Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Ghost Story

My friend Calvin, author of the blog, “A Thistle in My Sensitive Area”, wrote a hair-raising post about a voice he heard while working in his office.  This being Halloween, I thought I’d share a ghost story of my own even though it has nothing to do with gardening.  

* * * * * *
Like many kids do, I grew up spending a week of my summer vacation at a camp.  In my case, it was Camp Spalding which is tucked away in the southern edge of the Selkirk Mountain Range in northeastern Washington State.  The main part of the camp consisted of a rustic lodge, seven cabins a couple outbuildings and about 230 acres of wilderness.  It was all snuggled in between a serene little lake and Grayback Mountain. 

One of my cabins on top of the mountain overlooking the lake.  Camp Spalding is in the background.

It was an important place for me because it was where I felt most like me.  I felt accepted, challenged, encouraged; all the things that a good camp should foster in kids.  And because of that I wanted to spend more and more time there as I grew up.  By the time I was 16 I was spending most of my summer there either as a camper or as a cabin counselor for the younger kids.

When I started college I worked on staff as the rock climbing and high ropes course instructor during the summers.  During the school year, when extra money was in short supply, I would drive up to Camp on Saturday mornings to look after the grounds while Bud, the full-time caretaker, enjoyed his weekend.  Spending my weekends up there was hard.  It was hard because I was in college and I wasn’t hanging out with my friends back in the dorms.  But it was also hard because it felt like a different place without a hundred kids running around and without the camaraderie of my co-staffers.  It was lonely and cold. 

I snapped this photo of snow-covered trees one weekend when I went back to Camp with my wife in 2007.

Some weekends people would use the camp as a retreat center.  Those weekends weren’t too bad because even though I didn’t know any of the people it was nice just having them around.  But most of the time it was just me and the dark quiet which was never quite as quiet as you’d think it would be.  There were always noises you couldn’t explain – at least not right away.  One noise, in particular, unnerved me.  It came from the lake, which was frozen solid.  I didn’t know what to think of the low moaning I heard.  “What the hell is that?” I asked myself.  I thought something was out there, on the ice, in trouble.  But the sound was coming from everywhere it seemed like.  It was coming from beneath the ice maybe.  Whatever it was, it just kept moaning.  The sound was both immense and quiet somehow. When Bud came by to check on me I asked him about the noise.  He laughed at me in a way that let me know he’d been there and done that.  “It’s just the ice shifting” he told me. 

Like most spooky occurrences, there was a scientific explanation.  Although I am not strictly a scientifically oriented person, I appreciate the comfort science provides.  When it can.

There was a weekend at Camp where I needed to be up there on Friday night to get the facility ready for a retreat starting on Saturday.  After I finished splitting logs for fires, mopping the lodge floor, and turning on the heat in the cabins, I went back to the lodge and lit a fire in the fireplace.  I had some reading to do for school so I put in REM’s “Automatic for the People” and put my feet up on the hearth.  In spite of the loneliness, it was all pretty nice.  Good music, an engrossing book, a strong fire, and an unlimited supply of hot chocolate at my disposal.  And then I felt something.  Nothing touched me but I felt something all the same.  I felt I wasn’t alone anymore.  I spun my head to look and expected to see Bud or maybe someone from the retreat that had arrived early.  But I saw, instead, a woman dressed from head to toe in gray walking across the lodge floor and into the kitchen behind me.  And then she was gone. 

Alphonse performing at a "talent show."
The fireplace behind him is where I sat on the night in question.

If I’m completely honest, to this day I still question if I actually saw what I thought I saw.  Part of me feels like I made it up or that I’ve embellished it in my memory as I thought back on it.  When it comes to ghosts, I’m more or less an agnostic.  I didn’t tell this story to anyone for a few weeks.  But I could never forget that feeling I had in the lodge that night.

