CAN A STATE have too many symbols?
The question gurgles up every few years in newspaper columns and comment threads, usually when some legislature makes noise about adopting a new, hyperspecific emblem: the official syrup of Kentucky (sweet sorghum molasses); the official horse of Oregon (Kiger mustang); and, this year, the official sport of Washington (pickleball). The mustangs died in committee, and molasses died on the floor; pickleball stuck.
The good news, for symbol minimalists, is that Washington has only around 23. (Sources differ on the exact number.) Compare this with the 46-ish symbols in California and nearly 60 in Massachusetts — but symbol mania is not just a symptom of blue-state vanity. Alabama, for example, has around 50. Its official outdoor drama? “The Miracle Worker,” designated in 1991.
Inspired by this year’s canonization of pickleball, Seattle Times photographer Alan Berner assembled a portfolio of state-symbol pictures. The list raised its own questions: What makes Walla Walla onions “sweet”? What’s so special about a 2-inch frog? Why and how did people launch a campaign to make “Louie Louie” the state song?
Can a state have too many symbols? Maybe not. If the process of symbol-making shines a light on a thing you never knew or cared about, making you just a little more curious about the world, then it has done its job.
“Washington, My Home” v. “Louie Louie”: It was 1985, and a young comedian named Ross Shafer was thirsty for publicity. He’d been hosting a Sunday-evening talk/sketch comedy show called “Almost Live!” on KING-TV with no marketing budget. He needed a gimmick. So Shafer and his team created a campaign to replace the state song, “Washington, My Home” — a sedate, treacly ballad from the 1950s — with the mildly scandalous garage-rock standard “Louie Louie.”
“I just announced it one week on the show,” Shafer said in an interview with KIRO Radio 35 years later. “And it was like a match striking kerosene.” The song was written by Los Angeles musician Richard Berry and had been a hit for the Portland band The Kingsmen — but also was covered by Tacoma band The Wailers, making it Washington-ish.
The ploy worked. Sort of. “Almost Live!” pulled national press and sold a lot more ads, later moving to Saturday nights. But the political campaign failed, and Washington’s state song remains a sedate, treacly ballad.
Walla Walla onions: Allegedly, they’re so sweet that some people eat them like apples. I tried. Can’t say I recommend it. (And I spent the rest of the day apologizing for my breath.) But the Walla Walla is less pungent than other onions — like wine, it’s all about terroir. Sulfur, they say, contributes to the bite of onions, and the valley around Walla Walla has relatively low-sulfur soil. How did the onions even get there? Botanist and garden historian Kathy Mendelson writes that a former soldier in the French army named Peter Pieri settled in Walla Walla around 1900 and brought onion seeds from Corsica. He planted in summer, hoping to sell onion greens in the fall, but couldn’t move them all. Pieri left the rest in the ground and was surprised when they survived the winter. Pieri and others kept growing this winter-hardy crop, selecting the best ones — by 1925, they had become the globular, sweetish onions we know (and some braggers claim to eat like fruit) today.
The Olympia oyster: The Latin name of our only indigenous oyster is Ostrea lurida — which can roughly translate to “oyster with yellowish bruise color.” To verify, I went out and ordered a mixed platter of oysters. The Olympias did, in fact, have a slightly yellower tinge around the edges than the rest (and were far more satisfying than biting into a raw onion).
Our local Olympia oyster populations crashed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “It is generally believed that overharvest was primarily responsible,” says Hilary Hayford, biologist and habitat research director for the Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF). Pollution, habitat alteration, urbanization and some especially frigid winters might have provided an assist.
By 2010, Puget Sound had only around 150 acres of dense Olympia oyster growth (down from 10,000 to 20,000 acres in the presettler 1800s), but PSRF added 100 acres by 2020 and is well on its way to growing 50 more by 2025.
“There is a long way to go,” Hayford says. But the crash has halted, suitable habitat in Puget Sound has grown by 70% and some populations are increasing again. Commercial oyster growers are part of the effort — eat your lurida with a clear conscience.
