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30 May, 2011

Old 'Awa, New Tea

The great thing about a 3-day weekend is how it gives you time to concoct a complex plan, get started, procrastinate, rush to take care of the chores you'd ignored before because the project seemed cooler, and finally make a little more headway on the project before collapsing in lumbar agony. That's why I am sitting on a heating pad with stacks of wood cut, yet unjoined, in the garage.

My ridiculous primate architecture is modern enough that the skeleton is no longer so adept at canopy cavorting, but in many aspects not much different than a Cambrian creature. The spine is fine supine in the ocean brine, but sucks for feet on concrete or bending over.
In Hawai`i, one option was to drink some `awa (a.k.a. kava in most of Polynesia, yangona in Fiji, or Piper methysticum in the priestly language of botanists), which relaxes the muscles and either alleviates pain or makes a guy forget it in the midst of kava conversation, which flows easily and abundantly. I've seen it called a narcotic time and again, but it just ain't so. I used to sit under the banyan tree at the community garden, having a few cups with the Rotumans, Fijians, and Tongans, spinning yarns and stringing stories. Tongue numbed and eventually legs too, but nothing like being drunk and much subtler than the western pharmacornucopia had trained me to withstand.

I grew a dozen or so plants in the cinder  of Puowaina, adding years of leaves and compost before anything was harvested from black soil full of worms. Most were still going when I moved away from the islands, leaving them in good hands. The ones I dug were approved of by the garden crew, and my finest waka roots made it to Kona, to Nu`alolo, to Moloka`i Nui a Hina. 

Anything left from that batch would be a decade or more old at this point, but it turns out that I had some other `awa in the freezer, sitting untouched for who knows how long. I know a guy who spent a little time in Fiji and a few people with Hawai`i connections, but nobody to sit with and socialize over a bowl of vintage root. So, I broke into it for the medicinal value tonight, and here I sit, obviously feeling well enough to remain in the chair and blather on. So now I know that yeah, kavalactones retain some effect even after years in a freezer. Enough so I can blather further on. And on.

And off. To way back when I was writing about blackberries, a couple of posts ago. That had to do with another type of drink: blackberry leaf tea. Specifically the local native known as the trailing blackberry (a.k.a. dewberry to people who are more mature than I am, or Rubus ursinus to the science Latinists). I had hoped to dry it under the sun yesterday, but the sun got wind of that, and hid behind the clouds, snickering audibly. 

I'd also planned to cook up some tender shoots, but got waylaid by designing and starting to build something, and instead put off even stripping the leaves off the stalks til the after dinner sun-break today. The result is shown below, inside and away from dew, sending out aroma runners through the house, tendrils of citrus and banana peel wafting and tickling noses. I think it'll be good tea. 

A Compendium of Gathering

Bracken and Black (High-end forager supply company, or AC/DC allusion?)

Nettles are flowering, and the time is past to gather them, but as the year rolls on new opportunities arise low and high. In among the tangles of young trees, webs of bracken rhizomes have been sending up shoots for a while now, and last week I managed to snag a few in that liminal state between tight fiddleheads and loose leaves--not ideal, but not yet deadly. (Well, maybe. Bracken contains carcinogens, but so do a lot of things. I grew up on the East Coast, where all late-20th Century children were marinated in toxins, so I'm not worried about a few ounces of fern at this point.) If it snaps off easily, I figure it's still good. 

Nicely coiled fiddleheads are a little earlier, and harder to find, having not reached up through the unraveled blanket of last year's dead fronds. On the other hand, when you see a patch of the orangey leftovers of last year's patch, you know where to poke around. It's just a question of finding a place where you don't have to reach through too many blackberry canes or branch-tangles to get at them. Long ago, it was a lot easier, since tribes burned some areas to fertilize the bracken and thin out the competition. Yet another case where "gathering" is not so passive, and tending was the order of the day.

Wait, did I just make it sound like native gathering was in the past? No, it carries on. Generations of assaults by guns and germs, assimilation by churches and boarding schools, lost land and knowledge,...none of this has completely wiped out the old cultures of the northwest. In forests around the Salish Sea, tribes have answered the call of the rising sap, congregating around cedars to get boughs, bark, and roots. 

In the Days of Yore (Last Week)

As the Plains people used all the parts of the buffalo, so do the local tribes use all of the cedar. Wood becomes houses and canoes. Roots become baskets so tight and durable that you can boil water in them. Boughs might be woven more loosely into baskets that hold clams. The inner bark can become anything: hats and clothes, ropes, mats, diapers,'s as versatile as plastic, and much more sustainable.

The practice is to take a little bit, allowing the tree to heal itself. While tribes don't depend on the tree to clothe everyone anymore, they do use the bark. The photo above is a group of kids from a tribal school, escaping their more urban home to connect with the trees and nature. Another tribe is gathering bark in preparation for hosting the canoe journey next summer, when they will need things made from the bark for themselves and for a big potlatch. To give a visiting elder a nice cedar hat in 2012, people have to be on the ball in early 2011, scouting trees, pulling bark, cleaning and curing it, and finally spending the long hours of weaving that produce the gift.

Every time a kid learns to pull the bark and transform it into gifts, she is adding a strand to the weave of culture. She is perpetuating traditions thousands of years old, and preserving knowledge that may be useful for thousands more. She adds her weft today, and becomes the warp that her kids will add to tomorrow. Every student who learns that the ferns are ready when they are ready, that gathering is governed by earth's cycles, that simple knowledge can be profound, that working with nature instead of trying to dominate it yields great rewards, is tapping into a flow that has sustained his people for millenia, and is a far greater hope for the future than our petroleum economy.

Spring arrives, the fronds stretch up and the sap rises. People who listen hear the call, and receive the treat.

NOTE!: Bracken would be hard to eliminate, but cedar bark worth harvesting is far less common. Tempting as it is to go pull some and try to making something, think twice and talk with the tribe whose territory you are in before even thinking about stripping a tree. There is a lot of spiritual and practical knowledge that governs how it is to be done, and if a bunch of people descend on the forest to gather, many trees will be needlessly damaged by the unskilled or over-harvested by even well-intentioned students of northwest native cultures. Undeveloped lands where tribes can exercise traditional and treaty guaranteed rights are becoming less common, and land managers have enough to worry about without an influx of people with no treaty rights gathering bark. 

