This has been a story, and I have been the hero of it

A decade or so ago, my wife said to me: you should have a blog. Blogging was becoming popular, and ‘new media,’ and its practitioners, were darlings of “old” media; some bloggers had book deals, even movies. I laughed and dismissed the idea, for I had no interest in photographing my lunch or comparing my home improvement projects to Garret Eckbo or Frank Lloyd Wright in the way folks seemed to think making dinner turned them into iconic TV chefs. I had opinions on many things, but no story to tell.


The property as it appeared before development. There is the wetland, there is the lake across the street. Here be dragons!

But when I began working in the clearing behind my home, I found there was a story there. A unique story of gardening, of property restriction, of humanity working with and against latter-day forest primeval. There were bad guys (the politicologists, the Mitigation Planner, the Mountain Beavers, the weather and the soil); there were good guys (my family, moss, native plants, the forest, regional history, and of course, me); and in the way of all good yarns, there was the arc of a story: beginning, middle, end (buy a house, “mitigate,” and five years later find out how you did). Back in college, where I majored in Creative Writing (yep), we were given the hoary cliche of basic fiction writing: Get Man in Tree, Throw Rocks at Man, Get Man Down From Tree. I’ve been the man in the tree (frequently, quite literally). Less commonly known principles of storycraft have been present also: Wagon Training (from the movie, Stand By Me, wherein one of the characters says, “you know that show, Wagon Train? They never get anywhere. They just keep…Wagon Training”), which is the principle by which pages are filled in between plot advancement and character development. The television program Lost started out strong and turned into nothing but Wagon Training, for instance.


‘No one is watching house. Is good time for Bigfoot to steal brassieres!’ Imaginary Sasquatch=Frank Peterson and Wagon Train

The other is the literary device known as ‘Frank Peterson.’ Frank Peterson is a character in a story who advances the plot but who does not warrant greater character development himself (Frank also goes by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Horace Greeley was Frank Peterson–America went West, and stuff happened there, but what do you know about Horace Greeley? The citizens of Munchkinland were Frank Peterson (“Follow the yellow brick road, Dorothy!”), as was the White Whale, and any cowpoke who ever said, ‘They went thataway!’ Frank Peterson is enormously important to every story, but not so much so that the teller of the tale digresses into who Frank Peterson is, or why, or what Frank Peterson cares about. My wife and daughter have occasionally been both Wagon Trains and Frank Peterson; and those people who have helped me, or read these pages, or have commented here are among the finer Frank Petersons around. Thank you so very much, Frank; you know who you are. You are my very good friend, though we have not met.


What do you mean, I can come down now? Am I done?

So while this is a blog, at times seeming to have been about gardening, or landscaping, or moss; or the design and making of things; and other times politics or ecology. There has been science and anthropology and history and occasions when I may have attempted to be witty or wry or even ironic; really, this entire time: it was a Story. The story of my life, living in a new situation, and how it happened, and what I thought and did. This tale has been of the outsized character of me, and I also have served as your sometimes omniscient narrator. Can you trust me? Have you trusted me? I have given facts and Latin names, photographs and places to go where you can check my work, but can I crack a walnut with my bare hand, are my shoulders really the size of cantaloupes? What we know is that I willingly and obliviously climbed the tree; then, the Mitigation plan, the City of Sammamish, and the site threw metaphorical rocks at me; and one day, well before the five-year period in which the story was to occur was up, I realized there were no more ‘rocks’–but before I could climb down from my tree I fell out. I am just as surprised as you are (maybe not about this being a story, but definitely about the story being over): and here is where this story ends.


You can sneak up on bears when they are groggy, but do not poke them. Ever.

I will miss my moss and the cool green secret shaded places in the woods where I sat for rare quiet and solitude. I will miss the Pileated woodpeckers, the brown creepers, and the young spotted fawns nursing on wobbly legs; miss the call of the owl and the mystery noises in the darkness, those things undiscovered, or unimagined. I will long remember the chilling notes of midnight coyotes, the spectral lynx in the morning mist, and the dark black night shadow when the bear leaned on the fence as I very nearly leaned on the bear, and both our terror as we crashed away from one another in the darkness. I will miss those things that made living here at once impossible and thrilling. I will miss the beauty of the dappled morning sun, those things sadly unborn of my mind and hand here, and I will even miss those things that made for struggle and toil. And if you are reading this, I will miss you. All of these things have made both me and this.


I am out there, somewhere.

There may yet be a story for me to tell, but it won’t be here. The thistles are gone, the area is no longer sensitive, and tomorrow it will no longer be mine. My new story might be one of gardening or landscaping or the making of things or improving my home. I don’t know. Or I may decide that keeping these pages is also a task, one that requires commitment and constant freshness, another master to serve when time is short. You will just have to check back, I guess.

When David Douglas was traversing the Pacific Northwest of the 1820s, periodically he would round a bend in the river or come to a wide point in the trail, and be confronted with someone he knew–fewer than 2,000 Europeans in a few million square miles of range, and he’d just bump into them. Think of me that way. We are on our trails now, separately, but I will still be travelling. Perhaps you will find a storm-fallen tree on your property, and I will be the man who shows up with two chainsaws to help you remove it. I am the man you see, the one in the camouflage shorts, with the big steel shovel, gardening in the driving rain and snow.

We will see each other, Alki (By and by).

# # #

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The Moss Garden at Mid-Mitigation

We have been on this property for two and a half years–exactly halfway through the five-year Mitigation Period–and I began my ‘Do Over’ in the clearing in February of 2011.   Because of the naturally occurring native mosses here and there, I decided that a moss garden would bring the whole forest clearing ‘look’ together. 

Using George Schenk as my moss guru, I began transplanting smallish pads of moss about the clearing, and cribbing a page from the spectacular Moss Garden at the Bloedel Reserve, filling in some of the blank soil with low-growing ground covers which resemble bryophtic moss; and also some other plants analogous to the native mosses and Selaginella (selaginalogous!).   I had read that it could take years to fully establish a moss garden.  It isn’t a gardening style for the impatient.

