Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

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We’re busy building. I suppose, given how late it is in the season, we could/should just power on through and build every day. But there are other priorities in the mix. Once built, we’ll need to heat our new home. Our plan is to heat as much as possible using wood from the property. One cannot wait until the snow is thigh-high to go out for firewood. “Making wood” is what the old Finns call it, back home. Mostly, we’re cutting deadfall. There’s plenty of it these days, because those damned (but beautiful) Emerald Ash Borers keep killing the ash trees. At least the wood will still make good fires, and keep us warm in the winter.
Anyway, we decided to take one day a week to cut firewood. Sundays. It’s a lovely change of pace, and brings us deep into the forest. It’s still backbreaking labor, especially on our steep hills but there’s always something new to see. Today it was Indian Pipes.

Indian Pipes are a rare form of plant. Also called “ghost plant,” they are a luminescent white—turning to a soft pink. They have no chlorophyll, and so cannot make their own food. Instead, they tap into certain kinds of fungus, which themselves have tapped into certain trees. The fungus-tree relationship is mutually beneficial, but the Indian Pipes are parasitic—they do not give back to either the fungus or the tree. They actually flower, like a regular plant—and are food for bees, both in nectar and pollen. Because they have no “plant” color, many think that the Indian Pipes are fungal. Without chlorophyll, they don’t need sunlight and can grow even in the densest of forests. No bigger than the spread of your hand, they’re easy to miss on the forest floor. They are often found in areas with beech trees or pines. We have both.

We’ve seen several patches of them this summer. When I was a kid we used to find them in the northwoods of Keweenaw County. We picked one once, from deep in the forest, to bring to a naturalist friend for identification. She chastised my parents, because the ghost plants are so rare. That got my attention—an adult wagging her finger at other grown-ups—my parents! No picking! I took the admonishment to heart and, to this day, I treat Indian Pipes with respect. indian pipes2

The Indian Pipes were our big score of the day. Of course, the firewood, too. All of it came from trees that had already fallen. Unfortunately, when the ash trees fall, they take prisoners—crashing to the forest floor, dragging their neighbors down with them. Today we gathered mostly ironwood (hophornbeam), beech and a little maple. We’re clearing trails for future access, so the day’s haul was moderate. Next Sunday, we’ll be at it again and who knows what we’ll find.

Bunker Mentality–

A.V. Walters–

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We’re building. It’s a small footprint, our cabin at the edge of the woods. We picked the site for its view across the valley, and so that we’d get sheltering shade in the summer. We are months behind schedule. If I were the type, I’d be getting close to panicky. On our walks, I note that we’re seeing the occasional flash of early color in the trees

Initially, we had weather delays—frost well into May, administrative delays—title and permitting problems and then, a comedy of errors on the foundation.

This county requires that building plans be prepared by an architect or a licensed “building designer.” Since we’d already drawn up our plans, we went with the building designer method—to check for technical and structural details, and to make the plans look professional. We informed the designer that there was a slope to the property—but he wasn’t concerned—I guess he figured it wasn’t his department.

When the approvals were finally complete, we hired a local mason to build the foundation. Though Rick is a builder, there are very good reasons to hire out parts of the job to those with greater experience. Most of our building proficiency is from California, where foundations are usually poured concrete (with lots of rebar reinforcement.) California has earthquakes, and they take their foundations seriously. Michigan foundations are often built with concrete block—especially for smaller buildings like our little cabin. It’s heavy work and we are not young.

The plans called for a crawlspace—just enough of a foundation to meet the frost requirements for local code. It’s a cabin, nestled into the gently sloping hillside, with a cozy, low profile. We knew we might have some adjustments because of the slope. We consulted with the mason. He didn’t see a problem, maybe a couple of extra courses of block. He instructed Rick on exactly how he wanted the excavation to be done. Rick did the digging, per instructions, with the Kubota. As he did so, it started to look like the back-side of the hole was a lot deeper than the mason had described.

