after dusk, and watch two airplanes fly over my house on their way to the San Francisco Airport, SFO. I always smile and think to myself that their trip is nearly over. The passengers are gathering their belongings and wondering if someone will meet them or if their car is ready. They are almost home, that other warm word. They made it back safely. Do they feel safe? I hope so.

It is difficult in today’s world to keep the feeling of safety with so much that isn’t safe bombarding us. In this cozy corner of my garden, surrounded with the fruits of our labor, and knowing that we, Dr. A and me, and Charlie, are together, I can answer: yes, I feel safe.

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CONSIDER THE FLOUNDER


“Orange_ watercolor by kayti sweeetland rasmussen

Would you be better off not knowing?

Baby flounders look like any other normal fish, swimming upright with one eye on each side of their face. Then they undergo a bizarre transformation: one eye migrates to the other side of the face. It’s like a fishy facial reconstructive surgery. No scalpels or sutures, though I haven’t talked to anyone willing to try it out.

While you’re digesting that information, it doesn’t take long to accomplish this act. Five days in some cases and less than one day in some species. If a fish can have an awkward adolescence, this is it.

In exchange for this indignation, flounders get fabulous binocular vision. Great if you were scuba diving. You would have advance notice of any possible predator coming your way. Binocular vision would be useful for a lifestyle of lying in wait on the bottom of a sandy or stony bottom dressed in incomparable camouflage watching for an opportunity to snatch an unsuspecting shrimp or other unfortunate passerby.

In addition to the miracle of vision exchange, flounders have the enviable ability to mimic their background. Think of the advantage this might bring to those of us humans who might prefer to remain in the background? In a high school biology example of a flounder who had been placed on a checkerboard, the change began within minutes; the flounder had produced a believable rendition of a checkerboard on its back.

This ability to mimic background by changing their distribution of skin pigment is poorly understood. If one of the flounders’ eyes is damaged or covered by sand, they have difficulty matching their colors to their surroundings, which hints at some level of conscious control by the flounder. These guys may be smarter than we give them credit for.

My grandson is a wildlife biologist, and a world class fisherman. I wonder if he knows all this.

Selected from new book What a Fish Knows by Johathan Balcombe

GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN


It’s strange, but after a certain age people start worrying about who will inherit all the detritus they have accumulated during their life. What they should worry about is who the heck wants it anyway? By the time you are ready to get rid of it, any likely recipients already have a houseful of their own stuff, and none of it is part of the same era as ours. The sad thing is that sometimes the small things which are so important to us get lost in the shuffle.

jansport

A case in point is my purse. It is a prototype from Jansport which I have carried everywhere exclusively for twenty years. I carry this purse to the grocery store, to the beach, on vacation, out to dinner; you name it and it has been there. This may not seem amazing to you, but what else fits that description? It is canvas and leather, with pockets holding my life, and though I have a number of expensive designer type handbags in my closet, I opt to use this purse my daughter gave me twenty years ago.

In 1969, while at the University of Washington, our daughter met Skip Yowell, a fun loving and exciting young fellow who with his cousin had started a small backpacking company a couple of years before. People in Washington state are noted for loving the outdoors and finding out what is over the top of all those mountains. Skip Yowell and his cousin Murray Pletz, had an idea that they could make a better backpack than what was being used. Murray’s girlfriend Jan, used her sewing machine to stitch the canvas, and Murray told her if she married him, they would name the company after her. So three hippie kids with a great idea became Jansport, and the company grew into one of the largest outdoor gear companies in the country. Jansport gear has made it to the top of Mount Everest and its sister behemoths for so long now they should put a retail outlet on the top of the mountain.

I was often the lucky recipient of a prototype Jansport had made that year, and that was how I came by my very special purse.

Now that you know the story, you can see why it is important to me to know who will treasure this bit of corporate history. Antique Roadshow may someday feature it to the amazement of its future owner.

OCTOBER COLOR


barn-1602030__340

Since most of the month may be gone, this may be a tribute to its now fleeting colors. Here in California where I live, the leaves may not turn those gorgeous vibrant colors, but if I listen closely, I can hear October whispering a soft melody as old as Autumn and as insistent in its call to go. Autumn is a measure of contentment. Its job has been well done.

Everybody should own a tree at this time of year. Or a hillside of trees. Not legally as in “written on a piece of paper, but in the way that one comes to know and own a tree simply by seeing it at the turn of a road, or down the street, or in a park, and knowing it is there for you to enjoy whenever you pass by. You can watch its color, see its leaves quiver in the breeze, and neither fence nor title can take it from you. Man has made October his own as far as he can ever make any season his own.

