Archives for category: season
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Like success, the garden, in the distance.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Without a doubt, he is. The hearth-cat is in charge.

Six years ago we moved here to Michigan from Sonoma County, California. We considered staying there, but the costs were climbing so fast, we couldn’t keep up. The straw that broke the camel’s back was water. In the area we wanted, local wells were going dry. And those that remained were often contaminated. Michigan, which had been home to me in youth, with it’s abundant fresh water, looked like a good bet. Our friends were horrified.

“Michigan?” “Are you crazy?” As if California were the only enlightened place to live. Native Californians tried to warn Rick, “You know, it snows there?” Really, did they think I was trying to pull some fast trick on my native-Californian mate?

We’ve had no regrets. It is beautiful here. Even the snow is lovely (and Rick thinks so, too.) And now, as we watch the wildfires in Sonoma County, we know we’ve made the right life choice. Though, so far, safe from the blazes, almost everyone we know is in an evacuation zone right now. Had we stayed put, we’d have spent the weekend in a shelter.

The Great Lakes are overflowing. In the gamble that is climate change, there are winners and losers. California has too little water, and we have too much. Still, we’re not lakefront property owners. For us, the season’s heavy rains have not been problematic. The forests all summer were deep green and lush. We had a spectacular color season–which is fading now to “tobacco spit” shades. We made the right choice.

And, by the end of the week, we’ll have snow, you know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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And still falling…

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

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

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Just Past Peak.

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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Author Readings?

A.V. Walters–

In a twist on the usual book store fare, author A.V. Walters will be giving author readings at Horizons Bookstore, Friday the 13th, in Traverse City. She’ll be reading cards–fortune telling–in a “Local Color” celebration of authors expressing other talents,IMG_2358 doing non-typical author activities.

 

The Reward of the NewBees–

A.V. Walters.

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Perhaps, a tiny basement apartment isn’t really the best place to process honey. After all, it is a sticky business.

Last week, we “harvested” the honey—which was simply removing the frames from those hives we decided could afford to share their honey with us. That’s honey “in the comb and on the frame,” though—nowhere near ready to pour into jars for the pantry.

Some people just eat comb honey—wax and all. It is certainly the most “natural” way to do it—but I have limited patience for that much wax in my teeth. And, it’s messy. There are several options for how to separate the wax from the comb. You can cut it from the hive frame, crush it and filter it—an insanely messy business. Or, you can spin it.

We picked spinning. We bought a cheapie, two-frame spinner, online. It came with no directions. (I guess we’re supposed to know what we’re doing.) We looked at the tools recommended, in the many catalogues and bee sites, and decided to improvise. Our process is based on common sense, not experience. We’re winging it here, so don’t think this is the right way, or the only way, to do it.

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We start with the frames. There are ten frames in each layer of a standard Langstroth hive. Many backyard beekeepers use an eight frame configuration, for lighter, more maneuverable supers (hive boxes.) It’s not a bad idea, but since we went with a mix of used and pre-fab hives, we stuck with the standard, larger ten-frame design. We removed a full hive layer (super or bee box) of honey—so ten full frames. Once you lift a full ten frames of honey, you begin to appreciate why the smaller eight frame configuration has become popular. (We’ll just have to grow muscles.)

If you harvest early in the season, you need to first separate the bees from the frames you want to remove. This is done either with a “bee escape” (it allows the bees to leave, but not come back in) placed in the hive a day before harvest, or by using a blower to remove the bees from of the frames. But, when it starts to get cold, the bees crowd lower in the hive for warmth and we took advantage of this with a late season harvest. We only had a few of workaholic bees on the honey frames, which we brushed off with a feather. (That’s not a metaphor, we used an actual feather.)

We placed the honey-laden frames in a sealed bin (so the bees couldn’t go after them) and brought it inside for processing. The honey is much easier to spin if it’s warm. We don’t keep it very warm in our home, so we had to turn up the heat to a sweltering 72 degrees. We used a sharpened putty knife to skim the top coating of wax from one side of each frame, the “capped” comb—and then placed it in the spinner. Voilà, liquid gold! Then we flipped each frame, skimmed the cap off that side, and repeated the process. We put the “skim,” (a mixture of beeswax, with some honey) into a crockpot. On moderate heat, the wax softens, and floats to the top, leaving honey below. After it cools, we pulled the hardened wax off, and poured off the remaining honey. That way, we don’t waste any honey.

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A two-frame spinner can only handle one side of two frames, at a time. Spun, the honey flies against the inside of the spinner and collects in the bottom as you process. It’s slow and tedious, but it smells incredible. Honey and beeswax—sweet and clean. This very tangible reward is enough to keep you going.

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After it was all spun, it sat over-night. (Though it wasn’t our intention, letting it sit allowed almost all the bits of wax to float to the top, making the next step easier.) We then cold-filtered the honey and put it in jars. (We used paint filters from the hardware store.) Most of our canning jars are in storage, so we’d been saving store-bought honey and peanut butter jars for months. As we filtered, we began to panic. This was much more than we’d expected—and we were nearly out of jars (oh, and lids!) Soon we were using old honey-bear squeeze bottles…and anything else we could find. We ended up with over 35 pounds of honey. (At roughly 2.85 pounds per quart, it left us scrambling.) That’s enough for us for maybe a year—and some gift jars. Not bad, from one hive, in a ‘bad’ year. (According to local beekeepers, this was a low-yield year.)

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Now, we need to do is figure out how to process the wax. We’re thinking, candles. And amazingly, the place is not too sticky.

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Wrapping up the Season

A.V. Walters

 

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Post bucket

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

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

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

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A tidy wrap to protect the baby tree.

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Lined up in winter finery.

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

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

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

March of the In-Betweens

A.V. Walters

Critter calling cards on our stoop.

Critter calling cards on our stoop.

T.S. Eliot was dead wrong. April is not the cruelest month. March is. One day it’s warm and lovely, the next, snow is falling and the ground is white, again. For those of us waiting to build, to plant, to get a jump on the season… it’s agony. Those nice days—just teasers—don’t let them fool you into starting your seeds early. It’s March, the season of the lions and the lambs.

My years in Northern California, where daffodils come up in February and (if you’re lucky) March will deliver a seasonal, finale rainstorm, have confused me as to the truly transitional nature of March. March, in Northern Michigan, is here to teach patience.

I’m trying to find transitional, spring-readiness things to do. I’ve hung my laundry on the line in the snow. (Yes, it works.) We’ve assembled, primed and painted the bee boxes. I’m pulling nails out of some recycled flooring we bought on craigslist. It’s a time of enforced waiting. Today we’ve seen light snow and temperatures in the teens, again. By midday, we may see twenties—what’s spring-like about that? Those stellar 40s and 50s of several weeks back, spoiled us. Now, temperatures in the 20s and 30s feel cold. We’d spent February hiking in single digits and teens, without complaint but now, we turn up our collars on much nicer days.