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On the mason’s return, he too, was surprised by the depth of the hole. He accused Rick of not digging level and true. Measurement proved that it was almost perfect, (a little less than a half inch off, across a forty-foot run.) The mason shrugged. He’d have to go at least an extra two courses of block—and he submitted a revised bid. We nodded. The price seemed fair. After all, what do we know from masonry?

A day or so later, he advised that the wall sill wasn’t high enough, to address issues of drainage and slope, he’d have to go yet higher. This crawlspace was exceeding crawl (except in timing.) We’d gone past duck walk to homo-erectus—though still not a legal height basement. I ran down to the County permits department to advise of the change. The clerk asked me why we didn’t just go all the way, for a full basement. Oh no, it’s just a little cabin. That would be thousands of dollars more and we didn’t really need a basement. It’s a cabin—and with the extra height, we’d be giving up on that snuggled-into-the-hillside look.

It was a Friday night. I went into town for milk and beer. I ran into our buddy, Linus, from up the road. He was picking up a pizza. Linus works at one of the cherry farms, but used to be in heavy-equipment and construction. During cherry harvest he works long days—and pizza-to-go is part of the equation.

“How’s it going with the foundation?”

“Well, it’s a lot deeper than we thought. We’re up to ten courses.”

He nodded. “So you’ll be pouring a floor, then?”

I shook my head. “No, we’ll still keep it to a crawl space—now, it’s just a tall one.”

“No, you’ll be pouring a floor… a four-inch slab.” It wasn’t a question.

I looked up at him. “We really weren’t planning on a full basement, it’s too high.”

“I doesn’t matter. At ten courses, you pour a floor for stability.” He was nodding his head with certainty. He doesn’t talk much, and, for him, this was pushy.

“Yeah? You think so?”

“Four inches—no less.” His pizza was up. He nodded at me, “Tell Rick I said so.”

The weekend was a running debate. We had to have a serious discussion with the mason. Could this be true? Why hadn’t he said anything? Rick reconfigured the plans for a full basement, just in case. If you have to pour a floor, you might just as well go the full twelve courses for a legal basement. And, if you’re putting in a full basement on a slope, you should put in a door on the downslope for a walkout, and, yeah, maybe a window, for light. We tried to imagine our little cabin, perched up on an eight-foot high, block foundation. A bunker. An eyesore! “Don’t worry,” Rick assured me, “If we have to go this route, we’ll bury as much as we can. We’ll landscape it.”

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Monday morning was telling. Rick put it direct to the mason. “A friend said we should be pouring a four-inch, slab floor—for structural reasons—any truth to that?”

The mason didn’t meet his eyes. He scuffed his boot in the sand. After a long silence, he offered, “Well, it is a good idea.” Why hadn’t he said anything before? That made the decision. I zipped up to the county offices with Rick’s revised plans. The clerk nodded.

“You won’t regret it, a basement is really handy.” She smiled, a little smug. But, she’d been right.

For the next couple of days we watched as the courses of concrete block grew, towering above us. We looked for the bright side. You can always use extra storage… right? Rick could have a shop downstairs. We could move the laundry down there, too. And, we told ourselves, the added height gave us a hell of a view from the front porch. The foundation price was now double the original bid. We sighed and wrote progress payments.

During the foundation work the mason’s little daughter took ill. Really ill. She was hospitalized for over a week. Though we only lost one “official” day of work, the family’s trials cost in “attention” time. Who could blame him? If I had a little one at risk, I’d be glued to her. These are the important things in life. We were happy to accommodate.

We did have a little tiff over the details of the floor. We wanted a vapor barrier under the slab. The mason didn’t want to deal with it. We insisted. It wasn’t the norm, he said. He got more than a little grumpy about it. In the end, we’re the owners—we insisted and prevailed.

With the block work and floor complete, the only remaining thing was to insert the rebar and pour concrete into the wall cores. We were anxious for completion—because then the project would be ours again. With us at the helm, we could make up for some lost time. Rick asked the mason about the rebar placement. Given his California roots, Rick was concerned about what looked to be sparse reinforcement. After all, we’d doubled the wall height, so for structural reasons, now was not the time to go light on strength.

