Archives for category: environment

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

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

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

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

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

rose chafer

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

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

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

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We purchased our washer and dryer some years ago, used, on craigslist. They are supposedly “high-end” machines, but we bought them because they were high efficiency and water saving. The story was that they were being delivered to a new home, and the delivery guys (rather than remove the door through a tight entry) pushed them through and scratched them. The new owner rejected them. The delivery outfit ate the loss. They kicked around without owner or direction until our seller bought them at liquidation.

That’s another story entirely, since our seller was a bit of a tweaker. He seemed dodgy on the phone, so Rick came with me for the transaction (also to help loading, as a washer and dryer are pretty big.) I was greatly relieved that he came, as the seller was a little scary. We stuck to our resolve, and the purchase, which had been skittering out of control and felt like it could come to blows, was concluded without bloodshed. We climbed into the truck, and neither of us said a word for about 30 minutes. And then a torrent of “Well that was weird!” And, “What the hell did he mean by that?” And, “Sure glad we got out of there.”

Anyway. The laundry machines have held up like champs, despite their scratched fronts. They get things cleaner than any maching I’ve ever used. There’s this one weird thing, though. The washer ties our clothes up in knots. We’ve tried everything, loading less, loading more, it makes no difference. The machine is determined to make every load into a veritable Rubic’s Cube of unloading. Is it something we’re doing? Surely this isn’t a feature. We do wear long sleeve t-shirts (and these are the worst) but other than that, we cannot imagine what’s up with that.

In the end, the clothes are clean. There’s a little more work involved, but we got a great deal, so we’re not really complaining. If anyone can explain this, we’d be curious to hear any suggestion beyond that the gig was jinxed from the start.

Thank you for your prompt shipment of my order of vintage jeans. I’ll give you favorable feedback on all counts…but I have to ask. What on earth did you do to them to give them such an ungodly stench? I know that I’m not familiar with American laundry products–thankfully, decades of allergies have isolated me from normal consumer exposure. Still, are you aware of just how offensive and unhealthy that stench must be? My EBay obsession with a certain vintage brand of dungarees occasionally exposes me to what regular Americans must all know in the realm of fragrance. But, oh my God! Really? Is this necessary? What horrific smell are you covering?

I have now washed them twice, first with a regular load of laundry and an ample dose of vinegar. I knew as soon as I opened the washing machine, that it wasn’t enough. Not only had I not adequately calmed the savage beast of stench, now the entire load carried the odor. A second run (this time with baking soda) brought things down to the level of endurable–because, after all, how many times can I justify using precious natural resources to drown out your poor choices in laundry regimes?

Aside from being outlandishly offensive, you know that these “scents” are endocrine disrupters, no? They’ll shrink your testicles and impair your future generations–should you be so lucky to procreate after using them. There’s no end to the health consequences breathing that crap in will do to you, not to mention the damage downstream from your rinse water. I’m sure that there are fish in your neighborhood who are doing gender-flipping cartwheels as a result of your product choices. Please, for the sake of EBay buyers, and the environment, consider less toxic laundry options. In case this is too subtle, let me be blunt. The stuff stinks. Folks around you are choking back tears and gasping for air–but too polite to tell you that enough is enough already.

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Most of the country is suffering a serious heat wave. The temperatures are up–though not searing. The issue is this new measure, the “heat index” that combines heat and humidity for a new measure of miserable. This, they say, is the weather of the future.

In addition to gardening, beekeeping and our other regular outdoor duties, Rick and I are working to finish the exterior of the barn. We have a crew (who seem to show up when it’s convenient for them). So, in their frequent absences, we soldier on, on our own.  Right now we are staining the exterior materials. Two coats of Sikkens.

It’s easier to apply the stain before the siding and trim materials are installed. You can do it inside the barn, away from the sun and the bugs. You don’t have to work 30 feet up, on a ladder. And you get a better finish. I’m doing the trim materials downstairs and Rick is doing the siding upstairs. We listen to the radio.

We’re tuned into a station that plays oldies-rock n’ roll. About every twenty minutes they do an update on the weather. Given the high heat index numbers, the weather report comes with health advisories–warnings to keep hydrated and minimize exertion. We just keep going. Our goal is to finish all exterior work by the end of the month so we can be free of the hassle and expense of the crew.

Yesterday, after the umpteenth warning regarding the special dangers of a high heat index number to “vulnerable populations,” I had a flash of insight. These warnings are for folks who work outdoors, or small children… or the elderly. Rick and I are both in our sixties.

“Hell,” I called up to him, “You know, they mean us!”

Five Stops

I have advantages. I work from home. Though we live rurally, it’s only twenty minutes from “town” –and only a mile from the little village that gives us our postal address. I am freed from any daily commute.

That’s not an accident. We have, for years now, been making concerted efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. We’re not just frugal; diminishing our fossil fuel usage may be essential to survival on the planet. Minimizing impact informs our daily choices.

We maximize any driving trip to town. Unless it’s an emergency (and I’m yet to have one) any town-run must include business at a minimum of five stops. That means we make lists and combine trips to reduce unneeded transport.

We try to keep carbon-footprint in mind with purchases–where possible, buy local. While we’re at it, we also pay the extra for organic. Though I’m mindful of our pennies, I can’t expect to save the planet if I subsidize its poisoning with pesticides; erosion with poor soil management; or support unfair wages and conditions at home, or abroad. This takes the Golden Rule at its word–treat others (and the planet) as you would like to be treated.