We’ve been tempted to take the snow-blower off of the Kubota (and maybe replace it with the backhoe, for building) but for the fear that we’d trigger one of those late-March snowstorms. Maybe that’s the origin of the term ‘March Madness.’ (Basketball may have nothing to do with it.)

There are things that need this on-again-off-again season. Warm days and cold nights wake up the trees. Sap begins to run. March is the sugaring season. Without the stuttering warm-cold cycles, the sap production would go straight to manufacturing leaves—and we’d have no maple syrup. I’m a little in awe of the sugaring process. Who thought that up, all those eons ago? The whole thing is an exercise in patience; collecting the sap, literally, drop by drop; boiling it down, for syrup it takes forty gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup; and bottling it up. Sugar-maple candy boils down even further, and then gets instantly crystalized, ladled into the snow. Around here, it’s mostly the old timers who still tap the trees. Our neighbors do, using new-fangled drip collection bags, (if you’re patient, you can watch the steady dripping that turns the season.) We’ve talked about it; we certainly have the maples. It goes into our ‘maybe someday’ list.

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The critters are out. We’re in a walk-out, basement apartment, so we see them almost eye-to-eye as they wander about, unfettered by deep snow. There’s a herd of deer who happen by everyday at dusk. Just before the deer show up, there’s a small parade of turkeys. The bunnies come out just as the last light fades. If we miss them, we can take attendance by the tracks left in the thin spring snow. Two days ago, the robins arrived. I was sitting by the window and suddenly the yard was full of them. To the impatient among us, they are a sure sign of Spring.

Timing the Jump.

Snow or Blow?

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

“Snowing down there?”

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

“Really, six inches? New Snow?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Single Digit Cuisine!

IMG_2070

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

Second-Hand Blues…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning I’d bought it, one friend emailed,

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

Some folks can’t resist rubbing it in.

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

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

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

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

The Tyranny of Round Numbers

A.V. Walters

This is my 200th blog. Next week, I’m coming up on my third anniversary of blogging. I’ve been stuck on this momentous event. Somehow, it felt like I was supposed to be profound, or something. Oh well, what you see is what you get.

I was a conscripted blogger. “They” said that indie writers and publishers needed to blog. Apparently, we need an online presence in order to sell books. Ha!

I bellied up to the bar, and started blogging. What does a fiction writer blog about? Everything, and nothing. I followed my nose, tried to stay away from politics (a stretch for me) and focused on chronicling the rich parts of the everyday. I cannot honestly say that the blog has ever sold a book. And then, after about eighteen months, they said, “Oh, never mind the blogging, it doesn’t work for fiction.”

But, by then, it was too late. Like most writers, I live in my head. I am probably most comfortable in writing. In this funny, online world, I have made friends. Political friends (even when I pledged not to go there,) artist friends, gardeners, organic farmers, people who keep bees, people who can vegetables, celiacs, funny people, other writers, editors, ne’er-do-wells and goody-two-shoes. In short, I have found community.

They are everywhere. My “regulars” are as far flung as Australia, Singapore, France, United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, New Zealand, and all corners of these United States. In the blogosphere, I travel all over, too. Over the course of three years, I’ve been visited by over seventy countries. I am continually amazed that we can connect across the ether. These connections give me hope. Even as governments fail us, and corporations sell us, we can all be ambassadors of civility, humor and peace.

Not that I’d be considered a “successful” blogger. My numbers remain relatively low. I refuse to play SEO games. I refuse to do internet marketing or advertising. (Aren’t these scams?) I refuse to amend how I title my blogs, just to capture more “hits.” Indeed, learning that the blog wasn’t going to sell books, anyway, was liberating. I am free to be stubborn! I can do whatever I want in this forum; it is my world! (And welcome, by the way.) Despite what my trusty editor, Rick, says, I am even free to use semi-colons.

Our most popular topics are about season and gardening (oh, yeah, and emus.) The single most enduring blog is still Naming Emus. Stories about living on the chicken farm in Two Rock are popular, too. The shock of relocation is wearing off; we’re comfortable in Northern Michigan and revel in seasons (and snow removal.) It’s been an adventure. And you’ve been there, all the way.

We’re hovering on many exciting new ventures for the next year. We’ll finish the cabin and move in (gypsies, no more)—we’ll get the garden started (already I’m up to my ears in seed catalogs), I’ll finally try my hand at beekeeping (after wanting and waiting for five decades!) and, if there’s time and energy, we’ll get chickens. I’ll keep blogging, and sharing, though I may slow down just a bit this spring. I’m trying to get my head back into writing—I have an unfinished novel haunting me.

So, thank you all for following, sharing, commenting and enriching my life. Raise a glass—Happy 200!
(Next time, pictures, I promise.)

 

ooops, here’s the link to the most visited blog, https://two-rock-chronicles.com/2013/03/10/naming-emus/

Banking on Winter…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observing the New Year

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Long, Dark Winter–

A.V. Walters

Long time, no blog.

It’s not all dark. We had a wonderful Thanksgiving, up in Copper Harbor, driving into, and then, back out of winter. We enjoyed an initial, if unseasonable, winter blast early in November. I would have blogged about it, but then the news and photos came in from Buffalo. Really, we couldn’t compete with that. How could I even complain that the season had caught us unawares, when southeast of us the Lake Effect had dumped five feet of snow in two days? Then, it rained, taking all of our snow with it. We went to bed the evening of November 24th, with no snow in sight. We woke to five inches on the ground, and a long, white drive (over the river and through the woods) up to visit my mother for the holiday. The further north we drove, the deeper the snow. It was lovely, but then I wasn’t the driver.

After about a week of visits and goodies, we retraced our steps home, to a cold, but nearly snowless landscape. It’s been a roller coaster of a winter.

We’re losing our light as we tiptoe up to the solstice. But the real darkness in our lives lately has been the news. 2014 has brought repeated waves of senseless tragedies, the lather, rinse, repeat, of police violence against unarmed, young black men. And, even children.

I’ve always made a conscious effort to keep politics (other than about food issues) out of this blog. But, the last thing this country needs, right now, is for its citizens to go silent, to go dark.

I’ve always had a fierce belief in the Rule of Law, and so the recurring failure of the legal system to deliver a fair and reasoned response has been heart-rending. From my safe, middle-aged, white, woman’s perspective, I cannot even imagine how betrayed our African-American communities must feel. The Grand Jury system has been rigged, not only in its failure to deliver justice, but in the fact that its lack of transparency has repeatedly pre-empted our constitutional guarantee of an open trial by jury. We fail to deliver justice to the victims of these assaults and, in so doing, we compound the historical injustices to disadvantaged and minority communities. Even worse, it’s been done in secret. This is a clear abuse of the Grand Jury system—District Attorneys have a clear conflict of interest when they choose to use the Grand Jury process to investigate police abuses. It’s difficult to hold my head high. I am ashamed of the American Lie of fairness and (color) blind justice, in our legal system. The racist, Old-Boy network of mutual back scratching and “justice” with a wink and a nod remains. I feel sick about it. And the news has been full of revelations of deeply ingrained racism in our institutions of justice and public safety, not to mention the bias and propaganda we are seeing in the main-steam press. There is no “post-racial.”

