ORDINARY

Ordinary sights

seen on early winter walks, drives and ferry rides

in my neck of the woods.

 

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It is December, and the light

fades.

Still, in the dim places, we know

beauty –

beauty enough

for spirit to expand.

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Photos:

Trumpeter swans arriving at winter feeding grounds, Sedro-Wooley

Old building on the Lyman-Hamilton Highway, Skagit County

Red Osier dogwood leaves, Skagit County

Shot-up mailbox, Carnation-Duvall Road, Duvall

Moss-covered vintage tanker truck, Carnation-Duvall Road, Duvall

Cattail reflections, Juanita Bay Park, Kirkland

Sunset on Lake Washington, Juanita Bay, Kirkland

Afternoon sun on Cottonwoods, Juanita Bay, Kirkland

Moss-covered Big leaf maple branches; roadside, from the car; Duvall

Old building on the Lyman-Hamilton Highway, Skagit County

Ferry window; ferry to Whidbey Island

Red alder trees, Juanita Bay Park, Kirkland

All locations in Washington State

ASHOKAN

Ever since my first taste of the outdoors as a tiny infant, and my introduction to New York City at age five, the bustling stimulation of big cities and the primal beauty of wild places have had equally powerful holds on me. As a teenager stuck in the suburbs I dreamed of city life, and fled to New York as soon as I could. Living in New York City, I longed for big, open spaces. It was a tough longing to fulfill, with truly wild places being far from the city.

In 2004 I took a job with New York state that required traveling within a hundred mile radius of downtown Manhattan, where my department was headquartered near the present day Freedom Tower. When I could schedule work upstate I was so happy. I knew I’d have a chance to steal an hour or two in a wilder place, and reconnect with nature.

The Ashokan Reservoir was one of those special places. Set down among the soft folds of  the Catskill Mountains’ eastern edge, the reservoir isn’t far from Woodstock, Mount Tremper and  Phoenicia, places many city dwellers fondly recall from upstate jaunts. The Ashokan settles across miles of beautiful rolling countryside, hiding the remains of several communities abandoned over a hundred years ago, when it was created as part of a vast system to collect fresh water for New York City.

These days, the giant silver-blue basin supplies up to 40% of the city’s drinking water, and it’s a long journey to city apartments.  From the reservoir, water is shunted south through ninety-two miles of aqueduct to a holding reservoir closer to the city. The water settles there, flows south to yet another reservoir, and finally travels through two very old tunnels into the city water system. It was not a modest project, but then most projects associated with new York aren’t small scale.

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Hours from home, standing at the reservoir’s edge, I could breathe in the essence of the landscape that surrounded and held my own drinking water. The quiet spread out and enveloped me. Herds of grass-grazing deer and the occasional sight of a Bald eagle tearing at a fish on the shoreline, refreshed my city-sore brain cells.

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On a primal level, the reservoir was simply space – wide and plain and rolling out beyond the imagination. It was undulating hills, cold, deep water, sharp air and wildflowers at my feet. It was bigger than I was. I needed that.

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Is the name Ashokan familiar? It probably is if you’re American and you watch TV. Ken Burns’ popular TV series about the American Civil War featured a haunting lament by the name of Ashokan Farewell. Composed in the early 80’s by Jay Ungar, an American folk musician, the song came to signify all the troubled emotions and regrets of our Civil War years.

These days Jay Ungar still makes music and directs the Ashokan Center, the oldest environmental education center in the state, located just south of the reservoir. Listen to the song in a pure rendition by the composer and his family. And by the way, Jay is a Jewish boy from the Bronx. Go figure.

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For me the song conjures a poignant longing for deep connection, symbolized in the hills and valleys around the Ashokan reservoir, where there is something I can’t quite put my finger on, something that seems at once lost, and present.

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The photographs were taken in the summer and winter of 2010 and summer of 2011, from the causeway separating the reservoir’s two basins.

