What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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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….

 

 

 

 

Snow or Blow?

A.V. Walters

It’s been an adjustment, moving from California back to the land of winter. Winter is not just a season; it’s a culture. It’s been cold this last week, single digits and below. And, it’s not a joke—people really say it, wherever you go, “Cold enough for you?”

In the past few days, we’ve seen about nine inches of new snow–the dry, powdery, fine stuff that you see in really cold weather. It doesn’t stick. It won’t pack for snowballs or snowmen. It’s tough to walk on. It blows every which way, with even a puff of wind. When Rick is out with the snow-blower, he looks like his own mini-blizzard. Everyone has their own little microclimate, depending on how close you are to the lake, how frozen the lake is, or isn’t, and whether you’re in hills, woods or cleared areas. Driving into town, today, put us through three distinct climate changes. Even people who live a scant few miles from each other compare constantly. And, it’s competitive.

If you look on the weather map, where we live is a funny little comma-shaped blotch, where we get the most snow in the “Mitt” of Lower Michigan. When I visit my brother, 180 miles south of here, I am always surprised at how little snow he gets. I try not to be belittling. Where my mother lives, in Keweenaw County on the Upper Peninsula, gets the most snow in the state. With that guaranteed advantage, you wouldn’t expect that she’d be competitive, but she is. We talk every day.

“Snowing down there?”

“Yeah. About six inches. Rick’s out clearing now.”

“Really, six inches? New Snow?”

‘New snow.’ That’s code for whether or not you get credit for it. It’s either snow or blow–old snow that’s just being whipped up and redistributed by the wind. Blown snow still needs to be plowed, still impairs visibility, still drifts up against your door in a wall that has to be shoveled before you can even step outside, but you don’t get credit for it. Snow or blow, though, it’s still beautiful.

This competition is harmless. It’s designed to give Northerners something to talk about through their dry, chapped lips. It’s a bonding experience. It masks the envy underlying the shtick of snow removal. Yesterday we met with a guy who has a Kubota with a front mounted snow-blower and a heated cab. The King of Kings. We’re a couple of rungs down from that– a Kubota with a 3 point, rear mount snow-blower and many layers of goose down and scarves. Because ours is a rear-mount, our snow-blowing has to be done in reverse gear. Rick has become pretty good at it. I tell him he’s the Ginger Rogers of snow-blowing—doing everything the King of Kings can do, only backwards. (And, in heels?) Below us there’s a whole field of snow removal–folks who use blades (or plows) (truck or tractor mount), walk-behind snow-blowers (with or without attached snow shields), snow fences, and a vast array of shovels and scoops. Snow removal is what Northerners do in the winter for exercise.

There’s strategy involved, too. We waited one season before we put in our driveway, so that we could chart a path less likely to drift over. Some folks plant trees or shrubs for snow breaks. Others place seasonal snow fencing to deflect the wind and discourage drifting in areas they have to clear, or they pile accumulated snow as a barrier. Farmers will leave sections of corn stalks standing–for the same reason. But the corn field next to us, left uncut last fall, is neck deep in snow. No help there. Of course none of this compares to last year, when we broke records for snowfall, fully double what we’re reporting this year. This year is colder though–if it keeps up we may break that record. The Great Lakes are well on their way to freezing over (and then it’ll really get cold.) The local weekly does a full column of weekly winter weather.

Things move slower in the winter. Drivers move more cautiously on slippery roads and schedules are buffered by the need for extra prep. If you have an appointment, you need to add extra time for shoveling and scraping beforehand. Depending on the weather, that could mean an extra hour. (Not including the extra ten to fifteen minutes it takes, just to suit up.)

There’s a funny running debate about whether it’s better to leave your windshield wipers up or down, in winter weather. I can see reason for putting them up if you expect freezing rain. A week ago I walked out to the car after sleet, only to find it encased entirely in a cocoon of clear ice. The wipers were stuck to the windshield. It took me ten minutes just to get into the car (where I keep the scraper.) It was another twenty minutes until I could see enough through the windshield to drive. As you drive around the North, you can see some cars parked with their wipers pointed up, like antenna. My dad opined that, like life preservers in chilly Lake Superior—it only makes the bodies easier to find. As far as I’m concerned, if the snow is up to your wipers, you’re not going anywhere, anyway. When he ribbed me about asking if I should leave the wipers up, I countered, demanding what strategy he favored.

