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Learning to love a Puget Sound winter

Soggy, gray and chilly, but also green: Reflections of a former newcomer to Seattle on the pleasures of Western Washington's winters.
The Northwest: green even after the leaves fall

The Northwest: green even after the leaves fall Jackie Hiltz

Douglas-fir cones

Douglas-fir cones Jackie Hiltz

A close look at foliage on a sequoia

A close look at foliage on a sequoia Jackie Hiltz

A sequoia

A sequoia Jackie Hiltz

On a November day in 1999, I left western Montana, then a drab landscape of bare trees, brown hills, and gray skies. Those dreary colors matched my mood as I drove west on I-90 up and over three passes into Seattle. Montana had been my home for many years, and I was sad to leave.

On the other side of the Cascades and into the Emerald City, my eyes revealed a simple truth: I wasn’t in Montana anymore. The gray skies had followed me, but in late November, so much green – camellias, rhododendrons, viburnums, ferns, vibrant lawns. And trees with persistent leaves, needles, and scaly foliage. Accustomed to brown and intermittent white for months on end, all that conspicuous green served as consolation for loss of home.

And indeed so did the gardening opportunities. For in the Pacific Northwest just about anything grows, I learned soon enough. But it took me some time to circle back in on what is probably self-evident to most folks here — the understated stalwarts of the Pacific Northwest landscape are the evergreen conifers. In the spring, summer, and fall they stoically serve as context for our plantings and as deep background in our forests. In the winter they shift to center stage, whether towering or diminutive, drooping, erect, or curvy, and in hues of blue, gold, and green.

Even after 13 years here, I can complain about the gray, wet skies of winter and brief warm temperatures of dry summer with the best of them, but at the same time I appreciate living in a climate that supports such an abundance of pines, spruces, firs, yews, cypresses, cedars, and junipers. During our relatively balmy, rainy winters, conifers with their slender leaves, or needles, can continue to create and store the food they need to thrive — an advantage, along with drought adaptations, they have over their deciduous counterparts.

Of course, I love the old native conifers: the Douglas-fir, known botanically as Pseudotsuga menziesii, with its funny cones of 3-pronged bracts that resemble the tail and hind legs of tiny mice, and the western redcedar, or Thuja plicata, of the reddish-brown, shaggy bark and flattened sprays of needles. But in my mind’s garden planted out in the Pacific Northwest, a place of many acres and no neighbors, there would be Japanese red pines, mountain and western hemlocks, redwoods, weeping Alaska yellow-cedars, Hinoki cypresses, and Atlas and Deodar cedars — a collection that, on second thought, would benefit from the addition of some western redcedars and Doug-firs.

I still miss Montana — those wide, open spaces, the lack of traffic, the easy access to the outdoors, my quirky friends. But I have long since adapted to the Pacific Northwest and made it my home.

As we head into the winter season, I savor the coniferous stars of this landscape as they shine during these short days of rain, mist, and frost, and, come spring, graciously recede to the background to make way for spring bulbs and frondescence, summer perennials, and flowering trees and shrubs.

A version of this story appeared previously on SouthendSeattle.com.

Jackie Hiltz is a historian, writer, and gardener who emigrated from Missoula, Montana to Seattle over a decade ago. You can reach her at editor@crosscut.com .


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Nov 26, 10:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I couldn't agree more with the writer about the joys of life persisting through the winters here. Go anywhere east of the Rockies other than the Deep South, and what do you find? Lifelessness, or at least a good facsimile thereof. Everything either looks or really is dead in winter. Persephone has been kidnapped. But here, even when there is snow, kick it aside and there is visible life.

There is no denying that leaden skies coupled with the short days are downright depressing. Few sights are as grim as the first sighting of Orion in autumn. One must take heart, though. The earliest sunsets are actually around December 7th, before the shortest day on the 21st, when the sun reaches the grand height of 19 degrees above the horizon at noon in Seattle. December and January are just plain grim months. But by February 1st, the days are noticeably longer, and the Big Dark is losing its grip. One can start to have hope then, as Arcturus becomes visible a little earlier every evening, at least on those nights that aren't totally overcast.

But before February, one can always go look for bluebell shoots poking up into the cold air...

Posted Tue, Nov 27, 12:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I actually look forward to my first sight of Orion in the fall!

Strange that the author included Sequoia imagery which is about as Northwesty as the Pondersosa Pines of Montana.

jeffro

Posted Tue, Nov 27, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm with jeffro on Orion. It's definitely a harbinger of winter, but I've never considered that a bad thing. And the "leaden skies" that Snoqualman complains about? I see those as a big downy comforter that warms and protects us from freezing weather. One winter treat that you only have a chance to see for a couple weeks each year is the sun rising from behind Mt. Rainier as you drive south across the Narrows Bridge. If the sky is clear, the orange glow of the sun can illuminate the vapor rising off the snow into a brilliant corona. And if there are clouds between the mountain and the bridge, you're treated to the mountain's inverted shadow cast onto the orange-lit clouds like an ash plume rising from the peak. You don't see it very often, but once you do you'll never forget it.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Nov 27, 10:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Great images of Rainier dawns. I have seen what you describe, not often and not always with Rainier, and I think it is partly because such sights are so rare that they are so memorable. One must earn them by enduring many "leaden" skies. Another great thing about Washington and BC is microclimates. Back east, seems like you have to go 500 miles before you're in a place that feels any different from where you started.

I actually do like Orion, sort of, but that first stayed-up-way-too-late September sighting of it is just like a kick in the teeth.....the death of summer. I take great joy in seeing it swallowed up by April sunsets.

Posted Tue, Nov 27, 7:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Come on quit complaining about the weather. It has not rained for four days and I have ridden my horse every day with friends in the hills and laid in the sun on Taylor Mt. Thanksgiving was nice. You need to get outside more and see how nice it is here. No snow, no wind, more dry than not unless you have animal paddocks.

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