Archive for May, 2010

With honesty in my heart

Angela always tries to keep Mara enrolled in some physical curriculum. I think I mentioned before that Mara has taken soccer and dance classes and lately she has been taking a Tae Kwon Do class at our gym. Wednesday we realized it was the last class and I had not yet got to see Mara participating, so I bagged out of work early and caught a bus. Angela brought the camera and I met up with them there. Mara was excited that I was coming. She had shown me her Tae Kwon Do uniform weeks ago, but seeing her in it, seeing her make her kicks and punches, was a moving experience for me.

Reciting the pledge.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was afraid of Roger M. and tried to avoid eye contact with him. Roger had long yellow hair, the longest hair of anyone in school, and a mouth that was always smiling or yelling happily. Looking back now, I realize just what a jubilant character he was. He liked to have fun. He was not a grumpy or vengeful person, and not menacing. He was like a popper filled with confetti. He would not think about you unless he saw you, and if it occurred to him to exercise dominion over you in some festive, experimental way, he would just go ahead and do that. I sat at the same table as Roger in Mr. Llewellyn’s class. Once while I was eating my ham and cheese sandwich, trying to be invisible while Roger and the others at the table talked and joked, he up and smacked the sandwich out of my hand, and laughed heartily, as though this were an experience we would both enjoy sharing together. The sandwich separated into its little triangular parts as it flew across the room. He did not hurt me. I cannot say that I suffered from extreme hunger that day. But it was that kind of sudden, explosive, violation of my personal space that kept me in terror of him.

Roger had a loose band of cronies that went about at recess destroying school property or hanging other kids on hooks by their jacket collars. One day, for reasons that never existed or that I have forgotten, I found myself being carried by Roger’s thugs to a large mud puddle that lay near a large fir tree in the southeast portion of the playfield. The talk was all about throwing me in. I remember the fear. I did not fear mud puddles. Indeed, try as she might, my mother could not by any means keep me out of them when I went outside to play on my own street. I feared the indignity, the loss of my power, the embarrassment. I used to think I hated Roger, but looking back, I see that it would have been impossible to hate him. He was like a cheery pirate. He was dangerous. I feared him, and I was storing up a vast quantity of rage at that time of my life against injustices such as this, but I believe now that my anger was at God, for not protecting me.

Before Roger and his henchmen could release me into the quagmire, I was rescued by Mark H., a tall, popular, hero-shaped person who was similarly attended by a number of hangers on. Mark’s men appeared and demanded my release, and Roger’s men stood down. It is impossible for me to remember this exchange accurately because I see it as cinema. The thugs chuckle and make some cracks about just having a little fun. The righteous savior issues a stern reprimand, the thugs shuffle off.

I do remember that as recess ended I was walking back with Mark’s contingent, they surrounding me as though I were a president who had just nearly been assassinated. They didn’t know me or care that much about me, but the moment was a high one; they had been agents in averting an injustice, and they were all feeling pumped. Ken P. was walking beside me and he said I should take Judo classes. He said he did and it taught him how to defend himself. I could take them at the Bellevue Boys Club.

Learning the moves.

And so I did. I took Judo lessons so that I would be able to finally not be picked on. I would tear mine enemies into bits, and when I trod the playground great would be the trembling of them, and their knees would smite one against the other. We had to kneel and bow all the way to the ground before a framed photo of some Asian man. I’m embarrassed to say that to this day I do not know who it was. I imagine him as the Emperor of Japan. Having been raised as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, I felt uneasy about what felt to me like outright worship, but I bowed with the others. For me, there was no disaster worse than not fitting in.

We practiced falling safely, which we achieved by rolling a somersault over one shoulder and then slapping the mat. We also paired up and practiced flipping each other by grabbing our opponent by the lapels of their white Judo suits, turning, squatting and guiding them through the inevitable path overtop of our lean and lethal frames.

I hated going. I was no good at this and I feared the matches. I was tallish, but I was practically weightless in 1975. I had no mass to leverage against my opponent. I went to matches and consistently lost. Other kids I knew moved into the colored belts — yellow, orange, green — but I remained a white belt. There was a neighborhood bully who taunted me across a thigh-high wooden fence one day, he standing on the downhill side and me the up. You can see, I’m sure, the inadvisability of attempting to hoist over your shoulder an opponent who is standing downhill on the other side of a fence. But that was the moment I chose to unsheath my Judo skills on the battlefield. I engaged him, we grappled, and he ended up pulling me over the fence and depositing me in the moist, soft, mossy lawn.

Mara loves to “rough-house” with me, but I’m going to start having to wear padded clothes.

