Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Camas in December

Camas actually blooms in May, but I just installed this window I designed almost a year ago.  The prairie is put to rest for the winter and though music is going on as always, there is nothing to write about in that vein at the moment, but the prairie still blooms in our front door.

Here is what camas looks like, and I tried to create an abstract suggestion of it in stained glass.  The window was made by Darcy Lodge at The Stained Glass Co. in Lewiston, ID. and I think she did a great job.  I started with a drawing last February...

Then it look far longer than anyone anticipated to get this made because there was an odd bit of glass Darcy was trying to use for the camas leaves, and she'd get it all together and then it would crack and she'd have to take the window apart and replace the cracked piece.  Finally, though, late last month she had it done, and we had it laminated with glass.  I am so accustomed to having things not quite fit in this old house remodeling project I've been working on for more than 20 years that I was shocked to find that not only did this slip perfectly into the window opening, but somehow the sandwich of glass, stained glass, and glass was exactly the same thickness as the window opening.  Every once in awhile Murphy's Law doesn't apply, which is a good thing in this weather--no one wants a wide-open hole in their door in winter this far north!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In the studio and the prairie...

I went back to work on the CD of my gourd banjo music last week, and this time got a good recording of my arrangement of Isaac Albéniz's (1860-1909) famous piano piece, "Asturias (Leyenda)," played in stroke/clawhammer style.  You can listen to it on the "Music" page of my website.  Of course, it is more famous as a guitar piece; I think the most famous classical guitar transcription is by Andrés Segovia, and it is one of the standards of classical guitar repertoire.  I had worked it out c. 1985, but when I stopped playing the banjo in the late 80s, I let it slide with the rest of that repertoire.  I never recorded it.

I don't think the banjo needs to play classical European music; really it is built for an entirely different expression, and a lot of the pieces I worked out in the old days were easy to let go, but a few of them stuck with me, haunting me a little bit--I loved playing some of that music.  When I started playing this new gourd banjo, everything sounded different, and when I played through the bits of "Leyenda" and "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" I remembered, they sounded so gorgeous that I wanted to resurrect them, so I did.  I love playing them, and that's good enough for me.  I have also recorded the Vivaldi Lute Concerto in D that's on my first LP, but I'm playing a different part now.  I worked out the orchestral/continuo part on the gourd banjo, and Richard Kriehn plays the solo part on mandolin.  Again, it sounds so cool--how I could I not record this?!  So, in addition to the Gottschalk pieces (yeah, I've recorded two of them), I will be putting Vivaldi, Couperin, and Albéniz on this upcoming CD.  But I really am not a classical banjo player, whatever that would mean.  I just love playing those pieces.

In other news, it is planting season in the prairie.  After a demoralizing couple of hours yesterday, I have had to revise the plan somewhat.  I am not able to rake the entire 1.5 acres I had planned on raking.  There are areas where evil grass and storksbill, etc, are dying and dead, but the fibers of the plants are still in the soil and raking them out will kill me.  I have resolved to continue watching those areas and let the old grass and weeds decompose this winter and next year, and I will have a much easier time in those areas next fall.

There are, however, several areas--about six or seven--that were like that last year, and now this year it really is possible to rake out that dead stuff (it's still hard work, but...) and reveal lovely soil, clear of weeds.  I've decided to take them on, one at a time, rake them out (Dona helped me today--thanks, darlin'), plant them (native plant seeds generally just get sprinkled on the soil), and rake the dead stuff back over as a mulch.  This is different than the divot method I have used in the past, but divots seem to work only with a few species, and I want to try this method of raking out whole areas.  It was what the Palouse Conservation District people and Jacie Jensen of Thorn Creek Native Seeds recommend, so that's what I'm doing this year.  Here is the first area after Dona and I had raked it out today.

