Archives for category: chores

One day it’s muggy and unbearable, and the next…something has changed. The tomatoes are still there, hanging heavy on the vine. And the beets and potatoes…not quite ready to harvest. But the season has decided to shift. The scent of fall is in the air. The winds are just a little wilder. The warm days left will be wistful, seeking to wring every last moment, every last golden ray of sunshine out of it.

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The trees haven’t yet turned, well, except for those few errant branches that go early every year. But the sense of it is unmistakeable. Autumn. It seems early this year–but maybe we always say that. “No,” my mother insists, “It is early–the mice are coming in already, and it’s not even September.”

“It’ll be a tough winter,” decrees the guy at the local hardware. “The mountain ash are loaded with berries.”

According to the native lore of the area, the season is turning early. You can tell, they say, by the dropping of the white pine cones, and the low viscosity of the sap.

To me, it seems the garden is in a rush to finish up. The bumper crop of tomatoes, which often extends into September, seems almost ready for the final harvest and it’s not even the end of August yet.

The days are getting shorter; we’ve noticed that suddenly we’re eating dinner at a more reasonable hour. Mid-summer, our days are so long that we sometimes sit down to dinner at nine-thirty or ten.

I check my blog from last year, and we were still finishing end of season chores through to the end of October, and I’m left wondering if this sense of turning is all in my head. I’ve ordered a dozen or so fall-planting trees, and they won’t arrive until the first week of October. Will we be planting in an early chill? It will be fine if that’s the case. But we do love a lingering late season.

Already we’re planning winter. We’ve started consolidating the bees–though I’m sure they have weeks of foraging left–late season stuff from the goldenrod and spotted bee balm. They’ll make us richly colored and strong flavored amber honey from the late blooms. And we’re splitting and stacking firewood. Next week the chimney sweep comes to clean our stove-pipes, before the winter heating season.

It seems, with all the insanity in the air–the pandemic, upcoming elections and the summer’s social unrest–that summer got away from us. But seasons keep their own rhythms, and I think it’s us that lost track of it.

I want to dig in my heels, to slow it down, as though I had any control. But since I love autumn, it’ll be fine whenever it is that we slip into it. And I don’t mind winter, either. But I can hear friends and family, wailing. “No, no, not yet.” These, too, are traditions and we take them all seriously.

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As in all things, if you start with a proper “center,” the rest should fall into place. It’s a little different with a modern log home.

In pioneer times, you built with stacked logs, often green timbers, and chinked the holes. As time passed and they dried and shrunk, you’d get a solid, albeit uneven, structure. Homes were smaller then. Our little house would have been considered palatial on the frontier, when they shared the ground floor with livestock in the winter, and huddled around a fireplace or wood stove, because the uninsulated roof didn’t hold in the heat. There might, or might not be a sleeping loft for the kids. Often the whole family slept in one room, even one bed–glad for the extra warmth.

Modern log homes, especially the larger ones, have built in jack assemblies that have to be adjusted as the logs “cure.” (They say “cure” and not “dry,” because they’re supposed to be kiln dried when you get them. Yeah, right.)

The log part of our home went up in 2014–with the roof and upper  floor put on in 2015. (That added a lot of weight and accelerated the “settling” process.) The wood stove was installed in 2016–and heating in the winter accelerated the drying process. We didn’t actually move in until the end of 2017. We’ve adjusted the jacks several times already. We’re now ready for what should be our final adjustment.

What’s being adjusted is the height of the center supporting wall. As the perimeter log walls “cure” (dry, compress and shrink), they lower, as compared to the constructed, beam-supported, center wall. This gives us bowed floors upstairs, and uneven floors/ceilings along the center wall. Now is the time to do it, as we’re about to finalize the upstairs bath–which will have a tiled shower stall. Better that it find its final position before we tile and grout things–to avoid unnecessary cracking.

In the past, our crew assisted with the leveling adjustments. They’re long gone now, and we’re on our own. Rick is the leader, now. I help where I can, mostly handing things up when he needs them on the ladder or adding extra ballast (my weight) where he needs it.  But he insists it’s mostly a one-man job. It’s a noisy operation, and a little disconcerting–because the things you think of as “fixed” in place, aren’t really. The same is true, though to a lesser extent, in new conventional construction.

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It reminds me of when I first moved to California, and experienced earth quakes. So much for “terra firma.” Suddenly the things you thought of as solid, weren’t. Over time, I became nonchalant about earthquakes–after 1989 put me in my place. Just be prepared, and then ride it out. Is there anything else we can ever do? I actually came to like them–earthquakes have that same sense of wonder that I’d had as a kid regarding tornadoes. There is a Chinese curse/saying, “May you live in interesting times.” We’re certainly there.

Right now there’s a hurricane assaulting Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. Climate change is supercharging natural storm systems. They’re wilder, stronger and more destructive than in the past. That, too, is taking mental adjustments about what is a given an anyone’s world. Plans for the future include abandoning entire risk prone regions, in a quiet acknowledgment of our failures to address the causes. There is no simple adjustment that can make us safe. My old haunts, Oakland and Sonoma County in California, have been burning all week. Are we to become a nation of internal refugees? My father, when asked for advice, always said the same thing, “Build on high land.” We’d laugh, but in today’s world, the concept of finding a place with fewer risks may be a survival skill.

I’m feeling lucky that a day or so of banging and torquing will put our little home back to rights. At least for now–we can adjust the center. We’re situated, protected, in the lee of a glacial hill system. I’m in a state that has plenty of fresh water, and, so far, a comfortable climate. It’s not that we’re without risk in these super-charged times. But you have to be prepared, and then ride it out.

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We like to think that we have planned all the things that have come to pass in developing our homesite. Honestly, we’re not quite that smart. We didn’t plan on a basement. It was a happy accident. So, of course, we didn’t plan on the laundry in the basement. And we didn’t plan on a basement door (because, no basement.) So we’re just lucky that, just a bit outside the basement door there’s a tree, located exactly one load of laundry from the house.

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Like success, the garden, in the distance.

 

Before we could get to the 2020 garden season, we had to make it through the winter. As all of you know, 2019/2020 has had its challenges. Mine started early.

In early December, our cat died. His acute health problems could have been addressed. But he was old, and this was just the beginning. We considered the approaching quality of life issues, and decided that the most loving thing was to spare him what was coming. It was tough–as all pet owners know. They give us unconditional love; we owe them.

Then Rick and I had our annual physical. The doctor came into the exam room with issues–she didn’t like my bloodwork. She has long been convinced that I practice internet medicine on myself–and now she had evidence of my excesses!

She lectured me about overdoing supplements. In particular, calcium. My levels were unhealthy, even dangerous. I stopped her, holding up my hand–I don’t take calcium! Well that put a furrow in her brow. What was she going to tell me? Don’t eat leafy greens! (Has anyone has ever had a doctor so prescribe?)

It was a mystery. There was supposed to be follow-up, but then came Covid.

Rick and I figured it must be the water. We knew we had hard water–but now we had to wonder…and had that figured into our cat’s demise? So we did some research and bought a carafe style filter that would remove calcium. Everything that passed our lips was filtered. Of course, we gave filtered water to the new kittens, too.

After a few weeks, I went to water our one and only houseplant, an African violet. I stopped short–it was only fair to give the houseplant filtered water, too, right? And so I started filtering water for all the living beings of the household.

Early in the spring, Rick and I were doing early garden prep, and I tripped and fell–just clumsy. But in falling, I broke yet another rib… Hmmm, the effects of excess calcium can be as bad for one’s bones as too little–and since coming to Michigan, I’ve broken several ribs. Well water. (Well, water.)

On the garden, we were still angling to use activated charcoal. It had been so successful the previous season. And we were excited about using spent grains for compost and in the garden beds–though that was before the pandemic shuttered our local micro-brewery. After a few weeks of filtered water, that African violet gave us something else to think about.

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It had never really thrived. It sits in a north-facing window and always looked…peaked. But just weeks after giving it filtered water, it completely changed.

What about the garden? Maybe that was why, each summer it started fine and then petered out. Didn’t the average summer get hot and dry, mid-season–causing us to water heavily? We decided we need to experiment with the water quality. Our resolve became even more determined when we learned that one treatment for too much calcium was to put activated charcoal into the soil. After all, that was the primary ingredient in the filtration system. That doubled the reasons to go with biochar.

Rick rigged up a big water filter for the garden hoses. We purchased bags of food-grade activated charcoal, and dug it into the raised beds. We planted, and crossed our fingers.

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It might be too early to tell, but early indications show a dramatic difference. The tomato plants–in previous years, spindly and weak, are lush and loaded with tomatoes. The bok choi and greens are incredible. Our late season potato plants are robust and sturdy.  Everything in the raised beds is doing incredibly well. Only the vegetables planted in buckets (which still have some native soils) are having trouble. For the first time, our beets are thriving and growing beets–and they’re delicious.

The next step will be a new whole-house and garden filtration system. The garden filter was the test run. With such remarkable results, there is no reason not to fully make the change–for our health, our plumbing and our garden’s well being.

Now I just have to figure out how to tell my doctor that she saved the garden.

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I have been an organic gardener for the better part of four decades. Each time I relocated, I would have to address problem soils, heavy adobe, poor in organic materials. I have been the roaming remedial gardener. But I persisted.

When Rick joined me in Two Rock, he too, became a gardener. It was our mutual refuge from trying times. Regardless what the world threw at us, we could always walk out to the garden, to plan dinner based on what was ready, fresh, in the moment.

And we had excess. We shared with everyone on the farm, and with our local food bank. In our last full garden year at Two Rock, we harvested over 700 pounds of tomatoes– not including what went directly to others. We grew winter squash by the trailer load–all of which we gave away–not being big fans of winter squash (but our landlord was.)

So when we relocated to Michigan, gardening was a big part of our vision. It turned out, that it was not so easy.

We had the soil tested, and the news was not good. Our soils, essentially glacial dunes remnants, are nutrient poor. And they’re alkaline. There was a clue–other than knapweed, one of the few things that grew was deer moss. Not a good sign. Deer moss grows in soils nearly devoid of nutrients. We amended–planting in amended beds, directly in the native soils, or in buckets set into the soils. Our garden was spindly, at best. Failure was a word that doesn’t come easy.

The next year we re-doubled our amending efforts, digging in blended compost and peat and manure. The garden started stronger–but petered out, mid-season. Another failure.

That next winter we learned how problematic knapweed can be. It out-competes neighboring plants, in part by poisoning the soils against them. This, we were sure was the problem. Those toxins can remain in the soils for years. We shook our heads. All of our efforts had been for naught. The only things we seemed able to grow–with even modest success–were potatoes and garlic. We couldn’t even successfully grow tomatoes or zucchini! I mean, who can’t grow zucchini?

The next spring we built a few raised beds and continued with the buckets. We removed all the native soils and filled them with blended soils and amendments. The gardens were a little better. Still, they faded mid-season, which we attributed to some neglect. We were still building and summer is the busy building season. Perhaps we were not attentive enough.

Last year, though still building, we renewed our efforts. Our raised beds and buckets were refreshed with compost and vegetables planted. I amended, weeded, babied, fed and tended. The results were barely worth the effort–except in one bed–which did much better. I racked my brains to remember what I might have done differently there.

I’d heard about using bio-char as a soil amendment. I didn’t really think of it for the garden so much as to build soil character in the amendment for orchard trees. Last year, when planting a couple of new trees, I’d taken the unburned charcoal bits from the wood stove, and crushed them up for the soils for the baby trees. (We have always planted orchard trees in heavily amended soils–and had great success.)

I’d thrown the excess crushed charcoal into that one garden bed. And it was the most productive of all. We were on to something. And about time, because we were demoralized by our garden performance. For 2020, we had a plan.

 

I am working on a chapter in which my protagonist suffers an anxiety meltdown. I am having some trouble with it–but I’m operating under the idea that if it makes me uncomfortable, there’s something potent here for me to wrestle. And, if this sounds familiar, when wrestling with my own discomforts, the mind wanders.

There I was, daydreaming, looking out the window, when I noticed just how dirty the windows are. I mean, why do we live in this beautiful place, with a worthy view out of every window, if we have to peer through filth? What is the point?

So I got up, figuring I’d wash just a couple of the windows–the ones we look through the most. One thing, of course, led to another.

We usually do the windows in October. It’s a big annual thing–messing with the screens and getting the windows cleaned while there’s no bugs. Once I started, I remembered that there’s another reason I usually wait until October. Spiders. At this time of year, every nook and cranny has it own spider occupant, and the windows and screens are no exception.

I am spider-phobic. In my procrastination against writing about anxiety and fear, I’d managed to launch into one of the few activities that places me, front and center, into my own phobic universe of anxiety and fear. Almost every window had its own little army of spiders, large and small, webs, and egg sacs. I almost quit when it became clear just how upsetting it was going to be, except, then I’d have two unfinished tasks at hand, and I’d feel doubly stupid and uncomfortable about it.

So I finished–in a cold sweat, hands shaking, heart pounding. I guess I’m ready now to write that chapter.

And the windows look lovely.

Both of them, works in progress.

IMG_2661Stanley has decided to help write the novel.

IMG_2662He’s no help, though, with the working title. Sometimes I wonder about his priorities.

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The problem is that there is no money in it. We’re struggling to find effective treatments for the various six-legged monsters that attack our fruit trees. We vehemently refuse to consider ‘standard’ agricultural poisons. Left to our devices, and the blessings of the internet, we are making progress. It’s slow, but we’re in no hurry.

Last year we suffered a plague of rose chafers. It wasn’t just us, the entire county was inundated with them. They are an annual problem–but not like that. We used our standard, herb-augmented, insecticidal soap–but they are beetles, and thus, armored. The soap helped, but was not fast enough to prevent them from damaging our trees. Though all the trees were affected, the plums were the worst. I was beside myself–and for weeks, visited the orchard up to five times a day–to hand crush the bastards between my fingers, by the hundreds. All over the county, farmers were alarmed by the onslaught. Most fought back with pesticides as deadly as the bugs themselves. I won’t do that, on principle, and because I keep bees. I know the costs of indiscriminate pesticide application. Bees are insects, too.

From an organic perspective, we do not want to coddle our trees. There’s wisdom in allowing some predation. The trees will respond by growing foliage that is less delicious, even bitter–at least from a bug’s perspective. And that change carries forward, year to year. Most of our trees are young, and too delicious for their own good. Modern fruit has been bred to be sweet. It’s its attraction and its Achille’s heel. Last year, two plum trees were completely skeletonized–defoliated. Though they did leaf out again after rose chafer season–it’s not a performance they can repeat year after year. So, we were curious, after last year, to see how the trees would respond this season to the annual rose chafer offensive.

