Sharpening the blades

It was a gamble, and we knew it from the start.

We’ve been using a weed-whacker (a string-trimmer) for clearing paths and trails, and for “mowing” the garden/orchard area. It’s a long, slow process–longer and slower as we’ve expanded the trails and planting areas. Rick has said for some time that he’d like a brush hog, aka rotary cutter. He wanted something ‘beefy’ to handle some of the more challenging trail work in the forest. 

But those things are expensive! And, frankly, they don’t make them like they used to. A new one runs upward of three thousand–for anything sturdy, much more. So we looked for one used–but not abused. That’s a critical issue, because, by definition this is no mere mower. It’s designed for heavy use.

But in my search I saw a good many of them that were rusted out, or clearly limping on their last legs–and even then they were pricey. Sigh. 

Recently an old John Deere popped up on Facebook’s Marketplace. Old, as in, as old as me. Those early implements were built to last! (As was I.) But there was a problem–the ad indicated that it needed a new clutch–but it was being sold with all the needed parts. So that was the gamble–someone had a geezer brush hog–and didn’t have the savvy, or strength to fix it. Were we (that’s an editorial ‘we’) up to fixing it?

We drove to Gaylord to check it out–and sturdy it was. Indeed, Rick’s comment, under his breath, was, “It’s a beast!” We’ve seen so many that were bent, rusted and crumpled. This one must be made of quarter inch steel. The kid selling it, showed us what was wrong and shook his head. It was too much for him–the old implement was too hard to disassemble–the parts took too long to get. He’d just bitten the bullet and ordered a new one.

I looked at Rick. I could tell that he was intrigued by the challenge. It was more than just a mechanical issue–it was the fact that this vintage implement needed to be rescued. 

“It’s a gamble,” I said. “If it can be fixed, it’s a steal at $500. Otherwise, it’s 1,200 pounds of expensive scrap.”

Just getting it loaded on the truck was a feat.

It’s taken him a couple of days, but I just heard the noises from the yard change. I looked out to see him sharpening the blades. That means the clutch is fixed, and the u-joint replaced–just like the kid said. 

The beast has been rescued, and maybe even tamed. I see clear trails in our future.

Introducing, “The Beast.”

Oh, where did the summer go? Intellectually I know, but somehow I’m flabbergasted that the garden is wrapping up, the days growing shorter, but my season’s to-do list is just as long as it was in June!

The garden was amazing (except for a little tomato problem). After years of floundering, we’ve hit on a winning strategy. The raised beds performed–producing bumper crops of lemon cucumbers, potatoes, and squash (winter and summer). The beets and carrots, yet to be harvested, are also looking bountiful. We managed three full rotations of salad fixings and greens–several kinds of lettuce, radishes, bok choi, and chard–without the usual waste and bolting, mid-season. The green beans were a bust–but not because they weren’t plentiful. We tried a new variety this year, pole beans, (which required constructing a whole trellis affair, and, after all that, they have no flavor–they’re absolutely tasteless. So the success of the green bean harvest is heading straight for the composter! Next year it’s back to bush beans.

All season, I kept admonishing myself to pull out a camera to report and blog the effort, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Mostly, the summer was consumed by larger issues. My Mum spent the summer with us, a welcome event, except that it was inspired by our proximity to quality healthcare facilities–Mum in need of treatments for cancer. The process was painful to watch, as it always is when one’s loved ones suffer. It makes you feel helpless. A chunk of every day was the to and fro of treatment, dealing with side-effects and shielding personal autonomy and dignity, and the hand-wringing that goes with worry. The prognosis is good–so the result of that part of the summer’s effort will yield years of loving harvests. Still, the season has been a blur, with little of our regular kind of productivity to show for it.

Usually, when one of us is preoccupied, the other can pick up the slack. But Rick has had his own family traumas this summer. There is no treatment plan for the kind of interpersonal toll taken by long-distance family anguish, especially when it’s being served up with a side dish of betrayal. Leaning together we feel like we’ve barely survived the summer, even as we wonder where it went!

And the tomatoes! We cannot yet report on them, because though they appear to be thriving, they are not getting ripe. There they are, big, lush, lovely… and green. Even the cherry tomatoes are tardy. What’s up with that? I suspect it’s related to the high-altitude, Western smoke that’s colored the summer’s light, and sometimes left us in a shadowless haze. Will they ripen before there’s frost? Will they be outliers–to be harvested only after the rest of the salad fixings have come and long gone? I suspect I’ll be canning in October!

These distractions are not yet over–but there are ends in sight. In the meantime, winter is coming. There’s wood to split and stack, orchard trees to check and bees to tend. 

Somehow, I’ll get back in the groove of blogging…I always do.

There are gardeners and there are farmers. I could never be a farmer. I am insufficiently ruthless to be a farmer. My soft-heartedness even threatens to de-throne me as a gardener.

We’ve all read the instructions on those seed packets. “Plant in rows, x inches apart. Thin to y inches.” How delicate the term, “thin.” Those veiled instructions are telling you to murder the delicate babies you so lovingly planted, only a few weeks ago. I’m just not up to it.

In my gardening life I’ve followed the trail of the “square-foot” gardening experts, and their extremist wing, the “French-intensive” gardeners. This is, in part, because much of my gardening past was limited to confined areas, and because these method minimize the lethal practice of thinning.

The philosophy of square foot gardening is to sow each type of plant as closely as its species will allow, without crowding damage. Planted that closely, the vegetables form their own canopy, protecting the soil from drying out or over-heating, and the shaded cover minimizes weed growth. This method, while labor intensive, maximizes production per square foot. (Doubly so, if you double dig before planting, giving the soil “loft” favored in the French intensive method) (Admittedly, I’m not crazy enough to be a loyal adherent to double-digging.)

Instead of wasting most of one’s seeds to thinning, square-foot gardeners carefully only put a minimal number of seeds in each tiny hole, planting in a grid measured for the specific needs of the plant. Usually, I shoot for two seed per hole, but with tiny seeds, I often overshoot. (Carrots are my weak spot.) For example, squash plants are large and one plant gets more than a full square foot per plant. Pepper plants (depending upon type) get four to nine plants per square foot. Carrots…nine per square foot. It makes for tedious seeding, but the results pay off handsomely.

I have a 4 X 8 foot bed of carrots. I sometimes drop as many as five seeds into one of those tiny holes. I’m not greedy, but the damn tiny seeds stick to my fingers and–well, I occasionally over-seed. This then requires thinning. Sigh. I wait a bit longer than most on that. It’s not laziness; I just wait until I have a thinned baby carrot harvest that I can drop into salads, or munch on as a treat. The remaining carrots have plenty of time to catch up and fill out during a whole season. There are hundreds of carrots in there–I’m sure they’ll manage. I face a similar conundrum with beets.

The good news is that I love the tiny carrots–and they don’t die in vain–they fulfill the purpose of being eaten. Tonight, they’ll go into a delicious chicken stew, along with some “thinned” golden beets. It’s a variation on the theme of square-foot gardening, but one that works for tender-hearted folks like me.

It’s how it was when I grew up. The guy handles the chain saw, the gal carries and stacks the firewood. Not that I couldn’t do the chainsaw part, I did when I was single. But it just works out that way and I go with the flow. Both roles are strenuous–nobody is coasting here. I think Rick worries if I have a chainsaw in my hands. I am very careful, but I do have a reputation for being clumsy. And, from a gender perspective…it’s a control thing. (Shrug.)

On Sundays, we make wood. It’s a lovely ritual, weather permitting. It reconnects us to the forest and the land. We are finally in the position that we are cutting “next year’s wood,” that is, this year’s wood is already, for the most part, cut and stacked. We have a little splitting to do–but we are ready. So now we’re clearing and harvesting deadfall for winters yet to come. This, to me, is real wealth.

There’s a rhythm to it, and we have worked out a coordinated approach. When a tree falls there’s a lot of it that we won’t harvest. To us, anything less than three inches in diameter is “slash.” Not that it couldn’t be burned, but it’s not efficient for the way we harvest and burn wood. So any downed tree must be limbed, and cleared, before we can begin cutting in earnest. Rick cuts, and I drag the slash away from the work site to a spot where it can decompose naturally. It’s important to tidy up first, because those who  jump ahead to cutting, without first clearing, find themselves tripping on the spiderweb of branches around any fallen tree. Tripping with a running chainsaw is not a pretty sight. Safety is always our first priority.

We were making wood on Sunday when I saw that a fallen log was blocking access for the tractor. I gave it a shove, to see if I could move it. It was already quite rotten, and the top of it, loose. I grabbed it and started to pull it out of the way. Only after the top of it had cleared its bottom did I see it. There, nestled in the center of the rotting log was a large paper wasp nest. I dropped the log and began waving my arms to get Rick’s attention on the tractor. With the drone of the tractor, or the chainsaw, most of our wood-making communications are via hand signals. Mine went wild. Rick looked at me, quizzically, as I pointed. Just about then, the first of the wasps reached me, and I turned and fled. At some point, it’s every man for himself. Rick figured it out, in short order.

Men chop. Women carry. Everyone runs when they need to.

Luckily, we missed scenes like this.

My mum is staying with us for a while, to undergo some medical treatments. She arrived  last week, and our days have been busy with tests and appointments. Before we could get started on all that, she had a toothache, and an emergency appointment with her dentist, a former employer and good friend.

There’s a cost to such wonderful care, and that’s that Donald’s office is in Grosse Pointe, down by Detroit. On a good day it takes just over four hours to get there. We didn’t get a good day.

The forecast was for heavy rain, so we allowed for a five hour trip. Even with the downpour, we would have made it, if it weren’t for Detroit. At times, it rained so hard we couldn’t see through the windshield. Thankfully, traffic was light. Maybe only crazy people were out in it. It never occurred to us to cancel…what’s a little rain?

Several exits before our intended off ramp at I94, they closed the freeway. It wasn’t construction, or an accident. We couldn’t figure it out. Oddly, because of a book I’m writing, I’m pretty familiar with the streets of Detroit. We needed to head southeast to reach our destination.

But things didn’t look normal. The first indication that things weren’t right were the abandoned vehicles. Not one, or two, but a handful at nearly every intersection. Some of the roads were flooded, especially where they dipped to go under elevated roads. I won’t drive in floodwaters–unless I can watch someone else do it first. You just never know how deep they are. And, we were figuring out, that was the reason for the abandoned vehicles. Others had tried…and failed.

Many of the traffic lights were out–or just blinking yellow in all directions. And the businesses we passed where all dark. It felt like a post-apocalyptic city, or something out of Bonfire of the Vanities. The weirdest part was that there were no pedestrians. I’ve never driven in Detroit without seeing folks on the sidewalks.

We tried repeatedly, without luck, to find an east-west thoroughfare that wasn’t flooded. So we just kept heading south, figuring that we’d be able to get to Jefferson, and take that East. It was well south of where we were headed, but the other roads were impassable, and cluttered with those eerie, empty cars. Even with all the extra time we’d allowed, we couldn’t have anticipated our meandering search for a path across the city. We were late. We tried to call the dentist’s office, but the phones were out.

When we were nearly there, Donald called us. He’d called my home to get the number for my cell phone. He, too, had been late–as he was home, wrestling with a flooded basement.

Compared to the trip, the appointment was easy. The tooth had to be pulled, which we’d expected. Donald plotted us a safe route back out of the city–keeping us to high ground and avoiding the flooded freeways. Only later, when we saw the worst of it on the news did we fully appreciate what we’d driven into, and then, out of.

The whole region has been declared an emergency. And there we were, oblivious, like tourists checking out the sites.


If you’ve followed this blog for any time, you know that I usually dedicate the entire month of June to spraying and squishing rose chafers, in the orchard. Not any more. (Well, not as much as usual.)

Not all of the trees are subject to rose chafer damage, but those that are, suffer terribly. Last year the relentless bastards killed one of the plum trees. It’s the plums they go after the most. Plums, cherries, apples, then pears…in that order. It is the rose chafer scale of delicious. This year, we needed a strategy more formidable than one little old lady with a spray bottle full of soapy water, and a keen eye for for squishing bugs. But, we aren’t willing to go chemical.


The answer is fashion. What is the sensible fruit tree wearing this spring? Why, tulle, of course! We bought yards and yards of agricultural fabric and UV resistant thread (for outdoor upholstery) and I whipped up a few summer ensembles for the plum crowd. Since the younger trees of any type are also at risk, we ran a childrens’ line, as well.
We’ve now covered the most vulnerable, and are watching like hawks to see if the thwarted predators shift over to the less-delicious. (And we’re ready, if they do.) So far, it’s working well. We’re not asking what the neighbors think. (Michigan gardeners can be such fashion snobs!)

I don’t know what I’ll do with the month, now that I’m freed up from guard duty.

...it’s another. Especially, with chickens.

We tried to repatriate the broody Alpha a day earlier than we had planned. She seemed so sad. As soon as we sent her back to her back to her crew, she undertook her role as a totally-harassing-bitch to each of her underlings, in turn. We figured we were on the right track–Alpha, back up to speed, and in character.
But, no sooner had she made her appointed rounds (of dominance), she headed right back to the brood coop, hunkering down on a nesting box. Still broody. So, back to the chilling barn for her. If this doesn’t work, I’ll have to try the torturous, cold-dunking. (Once reserved for Witches and heretics.) 

In the meantime, we thought the remaining chickens were fine (if not relieved) in her absence. Not so in chickenland. Egg production dropped precipitously.

At first we thought they were upset by her absence (because, how the hell can you tell with a chicken?) But, that was not the case. I was working in the garden and I heard a chicken ruckus in the wild berry bushes, by the front steps. I didn’t investigate–but did glance over to make sure that we didn’t have one of the cats, harassing a chicken, and thought no more of it.


Later, when Rick mentioned the drop in egg production, I remembered the fuss, and then we investigated. Sure enough, one of the Wyandottes had laid two eggs in a lovely little protected spot, under the bushes.

We didn’t have a production problem, we had an egg location problem, which sent us scouring the chickens’ usual haunts for eggs. In Alpha’s “leadership” vacuum, the rest of the flock had gone rogue! We’re still on the lookout for missing eggs, hoping to locate them before they spoil…and smell.


