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

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

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

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

 

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Emerging Knapweed, as far as the eye can see.

 

Trigger Alert: This blog post contains references to maniac-level gardening, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and other forms of mental illness.

In the early 1980s, the City of Los Angeles was confronted with a difficult problem. Renowned for its levels of air pollution, how would it deal with the upcoming Olympics? After all, you couldn’t expect world quality athletes to do their best breathing the yellow-brown gas that the city’s denizens accepted as air. Every unsolvable problem has a similar solution curve; you do what you can.

If you have followed this blog for any time, you are probably aware of my ongoing battle with the evil, invasive, Spotted Knapweed. I cannot complain, the knapweed was here when I purchased the property–I just didn’t know what it was. When Rick and I arrived to develop it, we joked that, if it weren’t for knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all.

We had it backwards. We had no weeds, because of the knapweed. Sigh. It is an earnest and dedicated competitor. As a refresher, remember that knapweed competes on a number of fronts: it poisons the soil around it (the toxins remain for up to three years after removal); it absorbs most of the available water in its fleshy roots (starving neighboring plants); it spreads, both by seed (viable for seven years) and by underground spreading roots; and it colonizes disturbed soils. If you pull it up–and any part of the root remains–it will return, which means that tilling is a disaster. Knapweed eradication is a myth.

And still, one must garden. We have a dual challenge, poor sandy dune soils and knapweed. So long as the knapweed remains, the soils will never improve. We were lucky, even in our knapweed ignorance, we knew the soils were poor. So when we planted the orchard we dug big holes. Very big holes, perhaps 5 feet across and nearly as deep. Our neighbors raised their eyebrows and inquired. We removed most of the native sand and amended heavily. Unbeknownst to us, this solved our knapweed problem. Our new trees thrived–even as friends of ours, with supposedly better soils, lost entire orchard plantings to the knapweed’s toxins.

But our gardens failed to prosper.

At one of our bee meetings, the guest speaker from the local Soil Conservation District, came to discuss bee-friendly landscapes. That’s how I learned about knapweed and its ugly dual nature. Sure, it’s bee-friendly, but that’s as far as any friendship extends. I did my own research and the prognosis was grim. Understand, we have acres and acres of knapweed. And we won’t use poisons. After all, we are beekeepers. I asked a friend of mine, with experience in park management, for advice. She asked if it was too late to consider selling.

And so we steeled our resolve. We narrowed our focus to the garden area–a mere 50 X 100 foot oasis of fruit trees and raised beds. Surely we could manage that. Let the knapweed, and the bees, roam the acreage–but save the garden.

I’ve been pulling knapweed for three years now. We’re making headway, but it’s a worthy opponent. Pulling weeds was my ‘free-time’ activity. I’d do some in the spring, but mostly the early season was for getting the garden in. And summer and fall were full of knapweed endeavors. After nearly every rain, I/we pulled it by the wheelbarrow loads. It’s exhausting.

A pattern emerged. Our main focus was around the garden beds and the fruit trees. The areas along the fenceline, and other open ‘yet to be developed’ areas tended to get the least attention. Naturally the weed dug in there, for the battle. Late season efforts only slowed the knapweed’s hegemony. By then, rootlets had spread–guaranteeing reinforcements for the next season. A thankless, and never-ending task.

What we needed was an early season surge. And, what else can you do in a pandemic lockdown? So this was it. We (mostly me, but Rick’s a maniac, too) have been up to our eyebrows in deep weeding. Every. Single. Knapweed. In some areas, the knapweed was so thick that our efforts left the soil barren. (Remember, knapweed loves disturbed soils. Sigh.) We re-seeded with soil-building plants, even knowing that the knapweed’s toxins might defeat the effort. So far this spring, we have over a hundred hours in, between us, in the back-breaking effort of pulling this damned weed.

We’ll take a break now, and turn our efforts to growing some vegetables. After that, we’ll be back to knapweed-maintenance duty.

In Los Angeles, the City wrestled with how to resolve their pollution problem. They limited driving, especially near competition venues. They located most of the events on the west side, nearest the ocean breezes. Ultimately, language was their biggest success. They changed the standards. Voila! Objectives met!

We, too, have re-framed the battle. It’s unlikely we’ll eradicate knapweed. We don’t even use that word anymore. And we’ve narrowed the playing field to the garden/orchard area, ignoring the acres and acres of adjacent infestation. (Hell, the bees like it, right?) We don’t even consider abandoning ‘eradication’ as a retreat. Facing similar obstacles, many pollution agencies have adjusted changed their mission–it’s about ‘management’ not ‘control.’

We know that we will always be fighting knapweed in the garden. Even if we are fully successful, weeds are not great respecters of fences. The objective now is to keep enough area clear so that we can go about the business of keeping the orchard and growing enough vegetables for our own consumption. We’re not farmers, we’re gardeners. And that’s enough.

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Sigh. Knapweed (only) removed, and nothing left but disturbed soil.

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These jokers who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing piss me off. I run into them mostly at the hardware store–the locals seem to be wearing masks, but these guys think etiquette and prevention efforts don’t apply to them.

Understand, I’m a pretty nondescript senior, mousy hair–eyeglasses. I’d never be suspected. And the scenario is so common, I’ve experienced the opportunity several times already. So here’s the plan:

I’m in the hardware, probably looking at hose sprayers. The damn things break all the time, and there must be a dozen different styles, each as cheap and junky as the next. It’s also an item that many folks need early in the season. One of these maskless jokers ambles up the aisle, and stands, just a hair too close, looking at hose and irrigation supplies. From behind my mask, I nod, politely. He nods back–maybe even smiles. I select, and inspect several items, quietly clearing my throat. I inspect and reject several sprayers, carefully hanging them back on their designated hooks. He’s rummaging through the irrigation parts.

