Wednesday, November 30, 2005

revelations from pre-blogging days

I was going through my hard drive at work yesterday, and I made a startling discovery: I did write some before I started blogging. I even liked some of it. While the vast majority of it would not have made it past the "publish post" button on this blog, I will share a couple of passages that are significant. I think it is important to go back and read these from time to time, to look in the rear view mirror and see the road I have traveled, to see that while the steps I make from day to day may not seem like much they do add up and I still have goals and dreams.

From 9/28/2004:

Here is where my dreams live. Here is where they are listed so they will not be forgotten.

  1. My own house. Designed and built by me and my partner.
  2. My fabulous gardens. Stone walls, greenhouse, and flowers everywhere. Huge compost piles, raised beds and every food plant imaginable for a longer part of the year than ever thought possible.
  3. My music. Shared with good friends, a few performances, recording...
  4. Traveling to heirloom seed shows and festivals.
  5. Being in love. Really, totally in love. Because being in love is being in life.
  6. Living a simple, low-impact, sustainable, deliberate, spiritual life.

I have felt more alive lately. I have breathed in clear blue skies and warm sunshine and gold and laughter and dancing. That’s it. I want to go dancing. And I can do it.

And from 1999:

On social activism:

Right now I have two chances to raise a child. I have two chances to guide and teach an individual person to be a loving, passionate, caring human being. It is my duty to provide for their needs until they are able and ready to provide for themselves; to set fair limits and expectations and abide by them consistently; to teach them the workings of the world, the importance of knowledge and the consequences of ignorance; to teach them to think critically and seek the truth; to teach them to value true beauty and create it where it is needed; to help them appreciate the mystery and wonder in life. In doing this I have great power and responsibility. My actions among adults can do little to persuade or change the values of a lifetime, but my actions with these children will impact generations to come. The job I have before me is the most difficult task a person can face, and will take all the time and energy I can put into it. I am not the person to ask to give of myself to help a cause, no matter how noble, because my life is now filled with a nobler cause by far. Let the young idealists and the old cynics battle it out with their wars of words, let the scholars and poets keep searching for the truth. Maybe some day when my task is done I will join them. But for now I am a mother, and that is all anyone can ask of me.


As an addendum to the above, yes, I must be an example of the kind of person I wish my children to be. I must invite the natural world into our backyard, grow organic vegetables in the garden, and take notice of the natural wonders of the day. I must teach my children to evaluate issues like where food and electricity come from and whether they are produced in a way that is harmful to ecosystems and people. When appropriate, I should take whatever action I can if it will teach by example. But spending too much time on activism could become a lesson in despair and teach the children to become premature cynics. If I bombard them with statistics on global overpopulation and beat my head against a brick wall fighting battles and making little gain, it will do no good and perhaps encourage apathy.

Interesting how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same. And how sometimes I can't tell the difference.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


the birth of Attitude

My baby, "Mr. Attitude", is four years old today. I know it's cliche to say how time flies and "it seems like only yesterday..." but it is all so very, very true. It does seem like only yesterday I was holding this tiny baby boy in my arms for the first time.

"Mr. Attitude" came into this world in much the same way as he approaches anything in his young life...with attitude. Headstrong. Impatient. And confident. The Hermit and I are puzzled as to how he ended up with these qualities.

We were living in a suburb of Minneapolis at the time, one of several stops on the wild and crazy journey that was our life before we landed here. I was pregnant when we moved there, and dreading the thought of having to search for a new doctor. I also didn't like the idea of giving birth at a big urban hospital where babies are born about every ten minutes. Calvin and Starflower had both been born at a smaller hospital some thirty miles away from where we were, with a wonderful family doctor who would get up in the middle of the night for a delivery rather than leaving it to the doctor on call. So I chose to see him for prenatal appointments; the extra distance driving was worth it. I never gave much thought as to how the driving distance would seem when I was actually in labor.

I wasn't completely certain about the due date; I had a feeling it would be mid December, which shows I can't completely rely on my gut feelings. An ultrasound predicted December 4th or thereabouts; although a bit more scientific, I now realize that predicting a due date is far from an exact science. So when I woke up early on Thursday morning, November 29th, to the somewhat familiar sensation of early labor contractions, I didn't quite get it through my head that by mid afternoon I could very well be a new mother again. Somehow I also forgot that my previous labors had been relatively short, 7 hours and 4 hours.

I called in to work, saying something vague like "things may be starting to happen", then got the idea that if I went about my usual housework, maybe these pesky contractions would go away. I washed a couple of loads of hand-me-down baby clothes that I hadn't gotten to yet. I straightened up Calvin's and Starflower's rooms. I swept cobwebs off the basement ceiling. Definite nesting activity going on there! Of course, the contractions did not go away; at about eleven I decided to lie down for a while because things were getting a bit uncomfortable. (Clear indication that I should have been on the road) The Hermit, who worked from home at the time, suggested we get ready to go; his older son, 22 at the time, was coming over to watch Calvin and Starflower. I hadn't even packed a bag yet. I slowly poked around, not making a fast attempt at getting ready. Finally at something like 12:30, he said "The car's warmed up. Let's go!"

We were two miles from home when I realized maybe I had waited a bit too long. I was in transition labor.

If you've never experienced it or witnessed it, transition labor is the shortest, most intense part of the labor process. I wasn't in a state to ponder things too much, but I did realize that 1) I was all alone in dealing with this. No drugs, no annoying nurses trying to tell me how to breathe, and The Hermit had to drive. 2) This part would be over quickly. I could be pushing by the time we got there...or else... and 3) I would feel much, much better if I screamed a bit. I calmly told The Hermit "I NEED to scream. Consider yourself warned." He jumped and pressed a bit harder on the accelerator every time I let out a scream, which was once a minute or less.