It is only two years later, and moss now covers 90% or more of the soil in the clearing and the surrounding woodland margin.  The non-native groundcovers are being consumed, covered, and colonized by the native mosses.  Even my Elongated Applications of Weed-Suppressing Mulch show the viridian starts of moss colonies–as I have previously confessed, they are NOT Elongated Applications of Weed-Suppressing Mulch, but are in fact the paths I was not supposed to have, where I covered the habitual track of deer through the woods with cedar chips.   It is very difficult to grow many things in this clearing–plants, for instance–but moss grows like crazy.  It was a good choice.

I have religiously kept the ground clear of weeds and competing vegetation, and no Zen monk-in-training ever collected leaves with greater thoroughness than I (Zen monks don’t use gas-powered leaf sucker/shredders, though).  I relinquish ownership of the clearing next week, and who knows what will become of it; but I am extremely pleased with where I got to at just the halfway mark of the five-year plan.

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The Start of it All

Although we are packing our bindles and preparing to leave the Sensitive Area behind, I still get asked, ‘So…how did all this get started?’  The short answer would have to be, ‘I bought this property, built this house, and looked out the window one morning and didn’t like what I saw…and got a little angry.’  But there is more to it than that.

Long ago, Primitive Man said to Primitive Woman, ‘I think I’d like a drawing on the wall over my sitting rock that shows me killing our dinner. ‘  So Primitive woman drew a picture of Primitive Man braining a sick rabbit with a stone, and said to Primitive Man, ‘You know,

Fig trees were among the first domesticated plants. Newtons followed much later. Photo by Saul Adereth–sorry, Saul, but it was the only photo of a fig tree in a desert I could find.

I’m tired of walking all the way to the Tree that Grows the Fruit that Doesn’t Make You Vomit.  I want you to dig one up and put it right outside the cave.’  So Primitive Man  transplanted a Tree that Grows the Fruit that Doesn’t Make You Vomit right outside the cave, and interior decoration and gardening were born.

Shortly thereafter, Primitive Woman said to Primitive Man, ‘You know, I just met another Primitive Man who has a Fabulous Animal Hide to Wear.  He says he can really spruce things up around here.’  Primitive Man determined that this was no threat to him and gave the Primitive Thumbs Up in order to keep Primitive Woman happy.  Primitive Man with

the Fabulous Animal Hide drew another picture of a more impressive Primitive Man killing a more impressive animal with a pointed stick and then planted two more Trees that Grow Fruit that Doesn’t Make You Vomit outside the cave, along with some of the Flower That If You Take it Inside the Cave, it Smells A Lot Less Like Primitive Feet.  When Primitive Man

This is going to look just dar over that pile of femurs!

learned that this would only cost a handful shiny pebbles and he would not have to worry about such things any more, he was happy, as well as hopeful that other Primitive People might visit his cave and think that he had a pointy stick; and so the profession of Interior Design and Garden Design were born.  Soon Primitive Man was left with all kinds of free time to invent the Primitive Labrador to keep him company while Primitive Woman was out with her strangely unthreatening friend inventing Primitive White Wine and Primitive Gossip.

Soon, Primitive Man with the Fabulous Animal Hide realized that he could give a tiny portion of his shiny pebbles to some newcomers to the Land Of Trees that Grow the Fruit that Doesn’t Make You Vomit and they would do his work for him; and so the concept of Primitive Saturday Morning Home Improvement Television was born, wherein it was shown that if only you have enough newcomers to your land who are willing to work for cheap, you can transform the area around your cave into something fantastic in just a few short days.

A couple millenia later I was watching Home Improvement TV on a Saturday morning while trying to avoid working in the yard of my first home.  Something they were doing appealed to me and I thought:  I can do that.  Now, 20 years, hundreds of books, eighteen broken shovels, and thousands of hours of doing that, and I looked out my window and got a little angry.  Then I planted my own trees, moved my own rocks… and kept all of my shiny pebbles to myself.

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Something is Still Sensitive Here. Maybe it is just me.

Almost two months of fairly enforced idleness (gardenwise, anyway) have given me ample opportunity to look out the window at my past labors and think about this land–shortly mine no longer–the health of the forest, and property restrictions in the abstract. 

I have been here just two and a half years, and it is a scant three since ground was broken for this house.  Taking up a slight 1,500 square-foot ‘footprint,’ little more than that 1,500 square feet was cleared to build it: 1,600 square feet, to be exact.  One thousand, six hundred square feet of scrub growth and one almost timberish tree…out of the 54,000 square feet I own.  Not much of this second-growth forest was harmed.  And that is out of the 1,600 or so acres behind my house.  1,600 square feet of impact out of 68,000,000 square feet of forest.  My calculator doesn’t even have enough decimal places to express that as a percentage.

I feel reasonably certain the forest never even knew I was here.  The birds and the ground animals quickly grew accustomed to my constant presence; the larger animals and predators made their spectral rounds; and the Mountain Beavers feasted on the largesse of my plantings.  But overall, while I increased the number of plants in the clearing and ‘wetland buffer’ from the original 289 to almost a thousand and carpeted the ground with moss, my actions have been the merest ephemera in the long action known as the forest cycle.

The restrictions on my property were very real.  The restrictions on me, although I signed papers, had them notarized, and locked away Schroedinger’s Damage Deposit, may have only been empty threats articulated by over-empowered bureaucrats.  I may never actually know.  What I do know is that while I started out only to recover those funds, I wound up actually caring.  Quite a bit, in fact.  As I watch my moss grow and consider the rich interior that is me, the thoughts, impulses, the emotions, the guts and the black stuff, I still cannot precisely figure out why.  I only wanted my money back, with a heaping side helping of being right.


In the deep woods on my property, down near the wetland: a small English Ivy sproutling takes root near a an English Holly start. Both are Class A Noxious Weeds, according to Washington State law, and both are widely grown in the massive subdivisions near this forest, and openly sold in consumer nurseries. These are the last pernicious invasives I will eradicate from this forest.

I still believe that property restrictions–generalized, codified, governmentally-mandated ones–are wrong.  Humanity is a part of any ecosystem it touches, for good or bad.  Trying to keep us out, to keep us off the land, can only prevent an attitude of caring to develop.  Far better, I think, to utilize the existing “restrictions” that come with noxious weed and plant lists.  The State, counties, and municipalities should be out eradicating these plants on their own land, and strongly encouraging private property owners to do likewise.  Those plants known to be invasive, aggressive, and harmful should NOT be sold in nurseries–voluntarily at first, then compulsorily if compliance is poor. These policies should occur in lockstep with making comprehensive information available on sound landscape and ecological process, and provide this information to homeowners, developers, and commercial property owners.  There should be an equilibrium of requirement for ALL property owners, regardless of size or perceived economic value…and that should include government entities themselves.

