Thursday, March 31, 2005

Sky Dance (excerpt from A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold)

Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.

It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour, which is the usual duration of the show. On moonlight nights, however, it may continue, at intervals, as long as the moon continues to shine....

...The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.

The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast. No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.

I am fortunate to be able to witness the sky dance from my own front step, or from the site of the new house we are building. The woodcock appears to begin his display near the edge of the shrub swamp, in the area we cleared two years ago with a bulldozer. A couple of years ago, before we even lived here, I flushed a woodcock out front, in a barren area of low jack pine, what used to be a gravel pit. I didn't find a nest, but I'm pretty sure there was one nearby.

Our piece of land provides ideal woodcock habitat; although I have mentioned the tall white pines, we also have an abundance of alder and willow thickets interspersed with more open areas. Woodcock probe the ground with a long, narrow bill for invertebrates, especially earthworms. Which raises a question in my mind: Earthworms are supposedly not native here in the glacial drift areas of Minnesota. They are, however, plentiful on our land. I doubt whether the loggers or the early farmers specifically brought them in, thinking "this land needs earthworms!" Woodcock seem specifically adapted to probing for earthworms; why would such a uniquely adapted creature make its home here, where any alleged "introductions" would have to have taken place only within the last 100 years?

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Tomato seedlings

Two seedlings are up today, and the winning variety is...Aztec.

I saw a beautiful bald eagle sitting in a tree next to the Kettle River this morning.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


I heard woodcock tonight! After sunset, before complete dark, there they were. "Peeent", then I saw at least one of them spiraling upward into the sky, dancing. I also saw a robin when I was going for a walk tonight. I told it how glad I was that it was back. Two great gray owls on the way home, and one bald eagle. And sandhill cranes. Three of them flying north of Hinckley.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Sightings and happenings, March 26-27

Well, spring is officially here. The most convincing sign is when my Honda Accord wagon gets stuck in the mud back by the house and I have to start parking out in front and walking in! Oh for a few loads of gravel for the driveway...maybe this year...

We drove south to my uncle's house on Rush Lake for Easter dinner. They had a lot less snow to begin with and it was almost gone. There were still a few people out ice fishing on the lake, even one pickup truck! The kids played outside, and even I got into a short game of wiffleball.

One of the highlights for me was getting a good view of a Cooper's hawk in a tree by the lake. The great blue herons were starting to arrive at their colony on the island across the bay. A male cardinal gave nonstop song all afternoon. Killdeers were calling across the road. I made a point to look for red winged blackbirds on the way there, and did not notice any, but on the way back home I saw several. We also saw the first sandhill cranes of the year. No robins or bluebirds yet, but I'm looking! I did see one northern shrike this morning.

I planted my first seeds on Saturday after rearranging the cookshed so I had enough shelf space. Russ put up a fluorescent shop light so the seedlings will have plenty of light. The first thing I planted was lemon balm; not planned but the seed packet had fallen on the floor, then one of the cats knocked over a pitcher of water so the seeds got wet. Maybe the cats were trying to tell me something, but I would understand more if it were catnip! Then I repotted two aloes and Vincent's apple tree, which he has grown from seed and is now about 18 inches tall! I started twelve kinds of tomatoes: Brandywine (of course), Amish Paste, and Stupice are tried and true for me, the rest are new. There was Riesentraube, a cherry/grape type tomato, black cherry, Black from Tula, Wisconsin 55, Enterprize, Maskabec, Tiffen Mennonite, Aztec, and Mother Russia. I'm not done planting tomatoes yet though! I also planted three kinds of eggplant: Casper, Listada de Gandia, and Rosita.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bragging about Nina

My 5 year old daughter Nina has had her picture in the paper twice in the last two weeks! Not only was she named a "Student of the Month" for February, last week the school librarian selected her as "Reader of the Week" for a book report she had written. Nina is the first kindergarten student ever to be named reader of the week.

My favorite quote from the article is this: "Nina reads the Bible every night before bed with her dog Lady."