SCATTER, part one

As summer quickly fades into fall, people scatter, looking for those precious last summer pleasures. Here in America’s northwest corner, cars from faraway states like Mississippi and New Jersey roam the highways, taking that final spin before the responsibilities of school and work assume primacy again.

Birds scatter too: fledglings that must survive on their own are exploring further from their nest sites. Shorebirds are already migrating south. Our local online birding forum reports rarities like the charmingly named Wandering tattler, a shorebird that nests in Alaska and winters on the coast, far from Seattle. Seeds are scattering to disperse their genetic material, aided by wind, animals, birds, insects – and once in a while, my shoes.

Scattered movement seems to be common in late summer/early fall in the Northern hemisphere. In keeping with the season, I have a scattering of photos from the last few months.

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I’ve gotten out whenever I could. It never feels often enough, but that sort of dissatisfaction is called being human, isn’t it?  I long for more, for places farther and farther away.

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Gold Creek Pond, Snoqualmie Pass, Cascade Mountains (Washington)

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Naches Peak Loop Trail, Mt. Rainier National Park

 

There have been many short jaunts nearer home this summer. These drives and walks that trace local pathways help construct a bedrock of felt knowledge about my local landscape.

Growing up in the northeast, I grew into an intimate relationship with the land, its flora and fauna. This knowledge is formed by the accretion of layer upon layer of sensing, in the outdoors. Experiencing the weather, inhaling the scent of local plants, encountering local creatures – it all adds up. It is years of watching the sky, listening closely to the faintest birdsong, feeling the tingle of a bug crawling across my arm, and inhaling the sharp air over a frozen snow field. It is decades of thinking about the progression of wildflower bloom along roadsides, the odd differences in Song sparrow songs, the beauty of a rounded canopy of deciduous trees laid across rolling hills.

Now I’m beginning the same journey thousands of miles away.

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Here, the characters are different (well, mostly) and the setting is different, but the forays outside to check out a new place or return again to the same spot will accrue a felt sense of this place, just as my wanderings on the east coast embedded an intimate knowledge of that landscape.

Along the way the photos play their part, too.

 

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The key is getting out, looking, listening, tasting, inhaling and feeling the outdoors til it fills every pore.

 

 

Small Town Satisfaction

On the first morning of a long weekend road trip last week, we veered off Highway 20 to follow a local road that connects forgotten small towns dotted along the loopy Skagit River. It was serendipity because almost instantly, we stumbled on a classic car show in the small town of Lyman, population 438 in 2010. Mostly local people – men and a few women – were lining up their rides in neat diagonal rows along tiny South Main street, bordered by weather-beaten wooden buildings and framed by picturesque views of the North Cascade mountains.

As we headed east, cottony fragments of cloud hung onto the mountain foothills:

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As we drove into Lyman my eyes kept flitting back and forth between classic cars and equally classic buildings.

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Oh, that stylish ’57 gray T’bird convertible with the cream interior! There was plenty to drool over and covet in Lyman, but we had more places to go, and things to see…

An hour down the road in Newhalem, old growth cedars reminded me how small I am…

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An overlook at majestic Gorge Lake had its own classical beauty:

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I used various vintage-style processing tools on most of these photos. In the coming days I’ll post more from the North Cascades and beyond.

 

 

THE DRY SIDE

Dry side, wet side:

Washington’s two faces.

Lush, spare, dim, bright.

In two hours you can change sides, be

transformed.

The wet side:

Seattle techies huddle over their devices,

abundant rain permanently greens the land

and skies are often moody.

The dry side:

cattle and crops settle

into a spacious landscape of pale-hued,

open-skied desert.

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Last weekend we sped up through Snoqualmie Pass to the dry side,

alert with anticipation:

new places, open spaces.

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The Columbia River:

big hunk of water

set down among towering basalt cliffs.

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Roadside rock:

at sixty miles an hour.

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Wanapum Lake.

A dam on the Columbia River created it. Setting disagreements with damming practices aside,

it is

breathtaking.

Even the details of odd patterns in the rocks fascinate us:

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Only an hour off the Pass, and

we’re already transformed.

