Monkey puzzle trees live here. The first one I saw after I moved here took me by surprise. I say that because the first monkey puzzle I ever saw was in Florida, decades ago. We were at my late uncle’s house and he pointed out the strange tree with deadly sharp needles and strange seed pods that stood on the side of his house. We didn’t know what it was, but me being an amateur naturalist, I was determined to find out.
I took a sample home to DC and brought it to the National Arboretum to be identified. Soon after, I received a packet in the mail, naming the specimen Araucaria araucana, commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree. I learned that It’s an evergreen native to Chile.
But my uncle’s tree was not nearly as large and grand as the monkey puzzles I’ve seen here in Seattle. What are so many doing here in sight of Puget Sound? As I drive around the city, my eye easily spots them, standing very tall and lovely in front yards. The arrangement of the lance-like needles around the branches gives it a distinct profile, similar to the way a gingko has a unique look. It must have been trendy at one time, to plant these exotic trees in such a place far from their native land.
No squirrel, bird or monkey, for that matter, could possibly perch on a monkey puzzle branch. Not without getting a sharp poke in the butt. And surely no monkey puzzle owner dares go barefoot where the tree grows. It’s not native, provides no shelter or food for wildlife, and is one big prickly hazard. Its only value can be decorative, which is completely acceptable. Seattleites are fierce native plant advocates, but we are also passionate gardeners, susceptible to the sirens of purely decorative specimens.
The monkey puzzles have claimed their place in the land of evergreens. I wonder whether, in turn, Chileans are enjoying exotic Douglas, Grand or Noble firs in their yards?
It is said that the Algonquin tribes gave the March full moon this name. This is the time that the earth warms and softens and worms become active again.
Here in Seattle, this has been the case for some time now! I have seen many worms as I work in my garden. Birds are not the only ones who prize these slithering, wiggly treats. Our moles also live on worms. It’s hard to imagine that they gain much sustenance from creatures that are barely there.
These earthworms are actually non-native and invasive. But like the Eastern Gray Squirrel, they have become part of our landscape.
Eastern Washington has the Giant Palouse Earthworm, a pinkish-white, translucent worm that can grow up to a foot long. It’s rare and lives in the even rarer Palouse bunchgrass prairie ecosystem.
It’s hard to decide what to do on such a splendid day. Take a walk? Garden? Or just sit, bask, and breathe in deeply the warming air.
I decided to first take a walk in the ‘hood. Under a brilliant blue sky, gardens were blooming with purple and white crocuses, golden daffodils and forsythia, purple azaleas, pink cherry trees and an assortment of other early delights.
Then I let one of my cats out and tackled some light yard work. A bumble bee buzzed around and around like it was out of control and then landed on my abelia bush, where it soaked in the sun’s warmth.
I said goodbye to Zanesville and headed to Iowa, where I would visit my stepmom’s son David and his wife Ellen, who live on a small farm in Burlington. The weather was still spring-like when I arrived in the Hawkeye state. My mother was born in Davenport, just up the Mississippi River from Burlington, and I had visited several times when I was very young, but I had never been anywhere else in Iowa. My stepmom grew up in Burlington.
Life is so different in small midwestern cities. The whole economy is a world away from places like DC and Seattle. I saw some grand old homes, probably the most expensive in Burlington, and asked David how much one might cost. He replied about $150,000. What a bargain! I could buy two for what I would likely pay in Seattle.
My step-kin showed me the highlights of Burlington, which included Snake Alley, a narrow brick-paved, winding road that rivals Lombard Street in San Francisco. Snake Alley was designed by German immigrants and built in 1894. Iowa was settled by many Germans. My maternal ancestors came from Germany. I stood, with David and Ellen, on a hill overlooking the mighty Mississippi and the Great River Bridge, which links Burlington to Gulf Port, Illinois. It’s always impressive to see this river that is so intertwined with American culture.
I did something else I’d never done before: forage for morels. Ellen and David have a “secret” patch next to their house, and I was able to find a few of the delectable fungi to add to the bag. Then they showed me the tiny old cemetery across the road, which they voluntarily care for, cutting the grass and keeping it up. After a pleasant visit in Burlington, it was time to move on.