Am I worthy of such a blessing? All three of them are wonderful.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Mahler's First Symphony

I treated myself to listening to a CD of this wonderful piece at work today...TWICE! Turned the headphones up, closed my eyes, played air flute, and was in tears at the glorious finale. The last movement goes out in a big, triumphant way, even better, I think, than Beethoven's Ninth. Some composers' symphonies seem inaccessible to me; I listen and drift off, lose concentration, don't get the focus of the piece, but with Mahler I'm there every note, every minute, and it all comes together as near perfectly as Mozart (Which was Mahler's last word, by the way, my Internet factoid for the day!)

I was introduced to the last movement of this symphony the best way: by performance. I was a freshman in college band, still in awe of the vast difference between the sound of a high school band and a college "symphonic wind ensemble". The "Sturmisch Bewegt", recently transcribed and edited as a stand-alone wind performance piece, was to be the coup de grace of our winter tour. I was somewhere in the second row of flutes. The long rehearsals were more intense than I had ever known, but it was the first time I had become intimately involved in such a great musical endeavor. I played my part, but I became a part of what everyone else was playing. That's the beauty of an orchestra: Many players becoming one through the music. One entity, larger than the sum of its parts. I miss that level of involvement in music. But as I listen, I still feel the notes running through my instrument, I breathe where I always breathed, I hold my breath during the quiet moments. And at the very end, I still see the look of utter triumph and delight on the conductor's face at the end of our last--and best--performance.

Swans and kestrels

I saw swans on the Kettle River yesterday. They were far enough away, and I was driving fast enough, that at first I thought maybe they were just chunks of ice. But I was curious enough to turn around--which took about two miles on that stretch of road--and there they were, with a few ducks and geese. Spring is definitely arriving. I've also seen two kestrels, and maybe a merlin, which is a bit bigger and lighter. But I'm still seeing great gray owls--maybe they'll stay here?

I heard a pack of wolves or coyotes last night, VERY close. What a wild, haunting sound.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Went to the ballet today!

Yes, me, homesteading brushape woman from the fringes of civilization, Pine County, MN, went to a cultural event. My neighbors Dick and Patty, whom I am begining to love dearly, invited me and my daughter to a performance of Prokofiev's "Cinderella" in Duluth. Although I have at times been a classical musician and attended a few orchestral concerts, this was probably the first full length ballet I have seen. Part of me was wishing I was down there in the orchestra pit, playing first flute. Yes, and another part of me was wishing I was half as agile and strong as those dancers! Wow!

Duluth is such a cool city. For having a population under 100,000, it has a thriving cultural scene. And it is always so nice to drive 50 miles and see water to the edge of the horizon. I love oceans, but for someone living in the middle of the country as far away as I can get from either coast, Lake Superior is a suitable substitute.

I saw a female goshawk this morning. I was still in bed, from which I have a good view on two sides of our yard and surrounding woods. While I was watching redpolls at the bird feeder, suddenly I saw something huge swoop by. At first I thought great gray owl, but as I saw it light in a birch branch, I knew it was a hawk. It then flew up into a white pine, high enough to catch the light of the rising sun, and I wished I had film in my good camera. What a perfect picture that would have been! The goshawk I saw the other day was a male; maybe they're a pair. Bad news for the ruffed grouse and rabbits around here!

Tomorrow is my 38th birthday. What a wonderful life!

Friday, March 18, 2005

I'm feeling squishy now

I guess it was inevitable; with all the cuddling and coughing in the house, my husband and I now have this icky cold. I was going to stay home, but I thought I'd just get caught up in cleaning the house (I should have known better than to try and organize all the small toys; that didn't last long!) and not get any rest anyway. I get some peace and quiet at work and I can be a recluse if I want there.

Ugh. I want to write, but this cold's got my mind all foggy. Maybe more later.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Sick day

Not me, I'm feeling fine, but since yesterday my 7 year old son has been sick with laryngitis, cough, and occasional fever. He says he feels "squishy" sometimes; that would describe it pretty well! Having no pressing work obligations, and having accumulated over two weeks' sick leave for the first time in years, I volunteered to stay home with him. I may have seemed a bit eager about it too, because, well, I was. I'm not happy that he's sick, but there's something about taking a day off, extra cuddling, that just feels worth it.