“Me? I’d just keep the car in the garage.”

 

Single Digit Cuisine!

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A.V. Walters–

It’s nippy out there. We’re pretty winter hardy but low single digits, and lower, get our attention. That’s frostbite weather.  It’s also the range at which our minimally heated apartment begins to drop below 60. That’s the point where I take notice, and action. The cold front has been predicted for several days, and I made plans.

I started with a hearty, East Indian rice casserole. The aroma of turmeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and just a dash of cayenne is enough to warm anyone. So is the oven at 375. Then on to a batch of oatmeal cookies–Rick’s been asking for a couple of days and this seemed just the opportunity. Oven at 350 (and opening and closing between cookie sheet batches.) Finally, one of our regulars, a loaf of banana nut bread. It bakes for approximately an hour. By the end of it, we had goodies galore and the temperature was back up above 60.

We’ll see how we hold through the night (or, I see muffins in our morning!) This cold is expected to last the week. We’ll be portly by then.

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

It’s the organic gardener’s mantra. If the soil is healthy, the plants will be healthy. If the soil isn’t healthy, there’s little you can do for the plants, that isn’t ultimately bad for the soil. Chemical fertilizers are the equivalent of an IV drip. Maybe it will do in a pinch, but it’s no solution to the nutrition issue. Do things that are good for the soil, and you will be rewarded with a healthy garden. It’s almost that simple.

I’ve been soil building for over thirty years. Trouble is, I keep moving on and leaving my efforts behind. This year we will have a garden. Last year we didn’t have our well in, so it wouldn’t have been responsible to put in a garden. Instead, I took soil samples and sent them in to the extension office for testing.

The results were grim. Our soils are largely glacial deposits. Sand, and lots of it. We’re deficient in most of nutrients for which they test. Most importantly, there’s not a lot of organic material to hold what’s there. With straight sand, it’ll take a good bit of soil building before we have something to hold the nutrients and to hold moisture.

That said, it’s not a disaster. Our delays have helped. We’ve changed the location for the garden–our first pick didn’t have as much sunlight as we thought. Being here has let us learn more about the location, the winds and how the sunlight falls. This land hasn’t been farmed (conventionally or otherwise) in at least thirty years, so the good news is that there are no bad things in the soil. We just need to build it up. The fastest way to get that process started is to add compost, or composted manure. And we’re lucky. It’s easier to amend sand than it is to lighten heavy clay.

I watched last winter as the Amish farmers spread manure on their fields in February and March–really in the middle of winter. At first I was surprised, but thinking more, it made sense. The fields are frozen, so their teams (they farm with draft horses) don’t get mired in the muck from early spring rains. The composted manure doesn’t care when it is spread, it’ll freeze now, but then “activate” when things thaw, and the early rains will carry the nutrients into the soil. It’s an efficient use of winter down time. I knew then that I’d need to watch for a supply of composted manure, come February.

And, this past weekend, there it was. A craigslist ad for 100 tons of composted cow manure. I forwarded it to Rick. He laughed. Meanwhile, I went to the internet to get the weight to volume conversions and I did the calculations.

I assured him, “No sweetie, we don’t need 100 tons.”

“What do you think we need? Says in the ad that there’s a ten ton minimum.”

“We need fifty tons.”

He could hardly believe me. But if we’re going to jump start this garden, and if we’re serious about it, that’s what we need. There’s the garden, and then more for our small orchard. We’ll need to amend deeply in the orchard. (Thank God for the Kubota and the backhoe! Maybe, if it’s a light enough mix, we could use the snowblower to spread it!) (I wonder what Rick will say about that.)

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

Rick is a nice boy from Southern California. I don’t think there’s any way in the world that he ever thought that he’d be the kind of guy to purchase fifty tons of composted manure. He’s shaking his head. I’ve negotiated with the dairy owner for a good price. So, now we just need to find a trucker to haul it. This isn’t a case where owning a pick up will help. This is easier said than done. I haven’t yet been able to find a hauler. The primary crop in these parts is cherries. Cherry farmers use flatbed trucks (with stacked bins.) A flatbed won’t work for manure. I’ve asked around, so far with little luck. Once I disclose what I want hauled, I’ve detected a near-immediate, and serious lack of interest.