I never had a chance to look at the speedometer, but I do know we were making record time. The Hermit called the hospital from the cell phone while we were doing at least 120 mph, telling them to have someone please meet us at the door of the ER. I do not recommend anyone doing it this way in the future. I screamed, he drove and called, and my water broke some 8 miles from our destination. I started feeling the urge to push then. It is very difficult to resist that urge, but I tried my best to keep The Attitude's head inside at least until we arrived.

We finally arrived, and it felt like I had half delivered Attitude Boy already. They met me with a wheelchair at the door--what a joke, I could not sit for fear of crushing my newborn offspring's head. We got up into the delivery room, and I anxiously asked "Can I push NOW?" A minute later an OB doctor was asking me to hold off for a minute; something about the cord around the neck. She cut it while he was still inside. The I pushed, and he was out. A moment of silence; he did not draw his first breath immediately, and he was very blue. They rushed him over to a table, pumping his little lungs, whispering quiet prayers. "He looks just like his brother and sister!" The Hermit told me. I just wanted to hold him.

A minute later, a cry, and they rushed him over to me, to hold him close and warm him up. He did indeed look like his brother and sister. He was born at 1:30 in the afternoon, the first of my offspring to arrive in full daylight.

I sometimes wonder about the effect of being the youngest; I can't help but treat him differently. When his older brother was doing what he did, I thought he was advanced; when Attitude does the same thing, I say "Well, it's about time!" He is every bit as smart as his brother and sister, who are a pair of tigers to be drawn to, but somehow I can't get over the idea that Attitude is my baby. I intend to keep it that way, but we all know how God laughs at our plans.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

visit of the deer

Okay, so there's one gift I can be thankful for on this gray day. As I was sitting in the bedroom playing mandolin, or flute, or maybe guitar, I can't remember which, we were visited by several white tailed deer. Calvin saw them first, and we watched as they cautiously approached the house. They were three fawns, all young from this year, and they stayed for a long time just watching and listening. Maybe it was the music that drew them in here in the first place. Calvin asked why we didn't get out the deer rifle and blow them away; I responded as diplomatically and philosophically as I could, that I enjoyed seeing the deer and maybe I would want to eat one someday but for now I just enjoyed watching them.

cabin fever (part one of many)

I say "part one of many" because it's only November! It is Sunday, the fourth day of the long holiday weekend, and we are indoors, unable to go anywhere due to freezing rain. Indoors, as in 512 square feet of living space in three rooms for two adults and three kids. It's gray and dark outside. Insanity is setting in.

I have already played my mandolin, and I might get it or another instrument out before too long. I'm going through all of my old music, the stuff I worked on when I was taking lessons at the Homestead Pickin' Parlor in Minneapolis years ago. I remember a lot of it, and I was getting into some good blues licks. However, it seems that the more I practice, the more I realize how far I have to go before I'm at the playing level I would like to be. I know I need to just get over that and have fun with the music.

Calvin got out the Baby Taylor ( a small size guitar, good for kids or traveling) last night and although he doesn't play any chords yet, he has an amazing sense of rhythm, especially for the blues. I'll teach him some notes some time soon but for now I think it's important that he has some fun with the rhythm.

I took the time to sew a patch on my favorite flannel shirt today. The shirt is over ten years old, and fraying at the edges of the sleeves, but I'm not ready to give it up! This was the shirt I wore for the cool nights at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the shirt I could wear all through my pregnancies because it's huge, the shirt I wore on the way to the hospital to give birth to all of my babies. It's dark green and blue, kind of a muted plaid, and soft. Nothing could ever replace it. Now it has a light blue denim patch on one elbow; that's the best I could find for a patch, but it will do.

We're cooking a turkey for dinner, a real turkey, not the turkey loaf we had for Thanksgiving dinner. And after that there will be turkey noodle soup, turkey enchiladas, maybe some turkey wild rice soup.

The bird feeder is hopping with the usual chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, pine siskins, purple finches, and an occasional downy or hairy woodpecker. There is one male downy woodpecker that is a creature of habit; he sits at the same corner of the feeder every time, and instead of eating the new suet cake on the other side of the feeder he pecks at the old piece of suet left over from last year.

I guess I'm just rambling here on this gray day. Off to find another instrument to play!

Friday, November 25, 2005

thanksgiving...what really happened

It was not Norman Rockwell, that's for sure. It was more like Repressed Scandinavian Americans Meet for Processed Turkey Food in Senior Quarters And Pretend it's Something Special. Okay, that's not true. I didn't pretend. I didn't even pretend to pretend.

I was not excited. I baked a couple of butternut squash for the feast, probably the most organic thing that appeared on the table, but I knew it would not be received with more than the usual pleasantries. I stalled leaving; I had nothing to wear (which is basically true), my greasy hair looked like shit, the kids weren't ready (again, basically true), and the beers I'd left out on the step were frozen. And it was cold and windy; basically the moment we left the house, no matter how the fire was stoked, it would start losing heat and be cold when we came back in the dark. And that's another thing in itself, the dark.

But we went because we had to. Grandma told us 12:30, and when we got there at 12:57 it was "Everybody to the table!" As soon as I walked in, I felt a void. I had to spend a few minutes composing myself in the bathroom before I could face anyone. The rote blessing was said: "Come Lord Jesus be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed." Usually my brother, a much more devout Lutheran than I, will add a little something personal. On this day there was nothing.

I was not a nice person. All I wanted to do was to sit in the La-Z-Boy, the chair that had been my grandpa's favorite chair. I was always more attracted to my grandpa than my grandma, but he died thirteen years ago. I still watch Lawrence Welk every Saturday night because that was his favorite show.

