Monday, May 30, 2011

Ballard Farmers Market Blues: So Long Anselmo’s

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone—Joni Mitchell

Seattle’s Ballard Farmers Market regulars were in for a shock yesterday when we were greeted by the sign pictured to the left. No! It can’t be! Another small farm that many of us probably took for granted and assumed would always be around is quitting the farm.

This loss particularly hurts all around. For Marie (Debrusca) Oliver, who started Anselmo Farm with her mother Arlene and Arlene's husband Chuck in 1998, the loss of her livelihood is laced with grief for the death of Arlene last year and Chuck last week.

“Chuck died, and I can’t do it alone,” says Marie.

Ten year ago, when the Ballard Farmer’s Market just began to stay open year-round, Anselmo’s was the only farm that sold fresh local produce there in January. Today this farmer’s market is hugely popular and draws people from all over Seattle, but back then Marie and her mom set up their stand in the small alcove off Ballard Avenue with only a few other crafts stalls. These two friendly, adorable women sat behind a table full of big zip-locked bags of washed braising greens, lettuce, kale, and a rich purple-green spinach called orach, along with leeks and beautiful bulbs of dried shallots, garlic,onions, and more.

It was actually the orach, which I’ve never seen anywhere else, that first got me talking to Marie. “What is this?” I asked. She explained it was a type of spinach and suggested a few ways to use it. I was hooked.

Anselmo Farm was truly a small family farm. Some of the larger, local small farms set up at several of the many Seattle area farmers’ markets and hire people to work at the stalls, so you don’t meet the farmer. Anselmo’s just did the Ballard Farmer’s Market in Seattle. Marie was always there with Arlene (until she passed away last year) and often her sister.

Until yesterday morning, I didn’t fully realize that I looked forward to saying hello to Marie each week as much as seeing the gorgeous produce at the market. Pretty, olive-skinned Marie is everybody’s girlfriend—friendly, gently sarcastic and funny, sympathetic, always greets you by name.

After a moment of panic upon seeing the sign, I find Marie at the stall where her husband cooks up sweet mini-donuts each week. She’s leafing through her small notebook where she records the CSA subscribers and their weekly balance. “Here’s your name,” she tells an older woman. Marie is about to tell the woman how much she’ll be reimbursed, but the woman refuses the refund.

“Your beautiful produce has meant a lot to me over the years, please keep the balance.” Marie’s eyes well up with tears at this kind gesture. “Oh, you’re making me cry!”

I move in and give Marie a hug (I bet Marie got a lot of hugs) and then ask, “Will you be okay?”

“I don’t know. What can you do?” she says circumspectively. “We owe a lot of people money.” They’re going to harvest their garlic when it’s ready and sell it off. Then that will be it for Anselmo Farm.

“But hey,” Marie adds with a smile, “I’ll get to sleep in on some Sunday mornings now.”

So here’s to Marie and Anselmo Farm. Thank you for your hard work, commitment, and wonderful produce over the years. We’ll miss you!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bicycling Portlandia: Looping around the Willamette River

"Don’t forget to bring your bicycle!” my friend Matt calls to remind me as I’m leaving Seattle for the drive to Portland.

Got it. Bicycle, helmet, and clothes are already stashed in my car.

Four hours later I’m bicycling through soft spring air along the Willamette River in Portland during the tail end of evening rush hour, grateful to be out of the car and moving my legs. After battling Friday afternoon traffic on I-5, this is the perfect way to end the day (or start the evening).

Portland, Oregon, was once again recently named the most bicycle-friendly city in the U.S.A., but this and other such kudos are no surprise to locals. Portland has been the most progressive city on the Left Coast since the 1970s, when it started converting old railroad beds and tearing up downtown streets for the first MAX light rail line.
Portland also boasts the highest percentage of bicycle commuters in the nation.

But I’m not thinking of all that on my early evening ride. On the first (first!) day of the year when the temperature rises above 70 ° F, I’m just thrilled to be pedaling sans jacket in my bicycle capris and a short-sleeved shirt (and, of course, a helmet).

From the Goose Hollow/Stadium District just above downtown Portland where I’m staying, it’s an easy ride about a dozen blocks down to the river. With the city criss-crossed by street car and light rail lines, vehicle traffic in downtown Portland is considerably lighter than in downtown Seattle and many other big cities.

It feels great to stretch my legs and cruise through the city streets down to the Vera Katz Esplanade. This wide trail loops over a few bridges and along the Willamette River for 1.5 miles in downtown Portland. It’s not a long ride, but getting to the esplanade and back adds distance and exercise. And who says you can’t loop around several times?

I wasn’t paying close attention to Matt’s directions to the trail, so I end up bicycling east across the Morrison Bridge instead of the Hawthorne Bridge. But look at that wide bicycle lane!