I’m not sure we can turn this juggernaut around in time to keep the planet habitable. I hope so. I have no children, but I still think we have a duty to the children of today, and tomorrow, not to kill the only world we know. We cannot shrug our shoulders and wonder “What’s a person to do?” The time for wondering has long since passed. It time to take individual action and responsibility. It adds up–if enough of us take the pledge.

And besides, even if the science is wrong, and we still change to reduce climate change, what could be the downside? If our air and water are cleaner for our efforts, where is the harm? If, to reduce the energy costs of transport, we support our local farmers and build sustainable communities, would that be bad? If, to save on wasted energy, we insulate our homes and change our ways to reduce unnecessary consumption, who could be hurt by this? If we pay our employees a living wage, and in so doing, build strong and sustainable local economies, won’t we all be stronger for it?

So, I plan and make the extra stops. We plant trees for a future we will never see but that we know, will be better for our efforts.

In-box Exhaustion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We didn’t get much done Saturday. We’ve broken ground on the new barn, and we have digging to do. Still, the weather report called for heavy rains–it’s not a great idea to dig on slopes, in our sandy, fragile soils, when a deluge is expected. The air was heavy and the winds unsettling. As the day progressed, the prognosticators backed away from their initial forecasts. Maybe no thunder or lightning. Maybe just a little rain. Too bad, we very much need the rain.

In fact, I think we needed all of it–the rain for our parched fields and forests–and the wild and stormy part, for the release it offers. Everything, these days, feels pent up. Finally, during the night, we woke to rain, enough to slake the parch, but without fanfare. Normally, a soft steady rain would be enough to satisfy.

I once read an anthropological study that revealed that any society could be brought to its knees, through a fundamental challenge to its belief system. Indigenous cultures, defeated by superior technology, never rebounded after crushing defeats. The concept of “decimation” is important, in its original meaning–reduction by a factor of ten–because at that point a society becomes precarious. The same can be true with any fundamental change–loss of faith, environmental collapse, the battles in information technology–really, any breakdown of societal norms. I fear that when coping mechanisms become stretched, both the individual and societal glue begins to fail.

We have always had corruption. We have always suffered bullies and unfairness–be it in the school yard, the workplace or in governance. But we have been buoyed by our belief systems. Whether in a religious sense, or in the self-correction of societal rules, or in adherence to the Rule of Law, we have believed that something larger than ourselves would preserve fairness. Though there may be individual failures, justice itself is supposed to paint with a broad brush. When enough people lose faith in fundamental fairness, they lose the incentive to participate according to the rules. I fully recognize that our systemic protections have not been universally held. Folks at the bottom of the economic heap, minorities, oppressed people have long felt the sting of systemic unfairness and injustice. And there has always been privilege on the other end. But I have had faith that there was an inexorable path to improvement–an evolution of human spirit that would prevail, bringing fairness and prosperity to an ever-widening circle of humanity.

Now, I am not so certain. Sure, one has to expect the inevitable pendulum cycles. And our system is built with checks and balances…hopefully flexible enough to adjust to changing times. But, to be self-correcting, we need a core belief in fundamental principles, in the ideas that society is for the all, and not just for the few. By this I do not mean that we all have to adhere to one path; our strengths have always been in the interplay of our ideas. But we seem to have lost the decency of a belief in a level playing field. I do not see that ideal in our elected representatives. And I don’t see it playing out in popular culture. I am alarmed that bullying, mean-spirited selfishness and winning without regard to the rules seems to have infected our public square. Winner takes all never works in the long run.

There are supposed to be universal truths. Things on which one can rely. Now, not even the weather is assured. Isn’t anyone else alarmed? I saw a satellite photo yesterday that showed current wildfires–it was disconcerting. Fires driven by heat waves in Scandinavia? Fires over wide swaths of our Western lands? Heat domes and polar vortices play havoc with reliable patterns of weather and season. And yet, despite clear indications of human-induced change, people are unwilling to apply fact-based observations of cause and effect to the consequences of their actions. And why would they? If the rules are broken–if cheating becomes the norm–if a reality-based world has become victim to a selfish, slash-and-burn, tackle your way to the top mentality, what is the motivation for playing by the rules? Haven’t we been told that that’s for suckers? If you can’t rely on something as basic as climate, have we found ourselves in a relentless tug-of-war between our immediate interests and those of generations to come? If so, how will we explain to our grandchildren that we chose corruption, SUVs and single-use plastics over the habitability of the planet we leave to them?

Sunday’s gentle rain was good for the garden and the orchard trees. It’s been cool and cloudy since, with the promise of more rain in the air. But I’m not sure if that’s enough. I’m afraid we may really need the storm.

 

 

 

 

Last week was the hottest week in recorded history. This is no Chinese hoax. We’ve known for decades. Still most are unwilling to make “lifestyle” choices needed to avoid climate catastrophe. What can I say?
A friend of mine said it all, when she received the invoice for mandatory flood insurance for her business. FEMA had changed it’s flood maps–acknowledging new realities. She was shocked.
“What did you think was going to happen?” I countered. “We’ve been talking about this for years. This is climate change in action.”
She looked as though I’d slapped her…”Not in my lifetime!”
Not quite climate denial, but a difference without a distinction.

“Victorian Cool”

A.V. Walters–

And I don’t mean steampunk.

I’ve never lived in a home with air conditioning. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, most of my adult life was in Northern California, where there was no real need for it. Still, even with my memory of hot and humid childhood summers, we opted not to provide for summer air when we built here.

You cannot solve your climate change problems using fossil fuels. It’s as simple as that. At best, you can kick the can down the road to make the present more bearable–knowing that in so doing, you’re stealing from the next generation. When you build a home from the ground up, you cannot point the finger at the former owners; you need to walk your talk on your carbon footprint.