Just when I wanted to throw up my hands in disgust, I read that a group of young people from the Ferguson community were working with the Department of Justice to find constructive solutions—a six point plan that, if implemented, would begin to restore faith in the system. I read of the flyers that Ferguson protesters tucked onto the windshields in the areas of the marches—reasoned, honorable statements against racial bias, seeking to step beyond the tragedies to solutions. And I saw huge crowds of peaceful protesters, people of all races, stepping up to bear witness that this, this is not our way. I am humbled that my angered paralysis was not as strong or as wise a response as those from the affected community who are reaching across to their tormentors to seek peace and fairness.

It gives me hope, even as the bodies line up and the scales of justice tilt wildly, the wrong way. This evil must not keep us from being our best selves. We cannot afford to be discouraged. Our dignity, our very humanity, is in the balance. We certainly cannot give up and turn away as small minds, full of hate, decide what kind of world we’ll live in.

Join protests. Write letters. Talk about it. Turn to it and face it, not away from it. Racism is our underground disease and collective shame. Our founders capitulated to it—and our worst war was fought over it. In the scrutiny of the light of day, its ugliness becomes increasingly apparent and perhaps that is our best hope to overcome it. It may be that we will never be free of racism. If constant vigilance is the price of a just society, I have to be willing to do my part.

The solstice is only a fortnight away. Two short weeks and we’ll begin to turn the tide of darkness. The promise of spring will lift my heart. Maybe the hope I see in the dreams of young people, earnestly opposing injustice, will bring peace to my anguished heart and to this troubled nation.

First Snows

A.V. Walters

snow days

I’ve been off for a couple of days of travel for the day job. It’s just as well. I’m not much use building right now because of a pesky little broken rib. It’s my own fault. We were moving a washing machine (a great craigslist deal) and, because I wasn’t communicating from my end, I got myself underneath it in a creative and unfortunate way. Sometimes I think I’m sturdier and stronger than I am, and that can lead to trouble.

There’s not much one can do for a broken rib. In days past, they used to immobilize patients, or tape them up. These approaches frequently led to pneumonia. We’re like sharks that way; stop moving and you don’t breathe. So I’m wandering around, doing what I can. With all the other delays, this one is just icing on the cake. A few days travel and work for a little recovery time is a good thing. Then, I’ll take advantage of my limited capacity to do Kubota work. Yay! I’ll get to use the tractor and backhoe!

We have a few weeks yet before the ground freezes. On the way to the airport, the other day, the road was so icy that we floated through a corner–where four other vehicles were stuck in the ditch! Our car has all-weather tires. (I think Rick decided that morning that it’s time to put the snow tires on the truck.) Still, the ground isn’t frozen. There’s still time to dig in the septic tank and maybe even the field.

Despite representations otherwise from the power company, our work site does not yet have power. Like us, they’ve experienced weather delays.  The most recent promise is for early this week. With it nippy, power would sure be nice. Running a generator indoors is not a good idea, even when your “indoors” is a breezy, windowless, roofless cabin. It’d be great to work with artificial light and power tools, without the drone, and stink, of the generator. Maybe, just maybe, this week will bring electricity.

We’ve already seen snow. When I returned from my work foray (48 hours, one seminar and seven flights) the season had changed. We’re ankle deep in the big white fluffy stuff. My mum, some distance to the north, is knee-deep. Being as it’s only mid-November, it’s a tough call whether this is “it,”—whether winter has arrived for good. The weather report for the week calls for snow, every single day, time to find that snowblower that I’ve been talking about.

Actually, I’m excited to see snow. It will bring a return to our snow-shoeing adventures. As soon as the rib is fully healed, I’ll get back to my plan to improve my generally spastic cross-country skiing. Here again, the delay is probably a good thing. Hunting season started yesterday, so it isn’t a good idea to go traipsing through the bush. In the meantime—just don’t make me laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving!

Guylaine Claire Cover jpg

On Monday. And I forgot to send a card.

No, really, usually I celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with a turkey and the whole traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving is my favorite of all holidays. What’s not to like, eh? A day in which we get to reflect on the good we have in our lives—and to share it with those around us. (Of course I do American Thanksgiving the very next month.)

This year there’s just no time. Rick and I are struggling to get as much building done as we can, while the weather holds. There’s an oversized helping of thanksgiving in that, too. So what is missed, is sharing.

So, to share the day, for Canadian Thanksgiving, I’m offering my most Canadian novel, The Gift of Guylaine Claire*, as a free Kindle download on Amazon. It’s available, Monday only at:

http://www.amazon.com/Gift-Guylaine-Claire-V-Walters-ebook/dp/B00CMYC8LG/ref=la_B008AL153M_1_2_title_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1413081503&sr=1-2

You don’t have to be Canadian to enjoy this offer. Because everything is marketing, if you enjoy the book, please let me know, or post a review on Amazon or GoodReads. In the spirit of the day, feel free to share the link.

Thank you, and have a wonderful holiday.

 

*Readers’ alert, my sister says this is a two-box-of-Kleenex book, but maybe she’s just a sap.

 

 

 

One Year Counting Blessings

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

 

Autumn Olive…

A.V. Walters —

With olive-like leaves

With olive-like leaves

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

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

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

But I like the fruit

But I like the fruit

Progress

A.V. Walters

Things are looking up.

Things are looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then we had to give it a raincoat.

But then we had to give it a raincoat.

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

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.

Bunker Mentality–

A.V. Walters–

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We’re building. It’s a small footprint, our cabin at the edge of the woods. We picked the site for its view across the valley, and so that we’d get sheltering shade in the summer. We are months behind schedule. If I were the type, I’d be getting close to panicky. On our walks, I note that we’re seeing the occasional flash of early color in the trees

Initially, we had weather delays—frost well into May, administrative delays—title and permitting problems and then, a comedy of errors on the foundation.

This county requires that building plans be prepared by an architect or a licensed “building designer.” Since we’d already drawn up our plans, we went with the building designer method—to check for technical and structural details, and to make the plans look professional. We informed the designer that there was a slope to the property—but he wasn’t concerned—I guess he figured it wasn’t his department.

When the approvals were finally complete, we hired a local mason to build the foundation. Though Rick is a builder, there are very good reasons to hire out parts of the job to those with greater experience. Most of our building proficiency is from California, where foundations are usually poured concrete (with lots of rebar reinforcement.) California has earthquakes, and they take their foundations seriously. Michigan foundations are often built with concrete block—especially for smaller buildings like our little cabin. It’s heavy work and we are not young.

