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Timing the Jump.

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Garden Surprise

Michigan Meets the Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

A.V. Walters–

I had resigned myself to not having a garden this year. There’s just too much going on. We have building to do—and that has to take the lead. In Empire, we had a late spring, and nowhere to start seeds. Now that we’ve moved, well, it’s a little late. Michigan has a shorter season—and, unlike Two Rock, it’s not forgiving on the harvest end. Besides, in a rural setting like this, a garden needs infrastructure. I don’t have time for infrastructure.

A garden, especially a vegetable garden, is an artificial environment. Its inhabitants have needs. In Michigan, they have some basic needs that exceed my Californian framework. Here, we have garden predators. And not just the usual gopher hazards (though we have those, which, like in Two Rock, we can solve with buckets.) Here, we have deer. Worse yet, the place is crawling with bunnies. That means we need a really tall fence (six feet or better) and it has to extend underground. Bunnies are not deterred unless you prevent them from burrowing under the fence. With their Bambi faces and cute eyes, these critters’ benign outward appearance hides a darker garden reality

Moreover, we don’t yet have water on the property. I’m no fool. I read French Dirt. Never plant a garden until you have a sure water supply. Our well is not yet in. No well, no water. No water, no garden. It’s as simple as that

Still, Monday I ran into town and stopped at my favorite grocer, Oryana (a local co-op). I was doomed, even before I stepped inside. There, at the entrance, were racks and racks of organic vegie starts. At good prices, too! Some of them even knew my name! I have no discipline—I quickly snagged a bunch and headed home. On the way I rationalized my decision. I could plant them just outside the window of our little, basement apartment. After all, my planting buckets are sitting idle. The landlady’s dogs, though pests in many other ways, allegedly keep the yard clear of deer and bunnies. (We’ll see.) Surely the landlady would enjoy fresh produce through the summer, too.

It won’t be a big garden—only twenty buckets. Eight tomatoes, five peppers (can’t find decent hot peppers in Michigan), an eggplant assortment, cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck, and a cantaloupe. We’ll skip the leafy things—I just picked through what was left at Oryana’s. It’s just a tad late in the season, but I’m happy to have something to grow.

I was sheepish on my arrival home. After all, we’d had the garden discussion. Rick knew something was up immediately. He laughed when I admitted to my impulse purchase. But, of course, he helped me dig-in the buckets.

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?

Pipeline Postscripts

A.V. Walters

mid feb

I lived in California for thirty-five years. Rick lived there all his life. It is in our blood to be water-thrifty. Conservation is a lifestyle issue—not to flush every time, short showers, dozens of little tricks learned over time to save water. That is not the culture in Michigan. Doing dishes, my brother doesn’t think twice of letting the water run, while a conversation or other task takes him away from the sink. Watching, I squirm. Here people have lawns, and they water them, with sprinklers.

With our uber-winter this year, many have had their pipes freeze. There are four communities in Upper Michigan where the entire towns are at risk of freezing pipes. (Our water temperature at the tap is 36 degrees.) In L’Anse, Michigan, the townsfolk are being advised to let their faucets run—constantly, to keep the mains from freezing solid. Some developments were built with plastic supply lines. Plastic won’t conduct electricity. If your plastic lines freeze you’re in trouble. The advice there is to cross your fingers and move out until Spring. (You’re crossing your fingers in hopes that the pipes themselves won’t burst, leaving you with an even worse mess when the thaw comes.) The utility wonks in L’Anse are telling people not to shovel the snow away from over their water lines. (Too late for us, eh?) It’s often a surprise to people from milder climates that a good layer of snow actually insulates from the more extreme cold.

Now that the welders have zapped our lines clear, we’ve been told to leave the tap running, all the time, until Spring. Our water-miser ways may have even contributed to the freeze in the first place. We’re struggling with what feels to Californians like water waste. My natural inclination is to shut off the tap—always. Now we can’t and I’m having trouble with that adjustment. You can hear the water run. You wake up at night, foggy-brained, thinking that you need to get up—someone has left the tap running.