It took me until we had left, until we were out of the small town where I had spent numerous nights as a child, out of that terribly sterile senior apartment, that I figured out what was wrong, why I was so hopelessly out of sorts.

I missed my mom.

This was the first holiday without her. She died one month ago. Everybody pretended to be okay, but everybody was aching inside. I finally let it go, in the car on the way home in the dark. I missed her, and I don't know how I can ever go to one of these obligatory family functions again without her.

You know, sometimes I just don't want to leave my house here and the seat by the warm fire, with chickadees flitting about the bird feeder. They seem to know how to live.

The cold frame experiment

I got a chance to check out my cold frame today, as I brought a bucket of kitchen compost out to the bin behind the gardens. I haven't had a chance to look at it lately; weekdays I don't have any time when there's enough light to see, and weekends have been busy.

The verdict: Better luck next time. The blast of winds, below zero temperatures, and snowfall resulted in the window pane falling and shattering all over the plants. I can't even lift up the two layers of plastic that cover the frame; they are frozen to the sides of the frame or the soil, I can't even tell which. I can see a couple of the lettuce plants, and they are frozen solid.

Oh well. At least I can take a break from gardening for a month or so now.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

giving thanks

It ain't just about turkey and football. It's not just driving over the river and through the woods to Grandma's senior apartment. And it sure isn't about studying the reams of glossy color ads in the special Thanksgiving edition of the newspaper in preparation for commando shopping on Friday.

Nope. It's about Thanks Giving. Giving Thanks. And it would be so much better if that were the focus.

I'm not much for Hallmark sentimentality. I'm more for sincerity, what comes from the heart. So in that spirit, I offer a list of the things I am giving thanks for this holiday:

A good life. The chance to not be a prisoner to someone else's ideologies, whether that someone else be the government, a major corporation, or someone closer.

The land here, and all of the gifts of nature it so daily provides. In one day a few days ago The Hermit saw a male cardinal and a rooster pheasant. Not to mention, great gray owls.

A great gardening season, that despite early frosts, surpassed my expectations. And the chance to learn from that and try again next year.

A roof over my head, and a woodpile to put into the stove. We're not into the new place yet, but at least we have a place to call home.

A job that provides what we need, and isn't too hard on the brain or spirit.

My kids, who surpass any expectations I may have had. I am not worthy.

The friends I have met this past year, both in "real life" and online. I feel so much a part of a bigger community, one that shares my vision of what the world could be like.

The music, which I have found a new love for and rediscovered recently.

And each and every chickadee that brightens my feeders these November days.

I give thanks for one and all. Happy Thanksgiving! :)

Monday, November 21, 2005

a weekend spent mandolizing

I apologize to you non-pickers about the mandocentric posts here lately. I just happen to be having a renewed love affair with the 8-string, and I'm liking it!!! And, before I say anything else, I have to say this: Mike Compton played my mandolin, and he liked it!!! I may never change strings again! :)

The kids got to spend the whole time in their idea of perfect bliss, that is, video games and hot baths and McDonalds and new clothes from Target, all from their half-brother (I hate that term, he's way more than half I say!) and maybe someday to be sister-in-law at their college town residence. They did not want to leave and come back to their boring parents. I can't say as I blame them, after all, indoor plumbing is SO endearing!

So The Hermit and I, after dropping offspring off, went to a wonderful concert at the Audubon Center near Sandstone, MN, featuring the Whistlepigs (Fred's band) and Mike Compton and David Long. If you don't know who they are, check out the links to the right under Music. The 'pigs are a band to be reckoned with; great instrumentals, tight harmony vocals, and some real songwriting talent in the band. If you saw the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou" or heard the soundtrack, you have heard the mandolin playing of Mike Compton. I hadn't heard of David Long before, but together they did some sweet duets and made me realize the power that just a couple of instruments can have.

The venue for the concert was big enough but still intimate, and the local "greens" came out, meaning that I knew at least ten people in the audience, including my neighbors down the road! I also met up with a woman I had worked with briefly a couple of years ago, and the first thing she said was, "Deb, I love your blog!" She had gotten the address from a mutual friend. Amazing how the blogosphere interacts with the "real world". :)

After the concert we were invited to a party at Fred's house, where Mike and David were staying. The Hermit and I are not ones to stay up past, say, 9:30, but we could not pass up the invitation. There was good food and beer and we got to meet Mike and David as well as the rest of the Whistlepigs. We left some time after midnight, but I'm glad we left before the music began; I hear tell it went on into the wee hours, and it would have been hard to drag myself away once it started!

Sunday was the mandolin workshop. I have never been to anything like this before, so I didn't know what to expect. I ended up learning more than I thought I would. I was a bit intimidated; after all, I've been playing for about twelve years but I don't sound like it. It didn't help to learn that David Long has been playing for a shorter time than I have, and done more with it; but then he doesn't have three kids and a cabin in the woods!

Mike Compton is a great teacher; I felt like I was sitting in on one of the better college classes I have taken. The workshop was not about learning a few chords and licks and how to use them; it was about understanding where Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, was coming from, and what that means as far as musical interpretation. Compton compared Monroe to Vincent Van Gogh; in music, and in painting, they both had an approach that implied the subject, not necessarily spelled it out in notes or brush strokes. And I had a revelation: That is why I've always had a hard time listening to the recordings of Bill Monroe. I've always approached it from a viewpoint of study, trying to analyze the music note by note. But that's like trying to analyze a Seurat painting dot by dot. The dots, or the notes, come together and make this whole big picture; there's no breaking it down. So now I will try to hear the whole sound, and emulate it, not just the individual notes.