When we sited the house, we selected the location, in part for summer shade. And we insulated. Recently, following a Memorial weekend heat wave, we bought screens for the windows. This is Michigan. You cannot open a window without screens, unless you’re willing to donate all your blood for the cause. It was always our plan to use natural air movement to survive the summers.

North Americans are complacent about getting ready for climate change, as though our problems could be resolved with adjustments to the thermostat. But this wasn’t always the case. Historically and architecturally, we have had cooling solutions that preceded air conditioning. Tall ceilings, double hung windows, roof overhangs (and/or curtains), along with the occasional fan, kept the Victorians cool. It can work for us, too.

I’m continually amazed by my midwestern neighbors, houses perched wherever view is best, with no shade protection from the summer sun. Their air conditioners kick in before 10:00 am. What were they thinking?

Within a couple of hours of installing the screens and opening the windows, the temperature in our house dropped by eight degrees. By the next morning, it was a little chilly–a perfect prelude for the expected heat the following day. It looks like the house will perform according to plan.

You don’t need to start from the ground up to take advantage of Victorian wisdom. Just open up the house in the cool of the evening and close it up again in the morning, before the heat of the day. Draw the drapes. Install an attic fan. Invest in some extra insulation. Turn down the air conditioning a couple of degrees. Consider window awnings…remember them? And always, always, plant trees. Together, we can make our environment more habitable, inside and out.

It can be done. The Victorians did it. How else could they have endured the summers in all that silly clothing? Can you imagine corsets in the heat?

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Day Sale

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

Save the bees.

Spring? A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

They’re Here!

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in about a week.

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

 

Winter Wonderland

A.V. Waltersimg_2343

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

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

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

Did I mention that it was sunny?

Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

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.

 

 

Friction Fit

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Minding Our Bees and Qs

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bees’ combs are amazing structures.

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

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

 

Follow the Money–

A.V. Walters–

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That’s my rule of thumb, whenever there is a whiff of scandal. I remember California’s Energy Crisis—the one that ushered in billions in debt as the state struggled to meet energy needs. Why the sudden scarcity of electricity? I believed then, that the crisis was manipulated. California couldn’t get any traction with FERC—the federal agency charged with regulating the energy exchanges. After all, George W. was the new Sheriff in town, and California didn’t vote for him. Years later, litigation in Washington State revealed the graft and market manipulation that gave us the “crisis.” By then, George W.’s friend, Enron was already gone, and California spent the next decade digging out from the debt of that fraud. Follow the Money.

What if there doesn’t seem to be any money? Then, look to who benefits.

And that brings us to Flint. We are told that the poisoning of 100,000 Flint residents was the unfortunate result of managerial ineptitude. Clearly, at least that is true. But, we need to look a little harder. Following the money doesn’t help, because the very fact that the parties in question were already under Michigan’s draconian and, unconstitutional, Emergency Manager Act, means that the lack of money had already been established. However, we’ve seen enough of the results of Michigan’s Emergency Managers to know that the appointment of a Manager, combined with the stripping of democratic representation, generally means that the troubled, usually minority, community in question, has something, some asset, that the Governor’s cronies want.

It’s too early to know whether the Flint crisis was steeped in some other, darker motivation. But there are early, and troubling, indications that saving money for Flint wasn’t the primary objective. Follow the money—look to who gains. As always, governmental transparency is essential to maintaining the integrity and trust of the citizens. Recently, the State of Michigan dropped to last place in the fifty states, in its score for government ethics. We have a long way to go to rebuilding citizen trust, so I suggest the Governor step forward with ALL the relevant records.

Governor Snyder did release two year’s worth of “relevant” emails on the issue. Unfortunately, those records were not complete, were heavily redacted and did not go back nearly far enough. When someone makes the effort to hide their actions—they are hiding their motives. Then, we need to look even harder at the facts. Let’s face it, it is unlikely that the citizens of Flint voted for this administration—they are not his constituency.

I don’t have the answers. I only have a healthy sense of curiosity and a deep sense of outrage at what has happened to the citizens of Flint, and especially to the children, whose futures have been diminished. To say the least, I have questions.

Emails released by Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) reveal that Flint was offered a very sweet deal for continuing with Detroit water. The price offered was lower than any savings offered by switching to the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, both in the short and long term. Why then, the rush to change Flint’s water supply?

This is not Michigan’s first Emergency Manager water crisis. Long before Flint, the City of Detroit (and DWSD) were placed under the Governor’s Emergency Manager’s powers. Go back a couple of years, to the days when, under the Emergency Manager, DWSD was cutting off water service to delinquent homeowners—while carrying delinquent corporations with far more egregious non-payment histories. It was an international embarrassment. DWSD was caught failing to accurately credit payments made and returning individual customer’s checks—because payments had to be in cash. In short, under the Emergency Manager’s powers, DWSD was making customer payments and accounting more difficult and then, based on the very problems they were creating, suggesting that the only solution was to split up and privatize Detroit’s water assets. Nestle, everyone’s favorite purveyor of necessities, was discussed as the “obvious” choice for privatizing Detroit’s significant water assets. You know, the same company that denies that water is a human right, and advocates that municipal water supplies be turned over to for-profit corporations. What connections did the Governor or the Emergency Manager have with Nestle, or any other private water interests? (Besides the fact that Deb Muchmore, the wife of the Governor’s then-Chief of Staff, is a Nestle spokesperson.)