The mason threw a fit. Was Rick questioning his professional integrity? He was almost yelling now. The mason went to his truck and took out his copy of the Michigan Code Book. He shook it in Rick’s face. “It’s all in here. I don’t go by California code. I go by Michigan rules. We don’t have earthquakes here!” He threw the book back into the cab of his truck and left for the day.

Tired of being at a disadvantage, Rick came home, went online, and purchased his own copy of the Michigan Code book. But, in the meantime, we had little choice but to trust the mason. He came the next day for the “final pour.” It was a relief. After our inspection, scheduled for the following Monday, we’d finally be able to start our building process. I paid the mason.

Well, “we” failed the inspection. California, Michigan, it doesn’t matter. The code is pretty much the same, no matter, and the amount of rebar in our foundation didn’t meet code. (So much for “professional integrity.”)

I emailed the mason. He called, livid, like it was our fault—accused us of pissing-off the building inspector. We told him to speak to the Inspector, himself. Apparently, that conversation set him straight. We didn’t even have to say that he should read his own Code Book, instead of shaking it in our faces. He was whipped and compliant.

It took another week to get it finished. The inspector told him exactly what he expected in reinforcement—even more than what code would have required, but by this time, the mason was cowed and obedient. We helped with the final pour. Now we have the strongest foundation in the county, a literal bunker. If there’s ever a tornado or a hurricane, we know where to go. Oh yeah, and turns out the vapor barrier, we fought over, is Code, too!

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The foundation took a little over a month. Not too bad, considering all the changes and hiccoughs. It’ll be nice to have a basement, and there’ll be that incredible view from the front porch.

Ripples…

ripples

Cuyahoga Ripples–

A.V. Walters

I was the number-four kid. As is often the case in big families, the younger ones are eager to catch up to the big kids—We wanna do it, too, whatever it is. We walk earlier. We often talk earlier (when we can get a word in, edgewise.) Even as a munchkin, I wanted to read. My older siblings were reading. So, I asked my dad to teach me.

Never one for dumbing down, my dad agreed, but on his terms. I learned to read from the local newspaper, The Windsor Star. By the time I was four, I had a pretty good handle on the reading part, though sometimes the topic was above my head. As a result, my dad spent even more time explaining what the news was, rather than teaching me how to read about it. From then on, I would spread out the newspaper on the floor, everyday, and pore over it. I always saved the comics for last—like dessert. To this day, I’m a news junkie.

I think the hook was set in April, the spring I was ten-years old. That was when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. I was mesmerized by the photo images of something that wasn’t supposed to happen—a river, catching fire and burning, caused by pollution! I became an instant environmentalist. It informs most of my decisions, from where and how I live, to what brand of soap I buy. So, there it is, again, a crystalline defining moment, followed by ripples—only this time, by ripples in a river of fire.

river fire

 

Two-Legged Hazards…

A.V. Walters–

People just don’t walk. In Two Rock, Rick and I had a reputation. If we went to feed the emus, on the other side of the farm, we walked over. We walked when we visited Elmer, our friendly landlord. We walked to our favorite berry patch, only about a mile and a half away. We would have walked to more places, but there wasn’t much around. (The nearest market was about 5 miles away, and that’s a little far to be lugging groceries.) People noticed. Sometimes they’d roll down the window to ask if you needed a ride. Soon, folks in the area knew us—they’d wave. We heard that they’d asked Elmer about us—you know, what’s up with those two, always walking all over the place? Elmer would just shrug. The farmers in the area all drove pickups, or four-wheelers, wherever they went. It made sense if you carried tools and feed. But it was more than that, one day Elmer dropped by for one of our friendly conversations. In the middle of it, he was reminded of a newspaper article that he’d saved for me. He held up one finger, “Be right back,” and he hopped in the truck for the 500-foot trip to his house.

On his return, I asked why he drove that little hop, to his place. Granted, he had a bad knee, but it was more than that. Elmer and Don always drove everywhere on the farm.

