March of the In-Betweens

A.V. Walters

Critter calling cards on our stoop.

Critter calling cards on our stoop.

T.S. Eliot was dead wrong. April is not the cruelest month. March is. One day it’s warm and lovely, the next, snow is falling and the ground is white, again. For those of us waiting to build, to plant, to get a jump on the season… it’s agony. Those nice days—just teasers—don’t let them fool you into starting your seeds early. It’s March, the season of the lions and the lambs.

My years in Northern California, where daffodils come up in February and (if you’re lucky) March will deliver a seasonal, finale rainstorm, have confused me as to the truly transitional nature of March. March, in Northern Michigan, is here to teach patience.

I’m trying to find transitional, spring-readiness things to do. I’ve hung my laundry on the line in the snow. (Yes, it works.) We’ve assembled, primed and painted the bee boxes. I’m pulling nails out of some recycled flooring we bought on craigslist. It’s a time of enforced waiting. Today we’ve seen light snow and temperatures in the teens, again. By midday, we may see twenties—what’s spring-like about that? Those stellar 40s and 50s of several weeks back, spoiled us. Now, temperatures in the 20s and 30s feel cold. We’d spent February hiking in single digits and teens, without complaint but now, we turn up our collars on much nicer days.

We’ve been tempted to take the snow-blower off of the Kubota (and maybe replace it with the backhoe, for building) but for the fear that we’d trigger one of those late-March snowstorms. Maybe that’s the origin of the term ‘March Madness.’ (Basketball may have nothing to do with it.)

There are things that need this on-again-off-again season. Warm days and cold nights wake up the trees. Sap begins to run. March is the sugaring season. Without the stuttering warm-cold cycles, the sap production would go straight to manufacturing leaves—and we’d have no maple syrup. I’m a little in awe of the sugaring process. Who thought that up, all those eons ago? The whole thing is an exercise in patience; collecting the sap, literally, drop by drop; boiling it down, for syrup it takes forty gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup; and bottling it up. Sugar-maple candy boils down even further, and then gets instantly crystalized, ladled into the snow. Around here, it’s mostly the old timers who still tap the trees. Our neighbors do, using new-fangled drip collection bags, (if you’re patient, you can watch the steady dripping that turns the season.) We’ve talked about it; we certainly have the maples. It goes into our ‘maybe someday’ list.

maple

The critters are out. We’re in a walk-out, basement apartment, so we see them almost eye-to-eye as they wander about, unfettered by deep snow. There’s a herd of deer who happen by everyday at dusk. Just before the deer show up, there’s a small parade of turkeys. The bunnies come out just as the last light fades. If we miss them, we can take attendance by the tracks left in the thin spring snow. Two days ago, the robins arrived. I was sitting by the window and suddenly the yard was full of them. To the impatient among us, they are a sure sign of Spring.

Timing the Jump.

Timing the Jump–

A.V. Walters

great lakes

When I was little, there was no better escapade than when my brother would deign to include me on one of his adventures. Not that I was dull, but usually his idea of fun included trouble, maybe even… danger. The only time I was ever picked up by the cops, was with him. Not that he was a bad kid, he just had the ability to put normal, kid adventures together with opportunity, in his own unique way. He was the one who taught me how to “safely” jump off the roof—to scare my mother. She’d be parked on the couch, or doing dishes, and we’d launch off the roof from just above where she was—with a blood-curdling scream. It usually had the desired affect.

One winter, Lake St. Clair froze over smooth. That is, the chill that froze its surface came when there was no wind, and it looked as though the whole lake was one big skating rink. My brother and I went out skating time after time, even on bitter cold days, to take advantage of that open, clear span of ice. On windy days, we’d sneak out towels, or even bed sheets, and skate like demons, upwind. We’d turn around, after what seemed like miles from our start, just before Pike Creek dumped into the lake and the ice thinned out. Then, we’d unfurl our makeshift sails, gripping tight to the corners, and ride the wind at breakneck speeds on skinny blades and wobbly ankles, all the way back to the public beach where we’d left our boots. Exhilarated, we’d roll up the sheets, tuck them under our coats and do it all again.

After the second run, we noted a small crack in the ice. You couldn’t miss it, though it wasn’t big—only an inch or so wide. From time to time it spurted water as the lake’s smooth cover heaved in the wind. We got down on our knees to explore it, measuring the ice depth with our fingers; it was easily five or six inches thick. More than safe for skaters. But, each time we returned to that spot, we saw the crack had gotten wider. Our skating rink had become a huge slab of lake ice pushed by the increasing winds. My brother shrugged, seeing no need for this to get in the way of our fun.