Then I planted...Blue-eyed Mary, Clarkia, Sticky geranium, Lomatium ambiguum, Silky lupine, Indian paintbrush with Idaho fescue seeds, Upland larkspur, and Fritillaria pudica.  A few handfuls of my BFI custom native grass seed mix lightly scattered around too--I don't want too much grass added to this area.  I just sprinkled them on the dirt, and then raked back the dead grass, making sure I put a light cover on everything.  We shall see...

Friday, October 4, 2013

The work begins...

I've gone back to work on my gourd banjo recording, just having finished a nice version of my "back-engineered" arrangement of Gottschalk's "Bamboula."  Of course, I've also dived headlong into the grant-supported phase of my prairie restoration.

I've planted all of the plants I purchased thus far, marking each one with a little green flag to keep track of each thing I've added to the project.  The seeds will come later, after I've done a little spraying of weeds and raked the areas where I'm adding seeds.  I took several photos yesterday, showing different views of the southeastern part of the prairie, where most of the intense planting is concentrated, hoping to create a photographic record of the transformation.

In the foreground of the image above is a little green flag marking one of the twenty spots where I planted an Indian paintbrush plant with an Idaho fescue plug and drizzled with a pinch of Idaho fescue seeds.  It sounds like a recipe!  However, Indian paintbrush requires a host plant to survive, and apparently Idaho fescue is a common host around here.  Pat Mason at Pleasant Hill Farm gave me the fescue plugs for the companion planting, and we thought that the drizzled fescue seeds were a good bet too. 

This last image shows the patch of camas bulbs I planted in a wet spot near the southeast corner of the property.  There I put 3-4 bulbs spread out in each hole and marked each hole with a flag.  As you can see, there is some native grass already established, as well as a few other plants and the 23-year-old Ponderosa pines.

I had one interesting problem with five of the plants I purchased from Plants of the Wild in Tekoa, WA., a problem I have run into before...Sometimes people sell a plant as a native, but the variety they are selling is actually more of a cultivated version of the plant.  This often happens around here with Gaillardia aristata, which in addition to being native here is also a popular garden plant.  The version you find in most nurseries has the red of the center of the flower running out to the petals, while the native (at least in this particular area) has the deep rust red center and rich orange-yellow petals.  Fortunately I have gotten that one going from seed I've collected down the road.

In the last few years there have been several businesses started locally that specialize in only plants/seeds collected from this particular area, and I got most of my items from Pleasant Hill Farm in Deary, ID and Thorn Creek Native Seeds in Genesee, ID--both businesses have this philosophy of focusing on local Palouse natives, but Pleasant Hill only had five Roundleaf alumroot (Heuchera cylindrica) plants, so I got five more from Plants of the Wild.  They are an older business, started back in 1979, and sometimes their plants are not the local native varieties.  Here is one of the alumroots I purchased from Pleasant Hill Farm, which look exactly like the ones growing up on Kamiak Butte nearby.

Next is an image of one of the five alumroots I purchased from Plants of the Wild.  This is obviously an entirely different variety!  Fortunately I only purchased five of these, which I put in the northwest part of the prairie where not everything is native. 

 I hope the other plants (native strawberry, camas bulbs, creeping Oregon grape) I purchased from Plants of the Wild are OK--they look fine.  It's frustrating to run into this problem though, making me feel fortunate that businesses like BFI Native Seeds in Moses Lake, WA (where I purchased my native grass seeds), Pleasant Hill Farm, and Thorn Creek Native Seeds exist.  Their products are fabulous.  But doing this sort of thing, one must be vigilant, I guess.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Big News on the Prairie!

Today's purchase from Pleasant Hill Farm, near Deary, ID:  Indian paintbrush (check out that bloom!), Idaho fescue starts (for companion planting with the paintbrush), Arrowleaf balsamroot, Tapertip penstemon, Missouri goldenrod, Western hawkweed, Prairie smoke, Purple sticky geranium, and Roundleaf alumroot.  