It may take a while or so to get this all arranged. That’s good, because in the interim, I’d like to haul all of the trees we cleared last summer over to the new garden site to do a burn. Nothing helps a new garden like bio-char. Winter isn’t just about seed catalogs and dreaming. Sometimes there are garden chores that are best saved for the dead of winter.

 

Second-Hand Blues…

A.V. Walters–

There it is, in all it's blue glory. (Rick calls it the Blubaru.)

There it is, in all it’s blue glory. (Rick calls it the Blubaru.)

If you have followed this blog, you may have gleaned that I’m a bit of a Craigslist maven. Indeed, I have been accused of being the Queen of Scrounge—and I’m not sure if it was meant to be a slur or a profound compliment. It follows from my environmental efforts, to live a little more lightly on the planet. We have become a disposable culture. Most Americans would prefer to have new rather than making what you already have, better. I enjoy the challenge of finding that which others discard and transforming it into a head-turning success. I can’t help it; I am a middle child. Generally, Rick shares my view, though occasionally he looks at one of my schemes and shakes his head. He is a magician in the world of rehab alchemy. He can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, in part because he has a discriminating eye for sow’s ears.

My sister rolls her eyes and says, “Admit it, you’re just cheap!” I laugh. She is a Craigslister, too. She just thinks she’s more honest than I am. Somewhere, in all of this, you can triangulate to find the truth.

January has been a tough month. My car died. A friend died. My computer went on the fritz. And, so did the back-up laptop.

The car was a high-end, performance machine—a relic from my former life. It could have been saved, but it had reached that tipping point where the repairs were more than its Bluebook value. After 15 years, it was about to get expensive. Its low-slung elegance did not fit our country lifestyle, or country roads. It was time.

My sister was so excited that I’d be getting a new car. She knew that I’d get a Subaru, like hers, for the all-wheel drive, good mileage and high clearance. “Get an orange one, like mine.”

“Not so fast, sister. I won’t be buying new. I don’t get to pick the color when I’m scouting for a good, used deal.” The deal came quick. Within days I’d located the very low-mileage car I wanted, at a good price. The color—twilight blue.

Let me be perfectly clear—I loathe blue. The color only gave me a moment’s hesitation. A good deal on a good used car is enough to ask of the universe. Buying a blue car made me walk my talk. That sister hates blue, too. So does my mother. It must be in the genes. (My sister howled when I told her.) But, beggars can’t be choosers.

Learning I’d bought it, one friend emailed,

“OMG!!!!! … a BLUE car. (That’s a lovely blue.) Will the world change its axis? Sun spots. Will they explode? The Mississippi flow backwards? It’s a lovely car.”

Some folks can’t resist rubbing it in.

With a few trips to the local Mac store, (in my blue car) I was finally able to iron out the computer problems. (That’s a whole story by itself.) I’m back up to speed, on the net, and on the roads.

I’ve met some great people on craigslist. A $25.00 set of curtain rods sealed the deal on what became one of my closest friendships. But, you can’t replace a friend on craigslist. Some things don’t come cheap and they take time. January closes, more resolved and more unresolved, all at the same time. My condolences to all who have suffered January’s losses.

At this time of year, a car's color doesn't much matter. The coat? Blue. A hand-me-down from another sister. The jeans? A special on ebay. The high cost of blue.

At this time of year, a car’s color doesn’t much matter. The coat? Blue. A hand-me-down from another sister. The jeans? A special on ebay. The high cost of blue.

The Tyranny of Round Numbers

A.V. Walters

This is my 200th blog. Next week, I’m coming up on my third anniversary of blogging. I’ve been stuck on this momentous event. Somehow, it felt like I was supposed to be profound, or something. Oh well, what you see is what you get.

I was a conscripted blogger. “They” said that indie writers and publishers needed to blog. Apparently, we need an online presence in order to sell books. Ha!

I bellied up to the bar, and started blogging. What does a fiction writer blog about? Everything, and nothing. I followed my nose, tried to stay away from politics (a stretch for me) and focused on chronicling the rich parts of the everyday. I cannot honestly say that the blog has ever sold a book. And then, after about eighteen months, they said, “Oh, never mind the blogging, it doesn’t work for fiction.”

But, by then, it was too late. Like most writers, I live in my head. I am probably most comfortable in writing. In this funny, online world, I have made friends. Political friends (even when I pledged not to go there,) artist friends, gardeners, organic farmers, people who keep bees, people who can vegetables, celiacs, funny people, other writers, editors, ne’er-do-wells and goody-two-shoes. In short, I have found community.