There is an irony for me in all this (an irony beyond gardening ‘in secret’ while broadcasting my actions to the world), in that my great-grand relatives were the homesteaders, the farmers, loggers, and commercial fishermen, who opened up this region for its proliferate development.  While the idea of denuding majestic Douglas fir forests and pushing Pacific salmon runs to the brink of extinction were not theirs, they certainly participated in these activities; and while being of pioneer stock was once a point of regional pride, the world has changed and now these things are looked upon askance, to say the least. (Although I can say that my family housed and fed your family a hundred years ago.  So there.)  While I may have started out only to get my money back, the notion of being right caused me to get very educated on native plants, forest biology, and prevailing thought VERY quickly.  This self-education then took me on to earth sciences, regional history, generalized and historical botany, humanities and current events, and other rich auto-didactic pursuits which allowed me to consume more printed knowledge in the past two years than in high school and college combined.  So…Politicologists and stupid Mitigation Planner: thanks for that.  I am a more educated person than I was before, and I would not otherwise be so.

And a better person, more whole.  To have immersed myself in the regional, cultural, historic, economic, and political pan-bibliography of this area has given me a better understanding of myself and where I ‘come from,’ both historically and in the present.  By giving stewardship to my forest and care for the water that filters out of my swamp and into the lake across the street, and from there into several streams that drain into two large lakes, and from there into the Puget Sound, where all this water converges to form the only wild urban salmon and steelhead runs in the world: I have closed the open loop of family history.  My family’s circle is now complete and will remain so, because caring for this woodland and this wetland is not my job anymore.  In spite of myself, I will miss it.

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Lessons Were Learned, and…HEY! Wait a minute!

Although spring is almost here, there is still frost on the spiderweb.

Although spring is almost here, there is still frost on the spiderweb.

My little quadrant of this sphere is slowly tilting back toward the sun, and there is now enough demi-daylight (and if my wife is reading this: I went to high school with Demi Daylight!) when I get home from work to see my newly-minted living room view. Absent the abominable Confinement Fence: the grand stump, the dirtle, my valiantly struggling saplings, all are now in easy view without standing up or hurting my neck.

The view from my living room. Imagine: being able to see out of a WALL OF WINDOWS

The view from my living room. Imagine: being able to see out of a WALL OF WINDOWS

Here and there, daffodils poke up through the soil, a couple with the tell-tale 45-degree chew-pattern of the Mountain Beaver–I hope you’re down in your hole puking your guts out!–and the trillium are starting to come up. The delicate trefoil flower brings my grandmother quickly to mind, and the Lucky Strike-scented drives in her 1972 Skylark to see them. Likely we were not far from where I now sit. All through the scene are the little hummocks and drumlins of forest moss, now covering all soil but a few haphazard square inches, thither and yon. When I first contrived of a moss garden, I had read it might take years to establish, but it is now a scant two since I transplanted the first pad. The only places uncarpeted by moss are the Elongated Applications of Weed Suppressing Mulch. Full disclosure: they are paths. They always were.

Moss. Mist.  Moss and mist will be missed.

Moss. Mist. Moss and mist, well, they WILL be missed

Spring is almost here, and soon the vine maple–also a favorite of my grandma–will unfurl their leaves, as will the mountain ash and the dogwood. I found a love for plants previously What!?! Did you hear that? It sounded like a needle being drawn across a record, or a tinkling saloon piano suddenly silenced…or some other sound effect signalling an abrupt change in tone and atmosphere! I can strike an elegiac tone as well as anyone, and leaving something undone is sad. Super sad. But intense reflection and self-knowledge causes it to become clear: really, the biggest problem here is I hate moving.

Here we have been living, unhappily squished between a road that is much, much busier than it orignally seemed and a vast second-growth forest neither quite as sensitive as we were told, nor as benign as we had hoped. No one is having any fun. Everybody is tired of Daddy-Hubby working in the yard all weekend and many evenings trying to customize a clearing and fabricate a forest. Especially Daddy-Hubby. Continually exhausted and frustrated, he’s no damn good to anyone, especially me.


A garden of Northwest Native plants and mosses? There. Now THAT is a great idea.

In short days we’ll be going less than a mile down the road, to a house two left turns off this busy street. Basketball and bicycling, scootering and skating on a wide, level cul-de-sac. I should probably invest heavily in Bandaids, but won’t worry quite so much about ‘catastrophic injury.’ We can have that vegetable garden we want, some fruit trees, I can go back to using my magical powers for killing mint (really). There are no Bigleaf Maples on the property or even on the street. I can create a Japanese stroll garden, a wood-burning firepit, hang a swing, build a playfort…a new Shoji house, a greenhouse. There is even a portion of the property that is ‘natural,’ with Douglas fir, salal, sword fern and forest debris. Hmmm…perhaps in that area I could MAKE AN ALL-NATIVE NORTHWEST GARDEN WITH MOSS! Instead of what is ‘permissible’ or ‘what I can get away with’ deciding what I will do, I am limited only by my imagination, time, and budget. Possibly also by my ability to transport building material, as I like things overbuilt and overscale (plants grow, but structures and hardscape do not).   I am positive that in time, I will have all of these; and without a doubt, pent-up demand for my favorite plants will be satisfied.


A freestanding shop, architecturally sympathetic to the primary structure, designed by ME. I didn’t have a cocktail napkin, so I used plain old paper.

