Archives for category: country living

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Honey, Cooking, and The Science Behind The Sweet

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking the Sting Out of It–

A.V. Walters–

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We keep bees. People respond to that with raised eyebrows—and usually some positive acknowledgement. The raised eyebrows are about the dark side of beekeeping. Most people think of beekeeping in terms of being stung.

Yes, we get stung from time to time. It comes with the territory. Usually, when it happens, you can point to some mistake you made—you moved too quickly, you inadvertently crushed some bees while stacking hive boxes, you didn’t use smoke (or enough smoke, or too much smoke) when performing an invasive activity. There are rules and rhythms that protect you from being stung. Bees only sting when provoked, and often give plenty of warning.

I react to stings, so I take every precaution. I only handle the bees when wearing “the suit.” I listen to the tone of the bees during hive work—you can hear it if their level of alarm amps up. Rick and I agree that it isn’t worth it to work on agitated bees. It’s not good for them, and we’re not happy to be stung out of our own stupidity. We can always close up a hive, and come back to it on another, better day. We plan ahead of time what it is we hope to accomplish, in a hive, and endeavor to do it in the least disruptive way. The hive is their home. They have every right to defend it.

Bees demonstrate stages of annoyance. First, you should take note if the bees are looking at you. I laughed when I first heard that—except that it’s true. Usually, when you work in a hive, the bees go about their business and ignore you. But, if they’re lined up, looking at you, it’s a warning. (It’s funny looking, the first time you notice it—as though they were spectators at a circus and you’re the main attraction!) Then, if they raise their back ends—you’ve crossed another warning threshold. Listen closely to the tone of the bee’s constant hum. In an irritated hive the background hum raises in volume and pitch. Time for more smoke, or to close it up. Guard bees may “thunk” you, that is, fly right into your chest or face—to make impact, but not sting. Again, we’re talking serious, threat-level warnings here. Bees do not want to sting. A stinging bee is a dead bee—they lose their stinger and innards in the process, so it’s a KIA hero’s defense. Move slowly and deliberately. Try not to breath on the bees (certainly don’t blow on them.) Do not wave your arms in a swatting defense. It only makes things worse.

Timing is everything. Happy bees are less likely to rise to alarm. What makes for happy bees? Good weather, ample food and available water. We try not to open the hives in bad weather—the bees are stuck inside and as crabby as school kids denied recess. We do our bee work midday, so most of the bees are out in the fields. And we make our disruptions as short and productive as possible.

There are three physical levels of reaction to stings. A normal reaction includes the initial pain of the sting, some level of swelling and discomfort at the point of sting, usually resolving overnight. The worst reaction is life-threatening anaphylactic shock. If you respond to stings this way, you probably shouldn’t be keeping bees. I don’t have that problem, but I have an Epipen, just in case. I fall into the middle category, what’s called a “large, local reaction.” After the initial sting, the site swells well beyond the actual sting—often a painful raised welt up to eight inches across, that is painful, itchy and lasts up to a week. It makes me a little sick, too. I have to keep taking antihistamines until the swelling starts to abate. Things can get ugly if I am multiply stung.

There’s some good advice about how to handle a sting. First, get away from the hive. A stinging bee releases an alarm pheromone that attaches to the site of the sting. Other bees may zero in on it, and continue in a defensive attack. Rick and I work as a team, but if one of us is stung, the other closes up the hive for the day. Second—waste no time removing the stinger. Even unattached to the bee, the stinger continues to pump venom. Use a dull bladed object to scrape across the site of the sting. Do not use tweezers, as squeezing the whole assembly can result in injecting more venom. After the stinger is removed, you can gently squeeze the sting site to eject any venom still near the surface of the wound. Ice it, as soon as you can. Take an antihistamine—Benadryl or similar, to stave off any excess reaction. I use an herbal antihistamine called Hista Block, that doesn’t make me so drowsy. Depending upon the level of swelling (and discomfort) you can also take an analgesic. Some sources suggest using a topical spray, but others warn of possible cross-reactivity at the wound site, so I don’t. Most importantly, take these steps as quickly as you can. Time is critical in warding off the body’s defense to the venom—our defenses are the biggest problem. Depending upon your level of reaction, you may consider medical intervention if you have multiple stings. Afterwards, make sure you launder the clothing in which you were stung because the pheromone on your clothes can inspire later hostile actions by the bees. (Nobody told them not to respond to the outdated alarm.)

This is how I cope with the sting potential when keeping bees. I have beekeeping friends who do not react as I do, who handle their bees without suiting up, without even wearing gloves or a veil. I envy them. One friend actually welcomes beestings, because he claims they alleviate the arthritis in his hands!

Work smart and bee prepared. That’s my motto.

Of course none of this helped over the weekend when I was rescuing some tiger lilies from a construction site. Really, it wasn’t theft; they’d been bulldozed and would have died but for our valiant efforts to rescue them. Unfortunately for me, the bulldozer had disturbed a nest of Yellow Jackets.

Yellow Jackets are a whole different story, than bees. They are just rude! They sting, without warning—and a single yellow jacket can sting repeatedly! (Which it did, as I ran a quarter of a mile down the road, to escape it.)

Days later, I’m just recovering. The good news is that we got the tiger lilies planted, so there’s some reward for my experience.

 

 

 

 

What’s Eating You?

A.V. Walters–

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Spindly cages over even more invisible tree whips!

Just as you can identify a critter by its tracks, you can tell who is eating your trees and foliage by what is left behind. This is critical information to the hopeful planter of baby trees. If you don’t know who is doing the munching, how will you know how to stop them?

Last year, we lost some of the seedlings early—like within a week of planting. At the same time, a deer jumped our garden/orchard fence and ravaged the baby fruit trees. Though they survived, I was devastated. I could clearly follow the deer tracks to each and every tree victim—and then on out and over the fence. Bastards! We solved that problem by making the fence higher—but I missed a learning opportunity in garden sleuthing. And, I blamed the deer for other losses outside the garden.

I was wrong.

You see, when a deer grazes on your seedlings, they bite and run. They leave a ragged edge. Other critters have other distinctive habits. The modus operandi of the dreaded cottontail is to use those sharp rodent teeth, leaving a clean, angled cut—almost as though pruned with a shear. Bunnies are an under-recognized threat.

Porcupines also dine on seedlings and branches. I’ve been impressed with what I thought was deer damage on the wild bramble canes, only to learn that raspberry and blackberry canes are among the porcupines’ favorite spring and summer foods. And in the winter, they’ll also gnaw on tree bark at the base of a tree, eating the nutrient rich cambium layer, girdling and often killing the tree. Indeed, starved for salts, they’ll gnaw on plywood siding, or the tires on your car! (Salt from road clearing gets imbedded in the rubber tires.) Just this week we saw gnaw marks on our rubber garden hose! (And on our neighbor’s garden shed.)

Yesterday, I saw a huge porcupine, swaying in the wind in the top of a maple tree. They love the leaf buds—before they unfurl and get too tannin. It was a very windy day and, looking up I saw that porcupine hanging on for dear life—just to eat those tender new bits. Never before had I contemplated the risk of being thunked by a falling porcupine. Ouch.

But my chief opponent of the moment is those bunnies. When we plant trees in the forest, I don’t worry about the rabbits. It’s too hilly and woodsy. The bunnies are out front, by the house, in the grassy open areas. That’s where we’re putting the hazelnut and mixed berry hedges. No sooner did we start the planting than the rabid rabbits were right after them.

This is no surprise. Tomorrow we will be changing the fence around the vegetable garden (before we plant) because last summer the bunnies made short work of our garden. With the tree seedlings, we had to quickly change gears and immediately put up welded-wire tree cages around each seedling. The cages are made from cut fencing material, formed into circles by bending over the wire tabs from the cuts. With a more than a hundred seedlings at risk, that’s a lot of work!

The natural world notices. We finished the planting (and most of the cages) yesterday. We came out this morning to a parade of deer prints—a veritable square dance of deer, checking out the new additions to the neighborhood. Thank God those seedlings were safely in their cages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

161 Trees…

A.V. Walters–

And counting.

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

 

Musings on Planting Trees–

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ah, Spring

A.V. Walters

In our minds, our little house—our work in progress—is picturesque. All winter, we could hardly wait for spring to get back to work on it, in earnest. I’ve been asked to send photos of our progress. Then, earlier this month, the snow finally melted. It was like waking up after a bad drunk.

Construction is a messy thing. Just before the snow, we finished up the septic system, and sealed the log exterior. Somehow, in my minds eye, things under that snow were peachy. Spring has been an awakening.

Installing your own septic system is like buying new underwear. You’re happy to have it, maybe even proud of it. But it isn’t something you show off. It is, in fact, an ugly scar on the scenery. It was time to do some reconstructive landscaping. With any luck, after an enormous amount of work, you won’t be able to tell that we dug there at all.

We added this to our annual spring planting schedule. We take a fervent approach to diversity, adding dozens, if not hundreds of new trees and plants, every year, to fill in what climate change takes. I don’t mean that lightly. The forest is suffering. We are losing our ash trees to the Emerald Ash Borer, and the beech trees to Beech Bark Disease. Last summer’s “freak” wind-storm took out over 35 trees. Changes in the environment are accelerating. We have to hustle just to keep pace. We select our plants emphasizing climate tolerance, and, hopefully, outguessing the next blight. At least diversity should serve us there.

So, every year we purchase baby trees of many varieties to diversify the forest. This year, in trees, we will plant white oaks, hemlock, tulip poplars, witch hazel, dogwood, and redbud. We’re also planting shrubs and bushes for soil conservation and wildlife habitat (a hazelnut windrow and a mixed berry hedge.) To the forest trees, we add 100 hazelnuts, red osier, elderberry, serviceberry, blueberry and high bush cranberry. And then, to fix the scar over the new septic we have clover, native knapweed and various wildflower mixes. Needless to say, we are not putting in a lawn.

So far, the 27 white oaks are in, and we’ve prepped and seeded the front with a mix of clover and over 3,500 square feet of wildflower mix for the bees. I’m trying to keep them closer to home with a delicious variety of safe blooms that haven’t seen pesticides. (I can’t account for what the neighbors, or local farmers, plant.) Rick says the bees will go wherever they want, but I’m like the frantic parent, putting in a swimming pool so the teenagers will stay home. (Rick says that just means you have to feed their ill-mannered friends, too.) That’s not lost on me because I know we may lose many of the new wildflowers to the deer and the bunnies. Bambi and Thumper are no longer cute to me.