This year, we are armed. If things get too bad, we have purchased the tree netting, which is the ultimate in protection. And we’re refining our organic spray options. But first, we are trying to be observant, to learn from the bugs and the trees.

The infestation is not as intense as last year. We have no insight into that–it’s a ‘too-many-variables’ situation. Last year was the thing that inspires nightmares and horror movies. This year, not so much. But, I was talking to a clerk at our local farm and garden store–and he was reporting rose chafer levels like we experienced last year. He had that overwhelmed tone to his voice. He reported that his wife wouldn’t even go outside. Perhaps our trees are not so delicious as before? Also, though the plums are still the favorite victims, this year the rose chafers are also going after the apples, and even the pears. Are the plums learning to defend themselves?

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In my research, I seen suggestions that intense garlic applications may make a difference. The theory is that the sulfurous elements in the garlic are absorbed by the leaves, and after a couple of days, become a systemic–discouraging the fine palates of our insect predators. Although I’d already done my pre-season mint and light garlic spray, once the rose chafers arrived I decided to give intense garlic a go. It’s working. That doesn’t mean that the pests are gone–but, since the spray three days ago, the levels have dropped to about a quarter of what we were seeing before. Of course, I have no way of knowing if weather, or seasonal variations, or even astrological influences are a factor. We are only one small orchard–with no control group. But, anecdotally, it’s working. We may try one more application in a week or so–if the numbers go back up.By the first week of July, the season ends and we can breathe a sigh of relief. Given that conventional farmers confronted with such an infestation will spray weekly with really toxic compounds, I’m feeling pretty smug about the garlic. Unfortunately, there’s no economic incentive to research the impact of garlic. There’s no patent…no way to milk money out of the bug-traumatized gardeners.

Next year, we’ll remember to start the intense garlic before the rose chafers arrive, to give the trees advance protection. I’m always perusing the internet for solutions–and I note that there is a product, ‘Garlic Barrier,’ offered to combat beetles. It’s probably much easier to use than my messy process of pulverizing heads upon heads of garlic, filtering it and then mixing it in water and a carrier oil. But my method was a lot less expensive.

We’re also looking at applying beneficial nematodes to the soil in the area. These microscopic warriors seek out underground larvae and eat them from the inside out. It might be of limited use, because, after all, rose chafers can fly. Who knows how far they come to eat our orchard? That plan would be for next year–to minimize their numbers, even before they leave their winter homes. It would also limit other forms of grubs, which can be pests in the garden. Every little bit helps.

On nice mornings, I like to take my coffee into the garden and check on progress. That can mean: checking vegetable growth; looking to see what seeds are up; pulling a few knapweeds that have poked up; and squishing any caterpillars or rose chafers that come to my attention. Generally, my quest is to nip any trouble in the bud, but mostly, it’s nice to enjoy some early morning sun in the garden.

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A lovely morning stroll.

 

This morning was an exception. Someone had invaded. Someone who digs. Now, our garden has just been put in. Most of the beds are still seeds, just poking their noses out of the soil. So our intruder was not interested in our plants–it’s interested in grubs or worms in the soil.

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Wait! What’s this?

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Or this?

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Yikes! Or this!

 

Yesterday we did our annual orchard treatment with fish emulsion. Even though we flushed the surface afterwards with clear water–a fish scented garden was probably a strong attraction. That critter tried to dig under every orchard tree. Each tree has a mulch of tree bark, under which there’s some strong landscape cloth. So the intruder didn’t get very far, and certainly never found the fish for which it was searching.

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What we’d like, to be sure, would be a clear set of prints. I suppose every detective dreams of that absolute perfect clue for identification. No such luck. It made a mess of things but even with a bunch of digging in fresh soil, not one good print. We did find the place where it dug under the fence. We can fortify that, but, really, if this becomes a regular event, it would be a lot of work to bury over 300 feet of reinforcing wire. I’m hoping that the interest in the garden is a ‘one-off’ event, inspired by the search for fish.

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Ah-ha! Where it dug through.

 

We have noticed digging around the property of late. Rick has been burying rodent remains in shallow graves…the products of the cats’ hunting exploits. We’d noted that some of them had been dug up again. We blamed the cats. Grave robbers! Then, two nights ago, someone dug up our poor dead cat…buried last December. That raised the bar significantly–both because the cat had been buried deeper, and because it was just too gross to think of the cats digging up cats. We re-interred what we could find and put heavy stones on the grave. Now that the fenced garden has been breached, we have to take action.

We’re thinking it’s probably a skunk. We’re not thrilled about it–or how to handle it. They’re nocturnal. We’re not. And I don’t know if we could even see it to shoot it. We could trap it…but who wants a skunk in a trap? And then what would we do with it?

So my morning’s peace is suddenly punctuated with questions marks. I’m hoping this is a passing phase, so we can go back to the regular pests…the ground squirrels, birds and bugs that attack the garden. At this point, I think I need more coffee.

 

Post Script: It’s not a skunk. The footprints, though obscured are too small. And there are areas of excavation that only a smaller animal could have done. Maybe a weasel? It’s a partial relief, with a skunk, I’d need to be worried about the bees. Now, if it’s a weasel, I’ll need to worry about the chickens. Sheesh.

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Emerging Knapweed, as far as the eye can see.

 

Trigger Alert: This blog post contains references to maniac-level gardening, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and other forms of mental illness.

In the early 1980s, the City of Los Angeles was confronted with a difficult problem. Renowned for its levels of air pollution, how would it deal with the upcoming Olympics? After all, you couldn’t expect world quality athletes to do their best breathing the yellow-brown gas that the city’s denizens accepted as air. Every unsolvable problem has a similar solution curve; you do what you can.

If you have followed this blog for any time, you are probably aware of my ongoing battle with the evil, invasive, Spotted Knapweed. I cannot complain, the knapweed was here when I purchased the property–I just didn’t know what it was. When Rick and I arrived to develop it, we joked that, if it weren’t for knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all.

We had it backwards. We had no weeds, because of the knapweed. Sigh. It is an earnest and dedicated competitor. As a refresher, remember that knapweed competes on a number of fronts: it poisons the soil around it (the toxins remain for up to three years after removal); it absorbs most of the available water in its fleshy roots (starving neighboring plants); it spreads, both by seed (viable for seven years) and by underground spreading roots; and it colonizes disturbed soils. If you pull it up–and any part of the root remains–it will return, which means that tilling is a disaster. Knapweed eradication is a myth.

And still, one must garden. We have a dual challenge, poor sandy dune soils and knapweed. So long as the knapweed remains, the soils will never improve. We were lucky, even in our knapweed ignorance, we knew the soils were poor. So when we planted the orchard we dug big holes. Very big holes, perhaps 5 feet across and nearly as deep. Our neighbors raised their eyebrows and inquired. We removed most of the native sand and amended heavily. Unbeknownst to us, this solved our knapweed problem. Our new trees thrived–even as friends of ours, with supposedly better soils, lost entire orchard plantings to the knapweed’s toxins.

But our gardens failed to prosper.

At one of our bee meetings, the guest speaker from the local Soil Conservation District, came to discuss bee-friendly landscapes. That’s how I learned about knapweed and its ugly dual nature. Sure, it’s bee-friendly, but that’s as far as any friendship extends. I did my own research and the prognosis was grim. Understand, we have acres and acres of knapweed. And we won’t use poisons. After all, we are beekeepers. I asked a friend of mine, with experience in park management, for advice. She asked if it was too late to consider selling.

And so we steeled our resolve. We narrowed our focus to the garden area–a mere 50 X 100 foot oasis of fruit trees and raised beds. Surely we could manage that. Let the knapweed, and the bees, roam the acreage–but save the garden.

I’ve been pulling knapweed for three years now. We’re making headway, but it’s a worthy opponent. Pulling weeds was my ‘free-time’ activity. I’d do some in the spring, but mostly the early season was for getting the garden in. And summer and fall were full of knapweed endeavors. After nearly every rain, I/we pulled it by the wheelbarrow loads. It’s exhausting.

A pattern emerged. Our main focus was around the garden beds and the fruit trees. The areas along the fenceline, and other open ‘yet to be developed’ areas tended to get the least attention. Naturally the weed dug in there, for the battle. Late season efforts only slowed the knapweed’s hegemony. By then, rootlets had spread–guaranteeing reinforcements for the next season. A thankless, and never-ending task.

What we needed was an early season surge. And, what else can you do in a pandemic lockdown? So this was it. We (mostly me, but Rick’s a maniac, too) have been up to our eyebrows in deep weeding. Every. Single. Knapweed. In some areas, the knapweed was so thick that our efforts left the soil barren. (Remember, knapweed loves disturbed soils. Sigh.) We re-seeded with soil-building plants, even knowing that the knapweed’s toxins might defeat the effort. So far this spring, we have over a hundred hours in, between us, in the back-breaking effort of pulling this damned weed.

We’ll take a break now, and turn our efforts to growing some vegetables. After that, we’ll be back to knapweed-maintenance duty.

In Los Angeles, the City wrestled with how to resolve their pollution problem. They limited driving, especially near competition venues. They located most of the events on the west side, nearest the ocean breezes. Ultimately, language was their biggest success. They changed the standards. Voila! Objectives met!

We, too, have re-framed the battle. It’s unlikely we’ll eradicate knapweed. We don’t even use that word anymore. And we’ve narrowed the playing field to the garden/orchard area, ignoring the acres and acres of adjacent infestation. (Hell, the bees like it, right?) We don’t even consider abandoning ‘eradication’ as a retreat. Facing similar obstacles, many pollution agencies have adjusted changed their mission–it’s about ‘management’ not ‘control.’

We know that we will always be fighting knapweed in the garden. Even if we are fully successful, weeds are not great respecters of fences. The objective now is to keep enough area clear so that we can go about the business of keeping the orchard and growing enough vegetables for our own consumption. We’re not farmers, we’re gardeners. And that’s enough.

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Sigh. Knapweed (only) removed, and nothing left but disturbed soil.

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We’re tidying up. After years of construction, it was finally time to clear away the debris that had accumulated around the house, while we were busy. Rick didn’t want rural living to mean “eyesore,” as is too often the case.

There’s an area under the porch that was particularly bad–every known form of construction crap, tossed and ignored. Rick sorted and stacked the good stuff, put some of it in the burn pile and bagged the rest for a trip to the dump. But then, what to do with that area?

Originally, we’d planned to plant ground cover. But that would require watering up against the basement wall–not the best recipe for a dry basement. We wrestled with how best to preserve it as a tidy area, and not have it become a weedy mess, or an outdoor sandbox for the cats, or a scratchyard for the chickens.

We finally decided to cover it with landscape cloth and mulch it. But what mulch material? We’re not inclined to head to the big box store for landscaping materials, if we can avoid it. We have leftover gravel from the septic. We have bark left from firewood, we use it all the time as mulch in the orchard. And we have pine needles. Acres and acres of pine needles.

So, pine needles it was. My job was to head up into the pines with a rake and a wheelbarrow. The floor of the pine forest is weed free and lovely. Four or five decades of needle drop makes for a thick layer of soft mulch. It didn’t take too long to rake up enough to cover the area under the porch, maybe five or six wheelbarrows full. During which, I couldn’t help but think that there I was, raking the forest. How responsible is that, eh? And we don’t even have a problem with wildfires.

Anyway, it all turned out pretty well, using available resources.

 

 

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“Did you hear that?” I called from the kitchen.

“What?”

“The chickens are squawking. It’s not the rooster, it’s the chickens.”

“Hmmm. Haven’t heard that in a while…do ya think?”

We don’t use lights on our chickens in the winter. We could, and then they’d lay during the dark months. Of course, unless we invested in equipment and did a lot of experiments…those eggs would freeze, and be of no use. And, it cannot be good to have that output of extra energy for egg laying, when it takes so much to just keep warm all winter. So we don’t. We think of winter as chicken sabbatical.

After a bit, the squawking resumed.

“You hear that?”

“I’m going.” He pulled on his boots and jacket.

Sure enough, his investigation was rewarded with two fresh eggs, the first of the season.

He came in and proudly displayed the bounty.

I nodded. “Makes perfect sense.”

“Yeah, with the longer days…”

“Well, and the extra light from Day Light Savings.”

He had to squint, eyeing me, to see if I was kidding.

 

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It’s been a long time since we had kittens. One forgets. They’re into everything. I thought I kept a moderately tidy home, but they show up wearing dust bunnies, from God only knows where. I guess the bright spot is that they’re dusting areas that I’ve clearly missed.

They follow me around making trouble with whatever it is I am trying to accomplish. Today was laundry. First, they kept running off with the socks. Then, finally they settled in for a nap. I guess I can do without the laundry basket for a while.

Thankfully, there are two. For the most part they keep each other busy, which is good because I don’t have that kind of energy to entertain a kitten.

We’ve set firm rules. For the most part, they’ve been pretty good. We decided at the outset, no kittens on the bed–and that’s been the hardest thing to enforce. They want to be where we are. I should take it as a compliment, but at 2:00 am, I’m not easily flattered.

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As a teen, at my parents’ home, my least favorite task was to have to get wood from the woodpile, at night. In the snow. In the dark. We’ve set it up here so that this is never the case.

Sure, the woodpile is out back, at stone’s throw from the house. But by the basement door we put in a wood ‘crib,’ enough to hold two or three week’s worth of fuel, depending on the temperature. And, just inside the basement door is a woodbox, that we fill everyday, so that the wood for the day is dry, and warm.

A couple of times each month I refill the woodcrib. I use a sled–the kind they make for ice-fishing, unless there’s no snow, in which case, I use a wheel barrow. It takes eleven or twelve full wheelbarrow loads to fill the crib–but only five or six sled loads. I prefer the sled.

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You cannot turn your back on that sled though. If the ground is uneven, it’ll do what sleds do. Just before the holidays, the sled got away from me and whacked me square in the knee–knocking me over. I hobbled for a couple of weeks after that. That was my stupid-tax–it was my fault. I need to be more careful about observing how the sled is positioned on any slope–especially if I’m going to get out in front of it.

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Just enough of a slope to cause trouble!

Unlike my sister, further north, we don’t burn 24/7. We start a fire when the temperature falls below 62, usually mid-day, and keep it going until we go to bed. Any more than that and the house would be too hot. In my parents’ house, the fire burned non-stop from October to April. I’m not sure if our difference in burn time is because of latitude, or the fact that we stuffed every nook and cranny of this house with insulation.

All the wood we burn comes from deadfall here on the property. It’s free, unless you count the hours we spend cutting, hauling and splitting. It’s heavy work, but it’s outdoors  in the woods and lovely. It’s one of our favorite tasks.