I cough, just a quiet little cough at first. He doesn’t even look up. Then I really start coughing, sucking for air between, my arm reaching out for balance. Without any real intention, except to stabilize myself, I grab his sleeve. Now the coughs are wracked and serious. Gasping for air, I reach up and pull away my mask, sinking to my knees as I do so. By now, I’m pretty sure he’s wrenched himself free, and fled. If not, I reach out and clasp his hand and gasp, “Help me.” The payoff for me is the look on his face as he realizes I may have just delivered a high-speed, viral load.

There. I’m sure that’ll do it. The same thing could be done at the grocery store, or the local 7-11. Anywhere folks think the rules don’t apply to them. Consider it performance art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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We’re tidying up. After years of construction, it was finally time to clear away the debris that had accumulated around the house, while we were busy. Rick didn’t want rural living to mean “eyesore,” as is too often the case.

There’s an area under the porch that was particularly bad–every known form of construction crap, tossed and ignored. Rick sorted and stacked the good stuff, put some of it in the burn pile and bagged the rest for a trip to the dump. But then, what to do with that area?

Originally, we’d planned to plant ground cover. But that would require watering up against the basement wall–not the best recipe for a dry basement. We wrestled with how best to preserve it as a tidy area, and not have it become a weedy mess, or an outdoor sandbox for the cats, or a scratchyard for the chickens.

We finally decided to cover it with landscape cloth and mulch it. But what mulch material? We’re not inclined to head to the big box store for landscaping materials, if we can avoid it. We have leftover gravel from the septic. We have bark left from firewood, we use it all the time as mulch in the orchard. And we have pine needles. Acres and acres of pine needles.

So, pine needles it was. My job was to head up into the pines with a rake and a wheelbarrow. The floor of the pine forest is weed free and lovely. Four or five decades of needle drop makes for a thick layer of soft mulch. It didn’t take too long to rake up enough to cover the area under the porch, maybe five or six wheelbarrows full. During which, I couldn’t help but think that there I was, raking the forest. How responsible is that, eh? And we don’t even have a problem with wildfires.

Anyway, it all turned out pretty well, using available resources.

 

 

When we were little, our village, St. Clair Beach, was a community that was always growing. The fields behind, and around our house, one by one, were excavated and then became new homes for new families. On weekends, we loved the empty construction sites. First there were enormous piles of dirt, literally fodder to all kids of childhood schemes and dreams. We rode our bikes up and over, we dug, we threw clods of clay in neighborhood turf wars, we investigated the new construction–figuring out the floor plans and wondering what new neighbors and lives would fill in these stick walls. My brother, my usual partner in crime, would collect lumber cut-offs and loose nails, and these materials would be transformed into tree forts, or go-carts.

Once, when I was about 8 and my brother was 9, we headed off to explore a new home up by the lake. It was a two story home, so well worth the trip to check it out–the new houses near us hadn’t been nearly so complicated.

So there we were, upstairs, examining the framing for the stairwell, my brother’s pockets loaded down with nails, when we heard somebody coming into the framed and sheathed shell of the house. My brother put his finger to his lips–but I didn’t need to be warned to shush. Maybe they’d come and go, without knowing we were there. No such luck.

Our visitor was none other than our local constable. We knew him from the bicycle safety events at our school. My eyes widened! We’d been caught by the cops! He used his sternest voice to interrogate us about what we were doing in the new house. He lectured us about the dangers of new construction and the rules about trespassing. He made my brother unload his pockets of his pillaged treasure and then marched us out to the police car. There, with the two of us, a matched set of tow-headed blonds, seated side by side in the back seat, he asked me my name. Near tears, I blurted, “Alta Walters.” He nodded and turned to my brother, “And you, young man, what is your name?” My brother didn’t miss a beat– “Dave Cadieux.”*

My jaw dropped in shock. I don’t know how the officer kept a straight face. He proceeded to drive us to our crescent, and drop us off, warning that if we were caught again, he’d have to speak to our parents.

*Dave was my brother’s friend and our next door neighbor.

But just as cuddly.

In addition to its ‘how-to’ features, this blog documents the evolution of a Northern Michigan fence. Who knew?

Once we’d settled, but before we moved in, we identified the area where we wanted the garden and dooryard orchard. Initially, we’d envisioned it further up the hill, only to realize that the upper area of the property is shaded by the hill, all afternoon. So we selected a sunny patch further down. Then we put in a pretty standard fence–your basic t-post, four foot fence. (Initially it was electrified for the bees, but later we moved them up the hill.) Then we planted our trees.

Then the deer came, jumped the fence and ate the tops off of all our baby trees. Sigh.   We pruned as best we could to salvage them and put a wobbly extension on the fence (as well as a run of rabbit proof fencing along the bottom.) We were surprised that there wasn’t some off-the-shelf fence-extension kit available at the big box stores. Our wobbly extension (sticks and twine held in place with zip ties) lasted a couple years, before we had to redo it. The fruit trees survived, and then thrived.

Then, this year, the fence extension started to fall again. The damn deer noted it immediately, hopped it (tearing it down even more) and did a little of their own winter pruning on the trees again. The good news was that, this time, the trees are much bigger, and the damage far less threatening to the survival of the orchard.