By this time next month, we’ll have used all of the 45 tons of composted manure that we purchased last year. Rick can hardly believe it. He thought I was crazy.

I’m exhausted and we still have 158 plants and trees to go. Until the front area heals, there’s no point in pictures, it’s just sorry looking. The next few weeks will be all about planting. The first waves, fruit trees and oaks, are in. Next week the big shipment will arrive. And after that, we should be frost free enough to put in the garden. Ah, Spring.

 

 

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Sandhill Cranes, Yesterday

No Reservations Needed–

A.V. Walters–

Back in my California days, I always wanted to go see the Sandhill Crane migration. There was an area outside of Modesto where the cranes would come and settle for a while each year during their migratory cycle. A couple of friends were also interested—but we never made it happen. One of the three would always have a conflict—and the other two never got it together to do it anyways, or we’d miss out on the limited reservations for crane viewing. Back there, you had to do Sandhill Cranes by appointment.

The cranes are beautiful. They’re a little odd, with a strange whooping type call. I know this because, now, thousands of miles away, the cranes are our neighbors. They live nearby in the cedar swamp between here and the town of Cedar. We can hear their weird yodeling call during the long light of summer evenings. In the late autumn, or early spring, sometimes they’ll fly over to the cornfield adjacent our little apartment, to glean corn bits from the field.

It’s funny how something you failed to pursue in one part of life, actually comes to your doorstep later. We don’t get a whole migrating flock. It seems that our cranes stick around for the winter. Maybe they do a short trip south—but if they do, it’s pretty abbreviated, because we see them so frequently here. I think I prefer just a couple of neighbor cranes to some overwhelming migratory flock. It’s certainly more intimate—and doesn’t require a reservation.

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Sandhill Cranes, Today

Snow Cats, Hot Cocoa and GMOs

-A.V. Walters-

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It’s snowing again. We’re expecting seven inches by tomorrow and then it will really feel like winter.

Yesterday we were out clearing. Snow shoveling leads to play—at least for those of us with snow history. The snow on the ground was a little too dry for a decent snowman. Though I managed a couple of good snowballs, I couldn’t get anything good going (Rick, shoveling, didn’t want to play along) so, I had to settle for making a snow cat. Yes, a snow cat—nice and fat like my favorite cat—who is unfortunately named Kilo, making a permanent joke of his girth.

On the way up to the house site, we noticed tracks—large, feline tracks. They were much too large, and the spread of the step is too long, to be a house cat. This summer, I noticed similar tracks in the sand and wondered if we had bobcats or a lynx. But tracks in sand are difficult to identify, so I let it go. Now, in snow, it is absolutely clear that we have a regular visitor who is something larger than Kilo or Bob. I followed them (the tracks, that is) in a meandering trail that ended across the way because my quarry walked up the neighbor’s driveway—which had been plowed after the tracks were made.

I’m not surprised; there are plenty of bunnies here to keep a wild cat well fed. We see their tracks, too, along with those of the mice and squirrels and their veritable freeways of tracks. I came home, determined (after a cup of hot chocolate) to identify our feline visitor. I believe it’s a bobcat. The size is right, the length of the stride, and even the meandering path. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see him, because they are nocturnal, but it’s nice to know he’s there.

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“And now, a word from our sponsor…”

Hot chocolate is always nice after my own meanderings in the snow. I’m going to put in a plug for Hershey’s here—as they have recently announced that they’ve nearly completed their transition to non-GMO sugar in all their products. They made their statement in a benign way, declaring that they are responding to clear customer demand. No company wants to support such a change on environmental grounds—and risk the wrath of the larger food industry. Still, I admire Hershey for making the shift. The company also has a nice website which identifies which of their products are gluten-free. That’s good for me. They’re not perfect, but for today, they can bask in their non-GMO glory.

The Hershey announcement has the Minnesota sugar-beet farmers in a tizzy. Minnesota leads all other states in sugar production—all from sugar beets, all of them GMO modified and drenched in Round-Up. Previously, Hershey bought sugar made from sugar beets. Sugar-beet spokespersons are circumspect about the Hershey announcement—hoping that it’s not a trend. Surely, Americans won’t abandon conventional, chemically saturated, agriculture. Will they?

Here’s the rub. The sugar-beet farmers and cooperatives couldn’t change gears to go back to non-GMO seeds if they wanted to. There aren’t any non-GMO seeds available. Monsanto has so flooded the market with their poisonous seed-and-Round-Up combo, that the farmers have no fallback position. This, despite the evidence that GMO yields are no better than organic, or conventional fields. (Listen up organic farmers, here’s a window of opportunity to grow conventional sugar beets for seed!)

Consumers can make a difference. It will be fun to watch conventional agriculture scramble as more and more of us vote with our dollars for healthier products that don’t contaminate our soils and water. In the meantime, I’m warming up with a hot chocolate and anticipating a few more days of heavy snows.

 

Perfect Hot Chocolate—one heaping teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder, one teaspoon honey and one cup of whole milk or, for a special treat, almond milk.

 

 

Better Late Than Never–

A.V. Walters.

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Yesterday’s Barbed Wire

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

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

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Widow-maker.

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

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

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What a difference a day makes.

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

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

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Suiting up.

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

 

 

Home for the Holidays–

A.V. Walters.

Over the hills and through the woods…. There is something nostalgic about going home for the holidays. You can sample the traditional recipes from your past, and slip comfortably into the identity assigned to you by your family, oh-so-many-decades ago. Your siblings are there to remind you, just in case you forget, and pretend to be an adult.

This effect is doubly true in my case. Home, my mother’s house, is in the far north. It echoes with the traditions of the past–heating with wood, guaranteed power outages that have you pulling out the oil lamps, and storing the holiday excess out on the deck (or back porch)–where frigid temperatures are a certainty, and a back-up, for regular refrigeration. Even holiday meal planning comes with an asterisk (and, if the power goes, we’ll just put that ham out in the barbeque….)

My home town is a summer tourist destination; it lies on the shores of Lake Superior, in the lee of Brockway Mountain. It’s that mountain that prevents any cell phone or digital reception. During the height of the summer season you can watch the tourists, desperately waving their various high tech devices doing reception ballet–searching, in vain, for signal. We tell them, “You’ll have to drive to the top of the mountain–you can catch a signal there.” Indeed if you go up there to catch its world famous view of Lake Superior, half the people up there are making calls, or catching up on their internet connections. In the winter, they do not plow Brockway Mountain Drive, so there’s no cell service at all.

There are plans and skirmishes to bring the twenty-first century into town. It’s not a bad idea–the local volunteer fire department is still radio dispatched, because cell phones don’t work. The volunteers carry pagers. It’s argued that the absence of cell reception could cost lives–especially given that the town and its environs are renowned for extreme sports, mountain biking and black-diamond ski slopes. That brings us to the continuing tower, and anti-tower battles. The pro-tower folks have the  built in safety issues on their side. The anti-tower forces argue that cell towers have no place in the pristine forests of the far north. Rightfully, a cell tower will clash with the historic views–which have been safe from interference since the turn of the last century, when copper mining played out. I see the need–but I secretly am anti-tower–if only because I hate for things to change.

It’s Christmas. The guests have yet to arrive–my mum and I have been cooking all day. And, I guess in recognition of tradition, we are enjoying the annual internet-down quiet of the holiday. I’d post this, but Copper Harbor is comfortably settled into internet silence, to match its cellular status. Oh well, the holiday is for nostalgia, anyway. We are moments away from plenty of noise–as the siblings, their kids and grandkids will fill the house with more energy than we can muster. There will be the parade of gifts, the meeting of the boyfriend-du-jour, and the dog, snuffling around the kitchen to poach anything that drops. We’ve slipped into the 1950s, and all is well.

Fore!

A.V. Walters

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I admit it. I am the kind of person who laughs at my own jokes. Even if I’m the only person who laughs…

This will require some history.

My ex and I purchased the property (that Rick and I are currently developing) over twenty-five years ago. A few years later, an adjacent parcel sold—and the buyers built a house. Ours was empty, so the husband in that duo, Brian, felt free to use our front panhandle as a driving range. He’d practice his golf swing, and send his dog out to collect the golf balls. The dog tired of this, at some point and, apparently, Brian’s version of sport and fitness didn’t include walking, which left our land with a collection of unretrieved golf balls. He’s a nice guy though, and we’d communicate from time to time. He’s a hunter and we gave him permission to hunt on our (otherwise posted) land.

Years later, the couple divorced and their house was sold.

When Rick and I arrived, we started a collection of those golf balls. We’d find them in the strangest spots. Some partially buried and others, under trees, as much as a couple of hundred yards from where he’d teed up, in his front yard. We’d go for walks on our property, and come back with a pocket full of golf balls, which we tossed into one of the tree cages. We have no interest in golfing.

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Last year, Brian, who missed the area, bought a lovely parcel just up the road. He’s saving for when he and his new partner can build. In the meantime, he’s hunting there, and has put in a little garden. We go right by his property on one of our regular walking routes. Lately, when we head off to walk that way, we each grab a couple of golf balls, and toss them onto Brian’s driveway, or into his garden.

We have no idea whether Brian has, or ever will, notice. Or, if he’ll ever piece it together, in any way—that the golf balls he lost two decades ago are the same ones mysteriously appearing on his new property.

But, Rick and I are laughing. I guess that means that we’re well-suited. It’s enough of a joke, just between us. We’ll continue to enjoy our walks, and life’s little pleasures, as we still have a couple of dozen balls left to go.

 

 

 

 

Timing the Jump.

It’s Later Than You Think

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Snow or Blow?

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

“Snowing down there?”

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

“Really, six inches? New Snow?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Single Digit Cuisine!

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A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need fifty tons.”

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

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

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

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

 

Second-Hand Blues…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning I’d bought it, one friend emailed,

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

Some folks can’t resist rubbing it in.