The plans called for a crawlspace—just enough of a foundation to meet the frost requirements for local code. It’s a cabin, nestled into the gently sloping hillside, with a cozy, low profile. We knew we might have some adjustments because of the slope. We consulted with the mason. He didn’t see a problem, maybe a couple of extra courses of block. He instructed Rick on exactly how he wanted the excavation to be done. Rick did the digging, per instructions, with the Kubota. As he did so, it started to look like the back-side of the hole was a lot deeper than the mason had described.

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On the mason’s return, he too, was surprised by the depth of the hole. He accused Rick of not digging level and true. Measurement proved that it was almost perfect, (a little less than a half inch off, across a forty-foot run.) The mason shrugged. He’d have to go at least an extra two courses of block—and he submitted a revised bid. We nodded. The price seemed fair. After all, what do we know from masonry?

A day or so later, he advised that the wall sill wasn’t high enough, to address issues of drainage and slope, he’d have to go yet higher. This crawlspace was exceeding crawl (except in timing.) We’d gone past duck walk to homo-erectus—though still not a legal height basement. I ran down to the County permits department to advise of the change. The clerk asked me why we didn’t just go all the way, for a full basement. Oh no, it’s just a little cabin. That would be thousands of dollars more and we didn’t really need a basement. It’s a cabin—and with the extra height, we’d be giving up on that snuggled-into-the-hillside look.

It was a Friday night. I went into town for milk and beer. I ran into our buddy, Linus, from up the road. He was picking up a pizza. Linus works at one of the cherry farms, but used to be in heavy-equipment and construction. During cherry harvest he works long days—and pizza-to-go is part of the equation.

“How’s it going with the foundation?”

“Well, it’s a lot deeper than we thought. We’re up to ten courses.”

He nodded. “So you’ll be pouring a floor, then?”

I shook my head. “No, we’ll still keep it to a crawl space—now, it’s just a tall one.”

“No, you’ll be pouring a floor… a four-inch slab.” It wasn’t a question.

I looked up at him. “We really weren’t planning on a full basement, it’s too high.”

“I doesn’t matter. At ten courses, you pour a floor for stability.” He was nodding his head with certainty. He doesn’t talk much, and, for him, this was pushy.

“Yeah? You think so?”

“Four inches—no less.” His pizza was up. He nodded at me, “Tell Rick I said so.”

The weekend was a running debate. We had to have a serious discussion with the mason. Could this be true? Why hadn’t he said anything? Rick reconfigured the plans for a full basement, just in case. If you have to pour a floor, you might just as well go the full twelve courses for a legal basement. And, if you’re putting in a full basement on a slope, you should put in a door on the downslope for a walkout, and, yeah, maybe a window, for light. We tried to imagine our little cabin, perched up on an eight-foot high, block foundation. A bunker. An eyesore! “Don’t worry,” Rick assured me, “If we have to go this route, we’ll bury as much as we can. We’ll landscape it.”

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Monday morning was telling. Rick put it direct to the mason. “A friend said we should be pouring a four-inch, slab floor—for structural reasons—any truth to that?”

The mason didn’t meet his eyes. He scuffed his boot in the sand. After a long silence, he offered, “Well, it is a good idea.” Why hadn’t he said anything before? That made the decision. I zipped up to the county offices with Rick’s revised plans. The clerk nodded.

“You won’t regret it, a basement is really handy.” She smiled, a little smug. But, she’d been right.

For the next couple of days we watched as the courses of concrete block grew, towering above us. We looked for the bright side. You can always use extra storage… right? Rick could have a shop downstairs. We could move the laundry down there, too. And, we told ourselves, the added height gave us a hell of a view from the front porch. The foundation price was now double the original bid. We sighed and wrote progress payments.

During the foundation work the mason’s little daughter took ill. Really ill. She was hospitalized for over a week. Though we only lost one “official” day of work, the family’s trials cost in “attention” time. Who could blame him? If I had a little one at risk, I’d be glued to her. These are the important things in life. We were happy to accommodate.

We did have a little tiff over the details of the floor. We wanted a vapor barrier under the slab. The mason didn’t want to deal with it. We insisted. It wasn’t the norm, he said. He got more than a little grumpy about it. In the end, we’re the owners—we insisted and prevailed.

With the block work and floor complete, the only remaining thing was to insert the rebar and pour concrete into the wall cores. We were anxious for completion—because then the project would be ours again. With us at the helm, we could make up for some lost time. Rick asked the mason about the rebar placement. Given his California roots, Rick was concerned about what looked to be sparse reinforcement. After all, we’d doubled the wall height, so for structural reasons, now was not the time to go light on strength.

The mason threw a fit. Was Rick questioning his professional integrity? He was almost yelling now. The mason went to his truck and took out his copy of the Michigan Code Book. He shook it in Rick’s face. “It’s all in here. I don’t go by California code. I go by Michigan rules. We don’t have earthquakes here!” He threw the book back into the cab of his truck and left for the day.

Tired of being at a disadvantage, Rick came home, went online, and purchased his own copy of the Michigan Code book. But, in the meantime, we had little choice but to trust the mason. He came the next day for the “final pour.” It was a relief. After our inspection, scheduled for the following Monday, we’d finally be able to start our building process. I paid the mason.

Well, “we” failed the inspection. California, Michigan, it doesn’t matter. The code is pretty much the same, no matter, and the amount of rebar in our foundation didn’t meet code. (So much for “professional integrity.”)

I emailed the mason. He called, livid, like it was our fault—accused us of pissing-off the building inspector. We told him to speak to the Inspector, himself. Apparently, that conversation set him straight. We didn’t even have to say that he should read his own Code Book, instead of shaking it in our faces. He was whipped and compliant.

It took another week to get it finished. The inspector told him exactly what he expected in reinforcement—even more than what code would have required, but by this time, the mason was cowed and obedient. We helped with the final pour. Now we have the strongest foundation in the county, a literal bunker. If there’s ever a tornado or a hurricane, we know where to go. Oh yeah, and turns out the vapor barrier, we fought over, is Code, too!

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The foundation took a little over a month. Not too bad, considering all the changes and hiccoughs. It’ll be nice to have a basement, and there’ll be that incredible view from the front porch.

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?

 

 

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!)

 

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.)

It’s Official, Spring Is Here

A.V. Walters

Almost all the snow is gone. We’re forecasting days of rain this week (“April Showers”), so that will be the end of that. The days are not warm, but neither are they cold. The lawn is turning green. I’ve turned off the tap water!!! We were digging earlier in the week, and the frost is gone. While there’s still float ice in the Lake, it’s nearly clear along the shore. The forest floor is bursting with wild leeks, and now with Dutchman’s breeches, too. I see swollen buds on the trees–they’ll be leaves in days. Spring, better late than never.