In general, if you are going to forage, think about who will come next year, a decade from now, seven generations in the future. If you are cutting off their chance, you are not doing it right.

29 May, 2011

I was gonna write about tending to the wild berries

but it turns out I already did. That time, didn't post any photos, however, so here are a few. I just trimmed back the new Spring runners, who in their enthusiasm would drown the carpet of older growth that has been flowering heavily this month. Where a shoot can cover new ground (like the pile of alder and cherry branches I want to hide), I let 'em go, but otherwise I want every precious photon that makes it to the South Sound ground to kiss the berries. 

Can you hear the bees?
Last year, I found that doing this makes the ordinarily tiny native blackberry swell up and sweeten. The wild imperative is to cover ground, send out runners to new bare spots, clamber and climb through other plants: colonize, colonize, colonize before the canopy closes so tight nothing will grow below. The berries seem to be secondary, the way to get birds and mice to transport a few seeds should the vegetative expansion stall.

So in I step to cut off the natural process for my own benefit, or my kids' benefit, anyway. This year I am more organized, and have caught the runners at a really good stage: tender tips, well-formed leaves, not enough time for alder debris and other dirt to add what I don't want, or for bugs to chew what I do. I've heard of the tips being candied and preserved, and tasted a few as I was cutting: there is a hint of berry flavor wrapped in mild astringency. Books say to peel them, but I found that pinching a shoot and running my fingers down it strips off what passes for thorns on new growth. Not sure whether I'll candy and preserve them, but they'll probably work in the wok or steamer, maybe snuck into a salad. 

The liko, the emerging leaves on the extreme tip, has more thorns and both the texture and flavor are stronger than the stem, so I'll pinch those off for tea. I'm hoping that it will be analogous to some fine Chinese tea I had one time, formed entirely of the baby leaves picked at their tender best.

Further down, the runner is too tough to eat, but the leaves are good. Again, it's a matter of pinch and pull, but this time I keep the part I removed, and toss the stalk.  (As soon as I write that, I find myself wondering what uses the stripped runners could have. Hmmm...) And again on another matter, I cannot overstate how nice the leaves are right now. No bug holes or eggs or exudations, no blemishes, none of the hardness of texture and appearance of old leaves. I have read many times about gathering blackberry leaves for tea, but nobody mentions that it should be done at young runner stage. I've already mentioned the tender freshness of the produce at that point, as well as the future benefit in terms of berries, but there is also this: the thorns are smaller and not so stiff, so it's easier and less painful.

It's rumored that there will be sun today, and the leaves can dry. That, I could not plan, but the rest of the timing I will take credit for later today as I sip some tea, and later this summer as I feast on fat juicy berries.

28 May, 2011

The Gospel of Thallus

Flaccid Thallus

In writing the last post, I learned the word thallus. It's the scientific term for the undifferentiated tissue comprising the bodies of kelp and other algae, fungi, and as you've probably guessed, Myxogastria, the predators of the slime mold world (for which I carry a minor obsession). Getting over my initial disappointment with the word having nothing to do with phallus (except when mushrooms look like penises), I realized that it's a pretty interesting concept.

The level at which thalloid tissue is undifferentiated is cellular. No fundamental difference occurs between one cell and another in kelp, even though the plant appears to have roots, a stipe, leaves,...all the parts that in a more complex plant have their own cell type. The kelp thallus is the entire plant, one kind of cell from where it grabs the ocean floor, sometimes stretching hundreds of feet to the tip of the leaf-which-is-not-a-leaf. It's all thallus, baby.

Roots and trunk? Nope, thalloid "holdfasts"
Organisms lacking cell differentiation are considered primitive by primates, but there is an elegance in their design. Thallus-bodied species create analogs of all the necessary organs and structures from a single type of cell. Efficient and clever, if you ask me. Why bother with complexity and all the risks that come with it if you can replicate the effect with simple building blocks? In the human world, the power to turn a lump of undifferentiated clay into a living being is considered divine, but somehow when something similar happens in the algal or fungal worlds, it's just "primitive."

Midrib and leaf? Huh-uh, just more thallus.

From ancient sects to cyber sex, humans have worshiped the phallus, but rarely the thallus, even though it has procreated for eons before the first complex erection aroused or amused or horrified a female. We've populated our mythologies and comic books with shape changers, but show no appreciation for the humble thallus, adopting the forms it needs to, changing as the slime mold does from something shapeless and amoebic to flagellic and plasmoid, even going zygotic and making fruiting bodies when it gets in the mood. We presume superiority, but will be outlasted by these simple beings.

27 May, 2011

Backroads: The Kelp Highway

On the Kelp Way in Clallam County, looking over at Vancouver Island.
How about instead of a backroad, I follow the first road this time? The stream so main that it was traveled by the first people to head east into the Western Hemisphere. For most of my life, this was presumed to have been the Bering Land Bridge, the rim of Beringia, a tectonic plate where some dry land peeked up when glaciers borrowed the ocean's topmost fathoms. People followed game across the arc of dry land, and ended up in the New World, where they made big fluted spearpoints for the convenience of archaeologists, who would name them after the town of Clovis, named after the first King of the Franks, who never conquered anything within a few kilomiles of New Mexico. What these people called themselves, nobody knows, but it was probably the same as nearly every other culture that has had the sense to avoid citification: "People."

It does not much matter, since Clovis people came along after others. Earlier sites have emerged over the years, and though plenty of people argue against the 40,000 year old dates in Monte Verde, hardly anybody disputes that 15,000 or so (feel free to give or take on the order of a millenium or two) is OK. In the old days, this was a problem because the period when the land Beridge was exposed was later. But now we know that people lived here before they could walk here. It already looks ridiculous and bigoted to espouse such an utterly baseless theory as "People could not get here except on foot. The land route was not available until 11,000 years ago. Ergo the hemisphere was settled after 11,000 years ago. Oh, and aren't these spearpoints cool?"

Sure, Clovis points are cool, but you know what's cooler? This:

This is an older type of point that has been found along the Pacific Coast. In the California islands, it was found along with a lot of bird bones, and is presumed to have been used for hunting them. The most common name for these is "crescent points," because they have that shape, sorta. What they look even more like is half of the bottom of a cowry shell, but the point is that they are every bit as beautiful as a Clovis point, and from a functional standpoint may be even more elegant (there are a bunch of Clovis points that would be useless for hunting, they are so big). 