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

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

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

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

Banking on Winter…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observing the New Year

A.V. Walters

There must be near as many ways to bring in the New Year as there are people. My mother thinks it’s bad luck to start the year with any of her ironing left undone. That’s not a problem for me. My current life style doesn’t include ironing. I don’t even know where my iron is—somewhere in storage, I hope. My sister’s New Year superstition is about what you can eat on New Year’s Day. No poultry for her. (Apparently, if you eat chicken, or birds that scratch, you’ll spend the entire year scratching for a living.) She hasn’t indicated whether or not that eliminates eggs for breakfast. What does that say about pork? After all, pigs root around for food. Does that bode ill for the traditional New Year’s ham? (or bacon with those questionable eggs?)

I don’t do resolutions, either. Sure, I could lose a little weight, or be more regular in my sleep habits. I’ve already cut way back on sugar. I figure if there’s improving that needs doing, one ought not wait for the New Year over it.

I’m not one much for observing holidays, except Thanksgiving, which I like so much that some years I celebrate it twice—Canadian and American. I do like to have all the laundry done, not because of my mother, but it seems a shame to bring last year’s dirty laundry into the New Year. So, I guess my New Year’s observance includes tidying up a bit. We don’t go out. We don’t watch any “balls drop” on television. That would be boring and impossible, since we don’t have a television. Yesterday, though, we took the tidying to a new level.

We’ve been gathering wood. We won’t need it this winter, since we’re behind in the building schedule and the house isn’t ready. But we’ve been cutting, hauling and splitting deadfall off and on since the summer. It’s been piling up, waiting to be stacked. So we decided to finish splitting what we have and to stack it all as a fitting close for 2014. It was easier said than done.

We estimate that we’ll need four cords of wood to heat for winter. My sister uses just over five, but hers is a much bigger house—and three hundred miles north of us. They get a longer, colder season. We don’t keep the house as warm as some do—65 degrees is about as warm as we can stand. We figure that we have about four cords cut now—though we’ll know for sure by the end of the day. Yesterday we stacked two cords, snug up against the cord I stacked this past summer.

The aim is to have two year’s worth of wood cut and stacked. That way it’ll “season,” which just means that it’ll get good and dry for a clean, long burn. My sister (the show off) is working on being three years ahead. We’re continuing to clean up the deadfall in the forest through the winter and, as long as the snow doesn’t get too deep, we’ll likely have our two year supply cut and stacked by spring. When we start the “regular” firewood season, next fall, we’ll be working on three years, too. I’d feel pretty smug about that. A good store of firewood, now that is rich.

When I was a kid, my dad made me stack wood crisscrossed, the old way—so that it would be stable. I started like that for the first cord. I suppose that it’s the best way but it takes me forever. I get caught up in it and spend forever selecting the perfect piece to go in each spot. Rick rolls his eyes. So yesterday we started the day at our local hardware store, picking up some metal fence posts to hammer in at the end of the stacked rows. That way I can just stack without getting too finicky. We store our firewood stacked on wooden pallets and then tarped to keep it dry. At some point we’ll build a woodshed—after the rest of the house, and the pole barn, and the chicken coop, and the…, well, you get the point.

It took forever today to stack two cords. The wood pile has been a loose trip hazard, logs just tossed over after splitting. Part of it was covered, but we ran out of tarps during October’s constant rains, so as the pile grew, a good bit of it was open to the elements. It rained over Christmas, while we were away, and then the temperature dropped. By the time we were ready to move the pile and stack—much of it was frozen in place. It looked fine but when you tried to pick it up, it wouldn’t budge. So we had to first break it up with the sledge. Two steps forward, one step back. In the future, I’ll try to stack after splitting. (That’s a common sense plan, not a resolution.) And with that, we should ring in the New Year, just fine.

New Territory, New Toys…
A.V. Walters

In the early days...

In the early days…

No! Did I say toys? Tools, tools, really it’s new tools! It’s a whole new world of what one needs to do—snow, building, planting. First, after carefully reviewing the used market for almost a year, we got the Kubota tractor—which we we’ve needed for road grading, excavation, and will certainly need for snow clearing. Rick cut in the driveway and dug out the foundation for the cabin with it—it’s no toy.

Then, I saw a good deal on a log splitter, on craigslist. In Two Rock we heated with wood and we split it all by hand—both of us. Of course, Northern California doesn’t pack nearly as much of a winter punch as Michigan. We used to use about two cords of wood a year to keep toasty. Here we figure we’ll need about five. The log splitter was a good call. I used it, feeling like a bit of a traitor to my trusty maul and wedge. But in an afternoon, without breaking too much of a sweat, (though it is still work) I split about a cord. Wow. We already had chainsaws (when we met, Rick and I owned the same brand and model of chainsaw. Kismet!)

The generator/inverter was a no-brainer. So far, there still isn’t any power to the site. (Though it looks like next week the electric company will bring in the underground lines for power—with phone and internet piggybacking in the trench.) Everything needs power—nailers, sanders, lights, saws. So the generator can’t be considered a toy by any stretch of the imagination.

Back in the spring, we were looking at the costs of excavation—road, foundation, well line, septic. It was daunting. We’d already bought what’s called a back-blade (it’s like a big scraper) so, my next job was to look for a used backhoe attachment for the Kubota. It took awhile—It was my job to make it work financially—to make any purchase pay for itself with savings from what we’d otherwise be paying others. I also had to learn about what implements would fit on our tractor. There’s a whole culture of tractordom—sub-frames, hydraulic kits, three-point attachments and PTOs. Things need to match—and I’m not talking about accessorizing. I found one—and we finally hooked it up. It was quite a feat—first, installing a sub-frame, and then uniting two pieces of equipment that weigh tons. The conjoined parts look like a large, prehistoric insect. Usually, I’m not one much for mechanized things, but horsepower does have its advantages.

Rick immediately started digging the line for the well. He’s far more mechanically inclined than I am, within an hour, he had the levers and controls figured out, and he was trenching like a pro. I’m a little jealous. I want to dig, too. (Don’t worry, my turn will come.) In the meantime, I’ve become quite the craigslist maven. Hey, there’s still a snow-blower to consider. A 3 point snow-blower is a thing to behold—throwing a veritable fountain of snow 20-30 feet in the air. Winter is coming… they’re tools, after all, not toys.

One Year Counting Blessings

A.V. Walters

It’s an anniversary of sorts. A year ago today, two exhausted ragtag souls arrived in Michigan, California cats in tow, truck, trailer and pick up. It was a hairy trip, with no clear home in sight. Here we are, a year later–under construction but with a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve learned a lot, mostly that this still appears to be the most sane plan for what we want to do when we grow up. We’ve survived the fiercest Michigan winter in decades (with another on the way, they say.) We are not dissuaded. It’s been raining–and the forecast for at least the next week predicts the kinds of rainstorms that hold construction work at bay.

We sigh, we shrug. At least we have a solid plan. Our little cabin is wrapped in its raincoat. The well drillers came last week–113 feet to ample, clear, clean water. We’re digging–site drainage, water lines, and then we’ll get to the septic. You can almost always dig in the rain.

I was talking to a California friend today. He asked after our progress and listened for a minute or two while I bemoaned weather delays. Then he made me stop. “Remember, you’re talking to California, here. What we wouldn’t give for just a fraction of your rain. It’s 95 degrees out here today–in October. We look up and wonder when…. if, our rains will come.”

Water was one of the reasons we came. We also came because my mum wasn’t well. I’m happy to report that she is much improved. It’s good to see her with energy and plans again. She’s getting ready for winter, too.

I’m ready for it. We’ll keep on keeping on. We’re feeling lucky on this anniversary.With one eye on the sky, I’m looking at craigslist for a used 3 point snowblower for the tractor.

 

Autumn Olive…

A.V. Walters —

With olive-like leaves

With olive-like leaves

Also known as Russian Olive, the Autumn Olive is considered a pest species. In the want ads of our local newspaper, guys advertise that they’ll pull it up by its roots, for a fee. Apparently it arrived as a domestic landscaping plant—but escaped into the larger wilds. I don’t know why nobody likes it.

In the spring is has tiny, extremely fragrant, delicate yellow, trumpet–like blooms. Though you have to inspect to see how lovely they are, just walking by smells terrific—like you’d walked into a tropical bouquet. The plant itself is just a shrub, with foliage looking a lot like olive leaves—and so, the name. I suppose some object to the thorns. I haven’t had too much trouble with thorns—even pruning. You just need to be mindful of them to avoid being scratched.

The real surprise is the fruit. It’s ripe in the fall. The plant book describes it as tart, but edible, mostly for migrating birds. I guess I’ll have to leave some for them—I love it. It is a sweet/tart combo that I love. Rick just turns up his nose, thinks I’m crazy. Next year I’ll try making jelly out of it. I think that tartness would be lovely captured in a clear jar of scarlet. I haven’t seen any recipes. Could it be I’m the only one that likes them? (Other than the cedar waxwings.)

But I like the fruit

But I like the fruit

Progress

A.V. Walters

Things are looking up.

Things are looking up.

We’ve been fighting the weather. As you might imagine, we are not big agents of change in that fight. Mostly, the weather is winning. This is not about climate change (though today’s the big march and I wish you all well.) This is about construction.

We have made some great strides in our building—but there hasn’t been any “honeymoon” phase in which we’ve had the opportunity to revel in the progress. No sooner had the last lag been set in the first floor log walls, than the clouds rolled in for days of heavy rain. It’s not like the rain can really damage the cedar logs—but it can wreak havoc on the plywood subfloors, which, so far, are still open to the sky. (Not to mention that it will all drain into the basement, anyway.) So, as soon as the stacking crew packed up, we pulled out the tarps and heavy duty plastic to try to contain the damage. The good news is that we knew this could happen—so we used a deck sealer on the subfloor—which has helped to minimize the absorption.

That first night was crazy—there we were, trying to secure huge tarps in high winds, in the middle of the night. We had some lighting—you couldn’t even hear the generator over the howl of the wind. Finally we worked out a rhythm to the mechanics of it all. By 1:00 am, we’d lashed it down as much as possible, just in time for the rain to hit. Most critically, we’re trying to cover and keep the floor as dry as possible. Each day we (mostly Rick) run out in the dry spells, pull the tarps, sweep out the water (or pump the basement) and then we re-secure it all before the next wave. Last night a squall hit while we were re-tarping. We just climbed under it and waited for it to abate. When inside, Rick is glued to the weather service site—and the radar projections. We no longer have any dry shoes.