Mara loves Tae Kwon Do because it is physical and fun, and because she is attracted to an order internal to it that is revealed in the person of her instructor, Ms. B. It was a marvel to hear the children shout “Yes Ma’am!” after every instruction she gives them. It is a marvel to watch them slap their hands to their sides and bow sharply and with grace. It is a marvel to see how the children, especially Mara, understand the tensions and bracings, the physical logic of the stances. It is all joy. I know nothing of Tae Kwon Do, and I don’t even know if there is ever an opponent as there is in Judo. At this stage it is mostly individual movement with occasional outside stimulus. Near the end of the class, Ms B. wore big pads on her hands, asked the students to queue up and approached each child in turn pinwheeling the pads alternatingly, left, right, left, right, low left, high right. The children were to use their fists to bat the pads away. She was gentle but persistent. The students, some of them younger and much smaller than Mara, loved this pillow fight. One boy could not stop giggling as Mrs. B. pummelled him.

My favorite part was the pledge that the children repeated at the open and close of the class: “I promise to be a good person, with knowledge in my brain [here they point to their heads], honesty in my heart [cross the forearms over the heart], strength in my body [present strong arms], and to make good friends [here they make a handshake motion].”

I never internalized any such promise to myself or anyone else in my young Judo days. I brought my fear to it, and my fear bred more fear, and finally a sense of failure. I learned to avoid physical fights but, to my detriment, I also continued avoiding discipline and effort as well.

The tae kwon do robes give the illusion that these children are not perpetually smeared with tomato sauce and egg-yolk. Until they wear wedding gowns, this is about the only time you’ll see them clad so cleanly white.

Imagine my surprise when Roger asked me one day if I would accompany him to an afterschool Bible camp. I couldn’t imagine why he, whom I regarded as a soul bound exuberantly for the Pit, was attending a gathering of Christians. Maybe he couldn’t either, but he said he would get a prize if he brought someone else, and since he knew I was already a Christian I was the only one he could think to ask. I rode my bike to his house, which I had never before visited and would never have believed that I would ever want to, and we rode — of all places — to Mark H’s house. It turned out my faith tribe included Mark H., or at least his family, who were hosting the camp.

It made sense, the hero rescuer would be among the Saints. But in truth, I never felt any kinship or even friendship with Mark, and in seventh grade he found out about a crush I had on the eighth-grader Carolyn D. and shamed me in front of my entire Spanish class with a big grin on his face. I don’t know what ever became of him.

Roger grew up and started a landscape business, which I found out years after I had worked in nurseries and become a plantsman myself. Like me, it seems, he loves shrubs and trees and flowers and being outside. Anyone can surprise you, given enough time. There is kinship in the strangest places. I have hope that I have cultivated some honesty in my heart, because now when I think of Roger, instead of remembering the day he cornered me on the way home from school and used my upper arm for punching practice, I mostly see him riding his bike ahead of me on the long, deeply potholed private drive through the Beaux Arts neighborhood on the way to Bible camp, turning his head back to address me with his corn-colored hair flying and that wide and ebullient grin, and shouting “Hey look! We’re on the holey road!”


Good morning, Azalea

This is the flower of a plant that is called by many names, including Azalea ‘Daviesii’, Rhododendron ‘Daviesii’, Rhododendron (or Azalea) Viscosepalum’ var. ‘Daviesii’, Rhododendron viscosum x molle, Rhododendron x viscosepalum Rehder ‘Daviesii’, and the Daviesii Ghent hybrid Azalea. 

I bet the bees find it hard to resist an invitation like this.

I just call it my Davies azalea (the group of plants we call azaleas is a subset of the species Rhododendron).  But I don’t need to know its name. I know its face and its fragrance. This plant, a deciduous azalea, is a good friend of mine, an ally of my best self, an olfactory lamp on my soul’s journey. It leads me to God.

This plant smells a little like honeysuckle. It blooms in May and its fragrance is a thick, dark sweetness that hovers in your senses feeling slow and warm. Its aroma comes up in the morning when the sun warms the ground, or after a rain. The morning I took this photo I had been out for an early walk after a night of rain, and the sun was just hitting it as I returned to the house. I wish you could smell this image. This is as near as a plant comes to waving “hello” when you come home.

I became interested in deciduous azaleas when I first worked at a local nursery in 1994. I had only ever seen evergreen varieties, and didn’t know there were azaleas that lost their leaves. I was drawn to the bright coral, yellow, and pink flowers of the Exbury hybrids such as ‘Klondike’ and ‘Homebush’, particularly how their blooms always arrived with the onset of their new spring leaves, which are always bright limey green. The combination of the new foliage and cheery blossoms made me happy.

Later I discovered that some deciduous azaleas are extremely fragrant. By then I had worked at a nursery for two different periods, once during the ’90s and once in the oughts, and had even gone through two thirds of a horticulture degree at Edmonds Community College, and had become very fond of fragrant shrubs and trees. For a while I had intended to grow fragrant ornamentals as a business (it didn’t work out, mainly because of a lack of money and space).

