The Background of Life

"classic" NW - ferns & moss growing on Big Leaf Maple

A “classic” – ferns & moss growing on Big Leaf Maple.  A background scene in NW woods.

 

We all have a background to our lives, that which is not the focus, not the front-and-center, but as in a photo, the setting which makes up the background.  It is like the backdrop on our particular stage of life.  Because it’s so familiar, sometimes what’s in the background becomes unnoticed until it is disrupted and catches our attention, then, briefly, it might move to the foreground.

For those living in a residential or urban environment, the background of life includes perhaps the ‘hum’ of certain noises that are constant, as well as various buildings, empty lots, the neighbors second car that seems to always be parked in the street and the ubiquitous Rhododendron, unnoticed until it bursts into colorful spring bloom. Ever notice that if you leave something in the yard for an extended period, you just don’t ‘see’ it after a while?  Even the neighbors purple garage door becomes mundane after a few months!

We pass these background ‘props’ every day en route to our activities and daily dramas.  If asked, sometimes people aren’t able to identify these ordinary props in their life. (Remember the older Newlyweds game show, they’d ask one of the spouses to describe something in the couples every day life, like the color of a room, and the person wouldn’t be able do it.) Someone unfamiliar to your neighborhood might notice something you barely take notice of any more.  In our homes  it is much the same, the hum of the refrigerator, the knickknack on the corner table you couldn’t describe if asked.

As I sort, delete, and organize photos on my computer today I’m drawn to the photos I’ve taken in the woods.  I have folders for ‘wildflowers’, ‘birds’, ‘butterflies’, ‘garden flowers’, ‘Mt. Rainer’, etc.  but the photos of daily life in the NW woods, the flora that’s here whether flowers, critters or butterflies show up or not, are really just as remarkable as these “showier” facets of Nature. These are of the ‘common’ plants most people in the Coastal region of the Pacific Northwest have in the backdrop of their lives if they live in or near woods.  Some of these are seasonal, most are not. They are the plants that make the Evergreen State green.

My deep appreciation for what makes up the background of life here is obvious by all the photos I’ve taken of the trees and plants I see every day. I never lose my awe of  giant Douglas Firs and Big Leaf Maples, of the lacy needles of Hemlock, or the brown fibrous bark of Cedar.  The ferns, evergreen bushes, and tiny plants that make up the understory of the woods seem the stuff of fairylands to me.

To someone who does not live here, who might be walking in the PNW woods for the first time, or who only gets to do so occasionally, these stalwarts of the woods are anything but ordinary.  It’s nice to see with fresh eyes these remarkable plants that are the backdrop to life on the Northwest stage.

I selected some of my favorite photos taken over the past 7 years to share. Hope you enjoy this walk in the woods. No woodland wild flowers (though most of the plants shown have blossoms), no colorful berries, no birds or critters, no butterflies, no exotics, just native green stuff….plants, trees, and a few fungi (because in a NW woods, fungi are abundant!).

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(Click on fern photo to start slide show of photo gallery below, or roll cursor over bottom of each photo to read captions. Not all photos are captioned. Most photos are taken in the woods where we live, a few from nearby walks.)

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Recipe For Winter

For readers who may not live in the coastal Pacific Northwest…it’s raining out. Not just raining, November raining. The rain that spawns temperate rainforests of water-loving Sitka spruce, Western hemlock, Western red cedar, and Bigleaf maples, whose branches are covered with thick moss, holding the rain like sponges. It’s the type of rain that brings those gentle giants down by saturating the soil where their roots try to hold on while water pours into the earth, loosening even the hardest of clay soils, and moving in rivulets the rich peaty soils of the forest floor.

In our small, old, house with 2×4 framing, thin-glassed old windows, and low ceilings, November rain is a pounding force to be reckoned with, an omnipresent noise, day and night. The barrier between the sheets of falling water and us seems a bit weak-willed. I review in my mind…how old is our roof? Did we leave any unfinished projects at any buildings that might have left even a crack where water could get in? How will the old chicken coop hold up?

Everyone – us, chickens, ducks, are warm and dry…and for the most part staying indoors.

And then it stops. Just when you think it will never stop, when it has rained for at least 48-72 hours, when the weather forecast says 90-100% rain every day in the foreseeable future, the faucet suddenly turns off, the darken sky lightens, and the world opens up.

Going outside after the first good multiple-day November storm is always an awe-inspiring experience. Deciduous trees have lost nearly every last leaf (except our strange peach tree, which has never produced more than a few peaches, yet holds on to bright green leaves until Christmas). There is sky where there has not been sky since early the previous spring. The road noise, drowned out by the rain, is audible again, yet there is a silence when compared to the deafening water that has pounded, like the surf on a beach, and poured for hours. The rainstorm, washing away autumn,  has given birth to winter.  It is not the same stillness of the first snowfall, yet there is a tangible winter calm to the quiet that follows a robust rainstorm.