Now, all chickens are confined to their pen, until such time as they have all done their daily-lay . “No free-range for you, little missies–unless you behave!”


They’re responding to detention by flying up and perching on top of the coop. It’s a threat (if you speak chicken)–because from there, it’s a short hop, over their enclosure fence, to freedom. Rick responded immediately with some wire on the coop peak to discourage them from roosting up there. Sheesh, It’s always something.

We’re hoping to return to normal rhythms, once Alpha returns to her job as top chicken. Assuming she’s not destined for a dunk in the Trough of Truth. (“Waiter, what’s this chicken doing in my soup?”)

At least the bees are behaving.

It’s always something with chickens. We have added to our chicken flock (which had dwindled to two). We have the two original Buff Chanteclers, two Wyandottes, and an Easter-Egger. These new chickens have proved to be prolific layers–and I cannot help wondering if that isn’t the source of the problem.

The Chanteclers were never great layers. They are extremely hardy–and they’re not big eaters. I’m not sure if “cheap to keep” is enough. Alpha, the top dog of the chicken yard has never laid an egg so far as we can tell. We contemplated retiring her, early on (read “soup”), but my sister warned that the top chicken of the pecking order often doesn’t lay. She is, after all, a supervisor. If we retired her, there was the risk that any new top chicken would, in turn, cease to lay. So we kept her. She’s a bitch, but she’s our bitch.

The new chickens have upped the game. We are at the point where we produce more eggs than we can consume. Our neighbors thank us. But all this production seems to have rattled Alpha.

Alpha is no spring chicken. She must be five, and remember, she does not lay. But she’s gone broody on us! A broody chicken is one who goes through a hormonal shift, such that she seeks to develop a clutch of eggs to hatch. She’ll hang out in the brood box all day, sitting on any eggs she can find. Her temperature rises, and she goes into an uncharacteristic, driven mode. You can kick her out of the coop– but she goes right back. Some broody hens become aggressive. I suppose it works in the larger context–where a chicken could actually hatch a family, but we have no rooster. There will be no chicks.

Given that this is all in vain, we have to consider the cost to the chicken. It wears the hen out–all this obsessive behavior and the elevated temperatures, they’re bad for the chicken. It is in everyones’ interest to break the broody cycle.

We never had a broody hen before, so I called my sister for help. “You have to cool her down to break the broody cycle.” Just how does one chill a chicken? Apparently, you can either dunk her repeatedly in icy water (which sounds like torture to me), or you can isolate her in a cool location–with no nesting materials for insulation. This slower, but more humane method can take days.

So Alpha is in solitary. Our barn stays cool in the lower level–in the low 50s on the concrete floor. So Alpha is doing time, chilling. The other chickens don’t seem to miss her. As you can imagine, she’s pacing the floor, like the inmate that she is. Rick put the food and water outside the enclosure–he didn’t want any rattling of the tin cup against the bars of her cell. So far, I don’t see her getting any reduction in sentence for good behavior.

In a couple of days, we put her back out with the others, and hope that she is broody no more.

Now they just need to grow.

Only two short weeks ago, we were delaying putting in the garden because of night-time  hard frosts. And now, I need to be extra careful transplanting the starts in, because it’s hot (really hot) and dry. And those weather prognosticators? Paid to lie. Everyday this week they’ve predicted temperatures lower than what we’ve experienced (only to ‘update’ later in the day, with a more accurate ‘forecast.’ You can’t really call it a forecast if you’re announcing it in the moment. I can do that with a thermometer.

In any event, the garden is almost entirely in, and up. Seeds, prompted by the heat, are sprouting in record times. Seedlings, delicately watered three times a day, are surviving the heat, and transplant shock. This is the first year we’ve planted the garden entirely by seeds–starts nurtured in the basement during cold and carried out daily to enjoy the sun on warm afternoons. It’s much less expensive this way, and you have more control over the variety–not doomed to the fancies of our local nurseries.

It still looks meager, but in two weeks this will be going gangbusters. And, the hard part is done–just a little weeding and watering to maintain. We could use the break. We’ve been going apace since the trees arrived the first week of April. Now, we can catch our collective breath…before returning to building projects that’ve been on hold for the outdoor work. We’re going to try to finish the upstairs bathroom, which has been storage for a couple of years. And, we bought a new toy.

I’ve been watching for a used chipper since winter. It’s been an education. Not everyone needs a chipper–you have to have a lot of tree debris to make it worthwhile. We have acres of tree debris. We have a ‘burn pile’ the size of a small house–and no appetite for the burn (especially in such hot and dry conditions.) And we have endless uses for the chipped mulch that a chipper creates. 

After much research and asking around, we opted for a chipper that runs off the tractor PTO. They’re sturdier, and, if you properly plan your worksite, they use less fuel. They’re substantially more expensive, because they have to be sturdy enough to withstand the extra horsepower of the tractor. (Whoa, Nellie!) While the stand-alone models take much abuse and wear out–the 3 point chippers can last forever. We looked at everything on the market–and came out with a wish list for a self-feeding, horizontal feed model. We not getting younger, and the gravity feed chippers guarantee a lot of overhead wrestling with awkward materials. There’s a safety feature in it too, since self-feeding keep your hands further back, away from the awesome grinding machinery.

The sticker price on our wish list was daunting. Used, was our best bet. Unfortunately, we’re not the only one’s who’ve done this research, and good used models last about two seconds beyond when they’re listed on craigslist or marketplace. But I am nothing, if not steadfast in the search.

This past week there have been a bonanza of ads for chippers. There was an ad for the exact one we wanted (WoodMaxx), for about half the cost of new. I jumped at it. It did require a six hour drive to get it, but I’ve gone further for less. Rick came with me this time because…well, a chipper is the ultimate guy purchase, and it’s a tough load (over 950 pounds of it) and tie down. He was pretty nonchalant about it, until it actually happened. Now he’s thrilled. It’s not perfect; it will require a little maintenance and modification–which is right up Rick’s alley. 

Because, of course, it wasn’t quite as described in the ad (see title above), but not out of any dishonesty. We have done very well over the years, scrounging, often purchasing  used, high-ticket items from folks who had more money than sense. The people from whom we bought this item never needed it in the first place. (It had a total of 6 hours use, in the four years they owned it.) And, they’d assembled parts of it, backwards! Rick just shakes his head. He’ll have it up and running perfectly in a couple of hours. Now, if we could just get a break in the weather.

We’ve been scurrying to hurry up and build some new raised beds for the garden. Our preference is to use cedar boxes, but last fall I saw two concrete block raised beds for free on craigslist. Unlike some of my craigslist adventures, this one was really close–technically in the same town as us.  Concrete blocks are not light. So the first hurdle was just schlepping them home. Because of the weight in the truck, it took two trips. Good thing it was close! Anyway, with the cost of wood sky high these days, I figured a couple of free garden beds was a deal.

Ha! It took us over a week to build them! (That’s an editorial “we,” since Rick did most of the work.) What I hadn’t figured on was that Rick is constitutionally unable to just stack and go, like these blocks had been in their first incarnation. And, we’re on a slope, so there was the issue of cutting into the existing compacted sand, at just the right angle…and compaction of the “footing area.” Thankfully he didn’t insist on an actual footing. But he did use concrete to tie together the keys in the block, and he did mortar on the cap blocks.

All I did was clean the bricks and haul them. It’s quite the installation. Rick calls it the bunker. So, for only a week of backbreaking labor, and the cost of a couple of bags of concrete and mortar, we have some free garden beds. I have to learn to be more discriminating in my materials acquisition.  

Little seedlings awaiting their new homes

Ready to go.

It’s like somebody threw a switch! Up until just a week ago, we had freezing night time temperatures–and the days were comfortable working temperatures–but a bit on the chill side for garden progress. We didn’t mind; we were planting trees and doing the follow-up care of mulching and watering. I like a cooler day for working.

The last three days have made up for it and summer is coming in like a steamroller. It’s hot and humid. Yet we’re stuck with spring-transition chores that would be more comfortable with a softer transition. Nowhere is it more obvious than with the bees.

We’d left the winter insulating hive-jackets on–because of the freezing nights. And the winter quilt-boxes, because you have to remove the outer insulation to get to them. Suddenly, it’s time to give the hives room to grow and better air-flow. But it’s hot and humid and the bees are crabby!

We introduced a new hive yesterday. In the heat, it was enough just to put them in place in the apiary. We knew they needed an additional super (box) for growth, and a summer attic for ventilation. I thought I’d let them have a day to settle in, before any more disturbance. But today was even warmer and muggier than yesterday. 

My task today was simply to take off the outer cover, add a super and an attic, and replace the outer cover. If it were good weather, and I knew the bees, I’d have been tempted to forego suiting up–beekeeping can be hot and sweaty work, and the extra layers add up. As it was, I just pulled on a jacket and veil–not the full-body suit. It turned out that I was glad for the protection.

This new hive is crowded! I see a split coming in its very near future. In the meantime, they’re nasty in direct proportion to their congestion. For just a couple of simple chores, I had to walk away three times to let them settle down and even then, one tried to sting through my jeans. I could have used a full suit.

The task is done. It gives them some extra space. Hopefully, the next time I visit, they’ll be in a better mood. Every hive has it’s own personality. Some hives are just plain nasty.   Sometimes, if they’re really troublesome, it’s just easier to re-queen a nasty hive. But a “hot” hive can have its advantages. They are often wildly productive in the honey department. They can be worth the extra trouble. I’m hoping they’ll get situated, enjoy the extra room we’ve provided, and chill.

The remaining hives also need tending–they’ve always been mellow bees, so I’m sure it’ll be quick work, in a day or so. We’re expecting a storm tonight, which should cool things down, and restore some of their previous civility. And then, we’ll be caught up, and the work in the bee yard can be done by the bees.

o

It’s a challenge, every year, to get tree care tailored to the orchard’s needs. Our trees were selected for early, mid, and late season harvest–with some overlapping pollinators. Unlike a larger scale orchard, these all bud, leaf, and blossom at different times. Spring care is a crapshoot, in any event, doubly so for our motley collection.

We do spray–but we use organics. For early season care, we do two dormant sprays–the first is just a food-grade mineral oil, and the second is food grade mineral oil and garlic. Timing the first is easier; it can be done anytime when the tree is dormant. (Though, preferably not when things are freezing, or wet, or…. or.) It’s also helpful if you can nab a two-day window following, without precipitation. And, of course you want to avoid spraying in a high wind. Even with organics where overspray is not a toxic issue, spraying in the wind is just a waste.

This year we had weird weather–a rolling month of warm days and freezing nights. It confuses the poor trees. They’re inclined to bloom (and some did), only to lose the blossoms to the freeze. This won’t be a heavy fruiting year. And, you need to watch that those freeze damaged blooms don’t become a pathway to disease–like fire blight. You have to be ready to prune off branch tips that wither or turn black. I’m especially keeping an eagle eye on the pear trees, as they can quickly succumb to neglected fire blight damage. It appears that freezing is no longer a risk. But warm weather, and its attendant bug-load has come on fast, nearly tripping over itself to invade the orchard.

The mineral oil acts as a barrier, smothering eggs left on the tree from the last season and then killing and dissuading the early spring pests. The challenge each year is to time the second spray. Too early and you’ve wasted the effort. Too late and the bugs get a foothold. This year, the leaf-rollers have got ahead of me on two of the trees. Leaf-roller is a generic term for those little caterpillar larvae that hatch early and then make tiny tents out of the emerging leaves. I have at least three different varieties. I don’t have a window of weather opportunity for my second spray until Thursday. In the meantime, I’m taking attendance and squishing them when I see them. And I go out every other day or so, hunting them down, gently opening up their tents, to avoid damaging the tender leaves, and killing them. You can spot them easily enough by the bent-over foliage.

A real farmer, with an orchard full of trees, couldn’t possibly babysit like I do. I understand why they spray poisons. We laugh about how the local cherry farmers are always whining about the weather. I can afford the time to avert the worst of the infestations, and I don’t need market-perfect fruit. Even with the weird weather, things don’t look too bad so far. Maintaining an orchard is just like comedy, it’s all in the timing.

My biggest challenge is the rose chafers. We lost a plum tree to their damage last year, but this year, we’re ready. We bought bug-netting, and we’re going to wrap them like lollipops. So there!

It’s warm, and the air is sweet. The sun is shining. And though the leaves are not fully grown, their fresh light green tells you that a corner has been turned.

The forest, in all its dappled glory is filling out.

And even the fruit trees know that it’s time.

Happy Birthday, Kelly! A happy post, just for you.

Looks wild enough, except that cornfield peeking out on the right.

Recently, I read a book* by a nobel-prize winning author that raised my hackles a bit. Without giving away any plot twists, the book is an exploration of the territory between common senior crotchety and mental illness. The protagonist is an elderly woman who identifies more with the animal kingdom than with mainstream culture and expresses that anger towards a societal mindset that abuses and kills animals for its own convenience and sport. I didn’t particularly enjoy the book, but in some ways, I can identify. That I’m still thinking about it means it must have struck a chord.

I have my own bones to pick with mainstream culture–and often find myself at odds in ways that “normal” people would never understand.

The front ten acres of our property is where we mostly live. Our home, barn, apiary, garden, dooryard orchard and most of the hazelnut orchard all fall within the boundary of our front ten-acre panhandle. Our view out the front looks all wild, but, in fact, we have neighbors quite close. One of those adjacent neighbors leases the twelve acres around her house to a local rancher, who uses it to grow corn for his cattle. He only grows corn, year in, and year out. No crop rotation. There’s nothing unusual about this arrangement, or about his farming practices, and that is the crux of my problem.

Like most American farmers, he grows GMO corn with seed pre-treated with systemic neonicotinoids. Even the dust from that seed is enough to kill bees, not to mention the corn chaff itself. Like many farmers, he sprays and soaks the field with glyphosate, to combat weeds. This kills any weeds and many natural soil organisms. To my way of thinking, that parcel is dead and toxic. His corn survives only because it is grown in an applied chemical soup. Crops, on IV fluids. In part because of those practices, a few years ago we moved our bees up the hill.