The photo comes from an article here: Link

I don't know a lot more about this than you (maybe less), but the idea in that article and elsewhere, that the people who made these artifacts settled the New World by boat, is hard to resist. Kelp grows continuously enough along the shores of the North Pacific that long open-water voyages are not necessary (also: not precluded) to get all the way to California. Kelp forests are incredibly rich in food, and their wave-dampening fronds offer canoe people the respite of smoother water. They offer access to shellfish clinging to rocks that would be extremely difficult and risky to get at on foot. They take People alongshore until they find a nice place to stop for a while. Or even stop forever, set up a village and stay. Even those People, however reluctant they may be to set out on a thousand mile trip, venture back into kelpy waters regularly for everything from the kelp itself to fish, birds, molluscs, pinnipeds, crustaceans, and all the other orders of life stacked in the deep larder of a kelp forest. 

Kelp Highway Off-Ramp.
Glaciers plan to return still more of the water they borrowed during the Pleistocene, and we can look forward to more drowned land. By the time we run out of petrochemicals, we may have difficulty walking between hills that have become islands. Kelp and kin will still be there, topography will become bathymetry, and the seaweeds will cling to it. Even if (OK, when) the big one hits, the Subduction Zone quake that drops pieces of crust deep below sea level, then kelp thallus will respond with prodigious growth; the kelp forest will just get taller, more fecund. If we adapt to reality, and don't insist on living by some back-asswards theory, we'll be alright too.

25 May, 2011

Ain't Rand

Under the heading of belated criticism: Ayn Rand is full of crap. This is not as procrastinatory as you may think, since this rant was triggered not so much by her original foolosophy as by the worship of it on the more recent Mad Men TV show. Which yeah, I saw years after it first aired, and don't appreciate nearly as much as the shills would have wanted me to.

Kinda like capitalism. And advertising. And fauxlosophy.

Yeah, faux. I don't use a lot of French, but sometimes it sounds right. And what better way to accuse someone of being fake than to deploy it in a way that signals both pretentiousness and base punniness?

Anyway, Ayn ain't Ayn. She was a nice Russian Jewish girl who changed her name. Self-loathing or just false advertising? I dunno. Websites argue over whether Rand was stolen from a typewriter bRand, but seem to agree that Ayn is a bastardization of a Finnish name. "How can I sound northern European without being too Teutonic, not Nazi Nordic?" she must've figured..."I know, Finnish!" No, it's phony Finnish, Fauxnish.

As for her alleged philosophy, constructed to make the rich feel good about themselves. I have it on good authority that there are actually people in the upper reaches of the American financial apparatus who still buy it. Greenspan was a fan. Atlas Shrugged is based on the preposterous idea that the rest of us would be in a world of hurt were wealthy industrialists to go on strike (nope, workers know how to keep production going), as if self-involved greedheads would work collectively in the first place. 

The concept that self-interest among the wealthy is good for everyone has been disproved by decades of trickle-down economics, which amounts to a severe drought for the working and the poor. Turns out that lassez-faire capitalism is not nearly as good for the vast majority of people as for the unfettered few. It is a damning irony that the wealthy individuals and corporations set free by deregulation spend so much of their time implementing the opposite of laissez faire among the rest of us: exclusive vendor contracts are prizes, captive audiences cherished, cartels and monopolies seen as success. While much has been written about the complex and creative financial instruments devised in recent decades, the brain power has come from math majors despairing of an honest job, and the patrons essentially use these tools like the ghetto thug uses a gun, to rob people who work for their money.

There is another Rand, the Rand Corporation, which is just as dubious. I had an uncle who worked there when he was not in the CIA (that's a joke, people: once you go in you are never out of the CIA). The name is another construct, a not-quite-contraction, not-quite-acronym based on "Research ANd Development," though it could just as easily be Research AND nothing; they have pioneered and exemplified the "consulting firm," a creature that privatizes the thinking functions of government, and holds zero responsibility for implementation and consequences of its clever ideas. (Was it with RAND or the CIA when my uncle supported the brilliant strategy of arming and training Bin Ladin to fight a superpower?)  

Borne from the defense industry, but now claiming much broader relevance, RAND is an enduring example of the transformation of minor governmental ineptitude and frustration with red tape into a cash flow from public coffers into private hands. Not just theirs--RAND being allegedly non-profit--but to the security firms replacing the military and the arms manufacturers who profit from endless military action (or if not action, readiness). And if the transfer of wealth from taxpayers to corporations does not yield the desired result, then RAND is at the ready to do another study; the dollars flow free of responsibility and consequences.

Ever since Reagan became spokesman in chief, advocates of laissez faire government have had their way. Even before his ascendancy, the Rands of the world justified the actions he would take, stated that what was good for the rich or for the national security apparatus was good for all Americans. We should know better by now that to believe such fakes, having transferred most of our wealth to plutocrats and frittered away large piles of public wealth on wars we fight to deal with warlords and dictators we installed and supported. Wish I could say that I believe we have learned our lesson.

22 May, 2011

Same Old Same Old Paradox

Fresh-baked rock. But would I know that if it weren't so obvious?

Archaeologists face the challenge of reconstructing the past based on the tiny percentage of it that does not decay, wash away, fall prey to collectors, or otherwise get gone. But before we even get to coaxing tales from stones, we have to find them. In that search, human habits are both boon and bane.

Much as we want to think we are different, that we have higher intelligence, we are animals, mammals with habitat needs, habits hard wired. Until recent generations when urban living and industrial farming has been drained the countrysides and made possible lifeways disconnected from subsistence and survival activities that were typical since we spun off from the ape clan, we have not escaped the biological imperatives. Omnivorous us can adapt to all sorts of environments, but we need to be near fresh water, and we'd prefer some flat ground with a field of vision not entirely obscured by vegetation. 

Oh, and we burn things. Lots of people now live in bad habitat rendered acceptable by architecture and infrastructure, but even city dwellers like to have a campfire now and then, and when we head out to do this, often as not we end right back in what our brains' ape lobes recognize as good habitat. Places people camp now often end up having been discovered thousands of years ago. For that matter, a lot of cities are built where towns replaced villages replaced camps replaced the spot where the first human to lope through decided to stop and rest. Habitat preference narrows the archaeological search, because we tend to return to the same old places time and again.

