Sunday, July 8, 2018

Summer in the prairie

Silky lupine and Clarkia bloom a few weeks ago...

Oh, there is evil out there.  Medusahead grass, for one, and Prickly lettuce, which I will soon spray, but there is beauty, too!  Both Sugar bowl clematis (Clematis hirsutissima) I moved last year are alive and kicking (though not blooming this year), and I have been tickled to see that a bunch of Oregon checkermallow I planted... four years ago?... have survived and bloomed for the first time.

But this next thing is the treasure.  I didn't plant it.  Did birds plant this?  I have no idea.  But, under the Ponderosa pine in the far southeast corner of the property, as I was mowing (sort of a last-ditch effort on the Medusahead, which won't work, but might slow it down for a week or two until I spray it)... I came upon two blooming Meadow death camas (Zigadenus venenosus).

I love the free gifts from the goddess...

Saturday, June 2, 2018

New Prairie in Bloom

Clarkia blooming today...

In the southern part of the prairie, plants that I have planted using the "divot" method are starting to come up.  Clarkia is such a spectacular little annual flower, and while this year has not been great for a lot of flowers here--larkspur, for example was oddly absent--clarkia seems to be coming on for a fine show.  I don't understand the cycles, but several plants go in these waves, and then come back.  Scarlet gilia has done it. 

Lately my work has been mowing.  Large areas which have native grass and a fair number of perennials (which of course can be mowed) also have a lot of cheatgrass, the annual-grass scourge of Western ranchers.  I mowed earlier, and this seemed to take out about half of the cheatgrass and properly encourage other species, but I've had to go back out and get the second generation.  Apparently some researcher at WSU has come up with a fungus that attacks cheatgrass, and I look forward to it.  In the meantime, mowing is this option I've got, and it is pretty effective, if you keep going after it. 

Gaillardia is making a comeback.  Many of the divots I planted with local seed from Thorn Creek are in their second year and producing blooms.  I had many clumps from a population down the river, but one by one they have been consumed by voles/pocket gophers, so they must be tasty.  Then I was trying the rake planting method that simply does not work with Gaillardia, and I have nearly lost my original population.  I will be scouring the areas that they were thriving in years past for any sprouts to nurture this year...

You can see in the background, though, that I had to surgically mow through here for the evil cheatgrass... sigh...

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Here is the "standard view" of the north part of the prairie today.  Arrowleaf balsamroot and geraniums are visible, and several of the shrubs are getting big.  I've had to mow in the foreground for cheatgrass.  There is a fair amount of native grass and various perennial plants and flowers there, but mowing doesn't hurt them and does knock the cheatgrass back.

So many of these plants take a long time before they bloom.  This balsamroot (below) took eight years before it bloomed for the first time last year.

In 2011, a Palouse garden tour included our property, and a person on the tour who lived near Kamiak Butte told me that she had camas on her property, and that I could collect seed.  So, that seed was planted in 2012.  The first camas from that seed bloomed this year, six years later!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Welcome Back!

Wow, it has been awhile.

I have been working much harder on day-to-day music over the last year than I ever have, and I just haven't been inclined to write about it.  I like my CD still (rare for me), and I've sold a few.  There may be a book deal in the works, but at this point I have no idea if this guy will come through.  I will see if that works out, and if it doesn't, I think I will just give the Gottschalk arrangements away to anyone who asks (but not for awhile).  I appreciate all the nice words from folks, and there is truly something utterly satisfying in finishing something you've cared about and worked on for decades.

That said, I am apparently not my old ambitious self, getting on the phone rounding up gigs.  I started tentatively booking a California tour (I have a couple of potential gigs I could do), but... I just am not inspired to do it.  I did a few festivals and have taken things that come my way--I wanted to get this music solidly in my bones, but something about the running-around-hey-look-at-me! part of the music biz has no appeal anymore.  The book thing would be great, but even that "came my way," when a fairly successful musician-performer-scholar contacted me out of the blue, having heard about my new record, and it turned out that he was a fan of my OLD records, wanted me to perform in his festival in 2019, and put me in touch with this publisher.  It was a real morale-booster, whatever comes of it.  The publisher seems to work about as fast as I do, so I have no idea how it will play out.  I love playing this stuff and am happy to play for anyone who wants to bring my little show to their stage, so contact me if you like...but I realized that I wasn't going to do the booking conferences, shoving this work down people's throats, pushing this into venues that may or may not be good for it.  It just isn't in me.