So, this time, Rick wanted a sturdier fence extension, and one that was clearly visible to the deer, so they wouldn’t get hung up in it, tearing it down with them. It turned out pretty well. This is the result.

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For those who might need to fortify their own fences, he used PVC pipe parts (a reducer that capped the t-post, then a short length of extension and a cap. Most of the pipe we had leftover from plumbing the house. We used some of the former electric fence tape, because we already had it, and it’s visible. You could also use clothes line (and drill it instead of cutting slots for the tape.) We’re now back up to the height which has previously been successful in dissuading the deer–only this is much sturdier, and hopefully will last longer. If the UV starts to erode the pipe, we’ll paint it, but for now the bright white suits our purposes.

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With the house and barn built (at least usable, if not completely finished), this is the year we want to focus on the garden. With the new fence in place, our efforts will not be in vain.

I suppose it would have been easier, had we known back at the beginning that we needed to protect the garden from leaping deer as well as hopping bunnies, but if we knew then, what we know now, we might have been daunted from even starting.

We’ve been practicing social isolation, but that is a lot like our rural lives in any event. As we watch from the sidelines, it is increasingly frustrating to observe behaviors that endanger us all. And I’m not talking about the idiots who insist that it’s all a hoax and refuse to adjust to new conditions. After all, those idiots got their information from other idiots–idiots in power.

Yes, it’s the idiots in power that have me frustrated. Folks who were told this would be bad–and instead of preparing, instead of educating the populace, they denied it all, and called it a hoax, blamed others and, in some particularly despicable cases, kept it all hush while they dumped their stocks on the market. Yes, while they should have been making preparations, some were making profits. (Worse yet, some actually invested in sectors that would be benefit from the tragedy.)

This virus is the gift of globalism. Brought to us in America by wealthy tourists and business travelers. In a more perfect world, we’d have been diligent. We’d have been ready to treat the afflicted before this got into the general population. Part of the surprise is in who gets it. Most epidemics are bottom up. They fester in the undernourished, the poor and those forced into crowded conditions. But corona virus is well-named–the crown. It came to us on the heels of international travel, not exactly the bailiwick of the unwashed masses. And those who’ll suffer the most are older people, with a particular emphasis on men. Go figure. You’d think that, with odds like those, the folks in power would sit up and take notice. In this country, this viral infection is the ultimate (and perhaps the only) ‘trickle down.’ Over time, we’ll all be exposed. But wealth may well determine who gets the testing, the ICU beds, and the ventilators.

Don’t get me wrong. In the end, we’ll all pay for it, in suffering and deaths and taxes. Even as we should be focusing on solutions, our government is proposing bail-outs to big business. Not that we don’t need to cushion the blows to the economy, we do. But once again, it’s about who gets it. Who reaps the rewards of the pandemic. While the true victims pay with their lives, the folks in power are parceling out the benefits to their friends and patrons. Believe me, I get it.

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I woke up early, just in time to hear the start of the gunfire. While that sounds alarming, it’s not that unusual–we live about a half mile from a local gun range. What is disconcerting, but oddly normal, is how every adverse news event these days triggers a serious uptick in the use at the gun range.

A stock market drop can do it. Any one of our flavor-of-the-week mass shootings will do it. Political instability can do it. So you just know that the threat of corona virus has them all out blasting away at the range. After all, they may need that firepower if they run low on toilet paper.

I went grocery shopping two days ago. This was not some desperate, Mad Max, dash for supplies; it was my regular grocery day. I’d heard the toilet paper stories–with some mirth. But things were not so light-hearted at Costco. They had employees guarding the bathroom tissue, to ensure that the one-to-a-customer rule was enforced. Sheesh!

But what was of real concern was that it is clear that people are hoarding food. There were no bananas, no organic lettuce, no ground beef (regular or organic), no organic chicken and only a smattering of regular chicken. I actually found a package of organic chicken drumsticks, mixed in a section of chicken wings. I was holding it, looking for more, when a woman next to me tersely demanded to know where I’d found it. She looked tense, and her eyes were locked on my find.

I did find one package of “utility chicken”–cheap cuts that we buy to supplement the kittens’ food. I added that to my cart. In the canned goods department, people were filling their carts. It’s all a little disconcerting. When I got home, the utility chicken was not in with my groceries, nor on my receipt. Apparently somebody lifted it from my cart as I shopped. Sheesh. I spent far less than intended–but it’s a false savings, as it will require a second trip.

Yesterday they closed the schools and public facilities. We’ve had to cancel, or maybe postpone, our Beginning Beekeeping Class. I’m sad about that, but believe that caution is the best plan in these things. If most of us stay home for a bit, hopefully we can knock down this viral head of steam enough to preserve medical resources for those who’ll need them. It’s called flattening the curve. It’s not alarming, it’s just good sense.

But in the meantime, I wish those fools would lay off on the target practice. In the context of the rest of this, it is a bit unnerving.

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“Did you hear that?” I called from the kitchen.

“What?”

“The chickens are squawking. It’s not the rooster, it’s the chickens.”

“Hmmm. Haven’t heard that in a while…do ya think?”

We don’t use lights on our chickens in the winter. We could, and then they’d lay during the dark months. Of course, unless we invested in equipment and did a lot of experiments…those eggs would freeze, and be of no use. And, it cannot be good to have that output of extra energy for egg laying, when it takes so much to just keep warm all winter. So we don’t. We think of winter as chicken sabbatical.

After a bit, the squawking resumed.

“You hear that?”