But it also complicates the archaeological record, the stuff left behind by waves of ancient passers-by and rooted residents. For one thing, more recent inhabitants and visitors tend to remove the most obvious and interesting artifacts. Sometimes, people recognize a place as being rich in arrowheads or some other cool thing, and make a concerted effort to take them. Occasionally, the people doing this are careful about it, and make voluminous notes not just about the cool stuff, but broken and dull things as well as the dirt around it all; then it's called archaeology instead of looting. Methods and motivations don't affect the end result much at all, though, the archaeological record is non-renewable, and once disturbed cannot be studied again.

Even if they are not taking things, people make archaeology more difficult. They dig holes for trash or poop, make ruts and spin wheels, and do all sorts of things that churn up the layered sediments archaeologists rely on to tell time. Some of this can be sorted out.

But primitive imperatives also cause us to do things that distort archaeology not by removing or moving artifacts, but by adding imposters. Unless campers are kind enough to toss in some artifacts, a modern campfire can look just like an ancient one. Rock reddened and cracked by the fire, ash and charcoal settling in. All it takes is a few years of leaf fall or a river overflowing its banks and depositing silt to sink the modern campfire and make it harder to determine if it is ancient. Yeah, the technology exists to get a radiocarbon date from the charcoal or piece of deer bone, but the money is not often there. In my job, it's never there.

There was a place I worked at on Moloka'i where we found a bunch of C-shape shelters, a small stone wall (Shaped like which letter? Yes, a C. Very good.) that forms a little windbreak. Hawaiians made them all the time when they were not at their regular house, and when you find a large number, it can mean that the area was heavily used, or was used for a long time. The place I'm thinking of had some sweet potato fields and reefs with fish, so it made sense to find them here. But then I talked with a guy from the island who had joined the marines, and remembered being sent back to his home island for training. Thrilled that maneuvers had brought him to familiar turf (habitat whose subtleties he had previously mastered), he set about teaching the haoles in his unit how to make C-shapes and gather shellfish. The result was new "sites" that looked just like the old ones. Some probably made use of old ones, even. I'd noticed a few shell casings around, but on an island where lots of people hunt and military surplus rifles are common, had just assumed it was re-use of ancient features. 

Some tricks of the trade help archaeologists sort our the modern from the ancient, and on balance its better to be studying animals with definite habitat preferences than randomly peripatetic creatures, but human habits can mix things up. I hope we're getting past the 20th Century tendency to dump heaps of glass and metal and plastic everywhere we go, even if it did help sort out ancient from modern activity. The contemporary, environmentally sensitive camper or hunter who leaves behind nothing more than some organic material to decay, maybe some fire cracked rock and charcoal, may make my job more complicated, but I am glad that humans are still humans. It's comforting to look into the fire, chew on some local bounty, and see the past.

21 May, 2011

Ode to Backroads

Maybe the last road you'll ever take

In this blog, you may have noticed an obsession with backroads.

Long ago I took the off ramp from the freeway, began avoiding the arterial routes. I hate being in traffic's mainstream, locked into someone else's pace, breathing their exhaust. The primary road lacks soul and scenery except when the desire to move large volumes of vehicles from point A to point B cannot avoid traversing beautiful country (I-90 through Snoqualmie Pass, for instance), and even then there is always some better alternative (two lanes of Route 20 to the north, or of Route 12 to the south). Freeways aim to streamline and thus shed everything interesting, force everyone into the same rhythmless rate of travel, offer quirkless repetition of the same few gas stations and fast food places. Urban thoroughfares consist of a series of stoplights between which strips of stores and other concrete castings mark what was once a landscape as corporate occupied territory. Where mindless masses heed the realtors' idiotic mantra of "Location, location, location," pioneers with all their memory are pushed out, humans with their individuality are hidden somewhere behind facades, and even businesses grow less diverse and interesting. Top dollar rent, bottom feeder culture.

Maybe my penchant for backroads stems from something simpler, though, and all of the above (and more, believe me, there's much more to that rant) is just rantionalization of a more basic desire to avoid traffic. 

Over the years, many of my best friends have been the same, people who will take longer to reach a destination if it means avoiding highways and main streets. Humans who crave green roadsides. Apes with an appreciation for the offbeat and historic. 

Back when I'd only driven for a few short years, I read Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Already a lover of backroads, I cannot say it influenced me as much as the book and my internal narrative enjoyed a happy feedback, a harmony. It reinforced my belief that the road less traveled holds more promise of adventure and discovery, of meditation and discovery.

Over more years, backroads driving has become more than just a personal preference. Curving roads cannot be driven too fast, and in slowness there is more opportunity to see the lay of the land: terrain, vegetation, and old human haunts emerge in a way speed will not allow. As a student of cultural landscapes, there is no replacement for this kind of recon. The capillary network of small and semi-forgotten transportation penetrates most of the country and its history. What seem to most of my contemporaries to be roads to nowhere often go to a place that once was somewhere, to the old timer with a trove of memory or the ruins of where that memory settled into the earth.

So I take the lesser tine at the fork in the road, and follow. Sometimes this is history thrown into reverse: the old game trail that became and Indian Trail that became a road, then was bypassed and became less useful, less used, and abandoned. Shoulders shrug away to nothing, two lanes become one, pavement grows leprotic and patchy, and eventually fades to gravel, to mud-ruts. Trees arch over, salmonberry and blackberry crowds the lane, scratching the sides of the rare truck that enters with all the fervor and skill of a beginning violin student. Eventually, you come to the point where the plants just grown in the road, or maybe to the washed out bridge or dug up road where further travel must be on foot.

On lucky days, this means a 3-point turn (maybe 5 or 7), but other times the road ends with no wide spot, just dropping into a ditch or swamp. Then comes the slow back-up, trying to see the road behind through dusty windows and cockeyed mirrors. Either way can scrape the nerves like the brush scrapes the truck. Slipping off a narrow logging road leaves you in one of several predicaments: praying that enough wheels have traction to drive out, high-centered and figuring out if the winch can save you, a long walk out musing over ways to avoid ignominy among peers, or a quick and accelerating tumble down the mountain. None is pretty, but most are not deadly. It may take hours to walk out to find help, and this never happens in areas where your cell phone will work.