I once owned a small hillside of a mixture of trees in Washington at the Hood Canal. It changed color as it should, and was never boring because of its mixture with evergreen trees. There was an old house nestled at the base of the hill, and I always wondered who lived there and if the sight of their trees was as pleasing to them as it was to me. I have a tree a few blocks away now whose name I don’t know, it is a small tree rather like a barrel, with loose branches plunging out of its top. I think of it as I would a short fat man with feathers atop his head. I own a mountain of quaking aspen in New Mexico whose shiny leaves become like a flow of molten gold down the mountainside in October. Others may own them too. Trees are anyone’s for the finding to own forever.

I often wonder why man, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen summer as the ideal time to take a vacation, when the only thing he can hope to take from it is a sunburn or perhaps an unpleasant case of poison oak or ivy. October is at its peak and prime time for vacations. After a summer’s vacation, man returns to his job, desk and is again tied down with only a small brief glimpse of what might be outdoors if he had only waited a month.

With the promise of cold weather, and in spite of restrictions against using fireplaces, it is traditional to have a fire in a fireplace. Ancient man had his fire pit, our forebears cooked in a fireplace. Now we install gas logs or use Presto logs to give us the same feeling, but it isn’t the same. It satisfies one desire, but leaves us wanting more. I have a feeling that the dogs know the difference and miss the old smoke filled room if we forgot to open the damper.

Show someone a cabin in the woods without many conveniences and if it has a fireplace he will buy it or think about it. I say this from experience. The house was named “Cozy Nest” and was miles from anything else. It had a pond, chicken coops, and several small buildings nestled in the trees. I still think its charm overcame its inconveniences.

Thinking of “Cozy Nest” resplendent in its red coat, I wondered why so many houses and barns are painted red? Our first house was painted red with white trim. It was a grand place to begin our married life and have our children. I don’t know what the red paint had to do with it, but when it came time to buy our second home, it came already painted in red with white paint. When we built the barn on the property, there was no question but what it had to be red. After all, who ever heard of a yellow barn? The house we live in was also coated with red with white paint. Go figure.

Woodsheds differ more widely than houses or barn. After all, they are built to shelter wood and any number of things, such as old paint cans, left over chicken wire, and garden tools. We don’t need one here, but we had one while living in Washington, and I have remembrance of the ones my father had in Oregon and Connecticut they were messy places as they should be. Totally utilitarian.

I think now, as October is on the wane, it is time for some winter clean up in the garden. The figs are done, having been shared with garden critters, and the nectarines and apples are long gone. Now the leaves will drop, some of them silently in the night, falling in piles just beneath the trees. The apple looks as if she will keep her leaves for awhile, but the new flowering pear has no intention of standing naked in the garden.

SEPTEMBER COMES


September comes and lived among us matching the colors of my dreams. Then she quietly slipped away as October unobtrusively turned the page, and began another phase in the cycle of Nature. All in all, she was a courteous and well-mannered guest. The land had absorbed heat in spots foreign to such heat, and plants withered and died without necessary water. But though a hundred things may be wrong, a thousand things are right, and completely in order.

A skein of ducks or geese, intent on answering their age old call to the south, flew high in the sky the other morning. Winter will come, as it has for millennia, in spite of our expectations as to the weather.

Whether it was ducks or geese on their lofty journey, I cannot say, but the sound of their passing was comforting, knowing it as another sign that all is right with the world.

While ducks are thought of as privileged and charming creatures, geese are much maligned by descriptions such as “silly goose”, etc. I agree that geese can sometimes be loud and annoying, but they are useful as guard dogs in many cases. Because of their profound family sense, Penny. our small dachshund, refused to walk again after being attacked by an angry Father Goose protecting his nesting partner. My mother’s geese in Grants Pass, Oregon, lived lively lives across the ditch, and heralded the approach of anyone brave enough to come across the small bridge. A friend was given a few baby geese who instead of bonding with her as hoped, made it necessary to simply throw food over the fence for them.

geese

In spite of these unpleasant qualities, we must thank the goose for its feathers to fill warm duvets and pillows when winter bares its gnarly teeth. As writers we must thank the goose for the quill, which enabled those who came before us to write down their thoughts so that we may wonder at their brilliance, and gain the knowledge which gives a foothold in teaching those who follow us.