I question whether the seeds of the Flint crisis don’t start with the Emergency Manager’s efforts, in Detroit, to ‘starve the beast’ of DWSD. After all, the long-term viability of DWSD was enhanced by Flint’s water supply contracts. Only a full release of all documents will tell. Why the rush to a new water source if DWSD was offering a good deal? Why sign on to a new, as yet un-built, pipeline, if it wasn’t the best economic deal? Who was paying for the new pipeline? Whose interests, other than the City of Flint, were to be served by the new pipeline? (It’s been suggested that the pipeline was also to serve Eastern Michigan’s fracking industry.) Is there any truth to this? Even if the new, Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline was a viable water solution for Flint, why the rush to use the Flint River in the interim, especially since it had previously been determined to be unsafe? Experts had warned that the Flint River was badly contaminated. Experts also advised that the Flint River water was corrosive and would damage the city’s water infrastructure unless properly treated. Why wasn’t this done? Surely, minor savings couldn’t justify trashing the existing water system, and risking the release of toxic lead into the city’s drinking water. Whose interests were served by starving DWSD? I have questions, and the citizens of Michigan and the City of Flint deserve answers.

We have a right to know. Those in charge—all the way to the Governor’s office—have to account for what has been done. It needs to go on their permanent record. The legacy of this Governor’s administration, and its appointments, is a generation of poisoned children. If this is mere negligence, those responsible must be identified and removed from any decision-making authority or power. There may be cause to seek criminal prosecutions for decisions that were, at best, reckless. I’m not so sure they were even well-meaning. But answers to these questions may reveal something even more hideous.

If there’s any connection between the crony-capitalist friends of this administration and the results in Flint, we owe it to the children to leave no stone unturned in our investigation. If reckless decisions were made, in order to provide profit opportunities for friends of the administration, then these actions go well beyond negligence. We need to determine whether there was a criminal conspiracy to benefit private interests at the expense of public obligations. We’ll need to look to any and all documents related to Emergency Manager control of or involvement with ANY water assets in Michigan. We’ll need to look to any campaign contributions, or other “considerations,” from companies that could have benefitted.

This isn’t just a question of integrity. (Michigan’s current government is already at the bottom of that list.) It’s a question of intent. If it turns out that this imbroglio was the result of a conspiracy to funnel public assets into private coffers—then ALL conspirators are liable for the damage resulting from the furtherance of the conspiracy. In Michigan we have wondered, how will we afford to remedy this situation—care for the poisoned populace and fix the damaged infrastructure. If this was done for profit, then all those who participated in the scheme will share the culpability and liability. And if individuals knowingly participated in a scheme that poisoned Flint, they must be charged and tried. People have died because of this. This goes beyond reckless disregard, if this was done for profit, it is a crime against humanity.

Like I said, we have to follow the money. We have questions and we need the answers, for the sake of the children.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

And, The Winner Is…

A.V. Walters-

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Home, sweet home.

Where is winter? We have no snow. Though the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) typically gives us a mild winter—this is the most extreme in forty years of Michigan, El Nino tracking. The temperatures are hovering in the mid 40s during the day, some days it’s warmer. If I’d known, I’d have planted chard, and maybe garlic. On warmer days, our bees are out and about, but I have no idea what they’re doing. There’s very little blooming in this odd December weather. I’ve heard that bees enjoy the occasional mid-winter jaunt—out to stretch their wings and to defecate. Like most creatures, they hate to soil the nest.

The mild season poses tough questions for us as newbee beekeepers. On one hand, the bees, so far, have not been subjected to the temperature extremes of the past few years. That must be good. On the other, they are out and about and active—potentially increasing their caloric needs. How do we balance this out? It’s like the old question, do you get wetter walking or running in the rain?

We were all ready to harvest some honey in October—but it didn’t get cold. We could see the bees out there, still gathering. So we waited and debated. We are in this, for the bees, and honey is a fringe benefit, not the primary objective. Our first inclination was to leave all the honey for the bees during the winter—perhaps to harvest a little in the spring. Our bee group looked at us like we were crazy. Not only was that a waste (in their view), they added that a hive, top-heavy with frozen honey, was a liability for winter survival. That swung us back towards a harvest. All this extra warm time has only compounded our confusion.

We have two issues: winter-wrap and harvest. In northern climates, beekeepers have a variety of bee protection measures to keep bees warm (other than carting them off to Florida.) There are simple hive-wraps, insulated hive-wraps, or baffled hive enclosures. Then, there are special feeding formulas, and the debate of the protein/carbohydrate balance suitable for winter nutrition. It’s daunting. The catalogues are full of bee pampering solutions, vitamins and herbal treatments. We shrug. Honey is bee food. We’ll leave them with their honey. After all, our goal was to keep Michigan-hardy bees. We selected our bees from Michigan over-wintered stock (not those pampered, Florida snowbirds.) We see over-pampering as part of the problem. As for the winter-housing, we do intend to wrap the hives when temperatures fall into the 20s on a regular basis. The biggest issue is to protect them from wind. Bees huddle and give off heat and moisture during the winter. The northern beekeeper must be careful not to impair circulation too much, because trapped moisture can lead to mold and mildew borne bee illnesses. Really, there are almost too many variables!

Finally, over the weekend, we did an inspection and took some honey. It was winter-warm—low 50s, so the bees were in slow-active mode. Mostly, they ignored us. At first blush, the hives looked terrible. We know that there is a normal fall die-off—but nothing prepared us for the mound of dead bees on the ground in front of each hive. Oddly, that may be good news. The location of the bee bodies (just below the entry) indicates that bees, dying in the hives, are being tossed out the front door—in a normal, housekeeping kind of way. A true hive collapse has few bodies—since the bees just fly away and die, mysteriously. Our active bees, though slowed by winter, look good. And the scouts are doing their jobs. Both Rick and I received “warning thunks” as we disrupted the hives, but no stinging.