We made Jello and let it set in the snow. I put together a glockenspiel kit that wasn't put together right the first time, and he read music and played "Row row row your boat". I organized a random mixture of Lincoln logs, Thomas the Tank Engine trains, Matchbox cars, and toy dinosaurs into separate containers. I helped my 3 year old son build a track for the engines. I cut up half gallon juice cartons into planting containers and made the tops into engine sheds for Thomas et al. I went through my seed collection and decided to plant greens and lettuce indoors so we would have our own fresh salad mix in May. I played my octave mandolin and decided I have a special relationship with it. I read Wendell Berry poems as my 3 year old drifted off to sleep in a much-needed nap.

What a day!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Thursday evening

Well, after the previous post, as I was on my way home not too far from where I had the owl encounter, I saw a dead great gray in the middle of the road. Damn! I pulled over to pick it up, and it was still warm, freshly hit. Probably one of the owls I've been seeing every day in that area. I brought it to the wildlife office, which was on my way home anyway, and luckily someone was still there so I could put it in the freezer.

As I drove up the driveway into our clearing, I became aware of a large bird sitting in an elm tree next to the swamp. This bird was definitely not a great gray owl. I got out my binoculars, and got my best view ever of a northern goshawk. It stayed, perched in the same spot, for at least 45 minutes after I got home. What a beautiful bird.

I had a wonderful visit with our neighbors, Dick and Patty, last night. I brought Nina over there after dinner to pick up a unique object for Show and Tell: the bones of an orangutan hand! They had gotten the hand, strung together with wire, from an anthropologist friend. I only meant to stay for a few minutes, but we ended up visiting for over an hour, discussing owls, neighbors, gardens, greenhouses, and Sally the turkey. Sally is a semi-wild turkey who divides her time between our houses.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Almost hit one today

A great gray owl, that is. I was on my way from work to Vincent and Nina's school music program. It had snowed this morning and there was still a bit of slush on the road, enough to make things a bit treacherous. I had seen five great gray owls in a short stretch of the same road earlier in the morning, so I wasn't surprised to see this one perched on a fence post on the right side of the road. But then suddenly it took off, heading straight across the road. With the snow and slush, there was no way I could have hit the brakes without ending up in the ditch. I didn't have time to think anyway. Luckily the owl had gained enough height, or it would have been hit by the bumper. Instead, although it came within six inches of the windshield the owl made it safely across by the width of a feather. I would have been devastated had I killed it. I've killed birds before with the car, and I remember just about every one.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The way Jesus meant me to live

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a Christian, and whether in fact I am one. While I have no answers, I feel my life is being drawn in a certain direction. And that direction is, simply, to live the way Jesus commanded me to live. To love my neighbor as myself, and my enemy as well. To be concerned with how I treat the downtrodden, for "as you do unto the least of them, so have you done unto me". (Sorry, no Bible scholar here, don't have the Scripture reference in my brain.) So my husband has been buying hay and consequently having good conversations with a pastor/farmer in the area. They believe in starting a farm for those who find themselves homeless, in desperation, to teach them a new life. To produce organically grown, locally grown products, and at the same time teach people that there is an alternative to this spiritless way of life we've been taught to live. Sounds good to me, God give me the strengh to do Your will.

An elegant deduction

I read somewhere today that the great gray owl and northern hawk owl, who normally inhabit areas hear the Arctic circle, are diurnal because, for several months out of the year, THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE!!! There is 24 hour sunlight. So they adapt to hunting during daylight hours, or at least the crepuscular hours (before and after sunrise and sunset) because that is the conditions under which they live. Makes perfect sense to me, and it's one of those moments where"jeeze why didn't I think of that!"

Baboon suits

Wouldn't it be fun to make a set of baboon suits for the entire family? I mean, with the blue and white faces and really, really red butts. And we could wear them to the next family gathering, or to Wal THAT would be hilarious!!!

My son, the visionary

He is seven years old and already nearly as tall as my shoulders. In second grade, he excels at math. He loves to draw plans and make inventions. He has dreamy brown eyes with long, full eyelashes that I would die for.

Yesterday his class had rehearsal in the school auditorium for their upcoming music program. He informed me that there are 195 seats in the auditorium, this fact determined by counting the number of rows and the number of seats per row.

This morning he pointed out the pattern of rectangles on the bedroom ceiling; there is a row of 8x4 birch panels, then another row approximately 4x4. He said we should paint one of the shorter panels blue with white stars, then paint red and white stripes on two longer panels and one shorter one, then it would look like a United States flag. It reminded me of how I, as a child, would see patterns and pictures in wallpaper, ceiling tiles, stuff like that. Patterns and pictures that were not intentionally part of the design. I remember some of these patterns and pictures vividly when I think of the places or events surrounding them.

