Saturday, January 30, 2010


I usually like to spend cold, gray late January sundays on the sofa with a book, or a very boring movie that I don’t mind falling asleep during. But last sunday something begged me to get out. Not so much to run away from household chores, Michael or the inevitable sluggishness after a 2 hour sofa nap, but to go somewhere where there were big trees.
We have big trees on out property. About 8 giant conifers and numerous alders, a pin oak the former owners planted and an ancient Mt. Fuji cherry. But what I wanted was to be inescapably surrounded by big trees, somewhere where there were no houses nor roads nearby, nor a sofa within walking distance. So I packed a lunch, my camera and a notebook and hopped into the truck. I was unsure of where I wanted to end up and though the initial goalless-ness was exhilarating, it soon wore thin as I realized I was wasting gas cutting back and forth through urban and suburban environments without any big trees in sight. Finally I forced myself to pull over and look at a map; set a goal and head for it. I wasn’t ambitious enough to take the 3 hour drive to the Queets Valley again, so I decided on Federation Forest State Park, outside of Enumclaw. It is the nearest stand of old growth forest. As a state park it is paved , signed and travelled heavily, not quite the wilderness experience I was hoping for, but at least I had a goal.
With Federation Forest a mere 3 miles ahead of me I pulled to the side of the road and parked. I had decided to just walk off into this trail-less bit of woods between the highway and the White River. I followed a forest road which paralleled the highway, until I couldn’t stand all the skiers roaring by on their way to Crystal Mountain. So I scrambled and slid down the muddy steep bluff to the river bottom below. The river’s rocky rumblings drowned out any traffic sounds. This place was ripped and gored by flood waters, crisscrossed with fallen trees and woven into basket tight thickets by young colonizing willows . I broke through the willow thickets, taking my shoes off to wade through the achingly cold creeks which braided among their roots. When I emerged on the rock and sand bar on the other side I stood on a field of volcanic black sand. If it had been sunny and warm, it could have been Hawaii with the rush of the river and the wind in the trees roaring like surf. But it was one of the last Sundays in January, in the Pacific Northwest. I had parked quite a distance from Mount Rainier, yet the black sand shadow of it’s eruptions let me know it was near, though obscured by low cloud cover.

I stood there on the black sand next to the White River among the gray alder trunks and wondered why I didn’t opt for an old black and white movie and the nap it would have induced. I was actually tired, so I sat on a rock, sometimes the best part of a walk is sitting down, the cold wind barreled down off the invisible volcano, rushed down the river valley. They say Mount Rainier makes it’s own weather. At 14,411 feet, the tallest peak in the lower 48, it’s not hard to see why. Being the most heavily glaciated mountain in the lower 48, probably gave rise to it’s Native American name Tahoma, meaning “Mother of Waters”. The White River is one of the many rivers flowing off The Mountain, as we call it, and into the Puget Sound.

It was too chilly to sit for long. So I got up and followed elk tracks up stream, hoping to find an easier exit from the valley than how I entered it. As I crossed the black sand bar I began to notice more and more conifer seedlings among the alders. Douglas-firs, grand firs, western hemlocks (our state tree) and sitka spruce. I had put so much importance on seeing big trees, big conifers that I forgot to look down. How beautiful they suddenly seemed,these little trees. Childlike. A great hope. Not what we stood the chance of losing, but what we were gaining.

As I wandered about I began to realize I was on a very small island bounded by the river, the highway and the mountains to the north. I could not wade across the river like the elk. Their tracks which I followed disappeared at river’s edge. Nor could I swim away like the otter I scarred off the bank and into the current. Nor dive could I fly away like the sooty ouzel adept at flying as well as walking under water. I would need to walk back into the forest, possibly the the willow thickets again to make my way back to the road, my truck and my lunch.

