The Tulips of Skagit County

By April, the Pacific Northwest reaches the final phase of the extended mental breakdown known as winter. With barometers hinting of change and Vitamin D supplies dwindling to critical lows, any respite from the rain is hailed as a minor miracle. Cue birdsong, and the occasional hallelujah.

A day without rain is golden.

Skagit sunset

As April advances, previously impenetrable cloudbanks give way to patches of poorly recalled blue. The soggy daylight again extends into the afternoon hours. Urbanites are no longer confined to the shelter of condominiums and office buildings and Costco warehouses. Farmers awake from hibernation and tend to their forgotten fields. Deer shed their winter antlers, and humans their winter fleece. The ubiquitous paddle boat is abandoned in its dock. Doves wheel in the sky, carrying sprigs of ivy. The flood has lifted.

Warm air rises

In the Skagit Valley, alluvial soil drowned for months begins to dry out. Drainage channels carry away the river that once rightfully owned the land.

Nestled in the floodplain earth, agriculture blinks its eyes and emerges sleepily into the sunlight. Field by field, the mud chooses a name and a palette of colors. Flowers bloom, etching a brutalist geometry of nazca lines upon the loam.

Tulip field

A monocultural paradise arises rapidly, each flower a perfect little machine. Freshly captured sunlight stimulates structural growth. Atmospheric C metabolizes with Haber-Bosch N, and bonds with P and K from distant salt mines. Chemical weapons keep predators at bay.

Tulip field

And yet human hands are still required. Migrant farm workers travel north, following whispered rumors of el país del tulipán. Many perish on the trail. Some hundreds will find seasonal work.

These are the tulips of Skagit County.

Tulip field

Planted optimistically in the fall, they overwinter cautiously and emerge to great fanfare in April. For almost thirty years, the valley has hosted the region’s favorite attraction, the Skagit Tulip Festival. Originally conceived as a mechanism to attract spending money from affluent cities to the north and south, the festival has expanded while remaining quite faithful to its roots.

At its peak, half of Seattle is strolling the tulip fields, camera in hand. On an unlucky weekend, seasonal gridlock from the festival will extend for miles along I-5, due to laughably unprepared traffic infrastructure in the Mount Vernon area.

Tulip field flare

If you see a t-shirt or a bumper sticker demanding that we “Nuke the Tulips”, you’re probably looking at a local.

Tulip field downpour

While the popularity of the tulip fields is relatively recent, the tulips themselves are not. With a climate particularly well-suited to the task, the valley has enjoyed flower cultivation for over a century. However, it was the great tulip embargo of 1926 that caused a wave of rogue Dutch farmers to settle in the Skagit.

Tulip's eye viewTulips

One of these farmers was William Roozen, who brought a wife and a legacy of two centuries of tulip farming to the valley when he immigrated in 1947. Today, the family business is the largest single grower of tulips, daffodils and iris in the country.

RoozenGaarde windmillTulip fantasy

This success is not only a result of tourism and cunning domain name registration. The Washington Bulb Company uses 1200 acres of fields to produce tens of millions of bulbs for the retail market. Some of these are sent to large-scale greenhouses, where they are forced to bloom out of season. Thus is the nation-wide thirst for flowers satisfied, providing up to 80% of the company’s revenue.

Tulip fields

While the Dutch have laid claim to the tulip, the tulip is not native to the Netherlands. Its centers of diversity are in fact in the Himalayas and the Caucasus, and it was first cultivated on a large-scale basis by the Ottoman Empire during the middle ages. The name tulip comes from the Turkish word for turban, tulbend – not actually the Turkish name for the flower, but a case of European misunderstanding.

A symbol of love, tulips were lover’s gifts to their objects of desire. A red flower symbolized unbridled passion, yellow the hopelessness of the friend zone.

Tulip field

Tulips were first cultivated in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth century by Carolus Clusius, head botanist at Leiden University and serendipitous friend to the Dutch ambassador to Istanbul.

Tulip school busTulip fields

Carolus was a genuine scientist, with no interest in growing tulips commercially. A highly accomplished man, his published work on Spanish and Austrian flora was groundbreaking for its time. As a testament to his botanical influence, an entire genus was named for him.

And yet, it was from Carolus’ garden that the bulbs escaped into the wild. Not under their own power as invasive plants, but thanks to the picaresque of the time: people literally stole the bulbs from his garden. Thus was born the Dutch hunger for tulips.

