Archives for category: country living

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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.

We knew they were around, you’d catch a whiff from time to time. And, comet or no, we haven’t been wandering around outside in the evening. Last night, just before dusk, we saw clear evidence supporting our caution.

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There are five of them. Mamma and four baby skunks. Mamma and two of the kits have all white backs. The other three are the more standard black and white. We keep our watching from a distance. This expains some of the digging–but not the attack on the chickens. That critter was far taller.

We couldn’t get a better picture–low light and playing defense. These little guys run around shoulder to shoulder. You cannot tell when one starts and the other ends. It’s a wiggling ball of fur. The cats aren’t interested at all, and that’s a relief. So, we’ll be careful not to surprise anybody and we’ll enjoy watching their antics, from a distance. Pretty soon they’ll grow up and move away.

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From time to time, I get a reality check on where we are in the world. It seems that things are changing out there, like the view of the world spinning from one’s ‘fixed’ position on a carousel horse.

I saw an ad for kayak hoists. It’s an odd thing–but we could certainly use them. Our kayaks live on the forest floor. Now that we have a barn, we are trying to tidy things up around here. And, they were nearby. I made the connection and headed out Saturday, mid-morning.

I know my way around here, but there are areas where I have no reason to explore. This was one of them. A neighborhood of upscale vacation homes around a little lake. The street address was “Shetland Trail.” I made the left onto the trail and my suspicions were confirmed–it was a single lane through the forest, a gravel road, the kind that sends billowing clouds of dust behind you if you take it at any speed. I wondered whether this was even plowed in the winter. A big pick up followed me through the corner and down the trail. I was driving slow–because of the dust and because I needed to search for the address markers.

That pick up truck rode my ass, and I figured he was impatient at my slow pace. As soon as I found a place wide enough, I pulled over and waived him by. He pulled up, and stopped, pinning me in. He rolled his window down. I rolled mine down.

“You got business in here?” It came off as an accusation. It was rude.

Now, I don’t picture myself as much of a threat in the world. I’m older, female, alone and driving a sound, but dated Subaru down a backwoods trail. In the previous thirty seconds, my world view had shifted…I am effectively trapped by a hostile man, sporting a brush cut in an over-sized truck. Shades of vulnerable. And he’s accusing me? In fact, were it not for his bite of suspicion, I’d have been scared. As it was, I was angry.

I barked back the address.

He peered down at me. And, thus satisfied, he said, “That way,” and gestured.

Yeah, right. As though there was any other way I could go. He pulled a three point turn in the narrow trail and left me in a cloud of dust. I could not catch his license number. I proceeded to my appointment.

The rest was uneventful. I did ask if the neighborhood had private security. She said it didn’t, and asked why. I described the incident. Her brow furrowed. As I took my leave, she was repeating my story to her husband, who looked up at me for the first time from his newspaper. He nodded, as if to confirm…no threat here.

And I’m left, wondering. Was I followed by some neighborhood vigilante? Or was I targeted as a potential victim? And I’m reminded that smart phones have become the evidence of the next century. I don’t own one. And that’s where we are now.

The kayaks are now neatly stowed, suspended from their new perch in the barn.

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Last night something tried to get our chickens. It was late, into the wee hours and we’d been up reading. Rick opened the windows before climbing into bed, because it was a little on the warm side. We often use the night’s cool to keep the house comfortable. If it hadn’t been for the open window…

I heard a strange cry–I thought it might be the cats, downstairs. I walked to the top of the stairs–and it happened again, clearly from outside and from the chicken pen. It was far more of a wail, than a cluck. And if you know chickens, you know that they are near comatose at night. Something was very wrong.

I cried out to Rick–something’s after the chickens–and headed downstairs at a clip. I stopped in the kitchen long enough to grab a flashlight, and hurtled out into the night. I flipped on the flashlight as I stepped out on the path, and its beam reflected back a set of eyes in the dark. I couldn’t see the critter, but I saw it’s eyes glowing back at me. Then they disappeared.

I ran to the chicken pen. It’s a six foot chain link fence, about a 30 foot circle–the coop is a small wooden house, inside the pen. We’ve never had any problems with predators, and we’d become sloppy about security. We regularly left the coop door open at night. Einstein was on the west side of the pen–she’d been the wailing chicken. She seemed okay, so I played the light across the pen. Feathers, everywhere. A chicken lay prone a few feet from the coop. I assumed it was dead, and continued scanning for the third chicken. None in sight.

I opened the coop door–and there she was, still up on the roost. The inside of the coop was littered with feathers. One down, two okay. I closed and locked the chicken entry and turned to grab Einstein to return her to the coop. I’d deal with the dead one after the survivors were secured. While I retrieved Einstein, the “dead” chicken staggered over to stand next to me. It was our largest chicken, Alpha. She’d lost a lot of feathers, but I couldn’t see any blood. I popped both of them into the coop and locked it up tight.

By now, Rick was up and on the front porch barking questions. The whole animal neighborhood was alerted, and the night was peppered with unidentified weird night noises–and the call of a barred owl. I scanned the perimeter, but couldn’t see any sign of a critter having dug under the fence. I didn’t know what it was, or if it might be in the tree, above me. With the chickens secured, the rest could wait until morning.

Bright and early, I cut up some apple treats and went out to release the chickens. They seemed fine–and gobbled up the apple bits. Observing through the day, though, Alpha is a little worse for the wear. It’ll be a few days for her to recover.

We made several mistakes here. The chicken door to the coop was open, that’s obvious. Less so, though, is that we installed the pen several years ago. At the time, we were very careful to make sure that there were no overhanging branches that could give  predator access or egress. Things have grown. We can only assume that the predator came over the top–either jumping or climbing trees. We were lucky.

Rick spent today pruning and resecuring the pen. In addition to locking the coop, we’ll dust the area with flour tonight–just in case ‘it’ returns, maybe we can get some prints to identify it. Racoon? Fisher? Bobcat? We just don’t know. And until we know what we’re up against, we won’t know what strategy to follow.

I didn’t sleep much. Adrenalin will do that. And guilt.

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All trimmed up now, for safety. They sleep in the brown coop.

 

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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.

Without proper leadership, anything can happen, and things can go to hell quickly. Leader wannabees make their bid for the top slot–often without qualification. Without a leader, there is soon dissension in the ranks. A culture of rancor takes over. Socialization becomes charged and violence becomes more likely, at the least provocation. The question of legitimacy of leadership is paramount–especially when it is not yet time for new leaders to make their run. These are dangerous times, when the very fabric of culture begins to fray.

So we are desperately looking for a new queen bee. It’s still early in the season–most northern queens are not yet ready. We’d like to re-queen immediately, before all hell breaks loose. So far, the workers continue to make honey and bee bread–even in face of no new brood to feed. So far, we do not have a divisive laying worker. So far, they’re testy, but not aggressive. There’s still time.

We don’t know what happened to the old queen. She was very old, but we liked her. It doesn’t appear that the hive swarmed–because there’s no indication of a succession plan. Usually, a hive will make queen cups before a swarm, or supercedence cells if a queen fails. Anyway, there are far too many workers left behind, this early in the season, for there to have been a swarm. It’s a mystery. We’d feared we’d have to requeen this hive this year, because she was so old, but we didn’t plan on it in June! So we’re casting about looking for a source for a new queen–not just any queen, but a northern hardy variety, hopefully one that is hygienic, and resistant to the varroa destructor mite.

What, did you think I was talking about the other leadership vacuum?

 

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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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It rained all night last night. That’s the least it could do, after yesterday. I’m beat, I may not do anything today.

The trees are in. Every year we plant trees, to diversify the forest and make up for the losses caused by tree epidemics. We’ve lost the ash trees to the emerald ash borers. Many of their dead hulks are standing snags–just waiting to fall. Now we’re losing the beech trees. The infected trees often break mid-trunk, in any significant wind; they call it ‘beech-snap.’ I don’t walk much in the forest if the wind is up, too much risk you’ll be hit by some falling widow-maker.