Wait, wait, there’s good news! Tomorrow it should clear and give us at least four days in which to get ourselves more battened down. There could be more, but the weather service doesn’t extend its local prognostications to specifics out of that 5 day window. (Though I’ve already seen internet projection for heavier than normal snowfall for 2014/15 season! Sheesh!) We just need to hang in there until we get the roof on—then we can finish from the relative comfort of a weather tight envelope. And having the first floor done is a step in the right direction.

Rick is a builder from California. They don’t build in foul weather in California. I once knew a fence builder in Oakland who’d pack up his truck if the wind picked up on a cloudy day! Here in Michigan, they’re not much for building in driving rain—but you’ll hear them extol the virtues of building in snow! Probably most Michigan builders would laugh at our tarping efforts; what’s a little wet? (Snow is much better for the materials—as long as your equipment will work, why not? One of our stackers was advising Rick that if, in the dead of winter, the oil in your equipment gets too cold, too viscous, you can use transmission fluid instead. I don’t think that he was kidding, but I also I don’t think Rick was contemplating building in sub-zero conditions.)

Yes, we’ve run late in the season—but it’s not yet color (though some trees are turning, harbingers of what’s to come.) There’s still plenty of time to get things “buttoned down” before snow flies. I told my sister if she uses that expression, (buttoned down) one more time, I would button her down. Most of my family is urging us to hire builders. What is it they think we’re doing? Soon we’ll even have power, propane, and even water somewhere on the horizon. (The well-drillers didn’t want to hear from us until all the heavy equipment was finished.)

But then we had to give it a raincoat.

But then we had to give it a raincoat.

In the meantime, we’re meeting lovely people (the stacking crew—the Flanagan brothers were a total hoot.) We’ve even found a couple of reputable suppliers—rare in this industry. We’re moving right along.

Thunderstorms

A.V. Walters

The good news is that our new basement has proved itself to be watertight. Good thing, too. We’ll be needing that. Michigan sees a lot of wild and wooly weather. I’ve been telling Rick about Great Lakes thunderstorms for years. Though we’ve been here near a year—the weather has not cooperated to show off its best thunderstorm stuff. That is, until yesterday and last night.

It was tremendous. We had dramatic, roiling clouds, winds, driving rain and amazing lightning. For hours! I timed it and the lightning flashes were about 30-40 per minute—and it lasted from late afternoon yesterday until the wee hours of the morning today. Finally he had the chance to see the full-blown spectacle of non-stop lightning, with its  rumbling and crashing soundtrack. Nothing like California. The cats are both CaliforniaCats, too. Kilo was cool; Bob was flipped out about it. Nothing in their experience prepared them for the noise. I’d attach a picture, but unless you’re really good with a camera, lightning isn’t easy to capture. I’m not that good.

Years ago, I visited my sister in Southern California. It was her birthday—a little wine and conversation got us on to the topic of thunderstorms. California is wimpy in that department. That’s a blessing, because with California’s dry summers, Michigan’s lightning would burn California to a crisp! The evening ran long; wine and nostalgia are a potent mix. Two weeks later she packed up and headed “home.” Afterwards, she acknowledged that the conversation made her family so homesick, they decided to abandon the dream of sunny California. I don’t know the statistics now, but then, Michigan had the highest “rate of return” for folks who’d moved on, but couldn’t stay away. Some folks just can’t settle in to a climate that lacks actual weather.

The not so good news was the rain. We got almost four inches overnight. I’m not really complaining, we needed it—but there’s no roof yet on that basement. It’s watertight, but in this case it held the water in. So we came to the site the next morning to a wading pool. We briefly considered having a small lap pool in the basement. Four inches is too much to bail—so Rick headed to the hardware for a pump. A couple of hours later—we were back in business.

 

 

 

 

 

Two-Legged Hazards…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

I guess my face showed doubt.

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

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

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

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

Learning the Language…

A.V. Walters–

IMG_1897

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Slash and Burn

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

So, who is practicing slash and burn, now?

 

 

Bugged–

A.V. Walters

My California friends can’t believe that I moved to a place that has snow in the winter and bugs in the summer. I usually put it right back at them—both of those features are a direct result of one thing—we have water.

In California you don’t even need screens on your windows. Sure you’ll get a couple of insects—but because of the long, dry summers there never was a big problem with mosquitoes in the summer (early spring, sometimes, but it never lasted.) In Two Rock, living right next door to a dairy, we had flies and spiders. (There, I was glad for the screens, though, in all honesty, sometimes the dairy smelled so bad you didn’t dare open the windows.) When Californians recoil about insects, they mean one thing—bugs that bite.

We have them here. I know all the jokes—In Michigan, the mosquito is the state bird… Okay, so there are insects; it’s a given. We measure them in seasons. Just now, we’re (hopefully) coming to the end of blackfly season—which is usually June, but running late this year because of the overlong winter. Blackflies are an annoyance in Leelanau. Back in Keweenaw, they are a force of nature. (I always suspected it was why June brides wore veils.) Back home, one’s wardrobe for June activities includes a “bug baffler,” screened headgear that looks like beekeeper’s clothing.

July is the main mosquito month, though Rick and I have already earned our fair share of bites. We insist on being outdoors, even into the evening, and that’ll do it. Mostly we wear hats and we keep moving. In August and September we have an assortment of biting flies—horseflies, deerflies and stableflies. Again, a hat and proper clothing for the outdoors is your best defense. They (the biting flies) aren’t really looking for you (though you’ll do in a pinch.) The worst of it is that they annoy as they buzz in circles around you. As kids, we’d pick ferns to wear on our heads, like some kind of pixie tribe. It kept the biting flies on a farther perimeter and gave us some small measure of control.

Having adequate rainfall means we have bugs. Having bugs means we have birds, so don’t wish your bugs away so quickly. We have amazing birds. The air here is, more often than not, filled with birdsong. We live outside the town of Cedar. That’s a polite way to say “swamp.” It’s located in a low-lying area and, like any wetland, rich in biodiversity. Bugs.

We try to get some kind of exercise, every day. Right now we get it primarily through working on the property. We’re doing site prep—and in the summer heat and humidity, it can be grueling. If that wasn’t enough, we often go for a walk around the block at the end of the day. “Around the block” is a three-mile loop. The bottom third of that loop runs adjacent the swamp. It’s probably crazy to go walking there at the buggiest time of the day—but it’s cool, and, if you keep moving, you can escape without being bitten. We went for one of our walks the other night, right at dusk. It’s a great way to unwind— to talk about the day’s events and connect with your surroundings. We were just getting to the swamp section when I first saw them. At first, I thought it was a bit of trash, maybe a scrap of Mylar, catching the fading light. When I saw it again, I realized—fireflies! Even though I grew up in the Great Lakes region, I’d never seen them before. Once you look, suddenly they are everywhere–a profusion of flashes, shining at you in an orchestrated mid-summer display of sparkles. Some, in mid-flight, look like three-dimensional punctuation, illuminated ellipses. Rick was amazed—both at the tremendous surprise of nature, and that we were seeing it, together, both for the first time.

You won’t see them from a passing car. You have to be out with them, at the right time of day and, at risk from the rest of the insect kingdom. But, it’s well worth it. It leaves you breathless, awestruck and feeling almost childlike. This will do for our July fireworks display.

 

 

 

 

Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.

 

 

Right Plan…

A.V. Walters —

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

It’s said that, when the Europeans arrived in Michigan, a squirrel could cross the state, Great Lake to Great Lake, without its feet ever touching the ground. That didn’t last. Michigan’s vast forests became the fuel for building the region’s great cities. By the turn of the twentieth century, the pillaging was near complete. Only a few stands of virgin timber remained (and remain still.) Here in Leelaunau County there were numerous mills—timber being Michigan’s first wave of development. Empire, the little village where we spent the winter, was historically a booming timber mill town, with the largest, best equipped and most productive hardwood mill in the region. Its claim to fame is that they invented tongue and groove boards. (Our previous home, Petaluma, was responsible for the invention of the chicken incubator. It’s always something.)

In 1917, the Empire Lumber Company mill burned to the ground—and not for the first time, either. But, it was the last time. With the timber all but gone, there was no point in rebuilding. The devastation from Michigan’s unrelenting, statewide clear-cutting inspired Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Park System. It was the era of the Robber Barons. They gave little thought to man’s impact on the environment. After all, with all its rainfall, it’s a climate that renews. But you can never rebuild the majesty of a virgin forest. Michigan remains a timber state—eager to clear-cut the very minute the trees are marketable. We’ve seen the results, a striking scar on the landscape, and a hazard of erosion on these sandy soils.

As if to illustrate the point, our property is actually zoned “Timber Cutover,” shorthand for “already cut and too steep to farm.” Though there are some fair sized trees, now, the land shows distinct signs of clear-cuts through its history. It’s crisscrossed with ancient barb wire fences—grazing being the normal succession to clear-cut. The land was last “selectively” logged in 2004—to thin the trees, as recommended by the local extension people. I saw first hand how the taste of timber-money can change one’s view of the land. When I bought the property, I saw it as a sanctuary, a refuge in the forest, but my then-husband’s view of it changed after the quick profits from the cut. It became a timber holding and he, by extension, a timber baron, eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to cut. It’s silly to aggrandize so small a kingdom. I knew then that he had no intention of ever living on the land.

IMG_1863

The property is still recovering from the ’04 cut, and we’re suffering the ravages of the ash trees to the Emerald Borer. But, Rick shares my dedication to the land. We walk its steep hills, taking note of the trees and identifying the undergrowth. Blackberries sprout up in the sunny spots where fallen trees have left openings in the canopy above. There are wild strawberries, grapes, and, we hear, morel mushrooms in the early spring. We explore and plan, learning the land’s glaciated folds like the lines on our hands. We’re cutting a little now—mostly scrub pine out front on the more gentle slopes—to make way for a driveway and the foundation of our home. We debate the merits of each tree. Does it provide screening for privacy, sun, or snow? Is it healthy? Does it have aesthetic value? Does it block the view? Is there another alternative to chopping it down? We are pioneers to a new future, which goes to show that life can be full of wonderful surprises. We laugh at the short tag line I use to describe the circuitous circumstances that brought us here at this late point in our lives—right plan, wrong man.