We live on fragile, ancient dune soils. In the forest, the topsoils are deep and rich. But in the open, and especially on slopes, the topsoil is a whisper of a thin skin, holding our dune sands in place. This land was never meant to see a plow. Good soil isn’t just dirt. It’s a complex interwoven and dynamic community of plant, mineral and single-cell organisms. At its best, this magical, top six inches of the planet sustain us all. Alternatively, we can kill it in short order, by treating it as an extractive resource, instead of working with nature. At its worst, we have dustbowl. Historically, we know the dangers of farming practices that lead to dustbowl conditions. And yet, the common practices of “conventional” agriculture have us losing our topsoils at an alarming rate. I don’t have to look far, to see this in action.

So far this season, our neighboring farmer has plowed three times before planting. I don’t know why–the soil is so dead that no weeds dare grow there. Conventional agriculture plows excessively, to eliminate weeds, to aerate the soil and to bring nutrients to the surface. When our spring winds kick up, those soils take flight, in billowing, choking clouds of sand and dust (and Lord only knows what else) that blanket our front acreage. When I purchased the property, 30 years ago, the front ten acres were clear–timber cutover, they call it. It’s not lost on me that most of that is still clear, with a belt of pioneer trees in the middle, directly in the wind-shadow of our neighbor’s house. I have no proof that her airborne, chemically laden soils are poisoning our property, and there’s really no point in undertaking the expensive testing processes which would only confirm my suspicions. In a farming community that embraces chemical farming, my complaints would fall on deaf ears. But we are planting orchard trees there now, and it will be interesting to see how they do. The soils there have not been farmed in over forty years, and are our “bottomlands.” They should be rich and fertile. We shall see.

When I see the dustbowl clouds across our lower ten, I feel a level of disgust and anger that tightens my chest and clenches my jaw. Spitting mad. I am furious that his choice of toxic agriculture, frames our ability to enjoy and use our land in ways that are harmonious with nature. It crystalizes my general rejection of, and anger at, so many of the consumptive and exploitive aspects of our culture. And it echoes the crotchety righteous indignation of the protagonist in the book. Have I matured to curmudgeon phase? Is crazy settling in? Or am I sane, in a world that is not? 

“Someday we shall look back on this dark era of agriculture and shake our heads. How could we have ever believed that it was a good idea to grow our food with poisons?” 

—Dr. Jane Goodall

* Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk

Twelve trees left to go. Ten will go into pots, for later placement in locations that are not yet finally graded. The last two I’ll plant tomorrow. It seems appropriate to finish up on May Day. Of the trees already planted, sixty-seven of them got the “full-spa” treatment, orchard quality planting. Though we’ve planted over 200 trees before–never with so many getting the fancy planting protocol We are tired. Maybe we are getting old. As the last trees went into the new West Orchard, we were already planning the next round…pollinating partners to the new trees and locations for next spring. We must be insane.

Now I can go back to blogging about normal topics.

Eeeuuww!

We’ve been lucky so far. We’ve lived here for seven years, and in that time neither of us has had a tick bite. We’ve seen a couple, and last year one of the cats had a tick. (We frisk and comb them regularly, to check.)

I get peevish about this. When I was growing up, in Southwestern Ontario, we didn’t have ticks. We didn’t have ticks in the far North of Michigan, either. I remember that we visited friends in Indiana when I was eight or nine, and our parents warned us that Indiana had chiggers and ticks. We were disgusted! (and that’s from kids raised in the shadow of all manner of biting and blood-sucking pests, mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, horse flies, stable flies, and even leaches!)

Now we have ticks. Up until this year, we saw a total of three ticks. This year, the place is crawling with them. And it’s not just my childhood revulsion in play, ticks can give you Lyme Disease. So I feel fully entitled in my revulsion. I don’t know why we’ve seen this invasion. Is it climate change? Is it deer overpopulation?

Admittedly, the type of work we are doing right now makes us sitting ducks for ticks. We’re planting trees, which means we spend time on the ground, in the forest, and on the open grassy areas. And we have property that is awash in deer. (That’s why we need the tree cages.) Deer carry ticks. Deer sleep in the soft needle bedding under evergreen trees. We’re harvesting needles for mulch around the baby trees. So we’ve been beefing up our tick protocols.

After we saw the first tick in the house, we decided that we should remove our outerwear in the basement, before coming up into the house. After we saw the second tick, we decided that all outerwear needed to be removed, outdoors, and thoroughly shaken out, before being brought in to the basement, to be stored.

After we saw the third tick, we researched, and found that six minutes in a hot dryer would kill any hitchhikers, and that became the rule. But, even before we could do that, we saw the next tick on the bathroom wall–who, apparently rode in on my hair (and, thankfully, I brushed it immediately after coming in.) Now, we also have a hats-on-outdoors rule. Plus, we’re stripping outside at the basement door for tick inspection and apparel treatment. I’m sure this would be amusing, if the neighbors could see us.

I can hardly wait until the trees are in…so we can start on the garden.

Our current batch of tree planting was supposed to be ‘slash and stash.’ Sometimes our trees get the full spa treatment, while others are stuffed into the ground and left to fend for themselves. It depends largely upon where they go, and whether you can get resources to them. 

We have an upper meadow at the very west end of the property. It’s a lovely little clearing bordered on our side by pines and maple saplings. It’s only detraction is the neighboring parcel, which is, sadly, very poorly managed by clueless folks, who dream of growing a feed-plot for deer. In reality, they are using every chemical known to man to breed monster weeds. (That brown line on the left isn’t a natural feature.) We have long wanted to plant some kind of wind break on the lot line, to minimize what blows from their direction. But, the meadow is at the top of the property, up steep hills, and accessible only by foot. This year we planned on putting about 25 trees there–in a quick, stuff-them-in-and-cross-your-fingers kind of installation. (Lugging tools, soil amendment, cages, stakes and water isn’t a realistic option.)

Two things changed our minds about how we’d go about planting there, this year. First, we’d always assumed the soils were bad, like the sloped areas on most of the property. We were wrong. The first scoop of a spade revealed lovely, loamy, deep topsoil. Suddenly this was an area that deserved a better approach–even perhaps the full orchard treatment. The second thing was that Rick was determined to blaze a trail up there. We’ve been scoping out a route for years. So while I walked up to the prep for planting, he spent a day cutting a trail the Kubota could handle. I didn’t think he’d be able to do it. I was wrong, again. I was scalping the tree sites, when he came, literally, roaring into view.

Tractor access is a game-changer. It means we can haul water, soil amendments and tools. It means that the upper meadow will become another hazelnut orchard. It means that there’s no excuse not to do our best. It also means three days of work, instead of one. We treated it like a celebration. And then we got to work.

Each tree location gets scalped (I hate that it’s called that–but that’s the term the soil conservation folks use.) It means that you loosen the soil and remove any weeds and plants that would compete with your tree. In our case, that’s especially important because the main competition is our arch nemesis, spotted knapweed. So we clear a two foot circle, and weed a bit out from that. After scalping, amendment is added, for nutrients and for organic matter, to help the soil retain moisture. Then the tree is planted, watered, caged (to slow the rabbits down) and mulched. The full spa treatment. The last thing we do is to wrap the top edge of the cage in light-colored survey ribbon. It looks other-worldly, but we’ve found that if we don’t wrap, the deer can’t see the cages at night, and they stumble-over them, crushing the cages, and often, killing the tree. 

IMG_2785

Christo’s perforations

We use pine needles for mulch. They block weeds, and help hold moisture. They also help to acidify our alkaline soils. We started doing it because we have a lot of pine needles, conveniently located. Free is good. We like the needles from white pines best. They are softer, less prickly, and easier to rake. We only take the top layer–last year’s needle drop–leaving the older accumulation to protect the soil under the pine trees. We’re picky about our scrounging.

IMG_2786

A tiny tree in its cage.

Recently, an article in the Washington Post told the story of a cottage industry in North Carolina that forages, cleans, bags and sells premium pine needles for the upscale mulch market. It’s so sought after, that there are even varmints who’ll poach pine needles illegally from other’s pine plots. (Say that fast.) They’re seeking legislative relief to make it a crime to poach pine needles! Who knew? It turns out we’re trendy!

So, the wind break is planted. Twenty-seven trees. That means that so far, we’re up to 134 trees for this year’s planting season. Only seventy-three to go. We’re getting tired, but we’re beginning to see the end in sight.

We’re just over half-way on getting these trees into the ground. We’ve seen planting in too-warm weather, in relentless rain, and now, snow. Since the trees arrived we’ve had one major illness in the family, one death, and one family crisis. We are reeling.

The advantages of the trees’ early arrival, is that they’re going in quite dormant, and before the bugs arrive. The disadvantages are mostly weather related. Something is reminding me that a couple of years ago, I said, “No more than about a hundred,” after having exhausted myself putting in over two hundred. I guess I have no self control in the ordering department. Oh, that, and that the biggest price break hits at one hundred trees. We get to plant almost twice as many for the same price.

In some ways it’s a good thing to have this mammoth task, because it forces us outside–away from the fretting and worry that come with multiple crises. The past ten days has also been a slap upside the head to get our own estate matters in order. Who are we kidding? We are not young. And there’s nothing like seeing an estate or two wholly botched to know that you have no business visiting that upon your heirs.

That’s partly what we’ve learned from Covid–we are all living on borrowed time. Age and good habits are no guarantee. You can roll your eyes over someone’s diet–and get hit by a bus because you were momentarily inattentive. The least we can do is enjoy the time given.

So, we suit up, gather our tools and head into the forest to plant trees that we will never see fully grown. The forest is quiet. The ramps and dutchman’s breeches are pushing up through the leaf litter. The Spring Beauties are already up, and blooming. The work is not strenuous–just steady and repetitive. Marching up and down the hills is strenuous–but good exercise to get us ready for the rest of Spring.

In tree-planting, and in life generally, we’re half-way there.

Back in high school, track and field practices started in mid-March. They were brutal. Our coach, Mr. Monroe, had a ‘no pain, no gain’ theory of success. He probably drove more students away from fitness than he recruited for competition. He was a big believer in endless wind-sprints. You could tell who ran track because the halls were filled with the limping, groaning, victims of his torture sessions.

I had a secret weapon. I was already insane. I had started running daily, at age nine–before “jogging” was a thing. By high school, I logged in two or three miles early every morning, before school. So March was not a challenge for me. But someone told Mr. Monroe that I’d been running all along, which triggered him to focus on “full-body fitness.” I’m sure it wasn’t just because of me, but he countered with circuit training, a series of exercise stations that everyone had to complete, that included upper-body work-outs. It was the great equalizer. I could barely lift my arms enough to dial in the combination to my locker. Mr. Monroe grinned, and told me I’d thank him for it, someday.

These days, my spring workout begins when the trees arrive. They came this week. 206 trees. The vendors hold the trees until it’s planting time in your zip code. This is the earliest that we’ve ever received trees. Some are destined for a ‘slash and stash’ planting on the slopes of our forest. Some, orchard grade trees, get the full spa treatment–deep hole, lavishly amended, with a landscape cloth skirt, mulch cover and full fencing cage. Since these are usually larger trees, with more expense and risk, they go in first.

We’re putting in some walnut trees this year. Just a couple, at first, to see how they do. I’m hopeful, with visions of a small walnut grove–which is crazy. I’d be lucky to live long enough to see a walnut. In the meantime, they have lovely, deep green foliage, and make great shade trees. I’ve picked low-juglans varieties–which shouldn’t be too problematic for the foliage around them, and they’re planted with some distance from all, but a few ratty red pines. Mature walnuts can be toxic to the trees around them. They’re getting the full spa planting, and I ache to my bones with the digging. Upper body.

Unless it rains, I won’t be blogging much in the next two weeks. It’ll take us that long to get the rest of these babies safely into the ground. It’s a schlep, up and down steep hills, carrying shovels, planting medium, trees and water. Most of it, is upper-body. Thanks, Mr. Monroe.

In my young adulthood, my parents went through a rough patch. Call it empty nest, or mid-life, things were testy and sad. It was made worse by the fact that a ‘family friend’ took the opportunity to woo mum away. I wasn’t impressed. Some friend. Yuck. I consider my response to it all to have been ‘principled.’ I was doubly offended because, during the throes of it, the ‘friend’ hit on me, at the local bar.  Double yuck. Then my parents split and my mother married him. Fortunately, the divorce didn’t take, and a few years later, my parents reunited.

I may not have baggage, but I have my own way to carry a grudge. Some might disagree. During that brief, interim marriage, I made my peace with the situation on my own terms.

It all started with the smelt run. Nobody in town had ever seen them run like that before. We were pulling them out of the stream in five gallon buckets. At the time I was living with a Native American fellow, who was wildly into natural foraging. He did not need a license for fishing, and he loved to do it. So much smelt!

My sister deep-fried a bunch of it and we had a big feast. Then we processed and pickled it. We were young and poor and this was free protein. I delivered a smaller bucket of pickled smelt to my Mum. She was thrilled. On homemade bread, with a smear of cheese and onion…this is heaven–gourmet food for near-free! Admittedly, there was a lot of it.

It was a small town. I heard through the grapevine that the fish gift was not so well received by my step-father, though he never said a word to me. Apparently the man hated fish. But he was cheap. Cheap enough that he would never turn down a free meal. I held my tongue about what I’d learned.

My boyfriend and I foraged and fished all that summer. It was splendid. And, we were generous with our catch. We probably had excess fish, two or three times a week. It got to the point where I could see my stepfather visibly cringe when we pulled up in our truck. We brought berries, too, but not nearly so frequently as we brought the catch of the day.

I take no credit for the fact that the marriage didn’t last. But I note that the saying may be true, revenge is a dish, best served cold. Or hot, with lemon and grilled onions. 

sc0078b7ed

C’mon, who wouldn’t trust fish from such an enthusiastic, fresh face?

When we first arrived here, I think we had grandiose plans about the landscape. There is such a thing as too much space. What we envisioned, in terms of landscaping and plans, was way more than two elders could ever achieve, or maintain. We planted, willy-nilly.

We learned. Poor soils, invasive knapweed, ravenous rabbits and deer, outsized ideas. Some things, we did right. And others–well, plants died or failed to thrive, or found themselves poorly situated. We’re still learning.