A different danger is getting stuck because someone blocks you in, parking in front of a gate you'd locked behind you. Sometimes, in quest of something, I've driven through an open gate, risking being locked in. Passing such portals carries some risk, maybe some thrill. The ones I tend to avoid either have evidence of heavy ongoing use (running into a gravel or logging truck barreling down and not expecting to see me is not something I want), or that have no trespassing signs, especially the home made ones, complete with promises of shooting.

There is a dark side to some back roads. Residents may be friendly, or they may live there because they do not want to be found--fugitives and recluses eye the passerby with suspicion, with one hand resting on a gun. The lone lost traveler may get help, or may disappear after a short exchange has established that nobody else knows where they are. Last week I drove a road that set my skin to crawling, my mind wandered to a Puna road that looked like this but for the lack of red cinders, a road where a girl was raped and killed because she thought a lone bike ride would be fun, but happened through the turf of meth-smoking animals who thought it would be fun to run her down. 

Nothing bad happened to me, and it rarely does on backroads. The isolation of back roads just lends itself to musings that can turn dark and paranoid under the wrong circumstances. Just as easily, though, you may come around a bend and see epiphany, or at least some interesting wildlife. Lots of times, I've seen a bear helping himself to salmonberries colonizing old logging roads, or come out of the woods and into a vista, or found a road on no map that leads to exactly where I want to go.

Meanwhile, some schmuck is tied up in traffic. There are people who never venture of the beaten, paved, and strip-malled path. I feel sorry for them, but not enough to want them out on the fine web of rural roads that I mostly enjoy alone. Too many people, and I'd have to give up some of the traveling habits that make backroads so much fun. No slowing down in the middle of the road to snap a photo, or outright parking there to poke around, knowing that nobody's coming. No peeing in privacy right out in the open. No foraging without giving away secrets. No, I am very happy that the main stream is where it is, and that poetry aside, almost nobody takes the road less traveled.

16 May, 2011

Stupid Metaphors About Writing

Yeah, someone searched the words in this title, and found me.

I just looked and there I am on page one of the google results, along with a bunch of automated compendia of quotes and writings about writing. Just when I thought it could not be any more dull, I saw that there was also, right at the end of the page, a link to Douglas Adams quotes. I am in good company.

But what I was writing about were writers' stupid metaphors, or at least boring and uncreative metaphors. Google and other engine searches not necessarily catch onto order of subtleties.
OK, the real reason I wrote that post was because I'd just had this epiphany that I could slip in a surreptitious and approximate f-bomb by writing the words "metaphor queue." It would have been really funny to the one person who caught on if I hadn't gotten antsy and commented (on my own blog, how tacky) just to repeat the punchline. And now I just feel cheap and Leno-esque, having killed the punchline by repeating it.

By saying it again, more obviously, to see if people got it.

And by writing about it even more, now.
Oh, how I hate myself.

The only thing that makes me fell better is knowing: 42.

15 May, 2011

Cooookin in the Rain, I'm Cooking in the Rain

Warning, Objects in the grill-dome reflection appear fatter than they are.

Yeah, the title is stolen from a musical, even though I despise musicals in general. I do make an exception for Clockwork Orange, though.

Cooking out holds an almost completely opposite place in my esteem, as long as I am the cooker-man, and the few times I haven't enjoyed it can be blamed on inexplicably bad meat or unavailability of good wood. 

But not rain.

Which is good, living in Olympia, where fair weather grilling is not possible often enough to sate my hunger for smoky goodness. If I held off every time clouds threatened rain, or drizzle dropped, or outright downpours dampened the day, I'd be a sad shell of a man. If the Oxygen to H2O ratio is high enough to let flames get a hold of the wood, then I'm good to go.

Yeah, wood. I am not a modern American griller, weekend warrior with a thousand dollar gas grill or a humbler briquet bucket. I do not have a "Kiss the Cook" apron or feel the need to dress up in silly summery outfits. I have no fancy gear, and my grill was foraged on Large Trash Pick-up Day (prior to which, I had a little hobo set-up consisting of a few cinderblocks). But I am pretty particular about what I'll cook on.

Gas is an idiotic expense: somewhere far away somebody fracks the earth, refines the stuff, compresses and ships it, and charges me enough to make it grate on my homesteader soul, but not enough to really pay for the environmental damage. Besides: no flavor. 

And briquettes? Long ago when I used them, the lighter-fluid infusion bothered me to begin with, and the occasional appearance of nails and other foreign objects reminded me that yes, I was cooking something I would eat on a lozenge of ground up who-knows-what. I imagined the maker, a "legitimate businessman" (sarcasm implied, whether you want to take that as the mafia euphemism or just an indictment of capitalist worship of cheap raw materials) dumping old lumber covered in lead paint, bits of railroad ties, and all manner of toxic crap into the hopper.

A couple of times, I bought actual charcoal, the slow-burned nuggets of wood, crow-shiny chunks with fire enough left in them to cook. But again, my cheapskate DIY self just cannot abide the expense, even if I had the cash to spare. 

So I scavenge wood. In Hawai`i, I had a secret spot on Puowaina where kiawe (mesquite, more or less, to you gringos and chicanos) was there for the taking, and supplemented it sometimes with mango from the tree I'd trimmed. In Virginia, it was hickory from the back yard thinning. Here, it's alder, again from the back yard. I am on year three of the wood from a single big alder I took down, and now I know why the Indians would use the half-rotten, age-softened wood to smoke fish. The smoke is abundant and flavorful without being too acrid or overpowering. Saying so may mean that I cannot return to the south, but: it's better than hickory.

So out I go to find some windfall twigs and maybe some cedar splints to get the fireball rolling, adding on progressively larger pieces until the real chunks are going. All the while: running out front to pull some garlic and get it clean and diced, back to check the fire, in to flavor the fish and burgers, back out to check the fire and fiddle with it's air supply, in again to grab another beer, back out to spread the coals how I want them. Then bring on the food, and set to grilling. Often as not, I'll be talking with my sister, already fed and 3000 miles away, as the process unfolds. Nice long conversation, and the coals are ready. This is how I measure time; watches are for chumps.

The black dome not only lets me pull this off in the rain, but is an important tool in any weather. Opening and closing the vents below the fire bowl and atop the lid to regulate the air stream, sliding it askew or removing it entirely to let the oxygen river rage. The dome lets me be miserly with the heat, especially important when cooking something big, toward the end of the cycle as the coals are ashing out to nothing, and the food coasts in to done-ness. Beneath the grate, holding it off bottom-dom, are a half-dozen carefully chosen volcanic rocks that have soaked up heat during the conflagration, and radiate it back now. Thanks dad for teaching me the physics, and mahalo Hawaiians for teaching me how to choose rocks that won't explode.