And fun it was, we skated till our toes were frozen and our cheeks were wind-burned and ruddy. On the returns, our wind filled sheets carried us, flying, bobble-kneed over the ice, as fast as ice-boats, or so my brother claimed. Our eyes streamed from the speed of it, a pace we’d never experienced under our own power. Our fingers would go numb, wrapped tightly around the corners of the sheets. Only the low slanting light of the short winter day convinced us it was time to wrap it up. But when we reached the crack, it wasn’t little anymore. It was now a yawning three-and-a-half-foot gap, with the frigid dark waters of Lake St. Clair lapping up over its edges. My jaw dropped as I turned and realized that our side of the ice was headed out, across the lake.

“What do we do now?” I asked. After all, he was older; he would know. Though the ice was thick and solid enough, we both knew there’d be hell to pay if we had to be rescued from our floating island by the Coast Guard.

My brother didn’t hesitate for a minute. “We jump.” I stared at the gap. It was nearly as wide as I was tall. “Really, it’s not so bad, we’ll make a run at it, at high speed. We’ll have the wind at our backs.”

I wasn’t so convinced. He unwrapped his scarf from around his neck and wrapped it around his hand, “I’ll go first. You watch me. If I fall in, you pull me up with your scarf. If you fall in, I’ll pull you out with my scarf. Watch me.”

I nodded… without conviction.

He skated back some forty or fifty feet and, curled like a speed-skater, let fly. When he reached the edge he launched himself, horizontal, like a swimmer’s dive, landing on his belly, skidding and sliding on the safe side of the gap.

He rolled over smiling, triumphant. “Piece of cake. Come on, it’s easy.”

I wasn’t so sure. I took several practice runs. I tried some small, test jumps. All the while, the gap was steadily growing.

“Hurry up, it’s getting bigger!” He was standing safely on his side. And, he was right—every minute I waited, the jump would only get harder. I wanted to cry. I skated back to get a good run up to it and skated my fastest, pumping my legs nearly to the very edge before I finally jumped.

But, I wasn’t horizontal enough. I was afraid to dive head first, so I flailed, legs peddling through the air. After what felt like forever, I hit the opposite edge, a little short. Landing on my knees, my lower legs slapped into the water, while the top of me hit the wet ice with a thump. True to his word, he grabbed me and dragged me away from the dark abyss. Without another word we hustled to the beach to change out of our skates and into boots for the walk home. Tying the last of his laces, he looked over, “We probably shouldn’t mention this when we get home.” Right, like he needed to say it.

Rick and I moved to Michigan about eighteen months ago. It was a big jump, fueled by a number of issues. For a start, I already had property here and, I’m originally from here. We’d tried several times to buy in Sonoma, but our offers seemed to always be just behind the curve of the real estate recovery. Some properties we rejected because of water issues. The wells were either marginal, or contaminated. Mostly, though, we left California, because my mother was here. We pulled up stakes with a sigh of relief and we’ve continued on that momentum. My mum is thrilled.

Back in California, there’s news that the state is on its last legs in water supply. A year’s worth left in the reservoirs they say, and the annual snow-pack needed to replenish them, at only 15% of normal. And still, they have yet to enact any serious or mandatory conservation measures. It’s as though Californians still expect the next miraculous rainfall to save them. There have always been droughts in California; they’ve always pulled through before, somehow.

When we first arrived and people would ask why, I’d jokingly say, “Michigan has water.” Some of our friends think we left only for that reason—as though in the months and years before we actually did it, we had some secret knowledge about the worsening drought. Believe me, I’m no oracle. (Though, I didn’t need to be one to see that coming.) But I’m glad to be here. I grew up with Great Lakes and seasons, and it’s good to be home. I’m happy to have found a sense of place that fits me. Easy for me to say, but Rick seems to have settled in nicely, too.

It’s what I wish for everyone—that they find that sense of place and comfort. I worry that, if nothing is done about our climate upheavals, many will be uprooted from the kind of comfort that knowing one’s way in geography brings. Maybe we’ll all suffer, when the place we know changes around us, bringing new challenges. What will Californians do, without water? What will become of the Sonoma county farms and vineyards? California, the state that fed the world–what will come of its desert agriculture? And, what about the emus we left behind?

In my heart, I hope that everyone who loves where they are will stay right where they are. Stay and fight. We need enough of a commitment to place to make people adjust their ways to save it, and hopefully, in the process, save the planet. Some friends have asked me if I think things are really that bad. I’m afraid that the science says yes, and our species refuses to accept that answer. They’ve asked me to tell them when to bail; when to max-out on their California real estate and escape with top dollar in their pockets. As if I knew. And, as if that very attitude isn’t what dooms us to start with—the concept of disposable landscapes. Stay. Fight. Change. Make it better.

