Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The end of an unschooled summer

Calvin and Starflower go back to public school tomorrow; he in third grade, she in first. She, being the most social being in our family (although in a family of hermits that isn't saying much!), is excited. He, being a Calvin, is a bit more reticent about it, although I think he's trying to act somewhat excited just because that's what he thinks he's "supposed" to do. I'm ambivalent and struggling with the whole idea.

I'm not going to kid myself and think it's great that they have an opportunity to "get an education" this way. The fact is, I don't think they'll learn anything useful, anything that they could not learn on their own, at their own pace, if given the opportunity. What they will learn is how to obey orders and conform. How to accept things and not ask questions. How to do endless, repetitive, rote-learning worksheets. How to prepare for and take standardized tests. How to cheer for "the team" no matter what. How to be shaped by artificial incentives and punishments.

I could go on and on, but by now you probably get the idea. I'm not a big fan of public schools in general. I'm a big fan of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto's ideas about learning and schools. I think unschooling, not just playing school at home complete with curriculum, but giving my children the freedom to learn what they want in the way that is best for them, is the best way for my children to learn.

I went to public school K-12. I was not aware of any other options. I was good at taking tests and getting good grades. I thought I enjoyed school. Now, twenty years later, I realize I was mostly wasting my time. I had a few good teachers: Dr. Hummel, who introduced me to the formal study of biology and who would jump up on the table waving his pointer sometimes during class. He was that excited about teaching. Mr Luebke taught a vague-sounding senior honors class called "Humanities Seminar" that sparked my interest and appreciation of the fine arts, literature, music, and architecture. And Mr. Thompson made band fun and encouraged excellence from everyone. I was voted Outstanding Senior Girl in Band, the one honor from my school career that I take some pride in. But I barely remember anything else. I didn't come out of any other classes eager to learn more about the subject. I had little interest in reading anything that wasn't assigned. And, most importantly, I did not know how to ask questions.

So why don't I just take my kids out of school altogether? There are a lot of reasons, besides the fact that my retired teacher grandma and the rest of my school-supporting family would think I'd gone totally nuts. I think most of it has to do with the fact that I'm not there yet mentally, not having confidence enough in myself that the idea might actually work. Society kind of does that to a person to make them stay in line. Plus the fact that I work full time, and I would like to be the one to be there to guide their adventures.

I also think that our small town consolidated school district isn't really all bad. There are some well-meaning teachers who genuinely care about the children and want them to do their best, who feel overwhelmed by the demands to prepare for standardized tests and cater to the students with learning difficulties. And I think my children are smart enough to see through the empty praise and false incentives; they are there to learn and they get bored quickly doing the same things over and over.

And, they only have to be in school seven hours a day, five days a week. The rest of the time is theirs to explore, to be kids, and to do what they've been doing all summer. So they are unschooling in a sense, when they're not in school. Maybe some day we'll be ready to take the next step.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Weekend homesteading, or: One foot in the working world

I have come to the conclusion that, although I love my current lifestyle dearly and have no desire to go back to the rat race, it is very difficult to appreciate the simple pleasures fully when you still have one foot in the working world. Weekend homesteading is not for the faint of heart.

Take laundry, for example. I was thrilled when I got my wringer washer, because it meant no more days wasted at the laundromat. I initially enjoyed the ritual of washing. But now it seems I have to plan my weekends around the inevitable loads of laundry that have piled up during the week, and with three children and The Hermit doing construction, there are loads. I have decided I have only patience (and clothesline space) for three loads a day. I'm still trying to figure out how I can work in a load or two in the morning or evening during the week. The other option is to go through fewer changes of clothing, and my younger two would probably be happy to run around naked, but although my dress is extremely casual at work, I still need to wear something that is clean and presentable. And The Hermit refuses to work with power tools in the buff, which is probably a wise decision.

I love canning and putting up the harvest from my garden, but again there is the time factor. I was going to try making crabapple jelly from the crabapples we picked the weekend before last, but stemming and cutting the small fruits, pleasurable as it was, took so much time that I only got as far as extracting the juice. It was worth it, however; the aroma and flavor of fresh crabapple juice is exquisite, and the deep red color will make a beautiful jelly. Since this is my first ever foray into jelly making, I decided to save the juice until I had the time and energy to fully concentrate on the task. I have just over a quart and a half of juice, but Calvin wanted to go pick more crabapples on Sunday afternoon so I have another five gallon bucket sitting there waiting for next weekend. I'm thinking the jelly might make great Christmas gifts if it turns out well, so I want to make as many half pints as I can. The Hermit also wants to soak some crabapples and a little sugar in vodka to make a liqueur; sounds good to me.