We’re always looking for tree varieties that can rebuild the forest, and that are suitable to our soils and location. We started planting up to 200 trees per year–but got smart, quick. We’ve settled on about 100 annually. (We did 105 this year–five of which were orchard or ornamental trees.) We’re not kids anymore and 100 is just enough, without being too much. Once the trees arrive–bare root–the push is on to get them into the ground. That’s their best shot–quick planting. They will not be watered. They’ll get no protection from deer or other critters. The best we can do is to be selective about their location. This year we’re planting Basswood–also known as Linden. The bees love them.

A good location gets some sun, it’s not too steep, it is not located in the ‘fall zone’ of any existing infected tree, and it’s not on an identifiable ‘deer path’ in the woods. Sometimes you’ll find a perfect spot, protected from any browsing deer by fallen trees (and so, in a canopy opening.) Often, an opening in the canopy attracts brambles–a thorny tripping hazard for the tree planter. But, the presence of brambles indicates a good location, because it means there’s sunshine, good soil and moisture. If planting in a bramble area, it’s best to pull up the thorny canes and their roots around the selected site, so the new tree doesn’t have to compete for sunshine. I give them about a four-foot circle (and I tell them to grow quick, to get up above the competition.) I cover the planting area with leaf litter, to obscure the disturbed earth, because otherwise the curious deer will follow your trail, and eat your new trees. The deer are sensitive to changes in their environment. As I leave an area, I check, to be sure there’s no obvious sign that I’ve been there, planting–nothing to trigger investigation by curious deer. If I’ve done a good job, there’s nothing to see–which limits job satisfaction. (These trees are only eighteen inches tall–and they blend in so completely that you have to plot out your areas, because you cannot see them, and run the risk of stepping on them, or double planting.)

Our forest is steeply sloped–a series of ravines on the ancient dunes. I carry a bucket of water with baby trees in it, and a short-handled spade. I wear heavy leather gloves and a canvas overshirt, to protect from brambles. It’s heavy work, but not hard. The difficult part is navigating the slope. The most time consuming part is picking good planting spots. If I’m conscientious about it, I can plant 50 forest trees in a day. I know that the professionals who work for timber companies plant thousands in a day, but they are working with a clear cut site, without the hazards or finesse that drive us.

Yesterday, my second and hopefully final day of serious planting, the forecast promised rain, late in the day. A perfect planting day, so the new babies get watered right after they hit the dirt. I got the first batch of 25 in before the wind picked up. Determined to finish, I pushed on. The sound of the blow was punctuated by the creaking rub and heave of standing dead trees swaying against their neighbors. I nervously surveyed the canopy above, and just kept planting. Then it started. The rain. Much earlier than forecast.

At this point I’m a third of a mile from home as the crow flies–and on rough terrain. No matter what, I’m going to be drenched. So I just kept going. When the last tree found its home, I trudged back to mine, tired, wet, but satisfied. When I arrived, my sweetie had started the fire, and I stepped into the shower to warm up. Then he served me hot beverages as I curled up in front of the fire. The rain stopped.

It started again, later in the evening, and continued all night. All the trees, planted in the previous two days got a solid watering. And I’m done, until next year.

 

 

 

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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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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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Sorry for the poor photo–they didn’t like the big door open in the cold, and were not cooperative about posing.

At first blush, you might think it smacks of racism. But that’s ridiculous; they are, after all, chickens. But looking for the deeper meaning, there could be something equally sinister in play.

We keep chickens for the eggs. They are not pets. (Admittedly, though, we do get fond of them and their antics.) Originally, we had four chickens. You may recall that our neighbor’s dog ate one, leaving three. You’d think three would be enough.

Not all chickens lay an egg, every day. And, it turns out, in the absence of a rooster, some hens will ‘self-designate’ as the leader, and, with this elevated status, will not lay. We have such a self-important hen. (Though we try not to name our chickens, we call this one, Alpha.) One would think the solution would be to dispense with the narcissist chicken; but we’ve learned that another chicken is likely to just take her place. Better the devil you know….

So, this summer we obtained three more chickens. We have chicken selection parameters, they must be winter-hardy, dual use, and generally healthy. Our existing chickens are Chanteclers, a French-Canadian variety known for success in cold climates. Ours are Buff colored–easy to locate in the landscape–winter or summer. At the time we decided to expand our flock, I couldn’t find any Chanteclers, so we settled on Barnevelders, another heritage variety. The Barnevelders are beautiful, black and cinnamon colored, with a hint of iridescent green on their necks and heads. (I’m normally not impressed with ‘good-looking,’ but I have to admit, they’ve grown on me.)

You cannot introduce chickens easily. They have established pecking orders, and will fight with new chickens, and kill chicks. There’s a whole process to the merging of unfamiliar chickens. These Barnevelders were babies, so we set them up in their own coop, in an adjacent, fenced chicken pen.

Disaster struck. Some chicken ailment hit the babes. One day, one looked wobbly, then the next, two, dying within a day, leaving only one lonely chick! Chickens cannot thrive as solitary creatures. We were left with a dilemma–what to do with a very lonely solo chick, who had to be in quarantine for a week? She survived, and I drove back to my chicken-lady mentor/breeder, to fetch a replacement buddy. It all worked. The new chicken was a tad older and bigger, just what the lonely solo needed. They bonded immediately. And so we continued–hoping that we could combine the two flocks before the weather got really cold. (More chickens equals more body heat.)

We did all the right things. We started treating them, generously along the fence. Then, when they were accustomed to that, we opened the gate between the coops, for supervised visitation. They seemed to get along–without too much squabbling. When a particularly cold night was predicted, we waited for later in the day, and locked the Chanteclers out of their coop. To our relief, when evening fell, all the chickens retired for the night into the into the remaining, larger of the two coops. It seemed to go well. Or so we thought.

Then next morning we checked. The littlest chicken (the original survivor of the scourge)  was dead! Drowned in the water dish! Bastards! We felt terrible. Of course there’s the possibility that, drowsy, she fell in and drowned during the night. (Yeah, right.) Her buddy Barnevelder was nudging her–to get her back up. It broke our hearts.

What a conundrum! Obviously, the surviving Barnevelder was not safe with the other three. Neither would she be able to survive cold winter nights on her own. We needed to find the right chicken combination. It took a couple of tries, when finally we put Einstein (the Chantecler runt) together into the same coop as Big (the surviving Barnevelder). It’s a working match, black and buff.

It’s not about color. It’s about pecking order, and social standing within the flock. We are up against deeply ingrained genetic rules of socializing and tribalism. When it works, you’re looking at combinations that shelter and nurture each other. When it doesn’t, it’s ugly, fowl play and even murder.

We won’t try to mix the two groups until spring. Perhaps, with the added freedom of free-ranging, they’ll make it work. In a larger context, I read the news, shake my head, and wonder if we can.

 

Happy Thanksgiving All! I hope you all made it out, and home, unscathed. Since we head so far north for holidays (up to Copper Harbor, MI), we watch the weather. The first leg of the winter storms was due Wednesday, so we traveled Tuesday. Clear roads, great weather. In fact, the storm started to hit just as we pulled into my mum’s driveway. And then it really hit! With the winds as Maestro, Lake Superior put out an amazing symphony –somewhere between a roar and the sound of a freight train. It’s like that in November. Until it freezes along the shoreline, the wild winds toss the beach stones along the shore, making quite the racket. (That’s why those stones are so smooth and round.) I don’t think I slept all night.

So, it was no surprise the following morning when the power went out. Being from the far north, this is not unusual. It was a little odd that it stayed out for 30 hours, putting a bit of a crimp in Thanksgiving roasting and baking schedules. Some folks have generators. Many, if not most, heat with wood, or have a wood stove as a back up. You can cook a whole Thanksgiving dinner on a propane barbeque, if you have to. I have. But this time, my sister and her husband had a little generator–just enough for some lights and to meet the needs of her propane range. On most modern gas cooktops, you can cook on top–by lighting a burner with a match. But the fancy electronic ignition for the oven needs power. We have the same thing at home. It made me wonder, when we built our kitchen, whether to buy a vintage gas stove, one with a pilot light. Sometimes old technology is better than high-tech.