Before Mara was born and for a few years after, Angela and I used to drive up to Snohomish, where there was a small nursery attached to McDaniel’s Hardware, an independently owned franchise of the Do It Best hardware brand. McDaniel’s, we found, always had really interesting plants at prices we liked. They didn’t have a lot, but what they had was well cared for, invitingly presented, often locally grown (there are many small growers in the immediate hinterlands thereabouts), and sometimes plants I’d never seen before despite my involvement in the industry.

My first Davies azalea I got at McDaniel’s. We planted it in the front yard at our old cottage, which I still walk by every day on the way home from work. It didn’t really like the spot I planted it in and it didn’t grow quickly, but it was established enough when we sold the house that I left it, despite my desire to dig it up and bring it with us. I found this one more recently (I can’t recall where, now) and planted it last year, watered it every day for months and months and months while we went without rain.

I have had several other fraggy azaleas, some that didn’t make it. One smelled a little like candy and had red and white striped flowers. One that survives yet is a species rhododendron named R. atlanticum, which is wildly sweet, almost unbelievably sweet smelling. It was given to me by a plantsman named Richie, who was my boss and mentor both at the nursery and then later at a small botanical garden where I interned for a year. It was the tiniest little scraggle of twig — too small for its one-gallon pot — when he gave it to me, and it has had a rough time in gardens at both of my homes, but it is still alive. Rescuing it and finding a better spot in the garden for it is one of the projects on my to-do list. 

Whenever Mara and I pass a flower that I know to be fragrant I pause and encourage her to take a whiff. I want her not to miss any of these miracles, these tiny blessings that come and go so quickly. Someday she’ll be too busy texting a boyfriend or hyperspacing herself to the movies. But for now she is a willing participant.

This one I wanted to share with you.

In the merry month of Spring

…we crown thee with blossoms today
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.”

— Queen of the May, traditional

We went a-maying yesterday. That’s a phrase I love, one you don’t hear much anymore. “Won’t you come a-maying with us?” It conjures up images of gay young ladies and gentlemen strolling through meadows and gathering flowers in their smartest attire, reciting at whiles bits of Dryden and Donne to each other, but not Coleridge. It’s an activity too unspecific in its goals to be well remembered in this age. In fact, I didn’t really know we were gone a-maying until we were nearly on our way home from a-maying.

The lass gives a genteel curtsey. I don't know where she learned to do this. Cross my heart, I had nothing to do with it.

Every year University Avenue (“the Ave”) is closed off from about 41st or 43rd up to at least 50th, a good stretch of the University of Washington’s main business street, and artists and craftsmen set up their booths and performers come to play. An assortment of food booths that gets broader each year lines both sides of 45th street where it crosses the Ave, and the whole affair — known as the University Street Fair — is extremely well attended. Yesterday was sunny and warm, it felt as though the late winter we’ve had here suddenly ended, so people came out in droves.

This is why I never get anything constructive done around the house.

Like break dancing only in slow motion. A capoeirist draws the energy of the circle into the middle and makes art of it.

One thing that captured our attention right away was the demonstration by Candeias Capoeira, a group of capoeira dancers. Capoeira is a Brazilian art form descended from African slave traditions that looks like a cross between break dancing and martial arts. A circle had formed and people started clapping, and one man started singing in what I guess must have been Portuguese. While the circle of his fellow capoeirists clapped and sang, the littlest practitioner stepped out and started jukin’ and jivin’ and twirlin’. When he was done, the next oldest stepped out. In this, capoeira and break dancing both share the “spotlight” format with the ancient art of flamenco dancing, wherein a spontaneous gathering of dancers will take turns “showing off” individually accompanied by the clapping of the others (in flamenco this is called palmas), someone singing, and sometimes also the playing of a guitar. It was fun to see little blond suburban kids performing this venerable and earthy art.

We have a collection of photos, starting when Mara was a toddler, of her staring worriedly at people dressed up in strange or extremely large customes at public events. There was a giant yellow hen at the Woodland Park Zoo’s Bunny Jump egg hunting event one year. We called her the Chicken Lady. Then there was the white-painted Fairy Lady at Folklife the last couple of years. Yesterday there was a cowboy riding a giant chicken. I don’t know why. Mara was amused and kept her distance. She was even a little leary of the balloon lady, possibly because she was wearing a tophat and vest and so looked a little mannish. Remind me to discuss the “uncanny valley” sometime. This was not that, but the ideas are related.

There's one in every crowd.

Mara hangs back a little, but a free balloon is a free balloon.

