Archives for posts with tag: rural living

We watch the police blotter in our local news. It’s sport–there’s not much real crime and so the posts are funny. But, right about now, we can expect a rash of expected, but sad “dog-at-large” complaints. Back home, in the far north, my mom’s dog is likely to run loose, too. We’re at that point where the snow, and wind riven drifts, top the fences. The dogs just walk right over the top, without so much as a “good day–just off to run a few errands.”

We’ve been here long enough now to know the patterns. It’s sad, because running free in a snowstorm isn’t exactly fun for a dog–not after the first few minutes. Before long they are lost. Hell, in this storm, even the people can get lost. And then it’s a tale of frantic dogs and worried dog owners.

If this year is like earlier years, my mum’s neighbors will rescue her dog and bring her home. Copper Harbor is a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and their dogs. My mum will reciprocate by baking some delectable treat, in thanks for the dog rescue. I wonder if my home town wrestles for the opportunity to be the lucky hero.

Here it’s not so easy. Running scared, dogs can be a hazard on the roads. Our neighbor’s dogs will jump at the opportunity to harass our chickens…which is why we have a six foot fence. We’re not looking for a repeat of our recent chicken tragedy.

By next week, this will all have “blown over,” literally and figuratively. After the storm, folks will knock down the drifts at the fence line–putting an end to canine liberation. There will be some posts in the blotter, and we’ll resume the long wait to spring.

 

 

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A Matter of Scale—

A.V. Walters—

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Beautiful? Yes. But look closely at the bumps on the twigs.

Rick and I have returned to our Sundays “day off,” in which we spend Sunday afternoons cutting wood up in the woods. We are still clearing trails and cleaning up after the wild Storm of 2015. I’m sure that the trees down, from just that storm, will heat our Michigan winters for several years to come. This doesn’t even touch the backlog of deadfall accumulating from the dying ash and beech trees. We’ll have work, and heat, for the rest of our lives.

Last Sunday I noticed that the forest was sticky. All over, the understory plants are glazed with a tinge of sap—not unheard of in spring, but a little unusual, given how dry it has been. After a light snow year, April and May had precious little rain for us. The forest is crispy-dry. We didn’t get any of our usual spring morel mushrooms. Here, and up in the U.P., there have been fire warnings. (In May!) We watched the Canadian wildfire in Fort McMurray in horror.

This is not really unusual—when California has an El Nino season, Michigan’s weather is mild and dry. Finally, this week the dry spell broke and we’ve seen lovely storms to accompany the greening of our forests.

So what’s up with sticky? Yesterday, a friend, brow furrowed with concern, pointed out the scale on the maple tree next to our house. Yuck. His trees have it, too. Scale is an insect infestation. Maples always have some measure of scale, but the outer branches of our tree were lined with the limpet-like outer shells of these tiny sap-sucking vultures. It appears that we are having a major infestation of scale. The scale is responsible for the sugar-coated forest.

We live in Michigan. Bugs, in all shapes and forms, are a way of life here. Still, bugs of any kind, in great numbers, are unnerving. After our friend left, I stood in the soft rain, running my hands down every branch I could reach, squishing all those thousands of little scale bugs. Rick just shook his head.

“What are you going to do, molest every tree in the forest?”

Well, no. But the two maples next to my house—those I can help. It’s worrisome. Is this, yet another forest calamity in our future? Naturally this called for a research trip to the internet.

The likely problem is the dry spring. Maple trees under stress produce a thinner, more sugary sap. It’s a stress reaction, to ensure the energy needed leafing out in spring. The scale bugs, in turn, thrive on the sweeter mixture, ironically putting the trees under more stress. So, as long as the dry cycle is not repeated too much over the years, the scale is a cyclical problem that will solve itself.

There are measures I can take. I could have “power washed” the trees, before the leaves came out. I could use poisons (not likely!), sprays or root saturation with systemics. I could use a dormant spray in the very early spring—a perfectly acceptable organic measure—like we’ll be using on the orchard trees when they’re bigger. But, Rick is right. I cannot treat the entire forest. I need to relax here, and wait patiently for the ladybugs. Scale is a favorite of ladybugs and birds.