There’s a kitchen in the community center–and a generator–but someone already had their turkey in it. And there’s one in their one room school–I don’t know how they handle first dibs. In any event, We were fine. The power came back on the next day in the early afternoon, so most folks were able to still cook for the holiday.

In Copper Harbor, no power means no light, no internet, no telephone and only minimal sewage. It’s the sewage that worries me. This means a houseful of holiday people, and no flushing. Most have lanterns or oil lamps (like we do, at home.) It’s an inconvenience–a holiday to be remembered.

We timed our departure to miss the next round of storms; that’s the threading the needle part. Again, yesterday, we made the drive home without difficulty. Last night the storm rolled in and now, we cannot see to the end of the driveway.

It captured Rick’s attention. We’ve been lolly-gagging on the barn wiring. But one component of that project is a hardwired transfer switch, so when the power goes, we can power the house, from the generator in the barn, without tripping over a dozen extension cords running willy-nilly.

We don’t use a lot of power. It’s tough to do without refrigeration, though. The ritual from my childhood always included loading the contents of the refrigerator into coolers–which were carried outside in winter–or packed in ice and put in the shade in the summer. And we need power for our well water (though not for the septic.) In the past we’ve bought bottled water for consumption, and carried stream water up to the house for flushing. The new wiring should make storm outages more comfortable, even though we always managed in the past.

Storms are getting increasingly fierce, and more frequent, so I guess it’s time. We’ll follow the motto of the Girl Guides/Scouts, “Be prepared.”

They were right! Looks like January…(tastes like November?) That’s yesterday’s path, all filled in. Need to do it again if we’re going to tend the chickens.

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So, do you think we should put the car in the barn yet?IMG_2543

It’s at least a foot since yesterday.

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Good thing that’s a truss roof.

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And another 5 inches predicted through tomorrow. And we cleared the area in front of the barn and the car, yesterday. (We’re just glad that there’s no sign of a drift pattern–having built the barn, it would be a shame if it created a drift zone–and you never know until you build.) This wouldn’t be news in January, but in November…roll up your sleeves and shovel.

 

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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.)

 

“Hey, get out of here. Go, go, go. Go on”

This, punctuated by pounding on the log walls, woke me up. It was early, still dark. I assumed the problem was woodpeckers. Every now and then, usually spring or fall, our log home is visited by hungry/curious woodpeckers. It’s funny, until it’s not. They can do a lot of damage. Usually it’s me that hears them and runs them off, yelling and waving my arms. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep. But there was something off, and even my sleepy brain couldn’t let it go…woodpeckers? At night?

So I rolled out of bed and lumbered down the stairs.

“You’re up early.”

“Yeah well, sometimes you’re just awake.”

“Was it the woodpeckers that got you up?”

“Woodpeckers? No, I just woke up. What do you mean, woodpeckers?”

“Well, I heard you yelling and pounding on the walls.”

“Oh no. That was the bears.”

“Bears?!”

“Yeah, I heard noise on the front porch. I thought that Kilo (the cat) might be in a tussle with some critter, so I opened the door. When I looked out it was a mamma bear looking back in at me. She wasn’t alone. She had two baby bears with her, but when I turned on the light, I saw a third one at the bottom of the steps.”

“Bears!”

“Yeah, my first Michigan bear. I’ve been waiting to see one, didn’t think it would come about like this.”

“What did they want up on the porch?”

“Damned if I know.”

“Geez, I hope the bees are alright.”

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking of that, too.”

“We’ll have to check later.”

“When it’s light out.”

“Yeah.”

I pondered whether I should just go back to bed, but you know, sometimes you’re just awake.

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Stone Soup Barn

We wanted a barn. Our county does not require a permit to build a barn…so long as it is used solely for agricultural purposes. (So tight is the grip of the cherry farmers on the local economy.) Of course, when I went in to the Building Permit office to confirm and clarify, I let the cat out of the bag. She asked if I would be storing personal property in the barn. Was it a trick question? After all, aren’t all the things we own ‘personal property?’ I described our intended use–to house the tractor, and implements, all the bee equipment, gardening tools, orchard equipment–you know, a barn. We are tired of looking at all this stuff laying about the yard, under tarps. She said that that would be okay, so long as we didn’t put, say, a personal vehicle, like a car, in there.

Of course we’re going to put the car in there! Don’t they know we get 150 to 180 inches of snow a year?

And the “barn” started its evolution. Because, suddenly, we weren’t building a barn. We were now building a “DURG.” (Detached Unfinished Residential Garage.) And, not only was a permit required, but the structure was going to be subjected to all the standard building code requirements of any structure. We were a little perturbed by the name change. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘a barn.’  A rose is a rose is a rose… A DURG by any other name…

We designed it. We first estimated the square footage needed for all the farm crap we needed to store, and, of course, the car, and some space for a woodshop, and made that the first floor. Since our property has very little flat land, we knew we’d be burying part of that lower floor into the hill, and that the upper part of the structure would be “first floor”, out the back. Since we had to dig it anyway, we decided to put in a root cellar off the back of the woodshop, buried into the hill. The rest was just a matter of building a strong structure over the needed downstairs, barn area. We opted for a “truss” structure for the gambrel roof. The truss specifications exceeded code requirements because we never EVER wanted to have to shovel snow off the roof–we’re too old for that crap. Windows we’re put in to provide as much natural light as practicable.

Once you start building, projects have a way of taking on a life of their own. Of course, this happened with our barn. We tried to buy as much of the needed materials from craigslist, as we could. Not only did we save money that way, we got unique and/or re-cycled materials that gave the project its own flavor. We did this with the house–much to our delight. That’s the stone-soup part of it. Things turn up, at the right time, to solve problems and meet needs we didn’t even contemplate in the beginning. Michigan is a timber state. In the backwoods, there are any number of guys with rickety sawmill operations, out cutting and milling wood. Buying from these locals fuels the local economy and frees us from handing hard earned cash over to the big box stores. We used as much local materials as we could scrounge. We also had recycled material left over from the house project, in particular cedar-shake shingles that had been overstock on someone’s custom home. So for the barn (DURG) we had to pull all these things together. To our great luck, it just kept getting better. There were problems and delays. What was supposed to be finished before winter… wasn’t. Our build crew had a number of health issues. And, things got way more expensive than we’d planned. But, we kept plugging along. In all, it took a full year (and it is, by DURG definition, unfinished on the inside.)

At some point, Rick and I, separately, reached the conclusion that the cedar shingled, gable-end needed something, other than the windows, to break up the expanse. Without mentioning it, he started looking into a faux “hayloft door,” to solve the problem. Quietly, I looked into the idea of putting up a “Barn Quilt” square.

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The Barn Quilt

The Barn Quilt Project has spread widely in agricultural areas. The original Barn Quilt was put up as a tribute to the creative efforts of a particular farm wife–but the idea of combining rural craft arts with the blank canvas of barn walls caught on. It’s a subtle, elegant way to acknowledge some of the beauties of rural and agricultural living.

One day, Rick approached me, gingerly, with some preliminary drawings of his faux loft door. He was well aware of my history of disdain for all things faux. I saw in a flash what he was trying to do–and confessed my own research into the possibility of a barn quilt. I’d been afraid to bring it up, because I was just a little self-conscious of the idea of ‘decorating’ a barn. I googled “barn quilt” and showed him some of the images. He became an instant recruit.

Most barn quilts are painted on a board that is then attached to the barn wall, but we wanted ours to be more in keeping with the other rustic materials we’d already used for the project. In particular, we scored a great deal on some 2 X 12, t&g siding, with just the slightest whisper of a log look, for a rustic feel that complemented the house. So our barn quilt is stained triangles of white cedar, “stitched” together, like a quilt. We love it.

