Sunday, December 31, 2006

great blog photos of the year

I'm a little embarrassed...I mean, Rurality, who is called by Pablo the Queen of all bloggers, has compiled a collection of some of the greatest blog photos of 2006...and she blamed me for it! Really, it all started with an innocent experiment with Photoshop. But, it all goes to show how far reaching this blogging thing is. Blog posts are not posted in a vacuum, and I am grateful for that. Thanks, Rurality! :)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sand Creek 2006--The Year In Review

I thought about doing the meme where you take the first line of your first post of every month of the year and post it, but I broke down in laughter somewhere around March:
"In response to the comments on this
, which turned into a treatise on bouzoukis, rolling chords, traditional
Celtic style, and diadokokinesis, here is a picture of my bouzouki being
cautiously played by Mr. Attitude."

The rest of the year just gets better...:)

So instead, I thought I'd compile sort of a self-blog festival, a compilation of links to my best posts of 2006. So here goes:

January- in the only musical gig I played in the whole year, I got stiffed the customary free beer. I saw pussy willow budding out early, and took a photo of an incredible sunrise. My photo essay of an outdoor shower, Minnesota style drew some unforgettable comments.

February- We had a cold snap, accompanied by some great birds at the feeder. Starflower started piano lessons, and took an unforgettable photo.

March- I felt the turning point of winter into spring, then we welcomed Sally. I found inspiration in compost, then found out Wendell Berry has had similar thoughts. I turned 39. I fed animals. And I was blessed.

April- My new refrigerator was blessed by swans. I reminisced about the beach in northern California. Starflower took her first swim in the pond on the 8th, when there was still ice; no wonder I have named her Miss Polar Bear Club 2006. The ice went out and frogs started singing. We bought a Farmall H, which proved to be indispensable in moving horse manure to the gardens. With the return of on-lake work, I had two fish tales to tell.

May- I was in awe at the colors of spring, and lamented that sometimes spring is just too much. That is, if seeing the mating flight of harriers is too much! We went fishing on Sand Creek, and The Hermits even went on a date. The starflowers were in bloom. And, amidst the late May heat, we got some new lawnmowers.

June- I planted my garden of dreams, then realized I am indeed living the good life. I held a young downy woodpecker in my hand, went crazy at the greenhouse, and was attacked by kingbirds.

July- I celebrated a midsummer evening. Mr. Attitude got Lyme disease, which he seemed to recover from with no lasting effects. I celebrated my first bountiful harvest. Another garden report, from later in the month. And the Sunday evening peanut ride was fun.

August- I mused about the small rewards that make life meaningful. Then we had an early morning visitor. We had a memorable dinner from the garden. I think I saw a wolf. And, we raised the rafters on the new house!

September- We got Hopi, who is, well...a puppy not suited to my calm personality traits. But oh well, if she hunts... My gardening plans abruptly ended on September 9th with the first hard frost, but all was not lost...Then I experienced brook trout, and the beavers that try so hard to destroy brook trout habitat. But it was fun to see that the local "ditch" has brook trout in it!
And, I hosted my first ever blog carnival, I and the Bird #32. And, I canned a bunch of salsa.

October- I brewed beer for the first time in a while. Snow came early, though it's hard to believe since it's raining tonight, in late December. Our capenter made progress on the roof, even though we ended up having to order more boards.

November- I had a really good music day. I haven't had one since. The rest of the roof boards were completed! I went off on one of my tangents, musing on the connection between music and wilderness. Deep.

December- The Dark Days were already getting to me on the 1st. So you know what the rest of the month was like. And it's too recent to sort out what was really memorable. And it's late, and I am tired.

I plan to compose a "Birding Moments of 2006" self-link-fest as well. Maybe tomorrow.

But if I don't post or comment on your blog before, may I wish everyone a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Pine County Christmas Bird Count 2006

My Christmas gift to myself this year happened today. The gift was this: taking the day off of work and household responsibilities and participating in the local Christmas Bird Count. I have been interested in birds practically all my life, have been awakening my senses to the bird life in this area ever since we moved here, but until now I had never thought of going on a birding venture with other people, or for that matter, spending a whole day purposefully birding.

I should qualify that "never" thing. I did participate in a Christmas bird count once, seventeen years ago when I was a graduate student in wildlife and fisheries at South Dakota State in Brookings. I was friends with a couple undergraduates and research assistants who were into birding, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, being the early twentyish student I was, I had gone out the night before and when sunrise rolled around I had a mean hangover. I only recall sitting in the back seat, pretending to be involved and raising my cheap binoculars once in a while, and wishing for the day to be over. A lot has changed since then. I don't get hangovers anymore.

To summarize: It was a wonderful day. The weather was mild, although a bit more overcast than I would have liked. I ended up riding around with a carload of wonderful people, whose passion for birds clearly showed. I ended up learning a bit about birding, but yet I was able to contribute some observations and local perspective of my own.

The participants in this county's bird count are by and large birders from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. I had an advantage; in some free time yesterday I drove around scouting some of the routes in the area I was assigned to. This proved later to be priceless.

