Archive for September, 2006

Tricky Tricksters

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

In oral traditions worldwide many tales feature tricksters as heroes who, depending upon the society, may be regarded as both creator god and innocent fool. One such animal portrayed in poetry and tales is the raven who calls above my backyard from its nest in the hundred foot tall cottonwood tree of my neighbor. The noises that bird utters cannot be called songs by any stretch of the word except the noises consist of varied notes.

There is a click, click, upon occasion as if the bird is trying to get my attention. You know the tap tap tapping upon Edgar Allen Poe’s door. A rusty caw, caw at other times is more like a warning to an invading squirrel. The young begging for food in the nest sound very much like whiny human babies. All are sounds filled with emotion for a purpose. It is no wonder that ravens are credited with communication to humans by those who used to pay them appropriate attention. In the dim past people insisted that animals talked, understood them, and assisted them in times of trial or teased and tricked them when it struck their fancy.

Various cultures consider other animals as tricksters in their folklore — fox, coyote, spider. Sometimes the animal becomes a mythological figure, to rival the sky god, or steal the sun or light the moon, or play a trick in one way or another. But their purpose is the same which is to make a point. A moral or a warning is likely to make a stronger impression when put in the context of evil destroyer or childlike prankster. We put our words in the mouths of those speechless animals. On the face of it tales are simply fun to hear.

Most of the time.

So sad that Edgar lost Lenore. However he did immortalize the raven. Forevermore.

Word Spinners

Monday, September 25th, 2006

Every article I write contains words that send me first to the dictionary for correct spelling and then to Roget’s Thesaurus to verify the emotion or setting the word implies. Peter Mark Roget was a precocious boy who by the age of fourteen was studying medicine at Edinburgh University. He paid particular attention to the senses in his medical studies but his creative mind came up with many inventions. One being the basis of slide rules used in mathematics until the calculator was devised.

Roget was a prolific writer. He described an optical illusion he noticed while watching the wheels of a horse drawn carriage through the blinds of a window. The illusion – ‘the Persistence of Vision’ – allows us to see a succession of still images as a continuous, moving picture, and it is this that makes cinema and television work.

Beyond that were other inventions. But back to the thesaurus. As early as 1805 (around age six) he had compiled, for his own personal use, a small indexed list of words which he used to enhance his own writing. After retirement from his position as Secretary of the Royal Society (Britain’s Academy of Science), he devoted his life to that project and published the first edition in 1852. A book of synonyms with 990 classes of words that allowed easy access to others of similar meanings. It has never since been out of print.

There are books that claim enormous printings, widespread purchases, but none has been so thoroughly appreciated and widely read and reread in the world of word spinners as Roget’s Thesaurus. I bought the third edition in the 1970s and use it with the greatest fondness and treat the pages with tender care.

Thumb through the pages. You’ll find the trail of meanings fascinating. Whether you write or not it can add unexpected dimensions to your vocabulary, more practical additions than Shakespeare or Lovecraft ever could.

Future of Soldiers

Monday, September 25th, 2006

To describe what it is like to hold a newborn child is a task in futility. Each lucky relative will have their own experience. I held my great grandson when he had been in the outside world but five hours and any coherent thoughts I may have had are delegated to a misty nebula. I must have had grandiose musings about his future and all that goes with my expectations for our offspring but I cannot recall what they were. I can tell you now that raising a child in the twenty first century scares me no end because of social pressures, but with the newborn in my arms I had no such misgivings.

My children grew up in the 1950s and 60s. As I look back it seems like it was the colloquial piece of cake. They are wonderful adults. They contribute to their communities with all their energies and creativity. And since mine are such exceptional children that is showing great humility. I take my bragging rights as seriously as any Aesop magpie.

Case in point. When mother needed a cedar fence around her property, all came and constructed one. When mother insisted on painting her house (last brushed in 1975) a special weekend occurred and a fresh coat of paint covered the durable battleship gray. When I was helpless with my new computer two gurus came to my rescue. The varied list goes on and on.

