Tag Archives: Environment

Home Alone

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

The badger snarled at the approaching truck.

As the youngest of six children, I was rarely offered the opportunity to be by myself when I was growing up. It wasn’t until my older brothers and sisters began college that our little house started to provide nooks or rooms where I could be alone. For time alone, I hiked, but that wasn’t alone time either: the dog always had to come along. That I didn’t mind.

I wasn’t necessarily anti-social, I just liked to curl up in silence with a good book sometimes. Sometimes I wanted to be able to watch whatever I really wanted to watch on the television. Whatever KHQ in Spokane offered, that is. I was 16 years old before I got the chance to really be alone.

In August of 1970 my parents decided to take a brief a vacation. I don’t recall what the occasion was, maybe one of those trips they made to Seattle so they could attend a Seattle Symphony performance. One of the difficulties they faced in doing things like that is that someone still had to change the water, feed the horse and chickens, collect the eggs and water the garden. On this particular occasion I hastened to volunteer to take care of the place. I was 14, and I was the only child left at home. Somehow, my parents agreed that I should mind the farm all by myself.

How can I portray the boundless joy it gave me to be the master of my own farm? As I watched the station wagon leave a trail of drifting dust behind it, as it signaled left and headed west on Highway 26, I was filled with glee. There was nobody here to tell me what to do, to spy on me and to criticize me.

There had been, over the previous weeks, a few mysterious haystack fires that summer. An activist union calling itself the National Farmers Organization had been attempting to raise the price of hay. Some of the more militant activists among them targeted haystacks and hay trucks with sabotage or fire. The one word of advice my father had for me as he left was to keep an eye on our haystack. It was a wall of hay twenty feet high running along the lower edge of our alfalfa field, right next to the highway. My father’s admonition made me feel important, and I climbed into the 1948 Ford pickup to check on the haystack several times that day.

I checked the last time after darkness fell. The headlights of the truck cast a cone of visibility on the ruts of the access road. Tall grass grew right up to the edge of the road and the wheel ruts had a strip of grass between them, shorn to a constant height by the undercarriage of the pickup. As I wheeled onto this road the lights revealed a dark shape filling one of the ruts ahead of me. It moved. As I approached the badger turned to face me, a devilish face full of snarling teeth and white stripes at oblique angles. For a moment it looked like the badger intended to attack my truck, but then it turned to flee. Being a teenager, I did the most humane thing I could think of: I sped up and chased that badger down the ruts. It had no exit for a while, with dense walls of unbroken grass on both sides. The fat beast wobbled back and forth, glancing over its shoulder as I kept my distance from it. Finally it plunged into the ditch on the left side of the road. All was clear at the haystack.

That night was perhaps the spookiest night I ever spent. In the house alone, with total darkness beyond the plate glass windows, I heard every creak and pop of the dead wood as it cooled in the night. A breath of wind found gaps in the window frames, chilling the back of my neck. It was just me, the dog and the television in the dark. And on that television, Psycho. I squirmed in my seat. Suddenly the bathroom, across the dark hallway, seemed far too far away. The only light in the house was in the room I was in. I didn’t even want to raid the freezer for the ice cream I had planned on eating. Our freezer stood in the damp, cob-webbed basement, too much like a Hitchcock set to allow me to be brave. In fact, I didn’t move from the couch through the entire movie. And when it was over, time to go to bed, I developed a strategy for turning on lights in the next room before turning off the ones in the room I was leaving behind.

Well and good. Lights out in the living room and the television was off. I had the lights on in the bathroom. I closed and locked the door, although there was nobody else in the house. I peeled down my pants and sat down on the toilet. Instantly there was a deafening, inhuman shriek outside the window, the only lighted window in the house. I found myself screaming, squirming face down on the tiles of the floor. I scrambled into my parents’ room and snatched up my grandfather’s Winchester. In my haste, I left it unloaded. Trembling with fear I barricaded myself in the bathroom, slowly getting my breath back. I came up with a satisfactory explanation for the scream: my actions must have startled a visiting coyote. Still, I knew what terror there was in darkness. I had just watched Psycho.