In one area, we thought we’d plant a hedge of blooming and berry-yielding plants–for the bees. It’s time to re-assess. There are just too many critters competing for those delicious plants. Between the deer, the bunnies, the voles, the moles and the mice, it’s a wonder any of them are still alive. They should not have to spend their lives in cages (which only make them difficult to maintain); it’s time to transplant what’s left into areas where they will thrive. So yesterday I started. I have blueberries, honey berries, high bush cranberries, rhubarb, elderberries and saskatoons to relocate. They belong in the fenced garden, with the other domesticated plants. Unlike the blackberries, they have no defenses. What were we thinking?

In the interim, we’ve moved the bees up the hill–largely to get them away from nearby fields that are sprayed and treated with neonics.

So now we are rethinking the various spaces in the garden. By the time we finish, this fenced area is going to be packed–and that’s okay. Some things can stay where they are–the redbuds and lilacs are safe enough. I may even put in some dogwood varieties (Cornelian cherries). After all, some things we do plant for the wildlife. This will be the year of transition and reckoning. It will be busy. But in the meantime, it’s like musical chairs, these plants have no idea where they’ll end up, when the music stops.

How do you tell a plant that this is good news?

We don’t mind winter. We dress for it, and press on. Winter has its charms and beauty. And, after an invigorating day out in it, there’s nothing like the comfort of a warm hearth and a hot beverage.

And who could say anything bad about spring, eh? Life itself pops out before your very eyes. New leaves, spring flowers, baby critters!

March, though. March is a challenge. It’s a full on tease. A little warm weather and sunshine gets you all geared up–only to be slapped by an encore of winter, but wetter. It’s been alternating snow and rain all day. Really, it’s a good thing–the landscape could use a good soaking. But mostly, it’s grey and cold. (By any measure, not really so cold. These temperatures in January would’ve been a celebration.) Perhaps it’s the wet that is so daunting. Even the cats sit at the window, looking out wistfully.

Perhaps we’re just tired of it. I don’t know anyone who’s a big fan of March. Even the rains of April are a boon, compared to this relentless damp cold. Around here, many call it the fifth season…mud. I join the cats at the window, and wonder how the bees are faring.

In just a couple of weeks, I know that we’ll be too busy to even catch our breath. There will be trees to plant, new garden beds to establish, and seeds to start. Now though, I’ll start a fire and chase away the chill. There are always seed catalogs and nursery websites to keep the dream alive.

We put our energy into the house. And, as soon as it was livable, into the barn. The focus was always what was needed–so details like trim and completion were not addressed.

There’s a funny little L-shaped room at the top of the stairs. It was always intended to be a home office. But it wasn’t essential and so there it sat…collecting odd bits and empty boxes and stacks and stacks of papers that needed filing. Making it a working office was a challenge–the room is small, so regular office desks would make it cramped and unwieldy. Sigh. It had become a junk room.

And then I saw an ad for “office cabinets” on craigslist. I didn’t even know desk-height cabinets were a thing! I tried to buy them, but somebody beat me to it. However…it gave me a new set of search words. And so I searched. I found another set, fewer cabinets (which was okay), and a bit of a drive away…but they would work. Off I went on one of my used/new-to-us excursions.

There’s nothing like a new solution to drive a project forward. This won’t be their final incarnation. We have some maple table-top thingies in storage that will ultimately finish them off, but for now the original desktops will do. I had to clear a bunch of assembled junk, and find proper homes for things to keep. Within a week, Rick had done all the necessary customizing (they were too tall)(he had to ‘fit’ the tops), and we were installed!

A desk for me, and a desk for him. Now, the room still doesn’t have trim, and I still have to sort, organize and file all those boxes of papers, but it’s a working office. A place to work and to write. All our crap is now cleared from the living room and dining room. Mostly, it gives me clear head space–and that gives me room to resume writing. Slowly and surely, we’re settling in, even after years…in fits and starts.

We’re far enough north that “official” spring often doesn’t mean much. While the equinox may mean something to the chickens, ususally we’re still shin deep in snow for at least another few weeks. Not this year.

There’s still some snow, in deep spots where the blower piles it up, or in the shade, but early spring is upon us. I can start digging holes, maybe even transplant a few things. We have a lull, between now and when it’s safe to actually garden. I have plenty of projects to fill the lull.

There are raised beds to be built–some out of cedar and some of blocks. There still some dormant spraying to be done (damn winds, though.) It’s still too early to even start seeds indoors. As much as there’s laundry on the line and critters in the fields, a winter storm could still be lurking. Ask Denver.

But there is one bright light to the season so far. The bees. You may recall that we boxed them up and stored them in the barn through the worst of winter. Yesterday, it was time to pull them out and see how we did. At our recent Zoom bee meeting (aren’t we getting fancy) our members reported pretty disastrous winter survival ratings. Even seasoned beekeepers lost hives. It is my fervent belief that a mild winter may be even harder on the bees than a major blow. Cold doesn’t kill bees–moisture does, starvation does, and, I think, roller-caster ups and downs are hard.

So yesterday was the big day. I won’t keep you in suspense. All three hives survived. Within an hour of relocation to their regular digs, they were out and flying. We couldn’t be happier. The hives are light, though, an indication that they’ve eaten their way through their winter stores. Today we’ll feed them. There’s not much out there for forage this early–so they’ll get their honey back. It’s the least we could do.

Of course there’s the matter of ‘insurance.’ Anticipating disaster, I put in an order for bees. This will be the first time that our little apiary on the hill will be operating at full capacity. With possible splits…we may have more than we actually need. We’ve learned a lot and I think we can finally say that we are beekeepers.

Long story folks–just sharing an image with a fellow blogger.

It’s late winter, and the pruning season is upon us. I enjoy pruning. It is as close to sculpting as many of us get in adult life. Except, that pruning is collaborative. One reaches a good result, only when working with the tree’s own inclinations. And the results play out, and change, over the years.

The first year that the pioneers of our small orchard were in the ground, they were victimized by a visit from the deer. A cherry farmer friend of ours told us to pull them all out. “They’ll never recover,” he warned me. I agonized over it, but finally decided to save the trees–and address their injuries through pruning. You can tell. The trees aren’t perfect. Several of them have a bit of a wobble in their lower limbs. I think of it as character. At six years, those trees are now teenagers–and beginning to bear fruit. Nothing could be more delicious.

We also have a couple of “ancient” apple trees. When my ex and I first bought the property, decades ago, we dropped in a couple of trees from a local nursery. We didn’t know then about the poor soils, or about careful tree selection. These trees received no water, or love, or care. We did cage them to protect from the deer, but even the cages have caused injuries. It’s a wonder they survived. I’ve spent the last six years rehabilitating them, carefully shaping them around old injuries and neglect. When they bear, the fruit is incredible–but it’ll be a little bit more coaxing before I can call them fully recovered.

Ours is a dooryard orchard. That is, a small orchard near the house, for personal use. It has several kinds of fruit trees–apple, pear and plum. The trees are selected for northern hardiness, disease resistance, pollinating partners, harvest timing, and flavor. When things fully mature, we should have a continual harvest from July through November. Because there are different kinds of trees, and even different varieties–they do not have the crisp, military uniformity of a commercial orchard. The first few years were really ragged looking. Our neighbors shook their heads. But now, the ugly duckling orchard is coming into its own.

This is the first year that it still looked like an orchard, even after pruning. Keeping the mantra of orchard pruning in the back of my head (“remove dead wood and crossed branches, prune for lateral growth, layer for light and air, cut back a third of the new growth, and prune to a bud directed toward where the tree should go,”), the trees always looked too little after pruning. This year, they’re shorter…but still look like trees. It’s all about patience. There are a few babies, still, late additions to the tribe. A year or so ago, I added some ‘exotics,’ a seckel dessert pear (Napoleon’s favorite), a crab apple (pollinating insurance), and an Arkansas Black apple…just because I wanted it. I think we’re done with new trees, at least if we want to stay inside the fence.

Doing okay after an early wobble

Over the winter, some deer broke into the fenced orchard again, and nibbled on the trees. But now, most of the trees are big enough that the damage was minimal. I almost have to compliment some of the deers’ efforts…they nibbled right to where I’d have pruned…but they could’ve left cleaner cuts! This spring Rick will fortify the fencing. Hopefully, we’ll be the ones making the pruning decisions in the future. In any event, they’re trees now, and they’ll be fine.

Maybe, at some point in the future, I’ll experiment with grafting, which is a pruner’s ultimate conceit.

It’s that time of year. The snow is melting. People are (foolishly) talking about this being spring. It’s not even March yet! Northern Michigan can deliver a wallop of a snow storm well into April! The annual season of uncertainty is magnified through the lens of climate change. It makes a difference.

Do we, for example, start our vegetable seeds? Don’t be silly. Start now and you’ll have a leggy mess of pale spindlies by planting time. Nonetheless, I’ve already ordered, and received my garden seeds, and there’s temptation, looking out over the melting snow. I won’t get crazy though, because Tuesday will drop us back down sub-freezing, and the world will be a slippery hazard. Such is late winter.

What about pruning? Now there’s a climate change conundrum for you. Pruning is done in the dormant season. You could always prune in January, and you’d be just fine…albeit frozen, and up to your eyeballs in snow. But many of us play games with pruning. You can prune a little later, and buy yourself a little insurance against a late freeze. The trees undergo some hormonal adjustments after a pruning and that slows budding once the weather warms. But, delay too long…and you’ll put your poor fruit trees in bloom smack in the middle of bug season. It’s a tightrope in a good year. I’ll start my pruning this week–during the coming cold snap, so the sap won’t run from the pruning cuts.

Mostly this time of year is for planning and dreaming (and ordering.) It’s time to order trees. Every year I struggle with this. I have to balance budget–money and time–with my feeling of urgency to diversify the forest and get more trees into the open areas. I can comfortably plant a hundred trees a year by myself. Trees are cheaper in bulk, the biggest break in price-point comes at a hundred trees. But… I want to plant more than just one kind of tree.

Sigh. I spend these late winter hours flipping from website to website, researching varieties, tree requirements, and prices. Our property is particularly difficult, with its ancient dune soils. Well-draining, yes, but with damning nutritional deficits. We’ve discovered that hazelnuts fare well here–but they are smaller, transitional trees. They can thrive in the understory, as well as in the open. (Our understory has our best soils–but we still have some open areas that are real challenges.) I haven’t fully decided yet, but this year, I’m moving in the direction of 100 basswood trees, and 100 hazelnuts. It’s a calculation…diversity/money/time. 200 trees. I usually do most of the tree-planting–Rick has other spring chores, building planting boxes and fencing. But if we go to 200, he nods, he’s on board for this. We believe that tree-planting is necessary to diversify the forest and to combat climate change. We feel compelled, before we get too old, or before its too late.

Two hundred trees is a challenge. Just physically–because they arrive bareroot and you need to get them into the ground as quickly as possible. I’ve done it before, with Rick’s help, I’m sure we can do it again. Just a little more research…and we should probably snowshoe to the back-forty, to check measurements. This is what keeps one busy, before the rush of spring.

One day’s wood.

There are things that must be done, before the day can start. Whoever rolls out of bed first gets it going. It’s nice that chores integrate seamlessly, and without comment or rancor. It just rolls. There are occasional discussions about priorities. Cats must be fed and the cat-door opened for the day. Coffee water must be put on to boil. If I’m up first, I see to the cats first, because otherwise they get underfoot. For Rick, there is no priority greater than coffee in the morning. (And the cats seem to know it and, with him, they don’t interfere.)

Then, while waiting for the water, the coffee is ground and put in the filter. These discreet steps can be done by either of us, and we frequently just step in, ad hoc, to keep the flow of it going. Once there’s a steaming mug of coffee for each of us, we may just read the paper for a bit. Depending upon the plan for the day, I’ll often do the set up for the fire–clean the glass on the wood stove and carry up several armloads of firewood from the wood-crib outside the downstairs door, to load the copper boiler behind the stove. In “normal winter weather” we use what’s in the boiler each day. The house is small, and well-insulated.

We’re abnormally picky about keeping the glass clean, because we enjoy the aesthetic aspects of the fire. It’s a big part of our version of winter cozy. We don’t light the fire until later, sometime in the afternoon. When the house hits 62 degrees, it’s time for the fire. (16.6 C) Again, whoever feels chilled first usually takes on the fire-building task. It’s amazing how dead-on we are to that temperature threshold. We don’t live in the world of thermostat controls. There’s an overhead fan to circulate the heat. It’s surprisingly effective, keeping the entire house balanced within a couple of degrees.

Usually, one or the other of us will clean up around the wood stove, after the wood is brought up, and before we get on to other tasks. One of the things they don’t tell you about heating with wood, is that it can be very messy–with bits of bark and ash flying all over. It helps to make tidying up part of a regular routine. Otherwise, you wake up one day and realize the house is a disaster–covered in dust and ash and wood bits. Once a week or so, we have to ‘muck out the stove,’ shoveling out the ash and charcoal bits. Most of that goes into the composter. All these steps are a small price to pay for winter warmth, under our own control. We do it without much thought, that is, until things like Texas happen. Then we remember to be grateful.

These things done, we get on with the rest of the day.

The One-Bite Rule

In most jurisdictions, the law recognizes that the owner of a dog should not be held responsible if their dog unexpectedly bites someone. The first bite is free. After that, it is foreseeable, and the dog owner has a responsibility to contain the animal for the safety of the general public.

Not surprisingly, insurance takes the same position. Insurance, after all, is there to protect you from unexpected losses and occurrences. They’ll pay for the unexpected event–but not for the foregone conclusion. There is no advantage in it: insurance being loathe to pay out in the first place; and it doesn’t serve public policy to encourage risky behaviors.

Which brings us to Texas, specifically, and FEMA generally. Despite their anti-socialist political rhetoric, Texas is more than willing to seek, and accept disaster relief for their recent cold-snap debacle. I tend to want to help folks out when disaster strikes, and many of the people of Texas are struggling, largely without fault on their own part. After all, part of the purpose of the social safety net is too help in emergencies, even if the emergency was foreseeable. But we might want to look a little harder at the underlying circumstances, and adopt an insurance viewpoint–the one bite rule…or else our policies risk making the foreseeable inevitable.