Tulip fantasy

Large-scale production began soon after. Like their Skagit Valley descendants, the industrious Dutch, ever the masters of drainage, had to devise automated canal systems to keep their tulip fields dry. Many different varieties were cultivated, and the tulip rapidly became the most popular flower in the low countries.

By 1610 a single bulb of a new variety of tulip was considered sufficient payment for a bride’s dowry.


By 1635 the country was awash in what is now known as tulip mania, leading to the world’s first commercial bubble. During the course of tulip mania, the value of specific tulip bulbs rose to exceed twenty times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman.

Tulip's eye view

By early 1637, as spring approached, buyers began to lose confidence on the infinite supply of suckers. Almost overnight, the bottom fell out of the market. Everyone wanted to sell, and nobody wanted to buy. Anyone who had actually paid the amounts specified in the contracts, or taken possession of their bulbs, were essentially ruined. It took years for the Dutch courts to work out the kinks from all the unfulfilled contracts.


The situation appalled certain moralistic writers of the time, whose accounts were embellished over the years into stories of an entire society going insane. Evidence indicates that only a subset of the moneyed class participated in the mania, and few lives were ruined.

Tulip fantasy

However, a certain conservative horror can be detected in these writings, which is worth considering even if all the facts were made up. How could ephemeral flower bulbs be more valuable than gold and silver? How could pricing mechanisms, so foundational to an entire society’s financial stability, become so volatile so quickly?

This was the new mercantilism upsetting the natural order of things. But it was also a warning sign about limitations in the nascent humanism of the time: financiers discovering that free lunches drive people mad; mathematicians staring numbly at a vertical asymptote.

Perhaps these writers weren’t just being stodgy. Perhaps they were trying to save us from ourselves.

Tulip fieldsTulips

During this period, and not coincidentally, the Dutch developed many of the financial instruments used in the modern financial world, including futures markets, options contracts, derivatives, short selling. Like every other bubble economy, they even attempted to ban short selling.

Tulip school bus

In the Skagit, the tulip economy suffers from no such flights of fancy. Optimistically, the tulips serve a concrete purpose: to supply the demand for beauty. Pessimistically, the tulips are yet another crop, perhaps an unnecessary one, and they suffer from all the downsides of modern industrial agricultural practices.

And yet, better these flowers than the dreary monotony of corn and soybean monocultures. The April tulip fields are a feast for the senses, and they provide this photographer with one more reason to look forward to the end of the rainy season. Just make sure to avoid a weekend trip during the Skagit’s own version of tulip mania.

Two colors

The complete Flickr set.

Ediz Hook

Spend enough time in Port Angeles, and your eyes end up drawn out to sea.

A suburban grid of lettered streets takes you to a bluff, where million dollar homes overlook an utilitarian and industrial waterfront.

Port Angeles harbor logs

As a key artery in Clallam County’s economic circulatory system, the port’s primary focus is not aesthetic. Cargo ships ply their wares amid the bazaar of seagulls. Forklifts juggle giant logs from the peninsula, packaging them into comestibles to sate the world’s hunger for timber. Log rafts float in the harbor, apparently abandoned. Perhaps the useful can never be beautiful.

Cargo ship in Port Angeles harbor

Port Angeles harbor logs

Above the city the elevation rises dramatically, a mountain range bursting out of dense forest. Hurricane Ridge and the splendors of the Olympic National Park are just miles away. Nowhere on the peninsula is the delicate dance of tradeoffs between nature and commerce better portrayed.

Port Angeles harborCenturies collide

Out past a small marina, the harbor road road curves away from the shore and then straight into the ocean. This is Ediz Hook, shaped by wind and tides from the Strait of Juan de Fuca into a three-mile long sand spit. The sand spit to end all sand spits.

Colonized by homo industrius, reinforced with rock piles and asphalt, it is a barrier reef of sand that shelters the Port Angeles harbor from storms, swells, and of course invasions from the neighbors to the north.

Ediz Hook road

Guarding the gates of the spit is a paper mill owned by Nippon Paper Industries USA. Ninety years old and counting, this is Nippon’s only paper mill in the United States, and the only remaining factory in the country that manufactures the paper used to make telephone books. While thoroughly invested in a declining market, the mill continues to operate and provide local jobs.

Nippon Paper Mill

Despite literally throwing air pollution standards to the wind, the mill makes a handsome spectacle at twilight.