Back at school I found myself in a conversation with a friend, Angie, who had spent the last few summers working at Camp with me.  We talked about everything those days so I opened up to her about the story, prefacing it with “you won’t believe me . . . Heck, I don’t really believe me, but . . .”  When I got to the gist of it, she started shaking her head.  “Stop, stop,” she pleaded.  “Did you talk to Joni about this?  Did she tell you to tell me this story?”   I hadn’t spoken to Joni, one of the cooks at camp, about the gray lady.  I hadn’t spoken to anyone about it.  But Joni had also confided in Angie that she had seen what appeared to be a nun, dressed in gray, walking through the lodge. 

I had been willing to doubt my own vision that night.  It seemed reasonable that my eyes were just tired from reading too much in a dimly lit lodge.  It also seemed completely reasonable that a drafty window could have made me feel something behind me.  There were enough real-world/scientific variables that allowed me to write it off as a weird occurrence.  But all that went out the window when I found out Joni had seen the same thing.  I don’t know how to explain that.

Camp Spalding shrouded in snow and silence.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Back in the '80s you had to cross over the Little Spokane River to get into my neighborhood.  The little river bordered our neighborhood on two sides.  A golf course and a rocky wilderness bordered the other two sides. 

In that way, the neighborhood felt like a fortress and that “we’re finally home feeling” would hit you as soon as you heard the car tires humming on the bridge – well before you actually pulled into the driveway of your house. 

A modern view of my old neighborhood.

Living in a fortress also made it feel like your neighbors were in it with you.  “In” what, exactly, I don’t know.  It was just a feeling that told me we all had something in common, that we believed in something together, that living there meant the same thing to everyone.

Looking back, I see how romantic and na├»ve I was.  But you’ll have to forgive me because I did have some evidence that supported my feelings.  After Mt. St. Helens erupted, for instance, all the men in the neighborhood tied bandanas around their faces and shoveled ash into enormous piles together while every curious kid pressed their noses to the windows and watched in awe. 

Photo Courtesy of the Spokesman Review, May, 1980.  More pictures of the clean up can be seen here.

We organized ice cream socials and all the kids in the neighborhood wore costumes as if it were Halloween and paraded through the streets.  Everyone participated. 

We dropped our bikes in the front lawn when we went to a friend’s house and no one messed with them.  

Every boy belonged to the same Cub Scout Troop and every girl was in the same batch of Brownies.  We walked to the bus stops together.  We got in trouble together.

And in the fall, when the raking was underway, we’d all stand around enormous piles of pine needles in the street and we’d light them on fire.  Dads would stand watch with a rake or a shovel.  Maybe a hose nearby if there was some wind.  And the kids would bring more needles, bags of pine cones, and dead branches and if we were well-behaved we might get to throw some of that onto the fire. 

No, this is not an Instagram picture - just a really old Polaroid
 of me and my dad picking up pine cones in the backyard.

And everywhere was the smell.  It was the smell of smoke, sure.  But it was also the smell of fall.  The smell of taking-care-of-business.  The smell of 11:00 a.m. on any October Saturday.  The smell of hypnotic fire. The smell of a fortress clearing out what it no longer needed.  The smell of being 9-years-old and still having a dad to stand beside.  And if you could take your eyes off the flames you could see down the street that your best friend was kicking pine cones into his fire.  You could see the girl you thought was cute roller skating in wide arcs around her daddy’s fire.  You could see, if you were perceptive enough, that we all had homes and warmth and a family and that was enough.  And even if you couldn’t see that, you felt it. 

It's been nearly 30 years since I stood beside one of those fires.  When I enter my neighborhood now, I cross a mass transit rail.  My neighborhood is bordered by stop lights and sound walls.  The fortress feeling comes only from locks on the gates and deadbolts in the front door.  We press our nose to the windows only to watch suspicious characters.  Our community events are just gatherings of strangers.  If you leave a bike in the lawn, you’re donating it.   

We do treat ourselves to backyard S'mores once in a while.

And I'm pretty sure it is illegal to set things on fire in the road.  Which is just as well.  That smoke is bad for the air and I prefer to compost my leaves.  But you’ll have to forgive me again when I say that I miss the smell of burning pine needles.  And everything it meant. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

No Longer Stumped

Back in July I had a couple trees cut down but I wasn’t able to have the stump of my peach tree professionally ground because the machines were too big to fit within the confines of the brick that makes up the raised bed.  So I have been slowing digging it out by means of my own two hands.  Or, rather, by means of my own sore arms, an aching back and two wobbly legs. 