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And ready for next time–sled or wheel barrow.

I was the one who insisted that we heat with wood. Not only had I grown up with it, but I learned a lesson in a rental once, that made me insist on having some measure of control when it came to heat. We lost power at the farm where I rented–and it was out for nearly a week. The furnace, though propane fueled, required electric power to operate. It was a very long, cold, week. After that, even though it was a rental, I installed a small wood stove. I never again wanted to be at the mercy of a public utility.

We have back-up heat, propane stoves and some electric baseboard units–enough to keep the house from freezing if we go out of town in the winter. But for day to day use, we burn wood.

We’re having a winter storm today. Not much of a storm really, there was some wind last night and by tomorrow morning we expect to add a foot of fresh snow. It’s beautiful. We won’t shovel until tomorrow–no point in doing it twice. In the meantime, it’s toasty inside by the fire.

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It’s not like we weren’t expecting it. We have, after all, been smug about it, boasting, “This  year we’re ready.” The bees are winterized, the chicken coops prepped, the wood, chopped, split and stacked. We even cleared the composter and spread the completed compost onto the harvested garden beds. But we still had things to do. Relying on previous years, I thought I still had time to put in new garden beds–and plant bulbs for spring. Rick has just a little bit of wiring left in the barn.

And we’re not surprised to have some snow at the close of October. It’s almost a tradition. The joke is that folks in Michigan get their Hallowe’en costumes three sizes large–so they’ll fit over their winter coats. What we didn’t expect was that it’d stay this cold, this long.

Last year I was transplanting, dormant, into December. This year, I’d have to search in the snow to find the garden beds. It often snows in autumn–and then it melts. This year, it didn’t just snow. It pelted! It stripped the colored leaves from the trees, nearly overnight. That snow? We thought, just like Bolsonaro*, that it would never stick. We were wrong.

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Autumn has been a long run. Mostly it’s been beautiful, if a little on the wet side. We consider ourselves lucky. For the first time, we’ve actually finished the necessary outdoor chores, before being challenged by winter. Not that there isn’t more to do…there always is. But the wood for our winter’s heat is cut and split and stacked. Rick is just finishing up the wiring for the barn.  The bees are set–and the chickens. Today we even emptied one of the composters, giving us an empty to take us through winter.

Every day, we think it may be the last day. Winter is on the horizon (and clearly in the forecast for later this week.) So we’re working to be productive. The weather has been a pleasure, cool, and graced with the last bits of color. It’s been so nice, we’re tempted to keep going–to prep and plant some of the new garden beds, even once it goes cold on us. It’s hard to let go. And yet, every day ticking by has been wonderful and productive.

Maybe this is really the way to live. Plan for every day to be the last day. Pack your time, full to the last minute. Feast your senses on whatever the season has to offer. Spend your evenings tired, and satisfied with the events of the day. We may be on to something.

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Today was the big day. We’ve been watching the weather and today was possibly the last day. Tonight it will rain buckets. Tomorrow the temperatures begin to fall, and we’ll descend into winter-like weather. Of course, It could warm up again, later in November. But there’s no guarantee. So today was the day that we had to winterize the bees.

This year, we’ve done everything “right.” We kept a lid on our varroa numbers. We fed them through the dearth of autumn. (Though, in reality, they continued to bring in resources well into October and didn’t eat much of what we gave them.) And, because studies show that smaller hives fare better in winter, today we completely took their hives apart and reconfigured them for winter. We also harvested some honey for ourselves–but not that much.

We have two hives this year. One is a ‘pedigreed’ hive–fancy Saskatraz bees from out of Canada. They have a reputation for being especially winter hardy and resistant to the dreaded varroa mites. The other is a swarm hive–local mutts. They came from a swarm hive that our friends have kept, for years now. So we know they can over-winter in Michigan’s cold climate. The swarm bees are pretty mellow. The pedigreed bees have a pedigreed attitude. We paid good money to get bees who think that they are better than we are. We suit up fully when we open that hive.

Or, almost.

Bees are not always organized about how they occupy a hive. It’s their home, their choice. But what you want going into winter, (as a beekeeper) is bees in the bottom, with densely packed honey above them for their winter stores. That isn’t always what they provide. Sometimes the frames will be only partially filled, or only built out on one side, but not the other, or having some of the cells uncapped and “wet,” that is, not fully evaporated down to the 17% moisture level that makes it honey. Capped honey never goes bad. Uncapped wet “honey” can ferment.

So our job today was to tear apart the hives and inspect, frame by frame, and to rebuild the hives with the best, fullest, honeycomb frames above the bottom, deep super, that will start as their home for the winter. As the winter progresses, they’ll eat the honey stored directly above them, and move up in the hive as they eat their way through the winter.

Our work today was a pretty invasive process and the bees were not impressed. We want the total hive (bees plus adequate winter stores) to be as small as possible, because the bees have to heat it, with just their body heat. A cavernous hive with spotty honey resources peppered through it is not a good recipe for  winter survival. As extra insurance, we put hard sugar “candy” up in the very top of the hive, just in case the bees consume more in the winter than we’d estimated.

We started with the pedigreed hive. As anticipated, they were pissy about the invasion, and we had to smoke them aggressively. We were wearing full body bees suits, topped with heavy leather gloves. It was cool, about 54 degrees (F), so most of the bees were home.  We won’t open a hive under 50 degrees–the bees will lose too much needed heat. The air was full of peeved bees. We were covered with bees. When a hive is alarmed the tone changes–the low hum of a happy hive picks up to a loud whine. We tried to work quickly.

At one point, a bee discovered my Achilles heel. I stupidly wore thin socks. The bee stung my ankle, right through that thin sock. There was nothing to do, but press on. It was, after all, the last day. It was my fault, really. I never wear thin socks when working the bees. What was I thinking? Just as we were closing up the Saskatraz hive, another bee found my other ankle. Damn. Well, at least it’s a matched set.

The swarm hive was much calmer. They didn’t like the invasion, but their pitch never ramped up to that warning whine. We’d worked out a system by then, pulling and examining each frame and sorting which ones were best to pack back into the hive for the bees. Those swarm bees made the chore a pleasure. It’s amazing how different two hives, side by side, can be in terms of temperament.

We finished and carted our tools and our harvested honey back down the hill to the house. We had to stop, several times on the way down, to brush bees off of us. It’s best to leave the bees at the hives. You really don’t want angry bees hanging around, or on you when to start to strip down out of your gear. Finally, when everything was put away, I could settle in to tend to my swelling ankles. Now, with the help of a hot cider, with just a touch of Irish whiskey in it, I can put my feet up and reflect on the success of the day. Ready for winter. Nearly perfect. Marred only a little my my failure to dress for the occasion.

(Sorry, no pics, my hands were busy.)

Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

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I used to prune in the absolute dead of winter. The trees were fully dormant and the pruning wounds would dry and heal over before spring’s sap run. But I read an article about “killing frosts” in the spring. Not that they killed the trees, but that the frost either killed the blossoms, or the trees would bloom when it was still too cold for the bees to pollinate.

This is a very real issue with our new climate uncertainties. Not that all of the elements of seasons aren’t present, but that they might not occur ‘in concert.’ Over the millennia, plants and animals everywhere have developed an elegant and intricate dance, specific to region. The robins arrive just as the snow departs. The swallows of Capistrano arrive just in time for the hatching of their insect dinners. But what happens, if the storks arrive and dinner is not on the table? I saw an internet post celebrating the arrival of our first robins here, but when I look out the window, there’s still at least a foot of snow on the ground. Where will those early arrivers get their worms?

Every species has its own internal clock. Some are triggered by temperature. Some are triggered by the angle of the sun. None, so far as I know, are set in motion by the Weather Channel’s debates over the American or European Model of prognostication. Here, in Leelanau, we are only beginning to learn the fancy steps to our dance–just as the local farmers and gardeners are scratching their heads about changes.

According to the pruning article, one way to protect against killing frosts is to prune a little later–when still dormant, but closer to when the sap begins to run. When the tree is pruned, it takes some time for it to adjust and re-assign the hormonal signals in the branch’s ‘lead buds.’ Timed right, this will give you a slight delay in budding, thus reducing the risk of crop losses due to frost. It may also put your fruit at more risk from insects…but you have to weigh the risk of no crop or one that requires defending.

I have ordered new pruning shears. Many years ago, I owned a fine set of Felco pruners, but that was a lifetime ago. In the meantime I’ve made do with a cheapie set, from the local hardware. They were hard on my hands, and hard on the trees. Though our trees are still small, our orchards are expanding. It’s time.

It coincided with the loss of the crappy pruners. I’ve looked everywhere, to no avail. So I’ve ordered a replacement pair of Felco’s and as soon as they arrive, I’ll get busy with the pruning. Yesterday felt like spring, but today it’s snowing again. I’m sure that I’m still within a reasonable dormant pruning window.

I have always loved pruning. It makes me a part of that intricately timed dance. Orchard trees are bred for care and do better when pruned and managed. This chore is a reminder that even when the plant world is asleep under its blanket of snow, its clock is ticking. Spring is coming. There’s work to be done.

Maybe we’re just old, though that wouldn’t explain my styling over the years. Perhaps it’s a rural thing. Rick and I have reached that stage in life where we are perfectly happy to cut each other’s hair. We have no particular developed skills in that field, and, admittedly, the first few times occasionally left one or the other of us looking like someone had cut gum out of our hair. But it eliminates another reason to drive into town.

I did my years of the precision cut. I see articles from time to time… “the ten best cuts for women over 50.” But then I shrug. Those fancy cuts can be stunning–but like addictive drugs–they keep you coming back every six weeks or so. Usually stylish haircuts are not inexpensive.  And, when you’re new in town, especially if you have ‘difficult hair’ there’s that long and frustrating process of finding the right stylist who can keep you looking spiffy.

Historically, women wore hair long and “back or up.” There was an efficiency in it, to keep it out of the way. I keep my hair at about shoulder length with bangs, so that it is always long enough to braid back, and the inevitable short strands in the front don’t vex me. It’s practical. I suppose I never put too much stock in appearances, and fashion is beyond my attention span.

Rick has great hair–thick, wavy, and layered with silver. On him, you could use an axe and still get an attractive cut. If he wanted it really short, it might be beyond my skillset–but he prefers it at a length that is pretty forgiving for the newbie at hair-cutting. Long gone are the days of real barbershops. Men’s haircuts are nearly as expensive at women’s.

We figure we save a couple hundred dollars a year with our traded barbery. And we don’t have to go out and find someone who’ll tolerate our level of disinterest. I guess I look good enough to him, and he to me. What more do we need?

(Not surprisingly, no photos will be attached to this blog.)

 

1Last week we had to buy honey. Next week, we will run out of potatoes. Last summer’s onion harvest was non-existent. And, in the late fall, I didn’t realize that our new raised beds would freeze earlier than if things had been traditionally planted, in the ground. Fully half of the carrots and beets were solidly frozen in place. We are too new at this to know whether they can be salvaged when the bed thaws. Were we really homesteading, any one of these errors could have spelled a hungry winter.

The honey shortfall isn’t as grim as it sounds. Unlike most, we are spring harvesters. We leave the honey in the hive for the overwintering bees. Spring is the best time to determine what was “extra.” The only downside of our harvest timing, is that we have to watch that we get there, before the spring-cranky bears do. To cover our shortage we bought honey from our local co-op, produced by a guy we know. There’s cheaper honey out there–but you have to wonder. Honey is one of the most adulterated, and frequently counterfeited, agricultural products. Often, what you get in the stores is mixed with high fructose corn syrup. I’d rather buy from a guy I know and trust.

We’ll get better over time. We’ll improve our sorry soils and we’ll learn the ins and outs of our season. Our fruit trees will mature and provide a larger yield. We plan to make a solar dehydrator, but with a grand total of 41 apples–most of which we scarfed up as soon as they were ripe–that may be premature. Between dehydrating, freezing, root-cellaring and canning, in a couple of years, we’ll make it through the winter without so many trips to town. In the meantime, the bulk of our food is still store bought.

Store bought. The impact of that expression has shifted throughout my life. When we were kids and my mother was stretching each dollar, she baked all our bread and goodies. We picked berries and canned all of our jam, apple sauce and winter fruit. Wouldn’t you know that, in the face of fresh baked and homemade, there was a part of us that longed for Oreos and Wonderbread…like the other kids had. We wanted store bought.

My older sisters made all of their clothing–beautifully and impeccably tailored. (I didn’t share that particular talent.) Their primary objective was to make something so perfect that others would not know that it was hand-made. Their skills turned baby-sitting money into fashion. We all learned to knit, and crochet. These were basic, life-skills.

My mother was a gifted and prize-winning potter. She made all of our dishes. I remember wishing that those plates would stack neatly in the cupboard, like at other people’s homes.

And, again to be frugal, my father learned woodworking and built all of our furniture. It was simple and elegant. Or, we bought “rescue antiques” and refinished them back to their former glory. Our home looked nothing like the store bought stuff in our friends’ homes. I’m sure we didn’t fully appreciate it then, that we enjoyed an aesthetic unavailable in the “normal” world. Our family hung with odd people, artists and weavers, potters and do-it-yourselfers. Even when surrounded by all that talent, to us kids back then, there was still an appeal to the quick and easy consumerism we saw around us.

And I’ve spent my entire adult life working my way back to the basic, and frugal elegance our family enjoyed when I was a kid. I’m still rescuing antiques and materials. Rick and I built this house to our own tastes and use. I don’t know if others would see, or appreciate, the things in which we take satisfaction. You see, I have abandoned the quest for store bought.

 

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In like a lamb? There’s another polar vortex event in the forecast–one that should put a chill on the lower 48! Some friends are posting pictures of flowers, and reports that their bees are on the wing. Sigh. For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with pictures from seed catalogues. For us…for now…this is the path to Spring.

Admittedly, I have not been actively blogging. That’s because I’ve been back to writing. It’s been a pleasure. What with building and planting and gardening, there’s been precious little “writing-headspace” in my life for a couple of years. This winter, the frenzy has diminished enough that I’ve been spending lovely days, in front of the fire, banging away on the laptop. It’s been fun. And I expect that by fall, there’ll be at least one book launch, and that’s fun, too.

Every now and again we look up from our activities and realize that this, this moment, this experience, is why we’ve done all of it, anyway. We’re here, now.

My current book project has something I’ve not done before. It has actual villains. And that’s a different kind of thread for me. But this week, I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post that set me back a bit. It was about laziness in writing about villains. The author is a woman who suffers from a facial deformity. Her complaint is that movies and books frequently use non-standard appearances–disabilities/scars/disfigurement–in a short cut to describe villains. To her, it adds insult to injury, and increases the levels of suspicion she encounters in her day to day.