I headed straight from river bank to forest and found myself among some pretty impressive trees and a verdant forest floor covered with moss ferns, easy to walk. Almost immediately this padded world muffled the restless rush of the river. And I remembered why I like being among big trees. Silence. As I scuffed the mossy forest floor I exposed the black sandy soil on which this all grew. This was a much older sand bar, than the one I landed on. Deposited years ago by the restless river.Left to re-grow as the river carved it’s way through the valley elsewhere. I walked through old creek beds which once cut this island into innumerable little pieces. Until I found a giant sitka spruce, I snuggled into the mossy buttress roots, as if they were arms holding me, and took an unexpected nap, not out of boredom, but out of shear relaxation. Until the first raindrops hit my nose and woke me.
A heavy slushy rain was falling by the time I made it to the car. I gave up on my goal of making it to the Federation Forest though it was mere miles ahead and turned the truck toward home. It was a gray Sunday in January after all, it would be easy to forgive myself.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


My friend Debra Anderson wanted to kill me when I got out my camera in her garden the other day. Of course she was kidding, she wouldn’t kill a fly. But if I was lurking around your January-drab garden with my camera and spotted a broken garbage can with a rescued rose in it, wouldn’t you try to get between me and the object of my photographic desire? It was evidently quite embarrassing to her that I should take a shot of the rescued rose. I almost held back, but then pop I got it. She named the piece: “Shabby chic.”
“Without the chic.”
Deb, who’s business is called "Spot on Pots", is an amazingly adept gardener and a particularly talented container gardener. I guess she wouldn’t want anyone to see a cracked plastic garbage can acting as a container in her garden, as much as I wouldn’t. So though I got the shot I won't be posting it. I guess that's what friends are for. Keeping your secrets.
Her postage stamp garden on a quiet corner in West Seattle is absolutely busting at the seams, even in January. It’s like an artist’s studio always in process and always changing. Plants coming and going, containers filling and emptying as if by magic, but it’s all Deb. Energetic, loving, happy Deb.
Deb, like me, started out as a painter. I have learned so much about color watching her work. I wish it had been spring or summer so I could post some photos of her complex yet subtle artistry. I know it is unfair of me to take pictures of her garden or anyone’s garden in January. “Come back in May or September” she said, whisking me away from one “disastrous” corner of the garden to another. Like any gardener will tell you, the garden always looks better on another day, or in another season, or in a few years when the trees are bigger. We will tell you anything to distract you from what we think is a “disaster” right now, but which might very well be beautiful.
As gardeners we are always working toward some future day, some unknowable year when it will all be perfect. But then we are pleasantly surprised at 7:22 on an unimportant Tuesday morning by how beautiful it all is as we rush out the door heading to work. These are the moments we’ve been preparing for.
That’s what Deb and I like most about gardens the element of surprise. Not the planned surprise but the surprise you get when it is so unspeakably beautiful for no apparent reason. Friday there was no apparent reason for me photographing Deb’s garden, the day was still dull when I came to pick her up for a trip to Harnden’s Nursery. Yet I knew we would see something surprising beautiful that day. We always do when we're together.

By the time we reached the Snohomish Valley and the 100s of acres of trees, the day began to shimmer ever so slightly as a dusting of sunlight pushed through the thinning clouds. We laughed at the monumentality of it all. “Who needs Versailles?” I asked. We both agreed we’d love to make a rectilinear garden, though our natures tend toward paisley. That we like vegetables in rows, and have a fondness for square pots is probably as close to a rectilinear garden as we’ll ever get.

As “professional weeders” we have learned to love weeds, we both stopped mid-step when we spotted this very toothy dandelion among the rows of trees. What a holiday to be able to enjoy a dandelion as it is and not have to worry about getting the whole root out.

The ashen blond canary reed grass in beautifully monochrome tranquility was something we agreed we could never make but loved immensely. Just then 7 white trumpeter swans honking overhead graced our day.

It is rare to find friends with whom you can share the beauty of a dandelion, or tawny monochromatics. They are treasures you polish with laughter.That makes Deb one of the shiniest people I know.