They are everywhere. My “regulars” are as far flung as Australia, Singapore, France, United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, New Zealand, and all corners of these United States. In the blogosphere, I travel all over, too. Over the course of three years, I’ve been visited by over seventy countries. I am continually amazed that we can connect across the ether. These connections give me hope. Even as governments fail us, and corporations sell us, we can all be ambassadors of civility, humor and peace.

Not that I’d be considered a “successful” blogger. My numbers remain relatively low. I refuse to play SEO games. I refuse to do internet marketing or advertising. (Aren’t these scams?) I refuse to amend how I title my blogs, just to capture more “hits.” Indeed, learning that the blog wasn’t going to sell books, anyway, was liberating. I am free to be stubborn! I can do whatever I want in this forum; it is my world! (And welcome, by the way.) Despite what my trusty editor, Rick, says, I am even free to use semi-colons.

Our most popular topics are about season and gardening (oh, yeah, and emus.) The single most enduring blog is still Naming Emus. Stories about living on the chicken farm in Two Rock are popular, too. The shock of relocation is wearing off; we’re comfortable in Northern Michigan and revel in seasons (and snow removal.) It’s been an adventure. And you’ve been there, all the way.

We’re hovering on many exciting new ventures for the next year. We’ll finish the cabin and move in (gypsies, no more)—we’ll get the garden started (already I’m up to my ears in seed catalogs), I’ll finally try my hand at beekeeping (after wanting and waiting for five decades!) and, if there’s time and energy, we’ll get chickens. I’ll keep blogging, and sharing, though I may slow down just a bit this spring. I’m trying to get my head back into writing—I have an unfinished novel haunting me.

So, thank you all for following, sharing, commenting and enriching my life. Raise a glass—Happy 200!
(Next time, pictures, I promise.)

 

ooops, here’s the link to the most visited blog, http://two-rock-chronicles.com/2013/03/10/naming-emus/

Banking on Winter…

A.V. Walters–

After several false starts, I think we can finally say that it’s winter. The last eighteen hours have dropped six inches on us, with another five or six expected over the next two days. More than that, the temperatures are dropping. The next week promises single digits and lower, if you count the wind chill factor. It’s not last year’s record breaking snows and recurring ‘polar vortex,’ but it is winter.

We’re a bit concerned about the heat in our little basement apartment. So far we’ve been fine—interior temperatures in the low sixties, which works for us. When we did the remodel, we did connect the apartment to the heating and cooling for the house—then we promptly blocked it. The landlord keeps it way too cold in the summer and way too hot in the winter. In addition, she has dogs—lots of dogs. I’m allergic to dogs, so a shared HVAC system isn’t going to work for me. I’m a mess when I visit my mum, with just the one dog, so blowing three dogs’ worth of winter dander into my living space is a non-starter.

Up until now, we’ve done fine with a little plug-in baseboard heater. After all, it’s a (walk-out) basement apartment. Nearly two sides are imbedded in the ground. As a baseline, underground keeps things warmer than at the surface.

Our landlord’s heat ducts run above us, and that warms us up a little more. The furnace is in the basement—two rooms away; it’s collateral heat. Still, we start to worry when our interior temperature drops into the fifties, a tad chilly, even for us. At that point, I begin baking. While Rick loves the goodies, it’s not exactly a heating strategy (and threatens to send us both into spring portly.)

With the snow drifting around the house, and with silent thanks to my dear departed dad, I finished up our regular snow removal chores by ‘banking’ the foundation. It’s an old-fashioned insulation strategy. I piled the snow up about four feet against the cinder-block foundation walls that are also our exterior walls.

My dad grew up in the far northern reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When we returned there, he had a local-yokel solution to most of the problems posed by extreme weather. To be really effective, my dad used to make us bank the house two or three feet thick, cautioning us not to pack it against wood or other surfaces that could be damaged. We don’t have quite that much snow yet, but today was a good start. In the next few days, with the snow we’re expecting, I’ll finish, and bank the foundation anywhere that there aren’t windows. Rick smirked a little at my efforts, but I noticed that he packed snow over areas of shallow or exposed pipes. He’s not eager for a repeat of last winter’s pipes freezing.

It’s “cold snow,” light and fluffy. With a grin, Ricks tells me that it’s snow—but that it’s a dry snow.

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