I slept soundly in spite of the incident. But when I rose in the morning and looked out the dining room window I was stunned to count at least nine columns of smoke rising from various places to the north in Grant County. I rushed outside to look at our haystack. No smoke, but there was a silver pickup parked on the edge of the highway close to the stack. I waited for it to leave before driving our old green pickup out to the haystack. I searched around the haystack but found nothing alarming.

As I fried up some eggs and bacon I realized I was looking forward to my parents’ return later that day.

Pahto

Mount Adams early in 1958, viewed from the foothills above Glenwood. Photograph by Walt Danielson.

Mount Adams early in 1958, viewed from the foothills above Glenwood. Photograph by Walt Danielson.

I climbed Mount Adams for the first time in 1957, when I was a year old. I had help. My parents corralled all six youngsters and, in caravan with my grandparents, they drove the axle-shattering dirt roads to Bird Creek Meadows, just below snowline on the shoulders of the great peak.  As proof of this visit, I offer the following pose, the portrait of an outdoors man as a very young man.

My father and I rest on a sandy bank at Bird Creek Meadows in 1957, when I was a year old.

My father and I rest on a rock on a sandy bank at Bird Creek Meadows in 1957, when I was a year old.

Although my current home lies much closer to Mount Baker, old Mount Adams has always held a dearer place in my heart. It’s prominence is due to the overwhelming presence it has in Glenwood, where my family arrived in 1882 as a band of uprooted Germans. My great-grandfather cleared a forested meadow and planted hay. His farm prospered and he gained prominence in his community, Continue reading

Written in the Earth

A soldier of Custer's regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

A soldier of Custer’s regiment uses his Springfield carbine as a club. Source of this painting is not known.

When you grow up in desert heat, at least when video games and television have yet to proliferate, one of the joys of childhood is playing with the garden hose. Personally, I enjoyed digging rivers and lakes into the earth of the wire enclosure where our chickens roamed. I remember the amazement of unearthing a living frog that had burrowed into the ground for hibernation, and that had narrowly avoided the blade of my shovel.

One of my maxims about the desert landscape around Saddle Mountain is that this earth is honest. When people pass through, the traces they make remain to be read by those who come after them. As I think back on the traces we’ve discovered on our farm alone, it amazes me that so much history is written in its sand and dust.

In the early 1960s my father hooked his tractor to a battered old machine he called the rototiller. He was in the process of rooting sagebrush out of a new field, and this machine would completely destroy the plants that grew there naturally. Continue reading

Beneath Our Feet

This giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

This Giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

Soon after Washington State College opened at Pullman in 1892, the Washington State Agricultural Experiment Station kicked into gear under its auspices. Rennie Wilson Doane was appointed Assistant Zoologist. He began research on pests that were killing local sugar beets, gathering enough data that by 1900 he was able to publish a report identifying a new species of root lice, Pemphigus betae Doane, and he researched the use of large Atlantic oysters in the waters of Willapa Bay. His marriage in 1898 to Miss Elnora Cooper at McMinnville, Oregon, was front page news in the Pullman Herald.

Doane’s work kept him moving. As he followed country roads to farms and fields around Pullman, he began to notice what looked like the burrows of gigantic worms, sometimes fifteen to twenty feet down from the surface of hills sliced open by road cuts. Intrigued, he dug up several specimens of a huge earthworm, pickled them in alcohol and sent them to the nation’s leading earthworm expert, Frank Smith, a zoologist teaching at the University of Illinois. He assured Smith that the worms were abundant in the area.

While Smith admitted that Doane’s specimens seemed incomplete, he believed there was enough physical evidence to conclude that the giant earthworms represented a previously undiscovered creature, a giant earthworm. In a paper published in March of 1897 in The American Naturalist,  Smith announced the discovery of the worm he named Megascolides americanus. The name was meant to establish a somewhat sketchy connection between the Giant Palouse Earthworm and some truly immense worms from Australia. Continue reading

In the Wind

An upwind neighbor, 16 miles from my childhood home, N-reactor not only contributed to atmospheric releases, but dumped radioactive strontium-90 into the Columbia River at rates up to 1000 times safe drinking water standards.