We started off by seeing a northern shrike, which later we would see two more of. That was a good omen. Our common finds for the day included tons of chickadees, some pigeons and starlings and English sparrows (please note my contempt at seeing the latter three), a few flocks of redpolls, and crows and ravens, among other things. Two pileated woodpeckers made a timely appearance, and we found a pair of northern cardinals, which rarely overwinter here.

However, there were a few significant moments that really made my day. The first was walking into a heavy conifer woods right in the nearest town to me, and after having a flock of chickadees practically landing on my head, seeing a gray jay land eight feet above my head. After observing how it flew, I can practically confirm that my late October sighting was indeed a gray jay. I wasn't sure that those were around here, but now I know!

Another moment was seeing a sharp-tailed grouse about a mile away from my place. We have ruffed grouse around here, but I didn't know there were sharptails anywhere nearby. And I wouldn't, had it not been for our fearless leader, who picked out what I would have seen as a blob in a tamarack. We were treated to a good view that confirmed the features that differed from the ruffed grouse.

Speaking of ruffed grouse, I spotted six of them eating buds in trees, when it was getting dark and we were wrapping up for the day. We had seen two grouse in the same spot a half hour earlier, but it was amazing to see the others that had joined them.

But the sighting that totally made my day was one that was a new sighting for this particular Christmas bird count, one that I had seen on my scouting drive yesterday and hoped to relocate. I had seen a male northern harrier while driving yesterday, and upon doing a little research when I got back home, found out that they normally don't winter around here, and that they had not been recorded in a prior Pine County Christmas bird count. So I mentioned it to the group leader and anxiously awaited the time when we arrived at the location. At first, no northern harrier.

Then, about a mile down the road, I spotted something with a lot of white perched atop a small tree, way across a field, so far it hardly registered, but I knew something was there. For the first time in the day I told the driver to stop, and for a brief flustered moment I hoped I had indeed seen something worth stopping for. I found it again, then the others found it: light-morph rough legged hawk. They set up spotting scopes just in time to see Part Two: the rough-legged flew from its perch, and suddenly another very light raptor flew up, seemingly from the ground, to engage in a small hawk-battle. I could not tell the difference, but I was overjoyed when someone yelled out "Harrier!" We found him! The two hawks circled and flew at each other before taking off in separate directions. I was breathless. What a beautiful sight.

All in all, it was a great day; it would have been great had I only seen the above display of hawks. But it was great because I saw that and so much else, shared it with some other passionate birders, and learned a bit about what exists so close to home. I really learned from the experience of the birders I was with, and found out that these people share a cameraderie and sense of humor. I really felt at ease with them, enough that I hope to join in more birding activities in the future.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Sand Creek Christmas

Calvin shows his siblings how to work a Nintendo DS

Calvin's portable DVD player wins out over the bigger screen TV.

What's missing is a picture of Mom, happily breaking in her new ice skates on the pond.

It was probably the best Christmas ever. It was everything I wanted a family Christmas to be. The stepkids and future step daughter in law came over, we enjoyed good food, presents, and fun. The best compliment was when my stepdaughter liked my homemade garlic dill pickles. "And I'm fussy about pickles", she said.

But the ultimate moment for me was when I was just coming off the pond after a quick sunset skate, after the festivities were over. Just as I had slipped off my skates, just as I was getting up to walk back to the house, I heard the guinea and chickens upset about somehing. I looked up to see a bald eagle, practically overhead, so close I could hear the whooshing of each mighty wingbeat.

What a blessing, after a blessed day.

The windows arrive tomorrow. I'm taking the day off. And I'm taking the next day off, for the local Christmas bird count. Life is good.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

there's always room for a Christmas tree

Even when your living space is small. Even when you have two big puppies living there. (Whose place is it anyway?) Even when you find out that white spruce somehow makes you break out in hives. (I didn't touch the tree after the first episode). Even when the room it is in is 16' x 12'. Even when you know this is your last Christmas in this small space. Even though next Christmas we'll probably come over to the cabin just for old times' sake.

may the blessings of the season be with you

As I take a break from vacuuming, cleaning, baking, and all the other preparations that go before the feast, I want to take this time to wish a merry Christmas, or whatever holiday you choose to celebrate. Somehow, I don't think they are all that different. As I near my second anniversary of blogging, I am thankful for the wonderful community of bloggers I have come to regard as friends. Your blogs, your sharing, your honesty really make my day, every day. What a wonderful gift to give.

And I am thankful for that very photogenic tamarack in my swamp, and for the frost that gave it a special, mystical look this morning.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

streptococcus, begone!

Okay. It is nearing a holiday, and we want everyone to be able to enjoy it. Furthermore, health care services are severely limited on Sundays and holidays. And sometimes, the days after hoidays. Ask me about my eye experience last year the day after Christmas.

So, I am asking all Streptococcus bacteria to kindly remove themselves from the premeses. We already have two kids on antibiotics, and as a parent I can tell you how frustrating it is to get these kids to take their medicine twice daily. I am feeling some thickness in my own throat, but I don't want to have to make another trip to the hospital tomorrow! Maybe I should have insisted on the family-sized penicillin.