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Okay, Work With Me Here…

A.V. Walters–

 

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

It kicked on at 10:20 in the morning, and it got me thinking. It’s a beautiful day. Clear and clean, post-storm. It’s not hot out, though it likely will be later today. Upstairs, the landlady’s central air conditioner has kicked on, already.

I’m sorry to burden you with my rant, but more people need to think, to plan a little, in their trajectory on this planet. This is only partly about landscaping but it starts there.

I identify a particular brainless “yard pattern” with Michigan, though I expect it’s all over. You see it driving down any street or road, though it’s particularly noticeable in the country. Michigan is a fertile state. If it’s not planted or maintained, its natural tendency is to revert back to forest. So it’s a bit of a shock that folks will buy a place in the country, cut down all the trees, and put in a lawn. They plunk their house in the middle of it—kings of their environment. Landscaping? Well, it’s a border mentality. They plant along the lot-line. Daffodils, trees, whatever, regardless of aesthetics, they celebrate ownership with a string of ill-advised plantings whose only assignment is to state, “This is mine!”

A century ago, farmers were not so self-absorbed. Clearing land took a lot of energy, which they reserved for their fields. They oriented their homes to take advantage of the sun’s rays in the winter. They had adequate roof overhangs to protect them from the rain or heat of the summer, and—they strategically planted deciduous trees to shade them from the heat and still let the sun’s warming rays help them in the dead of winter. I lived in such a home in Two Rock, a turn of the (last) century farmhouse that never got too hot, because trees were planted to provide shade. In the winter, the sun’s low rays streamed in through the living room window to provide welcome warmth and light. In really hot summer weather, we’d close the curtains and windows to the sun and the daytime heat. When the evening cooled, we’d open everything up again to the refreshing breeze. No air-conditioning, just good, old common sense. In the seven years I lived there, and despite some really blistering heat waves, that house never went above 81˚F. Where did that wisdom go?

This house we’re in now has been here for some thirty or forty years, yet nobody has ever planted a shade tree to provide summer cooling. (Instead, there’s a line of spruces on the lot line, whose long winter shadows screen the sun’s warmth when it could be useful.) The house is surrounded by lawn, which, to look good, requires regular watering—with the electrical expense of pumping that water. There are plenty of windows, but no one ever pulls a curtain against the summer heat. Instead, before the dew is even off the grass, the air-conditioner fires up its relentless drone. In an era of global warming triggered by energy use, somehow the air-conditioning solution seems to miss the point. I can almost hear the planet sigh, “Work with me here!”

You can always retrofit with well-placed trees. Drapes closed in the daytime, especially in a home that’s empty while you’re off at work—that’s not too much to ask, is it? We have a regular steady breeze—so you can open the windows in the evening, smell the fresh country air and cool your home. We can work with nature, instead of against it.

Rick and I have selected our building site based on existing tree placement. We’ll have the summer shade even before we have the home. Those trees will lose their leaves and we’ll get some winter warming and light on the south side during sunny winter days. Window placement is designed to maximize light and sun, when it’s needed and to avoid unnecessary heat loss. In that way, it’s an old-fashioned placement. Sure, there’ll be a view—but not at the expense of energy. We can all do a little more, to use a little less.

That’s my rant. (Live with it – we all can!)

 

Good Enough Gardening

A.V. Walters–

Now, a good gardener would have done things differently. A good gardener would have had the soil tested and would have amended accordingly. This year, I’m going to have to be a good-enough gardener. The plants went into their buckets in a flurry of enthusiasm, an unexpected last chance to see things growing, and enjoy them on my dinner plate through the season. What can I say; it’s a done deal.

I’ve heard that the soil here is alkaline. (And the water is hard.) I suppose you could say that this little bucket-garden is a test plot. We’ll just have to see how things go. I fully expect to test the soil on our property, next year, and amend accordingly. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. We planted in a good spot, which I picked for the southern exposure. What I didn’t figure on was wind. Wow. Like Two Rock, this place has wind, and then some, to spare. (The wheels are turning and I’m thinking… a good spot for wind power.) My little southern exposure turned out to be perfect, because the house also offers the garden some shelter from the wind.

I’m not joking about the wind. It’s a beautiful day, so I hung out the laundry. It hangs horizontal. By the time I finished pinning up the first load, the first things up were already dry. Whipping in the breeze, even the towels dry soft and everything comes up lint free. There has to be another way to harness that energy for good.

Today was watering day for our little garden, too. In Two Rock I was able to satisfy watering by topping off the buckets, twice, once a week. In Two Rock, there was no rain during the growing season. But, there was more clay to the soil, and that helped to hold the moisture

Here, it is largely sand. Even with Michigan’s regular rainfall, I think I may have to water a little more frequently—especially with these winds. The plants, in the ground for about a week now, look healthy and have started to take off. Everything has sprouted a round of new leaves, and the peppers and tomatoes have started to flower. I was surprised at how little they suffered from transplant shock. I’m looking forward to the results of our experimental garden.

With today’s gardening finished, I decided to take advantage of the wind and do “extra” laundry. You know, the stuff you don’t usually do—the throw rugs and some blankets, even my winter coat and the winter’s down clothing. They’ll easily be dry by evening. I’m letting the wind do the rest of my day’s chores, and I’ll get the credit.

Garden Surprise

Michigan Meets the Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

A.V. Walters–

I had resigned myself to not having a garden this year. There’s just too much going on. We have building to do—and that has to take the lead. In Empire, we had a late spring, and nowhere to start seeds. Now that we’ve moved, well, it’s a little late. Michigan has a shorter season—and, unlike Two Rock, it’s not forgiving on the harvest end. Besides, in a rural setting like this, a garden needs infrastructure. I don’t have time for infrastructure.

A garden, especially a vegetable garden, is an artificial environment. Its inhabitants have needs. In Michigan, they have some basic needs that exceed my Californian framework. Here, we have garden predators. And not just the usual gopher hazards (though we have those, which, like in Two Rock, we can solve with buckets.) Here, we have deer. Worse yet, the place is crawling with bunnies. That means we need a really tall fence (six feet or better) and it has to extend underground. Bunnies are not deterred unless you prevent them from burrowing under the fence. With their Bambi faces and cute eyes, these critters’ benign outward appearance hides a darker garden reality

Moreover, we don’t yet have water on the property. I’m no fool. I read French Dirt. Never plant a garden until you have a sure water supply. Our well is not yet in. No well, no water. No water, no garden. It’s as simple as that

Still, Monday I ran into town and stopped at my favorite grocer, Oryana (a local co-op). I was doomed, even before I stepped inside. There, at the entrance, were racks and racks of organic vegie starts. At good prices, too! Some of them even knew my name! I have no discipline—I quickly snagged a bunch and headed home. On the way I rationalized my decision. I could plant them just outside the window of our little, basement apartment. After all, my planting buckets are sitting idle. The landlady’s dogs, though pests in many other ways, allegedly keep the yard clear of deer and bunnies. (We’ll see.) Surely the landlady would enjoy fresh produce through the summer, too.

It won’t be a big garden—only twenty buckets. Eight tomatoes, five peppers (can’t find decent hot peppers in Michigan), an eggplant assortment, cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck, and a cantaloupe. We’ll skip the leafy things—I just picked through what was left at Oryana’s. It’s just a tad late in the season, but I’m happy to have something to grow.

I was sheepish on my arrival home. After all, we’d had the garden discussion. Rick knew something was up immediately. He laughed when I admitted to my impulse purchase. But, of course, he helped me dig-in the buckets.

Gypsies and Win-Win

A.V. Walters

Cozy kitchen

Cozy kitchen

I have a sister who moves all the time. She’s not an economic refugee; she has a comfortable life. It’s just that she and her husband seem to have itchy feet. They buy a house, fix it up, and then, when even a faint whiff of opportunity calls them elsewhere, they are gone like the wind and the process starts anew. I used to say that her middle name was “never-in-ink,” based on the damage that her peripatetic ways did to my address book. At one point she had three homes (and an orchard with a pole barn) in three different countries! We joke that some people go on vacation and send postcards—my sister buys real estate. Her defense? Well, they needed somewhere to park. The process has slowed some, maybe it’s age. More likely, the real estate juggling has diminished because they bought a big boat that now takes them from place to place, to satisfy some of that wanderlust.

Rick and I are not like that. We are homebodies, gardeners and people of roots. So it’s surprising that in the past eight months we’ve moved three times—with another planned before the end of the year.

We did love our little honeymoon cottage in Empire, but it was, after all, a “vacation” rental and that means that we had to move on once the “season” started, or pay the steep hotel-like rates that tourists pay. In a vacation area, the season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Some people extend a little beyond that, for a second-wind season that we call “color.” So, we packed up and moved again.

The problem with living somewhere this beautiful is that, if you’re not a grower (cherries, apples or wine grapes), the most lucrative business for locals is the tourism industry. The county is chockablock with cottages, B&Bs and little hideaway granny units that are rented to tourists by the day, or week. It’s almost impossible to find a longer term rental because everyone is cashing in on the vacation market. Rick and I are building, this summer, and we needed a place to stay—somewhere near the building site—until it’s ready to occupy. We’re getting a late start because of the heavy winter and delays in permitting. That put us smack-dab in the middle of the vacation season—no reasonably priced housing. We checked with our soon-to-be neighbors (two of whom have vacation rentals) but they needed the tourist rates. We considered buying a trailer, or even a heavy duty tent—though that’s a tough transition with cats. Then we stumbled on what looked like a win-win.

 

An old-fashioned look.

An old-fashioned look.

Back in Petaluma, each year in April, we volunteered for an organization, Rebuilding Together, that helps to renovate homes for elderly or low income owners. Often the services are critical to letting them stay in, and maintain, their homes. It’s a great organization—and it was where we met, Rick a volunteer builder and me—volunteer grunt labor. This year, April came and we noted that it was the first time in a long while that we weren’t on a Rebuilding crew.