Square dancing: By my count, around 30 states have official dances, and around 25 of those states have chosen square dance, including Washington. How in the world did that happen? It seems as arbitrary as 83% of states with an official beverage deciding theirs should be peppermint tea. Some researchers and journalists say this wasn’t an accident — that over the decades, square-dance partisans have waged a campaign to brand square dance as “wholesome” and “American,” in contrast to the perils of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. (Notable racist and jazz-phobe Henry Ford was a major square-dance evangelist.)
But the story is not quite that simple, says Moncell Durden, a choreographer, dancer, historian and associate professor (with an emphasis on hip-hop, jazz and improvisation) at the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
Square dance and line dance, he explains, have a long and complex history, from rural social dances to the courts of Louis XIV to the early U.S., where dance teachers often hired enslaved people to play fiddle and banjo during dance classes — the musicians would learn the steps and teach them to other enslaved African people, who added their embellishments to the lineage of line and square dancing. Many, many American dances are woven into this tapestry, including the Hully Gully, the Shim Sham, the Electric Slide and the more recent Cupid Shuffle, which began in the hip-hop world before gliding over to the vest-and-boots crowd in country-dancing clubs.
“Those dances are a group act that allows for individual presence and interpretation,” Durden says. “Since the 1600s, it’s been a way you cultivate community — people coming together in a safe and brave space to enjoy themselves and meet other people. The important thing is that you have the support of the collective, while still allowing for individual expression.”
Karen Reichardt, who is a maker of square-dance clothes, and on the board of the Heritage Center — a one-room square-dance museum — in Spokane, echoes the sentiment: “Square dancing is friendship set to music.”
Maybe its ubiquity isn’t so arbitrary after all.
Pacific tree frog: The frog is small, but famous — and a little controversial. The Pacific tree frog has a range from the very southernmost tip of Alaska to California, can change color (between brown and green) and maxes out at about 2 inches long. It’s easy to overlook in the wild, but you know its call — the iconic “ribbit ribbit” soundtrack to many a night shot in film and TV shows. There is, of course, a wrinkle: In 2006, some scientists argued the Pacific tree frog is actually three species: Pacific (north), Sierran (central) and Baja (south). Is the Baja frog the actual Hollywood frog? It’s hard to say. Their calls are almost impossible to distinguish, and the three-way species split has not been without controversy.
Western hemlock: Warren KingGeorge has a few strong memories of Western hemlock. The first is a day in the late 1990s, just after he became historian for the Muckleshoot Tribe, when two elders took him on a day trip up into a watershed, culminating at a particular hemlock that had been notched the year before so they could return and collect its pitch — a key ingredient in traditional glue. (Both glue and pitch, he says, are called qʷálith in Lushootseed.)
“Elders have their own way of teaching,” KingGeorge says. “They won’t tell you their objectives or goals, just: ‘Get in the vehicle. Let’s go for a ride.’ They talked about the river system, its values, and shared some of the secrets they knew about Mother Nature’s gifts. It was a neat day.”
KingGeorge also recalls being a kid in the 1970s, drift-net fishing on a river with his uncle, specifically his mother’s brother. His job was to handle a hemlock pole (héqalsid), to keep the canoe off the bottom and slap the water. Hemlock, he explains, is traditionally used for water travel: skiff poles, rudders, oars. Why? “I asked my elder, who said hemlock is more durable when it gets wet, not quick to rot.”
Around the Green and White river areas, KingGeorge says, the Lushootseed word for Western hemlock is s.kʷúpac, which sounds roughly like “suh-kwole-pahts.” It has many uses: dye for nets (making them less visible to fish), basketry material, a tea made from fresh buds. “The tea is very refreshing, almost wildly delicious,” he says. “But if you ingest too much, your body’s going to let you know.” (Key symptom: upset stomach.) “It shows you how powerful Mother Nature can be.”
KingGeorge isn’t entirely sure why hemlock — as opposed to cedar or fir or any other species — is the state’s official tree. “But I’m not disappointed at all,” he says. “Just like the cedar tree, from the tip of its boughs to its root system, it has a unique place in our culture and history.”