But, in my usual tradition, because of the drive to the hospital (the only alternative on weekends or holidays) I saw one Pileated woodpecker, several humans drilling holes thru ice for some peculiar reason, although they at least had the sense to not drive vehicles on the ice), one Northern shrike, and two Rough-legged hawks. I am an opportunistic birder. It's the only way.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

trout lights

It's time to celebrate. The trout lights are up, strung around the door. Beautiful. Too bad they aren't brook trout!

The Hermit and I finally came to a decision that we don't want to travel anywhere on Christmas Day. We'll have our feast here, with kids older and younger, maybe some skating on the pond (I hear I'm getting new skates...heeheehee...) and good fun. Extended family stuff can wait a while. If we were in the new house, I'd invite the extended family and have them see what it is like to drive over a hundred miles one way for a holiday.

I took the day off because Mr. Attitude still wasn't feeling quite right, and it turns out he has strep throat. Not that the doctor could have diagnosed it from his demeanor; by the time Mr. A was examined, he was feeling pretty good and talking up a storm. We had made an original appointment for 9:30, but after we had arrived and waited for fifteen minutes the receptionist informed us that the doctor was running an hour late. Since I had gone ahead and made a hair appointment for 10:30 (why waste a trip to town!) I asked if we could come back at eleven. Fine, we even worked in a trip to the library, but when we got to the salon I had to wait fifteen minutes while my stylist was working on someone else, extracting an earring from an infected pierced ear and replacing it. Ummm...I hope she washed her hands real good before she touched my hair!

So we were late back to the doctor, but we still got in quickly and they did a quick throat culture before we even went in to the examining room. Then the doctor came in, a doctor we hadn't seen before, and he was definitely one that was good with kids, even a squirmy, talkative Mr. Attitude. Quick examination, quick diagnosis, quick prescription for Amoxicillin. While we were waiting in the pharmacy, my neighbor Patty came in. I just can't get enough of this small town life, this meeting friends and neighbors everywhere. Definitely not like where I grew up.

Mr. A and I went to the grocery store and got his usual deli chicken dinner, I got soft tacos, then we proceeded to the park by the river, which is where The Hermit and Mr. A always share chicken dinners. We ate our dinners watching the little flow of fast water rush over an old logging dam, there in a deep (for here) river gorge with bare birches all around us. Then it was back home the long way, with stops to watch a male Northern Harrier, which is really not supposed to be here this time of year, and a Rough-legged Hawk perched in a tree. I had never had such a good view of one perched before. I saw two more rough-leggeds before we arrived home.

Then I put up the trout lights.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

rethinking the season

I had an unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome day off work today. Mr. Attitude came down with the fever and stomach bug that seems to be going around, but as he put it, "I'm glad I was sick so I could skip preschool." He looked so miserable for a while, though, that I don't know if it was really worth it. He has said that he's tired of preschool and "it's time to move on to bigger and better things!" There's my Attitude. He's feeling a bit better now.

I spent my day doing a few items on the "to-do" list, but being pretty laid back about it. I spent a couple hours setting up The Hermit's new printer/fax/copier/laser ray gun thingamajig. It's nice that the funding for his position has a little bit built in for such necessities. It prints photos really nice, all you have to do is put the camera memory card in the printer and voila! I'm thinking I might just get a nicely laid out Christmas letter with photos done...before New Years.

But alas, I'm starting to get the tightening feeling in my abdomen that comes with the holidays. I think it's because Christmas is a time of ideals; every magazine and newspaper and TV show has "tips" for the perfect celebration. Confession time: I used to adore the December issue of "Good Housekeeping". A long time ago. But when it comes right down to it, everyone's family is dysfunctional in its own way, and the perfect get together is just a Good Housekeeping myth. If I can keep that thought in my mind, it might make things easier. Holiday Hint #1: You and your family won't miraculously morph into the merrymaking agreeable souls you imagine them to be.

Holiday Hint #2: Create what you want. If it's a Solstice bonfire, or at least a ritual skate on the pond followed by hot chocolate for the kids and hot toddies for the adults, go for it. I have to keep reminding myself, I'm the Mom. I'm in charge of creating memories!

Holiday Hint #3: It's a blessing to have a husband who will endure standing in line outside the electronics store to fill the kids' wish lists. But it's going too far to have to camp out overnight in front of the store to get the #1 must-have Christmas present! The new game console will have to wait until after the holidays, until after the corporations have staged their annual "look how far people will go to buy our product!" holiday abomination. We're just not going that far. The Hermit reports that tempers were flaring, and one woman who showed up a bit too late was heard to shout "Jesus F-ing Christ!" Merry F-ing Xmas to you too. :) But The Hermit was able to bag a couple other highly-wanted gifts; there will definitely be smiles Christmas morning.

Holiday Hint #4: Must...bake...cookies...

Saturday, December 16, 2006

finding wildness close to home

This is the view across a tiny bog just yards from my tiny house. The house is fairly evident; in fact if you look closely you can see the silver-tarped roof of my new house-in-progress just to the right of the house.

My point is, I don't have to walk far to see an ecosystem totally different from the usual ground on which I walk. We have lots of bogs around here, some covering many acres. The distinguishing characteristic of a bog is acidic soil/groundwater, which leads to a growth of Sphagnum moss and any of a number of bog-specific plants. Tamaracks do well in boggy conditions, as do black spruce, but the spruce grow so slowly in bogs that a very old tree might just be fifteen feet high.