We had timed our visit to the street fair so that we would be able to see the MossyBack Morris Men. Morris dancing looks silly. And it is silly. Grown men with bells strapped to their limbs jumping up and waving handkerchiefs, is what it is. But it’s a very old tradition with dark and earthy roots in England’s “benighted” pagan past. These days it’s something that gamesome gents do in the vicinity of a pint of bitter. Still, it’s always fun to watch. I had a hard time getting decent photographs of the dancing because they moved so fast that they jumped out of the frame, and because I kept being distracted by the visual and metaphorical implications of the Jack in the Box sign directly behind them.

Yes they wear bells and toss hankies around, but they beat on each other with sticks too, so step off.

I dunno. It kinda works for me, but you can ignore the sign if it helps.

The Morrisers picked Angela out of the crowd of onlookers to be Queen of the May. They sat her down on a box (they told her that had they not been shorthanded that day she would have been sitting on one of their knees, and they apologized for the failure) and performed for her good pleasure, with the guitarist and the concertina player giving accompaniment and singing a song about the Queen of the May. Each dancer bowed before her, then each leapt as high as he could in front of her while waving his kerchiefs. At the end of the song they lined up and each one bent and kissed her on the cheek.

Queen of the May, huh? I'll never live this down.

I guess jumping like this counted for a lot back in Olde England.

The kissing line. Each one walks away a better man, if I know my woman.

When the kissing line started, a man standing next to me who realized that I was the cuckold in this metaphor said “they didn’t tell you about this part, huh?”

I said I wasn’t particularly worried. Angela knew many lords a-leaping and she chose me, for good or ill. And besides, I could leap. I could leap if I wanted ta…

...but I might not look this cool.


Old as cut nails (the education of a wrangler)

NOTE: This is one of a series of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. So far they include “Shooting Emma“, “High, wide and handsome” and “A family I knew“.

“That one’ll be trouble,” said Arden, pointing to a big, dark, beautiful bay grazing next to another, lighter horse. His voice was raspy and feather-soft at the same time — he was truly a hoarse whisperer. “That’s Champ. You’ll want to approach him slow.”

It was early in the year, just a few weeks after I’d arrived in Ohio, and Arden the old farm manager and I had gone over to Winter pasture to gather up the horses that were still wintering over there and worm them. The first task was to catch them. In my dotage now, I don’t recall precisely how this went. We wormed them in the lower portion of Farmhouse Barn, and I remember being in there with a good number of nervous horses — they weren’t tied up, just milling around — who were indisposed to having a tube of cold paste shot into their mouth. I don’t recall if we drove some of them in and went out to catch the stragglers one by one, or if we had to catch all of them individually and lead them in. I do know that we spent a whole day there, which leads me to suspect that few if any of the herd just walked into the barn, especially since they had been left alone in this pasture all winter and were a little sour.

Amy and friend, 1991. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

The day after I arrived at the ranch I was put on a horse for only the second or third time in my life. I was nervous, but this was why I had come, so I mounted up like they showed me. The horse was a large buckskin named Skippy. As is often the case with giants, Skippy was a gentle horse, the most gentle horse in the stable besides Thunder, who was even bigger. Arden assigned me to Skippy and put me at the end of the trail. “Trail” in this sense means a line of horses, not the earthen pathway. Each trail had at the minimum a lead, who rode in front; ideally there would also be someone at the back of the line called a drag and someone riding alongside the trail called a float, who moved up and back making sure everyone was in good shape. Amy, who was to join us that summer as a counselor and wrangler, was out at the ranch that weekend with her mother for a ride, and during the course of it we all chatted. When they learned midway through the ride that this was my first time on a horse as an adult, they expressed surprise and said you could never tell I was a greenhorn, I looked that comfortable in the saddle. Good, I thought. I was able to hide my fear. I felt very proud that day.

Of course, Skippy was the perfect horse for a a spanking newbie. Things did not go the same way when Arden put me on Scirocco a day or two later. George was leading a trail up the south edge of Ring pasture on the way to the gate into Lake. I was in back again, riding drag. Scirocco suddenly decided she wanted to eat grass and put her head down. She would not go. Transfixed with fear at the sudden realization that I was sitting atop a huge animal with a will of its own, a will that had suddenly gone orthogonal to mine, I became powerless. I could not keep her head up by any amount of yanking on the reins, and she eventually started drifting back toward the stable. I was extremely embarrassed at my situation, but I didn’t know what to do. There was no float on this trail. I called out for George, ever my rescuer, it seems. George left the head of the trail to ride back to me, which meant that instantly all the horses stopped and turned left or right off the trail a step or two to eat grass, deaf to the plaintive cajoling and rein-tugging of the campers riding them. It looked like a no-injury pile-up on the freeway, an endless fenderbender, everyone at crinkly odd angles to the path. From a distance this fiasco probably would have looked hilarious.

