Archives for category: woods

Ah, Spring

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

Autumn Olive…

A.V. Walters —

With olive-like leaves

With olive-like leaves

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

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

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

But I like the fruit

But I like the fruit

Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

Two-Legged Hazards…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

I guess my face showed doubt.

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

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

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

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

Bugged–

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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Marching Through the Seasons

A.V. Walters–

Still Closed.

Still Closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild leeks!

Wild leeks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at those red branches, waiting to leaf out.

Look at those red branches, waiting to leaf out.

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.

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.

This Is How It Goes–

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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