“I’m going.” He pulled on his boots and jacket.

Sure enough, his investigation was rewarded with two fresh eggs, the first of the season.

He came in and proudly displayed the bounty.

I nodded. “Makes perfect sense.”

“Yeah, with the longer days…”

“Well, and the extra light from Day Light Savings.”

He had to squint, eyeing me, to see if I was kidding.

 

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This is my bare minimum. You have to do at least this, to qualify to bitch, complain, rant, spew, pontificate or carry on in whatever form you prefer about the state of the union. Of course, you can roll up your sleeves and do more. Please do. But I don’t want to hear a peep out of anyone, if that individual failed to vote.

Voting. Way more effective than whining (especially on the internet.)

Here we are, facing a potential pandemic with our pants down. Over the past two years we have disassembled our domestic epidemic capabilities, at the same time that we dismantled our international assistance for disease control. If this were Star Trek, we’d have lost our warp drive at the same time our shields were down.

But here’s the good news. At this point, we’re looking at an illness that only kills 2 to 3% of it’s victims–maybe less with good medical care. We’ve had the good fortune to have our shortcomings pointed out in a dry-run epidemic. (I do not, in any way, want to undermine the suffering of those afflicted in a serious way.) But, from a national perspective, this is a slap on the wrist for our failure to remain ready for the threat. We can learn from this.

Of course, there are ugly lessons out there. The first round of flu in 1918 was relatively benign–before it mutated into the lethal form. And so, we should keep our eyes open. But the lessons of 1918 should not be lost–keep the public informed. Tell the truth. If you’re going to ask folks to participate in minimizing risks, you need to be honest about what the risks are. So far, we’re not rising to the occasion here. It’s not a good idea to call the pandemic a hoax–while at the same time, congratulating yourself for handling it well–when, in fact, you’ve done nothing. Less than nothing.

We can do better, even without quality leadership. We can educate ourselves about the risks, we can take steps to avoid the spread of illness. We can be ready to self-isolate if necessary. We can assist others if there’s need. Who wouldn’t be willing to drop off some gatorade and a casserole for a neighbor? Flex our community muscles and we may just discover that we actually have a community.

And, we can avoid the ugliness that comes with any epidemic. If infected, self-isolate. If exposed, don’t expose others. You cannot outrun a virus. Exercise that ancient Ring-Around-the-Rosy wisdom and resist the urge to run, and spread, the illness. Wash your hands. Cover your cough. Drink plenty of fluids and get adequate rest. All of us can engage in common-sense self care. And, stick to science.

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Two bundles of grey fur. There are those who will say that animals do not have “personalities,” that they merely respond to your training. Try getting two. Siblings. Biologically, these two kittens are pretty close, brothers and littermates. When they first arrived, the primary difference between them was size. One was the runt and was just slightly over half the size of the other.

Now, he’s catching up. So much so that we sometimes have trouble telling them apart. Their markings are near identical–grey coats with a whisper of tabby. But you need only watch them for a few minutes to know who is who. The runt is bouncing-off-the-walls-batshit-crazy. He’s totally engaged, and addicted to his people. For him anything is a game, and he is up to the challenge. He follows us everywhere.

The larger kitten, Ollie, is mellow and reserved. Sometimes we wonder is he’s okay, but only because the comparison is so dramatic. He’s just fine. Really. We know that because he becomes fully engaged when he goes outside. He’s all cat–brave and intrepid, exploring the property, even in deep snow. It’s not even that he’s shy inside, but next to Mr. Personality, he seems so. He’s just a softer, gentler version.

Obviously, these doppelgängers have the same food, the same environment, and similar genetics and yet the differences are marked. We don’t think that we contribute to the difference in how they’re treated (although that little guy sometimes requires self-defense maneuvers.) So, innately they must come pre-wired with different characters. Not so different than the rest of us.

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

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

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

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

Beekeeping for Beginers

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Michigan has no shortage of bugs. I know we hear about the dangers of the insect apocalypse, and those are very real dangers, but you couldn’t tell it from where we live. I’ve heard all the jokes (mosquitoes so big, they’re the State Bird; black flies so thick they blot out the sun; and so on.) We get it.

My standard reprise (especially to Californians) is that we have enough water to support life here. Insects are one healthy barometer of that fact. That usually shuts them up.

But, we comfort ourselves in the knowledge that winter offers a respite from the bugs. (They say that’s why Michiganders like ice-fishing.) Sigh.

Or so I said, until now. It turns out we have winter bugs! They call them snow fleas. Hypogastrura nivicola (Hypogastrurida) They’re about the size of fleas and they jump. Go ahead, look it up. They’re a kind of springtail and they actually manufacture their own internal ‘anti-freeze’ that lets them thrive in winter. They come out when we get warm spells, so that they can slurp the water from the sun-melted snow.

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The good news is that they are entirely beneficial. They don’t bite, sting, suck blood, eat your home or annoy. They eat dead plant matter, and so are nature’s little composting assistants. If you have them, it’s an indication of clean soils.

I’d never seen them before. It requires just the right conditions to get them on the snow’s surface. I saw the specs on the snow when I was bringing in firewood. I assumed that it was ash debris–from the chimney–until I saw them jumping, and then I looked closely. Bugs! Bugs in winter! Who knew?

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It’s been a long time since we had kittens. One forgets. They’re into everything. I thought I kept a moderately tidy home, but they show up wearing dust bunnies, from God only knows where. I guess the bright spot is that they’re dusting areas that I’ve clearly missed.