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Looking back north, the Vantage Bridge begins to fade.

Onward!

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The Columbia Plateau.

Sprinkled with thousands of lakes, the land

attracts water birds, the

birds attract birders,

and I am not exempt.

Great egrets, check. A pelican, too. But where are my wished for

American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt? Oh well.

The landscape is its own reward.

Late spring wildflowers

and wide open vistas:

enough.

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A delicate beauty, the Sagebrush Mariposa lily

consorts with big sage among

dry grasses.

Sun lover, it beams.

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In harsh desert light

lilies almost hide.

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Showy milkweed.

Like so many wildflowers, it’s bloom is early this year.

Ants rejoice.

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Along Lower Crab Creek, just above the Saddle Mountains.

Old fence

slowly bows

to the ground.

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Lower Crab Creek spills into wetlands, painting the dry land with new colors.

Jubilant Spring growth is softened by somber, gray-green pillows of

fragrant big sage,

with side-notes of deep orange and gold grasses

already gone to seed.

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Big sage sleeps.

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Salsify.

Yellow dandelion-like flower yesterday,

fuzzball of feathered parachutes today.

Fresh breeze makes quick work of the seeds.

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When the wind is too strong for photography, and the light is too harsh

(as it was last weekend in the desert),

take your pictures anyway.

Go with it.

Let the grasses blur and shimmer as they will,

press the shutter,

and breathe deeply.

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Saddle Mountains.

Their furrowed slope eases down into sage and grass,

through ancient lands shaped by fire and flood.

Look hard  –

see the lilies dotting the field;

they’re blooming in the middle of the old sage, too.

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If you come back, it will still be good here.

This sparse place minds its business,

sucks down what rain it can,

bakes in the sunlight. It sings

the old, high-pitched,

buzzsong

of desert silence.

FLOOD STAGE (and PARIS)

Flowing slow and shallow in summer but regularly obliterating its borders in other seasons, the Snoqualmie River loops a curly path through rich farmland east of Seattle, not far from where I live.  Two weeks ago abundant rain caused its banks to overflow again and closed roads in the valley.  I went out to see what might be interesting to photograph that first weekend of November. It was the season of last leaves clinging to branches for one more day, fallen apples rotting in the grass, and damp, chill winds.

At a bend in the road where I could stand near the ever-expanding river’s edge, I saw a beautiful, tangled scene of leafy chaos.

(What beauty was there in the chaos of that theater in Paris yesterday? None.)

I tried to make an image that would convey the scene, but the scope was so much bigger than what I could get on a webpage.

(And how overwhelming does the flood of terrorism feel to Parisians today?)

 

The year has been dry here, sparse snowfall in the mountains last winter reducing some waterways down to trickles over the summer. So the heavy rain two weeks ago wasn’t a bad thing. As I type, another storm system floods the river again, but the valley will absorb this storm, as it has taken on countless storms for longer than we’ve known.

(And how many more storms of terrorism can we, must we, absorb?)

November – such a stunning ruin of a month. There is razor-sharp, dark beauty as nature takes its course, pruning and destroying.

(And what of the famous beauty of Paris today?)

Following the river south to Fall City, I turn back north on Fall City-Redmond Road, making a wide loop around the valley.  I spot a narrow lane heading down into a sea of lichen-covered branches and stop to investigate. The rain spits and falters as I wander down the road.

There’s nothing dramatic here. No mountain vista or wide sea impresses the eye. A sign indicates that this bit of wetland has been preserved for salmon, the soul animal of Puget Sound. These tough fish continue to live out their life-rhythm, tracking between fresh and salt water and back again, thanks to people who took note of this modest little piece of land and kept it safe.

(Does the future hold that for us? Sould we narrow our beloved cities and wildlands down into safe preserves for people to live without terrorism?)

Rain soaks the scene into a sweet blur.

I can’t stay out in this too much longer – it’s chilly and my camera’s getting wet.

On a rise an old apple tree holds memories of fruitful summers. That could be the last shot of the day.

(And when will we hear the last shot of terrorism?)