Texas, as a state, and as an energy provider, was well aware of the risks posed by winter weather. A number of reports had pointed out its vulnerability–the cause of which was not winter weather, but by the fact that the Texas Grid failed to provide safety measures for perfectly predictable cold weather. After all, Iowa does it–and they were hit by the same storm. In fact, all of the northern states have safety redundancies built into their systems to address both excessive hot, and cold weather. Texas doesn’t. In fact, Texas opted out of the national grid decades ago, specifically to avoid the kind of regulations required in other areas. Texas decided to go it alone. You know, it’s that Texas rugged individualism–that spirit of personal responsibility. Yeah, right.

Whose hand is out now?

I am not suggesting that we do not help the true victims of this emergency. But I think we need to look hard at the next emergency.

When disasters hit–hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, droughts, floods, etc., it is only humane to provide emergency relief. But we have done more, using federal tax dollars to rebuild in the wake of catastrophes. We need to be smarter about that, especially since we’ve done so little to forestall the impending impacts of climate change. I’m not the first to advocate the one-bite rule, but too frequently, it’s advocated in harsh Biblical terms, instead of connecting the dots of common sense.

We can, and do, investigate the causes of natural disasters, and what could have been done for prevention or mitigation. Sometimes, we’re even smart enough to require changes to building codes or zoning, to prevent recurrences. Not always.

By providing rebuilding relief, in areas plagued by fire, flood or hurricanes, without restrictions, we may ensure repeat failures. So it isn’t unreasonable to require that such relief come with commons sense conditions. Perhaps rebuilding should require fireproof construction methods–or braced construction designed to withstand earthquakes. We shouldn’t provide flood relief to areas that we know will flood again. There are some risks that are so likely that areas should be abandoned to further development. That doesn’t mean we don’t help at all–it just means that the help is conditioned on higher standards, and/or relocation. And we really need to look at this, now–before the worst of climate change hits our coffers.

FEMA relief affects all of the other market driven systems. If FEMA restricts future bail-outs in a given area regarding a particular risk, insurance companies will back away from that market. After all, insurance isn’t in the business of saving us from known hazards. If insurance backs away–the banks will follow. Developers won’t be able to get financing for building where the risks are too high. One wonders if the ultimate beneficiaries of generous FEMA policies haven’t been unscrupulous developers and financiers. It’s time to make policy make sense.

There’s one more step to minimizing losses in the future. Let’s revisit that heralded concept of personal responsibility. And by this, I don’t mean that disaster losses should fall on the shoulders of the innocent. I mean that those who don’t prepare for foreseeable risks should bear the costs of that failure. Hello Texas! Your energy companies should be responsible for ALL of the repair costs to homeowners, cities, counties and utilities for their dereliction of duty regarding winterizing their facilities. After all, there have been several reports on ERCOT’s risks regarding cold weather operations–each report following smaller disasters. We’re not talking impossibility here–northern states do it. What we need is responsible stewardship. We cannot allow irresponsible, for-profit operators to ride on the backs of taxpayers with disaster bail-outs, when the disaster could have been avoided by common sense responsible operations.

If it can work for dogs, it can work on a larger scale.

I’m thinking that there is some geographical inequity in this whole last-chance-before-Lent celebration. Brazil has Carnival–and wow, that’s some kind of party. New Orleans has Mardi Gras, a wild time, and a toss of cheap plastic necklaces, sort of Brazil-lite. (But they make up for it with Jazz.) And what did Northerners get? Pancakes. Wow–that’s some over-the-top event where you get to splurge by emptying the larder of animal products, before 40 days of deprivation.

And…it’s been some 1400 years since Pope Gregory laid down the law on animal products during Lent. Look what other cultures have done with it! They’ve upped the ante into outright debauchery–parties, parades, face painting and masks, dance competitions and many things done with feathers. Hell, it might take the full 40 days to recover from the hangover. And we get pancakes for dinner. One night. Maybe a little maple syrup.

I confess, in search of something a little more festive, I made waffles. Good for another year.

‘Cold snow’ is the small, fine, dry snow that comes with a protracted deep chill, like we’re having now. Some, like Western skiers, call it ‘powder,’ but the cold, lake-effect snow we get here isn’t the same as the high altitude powder I know from my California days. Our snowflakes are tinier, icier and more wind blown. It’s the kind of snow that can deliver a white-out with even a light wind on an open field or roadway. People will ask, “Is it snow, or blow?” distinguishing new-fall from mobile. Sometimes, you’ll see cold snow falling on a partly sunny day, and it takes your breath away, its icy flakes catching the light and sparkling like an engulfing swirl of glitter.

If there’s a driving wind, this fine stuff can pack together, creating the kind of rigid solid snow, that was my favorite as a kid. Not a crusted top, but a thick layer of dense pack snow that you could ‘saw’ into shapes using the back side of your mittened hand as a cutting edge. We’d cut blocks, and stack them for the walls of our snow forts. I suppose we could have arched them, to make igloos, but either our climate or our attention spans wouldn’t support that kind of architecture. It’s an entirely different animal than the wetter, kind of ‘packing’ snow, good for snowball fights, sculptures and snowmen.

As an adult, I’m further north than I was as a kid. Maybe far enough that, with the right conditions, could make for an igloo. But I am no longer inclined to build more than a couple of snowmen each season. I know that, even further north than here, friends of my Mum’s used to gather for the holidays each year, and, if there was enough of the right kind of snow, they’d build a big igloo for their winter partying. I think it’s something that lends itself to a group activity…and alcohol…and only if you have the right kind of snow.

Despite growing up in the north, I find that there’s a paucity of snow language in English. We were always told that the Inuit had over fifty words to describe different kinds of snow, and that turns out to be true, if you count all of the different dialects, and the fact that their language creates new words out of compounded descriptors. None of that specificity has crossed over into English.

We’ve reduced the myriad forms of snow conditions to a few well-worn phrases, designed mostly to warn of hazardous driving–winter mix, blizzard, sleet, slippery conditions, white-out, icy roads and slush. There’s so much more to it, rich, specific words, but they’re not well known. Rick and I used to describe a particular type of snow as ‘styrofoam pellets,’ (which everyone understood) until we found that there was a perfectly good, accurate word that describes those little, soft, round-ball snow pellets, ‘graupel.’ But who ever heard of graupel? We now use it–but nobody I know knows what we’re talking about. It’s our secret language. We make up new words all the time…most recently, bough-bombs, to describe chunks of snow caught in the tree limbs, that drop on you when the wind picks up.

Snow separates people into those that like it, and those it repels. Our state has an entire demographic that runs south each winter–Snowbirds. My own sister, the nomad, falls into this group. Just as I have my own limits (I’m not crazy about outdoor recreation in single digits) she doesn’t want to be anywhere that she cannot comfortably wear flip-flops! They’re in for a big surprise this year, this particular sub-zero, winter front extends all the way to Texas, where they have neither the experience, nor infrastructure to deal with it. Already I’ve seen photos of snowbirds, blanket-huddled in their winter RVs. There are reports of rotating power-outages and burst plumbing. We try not to be smug about it.

It may be that the muffled beauty of snow leaves many speechless. We’re left with long inept descriptions of particular conditions, leaving only the scientists and poets qualified to wrestle out the true language of snow.

Sour Dough, Gluten-Free Pizza from Scratch (without a recipe)

This is a personal triumph! A pizza so good that Rick likes it as well as regular-people pizza–and that I can eat without thinking twice. I’m kinda getting the hang of this whole baking gluten-free bread products thing.

We’ve been (not so) patiently waiting for winter. That may not make sense to some…those who don’t like cold, or snow. But winter has its delights, indoor and out.

It’s been mild, with well under half of our usual snow. Today counts as the first real taste of winter, with a northern front dropping temperatures and delivering the first punch of snow–with lake effect following through with another several inches.

We won’t shovel or blow until tomorrow. No point. More will just keep falling. Our general rule is to avoid snow removal until ‘after.’ The one exception is if its a major blow, with more than a foot or so predicted. In that case, we’ll get out there half way through, to establish our various paths before the dump erases all of our visible margins. This is especially true for wet, heavy snow, because that makes the hand shoveled areas arduous. This, though, is lovely and light–clumping enough for a decorative frosting on the trees–without bending them over in submission. There’s plenty of time for snow removal. Today, we just enjoyed its beauty from our vantage point, warm and inside.

Snow changes the light–makes everything brighter, even the night. It accentuates how nice it can be indoors, with a good book and a cup of tea.

Our snow pack gives us our early spring greenery, holding its water for a slow drip release. So this turn of weather is a relief, a gift in a number of ways. It reminds you that, even as the landscape sleeps, it’s time to plan the garden, order seeds and trees for spring.

If we look beyond the barriers, there’s more that binds us than what separates us.

I was criticized today for responding to a Facebook post with the common expression, “You go, girl.” The commenter’s perspective was that, as a white woman, I don’t own the right to use that phrase, especially to a woman of color. I reject that premise.

Language is a great unifier. The expression, “You go, girl,” says more about a commonality, a sisterhood of women than any ‘white’ expression I could summon. It’s an expression that I use frequently, after having lived in America’s most integrated city for twenty-eight years, because, in three short words, it encapsulates admiration, support, and solidarity with the recipient. I am all for borrowing language when it best expresses a particular point and is not used in any derogatory way.

We have a long way to go on race issues.

During my time in Oakland, I worked a variety of jobs, janitor, waitress, cashier, law clerk, school teacher, adult literacy coordinator and lawyer. I’m an odd duck, and never socialized much with lawyers. For the most part I didn’t share their values, but more specifically, most lawyers were unable to relate to someone who spoke their language but didn’t embrace an upwardly mobile consumption based lifestyle. At best, I was the odd duck, at worst, a subversive.

In Oakland, lawyers were supposed to live in the hills. I lived in the flats. Lawyers hired landscapers and gardeners. I ‘farmed’ my little urban yard. Lawyers golfed or played tennis, ‘at the Club.’ I volunteered for environmental causes and believed that golf courses were dangerous, chemically loaded, monocultures–both environmentally and socially. Basically, I didn’t blend well.

I worked in shared legal office space, and generally got on better with support staff than with the partner types. But even in Oakland, there were color lines. Looking back, my errors in racial harmony were often sins of omission, and missed opportunities. I am friendly to everyone, but I do not push. Sometimes, I should push.

In one shared office there was a young, brilliant, African-American paralegal, Alicia, who had taken a dislike to me. She was elegant and poised, in a way that I could never be. I admired her; even under casual observation, she was clearly competent, efficient and had leadership potential. It was odd, to admire who she was, when she was so obviously dismissive of me. I didn’t push. Her business is her business. But I remained cordial to her, and friendly with everyone else in the office, which was an even racial mix. I was a good friend to Deb, her best friend in the office. Deb was always trying to patch us together, “You two have so much in common…” but it never took.

At the time, my personal office had an eclectic decor. Most lawyers posted their various diplomas and certificates, impeccably framed and impressive. How boring. I mean, really, if they’re sitting across the desk from you, the clients already know you went to school. My office had paintings, antiques, fossils and, nearly always, flowers. I spent most of my waking hours in that room, I wanted to like it. On one wall, I hung a small collection of vintage, mesh handbags. Those who knew me always commented on the incongruity of my collection. Why would a woman, more comfortable in the garden than in the halls of fashion make such a choice? The answer didn’t come out, until I was packing up to leave.

After several years there, the firm from which I sublet was expanding. They needed their office space back. So I was packing up to make the move. It was heavy work, so I took a break at lunch for a solid meal in the lunch room. Deb joined me, bemoaning how much she was going to miss me in the office. Alicia was collating documents at another table. Deb finally got up the courage to ask me about the handbag collection. I paused and tried to explain.

The mesh handbags are remnants of a time where women lacked their own agency.  If lucky, they (the women) were decor on the arm of a successful man. The mesh handbags reflected that, they were delicate and small. They could only carry a woman’s barest necessities–a powder compact, some small change, and perhaps a small pencil and printed cards for society messages. They reflected a time and values that I completely reject, and yet, they were beautiful, and had endured some seventy years. There was a message in that for me–and the collection reflected my struggle to reconcile that history with my present.

When I looked up, Alicia had joined us at the table. For the first time, she looked at me without derision. She confessed that she collected vintage Barbie dolls, for similar reasons. Barbie represented a dominant culture to which she was not invited, only because of the color of her skin. But, she was a little girl and she longed for them–though Barbies were financially beyond her family’s reach. Throughout her childhood, the messages to young girls were all in the Barbie mode–much like the handbags were to women in the 1920s. Now, an adult, she could literally ‘own’ that discrepancy, by owning the very vintage dolls that eluded her in childhood. Her collection was her secret indulgence. The handbags were mine. We both scoured Ebay for our finds.

We looked at each other with fresh eyes, and laughed. The curtain drawn back, we shared our stories. There were more similarities than differences. Both of us had been the first in our families to complete college. We had both worked through college, paying our own way–coming from families that had to stretch the dollars to make life work. She was shocked, having assumed that I’d been born to the kind of family that paved one’s way to success. That had been the source of her distance. She shook her head and apologized. But I shared the guilt. After all, I explained, I’d long admired her–but having been rebuffed I’d backed away! My instincts told me that she was a kindred spirit–but I let the barrier stand. We’d both paid the price in lost opportunities. And here I was, moving away!

I’m ready to unpack some of my keepsakes from Oakland. I’ve scaled back the collection, but some of the best handbags will now go up on my wall. They’re now nearly a hundred years old and I haven’t yet fully unraveled why they appeal to me, while, in the same breath, they embrace everything about gender that I reject. But now they carry extra layers of personal meaning.

We are all more similar than we are different and our failure to recognize that is the source of the biggest of lost opportunities–the chance to connect with one another.

One of the things Rick and I have done, from the very start, since moving here, is to walk fairly regularly. We try to avoid the “main drag,” especially in summer and winter. We have easy access from that highway to our cross-street, and thence to our quiet little road. In summer, the roar of, and speed of the traffic on the highway makes walking  unpleasant.  In winter, the plow doesn’t clear far enough from the roadway to make it safe. For part of the year, we limit ourselves to mostly our little road. We live at the intersection where the cross-street meets the beginning of our road; at the other end, it loops back to the highway. There and back gives us a walk of just over two miles, without having to deal with traffic.