George yanked Scirocco’s head up and instructed me to be firm with her and keep her moving at the same time, the kind of impossible advice that you find oddly reassuring. He was basically telling me that there was nothing wrong with the horse, nothing wrong with me. This was what horses did. I must simply override her will. He then rode ahead to straighten out the line and get the trail moving again. I felt useless that day.

I learned quickly. One day a little while later I had another showdown with Scirocco while again dragging a trail. George sent me back to the stables to fetch something or deliver a message, I can’t recall now, but I was riding back through Lake and came to a place near the road where the trail crossed a little creek issuing out of a culvert in the hillside. It made a gurgling noise and Scirocco did not want to cross it, even though she had done so when we came the other way with the other horses. Now she had me alone, though, and she planted her feet. I made my butt heavier and clucked with my mouth, held the reins a little wider apart wide and taut so she could not turn away. She backed away. I used my weight again, as I had been taught, to drive her forward. It slowly worked. She whinnied and argued, and danced a little, but then she hopped over the trickle and we were on our way again. I felt elated that day. I had triumphed.

Soon I was floating trails, and within a short while I had learned the basic routes enough to lead them, even alone. I quickly picked up the phrases and assurances and bits of instruction we used to keep the riders from freaking out, or to get them going when they were stuck. There were still challenges to be faced — the first time a horse reared under me was a particularly educational experience — but I was over the initial hump.

Now Arden and I loaded our pockets with dry kernals of yellow corn and went into the pasture. The horses were grazing on the long sloping meadow next to the road. I had never seen these horses, in fact I did not know that the ones I had been riding and putting riders on for weeks were not all of the ranch’s horses.

He knew trouble when he saw it. Arden around 1999. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

At the time I didn’t think Arden thought much of me, and I thought this for two reasons. One, he didn’t give overt praise, and two, the very first day I had worked with him he had delivered himself of a speech — unprovoked as far as I could tell — about how people think they know a thing or two but they generally don’t know anything. (That is a summary. The actual speech took as much time as the saddling of a pony.) I took this to mean that he thought I was one of the so deluded. If so, he was wrong. I knew I didn’t know anything, and I rather resented his hasty judgment of me. What I realized later was that Arden had seen ’em come and he’d seen ’em go, and the odds, he knew, were that they’d come and stay for a while and then they’d see how hard the work was, or they wouldn’t be able to take orders, and they’d go. I don’t know how old he was — once when we were gutting a house I came across square nails in the studs, and he said that they used to cut nails out of square rod and pound them sharp, and when I asked whether he knew this from experience he grinned and said, “I’m old, but I’m not as old as cut nails!” — but he was pretty old. He had been a dairyman and had lived through hard times — the Great Depression at the very least — and he had retired from his own business to serve at the Ranch. I imagine he was grateful for a place to be useful and three squares and a roof over.

Arden was known for several phrases he used when he heard someone complaining. One was “Suffer, baby!” and the other was “You’ll be fine when you feel better.” Once while Arden was loading spring rams into his pickup truck to take to the market Geo came running into the kitchen of the ranch house with a look of astonished amusement on his face to inform George and me that we would not believe what he had just seen.  One of the sheep had dove out a side window of the canopy. Quick Arden had caught the little bleater and was wrestling him back through the same window when the ram kicked loose one of the old man’s teeth. With great facial animation, Geo showed us how Arden paused, still wrestling with the animal, to spit out the tooth and a spatter of blood, before shoving the ram back into the truck. It was events like this that made Arden a legend among us younger hands.

I also learned to read the subtle tonal changes in his commentary on our achievements. Sometimes he was offering encouragement or acknowledging a job well done simply by refraining from making us feel like an ass. Once while mowing a field in Lower Barn I drove the Allis-Chalmers into (what I now know was) a swamp, and had to go fetch Arden and tell him what I’d done so he could tow me out with one of the other tractors. I was ready for an earful, but he simply told me what to do with the chains and related a story of when he had performed a similar stunt. It was his way of telling me not to feel too bad about it, that if you didn’t drive a tractor into a swamp at least once you probably weren’t doing a thorough job.

Champ, at left, many years later as an old horse, standing at the rail with Sunny, whom I also knew. All but the youngest of the ponies I knew are gone now. Photo courtesy of George P., used by permission.

I approached Champ slowly with some corn in my outstretched left hand and a hay-twine loosely balled in my right hand. He moved away a few paces and resumed nibbling at the sparse grass. I approached again and he trotted off pointedly, swishing his tail a few times and moving a good distance away. “Leave me alone” was what I read in this behavior. Arden worked on some of the others. Once a horse put their mouth to your hand to eat the corn, you gently put the hay-twine around its neck and that was that. As soon as they felt that encirclement — a secure feeling for horses — they were all yours and you could lead them away with just the twine. But getting them to your hand took patience. In some cases it took a very long time.