And something more: I will have a SHOP! Not a corner of the garage or some such make-do; I have already sketched the structure and have my drawings out to be turned into a set of construction plans. Feasibility is underway, and by the time I have the keys to the ‘new’ house I will likely have the building permit. I will have a small building where I can put all my power and hand tools, dedicated workspace, dust collection, and art supplies. While there will be no storage inside of it (that is a manifesto, not a description), I designed the shop with broad overhangs under which can be stored kayaks, firewood, or what have you, and a covered area to one day house outdoor cooking and weather-sheltered lounging. It is NOT meant to be an ‘outdoor living room!’ I am not presently sure what to call it, but not that, so stop using your meaningless magazine words. In the shop I can make objets d’stuff and take refuge during those inevitable**ahem**lady times that are yet a few years off, as my wife is only in her early forties and my daughter now just eight…wink, you know what I’m saying, fist bumps to that guy over there, hiding out in his garage.  Necessarily, there will be a mini-fridge, good lighting, and maybe a comfy chair.

Overlooking the moss garden and the wetland from my bedroom window.

Overlooking the moss garden and the wetland from my bedroom window.


The view on that Most Sensitive of Areas, the wetland ‘buffer,’ from the stairwell.

As I look out the window, my eye is drawn to those places which are ‘missing’ something: another Alaska cedar here, there is where the ‘Pacific Fire’ vine maples would go.  I wish I had just a couple more moss pads to cover this or that spot, and I can see some early shotweed and persistent crane’s bill coming up.  I wonder what might happen with this clearing and the moss garden I have made; looking toward the wetland, I imagine four or five courses of retaining block, and I’m pretty sure two dump trucks’ worth of fill and soil, ten or so rented wheelbarrows, and an equal number of those guys who loiter in the home improvement center parking lot, and I could level this clearing and make it look like a standard suburban backyard in a weekend or two.

More likely it will go fallow and then to seed, the bracken fern will return, and the Mountain Beavers will mow down all vegetation within a couple years–those plants that do not get smothered by maple leaves.  That is just the way people are.  Without my Sisyphean efforts, the clearing will do what it has always done…and that is OK by me. It won’t be mine anymore.


Dirtle, perhaps I will miss you most of all. Then again, I can just make another one.

I began the process of building our home in September of 2009.  We built through 2010, sold our last home a month and a half before moving, and in 2011 I began the process of negotiating the sale of my business real estate.  In September of 2012 we put our ‘dream home’ on the market, took it off 2 1/2 months later, and then I began navigating the modern landscape of mortgage refinance with a lender that took a billion dollar bailout, but doesn’t really want to loan to consumers.  I closed the sale of the business property in December, and in late January bought a new  old home and sold the ‘dream house.’  We move in four weeks’ time, and are boxing up our life again.   I have been All Real Estate All The Time for almost four years. The next time someone, anyone, says to me: ‘Let’s move or do something real estate or mortgage related,’ the answer will be, GO AHEAD.  Those words should be read as though icicles were dripping off of them.

But I am now beyond any reluctance or melancholy over moving. The other night, my daughter asked me who was buying our house.  I told her it was a man and a woman who liked the house very much. “Do they have kids?” she asked me.  “I don’t think so,” I replied.  She thought for a moment.  “Good.  Kids shouldn’t live here.”

Really, I can’t move fast enough.

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Change of Mind, Change of Heart (part three, a change of plan)

'Pacific Fire' Vine maple in a more cultivated setting.  The orange-red bark would contrast nicely with the mosses.

‘Pacific Fire’ Vine maple in a more cultivated setting. The orange-red bark would contrast nicely with the mosses.

In late December and into January, while I waited for the soil to

'Iron Springs' is a naturally-occurring mutation of Western Hemlock. It starts out as an irregular mound and grows very slowly into a semi-contorted form. It is the plante juste!

‘Iron Springs’ is a naturally-occurring mutation of Western Hemlock. It starts out as an irregular mound and grows very slowly into a semi-contorted form. It is the plante juste!

thaw and my special-order mutant Native plants to arrive, I studied up on Mountain Beaver control (this creature, which eats a few hundred dollars a year’s worth of plants in my clearing, costs the timber industry over $350,000,000 annually in damage to seedlings, tree farms, and restoration plantings. There is no shortage of reading on this subject). Why add another couple thousand dollars worth of plants if the plants will only become forage and nest? Culling and co-opting the best of Mountain Beaver strategy from the industrial/governmental forestry complex, I

I suspect the Mountain Beavers may be taking up arms in advance of the coming conflict.

I suspect the Mountain Beavers may be taking up arms in advance of the coming conflict.

planned great changes for my Mountain Beavers: a change of Spiritual Plane.

I made plans and drawings for more and greater changes to the property. I tidied up an area just beyond the clearing for a treehouse. I moved a couple giant rocks into featured locations. I sketched a small lean-to shed for the side of the house, a place to store those things in the garage which kept me from using it as a shop. I designed an arbor to replace a part of the remaining Confinement Fence, the rest of which would be removed, and I noted for ‘disappearance’ six of the dozen loathsome Bigleaf Maples which closely ring my house. The remaining six, too large or too close to the house to fell, would get severe prunings or selected trunk removal to reduce the volume of those stupid leaves. After doing projects, I love making lists of projects; to plan for change, creating drawings and dreams, afforded me a grand time. I was having more fun making plans for change than I had in all the previous TWO YEARS of living in the home. In fact, with the New Year only one thing had not changed: my wife…or rather, her mind.

As I spoke with greater and greater enthusiasm of my plans, my wife agreed and applauded, but reserved that tone in her voice in the way she does not think I can hear: ‘Yes…but.’ These reservations, abstract and imprecise, led us to friction over the first real difference we have had in our fifteen years together. We have ALWAYS wanted the same things, ALWAYS liked the same things. We had never before disagreed on a Grand Plan. Now, I wanted to stay in this house and had ‘fallen in love’ with it in a way I had not before; my wife, having decided she wanted to move last fall, could not get her mind to move back in. We had reached the first fundamental idealogical divide in our life together. And a divide wherein one person arrives at decision through reason and the other maintains belief through emotion: that is not a divide easily bridged.

I cannot help that there is obviously a punchline to this tale, a bombshell at this point less

Think I'll just go back to sleep. No one will be committing landscape crimes in the woods today.

Think I’ll just go back to sleep. No one will be committing landscape crimes in the woods today.

explosive than the first time I dropped it in the fall. So when my wife took me to see a property just down the street, a 1977 semi-split with a super smart floorplan on a shy acre at the end of a cul-de-sac, of course we made an offer–accepted the next day. Much in the way that when my wife said she wanted a baby and I wanted a puppy, the compromise was not the baby gorilla I suggested…but in fact, a baby (when said illustrative baby was born, I knew I had made the right choice; my daughter is awesome, and gorillas can become difficult to manage as they age). I trust that giving up my will to accede to my wife’s wish is the right choice, and I will love our new home too. Whether I do, or don’t…well, I am husband and father first, and I live to serve the hive.