Of course all of this cooking requires some sort of fuel, which my one foot in the working world pays for. We buy hundred pound cylinders of propane from the local service station. We were in the middle of preparing dinner Saturday evening, and I tried to light the stove to fry zucchini, when...nothing happened. Out of gas. It was 6:30, and I knew the service station closed at 6. I thought we were SOL; I didn't want to go into such deep homesteading skills such as cooking over an open fire just yet. But The Hermit called the owner of the station at home and asked if there was any chance we could pick up a bottle of propane. "I'll be right there!" was the reply. Not "Sorry, we close at six." That's one of the great things about living where there is a sense of community.

Still, by Sunday afternoon of a two-day weekend, I get to feeling a bit melancholy, especially this time of year. There's so much to do here, and I don't mean chores and housework, I mean fun stuff like fishing in Sand Creek (not done yet), walking in the woods (not done often enough), riding bikes on the gravel roads (still have to get mine fixed so I can shift gears), or just sitting by the creek listening to the water. There's a gorgeous patch of asters just up the road that I want to photograph, but I haven't gotten there yet. The kids will be going off to school on Thursday, and I feel like I barely spent any time with them doing all of these things. Calvin had to practically drage me fifty yards into the woods yesterday, to show me "a beautiful spot". It's at the base of two giant white pines growing close together, and I agreed with him it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I want to put a comfortable chair there some day, and actually spend some time relaxing there, enjoying the beauty that is so close by.

I may have one foot still in the working world, and I hope to pull that foot free some day, but at least my other foot is in a place that I love, where moments like these are there for the taking like wild crabapples.

Introducing the Hermit family

That last post got me thinking, I really need to come up with blog names for my husband and children. I don't mind being Deb here, and I would feel weird calling myself something else (although I am flutemandolin on some Internet boards), but the rest of my family doesn't have any say over what I write about them. I feel like I'm invading their privacy by using their real names, and it's awkward saying "my husband" or "my six year old daughter" every time I refer to them.

So, hereafter on this blog, my dear husband will be referred to as The Hermit. I'm sure he has no problem with this, as he and I proudly declare ourselves to be hermits and avoid social interaction whenever possible. We even have a little joke about him wanting to be mentored by another local hermit, but the guy won't return his calls...

My children, well, I'm still thinking. Lately my eight year old son has taken to quoting "Calvin and Hobbes", and although in depth of thought he's definitely more Hobbes, I find myself wanting to call him "Calvin". So Calvin he is, for now. His three and a half year old brother answers to "Pulpy", a reference to his ability from babyhood to turn his parents into a mass of quivering pulp by the end of a day. But Pulpy sounds a bit odd. Maybe "Mr. Attitude" would be more appropriate--he's got it. And my six year old daughter...for some reason Starflower comes to mind.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Tales of feline heroism

Let me make this clear: I realize that bats are part of God's creation, that they are relatively harmless and eat lots of mosquitoes, so they are generally a good thing to have around. I like having them here, outdoors. The key word here is outdoors. Once one gets inside my living space, especially at night, I authorize all use of force necessary to get rid of it. Or, more accurately, I authorize my husband to use any means whatsoever to get rid of it, while I lie cowering under the covers. I have issues with flying rodents.

Last night, I had been asleep for maybe half an hour when I heard my husband say "Damn. There's a BAT in here!" Out of the corner of my eye I saw something fluttering and circling, too close, and I dove under the covers while spouse went to find a suitable bat removal tool. Since we aren't into tennis or badminton, the only thing he could find was the broom, a rather clumsy thing to swing at a bat with, especially in a very small cabin. He took a few swings at the bat in the living room, and then it disappeared for about twenty minutes. Bats are kind of frustrating in that they can hide in very small cracks and crevices when someone is swinging a long-handled object at them.

I was just getting the courage to peek out from under the covers when I saw it again, circling in the bedroom. "It's here!" I screamed and took cover.

"Open the patio door!" spouse yelled. Yeah, right. I'm going to get up, with a bat circling around my head, and open the door. Actually I don't even have to get out of bed to open the door, but that was too much exposure for a bat-phobe like me. So he went out the front door, around the house, and opened the patio door. Bat apparently was scared by this and left the bedroom. Spouse came back in through the front door.

It was then that I heard a little flurry of activity, a pause, then the sound of the broom hitting the floor.

"Got it! Right in midair!"

"Did you kill it?"

"No, Puff did! Leaped about three feet in the air and grabbed it!"