But back to the newborn who thrives on family love and attention (as do the luckiest infants). And that frankly is the success story of Homo sapiens. Without love and attention – from family or strangers – the species would not have progressed to the present population. War and violence gives some individuals and nations momentary power but not longevity for citizens. And what of the honor to those who die in hopes of making the world a better place? What war has ever done that?

Although I do not for a minute discount the life of any soldier, I have better hopes for my great grandson.

Crayola Bright

Sunday, September 24th, 2006

Fresh paint is difficult to wash off my skin and I have to scrub it. I painted my outdoor window trim — a slightly deeper green than the lemon squeeze tint in the white on my newly painted home. Inside I look at my subdued tinted walls and I frown. When presented in the first grade 65 years ago with a package of Crayola crayons, I found no tints. Red, blue and yellow (primary colors), purple, green and orange (secondary colors), brown (a mix of all those colors) and white (supposedly the absence of all color) were the eight round sticks of wax that fit perfectly in a bright yellow box.

I was awestruck. Faced with a clean sheet of paper which color to begin with was a monumental decision. I chose the yellow to replicate brilliant blossoms of the goldenrod I kept in my playhouse. What a glorious color it was and I used no restraint in pressing the crayon to paper to reproduce the vivid flower. I was encouraged to experiment with each of the colors but invariably gravitated to yellow and red in my childish renderings. It did not occur to me to want anything less.

Now there are only light colors in my life. How could that be? What went awry? I have no idea. Except a vague caution from my father that red was not a color for nice ladies — a new perspective from a Daddy I worshiped. When studying art I learned that bright colors are used sparingly in oils or acrylics. Gradually there were very few minutes in my life for creative art although I hired out to do occasional pieces in pencil and India ink.

Priorities changed and I again have time to consider art and color. I will not paint any wall fire engine red. However daffodil yellow holds great appeal.

Mysteries unsolved

Saturday, September 23rd, 2006

Like the oft described old woman who provides the final clue to solve the frustrated cop’s murder mystery, I peruse my neighbors’ houses along the street at least once a day. But unlike mystery solutions, I lack the ability to intrude in their lives as a detective with an astute mind to learn their life histories. I need help to round out my brief observations. I am not the type cast recluse peeking through blinds for hours on end. Therefore, information must be filled in over the fence with facts by others with different social experiences than I possess.

And I find the drama to be boundless. Recovered alcoholics, drug manufacturers, divorced women, abandoned babies, working couples, teen agers and gregarious friends on a Saturday night, are most easily recalled. Renters and others not in the police band of my most discerning neighbor have evaded my repertoire.

So with all this why do I read so much fiction? For one thing the fictitious plots verify what my observations show — life is indeed stranger than fiction. Interesting to think of the dialog within the walls of those houses. But if I contemplate the lives of others, do they contemplate mine? In their views what do I do?

If I put myself in their thoughts I could come up with many scenarios — mysterious, erotic, intriguing, dangerous, romantic, disgusting, exciting. My life is all of those, if not in reality, at least between the covers of books I choose. I will write down the lives around me and come up with a best seller.

Why didn’t I think of that before?

Bright Sun Rising

Saturday, September 23rd, 2006

Dawn in late September should promise a lovely autumn day. At 0530 hours I can see my breath. Now that indicates a very cool temperature. My breathe hasn’t condensed in morning air for many months. The thermometer registers forty degrees F, and at that temperature I cannot paint the exterior of my house. Instead I wash my Hunny (Hundai). And scoop up black walnuts in the driveway blown off during yesterday’s rainy wind, or was it windy rain? Nuts dropped by the bushel.

All summer I watched the heights of that lovely tree, Juglans nigra, and hoped there would be very few nuts to gather. But was I wrong! As I mentioned last week squirrels chew off a few each day — easy to pick up and keep the driveway tidy. Why I do not dry the nuts and have myself a grand time cracking and eating them during the dark winter months is no mystery. It is a painstaking job, requiring a hammer and a heavy hand to crack the shells. The rewards are crushed tidbits. I allocate far more interesting activities for those days, like cataloging postage stamps, sorting my penny collection, and occasional dusting.