The Sphagnum moss forms hummocks in which other plants grow. In this picture the tawny stuff on the right is some kind of sedge, with some kind of grass beyond. (My knowledge of field botany stops at grasses and sedges, but I'm still learning...) The reddish stuff to the left is leatherleaf, which produces small white bell-shaped flowers in the summer. The moss also provides good habitat for burrowing critters such as voles; I actually saw a couple of them scurrying along their mossy trails. The delicate-looking tamarack branches would be a perfect spot for a great gray owl to perch and hunt for a meal.

Not far from the bog and house, there is a path that, I may have mentioned earlier, is an old logging railroad siding. I don't walk this path as frequently as I should (daily would be nice) but I know it enough to know that these holes appeared quite recently on the path. I'm thinking the excavator may be a badger, but I didn't reach into a hole to check and see. I have never seen a badger, and they are mostly nocturnal, but it's pretty cool to think one may be that close to my house. No wonder the dogs have been going back that way a lot lately!

bloggers on my mind

You know, this blogging thing really is a community. I know I'm not the only one out there who considers the fine folks I've gotten to know, through their generous and thoughtful sharing of their lives and worlds, as true friends.

And, like a "geographical" community, when there are those in need or hurting, I keep them in my thoughts and prayers. There are two bloggers I am thinking of today. One is Pablo, the sharp-witted but compassionate author of Roundrock Journal. His wife, Libby, is recovering from emergency quadruple bypass surgery. That in itself is traumatic, but Pablo was in Africa visiting his son who is a Peace Corps volunteer when he heard the news. He managed to get on the next flight from Nairobi to London then home, along with his luggage that had been lost on the flight to Nairobi, but I can only imagine what was going through his mind those many hours of traveling. Apparently Libby is recovering well, and I am wishing her fast healing.

The other blogger is Cindy Mead, an amazing nature photographer and author of the blog Woodsong. That is, what is left of it after the archives somehow vanished into cyberspace when she was working on the host site yesterday. What a tremendous loss to the blog world. If that isn't enough, Cindy has been facing serious health problems lately, including an eye disorder that threatens her sight in one eye. The drugs she is taking for this are causing serious problems as well. But from what I have read from Cindy, she is one courageous woman, and one I would be honored to be able to meet in person some day. I hope those archives miraculously turn up, somehow...

So, if you're reading this, send prayers to Pablo, Libby, and Cindy. I, for one, am also thankful for my own good health. Yes, I've been struggling with my weight and right now I am in pain from a bit of fiberglass insulation that dropped into my left eye as I was trying to fix an overhead light fixture, but otherwise I realize that health is a gift and not something to be taken for granted.

Friday, December 15, 2006

I'll admit, I have not been a good blogger this week because frankly, I have nothing to say. I get up in the dark, drop kids off at school, go to work at sunrise, create tables for a report all day, leave work at sunset, come home in the dark, make dinner and try to interact with offspring in the hour or two that remains before bedtime. I think we humans in northern latitudes were meant to just sleep off this season, mostly.

I don't even feel like eating much, and today was our annual holiday potluck pig-out feast at work. Even one of my coworkers had to stop at five pieces of pie, after the big meal. What has this world come to? I did enjoy the luxury of one hand rolled cigarette from Lee, the retired wildlife manager we adopt for our feast. I probably smoke once a year, and it was worth it, except mine kept going out for some reason.

So it's dark and I don't have much to say, really. Except I realize I am now one of the senior personnel at the office, and I really don't have a lot in common with the young male live to fish and hunt people I work with. What do they have in common with in a hippie musician homesteader naturalist like me? In fact, I don' t have a lot in common with many people. I feel very alone sometimes, and I think this blogging community I have found is great because I feel some of our goals and basic principles are very similar. So, thank you all for being there and commenting.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Be careful what you wish for...

...because, as the saying goes, you might get it. Last week in the below zero temps, I was hoping for just a bit of a December thaw. You guessed it, I don't think it even got below freezing in the last 24 hours. What little snow we had is almost gone, and it rained off and on last night.

As I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain against the window, I thought of my pond. Dang it anyway, the ice was so good and smooth. I wondered what it would be like in the morning; probably ice covered with water. Then I remembered...the kids had left a lounge chair out in the middle of the ice. Which meant someone would have to attempt to retrieve it, or we would have either a submerged or partially frozen in lounge chair.

I came home early this afternoon since Calvin was home sick (again, but he's starting to feel better--and it wasn't from the bump on the head, just some pesky virus) and the chair was still there. So I went out, armed with ski poles (for grip and ice testing). I was confident that, although there was a bit of water on top of the ice from the rain, the ice underneath was solid enough I could walk out on it. If I was wrong, the chair was positioned exactly over the deepest part of the pond, which is a few feet over my head.

It turned out there was still a solid, thick layer of ice, but it was extremely slippery due to the water. I was glad I had thought to bring the ski poles. I got the lounge chair, and even took the time to gather the rest of the chairs from the beach area and store them under the boat.