Nippon Paper Mill lagoon

The tip of the spit is occupied by a hundred-year old Coast Guard station, complete with its own airstrip. The road forward is blocked to mere mortals without DHS credentials, so one can only observe from afar.

SilhouetteCoast Guard ship

The rest of the Ediz Hook is a playground for photographers and a favorite location for locals to walk, watch the sunset, and beachcomb.

Ediz Hook electric polesLonely man at sunset

Ediz Hook photographers

Ediz Hook is also home to a number of gravesites. The Great Master of the Ocean giveth, but he also taketh away.

Ediz Hook grave

Ediz Hook grave

As the Washington State Department of Transportation recently (and unintentionally) discovered, another kind of gravesite can also be found on Ediz Hook: the communal burial grounds of the native village of Tse-whit-zen, hidden under layers of fill on a site adjacent to the Nippon Paper mill.

It was this site that led to one of the more notorious conflicts between natives and whites in recent Washington history.

A DoT project to build a dry dock for pontoon construction had just broken ground on this site when it began to find native graves containing skeletons. Many were buried in unusual postures: some were found with heads cut off, others with their hands covering their faces, others face down. The likely causes of what appeared to be a mass grave were smallpox and influenza epidemics, unwittingly spread among the native population in the late 18th century by early Spanish explorers.

As the project proceeded, it soon became evident that what was being uncovered was the largest native village ever found in the Puget Sound area. Also one of the oldest, with radiocarbon dates approaching 1000BC.

The Klallam tribe had been known for their abilities as warriors, but had been decimated by the European plagues. A century after first contact, only around 450 Klallam remained, helpless to resist the coming of the settlers. Treaties were signed, and American-style development began.

During the 19th century, the Ediz Hook site was an important and recognized native gravesite. The last native occupants abandoned the site, and it was razed to the ground circa 1900. When the paper mill was built in the 1920s, it was noted in the local press that hundreds of bones were disturbed. But by 2004, only a hazy memory of the site remained in the minds of some Lower Elwha elders. Neither the Port of Port Angeles, the Dept. of Transportation nor the tribal chairman objected to the initial dry dock construction plan.

During early stages of the archeological investigation, the state was initially resistant to shutting down the project. Bowing to local ire, the tribe was reluctant to insist. So the two parties reached an initial agreement to keep the project going. Tribal workers were employed to exhume their dead. An Esquimault spiritual advisor was hired to help them, and she eventually recommended

As the Seattle Times explains…

“The ancestors here are so powerful: These old souls live,” said tribal spiritual adviser Mary Anne Thomas of the Esquimalt Nation in Canada. “Let the cemetery remain a cemetery, because it is alive down at that site.”

Thomas was hired, in part, to help tribal workers digging their ancestors out of the ground so construction could proceed. She wound up trying to explain to them why they felt a touch on their back or shoulder, why their tears would not stop, why they heard the sounds of wolves crying.

Some tribal members say they heard drums or saw the spirits of their ancestors, especially when they worked at the site at night, burning candles in respect and painting themselves with sacred red ochre for protection.

Despite these omens, the state tried everything to keep the project alive, including calculating the pressure per square inch of concrete on cadavers, in an attempt to convince the tribe that its ancestors wouldn’t mind a little pavement after all. But as more bodies were uncovered and the tally reached 335 by the end of 2004, plans for the dry dock were effectively put on the dry dock.

Ediz Hook sunset

What happens next is either entirely unexpected or surprisingly good – depending on your perspective.

A number of local lawmakers attempt to revive the project in the following years. They encounter resistance from the state’s Secretary of Transportation and Governor, and their proposal go nowhere in Olympia. The Elwha Klallam keep their dead in hand-made cedar caskets in a warehouse, awaiting the right moment opportunity for reburial. The state looks for other sites to build pontoons, some for the upcoming rebuild of the 520 bridge.

Deadlock. No happy ending.

The tribe sues, is counter-sued. The state intervenes. Governor Gregoire offers to mediate.

The parties reach a settlement, with the state of Washington essentially paying everybody off. The city and port are each given $7.5 million for economic development. The tribe are given ownership of the site, $3.4 million for reburial, and $2.5 million to construct a museum and interpretive center. The site itself is largely restored to its original pre-project state. And after spending over $90 million on nothing, the state makes pontoons in Seattle and Tacoma.

If money doesn’t solves everything, I don’t know what does.

Rock pile

In 2008, the ancestors are reburied, and are reportedly happy to be back. Seattle’s Burke Museum is stuffed with artifacts uncovered during the project, awaiting a final destination.