As the sun continues to move toward the equator compound leaves will turn to yellow and suddenly fall, and I will rake stems and leaves once more. I can hardly wait. By then it will be too cold for meticulous outdoor puttering and I will be ensconced indoors for the winter.

However it is another lovely bright autumn day!

Rain is Enigmatic?

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

Another rainy day — a time to cuddle into my robe and slippers and contemplate: What to do? Nothing outdoors, that’s for sure. Not only is it raining, the temperature is abnormally chilly – 55 degrees F. and for the Columbia Basin of central Washington state in mid-September, that is cold. Now survey my options. If I were to sort and clean several piles of paper material I set aside yesterday in the midst of company, I would have to get dressed — my comfy robe too bulky to work properly. It didn’t take long to decide in favor of curling up with a novel I was anxious to reread.

A word hits me. Enigmatic. Do I know its meaning? I reread the sentence again. I am puzzled. I noticed that word many times in various stories and was satisfied knowing what it meant. But did I really? Oddly I am curious to know what word authorities can tell me.

And I am amazed at the scope of meanings revealed by Webster and Roget. I must reread the sentence once again. In fact I must go back the few paragraphs that lead up to the word so that I can decide just what the description reveals about the character it refers to. And also about the character who choses to describe an adversary in that manner.

Whoowie! Enigmatic could mean puzzling, inexplicable, perplexing, baffling, uncertainly, abstrusely, mysteriously, esoterically. And my thoughts go beyond the story to reflect something entirely different — a revelation that authors have been expanding my vocabulary with every book I read. I think of the millions of readers touted by the publisher of each book and realize I am not the only one influenced. In every mystery, thriller, romance, western, or adventure, words are used by authors to enhance plots that entice readers to read on and on and on.

But alas, a lively breeze slaps the branches of my Douglas fir against the house and the sun breaks through dissipating clouds. I must put the novel and cuddly robe aside to face reality.

Still there is much to be said in favor of a rainy day.

Nuts to the season

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

Those blankety blankety squirrels! I wouldn’t mind their stealing the nuts off my trees if they did not chew the husk into little pieces and spit them out on the sidewalk. Looks very dirty and unkempt. I do like having the nuts disappear. Black walnuts especially. They are very hard to crack and the nut meat is impossible to retrieve in pieces large enough to chew. These days the squirrels put most of the nuts in the ground and by spring the yard will be sprinkled with seedlings.

The black walnut, Juglans nigra, is one of the grand trees native to north America. Forests were depleted to make furniture. Its wood is used for gun stocks because it does not splinter. Back when airplanes first had propellers walnut was used for them. The tree is deciduous, meaning that it decides to drop its leaves in the fall and grow new ones each spring, sort of like birds molting. Most trees have leaves with one stem and a single leaf firmly attached. No so the walnut. It has from 7 to 19 narrow pointed leaves alternating along the main stem that may be up to 24 inches long. That’s called a pinnately compound composition. Not nearly as complicated as it sounds, but feathery and very pretty.

English walnut trees, Juglans regia, adorn my yard, too. They are a southern European tree that invaded America. The squirrels do not shun my English walnut trees. They chew off the stems where the nuts grow. That makes for a different kind of mess because the leaves — compound also – fall and dry in bunches that really look tacky. I know the most commonly used solution. But I will not cut down the trees. Nor will I destroy the squirrels. They are here to stay as much as I am. So I shall continue to grumble at the squirrels while they chatter at the marurading cats that tease them in the branches.

I wonder what squirrel pie would taste like flavored with walnuts served beside a centerpiece of fur balls? But alas, I shall never know because I am not allowed to shoot them with my rifle even though it has a wlanut stock.

Not a Breath

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

A great cook once told me that onions are used for seasoning — not side dishes. Maybe not, but I happen to like them as a vegetable therefore a side dish. The breath they bestow on those who eat them might prevent enjoying them at all – flavoring or side dish. Onions have low levels of the tear-causing chemical pyruvate, as well as onion breath.