Just across the river I take the spiral bicycle off-ramp down to the esplanade along the riverfront. Then I bicycle north, sharing the trail with skaters, roller bladers, walkers, and other bicyclists. To my left, a few motorboats pass by on the river.

Despite traffic on the adjacent highway, it still feels peaceful and relaxed along the trail. Traveling by nonmotorized transportation on a designated trail has a way of dialing down the stress level, even if you’re pushing for a good workout. How often do you hear about bicycle rage versus road rage? I suppose it happens, but I’d bet not much. [Since I originally posted this, a friend sent me a link to a column about bicycle rage in Portland! So I stand corrected, it does happen more than you'd think! But not on bicycle trails so much.]

How many times have you bicycled on a floating trail? On the east side of the river, just north of the Morrison Bridge, the trail drops down for a stretch onto a floating dock, bringing me closer to the river.

At the northern edge of the esplanade, the trail crosses historic Steel Bridge, the world’s only double-layered drawbridge. Railroad tracks sit just about the trail on the lower level, and beyond the bridge I see the Broadway and Fremont Bridges to the north. Portland is, after all, a city of unique and historic bridges.

Along the west side of the river, skirting downtown, I slow down along the trail as it passes through Tom McCall Waterfront Park, where pedestrian traffic is heavier. (Sidebar: A solo Governor McCall approached me and shook my hand when I was a girl because he noticed me wearing a “Keep McCall” campaign button—courtesy of my father. He was a tall, friendly man!)

After wending my way along the waterfront park past interesting sculptures, fountains, and a museum, I double back and head uptown. Even though I’m heading back uphill, it’s not very steep and the going is easy. Try bicycling straight uphill from the waterfront in the middle of downtown Seattle, and you’ll appreciate the mellow grade of Portland’s rise to the base of the West Hills above the city.

So here’s where Portland’s bicycle love can get annoying: When I stop in the Pearl (District) to grab a quick bite to eat, the bicycle racks are full! I have to cruise several blocks to find a spot to lock my bike. At least I can take solace in that I’m burning calories and not gasoline searching for a place to park.

When You Go
Here’s a link to a bicycle map of downtown Portland. Of course there is a much larger network of bicycle trails throughout the city beyond downtown. And if you want some wilder and crazier bicycling, try the Sunday evening Zoobomb in Washington Park.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Authentic Pacific Northwest Spring: Go Walk in the Woods

While colorful tulips and sunny daffodils signal Spring here in the Northwest, I feel the season most truly in the lowland forests of western Oregon and Washington. Instead of tidy beds of cheerful flowering bulbs, the springtime forest here is a messy, wild profusion of textures and shapes.

It’s splendid.

Spring is the burst of fresh, vivid green that engulfs the forest understory as vine maples and other native plants leaf out and blossom. I see Spring in unfurling sword fern fronds, standing erect like snakes entranced by a charmer, and in delicate pink bleeding hearts quivering in the breeze, spread over the forest floor.

My sense of the seasons no doubt started during many hours playing in the woods as a kid in east Multnomah County and at summer camp in the Cascade foothills. Back then there weren’t as many subdivisions, and suburban children roamed outside unsupervised, without fear of abduction or worse.

To us kids, stinging nettles were an annoyance and a weapon against neighborhood bullies, not the darling of foodies out foraging for wild edibles today. Clover-like wood sorrel growing beside our stream was a tart but refreshing snack. Huckleberries were awesome, salmonberries were sorta tasty, but thimbleberries were dry and yucky.

In the same way that muscle memory develops from repeated use, spending significant time in a place imprints us in ways we don’t realize until something seems amiss. When I slept under the stars in the Southern Hemisphere, I recognized that the night sky was….unrecognizable, different. I get the same intuitive reaction when I see plants growing in the forest that just aren’t right and shouldn’t be there. Sadly, I see more invasive and non-native plants in Northwest forests than I did as a kid. Can you pick the baddie out of the lineup below?

I’m concerned that kids today aren’t playing in the woods or elsewhere outside enough and hence not developing an intuitive sense of place within their local ecosystems. We need to grow and nurture knowledgeable little environmentalists through three-dimensional, direct experience, not primarily through book or Internet learning.

Fortunately there are some wonderful organizations focusing on environmental education for kids here in the Northwest, like the North Cascades Institute in the North Cascades, IslandWood on Bainbridge Island, and the Outdoor School program in Oregon’s Multnomah County.

So get on outside with your kids (or your leashed dog, friends, whomever) for a walk in some woods near where you live—wherever you live. With a late spring this year, there’s still time to see Oregon grape, salal, salmonberries, and more native plants in bloom west of the Cascades. (It's a little too late for my favorite, trillium.) Test yourself to see how many you can identify, or whether any look out of place. King County in Washington has a good online native plant guide. The Audubon Society has some good pocket guides.