Our road is very local. There’s a cluster of homes at each end. The middle doesn’t even have power, which has kept it wild, and beautiful. The only heavy traffic we see is in the summer, when tourists on bicycles use it as an alternative route, to avoid the  highway traffic. Indeed, our road is so quiet that we look up from what we’re doing when vehicles pass. We have a nodding acquaintance with our neighbors–and I mean just that–when they drive by, we nod, or wave. We’re not very social, but we do that. Despite living here for years now, we’re still considered “the new people,” and we haven’t made more than a handful of actual friends.

It became clear, as soon as we started walking, that our route needed some regular maintenance. Apparently folks haven’t yet learned that the countryside is not their trash can. About quarterly, we do the walk bearing trash bags to pick up all the litter that accumulates along the roadside. It’s surprising how much we get. It’s surprising just what people throw out the windows as they speed by.

There’s the expected cigarette butts. (Make no mistake, this kind of trash is not just unsightly, it’s poisonous to wildlife, and if in water, can be deadly to fish.) There’s candy wrappers, and clamshell to-go containers, even pizza boxes. Sometimes we’ll find brand-name beverage cups, McDonald’s or Burger King–even though there are none of these outlets in our county. Junk travels. Most shocking to me is how many liquor bottles and beer cans we find–evidence of drinking and driving.

We also find construction debris, and automobile parts. Are these cars just falling apart as they whizz by? More than once, we’ve collected more than we can carry, and we have to take a second run at it. We find the bulk of the trash on the highway and on our cross-street, which bear heavier traffic. But even our quiet little road through the forest gets its share. Spring is our heftiest harvest, the retreating snows revealing a winter of sins. This is when we find most of the liquor bottles–people on snowmobiles out for a good time.

Labor Day is another regular trash run, cleaning up the excesses of the tourist season. We’ll do a couple of lighter runs if things look messy, and we’re always picking up beer cans.

If you do this, year in, year out, in a particular location you get to know the patterns of a neighborhood. Sure, the snowmobile crowd leaves their particular type of trash, as do the summer tourists with their to-go food. But some of this is specifically local. By this, I mean beer cans. Collecting this kind of trash gives you an entirely different view of the traffic. There’s a lot of impaired driving out there.

We have one particular offender. This guy (and unfairly, we’ve always assumed it was male) drinks cheap beer that comes in a blue can. He’s local. His litter is not seasonally dependent. We can even chart his path–since the cans most specifically line our cross-street, a particular stretch of highway and our little road. For years, we’ve been picking up his cans. I always mused that it was an expensive habit–even if you just counted the foregone deposits on all those cans. Rick’s theory was that he tossed the cans so that he wouldn’t have a vehicle full of empties–in case he was pulled over. I thought he was concealing his habit from family. Either way, recycling takes a back seat to privacy when you have something to hide.

And so, over the years, we’ve debated, creating a fictional profile for our most durable litterbug. We’ve wondered what we’d say if ever confronted by this guy who so regularly soils our landscape. Until yesterday.

Yesterday was beautiful, a mid-winter break from our regular gloom. The sun came out and lit up the snowscape with brilliant vivid clarity. It was cold, but spectacular, a perfect day for a walk. I guess everyone thought so, because our little road was filled with the footprints of walkers. (It’s the sort of thing you notice if you’re a regular.) We marched up our little road, marveling at the light on the snow. Near the the other end we encountered a truck–it’s not unheard of to see a vehicle while we walk, but it’s notable. Rick waved, and so did I, as we do. Except that Rick actually identified the driver. A friend from town. Rick was surprised that he didn’t stop, roll down the window and engage in local banter, as folks do. He commented that it was odd for him to use our road. I defended, because, it’s a lot prettier than the highway, even if out of his way.

On our return, we found it. A single blue beer can in the middle of the road. It hadn’t been there when we’d passed on the way out. We hadn’t encountered any other vehicles on our walk. In a sad way, things fell into place. It all made perfect sense. We’d always wondered what we’d say, and now we know… we won’t say anything.

Other people celebrate their maturing relationships with evermore valuable baubles, starting as humble as paper, with aspirations of gold, silver, and even diamonds. We have no such goals.

Let’s just say we got a late start. But we have just celebrated our Crumbs Anniversary, and oddly, simultaneously achieved a long term objective in that very department.

We moved in together ten years ago. Both scarred by failed marriages, it was a dicey start. There’s always that fear that the person you’ve been hanging with will turn into Frankenstein, once the furniture is rearranged and the additional keys are cut. For just a instant there, Rick thought he’d fallen into exactly that horror scenario.

It was the evening of our second day. I walked into the dim kitchen to make myself a snack. Initially I didn’t bother to turn on a light, but then, couldn’t find the utensil I needed in the dark drawer. I flipped the switch and was taken aback at what I saw on the countertop.

Crumbs!

I called him into the kitchen to point out his crime. “Rick, we need to talk.” He looked at me as though I’d grown horns! Really, I didn’t think I was asking so much–yet everything about him changed in that moment. His posture became defensive and he beat a quick retreat, slinking back to his office. In light of the situation, I didn’t understand what I perceived as an over-reaction to my comment.

A few moments later, snack in hand, I realized that we might not be communicating. I followed him in his retreat.

“You know it’s about gluten, right?”

He looked up. “What?”

“The crumbs issue. It’s only an issue because it can make me sick.”

His relief was palpable–he exhaled and tipped his head back, and then nodded. “Thank God! I thought you’d suddenly turned into some kind of maniac neat freak–and here I’d just moved in!”

“No, no. It’s just we need to discuss the blended house thing. Of course you can eat wheat, but we also need to create patterns that are safe.”

And he has been a marvelous partner since. He’s actually more careful than I am. After all, there have been some mistakes made along the way, and he’s seen the price I pay. Crumb patrol is serious stuff in this house.

We laugh about it. And we’ve fully adjusted. It turns out you can share a house and a kitchen with a Wheatie, without being endangered.

I am a bit of a foodie. And it has always been my objective to create healthy food that tastes great. Gluten-free threw a bit of a wrench into that goal, but I make the effort.

So, as if to bring it full circle, one thing that the pandemic wrought was my return to bread baking. Pre-wheat intolerance, I’d been an awesome baker. For decades I not only baked all our bread, but I ground and blended the flour…always in search of the perfect loaf. Suddenly not being able to eat wheat was like landing on a foreign planet. I gave up. Gluten-free breads were generally brick-like and inedible.

The pandemic sour-dough revolution was contagious. My sister gave me a gluten-free sour dough starter and the gauntlet was thrown down. After decades, I returned to the world of bread. In short order I was able to make a loaf that was “not bad for gluten free.” But that was never the objective. The challenge was to make healthy bread that even Rick could enjoy, without noticing that it was gluten-free.

Yesterday I baked the first “cross-over” loaf of bread. After six months of tinkering and experimentation…bread. This might not sound like much to the regular world, but…it has a warm and golden color, it rose to an acceptable level of loft, the crumb is even, moist, and elastic, and it tastes like real bread. Coincidentally, it happened to be our anniversary, our Crumbs Anniversary. It took ten years, and a pandemic, to bring us to this.

Now, if I can only get my hands on some amaranth flour…

In 2004, I discovered that I could not tolerate gluten. Until then, I’d been a prolific baker, and ever since I’ve been reinventing the wheel to figure out how to get healthy, tasty baked goods. It can be a challenge.

I’d pretty much settled on a Banana Bread recipe just over a decade ago. I don’t tolerate sweets much, so it was not overly sweet. It has nuts for protein and texture, flax seed for all things omega. I thought it was pretty good. But Rick never ate it. He’d make excuses, said it should be for me, since I didn’t get many baked goodies. But I could tell; it just wasn’t a treat for him. Recently, I’ve made a few changes to the recipe–and now he’s sold. Can you guess?

Perfect Banana Nut Bread

3 medium to large bananas

1 cup chopped pecans

2 eggs

1/2 cup mixed butter and coconut oil (50/50), melted

1/3 cup sugar (or honey)

1/3 cup ground flax seed

3/4 teaspoon xantham gum

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup raisins

1/3 cup chocolate chips

1 cup oat flour

1/2 cup gluten free baking flour

Bake at 350 for 90 minutes (until interior temperature is between 190 and 200)

This is not a fussy recipe and I tinker with it. So, what’s the magic ingredient? If you guessed chocolate chips, you’re dead on. I also subbed in oat flour, for a springier texture, but it’s the chocolate that won him over.

I have a friend who is also a Facebook “influencer.” He has been warning people for weeks that they need to stock up, that instability and uprisings will likely interrupt the supply chain, causing shortages of food and necessities.

Until last week, I thought it was overblown. But then, I grew up with a pantry mentality.

My parents had only one car, which my father needed to get to work. We lived in Canada in the 1960s, when blue laws meant that grocery stores were not open on Sundays, and only open a half day on Saturdays (and some closed on Wednesdays–don’t ask, it has convoluted historical roots.) So shopping for a family of seven was inconvenient, and a big deal.

Once every two weeks, in the wee hours of the morning, my parents would load us up into the car, drive us all to my Dad’s office (across the river in Detroit), and then Mum would take us home so we could get to school. She’d do the shopping during the day (often with a kid or two in tow) and then, at the end of the day, load us all up again, to go pick my Dad up. Grocery day was grueling and an inspiration for any mild-mannered prepper. If you were going to need it in the next two weeks, you bought it that day.

From there, my parents moved to Copper Harbor, in the far north of Michigan. The closest grocery store was 37 miles away, and any major shopping was 50 miles away. Again, you didn’t go often and you bought enough to last. Pantry Mentality.

I know that urban dwellers have the option of fresh, civilized marketing on a near daily basis. Even when I lived in the city, that has never been my reality. I gardened for most fresh produce. And, since I always worked, grocery shopping was in the evenings, or left to the crowded weekends. And in Northern California, there was always the possibility of disruption from earthquakes. I kept things on hand for a longer haul.

How long could you go if the stores were closed…or empty?

I’m thinking I could go weeks, maybe even a month, though the menu would be pretty limited by the end. During the summer months, when fresh is a walk to the garden, we could go longer.

Though (with fingers crossed) I don’t think our current crisis will result in shortages, it’s time for people to pull their heads out of the sand and consider emergencies. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should be that we need to be nimble and creative about provisioning. Many of us are a ________ (insert your personal relevant crisis–blizzard, power outage, hurricane, wildfire, pandemic, earthquake, plague of frogs, and yes, even an insurrection) away from food insecurity. A deeper pantry could be the difference between soup kitchen and a big pot of soup, in your kitchen.

So, while I’m not anticipating Armageddon, my friend isn’t all wrong. Stock up. Be prepared.

(Note, I’m posting this while Congress debates Impeachment. I may change my tune by the Inauguration.)

It is hot. I am dressed in a new, pale yellow dress with a smocked front. Well, it’s new to me, a hand-me-down that I finally fit. I love the texture of the dimpled smocking. It has contrast color stitching. Mostly I feel dressed up and special. My mother puts my little sister down for her nap. The older kids are outside with my dad, who is mowing the lawn. In retrospect, I have pieced the scene together, and know that I must have been about three and a half.

Mum wants to take a short walk to the mail box. It’s just a hop-skip and a jump away–maybe a little over a block. She takes my hand and tells me we’re going to mail some letters. I am thrilled. I get to go on a walk with my Mum, just the two of us! We stop in the yard, to tell my Dad.

It is blisteringly hot. My mother mops her brow with the back of her hand, even before we’re out of the driveway. I cling to her other hand.

We don’t get far, before our neighbor calls out to my Mum. They live opposite us, the front of our house looks across the crescent to the back of their house. Theirs is the mirror image of ours, one of the many variations on a theme in our neighborhood. The Missus wants my mum to come in for a minute, she has a question. We head across their lawn towards her “back door,” which, like ours, is really a side door to the kitchen, off the carport.

The carport area is shaded, and cooler. With me in tow, Mum takes the first step up to their kitchen door when the Missus tells her to leave me in the carport–this won’t take a minute. Mum settles me onto the concrete steps, before heading in.

I smooth out the fullness of my new dress, over my knees. My little fingers explore the fancy puckers in the smocked front. The neighbors’ dog, Taffy, jumps up to sit beside me. She is not a big dog, I later learn that she’s a cocker spaniel. I turn to her and tell her that it is very, very hot. The rest happens very, very fast.

The dog attacks me. The first bite is just under my chin, along the jaw. Then it jumps and grabs the flesh at the end of my eyebrow. I scream. My mother, who has just barely cleared the threshold into the kitchen, turns, and Taffy bites me again, piercing through my upper and lower lips, muffling my cries. My mouth fills with blood.

Mum rushes out and shoos the dog.  She scoops me up into her arms to comfort me.

“She must have teased the dog,” the Missus accuses, from just inside her kitchen.

I understand. She wants this to be my fault, and I cry out, “Noooo!”  I am covered with blood. I know that I did not tease the dog.

My Mum turns to bring me into their house, to their kitchen to clean me up and assess the damage. The Missus holds the screen door shut. “Oh no,” she says, “Take her home.”

Stunned, Mum turns and runs home with me in her arms. It takes both of my parents to hold me, screaming, on the kitchen counter as they flush and clean the wounds. The letters are not mailed. The dress is ruined. My parents are livid.

The Missus never mentions it again. She does not check to see if I am okay. My parents, young and shocked, never think to report the attack to the authorities. Though we live there, just across the crescent from them for another fourteen years, my mother never speaks to the Missus again. To this day, my Mum becomes incensed when the incident comes up, which it doesn’t very often.

The scars remain. And, in my mid-thirties, I am diagnosed as being allergic to dogs–the only one in my family with an animal allergy. I ask the doctor if being mauled as a kid could be the cause, and he nods, “Yes, that would make sense.” I tell my Mum (one of the few times it comes up.) She pursues it and asks her doctor, and other medical friends. Not that it really makes any difference.