There's a lot more I could say. I know a two hour workshop is not enough to turn me into a great player, but it certainly was worth it. Now I just need to practice. Thanks, Fred, for pulling this whole thing together, and to Missy for the hospitality and catering! :)

find the owl

Great gray in May

Friday, November 18, 2005

great gray owl and other blessings

Great Gray is back! That is, if she (or he) ever left; I suspect that it was here all summer, being that we saw it in May. The Hermit saw the owl this morning in the elm tree at the edge of the swamp, near my garden. I went for a short drive this afternoon with Mr. Attitude, hoping to see it, but was unsuccessful. Sometimes The Hermit has all the luck; he also saw a golden eagle.

Blessing #2: Yesterday The Hermit bought a pickup truck load of firewood, a lot of it oak, for only $35! The going rate around here is $100+, but he stopped in at a place that didn't even have an ad in the paper, and asked if they sold firewood, as they had a small sawmill. Because firewood isn't their main business, they weren't concerned with getting a high price for it, although it is good wood. This will heat our home for over a month, and now we know where to go for more!

Another blessing: The Hermit met with the high school principal today about a possible long term substitute teaching position in biology. It turns out the principal is very interested in incorporating environmental education into the curriculum, and at the very least he wants The Hermit to teach a teacher training workshop in environmental ed! It's so nice to hear that a local education administrator is interested in the big picture and wants to do something about it. And the extra money would come in very handy right now, and he would have the summer off to work on the house!

It's nice to have some blessings come our way in November.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sand Creek now and then

(Click on the photo for a larger image; then you can read some of the labels!)
The above picture shows the 40 acres (or 40 square acres, as Pablo would call it) that I call home. The yellow lines are the property lines. Sand Creek is the very very straight line cutting diagonally across the northern end of the property; the stream was ditched in 1918 when people optimistically believed that fertile soil abounded in the logged-off land and extensive bogs to the north. One of my goals is to restore a few curves to this section to improve the carrying capacity for brook trout.

The eastern third of the land, light green in color, is all low sedge/alder/willow swamp. During dry summers we may be able to walk across it without getting our feet too wet, but usually hip boots are a requirement. The land across the swamp is all county tax forfeited land, 40 acres, hopefully too small for the county to bother logging the mature aspens there.

The southwest quarter of the land, dark green in color, is the white pine woods. The pines are of varying height and maturity; the largest ones are near the middle of the property. The lighter colored shape in the woods is a small bog; the cabin is just to the north of the bog, and the new house site is about 50 yards north of that. My gardens are between the new house site and the swamp to the east. The patch of trees between the new house site and the creek is mostly tamarack.

Following the driveway from the house site towards the road, we pass the chicken coop and yard on the north side of the road, and the horse pasture beyond that. The pond does not show up well in this photo, but I have labeled the location. The light colored area between the pond and the road is bare sand and gravel; this photo was taken in 2003, not too long after the pond was excavated and the sand and gravel used to build up the driveway.

Contrast the photo above with this one, enhanced from a 1939 aerial photo:

Our 40 was part of the farm across the creek back then, and used mostly for pasture and for the gravel pit where the pond is now. The farmer, a Swedish immigrant, quit farming three years after this photo was taken, and to my knowledge this 40 was not used as pasture after that. This picture shows the grade of the old Fleming Logging Railroad, which was in existence in the 1890's. The main line crosses the creek near the road; a siding branches off from the main line near what is now our chicken yard, and rejoins the main line across the bog from our cabin. The grades are still visible today; the siding is kept clear as a trail.

I am amazed at how sparse the trees are in this photo. The land must have seemed much more open back in those days.

Edited to add: I should say that the land relief around here is pretty flat. I doubt if there is more than twenty feet of difference between the highest point and the lowest point here.

More history to follow soon!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

just november stuff

November is a time of dark and change around here. This weekend I finally gathered the Tonka trucks from the beach at the pond and brought them up by the house. A simple act, but there seemed to be such a finality to it: summer, and the warm colorful days of fall are over, and ahead there is cold and wind and ice and darkness. The winds blew in from the northwest last night, bringing with them snow and taking away the warmth in the air.

November is a time to look to the past or the present moment, not to look ahead. In the past is the successful garden year, the memories of warm sun and wildflowers and blue skies. In the present is a warm fire in the wood stove, canned goods, and music to brighten up the dark evenings. But the future from November's perspective is grim: at least five months of cold, wind chills, blizzards, and being holed up indoors. Winter solstice is still over a month away; the days continue to shorten, and stay short until after the holidays.

I received my first seed catalog in the mail yesterday, from Pinetree Seeds. Even that seemed out of place; a reminder of the garden season to come, which is still many months away. I just planted garlic a couple of weeks ago. That act too seemed to go against my instincts. There is a time to reap, and a time to sow, and November is the pause after the reaping. We are still eating tomatoes from the garden, probably the latest I have ever enjoyed fresh ripe tomatoes.

The chickens are beginning to lay eggs; that is one thing to celebrate. I cleaned out the chicken house yesterday and we put down fresh hay in the nest boxes and on the floor. The meat chickens are still alive; I was hoping to stay home one day this week and learn butchering first hand, but that will have to wait until a milder day.

The feeder has been active with bands of chickadees, up to ten of them at a time flitting between the feeder and the branches of the dead spruce. There have also been many goldfinches, juncos, purple finches, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, an occasional pine siskin, blue jays, and downy woodpeckers. The Hermit has heard evening grosbeaks in the trees but so far none at the feeder. I don't get to enjoy the feeder much during the week; it is almost too dark in the morning when I leave for work and way too dark when I get home.