Over the past couple weeks, we've had sunny days that demanded cooking out. Both times, rain has appeared, but was kind enough to let me get the blaze going before cutting loose. Dome on, I watched as the drops hit the black and vaporized instantly with a sizzle I could feel (if not really hear anymore), the lid never appearing wet, as in the photo above (see the little steamer?). As the fire stopped sticking out its tongues, as coals glowed softer, rain made shrinking circles of wet; I suppose I could calibrate evaporation time with temperature, but an intuitive sense is enough. By the time the dome has cooled enough that droplets have time to collect and rivulet down the sides, the food is done. Imprecise and variable according to conditions, but again, that's how I regard time: I want it to speed up and slow down, stripped the standardization that puts it in charge.

Because years from now I may forget, here is the menu as of late:
Burgers from local, organic, pastured beef (first ground beef in years, and it's retty good)
Steaks of local grass fed beef tenderloin (some people claim the leaner meat is harder to cook, and corn-fed fatty stuff is better, but people are lazy and stupid)
Burgers of mushroom, beans, garlic, and probably something else (wich I'd written it down, because the taste, texture, color and mouthfeel are better than any veggie burger I've ever eaten)
Sturgeon on a foil boat laden with olive oil, garlic scallions, and sea salt
New potatoes from the farmers market, same prep as the sturgeon

14 May, 2011

Lame Metaphor Queue

From National Geographic to the local paper, journalists eventually find themselves writing about archaeology. As if to prove that culture never changes, they resort to the same lame-ass tropes and metaphors again and again. Maybe they can be excused, since most of the writers know very little about the subject, and write about it as infrequently as archaeologists discover a Pompeii.  But the other day, a friend passed along his "Archaeology" magazine, where I'd have expected the writers to come up with something better. 


Barely a dozen pages in, and there's an article describing a site as a "time capsule," one of the top three stupid metaphors in archaeology writing. An actual time capsule consists of an well-considered collection of artifacts and documents reflecting a particular moment in history. Olympia has several buried near the capitol, and like other time capsules, the intent is that they be dug up at a specific time so that future hominids can gawk at our primitive technology and laugh at our predictions. If an archaeological site is a time capsule, it is one buried by a malicious thief, who took all the good stuff, erased 99% of the texts, and filled it with a random collection of fragmentary junk. 

The most stupid metaphor is "treasure." People in search of treasures have ruined more archaeology than anything else, ripping through and tossing aside the entire context in search of valuable trinkets. Treasure means reducing millenia of history to the momentary market value of a few shiny objects like the greediest and dim-wittedest of corvids. Archaeologists covet the dirty rock that turns out to come from thousands of miles away, the broken bowl in the ancestral style, the mud-stanking length of cordage that opens a fleeting window on Pleistocene fashion. Moreover, any one object is imbued with value exponentially increased should it come beneath a certain layer of volcanic ash, or along with charcoal flecks that can reconstruct forests and offer up a date, or any number of associations that make no sense to the general population. If artifacts are treasure, they are the treasure of a crazed ascetic hermit, the five objects whose inferential haloes encapsulate the meaning of life to him, but look like filthy trash to everyone else.

The third metaphor? Take your pick: lost world, window on the past, mummy curses, whatever. Probably worse than any of them is how so many writers look at archaeologists and see Indiana Jones. Wearing a hat? Jones-esque. Doing field work? Indiana-style rugged. Whitey guy? Just like Harrison Ford. None of the above? Still, an Indiana Jones glint in the eye. 

Never mind that Indiana uses femurs for torches, never takes notes, and doesn't own a trowel. Writers want us to be him. It's inconvenient that we often occupy cubicles instead of temples of doom, that we have no bullwhips, and buckle very little swash. Five minutes into the interview, when the archaeologist starts to explain radiocarbon decay, the writer's eyes focus behind the speaker and on the screen where Dr. Jones does something more interesting. 

10 May, 2011


I like nature. But as you may have noticed from some recent photos, I like sature. I saturate the hell out of some shots, and mess around with the color. Maybe because I have a lot of photos of grey days, and don't feel like I have to slavishly reproduce nature to love it. Maybe I am shiftless.

Or, maybe it's that that strain of mutancy that struck me 30 or so years ago has never been cured. Then, symptoms included hair bleached, blacked, and partially shaven. Clothes torn and meant to menace. People who paid attention could see the inconspicuous roots: middle class, suburban, performing well on standardized tests, and not very likely to fight the cops or die young. But the contrast was dialed way up, the colors were different than preppie era Mid-Atlantica, and there really was starkness and darkness the likes of which you cannot imagine if you have never lived through Reagan with his eager finger on the button.

Through a series of unexpected coincidences and alliances, the colors changed again. When you feel ya a good philia coming on, some new interest, and the doors appear and open, then lights flood in and the darkness seeps out to become a flimsy membrane separating universes you can transcend. Somehow, this expressed as less black, diminishing hair ministrations, and a lot more paisley. Eventually it would dampen into earthier hues, but 25 years ago was a time of oscillating from day-glo to thrift store treasure and less tie dye than you'd think. I became a cartoon, not just for the magic powers, but because the '80's needed a good cartoon, mired in the Smurf and He-Man nadir of American animation as it was. Lessons remain and reverberate from those cartoon characters: Joe Science, Lemon Meringue Hair, Monkee Michael Nesmith's lesser known cousin. (Under the heading of "Coincidence, or Cosmic Reverberation?": the TV just cut to a shot of a wee chameleon wandering through a forest of mushrooms).

Then it was time for something completely different. A decade in Hawai`i, exposed to da max and saturated in reefwater blue and mauka greens. Tropical colors hanging loose on shirts larger (to make room for all the results of ono grinds and aloha), but not as gaudy as you'd imagine: the back of the fabric faces out on locals, I still bought at thrift stores, and I wore them often under tropical sun. There were lessons in humility and culture, and a garden that managed to show me new roots while bringing me back to some that had grown for generations in Virginia soil.