We have a few things left to do on the barn’s exterior ― install the garage doors, a few small trim pieces, and some final staining. But we’ve finally reached the point where we can think of things to do in it, instead of to it. It’s a relief. After five years of building the house and DURG, we are a bit worn. It’s time to put our energies into the orchard, the garden, and the chickens. Finally though, we have completed the underpinnings to our life plan. It’s a relief. In some ways, things turned out better than we imagined. And in others–we’re just beginning the imagining process for what comes next. (Woodshed… greenhouse…)

rose chafer

It’s the same every year. Except this year. The first week of June brings verdant growth in the garden. And, it brings rose chafers. Rose chafers can be the bane of a gardener’s dreams. My crazy neighbor blamed me and my long vacant property for her rose chafer woes. I thought she was nuts.*

In my first years here, I didn’t know what they were. I had to do research to identify and find defenses to these voracious pests. It’s best to know your enemy. Rose chafers, true to their name, love rose plants–their leaves and their tender, delicious petals. I resolved early to avoid planting roses. (The deer love them, too.) Roses were definitely not worth the headache. Unfortunately for us, rose chafers thrive in sandy grassy meadows and their tastes are not limited to roses. The female digs into the sand to lay her eggs, which hatch into larvae and develop, eating roots. They emerge in June, as adults–ready to chow down on your precious leaves, mate, and start the whole cycle over again.

In my case, the garden plants are not too badly targeted–it’s in the orchard where I see the damage. Initially, I convinced myself that ‘handpicking,’ the organic gardener’s first line of defense, would be adequate. I mean, how bad could it be? They’re just bugs, and their entire life cycle happens in a scant three to four weeks. Left unchecked, rose chafers (who are leaf-suckers) can skeletonize a tree’s leaves. Not good. But moderate predation is not a bad thing…over time, a tree will make its leaves more bitter, to fend off the attackers.

Handpicking could be a full time job. These little buggers have wings–and even if you could kill every one in the orchard, new ones will fly right in to replace them. Not that I didn’t try. I’d go out, several times a day and squish every rose chafer I could reach (another limitation on hand picking.) This could easily average 30 to 50 bugs per tree, with the plum trees being most heavily afflicted. They love those plums. Last year, my sister visited. She was horrified that I was squashing the bugs in my bare hands! Gross! But then she returned home and found them eating the flowers in her garden and promptly stepped up to her full potential as a cold-blooded rose chafer killer.

There are some built-in killing efficiencies, tied to the bugs’ short lifespan and behaviors. In their adult form, rose chafers have only two objectives: breeding and eating. More often than not, they do both, simultaneously. That way, I can kill them in ‘the act,’ which adds the satisfaction that you’re eliminating the next generation at the same time. I’m not sure if it speaks to their biological imperative, or to the males’ ineptitude as lovers, but the females don’t even stop munching when mounted. I can almost hear them, “Whatever…just don’t interrupt my meal.” Since it’s the munching that causes the damage, I wish their romantic efforts were more of a distraction.

There are alternatives–everyone is enamored of pheromone traps. They are non-toxic and draw their victims in with floral and sex attractive fragrances. They certainly are effective on yellow jackets and hornets. But, the downside of pheromone traps in an orchard setting is that they may actually bring the pests in droves. (I suppose it’d be good if you could put the traps in the neighbor’s yard, far from your own precious plants.) I read that sometimes the traps would be so effective, that you’d have difficulty disposing of the buckets of insects attracted. Yuck. I’d read that, in some cases, netting could be necessary. I checked the priced on agricultural netting fabric and balked. Those tree nets could run $60.00 per tree! So I reverted to the organic gardener’s second line of defense, soap spray.

You simply mix a couple of teaspoons of liquid dish detergent and water into a standard hand pump sprayer. To be effective, you need to get the bug pretty drenched. I’ve become an expert marksman with the sprayer. I can blast the little bastards right out of the air, as they try to land on my trees. This method has some of the same disadvantages as handpicking–you have to stay on top of it, several times a day. But it’s much faster, so, in an average situation, you can keep ahead of the chafer damage.

This is not an average year. In desperation, I started checking online to see if others were experiencing similar plights. Rose chafers are also pests to grape farmers. Here in Leelanau County, we have a growing wine industry. The MSU (Michigan’s Ag University)    site indicated that one or two rose chafers per branch was a tolerable level. But this year, Leelanau grape growers have reported up to 200 insects per branch! Not surprisingly, many are reaching for toxic pesticides. Not me.  My poor plum trees are not that infested, but I’m not keeping up with the damage. I’ve already given up on getting an actual crop–at this point my objective is to save the plum trees. (The rose chafers have only a passing interest in the apple trees–and no interest whatsoever in the pears.) There I am, up to four times a day, blasting away with my soap spray.

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It won’t go on forever. Just until the end of the season (three or four weeks), or until the nets arrive…whichever comes first.

 

*Well, she is nuts. But there’s some minimal truth to what she says. Were we to cultivate the entire field, it would disturb the sand–and the eggs and larvae. So, by leaving it natural as habitat, we are contributing to the rose chafer’s success.

 

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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The Pips

It’s not that I hate dogs. I don’t. I’m not a dog person, largely because I am allergic to them. I’m probably allergic because I was mauled by a cocker spaniel as a tiny child, which naturally gave me a healthy respect for bad dogs, and no respect for bad-dog-owners.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Bad dog owners. People who think their dogs are just fine, and don’t understand that it’s up to them to keep their dogs in check.

For several years we’ve had issues with a neighbor about her dogs. They aren’t malevolent, but she has never trained them. She believes that her dogs should be allowed to run and bark all night. She says she’s doing the neighborhood a favor to let her dogs “run deer.” She bemoans the loss of the good old days, when one let one’s dogs run loose without recriminations.

The neighborhood does not agree. Despite efforts to deal with her personally (to no avail) almost every neighbor in a half mile radius has had her cited. Her dogs bark incessantly. Her dogs chase cars and bicyclists. They’ve been known to menace pedestrians. Her dogs spook the deer at one neighbor’s hunting camp. She once complained to me that, if she kept the dogs on her yard all the time, there was too much clean-up to do. (Read, I prefer if my dogs crap in your yard.) So you see, it’s not really the fault of the dogs.

A couple of years ago I had a problem because one of her dogs took an interest in digging up my freshly planted orchard trees. After all, the soil was freshly worked and made for easy digging. I informed her that if I caught the dog digging on my property (which is literally pockmarked with its regular digging efforts), I would call the Sheriff. I did, and did. I also told her that, since she was enamored of “the old days of dogs running free,” she should well remember that in those old days, a loose dog doing agricultural damage was usually shot on the spot.

My neighbor didn’t appreciate my straight forward approach. And that was all before Blondie.

You may recall that last year we got chickens. We named them, based on recognizable features they had as chicks. Only one, Blondie, retained her chick coloration into adulthood, so we had Blondie and “the chickens.” I know, it sounds like a 90s punk band.

Blondie was an excitable and flighty chicken. She would try to take to the air with the slightest provocation–a person approaching with treats, a crow overhead. But she lived, safely we thought, behind a six foot fence. Not that chickens cannot fly, they can, and do. But chickens are like bumblebees–curiously designed when it comes to sustained flight. All of Blondie’s impulsive bolts for freedom ended when she hit the fence.

Late one afternoon, I decided to check the coop for eggs. Winter egg production is sporadic anyway, and if you’re not timely, the eggs will freeze. Approaching the chicken yard, I was dismayed by the sight of countless dog prints in the snow, endlessly circling the fence. Apparently those dogs had been harassing the chickens the night before. I collected the one egg, and then looked around to see how the chickens had fared. There were only three chickens. It was like the Pips, without Gladys.