I have never gotten a grant for my work as a musician.  People have gotten grants for me to compose/record/perform music for them, or for their work including my music, but I have never gotten anywhere writing a grant.  So, it was a surprise when I got a call a month ago from Jennifer Boie at the Palouse Conservation District, asking me if I would like to apply for a grant for my work restoring my 2.5 acres of Palouse prairie.  Back in June a team from the PCD had come out here to see what I was doing with my prairie, so they were aware of this project, but I certainly never expected that anyone would actually help me with it.

I figured--what the heck--they knew what I was doing and thought it was worthy of an application, so I followed through.  And...I actually got the grant!  This is $2K worth of support!  I am required to work for 50 hours (I will probably put in many times that amount), but I can go out and buy some plants!  Besides the haul above, I ordered a bunch of seeds from Thorn Creek Native Seeds (in Genessee, ID), a bunch of plants from Plants of the Wild in Tekoa, WA, and BFI Native Seeds in Moses Lake, WA (who I never would have known about if folks at the PCD hadn't informed me about them) put together 15 pounds of a mix of four native grass species, not just those species, but the particular subtypes from this region of the Palouse.  I still have my big box of native plant seeds I've collected over the last year to plant as well.

I'm a little overwhelmed, but between planting all of this stuff in the next month or so, and whatever I purchase and plant next Spring, I will have mostly finished planting this prairie.  I will choose a new "standard view" for this project so I can show how things change in the southern part of the prairie as a result of this massive planting.  Stay tuned!   

Friday, August 16, 2013


I've got a LOT of Western asters (Aster occidentalis) blooming in the prairie.  They are very happy here, and they were the one of the first native plant successes I had, the result being that the middle of the property has formidable mounds of them, and they have spread throughout the northern part of the property.  

In other news, it sounds like I can relax about Agoseris; it won't take over.  In fact, I am feeling bad that I may have sprayed a few of them over the last few years; it turns out that they aren't that easy to get established and that I'm pretty lucky that two have just shown up on their own.  How to pronounce it is still a mystery, however--is it "a-joe-SER-is" or "a-JAW-ser-is"?  "a-go-SER-is?" 

I have pulled about a dozen five-gallon-buckets of "China lettuce," medusahead grass, and a few other things, and after I had completely cleaned out everything, after a week there are still a few to find, including a few that have gone to seed (dang!).  Eradication of these things isn't easy. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Agoseris: friendly or evil?

 Agoseris grandiflora, blooming in the prairie this morning

I've watched this plant growing all spring.  I wasn't sure if it was something I planted but it looked promising, so I left it alone.  Once it started blooming I was a little uncomfortable.  I identified it as Agoseris grandiflora, which is indeed a native perennial, but I have trouble getting past its similarity to a dandelion.  A huge dandelion, complete with the puffball seed heads.  So, right after I took this photo, I cut off all the blooms and gathered the seed heads (a few seeds had taken flight already).  I put off any decisions on how to handle this plant until next year.   

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Scarlet gillia

Scarlet gillia in the prairie, summer evening drizzle.

This is not the best photo I shot from the porch after dinner, but it did the best job showing the substantial drift of Scarlet gillia (Ipomopsis aggregata) that is in full bloom in the prairie.  I apparently sewed this seed in just the right spot, since this biennial has reseeded itself for three 2-year cycles so far.  Many native plants are pretty subtle, but this one attracts questions, "What are those spiky red flowers out there?"  The hummingbirds and bees are insane for it.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Summer bloom

Gaillardia, scarlet gillia, yarrow, cinquefoil, and large-leaved lupines blooming in the prairie this morning.  After the previous post, I felt like an image with some more colorful native flowers was called for...