So now it is the darkest part of the year, and I have no snow for skiing or usable ice for skating. The forecast is for high temps in the upper thirties all week, and if precipitation happens, it will most likely be rain. I am worried about the condition of the pond, but the rain on top of the existing ice might make an even smoother surface when it freezes solid...if it doesn't snow.

At least now I can enjoy the Christmas lights on the front of the cabin; in this dark time of year the light looks cheery and inviting.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

what is it about cats and boxes anyway?

Puffball decided to take up residence in the Christmas ornaments today. He sure looked cozy.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

good skating and other fun

It was a great day for skating and all around pond fun.

I went out right after breakfast to finish the job of clearing the ice. Calvin came out a few minutes later, ready to skate. I helped him get his new, big (my size) hockey skates on and soon he was out on the ice. His technique leans more towards speed and imbalance than grace and fluidity, but he clearly enjoys skating. As soon as I finished my ice prep work, I went back to get my skates and joined him. I don't get a lot of time alone with Calvin these days, and when it involves a shared interest like skating we really have fun together. Although I like doing things with the whole family, sometimes we need a little one on one time.

We took a break for lunch, then we went back out, with the addition of Starflower, Mr. Attitude, and Sally. Sally looked a bit puzzled at first, thinking "I know this is where we went swimming when it was warmer... why can I walk on it now, and why am I sliding everywhere?"

Starflower and Mr. Attitude ended up not skating, but they still had fun. I hadn't gotten around to buying laces for Starflower's skates: when I bought them from the thrift store they were without laces. Still they were a bargain; like- new Riedell brand, probably $50 new, for $9. The skates I bought for Mr. Attitude turned out to be a bit too small, but I made a late afternoon run to the storage shed to fetch Calvin's old skates, which should fit him, and some laces for Starflower's. They'll be skating tomorrow. In the meantime, they had a good time pushing a lounge chair around on the ice.

This smile says it all.

We escaped with only a couple minor bruises and eggs on the head. Calvin probably took the worst hit to the head, and for a while I was concerned because he complained of a bad headache. But now he is playing video games, apparently back to normal, and even looking forward to skating tomorrow.

As for me, well, I love skating, but I spent most of the time just acclimating myself to the ice once more by taking long, slow strides. My style is the opposite of Calvin's; I pay attention to form. I did make the decision to retire my 25+ year old skates and search for something new; the leather around the ankles has creased and softened over the years to the point where the skates no longer offer good support. I wish I could find a pair like Starflower's for myself!

All in all, a good day, and I know I'll be feeling it tomorrow. And it was worth it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

pond work in progress

These strange windrows you see... Magnetic forces? Aliens?

No, it was me. After the kids and I arrived home early today, I got the strange notion to go out and clear off the pond. It was a great afternoon to be out, with the temperature finally about 20 degrees, little wind, and clear skies to show the last lingering sunlight.

My usual method is to shovel a path down the long side, then alternately shovel rows from each side of the path. That leaves me with what you see here, a bunch of narrow rows of snow on either side of the main path. The pattern, the repetition, the work...kind of a Zen thing...

Then I push these rows of snow closer and closer to the edge of the pond. By the time I called it a night in the fading twilight, all of the snow was probably within 8 feet from the edge of the pond. I intend to go out first thing in the morning, before the sun has a chance to crust these windrows over.

The ice beneath is the smoothest, clearest ice I have ever had the pleasure of shoveling the snow off of. (Grammar check please!) The snow was a light, fine crystalline powder, so it was easy to move it. Because of that, I cleared probably the largest total area I have ever done. Tomorrow's temps are forecast to top out above freezing, so it should be a great day for the first family skating outing of the year.

high-speed birding

I saw a Varied Thrush today. I think. I got to look at it for a nanosecond as my car rushed by, loaded with kids and dogs headed for work and school and daycare (where were the dogs headed? With me of course.) It was a darkish bird by the side of the road, but as we passed I saw it land on a tree branch and I distinctly remember seeing dull orange on the wings. I have seen enough of Robin and Roger's varied thrush pictures to make that click as a possibility in my mind. There is not another bird around here this time of year that would have that coloration. By the time I slammed on the brakes and skidded to a stop in the inch of packed snow on the road and backed up, it was gone. My kids, by the way, now are convinced I'm a wild and crazy birder. But they've seen it before. We made a stop for a suspected (and confirmed, in my mind) juvenile Golden eagle a few days ago.

Varied thrushes are a rare visitor in Minnesota, mostly hanging out on the West Coast at Robin and Roger's. But I have been following the birding listservs, and there are a few reports of errant Varied thrushes as close as sixty miles away. Stranger things have happened. There was a Painted bunting, a beautiful Florida/Texas native, at a bird feeder three miles from here a couple years ago. I have a copy of the video to prove it.

After doing daycare and school dropoffs, I was treated to the sight of a flock of several hundred snow buntings on a roadside. They scattered and flew up and drifted just like snowflakes. They are the snow; I don't think they were named just for their white color.

On the way away from work, which I left early to see Calvin's school Christmas program (yes, we're very un-PC around here, they even sang Christmas carols, and no one complained) I observed a hawk hovering and soaring above a patch of open grassland. On a whim, I pulled over to watch it; this was the same behavior I have seen over my swamp several times. I fumbled for my binoculars and found them in time to identify a Rough-legged hawk, our wonderful winter resident from far north. Their hovering, soaring flight is really a beauty to behold.