Nailed. I’d been doing just that. It’s easy in a manuscript of Prohibition Era thugs to make the villain visibly different. That way, one needn’t tediously show, by his actions, just how depraved he is. And it is lazy. It reflects a “lookism” world view that I generally reject. So this week, I’ve been re-writing. My villain is still a thug, but no longer an ugly thug. I appreciate the viewpoint and it’s timely connection to my own project.

I think the comeuppance will result in a better book, one that better reflects my values.

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Snow Forts for Chickens

I’m new to chickens. I did live on a chicken farm for seven years–but I was not responsible for the chickens. And, in Two Rock, they don’t really have winter. Here we have winter, and it’s a tad early this year. If not early, I’d suggest that it is earnest. We have a solid 6 inches–and that’s after the first two or three melted immediately upon landfall. It’s not when snow first falls that makes for winter; it’s when it sticks.

Anyway, three of the four chickens are reluctant in snow. The fourth has been roosting all over the chicken pen. We’re not sure if she’s a fan of winter, or if the other chickens are giving her the cold shoulder. The chicken coop stands up on legs. Before the snow fell, the chickens liked to hang out under the coop–out of the sun or rain. Without that breezeway, the chicken territory gets pretty small if the chickens won’t do snow.

So far, we haven’t heated the coop. We’re contemplating a low wattage bulb for heat and light (so as to encourage egg laying.) But when we open the coop doors for feeding, it’s not really cold in there. Or so it seems.

Today was the first day that the chickens’ water was frozen solid. I’ve ordered a thermostatically controlled water dish–and now I’m even more anxiously awaiting its arrival. In the meantime, I’ll have to be more dilligent about making sure they have fresh water.

I’m not sure if this is a normal Northern chicken strategy, but today I built them a snow fort. The snow is the perfect consistency for snowmen, or fort building. So I built walls along the edge of the coop–essentially banking it in to create a snow wall. This will keep the area under the coop clear–and warmer. It’ll also help keep the coop itself warmer.

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Thus far, it’s a complete success. I put the chicken scraps under there and two chickens followed those treats into the fort. They haven’t left yet. The other two chickens, upstairs, are making a racket, redistributing their fresh bedding. Chicken Nirvana. I don’t think this will keep the water from freezing, but it seems to be making for happy chickens. Has anyone else out there built snow forts for chickens?

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First, you have the place. You’ve looked at it, in all four seasons. You note the light, the winds, and the soil. You prepare it, deeply digging in nutrients and organic matter. Then you have to pick the candidate–what tree will grow there? An apple? To be ripe in what time frame? To be pollinated by what other apple? What kind of apple–eating, canning, cooking? An apple to withstand the season you know, an apple to withstand what the season may be in the future. An apple to be strong against pests and diseases. And you read the description of the taste of that apple. There is nothing so empty, so dry,  as a written description of the taste of something.

You do the process, over and over, for each tree in the orchard. It can take weeks of research. Not only do the selections have to meet your needs and your tastes, they have to work together in the orchard. You want to stretch your various harvests to match your available time. It wouldn’t do for everything to come ripe all at once. They have to be pollinating partners. They have to work as a team.

Then you plant. And feed. And water. And wait. Every year you tend and prune, until your trees become like pets. You love them for what they are, and in the meantime, you’ve almost forgotten the objective of raising fruit. You respond to their emergencies. You address their problems. You worry over them through the long winters. You admire their growth and ever-increasing sturdiness.

Then, one summer, there are apples. The first of the dooryard orchard trees to come to fruit. You watch all season, waiting for them to be ripe. Waiting to sample the results of all this effort, fearing that after all this, the fruit could be… somehow wanting.

Ah! It’s the birds who alert you that the fruit is ready! And if you don’t move fast–the birds will get them all! Still, it’s a good sign. The birds love the apples! You pick one and take a bite. Your first bite.

And it’s incredible. It bursts with flavor. It is a celebration of summer–this early season eating apple. Pristine! Who knew you could be so great?

It’s still a small tree, with not so many apples. Yet, every day you enjoy another, and another. Soon they’ll be all eaten. But we have the memory of this first success to carry us forward with confidence. This wonderful little apple tree will now become part of our every August. This is the earliest Thanksgiving I’ve ever celebrated.

 

 

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

I am so behind the curve. I saw the ads, but didn’t realize it was a new thing. In the world of gadgets with plugs, I am oblivious. I do own a crock pot–but we use it exclusively for processing honey and beeswax. So when my friends all began to rave over insta-pots, I had no idea what that was about.

Turns out it braises, simmers, boils, even pressure cooks. And it’s programmable. Who knew?

You still have to chop and stir. You still have to plan the meal and have the ingredients. I just don’t see its charms.

I have one of these.

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It braises, simmers, boils, bakes and even pressure cooks. It has timers and other gadgets. It is not, to my knowledge, programmable. But I am.

Finding Rhythms

Any time you make a major change, it takes a while before you find your “sea legs.” We’ve been here just over a fortnight, and certain things are falling into place. Granted many of our new patterns are as much about season, as they are about location.

I’m one to dally in the morning, enjoying the warmth of the covers and planning my day. Rick is up and about, almost as soon as his eyes are open. He’s taken to grinding and making the coffee–a pattern that started even before we moved. Now though, he uses the time it takes for the water to boil to tidy the woodstove and start the fire. Somedays that requires a full shoveling of ashes and cleaning the glass. And sometimes, he just stacks the kindling on the embers still left from the night before.

We do not build roaring fires. So far we haven’t had weather cold enough to warrant more than a solid ember bed and a log or two. If we pushed this stove to capacity, we’d have to open the windows. It’s nice to know that all that insulating was for good purpose. It’s easy to heat this little house with wood. We have back-up heat–both propane and electric, but mostly that’s reserved for if we are not at home.

By the time I get up, the fire has started and there’s coffee in the carafe. I am spoiled.

Our days are ordered by the weather. A light snow you can ignore. A medium accumulation will require some hand shoveling of the paths and parking area. There are paths to the garden, the compost, the woodpile and around the house and parking area. And then, somedays you get up and the biggest task of the day will be snow removal. Rick does the bulk of it. He’s the one on the tractor with the snowblower–after all, it is 400 feet of driveway. For a heavy snow, I’ll suit up and do the hand shoveling. It’s a workout that we both enjoy. We have a lifestyle that includes a regular upper body workout, as a matter of course.

About once a week, a little more often if it’s cold, I fill the wood crib from the wood pile out back. The crib is a brick enclosure built into the retaining wall at the basement level. It lets us keep our firewood stock just a step out the door. The area is sheltered by the front porch, and keeps the wood dry and at hand. The larger wood pile is about forty feet behind the house, back up in the pines, generously covered with tarps to keep the wood dry. It takes four heaping wheel barrows to fill the wood crib. At some point in the future, we’ll build a wood shed to keep our heating supply dry and snow-free.

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We enjoy being out in the snow. We watch the tracks to see who else is enjoying our home. Rabbits (of course), and deer (more than we first thought) are the most frequent visitors. There are squirrels, chipmunks, and a couple of kinds of ground squirrels–mostly we see their tracks. In the New Year, we’ll resume our regular walks. They fell by the wayside in the past few months of building. It’s time to get back into it.

By mid-day, most of the maintenance chores are complete and we can turn our attentions to working on the house, or, for me, sitting at the computer and working. Evenings, we read, write, play Scrabble, or grouse about current events. Things will be much busier once Spring rolls around. For now we are enjoying the peace and quiet of the season.

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And the next morning, we can start, all over again.

They’re Here!

A.V. Walters–

I don’t celebrate Earth Day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice idea. But it annoys me no end when folks known for driving down the driveway to the mailbox “celebrate” Earth Day by buying “green” products they don’t need.

Perhaps it’s a meaningful reminder to people inclined to forget that the planet sits on the edge of the abyss.

Instead, we do our damnest, everyday, to live lightly on the planet. We’re not perfect. Our Spring tribute to the Earth usually involves planting trees. Many, many trees.

This year we backed off. It wasn’t that last year’s 203 tree extravaganza nearly killed us. That was last year. Annual memory lapse is normal. This year, though, we switched to pricey nursery trees. That puts a damper on how many we can plant.

When you pay the big bucks for pedigreed trees, you want to be sure you give them the very best opportunity to survive. We dig deep holes. No matter that the little bare-root sprig is less than a foot tall, our paltry soils must be amended deeply. We sprung for high end organic compost this year—horse manure may be fine for conservation trees, but only the best for these babies. That adds another $6.00 per tree. And, of course we’ll have to cage them, to protect them from the deer, the bunnies, and any other herbivore threats; add rabbit proof welded wire fencing, and a full day to manufacture their cages. We’ll have to extend water down to this newly planted area. There’s plenty of rain this time of year, but by August, I don’t want to have to carry water in buckets.

Needless to say, once the trees arrive, we drop all other activities. Some holes have to be dug by hand. Most though can be done with the backhoe. (You see, we are very serious about these trees.) I figure it’ll take about a week. Then, sore and weary, we’ll return to our regular overloaded lives knowing that we’ve done what we can to make the planet more green.

See you in about a week.

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

Honey is a foodstuff of almost mythical proportions. It is one of a handful of foods that, left in its original form, never spoils. Honey has been known to last literally thousands of years—and still be edible and sweet. Honey will crystalize—a condition that may put off the uninformed consumer—but crystalized honey is still good. If it offends, you can simply warm it gently and it will resume its liquid amber loveliness.

Honey has three characteristics that, acting together, serve as its natural preservative. Despite being a liquid, honey has a very low water content of only 14 to 18 %. Bees will not “cap” honey in the comb until it has reached this low moisture threshold. Most bacteria cannot survive in such a low-moisture environment. Honey is also highly acidic, with a pH between 3.0 and 4.5. That acidity will kill off the few remaining things that might want to grow there. And, as we all know, honey is sweet. That natural sweetness also discourages bacterial growth. Archeologists have found sealed honey in ancient Egyptian tombs that was still preserved and unspoiled. Add to these three basic characteristics are the enzymes in honey that come from the bees’ stomachs. These enzymes combine with nectar sugars to produce gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide—natural components of honey. Blended together all these characteristics make a super-food that keeps, nearly indefinitely.

Herbalists and healers of ancient times understood these qualities in honey. It was widely used to treat wounds, for skin ointments and to prevent infections. To retain its natural preservative qualities though, stored honey must be sealed. Because honey is hygroscopic (naturally low in water) it will absorb liquid from the air and eventually spoil if left uncovered. Though honey is naturally pure, it can contain trace amounts of bacteria, and while this is not a problem for healthy children and adults, raw honey is not recommended for infants or people with compromised immune systems.

What about cooked honey? Cooking honey poses two questions: Does cooking undermine honey’s otherwise beneficial qualities? And, is it actually toxic? Purists and practitioners of natural or ayurvedic medicine will tell you that cooked honey is poisonous, and should never be eaten. There’s a smidgeon of science that supports that position, technically, but most feel that’s a little extreme. At the end of the day, this is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. Honey is essentially a natural, supersaturated sugar solution. Added into that are enzymes, courtesy of our friends, the bees. Many of the purported health benefits of honey are connected to those enzymes. But, when you heat honey, the enzymes begin to break down, beginning at about 118 degrees, Fahrenheit. Over-heating may result in losing most of the beneficial properties, making honey just another sweetener. (A good reason to gently heat your crystalized honey. You can warm it in a bath of warm tap water or in a double-boiler, at very low heat, to protect its enzymes.) In cooking, you can preserve honey’s integrity by adjusting how and when you heat it. Whenever possible, wait and add the honey until later in the cooking process (this is especially true when sweetening sauces or glazes.) Or, you can also “dilute” any heated honey mixture with a larger quantity of unheated ingredients. Check your recipes to see if there might be ways to limit exposure to high temperatures. Needless to say, honey is always at its best when used in recipes that are never heated, like salad dressings, toppings, dips or icings.

But, is it toxic? When honey is heated, its fructose, in combination with its natural acidity, degrades and begins to form hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), which is mildly toxic. The hotter it gets, the more HMF forms. The solution is dilution. Diluting the honey with other ingredients, (prior to heating) lowers the acid level of the honey, helping to prevent HMF formation. Even then, the actual HMF toxicity levels that result from normal cooking are very low. Our evolved human gut is fully capable of digesting cooked honey products, with no observable adverse affects. If you are a purist—don’t heat your honey. Otherwise, take reasonable efforts to preserve the maximum beneficial effects by keeping honey temperatures as low as practical. You can cook and bake with confidence, knowing that you are not putting yourself at risk.

There is one group that should never consume heated honey. That is your BEES! Bee guts and intestinal systems are relatively simple and cannot safely digest HMFs. Ingesting even a small amount of honey that has been heated can result in bees developing gut ulcerations. Many beekeepers use heat to separate wax from honey—and feed the resulting honey back to the bees. Don’t do it! Only give bees cold-processed, unadulterated, honey. Even adding water to honey, for bee feeding, must be done carefully because once water is added, the honey mixture is subject to bacterial spoilage, and fermentation. (Think mead!) If you use watered-down honey for bee feeding, make sure that it remains fresh. Remove any unconsumed honey blends within a day or so, replace with a fresh mixture, and periodically clean containers.

The very characteristics that give honey its extended shelf life can require some adjustments when cooking or baking with it. The most obvious is that honey is a liquid, so when substituted for sugar, you must adjust the balance of dry and wet ingredients to retain the desired texture. Every cup of honey used as sweetener contains about three extra tablespoons of liquid. So, you must reduce the other liquids in your recipe, increase the dry ingredients, or a combination of both. (The approach you take will depend on the recipe.)

It is often assumed that you can do a “cup for cup” substitution of honey for a recipe’s sweetener. Not so. In addition to increased moisture content, honey is sweeter than sugar when measured cup for cup. Depending upon the bees food source, and the seasonal time of production, honey can be anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 times as sweet as sugar. You’ll have to substitute accordingly, and remember to taste as you go. Honey has a lower glycemic index rating than sugar (55 compared to sugar’s 61) so it’s a healthier option, with a slower impact on blood sugar. It’s easier to standardize baking with lighter honeys—the darker honeys come laden with their own native flavors. They can add depth and character to your baked goods, but darker honeys are a shifting exercise in taste exploration. Since the sugars in honey brown faster than regular sugar, you might have to lower your baking temperature by 25 degrees and cook your baked goods a little longer. Even if all your adjustments are correct, remember that baked goods made with honey are moister than sugar baking. If you’re looking for a drier finish—carefully bake longer, at a lower temperature.