An upwind neighbor, 16 miles from my childhood home, N-reactor not only contributed to atmospheric releases, but dumped radioactive strontium-90 into the Columbia River at rates up to 1000 times safe drinking water standards. It operated until 1987, the last of the plutonium producing reactors.

This image is a work of a United States Department of Energy (or predecessor organization) employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Growing up near Othello in the 1960s, we developed a macabre pride over being so near an important target for Soviet missiles. We knew that something vast and threatening was happening just over the hill from our home—it was only eleven miles from our house to the nearest of Hanford’s nuclear plants. But we didn’t live with fear. Like Richland High School, whose football team was called The Bombers, and whose helmets sported a mushroom cloud, we took pride in having the world’s largest plutonium factory in our back yard. Truth to be told, we were even a bit jealous of the fact that most of the workers at Hanford lived in places like the Tri Cities and Sunnyside. On the other hand, rumor on the playground at Lutacaga Elementary School was that, if the Russians took out McChord Airforce Base, Othello’s radar station would be in command of the entire west coast. Continue reading

Elevator

One hundred and eight degrees Fahrenheit, and I tied a rope to the wire handle on a five gallon can. I was inside a square wooden grain elevator with a corrugated iron roof several stories above me in Basin City. Up before dawn, I drove through the dark to Bruce, Washington, where my uncle ran the local Full Circle, Inc., agribusiness office. He had the Warden, Bruce and Basin City branches to manage. After five or six summers working in the grain warehouses, I had been given the job of taking care of the Basin City elevator. Each day I’d pick up a courier’s pouch at Bruce and climb into a company truck for the run down to my station.

One of the first things I did in Basin City was to try to control the rats. Every day their droppings and their footprints circled the exterior of the elevator. Their dens were narrow cracks in the sides of the concrete pad the elevator stood on. I shoved wire mesh, broken glass and bits of barbed wire into the cracks every day and when I returned in the morning I’d find the hole empty of all my wicked obstacles, not a trace of blood on the fine dust and sand. Rat footprints thronged across the blowsand. Poison was left untouched. These rodents knew their business. Continue reading

Making Music

First steps in building the electric fiddle. The tiny sketch was my concept thumbnail drawing. I used the x-ray of a Stradivarius to create the design on graph paper. Then I enlarged my design to full size to make the half pattern. Carefully cut out, I used the full size design to make the plywood template. I only cut the holes in one half because I can flip the template over to make the other half. On some of the instruments I may leave the holes out entirely.

A few months back my wife expressed an envy for a violin stand so that she didn’t have to unpack her instrument to practice. She thought she’d be more likely to play if the instrument was standing by, ready. It took only a couple of weeks for the stand to topple over, spilling the violin and bow on the floor. The fingerboard popped off. I later found a better-designed stand that grips the neck of the instrument automatically. If she wants another one, I’m ready with an idea.

As a rank amateur when it comes to fine instruments, I refused to try to set the fingerboard back in place. I suggested our old friend Dave Nerad might do a better job. The violin sat for a long time before she finally agreed to let me take it to Dave.

In the meantime I thought Patti deserved something less risky to play around on, and since we’d been talking about electric violins, it suddenly occurred to me that the first major project out of my new wood shop ought to be a gift for her.

A couple of years back I purchased an electronic book about designing and building an electric violin. With Christmas coming up, I decided to see what I could do about building an electric violin, my first attempt at building something from scratch.

The component search began simultaneously with the designing process. I went online with a list of items to buy: nut, fingerboard (being short on time I didn’t envision being able to carve a fingerboard or neck, so I intended to buy those parts), the end pin, tailpiece with its various related parts, the strings and so forth. The most important component would be the bridge, since it would include the pickup that would determine the quality of the sound.

I opted for a good Yamaha design, knowing that I would have a bit of re-wiring to do. The pickup was designed to be used on an acoustic violin rather than a purpose-built electric. I also wanted to figure out whether or not to use an on-board pre-amp to boost the signal from the weak piezo bridge pickup. I found an onboard pre-amp mounted in a jack, which would solve two mysteries at once. But the jack was bigger than I would have hoped, so it changed the design I had already  created, requiring me to abandon the left-hand cutout on the lower bout.