“It’s habit, I guess, we can’t afford the time it takes to walk everywhere.”

I guess my face showed doubt.

“Really, a walk over to the sheep barn would take 20 minutes, the work-day is long enough, as it is. If we walked, we’d never finish what needs to be done.”

So, in part, it’s a habit. Once the workday is done, the habit remains, and you drive to visit the neighbor—if only yards away.

Our walking was noted by the livestock, too. We had a single lane driveway to our side of the farm, about half a mile long. On one side of the lane, there were two large pastures, for sheep and, opposite the sheep, there was a huge field for the dairy cows, next door. That dividing lane serviced the dairy trucks, hay haulers, feed trucks, egg trucks, tractors, numerous tenants, you name it—all manner of large and noisy, vehicular farm traffic. They moved along at quite a clip, too. The sheep and cows grazing mere feet from the hurtling trucks didn’t even flinch at the noisy invasions. But, pedestrians? You’d have thought we were wolves. We’d walk down the lane and the sheep would flee as though their lives depended on it, lambs galloping, followed by lumbering, milk-heavy ewes. The cows would stare, chewing, and as we approached, mosey on, away from the fence line. Of course, if you carried a feed-bucket, those same sheep would mob you.

We’re back to our walking ways, and our neighbors have noticed. They drive by and wave. Yesterday we walked into town, just over a mile, to check the mail. Like Two Rock, the roads here are not very pedestrian friendly. On the way, we spooked a doe and her fawn. They’d been poised at the road’s edge, readying to dash across. It’s a busy road. Michigan statistics show that every year over 60,000 of them don’t make it to the other side. Deer seem oblivious to two or three tons of fuel-injected steel, screaming towards them at 70 mph, and yet, when confronted by a couple of pedestrians, that deer bolted back into the swamp, along with her equally spooked, spotted fawn. Maybe I should check myself in the mirror. I’m a little afraid of traffic—but the deer are afraid of me.

Learning the Language…

A.V. Walters–

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I had the best of intentions this spring. We walk most days, and my plan was to try to identify all the new plants as they popped up through the leaf litter in the forest floor. Ha! Then, we started work on the apartment, putting in such long hours that we didn’t get out for our regular walks. By the time we got back into the forest, it was lush and green, overgrown way past my ability to catch up on the name-game.

It’s not like I don’t know anything. After all, I grew up around the Great Lakes—most of these plants are familiar. But I know them by the names that kids use, like sour grass, white man’s footsteps and sugar plums (oxalis, plantain, serviceberries.) I’m looking to upgrade my botanical vocabulary.

We’re back to walking regularly. My new goal is to positively identify at least one plant a day. We come home from our walks with pockets stuffed with leaves and berries. Then I hit the books (and the internet) to find their “real” names. We notice other things along the way, too. A few weeks ago someone dropped off a load of bee hives in a clearing along the road we live on. Sometimes, you can hear their hum from 100 feet away. A few weeks later, an electric fence went up around them. We scratched our heads. Just who was that fence supposed to dissuade?

According to the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), there are no wolves, bears or cougars in Leelanau County. You hear of sightings, but they’re never “substantiated.” I’ve been hearing of them for 25 years. I can’t imagine that the DNR has a stake in not acknowledging them, but neither is it comforting to think they’d be wrong for so long. (More head-scratching.) Almost twenty years ago I found a deep and impressive set of scratches in the bark of a tree—six feet up from the ground. That’s a bear. This winter, on one of our snowshoe hikes, we found (big) cat scratch marks on a deadfall tree—with big cat prints to match. (More tree scratching.) Yesterday, on my walk I found bear scat. I spent my childhood summers in Keweenaw County—I know bear scat when I see it. Then, I heard through the neighborhood grapevine that one of the neighbors had seen a bear in her yard.

For whatever it’s worth, these things don’t scare us. It doesn’t change how we move through the trails. (I might re-think planting blueberry plants around the new house, though.) I’m glad that the forest is healthy enough to support the critters all the way to the top of the food chain. Other than us, I mean. I have no intention of setting the record straight in any official capacity. I’ll keep cataloguing my way through the plant kingdom, so I’ll feel more at home, in my new home.