We first investigated the two friendlier hives, Niña and Pinta. I’ve been worried about Pinta, since it was the first to slow down, back in October. We have limited experience, so we can only compare the three hives to each other. Pinta seemed listless—and had the most noticeable pile of corpses. But her guards were quick, and the bees inside were clumping in the middle—a good sign. We were disappointed that the top super (a hive box) held only some beeswax comb—no honey. Below, things looked good—plenty of honey and bees. We found the same situation with Niña, the other mild-mannered hive. We decided not to harvest honey from either of them. Maybe we are too conservative, but we’d like our bees to over-winter naturally.

Of course, the winner is Santa Maria, our beehive on steroids. Santa Maria, (our problem child of the summer) calmed down after we added an extra super to the hive. We think the aggressive behavior was just because the bees were busting out at the seams of their space. We’re lucky we caught it, and they didn’t swarm! This is the upside of an aggressive hive. They are industrious! These bees went right to work and filled that entire super with honey. We were shocked. Looking deeper, the hive had more than enough for winter—two full supers of honey! We relieved her of one whole super. (Ten frames from a standard, medium, Langstroth hive.)

This was the hive we were so anxious to trade! We’ll just have to learn to harness that energy, and keep them busy! (I remember parents saying things like that about us as kids. There may be something to it.) With this new appreciation for “busy as a bee,” we closed up the hives and carried off our bounty.

Next, we’ll deal with processing.

Note: I realize that the recycled photo, above, may give the wrong impression about the mild winter. I didn’t take pics when we harvested honey–so I used one from earlier in the summer. I didn’t think of it until later–but our trees are bare and most of the greenery is gone.

Timing the Jump.

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.

 

Good Night and Good Luck—

A.V. Walters—

There was a time when I recognized the gentle, diplomatic art of compromise, back when pragmatism seemed like a viable solution to the tensions inherent in any reasonable system. No longer. I’m afraid that, despite the fact that I’ve been unable to rid myself of this vestigial appendage, I’ve come to see reasonable as ridiculous.

You’d have to be naïve or foolhardy to think it was a rational strategy in today’s political environment. Compromise requires a willingness on both sides to surrender some, in exchange for the common good. It requires a measure of good faith, both in the negotiations and in the articulation of each side’s stated starting point. Good luck with that.

Civility is dead. And, it took any chance of an honest broker with it. We have entered the era of the stubborn stalemate, the sneak attack and the tantrum divide. We have become ungovernable.

The symptoms are unmistakable: Rogue Police Departments demanding apologies from Sports Figures, when the latter have deigned to speak truthiness; Law Schools dropping the instruction of rape laws, because it’s too sensitive; Corporations equating any criticism for their policies with Naziism; torture apologists threatening us with what the world would be without the use of their questionable talents; and, of course, the end of The Colbert Report, only in part, because extremism is so ubiquitous as to not be noticeably funny anymore.

Liberals stand, scratching their heads, impotent in negotiations because they foolishly started out with (OMG) the facts. There is no middle anymore. The raging tantrum of extreme politics has, in the name of compromise, pulled us so far to the wacko-right that the balance is forever skewed. I am at a loss for how we find the road back to civility and balance. I’m afraid that the distraction factor is the point, and that nobody is actually interested in governance anymore.

It’s too bad. Serious issues need to be addressed—Climate change; contamination of our food and water supply, the failure to address the peacetime nuclear threats of waste and operations, our disappearing civil rights. All of this stems from the death of our democratic ideals under the erosive influence of corporate money and its undermining disenfranchisement. In the wake of the collapse of our attention spans, corporations do what they will. I don’t know what to do about it. Help me here—I’m looking for a place to start.

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

Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

indian pipes1
We’re busy building. I suppose, given how late it is in the season, we could/should just power on through and build every day. But there are other priorities in the mix. Once built, we’ll need to heat our new home. Our plan is to heat as much as possible using wood from the property. One cannot wait until the snow is thigh-high to go out for firewood. “Making wood” is what the old Finns call it, back home. Mostly, we’re cutting deadfall. There’s plenty of it these days, because those damned (but beautiful) Emerald Ash Borers keep killing the ash trees. At least the wood will still make good fires, and keep us warm in the winter.
Anyway, we decided to take one day a week to cut firewood. Sundays. It’s a lovely change of pace, and brings us deep into the forest. It’s still backbreaking labor, especially on our steep hills but there’s always something new to see. Today it was Indian Pipes.

Indian Pipes are a rare form of plant. Also called “ghost plant,” they are a luminescent white—turning to a soft pink. They have no chlorophyll, and so cannot make their own food. Instead, they tap into certain kinds of fungus, which themselves have tapped into certain trees. The fungus-tree relationship is mutually beneficial, but the Indian Pipes are parasitic—they do not give back to either the fungus or the tree. They actually flower, like a regular plant—and are food for bees, both in nectar and pollen. Because they have no “plant” color, many think that the Indian Pipes are fungal. Without chlorophyll, they don’t need sunlight and can grow even in the densest of forests. No bigger than the spread of your hand, they’re easy to miss on the forest floor. They are often found in areas with beech trees or pines. We have both.

We’ve seen several patches of them this summer. When I was a kid we used to find them in the northwoods of Keweenaw County. We picked one once, from deep in the forest, to bring to a naturalist friend for identification. She chastised my parents, because the ghost plants are so rare. That got my attention—an adult wagging her finger at other grown-ups—my parents! No picking! I took the admonishment to heart and, to this day, I treat Indian Pipes with respect. indian pipes2

The Indian Pipes were our big score of the day. Of course, the firewood, too. All of it came from trees that had already fallen. Unfortunately, when the ash trees fall, they take prisoners—crashing to the forest floor, dragging their neighbors down with them. Today we gathered mostly ironwood (hophornbeam), beech and a little maple. We’re clearing trails for future access, so the day’s haul was moderate. Next Sunday, we’ll be at it again and who knows what we’ll find.