So many of my bird observations, it seems, happen from my car. Luckily the roads I drive are mostly lightly-traveled enough to allow me this pleasure.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Daisy's Thrift Store

Starflower coaxed me into a brief stop at the thrift store after her piano lesson this afternoon. I wasn't in the mood for it at first, but realized I wouldn't be out a whole lot of money if she or I found something irresistible. The asking price for most items is 25 cents. And, I had a few bags of stuff in the back of the car I needed to get rid of.

This store is run in a very small town by a corps of volunteers, mostly senior citizens from the Lutheran church. It is housed in another old church building long abandoned by another denomination. They recently built an addition, and today was my first time in the new space. Very nice, they now have the space to sort clothing and other items into "departments", and even arrange it attractively, like the more "upscale" thrift store I shop in the town where I work.

Over the past year, we have scored numerous bargains from this and the "upscale" thrift store. The Hermit has found both the kitchen sink, and a brand new in the box pedestal bathroom sink for the new house there. They charge a bit more for home furnishings, but it is still a bargain. There is also a like-new food processor I haven't found the time to play with, waiting in the cook shed. I don't buy new boots or ice skates for the kids until I check out the inventory at the thrift stores. Today I found Starflower a pair of Lacrosse winter boots, her size, nicely insulated and in good shape. In the next bin I noticed Starflower's and Mr. Attitude's boots from last year. I hope someone finds them useful.

One of the women volunteers who runs the store weaves nice area rugs from scrap fabric and sells them there. I am going to order a few rugs for the new house from her.

Since there is not a Wal Mart or other new clothing store nearby, this store serves a valuable purpose to the community, and the money they raise goes for good causes. I certainly enjoy shopping there more than at the maul.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

fire karma, and other notes from the frozen North

One thing The Hermit is good for (one of, many;) ) is starting a good roaring fire and keeping it burning overnight. Me, I have been way too timid in my fire efforts; for some reason I have this innate fear of fire (which is probably a healthy survival instinct) and I always have a tendence to start with too little. Too little paper, too little kindling, and I wonder why my flame languishes in a firebox amidst the cold downdrafts.

But lately, I have come to a quiet agreement with fire. I agree to lose some of my fear, and the fire agrees to provide what it can under what I give it. So now I can load the firebox with kindling, newspaper, and a couple fatwood sticks on a cold afternoon when the fire has long burned out, and it gives me good results. It is a good transformation for me, and I can't help but wonder if it doesn't have something to do with my recent commitment to learn and practice yoga. I definitely feel more focused lately.

Of course, my yoga studio leaves a lot to be desired. Usually the practice occurs some time between 6:30 and 7 in the morning, if I feel like it, before I have the unenviable task of rousing the youngsters, who have, as usual, been sharing the queen bed with me while The Hermit is away. I end up with about a foot on the edge, a corner of down comforter if I'm lucky, and a cat nearly ripping my eyelid off as it jumps up on my pillow. So waking up seems like a good option.

Then it's out to the main room, which if I've done a good job of fire tending, not sleeping on the job, is pleasantly warm. I throw a couple more logs on, get the coffee started, let the dogs out, feed the cats, brush my teeth, bring in another armload of wood, then maybe put on a yoga or Pilates DVD and attempt to follow along. In five minutes, I guarantee there is a dog intruding on my Downward-facing Dog, or a cat nuzzling up to my Cat position. Or there are two dogs playfully fighting on my precious floor space. Talk about finding inner peace.

But in spite of all that, I do think it has made some subtle, positive changes. Just gotta stick with it.

In other news, ice fishing season has begun in earnest. According to local reports there's 8-10 inches on most of the lakes, which means my pond has more than enough for good skating, if I can find my skates. Aww heck, I may be due for new ones, I've only had those for about 25 years.

I've been enjoying the low afternoon sunlight as I drive home an hour early (gotta pick up Attitude from daycare and get to the end of the driveway so the other two won't have to build character by walking all the way in from the road from the school bus--a considerable distance open to northwest winds). Eagle sightings have averaged about one a day, even a golden eagle a few days ago. Last night in the moonlight at 3:30 AM I counted five cottontail rabbits under my bird feeder, foraging for dropped seeds.

I have had two close deer encounters with my Chevy Astro van in the last two days. The first was near the kids' school, in an area with the unlikely combination of state park and strip convenience store/restaurant. The deer ran out in front of me with such speed I had little time to react, and touching the brakes on the slight layer of snow just put the anti lock brakes into effect, with little notceable deceleration. The deer somehow made it across in front of me with literally inches to spare, if that. Then tonight as I was driving the kids the six miles down a gravel country road to church, I suddenly saw a very young deer, barely bigger than a fawn, dart out on the road, stop, hesitate, confused, and run off into the ditch. It was so small; its life was spared tonight, but I wonder about its chances this winter.

So that's the news from Sand Creek. Off to toast my toes under a down comforter, shared with three kids and a dog. And maybe a cat or two.

Monday, December 04, 2006

How did they do it?

