Monday, July 11, 2011

I'll Never Fall in Love Again

Why is it that just when you have put the Internet in its place as an exploitive, crass and dangerous landscape, something comes along that makes you start humming "I'll Never Fall in Love Again?" 

Three women are trying to keep the dog from our prosciutto and crab as they walk by on a barely discernable trail that skirts the pile of logs we had stopped at in the middle of the Skagit Delta on a luminescent afternoon.  The creature we now know as Sofia is nearly knocking over our just-opened bottle of expensive Sancerre as she jumps on top of one log and leaps into a stand of grass after a bit of bread we threw for her. 

This was hardly the place where you'd expect random company.  We were in the middle of a perfectly flat estuary, save for the dyke 1000 yards behind us and Hat Island, another thousand yards in front of us where a brackish Puget Sound, at slack tide, slopped along the edges of Skagit County and our picnic.

Now, they were returning.  "May we enter your, uh, uh, space?  I think it is in that log," said the oldest of the three, consulting a hand-held GPS device or a very smart phone. 

"Sure," we said, "though we'd like to be let in on the 'it' part."

"Oh, we're Geocachers," she said as the younger ones checked their GPS and honed in on one of the logs.  Soon she was reaching into a broken section of the log up to her shoulder and retrieving a small plastic container that contained a notepad, a small plastic figure of a man in shorts, a pencil and a few other items.  Soon those contents were joined by the cork of the Sancerre bottle with our names written on it, or, as the Cachers would say, 'the names of four Muggles encountered at the very end of the mission.'

The first cache was a black pail containing books, software, videos and a slingshot, hidden in the woods near Beavercreek, Oregon in spring of 2000 and posted on a GPS enthusiast site.  Two days later, it had its first visitor.  Today, four million people are in search of 1.4 million geocaches world-wide.

As we spoke further with our new friends, we sensed the richness of their community, the basic enchantments of finding and sharing, a good day of travel and exercise, the array of information as they went home and posted their happy day. 

Cache sites in western Washington
For us, as we finished our second bottle, a nice little pinkie boy, we had that same feeling when we wrote 'symptoms of pneumonia' into this weird little site called Google and suddenly saw the world come roaring into our kitchen. 

Here's another one that stirs my heart. 

Driving back to work from lunch in Columbia City, I followed the Lake Washington shore to pass through my old neighborhood, Leschi.  As I pulled a bit further to the right to avoid a careless car in the on-coming lane, I noticed I was disturbingly close to a monster tree encroaching on Lake Washington Boulevard.  After I pulled over and checked it out, it was clearly a Redwood and it was truly a big one.  As I stood beside it, I imagined the war that would break out if the Seattle Transportation Department decided it was too big a hazard and would have to come down. I saw myself in my sleeping bag, surrounded by other Defenders of the Sequoia, waiting for the people who would do harm.

This had to be a famous tree, I thought, which is exactly what I entered in Google, along with the phrase, 'in Seattle.'  There appears then a fantastic website built and maintained by Arthur Lee Jacobson, and an article he had written with someone named Jerry Clark called "Pioneering Seattle's Historic Trees."  A 1989 gift to the state on its centennial, that article and many other subsequent pieces, tell us everything we would like to know about our city's lovely trees, and, incidentally, which to mourn. 

I went to 'Contact' and wrote Mr.  Jacobson about my experience with the tree and asked if he knew anything about it.  A couple of hours later, this was his reply:

Subject:  Re:  Leschi Tree

"It is a Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, and presumably planted at the time of the early boulevard landscaping some 100+ years ago.  About seven years ago it was 153 feet tall; now it is doubtless more than 160."

Arthur Lee Jacobson's site is the epitome of the 'long tail' of the Internet, that part of the space to the right of global media and global figures, ubiquitous products, popular and mainline interests.  While the left part of the metaphor may attract more eyeballs, the right side contains a variety of content and ideas that, while perhaps producing fewer hits, stimulates remarkable and sometimes beautiful content -- and, importantly it is usually more interactive.  You can, for example, join Arthur Lee Jacobson on a tree tour of a specific neighborhood or park.  Cost? Ten bucks.  When was the last time Justin Timberlake did anything for ten bucks?

So why were they landscaping along Lake Washington a hundred years ago, and why with a Sequoia sempervirens?  The answer is in Seattle's incredible desire to change the landforms that its citizens originally found.  Famously, it removed a very significant hill from North of the downtown core and put it out in Elliott Bay to create Harbor Island, the center of the Port of Seattle and for seventy years or so the largest man made island in the world.

Museum of History and Industry
Describing that landscape separates older Seattle people from younger ones.  The ones who saw the neighborhood get hip and house many thousands call it Belltown, after an original developer, Austin Bell.  The ones who watched the hill come down and be replaced by automobile dealer parking lots call it The Denny Regrade.

Among all the filling, shaping, sluicing and digging Seattle leaders loved, the canal project that connected Lake Washington to Lake Union and ultimately to Puget Sound had another powerful effect on the original landscape.  It lowered Lake Washington's water level nearly 9 feet.  This created a startling amount of land, most of it public.  The great parks developers of the time, the Olmsted brothers, had a hand in crafting what the new natural environment along the lake would look like.  Along their boulevard, Lake Washington Boulevard, they may have placed the occasional Sequoia, for its uniquely western look and notable size.

Meandering down to a narrowing region of the long tail to read more about the Lake Washington shore, I found artist Ellen Sollod and a beautiful and personal piece of research she did called "Lake Washington Palimpsest." 

Copyright Ellen Sollod
Ellen Sollod Studio
The term means something like replacing old writing with new -- by erasing or covering up -- it's a Greek word meaning scraped and cleaned off.  She applies this idea to Lake Washington and tries to find parts of the once prominent old shapes that were erased by the physical changes of its restless citizens.
It is a uniquely personal piece of work.  She's not sitting in front of a computer, but fundamentally in front of whatever she sees and reports.  She carries a pin hole camera and a bucket with chemicals to develop the images.  She goes to buildings housing records and maps, walks in, talks to someone -- say at the Corps of Engineers -- and asks to look at what they have about the lake.

Trying to find the Black River, the stream that originally fed Lake Washington before the change of elevation made it disappear, she walks into a scary trailer park near a swamp and identifies what is left of the Black River, an oozy swerve at the bottom of a ditch.

She is an artist whose history speaks with an earnest heart, one that captured mine.

  Geocaching website
Arthur Lee Jacobson's Website
Ellen Sollod's Lovely History of Lake Washington
HistoryLink: Ravenna Park Trees Cut Down By Parks Department, 1920
Lyrics to "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and Ringtone


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