The onion has a recent taste acceptance because of the “sweet” varieties developed in the past few decades in Washington, Georgia and Texas. Some still tear my eyes even as they are sweet enough to eat raw. The story of the Walla Walla Sweet Onions begins in the literature in Italy and later the Island of Corsica. It was there that a French soldier found a sweet onion seed and brought it to the Walla Walla Valley in Washington state in the late 1800’s. And Italy claims sweet onion origins.

Undoubtedly a sweet variety was developed there but I question other statements. Early hunter gatherers in the Mediterranean and eastern Europe domesticated grasses and developed wheat, oats, and barley. For centuries those grains were staple foods and were milled and baked into breads. Root crops were not cultivated until the Spanish took hundreds of varieties from the Incas. Monarchs in Europe forced peasants to grow them when wars, epidemics and famines struck. The onion would have been a welcome seasoning for the otherwise bland potato so sorely needed for nutrition.

Sweet onions have a short shelf life and the best are only available from April through September depending upon the variety. Due to the climate controlled atmosphere some may be available through December. They are marketed under the names Vidalia, Walla Walla, Texas #, Bermuda, or Maui Sweets. The South American sweet onion, Oso, is available from January through March. So you see we can have onions year around.

Alas as with the bulldog there is no individual Linneas taxonomy for the wonderful onion but I know where to go in the markets. Onions hold a special place in my pantry as a side dish vegetable and sometimes I even use it as a seasoning.

Conquered the grape

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Time to harvest my Concord grapes. Eating this robust and aromatic fruit is a treat that reminds me of its wild ancestor we gathered in late fall when I was a kid. The vines chose the tallest and most difficult climbing trees to reach for the sun and sweeten the fruit. Wild grapes are not the sweetest fruit in the forest but we picked as many as we could reach. Wild ones are small as a green pea and mostly seeds. But oh, they made the most delicious juice and jelly! And most thrilling to behold when sealed into jars for the winter. I wasn’t familiar with rubies then but the clear red jelly brought as much joy to me upon completion of the work as any jewels.

I think the thrill had to do with the accomplishment. It took sweaty physical effort to gather buckets of the grapes. That was the job for kids — climbers. Mother did not climb trees. Dad was off somewhere doing man things. But I loved the job. Cooking the berries, squeezing the juice then cooking that with sugar required labor over a cast iron stove heated with a wood fire. Too dangerous for a kid. So from then on my part was the eating. No wonder the memories are pleasant.

The development of the Concord grape from the wild ones took ten years and 22,000 crossbreeding experiments on 125 vines. The vine that produced the chosen fruit still exists in the garden in Concord, Massachusetts, the parent of every Concord grape ever produced. In 1853 the Massachusetts Horticultural Society recognized the plant as a viable true reproducer. its seeds had been grown and tested for ten more years. The fruit was a welcome substitute for the wild one in those days when folks grew their own food. A physician named Welch successfully pasteurized the juice and that family went on to good health and prosperity.

That variety of grape is a plant that is easy to grow. Just put a twelve inch part of the vine into moist soil and it will do you proud. That’s how we started our plant in the early nineteen seventies. I trim off most of the growth in the winter and let the vine put out new shoots each spring. No longer will I climb high to harvest fruit.

When the Hanford site became a mecca for job seekers in the 1940s, the Concord plants came along and the fertile alluvial soil of the Columbia Basin became a prime producer. Manufacturing and packaging began in 1941 and only recently was the facility sold to a larger firm to lose the Welch identity.

The grape is only one of the things in our lives that patient, persistent people have genetically altered for general pleasure. The bulldog was one I blogged about earlier. What a coincidence it was to discover the patient persistent botanist who developed the Concord grape was a man named Bull. That adds another interesting memory.

With a bucket tied to a string around my waist to free my hands for climbing, I was undaunted as I harvested those wild grapes high above the ground. My hands had to be free for picking. Every grape did not drop into the bucket. I could not hide my thievery; my mouth was purple for days. The color at least ran true through the thousands of changes by Mr Bull.