I grew up in the suburbs reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series. I started reading it a year or two before the watered-down version showed up on TV (although Michael Landon was good). I often dreamed of myself as a pioneer girl, living out on the prairie and growing a garden and running through the grasses and gathering wildflowers. My mom even made me a long dress with matching sunbonnet. I guess I can count myself lucky I still had a mom that knew how to sew.

I also read "The Long Winter". At the time I could not imagine a family living out a blizzard winter in a building with no insulation, with nothing but some begged and borrowed grain to eat, and furthermore, burning hay in the stove for heat, spending long hours twisting it into sticks so it would burn just a bit longer.

Of course the question never came up: just where and how did they go to the bathroom during the long winter?

Now that I've lived through a few winters under what most would call fairly primitive circumstances, (just see my post on outdoor showers for a primer) I am still amazed. Today we have all kinds of modern miracles like electricity, and generators if you're not hooked up to electric service (been there done that), and fiberglass insulation, asphalt shingles, EPA rated wood stoves, and the like. Today was cold, hardly rose above ten degrees with wind that bit like lightning, and all I wanted to do was stay inside by the wood stove fire. We hired the neighbors to tend the horses and chickens and sheep for the week while The Hermit is at a meeting; I could not imagine doing chores after work, in the dark and cold. But still I took the day off work, mostly to get the laundry done (laundromat) and keep the house warm.

I know Charles and Caroline Ingalls mostly didn't have 8 to 5 jobs to tend to in addition to maintaining the homestead; that cannot be done. But still I am in awe of the fact that they did it. That all of our ancestors did it, and only recently did we invent central heating and grocery stores with deli counters.

I'm in a survival mode here; for the next few days it will be driving kids to school and daycare, tending dogs at work, and worrying about coming home to a cold house, then starting a fire and cooking. I know, we should have purchased one of those oil-filled electric heaters to keep on safely while we're away. Hindsight is 20/20.

But still, my survival mode is wimpy compared to that of 100 years ago.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

walking on water, and other things I did today

Frozen water, that is.It's been cold enough that when I walked out to get the mail, which is as far away from home as I went today, I dared to check the status of the ice by walking on it. To make sure, I took a broom and brushed off a bit of the snow covering near shore and looked at it and knocked on it. Solid, clear, and smooth, at least four inches if not more. Perfect, except it froze so fast that there's a huge crack running the length of the pond, with one of the sides about 1/4" above the other. My ice skates are still at the storage shed twenty miles away, along with some essential winter gear. Will be getting them tomorrow.

I would have shoveled off the dusting of snow this afternoon, but I don't think the temperature got above 15 degrees, and there was a strong west wind. It was a much better day for indoor activities, such as organizing and decluttering.

Note the neat piles of folded clothes, and the space in front of the bookshelf which wasn't there before. When you live in a small house, any bit of clutter, unnecessary stuff, or disarray makes it feel even smaller. I spend a lot of my time tending to these things, since oddly enough everyone else seems to tolerate it. If they only knew what inner peace the simple task of house cleaning brings! I know...dream on...

And Puffball on the computer chair: he looked so peaceful I just had to include him. Of course he knew that the chair was meant for human use, but he just looked at me smugly when I asked him to move. So I brought in another chair. Animals...

While running one armful of clutter out to the garbage and the tarp garage, I noticed a hawk soaring and hovering above the swamp beyond the garden. I had noticed one there a few days ago, doing the exact same thing. I went back to the house to grab the binoculars, and I watched it hover and soar, then another one joined it. Finally they both disappeared over the aspens across the swamp. I'm not sure what species they were; they almost looked like ospreys, although I don't think I've seen them here this time of year. An osprey would have reason to hover over the open, moving water of the creek, which is about where it was.
update- after reviewing two field guides, I think they were rough-legged hawks. An osprey here this time of year, away from big water, would be unlikely.

Later on I checked my home brew, which I had been concerned about because I didn't see carbon dioxide happily bubbling through the airlock. But after I transferred it to the glass carboy and set it up on the counter I immediately saw airlock activity. It looked and smelled about like a beer should at that point; actually I found myself inhaling the aroma of the sludge on the bottom of the brewing bucket after I transferred the beer. A fragrant mix of hops, yeast, coriander, and orange peel.

As I was reluctantly dumping the sludge behind a balsam on the edge of the yard, I noticed some activity on the forest floor about thirty feet away. I looked up, and there was a ruffed grouse, a bit agitated about my presence and showing the ruff of feathers around its neck, but not flying away. I stood still, it looked at me, made a slight clucking noise, and walked away slowly. Usually I don't get to see grouse that close for more than a split second before they take off in an explosive flurry of wingbeats.

I love how I don't have to go too far, or even do anything but my normal household activities, to see hawks, grouse, and all the other wonders that exist here.

Friday, December 01, 2006

the dark days

These are the dark days of the winter, that several weeks or so before solstice in which the darkness bears down with help from the cold. In three weeks the days will start to lengthen on the evening side, but it takes a while to feel it. No wonder people want to fend away the darkness with Christmas lights and such.