I checked all around the fence–no Blondie, only feathers. I knew. It was getting dark, so my sleuthing would have to wait until morning.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I revisited the scene of the crime. Obviously the intensity of the dogs’ engagement had set Blondie airborne. For the first, and last time, Blondie was free. Direct into the mouth of the waiting dog. I checked the tracks (against my handy-dandy little animal track identification chart. Clearly dogs, not coyotes. I followed the feather-trail, which was clearly limited to one set of dog tracks, as it made a beeline for my neighbor’s property. The trail ended at the road, separating the two parcels. On her side, I found no feathers. There were many human footprints in the snow, though–and my neighbor is not usually one to wander around outdoors in the winter. I surmised that she’d cleaned up the feathers. My evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

After the weekend, I called Animal Control. They know us–after all we’ve been dealing with them over the dogs for years. I recounted my story and my observations. As I’d suspected, they could not issue a citation based on anything other than an eyewitness account. (Really? Don’t they know the research on how flawed eyewitnesses can be?) I warned that if I saw either dog near my chickens, I would just shoot it, as is my right.

Our friendly Animal Control Officer implored me not to take justice into my own hands. “Use the system,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood.” I’m not sure about that. My neighbors might arrange a hero’s parade if I dispatched those dogs. Still, I want to work with them. So, since then, we’ve been watching. If we see the dogs on our property, we call it in.

And such was the case this week. The snow is melting, giving the critters of the world easier access. Rick looked out one morning and saw the dogs on the property. He called Animal Control. When the officer arrived, he took the complaint. He also acknowledged that the day Blondie last flew the coop, there’d been a welfare check on my neighbor. In that report, the Deputy had noted that there was a dead chicken in her yard, which he pointed out to her. I was right. She’d cleaned up the evidence. After taking our report, the Officer headed across the way to talk to the neighbor. I yelled after him, “Tell her the chicken’s name was Blondie.”

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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.

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We both heard it. We’d been waiting for it, but when it happened the sound was deep, and visceral and in an instant, we knew it for what it was. The snow load on the barn roof had let go. It’s impressive–that sound. The ground shakes. When this barn is finished, we’ll be glad for our selection of roof surfaces. In the meantime, it’s a building education.

You may recall that we started building the barn last summer. There were delays…permitting and then building. What we thought should have been finished by September, wasn’t. After all, hoping for a speedy build, this time we hired contractors to take the laboring oar. But the universe often has other ideas, when one has plans. The builders (twin brothers, who by now, we consider family) had a series of injuries and health debacles. And there were weather delays. By the time winter was on the horizon, it was clear it would not be finished. We changed our goal to getting a defendable roof over the trusses.

The guys resisted. Sure, they could get it built–or they could build through the winter. Yeah, right. I reject the idea of spending half a day clearing snow, so that you can get in a half day of building in freezing temperatures. We politely refused the plan, and requested only a water-shedding roof, before things got too winter-crazy.

We plan on a standard shingle roof. Others thought we were crazy–it’s more expensive and it’s not unusual to put a metal roof on a barn. But my mum has a metal roof on her garage–and when the snow lets loose it can crush anything in its path. I didn’t want that next to the barn. Snow does not slide as much on a shingle roof. “But, but, but–” they all said, “If the snow doesn’t slide off, you may need to shovel it if the snow load is too high.” Believe me, we will never, ever, shovel this roof. We are not young and stupid. It’s essentially three stories high in the front–that’s why we went with trusses, and then doubled up on those. Go ahead, Old Man Winter, show me all you’ve got. Bring it on, we’re ready.

Just under the wire, we got our defendable roof–sheathing and a layer of Ice and Water Shield. Within a week, we were knee deep in snow, and breathing a sigh of relief. Sure the walls aren’t all in, but the the fancy trusses are covered. The snow slides off the slick surface of the I&W Shield–just like it would’ve on a metal roof. Oh, are we ever glad that we’ll have shingles. In a funny way, all the delays created a ‘dry-run’ situation that confirmed our original plans.

It’s raining today, that’s what set the snow to sliding. In a few weeks, the snow will be gone and the guys will be back. We’ll get that roof done–and walls, too. In the meantime, we just feel lucky, and more than a little in awe of the power of a little avalanche.

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.

We watch the police blotter in our local news. It’s sport–there’s not much real crime and so the posts are funny. But, right about now, we can expect a rash of expected, but sad “dog-at-large” complaints. Back home, in the far north, my mom’s dog is likely to run loose, too. We’re at that point where the snow, and wind riven drifts, top the fences. The dogs just walk right over the top, without so much as a “good day–just off to run a few errands.”

We’ve been here long enough now to know the patterns. It’s sad, because running free in a snowstorm isn’t exactly fun for a dog–not after the first few minutes. Before long they are lost. Hell, in this storm, even the people can get lost. And then it’s a tale of frantic dogs and worried dog owners.

If this year is like earlier years, my mum’s neighbors will rescue her dog and bring her home. Copper Harbor is a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and their dogs. My mum will reciprocate by baking some delectable treat, in thanks for the dog rescue. I wonder if my home town wrestles for the opportunity to be the lucky hero.

Here it’s not so easy. Running scared, dogs can be a hazard on the roads. Our neighbor’s dogs will jump at the opportunity to harass our chickens…which is why we have a six foot fence. We’re not looking for a repeat of our recent chicken tragedy.

By next week, this will all have “blown over,” literally and figuratively. After the storm, folks will knock down the drifts at the fence line–putting an end to canine liberation. There will be some posts in the blotter, and we’ll resume the long wait to spring.

 

 

In-box Exhaustion

Oh, will it ever end? I make excuses–oh it’s the end-of-quarter reporting period, or the end-of-the-month, but that’s really not it. In fact, the constant alarm, the never-ending solicitation for funds has become the new normal.

Not that there aren’t very real and important issues. There are. I am alarmed by the rapid and dramatic changes in our climate. I am overwhelmed by the abdication of civility and procedure in government. I am heart-broken at our nation’s apparent devolution into bigotry and racism. I am undone by the damage done to our democratic institutions. Sigh.

But, my inbox is overflowing. I often get upwards of two hundred emails a day, most bearing a plea for help and an “opportunity to give.” There is just not enough of me. I have to pick my battles.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to walk my talk. I keep a low-carbon footprint. I minimize driving. We keep the house on the cool side, and eschew air-conditioning. We garden and seasonally grow much of what we consume. We recycle and, more importantly we exercise our buying power to match our values–minimal packaging and basic.

So many of our elected representatives have gone to the dark side. They serve the interests if the ‘donor class’ instead of their constituents. (Then they run against the very institutions they occupy!) We live in a constant state of faux-alarm. It’s exhausting. Meanwhile, in the brouhaha, we lose precious time to bring ourselves back into a sustainable equilibrium. And the emails just keep coming.

I am old-fashioned. I still write actual letters to my representatives. Like any good old hippy, I protest, standing shoulder to shoulder with other aging environmentalists, taking solace in the cold that we can still muster a crowd when it counts. I could pull the plug on my news. I have friends who have done just that. But it seems that removing thinking people from the mix just leaves us with a runaway train.

My primary coping mechanism is to spend time in the woods. I gather firewood, I forage–sometimes I just walk about noting what wildlife is active and leaving its mark. Beyond that, I do what I can, and take comfort in the fact that I am older. Caring is a young person’s sport. It’s some relief to see some of them step up to save the planet that they will inherit. Perhaps it’s enough to be a good steward to the things under my control and to enjoy the simple beauties of season and nature as I go about my day.

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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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“Conventional Wisdom”

A.V. Walters–

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Conventional wisdom says that bees located in the shade will be cranky. Conventional wisdom says that bees that get too hot in the full sun, will be unproductive and may tend to swarm. We’ve seen hot bees in the sun. They “beard” on the outside of the hive. Once the sun is up–and the heat–they return to the hive and quit foraging. What’s the point? The nectar dries up. Back at the hive, it’s too hot to go in. Other bees are busy, cooling the hive with the wind from myriad wings. What would conventional wisdom have us do?