...and an update on the dreaded Medusahead grass.  I mowed all of it at least twice (one spot got four mowings), and my advice is to wait until around July 1 (well, here, at least) rather than diving in right away in early June to mow it, since the stuff comes back up.  Finally I went through the whole prairie and pulled the heads off/plants up by hand, getting about 30 gallons' worth.  Thank goodness the folks from the Palouse Conservation District spotted this; while it sounds like a lot of work, it wasn't too bad, but I suspect that if I had ignored this for another year, I would have had a very nasty infestation on my hands!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Prairie view

Standard "prairie view," June 9

I liked the idea of choosing a view to go back to and see how everything changes over time, but I'm not sure this view worked out as the best way to see it.  Really, as far as pretty flowering plants go, I should have stood up by the road on the right and viewed everything looking south (this view looks northwest).  This view at the fence on the eastern edge of the property puts some pretty boring action in the foreground.  This area has really struggled with weeds, though now it is looking much better, but it isn't likely to be covered with flowers for years yet.  The mowing is to take care of annual grasses, and this is the third pass this Spring (I think I could have waited until now, but I wanted to get the grass as it headed up so that it didn't make viable seed).  There was some medusahead in this area, just a bit, but there are many other species of annual grass that need to make room for the fescue and other perennials.  Anyway, you can see some large-leaved lupines coming up, maybe some phacelia and cinquefoil (these things are out there in this view, but it isn't that easy to see them), and there are asters, lomatium, and yarrow that I mowed (since they are perennials, it is OK to mow them--they'll be back next year).  In the middle, not visible through the thick fescue, is a baby Ponderosa pine, planted over Gracie's grave (the border collie you can see in previous posts--she died last November).

In this closeup of her grave, you can see the native plants that we planted:  the little Ponderosa pine and a prairie smoke (on the left side of the dirt area).  We chose a spot where not much was growing except some grass that needed to be dug up.  What surprised us were all the other plants that showed up here this Spring.  The tall flowering plant in the foreground is phacelia, to the left of the pine is a cinquefoil, just above that is a baby large-leaved lupine, and to the right of the pine is a baby Wyeth buckwheat.  I didn't plant them, so we figure that was Gracie's contribution.  I will add some gravel in the foreground and plant Lomatium gormanii (one of my favorites because it is the first native to bloom, usually in early March), and some of the delphinium and blue-eyed mary I collected over the last week (see below).  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Success and a new villain

Over the last week or so, I have been collecting Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia parviflora, at the top in the bowl) and Larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum, the box on the bottom) on my walks to Idaho.  This is an awesome haul, especially the larkspur, which is about five times the amount I've ever been able to collect in one season.  Larkspur seems to dump most of its seed over a 3-4 day period, and I think I must be competing with some animal that finds these seeds very tasty, but this year I was walking every day and caught the plants right as they started dumping their seeds, and came back a couple of days later to catch the end of the ripening seeds.   These are the seed pods that you can see here; the actual seeds are tiny.    

Here is the new villain.  Medusahead grass (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) is an invasive species that is spreading through the Western US, and is a real problem for cattle ranching, since it is inedible to cattle and it aggressively crowds out native plants and desirable grass species.  When the team from the Palouse Conservation District came to check out my prairie earlier this Spring, they found seed heads from medusahead in a few spots, and encouraged me to go after it when it came up.  Just the other day I saw that it had come up in a few places, and so today I mowed every spot where it has shown up.  This ought to work because the seeds have not yet formed and it's an annual grass.  We shall see.   

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Saying Good-bye

This is Richard Kriehn, who is one of the greatest mandolin players, ever, and he's an amazingly-good fiddler/violinist and guitarist, to boot.  This photo is from what may be our last session (at least here in my studio), where we recorded our version of Vivaldi's Lute Concerto in D--he plays the lute part on the mandolin, and I play the orchestra on the gourd banjo.  This will either turn up on one of his records or one of mine.  Or something.  We did it because it's so cool, but we had no specific plans for it.  Anyway, he has been in the area about ten years, and we've worked on a whole bunch of projects together, including his mandolin CD, "From Here to There."  He has had great success in the last few years, as he joined "Guy's All-Star Shoe Band" on Prairie Home Companion, and found a venue for his extraordinary musical skills.  It was amazing to me (and yet not all that surprising) that Washington State University could not get it together to offer him a permanent position to keep him here, but they didn't, and this week he and his family are moving back to Minnesota, where he can really take advantage of this great gig he's gotten.  If you have to say good-bye to someone, the ideal situation is like this, where you know that they are going on to greater things.  Godspeed, Richard!

I had to say good-bye to another old friend this week, my 1840 C. F. Hartmann violin.  I have had this violin for almost thirty years.  Previously it was owned by a fairly well-known Irish fiddler here in the Pacific Northwest, Randall Bays.  I purchased it in 1984 at the NW Folklife Festival musical instrument auction.  It needed some work!  It had a short "transitional baroque" neck, which would have been cool to keep, but the neck and pegbox were severely worn to the point of self-destruction and unplayability (apparently a previous owner had a weird condition where the chemicals on their skin ate wood...I've seen this a couple of times...these people should be playing brass instruments!), so I did a scroll graft.  I did this myself because I didn't have the big bucks it would take to pay a luthier to do it, but it is a pretty difficult operation in the best of circumstances and for a variety of reasons this was an especially difficult graft.  I did have a luthier do a neck reset afterwards ('way cheaper than doing a graft).  Actually, luthiers screwed up the neck on several occasions over the years (technically there were four neck resets), and then finally Paul Hill of Moscow, ID made everything all right about five years ago.  If you are ever in the Palouse region, Paul is the guy you want to work on your stringed instruments.

If you go back a few months in this blog, you can find the story of my violin rescue, where Paul Hill set-up an amazing-sounding c. 1800 Saxon violin I bought in an auction last fall.  The Hartmann is a noble instrument, but the anonymous much-repaired old Saxon has a transcendental sound, and thus my old friend had to sit around ever since, lonely in its case.  Over the years, I had done some research to find out about C. F. Hartmann and this violin.  Trained in the traditional violin-making region of Saxony (now in Southern Germany), at 19 he was brought from Neukirchen to America around 1839 by a cabinet-maker who got in trouble with the luthiers' guild in that region because he made guitars:  C. F. Martin.  This violin's label lists Hartmann as a "Manufacturer of violins, guitars, etc" in Nazareth, PA and is dated 1840.  It may be the first violin Hartmann made in America, and I knew that it could be historically important, because Martin went on to be one of the most important guitar makers in the world.

Over the last few months I started to think about how I could sell this violin, since I really hated seeing it just sit there.  As what it is generically, an early 19th-c. Markneukirchen style violin by a young master luthier, it had some value, but I knew that I had to try to find someone who understood what this instrument really was.  Everyone I discussed this with who knew the violin world told me I had to get it to David Bromberg, who has gone on from a fabulous career as a blues-to-bluegrass guitar-player/singer to being the authority on American violin-making.  He has a violin shop in Wilmington, Delaware, and a well-known outstanding collection of American violins, and sure enough, he wanted this fiddle (he said it is the earliest professional-quality violin made in America that he has seen).  So yesterday, I carefully packaged up my old friend and sent it on to what really is a better place, a spot in David Bromberg's wonderful collection.  If you are ever in Wilmington, Delaware, stop by his shop and say hello to my old violin.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Spring 2013

Idaho blue-eyed grass (Sisyrhincium idahoensis), blooming in the prairie today

I always find an excuse to post an image of these every Spring; they are such a stunningly beautiful native plant.  They grow in clumps, and sometime the voles will dive in and chomp a clump like this and spread it out into six plants.  There is a house down the road a bit that has been there maybe fifteen years.  It was built on a lovely little chunk of native prairie that I used to walk down to all the time.  One year at about this time--it must have been around 1996--I was stunned to see a load of soil and gravel dumped right on this prairie, with maybe ten clumps of blue-eyed grass struggling to get out of it.  Usually with native plants, you have to assume that digging them up is a waste of time since you will surely kill them, and damage the soil pulling them out.  I think it is still righteous to go for something in a gravelly road drainage where they spray death every year, and I decided that this site was seriously threatened and I was justified digging up these clumps to save them.  I wish I had dug the other hundred clumps in the area, because within a few months they had excavated the entire spot for a foundation (had they built just 200 yards closer to the road, they would had a fine homesite and spared a treasure...sigh...).