The Tse-whit-zen museum remains unbuilt. The story isn’t over yet. Rumor is that construction might begin in 2012. I look forward to visiting someday.

Skagit County’s derelict barns

The Skagit Valley is one of the most important agricultural areas in the United States. It’s also just an hour’s drive from the Seattle area, and a wonderful place to find (among other things) derelict barns.

Abandoned barn

It is said that half of the spinach, beet and cabbage seeds used in the country are grown in the valley. Skagit farms grow over $300 million of crops, livestock, and dairy products on just 100,000 acres of land.

Abandoned barn

The Skagit was settled by European Americans in the second half of the 19th century, after some fifty years of occasional exploration due to the fur trade. The settlement process itself was relatively peaceful, with relatively few instances of violence between natives and whites. However, the newcomers came accompanied by silent killers. The Skagit tribes were decimated by smallpox in the late 19th century, largely settling any further question of land ownership.

Abandoned barn interior

Today, the Skagit River delta is lush expansive farmland, with only small patches of forest. In the 19th century, however, the same area was a classic river delta: mud flats, salt marshes and patches of dense forest. The transformation of the land was largely achieved by hand.

Abandoned barn windowAbandoned farmhouse interior

During the settlement days, each pioneer was responsible for staking his claim over an area of marsh, then painstakingly building dikes around that land. This was pure backbreaking labor, without the benefit of machinery: just a man, his shovel, and his wheelbarrow at low tide.

Abandoned farmhouse interior

Today the delta remains a floodplain, but now both forks of the Skagit river itself have been diked. Flooding is an occasional problem,but so far the land reclamation gamble has been paying off for the Skagit farmers. The resulting land, of course, has been incredibly productive, as river delta soil often is.

Abandoned barn roof

In addition to farming, logging, mining and railroad construction also drew laborers and settlers to the nascent Skagit towns. Not every town was successful, however. Driven largely by bribery, the railroad routes determined to a large extent where the larger population centers would develop.

Abandoned farmhouse roof

In many cases, settlements were fueled only by imagination. On Samish Island, the town of Atlanta was founded by a Confederate veteran, designed as a "sanctuary of persecuted Confederates and other sympathizers with the lost cause." Next to Atlanta, a Unionist founded Samish, and the two towns rivaled each other in various economic endeavors to the point of violence.

Samish Island today is a sleepy little hamlet with little visible trace of this not entirely ancient feud.

Abandoned truck and pipe

In the early pioneer days, one of the greatest challenges of life was finding a wife. The Skagit was no exception, and those pillars of pioneer life, the whorehouse and the mail-order bride, were no strangers to the valley.

Derelict barnDerelict barn

The original Washington Territory prohibited interracial marriages between whites and natives. However, this did not prevent many settlers from marrying native women in native ceremonies. As white women gradually colonized the Skagit, not all of these arrangements ended well. When Washington was incorporated as a state in 1889, interracial marriages were grandfathered into legality, but only after requiring that they be legally formalized before the authority of the state.

Derelict barn

As the story goes, one settler refused to engage in the second ceremony, due to concerns that his children would be seen as illegitimate. He was indicted for this small act of resistance, although later acquitted.

Derelict barn

For the casual visitor, the Skagit looks first plain. Strip malls, casinos and outlet stores along I5 paint a garish picture of the area, as do the numerous alpaca-related lures. The highway is a source of entrappable Canadians and Seattleites, and the drive is long. So while not pleasant, the driveby shooting of commerce is understandable.

Derelict barn

Once off the highway, however, perceptions shift. The more ludicrous appeals to your attention disappear, and the county settles down to the business of exploiting the land in a thousand different ways.

While the derelict barns call out to lens and eye alike, they are not symptoms of decay but exceptions. Instead, the tulip farms, farmers markets and weekend homes add up to a rural America that’s less desperate than optimistic. While ultimately fueled by unsustainable green revolution agriculture and tourist wealth from surrounding urban islands, the Skagit is generally a prosperous and peaceful place.

Even the tribes are doing reasonably well. After surviving a smallpox epidemic, a century of white settlement and a pair of toxic Shell Oil refineries, they continue to occupy their 1855 reservation lands. The Swinomish population has grown past 900, and their casino has been highly successful. In fact, they seem to be an entirely enterprising bunch.

Derelict barnDerelict barn

The complete Flickr set.

(And thanks to the Skagit River Journal for much of the content discussed above.)