This situation isn’t like my brother, leaning over to help me with my frozen laces, and grinning, “See, it’s okay. It’s all about timing the jump.”

Character and Compromise

A.V. Walters–

IMG_2086

I’ve been sanding, again. Sanding seems to be a big part of my contribution to this project. And, there’s plenty more of it in my future.

This time, I’ve just completed sanding the interior of the log walls. The cedar logs come rough-milled. Maybe it’s me, but rough-milled doesn’t meet my needs when it comes to interior walls. Rustic shouldn’t mean slivers. And, I’ll have to keep this place clean in the future and rough milled sounds to me like a haven for dirt and dust. So I donned my sanding uniform—mask, ear-protection and grubby clothes, and set to it.

In no time, Rick and I were headed for trouble. “Whoa there! Don’t sand so much. It’s a log cabin. We want to keep the character of the logs.”

I stepped down from the ladder. “Not if ‘character’ means slivers, we don’t.”

“Well, we don’t want them with a completely smooth finish, they’ll look faux.”

That’s a man that knows my weak spots. Really I don’t want them to look faux-finished. I don’t like anything faux. I went into my spiel, you know, slivers, cleaning all of my justifications for over-sanding. He pointed to a lovely spot on a log that revealed its craggy whorls and texture, “We don’t want to lose that.”

I winced. “Maybe, just a little… to take off the sharp edges.”

Usually, Rick and I are very much of one mind aesthetically. We’re also both very practical and rational—common sense sort of folk. We negotiated a truce. The top sides of logs (where dust will accumulate) could take more sanding, as can areas where hands will contact the wall (like on the wall up the stairs.) The general objective is to keep things as natural as possible (without being sharp or slivery!) I had to relax my normal super-smooth sanding standards. He had to let go of the complete au naturel look.

From time to time, he’d look up from his work (installing windows)—to keep tabs on my progress. He said little. I know that I probably sanded a little more than he’d like. It seems fair, since I sanded less than I’d like. Maybe, seeing my needs, he compromised more than I did. Not too much, I hope.

We’re hiring our old friends, the Flanagin Brothers, to help put up the roof framing. I told Fred I was eager, what with the warmer weather, to get things moving. He asked what we were doing in the interim. I told him Rick was working on windows and on the post and beam supports for the front porch. “Yeah, what about you?” he egged.

“I’ve been sanding.”

“What are you sanding?”

“The interior of the logs.” There was a long pause. I checked to see if the call had disconnected.

“You’re sanding the logs?”

“Yeah, just to take down the slivers.”

“Most folks just call that rustic, you know.”

I sighed. I didn’t try to explain. Later, when I went back to my sanding, I kept it to a light touch—well within the compromise. And, I wondered about just who was the character in this scenario.

avwalters:

Important for everyone. What is Spring for, if not for the renewal of hope.

Originally posted on KURT BRINDLEY:



This speech should be mandatory viewing by all Americans.

View original

It’s Later Than You Think

A.V. Walters

I suppose I’ll settle into it and adjust; I do every year. But I suffer from Daylight Savings Time confusion. If I’m saving daylight, do I earn interest? If so, how can I collect? Yes, I know there’s supposedly increased productivity, but it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul. In exchange for dark mornings and extended evenings, I get to feel tired and, when I look at the clock, confused. In a week or so, I’ll be fine. When did daylight savings kick in so early? I thought it was a summer deal, and there’s still a foot of snow on the ground.

The biggest insult in it is the semi-annual adjusting of the clocks. Some of them do it automatically, some need to be nudged. One year I manually changed all the clocks, and then ended up an hour early to appointments. How was I to know that my devices were automatic, and maybe smarter than me? Better, I suppose, than doing it in the fall and showing up late.

I’m trying to get beyond the artificial construct of time. That’s not surprising, given that I already feel so far behind. I’d wanted to get a roof on the cabin before spring rains, but the guys I wanted to hire decided to sit out the winter, this year. We need help, because, after I broke my rib last fall, Rick doesn’t want me working up high— (too clumsy) and he cannot do it alone. And the guys we want to hire? They say they’re getting too old to work in the deep cold. Hey, they’re a decade younger than me—what is that saying?

I lie awake nights, running through all the steps needed to build. Do we have tar-paper? Should we use Tyvek instead? (What we’ve always called Yooper siding.) Did I get enough cedar shakes to do a chicken coop, too? With all of this pending, when will I find time for the garden? I’ve spent the winter locating good deals on building materials. I have to stop though, because, until we attach some of this stuff, we’re running out of places to put it. It’s amazing how much volume goes into the construction of a house. Worry doesn’t help. Logistically, Rick really has a handle on this, so why am I awake at night?