 

 

 

 

 

Ripples…

A.V. Walters–

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Sometimes there are crystalized moments in your life, moments that are loaded in a way that forms who you will be, or that define a new direction that your life will take. I’m fascinated at how a chance event can snowball to construct an entirely different version of you, than the expected path might have yielded. You may not even know it at the time but, upon reflection, you can see how the impact of that moment left its fingerprint on you, and maybe on others around you.

We all have answered those “pivotal” questions, “Where were you when…” But they reflect a wider sensibility—that of a community or a nation. And I don’t doubt that those incidents that form the arc of history have an impact overall. What I’m talking about here, though, are the more personal moments—the AHA! events that took who you were, an instant before, and then mapped a new direction for who you became as a result.

 

From time to time, in this blog I’m going to address those ripples—in my life, and in the lives of those I know. I invite you to ponder your own circuitous paths, and how the “you” of today emerged. Feel free to share.

 

The Magnificent Radovini Brothers

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We were stair-step kids, arriving with catholic regularity, one, nearly every year. Before long, our standard issue, three-bedroom tract home was too small, owing to our lopsided gender distribution. When the time came that my brother, the only boy, really needed a room of his own, we four girls were too much for the other bedroom.

My parents own interests were running out of space, too. My father’s woodworking and my mother’s new involvement, in the world of clay, were spilling out of the utility room and into the kitchen. So, my parents took the plunge. Together they sketched out a plan to expand our home to make enough room for our wild tribe, and enough for all the different things we did. An architect made their dreams into plans and the bank gave the go ahead. My parents found builders, the highly recommended Radovini Brothers. These young men accepted the job, but warned that, in the middle of it, they’d be taking off for two weeks for a long planned family reunion. As long as the project was enclosed before they left, and then finished before the end of the summer, my parents didn’t mind. How could they? They understood family.

It was high theater for us. It was summer and we were off school so we could watch. They were doubling the size of our house, there was digging, with its piles of dirt and concrete, and finally, The Radovinis arrived. We loved them. They were five brothers with mops of dark hair and sun-bronzed skin. They worked shirtless. The neighbor women came to watch. The Radovinis worked and laughed and sang—sometimes opera, sometimes Italian folk tunes. The brothers harmonized, in their songs and in the rhythms of their work. They brought enormous lunches, which they unpacked from coolers with great ceremony. Food was important. They ate with great gusto, the jokes and ribbing continuing between bites.

It was like being visited by the circus. They were as charmed by us as we were by them, a string of blond towheads, following their every move like puppies, soaking in the aroma of pine boards, and watching the building take shape.

Our house grew by the day—faster even than we’d been told to expect. These men loved their work, and loved showing off their skills. Our jaws hung slack as we watched the drawings from the plans take shape in the air. It was a two-story addition and they were fearless—walking out on the thinnest of planks, twenty feet in the air, tossing up tools to the outstretched and ready hands of trapeze-artist framers. We tipped our heads back and shielded our eyes from the summer sun with cupped hands, to watch. How lucky we were to have found such tradesmen! As the time for their scheduled vacation approached, they worked long hours, determined to frame and sheath the structure before their trip—as promised.

The oldest brother approached my father. Were we happy with the work? Of course! Sheepishly, he requested that my parents advance the full contract price. The brothers were traveling across Canada for their reunion and wanted a “safety reserve.” My parents, thrilled with their work, were happy to oblige. Hell, they’d have adopted them if they could.

In their absence, we clamored over the new addition like squirrels. We collected nails and pieces of scrap wood—which we hammered into odd towers. When parents weren’t watching, we walked on the skinny joists, high above what would be our new garage. It was all so exciting–we could hardly wait for their return.