Last year, in a Facebook group from my hometown, I become re-acquainted with her son, Bill. We reminisce about growing up in our neighborhood. He comments how odd it is that there was so little contact between our families, given our proximity. I say, that, for my part, it was because of the Taffy Incident.

“Huh?”

I describe the dog attack. He never knew that that had happened–and mentions that the dog had attacked other children, and had to be put down because of it. I hadn’t known that. He mentions, in passing, his hope that that incident hadn’t been the cause of any distance between our families. So I ask my Mum.

“Absolutely.” She answers, as if it had happened yesterday. “That woman!” She is doubly incensed when I tell her that the dog had to be put down. She bemoans that she and my Dad hadn’t had the sense at the time to report it. It’s more raw for her than for me. Some things never go away. I decided not to mention it to Bill.

The Missus passed away this week. Covid. I read the obit, and sent a note of condolence to Bill. The obit was full of loving tributes–how wonderful, and funny, and warm she had been. The Taffy Incident was nearly six decades ago, and I hold no grudge. Of course, she was elderly–and like many family members of Covid victims, it pains Bill that she had to die alone. This is the agony of a pandemic.

I decided not to mention it to my mother, but my sister did. My mother, in turn, reported it to me–announcing in the same breath, that she had no feelings about it, one way or another. But I can still feel the icy chip on her shoulder.

We were all surprised by the Christmas blast in Nashville. What did it mean? Why was it done? Because we all want to make some sense of it, to place it in the context of our understanding of the world. Why would someone do such a thing?

Is it a foreign threat? Is it a splinter of some nefarious domestic group? Is it the act of some lone, crazy person? In short, is it terrorism, or is it vandalism (albeit an over-the-top level of vandalism.)

There’s big money betting on the result of these investigations. Because, depending upon the answer, is the question of who will pay. Already, the City of Nashville has requested federal assistance. An incident of this magnitude is beyond the locals ability to cope. The FBI has taken the lead. If this is a terrorist plot, federal dollars may follow.

You may recall the terrorism exceptions to coverage that became part of the lexicon of insurance following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Insurance industry mobilized to make it clear that they would not cover losses caused by terrorism, or riot or civil disturbance. We all received BIG PRINT notices with our insurance renewals, making it clear that this new hazard, terrorism, was not a covered event.

Depending upon the results of this investigation we may well spend the next decade litigating the definition of terrorism. Our government defines it as, “…activities that involve violent …or life-threatening acts…that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State and …appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (II) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the teritorial jurisdiction of the United States.” (Federal Criminal Code. Title 18 USC)

It seems, in short, that the turning point of terrorism is whether or not there’s some underlying ideology or objective. So, “lone crazy” may equal insurance coverage. Coordinated, conspiratorial or ideological attack would invalidate coverage, providing, at best for some FEMA type relief.

There are vested interests at stake in this investigation. Does Petula Clark’s “Downtown” make it more likely or not, to be terrorism? (Just wait for the parodies.) Does a pre-recorded announcement to evacuate make it more or less likely to be terrorism? Would it be terrorism if it were merely a disgruntled customer of AT&T?

Stay tuned for answers. Watch the free for all of vested interests. And wait for the new round of disclaimers from an insurance company near you.

Three articles came to my attention this past week. None of them was really news to me, but it was interesting that all reached the mainstream in the same week. The first projected U.S. domestic relocations anticipated because of climate change. Tens of millions. No surprise there. After all, it was one of the considerations that brought me home to Michigan seven years ago. Climate change was also a factor in choosing this property when I purchased it, over three decades ago. At the time, I hoped that I would be wrong about it. After all, in three decades we really did have plenty of opportunity to turn this juggernaut around. Was I cynical in making the purchase, or did I just know human nature? When climate makes life miserable, or dangerous, people will move. At least people who can afford to do so. Left behind will be the poor and elderly–or so the predictions say. And this only reflected domestic climate dislocation–multiply that around the world.

It’s already happening–and you can see it if you watch real estate trends. In our county, prices are up–but more tellingly, days on the market are way down, in a record-breaking kind of way. Stuff sells fast. Elsewhere, in my tiny northern home town, (where it’s easier to know the inside story) properties are selling before they even make it onto the ‘market.’ Word of mouth is enough for a property to find a new owner.

The Great Lakes States have ample water–unlike my old home in California. Too much, of late. Pricey waterfront homes are inundated, shorlines are eroding. Needless to say, I did not select pricey waterfront property. My Dad always said, “Build on high land.” But it goes to show you that you cannot anticipate all of the ripples of a changing climate. Sure, Florida may be underwater, but so too might inland areas be deluged by heavy, flooding rains, or hurricane force winds. Go figure.

The second article was about ocean warming, and its impact on plankton. Sure enough, those tiny critters of the ocean are dying because they cannot tolerate warmer temperatures (or perhaps the difference in chemical composition of warmer ocean waters–we don’t know which.) These are organisms so small that you cannot see them without magnification. Why should we care? Well, plankton are responsible for nearly half of all the oxygen generated on the planet. That should get everyone’s attention, but it won’t. Rick and I have been planting trees every year in an effort to create and maintain a climate resilient forest on the property. Not just because we like trees (though we really do like trees)–trees, along with plankton, are the lungs of the planet. They breathe out the oxygen that the animal kingdom breathes in. (We are part of the animal kingdom.) Plant trees, please. It won’t matter if you relocate to cooler, wetter property if we’re all left gasping for air. You can run, but you cannot hide.

The third article was about a controversial road planned through what’s left of the Amazon rainforest. It is well known that roadbuilding into pristine areas can be the death knell of the ecosystem. The Amazon forest is a huge source of oxygen for the planet. But economic pressures in Brazil have pushed to ‘develop’ the Amazon for decades–at the expense of the forest and the indigenous people who live there. This past year fires have devastated the region–but not like the California fires. These infernos have been set intentionally, against the law, but with the nod of the current regime. Once the forest burns it’s farmed, or converted to rangeland for beef production. It is an environmental crime of monumental proportion. Again, in addition to the immediate environmental damage, this comes with the cost of generated oxygen. Another, ironic, study this year pointed out a Brazilian tipping point with deforestation. The forest itself is a factor in climate. If you cut too much of the forest, the rains stop. And that’s what they’re beginning to see in the Amazon. These lands cleared by fire are losing their source of water. In search of a fast buck, those deforesting the region are inadvertently creating desert, not farmland. In a dark way, it serves them right. But they aren’t the only ones who’ll suffer for it. We see similar trends in Indonesia, and around the world, with similar ramifications.

We are in the process of creating a future world that may be unrecognizable to anyone living today. Only we have the power to slam on the brakes. World over, people need to pressure their governments to take action. And each of us needs to look at our own climate impact, and make changes. I worry though, that nobody is connecting the dots.

In any other year, we’d make the drive north to visit my mum and sister for the holidays. But, because of Covid, we skipped Thanksgiving and now we’re skipping Christmas/New Years. Next Year we can be together, without endangering one another. Better to ensure that we’ll all be here for it.

Which only left one troublesome little detail. What to do about Sadie?

Last January, my Mum’s old dog passed away. She was really old, so this was not unexpected. Adjusting to a new life, sans canine companion, was tough for Mum, doubly so in a pandemic. She was lonely.

In May, her good friend Joe celebrated his 95th birthday. It got Mum thinking…and she called me up, with an announcement. “I’m getting a dog. You and Kelly have to help me select one.” The search was on.

The reason for this shift was the realization that, if Joe could see 95 trips around the sun…so could she. And she just couldn’t see how that would be enjoyable for the next dozen-plus years, without a dog. She’s not undertaking it lightly. She has back-up dog-god-parents lined up. But if a dog would make her happy, a dog it is.

For a change, Mum wanted a non-allergic dog. I am the only one in the family with a dog allergy. For the past two dogs, about 25 years, visiting has been problematic. I either dose myself with anti-histamines for the duration, or I suffer. She wanted to change that–but it meant she couldn’t just pick up a shelter puppy. It meant a pure-bred dog. Sigh. We searched for rescue dogs. No luck. My sisters and I determined that we should all kick in for this pricey puppy. The search was turning into a plan.

Kelly and I went to work, researching dogs. We looked at poodles and whoodles and cockapoos. We looked at golden doodles, corgipoos, and poogies. Mum was not impressed. She wanted a DOG, not a lap-mop. She’s accustomed to a quarter of a century of german shorthair pointers. Bigger. We looked at Spanish and Portuguese Water Dogs. Closer, but no cigar.

Then, within half a day of each other, Kelly and I both happened upon the Lagotta Romagnolo. The Roman Water Dog. Precurser to the other water dogs and the poodle, the Lagotta in an ancient species, dating back almost a thousand years. Big enough to have real dog heft (about 27 pounds) but not too big for a senior to lift, the Lagotta is smart and loyal. And loves water. (Mum wants to throw sticks in the lake for fetching.)

Kelly found a couple of breeders and selected one living near me. The deposit was paid. And the wait for Sadie began. We thought it would be spring before a puppy was ready.

An email in early November revealed that the puppies had been born! They would be ready near Christmas. (Merry Christmas Mum–and Happy Birthday, too.) But having decided to forego Holiday travel, we were now faced with a puppy delivery conundrum. My mum lives 450 miles away from me. (500 miles from the breeder.) That’s nearly 9 hours–in good weather. How to safely transfer a December puppy in the time of Covid?

We met part way. I picked up the puppy and drove her to Marquette, where my sister and Mum met me in a parking lot. Observing proper social distancing, I transferred said puppy to their car–whilst they stood clear. We exchanged holiday packages and distance greetings–got back in our respective vehicles, and drove home.

It made for a very, very long day. But the weather held and my mother is now the proud Mum of Sadie, the Wonder Dog. I expect puppy tales, for months to come. My Mum is so excited with her new critter. It couldn’t have wound up any better, in these otherwise challenging holidays. What we’re not giving each other for Christmas is Covid.

I hope you all find ways to make your season shine. Happy Holidays.

Spent

My niece and her husband own a brewery–just a little microbrew outfit, called the Brickside. There’s little in it for me, beer is not gluten free. But my sister and her husband get a serious side benefit…spent grain.

Spent grain is a by-product of beer production. It is rich in nutrients and fiber. Some people dry it and bake with it. A lot of small farmers use it to augment the diets of their livestock. And gardeners use it for compost, and for direct amendment of their soils. My brother-in-law’s garden is lush and productive, in large part because of spent grain. It’s too bad that they’re 450 miles away.

2020 was supposed to be the year that we went in big with spent grain for our garden. We have friends, here in town, who have a brew-pub. Or, had. Just as we were gearing up for the great spent grain experiment, Covid-19 hit. And our friends had to make the difficult decision to close their establishment. Restaurants run on slim margins–doubly so for seasonal restaurants. That’s true, even if you can offer delicious artisan crafted beer on your menu. Our friends are one of the many who do not anticipate re-opening. So much for our foray into spent grain. It’s hard to complain about the loss of a perk, when our friends have lost their way of life.

There are other micro-breweries in the area. Rick decided to do a mass email to see if any of them were looking for folks to take their spent grains. Most locals already have farmers lined up to take them. But one answered in the affirmative. Sometimes he does “short runs” and his farmer can’t make the small batch stuff work for him. So this week, we received our first run of spent grain.

It was three huge bins of steaming, aromatic, wet grain. Each of the bins weighed in at well over 200 pounds. With it being mid-winter, we weren’t exactly geared up for this, so we decided to use the first load to top-dress our raised beds. We dumped the bins directly from the bed of the pick-up truck into our winter sled–five full sled loads, which we hauled down to the garden. We gave some to the chickens–but mostly, we loaded up the gardens. We finished, just as we lost daylight, happy and satisfied that our soil amendment experiment had begun.

The next morning I returned the bins. That afternoon, we walked down past the garden to scope out where we’d put our spent grain composting operation, when the next load was ready. We were shocked by what we saw. Deer in the garden!

Apparently, spent grain is heady, tempting stuff. Because those deer had come through that garden fence like it wasn’t even there. Over, through, (between the wires), however they could do it to get to that delicious all-you-can-eat buffet of sweet spent grain. All around the perimeter, and all over the garden, the snow was trampled with their hoof prints. I don’t think we’ve ever seen so much deer activity. Of course, once inside the fence, they weren’t limiting themselves to the grain smorgasbord–they were nibbling on the orchard trees, too!

Quickly, we set up barriers around the most vulnerable baby trees. But we knew that we had to deal with the grain–because it had created an irresistible invitation into a previously deer-free zone.

So, today, we went out to cover all the amended beds with heavy black plastic, weighed down with concrete blocks. We had to cover, or remove, all of the spent grain we’d spent half a day spreading. Rick is convinced that, come Spring, a new, taller, stronger fence will be installed. But just now we have to make it through the rest of the winter. A couple of hours later, we were cold and filthy, but it was done. The grain is fully covered–and we are spent.

Tonight Rick’s been checking the garden every hour or so. He stands on the front porch and shines a high beam flashlight into the garden. The light catches their eyes, in a strange ghostly way. So far, so good. Only one made its way into the garden. But we can see them, standing around the outside of the fenceline…wondering what happened to that great feast.

Terraced North Side

There are a couple of big projects we’ve been working to finish before the snow flies. December has been cold, but dry. We’re all starting to ask one another, “Where’s the snow?” In its absence, there’s been the opportunity to extend the outdoor chore period. Some of the work is slow–because it’s cold, but progress is progress.

Terraced South Side

I’ve been striving to complete our erosion control project along the side walls of the barn, where the roof edges drain. Rick did the terracing and my job has been to plant groundcover, and then mulch the area with pine needles harvested from the forest. Some of it (where the soil is not so good) has an under-layer of shredded leaf mulch. (Thanks to the suggestion of Deb Weyrich-Cody.) It’s tedious work, and I can only go for a half day at a time in the cold. The mind wanders while planting approximately 4,600 little sprigs (but who’s counting?) I finished today–with the last of the pine needle mulch. We’re ready for whatever winter brings.