We have relocated the bee yard up the hill and into the pines. There were plenty of reasons to do it: to avoid wind blown pesticide contamination from the adjacent farmer down at the bottom of the hill; to put more distance between the bees and any neighbors; so that the bees would not be visible from the road (some of our beekeeping friends have experienced thefts!); to get the bees out of the direct sun during the hottest part of the summer; and to reduce bee “issues” in the garden, that can lead to gardeners being inadvertently stung.

I’ll miss being able to see them from the house. Bee hives have a way of saying, “here we are, and we belong.” This is the first year that the orchard really looks like an orchard–and that, along with the garden, will have to satisfy our visual boundaries. The bees’ new digs enjoy the dappled light of the pines–and a regular refreshing breeze. It’s only a few minutes walk, one that will pull us into the forest with more regularity. And it’ll be cooler for us, too, during the dog days of summer. Often beekeeping requires suiting up–and those extra layers can be really stifling in the heat.

Rick put up the new fence. Then he marked it with ribbon tape to alert the deer. Not that they’d have any reason to invade, but we’ve had problems with deer colliding into fences and tree cages, if they weren’t marked. You’d think the fence would be enough… but those deer aren’t looking. A deer can really mangle a tree cage. The fence is really for the bear, and it’ll deliver quite the jolt. I hope it’s enough to dissuade them. There are three hives, now. By mid-season, we hope to split them–for six, going into winter.

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We moved the bees in, this morning. They were a little crabby at first. But by the end of the day they had settled nicely. I’m sure there will be some adjustments as we all adjust to new routines. It’s beautiful up there. I hope the bees enjoy it. By my estimation, they have nothing to be cranky about.

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(Really, only three hives. That tall stack is extra honey supers for when the nectar flow really starts.)

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.

Earth Day Sale

A.V. Walters

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. But really? I have a little trouble with the whole concept of ethical consumerism. Consumerism is the problem. I cannot celebrate it by putting a positive spin on it.

Sure, when you shop, buy smart. Do your research. Reuse, reduce, recycle. (And don’t forget repair!) I’ve never seen shopping as a leisure activity. I have a nice lifestyle–most of what I buy is food. My main purveyor of non-food items is craigslist. Nothing pleases me more than to find someone else’s cast-offs, repair them and give them new life.

I haven’t seen it yet, but I know it’s coming. I’m bracing myself for the Earth Day Sale–or a two-fer-one, or all-you-can-eat Earth Day restaurant coupon.

In the meantime, it’s Earth Day. Go outside. Pick up some litter–and make sure that you recycle it. I’m getting ready for our annual tree planting extravaganza. But today I’m doing bee events. Let’s all raise awareness of our precarious place on the planet and our individual, and singular role is setting things right.

Save the bees.

My Favorite Kind of Snow–

A.V. Walters–

It was my favorite kind of snow, when I was a kid. Most kids like the sticky stuff, good for snowballs and snowmen. I loved the wind driven dry snow–small flakes pressure blasted into elaborate drifts. You could use the edge of your mittened hand as a saw, and cut blocks of snow, that you could then stack, carefully, as bricks for building forts. Sometimes, only the surface of the snow would have the necessary rigidity. But a really stiff wind could provide almost igloo-like blocks. Sure, you could build a snow fort out of the sticky stuff, but that was too easy. It yielded a rounded, lumpy wall, not the crisp, architectural look of a snow block wall. Of course, you could always take the snow shovel to a sticky-snow wall, and scrape it into a smooth surface. You could even spray it–and turn it to an ice wall. These are the ideas that kids have about permanence. Your fort could last weeks, or longer. It could be impervious to attack, from other kids–a true fortress.

We are having a late season blizzard. Yesterday, after hours and hours of a howling wind and driving snow, we had a break in the storm. The day was like a survey course in types of snow–from pea-sized snow chunks, to quarter-sized soft, lofty flakes–with every configuration in between. The forecast promised a warming trend and freezing rain today, so we took advantage of yesterday’s respite to clear the entries, the driveway and some of the paths. It was eight inches of lovely, wind-driven snow. If we waited, we risked having a driveway and walking paths of eight inches of iced, wind-driven snow.

Rick fired up the Kubota for the driveway and I used the snow shovel around the car, and for the narrower paths and entry areas. If I’d had more time, I’d have built a fort. As it was, I could cut large blocks of relatively light, but rigid snow, which I could then scoop up, and toss some distance. It was fun. Of course, that method entails a lot more lifting than just scooping, but there is a certain satisfaction in those carved-out, crisp and orderly edges. In just under two hours, we’d finished up nicely–not bad, considering that the driveway is 400 feet. Thank god for the snowblower.

After we’d dusted off and come in to warm up in front of the fire, the storm resumed in full force. The winds, screaming through the trees, commanded our attention. We’d wander from window to window, peeking out, to watch the driving winds filling in our neatly carved perimeter. The oil lamps were set out; we expected outages.

It has not warmed up. The forecast was wrong about the winter-mix and freezing rain. What we have today is wind, with more snow and dry sleet. I’d go shovel again, but that sleet looks painful. Even if it would be cool to see how that new snow carves up under the edge of the shovel blade, I value my creature comforts. It can wait.

My father, my snow-shoveling mentor, would not have approved. Though he’d wait out a squall, his snow-shoveling principles required that access, and a clear vehicle, had to be maintained. What if there were an emergency? I fall short of that mark. But then, he had a short driveway and a garage.

Even the critters are hunkering down for the storm. Lately, we’ve been amazed at the variety–deer (of course), squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, blue jays, robins, eagles, sandhill cranes, raccoons–all either directly visible, or leaving easily identifiable tracks. They’re gone now. The only animals to brave the storm have been the grouse. Even in sleet and strong winds, the grouse are clinging to the thin branches of the Black Cherry trees, swinging in the wind, and nibbling at the buds. They are either very hardy, or very hungry.

I’m getting old. Too often now, my favorite kind of snow, is the stuff that makes up the view out the window. Maybe it’s just been a long winter.

Spring? A.V. Walters–

Don’t get me wrong, I love winter. But we’re nearly halfway through April. We’re having a blizzard. There’s no point in posting a picture–it’s all just white. In less than a week, 100 or so trees will arrive for planting. They ship on a schedule rooted in season. Sigh.

I’m ready for sunshine, and the smell of fresh dirt, and bees, and watching the tiny new leaves on the trees.

I’m eternally grateful for a snug new home, and a lovely fire in the wood stove. But Spring! Is it too much to hope for?

Break out the snow shoes. Who said anything about Spring? It is beautiful, though.

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We woke up to another six inches. It’s spring snow, sticky and heavy.

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And still falling…

It changes how you look at the day. (And makes adjustments to your schedule.) No gardening today!

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Our work is cut out for us. Oops—forgot to cover the tractor after clearing yesterday. I guess that’s where we start.

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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.

Connecting the Dots…

A.V. Walters–

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As I washed the dishes this morning, I glanced out and was taken aback at the sudden increase in bunny scat, dotting the landscape. Was there some kind of a bunny event? Then it dawned on me. We’re experiencing a winter heat wave. Everything is melting. This is not an overnight accumulation; this is a mid-winter exposé. By observing the accumulated droppings, we can actually map the bunnies’ trails and activities. Funny how a turn in the weather can reveal what’s been going on, all along.

Like yesterday, today will reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, before a wave of unseasonable rain and fog heralds in the next cold front, dropping us back into the low double digits tonight. Then, Winter, having taken a breather, will return in full force. Tomorrow will be an icy, slippery mess.

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We took the opportunity to check on the bees. The snowy caps on their hives, so pronounced just three days ago, are gone. When winter temperatures reach the high forties, bees will fly. I doesn’t matter that there’s nothing to eat or gather. Supposedly, bees are loathe to soil their hives, so the warm weather gives them the opportunity to take a “cleansing flight.” Often it doesn’t go so well…it really isn’t warm enough for them. The snow around our hives is dotted with dead bees. It’s a good news/bad news conundrum—proof that our hives are still alive, but learning that came at a cost. I wish those intrepid bees would stay put in their clusters. This erratic weather, glimpses of climate change, is really hard on the bees.