Finally, honey’s natural acidity can play havoc with the leavening in baked goods. Most leavening agents (baking soda/baking powder) are “base” ingredients. The higher acidity in honey can act to neutralize your leavening agent—leaving an unadjusted recipe as heavy as a brick! You will need more leavening to achieve a proper rise, usually an additional 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoonful per cup of honey sweetening. There is no need to adjust if you’re using yeast. Yeast usually does well in the more acidic environment of honey. Add the honey to the bread dough mix, itself, to avoid interference with yeast performance. Do not “proof” your yeast in a honey mixture.

Honey as a food product has been with us for thousands of years. Whether you revere it for its mystical healing properties, or enjoy it as a healthy sweetener, it’s helpful to know how it behaves in cooking and baking. Following these tips, along with a little experimentation, will yield light and tasty results.

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A Matter of Scale—

A.V. Walters—

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Beautiful? Yes. But look closely at the bumps on the twigs.

Rick and I have returned to our Sundays “day off,” in which we spend Sunday afternoons cutting wood up in the woods. We are still clearing trails and cleaning up after the wild Storm of 2015. I’m sure that the trees down, from just that storm, will heat our Michigan winters for several years to come. This doesn’t even touch the backlog of deadfall accumulating from the dying ash and beech trees. We’ll have work, and heat, for the rest of our lives.

Last Sunday I noticed that the forest was sticky. All over, the understory plants are glazed with a tinge of sap—not unheard of in spring, but a little unusual, given how dry it has been. After a light snow year, April and May had precious little rain for us. The forest is crispy-dry. We didn’t get any of our usual spring morel mushrooms. Here, and up in the U.P., there have been fire warnings. (In May!) We watched the Canadian wildfire in Fort McMurray in horror.

This is not really unusual—when California has an El Nino season, Michigan’s weather is mild and dry. Finally, this week the dry spell broke and we’ve seen lovely storms to accompany the greening of our forests.

So what’s up with sticky? Yesterday, a friend, brow furrowed with concern, pointed out the scale on the maple tree next to our house. Yuck. His trees have it, too. Scale is an insect infestation. Maples always have some measure of scale, but the outer branches of our tree were lined with the limpet-like outer shells of these tiny sap-sucking vultures. It appears that we are having a major infestation of scale. The scale is responsible for the sugar-coated forest.

We live in Michigan. Bugs, in all shapes and forms, are a way of life here. Still, bugs of any kind, in great numbers, are unnerving. After our friend left, I stood in the soft rain, running my hands down every branch I could reach, squishing all those thousands of little scale bugs. Rick just shook his head.

“What are you going to do, molest every tree in the forest?”

Well, no. But the two maples next to my house—those I can help. It’s worrisome. Is this, yet another forest calamity in our future? Naturally this called for a research trip to the internet.

The likely problem is the dry spring. Maple trees under stress produce a thinner, more sugary sap. It’s a stress reaction, to ensure the energy needed leafing out in spring. The scale bugs, in turn, thrive on the sweeter mixture, ironically putting the trees under more stress. So, as long as the dry cycle is not repeated too much over the years, the scale is a cyclical problem that will solve itself.

There are measures I can take. I could have “power washed” the trees, before the leaves came out. I could use poisons (not likely!), sprays or root saturation with systemics. I could use a dormant spray in the very early spring—a perfectly acceptable organic measure—like we’ll be using on the orchard trees when they’re bigger. But, Rick is right. I cannot treat the entire forest. I need to relax here, and wait patiently for the ladybugs. Scale is a favorite of ladybugs and birds.

In the meantime, the rains will wash the forest clean of “sticky.” And, at the same time, they will feed the trees, making them stronger and better equipped to deal with the pests. I’ll step back and let the problem solve itself. Sometimes there is a danger of looking too closely.

 

 

The Scent of Bees

A.V. Walters

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I’ve wanted to keep bees since my age was in the single digits. My grandfather kept bees. And turkeys. And rabbits. We never knew how many hives he had, because he was forever loading them up into the back of his old Suburban, and carting them around to “someone who needed them.” I didn’t understand why someone might need bees.

He was a quiet man of many talents. He was not a big feature in our lives, because there had been a divorce. For their own reasons, neither my grandmother, nor my grandfather’s second wife, were eager to see a relationship between Grandpa and his grandchildren. The visits were few and far between. But he was interesting and different. He made things with his hands. He was, literally, always trying to build a better mousetrap. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, what he said was solid. Or funny. Sometimes, darkly funny. He thought it was funny to pick up hitchhikers when his Suburban was full of bees.

So, bees have always been in the back of my mind. But, there were always too many reasons why I couldn’t keep bees. In my urban years, my partner was adamantly against it. In Two Rock, my landlord was allergic to stings. (You don’t waste a good landlord, like that.) So the move to Michigan was my chance to finally become a beekeeper. I say “become,” because it takes some time to really be a beekeeper. There’s a lot to learn, especially now, when the bees are in so much trouble.

I’ve joined a beekeeping group. Many of us are “newbees” but in the group there’s a generous wealth of talent and experience—and the rest we make up for with enthusiasm. Our founder is a dynamic young man, willing to share his decade or so of experience.

When spring rolled around, our group put together an order of bees from a supplier down in Holland. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Holland, but our fearless leader, Matt, said he’d do the pick up. There was only one wrinkle, Matt’s wife was expecting their second child—if the baby came early, Matt needed a back-up driver. I volunteered. How hard could it be? Others in the group looked dubious. They teased me, advising me to drive with the air-conditioner on full—to chill-out the bees.

Of course, by volunteering, I somehow guaranteed an early delivery date (for the baby, not the bees.) The day before the scheduled pick-up I emailed Matt—to ask how his wife was doing. “Funny you should ask,” he responded. They were just checking in to the hospital. I was now on-the-hook.

I told my mother, who was horrified at the idea of sharing a ride with hundreds of thousands of bees.

I told my sister, who told me not to pick up any hitchhikers.

I told Rick, who devised a system of bed-sheets and boards—to put over the bees to keep them away from me in the car.

I’m not put off by a long drive. The morning of the trip, though, we lost our spring weather. On the way down, I experienced every kind of weather, driving rain, sleet, buffeting winds and hail. Finally, in Holland, I missed my turn. I didn’t worry; I could just double back—or so I thought. Holland was having its Spring Tulip Festival. Many streets were closed and the town was a maze of festival detours. It’s a pretty little town, and many of its streets are lined with tulips. Lots of tulips. The tourists were there, en masse, dressed for a spring festival despite near freezing temperatures and occasional snow squalls. And, predictably, traffic sucked.

Finally, I arrived at my destination. The bee pick-up was held in the bee-master’s garage. The car area was filled with bee “packages” and the adjacent shop area displayed many bee accessories—wooden-ware, bee tools and such. Bees are sold as three-pound packages, in shoe-box sized wood and screened boxes, each containing approximately 10,000 bees and a queen. They also come as “nucs”—mini-hives with five frames containing all the components of a working hive, bees; a laying queen, brood, drones, honey and “bee-bread” (the mixture of honey and pollen fed to the larvae.) I was there to pick up about forty packages.

The garage was not only filled with boxes of bees, it was awash with loose bees, and beekeepers. Beekeepers are an odd lot. The beekeepers assembled for the pick-up and bee related shopping were oblivious to the loose bees, drifting in and around the garage. Regular folk would flee.

The bee vendors loaded the car for me, concerned that I wouldn’t leave adequate space between the packages. “Bees need air, you know.” The bee-master was concerned that the car wasn’t big enough for the Club’s order. I was concerned that he’d want to put bees in the passenger seat, right next to me.

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Bees, in every nook and cranny.

Finally, after many adjustments, and one sting (not me), the loading was complete. Loose bees hovered in and around my open vehicle. The bee-master saw me unfolding Rick’s driver-protection-sheet, and shot out of the garage.

“Whoa, what’s that for?”

“To cover the bees while I’m driving.”

“No way. There’s too many bees—too much heat. You cannot cover them at all.”

“But it’s freezing out…”

“Good thing, too,” he replied. “I’d keep the AC on full, just in case.”

(FYI—when the temperature drops, the bees settle down and hunker together, to stay warm)

And so it was. I swallowed hard for a long drive with loose bees. I layered up my clothes and drove home with about 400,000 bees in the car, through the snow and sleet, and with the air-conditioning on full. The bees didn’t give me any trouble at all. I wondered what my grandfather would think of that! The bees had to spend the night, in the car. I worried, since it really was cold, but I needn’t have been concerned. In the morning the car was warm, and the windows were steamed up, all generated by the bees.

There was something else, too. Most beekeepers are familiar with the smells of their hives. On a warm day in the bee yard, the hives are redolent with the aroma of honey and the fragrance of beeswax. It’s a clean, sweet smell that I equate with beekeeping. But, that’s not really the smell of bees. In a small car with, 400,000 bees, you get to smell the bees. It took me awhile to figure it out—notes of the musky smell of barn and fresh cut hay, with a hint of tobacco leaf. That’s the smell of bees. I wonder if my grandfather, tooling about in his Suburban full of hives, ever caught the scent of bees.

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And, finally home in their hives.

 

 

 

 

161 Trees…

A.V. Walters–

And counting.

Dear readers, I will return. But there are still bare-root trees to plant, and until they’re all in the ground, these aching bones will not be blogging. The oaks and tulip poplars are in, the hazelnuts (almost, just five to go) The service berry, black elderberry, and redbuds are almost in (I’m saving just a handful for the end, when I’ll put in a mixed berry hedge. Most of the trees were selected to make the bees happy. Right now, getting them all planted, will make me happy. Another day, maybe two. Then I have to make cages for them to keep them safe from the bunnies and deer. And then we pray for rain.

 

Musings on Planting Trees–

A.V. Walters–

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And that doesn’t even include the trees we bought from Benzie County!

Professional “re-foresters” can plant hundreds, even thousand of trees each day. Depending upon the terrain, they use dagger-like tools, either hand or foot powered, and can put in acres of trees in short order.

I am not one of them. I am too fussy. Each tree gets an actual hole, not just a slash with the roots jammed in. Each tree gets a shovel-full or two of compost, which must be blended into the natural soils, so water doesn’t “perch,” causing root rot. I layer in the roots, so they’ll have a stable start. This year, I’m loading up a little on the compost. They’re predicting a hot, dry summer and the compost helps to hold moisture in the root zone. I cheat a little, and soak the roots in Terra Sorb (or work a pinch of it into the hole), also to give them the moisture advantage. If no rain is predicted, they get a starter sip of water, (though spring soils are pretty moist.) Sometimes, we give trees a cage, to protect it from deer or rabbits during its infancy. There’s only so much you can do.

Professional tree-planters work on a scale that allows for a relatively high failure rate. From my perspective, there seems to be little point to doing all that work if the trees don’t survive. Sure, there are losses from natural forces, deer, bugs, and the like. This past year we lost two baby trees when other trees fell on them. There’s nothing you can do to protect from natural hazards. The best you can do is to give them the best start possible. Do I sound like a parent? I’m pleased to report that we have a good survival rate for last season’s seedlings.

In the forest, you need to look for a good spot–a hole in the canopy for light, not too close to existing trees, not near an obvious deer path, not in the “fall-line ” of any existing afflicted trees, and hopefully sheltered from strong winds. Of course, you’re carrying a bunch of seedlings in one bucket (with some water) and another bucket of compost and a spade. I spend a good bit of time, wandering in the woods, finding those good spots. I couldn’t be happier, even with the load–what a lovely way to spend time.

We don’t celebrate Earth Day. We spend a couple of weeks each year, planting. So far this season, I’ve put in 98 trees (including 3 orchard trees.) I’m over the half-way mark. I hurt like hell, but things are moving right along.

 

Friction Fit

A.V. Walters

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I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting. I have been busy with everyone’s favorite task in home building. I’m insulating.

For good reason, Michigan takes insulation seriously. Back in California I remember building inspectors glancing at insulation, with a nod and a wink. Not so here. Normally, we have winters that warrant a rigorous inspection. Without insulation, we’d spend a fortune (and a lot of natural resources) to keep the place habitable in the winter.

Because there’s little you can do to insulate log walls, the remaining areas get extra scrutiny. In part because the default—fiberglass–is such a miserable job, we considered all of our options. Rigid, closed-cell board, which is not itchy at all, was time consuming and expensive. We secured bids on foam spray installation. They were outrageous—especially because of the manual labor to install the cold-roof baffles, before the spray. Ultimately we opted for the tried and true, the fiberglass, do-it-yourself option.

We have to meet R 49 in the roof and ceilings. When you include the cold-roof baffles, there’s not enough depth between the rafters to get R49’s worth of insulation. So, we found a company that made sturdy R5 baffles AND we firred-out the rafters with 2X2s for extra depth. Then we used high-density fiberglass batts. Of course, they don’t make such things in the depths we needed, so we opted for three layers of R-15 batts to get to the R-value we needed. It has been an amazing amount of work, most of it overhead, unpleasant and itchy (on a ladder, in protective layers and mask.) With three layers, it means dozens of times up and down the ladder to fill each bay. The first two layers are “friction fit,” that is, they are held up by their sheer orneriness. The last, faced, layer is stapled.

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It’s nearly finished. Some of it has to wait—to accommodate wiring and plumbing first. I don’t mind the break, though it might be hard to go back to it. Our little house will certainly be cozy when this is all done. I’m curious to see how it will fare in summer—whether the cold-roof baffles and ridge vent will really keep the roof (and thus the upstairs) cool. In that department, we are blessed that the house falls in the shade of the hill in the afternoons and that should help us keep comfortable, too. It’s important, because we’ve opted not to air-condition.

I’m happy to be nearly finished. It turns out that the only part of this task that is not friction fit, is me.

 

 

Minding Our Bees and Qs

A.V. Walters

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Ah, The Sweet Smell of… Failure?! How can that bee?

We’ve just spent the better part of the weekend processing honey.  The house smells sweet and clean from honey and beeswax. Unexpectedly, we have a lot of honey. This is honey that was left in the hives so the bees would have something to eat over the winter. The problem is that the bees didn’t make it. We checked the hives a couple of weeks ago and confirmed our worst suspicions; all the hives were dead.

They must have died pretty early in the winter, because they left ample stores of honey. At least they didn’t starve. There’s nothing wrong with the honey, so, once we’d cleaned up the hives, and done our limited forensics, we collected up the laden frames for processing. We had very productive bees. Our mild winter appears to be melting into an early spring, and we wanted the hives empty before we have a bunch of grumpy, hungry bears roaming around.