In the meantime, the rains will wash the forest clean of “sticky.” And, at the same time, they will feed the trees, making them stronger and better equipped to deal with the pests. I’ll step back and let the problem solve itself. Sometimes there is a danger of looking too closely.

 

 

Wascally Wabbits!

A.V. Walters–

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Cages and Wraps

Late April and early May were a whirlwind of activity. We ordered over 200 trees, anticipating the participation of 40 volunteers in this spring’s tree planting extravaganza. The trees arrived. The volunteers did not. There were good reasons for standing us up, but that still left us on our own with a lot of bare root trees.

With bare root plants, you have, at best, two weeks to get them into the ground. You can “heel them in” to buy additional time. Heeling in is essentially storing them in dirt—either by digging a trench, or mounding. Still it’s planting and uprooting them again—more work for us and more trauma to the tender roots. So, we rolled up our sleeves, and planted.

No sooner were the trees in, than we began to lose them to deer and rabbits. So began the next great surge—the making and installation of the tree cages. In all, over a very short period, we made and installed almost one hundred and fifty cages. By the time we finished, and feeling invincible, I was almost beginning to think that rabbits could be cute. Then, we (mostly Rick) re-fenced the garden/orchard area with rabbit-proof fencing. You’d think that there would be an opportunity then, to breathe and rest. Ha! Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

Below the house, we’ve planted a hedge of berry and blooming plants. Well, eventually it will be a hedge; currently it is a widely spaced and hopeful collection of spindly plants. Its purpose is to provide a visual break and to host a wide variety of blooming plants that will be good for the bees. As a side note, there are a number of berry plants that will provide treats for us, too. There are blueberries, high-bush cranberries, service berries and elderberries, mixed in with lilacs, redbuds, red osier, and lavender. In a few years it will be really beautiful. Because the berry plants are particularly tasty (and because I have an emotional and aesthetic stake in this hedge), they were among the first to be caged. Finally, after weeks of work, we could relax.

Well, I actually went into town for groceries, and bought some new work shoes. Rick was working on plumbing, so I walked up to the house to show him my fancy new footwear. On the way up the path, I saw it. A baby bunny. Cute, eh?

Not so much. The baby rabbits are very small. They fit nicely between the wires of our new tree cages. Once in, they are protected from predators, and can munch, at their leisure on our berry plants. From my vantage on the path I could clearly see a baby bunny giving my brand new blueberry bush a serious pruning. I rushed it, waving my arms, screaming. It ran. And stopped, thirty feet from the new hedge… waiting. Quickly, I surveyed the damage. One blueberry, neatly pruned to half its original size. One baby bunny, stalking. And, across the field, half a dozen baby bunnies, frolicking.

Rick came to the door of the house, alerted by my cursing. I held out the severed blueberry branches and he understood immediately. We pulled out a roll of chicken wire and began cutting cage-wraps, glancing nervously over our shoulders to the hedge. I should have stood guard, because in the twenty minutes it took to cut the wire wraps, three more blueberry plants were pruned to within an inch of their lives! Thank God for new shoes!

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Blueberry, it’s branches trimmed!

Now, all of the berry and bloom hedge plants have double cages. I’m also going to string deterrent wires across the tops, to discourage any deer, who might reach down into the shorter cages for a nibble. It’s the Fort Knox of landscaping. Maybe now we can relax a bit. Except that it’s time to put in the garden.

Bunnies? Maybe they’ll be cute again, someday.

 

The Scent of Bees

A.V. Walters

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I’ve wanted to keep bees since my age was in the single digits. My grandfather kept bees. And turkeys. And rabbits. We never knew how many hives he had, because he was forever loading them up into the back of his old Suburban, and carting them around to “someone who needed them.” I didn’t understand why someone might need bees.