Another series of not-so-unexpected events meant the Hawai`i thing could not be sustained, and a partnership between coincidence and intent brought me to the northwest. Colors more subdued than ever as far as the clothes go, me more sub-dude. Blending in for the most part (or not--I might be underestimating my slovenliness, which may be cartoonish for all I know). Saturation, hi-exposure hi-contrast images occur primarily in my mind for month upon drizzly month. Words vivid, livid, and lurid make their way into black and white. I dunno what the picture for this period will look like, and so it is an image from this time that I've played with for this post.
So, I no stay Hawai`i anymore, nor can I even remember it without a sepia filter of nostalgia and fuzzy recall. I never was a very good hippie; never tried, really, there being enough punk remaining to relentlessly mock hippies who were 20 years too late to be anything more than historical re-enactors. My ears still ring with punk shows that ended 20 years from now, but I don't even have enough gumption to go down and yell at today's re-enactors, and don't really get into costumery anymore. Things change.

And things stay the same. Like roots. Everywhere I've lived, the native people had roots cultural and literal. Sustenance for society and stomach. As much as I might look or even think different, there has always been some tether between me and the earth, some string through me and my people. Saturated and distorted as some snapshots of my life have been, the roots just hang in there, more or less the same. 

[Seriously, what changes less in the shots above than that little plant, it's yellow flowers, it's big happy root belly? How is it that in the last shot, where nothing else is the color that it was in so-called reality, can the plant persist unadalterated? Must be that I am a meddler, not a creator. Ego has its limits.]

09 May, 2011

Got Ham?

AllI can think of is Jesse Jackson's rendition of Green Eggs and Ham on Saturday Night Live. He and I share palm color, sorta.

07 May, 2011

Butte Cracks

I know, the title sounds so immature, so butt humor... So me. But it's really in reference to a chasm through a butte, which I now know to be a cone-top hill, because when you leave the small and uncreative terrain of the eastern seaboard, you have to learn these things.

But still, "butte" is still just Frenchified "butt." Look it up.

Recently, a cute butte caught my eye. Breaking the monotony of a plain, giving me that come hither look. Any time a natural feature of the landscape prevents the human eye from sweeping past, the archaeologist should check it out. We bipeds have always headed for such places, the intriguing island, the surfacing of deepness hidden beneath the surrounding sea of sand.  Windbreak, vantage, source of usables and edibles.

And this one in particular interested me. I'd just been to another, not very far away, finding certain traces of past visitors. This one stuck out more on the horizon, and as I approached, the allure grew. A giant crack came into view, and even my camera saw something special, a sphere of light. When I looked up to the sky, the clouds turned a funny kind of yellow (no matchstick men, though), brush-strokes of an indulgent god presenting a canvas for whoever happened to be standing at that point, that instant.

Meanwhile, back on the physical plane, where I was supposed to be doing archaeology, the butte still drew me. That crack was unusual in these parts, although I'd seen plenty back in Hawai`i, where bifurcated tumuli abound, chasmed cones and cracked domes, sometimes leading to caves. Maybe this was a similar place, gateway to the underworld, or at least a place to crouch out of the sun and wind. Maybe just an exposure of tool rock (which may not sound so exciting, but for thousands of years, people had to make do without road cuts to reveal geological offerings). 
So I continued on, drawing closer, which is when things started to change.

The cheery yellow drained from the clouds, some turning dark as others growled with flame. Without the dazzling distraction, the crack was revealed not as a natural anomaly, but a hideous scar. Men with machines had ripped into it. Searching for who knows what, there pretty much only being basalt, which is as abundant as wind and sage in this locale, and a hell of a lot easier to get to and haul off in any number of other places. 

Wind moaning through the crack sang of sorrow and pain. Someone had succumbed to CAT fever here, machining through land just because they could, because diesel used to be cheap, because it's state land with nobody watching over it. Why not rip it up? Maybe Killdozer had been here. 

Nobody else had been here for a while. It was beginning to feel too lonely, too isolated. This wounded hill was trying to draw me in, recognizing kin of the human who'd torn into it with tungsten alloy blades, and hoping to lure him close enough to swallow him. Maybe the butt crack had been all wrong, maybe it was the other end, the maw of some stony monster, a cross between the Thing and those giant worms in Dune, or whatever that movie was (I may drop a comic book or sci-fi name now and then, but really I have no clue. Please, internerds, just write me off as hopelessly clueless; mock my ignorance amongst yourselves, and do not write to correct me.)

The spell was broken. My hypnotized advance stopped. If there is ever a reason that I need to go survey that hill, some acute butte study required, then I will gather what courage I have and do it. 

But in the meantime, I'll avoid this hellvent hellbent on revenge, with its jagged stone and roiling clouds of flame.

04 May, 2011


April along the Columbia is the time of blooms. Apples and cherries that were bare grey bones weeks before grow buds, the buds swell into pink and white balls, and then they start to reveal their inner selves as compact potential relaxes, opens its arms to the sun and bees, and reveals the actual flower. Before long, beehives filling with young and honey, fruit beginning to form, the petals will let go their grip on the mothership, fluttering in the spring breeze, snowing.

Just like snow, their beauty varies with perspective. With the sun at our back, or with dark at theirs, they gleam white or bright pink. Sunbeams traveling through their thinness can release a glow. Coming at you out of a bright sky, the same flower flakes can look dark. Look at the petals (still treebound) in this photo: the ones below look bright, while those above with sky behind are dark. Same petals, similar level of contrast, completely different perception. Color can be apparent, not absolute.

The intricacies of a single petal laying in the grass can pull in my eyes to orbit for a while, taking in tiny beauties. Sumptuous surfaces like only a fresh flower has, wavy edges, folds like tiny mountain ranges, subtle colors invisible even a few feet further away.

Or, the thousands. Dressing the wind, revealing it's body. Twinkles and constellations covering the ground. Drifts of nothing but flowers nestled in the roots of their mothers, soon to settle and melt back into her. 

This all unfolds over weeks, starting low and south, working its way higher and norther. Trees closest to the river's dammed valley start first not just because of the elevation, but the water moderating winter's last chilly breaths. Driving north from Wenatchee, past Orondo, toward the apple depots lining the river at all those other towns, turns into a trip back in time. Orchards adrift in spent flowers, trees adorned with open blossoms, crews on ladders thinning burgeoning buds, branches studded with buds just awakening, and further on, last winter holding on. The same thing happens, even more suddenly, as you head up a side valley, or even move from the south slope of a hill to its north.