Puff is our blue eyed, cuddly, three month old kitten. Apparently he has some fine hunting skills in his genes. I believe this was his first catch ever. He has earned Spouse's utmost respect, and Spouse does not generally hold most felines in high regard. I am just grateful to Puff for allowing me to sleep in peace last night, without things fluttering around my face, although I am somewhat embarrassed that a kitten has more courage than me.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A confession...

I am bad at fish identification. There, I've said it. Even though my job title is "FISHeries Specialist", even though I have a Master's degree in FISHeries Science, even though I spent hours in Ichthyology lab studying preserved specimens, and probably inhaling a bit too much formaldehyde in the process, just put a bucket of fresh minnow-sized fish in front of me and I will forget everything I know, or so it seems. You could throw a few emerald shiners in there, and I did my THESIS on emerald shiners, and I would go crazy trying to separate them out from creek chubs, fathead minnows, common shiners, Johnny darters, and stonerollers. And please, don't even get me started on dace. Northern redbelly dace, finescale dace, pearl dace. They all look the same to me. At first.

I've been doing some fish sampling by electrofishing on a small river in east central Minnesota. The river is quite small and the water level low; it was completely dry in some parts. The equipment we use is a backpack shocker powered by a generator. Basically, one person wears the unit and controls the anode, which is on a long pole. The other person (or two people) carry dip nets and buckets to hold the fish. When the unit is running, the electric field around the anode causes fish to involuntarily swim towards the anode (Galvanotaxis--word of the day). The fish are temporarily stunned, but the voltage is not high enough to kill most fish instantly. Kind of a fun way to go fishing, if not the most sporting.

At the end of the sampling station, it's time to sort through the catch, and then the fun begins. I dip a net full of slimy, wiggling fish and look at each one, separating them into smaller buckets by species. Some fish are obvious: the eel-like burbot, brook stickleback, and central mudminnow are unmistakable. Darters, members of the perch family, are a little tricky but still have some distinctive characteristics for each species. But once you get into the Cyprinidae (minnows), all distinctions start to blur. It takes some kind of mental adjustment to start paying attention to smaller, less obvious details. Are the scales large, or small? What is the shape and relative size, even the angle, of the mouth? Is the body more flattened or cylindrical? What is the relative size of the eye?

Another confession: I hate dichotomous keys. For those of you who do not know what a dichotomous key is, it's a guide to fish (or any organism, plant or animal) identification that goes through a series of questions based on physical characteristics to progressively narrow down the possibilities until you run out of choices. In theory it is foolproof; at each level, a fish is either this or that, black or white, scaled or scaleless. But then, especially with cyprinids, they start throwing in criteria like lateral line scale count, dorsal fin rays, mouth angle, and pharyngeal teeth counts. When you're looking at a bucket of hundreds of individuals, you don't want to be counting tiny scales on each one. And the keys often contain ambiguous phrases like "mouth more or less subterminal"...what's this more or less business? Or my favorite: One choice says 10-15 dorsal fin rays, the other says 12-17 dorsal fin rays. So what do you do if your specimen has 14 dorsal fin rays? Give me a good illustrated guide any day; I'm not anal retentive enough to go through the steps to "key out" specimens.

Okay, nerdy biologist rant over. When all is said and done, I'm amazed at the diversity of life that is present in even the tiniest stream. The fish life alone is impressive; we're finding fifteen or more different species at each sampling spot. And even the small fish are beautiful; the striking colors of the redbelly dace (though they are not always brightly colored), the intricate markings of the Johnny darter, the iridescence of the bluntnose minnow (today's species that had me baffled for way too long), the young-of-year smallmouth bass. I even shocked an eighteen inch northern pike that was hiding in a weed bed in less than a foot of water (We measured and released that one quickly). It's all out there; how few people ever take the time to discover it!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I still have a garden

I was dreading going home last night, wondering what the frost damage would be. I was not encouraged by the report my husband had called to give me: "Everything is dead!"

Well, it turns out, everything is definitely NOT dead. Reports of the demise of my entire summer's work were greatly exaggerated. In fact, I don't think I lost a single tomato plant. The jalapeno peppers took it the hardest, and they may in fact be dead, but other varieties of peppers are okay. I don't know about the zucchini; leaves are shriveled on both the green and yellow ones but the plant stems are still erect. Winter squash leaves are black and shriveled, but even if those plants succumbed to the frost I can still harvest the squash. The Kentucky Wonder pole beans took a hit too but don't look entirely dead. The Diva cucumbers are questionable, as are the picklers. But everything else is okay!