Champ ran away from me possibly a dozen, maybe twenty times that day, but horses eventually tire of this. You can win with the illusion of eternity. They don’t know that you’re hungry and tired and that you want to give up and that you really can’t afford to waste a whole day following them around a field. If they knew that, they would be indomitable. But their imagination is inferior to ours. I kept at it because I knew I would win eventually. Champ eventually gave in because — well, for Pete’s sake, I was following him around with a treat that he really wanted to eat, and for all he could tell it was going to be like this forever and he was starting to forget why he was resisting. I patted the huge, handsome triangle of his dark neck when he finally bent to nibble the corn out of my hand, and slowly dropped the hay-twine over the other side of him, then pulled the two twine-ends together and he was mine.

Once we had them in the barn, we put their bridles and lead ropes on and had to hold their heads still long enough to squirt a tube of something called Zimecterin into their mouths. This we did by working the end of the tube into the side of the mouth far enough back that they couldn’t push it out with their tongue. They weren’t frightfully keen on this process, and there was a lot of rearing and tugging. Arden and I both got knocked around in there quite a bit that day, but they weren’t kicking us, not even when the sky turned dark gray and lightning flashed and thunder struck loudly and rain started hammering the barn’s state roof and wooden sides. I learned a lot that day. Horses, like me, are avoiders. They could easily rear up and kill you with a well-placed kick to your skull, but it is not in their nature to do this. Their preference when faced with danger is to run away. God made them fast for this reason. They will only strike out if you put them in a situation where they can’t run and then frighten or torment them. They knew Arden, and while they didn’t yet know me, I didn’t threaten them. I held on but let them rear, used my hands as comforters and not threateners.

Farmhouse Barn back in the day. I hear it was later leveled by a storm. Photo courtesy of Bonnie W., used by permission.

Arden was impressed by the patience I displayed that day, I found out later from Uncle Bill. He told Bill I had “a good way” with the horses. This came up weeks later after we had lost the volunteer who had been slated to be stablemaster for the summer. Her name was Tammy, and she knew a lot about horses, and she brought a singularly magnificent dapple gray with her, but when she saw how the horses were treated at F– Ranch, or maybe when she saw how the staff was treated, she bolted. (Bill did not pamper the horses, and in this I applaud him. It’s true they could have used more regular attention by a ferrier, and once or twice it would have been nice not to have to twist his arm to get a vet out to the ranch, but he knew that if you give horses plenty of room to run and graze, they pretty much take care of themselves.) Tammy’s horse was a show horse. Tammy stayed less than a week, as I recall. This left Bill wondering whom to put in charge of the stables for the summer. Rebecca was certainly capable, but she was only seventeen. George, at nineteen, might have been the next, or even the first, choice, but with his knowledge of both the herd and the trails he was too valuable in the saddle to be stuck in the stable putting kids on horses. So was Bonnie, a woman about my age who also helped run the office and worked with Judy and others in the kitchen. Arden was the default stablemaster, but he had the Ranch’s cattle and sheep to tend to and whatever other mysteries he was involved in.

Bill and Arden discussed whether they thought I could do the job and then Bill asked me if I would be willing. I demurred a little, because I knew Rebecca would have given anything to have that job, but I also knew it was a done deal. I was the least experienced rider and the least experienced instructor, so virtually all the other staff were more useful than I in the ring and on the trail, but I could keep my head in a corral full of large animals and small children, and I was old enough that Bill wouldn’t get in trouble for putting me in charge. That’s how I ended up being “master” of about 96 horses and ponies that summer of 1991. The stables were the occasion of many adventures I’ll tell you about later. I rode a horse for at least some portion of the day — sometimes eight hours, sometimes just a few minutes — almost every day for over a year.

There was a girl, I think her name was Janette or Jeanette, who would come out to the ranch with her father to ride. They didn’t go out in a trail with one of us leading. Her father was one of the very few customers that Uncle Bill trusted to take out the horses without supervision. She always wanted to ride Tandara, and they would call a couple hours ahead of their visit and request Tandara. One day in winter, a cold gray day when the fields were frozen, I got word that they had called and would be arriving in an hour or two. There was no camp going on, so most of the horses were off in Lake pasture somewhere, and we had not even kept any round-up horses in the night before. I bundled up, took Tandara’s bridle from its peg in the stable and threw a few handfuls of corn into my pocket, and headed out on foot through Ring. I would have to find Tandara, catch her, and ride her back bareback. Going up the far slope, I suddenly saw myself laterally, that is, I became fully aware of both the tactile details and the larger context of my existence in that moment. I realized how lucky I was, and how grateful I was to be doing exactly this thing. The cold air lashed at my cheeks and it felt good to be outside. There was grass crunching under my boots, not the click of dead pavement. The real leather of the bridle, oiled and well used, felt honest and purposeful in between my fingers. I was on my way to relate with an animal that I knew and could identify out of all her companions from two hills away, just by her size and shape and the way she moved and the company she kept, an animal that knew me, my smell and my voice. I knew, suddenly, deeply, that I always wanted to be doing this, that this kind of life was vitally important to me. I always wanted to be walking on bare earth, touching real things, relating with God’s creatures and knowing the weather with my face and hands.