In preparation for our impending relocation to Cedar, I went around introducing myself to all the neighbors. Some of them I’d known for years. I bought this property over two decades ago, and so I was that absentee owner from California. I thought we should re-connect in more of a, “Hi, we’re moving in,” kind of way. At each stop there were the usual discussions—“we’ll be building, yes, my husband is a builder… no, it’s not a summer/vacation home, we’ll be living here….” One neighbor in particular took interest—“Does he do work on the side?” Apparently some years ago she considered renovating her walk-out basement into a rental. She hired some fly-by-night-guy and it went badly from there. After a considerable investment (and some bad blood) she fired the guy and the job sat, unfinished—in fact, it had barely been started. Though I’d only just knocked on her door, technically I’d been her neighbor for years. Maybe that’s why she felt so comfortable telling me her life story and all her woes, though it seems to be a common thread in my life. People tell me stuff.

It didn’t take long before I thought—hmmmm, she needs renovation work, we need a place to stay… I connected the dots. I suggested it to Rick, before I approached the neighbor. It would be a big undertaking—not to be entered into lightly. Oddly enough, it was an alternative to our usual, April volunteer gig. This was a win-win—there was something in it for us, and it could work for her, too. When we approached the neighbor, she was intrigued, but wary. It took her weeks to decide (and we even had to interview with her priest!)

So that’s where we’ve been for the past month, or so. We’ve been building a little apartment. We were running on a short time frame—after all we had to be out of Empire by June 1. And, as usual, it was on a shoe-string budget. Another project brought to you by Craigslist. We pulled many 10 hour (and a few 15 hour) days until we reached the point of “habitable.” We still have trim-work (baseboards and window trim, etc) to do, but we moved into this little pied-à-terre the first of June. It’s just across the road from our building site. As soon as our permit is approved (which is taking longer than we thought) we’ll be building, yet again, only this time (for the first time) for us.

Still work to do, but a comfortable way-station to home.

Still work to do, but a comfortable way-station to home.

We’re not like my sister. We’re not gypsies. We’re itinerant builders, looking for a spot to call home.

Of course, there is next April…

 

 

 

 

e) All of the above…(every little bit helps)

A.V. Walters–

INVEST IN SOLAR AND WIND POWER!

INVEST IN SOLAR AND WIND POWER!

Now that we have warmer weather–we can all do our bit to save energy and enjoy the best the season has to offer!

You, too, can participate–use solar and wind energy!

SUN AND WIND--FAST AND FRESH

SUN AND WIND–FAST AND FRESH!

(a little rope and two trees.)

Marching Through the Seasons

A.V. Walters–

Still Closed.

Still Closed.

Most of the country is experiencing Spring, in all its glory. Some, in the northern reaches (like my mum) feel the warmth, see the birds, but still have 6-8 foot snow banks, and the woods are still zebra-striped—tree trunks and snow. Some of us have a little bit of everything.

Granted, if you look out the window here, you can only spy a few stubborn patches of snow, hidden in shady spots, or where the snowplows had piled it deep. Here, in town, we have snow-drops and crocuses in bloom. The daffodils aren’t far behind. But if you go into the woods, it’s a different story.

Our favorite hike takes us up and over three layers of wooded dunes before it delivers an amazing high-bluff view over Lake Michigan. The secret of the variable unfolding of season is revealed on those dunes.

The path, compacted by hardy winter hikers, may be the last to melt.

The path, compacted by hardy winter hikers, may be the last to melt.

The exposed, or south-facing slopes, are snow-free. There, the forest floor is carpeted with leaf litter and spring plants, pushing through to the sunshine. These early plants of the forest floor are well on their way staking out their spots in the sun—wild leeks, trillium and dutchman’s breeches. They’ll get established before the ferns pop up—later competing for sun and water. Stepping into the woods, I try not to tread on the sprouts, but they’re everywhere. One wrong step and I can identify who’s first in the race for spring. It’s the leeks—pungent and oniony. These early pioneers into season have a built-in defense against the winter-starved deer.

Wild leeks!

Wild leeks!

Just on the other side of the rise, it’s also a different story. On the north-facing, or shade sheltered slopes, it still looks like winter. The snow is deep enough to make for tough walking (and slippery purchase.) In a few weeks these slopes will catch up, Spring–the sequel. But north-facing slopes have slight variations in vegetation, with cooler, damper, shade-loving plants having the edge.

420 8

As you traverse the dune forest, up and down, you alternate your way through the seasons—winter, spring, winter, spring. Until last week we had the same dichotomy in town. All through the village it was winter on one side of the street while the snow was gone on the other.

The forest floor, now visible, is littered with the fallen ash trees, victims of the Emerald Ash Borers.

The forest floor, now visible, is littered with the fallen ash trees, victims of the Emerald Ash Borers.

The critters tell a different tale. To them, it’s clearly Spring. Robins, cardinals, chickadees and sparrows are reveling in the bounty of seeds and worms to be found in the warming earth. The deer, who, all winter would stroll down our road at dusk, now have the full run of the fields. They still come by, but now they’re grazing on the first bits of grass that will be our lawn in a week or two. We’ve seen a pair of pileated woodpeckers, too, our attention drawn by their relentless carpentry pounding.

The destination of this hike is the ever-changing face of the Great Lake. Last week the Lake Michigan was almost clear—with just a lacy edge of ice along the shoreline. This week the wind has changed and we see shifting continents of float ice, punctuating the deep blue of the open lake. Seagulls are back, bobbing and nearly indistinguishable from the small chunks of ice on the surface.

420 6

420 4

We’re due for some heavy rains this week. I think that will finally spell the end of the snow. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed this glimpse of the in-between.

Look at those red branches, waiting to leaf out.

Look at those red branches, waiting to leaf out.

Marshmallows or Popcorn

A.V. Walters–

marshpop

Surprisingly, it turns out that Rick is making the California to Michigan transition better than I am. I still have a foot in each world. I’m still on political and activist email lists for California and Sonoma County. I still check the weather for Two Rock.

I have an off-beat sense of humor. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. Sometimes it reveals an underlying sense of order that is just a little out-of-step with the “regular” world.

This was never more clear than, a decade or so ago, when I received a telephone call from my sister, whose home had just burned to the ground. (“Defective dryer wiring.”) She was near hysterical.

“It’s gone, everything…(sobbing)…”

“Everybody get out okay?”

“Yeah, we weren’t home—Bill was at the neighbors, when they saw the smoke…”

“Pets out, too?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s left… like, how high are the walls?

She broke down again, “Nothing. Nothing’s more than waist high. Just smoldering embers. (Sobbing) What am I going to do?”

Here, perhaps I should have paused to think. But I didn’t.

“I dunno. Got any marshmallows?”

Needless to say, it wasn’t well received.

From this, I’ve developed my theory of Marshmallows or Popcorn. It seems to me that any disaster has radiating circles of impact. If it’s your disaster, it’s Marshmallows. You are close enough to feel the heat; you’re the one feeling the loss. Someone else’s is Popcorn—you’re role is, essentially, an observer. It seems we humans make a spectator sport of disasters. Rick calls it the Rubbernecking Rule—you know, how you just can’t help but slow down and look at an accident. You read an obituary—and check the age. You hear that someone has cancer and the first thing you ask is, “Did he smoke?” It’s a way to handle loss that isn’t yours. Intellectualize. Engage from a safe distance. The psyche wants to understand and, at the same time, dissociate from the loss. That’s Popcorn. The news cycle essentially feeds on our addiction to Popcorn.

I read that there are very strong indications of an intense El Nino cycle, brewing in the Pacific. Ocean temperatures are significantly elevated. In any normal cycle, this could lead to drought conditions in California. Right now, though, California has already seen a number of abnormally dry years. Rick and I were discussing it, the double whammy of ocean warming and El Nino, and whether that fell into an underlying climate-change warming pattern.

Generally they report California’s water status in terms of snow-pack and reservoir levels. We know, though, that that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s a short-sighted measurement that doesn’t reflect the impact on the environment, or what happens in rural areas, where folks and farmers rely on well-water. For them, annual rainfall is critical to recharge the aquifers. I thought about our lives in Two Rock and our life and friends back on the farm.

“What will we do with yet another year of drought?”

Rick looked over at me, “What do you mean, we?” He grinned. “I live in Michigan.”

So, we do the math: Time + Distance = Popcorn.

 

 

Spring has Sprung

A.V. Walters

We’ve been busy here in Empire. We’re gearing up to build—and hoping that the snow will melt in time for construction. Spring is making inroads into winter’s territory. Here in Empire, there’s a big patch of ground making itself visible in our front yard. Once it gets started, you can almost watch it by the hour. Yesterday, robins appeared. Neighbors whom we haven’t seen in months have started to take walks around town and in front of our house. Spring is here. (But the tapwater has yet to get the memo. It’s still 34 degrees. I can hardly wait for it to warm up enough so that I can turn off the water.)

Of course, Cedar/Maple City (only 15 minutes away) was the season’s big winner in the snow department. We went there yesterday—it took snowshoes to get us to the building site. Snow is still at least knee-deep there, mushy, crusty, difficult to maneuver snow. It’s a case of hurry-up-and-wait. We’ve fetched our tomato cages and buckets, in preparation of the bucket garden–but one look at the site and we just sighed. (We’ll need to fence the garden, the deer here are voracious.) I’m anxious to get back to my gardening.

I’ll report more as the situation develops. In the meantime, perhaps I can update the emu situation from Two Rock.

The Broken Back of Winter…

A.V. Walters–

We’ve stopped tallying the snow totals. Once you’ve bested the old records, every additional inch isn’t quite so crucial. Last night dropped another four, wet, sloppy inches—but we no longer have a handle on the running accumulation. Instead, we’ve joined the ranks of the Spring Predictors. My mother called the other day to inform me that “The back of winter is broken!” Mindful of some of her earlier pronouncements, I demanded, “What, is this some guy from the Almanac, again?”

“No, no. This was the weather guy, on TV. And he had a map! He explained the whole thing.”

“Okay, Mum, I’m game. What’s his theory?” I clicked on the Ebay icon and scrolled through vintage light fixtures. I didn’t have much hope for this, the newest prognostication.

“The polar vortex thing is done. It’s been influencing the temperatures all winter, had us in it’s grip, it did. But the regular jet stream pattern is re-emerging. By the weekend we’ll have seasonal temperatures!”

I flipped to the weather site. Sure enough, the temperatures are predicted to jump this weekend.