We enjoyed the winter. Now that it’s gone, I can be honest about the two things I didn’t like. Six months of hat hair. Six months of a runny nose, everytime I went outside. Otherwise it was pretty grand. I can hardly wait for the best bits of Spring, though. Flowers, many, many birds, blooms on fruit trees (we have a lot of that, here in the land of cherries) and….morel mushrooms! More on that, later.

Yesterday I made up a big batch of spaghetti sauce and used up the last two quarts of my Two Rock tomatoes. I am really ready for Spring.

 

Spring has Sprung

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

The Broken Back of Winter…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I’m right. He had a map!”

Ahhhh, Shoes…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

A.V. Walters-

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Back in California…

A.V. Walters —

This, we miss.

This, we miss.

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

Green Hills for Grazing

Green Hills for Grazing

Emu Views

Emu Views

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

Emus at the Feeder

Emus at the Feeder

Up Close

Up Close

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

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

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

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

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

Can we come out, yet?

Can we come out, yet?

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

Ducks above, emus below.

Ducks above, emus below.

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

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

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

Punxsutawney Prognostication

A.V. Walters

Phamous Phil

Phamous Phil

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Freedom

A.V. Walters—

Winter Freedom!

Winter Freedom!

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

Last week's winds obstructed the road

Last week’s winds obstructed the road

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

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

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

Hands-free, with snowshoes!

Hands-free, with snowshoes!

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

New vistas, off trail

New vistas, off trail

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

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

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

Winter Mix

A.V. Walters

Winter Mix?

Winter Mix?

Sounds to me like something you’d serve as an appetizer at a holiday gathering. In reality, it’s not so friendly—it was today’s weather report. Winter mix is unsettled weather that serves up a mishmash of rain, sleet and snow. We’ve had gorgeous February weather for a couple of days, bright sunshine and upper thirties to low forties. I consider February to be the seventh-inning-stretch of winter. The sun comes back, for whole days, not just the cameo appearances of December and January. The cats have been sprawled-out, on floor, in the sunshine streaming into the living room.

It’s been especially delicious, since there’s so much snow. We’ve been skiing (albeit badly) and hiking. The sun and snow are so nice that I broke down and ordered snowshoes. (Don’t worry, there’ll still be plenty of winter left by the time they arrive. We have a couple of innings to go, yet.) Tonight brought a decided end to our reprieve. This will be the first real “storm” of the season. Sure we’ve had snow, (lots of it—217 inches, so far) and the occasional travel advisory, but nothing that came with storm warnings. Today’s snow/rain mixture will freeze tonight as temperatures drop back to more wintery levels and we usher in high winds and more snow. Tomorrow, winds are expected to gust up to 55 mph. On fresh slick ice, that should be loads of fun. I ran into town today and picked up groceries and coffee. We can hunker down for the duration. (Or, we can suit up and put on spikes to go see what happens at the lake in such winds!)

We’re only 14 inches shy of breaking the all-time, county snow record. It’s still only February, so we’ve got a good chance of doing it. I find myself rooting for snow and season. My first winter, back in Michigan, and a record-breaker! I can’t complain; it’s been an adventure. My mother says it may all be my fault. She’s remembering that the year I moved to California, 1978, was one of the last record-breakers. (And, just for good measure, I left California with what might be a record drought.)

Laundry

A.V. Walters

Today is one of those mundane days when you have to take care of the basics. Little else is more humbling, in modern life, than a trip to the Laundromat. When we first found our little winter safe-haven, it was advertised as having “laundry hookups.” We shrugged; we’d just buy a stackable unit and take it with us when we left.

Then, we made the trip to see our little honeymoon cottage. With just one glance at the laundry closet, we knew there was a problem. First, it was too small to hold conventional American laundry machines. Closer inspection revealed that, sure enough, there were water hook-ups, but there wasn’t a drain line, or venting for a dryer. Clearly, despite the listing language, nobody had ever done laundry in this cottage. When we mentioned this to the landlord, he hemmed and hawed. I can’t blame him; it is a vacation rental, after all. Who wants to pay the utilities so folks can go home with clean laundry? He said it hadn’t come up—vacationers and all. They used the Laundromat here in the village. We signed the papers and moved in, anyway.

It turns out that the local facilities are geared to the summer rental cycle. In English, that means there are no laundry facilities in town during the winter. We Googled it. There are no ‘winter’ Laundromats in the county, at all, except one on the bay-side of the county—about as far as one can get from us—maybe thirty miles. So, we can go to Traverse City, the next county east of us (a mere twenty-two miles), or we can go into the county south of us, a fourteen mile drive. Laundry has turned into a bigger deal than we could have imagined.

Generally, we head south. It’s shorter and the Laundromat there is cleaner, friendlier and fully staffed. There’s a bit of a snow squall out, today, and the run to my favored facility was hairy. I nearly spun out once, that, and the poor visibility had me creeping along at grandpa speeds. When I finally arrived, the attendant met me at the door. Sundays have short hours and I had just missed “last call,” the latest that they’ll permit you to start a load.

I’m stubborn. Having gone to the trouble of loading everything up and heading out into the snow, I wasn’t about to go back home without clean clothes and linens. Especially the linens. You see, most of our things are in storage and we have only one set of sheets. If I gave up for the day, I’d have to haul the dirty clothes back inside, pull out the sheets, make up the bed again with dirty sheets, only to have to strip them again tomorrow on a renewed laundry quest. So, I set off for Traverse City.

Surely, I figured, there must be a shortcut to eliminate the northern dogleg, before heading east. But if there is, I couldn’t find it. Peering through the snow, I took unfamiliar roads that seemed to head in the right direction. Soon, the road I was on got narrower and narrower (and the snow got deeper and deeper) to a dead end. I had to backtrack. After a couple of turns in near white-out conditions, I was lost. So, I headed north, knowing that it would ultimately have to take me to Empire—and then I could head east. Sigh.

Here, in the Traverse City Laundromat, the last dryer load is lofting in grand circles. My quarters are depleted. Soon I can fold, and head home into the snowy night. Like I said, these little household management details will keep you humble.

 

The Other Side of Winter II

A.V. Walters

Too windy even to bury the car!

Too windy even to bury the car!

It’s blowing and cold out there. It is snowing, but the wind is so strong, that it’s tough to tell what’s new snow, and what’s just being whipped around and redistributed. The usual storm pattern swoops across from the west or northwest. We look out and the snow is horizontal. We’ve noted from the national weather maps that in the center of the county, near where we’ll be living come spring, there’s a pocket of particularly heavy snow accumulation. One look at the winds today tells the story. All the snow from here ends up there. I see a Kubota in our future.