For sale, chea...SOLD!

For sale, chea…SOLD!

We put our house up for sale the next day and miraculously, five days later that sold too. We move at the end of March. I cannot say that I’m not conflicted: I DO love this house I built, though probably the way an heiress loves a Hell’s Angel. It isn’t right, but it’s just so damn sexy. While all seems fine to me now, when the Mountain Beavers consume another thousand dollars’ worth of plants, I’ll be fed up again. Right now my daughter and I can play basketball in the garage, but next year the hoops go up a foot for third-grade girls, and it isn’t likely she’ll want to practice the Hakeem Olajuwan Dream Shake on colored spots on the floor without taking the shot. I didn’t want to sell the house

My NEW HOUSE! Oh, wait.  That's my OLD house, a couple years before we sold it.

My NEW HOUSE! Oh, wait. That’s my OLD house, a couple years before we sold it.

at the price we sold it; we take a pretty good loss on costs outside of the construction budget, and it will keep me working at least a decade to make it up, but I don’t want to live in a monument to my own hubris, either. At the same time, the ‘new’ house is 36 years old and has the same problems, projects, the same improvements and work, as my last house,

There...THAT'S the 'new' house.  It is butter yellow. Just sayin'.

There…THAT’S the ‘new’ house. It is butter yellow. Just sayin’.

the one I bought when I was twenty-nine. I am forty -five now. I can’t help but feel that I have moved the progress of my life back significantly. As a man, a husband, a father, I want to do what is best for my family and to do the right thing, and I am troubled that I cannot say that ‘best’ and ‘right’ are the same.

2013, The Year I Changed My Mind, indeed.

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Change of Mind, Change of Heart (part two)

I think I'll go around those trees and behind that stump, and build some sort of play structure.

I think I’ll go around those trees and behind that stump, and build some sort of play structure.

Returning to my snug and solidly built home after a day on a precarious roof and in the crawlspace of a dangerously sagging structure, I remarked to my wife how “we had wanted more outdoor living, but came very close to living outdoors.” The day of our inspection was cold, and I nestled my stocking feet into my heated concrete floors, listened to an early winter downpour pelt our lifetime metal roof. I was thankful to be where I was. We took our home off the market.

We had many conversations after this: we had never really tried to learn how to live in the house. We had only focused on the shortcomings of floorplan and layout, hadn’t figured out what TO DO, as opposed to what we could not do. The yard would never be a ballfield or basketball court, but our daughter would not be seven forever, and in a year or two might not want those things. We could figure it out. I could make the yard more fun, more useful; I would make the garage more workshop and art studio, more roller rink and playspace, less parking.

Most importantly, the home is a giant cornerstone of our financial well-being. I had poured more than thought and hope into it, but also a massive portion of our resource and security. By trying to sell it quickly, we had damaged the perception of value to the real estate market, and we needed to recover. My wife and I have always agreed, one move before the school years were over, and we had made that move. To try to change homes within the drawing area of our daughter’s elementary, we were shorted on choice; we should wait until middle school when the drawing area would increase fivefold, wait three or four years for the value of our home to recover, until the real estate market changed, until we could reinforce our family security.

As 2012 built toward Holiday crescendo, I considered all these things, and particulary how to address the possibility that our yard might not be as restricted as I had been led to believe. I was fairly certain that I was not being monitored, but not so certain as to leap out from cover and level the clearing and install a lawn, for instance. Having put such great effort into creating nature, I had no interest in damaging it, either. I could not escape the question of whether at the end of the five year Mitigation period, a politicologist from the City might not still show up—but if I contacted them to learn for certain of my status, I could only be tipping them off that they had inadvertently lost track of me. Plans formed, and thoughts crystallized. I saw the New Year as a fresh opportunity: I would change, first my mind and then my actions.

For two years I had thought that the $5,000 which I set aside was a Survival Bond on the original 289 native plants of the Mitigation Plan, and I also thought that if I worked hard

Vine maple 'Pacific fire' among the yellow cedars to the left, 'Bloodgood' Japanese maple in front of the multi-trunked tree to the right.  Some 'Hino Crimson' azalea and cream- or white-margined hosta in front. Ooooh, yeah.

Vine maple ‘Pacific fire’ among the yellow cedars to the left, ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple in front of the multi-trunked tree to the right. Some ‘Hino Crimson’ azalea and cream- or white-margined hosta in front. Ooooh, yeah.

enough and smart enough, I stood a chance at getting it back. The conversation with my neighbor about her unbuildable lakefront mudpit, however, made me realize how wrong those thoughts were. The INTENT of the ordinance was not important; it is the LETTER of the ordinance the politicologists are concerned with. The only ways I might receive my $5,000 back is to either have the property exist exactly as it was when inspected, or to have my work since then approved. The one is not possible, as those plants are dead and the property so greatly changed; the other not possible either, as I have only passionately pursued the intent of the law and not the letter. The two possibilities for release of the $5,000–mutually exclusive, purely theoretical, neither to occur. The money is not a Survival Bond. The $5,000 is Schroedinger‘s Damage Deposit. And I won’t get it back, since Schroedinger’s Damage Deposit cannot exist outside of the bank, either. I realized: this isn’t even deposit money. This is “I’m sorry I did that” money. Schroedinger’s Damage Deposit is the first $5,000 of the fine I will pay if a politicologist ever does turn up…and I want my money’s worth.

I immediately stopped working on the companion volume to these pages, a document that has swelled to two 4-inch three-ring binders that I call the Codex Thistliana. Part gardening journal, part research paper, these books comprise my plant lists, receipts for purchases, field observations, hyrdrological studies, soil analyses, plant performance assessment, growth charts, and wildlife surveys; as well as printouts and excerpts of supporting science and anecdote from sources such as forestry colleges, timber companies, the departments of Natural Resources and also Fish and Wildlife, plus local and regional Native Plant and Horticultural Societies; certifications, training, and education I have pursued, AND a bibliography and footnotes. This document was to be the ‘reasonable use’ support for all my actions over the past two years and the ensuing three, my own substitute for the Mitigation montitoring I was to have contracted out to the dumbs**t who devised the original Mitigation Plan. Well over 2,000 pages now, it is only so much future recycling and a complete waste of my time.