They follow me around making trouble with whatever it is I am trying to accomplish. Today was laundry. First, they kept running off with the socks. Then, finally they settled in for a nap. I guess I can do without the laundry basket for a while.

Thankfully, there are two. For the most part they keep each other busy, which is good because I don’t have that kind of energy to entertain a kitten.

We’ve set firm rules. For the most part, they’ve been pretty good. We decided at the outset, no kittens on the bed–and that’s been the hardest thing to enforce. They want to be where we are. I should take it as a compliment, but at 2:00 am, I’m not easily flattered.

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As a teen, at my parents’ home, my least favorite task was to have to get wood from the woodpile, at night. In the snow. In the dark. We’ve set it up here so that this is never the case.

Sure, the woodpile is out back, at stone’s throw from the house. But by the basement door we put in a wood ‘crib,’ enough to hold two or three week’s worth of fuel, depending on the temperature. And, just inside the basement door is a woodbox, that we fill everyday, so that the wood for the day is dry, and warm.

A couple of times each month I refill the woodcrib. I use a sled–the kind they make for ice-fishing, unless there’s no snow, in which case, I use a wheel barrow. It takes eleven or twelve full wheelbarrow loads to fill the crib–but only five or six sled loads. I prefer the sled.

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You cannot turn your back on that sled though. If the ground is uneven, it’ll do what sleds do. Just before the holidays, the sled got away from me and whacked me square in the knee–knocking me over. I hobbled for a couple of weeks after that. That was my stupid-tax–it was my fault. I need to be more careful about observing how the sled is positioned on any slope–especially if I’m going to get out in front of it.

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Just enough of a slope to cause trouble!

Unlike my sister, further north, we don’t burn 24/7. We start a fire when the temperature falls below 62, usually mid-day, and keep it going until we go to bed. Any more than that and the house would be too hot. In my parents’ house, the fire burned non-stop from October to April. I’m not sure if our difference in burn time is because of latitude, or the fact that we stuffed every nook and cranny of this house with insulation.

All the wood we burn comes from deadfall here on the property. It’s free, unless you count the hours we spend cutting, hauling and splitting. It’s heavy work, but it’s outdoors  in the woods and lovely. It’s one of our favorite tasks.

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And ready for next time–sled or wheel barrow.

I was the one who insisted that we heat with wood. Not only had I grown up with it, but I learned a lesson in a rental once, that made me insist on having some measure of control when it came to heat. We lost power at the farm where I rented–and it was out for nearly a week. The furnace, though propane fueled, required electric power to operate. It was a very long, cold, week. After that, even though it was a rental, I installed a small wood stove. I never again wanted to be at the mercy of a public utility.

We have back-up heat, propane stoves and some electric baseboard units–enough to keep the house from freezing if we go out of town in the winter. But for day to day use, we burn wood.

We’re having a winter storm today. Not much of a storm really, there was some wind last night and by tomorrow morning we expect to add a foot of fresh snow. It’s beautiful. We won’t shovel until tomorrow–no point in doing it twice. In the meantime, it’s toasty inside by the fire.

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IMG_2579We were only gone for five days. The weather was mild, so the chickens had full access to their outdoor pens. And we had a chicken-sitter checking in on them–water and food and all that.

So, there was nothing to prepare us for the surprise when we arrived home. The first indication of a reality shift was that Einstein, our docile runt chicken, was marching the fence line, desperate to return to the company of the other two Chanteclers–her former tormenters. We’d put her in with the Barnevelder, with the idea that two lonelies might do better together–and at first, it seemed to work.

Rick went down to check on the chickens–and opened the gate between the pens. Einstein made a bee line for her Chantecler buddies. So much for trying to mediate chicken disputes. He noticed something else different…but didn’t say anything.

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I went down later, just to check things out on my way to the compost. It was subtle, but something was different. That Barnevelder seemed to have developed an attitude. It was patrolling its territory, with a decided swagger — even, I’d go so far to say, a strut. Head high and eyes bright…this was new.

“Rick, did you notice anything odd about the Barnevelder?”

He looked at me funny, nodding. “A little on the aggressive side. I saw her go after one of the Chantclers, talons first.”

“Do you think…”

“Yeah, I wondered. Maybe we have a rooster on our hands.”

The signs are there. There’s that upright posture, and the start of more pronounced tail plumage. Even new wattle and comb growth. (We’d selected our chicken varieties for low comb and no wattle, because there’s less chance of freezing in a cold climate. But, course, all bets are off if we’re talking roosters.) We’re pretty sure.

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The other chickens want nothing to do with it (him?)

We weren’t banking on roosters. So far, no crowing, at least we haven’t heard it. But then, we’re late-risers.

What to do with a rooster? Soup? We cannot have him annoying the neighbors. (Though a mean rooster would be an interesting match for those goddamn dogs.)

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

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Because, no matter how painful the losses, there’s always room for more loving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sounds like a political strategy, eh? It’s not. It’s an old-fashioned method of harvesting honey. There are two primary methods of honey processing, spinning (extraction) and crush and strain. What you choose depends upon the types of hives you have and what products from the hive you want to harvest.

Usually we use a frame spinner to extract the honey from the comb. This process leaves you with empty frames of drawn comb, which the bees can repair and re-use. When you consider that it takes about seven pounds of honey for the bees to make one pound of wax, it makes good sense to recycle it.