I am eagerly scanning the bare branches of trees on my drive to and from work, hoping to see if any great gray owls return for the winter. According to a message on the MOU listserv, one has been seen in the next county, and often when there is an irruption one year it will be followed by an "echo effect" the following year. I have seen an occasional bald eagle, red tailed hawk, and rough legged hawk (which I finally learned how to identify--I think).

Not too much going on, just November stuff.

Monday, November 14, 2005

fun with incoming searchers

My creative well seems to be running dry these last few days; I haven't thought of any compelling new subjects to blog about. Or maybe the fingertips on my left hand are too sore to type because I've been playing mandolin so much! I've probably played more in the last four days than I have in the last four years combined, and it feels wonderful. I'm getting psyched for the mandolin workshop with Mike Compton and David Long at Fred's house this Sunday.

So, taking an idea from one of Troutgrrrl's recent posts, I have investigated some of the search terms that have led people to this blog. In the last 100 visits, at least 22 people came to this site by using a search engine. The top search terms, tied at four hits apiece, were "deer butchering" (What an incongruous picture: someone sitting in their remote deer shack, with a freshly killed deer hanging up outside, searching the Internet with their wireless laptop for instructions on what to do next!) and "snowball launcher" (And Calvin probably provided detailed enough plans to satisfy these folks).
The remainder of the searches I have grouped into four categories: Music (4), Literature (4), Wildlife (4) and Other (2). Four people, from California to the UK, were treated to my set list by searching for "kate wolf red tailed hawk chords" (simple--A minor and G), "home by bearna", "bouzouki", and "john prine fair and square tour set list (By the way, I saw him on Austin City Limits Saturday night. Awesome show!) I don't write about literature much, but Aldo Leopold brought in two hits, "Leopold Sky Dance" and "a sand county almanac agree". Yes, I agree! The other searches covered "the river why david duncan" and "on the road the dharma bums". I wouldn't be surprised if both of these searchers were first led to the dharma blog, and learned more there than they did here.

Under "wildlife", I had everything from "owls minnesota" to "game bird gazette how to protect pheasants from owls" (I hope my great gray owl post gave them a good idea what NOT to do!) to "ferns" to "ruffed grouse". And, now for the "Other" category, whose search terms certainly defy categorization:

"carpe momentum" (from my very limited knowledge of Latin; I hope it means something similar to how I used it!)


"paper on why nascar is like a religious experience"

hmmmmmm....on THIS blog?

Strangely, the last 100 visitors did not have among them a single one searching for "I hate dogs". I usually have one of these per day, thanks to my tribute to Lady and Annie.

Friday, November 11, 2005

a mandolin meets its maker

The name Lloyd LaPlant is widely recognized among bluegrass musicians in Minnesota and increasingly beyond. Although he is an accomplished guitarist and plays with members of his family occasionally in a band, Lloyd is not recognized so much for his music as he is for his hand crafted instruments. The LaPlant name is inlaid in abalone and mother of pearl on some of the finest sounding guitars and mandolins to be found anywhere.

Lloyd LaPlant built his first guitar in 1959 for himself. He was a carpenter who played guitar in his spare time, and one day he went to Duluth to look for a guitar. When he saw the prices of the Martins and Gibsons, a friend told him that he could do just as good building one himself. He did, and eventually a hobby turned into a vocation. LaPlant started building F-style mandolins in 1979; he just completed number 141.

I am fortunate to be the owner of mandolin number 26, built in 1987. It was first played by a friend of mine, Dick Kimmel, an accomplished picker as well as renowned wildlife researcher. When Dick decided to sell the instrument, he offered me "first grabs" at it. I had been playing mandolin just over a year and was not really looking to upgrade from my Flatiron A-style at the time. However, once I held the LaPlant and picked a tune or two, I knew I had to have it. Sometimes the best things in life just fall into your hands; you have to be ready to catch them.

Lately, however, number 26 has not been out of its case nearly as much as it should be. With the demands of kids and home building, and our limited space, I have had numerous excuses to not play. When I have taken it out of the case lately, it has seemed awkward and difficult to play. I thought it was just me, but on closer examination I found that the strings were up to 1/4 inch off the fretboard, and the bridge was out of place. This required extreme pressure to fret the notes, which sounded out of tune.

Lloyd LaPlant lives as close as any decent instrument repair shop, and we wanted an excuse to meet him and find out more about my mandolin, so earlier this week The Hermit called him, and yesterday I took the day off work and we made the 100 mile drive to his house. It was a beautiful morning for a drive, sunny and clear. We passed indigo blue lakes and quiet bogs surrounded by cedars.

LaPlant greeted us warmly in his shop, where he was working shaping necks for the four guitars he is currently building. The shop, heated by a wood stove in the corner, is pleasantly cluttered with odds and ends of tools, instrument hardware, forms for shaping instruments, and old fiddles. LaPlant, in his seventies, has a youthful, easygoing appearance about him; he could pass for someone twenty years younger. He opened my mandolin case, looking at number 26 as if greeting a long lost child. After looking up and down the neck he said with a smile "Wow, this must be hard to play!" He decided to start by removing and sanding down the ebony bridge, then he would later make adjustments to the neck. As he worked we talked about many things; his experience building instruments, the sources of the wood he uses, the local bluegrass music scene, and family. Taking a break, he took us on a tour that included a look at his two vintage cars and numerous instruments he has collected over the years.

When he had completed all of the work that required shop tools, Lloyd invited us into the house to get the mandolin tuned up and play a few songs. When I started playing number 26, it felt like I was playing a whole new instrument; the tone was brilliant and clear, and my left hand had much less trouble fingering the notes on the fretboard. As I picked my way through a couple of fiddle tunes, Lloyd picked up a guitar and joined in. "It's nice to get the chance to sit down and play," he remarked. "I spend so much time making these things, and too little time playing them!" Although I felt like I could stand to practice a lot more, he complimented my playing. I think the instrument had a lot to do with it.

