Thursday, May 31, 2007

From the archives- January in La Center

I originally had a blog on FunTrivia, where I am an editor and site administrator. FunTrivia will soon be discontinuing its blogs, and these are some that I wanted to keep for posterity.

January in La Center- originally published Feb. 16, 2006

Let's try this out here...this isn't about Jamul, a dusty little burg in the suburbs of southern CA, but about our property we recently purchased in La Center, WA. I wrote it awhile ago for some friends. Here's a picture of the property in October:

So there I was, face-down in the mud in the midst of pouring rain in 45 degree weather, soaking wet after neglecting to put my rain pants back on over my jeans (though I did have my REI rainjacket!)... and I was happy to be there!

The day before, we'd spent an hour or two in Vancouver in the title company office, finally signing the escrow papers we thought would have been behind us months ago. As we scribbled our signatures on document after document, Mike kept a tally on a scrap piece of paper of just how many times he had to write his name. It came out to 29 signatures and nine initials. We walked out of the office with a sheaf of papers, into a wind from the Gorge so strong it blew umbrellas inside-out.

Along the property line

So back to my sojourn in the mud...I have behind me 33 years of experience with the flora and fauna of southern California; though my heart is in the Northwest, my database is still stuck in the chaparral :>) I can tell a lemonade berry from a laurel sumac with my eyes closed, but differentiating between bigleaf maple and wild cherry in the winter? I have a lot to learn...

Some lessons have been easy.

Lesson #1. Himalayan blackberry is the enemy.

Even my previous trips to the Northwest had not taught me this lesson. I have now properly learned to curse the person who first had the idea of bringing this noxious weed to our shore, and all of his descendants unto eternity. Not only is blackberry thorny and aggressively invasive, it sends up tendrils to trip you, and it's impossible to kill. Blackberry faces flamethrowers, herbicides, and ravenous goats with a laugh, and comes back for more. sprouting from its vast underground network of rhizomes. We have a big job ahead of us with the blackberries...

Lesson #2. English holly and English ivy are the enemy too.

Forget the Christmas carol.

The holly and the ivy

When they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The holly bears the crown

Maybe in Jolly Olde England. Maybe they want to claim their expatriates?

The carol should be something like:

The holly and the ivy

We see them and we groan

The ivy kills trees in the wood

The holly- cut it down!

So much for lessons.

For months before the trip, I obsessed. I am good at that. I spent hours with my field guides and with websites. I can tell you more about our new property than I can about our place in Jamul. I know the soil type and what it grows, how deep the well is, what USDA climate zone it’s in and what likes that climate, what should grow there and what shouldn’t. I began to plan the reclamation of the place; creating a bit of wildlife heaven in the woods. I researched nurseries and ordered plants, and pondered the merits of various types of tree shelters and mulch mats.

Ferns in the forest in October

Once I touched down in Portland, it was off to Home Depot for a hoe and a shovel, planting stakes and gardening gloves.

“Clearing webs from a hovel,

Blistered hands on the handle of a shovel…”

The Indigo Girls, "Hammer and a Nail"

Well, our hovel was a one-room apartment inside the shop, and I didn’t have to clear any webs. The gloves kept the blisters away, but it certainly was true that I needed to tend the earth if I wanted a rose…or a Western red cedar. So, for the first two days before I drove to the airport to pick up Mike, I scouted the property, cursed mightily at the blackberries, and flagged spots for my new acquisitions.

"And then the rains came. They came down from the hills and up from the Sound. And it rained a sickness. And it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder. And it rained dangers and pale eggs of the beast. Rain fell on the towns and the fields. It fell on the tractor sheds and the labyrinth of sloughs. Rain fell on toadstools and ferns and bridges… Rain poured for days, unceasing. Flooding occurred. The wells filled with reptiles. The basements filled with fossils. Mossy-haired lunatics roamed the dripping peninsulas. Moisture gleamed on the beak of the Raven. Ancient shamans, rained from their homes in dead tree trunks, clacked their clamshell teeth in the drowned doorways of forests. Rain hissed on the Freeway. It hissed at the prows of fishing boats. It ate the old warpaths, spilled on the huckleberries, ran in the ditches. Soaking. Spreading. Penetrating. And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure."

Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

I appreciate rain and cold. The first morning of my trip, it was a balmy 43 degrees or so, and the rain had let up for a bit. Perfect t-shirt weather…:>) I turned the soil in the upper pasture, digging planting holes for Western red cedar. In every spadeful, worms wriggled. The richness was astounding- back in Jamul, I would not even be able to dig such a shovel of soft dirt held together with a net of grass roots- you need a mattock to turn the soil, that or high explosives…No worm would have a chance. As I dug, I watched a hawk dive-bombing songbirds in the neighbor’s shrubbery, emerging with empty talons.

Rainy day and old plow

Monday was the day I picked up the trees. Burnt Ridge Nursery was 60 miles north, on the other side of Mt. St. Helens. The entire drive was a reminder of water. Rain fell, gently and constantly, almost the whole time. Small waterfalls coursed over the rock walls abutting the highway. I passed over one steel bridge after another- the Lewis River, the Cowlitz, the Toutle, the Coweeman- as they descended to join the Columbia River to the west.

The East Fork of the Lewis River at Lucia Falls

Burnt Ridge was run by an office full of longhair hippie-types and one very wet, wriggly Labrador. After picking up my carefully-packed and labeled, organic, healthy trees and shrubs, I drove back, and the planting began. Out came the seedlings I’d dreamed about for months- Western red cedar, Western hemlock, bigleaf maple, and, I must admit, a few non-natives- beech trees (the squirrels will not complain) and Japanese maples (with which I’ve had a love affair since I first met them in Portland many years ago.)

It seems so simple- just poke a hole in the ground, stick a tree in it, and let it grow. After all, anything should grow here…you’re surrounded by luxurious, verdant greenery. But it isn’t so simple.

Mama Tree can afford to produce millions of seedy offspring every year- they are of very low energetic cost to the tree. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority go down the gullets of squirrels and birds, or otherwise meet sad fates- over a tree’s lifespan of centuries, only one needs to grow and prosper for a replacement, and two survivors will mean a population boom!

I, on the other hand, have a much greater investment in having that one lonely seedling survive, and I need to hedge my bets. Just a bit. Let’s see here. We start by choosing the site carefully, then clearing it of all vegetation in a 2’ radius, down to the bare ground, so no grass roots compete with my seedling for nutrients. Then, when the seedling is in the ground, we place a 4’ x 4’ mulch mat over the seedling, to further block competing vegetation. Then, for our trees in the meadow, that stand like a beacon advertising “Fresh Eats” to the deer, a plastic tube called a “tree protector” goes over the seedling, both to keep away browsers and act as a miniature greenhouse.

Trees growing the old-fashoned way, on the property in October

Not all the trees got the premium protection plan. The hemlocks were too big for the shelters; we just had to hope the deer didn’t find them to be on the menu this year. And nine trees were displaced when our new next-door neighbors decided that those trees might block their miniscule Portland view (view? All we see are clouds…) and moved into the low-rent district near the shop building, where their hurried accommodations before we left for the airport consisted of holes in the ground, hope for their survival, and little more.

But back to me, in the mud. Not all the plants were trees- I had one big, thorny salmonberry that reminded me of a journey long ago to the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness, where I first tasted its berries. I pruned its prickly canes and found it a place of honor. Then there were small pots of salal, the wintergreen-family evergreen that can produce big crops of sweet berries. While our property had some thickets of Oregon grape, I hadn’t seen any salal, and we needed every recruit we could get in the “fight the blackberries while giving us other berries” campaign!

So there I was, on my stomach as a steady rain fell, just outside the dripline of an old Douglas fir, excavating planting holes with a trowel and carefully settling in my salal, with wishes that it would grow and prosper. Afterwards, it would be time to come in from the cold and wet, to shower, change, and set off to the airport, back to San Diego and sunshine, but dreaming of the next time I’d be able to see my trees, and maybe play in the mud some more.

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