Without appreciable new snowfall (indeed some areas now have less than before) the driveway has drifted over and needs another shoveling. Rick has taken the laboring oar on snow removal. He maintains a beautiful driveway and paths through the yard. He’s learning to sculpt them so that the wind helps keep them clear, though in some places, drift, it will. I’d love to brag about his efforts, but since much of my family lives far north of here (and with really heavy snow) they’d just scoff. My niece reported on her facebook page the other day that she and her children are tobogganing off their roof. We just can’t compete with that.

Still, some things are universal. No matter where you are, everyone complains that, shovel as they may, they just hate it when the plow comes and negates their hours of work, filling in their driveways with road accumulations. Rick bemoans that it isn’t just more snow, plow snow is heavier and crustier. If you let it sit it will turn to a driveway-blocking wall of lumpy ice. It’s not an observation; it’s a conviction.

This past week our local weekly paper did a feature article on ‘the snow plow drivers of Leelanau County.’ It’s appropriate. Those guys (and they seem to be all guys) are doing a hell of a job keeping the roads clear in this record-breaking year. Now, in mid-January, our to-date snow-fall total is 152 inches, which exceeds the usual seasonal total. Only two weeks ago the paper quoted a local meteorologist as saying that we’d hit our 150 and then it would stop. Think again. Anyway, I had to laugh when the veteran snow plow driver stated that his pet peeve was when homeowners would push their snow into his road. (Apparently it makes for a rough ride.)

Musings from the Polar Vortex–

A.V. Walters–

Just enough snow.

Just enough snow.

Now there’s a new phrase for you, eh? The only vortex part of it is the rushing-in from the void of all the misinformation about weather, generally, and climate change, specifically. Oh, how the reality-based wonks among us rue the day that somebody started calling it “global warming.” It so distorts the opportunity to study the facts, and create meaningful policy, (or dialogue) in an atmosphere of an anti-science witch-hunt.

Now, the cold snap has subsided, leaving us in the more normal seasonal range of temperatures in the 20s. This weekend they’re predicting a warming trend—one that will bring us sunshine and above-freezing, nighttime temperatures. You’d think we’d be happy about that. In fact, it creates just another set of problems.

First, there’s the leaking roof. In winter’s cold, it’s not a problem. But when things warm up, the leaking roof, in combination with ice dams (damns?) makes this little rental an interesting place. (Buckets and mopping up.) The landlord knows, but it was a bad roofing job and now there’s nothing he can do until spring. At the same time, he plans on putting in new windows—which will be a big improvement, though we’ll be long gone, by then.

That kind of freeze/thaw cycle also creates treacherous roads. The thaw provides the fodder, in the freeze period, for black ice and other hazards of navigation—both pedestrian and vehicular. It means we’ll be strapping on yet another layer of winter gear (spikes) onto our boots. I used to think that these were for old folks. However, my mom swears by them and she insisted that they become part of our new, winter wardrobe. I’m a regular Yeti fashion-plate. At least it’s safe.

And, finally, I don’t want our snow to melt. I’m just about to get cross-country skis. I like look of winter. I love roads with a nice, thick, white, base. (I’m not a fancier of salt or the dirty slush it brings.) So my fingers are crossed that the snow stays through the warming spell.

There are northern things that will take some adjustment. The winter tap water is frigid. My California roots say, “Don’t waste water—use it cold and straight from the tap.” My fingers say, “Skip the frostbite, run it ‘til warm.” The water is so cold that it hurts your teeth to drink it. Northern living takes longer to get anything done, whether it’s the time suiting-up, or shoveling-out, life has to be a little more… intentional. And, the butter is too damn hard to spread on toast. (I can hear my sisters, “Turn up the heat, goofball. Good Lord,” shaking their heads, “They live like a couple of Eskimos.”) This might be solved when we have our own place, and it has insulation. For now, unless I’m baking, the kitchen is chilly. Otherwise, our winter redoubt suits me fine, for now. If only someone could convince the cats.

 

 

 

The Other Side of Winter

A.V. Walters

I get comments, (mostly by email) from friends and family when I post a blog. They’re usually supportive but, occasionally, they’re smart-assed. There was a range of comments on my last post. Apparently everyone wants to know–how are these two transplants doing with winter? It makes me wonder if bets have been placed. One friend thanked me for posting a positive perspective on the season. This is, after all, one of the most intense winters in decades (which is why everyone is so curious as to how Rick and I will handle it. Of course, to us, it’s all new.) My sister set me straight.

I guess my warm and fuzzy “snow dusting” blogs are pissing her off. She lives waaay up north, and they’ve had so much snow, that they’re running out of places to put the stuff. My mom reports that the snow banks are between 10 and 12 feet high. My mom is delighted; but she’s not doing the plowing. For many, they have to get up early to deal with the snow before they go put in a full day at work. For my sister, Kelly, lately that’s been three or four hours of extra work each day, hand shoveling out her entry and the path to her chicken coop. Today she was especially heroic—she snow-shoed over to my mother’s satellite dish, to clear it, so my mom could get reception. (Poor mum, last night she missed Downton Abbey!) Kelly’s husband also puts in several hours each day with the plow—besides their home and store, he keeps a number of other families clear.

Kelly is not alone in her frustration. She runs the town’s general store, so she hears about it from everyone. Over the weekend a colorful, but not particularly volatile local came into the store, stomping the snow from his boots and railing, “I’ve had it. Snow just isn’t fun anymore! I’d suck someone’s cock if the bastard would just blow out my driveway!” He hand-shovels, and has run out of places to put the snow. Now, he’s loading it into a wheelbarrow, then carting it across the highway, where he shovels it again, mostly up over the existing banks and into the woods. He hopes the Road Commission doesn’t notice that some of it strays onto the highway. (You’re not supposed to shovel your snow into the roadway, though the plows feel free to fill your driveway with road snow.) Keweenaw County checked in earlier this week at 167 inches for the season, and that was before the most recent foot, or so. I guess this all helps to keep the northerners fit.

So here I am, singing the praises of the beauty of winter. Add to that, I work from home—I don’t need to shovel out everyday—and Rick has taken up most of that duty, in any event. My family and I talk, everyday. Discussions about the weather are sometimes charged. There’s a fierce one-upsmanship to even the most casual comparisons. My mother called first thing this morning, and demanded to know, “What’s your temperature?!” (“Oh, hi mom. It’s 9.”) “Yeah, well it’s minus 7, here. Visibility is so low, I can’t see the mountain!” Really, it’s much milder here; I can’t compete.

Yesterday, my brother called to warn me about “wind chill.” (We’ve actually had a Wind Chill Warning.) We’re in a cold snap—it’ll put us in the single digits and negatives for the better part of the week. Really, though I’ve been in California for thirty-five years, I didn’t slip into a coma. I do remember wind chill. It seems that everywhere, but here, it is really snowing. My brother (a few hours south of us) has seen 14 inches in the last two days. My mother (well north of us) has seen even more. Us? A dusting, maybe five inches over the past four days, barely enough to shovel every day. Today, we are seeing the beginnings of the “big storm”. We check the radar by keeping an eye on the weather websites.