The tomato bed next to the chicken tractor, my "tomato jungle", where I planted all of my leftover transplants with reckless abandon, looked well despite having been partially covered late at night, when it was already freezing. This may have been due to two factors: one, as I mentioned in my previous post, is that the plants were so close together with dense leafy growth that the leaves served as insulation; two, the chickens may have kept that area warmer than the rest of the garden. Maybe I'll design some kind of chicken-heated hoop houses for extending the season for tomatoes and peppers.

Speaking of chickens, they are getting huge. My husband is in charge of slaughter, and he's thinking maybe it will be in a couple of weeks. We have a friend that has a scalder and plucker, so we may get together with him and do all of our birds at once.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

We'll see how those row covers worked...

It got down to 30 degrees here last night! And it's still August! The cars were covered in frost this morning. I had covered up all of the tomato beds that had hoops on them already, but I didn't think it would really frost. Then Russ got up at about 1 AM and covered everything else...ya gotta love that in a spouse! I think the tomatoes in hoop houses should be okay, but I'll have to assess everything else tonight when I get home. Just when I've got gazillions of green tomatoes on the brink of starting to ripen (I hope, it's about time!) we get this weather. But I shouldn't be surprised; the same thing happened last year even earlier in August, but that was followed by about a month of mild weather.

I'm definitely doing all of my tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant in raised beds with row covers next year. The row covers are really simple to make; just take a length of 3/4 inch PVC pipe (10 feet, I think) and bend it over the bed, and fasten in place with screw-in conduit holders (sorry I don't know all of the correct names for hardware!) I use 4 of them for each 8 foot bed. The covering material is just construction grade plastic for now; I might look into permeable materials for next year.

I've noticed it also helps if you break the rules about spacing tomatoes (18 inches-2 feet apart) and plant them closer together. I plant eight plants per 8 x 4 raised bed. The dense leaf growth traps in heat and the plants insulate each other somewhat.

One of my goals for the garden is to try and incorporate some of Eliot Coleman's harvest-extending techniques, and develop solutions, like the spacing and row covers, that are uniquely suited to this climate. I also want to experiment with different open pollinated tomato varieties and see which ones are best suited for this type of growing season. So far, Stupice is my best performing tomato, although I'm eagerly awaiting the Pruden's Purple, which should be ripe some time this week.

I planted more lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula, Chinese cabbage, orach, and corn salad in the onion and carrot bed I cleared on Sunday. Hopefully, with some frost protection, that will provide fresh greens at least through early November.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Big pickle weekend

My days off from work seem like a lot more work than my days on lately. I took Friday off because I wasn't scheduled to go out wading creeks, measuring cross sections and evaluating substrate types (and watching frogs). Tomorrow I will probably be going out electrofishing, which should make for some interesting stories. I'll try to remember the camera!

Friday morning we were blessed with some rain, not a huge amount but steady enough to keep me from having to water the garden. I washed dishes and cleaned the cook shed in preparation for my first venture into canning in several years. My neighbor Patty has been bringing me her excess green beans, which amount to a lot more than my entire production of beans so far. I had two large bags full, so I decided to can some straight and make pickled beans out of the rest. I did eight pints of beans in the pressure canner, and what a joy it was to hear the hiss of the steam and the rattle of the weight, and to lift out the jars and hear the ping of the lids sealing.

I did the pickled beans on Saturday morning in the water bath canner, and prepared the cucumbers for pickling in the afternoon. I had them all packed tightly into ten wide mouth quart jars, then realized I was out of wide mouth rings and lids! So in a wonderful display of inefficiency, I made the fifteen mile drive into town just for one thing. Well, actually two things, since it seemed such a waste of time and gas to go to town and not get beer. I returned, and pickles were processed.

Sunday was a day of rest--of sorts. I did laundry in the morning, because it had to be done, and hung it all out to dry. I helped Russ put a few sheets of siding on the house. Then Vincent and Nina and I got on our bikes and rode to the old farmstead just across the creek, where we picked a bucket of crabapples, which I might make into jelly, and some red clover blossoms to dry for tea. The kids and I spent some time just running in the grass and watching clouds. Then I decided that Togo the husky needed some exercise, so we rode our bikes back, put Togo on the leash, and came back to the same spot, the kids again on bikes and Togo taking me for a run. I took him off the leash for a while and he was ecstatic, although I think he's so used to being chained up he doesn't quite know what to do with himself.