In the meantime, my passion has been playing the fiddle.  Though it was a long time coming--I date this process to 2008 when my wife commissioned my fabulous violin bow from Morgan Andersen, then came the parade of violins, ending with the arrival of the M. A. Fichtl in 2014--many blog posts back in those days on that weird process.  But it was worth it in the end--this is such a fine violin!  Anyway, I have been playing a couple hours most days, much of it spent in the Bach solo violin Sonatas and Partitas.  I can play the great Chaconne now, which is something I never imagined that I could do.  Not well enough to play it outside of the house, but what an incredible piece of music to lose yourself in for awhile.  For a composer, it has been an amazing process--this is arguably the pinnacle of European classical music.  Every time I play, some little detail gets clearer, more in tune, better...still many to work on.  My little experiment is to actually take the suggestion of a comment that some unnamed musician made to C. P. E. Bach, that his father's great solo violin literature was all a guy needed to master the violin.  Mastering the violin has come to mean something different in the last few centuries, a path I have no interest in, but I wondered what it would be like to play just the Bach solo music (and all my traditional fiddle repertoire of course) and see how good I could be.  That sort of mastery is very seductive!

I went down this path in earnest after playing with my friend Steven who has a very wide-ranging repertoire of blues, old country music...what the biz calls "Americana" these days.  We played a gig or two in 2015 (we've played together off and on since the 70s--!!), and then I tried to record with him.  He is so good--seriously, in my opinion he is the greatest musician I have ever known who will never be famous--and I found that I just couldn't play well enough to satisfy myself.  His solo performances that I recorded are fabulous, by the way, and I hope I can at some point rise to the occasion there.  I mean, we can sound pretty good in the moment with me jamming along, but some switch was thrown.  I had to get serious chops.  I had to be able to improvise in all keys and get up the neck with confidence.  I stopped the recording project and started practicing.  Three years later I am getting close to where I want to be. 

Along the way, my traditional fiddle repertoire--fairly traditional West Irish fiddle style, influenced heavily by Kevin Burke and many others, and American tunes that I rarely got to play outside the house--was always pretty good I thought.  This is the stuff I had played since I started teaching myself back in the mid-70s (!), wrangling what I realize now were awful fiddles.  But a whole new comfort and ease has come into my playing.  There was this point, late last year, where after playing an hour or so, the whole sound would sweeten and my hands would soften and everything became so easy.  I would improvise my way into a corner and dance my way out.  This magical point of ease (I still don't understand what happens exactly) made me wonder if I had started to hit the magical 10,000 hours.  If I skip a day of playing, it might take me a pass through the Chaconne (my standard meditation) to get it back.  On most days, it hits me after about ten minutes.

Well, I needed a project and I decided that I wanted to be able to play a contradance by myself--just me on fiddle and a guitar accompanist.  In this area of the "Inland Northwest," if you can play good dance music, there are gigs.  These don't pay all that well, but they are bliss for a fiddler.  I have played for 25 years with my friends in Potatohead but playing dances has been problematic for a few reasons.  One is that I can't play American music with this team (they aren't interested in it, really), and half the group lives in England from April until August, but the real frustration has been getting someone to play guitar rhythm.  You have to have a strong danceable beat going for this stuff to work.  One local legend would sit in, and he was fine, but he didn't want to rehearse, and had a nasty habit of double-booking himself and dumping our gig.  So, we had to stop doing dances until I realized that I just had to focus on playing guitar with them for dances, with a few detours into fiddle playing.  Which is fine, but...I was pretty unsatisfied.  I wanted to play the fiddle.

So, I have spent years on the lookout for a guitar player, who was willing to get into a pretty vast repertoire.  I know my buddy Steven (above) could kill this stuff, but he lives 300 miles away, though I periodically attempt to persuade him that he should move here.  I was lamenting this around a friend, Alex, who would show up at the monthly open mics here in Palouse at the Green Frog (now defunct...sigh...).  He always played awesome songs and has a great soothing voice, and I would sometimes work up a fiddle part for this or that song he wanted to do, but I was stunned when he casually mentioned that, well, he'd like to accompany fiddle music and this contradance thing.  He has actually really worked on it, and he is good at it.  Happy to play Irish music, American music, whatever.

How cool is that?!  We play our first dance for the Palouse Folklore Society in April. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Tale of Two Swords, sword #2

Muromachi-period (1392-1573) katana, with Edo-period (1603-1868) tsuba (guard) and 20th-c. tsuka (handle).