Ripples…

ripples

Cuyahoga Ripples–

A.V. Walters

I was the number-four kid. As is often the case in big families, the younger ones are eager to catch up to the big kids—We wanna do it, too, whatever it is. We walk earlier. We often talk earlier (when we can get a word in, edgewise.) Even as a munchkin, I wanted to read. My older siblings were reading. So, I asked my dad to teach me.

Never one for dumbing down, my dad agreed, but on his terms. I learned to read from the local newspaper, The Windsor Star. By the time I was four, I had a pretty good handle on the reading part, though sometimes the topic was above my head. As a result, my dad spent even more time explaining what the news was, rather than teaching me how to read about it. From then on, I would spread out the newspaper on the floor, everyday, and pore over it. I always saved the comics for last—like dessert. To this day, I’m a news junkie.

I think the hook was set in April, the spring I was ten-years old. That was when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. I was mesmerized by the photo images of something that wasn’t supposed to happen—a river, catching fire and burning, caused by pollution! I became an instant environmentalist. It informs most of my decisions, from where and how I live, to what brand of soap I buy. So, there it is, again, a crystalline defining moment, followed by ripples—only this time, by ripples in a river of fire.

river fire

 

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.

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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.

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.

 

 

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?

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.)

The War of the Worlds–

 A.V. Walters–

We’ve had a couple of gorgeous days, low to mid-thirties (F), warm by winter standards, some sun and wind. It’s given us some lovely hikes, before the nippy temps return tomorrow. Some predict a return of the Polar Vortex, others, just a resumption of seasonally, cooler temperatures.

Last week, NPR did a piece on the up-side of the recent Polar Vortex. It turns out that the Emerald Ash Borer—the imported critter that is devastating our Ash forests—cannot survive in the super-frigid temperatures spun off by that Northern phenomenon. Indeed, a number of the pests on the move, may be stopped (or slowed in their tracks) by a return to the type of winters we knew as kids. And, the models for climate change (essentially more weather extremes) may well mean repeated episodes of the Polar Vortex. We can complain about the cold, but if it means hope for the ash trees, fewer ticks, or other invasive critters, I’m all for it.

The science is out of Minnesota, where they found that temperatures in the -30F range, kills the larvae of the Emerald Ash Borer. Because of Lake effect, we don’t get those uber-low temperatures, but I can only hope that repeated cold episodes will weaken the larvae and that fewer of them will survive the winter. What can I say, I’m an optimist.

The Ash Borers were introduced by humans. The ticks are moving north with climate change. And, interestingly, the incidence of the super-cold Polar Vortex appears to be the result of (or at least related to) the destabilization of the jet stream, caused by, you guessed it, human-induced climate change! It reminds me of the Orson Welles radio play—where the invading monsters were ultimately undone by the rich, bacterial biodiversity of the Earth. We have become invaders of our own planet—and at least in this small regard, maybe the general disease of climate change is acting as the cure for some of the specific symptoms. Lucky? I guess that’s a debatable question. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Winterizing

(from November 1, 2013)

I haven’t done this since I was in college, renting cheap housing and doing everything I could to make it habitable for the cold months. We didn’t move in time to get building underway, so we’re hanging close so we can get a jump on spring, when it comes. We’re in a “vacation” rental—read “summer.” It’s a very cute, little cottage, in a charming, little village on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s a beautiful destination location for summer tourists. We’ll see how it fares for a Michigan winter. The landlord says that it’s insulated. We’ll see about that, too. What is clear is that it has single-pane windows.

Some of the windows have storms, that is, storm-windows, and they’ll help. Growing up, I remember the semi-annual ritual—spring and fall—washing the windows and taking down the storms to put up screens, followed six months later with more window-washing and taking down the screens to put up the storms. It marked the seasons and was the 1960’s version of energy efficient.

But these storms leak like sieves and even with them, in the cool evenings, the glass radiates cold and drafts. Closing the curtains helps, but with winter coming, we’re resorting to the old college trick of covering the windows with heat-shrink plastic. In the 1970s, especially after the oil shocks of 1973, everyone started to install dual-pane windows. Even today, upgrading windows and installing weather-stripping is one of your best bets for saving on heating costs.

Like most people, I grew up with single pane windows. They fogged over whenever anyone showered, or when my mother made dinner. I remember waking to elaborate, frosty patterns on the windows—lacy fractal beauties that would melt as soon as the sun hit.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. It is not energy efficient, though, and so we’re battening down the hatches for the winter, ahead. Right now, it’s windows and doors first—later we can consider more drastic measures, if needed. If we can figure out the wind patterns, we can build snow-walls to slow drifting over the driveway and front entry. If memory serves, I expect we’ll do a fair measure of shoveling. It’s one way to get fit (and stay warm.) If the weather is brutally cold, we can always try “banking”—piling snow around the house for a wind-break and extra insulation. I remember that being helpful in my college days.

Maybe we’ll need these things… or, maybe I’m just scaring Rick. He was born and raised in the Los Angeles area and this relocation, (even from Northern California) is an exercise in bravery, for him. Bravery or foolhardiness! When they heard his plans, friends all raised their eyebrows, “Michigan? Well… it gets pretty cold there. And, it snows, ya know.”  He’d nod. He’s heard it all. Back in Two Rock, they’re probably still harvesting the tomatoes and squash, that’s if they remember the garden. Here, it’s in the thirties.