NORTHERN ARIZONA

Last week we took another trip to Arizona. After flying from Seattle to Phoenix we picked up a bright red Chevy Trax SUV at Sixt Rentals and drove north towards Flagstaff, taking a scenic four lane highway (state Rt. 87).  It was a rainy day in Arizona – not what you bargain for when you’re visiting from the gray northwest, but the saguaros were beautiful in the misty blue air. We pulled over to the side of the road to take in the soft greens, tans and distant lavender blues.

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Our plan was to spend a few days at Canyon de Chelly, a national monument comprised of two large canyons whose layers of rock go back 200 million years. In the middle of the Navajo Nation, the site is miles from any city and has been inhabited for thousands of years. Because of the remote location it’s not overrun with tourists. I was eager to spend time among the great sandstone cliffs with their ancient dwellings and petroglyphs.

It’s a long way from Phoenix, so we over-nighted en route at a Navajo-owned resort and casino, which turned out to be refreshingly light on glitz and strong on tasteful elegance. An odd introduction to Navajo ways – but it worked for us!

On to Chinle, the town on the Navajo Reservation that’s the base for visiting Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay).  On the way we passed through charming Winslow, a small town made famous by the Eagles song from the 70’s, “Take it Easy” – which folks seem to do in Winslow. They’ve capitalized on the song and made their town a tourist destination. A German man of a certain age dressed in black leather asked us to take his picture by a statue that memorializes the song. It happens to be on the famous Route 66. He had rented a Harley (he rides a BMW at home, of course, but this is America!) for an epic ride across America’s Main Street highway. Leave it to the Germans to swallow American pop culture whole, and show us how to really enjoy it!

It WAS a lovely morning for soaking in the classic American small town atmosphere. It didn’t hurt that the old style sweet shoppe makes an excellent macchiato.

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The town has a fascinating  small museum. It’s full of fabulous local memorabilia, from ancient cultural artifacts and dinosaur bones to cowboy culture, railroads, Hopi pottery and more.

What a rip-roaring town it was, back in the day.

And it remains an interesting place.

And on the outskirts – more to see.

We continued northeast, making a pit stop at Little Painted Desert, a county park. The Painted Desert covers a large swath of northern Arizona. As we ate sandwiches and took pictures, a stray dog and a raven were our only company.

The desert silence began to sink into our bones.

We were now in the Navajo Nation, whose boundaries extend deep into four states, encompassing over 27,000 square miles of land.  Within Navajo boundaries a separate nation, the Hopi reservation, is home to a people who are quite different than the Navajo. They have not been as successful at integrating into western culture and do not take to tourists and strangers as easily.

We drove onto the Hopi reservation but I took almost no pictures, as photography isn’t allowed and cameras can be confiscated. Parts of the reservation were rougher than places I’ve seen anywhere else. It truly felt separate from America.

We stopped at a home with a sign indicating silver jewelry was sold there. I knew Hopi craftspeople often sell their work from home, and prices, as long as you have cash, are likely to be better than at galleries or stores. We knocked on the door. The artist, Harry Nutumya, was there. He showed us his and his nephew’s work. A very soft spoken man, he told us quietly about going away to school and returning to live on the reservation. The Hopi have a long history and complex spiritual belief system that I wouldn’t dream of trying to describe. On a very basic level, our brief meeting with Harry seemed to exemplify how closely place and people are knit together in the desert – the high mesa with its open sky, sparse vegetation and expansive quiet matched Harry’s thoughtful persona. And yes, I was happy to contribute directly to supporting his work with a few purchases.

There’s our Trax, posing against the grasslands and distant mesas under that grand Arizona sky, with clouds all the way to the horizon.

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As we rolled across the desert I photographed the grasslands and changing sky, sometimes with my phone, sometimes with my camera.  The views didn’t disappoint!

It really got interesting when we raced a rainstorm across the reservation, a rainstorm that produced double rainbows while keeping its center well away from us – perfect!  You can’t always stop when you want to, but maybe this conveys a taste of the drama of an Arizona desert storm.