He was a quiet man of many talents. He was not a big feature in our lives, because there had been a divorce. For their own reasons, neither my grandmother, nor my grandfather’s second wife, were eager to see a relationship between Grandpa and his grandchildren. The visits were few and far between. But he was interesting and different. He made things with his hands. He was, literally, always trying to build a better mousetrap. He didn’t talk much, but when he did, what he said was solid. Or funny. Sometimes, darkly funny. He thought it was funny to pick up hitchhikers when his Suburban was full of bees.

So, bees have always been in the back of my mind. But, there were always too many reasons why I couldn’t keep bees. In my urban years, my partner was adamantly against it. In Two Rock, my landlord was allergic to stings. (You don’t waste a good landlord, like that.) So the move to Michigan was my chance to finally become a beekeeper. I say “become,” because it takes some time to really be a beekeeper. There’s a lot to learn, especially now, when the bees are in so much trouble.

I’ve joined a beekeeping group. Many of us are “newbees” but in the group there’s a generous wealth of talent and experience—and the rest we make up for with enthusiasm. Our founder is a dynamic young man, willing to share his decade or so of experience.

When spring rolled around, our group put together an order of bees from a supplier down in Holland. It’s a three and a half hour drive to Holland, but our fearless leader, Matt, said he’d do the pick up. There was only one wrinkle, Matt’s wife was expecting their second child—if the baby came early, Matt needed a back-up driver. I volunteered. How hard could it be? Others in the group looked dubious. They teased me, advising me to drive with the air-conditioner on full—to chill-out the bees.

Of course, by volunteering, I somehow guaranteed an early delivery date (for the baby, not the bees.) The day before the scheduled pick-up I emailed Matt—to ask how his wife was doing. “Funny you should ask,” he responded. They were just checking in to the hospital. I was now on-the-hook.

I told my mother, who was horrified at the idea of sharing a ride with hundreds of thousands of bees.

I told my sister, who told me not to pick up any hitchhikers.

I told Rick, who devised a system of bed-sheets and boards—to put over the bees to keep them away from me in the car.

I’m not put off by a long drive. The morning of the trip, though, we lost our spring weather. On the way down, I experienced every kind of weather, driving rain, sleet, buffeting winds and hail. Finally, in Holland, I missed my turn. I didn’t worry; I could just double back—or so I thought. Holland was having its Spring Tulip Festival. Many streets were closed and the town was a maze of festival detours. It’s a pretty little town, and many of its streets are lined with tulips. Lots of tulips. The tourists were there, en masse, dressed for a spring festival despite near freezing temperatures and occasional snow squalls. And, predictably, traffic sucked.

Finally, I arrived at my destination. The bee pick-up was held in the bee-master’s garage. The car area was filled with bee “packages” and the adjacent shop area displayed many bee accessories—wooden-ware, bee tools and such. Bees are sold as three-pound packages, in shoe-box sized wood and screened boxes, each containing approximately 10,000 bees and a queen. They also come as “nucs”—mini-hives with five frames containing all the components of a working hive, bees; a laying queen, brood, drones, honey and “bee-bread” (the mixture of honey and pollen fed to the larvae.) I was there to pick up about forty packages.

The garage was not only filled with boxes of bees, it was awash with loose bees, and beekeepers. Beekeepers are an odd lot. The beekeepers assembled for the pick-up and bee related shopping were oblivious to the loose bees, drifting in and around the garage. Regular folk would flee.

The bee vendors loaded the car for me, concerned that I wouldn’t leave adequate space between the packages. “Bees need air, you know.” The bee-master was concerned that the car wasn’t big enough for the Club’s order. I was concerned that he’d want to put bees in the passenger seat, right next to me.

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Bees, in every nook and cranny.

Finally, after many adjustments, and one sting (not me), the loading was complete. Loose bees hovered in and around my open vehicle. The bee-master saw me unfolding Rick’s driver-protection-sheet, and shot out of the garage.

“Whoa, what’s that for?”