The late season honey is very different from our first harvest. The honey from early in the season is light, with a floral aroma. The late season honey is thick and more strongly flavored—made with the robust pollen of Black-eyed Susans and Goldenrod. I can’t decide which I like better.

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We’re not quite finished processing, but it looks like we’ll end up with just shy of seventy pounds of honey. Add that to the thirty-five pounds we harvested last fall, fifteen pounds from the Pinta hive, and… well, it’s a lot of honey. Today we had to run out to buy another dozen quart canning jars. (Folks at the local grocery wonder out loud what you’re canning in March. It’s early, even for maple syrup.) The new quart jars, along with every jar and container in the house brings this batch to about 27 quarts. It makes for a bittersweet failure. We’d rather have the bees.

We’ve checked with the experts and the most likely explanation is that our bees succumbed to varoa mites (or to the viruses that the mites carry.) There was some evidence of mite activity in the two smaller hives. Our aggressive hive, Santa Maria, was not so clear a case. It could have been the weather. This winter’s warm/cold oscillations were very hard on local bees. We’re not the only ones who have had losses. Even experienced beekeepers are cursing this winter. It seemed mild, except (quite abruptly) when it wasn’t.

We have cleaned up the hive boxes, and set them ready for spring–we have new bees on order. I’ve also ordered a well-recommended book on natural beekeeping–and I attended a day-long class on advanced beekeeping techniques. I feel almost ready to try again. We’ll monitor mite levels closely. We’ll do mid-season splits (dividing colonies in half, and “forcing” new queens.) Splitting not only increases the number of hives, it also interrupts the varoa breeding cycles. And, we’ll investigate and experiment with natural methods of hive treatment.

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Bees’ combs are amazing structures.

Overall, we can’t complain. The retail value of the honey we harvested has covered our initial investments in bees and equipment. It makes good sense to try again. We plan to start with three hives, and split to six, mid-summer. At the end of the season we can assess the hives’ strengths, and either go into the winter with six, or recombine some for larger, stronger hives for next winter. Unfortunately, the new normal in beekeeping is to expect thirty percent losses–and that’s when you do everything right.

We’ll have to be a lot better about minding our bees.

 

Arts and Crafts

A.V. Walters

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When I refurbish a piece of furniture, I have a couple of rules. This is not to say that my way is universal, or that I pretend to be some fancy, high-end professional restorer. But, I do try to maintain the integrity of the piece. My rules, in short, try to restore the piece to its original condition, respecting the aesthetic of the time; when possible (in keeping with the first rule) try to reveal the beauty of the wood (or other materials); and maintain, or return the piece to its original functionality. It’s not enough to be cool-looking and old; I want it to be useful, too.

There are exceptions—just as our aesthetics are shaped by our experiences, sometimes we make substitutions. What we modern people admire about classical Greek sculptures—the revealing beauty of the white marble—is not what the Greeks had in mind. Originally, those marble statues were painted! Accustomed to the elegant monochrome, my eye is offended whenever I see a “fully restored” Greek figure. To my eye, with paint, they look garish and cheap.

My favorite era of antiques is Arts and Crafts—sometimes known as Mission. This artistic movement was a backlash against the frippery and soulless excess of industrialization. At its best, the lines were clean and simple, harkening back to a time of craftsmanship and honest labor. (At its worst it can be chunky and monolithic, crude for crude’s sake.) The philosophy behind Arts & Crafts reflected the relationship between the materials and the craftsman, showing each to its best potential. Of course, once popular, its designs were copied and manufactured, en masse, by American factories. Savvy manufacturers, like the Stickley brothers, created a design cult and a “buy in” mentality for their lines of cottage-style furnishings. The success of the movement’s philosophy, and marketing, soon made it another passing fad. By the start of The Great War, the style was already fading. Its American heyday was between 1905 and 1915.

I like the furniture of that era, featuring rich woods, quarter-sawn oak or aged natural cherry. Like many antiques, there’s additional caché for a piece when it has its original finish. Sometimes, that’s an original “fumed” finish—and I laugh. What we see today in those fumed finishes, often dry feeling and nearly black in color, looks nothing like it did when it came from the factory. They were ammonia based “lusters”—added after the standard wood finish, a process that created an iridescent color—almost a glow, in pastel tones. But, the factories knew that the fuming was ephemeral. It didn’t last. In fact, the fuming actually degraded the wood. So current antique emphasis on an “original fumed finish” puts a premium on what was really a failed experiment from the start. It’s not unlike the Greek statues—completely different in their own time. I’ll sand and refinish a fumed surface—regardless of the premium (breaking my own first rule.) I once sold a chair to an appellate judge who wanted a blond mission rocking chair, specifically so that he could experiment with fumed finishes. Now, that’s a purist. I pale by comparison.

Recently I found a lovely little “sewing rocker” on craigslist. From the picture, it had nice lines, but was nearly black. I figured I could refinish it, so long as it was solid and the joints tight. At thirty-five bucks, it was worth the effort, especially since I need a small chair for the downstairs bedroom. In person, it was just as dark, but it didn’t have the dry feeling of a fumed finish that I’d expected. I bought it. Once home, we found a faded label—Otsego Chair Company. A quick trip to the internet told us that Otsego was a Michigan company that closed in 1915. So our little rocker is at least one hundred years old.

With winter slowing us down outdoors, this is a nice time for indoor projects. I’m still waiting for the rest of my banjo parts, so I pulled out the little chair. I wondered about the nonstandard color—near black. I decided to start with a thorough scrubbing with Murphy’s Oil Soap. What a shock. This piece was never fumed; it was just filthy!

Underneath all that grime was a lovely little chair with a slightly weathered, rich patina. I didn’t remove the original finish, but, in the interest of my second rule, I did cheat a bit and enhance it with a layer of penetrating stain. The oak is quarter-sawn and highly figured. That means that the wood was cut for structural stability—and to enhance the variation in the wood’s grain. Before adding stain—I hit the “rays” with a lighter, golden-oak stain, another cheat. That way, they resist the overall, darker stain, and emphasize the contrast in the natural oak grain. I think it came out nicely. A coat of beeswax polish and it will be ready to put back into service.

 

 

 

 

The Sum of Its Parts

A.V. Walters–

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We tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Both Rick and I come from families where you fixed it, before you replaced it. Sometimes, if whatever “it” was, was not within your field of expertise, you paid somebody to fix it. Sometimes, cost or convenience inspired you to do it yourself. There’s a little bit of a mantra to it, even if “it” is intimidating, “Well, how hard could it be, really?”

All the way to building a house.

That history, combined with an appreciation of older things, has led us, separately and together, to a good bit of investigative repair and reinvention. My home is filled with rescue-antiques. Rick is the mother of invention when it comes to building and repairing challenges. We have accumulated no small measure of experience in woodworking, refinishing, building, tool maintenance and repair, mechanical and electronics repair (mostly Rick), art restoration and the mending and making of things in fabrics (mostly me.) We have projects upon projects. Which brings us to the Paramount question.

In the midst of my mid-life upheaval, I decided I needed an intellectual challenge (because writing novels wasn’t enough?) I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and in so doing, to immerse myself in a participatory way, in the language that is music. I had to choose which instrument would be appropriate for a (then) solo, middle-aged woman. It had to be something I could play alone, and maybe with others. I envisioned myself playing and practicing on a big porch with a view. My first choice, violin, wasn’t a good fit—as a previous car accident had left me with neck issues. I thought about the sax—but even the idea of relearning the breathing for a wind instrument, left me winded. So, I decided on the banjo, mostly because I could not think of any banjo music that sounded sad. I picked up a cheapie banjo on craigslist and began learning and plinking. I have a long way to go.

But, as things work out, once you open the door in a particular area, opportunities step in. When my brother learned that I had an interest in the banjo, it turned out he had a contact for an old banjo with history. He sent it my way.

It is a Paramount, tenor banjo from the mid-twenties. It’s beat up and beautiful. For a number of years it’s been sitting, disassembled (thanks to a “well intentioned” friend) in its case. I’m coming very close to having that lovely long front porch, overlooking the valley, so I thought it was time to get the Paramount in shape. Rick, as is his way, raised an eyebrow.

The banjo needs a lot of work. First and foremost, it needs to be completely disassembled and cleaned. Then, a new “head”—the stretched skin that gives the banjo its distinctive sound. The choice was whether to use a synthetic head material, or the traditional calfskin head that was used when the Paramount was first manufactured. We also need to replace the tuning pegs—which raised the question,again, of new versus old. The Paramounts had ingenious Page, geared pegs, new back in the day, and no longer manufactured.

In the past, everyone had said that I need an expert to help with this banjo renovation. So, I asked around and received several referrals to a local guy, who was reputed to be both better, and less expensive, than the “ship it off to Lansing” guys used by local music stores. I called and made an appointment. First, he gave me his tour of successes—a line-up of string instruments, hanging awaiting pick up by his other customers. They were lovely—so we got to the Paramount. His eyes widened when he saw the disassembled banjo. A Paramount is an impressively machined instrument, sturdy and buttressed with all manor of hardware. The expert marveled that the parts were mostly there—you could see that he was positively itching to get to the task. He knew that I had contacted him mostly for assistance with the installation of the new head—but soon his enthusiasm overflowed to the rehabilitation of the wood and the nickel-plate parts. He pointed out the accumulated finger grime on the mother-of-pearl inlayed finger board. I hadn’t noticed how bad it was. He insisted that the entire instrument be disassembled, lovingly cleaned, then reassembled, before a new head could be stretched. He was adamant that only vintage parts should be used—and of course, a calfskin head. He explained the intricacy of the stretching of a banjo head, a process not unlike stretching the canvas for an oil painting. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was completely on board. As he described the work necessary to restore the banjo to its former glory, the dollars were mounting. He looked up at me, but I didn’t blink. I’m a pushover for any argument favoring an antique’s original integrity. I was sucked in by his description of the painstaking task. With the vintage parts and laborious restoration, my “free” banjo was fast approaching a thousand dollar rehab.

“That grimy fret board,” I asked, “what would you use to clean it?” I expected to be drawn further into the secret and arcane world of instrument restoration.

“Oh, Windex will do it.” He said offhandedly.

My heart skipped a beat. “Windex?” I’ve done enough antique restoration to know that you minimize “wet” treatments, especially near inlay or marquetry. He noticed my alarm.

“Why, what would you use?”

“As mild a cleaner as possible. Probably Murphy’s Oil Soap, with very little water, a damp cloth to wipe it clear and then dry it immediately with a soft terry.”

He nodded, “Yeah, that’d work, too.”

But he’d now handed me the tail-end of the thread that would soon unravel the spell he’d woven.

“And the nickel-plated parts?” I asked.

“Ammonia soak—you know the Windex, and then, where needed, a little steel wool.” My eyes widened and he followed up, “Don’t worry, that steel wool wouldn’t hurt for the tough spots. Why, what would you use?”

“I like Never-Dull. It doesn’t scratch and can clean most any metal finish.”

“Never heard of that.” He pulled out a polishing compound he sometimes uses.

I had to press further. “What about the areas on the neck, and the other wood surfaces, where the finish is worn?”

He looked at me seriously. “There’s a temptation to refinish that—but it’d be a mistake. As long as the wood integrity isn’t threatened, you keep the value of a vintage instrument by maintaining the original finish. You can do that with a little Pledge.”

The bubble didn’t just burst, it imploded.

Pledge?”

“Yeah, you know, or any polish and wax finish.” I had visions of 60s era homemaking commercials and gingham aprons. I needed an exit strategy.

“This is adding up. We really just need help with the calfskin head—the cleaning part is grunt work that we can really do ourselves.” His face fell. It wasn’t just that the fish had slipped the hook—you could tell that he had really wanted to get his hands on the banjo. There’s genuine satisfaction in the restoration of a beautiful old item. He nodded. And helped me repack the banjo parts back into the case. He was really a nice and genuine fellow. He was, after all, the person most recommended in the area.

I took the banjo home and told Rick the tale.

So, really, how hard could it be?

We went online, researched and ordered the replacement tuning machines, and the calfskin replacement head material. We even broke down and bought an original Paramount wrench to stretch the new head. (They look kind of look an old skate key.) There are You Tube videos that show the many phases of banjo restoration, including stretching a calfskin head.

Rick helped disassemble the rest of the banjo, and I started the painstaking cleaning process, starting with the inlaid fret board, using the materials of my choice. The expert was absolutely right (in part)—cleaned up, it is beautiful. The nickel plated, metal parts have been gently restored to their former gleaming glory. We have some wood repair still to do, but I’ve ordered all the replacement parts and look forward to the challenge of finishing the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Mike: Part Two–

A.V. Walters–

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It was the Christmas storm, in New Mexico, that triggered our actions. That, and the fact we finally got Mike to give us an address.

Squalor is such an ugly word. So is elder-abuse. I try not to be judgmental. I know that every person has their own reasons for what they do, and that it doesn’t help if I overlay my own perspective. I think the facts should speak for themselves. You’re free to draw your own conclusions.

I had coordinated with Adult Protective Services before my arrival in New Mexico. I wanted to document conditions—and I wanted company out to the site—just in case. APS was concerned, too—they wanted me to coordinate with local law enforcement for “civil standby,” which would cover police presence, not only for the initial status check, but for the time it took to pack Mike’s belongings, and go. The county sheriff’s department had jurisdiction, but they reached out for additional back-up from the local police department that had previously been to the location. We were quite the parade. Mike was living in a remote trailer out in the high desert. We, (me and my entourage of law enforcement, totaling four vehicles), met down the road, and then pulled up to the trailer, together. To my shock, the police flanked the entry, hands on holsters, while the deputy pounded on the door. She, Mike’s “friend,” answered—of course, Mike was home.

She presented as a good-looking, if overly made-up, middle-aged woman. She wore one of those “stylish” track suits. You wouldn’t look twice if you passed her on the street. She called Mike to the door. He peered out at the collected entourage—slack-jawed and stunned. His clothing hung on him, his pants held up by a belt with a long tail that spoke to the enormous weight loss since I’d last seen him. He sported a Hard Rock Café t-shirt, several sizes too large, and stained with the kind of deep grime that screams poverty. His hair was clean, but long, and matted. His feet were wrapped in pressure bandages. Even that prelude didn’t prepare me for the inside of the trailer.

Mike’s eyes found me in the crowd and he relaxed, but just a little. I handed him the kitty carrier and told him these people had to come inside to see where he lived. I instructed him to put the kitty in the carrier, so that we wouldn’t scare her off. Unfortunately, the cat was already outside—Mike went out to try to find her, but we never saw her.