The next day we spent all morning with a Navajo guide, bouncing across the bottom lands of Canyon de Chelly in his old jeep. Not ideal for photography, but a lot of fun. Outsiders can only enter the canyon with a Navajo guide and are admonished to respect the privacy of the few remaining people living in the canyon by not photographing them or their houses. It’s not a zoo after all.

It was a bit rough on the soft dirt canyon bottom lands – there aren’t roads exactly, just well worn tracks snaking through the canyons.

Below, one of many old Anasazi dwellings we saw. This one is called Antelope House. Most of the old places cling tight to the rocks high up the cliffs but this one is at the base of the canyon.

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That rainstorm we passed through the day before left big puddles here and there. The guides take it in stride, plowing through the water to give tourists a closer look at petroglyphs on the canyon walls. Above and to the right of the jeep are drawings of people on horse, a common theme.

You can’t get very close to most petroglyphs or dwellings; many are high and out of reach. Our guide described climbing up with hand-made ladders in his younger days; the ladders used to be pulled up as you went, so no one could follow.  If you had plenty of time, a long lens, a tripod and good light I’m sure you could get great photos of the ruins.  As it was, I didn’t have the right mix of circumstances, but that’s the way it goes. It was rewarding just spending time with our guide on his turf.  Towards the end Dave, who was born and raised here and seemed to know everyone, talked a little about his clan, and how his mother blew corn pollen over him when he was a baby – an ancient practice that gave us a tantalizing glimpse into a culture that still thinks very differently from people I normally come into contact with.

Later we drove along the south rim to see places we had just driven through from far above. Water flows in the creek alongside the track.  A few people still raise a little corn down there, and peach trees grow near the native cottonwoods and willows.

The famous Spider Rock was half concealed in deep shade by the time we reached it.  The next day we drove the rim of the canyon in the morning, and again it was in shadow. But if the canyon didn’t cooperate, the ravens did.

Wild horses roam the bottom of Canyon de Chelly.

I’ll leave you with their gentle presence. There’s more to come on the Arizona trip…

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ROADSIDE ATTRACTION

To me, anyway.

The first time I spotted this old chicken barn outside Duvall, Washington (a rural town 25 miles east of Seattle), I was drawn to the severe lines and faded, mustard-colored siding. It backs into its site nicely. It hasn’t changed in the three years I’ve watched it – the grass is mowed every now and then and the barn remains unused. Ignoring the No Parking signs, I park on the side, step back, and compose shots around that sweet trapezoidal shape. I creep up close to shoot rusty nails in the siding, or a stray wildflower hidden among the grass in front.

This is the kind of prosaic building that might come down any minute. My breath probably settles the tiniest bit each time I round the corner and see it’s still there.

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NOT WHAT I PLANNED

Last weekend I drove north to Deception Pass, a spectacular (and popular) state park with steep cliffs, rushing tides, islands…lots of dramatic scenery. But crowds were thick and the tide wasn’t allowing me to get around a cliff and past all the people enjoying the beach. I strolled the woods high above the narrow waterway, collecting myself and thinking about where else to go. Along the path were stands of the tiny, daintily nodding Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), a special find, with it’s interesting connection to Carl Linnaeus. Such a little beauty, I almost missed it.

I decided to drive to the quaint but touristy town of La Conner; someone recommended a museum there. I got out a map – for me, a paper map is the best way to get the overview, then GPS gets me there.  There were two good routes: a scenic route through beautiful Skagit County agricultural land, or a shorter route, cutting through the Swinomish Indian Reservation.

I knew the reservation might be depressing but I decided to take the shorter route anyway. And I was rewarded, yes I was. Gas was cheaper than off the reservation. Maybe my money was better spent there, too. Driving down Reservation Road near La Conner I noticed a gravel side road running downhill towards the Swinomish Channel. The channel, an active waterway, divides tribal land from La Conner and the mainland. Something about the road looked promising, so I pulled over and looked around. It opened out to a logging business, apparently where logs are floated down the channel, loaded onto trucks and transported elsewhere, probably for pulp or lumber (I have to learn more about the logging business).