Friday, January 15, 2010


This past weekend I took a walk. I love to walk. I forgot how much. I don’t mean hiking: driving to a trailhead, parking, tying up my hiking boots and heading up a mountain. I mean going out the door and walking. Walking is much less athletic, lets the mind wander, which is what it likes to do. Or at least my mind does.
I recently read The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson. I highly recommend it to all you walkers out there. You will never underestimate the power of this simple act again. You may even revalue it like I did and begin walking again, for walking’s sake.
I never balk at taking a parking spot far from my goal. I look for excuses to walk. I like an approach that is heart beat slow and easy. And when I travel I like to walk too. I can walk all day if I’m alone, or have a travel companion who can walk like I do. I’ve walked from one end of Manhattan to another, Paris and Rome, too. I’ve walked all over Istanbul, Athens, Berlin and Delhi. I used to transverse my hometown, Milwaukee in the middle of the night from my 2nd shift job downtown to my parents’ house on the west end. You see all sorts of things when you walk.
Walking unfortunately seems like such an urban activity to me, so since I moved to the country my walking has nearly stopped. I do walk across the road through the Hmong flower fields to the river: priceless, but short. I sometimes walk to a neighboring farm. Or up to the swamp, just for the hell of it. I’ve even taken to walking into Carnation with a backpack to do grocery shopping, it’s an hour each way and once I’m off the road a lovely walk along the wooded banks of the Snoqualmie River. I try to justify this “waste of time” -- I can drive to town in 5 minutes-- as training for hiking, as exercise. But it is not aimless walking.
I love aimless walking. It seems such a luxury.
I indulged myself last Sunday.
I headed south, away from town. Options are limited in the valley with the river hugging the road on the east side and the marsh to the west. So I stuck to the road that I drive out on daily. It was early sunday morning and there was no traffic. Still I tired of stomping the pavement, so when I reached Tall Chief Golf Course, though the gate was closed I entered. Their incredibly short fences, short enough to step over, were nearly an invitation I thought.

I love golf courses. No, I don’t golf. And their horticultural practices are a bit suspect. How can they have a weed free lawn in this valley of weeds? But those vast undulating expanses of velvet green nudged open here and there with sand traps and ponds are like zen gardens on steroids. Especially when there are no golfers present.
Even the popping of the distant duck hunters’ guns sounded like temple bells that morning, bringing awareness to my walk. Sometimes a meandering mind chooses delusion I know. It’s good for an individual, though horrible for the masses. It was all beautiful even as the popping grew closer causing me to wondered if an errant bullet might penetrate my flesh. I decidedly moved away from the gunfire though, up the hill behind the golf course where abandoned fields skirt the wooded bluff. I was truly on that road less travelled.