Like I said, we shall see. We’ve been here three days.

Update: It’s winter, now. It’s that time of year when instead of reporting the likelihood of snow as a percentage, they report what percentage of the day it will snow. Rick has sealed us up as tight as possible and we bought our first snow shovel. We’re looking for used, cross-country skis and snow-shoes. For the most part, we have great winter gear and we’re trying to use these short days and long nights for creative ventures. There is that long standing, winter temptation though… hibernation.

This Is How It Goes–

A.V. Walters–

Up north, in the U.P. where my mother lives, folks are getting Lyme disease. These are hearty, out-doorsy people, who spend a lot of time in the woods. Lyme disease isn’t new—it’s been around for decades, just not up there. It’ll take a little time for people to wise up to the new reality—the ticks have moved north. Soon, folks will take precautions, recognize symptoms, and will have made the adjustment so that a bite doesn’t necessarily mean a long-term, debilitating illness. You adjust.

In Michigan, (and southwest Ontario) the forests have been devastated. A shipment from China apparently, and inadvertently, imported the Emerald Ash Borer. It’s a pretty, little bug. Here, we have plenty of ash trees, and no predators. Estimates are that, so far, 20 million trees have been infected and died. There is no cure—they offer some heavy-duty, toxic treatments that can hold it at bay, (if your favorite yard tree is at risk) but nothing can be done to protect the forests. Before it runs its course, we will lose about 80 million trees. Now that the seasonal leaves are gone, you can look into the woods, as you drive by, and see all the fallen trees. It’s heartbreaking. Ash naturally grows in a diverse forest—so there are still plenty of other trees standing but, like the elm before, this area can kiss its ash good-bye.

We have forested property. We walk its hills, shaking our heads. The ash are dying and falling. The tree has a distinctive bark, so even in the winter it’s easy to identify. As we walk, we see not only the downed victims of the blight, but every one of those standing trees, with that lovely deeply-grooved bark, is doomed. They say to expect 100% losses. There are timber restrictions on the movement of ash wood-products. Areas are quarantined to try and prevent the spread. Our quarantine area is Lower Michigan. It’s spread to some counties in the U.P. now, too. So far as I can figure, the only winners in this game, and it’ll be short term, are the woodpeckers, who eat the larvae.

Bat White-Nose Syndrome is spreading across North America. It’s caused by a fungus. In some bat populations, the mortality is 95%. Because it affects a wild species, and the primary transmission route is bat-to bat, there’s not much that can be done. It originated in Europe. Nobody knows how it arrived here, but human transmission is likely. The fungus can be transported by the movement of people and equipment, in the forest. That’s the likely way that it got here. Unlike the European bats, ours have no immunity to the disease. It thrives in cold temperatures, infecting bats during hibernation. Unfortunately, the close contact of bats cuddling in hibernation, speeds its transmission. People shrug. Too bad about the bats, eh? Well, it’s more serious than that. The bats eat the bugs. What are we going to do with the resulting bumper crop of bugs?

Dutch Elm, West Nile, Lyme disease, Emerald Borers, White-Nose. I could go on. (Don’t even get me started about the bees, who are primarily the victims of neonicitinoid pesticides.) These are pests that are spread beyond their borders by the impact of people. In some cases, it is simple relocation, like our Ash Borer. In others, because our climate is changing and so extending the range of existing critters.

Maybe, like Lyme in Northern Michigan, we can adjust to new threats. What about the bats, or the bees, or the ash trees? How will we adjust to a world without bats? What will we do with the resulting bonanza of bugs? More poisons like neonicitinoids? How can we know the rippling impact of these changes? It threatens to change the face of nature. Most Americans don’t live in nature and they won’t notice. They get their food—sprayed, plastic-wrapped and GMO’d. They fail to comprehend that diversity is a necessary component of a healthy environment and take no notice of the rapid level of extinctions all around us. Most Americans don’t know we have a bat crisis, or that the Ash trees are dying.

For my part, next spring I’ll put up bat houses and maybe purple martin condos. I’ll shun chemical interventions and try to live lightly on the planet. I’ll read and try to stay informed. Because this is how it goes.

Remembrance

A.V. Walters

Growing up in Canada, we called it Remembrance Day. It was the day you bought pin-on poppies from brittle old men, and wore them to recite In Flanders Fields, which all school children memorized for the occasion. It’s a Canadian thing. We got the day off school, of course, but it was a guilty pleasure. Some of our friends spent the day in cemeteries or at war memorials honoring those lost in “The Big Wars.”

It honored the peace brought on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and, at least initially, it honored the losses and hopes specific to the Great War. That was before the wars had sequels and we started to number them. I say hopes, because with the conclusion of the Great War, the hope was that this treaty would create a truly great and lasting peace. What were they thinking?

This day was once remembered in the United States as Armistice Day. That, being too war-specific, was later changed to Veteran’s Day. No poppies, though. In America we’ve bifurcated the war-remembering business into two main days, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day—separating the flag-waving into a day for the living and a day for the dead. The dead are low-maintenance. Their day is always a Monday, for the convenience of the three-day-weekend. I wish it had retained its solemnity, but all too often it’s just considered the kick-off weekend for the summer season. (Much as the venerable Labor Day has become the summer finale.) Little offends me more than retail sales associated with these important days of reflection. That’s faux patriotism; go ahead, wrap your dollars in the Stars and Stripes, but you cannot hide poor tastes and judgment. My deepest apologies to the war-dead. In reality, this is a culture that turns the page all too quickly. Only the immediate families hang on to the sacrifices and losses of those who gave to their country in full measure.