All too soon it was time to leave; but by the time we left we felt like we had a new old friend. He invited us to stop by anytime. I have an excuse to go back there; Lloyd had glued my pick guard back together, and the glue wasn't quite dry enough to take it. I rarely use the pick guard anyway, but it will be worth the 200 mile round trip to come back here and enjoy some picking and conversation with a true craftsman and a wonderful person.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I woke up to the sound of the wind blowing wild

The above is the first line to the last song Kate Wolf ever wrote. She recorded it in her hospital room, when she was dying of leukemia 20 years ago. I never saw her, never knew her, but I miss her every day.

But last night, I did wake up to the sound of the wind blowing wild. It was scary at first. Normally we don't get 50 m.p.h. gusts of wind around here, and when we do we are already under a tornado warning. At first I thought it was the rushing sound of a chimney fire; I've never actually heard it, and I would prefer not to, but it's a possibility. Then I looked out in the fading moonlight, and saw the top branches of the white pines swaying like prairie grasses in the wind. I heard things hitting the roof; in the morning light I saw it was white pine cones, falling like hail in the windstorm. Th Hermit went outside and was overwhelmed by the smell of pine resin; a large bough had blown off one of our white pines, though fortunately not one of our "big sisters".

I worry sometimes about the "big sisters". There are three or four of them, about a hundred feet tall and that many years old, that are within felling distance of the cabin. That is, if a gust of wind would shear one of them off near the ground, and the wind were to be blowing in the right direction, a trunk of enormous weight would come crashing down upon the cabin. Fortunately, the likelihood of a shearing wind coming from the southwest is very slight, especially since the force of such a wind would be dampened by a few hundred yards of dense woods. But tell that to an insomniac at two in the morning. At that time, anything is possible.

The wind continued to blow wild all day. I don't handle wind well; it makes me restless and uneasy, perhaps as it is designed to do. It makes me want to stay inside in the refuge of a warm wood fire.

I got a good look at a snow bunting this morning on my way out the driveway. These birds are pure November, blown in by the wind and looking for all the world like wind-blown snow flurries, restless and white and scurrying, in the wild wind.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

who, me?

I thought long and hard about posting this. I have wanted to post a photo of myself, so readers could at least have some idea of the face behind the words, but I really haven't had many images to choose from. I didn't like this one particularly well when I first saw it. One of the kids, I believe it was Calvin, took it way back last spring; I am standing on our beach by the pond, near the front (west facing) side of our property. The horse pasture is in the background. The tamaracks beyond the horse pasture are just getting their spring needles, but note the still-bare branches of birches and willows.

I do like the late afternoon light of this photo, and the colors are nice. And I don't look too goofy, for once... ;)

deer season part 2

This morning I was driving the four mile stretch of southbound freeway that is part of my normal route to work. A pickup truck passed me, going about 75 miles per hour. In the back of the pickup truck, and prominent in its size, was a four-wheeler, which barely fit between the sides of the bed. Crammed in the space beneath the four-wheeler, between the wheels, was a dead deer, a four or six point buck; its head and antlers nearly hung over the edge of the tailgate, lifeless eyes gazing at the road behind.

The positioning of these two elements, "hunting gear" and prey, seemed to say something about the essence of this person's hunting experience. The four wheeler was clearly in a position of dominance and power. The deer was an afterthought, secondary to the whole excursion. Nevertheless, the positioning of the head, antlers exposed and visible to all, suggests that the hunter is shouting to the world "I am victorious! I have conquered a deer. Not just any deer, a buck!"

And so the human species rolls on.

Monday, November 07, 2005

gotta get this meme off my back

Jim at Earth Home Garden tagged me with the "five things" meme last week. I said I'd do it, and I try to keep my promises, but it's been difficult for some reason. So I'll do it, but I'll take a few liberties with it, otherwise the answers might just read "I don't know..." ;)

Five pet peeves

This is easy: Excess packaging. Excess paper generated by the day-to-day workings of public school classrooms. Newly built houses that do not even attempt to fit into the surrounding landscape or take advantage of passive solar heating and cooling principles. All-terrain vehicles. The NASCAR-ization of fishing.

Five wild critters I'd like to see before I go

I hadn't really thought about this before. I would probably love to see any wild critter in its natural habitat, but I don't have any in particular that stand out. So I'll just list five birds that I have a reasonable chance of seeing at or somewhat near my home place that I have not yet seen:

Boreal owl
Northern saw-whet owl
Peregrine falcon
Boreal chickadee
Cerulean warbler

Five moments in my life that have changed everything I have done since

1. Seeing a painted bunting in St. Augustine, Florida when I was six years old. I may have been on my way to a lifetime of bird watching, but that certainly pushed me over the edge.

2. Choosing a week long trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area over a 4-H records judging competition the week after I graduated from high school.

3. The time I showed up at the bowling alley in Brookings, South Dakota for happy hour to celebrate the thesis defense of a certain graduate student (a.k.a. The Hermit)

4. The day we went looking at land and first encountered the white pines and chickadees of Sand Creek.

5. The births of my three children. Okay, that's three moments, but I cannot choose one over the others.

Five movies that are my life

I don't watch a lot of movies, and I would be hard pressed to come up with just one that begins to describe my life. So I'll take the cue from madcapmum and instead list five books that have had an impact on my life:

1. Mother Earth Spirituality by Eagle Man (Ed McGaa). This was probably the first book I ever found just by browsing in a bookstore, the first book I ever picked up just because it looked good. It turned me on to exploration of beliefs that honored the earth instead of overpowering or ignoring it. By an extraordinary chain of serendipitous events, Eagle Man ended up coming to my 27th birthday party, playing drum and singing cowboy songs.

2. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. This was required reading for my January term class in college, a travel course in Southwestern U.S. ecology. It was my stepping stone to other nature and place-based writing, as well as to the rest of Abbey's works.

3. Birds Of North America - This was given to me by my grandma in Florida after the painted bunting episode. I practically memorized it by age seven.

4. The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon. I bought this long before I knew what homesteading was, long before I had any desire to move to the cabin and live a more self sufficient lifestyle. I must have known I had it in me somehow.

5. Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber. A powerful argument that we humans are poisoning ourselves.

I think the people I would most like to tag for this have already been tagged, but feel free to nominate yourself if you feel so moved.

I feel so much better now!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

deer season in the northwoods

Today was the first day of the two weeks out of each year that I least enjoy living here. It's firearms deer season.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not against hunting per se. Various groups of humans have always had a predatory relationship with certain animals, and I'm not vain enough to say that all of that is wrong. I myself have participated in deer hunting. I considered it this year, but decided against it, for the reason that if one of us shot a deer, we would have to deal with butchering it, which we do not have the space for, or having someone else do it, which would require 1) a valid deer tag at $29, and 2) an additional $65+ for processing. That gets to be expensive meat. Plus there's all the time sitting, waiting in the woods, time being a precious commodity around here.

What I do not like about this time of year is that I do not feel completely safe here. Years ago when this was still our weekend retreat, The Hermit was nearly hit by a bullet fired from the road as he was walking out, fully dressed in blaze orange. Ironically, the shooter is one of our neighbors now, and our kids are best friends. We have talked with the parents on several occasions, but the incident is never brought up. The shooter ended up being fined by a DNR conservation officer after we reported the incident.

Still, there is a hunting camp on the old farmstead just across the creek, where I normally run Togo, and on the 40 just to the south. Rifle bullets travel a long way, and you just never know.

Also, and this is my main pet peeve about hunting these days: When did all terrain vehicles become essential equipment for deer hunting? Or grouse hunting? The northbound lane of the freeway was packed with vehicles yesterday, every other one being a pickup truck or SUV towing a trailer with one or more 4 wheelers, and blaze orange visible somewhere. I made a beer run to Sturgeon Lake this afternoon, and every deer camp I passed had more than one 4-wheeler. The use of these vehicles is restricted to certain hours during deer hunting season, yet I wonder why they are allowed at all. 20 years ago, hunters walked into the woods and dragged their deer out by hand. What has changed, why do people feel they need these gas-powered toys just to carry on the "tradition" of deer hunting? I think "deer season" is just an excuse to bring these toys out in the woods, to explore man's primal nature on the seat of a fossil-fuel burning toy. Note the sarcasm.

On the above mentioned beer run, on the way out I drove by the home of the person who nearly missed shooting my husband years ago. There were about 5 or six guys in blaze orange parkas standing around in front of the house. When I returned, they were still there. Spending a lot of time out in the woods communing with nature!

At any rate, I won't feel completely safe walking my dog or walking in the woods until these yuppie yohos have gone home to the cities for another year. And I won't apologize to anyone about saying that.

Friday, November 04, 2005

the return of the bald eagle

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported this week that the number of nesting pairs of bald eagles in the state has increased by 28 percent from the year 2000, with a total of 872 pairs found in a spring 2005 survey. Full story By comparison, the estimated total number of nesting pairs in the entire lower 48 United States in 1963 was 417.

I have been privileged to be a witness to this dramatic comeback. The year I was born, 1967, was the year the bald eagle was placed on the federal endangered species list. I grew up as most children did at the time, seeing images of bald eagles everywhere as the symbol of our country but never having seen a real, live eagle. I was nearly twenty years old before I saw my first bald eagles in the wild, along the Mississippi River near Wabasha, MN. I was instantly in awe of their enormous wingspan, and the beauty of their soaring flight. Majestic is not too strong a word to use when describing this bird.

I started seeing bald eagles more often in the early 1990's. My job in fisheries management took me to lakes and rivers in east central Minnesota, in prime bald eagle habitat. I lived near a large wildlife management area where eagles often fished in the shallow impoundments of the Sunrise River. I had one dead tree I called the "Eagle Tree" because, whenever I drove by it, more likely than not I would see an eagle perched in its branches. Still, I considered a bald eagle to be a rare treat to encounter. One Thanksgiving day, in the mid 1990's, the family was gathered at my grandma's home on Rush Lake. That day I counted over seventy eagles sitting on islands of ice and in the branches of trees on Heron Island, a great blue heron rookery. I had been spending nearly every Thanksgiving there since 1975, and had never seen such a spectacle.

Today where I live, eagles are a common if not daily sight. This time of year I suspect a lot of them are migrating through, following the streams and rivers of the St. Croix watershed. I have seen bald eagles throughout the winter, however, so they are not all migrants. I do not know where the nearest active eagle nest is to Sand Creek, but I would like to find out. I do know of nest locations in other areas; one eagle nest on Chisago Lake has been there for at least ten years and is considered a point of reference for anglers on the lake; often you hear of fish biting "by the eagle's nest".