The New Year had not yet even arrived, and already I had changed my mind. Into the ground went several hundred daffodil bulbs, in hope of a cheerful woodland spring–or at least an unpleasantly bulimic Mountain Beaver feast upon the toxic tubers. Liberated from anxiety, I planted some non-native dogwood shrubs with bright coral stems; and though I was ready to put in those azaleas and hostas, add some Japanese Maples and that weeping and fastigiate Copper Beech I have been wanting, I also trolled through nurseries at Christmastime looking at some certain native plants: I am a firm believer in the mot juste, and there were one or two trees I needed to complete the picture of progression from clearing to forest, and a large number of shrubs to define the border between wild woods and cultivated garden. I found, at one boutique nursery, four dozen Evergreen Huckleberry, and magically: the same number of Oregon Box, my ‘greenicorn’ of almost two years ago. Even more magically, all of these were reasonably priced (despite the piano player and garden cafe). The ground was too frozen to plant, so I placed them on hold and ordered a half dozen Acer circinatum “Pacific Fire,” for their brilliant red bark, and a dozen Western Hemlock “Iron Springs.” Though ready to go off-script, I have built a texture and a ‘look,’ and these mutations of native vegetation well suit my purpose.

Tired of looking through or over the ridiculous Confinement Fence from my living

If I throw a sturdy rope over that branch WAY UP THERE, I don't think a swing will reach over HERE.

If I throw a sturdy rope over that branch WAY UP THERE, I don’t think a swing will reach over HERE.

room, I took it down and made extremely satisfying firewood of it; turns out, I had crafted a lovely view onto the clearing, now that I can see it. The floodgates had opened, now I cannot not be stopped: my mind is changed, and everything else will change with it. I got my daughter a kickass swing for Christmas, and could not wait to hang it from a tree branch. I had everything but a tattoo that said, “Landscape Rebel.” The revolution has begun, and though not televised, it WILL be visible from the street.

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Change of Mind, Change of Heart (part one)

When our home was for sale last fall, one evening we found a note taped to our door: “I have questions about your house,” with a name and phone number. Thinking it a potential sale, I called her the next morning. It turned out she only had one question: How did we get the house built? When I told her that whoever owned the property in 1997 had applied for a zoning variance, back before the City was incorporated and before the politicologists rose to power, she was audibly disheartened.

She had bought a property, she told me, in 2004. A quadruple lot of lakefront, 180 feet of shoreline on a wide two-plus acres. It was near the peak of the market and she had paid a mint–the price she told me was staggering: 1.4 million dollars for a two-room cabin. She wanted to build her dream home, and on the advice of her builder and architect tore the cabin down immediately in order to begin feasibility studies and architectural planning.

The DPD inspectors, the same who directed the Mitigation Plan on my own property, were difficult right away. They demanded a 200 foot setback from the lake, to comply with current Critical Area ordinance, and pointed out the soggy ground near the street. They called it a wetland and directed that any home must be 200 feet from that also; but with the dimensions of the lot, there was no way to be 200 feet from BOTH the lake and the soggy ground. This impasse over wetland vs. street runoff had been going on eight years.

The woman on the phone was notably angry and really wanted to talk, especially after I echoed her frustrations with the City’s

A new day dawns over A Thistle in My Sensitive Area

A new day dawns over A Thistle in My Sensitive Area

political ecologists. She hired each of the firms that perform the City’s Peer Review, and each came back with ‘Runoff from the street.’ This was in conflict with the City’s Best Available Science, and the private wetland studies were rejected. Using the ‘Reasonable Use’ mediation available in the Critical Area ordinance, she met with the City over several years in an effort to gain an exception or allowance; she even offered to build, as developers of large tracts in Sammamish are allowed, a man-made substitute wetland elsewhere. The City refused to change its position. With her resources exhausted and discussions breaking down, the chief politicologist told her: ‘if you so much as put a picnic table out or pitch a tent, make sure it’s gone by sundown. The new version of Critical Area Ordinance goes into effect next week.’ My phone friend got her builder on the phone right then and told him: ‘the ordinance changes next week. I want 80% of the lot cleared before then.’ In a fit of anger she clear-cut her lot, just to spite the City (though she was able to sell the timber). Even though the lot is unbuildable and unsellable, she cannot get a property tax assessment below $300,000 for ‘recreational value,’ despite the prohibition of so much as a picnic table or a tent. Her muddy, clear-cut lot is less than a mile down the street, and standing from the road you get a sweeping view of the lake, and the two 5,000-plus square foot homes looming on either side of the field of mud.

The first change of mind was to mentally move back in, then take a shower to wash that crap house off of me

The first change of mind was to mentally move back in, then take a shower to wash that crap house off of me

Her story burned in my ear as I stood on the sagging roof of the house we wanted to buy: it looked like the walls bowed out each time I stepped and I wondered if the structure would hold the weight of a new roof. Inside, the floor was oddly bouncy, and the crawl space confirmed it; the house was built of virtually nothing, and the foundation was almost nonexistent. To fix it would be to start from scratch, and since it was 100 feet from the lake and 100 feet from the road, I knew no permit would be issued. We rescinded our offer, and were glad to have avoided a parallel scenario to my neighbor on the phone.

At the same time, we had a few people interested in our own home, but who were made shy by the disclosures we had made about Sensitive Area title restriction, Mitigation Plans, City ordinances. Giving the ordinance a close read, really for the first time (there was no searchable database of municipal ordinances when we bought the home, just two years prior), I realized that the Critical Area ordinance only applies to the “original applicant for development;” Mitigation doesn’t ‘run with the land,’ it only applied to ME. The Critical Area Designation, which comes in the form of a title restriction, DOES run with the land. But when we pulled a copy of the title, it wasn’t there. I filled out the form and gave it to the City, but the restriction was not on our property title.

I called the bank where the $5,000 Survival Bond for the Mitigation Plantings is being held. I signed and had it notarized; had the City ever signed and notarized their portion? They had not. At that moment I realized: I have voluntarily dedicated these funds. This was a single-party action.