We took advantage of his search for Penny, to go into the trailer where Mike had been living for ten months. I knew that he mostly lived there alone. We knew from conversations with Mike that She “lived” there, in address only—mostly she spent the nights at her boyfriend’s apartment. Mike was proud that he “held down the fort” at the trailer. Every couple of weeks, he’d be taken to the boyfriend’s house, to clean up—and to do laundry. Sometimes, if weather was really severe, he’d spend the night at the boyfriend’s.

Getting a good look, inside the trailer, brought tears to my eyes. There was NO water, NO sanitation, NO power, and NO heat. An outdoor, propane, “patio heater” stood in the center of the main room, an empty propane tank, on its side, next to it. No matter, at least today was a warm day. Plastic gallon-jugs of water circled the heater—so they wouldn’t freeze at night. I knew, from Mike, that there was a generator outside that gave light, and access to a microwave oven, when there was fuel. Too often, there wasn’t any. The only significant furnishings were two “easy” chairs, one heavily worn and shabby, and the other in reasonable condition. It was no challenge to guess where Mike had been sleeping for the last 10 months.

The trailer was filthy, covered in the reddish grit that comes from the wind-blown desert of New Mexico. It was strewn with rags, or so I thought, until She told me they were Mike’s clothes. There was a plastic trash bag with his clean laundry—he had no dresser, not even boxes for his clothing. There was a short, folding shelf unit for his personal effects—his razor, miscellaneous papers and junk he’d collected. I had to step outside for a moment, overwhelmed. We’d clearly waited too long, and though he denied it, Mike had paid the price. I went and found Mike, wandering in the field, looking for the cat. “Mike, you have to come with me, now. You cannot stay here, any longer. It’s not safe or healthy.” He dropped his head. I hated to do it—Mike believed I was dashing his dreams.

You see, Mike saw this as his opportunity for homesteading. Apparently, She owned the property. She relieved him of his Social Security money each month, and fed him the fantasy that soon, they’d own the trailer, together, outright. Then, they could see about real “improvements.” Mike had spent the previous summer clearing the mesquite and tumbleweeds from the “yard.” He showed me the tree he’d planted, that he watered diligently from those plastic jugs. He was nothing if not patient, and proud.

By law, most livestock is treated better.

I’d brought plastic trash bags, to pack. I was concerned about the possibility of gathering up pests, and bringing them to my mother’s, where Mike would be living. I was optimistic on that front—even insects couldn’t thrive in these conditions. As I headed back in, to pack, one of the officers offered me gloves—those blue, nitrile gloves they wear at crime scenes to avoid contamination. I gratefully accepted them. Mostly, I just wanted to pack Mike into the car, and escape with just him. After all, anticipating the worst, I’d brought him new clothing. But, I know that there’s a danger in that kind of uprooting; you dismiss and abandon the person’s past—good and bad. Though the officers were quietly conversing amongst themselves—appalled at the conditions, I had to be mindful that this had been Mike’s home, and that he was proud of it. I packed what I could—sorting out the clothing that was too grimy, or threadbare, deciding what was worth hauling across the country.

The officers and APS admitted that this was a clear-cut case of abuse. But, they didn’t seem in favor of prosecution. Mike certainly would be unable, or unwilling, to cooperate—he believed this woman was his friend and, in any event, he was safely leaving the state. At the time, I had no interest in going down that road—I just wanted Mike healthy, safe, and away. One of the officers mentioned that this was not her first time doing this. She was outraged at any suggestion of abuse—after all, how could it be abusive if Mike agreed to it. And, she told the officers, She lived there, too! (Yeah, right. We all knew better.) Mike and I stopped in Roswell, on our way out of town, for a haircut and to close his bank account—he had almost nothing to show for his 44 years in New Mexico.

At last, we headed home. It’s a long trip, over 1,600 miles, to the UP. Mike was quiet at first, but finally, he began to chat—about the problems with his feet, about his cat, about the burritos she’d brought him to eat, from the convenience store where her current “boyfriend” works. Other than a feral cat, lost to him now, nothing he said about his life in the desert made me feel any better. It will take some time for Mike to adjust.

My niece, Jessica, who is a saint, arranged a medical appointment for the day after we arrived home. On the trip, Mike wouldn’t undo the bandages on his feet—he said the doctor (whom he hadn’t seen in a month, because She didn’t get him to his appointments) told him that only a doctor should wrap or re-wrap them. My mother and I were in the exam room when they removed the wrappings. We didn’t know what to say. His feet were grossly swollen and crusted—skin split from the swelling. There was evidence of frost-bite—a testament to his living conditions. His feet did not look human. The doctor took one look, and sent us to Emergency.

No thanks to his “friend” in New Mexico, Mike will be okay. His feet and legs will recover, if slowly. He now has loving caretakers who will see to it he eats properly, exercises, and gets needed medical care. They tell us he came very close to losing his feet—and maybe his life. We’ll deal with the blood clots for several months, yet—with blood thinners and proper pressure wraps. I arrived, apparently, just in time.

I’m still fuming. In front of Mike, I’m careful not to criticize his “friend.” I understand Stockholm Syndrome, and how a victim can attach to his oppressor, or worse, when the victim believes it’s his friend. I take a deep breath, and think of what he’s been through. Given what we now know about his physical condition, I wonder if I made the right decision not to prosecute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Mike: Part One–

A.V. Walters–

It was inevitable that sooner or later we’d have to step up to the plate to resolve this. The only real resolution was to bring Mike home.

Mike is my uncle. He is congenitally disabled–starting with a birth condition that caused brain damage, which (very common in the day) was left untreated. He did not get the kind of early intervention and treatment mandated now, that would likely have left him far more capable. My grandmother shielded him–to protect him from the bullies that taunted and repeatedly injured him. He clearly has deficits–but sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s damage, what’s training and–well, when Mike is manipulating for his own ends. The very fact that he knows when he can gain advantage, hedging with the truth, means there’s more capacity there than is generally acknowledged.

Mike’s childhood in Michigan was pretty harsh. Bullying is widely recognized today as an insidious and twisted problem–one that damages both the victim and the perpetrator. Schools have special programs. Teacher and students alike are encouraged to step forward to set things to rights. Not so in Mike’s day. School was a veritable gauntlet of hazards. My grandmother would rail, and the administration would shrug. They made it very clear that they would have preferred that he be institutionalized early on. They made it Mike’s fault.

My grandmother refused to give up. She researched high and low and found a special program to maximize the potential for kids like Mike. She wanted him to have the satisfaction and autonomy that comes with work. Like most parents on mentally challenged children, she didn’t want him to be a burden–and worried what would happen when she and my grandfather died. She found a great program in New Mexico–run by a dynamic and wonderful young man–who saw potential in all “his kids.” And the program was wonderful. First and foremost they were the ones to identify Mike’s speech impediment. (When I was little I could never understand him–most couldn’t, and soon, Mike talked less and less.) As a late teen, Mike received intensive speech therapy. It worked. Mike could suddenly communicate–and he was funny–even theatrical. My grandparents were vindicated. Not that Mike doesn’t have deficits, but, in the absence of communication, everyone assumed that he was far less functional than he really was. Shame on the rest of us.

The relocation was a big step, but my grandparents uprooted themselves from generations of family and history in Michigan, to give Mike a chance. It was a tough move, loaded with sacrifices. Being from Michigan gives one a love of season and lakes and snow. New Mexico, especially the high Eastern Desert, takes a special kind of appreciation. Mike bloomed. The employment training offered wasn’t wonderful–hospital orderly, bus boy, laundry worker–but they were jobs, steady jobs, for kids who were never expected to have any prospects.

After a while, the program, and its continuing support fizzled. State administrations changed, budgets were cut. Finally there were really no special programs for Mike, just a handful of advocates–family and friends who’d come to know him. Still, he lived with his parents and had a regular job. My grandparents missed Michigan. Some people have only one great leap of faith in them–that leap brought them to New Mexico. There was no going back.

Mike’s biggest problem is his inability to discern the motivations of others. He’s a genial guy. Not many people will take the time to befriend a mentally disabled person. When they do, they are either saints, or, unfortunately, predators. It’s been a problem all of his life. The “friend” who got him into stereo equipment–soaked up his savings and, after he’d cashed his commission check, vanished from Mike’s life. There was a similar scenario with camera equipment. It’s a recurring theme, and so we’re leery.

When my grandparents passed, nobody knew what to do about Mike. Mike made it abundantly clear that he wanted to stay where he was. It was his community and he had a job. My parents would have taken him to Michigan, but Mike’s memories of Michigan are full of abuse and bullies. I would have taken him to Two Rock, but California was an unknown. Mike wanted to stay. We cut a deal. If Mike could stay and take care of business–work, pay bills, take care of himself, he could stay. Long distance monitoring isn’t great. My grandmother’s friend, Mary-Jo has helped. She would call and drop in on him. Mike calls my mother every week, on Sundays. There have been slips, but mostly Mike has kept up his end of the deal. Or so we thought.

A couple of years ago, Mike had a friend who suggested that they share an apartment, to save money. We were immediately suspicious. The “friend” wasn’t interested in communicating with us–more suspicions. But, Mike jumped the gun and moved anyway. We had no evidence of trouble, so we opted for a wait and watch plan. Things seemed to be fine. Mike continued to report to work. My grandmother’s friend watched like a hawk (the woman is a blessing). At one point, when Mike didn’t call, we called the local cops–for a “welfare” visit. He was fine. He was angry with us–he’d just missed a couple of calls because of problems with his phone. Still, we worried.

Last spring Mike was going in for cataract surgery. His roommate didn’t pick him up, so Mike gave the medicos Mary-Jo’s name and number. She retrieved him from the clinic. While he was there, the doctor noted a nasty infection in his leg. These have plagued him, off and on, all his life. He started up with regular treatments at a wound clinic. His legs were too bad to continue working. My mother offered to pick him up and take him to Michigan where he could have better care. Mary-Jo reported that Mike was unshaven and disheveled. We were alarmed that the roommate hadn’t followed through, and that he wasn’t taking care of himself.

Then, our mail was returned as “not at this address.” Again, we requested that the police visit. Too late. Mike was gone. For a while we lost contact, but still, we had no evidence of actual trouble. We had nothing to report and nowhere to report it to. We’d dropped the ball.

After a bit, Mike’s calls to my mother resumed. Yes, he’d been out of communication, but there were reasons. He’d moved to a place in the country–and there wasn’t great cell reception. He was clearing part of the property and planting trees. He had a kitten. He was so excited, it was hard to be angry. But, he had no address. The trailer where he was living was new, and there was no address yet. We’d have to be patient, there was so much to do. No address meant that we couldn’t send him cards and treats and care packages. These goodies had long sustained him–the occasional box of cookies, a needed winter coat, cards–with a little cash tucked in. These outreaches meant the world to Mike. How could he not give us an address? Well, the post office had to put it on the route and they’d have to install a mailbox, out on the highway. He confided that his friend was still angry that we’d called the police previously. Soon, soon, he’d have an address.

He sounded great. He sounded happier than he’d been in years. He was working outdoors, enjoying it and proud of the results of his labors. He was so thrilled that he had a kitten–all his own. We worried. He was also keeping in telephone contact with Mary-Jo, she didn’t like the situation, one bit, and she told him so. We talked about it and we decided to let the tenor of Mike’s voice be our guide. His voice was strong and he was happy.

His birthday rolled around. My mum called for his birthday. He was missing the goodies. What could she say? Well, Mike, when you give us your address and we’ll resume the packages and cards. Tough love. Over Christmas, Mike called my mother, elated that they’d put up the mail box. He gave her his new address! Before she’d send him any goodies my mother told Mike she would send him something and he’d have to send it back, a test of the new postal address. She did, and he did. So, she sent him belated birthday and Christmas packages.

Then, after Christmas, New Mexico had a storm. We read about it but we’re from Michigan. What’s the big deal about a little snow? It was a big deal. Mary-Jo called, frantic. Was Mike going to be okay? My mother gave her the address–explained that things were fine now according to Mike. Things weren’t fine. Mike likes it there, but we’ve learned that he lives in a trailer with no heat, no water, no sanitation. There’s power, but only when there’s fuel for a generator. Winter is a big deal under these conditions. Mary-Jo, determined detective that she is, advocate for this vulnerable son of her best friend–she found out just how grim. He told her he keeps warm under a thermal blanket, he and his kitty. The “roommate” doesn’t live there, she drops off groceries. He visits at her place every couple of weeks–to do laundry and have a shower. She cashes and keeps his Social Security checks.

I am on a mission. I have contacted and coordinated with Adult Protective Services. Mike’s going to have a visit.The police will escort us. If conditions are as Mary-Jo reports, Mike and his kitty are coming home to Michigan. He’s not going to like it, but he’s not getting a choice this time. I won’t post this until he is safe with me–I don’t want to jinx it this time. I just finished a two day, 1,600 mile drive to New Mexico. I thank all those who have coordinated to make Mike’s rescue possible, especially Mary-Jo. Tomorrow is the big day.

Better Late Than Never–

A.V. Walters.

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Yesterday’s Barbed Wire

The day before yesterday, Rick and I went for a walk in the woods. There was a wind-storm over Christmas, and we wanted to see if any more trees were down. We wore our regular shoes. There was no snow. So, we busied ourselves, with some minor trail-clearing, before yesterday’s predicted storm. (It’s nice to remove the trip hazards, while you can still see them.) At least the additional trees that fell were already dead—this is normal winter renewal.

We also wanted to check on our “widow-makers,” trees that came partially down in the wind-storm last August, but that were caught in the surrounding trees—hanging, but not stable. These are a woodsman’s worst nightmare. They are extremely dangerous to clear, as you can tell by their name. We have several snarls—where a fallen tree smashes into its neighbor, and that one into its neighbor—and so on, until four or five trees are entangled. We’ve been slowly clearing them, hoping that winter would level them for us. No such luck, so far.

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Widow-maker.

Unfortunately, several widow-makers block, or threaten, our trails. One of them is further complicated by being bound up in some of the ancient, barbed-wire fencing. The trees have grown, embedding the wire deep into their trunks. A big maple, split at its base, leans heavily on a smaller maple, over our main access trail, both of them wired together. It’s just a matter of time, and wind, until the smaller tree splits or collapses under the burden. (Should the bigger tree fall fast, that entrapped wire could cut through a bystander like a hot knife through butter.) We decided at least to clear the wire. Tinsnips in hand, we do what we can.

Yesterday morning we woke up to a different world. Finally, winter has arrived. It’s tough to estimate, with the drifting, but I’d guess we got a good six inches of dry, fine, powder. It’s about time.

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What a difference a day makes.