But sometimes, it makes sense to scrape the frames clean and strain the whole mess to get the honey. Perhaps you also want to harvest the honey and the wax–for soaps, or lotions, or candles. Perhaps, your bees have been goofy and making irregular and wacky comb–and you want a fresh start–so they won’t continue the weirdness. Or, maybe you only have a little to harvest and it’s not worth the set up and clean up for just a couple of quarts.

We had a few frames of wacky comb, so we decided to crush and strain. It’s simple–letting gravity do the work, and requires only the kinds of tools you’d find in any household–a collander, a big pot, and a paint straining net. It’s messy, but then, so is spinning.

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We had five frames of partial, or wacky comb. In total, it yielded two quarts of honey, a worthwhile harvest. We’ll save the full frames for later processing in the spinner. In the meantime, life is a little sweeter for the effort.

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It’s tough to capture the light coming through the icicles on the trees. When the sun comes out in the winter, it takes your breath away. I only wish I was a better photographer.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s at least a foot since yesterday.

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Good thing that’s a truss roof.

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

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Usually, we don’t put the jackets on the bee hives until December. But we don’t usually have temperatures in the teens and a foot of snow until late December. (Okay–I’m exagerating with the foot of snow–we aren’t there yet–but we will be by tomorrow if the forecast is correct.)

There’s a sweet spot with winter bees, between 37 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit, at which it’s cool enough for them to be ‘semi-dormant,’ but warm enough not to make excessive demands on their stores of winter honey. Usually, at this time of year the hives stay ‘in the zone,’ without insulation.

Then as the winter catches its stride and cools, we suit up for the duration.

Usually.

According to the prognosticators, this is just a cold snap. They say December will be mild. But right now, the bees could use some extra help. So, today was a lovely day to do a little winterizing, in a light snowfall.

(If things seem a little out of order, yesterday I was gardening–in the snow–puting in bulbs for spring. It felt like, if I didn’t do it then, I wouldn’t get another chance until April. Those new gardens are now under seven inches–so maybe I was right.)

So much for usual in the weather department.

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There, snug for winter. (We have just the two hives populated this year.)

 

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It’s pretty, though.

 

 

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It’s not like we weren’t expecting it. We have, after all, been smug about it, boasting, “This  year we’re ready.” The bees are winterized, the chicken coops prepped, the wood, chopped, split and stacked. We even cleared the composter and spread the completed compost onto the harvested garden beds. But we still had things to do. Relying on previous years, I thought I still had time to put in new garden beds–and plant bulbs for spring. Rick has just a little bit of wiring left in the barn.

And we’re not surprised to have some snow at the close of October. It’s almost a tradition. The joke is that folks in Michigan get their Hallowe’en costumes three sizes large–so they’ll fit over their winter coats. What we didn’t expect was that it’d stay this cold, this long.

Last year I was transplanting, dormant, into December. This year, I’d have to search in the snow to find the garden beds. It often snows in autumn–and then it melts. This year, it didn’t just snow. It pelted! It stripped the colored leaves from the trees, nearly overnight. That snow? We thought, just like Bolsonaro*, that it would never stick. We were wrong.

4326 words.

Never heard of it? Of course not. I made it up. With NaNoWriMo knocking at the door I had to decide. No. I will not register. I will not participate. Not that it isn’t time. For the first time in years, November arrives without needs pressing from every quarter. Not that we aren’t still “small b” building. Not that the bees and the chickens and the garden don’t continue to take up part of our attentions. But there is a pause with the approaching winter that leaves time for creative ventures. (It’s snowing out there now!)

And yet, I have at least three, good, but unfinished manuscripts from past NaNoWriMos. I really have to tackle the pending file before I can undertake some fresh new gallop across the keyboard. And I don’t feel it’s appropriate to register for NaNo, to work on unfinished business. In fact, it’s a little embarrassing. I have stories waiting. I have characters, sighing and checking their watches, resentful of my neglect. I have readers asking, “What happened to Fiona?” (or Denise, or Ben?)

The solution? PerNoWriCom. That’s Personal Novel Writing Completion! I’ll follow many of the NaNo rules–try to keep up with the word count (never my strong suit.) And shoot for completion of the first full draft of The Trial of Trudy Castor by the end of 2019. Then edit and publish by spring. Ready? Set? So let’s go!

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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Our authors’ group held a “Local Color” event at the local bookstore. I was the primary mover and shaker in organizing this event. It is, apparently, getting harder to sell books at bricks and mortar outlets. Or maybe, it’s getting harder to sell books–the real item, with pages made of paper. So authors are looking for ways to generate ‘buzz.’

Admittedly it took some effort to get this off the ground. Directing authors in any concerted effort is like herding kittens. I shouldn’t be surprised. By definition, writers engage in solo efforts. Not all of them are up to public speaking. Many are unaccustomed to team building. Because of this, we ran a little short on the marketing time frame and the event was not particularly well attended. Or maybe it’s just difficult to get folks to abandon their screen time for actual human contact.

We didn’t sell a lot of books. But everyone who came loved it. Authors spoke about their stories, and their motivations. Some used the opportunity to expound on the research done for their backstory (after all, there must be some good use for all that work.) Some read poetry–their own and others’. In all, it was a captivating evening. Yet we didn’t sell many books.

Afterwards, I was cringing, wondering how my fellow authors would react. They could have been miffed that their energies were misspent. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did everyone thank me on the way out the door, but I also received a number of emails, praising the effort and the outcome. One in particular expressed thanks at the opportunity to better get to know their fellow writers–and to hear, in their own words, about their individual paths in the writing venture. It turns out that authors are as interested in community engagement as they are in actual book sales. Many expressed interest in doing it again. Several even suggested it should be an annual event–you know, a tradition.