My father broke the news at dinner one night. We knew that something was up. My mother’s face was puffed and red. There’d been an accident. The Radovinis, they were going over the mountains—with most of the family riding in a travel trailer. A passing car clipped their trailer and forced it, and its tethered truck, over the edge. Four of them had been killed, along with their wives and children. The surviving brother would never walk again. With him, all that remained of this vibrant family was the elderly grandmother and an infant child, who’d remained home. The singing and laughing, gone.

My parents never mentioned the money. And, from that day, we became builders. My dad rolled up his sleeves and learned. His weekends became building time. We were his cadre of conscripted workers, little fingers stuffing insulation around windows, holding the end of the measuring tape and carrying tools and supplies. He learned wiring and plumbing and tiling (Oh My!) So did we. He harnessed his intense fear of heights to finish the roof and upper walls. We learned to put our fears in context. Money was tight, but skills we could learn. We became a family that built what we needed. We never shied from what willing hands could perform. It took my parents, and us, ten years to finish, but it was done, and done well.

That continues to today—not a professional builder in the bunch, but my siblings, mostly girls, are not strangers to the working end of a hammer. The Radovinis came into our lives nearly five decades ago. Right now, I am poised at the largest project of my adult life—my husband and I are building a home. As I wrote this, the concrete truck arrived to pour the footings.

 

Pouring Footings

Pouring Footings

In my minds eye, I can see the Radovinis, perched, straddling the skeletal ribs of our new roof, drinking ice water from re-filled Coca-Cola bottles. They chug it down and pour the rest over their heads, laughing and working in the summer’s heat.

 

 

 

Slash and Burn

A.V. Walters

We learned about it in grade school. It’s a “primitive” agricultural practice of cutting down the forest, burning the “slash,” any unused timber products, and then planting crops in the resulting ash-fertilized clearing. Typically, in areas with poor soils (mostly areas outside the soils-rich Pleistocene glaciation) agricultural use would be for a limited duration, until the soil was nitrogen depleted. Then the farmers move on and the cycle begins again. It was, we were taught, a short-sighted and damaging form of farming. Looking in the mirror, I think that that was Western agriculture’s pot calling the kettle black.

In most of North America, we are blessed with deep and rich topsoils, compliments of the ice age and biodiversity. Our European forebears were more lucky than skilled when it came to farming. Indeed, many of them practiced exactly the slash and burn techniques that my grade-school teacher bemoaned. How else, in a world of hand tools and oxen, was a pioneer family to clear an old growth forest for farming? Over time, excessive cultivation of dry or marginal soils, and the failure to rotate crops, brought us to an ugly truth—the dustbowl. Even without dustbowl conditions, 1970’s estimates showed that using American, post-war agricultural practices were causing the loss of up to six inches of topsoil, per year!

Some early colonialists brought with them time tested farming methods that fed and protected the soils, as you can still see in Amish and Mennonite farms throughout the Midwest. They considered themselves the stewards of the land. Studies have shown that the natural methods used by these farmers retain the topsoil and keep it loaded with organic material and beneficial bacteria. From these traditions, today’s organic farmers learned the mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Organic farming methods have been proven to fight soil erosion, build the soil’s ability to retain moisture (even in dry conditions) and foster a micro-biome that supports healthy crops.

We’ve sent a soil sample, from our property, in for analysis. We know we have some soil building to do, but it’s been lying fallow at least thirty years for a running start. We start with the premise that we’ll build the soil as we go. We’ll start first thing, next season. Ours is not a conventional approach

The GMO corn planted on our current, landlord’s property, is suffering. Its leaves are curling in; its growth stunted. I’m hardly heartbroken about it. We do not have a drought here. These sandy soils are “well draining,” which could be a pun if you wanted to irrigate. We haven’t had rain for just over a week—which shouldn’t make too big a difference in healthy soil. That corn doesn’t have healthy soil. Years of successive corn crops, over-tilling and outright chemical abuse have stripped the cornfield to its geologic base—sand dune. This soil cannot hold moisture. There is some stubble tilled in, but in the absence of “the living soil”—the bacterial component, the stubble cannot breakdown and feed the soil. (Though it may hold a little moisture.)

So, who is practicing slash and burn, now?

 

 

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