Or simply revel in the freshness of a native Northwest springtime.

When You Go
The photos with this blog post were all taken in Carkeek Park near my home in north Seattle. Woodlands are abundant and easily accessible throughout the Northwest. In the Seattle area, try Seward Park (the only remaining remnant of old growth forest in the city), Schmitz Park in West Seattle, Discovery Park, or St. Edwards Park in Juanita. In Portland, try extensive Forest Park above downtown.

Anywhere else you suggest? Leave a comment below!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bicycling Lopez Island: Tour de Lopez, Tour de Fun

Up north of Seattle, near a southward jog of the Canadian border, lies a group of magical islands kissed by fresh sea breezes and plenty of sunshine. The four San Juan Islands serviced by state ferries are free of major development, which makes for great bicycling. Pretty much every road is a back road in the San Juans.

Riding the annual Tour de Lopez on Lopez Island is a great way to start the bicycling season, so some friends and I dust off our bicycles, pull on tight padded shorts, strap on bicycle helmets, and head north from the Seattle area for this year’s ride. With little traffic on I-5 when we leave (earlier than my taste on a weekend morning), the drive to Anacortes to catch the 8:30 ferry is about an hour and 20 minutes.

Often on summer weekends lots of bicyclists ride onto the San Juan ferry, but today we’re an overwhelming mass of shiny black lycra and rain shells as we wait to board for the 30-minute boat ride.

After we disembark at the north end of Lopez at Humphrey Head, we warm up fast with an uphill stretch along the tree-lined, two-lane road. Hills are a great way to separate the real bicyclists from the rest of us. I break a sweat within about 5 minutes.

Lopez is a mellow, fairly flat island, without any killer hills, which makes it the most popular San Juan Island with bicyclists. Tour de Lopez riders have a choice of four distances (5, 10, 18, and 31 miles), and I opt for the 18 mile route because of a fussy Achilles tendon. Although several hundred ride today, we spread out pretty quickly after check-in at Odlin County Park.

This is not a competitive ride. It’s about getting good exercise, maybe seeing old friends, and enjoying this friendly island. How many places do you know where drivers routinely lift their fingers off the steering wheel (the “Lopez wave”) to greet oncoming traffic?

We start by breezing south past Shoal and Swifts Bays on the northeast side of the island. For much of the ride we’re inland, riding along mostly level roads past bucolic, forest-fringed pastures where happy cows loll in the fresh island air. So I’m anthropomorphizing, but how could a cow not be happy here? How could anyone not be happy here?

I’m especially happy to see a good friend and former college roommate at one of the stops along the way.

“Ride with me!” Carina tells me after a hug. Good plan since I won’t see the friend I came with (one of the real bicyclists) until the finish in Lopez Village.

About halfway through the ride, bright sunshine and blue skies finally break through. Can it really be spring at last? Could it be any more idyllic and pastoral? Everything shimmers a brilliant spring green in the clean island air.

“I used to be a Bobby, guarded the Queen for a while,” says Graham, a retired British ex-pat who lives in Anacortes and rides alongside us for a while. “Never saw her smile.” After a few minutes of entertaining conversation, he pulls away in a flash of bright yellow and red spandex.

Before it seems possible, we’re coasting down one of the few decent hills on the island toward Fisherman’s Bay and quaint Lopez Village, where the post-ride lunch/party is happening.

It’s the biggest party of the year in the village, and a few hundred of us hungry cyclists chow down on tasty pulled pork, bratwurst, barbeque chicken, veggie burgers, salads, and cookies courtesy of the Bay CafĂ© (or so I was told). With musicians playing and tables spread out on the village green, there’s lots of hugs and laughter along with good appetites.

"I’d like to catch the 1:30 ferry,” says Rich. I can stop relaxing because now we have to dash 4.5 miles to the ferry going as fast as we can to make it. And my foot hurts. (Personally I recommend taking your time and enjoying an afternoon on the island.)

About a mile from the ferry we see a stream of cars heading towards the village that have come off the ferry. Dang, that means they’re loading already! And there’s still a hill to climb ahead.

“Slow down!” yells the ferry worker at us as we speed onto the ferry just as the gate is closing. Whew, that was close. Now we can really relax and enjoy the beauty of a San Juan ferry cruise (designated a State Scenic Byway in 2008) back to the mainland.

When You Go
The Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce organizes the Tour de Lopez each April; check their website in a few months for next year’s date. Their website has a slideshow of this year’s ride. But regardless, get yourself up to Lopez with your bicycle any time of year!