“Yeah, mom. I’m seeing it here, too. Maybe you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. He had a map!”

Ahhhh, Shoes…

A.V. Walters–

I did a laundry run, yesterday. I gambled, and wore shoes. It’s the first time I’ve stepped out of the house, in shoes, since November. What lightness of being! What fleetness of Foot! I’ve loved winter, but at some point, it’s a relief not to have to pull on your hefty winter boots. That’s not to say that the snow is gone—or that it’s warm. But for a trip to town with laundry, it’s finally a safe bet that the roads and parking lots will be clear of the slippery stuff

We’re suffering from faux-Spring. You look out and it’s sunny. We can even see some dirt. There’s a snow-free zone around trees, and on sidewalk areas that have been kept relatively clear of snow. But when you step out, it’s beyond brisk, mid-twenties. I neglected to pull on my thermal layer before heading out for the Laundromat, and I paid for it in chill. Today it even snowed a bit. Winter isn’t finished with us yet.

Shoes, though, that’s a big step. (Pun intended.) And, it gives you big ideas. Gardening. Building. Picking berries. Oh, yeah, and even sandals!

Freeze, Thaw, Freeze, Thaw, Freeze, Thaw…

A.V. Walters-

Yeah, yeah, I know — lather, rinse, repeat.

This is the part of March that drives Spring-starved folks crazy. They crave the warmth, and the promise of Spring. This week is typical pre-spring weather—days in the high 30s (even into the 40s) and nights in the high 20s. Look out, it’s treacherous! That melting daytime temperature brings the constant sound of water running. Roads and paths—otherwise clear of snow and ice—are wet. Then comes the evening chill and the world turns slick and slippery. The low spots in town are blinking, lake/rink, lake/rink, keeping diurnal rhythms. The next day, we start all over again. And, that’s the good news.

You see, a gradual thaw like this trickles the melt-water into the soils. A fast thaw could lead to flooding. It would also see the runoff head straight to the rivers and lakes, without percolating into the soils and recharging the aquifers below. So, this maddeningly slow transition is all good.

There was a warning on the radio—despite the general warming trend, this melt and freeze cycle is particularly troublesome with frozen pipes. The super-chilled melt water seeps deep into the soil, even below the existing frost line—and then refreezes at night. They warned to keep that tap water running. I’ll know that Spring has finally arrived when I can turn off the water.

Our snow cover has condensed. Between melting and settling, we’ve lost several feet in snow depth. What’s left is dense, crusty and dirty. The deer amble across the top of it, demonstrating how solid it is. Rick is angling for a couple of inches of fresh snow—just for the visual clean-up. I’m not sure that he has any particular pull in that direction. Whatever falls is unlikely to stick, in any event. Tonight, we’re actually expecting rain—I can hardly wait to see its impact. Rain can really diminish standing snow-banks. Maybe we should take before and after pics. Actually, the sun is out, so maybe, we should go for a walk.

Meanwhile, Back in California…

A.V. Walters —

This, we miss.

This, we miss.

In California, they’ve had the warmest winter on record and the third driest. My California friends have raved about the weather (even while admitting that the drought is a problem. But hey, if you’re going to have a weather calamity, you might as well enjoy it!) Knowing I’m a gardener, they’ve sent photos of Spring, to tempt me from here, under my blanket of snow. Late rains finally brought the green back into the hills of Two Rock, and that’s good for—emus!

Green Hills for Grazing

Green Hills for Grazing

Emu Views

Emu Views

Yes, Emus! Back on the farm, Elmer’s daughter is raising four emu chicks. She wants them to be guards for her organic duck operation. The emus we reared last year are a little skittish around the ducks—and there were some duck injuries when raucous ducks agitated their delicate emu sensibilities. Ducks were stepped on. The solution is emus who have been raised with ducks. So that’s what Deb is doing.

Emus at the Feeder

Emus at the Feeder

Up Close

Up Close

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

So, our teen emus, Kelvin and Gatsby, will be stuck with sheep duty. That’s not such a bad gig, more turf, more freedom, better view. Nice work, if you can get it.

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

After some early garage and barn living, (Deb is not so crazy, as we were, to keep emus indoors) the new babies are settling in nicely.

Can we come out, yet?

Can we come out, yet?

Now, they stay with the ducks. Not that they socialize, but they are comfortable sharing space. Right now the emu babes are about the same size as the ducks. In the future, the emus will shoot up, no doubt surprising the ducks! They’ll serve as their guardians from predators. The teen emus were doing okay at the guardian job; during their tenure the duck losses stopped. Coyotes, foxes, and even hawks were discouraged by the emu presence. However, it wasn’t working because the emus themselves were injuring the ducks. Clumsy emus.

Ducks above, emus below.

Ducks above, emus below.

It’s nice to hear how things are back on the farm. We’re biding our time, waiting for the snow to melt. Then things will get very busy around here.

Emu Huddle--For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Emu Huddle–For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Punxsutawney Prognostication

A.V. Walters

Phamous Phil

Phamous Phil

–Everyone is waiting for Spring. The signs are here: the days are growing longer; the cats are shedding, and my mother’s seed catalogs have arrived. So, there you have it—what are we waiting for? Of course we’re still seeing sub-zero temperatures and we’re ass deep in snow. And, that has a way of slowing things down.

Most everyone has a method for predicting the arrival of Spring. The cruel, (or totally depressed,) promise us that we’ll be able to break ground by, oh, August, at the latest. My mother assured me that come March 1st, things were going to warm up, immediately. (She’s on the edge of her seat, to garden.) Then, there’s that damn groundhog thing (which predicts nothing, except a really good film.) At the library, (where we rented Groundhog Day) someone said it would be a late Spring—based solely on the excessive number of berries on this past season’s mountain ash trees. My nephew hinted that our purchase of snowshoes would spell the demise of winter.

The human brain is an awesome, pattern-recognizing machine. Patterns suggest predictability. They streamline the critical-thinking process with the utility of fact-based assumptions. To be effective, this cerebral shorthand requires repetition. Of course, it’s a fair guess that Spring will come. Until this winter, most of us believed that there was a certain regularity in the calendar. “Record-breaking” is novel and all, but it’s not helpful when forecasting. My mother originally based her balmy projections on something my brother-in-law said. She’s since recanted—as she learned that he based it on the Farmer’s Almanac!

My Rick, is a man of science. Beyond mild amusement, he has little interest in hare-brained, prediction theories. He believes in climate change because it is borne out by observable facts, over the last few decades, and further supported by climate models developed from the collected data. (Now, there’s a mouthful.) We both have the National Weather Service site bookmarked on our computers. He regularly peruses the various science sites. Since it is his first true winter, he has little on which to base prediction. Moreover, as this year is notably abnormal, he questions any prognostication. Rick waits… patiently.

Perhaps that’s the real difference. Some of us are more impatient than others. I’m eager to start gardening and building. Besides, my experience of Spring is more than just reaching the equinox. Spring is a cluster of things—birds returning, the budding of certain plants and trees, and the smell of damp earth. So, I keep an ear open for the more creative projections.  My mum says that all the malefic planets are going retrograde this week and the beneficial planets are coming direct. (Another mouthful!) That’s got to be a good sign, eh, Rick?

Winter Freedom

A.V. Walters—

Winter Freedom!

Winter Freedom!

Yesterday, we tried out our new snowshoes. I remember snowshoes from my youth. They were cumbersome affairs, long and wide with bindings that seemed to wrap around endlessly. They were not as sleek and fast as cross-country skis, but they were useful, nonetheless. Snowshoes gave you hands-free mobility. They were good for steep terrain, working outdoors, and for traipsing through the woods. Ever clumsy, in snowshoes I found the grip to enjoy a sturdy form of winter transport. Sure-footedness aside, I’m in no shape to try those up-slopes on skis, and some of our favorite hikes are on steep slopes, as they wind their way through the wooded dunes.

Last week's winds obstructed the road

Last week’s winds obstructed the road

That inspired our snowshoe venture. But, buying snowshoes is a confusing endeavor. I did my research online, and then went searching for bargains. I tried craigslist, but every time I spied a set of worthy snowshoes, they’d be gone before I got there. Either that, or they were hundreds of miles away. So, I went to my trusty retail back-up, Ebay.

I wasn’t interested in the authenticity of the wood-and-gut appendages of my past. Today, there are newer, sleeker, lighter snowshoes. There are aluminum frames with synthetic webbing or the lighter, smaller, solid-deck models. I opted for the latter, and picked a mid-priced model. Then, I hovered over my eBay auctions like a vulture over fresh kill. (It’s amazing how high-up I can be, and still smell a deal.)  Later, my nephew quizzed me on my selection. He was all for the super-expensive ones, but I explained what I’d purchased, and why. When he, the-expert-on-all-things-outdoors, acknowledged the wisdom of my selection, I knew I’d done alright. Finally, they arrived.

We’d opted not to get poles. We see our hiking comrades out poling their way through the snow, and assume there must be something to it. But, from my perspective, the whole point of snowshoes was that they were hands-free. So, we slipped into the easy, cinch-up bindings, and headed out into the yard to check them out. They’re easy! It’s a breeze!! Without another thought, we launched off on our favorite route, up to the Empire Bluffs.

Hands-free, with snowshoes!

Hands-free, with snowshoes!

The best thing is that modern snowshoes have incredible traction. They have teeth that dig into the icy snow, and rim cleats, too. I never felt so sure-footed. They let you head off into deep virgin snow, without so much as a second thought. In our regular winter boots we didn’t dare step off the trail, or we’d be ass-deep in snow. I saw a bird’s nest, off the trail, and headed out to take a look. These snowshoes give unfettered access. You can wander off to see whatever beckons. (And then follow your own monster-tracks back to the trail. No Hansel and Gretel “lost-in-the-woods” issues.)

New vistas, off trail

New vistas, off trail

There is a lovely rhythm to the snowshoes’ scrunch and slap of progress.

We figure that our standard, hike to the bluff (including the road up to the trailhead) runs about 3 to 3.5 miles. The outgoing leg is a pretty steep climb, at times, but the snowshoes tackled that like a champ. We probably put in some extra distance, because of the regular temptation to take off into previously inaccessible areas. We worked a little harder, too, because tramping through fresh powder was a novel option, even if we stuck to the general area of the trail. Still, they are comfortable and, for winter gear, relatively light and sleek. I didn’t fall once! (As compared to my luck on skis, where a major component of the exercise is the getting-back-up.)