I bought these pieces from an eBay seller who offers authentic antique Japanese swords and other stuff, to assemble them into a sword I could use to practice aikido sword techniques and exercises.  A recent post dealt with the very fancy sword that came to me from left field and is far too precious to be used for training, but the sword in this post is the sort of weapon a low-ranking samurai would have carried into battle during the civil wars of the Muromachi period in Japan.  Still, it's a 500-year-old sword!


The blade arrived in shirasaya, a storage scabbard.  Because I don't practice drawing the sword, I don't need a regular working scabbard, though I'll probably put one together eventually.  I just carefully unsheath it and train with it.  My first step was to assemble the metal pieces, which required filing (I wouldn't alter the actual blade--instead I alter everything else to fit it).

Fitting the tsuka (handle) was tricky.  I had to file out the profile inside, repair a small crack, and because the hole for the nakago (tang) was much longer than I needed, I had to prepare a piece of wood to fill that part of the tsuka and glue it in.  You can see below how the same (ray skin) that is traditionally used in a tsuka is here inlaid into channels in the side.  Better tsukas would have the ray skin wrap completely around the tsuka or even 1.5 times around.  This is more my speed...

Finally there was the long process of aligning the holes in the side of the tsuka for the mekugi, or bamboo pin that goes through the mekugi-ana (holes).  I ended up bushing both holes in the tsuka, which were pretty close to lining up with the hole in the tang, but close won't do it.  I was advised to buy a package of high-quality bamboo chopsticks to use to make the mekugi, and it took four of them before I got the right combination of hole alignment, taper on the mekugi and everything fitting together just so.  I had a chance to take a few shomenuchi cuts... very nice whoosh!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Summer prairie

Phacelia, lupines, clarkia, syringa, helianthella, and other delights, blooming in the prairie this evening.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A tale of two swords

Wakizashi (katateuchi) with shirasaya, Yasutsugu Sandai (c.1650)

One of Morihei Ueshiba's innovations in developing aikido out of Daito-ryu jujutsu is that he integrated traditional sword practice into the empty-hand tradition.  In any case, training with bokken (wooden sword) has been an important part of my aikido training with all of my teachers.  It isn't just trying to master the particular techniques and kata, but the way it extends your focus, your ki, past your body, and the way connection through the blade with your training partner is at the same time subtle and powerful.  It made little sense to me early on, but now I think it's an essential part of my training. 

Almost 20 years ago I knew a blacksmith who had a real katana, from about 1800, and one evening I went out in his yard and practiced some suburi (basic cuts) and various parts of aikido sword kata with his sword.  As soon as I was walking with that blade out to a clearing, I was aware of the smallest details in my movements.  I was focused.  It was real.

After that experience I wondered if an aikidoka like myself could buy a katana.  Now, as with a lot of things in my life--musical instruments, rugs--I am drawn to old things.  And I looked into it and saw that actual antique traditional katana are terrifically expensive, and so I forgot about that for years.  I have plenty to learn with just my body, and a bokken is absorbing enough.

But in a casual internet conversation a few months ago, I found out that it was possible to do as I have done with violins...go around the masterpieces of Japanese swordsmiths into some interesting old swords that could be made usable for aikido sword practice.  In the Muromachi period (1336-1573), the making of katana became a growth industry as a result of the civil wars that were ongoing, and that there were many blades from this era (even as incredibly old as that seems) that were from unnamed smiths and may not be in perfect modern art polish, but they were real working swords from 500 (!) years ago, and thanks to the wonder of eBay, it is possible to procure something like this (if you had someone knowledgeable advising you--this is an important part) and assemble a koshirae, a working mounting of the sword, for under $1K.

So I started saving my pennies.  Several months ago I was talking to friend who is interested in native plants, and as I was giving her some plants, I recalled someone telling me that her father was an important kendo sensei, so I asked her if she knew about swords and had any advice for me.  She said, I have a sword.  And seemed to have decided then and there that this sword was for me.  I was hesitant--I mean, I wasn't asking for her to give me a sword!--and told her that if this sword were something I could train with, that I would love to purchase it, but...