When we got back, Russ had brought water down to the garden and he was starting up the chain saw. Hmmm, I thought we were going to take it easy the rest of the day. So I watered while he cut down a small dead birch between the new house and the garden. After the watering was done, I decided I hadn't done enough work so far, and proceeded to weed and trim edges around my greens bed, and clean out the onion and carrot bed which had been harvested. I stopped short of planting seeds in the cleared bed. Gotta save something for tomorrow!

Joe, by the way, threw a twenty minute tantrum because Dad would not let him operate the chain saw. This is the same three year old who wants a shotgun for his fourth birthday "So I can shoot those damn neighbor cows if they come over here!"

Winding down (finally) for the evening, I started what I hope to be an ongoing thing: reading with Nina and maybe Vincent. We read the first chapter of Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House, which is wonderful so far.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Low tech

We celebrated Nina's birthday on Sunday by having my mom, dad, brother and his family, grandma, aunt and uncle up for a picnic. It had been two years since any of them had seen the place and we were anxious to show them the progress on the new house. We even enlisted the muscles of my dad, brother, sister in law, and uncle in lifting one of the glue-lam beams that supports part of the second floor.

While I love having my family up for a visit, I always get the feeling that they don't fully understand why I'm doing this, why I'm working towards this homesteading lifestyle. My grandma and my mother certainly lived some of it, but are content in not having to do all of the hard work anymore. I think they admire me for doing it, and creating such a great environment for the kids to grow up in, but at the same time are a bit perplexed by some choices. Like the composting toilet.

"Why are you going with a composting toilet instead of a regular one?" my dad asked me. I paused, reaching for the right words. The composting toilet is such an integral symbol of our philosophy of living here; conserving valuable resources, making do with less, and participating more fully in the cycle of life. How do I distill all of that into an answer that won't take the rest of the afternoon? I didn't have a copy of The Humanure Handbook available to show him, although that may have been a bit too much information for a Sunday afternoon.

"It's low tech." I heard myself say. It's low tech. Exactly. You can't get any more low tech than a bucket of sawdust. It's simple and elegant, and it won't get plugged up and overflow at inopportune times. But yet, the process of composting is probably more complicated and technical than anything humans could come up with, so in a sense it's not low tech. But for our purposes, at an organism/ecosystem level, it's low tech.

I went on to explain how a septic system would cost thousands of dollars to install, would require intervention by professionals and inspectors, and even then would have no guarantee of working properly. Mound systems have a way of freezing up during winters with little snow, and functioning questionably the rest of the time. My aunt and uncle, who live on a lake, are aware of this. They will eventually need to replace their system, but will probably go with a holding tank instead of a mound. As a biologist I agreed that was the better option for them and for the lake, which suffers from nutrient overload. I should have preached the benefits of the composting idea, but perhaps that will wait for another day, not a family birthday celebration.

The economic argument probably made more sense than the low tech one. I don't know. My extended family probably still thinks I'm a bit strange. Oh well, at least we didn't go with my husband's idea of greeting them with a hatchet and telling them to go down to the chicken tractor and choose their dinner.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

today's nature observation

Frogs will sit motionless on a rock for hours on end. Yes, it was alive. Maybe it didn't have anything else that needed to be done, and it was a pretty place to be. I am envious.

bittern moon

Does anyone know anything about animal spirits? Specifically, what does it mean when an American Bittern repeatedly presents itself to you? We have seen this bird several times in the last few weeks. One evening, soon after we completed the first walls of the new house, it flew low over the house. The other day at the pond, I swam across to the other side, a distance of probably 100 feet or less, and the bittern emerged from a clump of sedge it had been lurking in for at least the half hour I had been there. Yesterday, again at the pond, it flew low directly over us. I always thought bitterns were rather elusive, timid birds that were rarely seen. Certainly I had never seen one up close before this year.

Autumn is sliding in. It is present in the yellow leaves of the young birches that have given up hope of enough rain to produce any more this year. It is present in the flock of hundreds of blackbirds, rising and falling like a cloud. It is present in the hummingbirds, visiting the feeder with increasing urgency as they prepare for migration. It is present in the common nighthawks, flocking together in swirling swarms; I had not seen a nighthawk all summer. And it is present in the bands of cedar waxwings, feeding on ripe chokecherries.

Friday, August 12, 2005

six years ago today, or how things came around in a circle

Six years ago I sat in the very room I am sitting in now, working the same job, but it was all about to change. I was due with my second child, and my husband had just accepted a job offer in another state, which meant once the baby was born I would never be here again. I would be leaving my job, which I had come to like; selling our house, the one we had had built for us in a rural subdivision, the only house I'd known in my married life; moving 600 miles away to a place where I had no friends or family; and being a stay at home mom to two young children.