The other day, while driving to school and work, I was talking about how the road seemed a lot bumpier than it was before. He immediately said "It's probably because of the big thaw yesterday." A-HA! Thawing and freezing wreak havoc on country asphalt roads.

And, while watching a video that included circus scenes he told me, "There's something about circuses I just don't like". I have held that same feeling since I was a child, but have rarely if ever vocalized it to the kids. He went on to say "Clowns just creep me out!" Yikes! We think too much alike!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Saga of the spruce

The great spruce was part of a grove of towering spruce, white pine and balsam fir that was an important part of our initial attraction to this forty acres of land. The trees were most likely around at the end of the 19th century, a remnant of the great pine forests that once covered this area. The young trees stood next to a small bog, between the main line of the St. Croix Logging Railroad and a small siding. This railroad, used to transport logs to the St. Croix River, where they were floated downstream to mills in Stillwater, was only used for a few years in the 1890's. The grades of these railroads are still visible today and we keep the siding cleared as a trail.

A 1939 aerial photo shows these trees surrounded by open pasture land. Towards the road, a sand and gravel pit is visible, mining the riverine soils deposited by a glacial outwash stream at the end of the last Ice Age. This stream was probably the precursor to Sand Creek. Today one of the best of a limited number of brook trout streams in the area, Sand Creek was ditched and straightened in 1918 or 1919, possibly in an effort to drain swamps for agricultural use.

The great spruce was spared the ravages of the 1894 Hinckley fire, which burned out several miles to the south and west, and the 1918 Moose Lake fire, which reached its limit to the north.

The great spruce was showing signs of aging when we first saw it. Lichens covered much of the trunk and branches. Many of the lower branches were already dead; these were cut close to the trunk to clear space next to the cabin we were building. The remaining knobs, up to a foot or so in length, continue to serve as footholds for adventurous tree climbers.

The fate of the spruce was sealed in 2001 when a strong burst of wind during a thunderstorm knocked the top off about 25 feet up. At this point the trunk was still about 20 inches in diameter; fortunately it did not fall on the cabin. The spruce gradually succumbed to the loss of its main energy-collecting branches.

We were in no hurry to remove the remains of the giant spruce. Branches were cleared, the fallen upper trunk was rolled to the edge of the woods where it remains now, but we marvel as the great spruce in its death continues to give life. Wood boring insects audibly gnaw the layer just below the bark, providing food for woodpeckers. I saw my first ever black backed woodpecker foraging on the spruce; this species is uncommon around here, being a boreal forest native. The canopy of branches, devoid of needles, still provides perches for chickadees, redpolls, pine grosbeaks, goldfinches, and others as they visit our bird feeder just below. And to a six month old kitten, the spruce provides a jungle gym of entertainment. I watched, laughing, the other day as the apparently fearless feline climbed up 25 feet to where the upper trunk broke off. It ventured out to the edges of branches 2 inches in diameter. Finally it crawled back to the main trunk where my son "rescued" it. Back inside, the kitten smelled wonderful. I breathed in its fur the scent of old wood, dried resin, and bark, the gifts to a new generation of life in the endless circle.

Monday, March 07, 2005

A beautiful day

Yesterday (Sunday) the temperature got up to 50 degrees here, and it was clear and sunny all day. The first thing I heard when I went outside in the morning was a cardinal singing! Although bird feeders have helped them to expand their range further north, cardinals are still pretty rare at this latitude (just above 46 degrees N).

The great gray owls are still around. Even with the commotion of the kids playing outside about 150 feet away, our "house owl" as we call it was perched in an aspen at the edge of the shrub swamp. When we went for a drive, another owl was near the road on the other side of the creek. Biologists are beginning to speculate that some of them might stay around for the breeding season.

I'm getting the itch to start seeds indoors, although it's a bit early and I don't have any flats or seed starting mix yet. I've been reading Solviva by Anna Edey, and I'm not too far in it but this just might be a life-changing book for me. Three and four year old tomato plants growing indoors with little supplemental heat, producing fruit year round...I could live with that!