It was not to be, or at least, it has not yet been. From the day I packed Little Nemo and drove away from the Ranch in May or June of 1992 until now, I have never put my foot in a stirrup.

Arden and Norma at home. Photo courtesy of Bonnie W., used by permission.

As for Arden, he was still the farm manager until a year or so ago. George went back to attend his funeral. He told me that the old cowboy went for a walk to the post office one day, came home and lay down to rest and just never woke up again. He was plum wore out. Once George and I were heading home to the house we lived in when we saw Arden in a hillside pasture next to the road trying to help a cow give birth. He had his arm into the cow’s uterus all the way up to his shoulder. George stopped the car, we piled out and hopped the fence to help. She was lying with her legs uphill, which wasn’t working out, but she couldn’t help herself. Arden told us to rope her legs and pull until she rolled over. It took both of us all our strength. I’m sure Arden was relieved we’d showed up just then, but if we hadn’t, he’da just done it himself.

Above it all

When old buildings start changing ownership frequently, I start getting nervous. Seattle’s 1914 Smith Tower has been flipping a lot lately if you ask me, considering its age and its historical value. Certainly the building will not be torn down, nor do I believe that its observation deck will ever be closed — the view is too much of a civic treasure — but you never know, you just never know. And since I had never been up to that vantage point despite growing up across the lake and living in Seattle for most of my adult life, the observation deck has been on my “local adventures” list for several years.

At dusk. The observation deck is just below the pyramidal section. Image by Christopher S Maloney licensed via Creative Commons.

For a while in my lifetime Seattle’s first skyscraper was owned by Seattle’s first clam chowder magnate, Ivar Haglund, who bought it for 1.8 million clams in 1976. Ivar is long gone, but I remember a fish-shaped windsock fluttering from the tower’s pinnacle in those days. Sometimes you still hear someone call it “Ivar’s Tower”.

The Samis Foundation bought it in 1996. Sam Israel, from whose name the foundation takes its own, is a story in himself, maybe for another time. Walton Street Capital bought Smith Tower in 2006, and because economic hard times have created a low occupancy rate for the old spire in recent years, Walton Street has recently talked about turning the whole thing into condominiums, and then more recently (I’m not quite certain of my facts here) of turning just the twelve floors of the tower below the famous Chinese Room into condominiums and leaving the rest as office space.

A building a-building. 1913. Image licensed via Wikimedia Commons.

For years, every time I’ve looked up near the corner of Yesler and Second I’ve thought “I’ll hate myself if I wait so long that I lose my opportunity”. I mentioned this to my boss Michael last fall while we were out walking during lunch. He said it sounded like a good field trip for the development team, on the company’s nickel. Every once in a while the engineers get out of the building as a group and do something fun. We took the Seattle Underground Tour a few years back.

At the time Michael suggested the tower field trip, the observation deck had just closed for the winter (you could still visit it on weekends, but not weekdays), so I put a note in my Outlook Calendar and when April came I scheduled the trip. Click each photo to enlarge it. 

The steely-eyed missile men I work with. Around the ring starting at the left are Walter, John, Michael, Glen, Kirk and Mike. Chris had wandered off around to the other side at this moment.

Above is a photo I almost forgot to take because I was so enthralled by the 360-degree views. I really am fortunate to work with this crew. A little stiff in social situations, but they’re smart and funny. This is a good picture of them getting a collective rare dose of vitamin D.    

Detail of the Hoge lions. If you click to see more of the image, the building we work in is just visible -- the top of it anyway -- at the top edge of the photo left of center, beyond the old white-capped Post Office building.

The Hoge Building is one of my favorites. Lyman Cornelius Smith, of guns and typewriter manufacturing fame, and John D. Hoge built their buildings at roughly the same time (the Hoge Bldg went up first, in 1911) and I once heard a story to the effect that they had come to an agreement about how high each would be, but then Mr. Smith had the “tower” portion of his building added to his design on the huggermugger. Needless to say, Mr. Hoge was not amused. Or maybe he was. That’s how developers were in Seattle back then. As Herodotus was wont to disclaim, I don’t know if that story is true.

Looking north on Second to the Space Needle. Click to search for window washers.