Six years ago I wanted to sell our land. If we were moving that far away, I could not bear the thought of having a piece of land, a place I loved, but not being able to visit it as often as I wanted. It turns out I was wrong, and keeping the land is what saved us. We had talked of living here, but that seemed like such a remote possibility, one I was not sure I could make the transition to at the time.

Six years ago was my last day here at the office. I went home as usual, made dinner, went for a walk, and read bedtime stories to my two year old son. As I was rocking him, I felt the familiar tightening, the beginning of contractions. It seemed like forever before he was finally weary enough to fall asleep in his bed. I took a warm bath, but it did not comfort me; the contractions kept coming, faster and more intense. I told my husband what was going on, but not to worry yet, I was going to bed for a while, it would probably be hours before anything happened.

Then my water broke. Hours collapsed into seconds as I went into transitional labor on the way to the hospital. I don't know how I walked in, all the way to OB on the second floor. By the time we got into a room I was ready to lie on my side, nauseous and irritable. I asked for Nubain, but by the time the nurse brought it in, it was too late; I was pushing. My doctor arrived just as the baby was crowning; moments later I heard a little cry and "You have a daughter!" Nina was born at 1:30 AM, Friday the 13th, 1999, after under four hours of labor. She's always been impatient and determined.

We moved, but somehow what we were moving to seemed to elude us. We moved again; the job, the location, the finances, never seemed quite right. Three years went by in a haze as we chased what we wanted, what we had a vague idea of but didn't know how to get there. Coming back to the land was always like coming home; it was becoming the center of my universe.

Then we landed here, when Nina was three and had a one year old brother. It was as crazy and unplanned as anything that ever happened. We lived day to day, not knowing how we would get by, but somehow life was starting to feel right. Six months later, my old job opened up; I walked in the door just like I always had, and it was as if nothing had changed, nothing except me. Somewhere on that wild crazy journey, I learned what I wanted out of life.

You could say we ended up here, right back where we started, because our other plans didn't work out. I believe, however, that there was one plan all along, one we gradually came to know. The treasure we sought was not necessarily the treasure we would find.

Happy birthday, Wild Neen.

The Snake River

The Snake River, where I've been spending a lot of time this week

I was intrigued by how a small amount of woody debris, such as a fallen tree or branch getting caught in the bank, can over time pick up more and more debris and become substrate for plant growth. Underneath all of this is some wonderful cover for fish.

A school of fish, probably white suckers, visible in the clear water.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ripe tomatoes and green beans!

Joe harvested my first ripe tomato yesterday, a Stupice. Actually I've been picking a couple of orange cherry tomatoes and Roma tomatoes from a container plant, but those don't count because a) I got them from my neighbor Patty, who started tomato seeds a lot earlier and grew them to more gigantic sizes at transplant than I did, and b) they're container plants. Oh well, at least I'm getting tomatoes this year, container or no. That's more than I can say about last year, when at this time we were having frost! I haven't eaten the Stupice yet; I'm saving that for a special tomato ceremony. There are a few more that are almost ripe.

Vincent harvested a few Kentucky Wonder pole beans, but they really haven't kicked in yet. And my Ohio Cutshort pole beans aren't even flowering yet! I looked in the Sandhill catalog, and discovered they are an 85 day variety. So I probably won't be planting them next year.

I'm also getting green and yellow zucchini, and I might have enough pickling cucumbers for a batch of dill pickles on Saturday. And tons of broccoli.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


river running

I've been spending the last three work days taking habitat measurements on two area rivers. I'm beginning to enjoy this kind of work. In a state famous for its lakes, where spending the weekend at the lake cabin is a way of life for many, rivers, especially smaller warmwater rivers, often get overlooked.

The Snake River flows some eighty miles from headwater streams in Aitkin County, MN, to its confluence with the St. Croix River east of Pine City. Although there are areas of whitewater near the mouth and again near where the headwater streams come together, the section I've been on is a wide, shallow, low gradient stretch. We traveled by flat bottomed boat with a small motor, but I found myself wishing I was floating lazily in a canoe.

There are cabins and houses scattered along the banks, more so in the area near Pine City, but much of the river flows through wild floodplain forest, with basswood, maple, oak, and an occasional white pine, the remnant of the vast white pine forest that covered this area until logging began 150 years ago.

This has been a dry summer, and the river is at a very low level. In some areas the river is a sand bar 100 feet wide with water barely six inches deep; occasionally we had to get out of the boat and drag it across these areas. However, debris piled on the banks and snags of grasses caught in tree branches spoke of spring torrents when the river level was about ten feet higher.