I’m trying to adjust my attitude for the duration. Think of it as a water feature, I tell myself, you know, like a fountain. That’s the ticket. Don’t folks use water sounds for relaxation? I try to reconcile my discomfort with rationalization. After all, this water comes from Lake Michigan. I’m just recycling it—through the house septic, through the sandy soils of Empire and then back to the Lake. In the meantime, as a renter, I’m glad I don’t pay the water bill.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Rick’s Hat-Trick

A.V. Walters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope the wind doesn't blow!

Hope the wind doesn’t blow!

Taking Leave(s)

A.V. Walters–

Six years on the farm cured me of a common American delusion—the need to clean up after nature. In rural living, nature is just too big to consider tidying up after her. Sure, if you make a mess (like after cutting firewood) you could clean it up, you could even mow, if you wanted or needed to. And, weeding in the garden makes good sense. But beyond that, I figure that nature is pretty much on her own.

When we left Two Rock, we gave away the lawnmowers. I don’t think I’m likely to live anywhere where I’ll need one, again. However, at our little, Empire rental, there is the issue of the leaves.

Our neighbors are positively obsessive about lawn care and leaf removal. I acknowledge that if you have a lawn, it’s better for the grass to remove the leaves. However, our garden implements are in storage—deep in storage. I’m not digging way to the back of the unit to find a rake so that I can collect the leaves at a rental. Besides, Empire is very windy. I note that there are often leaves there one day that are gone the next. (Sometimes, even in the direction of our obsessive neighbors.) In the old days, when I lived in the city, I used to enjoy raking leaves. But then there was the problem of what you’d do with them. If the city has a decent recycling program, it makes sense. But it makes no sense to gather them, only to pay to have them put in a landfill somewhere where they’ll never breakdown naturally.

I visited my brother this weekend. He has not raked at all this season. He lives on a tree-covered city lot, in a village with a great many trees. When we arrived, the leaves were deep in his front yard—in some places, a foot deep. Like many suburban folks, he secretly believes that the wind patterns deposit all the nearby leaves in his yard. He supports this theory by the fact that the leaves lay in deep drifts over his lawn, even as his neighbors lawns are relatively leaf free. And, he notes that some of the leaves in his yard are oak leaves, and he has no oak tree. Of course, those same neighbors, whose yards are clear, have been diligently blowing and/or raking those leaves into neat piles and removing them, regularly, for a couple of months. Still, my brother clings tightly to his leaf-conspiracy theory.

He lives in a community, where, if you deliver your leaves to the edge of the street (there are no curbs) the village will regularly send around a big, leaf-sucking rig to spirit away one’s unwanted autumn harvest. These leaves are then composted, so suburban homeowner’s can maintain their tidy lawns and feel positively righteous. If one doesn’t rake and remove, there’s always the possibility that the Village could cite you, or worse. I decided that I could help out by raking his leaves.

Waiting for Pick-Up

Waiting for Pick-Up

It went well at first. It was actually fun, wading shin deep and using my rake (and my body) as a plow. Soon, though, it became clear that I was going to run out of street-edge on which to deposit the autumn harvest. (And he has a corner lot!) The neighbors have tidy, minimalist leaf piles. The more I raked, the crazier my pile got. I began to marshall the leaves to the edge of the yard. A simple pile wasn’t going to do it, more like a line. Then, a wall. As I worked, the wall got taller, and deeper. I wasn’t sure what the rules were—just how thick could my wall get and still be leaf-suckable?

I started getting comments from neighbors as they walked by: “I sure hope you’re getting paid for that!” (I’m not.) “That looks like a lot of work!” (Yup.) “What are you gonna do with all them leaves?” (I dunno.) Some kids came by waving and laughing at the height of my leaf pile. One almost launched herself into it but I caught her eye, and brandished my rake, “You do, and you’ll have to rake it back up!” She giggled and ran off.

By the time I finished, I’d built a veritable fortress with my leaf-wall. It was three to four feet high, and at least as deep, running some 160 feet on two sides. I don’t know if it will work for the leaf-sucker, but I’m not really concerned. I don’t live here.

I was going to bury this car, but my nephew came out and caught me.

I was going to bury this car, but my nephew came out and caught me.