I went through my construction documents. Plans, contracts, inspections, receipts, a sheaf of paper several hundred pages

My Sensitive Area...much less sensitive than previously believed.

My Sensitive Area…much less sensitive than previously believed.

thick. I found it, the thing I’d been looking for. In my hand was the original application for the building permit: signed by my builder, in the name of my builder’s company, dated ONE DAY before I bought the property, feasibility, architectural plans, and permits…from my builder. The Critical Areas Ordinance, the Mitigation Plan, the Survival Bond: all these things apply specifically, statutorily, to the Original Applicant for Development…and that isn’t ME. I have been looking over my shoulder, gardening in fear and frustration for two years, imagining inspectors behind trees, and only tilting at windmills. The idea took my breath away. Maybe my Sensitive Area just toughened up a bit.

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SUPER DUPER Sucker Shredder

In late October I loosed my barbaric yawp at the universe, declaring in emphatic song of myself that I would not take it anymore! Then I spent most of November and a good part of December collecting and shredding leaves from my Bigleaf maples, proving in actual fact that I WOULD take it, just a little bit more. Stupid universe.

However! As niftily foreshadowed in November, I did upgrade my leaf collection tool. There was not overmuch wrong with the one I had; but it did require a loooong extension cord, had a tendency to clog more and more frequently as the season progressed (wet leaves are harder to suck than dry), and the collection

OOOH! Ear things...I should get those.

OOOH! Ear things…I should get those.

bag had rotted through. These are problems of climate and leaf, however, and not an indictment of the tool or its late-night infomercial host.

But I needed something…more. It shoudn’t be a corded device, and it should probably be of commercial grade. Leaf sucker-shreddering tool research, which involved reading reviews on websites that sell such things, went something like this: ‘I used to have a Stihl, and I’m sorry I bought this,’ or “I tried using this twice, returned it and bought the Stihl.’ In fact, over half the user reviews I read used Stihl’s version of the leaf sucker shredder as the Always Superior Comparison. Soooo…I decided I needed the Stihl.

A secondary feature of the Stihl which I really appreciate is that the manufacturer only sells their tools through a network of authorized dealers, each about 25 miles apart from one another (there just happened to be one very close to my home). This philosophy holds strong appeal for the capitalist/libertarian in me, for having been an ‘Authorized Dealer’ of a number of things in my working life only to find there were dozens of other authorized dealers in the same freaking zip code, I endorse these small business owners’ ability to sell (and service) something, and do it profitably. Plus, you can go to your local tool shop, hang out and hyuck it up with cool guys who know how to do stuff. The ability to walk into the yard equipment store with your daughter and say, “I’m looking for a children’s chainsaw, preferably in pink!” and get a good guffaw is important.

So here’s the deets: The Stihl ShredderVac has over 40% more suction than my Worx TriVac. Boom. ‘Nuf said. This means that in late November or early December when my giant leaves are sodden or even frozen, the tool still pulled them in (also, two frogs and a panic-stricken little mousie–unavoidable collateral damage). Beyond the super suction, the Stihl has a STEEL impeller blade with a secondary, serrated blade in front of it: giant wet leaves are chopped into little teensy bits, even the looong woody stems Bigleaf Maple leaves that so hopelessly and frustratingly clogged the TriVac. Each time after using the Stihl for a couple hours I opened the impeller housing to clean it: NOTHING. There is no cord to ‘manage’ or get tangled in salal or my feet, and that–plus the extra suction–meant that I could vastly increase the area in which I collected leaves. Pulled them out of the underbrush, pulled them off the wet and/or frozen ground. The collection bag is twice as large as the TriVac’s, and instead of the moisture-hating lightweight canvas of the electric tool, is made of a Sunbrella-type poly material that actually drains any trapped moisture out, and is far less likely to decay. The tool isn’t as light as the TriVac, but is very well balanced; and between the shoulder strap and the two handles, I think easier to use (the TriVac only has one handle, which limits the angle at which it can be held and leads to fatigue in the wrist, hand, and forearm. Remember, I do this for hours and hours at a stretch).

The tool takes a custom fuel mix, but Stihl makes this remarkably easy by selling the blending agent in little travel-sized bottles: a gallon of gasoline in the can, add a bottle of mix, shake, done. The tank on the tool holds about a pint of mix, and it runs about 2 hours per tank. One-pull start, one-finger throttle, I friz-nackin’ love this thing, and it was on sale when I bought it. OK, it was still not inexpensive, not by a long stretch: I bought the tool a couple weeks before my birthday, and my wife told me I had to count it as my birthday present…and birthday dinner out with my family…and a Tuesday night and a Friday night bottle of wine. But WHATEVER. I will be spending about 40-50 hours each Autumn collecting leaves for as long as I live in this house. It’s worth it.

There is a permanent solution to the annual leaf problem, and it was sitting there at the Stihl shop: the forester’s

Oh, Calvin! You have such a big tool!

Oh, Calvin! You have such a big tool!

chainsaw with the 59 inch bar. This is the kind of tool you see in those pickup truck commercials, the kind where the stubble-y and ruggedly handsome guy shows up at the jobsite with only one (very large and impressive) tool in the bed of his
Guys! Guys! I'm here with my big tool!

Guys! Guys! I’m here with my big tool!

gargantuan and extremely shiny truck. He lifts the tool from the truckbed with one sleeveless and oddly shiny arm, uses it once, and replaces the massive tool in the truck before driving off the jobsite. All the while, the chubby and hardhatted schlubs left behind regard him with a reverent awe, while somehow ignoring the fact that Handsome Guy only works about forty-five seconds a day. I too could have a chainsaw like this, for only about two thousand dollars; the notion occurs to me, however, that after cutting the dozen or so offending trees that while I’d never have to collect leaves again, I would then be stuck with a slightly used and WILDLY expensive chainsaw, minus the salt-and-pepper stubble and the super shiny arm. Still, I will admit to offering a long and smoldering stare at the chainsaw. The chainsaw returned my glance.

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The Man Behind the Tree

A book about David Douglas (he of the semi-eponymous fir), with an illustration of an oak leaf, as seen on my Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menzies) dining table. SO tree-y!