To design the body I first sought face-on images of fine violins. I selected an x-ray image of a Stradivarius to work with. I overlaid graph paper on a printout of the image and cut the fiddle back to its minimum requirements. I knew a violinist needs the sensory block of the body to help place their left hand on the high end of the scale, so that curve had to be maintained. Bridge distance was a constant, and so was body width where I would be mounting the chin rest and end pin. Continue reading

Then & Now

I published this photograph of the Lower Crab Creek Valley as viewed from the Taunton townsite in “Another Flood.” On a recent visit to the same spot I took the following photograph.

This summer I took a hurried trip through Eastern Washington, photographing sites I have written about. In this article I try to post old photographs alongside more recent ones. In some cases I have also provided views of places previously mentioned in my posts, although no older photographs are available to compare them to.

A view of the Lower Crab Creek Valley in 2012, more than fifty years after the previous photograph was taken, reveals the changing ecology of the formerly arid landscape. Irrigation and invasive species have radically altered the local habitat.

There is definitely an article to be written concerning the environmental changes that have taken place in the Lower Crab Creek Valley over Continue reading

Treasure on the Mountain

Too excited to wait for daylight, we began searching the wagon road in the early dark of an October night.

Joe and I had a plan one night in 1970. I had scraped together wages from a variety of odd jobs and mailed off for a Heathkit metal detector kit. My brother Arnold agreed to put it together for me: he always was an electronics whiz. Now it was done, and Joe and I had a plan. We threw some matches, water, weiners,  bread, pop and cookies into a couple of backpacks, tied on some sleeping bags, and I took a shovel out of the garage. Then, with the metal detector slung over a shoulder we set off up the road in the late afternoon.

The idea hatched a few weeks earlier when my Uncle Luke had piled us into the back of his Ford Econoline pickup to drive up to the cliffs. As we ground our way up the primitive dirt track we kept crossing wide ditch-like ruts leading off into the sagebrush, but we were too high up for irrigation. At the summit of the pass we stopped for a breather next to a small cairn of rounded basalt stones. There were several of those ditches leading through the gap, and my dad told me they were the ruts of a wagon road. As the ruts wore too deep into the powdery earth, succeeding travelers would break new trail parallel to the older ruts. The whole north face was interlaced with wagon trails, twisted into switchbacks. We scrambled back into the pickup to continue our trip and a low flying private plane buzzed us, sneaking over the gap in a shortcut across the forbidden airspace of the Hanford Reservation. Continue reading

The Parting of the Waters

The shattered remains of a bison leg bone, found in a bulldozer tailing near the Milwaukee tracks at Taunton. Fossil animal remains from this area are typically severely broken and disjointed.

Recently I acquired Bruce Bjornstad’s guidebook to the Ice Age Floods of Eastern Washington, On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods (Keokee Books, 2006). In fact I’ve been carrying it around in my briefcase and using it to fill in odd moments when I’m waiting for my son to finish his Jazz Band practice or to get out of school. It’s about time an interpretive tour guide like this was published! Because of the immensity of the subject, this book is a field guide only to a truncated rectangle of curious flood features in the Mid-Columbia Basin. But it is rich in detail and information. This year, Bjornstad published a second volume focusing on the northern landscapes where the flood began through the Mid-Columbia. He presumably plans to follow the water through to its eventual mixing with the sea.

An amateur only (have I ever made that completely clear?), I was excited to see that scientists had actually taken time to study the area I’ve been writing about. That gigantic landslide I mentioned in my post The Five Mile Slide actually has a name, quite logically the Corfu Slide…although it stretches from Taunton on the east to Corfu on the west. Bjornstad’s book spends a couple of chapters explaining the mechanisms that allowed the flood to create such a variety of unusual landscapes. The hummocky surface of this landslide had always seemed mysterious to me, but his book details precisely how the original topography slumped away in successive wedges. The feature I refer to as Column Crevice in my post To the Cliffs and Beyond appears to be one of the cracks in the earth where a landslide was developing, left exposed at the end of the flood, a landslide frozen in time. In fact a hike across this landscape would reveal successive events in the process of the collapse of the northern slope of Saddle Mountain.

And I was touched to see that Bjornstad refers to what locals around Othello refer to as The Bench has been named Parting of the Waters. Continue reading