Critters here are challenged, too. It’s tough when, everyday, you have to dig deeper for your food supply. The last two nights, rabbits have come to clean up what’s left of the birdseed we threw out for our jays, juncos and chickadees. We get squirrels, too, and that makes me nervous. The squirrels can get into the engine compartment of your car. Sometimes they’ll even eat the insulation on the wiring. I mentioned it to Rick, who noticed that the squirrels seemed particularly interested in hanging out under and around his truck. (He went out to check the engine compartment—just to make sure there weren’t any rodent condos going in. Believe me; you don’t want to tangle with squirrel HOAs!)

Inside, (though I don’t think it’s any gotten any colder) the cat has taken to snuggling up all day on the electric baseboard heater. It hasn’t the charm of a good woodstove, that’s for sure. It’s a little pathetic, but we all do what we can.

Our local papers are full of weather reports and snow records, too. Our year-end snow count topped 100 inches. The local Meteorologist promised that the colder temperatures would slow the snow. Also, he points out, if the Lake freezes over, it will lessen the “Lake Effect” snow. If the Lake freezes over? Look at a map. See how big Lake Michigan is? They don’t call it a Great Lake for nothing. When a Great Lake hits 90% ice cover, it’s said to have “frozen over.” (Normal winters usually see a 50% cover.) How often does a freeze over happen? Well, in the last 110 years, only four times (1904, 1976-1978.) His report is otherwise scientifically problematic, saying (and I quote), “Northern Michigan only gets 140 to 150 inches of snow each year. We’ve already had 100 inches, so that leaves January, February and March to get an additional 50 inches.” What? So, if we reach our statistical norm, someone’s going to turn off the snow?

We’re lucky. Nestled next to the lake like this, we get the snow, but not so much of the cold. Inland areas can get bitterly cold. And, we have great winter gear. My oldest sister abandoned the state a couple of years ago, saying she never wanted to be cold again. When we decided to move east, she gave us all her winter gear—coats, hats, scarves and mittens by the bin-full. (We’ve got so much down, we’re up!) We have no excuse for being cold, or for staying in. In fact, as soon as I finish this, Rick and I are headed off for a walk. We thought we’d go take a look and see what the Lake is doing.

Monochrome

A.V. Walters

Bluff View

Bluff View

Winter. Pretty much black and white, right? Hardly. Maybe because we are cloaked in a postcard perfect layer of white, it forces one to take a closer look. There’s a world of color out there, if you look for it. The snow itself is a constantly shifting set of hues, depending upon the light. Right now it’s brilliant white, with the edges, drifts and footprints defined in shades of grey and blue. Just after dawn or at dusk, the snow glows pink—what my mother calls “The pearly hour.”

But, it’s more than that. At first glance the naked trees are black, grey and taupe. Looking closer reveals myriad shades and colors. The dogwood tips are a deep ruby. The cedar trees mix the characteristic yellow-green of their foliage with the rusty seeds at the tips. Across the street, our snow is interrupted by some kind of dried seedpod in a dark umber and waving, golden dried grasses. That gold is echoed above in the clinging brassy parchment leaves of young beech trees. Look deep into the forest and you’re rewarded with the winter greens of the white and red pines (with their warm brick and brown trunks)—to the almost-blue green of the spruce. Driving through the county side, I am surprised by the range of color in the sleeping, winter fields; the amber corn stubble poking up through the drifts; the burgundy tips on the cherry trees; the shocking, spilling-over, yellow of the naked willow branches; and the dense green of the snow-flocked Christmas trees that survived to see another season.

Today we went for a hike along the beach. Along the shore and extending out in the shallows, Lake Michigan has its usual winter, ruffled collar of jumbled frozen piles of snow, slush and ice. Out about fifty feet, the collar gives way to the steel grey waves, lapping and spraying occasionally at the ragged edge. This is a sand beach and the winter surf sweeps the sand in with the frozen frothy foam at the end of the waves’ reach. Parts of the beach are slick and icy, dangerously dusted with fresh blown snow. Other parts are sheets of frozen sand, lifted and arched by the heave, and hollow underneath. It’s a world away from its usual summer world of flip-flops, bathing suits and kayaks.

We’ve noticed an odd behavior at the parking-area turnaround at the township park/beach. Folks in the area drive down to check up on the Lake. Whenever we’re there, we see it. These are winter people, who, on their way somewhere else, detour down to the park for a glimpse at whatever the Lake is doing. They pull up and sit for a few moments, just watching whatever winter has in store that day. Today was not windy and the Lake was quiet. Sometimes it’s wild and crashing.

We think of it as our winter hike but we’re wrong. Today we ran into our neighbor at the beach. He’s an elderly gent; we see him out walking his dogs, regularly. There was a family, with lots of little bundled kids out cavorting and sliding on the icy beach. And then, there were all the footprints, evidence that any number of hardy souls come out regularly in the cold to enjoy the beauty and colors of winter. It’s nice to know that others appreciate the winter landscape, as we do.

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.

We Are Not Alone

A.V. Walters–

Over Thanksgiving, about 8 inches of snow fell in Western Michigan. If, up to then, we’d had any doubts about winter, or where we’d moved, that white blanket made it clear where we were. This isn’t Two Rock, anymore, Toto.

The snow was lovely; we’ve walked in it every day, here around town and in the trails along the dunes. I was reminded how snow records comings and goings. Here in our cozy cottage, we could remain oblivious to what’s going on outside. We see deer in the field, across the way, but we’re otherwise not privy to the wild world.

Not so with the snow. Whether you see them or not, the critters leave their marks. Just in this little yard of ours, we see deer tracks, many different birds, a zillion squirrels, big rabbits, little rabbits, a raccoon in the back alley and something we can’t recognize—it appears to be feline (with bigger feet than our cats.) We don’t actually see these things in the yard, (except the squirrels) but they are here, their trails are clear evidence of their comings and goings. There are a lot of deer. We see them often in the field and even on our “town walks.” The yards here in the village are peppered with well-stomped deer trails—everywhere where there aren’t dogs. A garden could never make it here without a substantial fence. We have to remember that, when we finally settle and start planting.

One of the funniest things is that people have yard décor here, including fake deer. Go figure. Stepping out to take out the trash in the evening you’re likely to bump into the real thing—so, what’s with the statues? I note that one of our neighbors has deer statues, (well, they’re actually flat, metal deer) and it is in the direct path of many deer tracks. Do the deer feel compelled to check it out, or is it just coincidentally placed where the deer go? In Two Rock we didn’t have fake cows or sheep (but, I shiver to recall, Elmer did have a fake deer.) The whole garden statuary thing is lost on me. Lighthouses, ship anchors, wagonwheels, windmills, gnomes (lake freighters!)—I just don’t get it. Instead I look out to the field and count the real critters.