The alarm went off this morning and I had to lie there and ponder; does my cell phone update to DST, automatically, or is it really later than I think?

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

IMG_2078

I read all the science on it, and I find it frustrating that there is no consensus about just what is up with the bees. I’ve been a bee fancier for decades. My grandfather was a beekeeper and my interest was piqued as a little kid. However, my urban life didn’t favor beekeeping. When I finally moved to the country, in Two Rock, I was more than ready to keep bees. Then, I learned that my landlord was wildly allergic to bee stings. I liked the landlord—so, no bees.

Even going back two decades, the bees were in trouble. The culprits then were tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites are still a problem for the bees but, in an otherwise healthy hive, a manageable problem. Now we have what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, with bee losses ranging from 25 to 50%, per year. They just fly away and abandon the hive, en masse. Science has yet to find the reason that the bees lose their sense of direction and wander off to die. In fact, it’s likely there are several reasons. We really are at a point where bees are at risk—and with them a substantial percentage of our food supply. One-third of what we eat requires bee involvement.

When North Americans think of our bees, they are generally European honeybees. They have been domesticated for thousands of years—and we brought them with us to America. They are not “natural” to our North American biome, but they are a vital component of our agriculture. There are plenty of native pollinators, but they’re not a big part of the way America produces food. And, that’s a very big part of the problem.

It seems to be lost on Big Ag that bees are insects, just like many of the other agricultural “pests.” Our industrial agricultural model—based on monoculture, is hostile to most insects and weeds. The dominant approach is to saturate the crops, and the fields, with poisons. There is an enormous “collateral damage” quotient in the dominant approach. Our foods are coated in pesticide residues, our soil and groundwater are being contaminated, our agricultural workers suffer from chronic exposure syndromes and we poison the bees, our pollinators. Some newer pesticides, neonicitinoids, appear to be particularly damaging to bee populations. Unfortunately, while the bees are dying, the “debate” continues whether the neonicitinoids are legitimate suspects. The makers of these toxins, Bayer and Syngenta, claim that proper use will not result in bee losses—taking a page from the tobacco companies’ old playbook on what does or doesn’t cause lung cancer. Denial can hold truth at bay for decades. After all, there are a great many factors at work.

Included in the mix are issues of proper beekeeping. The emphasis for professional beekeepers tends to fall into one of two camps—the pollinators and the honey producers—though the pollinators produce honey, and the honey folks’ bees are obviously out there pollinating, too. Both camps are guilty of not taking great care of their bees. Here, the big issues seem to be food and travel.

Like most of us, bees are healthiest if they have a diverse diet and a low stress lifestyle. Left to their own devices, bees will collect the nectar and pollen from of a variety of plants and will produce more than enough honey to feed the hive through the winter. The pollination industry interferes with the natural order by trucking the bees from place to place to pollinate specific crops. There is no diet diversity, the bees are exposed to high levels of insecticides on the crops they pollinate, and living on the road is hard on the bees’ navigation skills.

The honey industry is no better. In the quest for high honey production, the beekeepers strip the hives of honey and then winter-feed the bees with high fructose corn syrup or sugar—the bee version of junk food. (Not that the pollinators don’t use sugar diets, they do, too!) In both cases, bees are weakened, and then at risk for the various bee hazards, including the tracheal and varroa mites and pesticide exposure. There’s so much finger-pointing going on in the bee tragedy that the bees will be all gone before any coherent science can catch up. Indeed, I heard one beekeeper justify his poor practices on the grounds that everyone else does it, and the bees will soon be dead, anyway! (I wonder if he has the same attitude when it comes to raising his kids.)

Every single day I am solicited online for donations to “save the bees.” Most of these are seeking funds to fight the use of neonicitinoids which really are a big problem, but only a part of the problem. The challenges of beekeeping are a microcosm of the challenges we have in agriculture, anyway. It’s a problem of scale—diversity equals strength—monoculture equals weakness. The solution isn’t to pour on chemicals; the solution is to grow our crops and our bees in ways mindful of, and taking full advantage of, the rhythms and ways of nature. Organics. It can be done.

So this week, Rick and I have started to make our contribution to save the bees. A month ago, I took a beekeeping class. And we’ve invested in hives and beekeeping gear. Ours will be pampered bees. They will live in one place. They will have a natural and diverse diet—and in the winter, they’ll eat their honey, like bees should. We’ll enjoy smaller yields in the spring—after the bees have had the chance to overwinter. Small scale, “bees first”, management is the solution. We’ll do our bit to save the bees, while the bees earn their keep by pollinating our gardens and giving up a bit of honey. Win-win. And now, if we could just get these hives assembled….

 

Let's see, Tab A....goes into....

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

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