Tomorrow it will snow again, covering the bunny scat and the unlucky bees. We’ll descend back into winter, a little wiser for having connected the dots.

 

 

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.

Creatures of Habit–

A.V. Walters

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I’ve been away from the internet for some time. There are major changes in our lives which have required adjustments.

Once, at a bee meeting, one of our members was bemoaning how stupid bees could be. You see, while bees can navigate a vast range of flowers and local geography, if you shift their hives just a couple of feet, they may well be lost. They will fly to the spot where their entry was…and hover, lost. I am one to defend the bees. We are all creatures of habit. So I posed the question to our members, “Was that really evidence of stupidity? Did you ever reorganize and change the location of your cutlery drawer?”

My comment was met with silence, and nervous laughter.

We have moved into our new house. It’s not finished, but in the eyes of the permitting authorities, it is “habitable.” It’s mostly finished, except for the upstairs bath, interior doors and trim. The move was lucky–we were in by the full moon–and just before it began to snow in earnest. Within days, the landscape completely changed and our days were preoccupied with snow removal and creating routines for stocking firewood. Our view has changed, from the taupes and browns of November to winter’s white, punctuated with evergreens. After years of this being a work site, it’s both a surprise and a relief to settle in.

We’re in that awkward stage in which you try to envision a new life and put things where you think you’ll need them–and wondering why you ever bought some of this crap in the first place. I’ve redone the pantry cupboards twice, still without any real comfort zone. It wasn’t a big move, just across the road from our little basement rental. Our walls are still lined with boxes whose contents await placement. I try to address a box or two everyday, but I’m remembering that even the bees can be discombobulated by a minor relocation.

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We also are enjoying the settling in and discovery process. It is a very quiet home– heated with wood there are very few “house noises.” Except for the occasional hum of the refrigerator, mostly we are learning the noises of the neighborhood from a new perspective. We can hear the snowplow from the main road, but very few of the other sounds from across the street interrupt our lives here. No dogs. We have a neighbor up the road with a bad muffler, and we can still hear his truck. With the shift in season, we can hear the (now more distant) whine of snowmobiles.

With the snow, we can see who our regular visitors are. Bunny prints cover the paths Rick has cleared. They like the convenience, too, but, Oh, My! How many of them are there? If the tracks are any indication, we live in Bunnyopolis. Alarmed, Rick has cleared all around the fenced garden area. The snow had reached the point where the bunnies would be able to hop right over the bunny-proof part of the fencing. We see the deer tracks, too. And we’ll spend the rest of the winter learning to recognize the footprints of rest of the visitors. Or maybe…it’s their home…and we are the visitors.

 

Just Past Peak.

A.V. Walters–

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With color so late this year, everyone was trying to pinpoint exactly when we’d experience “peak color.” Folks want to snap a picture at the exact epitome of the season, as if you could really capture the experience in a photo. I’m guilty of that, too. I think peak was last Saturday. I missed it. Saturday was a little grey, so I decided to wait a day to capture some sunshine in the photo. That night, the wind picked up—stripping vulnerable leaves from their moorings and removing swaths of color from the landscape. The next morning, sun came out, briefly, revealing an entirely different palette from the day before.

I snapped a few pics, even knowing that I’d called it wrong. Later in the day, the winds howled, and the rain kicked in–the double-whammy of color loss. Yesterday’s magnificent landscape was skittering across the road in the wind and rain. Now, near a week later, frosts have hit and we’re talking about the start of winter instead of the peak of fall.

It’s not as easy to call the color as it was when I was a kid. I think that climate change is delivering us mild autumn temperatures, slowing the turn of the season. Instead of one blast of outrageous display, the trees start their transition, and lose leaves along the way, through an extended autumn. A local headline read, “Color Season Takes its Own Sweet Time.” Not that it’s not beautiful—it’s just not as intense.

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Rick and I take a moment, everyday, to observe the changes. That may be the best anyway. Too often in our busy lives, we forget to take a moment to appreciate the beauty around us. It’s a shame, because “everyday beauty” is considerable salve to the challenges of everyday life. So what if it’s a little past peak? Come to think of it, so am I.

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Long Live the Queen…Part 2

(What Were We Thinking?)

A.V. Walters–

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And, finally home in their hives.

We know better. There is no shortcut to proper procedure.

This pulls together a number of wayward thoughts, please bear with me.

 

Some months ago, one of the leaders of our bee group reported that she had a “hot hive” and had been stung over forty times when she tried to work it. “Forty Times!” I thought, “I’d quit bees in a heartbeat.” Shortly after that, I was visiting Garth, a bee-buddy of mine and I was stung. No big deal, it’s a part of beekeeping. Knowing that I react to stings, Garth grabbed my arm and sprayed it with his homemade “aphid spray.” He’d discovered that it helped to lessen the impact of a bee sting. Surprisingly, it worked—though I still swelled up, the large local reaction was half of what I usually suffer. We debated what the active ingredient might be—was it the mint? (peppermint and spearmint) The dish soap? The garlic oil? Garth wasn’t willing to experiment. After all, when it works, why bother?

Many years ago, my then-husband came up a mysterious rash—related to his new fitness plan of regular swimming. We thought it might be the pool chemicals. He ended up seeing a dermatologist. The doctor was intrigued. He did an “ice cube test” and determined that the problem was a relatively rare condition called cold urticaria. My husband was allergic to the cold, and the rash was simply hives. “Not a problem, then… we surmised. The Doc was quick to correct, “Not if it’s just a few patches, but if you get those raised welts over large swaths, it puts you at risk for heart failure.”

Now, the prospect of heart failure steps things up a notch. The Doc advised to seek immediate medical attention if the rash spread to more than a quarter of a body’s surface. He suggested considering another form of exercise. My husband opted to continue swimming, and over time, the rash abated.

 

Back to our bee story… we were in a hurry to get our two queenless hives re-queened. I drove half-way across the state to collect our new royals, so the first thing the next morning, we were up for the task of installing them. A new queen isn’t just dumped into the waiting hive. She must be kept in a queen cage for several days, so her pheromones can work her magic on the hive. Otherwise, she risks rejection by the colony, and murder. Generally, one makes the effort to install the queen at or near the bottom level of the hive. This is especially true, late in the season, so that the brood and ball of bees will be below the honey storage. That way, during the winter the bees can travel up, through the column of warmth generated by the huddled bees, to their food supply. If they have to travel down, or sideways, they risk “cold starvation.” An entire colony can starve, within inches of their food stores, if it’s too cold to make that short trip.

There were several considerations. We knew the hives were hot. We knew that the installation should be as brief as possible. They’d been pretty well-behaved during the split, so we weren’t too concerned. Because we expected this to be quick, we just wore our bee jackets, instead of fully suiting up. That was our first mistake. To speed up the process, we also decided to lift up all the top boxes at once, so we could place the queen cage directly into the bottom deep box, supposedly minimizing disruption. That was our second mistake.

Together, the top, inner cover and two medium boxes of honey, were a little heavier than we expected. As a result, our entry into the hive was not as measured and smooth as usual. And, perhaps because we were opening directly into the bees’ home (and not just the honey storage) we may have alarmed them…

Nothing in our beekeeping experience could have prepared us for what happened next.

Instantly, the usual background hive hum raised to a fever pitch and bees poured out in a tsunami of bee defense. No warning. No raised abdomens or threatening thunks. It was a full-scale attack. They got me first, covering me with stinging bees. The bee jacket mostly worked—only a few stingers got past its tight weave. But one layer of denim is no defense against determined bees and my jeans were covered with the angry, stinging mob. Even as the words, “We’re in trouble,” left my lips, I heard Rick’s cursing reaction as the bees found his ankles. Somehow, he still managed to shove that queen cage into the maw, before we jammed that hive shut. And then I abandoned him.