I am thrilled. I’m not immune to the lure of a successful book sale. But I also believe that  our relationship with our readers doesn’t begin and end with the transaction. The group’s objective is to create a relationship with our community, rooted in the joy of the written word. So I’m not cringing. We’re talking about ways to expand on this experience–maybe by genre, or by theme. We’ll need to experiment with better marketing. Maybe we will do this as a tradition. I don’t know where it will lead, but I know that it starts with a wider understanding of the concept of success. And that’s a great place to start.

Image may contain: Scott Couturier, standing
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Image may contain: Tom Carr and Bob Downes, people smiling, beard, eyeglasses, closeup and indoor
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Bob Downes is with Scott Couturier and 3 others.

Our Traverse City Author event at Horizon Books drew an audience of mostly authors, offering some fascinating talks on local literature. I stayed for the full 3 hours and loved every presentation. There’s an amazing reservoir of writing talent in TC!

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TCA Fall Flyer

We’ve been looking for a chimney sweep. We’ve been using the woodstove for over a year, and it’s time to clean the chimney before the heating season begins. The guy I intended to use up and retired, just as I was ready to hire him. I suppose we could do it ourselves, but it’s a messy job, and might require working on a ladder, on a steep roof. So, we’ll hire, and watch, and decide later if we’re up to it.

This morning I woke up to some strange noises. I couldn’t tell what it was–until I came downstairs. Then it was clear. A bird had flown down our chimney and become caught in the stovepipe to our wood stove. The pipe’s damper was closed–and the bird was trapped there, at the damper. The sound was frantic.

This happened once before, just after we installed the wood stove, but before we’d really used it. Since we weren’t yet living in the house, we didn’t discover the trapped pair of nesting birds until it was too late and they’d died. We hoped that once the system was in use that the smell of smoke and ash would warn off any other feathered visitors. And it did, until now.

Rick came downstairs, having deduced from the noise, that we were, once again, hosts to an involuntary bird guest. After coffee, we gathered the tools to disassemble the top of the stove, to provide access to the pipe. It seemed simple enough, once we were ready, we’d just flip open the damper, and the bird would fall into a pillowcase that Rick had pressed up around the bottom of the stovepipe. I’d open the door and he’d release the bird. Ha!

Just before we started, he warned me that we had to be in sync, because the last thing we needed was a soot-covered bird flying around inside the house. We assumed our positions and I opened the damper. Suddenly there was a bird, flying around the house!

It was a tidier bird than we’d expected–dropping a few feathers, but not a lot of soot. But a lot of soot, dislogded by the bird’s struggles, emptied into the pillowcase and the top of the stove. With a minimum of bird chase, and several opened windows, the bird found its way to freedom. A young grackle, I think.

It took a little vacuuming, but mostly it went well. Afterwards, Rick commented that we didn’t need a chimney sweep; we just needed a couple more birds.

I don’t know. I think two birds in the bush are worth a lot more than one in the hand.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

“You’re up early.”

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

“Was it the woodpeckers that got you up?”

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

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

“Oh no. That was the bears.”

“Bears?!”

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

“Bears!”

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

“What did they want up on the porch?”

“Damned if I know.”

“Geez, I hope the bees are alright.”

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

“We’ll have to check later.”

“When it’s light out.”

“Yeah.”

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

I’ve Taken Up Smoking

I’d always avoided it before. Smoking seemed, well, filthy, and unfair. Instead, I’ve just girded myself for those high stress, even invasive, situations. Sometimes I used aroma therapy, a light mist of mint–it seemed calming. But not enough. So now I’m smoking.

We have two very large hives. We will probably split them before winter. Recent studies show that small to medium size hives fare better in over-wintering. These two hives have been enormously productive. Because we were busy building the barn, we just added additional supers when the bees filled things up. Now, the hives are so large, it’s become difficult to work the bees. Any hive can get pissy if you’re in it too long. With such large hives, it takes time just to get to the bottom on a simple inspection. So I’ve reverted to smoking.

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Smoke doesn’t calm the bees. It alarms and distracts them. Faced with smoke–the prospect of fire– the bees prepare for an emergency exit by gorging themselves on honey. Then, when the emergency turns out to be illusory, these gluttonous bees are too stuffed to move, or get back to work. Smoking bees costs you at least a full day of productivity. Think about how most Americans feel after Thanksgiving dinner. That’s what smoke does to bees.

One thing I learned recently is that the beekeeper can smoke him or herself. The bees avoid the smoke smell, so you can turn the smoker on your gloves or veil and make yourself an unattractive target–if a smoky one. It works.

We tested the bees for mites today–and found ourselves on the threshold for treatment.  Though we intend to split them, and add queens to the newly formed hives (as it’s too late in the season for them to make their own and still get ready for winter), we don’t want to do mite treatment on the new queens. So, we’ll use Mite-Away strips this week, and split them next week. We are fortunate that a local beekeeper is breeding queens and has Michigan-hardy, mated, queens available now.

So that’s the plan. I’ll be glad when it’s done. The resulting smaller hives won’t need so much smoking and both we, and the bees, will be happier for that.

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Stone Soup Barn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Barn Quilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rose chafer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Mid-Year Reset

2019 has been a bust. I’m looking to reset the time clock for a fresh start. Not that I haven’t prevailed in the challenges of the year, I have. I’ve taken acute and catastrophic and whittled it down to manageable-chronic. I’m learning new rules to the game and living within them. I followed up months of serious illness with a fall, and injuries, only to have my mother hit with a brief, but alarming illness, that had me drop everything to come to her aid.