Veteran’s Day is a tougher question, these days. That’s because it’s difficult to muster the appropriate level of honor to those we currently shortchange in terms of medical care and benefits. Veterans are not low maintenance. Our politicians, though, want to have their cake and keep it, too. They speak in glowing and patriotic terms of sacrifice, lay wreathes on graves, even as they fail to fund their empty promises for veteran’s benefits. Tell the veterans of our current, under-the-rug wars, that we honor them.

I think we should honor the soldiers, living and dead, for their service. Honor the sacrifice, not the war. “War,” we’ve learned, is declared by old men with layered intentions. Economic, political, profiteering or just plain immature—most wars could and should have been avoided. We can’t afford them, financially, environmentally, economically and morally. We’ve had more than our fair share of stupid wars. We shouldn’t be honoring them. But nothing in the stupidity of leaders subtracts from the legitimate sacrifices of soldiers. While we’re at it, I include in those deserving of honor, those who didn’t serve on moral grounds–thinking men whose thoughtful pact with the living didn’t include killing. They pay, too, either in prison terms, public service, or exile.

Usually on days of reflection I fly the flag. Yes, me, the liberal, I fly our flag. I’m tired of the extreme right commandeering Old Glory for their sole use. It’s everyone’s flag, to fly (sometimes to fly upside down in extreme protest of this country’s direction or even to burn, if necessary.) I call it taking back the flag. On Earth Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Labor Day and Veteran’s Day, I fly our flag. It came as a shock to Elmer, my old landlord. We didn’t share politics, but when he saw my flag and queried me about it, he put up his own (much bigger) flag. The guy is a veteran, but until our conversation, he hadn’t given the concept of patriotism much thought. I fly our flag as a reminder of our responsibilities and to spur our duty to make the future better.

This day, no flag. I gave my flag away to a neighbor girl when I left Two Rock. She asked me why I fly the flag and I told her. I hoped that, like the words of Flanders Fields which meant little to me as a kid, those good reasons for flying the flag would resonate for her as she grew older and was better able to reflect on their meaning. Next year, I’ll get myself a new flag. Maybe even bigger than my old one!

I now recognize that Imperialism rings, even in the innocent enough words of Flanders Fields, and it’s why I urge all to take these as days of reflection, with honor. Question, always question!

 

 

 In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae

 

In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Maybe Too Much of a Good Thing

A.V. Walters

We all want our food to be safe. We all think that one of the roles of government is to ensure a safe food supply. And they are trying. (Take that any way you like.) There’s regulation pending that would make it hard for organic and small farmers to sell produce. You see, growing food isn’t a spotless operation. It’s done in dirt. Major producers can afford the equipment (and use the chemicals) that give you that pristine, scrubbed, (and not nearly as fresh) produce. Small farmers and roadside stands can’t. It’s as simple as that. Note that most of the outbreaks of food borne disease aren’t coming from small sustainable producers–they’re coming from Big Ag. We need to amend the proposed regulations to provide exemptions for sustainable producers. What looks like a good thing actually favors Big Ag over traditional farming. For more information or to make a comment supporting change to the proposed rules, click on the link. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=12303

A Little Bit of Wild…

A.V. Walters

Emus are not domesticated creatures. They are ancient creatures, virtually unchanged for many millions of years. We cannot own them, though we may “keep” them. They are not really pets. Nowhere is this more clear than when one tries to transport them. Try to put them in a box, and they panic. They thrash. They can even fight to the point of injuring themselves. There is no such thing as a portable emu. They do not respond to the instruction, “Hey, just chill!”

Even carrying them from their indoor, night-time home, to the backyard is telling (and trying.) This should be routine by now, but every single time, they kick and fight and squawk. Our first emu pioneers, The Royals, made their trip in a big box. On arrival one had managed to kick himself into a royal limp. It’s minor, and will heal, but it speaks to the difference between a domesticated animal and a wild one. We can keep company with the wild but we cannot bend them to our will. Last night, when outbound emu number three was loaded into a kennel for his trip to its new home, he fought like a ninja (but without the grace.) It’s a little heartbreaking to see, and makes for a traumatic farewell, even when they’re off to the best of new homes.

In this case, the emu we knew as DotDash, will be a guardian/companion animal to a new flock of sheep. We were duly impressed with the new keeper, a diligent 16-year-old girl who is building a flock of prize sheep. She’d done her research and found that an emu guardian was a sustainable and viable way to protect her investment, both emotional and financial. She’s familiar with chickens and other livestock and I queried her about her commitment to an animal that will live about thirty years. She had considered it, and sees agriculture as a lifetime commitment for her. So, an emu fits the bill. I asked, “What if you go away to college, what of the emu then?” She was ready for it. Emus are low maintenance. Her parents (who have fifty acres nearby) are already committed to the sheep, so an emu actually helps that dynamic. And she won’t go far away.

I worry that we don’t have many young people interested in farm living. Almost all the farmers and ranchers I know are at an age when most people are talking about retirement. It’s not an easy life but one that comes with many rewards. In the absence of an investment by our youth, where will we get our food? From corporate farms? What kinds of stewards will they be of our precious farmland? What do they add to a farm community? So, how could I not honor this young lady’s venture into agriculture? She embodies everything I think we need in a new generation committed to the land, even if it puts her out-of-step with her social cohorts.

We spoke at length, and I think she understands the compact that we have with emus. She respects that her new emu charge is wild, and that in that wildness is a trait—protection from canine predators—that walks in step with her needs with sheep. So off he went, kicking and peeping to a new life. I think both of them—the emu and the girl, will do very well; there’s a little bit of wild in each of them.