Later, the trees will sculpt cherries and apples, fruit-forms manifold and delightful. Like the flowers, their beauty will be individual and collective, multiplied by perspective and nature's fractal variations.

I hope you have the time to appreciate it. Slowly; the blur from a car is nice in its way, but take the time to stop. Inhale. Take a bite and chew slowly like a cow with nowhere in particular to go. Stroke the petal gently, tug the fruit free. Gaze at the orchard, stare at the apple of your eye. Revel in this northwest beauty.

02 May, 2011

Arach Attack

Yesterday I got all hysterical about the turkey, who may or may not represent an imminent threat, but remains potential only. The kinetic threat at the procession was the giant spider, followed by acolytes who held aloft it's immense web bedorned with coccooned husks of her victims. 

Emitting a complex rhythmic-click pattern, the arachnid stunned the crowd into dumbitude while its bevy of eyes scanned the crowd for the best morsel. Only the robot was immune (sensors on a different frequency, armored hydraulics) but alas, it had no empathy chip. So it also just stood there, trying desperately to fit in, wishing people would hurry up and forget the whole Iron Man revival so expectations of the metal clans could get back to normal.

No arachnophobia. Even when there appeared on the horizon, like the mainsail of the ship of doom, the web. (The Greek word for which (arakhne) is the origin of the word for spider.) ("Which came first, the spider or the egg" "Neither, it was the web.") No, people just stood there as the arthropod culled the crowd of obese youngsters.

Before the hypnotic haze ebbed, the next attacker was upon them. Not an arachnid proper, but an 8-legger nonetheless. (Much deeper than Greek, the roots for octo and arakhne merge. I don't remember the proto definition exactly, because I don't actually know if this is true.) (I do have a hunch, though, and a willingness to let language drift and change.) Right after I shot this photo, he dropped down and swallowed the guy standing under him.

You might think that would be disturbing, but it wasn't: quick, clean, and graceful. The octopus was fluid where the spider had been jerky, undulently soft skin instead of exoskeleton. You saw the guy disappear in an embrace, and were soothed by the tentacles' rhythmic motions and colors into thinking, "That's probably not a bad way to go." The robot looked on wistfully, knowing he'd never be that smooth.

Later in the parade, there was a troupe of dancing octopi. Someone sitting near me said they were actually people that had been previously "eaten" by the giant octopus, which was really just turning out hybrids who could dance and be his minions. Their job, till the effect wear off after the summer, will be to collect shellfish to satisfy the Big One's prodigious appetite for its traditional foods. Human turns out to wreak embarrassing havoc on the cephalopod digestive system, which is why we can all rest easy in the Salish Sea.


01 May, 2011

He's Back

I feared that this day would come. The day I would learn what had happened after I hit that wild turkey. Now, years after running afoul of (OK, afowl into) the feathery one, the memory rarely visited and suffering a loneliness akin to that which inhabits most nursing home rooms, it all came back. Five years? Something like that. Three kilomiles? Yep. Singling me out among the largest of south Puget sound crowds? Uh huh.

The turkey never forgets. Where the good seeds are, when the tasty bugs emerge, what other creature has started a blood feud by wasting a wattly relative. [Oddly, from a human perspective, turkeys do not hate hunters, being firm believers that killing for food is all right with the Creator.] Kill a turkey and walk away, and all his brethren hold the grudge. Hurt a turkey and don't finish the job, and it will dedicate the all of its remaining life to hunting you down and killing you.

The turkey I ran into back in the oughts was probably trying to kill himself, but that does not mitigate things, and probably just makes it worse. All of the Meleagris genus are proud by nature, and are loathe to admit to the kind of weakness that would lead one to erase itself. Ergo suicide by automobile, which is rarely provable, and with the least bit of luck appears to be an accident. 

When I hit that one, it disappeared, no carcass, no blood. When his cousins found him later, he made up a story about an evil human, not just heedless as their kind usually are, who had actually sped up to hit him. At once, they all vowed to find me and kill me. Or peck at my balls. Or wake me up at all hours with their incessant inane gobbling. Something, they all agreed, something must be done to avenge this callous act of assault on the galliform brotherhood.

I had no specific knowledge of this, but of course suspected it. I chickened out (to use a phrase invented by turkeys, it just so happens) before wandering too far off the road to search for the broken bird, uncomfortable at facing it and its ilk on their turf, and satisfied myself replacing certainty with hope. After so long, with so many miles between me and the scene of the accident (I almost wrote 'scene of the crime' there), the hope had grown like moss over the incident, engulfing, obscuring and softening it. Invisibilizing it.

But not erasing it. Not altering its fundamental reality. Not precluding the opposite reaction to the action (damn you, thermodynamics). And so the other day, as I sat watching the Procession of the Species, I came eye to beady eye with consequence.

The Procession is a parade in which Olympians dress up like some species, real or approximate or even imagined. I've written about it since starting this blog (hit the Procession keyword below if you don't believe me, or are in the mood for more strangeness). But the eerily accurate rendition of Meleagris gallopavo gave me pause right away. Nobody is that meticulous, that un-whimsical. Even more than with the slime mold from last post, I immediately suspected that this was no costume, but a species camouflaged as a human in an animal costume. 

And sure enough, he stared me down soon after rounding the corner. An onyx eye, a black bead that doesn't look like it could focus so intently on one point, boring into my soul, accusing me, promising vengeance. And the sucker was humongous. A lot of pounds and a lot of years have passed in turkey time, but I recognized the look, the visage I'd last seen slamming into my windshield. There was an instant where I could sense some discomfort--I am the one who knows his suicidal shame--but before I could stare back, it was gone, replaced by a cold glare.

The crowd heard "Ahhhh-gobgob-gobble-ubble-ubble-ubble." I knew the call was directed at me, "I'mmmm gonna-gonna kill you you motherfucker." Not then, not in front of the crowd. He was just letting me know he was in town, making me see that he'd been working out, getting buffed out and ready to do more than peck ineffectually. 

Looking into that turkey's eye, I could see that the bird I'd seen back at Reedy Creek, so empty of gusto and so full of le nausee, ennui, and various other francophonic malaises, had been unalterably changed. If only to wreak vengeance, this bird now has a reason to live.

And I have reason to hide.