They do use a whole new set of muscles, though. We felt it later that night—walking around on rubber legs. And, we slept like logs. We’re fine today—and some of that is the point of it anyway. We’d recommend it to anyone who’d like a back-stage pass into the beauty and quiet of the winter woods.

Cabin Fever Paranoia

A.V. Walters

Police Blotter

Police Blotter

For most of the locals, this winter is a little long in the tooth. They’re tired of it, and getting a little crabby. It’s showing in the local paper. At last report, the snow total was 228 inches, just three shy of breaking the county record, to date. Since then, we’ve probably had at least three inches. That means that this year will be a record double header—in both temperature and snowfall.

You’d think everyone would be excited. Where’s their pride in being here, and witnessing this little bit of weather history? Noooooo, people are ready for Spring and are tired of all this. The headlines are revealing: “COLDEST, SNOWIEST—Winter to Break Records; Man and Wildlife Cope.” The deer and wild turkeys are suffering with the cold and deep drifts. The wildlife guys, at the DNR, have suspended the rules against harboring ducks and waterfowl. They need open water on our rivers and inland lakes so they can take off, and it’s not easy to find. People are finding, and rescuing downed ducks. So, if officials catch you harboring a duck, they won’t prosecute. They’re even giving out information on where you can find open water to release them.

Even the snow plow drivers, are weary. “It’s starting to wear on all of us… It’s always fun in the fall, to start plowing, but by now, it’s not fun anymore.” (According to their supervisor.)

A week or so back, a couple warmer days and fierce winds broke up the ice on the Lake Michigan. Suddenly the lake, which had reached over 80% ice coverage, was once again a wild and thrashing deep blue. It was impressive. I mentioned it to the guy in the local grocery store. He nodded, acknowledging the really awesome power of a Great Lake.

“Plus,” I continued with some enthusiasm, “With the Lake open again, you know what that means?”

He just looked puzzled.

“We’ll get more lake-effect snow.”

He just groaned and put his face in his hands.

We’re in another cold snap, now—you know, Polar Vortex, the sequel. We hiked up to the bluffs to see the lake. It’s starting to fill in again—frozen out almost to the visible horizon. They say it’s back up to 50 %– in just days. And, it’s snowing. The paper says that, with all this snow, there are concerns about Spring flooding.

We love the local paper. It covers all the small town stuff, high school sports, ice-fishing events, bowling, that kind of stuff. Rick loves the police Dispatch Blotter. This week though, the police blotter showed that winter is taking its toll. A paranoid caller complained. “…the Road Commission [snowplow] is purposely placing snow at the end of his driveway.” (Rick had a good laugh, at that one.)

Pipeline Postscripts

A.V. Walters

mid feb

I lived in California for thirty-five years. Rick lived there all his life. It is in our blood to be water-thrifty. Conservation is a lifestyle issue—not to flush every time, short showers, dozens of little tricks learned over time to save water. That is not the culture in Michigan. Doing dishes, my brother doesn’t think twice of letting the water run, while a conversation or other task takes him away from the sink. Watching, I squirm. Here people have lawns, and they water them, with sprinklers.

With our uber-winter this year, many have had their pipes freeze. There are four communities in Upper Michigan where the entire towns are at risk of freezing pipes. (Our water temperature at the tap is 36 degrees.) In L’Anse, Michigan, the townsfolk are being advised to let their faucets run—constantly, to keep the mains from freezing solid. Some developments were built with plastic supply lines. Plastic won’t conduct electricity. If your plastic lines freeze you’re in trouble. The advice there is to cross your fingers and move out until Spring. (You’re crossing your fingers in hopes that the pipes themselves won’t burst, leaving you with an even worse mess when the thaw comes.) The utility wonks in L’Anse are telling people not to shovel the snow away from over their water lines. (Too late for us, eh?) It’s often a surprise to people from milder climates that a good layer of snow actually insulates from the more extreme cold.

Now that the welders have zapped our lines clear, we’ve been told to leave the tap running, all the time, until Spring. Our water-miser ways may have even contributed to the freeze in the first place. We’re struggling with what feels to Californians like water waste. My natural inclination is to shut off the tap—always. Now we can’t and I’m having trouble with that adjustment. You can hear the water run. You wake up at night, foggy-brained, thinking that you need to get up—someone has left the tap running.

I’m trying to adjust my attitude for the duration. Think of it as a water feature, I tell myself, you know, like a fountain. That’s the ticket. Don’t folks use water sounds for relaxation? I try to reconcile my discomfort with rationalization. After all, this water comes from Lake Michigan. I’m just recycling it—through the house septic, through the sandy soils of Empire and then back to the Lake. In the meantime, as a renter, I’m glad I don’t pay the water bill.

 

 

 

 

 

Training Cats

A. V. Walters

Who, me?

Who, me?

I’ve always had well-behaved cats. I train them as kittens. That’s right, trained cats. I’m from a large family where good behavior wasn’t optional. With kittens, I use a squirt gun to enforce the House Rules. It’s about boundaries. Some places are okay for cats and some are verboten.

Bob came to us as an adult stray. He is a genial cat, not bright but friendly. In fact, he is clueless. As a kid, I had a school teacher who, when confronted with less-than-perfect indoor etiquette, would demand, “Where were you raised, in a barn?!” In fact, it was a slur on the agricultural kids—the farmers and the French-Canadians. But I try to remember it as a cautionary guideline, with Bob. After all, he’s a twice-abandoned farm cat. And, as a matter of fact, he was raised in a barn.

When he first arrived on my door-step, Bob had no boundaries. He felt fully entitled to get up on the kitchen counters or the table, and help himself to whatever goodies were there. Well, something had to be done about that! I used a spray bottle and Bob learned. What he learned was that he could not go on the counters if somebody was around! Bob learned to be a sneak. So, we redoubled our efforts. To reduce temptation, we made a concerted effort not to leave anything out. Butter went into a covered dish. The dishes were mostly washed after a meal. Meat scraps went into the freezer (not the garbage) for disposal later. And we watched, like hawks, to catch him in the act. That was the tough part, because, as a sneak, Bob was good at quietly committing his mischief. The only notice we got was the thump of his feet hitting the floor, after his forays. He had a well-practiced innocent look. “Who me?” (Though, there were clear Bob prints on the countertop.)

For the most part, he’s well-trained, now, though there are the occasional lapses. The most egregious of his sins is his propensity to lick the cream-cheese frosting off of the carrot cake. After icing the cake, it needs to sit out for a bit to set up. Bob did it again, last night. Rick came in to a freshly iced, and licked, cake. We’ll need to be more diligent about putting the cake away—or covering it. And, well, it’s back to training… We can’t have cats mixing with cakes.

I’m glad that we’ve had such success with him. Most people think you cannot train a cat.

Dry-Run–

A.V. Walters–

We’re learning. It turns out that this little rental has taught us many valuable things about living with season. We’ve learned that ice dams are common in older homes (and inexcusable in new ones.) We’ve learned that it’s really important that one’s water supply lines be buried deep enough. It’s the coldest, snowiest year in decades; so, it is a good test for us. We’re holding up, and we’re learning.

Oh, we have no water.

Even back in sunny California, there would be cold snaps from time to time and many people would have their pipes freeze up. I remember, when I first moved there, I was aghast that many (especially older) homes ran their pipes on the outside! When I lived in Oakland, our water supply line entered the house on the front—above grade! In the winter, I wrapped that pipe—first with foam pipe insulation, and then with towels and plastic. We never had our pipes freeze. Here, water supply lines are buried deep (hopefully below the frost-line– about 48 inches, around here.) Sometimes, it’s not deep enough.

Did I mention we have no water?

If it’s any comfort, it’s not just us. A couple of other properties in the village have come up dry. There’s a whole triage routine to this, first you root around under the house to see whether the pipes under the house are frozen solid. You check the meter (if it’s running wildly, you have a burst pipe—if it’s not running at all (even with open faucets) you likely have a frozen pipe. This little cottage has heat tape on the pipes. We learned that after the water stopped, when Rick was running his diagnostics. Once you’ve identified that the problem isn’t under you, you need to find out what it is. If it’s in the Village water main—they need to fix it. If it’s in the line between the main and the meter—you need to fix it. This is where it’s good to be renting. The standard solution (after you call the landlord) is to call in a welding company who will essentially use jumper-cables to melt the ice in the line. Not many companies will do this kind of work—they say the liability is too high. Huh? Wow, that’s not the kind of response you want to hear…

So, we’re still waiting for water.

Today is day three. We’re carrying water, by bucket, from the neighbors. We’re starting to look a little scruffy and the dishes are piling up in the sink. The company that still does this kind of work is in high demand right now. Take a number.

And, there’s some small-town humor in it. I went to the Village office to start the “who’s side of the line” investigation. Our friendly clerk took down the information. When I gave my name, she looked up, “Oh, you’re the one that got married last week.” It was a statement, not a question. They run all the vital statistics info in the local paper. I have a distinctive first name.

“Yup, that’s me.” Yup, that’s us. Geezer newlyweds. Later, the village crew came down to investigate the problem. You just know that they’d all been told. Later, a neighbor from down the block dropped by to assure us that we could come get water at his house. Small towns talk. It’s not a bad thing. People in town see the construction cones. They read the paper. They hear that some folks got married, and some are froze-up. It’s about community.

Our future building plans keep adjusting. We are now serious about adequate insulation and ventilation in the roof, in order to fend-off ice dams. And now, you know we will bury our water lines—deep. This little cottage has been our dry-run for winter living. We just didn’t know how dry.

 

Postscript:

Finally, they came to free up our lines. That freed me up to run to the store for dinner groceries. At the checkout, the clerk (who lives around the corner from us) nodded, “I hear your pipes are froze up.”

I smiled, “Not anymore, the guy’s there now, fixing it.”

“Runs down the driveway, does it?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded knowingly, “You folks keep a tidy driveway, could be part of the problem.”

“What’s that?”

“You know, you could leave some snow in the driveway—for more insulation.”

I howled. “I’ll tell him.”

So it’s a small town. They talk, they notice. They hear about troubles and they have opinions.