A book about David Douglas (he of the semi-eponymous fir), with an illustration of an oak leaf, as seen on my Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menzies) dining table. SO tree-y!

While walking through Costco on our usual toilet paper/paper towel/tub o’ mixed nuts/AA battery shopping binge, I came upon a very attractive book mixed in with the Tom Clancys and the 153 or so shades of gray generally available there. A full-color drawing of a Garry Oak leaf and acorn graced the cover: David Douglas, A Naturalist at Work, by Jack Nisbet.

I found the book to be quite engrossing, and it more than adequately filled the quiet hours during the eye of the holiday hurricane. Intended as the monographical companion to an exhibit at a Spokane museum, the idea that the author might retrace the steps of the naturalist extends the intention of the work beyond biography alone; and as the book opens, we find the author swinging high in the whip-thin leader of a Grand fir, attempting to harvest a ripe seedcone.

David Douglas was a fascinating figure. Of quite modest background, he was an adept and lifelong learner who first made contact with and then gained the respect of some of the more notable scientific thinkers of his time. To learn the overlapping cirles of early 19th-century scientific influence fleshed out my knowledge of history quite a great deal, and having seen hookerii, menzies, nuttalli, and scoulerii on my nursery plant tags, I enjoyed very much discovering how plants went from my ‘backyard’ to Scotland and England, and then made it back to my local nursery and from there into my literal backyard.

More than a plant collector, Douglas was also a visionary who offered assessment and opinion as to possible commercial purpose for the plants he described, drew, preserved, seed-harvested, and packed for shipment back to Great Britain. Employed for a botannical task, he expanded his mission to identification and harvesting of regional fauna and collected samples of the native culture, folkways, and handcrafts, and later taught himself the surveyor’s arts and participated in the mapping of the earth’s magnetism. Assisted and protected by the British military and the Crown-chartered Hudson’s Bay Company, Douglas developed congenial and collaborative relationships with the indigenous peoples of his travels. He also had a most adventursome palate, sampling virtually everything he encountered. Farina (what we call Cream of Wheat) must have been a popular staple of the day, for very little of what he tried tasted like chicken, but most of it apparently tasted like farina.

The volume is sumptuously illustrated with contemporary photographs plus full color plates of Douglas’ and others’ sketches, drawings, and journal pages. Save for one drawing captioned as a “Flathead village” but identified on nose-to-page examination of the sketcher’s notes as ‘Blackfeet Village,’ I found all the plates in lovely and ample support of the text; the Flatheads and the Blackfeet, bitter enemies during that time, likely would not have appreciated the conflation.

David Douglas was known to have been at his weakest in polite social and/or academic society, and so exists in his own (laboriously completed) writings as a less-than fully rendered character. He seems to have been bit shy, and therefore spoke and wrote relatively little of himself in an age where adventurers, explorers, and even scientists were analogous to the Twitter-driven celebri-sensations of our own time. I found the between-the-lines Douglas to be grand, even cinematic: I have no trouble imagining the David Douglas movie, perhaps a nearly-silent Werner Herzog study or a bombastic Master and

Coming soon to a theater near you: David Douglas, the movie?

Coming soon to a theater near you: David Douglas, the movie?

Commander-style epic. I wanted to know more, and I wanted more narrative history. Sadly, I think the best of the author’s travels ended at the top of the Grand fir.

With over a thousand acres of Pacific Northwest forest behind my backyard, there is much that David Douglas saw that I myself see every day. Having purchased a lovely raincloak from his native friends, fashioned of the soft and water repellent furs of what the tribes knew as Sew-el-el, Douglas became focused on trapping the elusive and curious little creatures for identification and for potential promotion to the fur industry. Failing in his efforts to trap them, he purchased and sent back to Scotland several specimens, to be named and classified by Sir John Richardson as the genetic singularity Aplodontia rufia…my nemesis, the Mountain Beaver. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how something can go from an ‘elusive curiosity’ to a pestilential nuisance which causes tens of millions of dollars in annual damage to the forestry industry as well as being a living prophylaxis against my own restoration plantings: the animal’s job in mature climax forest is to control competing and sometimes allelopathic undergrowth such as bracken fern and ensure forest succession, whereas today it can feast, unimpeded, upon Christmas tree farms, logging replants, and my own and many others’ back yards. How they couldn’t be trapped, well, I’ll grant Douglas a lack of Hertz Rent-a-Centers where Havahart traps can be had for ten bucks a week, but I find them pretty easy to catch. I guess he didn’t have Red Delicious apples for bait, either. I can only regret that the Hudson’s Bay Company, having proved efficient at pushing the North American Beaver and the Pacific Sea Otter to the brink of extinction, didn’t find commercial value in the pelt of the Mountain Beaver. That’d be pretty sweet.

You, sir, have got your ivy into my forest!

You, sir, have got your ivy into my forest!

The region in which David Douglas ranged was already by his day well populated with traders, trappers, military outposts, young settlements, and the earliest homestead arrivals. Douglas made special notes and collections of the plants which followed and established with these invaders: the first lists of invasive and potentially noxious weed species. Ironic, in a way, that among the earliest plant samples he sent back to Britain for their great potential as ornamental and food crop now find themselves spreading rampant in the moors of England and the heaths of Scotland, as Gaultheria
Well, you, sir, have got your sala into my moor! And also my blowsy cottage garden!

Well, you, sir, have got your sala into my moor! And also my blowsy cottage garden!

has proved a little too adaptable to its new Old World home. Doubly ironic that the public efforts at eradication of Salal so closely mimic the IVY OUT! programs of my area, as volunteers mass to pull English Ivy from park and forest land. Wherever you live in the world, if it is in a ‘stick-built’ home it is likely framed with the tree we call the tree Douglas Fir in common nomenclature. The plant has been carried throughout the globe and finds itself adaptable to most temperate climates and elevations. The scientific name is given as Pseudotsuga menzies, after the great Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies, who first described it 35 years or so prior to Douglas’ journeys. The tree itself has not proved invasive, though its value has led to the displacement of native timber species wherever it is grown, a notion Douglas himself foresaw. But like Douglas himself, not all exotic visitors are invasive, and not all invasives are exotic (I’m looking at you, Mountain Beaver).

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