Thinking back to my early Latin study, our word pen comes from penne which meant feather or quill. Just think, the lovely Italian pasta penne, really means feather. I guess that would be food for thought.

Goose plumage feathered the arrows which indirectly won the Battle of Hastings, which was a major turning point in English history. Goose feathers on the longbow was as epochal as the invention of the bomb today.

November is just over the hill to the east and will bring a sweet chill.

THE BEST LAID PLANS


You can plan all you like, but you can’t plan on the weather. We had set aside yesterday for a picnic in Alameda with friends. The weather had simmered away in the 80’s and 90’s for a number of weeks, keeping us cooking and cooking our heels at home.

Yesterday the smell of petrichlor filled the air and heralded the imminent arrival of the first raindrops, ready to wash the summer dust off the leaves and give sustenance to a thirsty soil.

Brave souls as we are, we decided to wing it and go on our picnic anyway. Stopping at a favorite place for lattes first, we sat inside watching the rain charging down the estuary on pattering feet. Two gentlemen of a certain age sat nearby wearing short-sleeved summer shirts and shorts, obviously visitors on vacation, while I at least, sensibly dressed in wool turtlenect sweater and raingear. The cold sandwiches waiting in our picnic basket didn’t seem too inviting as opposed to a bowl of hot soup at that point.

The estuary is where so many wonderful crew races have taken place through the years, and the Cal boathouse is just across the channel from where we sit watching and hoping that either Cal or the University of Washington win. It is sometimes troubling to be torn between rooting for one or the other. It was not a day for racing.

Alameda is my hometown and though we fight the traffic now when going there, it is lovely to drive down its peaceful tree lined streets, and revisit familiar and much loved old homes and other spots where my life became interesting. The beaches are deserted in the rain, but with the recent warm weather, they were frequently filled with families enjoying the water to cool off.

crane

The rain let up a little and we arrived at our picnic spot near the Bay with all of San Francisco at our feet. Several juvenile egrets joined us, though they are not hungry beggars like the gulls, who are absent when it rains. They came close, but not too close, and pulled a few worms from the grass for their lunch while we chomped our cold sandwiches quickly before the next rain fell. It was, after all, a satisfying day.

A TWISTED TALE (2)


french fries mcdon alds

If you’ve had fries at McDonald’s, you’ve likely eaten a relative of a Luther Burbank creation, a Russet potato he invented in the 1870’s. He was also working on another large scale project—the thornless blackberry.

He wanted to take the rough spots out of nature; kind of the parallel to his spineless cactus or his stonelesss plum.

Burbank traded seeds with fellow collectors all around the world. In a package from India, he found seeds for a huge blackberry with an even larger flavor. He named it the Himalayan Giant and it grew like nobody’s business–but only in temperate areas, like the Pacific Coast, and the area around Puget Sound was ideal. Our little farmhouse in Kirkland on the shores of Lake Washington was perfect for them.

Burbank’s business was thriving and he was hanging out with people like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He had suddenly become an international celebrity. He was so successful at breeding plants that he became interested in applying the same principles–to people.

He started selling a new book that he’d written in his catalogs, “The Training of the Human Plant”. He considered the U.S. the perfect place to practice eugenics, because at the turn of the century there were immigrants coming from all over the world. Though he had no training in eugenics, he thought he could apply the same principles as in his plant breeding.

Burbanks’s theory of genetics was that an organism’s surroundings left an imprint that was passed on to future generations. For that reason he wrote that children should spend most of their time outdoors, communing with Nature. Perhaps that’s why a Mercer Island boarding school for troubled boys was named after him in 1931. Seattle boys running amok, were sent to the Luther Burbank School on the shores of Lake Washington where they learned to farm.

Today only the dormitory remains in what is now Luther Burbank Park. And the only thing running amok are the Himalayan blackberries that escaped those turn of the century berry farms and gardens.

Sasha Shaw, noxious weed expert with King County, “I mean there is not a part of western Washington that is not touched by this plant.” The Himalayan blackberry erodes soil and crowds out native plants and animals. “It can grow in dry soils, wet soils, and it grows into the forest. It grows in full sun. There’s not a place it can’t succeed.

Birds and other animals spread the seeds far and wide. Those seeds can live in the ground for years waiting to germinate. And once the plant is growing, when the tip of a vine touches the ground–it can create a new plant.

Luther Burbank never got around to breeding humans, but it appears that he may have introduced a master race—of blackberries.

Thanks to Ann Dornfeld for the reminder