Fortunately people seem to have a bit more respect and tolerance for bald eagles than in the past, and more so than for birds of prey such as great gray owls. I have heard hardly any reports of people deliberately killing bald eagles around here. On a couple of occasions I have had bald eagles eyeing my chickens, but with their large wingspans it would be unlikely that an eagle could maneuver into and take off from the enclosed chicken yard with a Rhode Island Red in its talons. Eagles around here seem to prefer carrion such as road killed deer, of which there is a steady supply. This situation sometimes puts eagles in danger of becoming road kill themselves; eagles take a long time to get airborne after takeoff, and if a carcass is close to the road the eagle sometimes must fly in the path of cars. I once passed about six feet under a flying eagle in my Honda Accord. The wing span was wider than the car.

I don't know exactly what it is about bald eagles, or how to describe the feeling of awe I get every time I see one. I often utter the much overused adjective "Cool!", but that does not seem to do it justice. Perhaps there are no words that do.

Calvin's plans

One of Calvin's favorite pastimes is drawing up elaborate plans for projects. He has made detailed diagrams of what his new room will look like, down to the ten deadbolt locks on the door to keep out sisters and little brothers. He has designed tree houses with all of the comforts, including a couch, refrigerator and satellite TV.

With the seasons turning, his thoughts are turning to snow warfare. I found the following descriptions by the computer printer yesterday when I came home:

Snow fort: The snow fort is made of one-foot solid ice for protection, and on the inside soft snow. It has a small door and a capacity of six people. It also has a crate to store snowballs.

Snow catapult: the snow catapult has a capacity of two gallons of snow. It is made of pulleys, rope, and wood.

Snowball launcher: The snowball launcher has a capacity of 1/2 of a gallon of snow. It is made of insulated elastic. It can throw snowballs at 100 m.p.h. and it hits whatever you aim at.

Drift dropper: The drift dropper has a capacity of 20 gallons of snow. It is able to increase hypothermia chances.

Snow crossbow: The snow crossbow is portable, with only weighing one pound. It can shoot a snowball at 100 m.p.h. and has a capacity of one pint of snow.

So if you're planning a visit to Sand Creek this winter, consider yourself warned!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

sleepless wishes

If I could travel anywhere, to any period of time, past, present or future, where would I go?

Insomnia is a good excuse to think about these things. And it is better to focus my mind on these types of questions than to drift into the usual paranoid worries about anything and everything, worries that never really materialize.

I would want to travel back in time, perhaps 200 years, maybe 500, to see the place I call home as it was then. I want to see the ancient white pines towering above me, to hear the wind whispering through the lofty branches, to see the first glint of sunrise shimmering on the dark green needles. How tall were they? How big were the trunks at the base? I have heard of stumps six feet across or more, giants long gone now. What was it like to walk beneath, my feet on a carpet of soft needles and humus undisturbed? What birds lived in these woods?

I want to see Sand Creek as a meandering, free flowing river, before it was ditched and straightened. Did it flow beneath pines or through sedge meadows and tamarack bogs? What did the water look like before logging and farming muddied it with silt and altered the base flows? I hear stories of three pound brook trout caught by local settlers in the early 1900's; the carrying capacity must have been much greater then.

I want to walk with the Ojibwe who lived here, who knew the seasons, who harvested blueberries and manoomin (wild rice) and fish and deer. I want to know the land like they did, to make the act of living and the act of worship indistinguishable from one another. I want to dance around a fire on a chilly November night, to celebrate the turning of the days and the turning of the seasons and the cycles of life that flow through us all.

I want to hear the howls of wolves, the laughing of coyotes; I want to see the moose, the elk, the lynx. I want to hear the wild calls of unknown birds echoing through the woods and across the lakes. I want to see the sturgeon, six foot long giants, run the rapids in the spring to spawn.

I want to see the wildflowers in early spring; I want to see meadows in full bloom, meadows of big bluestem untouched by knapweed and reed canary grass. I want to return to that place, a place both of innocence and of great wisdom. What knowledge have we lost along with the virgin white pines?

Today, incidentally, is the third anniversary of the day we came home to Sand Creek.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

ruffed grouse

Throughout this spring and summer, I have been noticing the absence of ruffed grouse around here. In April usually the air is filled with the deep, mechanical sound of grouse drumming; this year I scarcely heard any. My coworkers joke about there being one grouse and one duck left in the county.

Not to worry now; they're back.

It is a phenomenon we have noticed in other years; as soon as the leaves are off the trees, we start seeing ruffed grouse on our 40 acres. I remember deer hunting one year, sitting perfectly still in a fallen tree as sunset approached, and counting at least five grouse in the nearby aspens, feeding on the buds.

Where are they for the rest of the year, and why do they seem to concentrate on our land in November? Perhaps it has something to do with the cover and warmth provided by the coniferous woods, with a food supply from aspens, alders, and various other shrubs close by. We have one kind of shrub I have not identified yet that has bright red, dry berries still clinging to the bare branches; maybe the grouse are eating those.

Ruffed grouse are usually stealthy birds; often their presence is not known until one flushes suddenly from the forest floor in a startling explosion of wingbeats. They stay away from the house and yard. They are unlike their northern cousin, the spruce grouse, which apparently is unfazed by human activity. Once when we were cross country skiing near Gunflint Lake on the Canada/Minnesota border, I skied right by a spruce grouse that was sitting eye level in a spruce tree. I turned around and went back to look; it just sat there, a few feet away. I skied back to tell The Hermit and our friends Jim and Cheryl, who then came up and took several close up photographs of the grouse. Perhaps this one was slightly amused by these strangely-dressed creatures with long, skinny feet.

This morning, however, I had a close encounter with a ruffed grouse right in the yard. I was walking back to the house from the composting toilet, a distance of about thirty feet, when I heard wingbeats and felt something fly just inches over my head. I looked up to see the brown tail feathers of a ruffed grouse that must have been roosting in the balsams nearby; it flew into the pines on the other side of the house.

That is just one of the many things that happen here that I will never take for granted.