“To cover the bees while I’m driving.”

“No way. There’s too many bees—too much heat. You cannot cover them at all.”

“But it’s freezing out…”

“Good thing, too,” he replied. “I’d keep the AC on full, just in case.”

(FYI—when the temperature drops, the bees settle down and hunker together, to stay warm)

And so it was. I swallowed hard for a long drive with loose bees. I layered up my clothes and drove home with about 400,000 bees in the car, through the snow and sleet, and with the air-conditioning on full. The bees didn’t give me any trouble at all. I wondered what my grandfather would think of that! The bees had to spend the night, in the car. I worried, since it really was cold, but I needn’t have been concerned. In the morning the car was warm, and the windows were steamed up, all generated by the bees.

There was something else, too. Most beekeepers are familiar with the smells of their hives. On a warm day in the bee yard, the hives are redolent with the aroma of honey and the fragrance of beeswax. It’s a clean, sweet smell that I equate with beekeeping. But, that’s not really the smell of bees. In a small car with, 400,000 bees, you get to smell the bees. It took me awhile to figure it out—notes of the musky smell of barn and fresh cut hay, with a hint of tobacco leaf. That’s the smell of bees. I wonder if my grandfather, tooling about in his Suburban full of hives, ever caught the scent of bees.

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And, finally home in their hives.

 

 

 

 

What’s Eating You?

A.V. Walters–

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Spindly cages over even more invisible tree whips!

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

161 Trees…

A.V. Walters–

And counting.

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

 

Musings on Planting Trees–

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ah, Spring

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Sandhill Cranes, Yesterday

No Reservations Needed–

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

Snow Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, Today

Better Late Than Never–

A.V. Walters.

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Yesterday’s Barbed Wire

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

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

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Widow-maker.

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

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

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What a difference a day makes.

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

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

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Suiting up.

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

 

 

Home for the Holidays–

A.V. Walters.

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

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

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

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

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

The Reward of the NewBees–

A.V. Walters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And, The Winner Is…

A.V. Walters-

hives

Home, sweet home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, we’ll deal with processing.

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

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Snow or Blow?

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

“Snowing down there?”

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

“Really, six inches? New Snow?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need fifty tons.”

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

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

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

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

 

Banking on Winter…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Snows

A.V. Walters

snow days

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

One Year Counting Blessings

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

 

Autumn Olive…

A.V. Walters —

With olive-like leaves

With olive-like leaves

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

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

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

But I like the fruit

But I like the fruit

Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

Learning the Language…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Bugged–

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

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

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

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

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

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

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Right Plan…

A.V. Walters —

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

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

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

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

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

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Okay, Work With Me Here…

A.V. Walters–

 

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Good Enough Gardening

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.V. Walters–

INVEST IN SOLAR AND WIND POWER!

INVEST IN SOLAR AND WIND POWER!

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

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

SUN AND WIND--FAST AND FRESH

SUN AND WIND–FAST AND FRESH!

(a little rope and two trees.)

It’s Official, Spring Is Here

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

 

Marching Through the Seasons

A.V. Walters–

Still Closed.

Still Closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild leeks!

Wild leeks!

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

420 8

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

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

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

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

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

420 6

420 4

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

Look at those red branches, waiting to leaf out.

Look at those red branches, waiting to leaf out.

Marshmallows or Popcorn

A.V. Walters–

marshpop

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

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

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

“It’s gone, everything…(sobbing)…”

“Everybody get out okay?”

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

“Pets out, too?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“I dunno. Got any marshmallows?”

Needless to say, it wasn’t well received.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Who, us?

Who, us?

 

Emu Wet

For this post, I’m going to quote Deb’s last emu update, verbatim. Thanks to Deb for sharing the emu experience.

“Don’t they just match in with the land of mud. And they are loving the water puddles, but dancing and running crazy when it started to rain on them.

Funny fellers indeed.

 

They do love water.

They do love water.

Enjoy the Day!”