As I rode along in the front of the boat, watching the water ahead for logs and boulders, I was amazed at the water clarity. Lakes around here generally are not very clear, but the Snake River water was clear enough I could see down several feet. I saw an occasional smallmouth bass and suckers and redhorse. With water levels this low, fish are scarce in the sandy flats. Any available cover, such as a boulder, fallen tree, or bed of river pondweed, is utilized by fish. I have often read and preached the importance of instream cover for fish, but seeing the amazing numbers of fish that congregate in one log jam make the message clear. More habitat=more fish.

The fish weren't the only wildlife I observed. Small flocks of cedar waxwings flitted among the tops of trees. Great blue herons stood still in the backwaters. A flock of Canada geese flew overhead. Wood ducks and mallards splashed in wild rice beds. A bald eagle sored overhead. Shorebirds, perhaps spotted sandpipers, waded on exposed sand bars, enjoying the numerous tiny mussels and invertebrates. Mussels were abundant; I saw numerous live ones half buried in the sand, their siphons and gills exposed out of their shells. If mussels are an indicator of clean water, the Snake River is in good shape.

Our purpose in surveying the river is to assess the fish population, primarily the "game" fish; that is, walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, and channel catfish. However, I could probably spend days paddling the river, observing what I have described above, watching the glassy water slip by reflecting the blue sky, and not even wet a line.

Monday, August 08, 2005

the weekend

Sorry no pictures...I brought the digital camera home from work but forgot the memory card. D-uh!

Friday night we had a great time listening to our friend Fred's bluegrass band, the Whistlepigs (see link on right). I have played music with Fred and bandmate Joel, but I had never seen the full band perform. They play a mix of straight bluegrass, bluegrassed contemporary tunes, and even some very impressive original stuff. They were playing at the Highway 61 Folks Fest in Mahtowa, MN, a fairly laid back outdoor festival with a small but enthusiastic audience.

I wanted to go back to see more of the festival on Saturday, especially the singer songwriter contest, but I couldn't let any more of the weekend slip by without getting caught up on chores i.e. watering the garden (first priority--it's been so dry!), laundry, and even doing the dishes. Russ has been working so hard on the new house, and friends and neighbors have been stopping by to help out, so there hasn't been time for him to do much else. The entire framing for the first floor, at least the important, load-bearing stuff, is almost complete!

Nina is now riding her bike without training wheels. This came as news to me Saturday night; her older brother Vincent apparently taught her. She picked it up fairly easily, just like he did, except she had a swollen eyebrow. "I kind of ran into the swingset," she said, "But I'm okay!"

But alas, the weekend was not complete without a Sunday evening visit to the emergency room. Vincent and Joe had been riding their bikes in the driveway, while Russ and I were admiring the work on the new house, when we heard a crash, then a cry from Joe. The back of his head was bleeding. Apparently they had collided and it was the pedal of Vincent's bike that got Joe. Vincent was very upset and sorry about the whole thing immediately; I felt as badly for him as I did for Joe. I knew it wasn't that bad, though, because Joe was conscious and not feeling like he was in shock. He was crying on the way to the ER, I think not from pain as much as worry about going to the hospital. Once we got there, though, he was himself and talking nonstop; again, I think that was part nervousness at the situation. He received eight staples in a V-shaped cut about 2 inches long. Poor little guy! I was impressed with the staff at the ER of Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake. They were very good with Joe, very nice to us (I thought I'd get a lecture on bike helmets and a referral to the authorities!) and very quick; we were there maybe an hour or less.

One hilariously funny thing though, and one I'll always remember. When the nurse came in and started chatting with Joe, one of the first things he asked her was "What's your phone number?" The kid is 3 and a half years old! Hope Dad hasn't been putting him up to that...

I've been out in the field at work today, so not much time to post. I hope to post more tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

David James Duncan on evangelism and fundamentalism

Check out this article, from Orion online July/August 2005:
What fundamentalists need for their salvation: in defense of truth, stewardship, and neighborly love
The God of politically-organized fundamentalism, as advertised daily by a vast array of media, is a Supramundane Caucasian Male as furious with humanity's failure to live by a few lines from Leviticus as He is oblivious to the "Christian" right's failure to live the compassion of the gospels and earth-stewardship of both testaments. As surely as I feel love and need for food and water, I feel love and need for God. But these feelings have nothing to do with Supramundane Males planning torments for those who don't abide by neocon "moral values." I hold the evangelical truth of our situation to be that contemporary politicized fundamentalists, including first and foremost those aimed at Empire and Armageddon, need us non-fundamentalists, mystics, ecosystem activists, unprogrammable artists, agnostic humanitarians, incorrigible writers, truth-telling musicians, incorruptible scientists, organic gardeners, slow food farmers, gay restaurateurs, wilderness visionaries, pagan preachers of sustainability, compassion-driven entrepreneurs, heartbroken Muslims, grief-stricken children, loving believers, loving disbelievers, peace-marching millions, and the One who loves us all in such a huge way that it is not going too far to say: they need us for their salvation.
Yes! Yes! Yes!