The peach tree gave us privacy but not peaches.  It was time for it to go.
As I mentioned in my last post (in which I whined at length about the lingering heat) it’s been really hot here for a long time.  Swinging a 5-pound mattock is hard work even in perfect weather.  When it’s a hundred degrees it just feels like punishment.  So I tackled the removal of the stump in small doses.  Sometimes I’d get out there during my lunch hour and swing an ax or pry with a shovel for 20 minutes and then retire.  When I managed to get out there early on a weekend morning I was able to work long enough to make blisters on my hands in pleasing shades of red and yellow.  But most of the time I would just go out there and stare at it, hatefully, so that it knew it was no longer welcome.

While I worked, I filled a 5-gallon bucket with the mashed up pieces of wood.  I lost track of how many times I emptied that bucket but it was more than I would ever have imagined.  When you start digging up stumps and roots you realize that a tree cut off at ground level is just like an iceberg or a character in a John Hughes film.  The substance below the surface dwarfs what you see initially.

I originally thought that this was a beautiful piece of wood cut from the top of the stump of the peach tree.
Now I know it was just the tip of the peach tree iceberg.
But since I last wrote, we have had a few days that weren’t punishingly hot and I’ve been able to expand the amount of time I was willing to work on my one-man chain gang.  And I finally finished about a week ago.  Of course, I use the term "finished" loosely.  There's still some wood buried deep down but, honestly, I didn't care anymore.  I think I removed enough that it won't be a real issue even when the wood starts to rot and the earth settles in around it.   

One of the greatest gardening joys is day-dreaming about what you want to plant when you have a clean slate.  This is especially true when space is limited and your garden plot is not resting upon a supernatural Etch-a-Sketch that can be shaken whenever things go awry or boredom with the status quo takes over.  Such has been my joy for the last two months.

This was my day-dreamer's checklist of requirements for whatever I would plant in place of the peach tree:
  • Had to take partial to full sun.
  • Had to be big enough to provide screening from the neighbor's windows.
  • Couldn't be so big that it impeded the nearby path.
  • Needed to be a good transition from the full sun part of the yard to mostly shade part of my yard.
  • I wanted it to look clean and be low-maintenance.
I considered an apple tree but decided against it because I didn’t want to deal with protecting it from worms or moths or whatever pests might attack it -- not low maintenance.  I considered planting an orange tree that I have had in a pot for several years but decided against it because I like it where it is -- besides, I thought it might get too big without constant pruning.  I considered a chaste tree and even bought one but it failed to meet the screening criteria.  I also considered a clumping bamboo called ‘Alphonse Karr’ but decided against it because even clumping bamboos should be watched carefully when planted in the ground. 

Chaste Tree bloom - in October!

I finally decided that I would, once again, ignore the advice of the experts and plant yet another Japanese maple in a full-sun location because I like them more than any other tree or plant.  And it didn’t hurt that the garden center was running a 20% off sale on all “fall color trees”.  I went with a 15-gallon Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Seiryu’.  It’s a fairly common tree but with uncommon characteristics.  The phrase you’ll hear about it most often is that it’s “the only upright growing green dissectum.”  Translated, that means it’s the only green Japanese maple that looks like the archetypal tree and still has these really cool lacy leaves. 

Seiryu leaves.
It seems like every project leads to another project.  When I removed the
previousplants from this bed it highlighted the fact that the brickwork
needs some serious attention.

I am hoping to give myself and my neighbors some privacy by blocking the view of their windows.

I under-planted the tree with 10 clumps of Japanese Blood Grass (Imperata cylindrica Rubra).  I don’t think it will take too long for it to take over the entire bed.  Perhaps a year or two.  I could have purchased more, but at $6 bucks each, it would have cost a pretty penny to fill in the entire bed.  Besides, Japanese Blood Grass spreads fairly quickly and it can be divided easily. 

Now I suppose I should work on that dead patch of lawn where the mulberry tree once grew.