IMG_00000882

As my grandmother used to say, “Nice weather for ducks.”

 

Spring has Sprung

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

The Broken Back of Winter…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I’m right. He had a map!”

Ahhhh, Shoes…

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

A.V. Walters-

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Back in California…

A.V. Walters —

This, we miss.

This, we miss.

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

Green Hills for Grazing

Green Hills for Grazing

Emu Views

Emu Views

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

Emus at the Feeder

Emus at the Feeder

Up Close

Up Close

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

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

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

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

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

Can we come out, yet?

Can we come out, yet?

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

Ducks above, emus below.

Ducks above, emus below.

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

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

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

Punxsutawney Prognostication

A.V. Walters

Phamous Phil

Phamous Phil

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Freedom

A.V. Walters—

Winter Freedom!

Winter Freedom!

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

Last week's winds obstructed the road

Last week’s winds obstructed the road

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

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

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

Hands-free, with snowshoes!

Hands-free, with snowshoes!

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

New vistas, off trail

New vistas, off trail

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

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

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

Cabin Fever Paranoia

A.V. Walters

Police Blotter

Police Blotter

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

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

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

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

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

He just looked puzzled.

“We’ll get more lake-effect snow.”

He just groaned and put his face in his hands.

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

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

Winter Mix

A.V. Walters

Winter Mix?

Winter Mix?

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

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

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

Training Cats

A. V. Walters

Who, me?

Who, me?

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

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

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

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

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

Dry-Run–

A.V. Walters–

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

Oh, we have no water.

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

Did I mention we have no water?

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

So, we’re still waiting for water.

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

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

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

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

 

Postscript:

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

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

“Runs down the driveway, does it?”

“Yeah.”

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

“What’s that?”

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

I howled. “I’ll tell him.”

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

 

 

 

 

The Other Side of Winter II

A.V. Walters

Too windy even to bury the car!

Too windy even to bury the car!

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

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

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

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

Emus in Absensia

A.V. Walters

Elmer called the other night—they have emu chicks. Mr. and Mrs. Emu are at it again and, with all the food we gave them over summer, and the mild winter, they now have a sizable clutch of eggs. Or had. Out of the original twelve, two chicks have already hatched and died. Stretched so thin, Mr. Emu has difficulty watching the new little ones—he’s still nest-bound.

So Elmer and his daughter kidnapped the one little guy they found still alive and plan to remove the rest as they hatch. Between cold nights and predators, little emu chicks have a rough go of it in Northern California. Hence, the call. Rick and I are the only ones on the farm who have successfully hand-raised the little guys, and they need help.

They’ve decided that more emus would be just the ticket to guard over their new venture in organic duck eggs. (You should see all the ducks, it’s pretty impressive.) Emu guards are not a bad idea. We learned, the hard way, that the emus in our front yard were, in fact, protecting the chickens.  And so, the questions begin. What do we feed them? (Finely chopped kale and apples, to start.) Can we give them chicken feed? (No, chickens are seed eaters. Emus are grazers and need green fodder.) How warm do they need to be? (94 degrees F for the first two weeks, tapering off 5 degrees a week, after that.) What about water? (Not for about a week, until they’ve mastered balance and eating.) Those, and more, are all questions that we had to find the answers to, a year ago—either through trial and error, or what we could find on the net. As it turned out, we did okay. We had no losses from the five we raised. I guess that makes us emu experts. (And, given some of the so-called “expert” advice we found on the net, we are!)

We haven’t been homesick since our relocation. We miss some of the people, but we are caught up in the possibilities of our new lives. This, though, gave us pause. We definitely miss the emus—and raising them was an adventure we really enjoyed. So, we stand ready to be emu emissaries. We’ll provide all the information we can. And, of course, we’ll worry.

 

 

Musings from the Polar Vortex–

A.V. Walters–

Just enough snow.

Just enough snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Other Side of Winter

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winterizing

(from November 1, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Not Alone

A.V. Walters–

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

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

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

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

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

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