Saturday, December 24, 2011

And So This is Christmas

And how are you celebrating this holiday season? 

Perhaps you're an Aussie drinking white wine in the sunshine with family and friends. Or maybe you're huddled around an adobe fireplace in northern New Mexico waiting for the blizzard outside to abate. Maybe you don't celebrate the season at all.

 Here in the Pacific Northwest many of us get outside for a walk or run in the woods before or after big holiday meals. Temperatures are mild, it's not raining (today at least), and the mountains are vivid on the horizon.

A man I passed on the trail today in Carkeek Park said he hadn't been back since leaving the region 47 years ago. He looked happy to be here.

As I was finishing my walk through the forested gully, a jet soared low overhead, no doubt on a landing pattern for Sea-Tac Airport 20+ miles south. I thought of all the people in that plane coming to see loved ones, and darn if it didn't give me a little lump in my throat.  The holidays are like that--amped up emotions mixed with nostalgia and hope.

Wherever you are, whether you've traveled a long distance or are sticking close to home this season, I sincerely wish for everyone lots of love, hugs, laughter, propserity, and peace now and in the year to come.

Happy holidays from the Pacific Northwest!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Holiday Shopping in Ballard: Keeping it Indie and Local

Despite my adolescent past as a mall rat, over the years I’ve developed an aversion to big box stores and shopping malls.  Give me small stores that are charming, useful, and manageable.  

Remember that sweet little bookstore in the film You’ve Got Mail that was driven out of business by the big bad chain store? That’s my kind of store. 

Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has several blocks of such great little shops right on the street where you can hop in and out quickly (or slowly if you want to browse longer).  And small doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive.
Here’s a run-down of must-visit Ballard shops in a neighborhood that’s becoming a bit overrun with trendy restaurants.  Head to Ballard for the feel of a true urban village and support these quality small retailers!

Market Street
Just a few doors east of Ballard’s main intersection (Market and Leary) is La Tienda Folk Art Gallery, which features hand-knitted hats, gloves, socks, lots of cool jewelry, fabrics, and more with an international, ethnic flare.  Look for the frame-worthy hand-embroidered, colorful molas from the San Blas Island of Panama and beautiful Woodstock wind chimes.
Woolly knit gloves at La Tienda

On the next block west are several more shops worth a visit.  Romanza is the place for extravagant Christmas decorations, lotions, soaps, and of course much more. This is one of my go-to shops for tree ornaments.
One of the beautifully decorated trees at Romanza's
A few doors down to the west is Annie’s frame shop, which also sells artsy cards, posters, and other interesting knick knacks. I always find gifts here when I’m in need of inspiration. Then just a few steps away is Ballard’s prime indie bookstore, Secret Garden Books. Besides books, they also carry cool calendars. 

For the foodie on your gift list, stop in Savour (west past Bop Street Records, which sells vintage record albums). You might be tempted to grab a tasty sandwich or gourmet mac ‘n cheese to eat there while picking up unusual imported and local foods like divine hot cocoas, honey from Tasmania, or fine Washington wines.
Treats from Italy at Savour
Ballard Avenue
Cross to the south side of Market street mid-block at the pedestrian crosswalk and angle down historic Ballard Avenue, which I think is the most charming several-block stretch in all of Seattle. There are too many wonderful little shops on Ballard Avenue for me to list here without this post getting way too long, so here are some gems.

Historic Ballard Avenue

Pass several great bars, pubs, and restaurants en route to Kavu, home-grown in Ballard. Kavu, which expanded their retail space couple years ago, sells locally designed and made hip, casual clothes  for guys and gals that are relatively inexpensive. And they regularly have great sales!  
After shopping for a spell, stop in Miro Tea for a relaxing break and sip some fine tea.  And then pick up some tea or accoutrements for the tea drinkers on your gift list.
Tea lover's gifts at Miro's

Continuing down Ballard Avenue, you must stop in Curtis Steiner’s new, larger digs. This world-famous, jewel box-like shop features exquisite jewelry, beautiful artisan cards, and other unique hand-crafted stuff.  Not cheap, but everyone needs a splurge now and then, right?  
Curtis Steiner new location in the old Guitar Emporium
A couple doors down is d’Ambrosio Gelateria Artiginiale, where you might just need to indulge in the best gelato this side of Italy when you’re buying gift certificates. Proprietor Marco d'Ambrosio's father Enzo, who is a master Italian gelato maker, helped Marco develop the business and gelatos.  Check back often for their seasonal flavors.