On a clear night, you might be able to see your friend flashing signals to you from the observation deck of the Space Needle. I don’t know. You could try it. The above view also shows two very recent edifices erected in the downtown, both on the west (left here) side of Second. The carpets in the WaMu Center, which was designed to house the overflow of personnel from Washington Mutual Bank’s nearby WaMu Tower, had barely finished offgassing before our favorite local lender folded up, and the building is now called the Russell Investments Center. Here it stands behind a building that is boringly named for its cross streets but that locals call the Ban Roll-On Building. Behind WaMu’s folly is a new one whose name is its address (yawn), the Fifteen Twenty-One Second Avenue Bldg. It is topped by the permanent crane that you see in action here, maybe for lowering the window washing scaffold.

The Yesler Building at 400 Yesler, named for Henry, whose last name was...say it with me now...

The image above is of one of several buildings named after one of Seattle’s early movers and shakers. Movers and shakers could be a pun, I guess, because ol’ Hank moved a lot of timber and sold a lot of shakes for roofing the housing boom that the presence of his mill generated. I don’t know anything about the building. I just like it. It’s triangular and I like triangular buildings because triangular buildings mean odd-angled streets, and odd-angled streets mean interesting vistas for the pedestrian. And it’s all about the pedestrian. Or it should be. The street to the right of the Yesler Building is Yesler Way. It was the road that logging crews used to “skid” timber from the forested hills behind Seattle down to Henry Yesler’s mill on the waterfront. It became the infamous “Skid Road” celebrated in the classic 1951 book of the same name by Murray Morgan, which you should read no matter who you are or where you live. Today’s phrase “skid row” is derived from that name.

A lot has changed in this view over the years. Looking southeast from Smith Tower.

Let’s swing a little further south. The view above is looking southeast toward Beacon Hill. The Second Avenue Extension is the street approaching in the immediate foreground (receding, I should say, since it’s one-way south). Smith Tower sits at the junction between the street grid laid out by Doc Maynard, who sensibly oriented his streets on north-south and east-west axes, and the street grid laid out by Denny and Boren, who followed the angle of Elliott Bay. The main downtown streets, therefore, met at kinky, inconvenient angles. Doc Maynard was just a sweetie who ended up giving away (or losing) most of his property in an effort to pursuade visitors to settle here, while the latter men were powerful businessmen who managed to attract more commerce to their own neighborhoods. Evenually, Maynard’s old turf fell largely into disrepair and neglect, which made it easy for city leaders to bulldoze this extension of Second Avenue, linking it to Fourth Avenue at the angle (center) and meanwhile creating a whole ‘nuther slew of truncated angular buildings. I remember when most of these had watertowers on them, and if you click on the image and look closely you can still see the platforms for several of them.

King Street Station is here, of course, with its clock tower, and Union Station to the left of it across Fourth. Did you know that there were two stations because each railroad that came to town had to build its own infrastructure? I was surprised when I learned about that. It explains that spaghetti of rails in separate railyards south of downtown, which you can’t see in this view. What you can see here is the tracks disappearing under Washington Street in the lower left corner of the image as they enter the south entrance of the tunnel underneath the city. They emerge along the waterfront below the Pike Place Market (see “Two Pigeons”, the second photo here).

One final delight meets me as I study this view. There’s a green bridge visible in the far upper left of the photo. You can barely see it. Look for the yellowish Bush Hotel in Chinatown and follow the left edge of that building directly upwards in the image, and you’ll see where a wide street heads down curvingly from Beacon Hill right in front of the old hospital that Jeff once said looked like a Turkish fortress. That descending street becomes Twelfth Avenue. There’s a newer, more visible bridge crossing all the freeway ramps and there’s a harder-to-see one to the left, a dark green arched affair. See it? When I was a kid, Interstate 90 didn’t connect to I-5 as you see it doing here; it petered out just over the ridge in the Rainier Valley and came to a stoplight. You ended up on Dearborn, and Dearborn brought you the last mile into town beneath that old green bridge. You look at that bridge and you imagine that the first time a road traversed that stretch was when the bridge was built there. A reasonable assumption, but it’s not the case. Before there was a gap there for the Twelfth Avenue bridge to cross, the ridge continued across there from Beacon Hill.

The ridge before the bridge. If you click to enlarge, you can see the ridge already under attack along what was called Fourteenth Street in 1891. Look for Mikado Street between Lane and Charles. Mikado eventually became Dearborn when the hill was finally removed.

That northern piece of the hill was a wall that isolated the city, and back when the industrious folk who made Seattle the success it is thought nothing of moving entire mountains if they were inconveniently located, they blasted through the ridge and created the gap that Dearborn now passes through and that Twelfth Avenue now must traverse by bridge.

Just thought you’d like to know.

I took plenty more photos, but that’s enough of a city-tour for today. What do you see here that sparks any memories for you?


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt