Centralia Chronicle Articles

My “Damned Environmentalist” Mother
by Gretchen Staebler
Posted: Friday, February 28, 2014 8:57 pm

My 1960s childhood was spent in the woods bordering my Seminary Hill home. My neighbor, Barbara, and I pretended we were horses and galloped down the trails, leaping fallen logs. In junior high we got real horses and rode the trails on Scout and Shadow. We blazed a few trails of our own and penciled crude, not-to-scale maps on notebook paper. And yes, in high school, I rendezvoused there with my boyfriend.

In the 1960s and 70s, my mother, Stellajoe Staebler, and her friend Chloe Palmer hiked in the woods every week, rain or shine. Their route from our home took them to an area called Dry Park. An ironic name since it was owned by the Centralia water department.

My mother tells me this story:

“As Chloe and I walked we often talked about the area needing to be protected. We had been taking our Girl Scout troop to the day camp there for years to hike and identify plants; we were concerned about the loss to the community if the area was logged. When we heard a rumor that there was talk of selling the trees so water rates wouldn’t have to be raised the next year, and that there was an interested buyer, we realized we couldn’t wait for someone else to lead an effort to save it; it had to be us. In 1980 we set out to see if we could do it.

“The first thing we did was try to recruit our husbands, George and Ernie, to join us. Chloe’s husband Ernie, a math teacher at Centralia High School, agreed to help. George called me a ‘damned environmentalist’ and said those trees were mature and ready to cut. ‘That’s what trees are for,’ he said. ‘They should be harvested and replanted and it will be a forest again.’ I don’t know why he finally came around. He would not have publicly opposed me, and I wasn’t backing down, so I guess it was a case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ He became the face of the campaign.

“The first thing I did was join every environmental group I knew about; including the Sierra Club—which George detested. I wanted to know what they were doing and what we could learn from them. We put together a group of 12 and started what would become the Friends of Seminary Hill Natural Area.

“We got the city commissioners to sign a resolution that they wouldn’t act on selling it; but that would only be in effect until the next election of commissioners. To save it in perpetuity, there had to be an ordinance. For consideration, we needed 1000 signatures. We held a press conference. We staffed a table with the petition at meetings and festivals. I don’t know if anyone else went door-to-door, but I did. We got more than 2000 signatures.”

The Seminary Hill Natural Area was voted into being by the City Commission in 1982 under the leadership of Mayor Bill Moeller. Following the death of my father in 1995, and my mother’s resignation as co-president, our neighbors Robert and Sandy Godsey alternated leadership of the Friends’ group—which currently has more than 50 members—until Sandy stepped down this month. A debt of gratitude goes to them for their dedication and passion.

This month the Friends of Seminary Hill Natural Area received the Urban Forest Stewardship Award “in recognition of their contributions to Urban and Community Forestry in Washington” from the Washington Community Forestry Council and the Department of Natural Resources. I am button-popping proud of my damned-environmentalist mother.

That Fateful Day in November
by Gretchen Staebler, Nov. 19, 2013

It was 1963. I was a sixth grader that November, living with my two sisters and our parents in a small town in the northwest corner of the continental United States, far from the reach of the fears of the world. I knew nothing of the Cuban Missile Crisis; but I did know that my father’s workshop in the basement of our newly-built home was a fallout shelter in the architectural blueprint. A family in a house up the road with the same house plan allegedly had theirs stocked and ready to live in should the need arise.

We practiced “duck and cover” drills at school, with civil defense film strips instructing us on the proper technique. When the siren sounded we ducked under our desks immediately. In the absence of our coats, which were hanging in the closets, we were to cover our heads with our hands. How were we not terrified? Perhaps my parents were. But President Kennedy, the young and handsome Camelot president with the beautiful family, was going to protect the country from harm. Wasn’t he? Until that 22nd day in November when the world tilted.

The desks in Mrs. Conrad’s sixth grade classroom at the end of the hall at Washington Elementary School were in a circle. My desk was the one closest to the door, my back to it so I didn’t see it open in the middle of that morning as Principal Bogen came in. He set the boxy black portable transistor radio down on my desk and we listened to the crackly news report that the President had been shot while riding in his open-car motorcade in Dallas. Without a word, Mr. Bogen picked up the radio and went on to the other sixth grade classroom, leaving my little sister and her first grade classmates to learn the news at home. I felt very old that day.

I have no memory of what happened in the minutes and hours that followed. I remember only the silence in which I and my classmates absorbed what for most of us was the first tragedy of our young lives; the moment of the knowledge of evil in the world. I don’t remember if we went back to our lesson and then to lunch, or if school was dismissed and we went home.

At home, we watched the TV coverage on our grainy black and white set. And we poured over the photos in Life Magazine, and a book that came out later: The Torch is Passed. The iconic photos of Camelot and the day it ended are indelibly etched in my memory.

I became aware that day of the world as a frightening place. The Viet Nam War escalated during the last few years of my childhood and the huge bold headlines of The Daily Chronicle screamed the war’s death toll day after day, while college students on TV chanted, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” High school ended with the first draft lottery; and two years later, before it ended, included my high school classmates. I was also ignorant of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, but I knew the tragedy of the assassination of Martin Luther King; and the escalation in California of the Black Panther Party, closer to home than the activity in the deep south. And then Bobby Kennedy was killed on a déjà vu day.

That November day fifty years ago, a bullet changed the course of the world…and everything I thought to be true. There was no going back.
Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970, and has recently returned home. She writes at http://www.writingdownthestory.com.

Gretchen Staebler Commentary: It’s Good to See a Northwest Spring Again
Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 8:33 am By Gretchen Staebler

I left the Pacific Northwest as my life was teetering on the leading edge of summer. I was 24 and ready for adventure. With my new husband, I was heading out to tour the country in our homegrown camper-retrofitted VW bus. It was 1976 and the country was celebrating its bicentennial.

At the end of our Great Adventure we were moving to the other edge of the continent, where we would bounce between the mid-South and the deep South, though we didn’t know it yet. At the end of May the trees were greening, flowers were beginning their bloom, birds were nesting. I didn’t know it would be 37 years before I saw another Washington spring.

I am not a fan of Southern seasons, except for spring. Spring in the South is magnificent. It begins early, when children (and me) are still hoping for a renegade snowstorm. As the air warmed, weekends found me in the garden: looking for the hostas to poke up out of the hard earth; for the sedum and new shoots from the banana tree to emerge from last year’s frozen stalks; for buds on the brown hydrangea canes that I took for dead the first year; for the pansies I planted in October to come out of hibernation and grow into the spaces. I watched to see if the Lenten rose would begin blooming at the beginning of Lent or hold off until Palm Sunday.

The dogwood began its step-dance toward glory. First the bud, then petals that take their sweet time opening and then turn snow white and take on bragging rights. The shy redbuds edge in between the dogwood along the interstates, and the azaleas try their best to steal the show. I am not a fan of azaleas 11 months out of the year, but when the blazing scarlet and orange, the demure pink, the deep purple are flashing their stuff in yards across the city, it is good to be alive.

All of this to say, in my three and a half decades away I never returned to the PNW in the spring. I came in the winter for Christmas. I came in the summer because I despise the Southern heat — and summer is glory time in this corner of the land. I came in the fall because summer goes on and on in the South as I waited impatiently to turn off the air conditioning. But spring in North Carolina is not to be missed. And so, in the autumn of my life now, this will be my first one here since my 24-year-old self moved from spring into summer several lifetimes ago.

I went out looking for signs of spring on Friday. It was a spectacular cloudless day, Mount St. Helens shouting out against the blue sky. I found fairy angel choir clusters of tiny snowdrops. A solitary yellow wild strawberry blossom. Half-a-dozen reticent blooms on the espaliered forsythia. Tiny crocuses peek up cautiously just above ground level. The leaf buds on the flowering quince are a little bigger and one of the daffodils has a swollen top. There are tiny buds climbing the stems of the chrysanthemums that should have been cut down after the first frost.

As I write it is raining again, the misty almost-can’t-see-it rain. It’s what makes summer here a gloriosity, when it finally comes sometime in July. I look forward to rediscovering this forgotten season in my new old home; I just might have to look a little harder for it and wait a little longer.
Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970. She writes a weekly blog called, “My View from the Garden” at myviewfromthegarden.blogspot.com.

Gretchen Staebler Commentary: Shunpiking Around Lewis County on a January Afternoon
Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 9:52 am For The Chronicle | 0 comments

My East Coast friends think it rains here all the time. Well, it wasn’t raining on Friday. After the fog burned off, I grabbed my camera and jumped into my trusty 1998 Honda CRV, boasting more than 200,000 miles on the odometer (including my cross-country drive last summer when I moved home to Lewis County, traveling on as many backroads as I could manage), and went shunpiking into the blue sky yonder.
I ran across my new favorite word “shunpike” recently: “avoidance of major highways in preference for bucolic and scenic interludes along lightly traveled country roads.” One who avoids major highways is a shunpiker –– who spends sparkling January afternoons shunpiking.

I leave my house on Seminary Hill and go up and over the back side, heading east toward Hanaford Valley. I follow the roads in one direction until they dead-end, then turn around and go the other way. I have no place to be and no time I must get there.
As I traverse the hill, I keep getting glimpses of Mount Rainier –– aka The Mountain –– that, in spite of growing up on this side of town, I didn’t realize was visible from here. Each time its white-snow-against-cerulean-sky self flashes between the trees, I gasp, surprised every time.

In the valley, I drive past an alder grove that sparkles in the afternoon sun, casting reflections and shadows in and around the flooded creek that meanders through the emerald dale. I mosey by active red barns and picturesque moss-covered, falling-apart ones. A raging creek at the end of Little Hanaford Road tumbles through tall meadow grass, headed for the Pacific Ocean.

When I set out, I didn’t know my mission was going be looking for mountain views, but I become a camera-toting shunpiker obsessed. The Big Hanaford power plant arguably has the best views in the county. I have probably seen it from there, but so long ago I don’t remember. It takes my breath away.
But beyond the plant and up and over another fir-covered hill, a clearcut promises an even better view. I park outside a logging road gate, duck under the barrier and walk up the little hill to a 180-degree view of the mountain and snow-powdered foothills. Why have I not known about this? Just a half hour from home!
I turn right on Big Hanaford Road, braking at a yard full of exotic birds — peacocks and such. Random. The road ends, and I go back and follow it in the other direction.

Edging into Thurston County, the sign indicates I am headed for Tono, a ghost town no longer visible but still on the map. In Bucoda, I turn south and, crossing the Skookumchuck River, back toward Centralia.

Once on North Pearl Street, I turn left over the viaduct to Ham Hill. I smile at a memory that tugs at the edge of consciousness of my sisters and me begging Daddy to drive home from church “the long way,” around the back road to Seminary Hill.
And wouldn’t you know, I get caught behind a school bus at the foot of the hill. I follow the bus, larger than the one that took me home from school in the 1960s on that very same route, all the way up and over the hill. Welcome home.
Next sunny day I am shunpiking through the far western end of Lewis County. It really is a pretty fabulous place to live. Now, if I could just find someone to pay me and my camera to shunpike.
Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970. She writes a weekly blog called “My View from the Garden” at myviewfromthegarden.blogspot.com.

Gretchen Staebler Commentary: Passage of Time Doesn’t Halt Vivid Memories of Christmas
Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2012 3:00 pm
By Gretchen Staebler / For The Chronicle | 0 comments

Fredrick and Nelson, downtown Seattle’s biggest department store, is long gone now; but my memories of Christmas there linger.
We made the two-hour drive to Seattle at least twice a year: in August for new clothes for school and at Yuletide. At Christmas, the Bon Marché and Frederick & Nelson windows displayed wondrous scenes of The Night Before Christmas or A Christmas Carol; a different theme every year. Mesmerized, we stood on the steps constructed for small children to move from window-to- window watching the fantastical life-sized mechanical figures twirl and bow and reach.

Once inside the elaborately decorated first floor, my personal destination was the candy case, and I fidgeted impatiently until we got to it. Row upon row of beautiful chocolates, petit fours, and sugar-coated “fruit” slices. Frango mints (a F&N exclusive) and chocolate-covered orange peels were my favorites and always showed up Christmas morning in my stocking. For years after I left home, my mother sent the candies across the country to me.

Daddy was a forester, and each year the crew brought a load of Christmas trees down the mountain for the Weyerhaueser employees in Centralia. Daddy always requested three scrawny Noble firs, which he put in a three-hole triangular stand he designed for them. We did not just have a Christmas tree, we had a whole forest in the living room.

A couple of weeks ago, my sister and I went out to a lot to find our tree. Unlike in the South, where they never heard of Noble fir, and I was never satisfied with the substitutes (though the right Fraser fir is tolerable), we got the first one we saw. It helps that we were looking for the same thing: tall, slender, not cone-shaped, space between the branches so ornaments have room to hang. I am a Christmas tree snob; but even here in the PNW, it’s not what most people want, so they sit forlorn and overlooked in the lots.

This year I have moved across the country, back from the Southeast. For the first time since I left home in 1976, no box of greens arrived on my doorstep from my mother. Each year, with my dad when he was here and later by herself, Mama went out and cut fir and holly and salal (which was not my favorite), wrapped it in a plastic bag with wet paper towels, boxed it up, and mailed it 2500 miles. When it arrived at my door, I eagerly hauled it into the house. Being a lover of anticipation, often I let it sit there on the kitchen counter for a while. Then I opened the box and pulled out the bag. Slowly unfastening the twist tie, holding the bag closed with the other hand, I put my nose down close to the opening. Releasing my grip, I enlarged the opening just enough to accommodate my face. And then, I inhaled. I drank in the incomparable scent of the Pacific Northwest: the green, the damp, the mountains, my home on the hill. In that one first breath, home compressed into a bag, my being filled with memories of Christmas.

I am back home now. My children and grandchildren will gather on the other coast with their father and stepfamily. It will be quiet here in the home on the hill where I celebrated the Yule with my sisters for so many years. And they will be here, too. We will make preparations for our mother, rather than the other way around. There will be no wide-eyed wonder, but we will remember through the power of our storytelling.
Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970. She writes a weekly blog called, “My View from the Garden” at myviewfromthegarden.blogspot.com.

Gretchen Staebler Commentary: Vote on Marriage Is Part of Humanity’s Ongoing Story
Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 10:15 am
By Gretchen Staebler / For The Chronicle | 3 comments

When Adam and Eve left the garden, story began. When they walked away from the safety of their small world, their story mingled with others’ stories that were different from their own and story grew. And so it continues: with the invention of boats and planes and spaceships, telegraphs and telephones and the Internet; the stories of one people meet the stories of another and converge into a collective story. Try as we might, they cannot again be separated.

This month is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. I was 10 years old, living in this house I am again living in. Then as now, the vine maple leaves were turning red and gold; the sun rose behind the mountain over the fog-filled valley; fir needles and big leaf maple leaves covered the driveway.

What I remember about the days and months following the disclosure of those 13 days would almost fill a matchbox. “Duck and cover” drills, as if getting under a desk would protect one from nuclear fallout. The information that people were building bomb shelters in their homes with supplies to last a few weeks, as if one would want to outlive the world. But I knew nothing then of how ridiculous that was. We were doing what we could as the story exploded to include new stories that we couldn’t understand.

If the crisis was discussed in my family or in my fifth grade classroom, I do not remember. There is an instinct to let children stay in the garden of innocence as long as possible.

I wonder if my parents talked about it to each other, or if they wanted to stay in the garden, too. After all, they had already lived through the Depression and a world war. Didn’t they deserve time in the garden of denial in the safety of their small town, cocooned with their children in their home on the side of a hill overlooking a bucolic valley?

But whatever the personal stories, the world left the garden again when the story of how close we came to ending the narrative came to light. We have not returned to that particular illusion of safety since.

We are on the cusp of a historic vote in Washington. The 42nd state is poised to become the first state to provide, by popular vote, all people — including same-sex couples — the opportunity to marry. Approve or disapprove, the story will move on toward the day when no one thinks about discriminating against a portion of the population.