Cross the street to stop in a string of cozy and lovely little shops. One of my favorites is Lucca Great Finds, an enchanting store designed to echo Parisian gift salons of the 1920s and ‘30s. Want a paper cut-out of the Eiffel Tour? This is the place. You’ll also find fine linen tea towels, soaps, beautiful cards, and such. Continue to the very back for a tiny hand-paved courtyard with rustic garden ornaments.
Feel transported back to 1920s Paris at Lucca's
Next door is Camelion Design, chock full of quality home furnishings as well as some gorgeous jewelry around the front counter.  Check the very back of the store for handsome leather purses.
Had enough of the oh-so-charming giftie stores?  Go down almost to the end of the next block to Second Ascent for the outdoorsy/backcountry person on your gift list (or yourself, in my case). With the closure of Outdoors and More, this is now THE place for discounted outdoors clothing and gear in Seattle.  They get and sell samples from many top-rate brands like Mont Bell, Arcteryx, and even Patagonia that are new but not quite so outrageously expensive.  Get backcountry ski gear, climbing gear, snowshoes, bicycle gear, hiking boots, and lots of clothes.  In the very back you’ll even find some used clothes, which are a great bargain. 
Venue features artist studios within their store
Okay, if you’re still reading, here’s a plug for one more gallery/gift boutique: Venue on 22nd Avenue between Ballard Avenue and Market Street is full of hand-crafted items made by local artists.  Besides jewelry, there are lovely photographs, artisan chocolates, and, well, you’ll just have to go see for yourself. Venue also has studio space for artists , so you might get a chance to chat up an artist who made the gift you just bought.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Searching for the Fungus Among Us

Sometimes you see the most amazing things when you’re paying attention.  A Ballard birder I know saw five orca whales (with a baby!) swim past the beach at Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park a few weeks ago.  Never been that lucky. 

But here in the Pacific Northwest, our forests and many patches of earth even in cities are teeming with ubiquitous, otherworldly, and ever variable fungi. We have thousands of varieties here lurking in dark corners, under leaves, on decaying downed trees, and sometimes in your front lawn. They especially love our damp climate here west of the Cascade Mountains.

Last weekend on my weekly hike through the forest trails in Carkeek Park in north Seattle, my niece and I ended up on a quest to shoot mushrooms—with cameras.

“Wow, look at that!” exclaimed my niece, pointing out a florid-looking fungus growing on a log beside the trail. But this was like a Halloween version of a floral display, dark gray with rusty-orange “buds” and weird fang-like spikes on their underside.

Now I’m the first to admit I don’t go hunting for chanterelles, morels, or other wild edible mushrooms, although I enjoy eating them. I leave foraging to the pros. And I’m not a true naturalist.  I don’t know what the names are of these fungi. But once we got started looking, it was like an organic scavenger hunt, a challenge to see as many as we could.

Moss-covered, decomposing downed logs were the best spots. And there the mushrooms were, gray and smooth, dark brown and in clumps, small and delicate, mossy green, biomorphic, with DNA somewhere between human and plant.

We didn’t touch any because, well, you never know. Some are highly toxic, with names like Death Cap.  When I was a kid, a group in Portland cooked dinner with some wild mushrooms they harvested. Four died that night and two needed liver transplants.

So instead we looked, found, and shot.

Can you name any of these? 

When You Go
The Puget Sound Mycological Society has regular events and foraging trips led by experts. In the Portland area, check out the Oregon Mycological Society for similiar educational events and outings. If you want to explore further online, check out the Pacific Northwest Fungi Database out of Washington State University.