Church that burned
Heading toward Colorado, I had a goal of picking up some states I had never been to. I planned to drive through Nebraska and pick up a corner of Kansas on the way. But first, I couldn’t resist stopping at the Amana Colonies, so detoured there for an hour or so. I had heard of this place but didn’t know too much about it. The area is a National Historic Landmark. The seven villages began with a familiar story of a religious people suffering persecution. This group fled Germany and came to the United States, settling first near Buffalo, NY. When they sought more farmland, they looked to Iowa. I’ll quote from amanacolonies.com:
“In 1855 they arrived in Iowa … The leaders chose the name Amana from the Song of Solomon 4:8. Amana means to “remain true.” Six villages were established, a mile or two apart, across a river valley tract of some 26,000 acres – Amana, East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, High Amana and Middle Amana. The village of Homestead was added in 1861, giving the Colony access to the railroad … Residents received a home, medical care, meals, all household necessities, and schooling for their children. Property and resources were shared. Men and women were assigned jobs by their village council of brethren. No one received a wage. No one needed one …. Farming and the production of wool and calico supported the community, but village enterprises, everything from clock making to brewing, were vital; and well-crafted products became a hallmark of the Amanas … In 1932, amidst America’s Great Depression, Amana set aside its communal way of life. A ruinous farm market and changes in the rural economy contributed, but what finally propelled the change was a strong desire on the part of residents to maintain their community. By 1932, the communal way of life was seen as a barrier to achieving individual goals, so rather than leave or watch their children leave, they changed. They established the Amana Society, Inc. a profit-sharing corporation to manage the farmland, the mills and the larger enterprises. Private enterprise was encouraged. The Amana Church was maintained.”
I visited several buildings and found a hearty lunch before resuming my trip. I drove on to Nebraska and learned that it’s not all flat! There is some hilly country there. I passed by Omaha, the largest city in the state, settling in Lincoln for the night. The next morning I headed for Colorado, driving through Kansas first.
Almost eight years ago, I packed my car up and drove west, from Washington, DC, to Washington state. I had decided to move to Seattle. I took a week and a half to drive out, stopping to visit friends and relatives, and enjoy some adventures along the way. The only schedule I had to meet was arriving at my new apartment in time for the moving van.
Starting out in the spring from Virginia, I drove through Maryland, stopping for lunch at a friend’s house in the rural town of Cumberland. Then it was on to Ohio. I wasn’t sure where I would spend the night; I would stop wherever it looked interesting.
The name Zanesville stuck in my head and I decided to stop there. I knew the region was famous for pottery – Weller and Roseville were made there. It was known as the Pottery Capital of the World. It also made me think of the author Zane Grey and I wondered whether there was a connection. Turns out, there was. Grey was a descendent of the city’s founder, Ebenezer Zane, and he grew up in the city. The first thing I noticed was a startling number of really big churches. I had to learn more about Zanesville. The next morning I spent a few hours driving around. It was clearly an old blue collar town, established around a river, like so many, in this case at the confluence of the Muskingum and Licking rivers. It has a history of producing a variety of goods, including mosaics, tile, stoneware and brick. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad. I only spent a few hours there and wished I could stay and explore more.
Fog can form when cold air moves over warmer ground. Gray foggy mornings have been with us now and then in Seattle. Despite popular belief, it’s not foggy or rainy all the time here, especially in winter. But this is our wet season. No snow so far, only intermittent light rain. We go back and forth between rain and sun breaks, foggy mornings and sunny afternoons. Days average in the 50s, with some near 60. There’s been a real dearth of snow in the mountains this year and skiing is not good or nonexistent. I frequently go out in a sweatshirt. This is winter?
The plants have taken notice of the warm winter too. I see leaf buds greening on the Spirea, which seems early to me. The winter bloomers — Hellebores, Daphne and Sarcococca have been out on cue, but the Brunnera seems outright crazy to be putting out tiny flowers already. That’s about two months early. Maybe it’s a sign that I can start my vegetable garden earlier this year!