But for now there is the resistance that has been the narrative of our society through the decades. Women fight for equality, and men resist leaving the garden. Blacks fight for equality, and whites resist leaving the garden. People who are gay fight for equality, and people who are straight resist leaving the garden. We want to keep the story simple, familiar, and understandable. And so, like duck and cover, we fight back with ridiculousness, because it is all we have in the face of inevitable change.

Stories, like that my 96-year-old mother told a reporter last week about how discrimination is wrong and that everyone should be able to marry the one they love, won’t change minds. Not immediately.

But when we articulate our experience, and when it is written down for others to read, it becomes story. And it joins with our neighbor’s story. And our collective story transforms the world. When we leave our small garden to join another’s exodus from their small garden, we plant a bigger garden — one that holds us all.
Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970. She writes a weekly blog called, “My View from the Garden” at myviewfromthegarden.blogspot.com.

Guest Commentary: Running Away Brought Me Full Circle: Back Home
Posted: Thursday, September 20, 2012 8:58 am
By Gretchen Staebler For The Chronicle

This summer I ran away from my North Carolina home of 24 years and returned to my roots.

You can go home again; just don’t expect it to be the same as it was when you left. Even in small town America.

The forever Fuller Market Basket became Shop ‘n Kart since I visited a year ago. The historic Matz building on Tower Avenue burned down. The El Rancho Tavern from my original years finally went the way of the Doghouse Tavern. No loss there.

A plethora of outlet stores at the interstate, restaurants on the one-time residential Harrison Avenue, and stores (antiques and otherwise) in town have cropped up in the 42 years since I left home for college. Centralia is reinventing itself, and that is a good thing.

The Fox Theater is being restored to its original 1930 appearance as funding allows, after years of vacant decay. And the Olympic Club, a classy tavern formerly owned by the family of one of my high school classmates, is a hotspot for dining, as well as a unique hotel and movie house.

The post office remains virtually unchanged, and I delight in that familiar oak and ancient paper smell.

I confess to missing the “old” library with the downstairs children’s room, and the young adult books up the wide stairs with the grown-up stacks.
The Shanghai Restaurant is apparently still going strong, its butterfly sign still hanging over the sidewalk. Next door is Hubbub, the artsy gift store that brought high class to town six years ago.

An experimental rain garden has gone in next to Hubbub’s amazing sculpture park since my arrival in July. Rain water soaks into the porous sidewalk and returns to the garden alongside it rather than into the storm drain. That is forward-thinking innovation.

I stopped one evening on a stroll through town to take a picture of the Gibson House sign, and was saucily informed by an inebriated young man on the sidewalk that, “Ma’am, that’s not the Gibson House anymore.”
I just said, “I know that.”

I also know that before the building was the Gibson House it was Proffitt’s Department Store where I got my Girl Scout paraphernalia, and dresses for special occasions as opposed to daily clothing needs, which were bought at JC Penney on south Tower. And before it was the Gibson House restaurant, it was the Gibson House gift and book store, which used to be two blocks down the street and was my first place of high school employment. Bet you didn’t learn that in your history class, son.

I came of age on the wrong side of the active railroad tracks. That is, the wrong side to get anywhere in a hurry. My dad and I, waiting at one crossing or another, counted cars or got whiplash looking for the “BLT” date to identify the oldest car on the train.
According to my research there are an average of 60 trains a day passing between town and my house; sometimes rattling straight through, sometimes stopping and backing up and blocking the tracks for interminable minutes. Some things haven’t changed. There are two viaducts, but figuring out when to bail and when to be patient is tricky. I have put a book in my car.

It is odd to be back in my small home town, and it will take time for me to figure out what I am doing here. But the air in the hills and fir trees vibrates with energy; whereas the heat and humidity in the Southeast sucked the life out of me. I will discover what to do with that energy; and keep breathing deep and exploring the new old Centralia in the meantime.
Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970. She writes a weekly blog called, “My View from the Garden” at myviewfromthegarden.blogspot.com.

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