Anyway, I planted those ten clumps, not expecting much, but they thrived!  In subsequent years, I learned that I could separate out multiple plants from a clump like this and spread them around, and only once in awhile would I lose one.  The voles have eaten their share.  But I continue to choose a few clumps on the property every year (the big one above is next) to dig up and separate into maybe eight smaller clumps, developing little drifts in several areas.  In the last few years they have started seeding themselves too, and in a few spots are starting to look like actual drifts, as in the top image. 

Monday, February 4, 2013


Rubab in the studio, 2/4/13

My goodness, it has been awhile!

I have been playing a lot, but there hasn't been much news.  I have officially started recording my gourd banjo CD, and I have gotten my fiddle playing on the new instrument into much better shape than it has been in for years (well, forever, really), and then one day last month I saw this instrument on eBay.

It is a rubab (rabab, rebab...several spellings), perhaps the most important musical instrument of Afghanistan.  With my attraction to many Afghan things--rugs, food, music, Sufism--it isn't much of a surprise that I found this instrument so appealing.  The rubabs I have seen for sale, especially on eBay, have either been new ones with garish plastic stuck all over them and questionable playability or, once in awhile, a real one that's too beaten up to play.  This one, from a seller in Portland, OR, appeared to have some good age and once the three main playing strings were replaced, it was ready to go.  Being a rubab player himself, the seller was very helpful in providing me resources so I could get this together (not the usual impersonal eBay transaction...).

I am not really going to become a player of traditional Afghan music, but my limited experience in Middle Eastern/Central Asian improvisation means I can get around on it pretty well.  It is not an instrument designed for virtuoso display (part of its appeal, I think).  You have three strings that you really play on, tuned in fourths (so if you can noodle around on a guitar's 5th (A), 4th (D), and 3rd (G) strings, you're basically there), you get frets (4) from the lowest pitch to a major 9th above that, and above that you are on your own without frets.  I decided to tune the lowest playing string to "Sa," (the Afghan/Indian name for the Western "Do"), and have my "Sa" tuned to D; some players start on "Ni" which would be C or C# in my case, but I prefer starting on "Sa" or D, which I understand is Peshawari tuning.  So, my playing strings are Sa (D), Ma (G), and Ni (C).   

The thing that makes the instrument sound transcendental are all the other strings.  The configuration varies from instrument to instrument, and this rubab is a little unusual for being a smaller one having the full complement of three drone strings (tuned Sa (D), Pa (A), and Sa (an octave higher D)) and 12 sympathetic strings.  The top sympathetic string is also Sa (an octave higher than the highest drone string); it is higher on the bridge than the other sympathetic strings, and like the three drones it gets plucked to make a nice drone sound, either for emphasis or rhythm.  The other sympathetic strings are tuned to the notes of whatever that (scale) of the rag (mode) you are playing, and they ring constantly, adding sustain to your melody notes as well as an enchanting reverb.  Some fabulous rubab virtuosos like Humayun Sakhi play on the sympathetic strings too, but traditionally that isn't what they're for.  All these extra strings are really to take simple melody and make it sound amazing.  Here is a kind-of lame video of me playing this instrument on the first day I had it put together, but it gives you an idea of what it sounds like.  If you have a little more time, here is a little documentary about Humayun Sakhi, who is probably the most famous rubab virtuoso.

So, on one hand this is basically an Afghan banjo (skin head, etc) with sympathetic strings, but I also realize that a new voice like this opens up possibilities that I haven't anticipated.  We shall see!