Yesterday we took the bluffs trail. It pleases me that the trails are heavily used, even in winter. There’s still snow in the woods, so we can count the tracks of hikers, dogs and snow-shoers. The trail is a bit treacherous—a brief thaw glazed over the compacted hikers’ tracks and re-froze it all into a slick, lumpy ice-field. We neglected to wear our spikes, so we found ourselves walking in the deeper snow on the edges. It’s a workout, picking your way on the safe untrodden and crunchy parts, but it’s better than landing on your ass. It gives depth to the word, trudge—with its combined onomatopoeia and connotation of hard going.

I looked back at the trail and laughed to see that other hikers were also sidestepping the beaten path—our tracks mixed with theirs on the edges, making for a very wide trail—the equivalent of eight hikers, abreast. It looks as though we came through together—a crowd of belligerent nature lovers—when in reality we rarely see one another. We only know that other hardy souls are out in the woods, because of their tracks.

Rick’s Hat-Trick

A.V. Walters

It’s a season of firsts for us. Rick’s first set of snow tires (I get mine on Wednesday,) and our first snow shovel. These are all steps in acclimatizing ourselves to winter. Of course, I think that I have the advantage, having grown up with it. But thirty-five years is a long time to be away, and I’m not so sure whether the old memories can help to thicken blood that’s been made weak by extended, California living. Our friends and family are on the edge of their seats, watching Rick. Really, can a born and bred California boy survive the challenge?

When I was a teen, up in Copper Harbor, the test for new residents was whether they stayed for (and survived) the winter. Like many summer-tourist towns, we had plenty of summer-people. The Cottage Crowd may return, year after year, even generation after generation, but they are never locals until they’ve stayed for the winter. I think the same is true in Empire. I watch the locals take note of our progress. We are new AND we came specifically for the winter. I see their lips purse in expectation.

It is a friendly town, and not unlike my old haunts in Copper Harbor. Our first Thanksgiving there included a young couple whose car had broken down. Far from their own families, they were out for a Thanksgiving ride when they found themselves on the side of the road. Ours was the first house they came to. There was no question about it; we insisted that they join us for dinner and, later, the men went out to fix the car so they could return safely to Houghton.

Empire has a similar welcoming feel. People at the little grocery store in town greet us like locals. People we meet on our walks have introduced themselves—told their life stories and now wave when they see us. We knew that we had arrived, last time we were at the hardware store. We buy our eggs from the hardware lady—she keeps chickens. Last time we were there, just before Thanksgiving, she asked us if we had plans for the holiday. I told her we were headed to my brother’s, downstate. She looked concerned—they were expecting some snow, did we know that? I nodded, and said we had new snow tires and were happy to check them out. She looked unconvinced. Finally she took a business card and wrote her number on it.

“If there’s too much snow, you be sure to come over to my house for the holiday. It would be terrible to miss out on Thanksgiving dinner, because of the weather.”

That was that. We’d been invited to dinner. I guess that means you’ve arrived in a small town. The weather was lovely and we did make it to our appointed holiday plans. Still, it was nice to know…

As a kid, I never wore glasses—so despite my deep bench of winter experience, I’d never had to deal with the cursed annoyance of the instant blindness when your eyeglasses fog over the second you step inside from the cold. Rick showed me his trick for this; he laps the edge of his knit-hat over the top of his eyeglass frames, and it minimizes the fog-over when coming back indoors. So, even a California Boy can teach me a new trick for winter.

That’s Rick’s hat-trick. And you thought it was going to be about hockey, didn’t you? We haven’t got to that, yet!

At Home, With The Royals

A.V. Walters

Of our five emu chicks, two were adopted by a fancy, Napa Valley vineyard/winery. Those two little emus had been our favorites, the ones we named C3 and Sleepy. Their royal gig was to serve as guardian and companion animals in the vineyard’s menagerie. This place was not just a grape-growing operation, it was a full-blown winery castle. Castello di Amerosa is a noted tourist attraction between St. Helena and Calistoga.  They were adopted out as little bitty guys, in full baby-emu plumage. We wistfully watched them go off to a royal life at the castle, pleased that they’d fared so well.

Do you remember me?

Do you remember me?

We always intended to visit. After all, how often does one get to see a full-sized medieval castle? (Really, check it out; it is really quite impressive— www.castellodiamorosa.com) As the time drew short for our own departure to the east, we finally decided to make the trip to see how our little, feathered, former wards were doing. We emailed our contact, Carlos, and asked if we could visit. He was thrilled, sent us photos and directions. But, the photos puzzled us—the Royal Emus were blonds! (What do they say? You can never be too thin or too blond?) Really, what could explain how different these emus were from their plebian siblings?

Castello Di Amerosa

Castello Di Amerosa

As we drove up the winding drive, the castle (and it really is a castle) peaked above the hill. We parked in the lot, and walked over to take a look at the grape vine encircled castle, complete with a moat and drawbridge. Carlos soon found us and brought us over to the area of the grounds with the emus. Along the way, he introduced his other charges—geese, guinea hens, goats, sheep, peacocks, and a wide variety of chickens. Finally, there they were, the emus. Blond.

Blonds?

Blonds?

It wasn’t just the photos, these emus were decidedly lighter in color than their parents or siblings, back on the farm. We scratched our heads. While the emus didn’t recognize us, they clearly related to us as folks who know and handle emus. (Besides, we brought apple treats!) They let us rub the fronts of their necks and feel their feathers. And, therein was the secret…the feathers were brittle, bleached out and broken. Something was clearly wrong.

Where did they get those white knickers?

Where did they get those white knickers?

The kings and royals of yesteryear often suffered different ailments from the mundane health-hazards of the surrounding, peasant populations. Like modern folk everywhere, the Royals of the past suffered from diseases of excess—gout, heart disease, obesity. We decided to ask what it was these emus had been eating.

Sure enough, it turned out that they’d been feeding the emus the same special-mix they had for the peacocks. But, peacocks are seed-eaters and Emus are grazers. Their enclosure was too small to provide a normal, grass-eating diet. (And, like teenagers everywhere, they’ll gladly take the fast-food, rather than seek out the best nutritional options.) Emus need a feed mix that has a high proportion of roughage and greens. These royal emus had a diet that was too rich in calories and not high enough in essential vitamins and minerals.

We pointed it out to Carlos, the damaged, brittle feathers and explained. Nodding, he agreed and assured us he’d get the proper emu feed the very next day. And, not a moment too soon—those emus will need to rebuild their feathers to stay warm this coming winter.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

Our visit was a complete success. We did look at the castle, a bit, but most of our time was spent with The Royal Emus.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.