Maybe it’s the best thing to happen all year. Prolonged illness can set you up to a cycle of fragile. For the first time in my life, I felt old. Responding to my mum’s plight let me put my own stuff aside to address her needs. Now that she is on the mend, I am returning to my own life with renewed vigor.

Sure, the garden is weeks behind and every other schedule in my life is askew. But suddenly the questions are about how to catch up–not to forego. I brought my mum home (she was traveling when she fell ill) and that meant I had the chance to visit with my sister and brother-in-law. His garden is in–delayed some, because he had to deal with his father’s death. (See how lucky I’m feeling already?)

He had a bunch of orphan plants–extras from the greenhouse that would’ve ended up in the compost. I have ready gardens–but the vagaries of my past few months meant I didn’t get my starts in. Now I’m returning home with a car full of tiny tomato, pepper, broccoli, and cabbage plants. Instant garden. I’ll finish up the rest with seeds. My mum’s travels were extended by the unexpected illness. When we arrived at her house, her pantry stash of organic potatoes had gone too far–rooting and sprouting. So I have seed potatoes. My sister was tearing out a neglected flower bed–to convert it to garlic and onions. I need to start landscaping around our new house. Now I have buckets of daffodils, irises and day lilies. These little plants completely fill the back of the car. Tomorrow, I’m headed home.

Things are looking up.

For the first time this year, I’m excited to get back to writing, to get back out into the bee yard, to get the garden underway. Our crew has made good progress on the barn (which I’ll get to see when I get home.) So, despite the fact that the year is nearly half gone, I’m celebrating a new beginning.

Memorial Day–the Killing Fields

Memorial Day is a solemn event. It is our moment to reflect on the price of freedom. The highest cost of that price is paid individually, by those who perish at war, and their families, who bear the loss. It should not be taken lightly. In reflecting on the cost, we, as a nation, need to gird ourselves against those in office who would put our service members in harm’s way, without serious reason to do so.

That is why this Administration’s ironic and calculated use of the holiday to sidestep Congress’s efforts to minimize the risk of war is so alarming. Congress has seen fit to restrict the White House’s ability to participate in Saudi Arabia’s relentless attacks on Yemen. It is, after all, solely Congress’ right and responsibility to declare War. This afternoon, after most members of Congress had left DC, for the Memorial Day Break, the Administration announced that it would use its emergency powers to sidestep the clear will of Congress, and resume military support of the Saudis in their brutal attacks on Yemen.

Trump and the Missus took the opportunity observe Memorial Day with a visit to the Arlington Cemetery.

Where is the emergency? American interests are not at stake. The Saudis’ war on Yemen has been horrifying–and indiscriminately visited upon civilians. Their siege mentality has starved hundreds of thousands of children. The Yemenis never did anything to the United States–why would we want to jump on that bandwagon?

Nothing is so alarming and dispiriting as the disingenuous expression of patriotism on Memorial Day, while, at the same time, doing one’s absolute best to ensure yet another brutal and unfounded war.

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The Pips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I used to prune in the absolute dead of winter. The trees were fully dormant and the pruning wounds would dry and heal over before spring’s sap run. But I read an article about “killing frosts” in the spring. Not that they killed the trees, but that the frost either killed the blossoms, or the trees would bloom when it was still too cold for the bees to pollinate.

This is a very real issue with our new climate uncertainties. Not that all of the elements of seasons aren’t present, but that they might not occur ‘in concert.’ Over the millennia, plants and animals everywhere have developed an elegant and intricate dance, specific to region. The robins arrive just as the snow departs. The swallows of Capistrano arrive just in time for the hatching of their insect dinners. But what happens, if the storks arrive and dinner is not on the table? I saw an internet post celebrating the arrival of our first robins here, but when I look out the window, there’s still at least a foot of snow on the ground. Where will those early arrivers get their worms?

Every species has its own internal clock. Some are triggered by temperature. Some are triggered by the angle of the sun. None, so far as I know, are set in motion by the Weather Channel’s debates over the American or European Model of prognostication. Here, in Leelanau, we are only beginning to learn the fancy steps to our dance–just as the local farmers and gardeners are scratching their heads about changes.

According to the pruning article, one way to protect against killing frosts is to prune a little later–when still dormant, but closer to when the sap begins to run. When the tree is pruned, it takes some time for it to adjust and re-assign the hormonal signals in the branch’s ‘lead buds.’ Timed right, this will give you a slight delay in budding, thus reducing the risk of crop losses due to frost. It may also put your fruit at more risk from insects…but you have to weigh the risk of no crop or one that requires defending.

I have ordered new pruning shears. Many years ago, I owned a fine set of Felco pruners, but that was a lifetime ago. In the meantime I’ve made do with a cheapie set, from the local hardware. They were hard on my hands, and hard on the trees. Though our trees are still small, our orchards are expanding. It’s time.

It coincided with the loss of the crappy pruners. I’ve looked everywhere, to no avail. So I’ve ordered a replacement pair of Felco’s and as soon as they arrive, I’ll get busy with the pruning. Yesterday felt like spring, but today it’s snowing again. I’m sure that I’m still within a reasonable dormant pruning window.

I have always loved pruning. It makes me a part of that intricately timed dance. Orchard trees are bred for care and do better when pruned and managed. This chore is a reminder that even when the plant world is asleep under its blanket of snow, its clock is ticking. Spring is coming. There’s work to be done.

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

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

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

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

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

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