The sun broke through and it was warm like spring. Fresh growth shot up through the dry grass. Buds swelled. Clusters of migratory birds, robins and redwing black birds, sang. I had nothing to do and my pace slowed. Two red-tailed hawks screeched and tangled over head.
Then I found it.
The evidence.
Barn owl feathers scattered on the ground, and above a low hanging mossy branch covered with feathers as if the owl had exploded in place. I looked but found no corpse, only bloody wing feathers evidence that the owl had not flown away.
Since I could still hear the duck hunters’ pops echoing around the valley below. No longer temple bells, buts rips in the silent morning fiber, my immediate assumption was foul play. Someone had shot the owl. It was probably an easy target in it’s mid-day slumber on the low slung branch. Did it wake as it fell, or did it die unaware in sleep? I painted the scenario so clearly in my mind: The hunter, the owl, one easy shot. Yet a doubt lingered. Am I jumping to a conclusion? Could the old owl simply have died in it’s sleep, fallen to the ground, been eviscerated by coyotes.
There was no doubt I wanted to hold on to the image of the hunter, the shot, the fallen owl. It enervated me with outrage. Who could possibly shoot an owl? A sleeping owl? The distant pop-popping of the duck hunters drove it home. I gathered a few of the best feathers with some obtuse sense of sanctity, examining the scene of the crime more closely. Certainly, I thought, the bird had exploded on the branch, the feathers circled outward like an expanding galaxy. I walked back through the rough meadow, leaving “the road less traveled” and heading straight through the tall dry grasses. When I returned to the golf course’s tidy juxtaposition, it felt more like a gun shot into the wilderness than any tranquil zen garden.
Soon the resident grounds was at my heels, questioning my presence there.
“Those are owl feathers,” he said, seeing the peculiarly beautiful bouquet I held.” You know , it’s illegal to possess those.”
Was he also the bird police?
“ Well, I didn’t kill the owl,” I said, all defensive and still outraged with thoughts of some yahoo hunter shooting a sleeping owl. Who thought my somnambulant January sunday would get me so riled up.
“ Well, you certainly can’t sell them,” he continued. He had not yet informed me that he was a dream-catcher maker, as well as a grounds keeper. But he wasted no time in telling me that his collection of feathers, tens of thousands, had totally infested his house with beetles and moths, which was a great expense to clean up. All in all he was a nice fellow who had lived in the valley for 15 years, owned many guns, but didn’t shoot animals. What he does shoot he wouldn’t say. He was a bird lover like me, so we chatted about what we had seen in the valley. But mostly about owls. when I informed him of my suspicions of foul play he said, “They shouldn’t be shooting owls.”
I agreed.
Then he added, “ It could have been a red-tailed hawk. They attack anything.”
Suddenly I was filled with an uncomfortable doubt of my assessment at the crime scene. Certainly a hawk at high speed hitting a sleeping owl could cause an explosion of feathers as much a a bullet could. I decided to accept his assessment, it was a more comfortable judgement to live with. A more natural explanation, though I know it is as natural for a man with a gun to shoot anything, even a sleeping owl.
What became important in that moment was not whether the owl died by gun shot, hawk attack or old age, but how fluid my assessment was and how uncomfortable I was with doubt.
Is doubt really just the opposite of belief?
Certainly I have doubts. Doubts about humanity, religion, our government.
And even doubts about gardening.
Last winter was horrid killing off all sorts of plants. Last January I swore off all the tempermentals, like hebes. Yet spring came, I began to forget winter. I began to forget the horrific flood which ravaged the valley, like our neighbor said I would. Then May came and I began to doubt we’d ever have a winter like the last one, at least not right away. I listened to these doubts and planted hebes again. Well, they didn’t even make it to Christmas. I shouldn’t have listened to my doubts. Yet, likewise I planted fatshedera at the farm doubting it would make it, and it didn’t. That time I could have saved myself a little digging and listened to my doubts.
Doubt is a scary slippery creature, even its shadow strikes fear. It is the antithesis of faith, the undoer of confidence, a stumbling block to progress. In short it is as un-American as al Qaeda.
Yet the taoist master Zhiangzi says, “If you doubt at points where others find no impulse to doubt you are making progress.”
To live without doubt seems nearly impossible. To fight it with over confidence seems foolish. It is a force to be reckoned with.
I am reminded of a story the sufis tell. Moses is out for a walk in the desert. I’m not sure how aimless his walk was, I think he was walking to talk with God. Moses asked God to get rid of Satan. So God puts Moses in a deep sleep and does away with Satan. When Moses wakes, he sees that everything is dead, no rivers flow, no birds fly, no flowers bloom. Moses is rightfully shocked and begs God to bring Satan back, which of course God does and everything returns to normal. And Moses learns a valuable lesson about the nature of the universe.
Now I like to demonize my doubts as we all do. But yet I’m beginning to see them as a necessary evil, a useful component of a much more whole picture of life.
I decided this year in a sort of resolutionary way that I will take a walk with my doubts, give them their due. This might end up being a little tricky, even a little dangerous. It will certainly require a lot of attentiveness, because I’m beginning to agree with Oscar Wilde who said,”To believe is very dull. To doubt is intensely engrossing. To be on the alert is to live, to be lulled into security is to die.”

Hopefully my walk with doubt doesn’t leave me with just a handful of feathers.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