I'm playing with my new toys here at work: a new computer with 20" flat LCD monitor, and Adobe Photoshop! I took this image of ferns along the path leading to the cabin about a month ago, but I just couldn't get the color and contrast right with the standard image editing software on my old computer.

the joy of music

I was asked to play music for the church service last Sunday. I don't really have a long list of repertoire that is suitable for church; my guitar/vocal list includes songs more along the line of Greg Brown's "Lord I Have Made You A Place" so usually when I'm asked to play something I take the opportunity to learn something new to me; I'll pick a gospel tune off a bluegrass album or find an old-timey sounding hymn. For someone who practices as seldom as I have lately this is living on the edge; I have literally worked out chords and arrangements the hour before the service. This time I chose "Morning Has Broken" and worked out a Cat Stevens style arrangement for guitar minus the pretty key changes (I don't know enough chords to do that! )

While I was sitting outside on the back step practicing on Sunday morning, I heard the sound of music coming from the cook shed. A Celtic music program was on the radio (KUMD-Duluth) and Vincent had turned it up loud. Without too much prodding from me, he has taken an interest in Celtic and bluegrass music. He kept yelling to me "Mom! Come listen to this great music!" I think it was Seamus Egan on flute, doing a fantastic set of jigs and reels. We couldn't help but dance to it. Vincent brought out his Indonesian drum and started pounding out a beat. I took over, drumming and dancing. We laughed, we danced, we whooped under the tall pines. Now that is LIVING.

I need to get my son started playing an instrument, now while he has this sense of the true joy of music. And I want to be able to make music with him, and with the whole family. I have this vision of us sitting around the woodstove on a cold winter night, picking and singing, the music echoing up into the rafters.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

What I've been up to

Sorry I haven't had a chance to post more often. I've been taking Fridays and Mondays off (love those 4 day weekends!) and our Internet connection at home isn't working, which is in some ways a good thing because I'd probably spend way too much time blogging and reading blogs instead of gardening, doing laundry, etc.

New house update: the two long first story walls are up! My husband's older kids, Ryan 26, Sarah 23, and Tom 21, and Tom's girlfriend Abby, came on Sunday to help out and we got the walls lifted in place despite the heat. Now I can visualize better what the house will look like. The front wall is oriented due south, with an opening for an 8 foot patio door with tall 2 foot windows on either side. This will take advantage of the low winter sun; the floor in front of the windows will be dark colored ceramic tile to hold heat from sunlight. The wood stove will be 8 feet from the windows, with a half wall behind it for additional thermal mass. It's hard to imagine the utility of these passive solar features on a 90 degree day, or the value of R40 insulation everywhere, but in the middle of winter it will make a difference!

Garden update: We've had several meals of fresh broccoli, which for some strange reason the kids love. Diva cucumbers, a great slicing variety, are starting to get to perfect size, and I'm getting a few pickling cucumbers. I wish the picklers would all get the same size at once. I dug some new potatoes yesterday, Red Gold and Viking Purple. I'm so hesitant to take too many new potatoes, though, even though I should have plenty of potatoes for storage. The pole beans are just beginning to flower, and I saw inch-long beans yesterday. The neighbors gave us some flat Italian-style green beans from their garden for dinner last night; I know I need to plant some of those next year! Tomatoes are growing like crazy, but even my extra early varieties (Stupice, Sub Arctic, Legend, and Siberia) have yet to ripen. Patience, patience. I am getting a few yellow cherry tomatoes from a container plant but all those tiny bites do is tease my appetite for more.

Nature update: It is August, and that means goldenrod and asters are blooming. Asters-the end-of-summer flower! We were over at the neighbors' house last night and there was literally a swarm of hummingbirds at their two feeders. I suppose it's getting towards migration time. Yesterday I got out my butterfly ID book and identified a couple of the most commonly seen butterflies here--Milbert's Tortoiseshell and White Admiral. Of course there are swallowtails and monarchs, and lots of little blues and whites that just won't hold still long enough for me to get a good look!

That's enough for now...gotta get some work done, if I have to, I guess...