Peeking Through

As for Rick, ever since we started keeping bees, he has wanted to bring them in out of the elements for the harshest times of the winter. There’s a “sweet spot” with bees, between 37 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit–in which they remain in their semi-dormant phase–but consume fewer resources. Also, winter cold doesn’t kill the bees, but wild fluctuations of temperature are hard on them–and moisture can kill. Of course, before we could offer winter shelter, first we had to build a barn.

Our barn is a “bank barn,” meaning that it is partially buried into the hillside (“banked in”) so that each of the two levels has ground level access. At the back of the lower level, it is buried about nine feet deep, which gives it some warmth from the ground. This lower level of the barn is not heated, but, except in the very coldest weather, maintains a pretty constant 40 degrees. And it never gets really cold, regardless what the weather throws at us.

Rick’s end-of-season task was to reorganize the barn so that there was room along the back wall for the bees. It took over a week to move everything around and organize. One of the issues with a lot of storage space is that it leaves room for inefficiencies. Not any more. He stacked all the lumber for our various planned projects, built racks for garden tools and forest tools. He even cleared enough space to put the truck in the barn. Who knew?

Then he built a wheeled dolly to hold the hives. The tractor could have delivered them on a pallet to the back of the barn, but it would have filled the area with diesel fumes. Not good for the bees. So the solution was the hive dolly.

Today was bee moving day. It went so smoothly, it was almost anti-climatic. We slid the three hives off their hive stands directly onto the bee dolly. Rick strapped them down, carefully backed them down the hill and gently lowered them onto the apron of the barn entrance. From there, he just pushed the whole assembly to the back wall.

First hive loaded.

Strapping them tightly.

Backing down the hill!

Despite the care, the bees didn’t take kindly to the move. We could hear them buzzing furiously behind the wire gate keeping them in. But they quieted down quickly once the action was over.

Winter digs.

The sweet spot.

It was a long day, with a flurry of outdoor chores, making ready. Because, tomorrow, we have an overdue appointment with winter.

This may be why I don’t mind winter. It’s cozy, and, with a couple of good books, I can outlast any storm. Of course, as is clear in the photo, there is the issue of near constant supervision.

I go through this every year. At some point, hopefully, I’ll learn to trust the numbers and relax. Thus far this year, we’ve been burning firewood from last year. That means we heated October and November without touching this year’s wood. The other day we exhausted that supply, and I loaded up the wood crib from the new wood for this year.

This will be our fourth winter here. We have learned from experience that we burn just over three cords of wood in a heating season. Behind the house, in two big stacks, is the pre-measured wood, stacked neatly, ready for this season. There’s a certain confidence, looking out the window to see those two big piles of split wood–each of these piles is four feet wide, twelve feet long and four to five feet high. It’s a generous three cords.

The wood crib, our storage area just outside the back door, holds between a third and a half cord. And that’s a good thing. But it means I’ve just pulled a significant chunk of firewood from the winter’s stores. It’s a big bite, and it shows. (Though we’ve only just moved it to a more convenient location…it’s not like I ate it or anything.) Of course, I panic. Will we have enough?

You know, some of the forecasters are predicting a particularly cold winter. (Though so far, they’ve been wildly off the mark.) And, this year, a percentage of that wood is beech, instead of ash. Ash is denser and has significantly more heating heft than beech. I look at that woodpile and wonder if there’s enough.

I do it every year.

It doesn’t even seem to help that we have already cut and brought in most of the wood needed for the following year. Because, poaching on next year’s wood would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, wouldn’t it?

I seem to have invented a whole new category of seasonal anxiety. The woods from which we harvest is directly behind us. It’s unlikely that, in any given year, we’d be able to exhaust the supply. When I purchased the property, some 30 years ago, I specifically selected it, in part, because the hardwoods section was big enough for our needs, without ever cutting a live tree. For this year, we can continue to bring in more wood, until the snow is too deep for the Kubota. Beyond that, we have an ice-fishing sled with which we could continue to haul in more if needed (and it’s all downhill). But that’s not really the issue. Needless anxiety is the issue.

The weather has turned colder, and we have our first real snow that “sticks.” To work through my needless anxiety, I asked Rick for his outdoor priorities with what’s left of the outdoor work season. Without hesitation he answered that there’s a couple more trees that have fallen and he’d like to cut them and bring them in.

I guess it’s contagious. Sigh. We do enjoy harvesting firewood–so it’s not a problem. At some point, we’ll be able to relax, knowing that there’s enough. We should be there, now. We won’t run out.

Maybe fraught elections aren’t enough. Pandemics aren’t enough. We’re humans and we find reasons to worry.

Bathroom Fixtures, James Stone

I was just a kid, but the import of the event wasn’t lost on me. My mum was making a special dinner. She’d scrubbed and vacuumed until our home shone. My grandfather, my Dad’s Dad, was coming to visit. There had been tentative outreach, but it would take some doing to melt the nearly two decades of silence between them. My mother was seeing to it that the visit would be seamless, and delicious. This new grandfather was bringing his wife…the woman he’d married immediately after my grandmother divorced him. I didn’t understand it then, but this was “the other woman.”

Still, she’d been with him faithfully for years. My father held no grudge against her; that was my grandmother’s forte. We, all five of us, were dressed and spit-shined. This would be one of those ‘best behavior’ days, more tedious than enjoyable. Only the curiosity of my father suddenly revealing a secret father of his own made it worthwhile. That, and the promise of dessert.

The actual visit is a bit of a whirlwind in my memory. They arrived and there were introductions and small talk. Everyone took seats in the living room, with my mum getting up to check the oven, from time to time. The table was set. It looked like Thanksgiving. The secret grandfather was tall, with the same piercing blue eyes as my Dad, and the same wispy, fine hair. He seemed as entranced with us, as we were with him, his eyes traveling from one tow-headed new grandchild to another. All the promise of five surprise grandchildren! The missus mostly sat quietly, jaw tight and lips pressed together. Perhaps it was a mistake that my mother politely refused her offer of help in the kitchen. Certainly my mum had no intention of reducing this honored guest to scullery help!

Finally, it was ready. My mum sent us all to wash our hands in the bathroom at the end of the hall. When we returned, the new grandmother, asked for directions to the bath, and my mum waved her down the hall. She never actually reached the bathroom–about halfway there, she shrieked like a gored animal, “Arthur!”

We all looked up in shock. Whatever could be the matter?!

“Dear God, Arthur, nudes! Obscenity! And in a house with children!” Her bony arm held outstretched, her finger pointing at the two, small, charcoal, nudes, tastefully framed, that hung at the end of our hall. “I cannot spend another minute under this Godless roof!”

My parents were both slackjawed, unable to comprehend the disaster unravelling before them. The woman turned, sprinted to the front entry and collected her jacket. She was out the front door before my new grandfather even knew what was up. Shaking his head, he apologized, before following his wife out to the car. They sat there, for some minutes, in heated discussion, before he eased the car back down the driveway and away.

Five little towheads, wide-eyed and shocked, lined up at the living room window, looking at the now-empty driveway. My mother quickly gathered up the extra place settings, returning the table to our normal set up for seven. My father quietly announced that, though he was surprised, it was true that some people might not appreciate our tastes in art. He suggested that we all sit down and enjoy the lovely meal that my mother had prepared. We ate mostly in silence. The apple pie was delicious.

Years passed before we visited with them again. She, of course, refused to come to our house. By then, though, the irony of this woman’s objections to nudity wasn’t lost on us.

My parents were always artsy people. I once heard a neighbor describe us as ‘Bohemians’…and I was never sure if it was a compliment. But my father was an amateur woodworker, and my mum became a potter of some artistic note. Their friends included potters and painters, weavers and sculptors. What can I say…it was the sixties. But that scene, halfway down the hall, always stuck in my mind.

Years later, my parents’ best friends, Jim and Irene, invited us to a special dinner. Some people become family, even without blood relations. These people were part of the fiber of our lives. This event was to celebrate the unveiling of his most recent painting. We arrived and while playing with their children, we peeked into the basement, where the easel stood…covered with a sheet. We’d have to wait until after dinner.

After dessert, we all trooped into the basement for the big moment. Jim adjusted the lighting and then, like a matador, dramatically swept the fabric up and away, revealing the canvas. It was a nude–a woman seated in a bathtub. Most importantly to me, breasts visible! Tits! Tits were okay! It was such a relief! If Jim and Irene could have tits in their artwork…we could, too! If there’d been any question left in my mind about the fallout from the unpleasantness in the hall, this erased it, made it all okay.

Decades later, as an adult who’d married, moved away, divorced, re-married and returned, my mother and I visited Irene. It’s a pleasure when someone has been in your sphere so long that they are a well-loved fixture in your life. Jim had since passed away, as had my Dad. But our families are inextricably interwoven. After dinner, Irene announced that she had a housewarming gift for Rick and I, for the home we were building. She left the room and returned with a painting, its back to me. And then, much like its first unveiling, four decades earlier, she dramatically flipped the painting and revealed…that very same painting of the woman in the tub.

She could never have known how much that particular painting had always meant to me. I was shocked…that she could offer me this painting, this special image, that was so deeply imbedded in our joined family history. I love it. It hangs in my bedroom, where I see it, and appreciate it and its history, every day.

Despite having tried, verbally to explain this and thank her–I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to convey how, in my mind, this painting accomplished a great healing for me. After all, without this confirmation, I might have gone through my entire life, wondering just what was meant by “Bohemian.”

To Irene, with eternal gratitude.

Finally, this trail is open.

The weather got a little cold for planting, and with the most important anti-erosion measures in place, Rick suggested that we work on the trails.

Our property is criss-crossed with old logging trails, a number of which had become impassable because of fallen trees. With the emphasis on building, we’ve not done much trail maintenance in the past few years. As a result, our zone of “Kubota” access area has been getting smaller and smaller.

We use the Kubota extensively in gathering wood. It delivers us to the site, carries our tools, lifts logs (using chains and the front-end loader) and drags them into safe, accessible work areas, pushes rotten logs to the side to clear the trail, and then pulls our loaded, ragged, little trailer back out of the bush to our woodpile, for splitting and stacking. These two seniors would be hard pressed to heat with wood, without the assistance of our trusty tractor.

Rick’s motivation for trail clearance isn’t just about clearing nice paths. We’ve had high winds of late, and there are a few big trees, newly down, (one in particular) that he is itching to cut and gather. But I’m open to the task–because I like nice paths. In the process, we’re harvesting any burnable wood that has fallen across the trails–though gathering is not our first objective.

Most wood left on the forest floor begins to rot quickly. Beech turns to mush in just a year or two, as does Basswood (Linden.) Maple lasts a little longer. Ash, especially if kept up off of the dirt, can last for years. The champion of the forest is ironwood (hop hornbeam), some of which we’re still collecting from the last time loggers were on the property in 2004. If wood is spongy or mushy, we push it aside. Sometimes we’ll cut it, just enough so that it lies flat on the forest floor–just to accelerate its return to the soil. Sound wood is harvested down to about three inches across. Twigs and branch ends are cleared from the paths, often using it for filling in the divots left when a tree falls. This fills in the lumpiness, and creates habitat for critters.

Though trail clearance is our first objective, in the past two days, we’ve cut enough for next year’s heating requirements, just from trees that had fallen on the trails! And we haven’t yet touched the big ash trees that have Rick salivating. And, further up the slopes, there are some “widow-makers” that we won’t touch until nature brings them down. Regardless how tempting, safety is our first concern.

This is the tree Rick wants.


And here’s a widow-maker! We won’t touch that.

The temperatures have been in the mid-thirties, but we’ve hardly noticed, even stripping down during the heavy work. We are wearing “Michigan lingerie,” the orange vests that mark you has “human” during hunting season. It’d be a shame to get shot right on your own property. Every year in Michigan, somebody gets shot by hunters with more enthusiasm than sense. Let orange be your safety flag.

I had intended to post a full set of photos with this, documenting all of the aspects of wood gathering and trail clearing. But once the work started, the camera stayed in the tool bucket. What can I say?

It’s been a bit of a hiatus from blogging. It’s not post-election anxiety. It’s not Covid. It’s hard labor. We’ve taken advantage of unseasonable warm temperatures to address erosion issues around the barn. This involves grading, terracing, and planting. We’re finally raising the grade to pre-construction levels, bringing the back end of the grade up four or five feet, (which includes burying the root cellar.) It’s an enormous amount of work. It involves moving huge piles of sand (which we dug out for the foundation) back, up the hill, and around the barn. This earthen berm that we’re re-locating is about eight feet high, by thirty-five feet long, by twenty feet across. Thank God for the Kubota.

Oddly, hard labor is a relief from current events.

We’re nearly finished the worst areas of erosion–and the weather is running out on us. We may have to do the last bit next spring. I’m hoping to get ground-cover transplanted onto those areas we’ve graded before the snow flies. We’re using periwinkle (aka creeping myrtle, aka vinca minor) as the ground cover, because its sturdy root structure can really hold a slope. Oh, and because it was free. I’ve been collecting and hoarding it for several years. For illustration of the scale of this, it’s one sprig of ground cover every four to six inches, covering a newly terraced area about 12 feet wide and 40 feet long. After planting, I carefully mulch it with pine needles, making sure that each of the little plants has its leaves above the mulch, and can see light. Of course, I first have to harvest the pine needles from the forest (because pine needles add acid to the soils, lock together to prevent erosion, dissuade the cats from digging, … and they’re free.) At this point, I’m looking forward to shoveling snow.

To take a break from grading, we took a walk in the woods the other day. We noted that recent high winds had taken down two big trees, right off the trail, an ash, and a beech. So, yesterday, we harvested those trees–cutting them into sixteen inch pieces (from the base of the trunk, up to three three inch diameter size.) The top bits we scatter in the forest to break down. These trees both exceeded eighteen inches in diameter at the base–so it ended up being a lot of firewood. Even we were surprised that it topped out at over two trailer loads. We got it all stacked and covered, just as darkness fell. This is what we do for fun, as a break from the grading work. This will be next year’s fuel, since we’ve already harvested all we need for this season. Since we harvest only deadfall, we don’t have to “season” our firewood for a year or more–to get it dry before burning. That makes us a little lazy about bringing it in in a timely way. Our ultimate goal is to get a year or two ahead of the game.

Today, it’s raining, hard and steady. The erosion control is working. And we are taking a well-earned break.