From the hips down, every part of me was on fire. When a bee stings, it gives up its life in defense of the hive. It also releases an alarm pheromone that tells other bees, “Sting here!” They did. I was a cloud of alarmed bees. Nothing I could do dissuaded them. I ran. They followed. I tried rolling in the dirt; still, they came. I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed down my legs and the bee cloud around me. It didn’t slow them down at all. (Though the cool water was a bit of relief.) And then I ran again, to get as far away from the hive as I could. Peripherally, I was aware that Rick was in a similar dance. I don’t remember screaming, but he says I was. I distinctly remember his cursing.

Finally free of advancing bees, I started scraping away the bees that were sticking to my jeans and socks. I saw Rick flicking them away with his leather gloves and followed his lead. As soon as we were clear of bees, we ran for the apartment and peeled out of our clothing at the door. Even then, there were some bees stuck to our jeans and bee jackets.

Once inside, near naked, Rick said, “Now what?” There was no time to debate. I’d always thought that Garth’s “active ingredient” was the garlic. It was a gamble, but it was all we had. “Garlic!” I yelled, and Rick started peeling cloves as I ran for the anti-histamines. I pulled out my epi-pen and laid it on the table, just in case.

Rick’s ankles were beginning to balloon. For some reason, that was his most targeted zone. Everything below my hips was mine. The rising welts were beginning to merge—I counted 47 stings on the front of my left thigh, before giving up on the count. It was more important to rub in the garlic. I figure I was stung over a hundred times. Many of those stings were “minor,” such that they did not go deep or leave a stinger—in that, our jeans saved us.

Garlic. We grated it, cloves and cloves of it. And then rubbed it into our tortured skin. It stung a little—but in the wake of what we’d been through, we hardly noticed. I was well aware that one, or both of us, would likely end up in the ER. In the back of my mind, I was remembering the admonition—if over twenty-five percent of a body welts up, it’s time to seek medical attention! For nearly an hour we grated and spread the garlic. The kitchen smelled like an Italian restaurant. If we had to go to the hospital, there was going to be some explaining to do.

Finally, it began to work. The welts began to dissipate.

Then, Rick did the unthinkable. He suited up again to retrieve the second queen (left out in the bee yard) to insert her into the other queenless hive. Granted, he just put her in the top—but at that moment, nothing could have convinced me to go anywhere near the bees. He was the hero of the day.

Not that we weren’t still uncomfortable. The stings continued to itch. For me it took two days for the welts to completely disappear—but normally, on me, a sting can remain inflamed for up to a week. This was a phenomenal recovery.

And the bees recovered, too. Both hives have accepted their new queens and they are merrily back to work, in their orderly bee way. Would I quit beekeeping? Not on your life. We’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, though… Garlic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

A.V. Walters

They’re hounding me to renew the registration of my hives. In theory, it’s a good idea. If beekeepers register their bees–how many hives and their location–farmers will know to alert them when they plan to spray. That way, I can close up the hives when they are most at risk. They’re emailing me to tell me that if I don’t renew, my listing will be dropped. So, why do I resist?

First, registration hasn’t done anything for me. Doesn’t that sound selfish? In fact, I reached out to my neighboring farmer on my own–we formed an understanding, and now he gives me 24 hour notice of any chemical spraying or application. My idiot neighbors to the west apparently are uninformed about the registry–and they spray, willy-nilly, without notice. Their property looks like the lunar landscape–nothing grows there, not even the things that they plant. The crop registry didn’t help me with my notification success, nor with the failure.

I suppose my resistance is rooted in principle. I don’t want to participate, or be complicit, with the powers that are killing the bees. Late last year the registry unveiled a “new look,” complete with corporate sponsorship. The primary sponsor? Bayer. Wow.

For those who don’t know, Bayer is the primary player in the neonicitinoids game. Neonicitinoids (or “neonics”) are a class of insecticides that science shows are a primary killer of our honeybees. Of course, the industry denies it, in the time-honored tradition of corporate denial (think DDT, Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Climate Change, or, soon at a theater near you, Fukushima!) The usual game plan is to float a disinformation campaign and to deny as long as possible, only to quietly acquiesce to the underlying science AFTER using influence to secure liability protection.) I don’t want my participation in such a program to provide “cover” to corporate malfeasance.

Bayer sponsoring a Bee Registry is like General Mills giving out free wildflower seeds to help the bees. (Oops, that’s a real thing, too!) Is it cynical greenwashing or brilliant PR? I can’t tell, and I don’t want anything to do with it. Am I tilting at windmillls? Should I cowtow and collaborate? I cannot tell anymore.

 

The Myth of Snow Removal

A.V. Walters

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For the traditionalist…

There is no such thing. When it is time for it to go, snow will go on its own. Until then, all we can do is push it around—out of our way. We should really call it snow relocation. “Snow Removal” is a big ticket item on many northern, rural budgets. For many, the face of government is one’s local township clerk, and the guy who drives the snow plow. For public road maintenance, the standard snow plow is the way to go.

Snow management for the homeowner, or small business, poses important questions. First and foremost is the basic question of egress and access—unless you manage snowfall, you simply cannot get from here, to there. Immediately behind egress and access is the question of safety. At what point does the danger of a slip-and-fall land on the shoulders of the pedestrian? What is the responsibility of a business for access safety? When in doubt, wear spikes. It’s an inexpensive measure of safety. (Just remember to remove them at the door.)

The farther north you go, the higher the level of social tolerance for snow inconvenience. We know how to drive and schlep in snow. Snow management falls into one of three categories—pushing it aside (plowing and shoveling), scattering (snow blowers) or compaction—the old fashioned method of just traveling on top of the damn stuff—making for layers and layers of slippery, which are the seasonal measure of geologic sedimentation. Snow-blowers and their ability to disperse the mess make modern snow management easier. You never have to have a place to store the season’s bounty. The biggest issues in determining your snow management method are amount, effort and space. How much are you willing to sweat for access, and where the hell will you put the stuff?

When I was a kid, snow was shoveled by hand. That’s what kids were for. Driveways were relatively short. (I’m sure you’ve driven by a lovely old farmhouse and sighed at how close it was to traffic. Roads have widened over the years, and old houses were built sensibly closer to the thoroughfare.) Mechanization has freed us from those old, utilitarian limitations. Now, it is not unusual to see the McMansion on the hill, with its thousand-foot driveway. Woe to them, should petroleum become scarce.

We have our own range of snow equipment. The snow-blower on the tractor can clear a five-foot swath in a heartbeat. We have a hand-push blower, which we almost never use, favoring the flexibility of the traditional snow scoop or the northern version (the yooper-scooper), which makes it easier to move the snow some distance. In the North, snow removal is the aging test of whether it’s time to move into town. At that point, either you move, family helps out, you pay for snow removal, or you rely on the kindness of strangers. Since my father passed, my brother-in-law has dutifully kept my mum’s driveway clear. Rick and I are young yet, and are nowhere near those kinds of considerations. But…

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The Yooper-scooper–available only in the far north, wherever premium snow implements are sold.

I never had children. I wonder if Rick’s California kids understand the mores of familial obligations in the North.

 

Winter Wonderland

A.V. Waltersimg_2343

It seemed like a no-brainer to me. We’ve been cooped up with winter for months, so the idea of fresh line-dried laundry was like a breath of fresh air. We’re having one of those wonderful February breaks with sunshine and temps in the 40s and 50s. Ah, sunshine!

Of course, it is a little odd to have to wear winter boots out to the clothesline. While I was out hanging laundry, a number of my neighbors drove by on their own busy Saturday mornings. Their reactions made me wonder. I could see them do the double-take when they spied me. Three of them slowed their cars to a crawl and stared in wonder at what I was doing. In the background, I could hear snowmobiles. The moment was rich with contrast.

I suppose they think I’m the crazy one. I wonder. At these temperatures, by tomorrow the snow may be gone.

Did I mention that it was sunny?