This was not one of her father's swords, which she had given away to his students.  She said that because of her father, a sword collector had told her years ago that this sword was for sale nearby and she should buy it.  So she did, and she had it polished, and put away in her closet for the next 30 years.  When she brought it to me and I saw the blade, I realized two things... One, that this was not a katana, it was just a little shorter than 2 shaku (the minimum blade length for a katana, about 23.8 inches), though definitely long for a wakizashi (short sword).   And the other realization was that this was a serious sword.  Like that katana I handled years ago, this blade...demands your attention.

I thought that both of us needed more information, though she thought I should just have it, so I took it to the sword master who polished it thirty years ago, who is still in the Puget Sound area.  Konno-san immediately recognized it, and pointed out many features of the hamon (the wavy line you can see on the right, towards the edge in the photo above--this is where the layers of hard steel in the center emerge from the springier steel enveloping them).  Though the blade is not signed, he explained that there was no doubt that this was the third generation (Sandai) of the Yasutsugu line, whether Edo (the grandson of the founder) or Echizen (the third son of the founder), he was going to do more research... The Yasutsugu were personal swordsmiths to the Tokugawa shoguns, so this turns out to be a very fancy sword.  It seems to be a type of sword made from the late 1500s into the 1600s, a katateuchi.  It is not a stout blade used for hacking and stabbing like a standard wakizashi, but a smaller, very elegant version of a katana for one-handed use.  These first three generations of the Yasutsugu were exceptional makers, not only mastering the process of making copies of older Kamakura-era swords, but also working with new types of blade designs, as with this sword.  They even experimented with the integration of steel from the recently-arrived Europeans into their traditional tamagahane.

When I asked Konno-san whether this could be mounted with a two-handed koshirae (what I am trained to use) and used for training, a wave of amusement passed over his face, and he gently but firmly said, "You do not train with a sword like this."  The shirasaya (the storage scabbard it has, which you can see in the top image) was "the proper way to keep this sword."

He continued to point out important features of the blade and then we relaxed for a moment.  He had apparently overheard me mention to the other owner of the business that I played the violin, and he asked me if I knew about violins and would I be willing to look at some violins he had.  Hm, OK...  I am certainly no violin appraiser, but I can tell what a lot of things are, and I can easily tell the difference between something special and the garden-variety cheap violin, so I was happy to do it.  There was a bag of bows, in which possibly one of the eight could be made to function at all.  The violins were in various states of disrepair, mainly cheap c.1920 student instruments from Central Europe.  One seemed actually to be a refinished late 18th-c. Saxon violin, which I pointed out that in its prime was a very nice violin.  Alas, it had an unrepaired back sound post crack, which I explained to them using the sword term--it was a "fatal flaw."  I thought about what I had read on sword etiquette, that you should point out the best qualities of a sword, so I lingered on some beautiful figure in the maple of several of the violins.  While I was honest about these violins, I tried to put it in the best positive light, the remarkable quality of the work given that it was done in very primitive conditions, and these craftsmen were paid for their work by the dozen and could make a violin in a day.  It is in fact true that some of these South German and Czech violin makers (many just in winter--they were farmers the rest of the year) made great fiddles with what must have been breathtaking speed.  Most of these violins, to be honest...were not so good, but I didn't need to say that.  But it's true that you remember the great ones you've played!

After this digression, we returned to the swords.  I thought that my friend should decide what she wants to do knowing about this sword so, in addition to finding out the history of it, I wanted to find out how it could be sold--my friend should made the decision about, really, what to do with this, knowing all the options.  Apparently the first step would be to get a shinsa from one of the two official Japanese sword-expert organizations (NTHK or NBTHK)--an official certificate of evaluation of exactly what the sword is.  How the violin world, and--OMG!--the antique oriental rug world, would benefit from organizations that were the equivalent of NTHK/NBTHK!!  And then, they said, with that you would be better off selling an unusual masterpiece like this in Japan, because Americans are mainly interested in katana (mea culpa).

About the time that the other owner (an American sword collector, who also is an advanced iaidoka and European fencer...) was telling me how this could be sold, Konno-san said...again, gently but firmly... "You should not sell this sword.  You need to study this sword, it will teach you, and when you understand this sword, then you will appreciate it."  He must have told me some version of that four times. 

When I came home, I reported to my friend what they had said about her sword.  She said, "You see, you don't own a sword.  You take care of it for awhile and then you pass it on.  Konno-sensei was right, you need to study this sword.  If you sell it, then give me some money, but you should listen to Konno-sensei."

Domo arigato gozaimashita.

Next month, the other sword.