Remarkably, with the winter solstice still a month away, darkness increasing daily, and the days continuing to get shorter, there are signs of spring. New buds have formed on the Indian Plum, and on the Flowering Current, which I guiltily pruned today, cutting off many tender buds. It is difficult in the northwest to find a ‘dormant’ time to hack away at plants. With the wet weather and mild winters, the dying back and the budding forth appear seamless in many perennial bushes and trees.  Even some early perennial flowers have put forth new leaves, but it is a premature effort, for the first snow or a prolonged freeze will cause them to die back.

It is the lull before the next storm, according to the weather pundits, a much-appreciated lull before feeling buffeted around again by stormy weather. As this week of Thanksgiving, infamous for challenging weather patterns, begins, I am grateful to go out and work in the wet garden, breathing in the clean air as I prune back dead flowers, pull down soggy bean plants, cover the whitened, decaying squash plants with fallen Maple leaves, preparing the hills for next summer’s planting. An appreciated lull to put the garden to bed for the winter.

Northwest weather is made for soup.  I make a lot of soups.  Here is one of my latest. Warming food for stormy weather! A nice pre or post-Thanksgiving meal, easy, not too heavy, but filling.

Acorn Squash Soup

Quarter and bake in a 350 degree oven one acorn squash (any winter squash will do just fine) until a knife goes in easy and there is a little browning on top. After it has cooled, scrap out the meat, cut into chunks, and put in a soup pan. (You can also quarter and steam in a pan on the stove top, this saves time, but if you have the time, baking/roasting the squash in the oven brings out the flavor and sweetness more.)

Add a quart of water (actually I never measure so I’m just guessing on this, might need a little more)

Chop and add:

1/3 cup onion

2 medium to large carrots – not the bitter supermarket kind, but local, farmers market ones, this adds flavor and sweetness. (Nash’s Organic Produce or Dharma Ridge Farm are favorites of ours.)

Dharma Ridge Carrots at the Chimacum Market. The Port Townsend Market is still open on Saturdays with lots of winter veggies from local farmers.

1 small apple, a tart one is good

Also add:

¼ cup basmati rice

1 bay leaf

1 t. grated fresh ginger

1 to 1 ½ t. homemade curry powder

Cook until rice is done.  Put into a blender in batches to blend smooth.  It will have little pieces of apple skin, for a smoother soup peel apple first.

Options: I added homemade almond milk I had on hand, coconut milk is also nice, about 1/3 cup.

Garnish with a dollop of tahini and fresh grated ginger, the tahini adds protein, and a distinctive, richer flavor, but the soup is delicious, and a little lighter, without it.

Ah, it is raining again.  Think I’ll go make some soup! 

Happy Thanksgiving all! 

I am grateful you do me the honor of reading my musings!  It helps keep my creativity alive!

Wet Comfort

Looking out the window today I thought what a comfort rain can be.  There is an ease in rain, it is after all what we Northwesterners experience as our ‘default’, the weather that always comes back to us after periods of snow, hot sun, or dry spells.  Like most folks, rain impacts me in different ways at different times.  I remember, when going to school in Eugene, hearing on the radio one November that it had rained every day for a month.  Not just drizzle, significant, measurable rain for thirty days.  I was impressed, though I have no doubt since lived through many similar months.

Fully aware what lack of sun can do to ones mood, I have had my share of ‘cabin fever’ and winter blues.  Yet there is a psychological relief when it rains after a dry spell, not just in the summer, but winter too.  Maybe not the dramatic relief felt by those living in monsoon climates, whose dry spells are months long and to whom rain brings to live plants and the hope of survival. In the northwest, if it hasn’t rained for a spell, it brings a relief more like putting on a favorite sweatshirt and slippers after you haven’t worn them for a days, and sitting down with a cup of tea.  It’s subtle. It’s comfort.

I met a man at the end of our driveway today.  He was on a bicycle, pulling a bike trailer, the kind used for kids, a German Shepard by his side.  He was looking at a map and I asked if he needed help.  He wanted assurance he was headed toward the Hood Canal Bridge.  He had been camping and bicycling in the Olympics for four days. I commented that it was too bad the weather turned wet this week after last week’s sunny, dry, albeit cold, days. Thinking he might be from elsewhere, I remarked this might not be the best time of year to experience the Olympics.  He replied with enthusiasm “oh, I love it, I love the weather!”  He had ridden in rain, snow, and ice (he didn’t care for the ice) camping along the way.  He was celebrating his 47th birthday. He lived in Kingston. I asked about the dog needing breaks, “that’s what the trailer is for” he responded.

This man found the rain invigorating, inspiring, and enjoyed a solitude and Olympic experience few would relish!

Born in November, traditionally the wettest month on record, perhaps I was programmed in those early days of life to find comfort in the sounds and smells of rain.  I love water and am grateful not to live in a dry climate.

To my thinking the real culprit of winter ‘blues’ is darkness and we have more than our share during our short winter days.  I think rain without dark clouds would be lovely, and we would have many rainbows!

Note:  This is my first  blog in this new location on the internet.  I hope those who have been following my musings and ruminations have found this new site, which I think will be my itertnet home for some time!  Welcome!