If you’ve been following my blog over the past month you are fully aware of my focus on conifers. But did you notice something missing? A conifer overlooked? Well, I’ve been avoiding pines ( Pinus sp.). Not out of disrespect, actually quite the opposite. I adore pines. And like a good host I am saving the best-- or at least my favorite-- for last.
I did not grow up with pines. We had only one conifer in my childhood garden. A prickly blue spruce, that in our often malicious games we would push each other into. You can image on a sweaty barely clothed mid-summer day what a torture that might be. It was all in good fun I guess. But how much more fun it would have been if we had been pushed into the springy softness of a pine.
As I scrambled through my memories this last week thinking: pine, pine, pine. I was remarkably void of any sort of seminal experience that I could call the moment I fell for pines. It was probably a gradually process that led to this love. But one day definitely pointed me in the direction.
I was in my 20s and had hitchhiked out to Kettle Moraine, a glacier rumpled landscape west of my hometown, Milwaukee. There, in a eastern white pine (P. strobus) plantation, I sat to have my lunch. Why I chose to stop in this very unnatural landscape I’m not sure. The ground was softly padded with years of decomposing needles, yet prickly with newly fallen dry needles. It was indian summer, I guess, since my memory is of pollen- and insect-free air. There was no disturbance of wind. Was it this stillness that drew me in? The sun was warm, heating the needled carpet drawing a smoky almost combustible fragrance from it. The scent cleared my thoughts almost banishing them. It made my lunch, a swiss cheese sandwich on caraway rye and a bartlett pear, one of the most tasty and memorable meals of my life.
Curious why I had ventured into this mono-cropish monotony, one red squirrel barked at me. Was he scolding or welcoming I’ll never know not being versed in squirrel-ese. His attention span was short and I was left alone again, far from the hikers on the trail, far from my apartment. Yet I had a strange sense of belonging, of being at home. Was it the familiarity of rye and swiss? Was it October, my favorite month, and it’s gentle melancholy before the drop? Was it man-made nature, rectilinear, yet not groomed? Was it the prickly comfort of the needled carpet? The crackling clear blue sky penetrating the canopy?
Or the canopy itself?
The pines?
I feel wistful for that place and time as I write. January is damp with post holiday malaise. I should be thankful it’s warm enough for witch hazels and daffodils-- yes, daffodils-- but I’m not. I actually like Jack Frost’s nippings. Even though I can look out the window over my desk and see snow capped mountains. I still miss winter. The white. The aridity.
I think that is what I like about pines. There is a certain aridity to their nature. When I first moved to our little farm in the flood plain the first thing I wanted to do was plant trees. And in particular conifers. I ignored the pines though, well, actually that’s a lie. I have 3 in pots on our deck, as if I don’t have enough places to plant trees around here. But I thought that was the only way to have pines here.
But today I thought again. Maybe I don’t know pines as well as I think I do. So I got out Managing the Wet Garden, by John Simmons --an indespensible book around here-- and found 4 pines recommended for heavy wet soils: southern pitch pine (P. palustris), lodge pole pine (P. contorta), surprisingly, ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa) and Coulter’s pine (P. coulteri).
Now I would almost jump for joy, but Michael doesn’t like pines. Or as he put it more politely, “I prefer not to have pines on the property.” Many of my clients have the same propensity. Even removing pines 30 feet tall to put in perennial beds. I was involved and stand guilty, though I voted adamantly to keep the pine.

I will never understand other peoples’ dislike of pines, because my own interest and love is so strong it blinds me to any shortcomings of these trees. I even love the needly debris.

Yet there ubiquity is evidence that I am not a lone pine lover, and planter. The low maintenance mugo pine (P. mugo) anchors half the parking lot landscapes in this part of the country. And white pines (P. strobus), especially the cultivar ‘Fastigiata’ seems to be appearing in more and more corporate landscapes. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where you can find many gardens emulating Japanese gardens, you find Japanese red pine (P. densiflora) and Japanese black pine (P. thunbergii) widely used, but rarely well maintained.

In the traditional Japanese gardens these 2 pines play extremely important roles, the red pine representing the female principal and the black pine the male. They are also heavily maintained: candled, pruned, bent, propped and weighed down with stones. Anything to make them look windswept and older than they really are. The Japanese word for pine is matsu, it’s homophonic verb means “to wait” as for a lover or a resolution to an impossible situation, much like the English verb, and homonym to the tree’s name, “to pine” means to long, often to the point of dissolution. Maybe it is this association, certainly it can’t be their beauty, which makes some people dislike pines.

Though the heavily maintained pines in Japanese gardens become poetry under a skillful gardeners guidance. These same principles applied in an American small town garden become a mockery.
Poodle ball pines become part of a comical pastiche of lawn, rambler and chain link.

I must admit I'm a sneaky gardener. Or at least a sneaky pine lover, so where i ccan't plant big pines i plant dwarf pines. In the garden were we removed the 30 ft pine, I planted the dwarf white pine (P. strobus ‘Nana’) with the deciduous azalea ‘Mt. Saint Helens’ to frame the base of this totem pole.

At South Seattle Community College, there are many examples of dwarf pines.The new cultivar of our native shore pine (P. contorta) ‘Chief Joseph’ is as yellow as a daisy’s eye in winter. It makes it hard for me to take it seriously. Yet I can't look away either.

But what I really like are big pines, like these stone pines (P. pinea) in Pisa, Italy. They also give us pine nuts another reason I love pines

On the edge of the Grand Canyon there are many pinyon pine (P.edulis), the state tree of New Mexico. It is one of 39 North American pines 9 of which are state trees attesting to the genus’ popularity. So you can see I am not a loner in my love a pines.
Even Barbie loves pines.