Piles of logs were scattered around, and more were corralled in the shallow water just off shore. A Great Blue Heron’s squawk broke the silence. It floated down from the trees high overhead and slowly glided across the channel. Another followed, and another. Maybe there’s a heron rookery here, I thought.  Mount Baker rose like a white marble pyramid in the distance, behind mounds of blue foothills. Blackberries, daisies and thistles flourished, slowly overtaking an old orange logging truck and piles of gigantic tires.  It was a quietly forlorn site, and beautiful, too.

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I decided to skip La Conner. I was getting hungry and thought I could do better in the nearby town of Mt. Vernon, with its huge Skagit Valley Food Co op, chock full of local produce and meals cooked on site. The way to Mt. Vernon passed though glorious fields of ripe wheat. The stalks were golden and full, and bent with seed. I had to pull over!

 

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Just down the road was a weathered gray barn, one of many that can be seen along country roads in Washington. Always picturesque, they are hard to resist, and I find the No Trespassing signs easy to ignore. This is what’s best about traveling alone – you can stop over and over again, as the muse whispers.  Don’t get me wrong – I love sharing the road, but I get frustrated when we speed past sites that beg exploration.

As you can imagine, by the time I finished taking pictures of the barn, I was starved. I headed to the co op for a sandwich and iced espresso. I couldn’t resist bringing a few slices of German Chocolate cake home, too. It was a good day after all, despite missing the possibility of photographing Deception Pass. It’s all about keeping options open, not to mention the eyes!

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BUYING LOCAL

I volunteered to find 15 bouquets of flowers for a big event last week. Rather than order them from a florist or buy them at Pike Place Market, I located a grower. That gave me the opportunity wind my way east over wooded hills and across fertile farmland, to the little town of Carnation. There I met a Mr. B., who grows acres of flowers out in the valley. His wife sells the bouquets they fashion from their flowers at Pike Place Market in Seattle. They are Hmong people, from Laos.

Mr. B. and his family were forced from their mountain homeland when he was only ten. You may remember that Americans played a leading part in the tragic fallout from the Vietnamese war as it spread into neighboring countries. The Hmong people were caught between opposing forces. Many had to leave the area, or risk death. With his parents and seven siblings, Mr. B. survived six long  years in a refugee camp across the border in Thailand. He told me it was a “good camp” camp, quite “flexible” as he put it, because his family was able to get out, through the sponsorship of a church in nearby Monroe. They arrived in America when he was sixteen. The first years were tough, and certainly cold, I imagine in many ways. But he persevered at school, he worked hard, grew his business, and now he has a good business and nice house, big enough for his own family, including his 91-year-old mother.

 

As she warmly clasped my hands in hers, her cane momentarily set aside, Mr. B’s mother smiled broadly and declared, “I am mother, I am happy.”  When I asked after her health her son told me that though her physical body isn’t what it was, she is clear-minded and remembers well.

The stories she could tell…  I wondered aloud about that. Mr. B. said he’s writing them all down. Her razor-sharp memories (“all the way back to China”) will help preserve their culture for the next generations. We talked about the trade-offs one makes when moving from an agrarian economy to a market-based one.  His nephew suffers from too much stress and Mr. B. worries about him. He has a deep understanding the benefits of a multi-generational family (“Older people were always around me”) but he knows that tradition isn’t likely to survive much longer. You take the good with the bad, we agreed. He expressed a deep appreciation for the diversity here in America.

Mr. B. and I filled my little car with big bouquets of peonies, lilies, delphinium, pinks, phlox, daisies and Bachelor’s buttons. A heavy, sweet and intoxicating scent built slowly around me as I wound my way back through field and forest to Seattle.

The flowers were beautiful but the real gift was those minutes with Mr. B. and his mother. It was a privilege to meet them. I bow to them both.

Spring flowers at Pike Place Market and a flower seller, probably Hmong (taken in April, 2013).

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