Though the mild season has seen great savings in heating costs and convenience, it is disconcerting not to have a real winter. This new blanket of snow sets that to rights. It will also provide needed “chill” hours to our fruit trees and down-time for the bees. Not that the bees need super-cold temperatures, but it is hard on them to have warm weather with no blossoms. Now, they can huddle and give up on the search for pollen and nectar.

Now, one would think that, being late December, we’d be ready for winter. Were we that well-oiled, seasonal machine, we’d be waiting, ready, with the snow-blower already set up on the Kubota. Yeah, right. Instead, we flailed about in the snow, disconnecting summer implements and hooking up the blower. The reward is that the blower makes short work of snow removal. Rick did the driveway, parking area and paths at the house site, and the drive at the apartment—ours and our landlady’s, in a couple of hours. Altogether it’s over a thousand feet of plowed road and path, about ten feet wide.

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Suiting up.

We’re settling in now, to the slower pace of winter. Things need to be more deliberate. A trip to town requires clearing the car, first. Work on the house requires warming glue or caulking materials. You have to think ahead. We don’t mind. We have the necessary tools and we like the snow. Another snowfall like this one, and we’ll break-out the snowshoes.

 

 

Wrapping up the Season

A.V. Walters

 

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Post bucket

We’ve had nearly an extra month of fall. Tomorrow, though, temperatures are expected to tumble down to seasonal norms. We’ve been rushing around to take advantage of the extended season and to get a jump on spring, next year.

We garden in buckets. It’s habit, from California, where it solved some of our irrigation issues. It also kept the gophers out of the vegetables. We’ve kept it up here in Michigan for some of the same reasons–water, critters, and because our soils need a lot of work. The buckets let us amend most intensely where the plants will live. Before the next season, we pull the buckets and empty the amended soil and leftover roots back into the soil. It could wait until spring, but we had the warm weather, so I did it this week. It will make it easier to spread amendment over the whole garden area in the spring, but we’ll probably stick with the buckets for a few seasons yet. It is more work–but promises better harvests until we can get the garden’s soil into better shape.

It was also time to attend to the fruit trees. They needed an end-of-season weeding, and it was time to wrap their trunks before winter. There are two main reasons for wrapping the trunks of fruit trees. It prevents sun scalding. Winter sun can warm the trunk–expanding the bark and the moist tissues below–on the sunny side. The temperature differential can split the bark, endangering the tree. By wrapping the trunk with light colored material, you reflect the sun’s heat away. The other reason to wrap is to dissuade mice and other critters who’d be inclined to nibble at the baby trees’ thin bark. Mice can easily girdle, and kill a young tree. I knew I’d arrived to the task just in time, when I saw that one of the apple tree’s lower trunk showed the early signs of nibbling! Now all of the fruit trees are wrapped and ready.

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A tidy wrap to protect the baby tree.

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Lined up in winter finery.

Along the way, I noted some successes. Before we planted the trees, located in the fenced garden area, we dug amendment in deep–very deep. In prepping their planting holes, we went down four to five feet deep and at least that far across. We wanted to give them a good start, and since our soils are poor, it was our best chance to add nutrients to the soil for the trees’ formative years. It has already paid off. Because we were attacked early by deer, the garden orchard trees had both the fence and individual tree cages for protection. In spite of having been seriously nibbled by deer, the apple, plum and pear trees have all more than doubled in size. They’ve outgrown the cages! They look more like 3rd or 4th year trees than 1st season trees. We may even see apples and pears next year.

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The cherry trees–grown outside the garden fence–didn’t get as much care. First, they’re all cherry trees. This is cherry tree country. One of the pioneer plants in our sandy soils is the American Black Cherry. I didn’t think that the cherries would require as much soil amendment. I only dug the amendment in to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. I also thought that cherry trees would be safe from the deer. They’re bitter! No such luck. We must have voracious deer. They munched on the cherries, too. Immediately after, we gave them cages, too. But while the others have recovered and really grown, the cherries have recovered, but stayed smaller. For future plantings, we’ll keep the deep-amendment program.

It makes me wonder if we should dig and replant the cherry trees. It’s a lot of stress on a little stick of a tree. I’m sure we’ll debate it all winter. More likely, I’ll be researching organic methods of fertilizing–not as good as a nice deep start, but we shall see. Any thoughts on that?

In Time for Ladybugs

A.V. Walters

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Two years ago, this week, Rick and I arrived in Leelanau. We’d loaded our truck at my brother’s on a clear, crisp autumn day. Not bothering to cover the load in such stellar weather, we then drove through three hours of mixed rain and snow, all the way to Empire. When we arrived at our little cottage rental, it was full of Ladybugs.

When autumn gives you mixed weather—a clear warning of winter to come—she delivers it with a garnish of Ladybugs. On warmer days, they descend, lighting on any surface warmed by the sun. The air is full of them. They get into the house. If they’re pests, they’re cheerful pests. It’s difficult to work up any insect-phobic reaction to excessive Ladybugs.

We’re rushing to complete some of the outdoor work before the weather turns. The air is full of Ladybugs, so we know well what’s on the way.

Our work is not specifically gender determined. We each take on those tasks for which we have experience. Gender typing does ultimately play a factor—because our respective lives and experiences have formed us along such lines. Generally Rick does the heavy lifting. I have become the expert on surfaces, sanding and architectural coatings. Rick is stronger than me, and has more experience with heavy equipment. I am not afraid of heights.

Rick is just finishing up the installation of the septic tank and field. That’s grueling work—digging, moving stone and sand. It would be impossible without the Kubota, but even with, there’s plenty of shovel work to leave you worn and sore by the end of each day. It looks wonderful, neat and crisp. He does good work (even the inspector said so.) It’s funny to put so much care into something that you immediately bury (and with any luck, you’ll never see again!) But a good septic system is imperative if you want to do your part in keeping surface waters clean. All water flows somewhere, and in this region, everything ultimately flows into our Great Lakes. Proper rural sewage treatment is not rocket science—but it is too often overlooked as a source of contamination. Rick is seeing to it that we are on the “part of the solution” side of the equation.

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Everyone likes the idea of clean water. However, whenever the state legislature, or local code authorities try to strengthen standards or enforce compliance with septic rules, the individual liberties and property rights folks go crazy. As though it were their personal right to pollute our collective drinking water.

When you think of it, sewage treatment is a sort of litmus test for civilization. If you cannot figure out how to deal with your wastes—you’ll poison yourself in your own fetid soup. Not meeting that threshold, means you don’t merit the other percs of civilization. As a culture, we should reflect further on that starting point.

I’ve just finished the exterior sealing of the log walls. First there was the inevitable prep—the critical step in any good home protection system. When paint or stain jobs fail, it’s almost always a failure in the prep process. If your prep doesn’t take twice as long as your actual application, you’re probably doing it wrong. Then, two coats of stain. This has been a stinky, messy, oil-based operation. I cringe at it, but it is necessary for the long term care of our home. I’ve painted several homes in my life, but this is my first initial staining of a raw wood exterior. Before I started, I did research.

After two days of day-end skin cleaning, with solvents and abrasives, I figured out that I could start the day with my face and hands liberally slathered with a cheap, greasy lotion—to simplify clean-up and avoid the day-end toxic ritual. I must have looked a fright. I have “paint clothes” that I’ve used repeatedly over the years. They are more paint than fabric. To this I added a neckerchief over my hair, and one around my neck (daubed in herbal bug repellant.) And then I slicked that greasy layer over the skin of my face and hands. I was unrecognizable. By the end of each day, stain speckles on my glasses made me even weirder looking—and nearly blind.

You can only apply paint or stain within a limited temperature range. Some days, it was just too cold for the materials. I really wanted to get the double coat onto the logs, so I could rest assured that the house was protected for the winter—and for winters to come. Make no mistake, winter is coming—the meaning behind the profusion of Ladybugs wasn’t lost on me. I found a good rock’n roll radio station (or, as good as it gets, in Northern Michigan) and, pumped up with oldies from my youth, powered on through.

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On logs, they recommend (especially for the first coat) that you apply the stain log-by-log, the full length of any given log, before moving on to the next log. Raw logs are so thirsty that if you don’t constantly work “from a wet edge” you’ll have forever-lap-marks on the logs. And, they told me to work from bottom to top. So that any drips can be brushed out. A stain drip on a naked log becomes a permanent feature.

I didn’t argue. Even though this method maximizes the number of ladder moves, I stuck with it. And, I grew muscled with the wrestling of the ladders. My work on the last side, the north side, was confounded by the trenches Rick had dug for the septic—further complicating the ladder dance. (And, it would be the north face—the highest side of the house!) I was chugging along in my usual rhythm until I hit the north side. Then, maneuvering my ladders around the trenches I lost my nerve.

I looked for it, high and low, but I could not get my nerve back. Maybe I was tired. Maybe stiff and sore legs wouldn’t respond as they should, and it made me feel awkward and uncomfortable on high. Maybe someone snuck kryptonite into my breakfast and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was a mere mortal when working aloft. The farther up the ladder I went, the more cravenly rigid and jerky I became on the ladder. I was petrified. Only the sin of pride forced me back up there to finish that first coat (and then I vowed that I would not go back up until spring, or at least until the trenches were all filled.) I was firm in my fearful resolve, that is, until I saw the results of a second coat.

The first coat soaks into the wood. It looks flat and mottled. The second coat is the juicy, outer, protective coating. It intensifies and evens the pigment. It not only protects, it makes the house look great. And it goes on much faster. My second-coat practice on the east, south and west sides built up my confidence. Though some fear remained, I was able to grit my teeth and return to my usual ladder mobility. (It’s funny that I’m good on ladders and in climbing trees, because I’m an absolute clutz on the ground level.)

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With my last brushstroke I called out to Rick (setting pipe in the rock of the septic field) and did a victory dance in front of the house. That’s one ugly job behind me. I triumphed over fear, and got the job done. Next, I need to start insulating the roof and upstairs ceiling. I hear that if you rub copious quantities of corn starch into your skin at the beginning of each insulating day, you can escape the usual “insulator’s itch. “ It’s at least worth a try (and, it couldn’t be any worse than slathering yourself with hand lotion.)

Winter is coming. I have recovered my nerve. We have Ladybugs everywhere, and my hands have never been so soft.

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Baby Steps

A.V. Walters

Looking deceptively innocent.

Looking deceptively innocent.

The fence is complete. After tonight, the last night on which we expect a frost alert, we can put our garden starts outdoors into their permanent homes. We’ve been hauling them out every day (all seventy or so of them) and then hauling them all back in at night. They’ll join the orchard whips, to be protected from the deer by the new fence. If we had any doubts about whether the fence was needed, in the interim, a few deer stepped in to convince us we’re on the right path. We hope the trees will recover.

The bees arrived today. The same fence protects them from the bears. Today we simply placed their bee transport boxes next to their hives. They were too agitated from the trip to pull the frames and place them into the hive bodies—we’ll do it tomorrow. When we pulled the plug from the boxes, the bees from one of the hives poured out in an angry mob. I was afraid they’d swarm (and I’d fail on my first day of beekeeping!) Within an hour they’d settled down and already some of the bees had found the pin cherry trees, blooming right behind the hives. The autumn olives are in bloom, too; their near-tropical fragrance is the perfect bee balm. The bees wasted no time and got right to work. Tomorrow we’ll do the transfer to their permanent homes.

Home, sweet home.

Home, sweet home.

The roof framing crew showed up, too! Soon we’ll have a roof and we can settle in to the summer’s rhythm of finishing the house, minding the garden and the bees. We’re all on the same trajectory here. Things are looking up.

Good Fences Make…

A.V. Walters

electric-fence

It’s nearly time to put in the garden, and that means that we need to make fence decisions. Our biggest garden problem is deer. The deer are also a threat to the orchard saplings. We’ve combined the garden location with the orchard to consolidate fencing needs. We’ll also have the bees in the corner of the garden, which complicates things a bit. Locally there is a split on the type of fencing or garden protection needed from the deer. (Oh yeah, and from the bunnies, too.) No matter what you do, it’s expensive.

Some install tall traditional fencing—at least seven feet tall. Others go the electric route and install a multi-strand electric fence. One neighbor has completely foregone fencing. They protect their garden with a motion detector connected to a sprinkler system. We walk by regularly and we laugh when our meanderings, on the road, trigger the sprinkler response. Hey, I guess it works! (If not for the bees, I’d be tempted to go this route.)

The uber-tall solution looks fortress-like and it’s permanent. I’d like a little more flexibility to move the fence, in the future, when the garden expands.

So, I stepped into the vast world of electric fencing. Too many decisions! What’s the power source? Is it close enough to the house for AC power? (Not really, we’d have to underground several hundred feet of wiring for that.) That leaves us with the choice of solar, or DC. Solar sounds so….progressive and green. I was predisposed to that direction. Unfortunately, my research into reliability and power needs revealed that the system that would meet my needs (and have the warranty life I’d want) would be prohibitively expensive. That leaves us with 12 volt, DC batteries.

The pebble in the shoe of all these plans has been the bees. You see, bees attract bears. (The hives down the road were raided by a bear, last summer—it isn’t a hypothetical problem.) An electric fence system strong enough to get a bear’s attention has to be pretty beefy. Fence controllers are rated in several ways, by distance, by ‘joules’, and by the type of hazard (animal) contemplated. Though a “5 mile” fence would be fine for deer, to get the kick you need for bear, a 25 mile fence is needed (even though the fence dimensions themselves don’t change—it’s not the length of the fence that counts, it’s the total length of the wire strands you use.) A bear fence calls for a minimum of four strands. Some contend that seven is required. Not that appearance is the arbiter, but a seven-strand fence looks like a maximum security prison—minus the razor wire. (One beekeeper actually suggested a double fence—with a 30 inch no man’s land between them!) I think we’ll go with four strands. The fence must deliver a minimum of a one joule charge to dissuade a bear. That same power will make our fence pretty unfriendly to incidental human contact. It’s not a ‘leaning on the fence talking to neighbors’ kind of a fence. We worry about the cats.

All of this has been Greek to me. I’ve been researching the fencing on the internet. It’s quite an education. For every fencing option, there are at least three alternate opinions. Unfortunately, our tailored needs will make it near to impossible to pick anything up second-hand. I have about a week to make up my mind. By then, our seedlings will be busting out of their pots, begging for a permanent home in the garden. And right after that, about the first week in June, the bees will arrive. We’ll need to be ready by then.

It’s Later Than You Think

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Snow or Blow?

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

“Snowing down there?”

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

“Really, six inches? New Snow?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Single Digit Cuisine!

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A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need fifty tons.”

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

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

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

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