So I leave home at sunrise, and come home pretty much in the dark. I seek sunlight during the day, and find it during my noontime walk which I have been forcing myself to do. I walk out to the main street, across the river, then around our drainable ponds which are used for raising muskellunge. Today I scared two bald eagles from their perches in trees above the river. My blessing for the day.

It could be terrible weather by now, that would be normal, but other that a few nights around zero it hasn't been too bad. No ice storms or such. We have kept plenty warm with our wood stove.

I have started a new exercise routine. I wake up by 6:30, time to practice 20 minutes of yoga or Pilates. I checked out a couple tapes from the library, but today The Hermit surprised me with a 4 DVD set of yoga plus Pilates. I can't wait to watch them; there are beginner tapes, along with intermediate routines in each. Just what I need! And I should be ice skating before too long, and cross country skiing...time to work off all the damage that has been done. I have been way too inactive these last few years, and it shows.

In other news, I have been desperately placing the Bavarian Ale on top of the stove, in any place it will find warmth, just to get it going. I smelled it tonight, and it smelled nice and yeasty just as it should, it just has been a little slow in fermenting. I would bring it in the house, but with dogs/puppies...the airlocks would be knocked off in no time, especially in my space.

Which reminds me...the windows are coming the 13th. Nothing like getting stuff delivered in the dead of winter, but our carpenter says he works any day above ten degrees. Here's hoping for global warming...

But I like watching the feeder birds this time of year. Word is, there are a few errant Rosy Finches frequenting a feeder in Cloquet, just forty miles north of here. Nothing that unusual here, just the exuberant chickadees that make a Minnesota winter worthwhile.

Here's to the introspection that the dark days bring. May it be useful.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Attitude, 5 years old

Yes, it has now been five years since I gave birth to my youngest child. He was born when we lived in a suburb, spent some time on the Mendocino County CA beaches as an infant, then came to live here at Sand Creek and celebrate his first birthday here. Crazy times, although he really probably doesn't know anything other than this place, this life. Wait till he gets his own room, 1/3 the size of our current living space!

We celebrated the day by going to Duluth, eating at his favorite McDonald's, and visiting the Great Lakes Aquarium. It is a place that unfortunately hasn't gotten the visitorship, hence the funding, that it deserves, but for a five year old, with some kid-at-heart parents, it is pretty cool. They have a two-story high aquarium with all of the native fishes of Lake Superior, including some huge lake sturgeon. And a freshwater marsh exhibit, complete with otters. They feed the otters pineapple...hmmm...

Mr. Attitude enjoyed his time alone without siblings to compete with. Despite my frequent desperate wonderings at his behaviors, he is really an intelligent, loving person and a delight to have for a son. As I always lament on my kids' birthdays, I am so unworthy...

Monday, November 27, 2006

sand angel



This is the girl who has taught me that a nightly game of cookshed soccer usually won't break anything and is mostly good for the soul. I love you, Starflower.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Brewing time again

On his last journey to The Cities, The Hermit bought not one but two beer kits to brew at home. I figured I better get one of them done this long weekend, but of course I waited until Sunday to do it. Today's brew was a Belgian Witbier, a style I am not very familiar with. The Hermit had one on tap at a favorite restaurant in St. Paul, and he said it was good so I'll take his word for it.

Along with the usual hops, this beer calls for unusual additions like coriander and orange peel. Instead of the usual aggressive hoppiness of the beers I like to brew, this one had a more complex aroma. The malt syrup was partly if not all wheat instead of barley, so that makes for a change from the usual brew. Wheat beers tend to have a spicier, less bitter flavor. We'll see.

There is so much I want to learn about brewing. To me, for a long time hops were hops and yeast was yeast. Now I'm learning to appreciate the subtle differences between the varieties; today's hops seemed milder than what I'm used to. The yeast was described as "slightly phenolic", meaning I can probably expect it to add some fruity flavors to the brew as well as do the important jobs of fermentation and carbonation. And I was marveling at the fact that the package said it contained something like 2 billion yeast cells. Wow.

I was thinking about brewing and learning as I sampled the India Pale Ale I brewed a while back and watched the wort bubble and smelled its sweet aroma. Some people, it seems, think learning is something you do in school and once you graduate, it is to be avoided at all costs. Learning is for kids, they think. But there is so much to be learned from each day, and we adults for the most part don't get it. I have learned more in my adult life than I ever did in college or graduate school, more practical stuff, and I remember the lessons of life far more than a class I took twenty years ago. Even everyday household life offers opportunities for learning, and parenting is certainly the ultimate class. The key, I think, is not to stagnate. Try new things, and if you are set in your ways and think you can't learn something new, maybe think about why you think that way. I have surprised myself more than once.

I'm off to try something new, wild, and crazy. For some unknown reason, I thought I'd attempt calzones for dinner, with ham, cheese, and marinara sauce. The dough is in the bread machine right now.

Friday, November 24, 2006

the Minnesota coast

I need to see big water sometimes. Luckily, even though I live in the middle of the continent, I am just sixty miles away from a blue horizon.

Lake Superior is the largest inland freshwater lake in the world. The twin ports of Duluth MN and Superior WI are international port terminals, shipping out coal and iron ore and grain and bringing in shipments from everywhere. If you look closely you can see an ore freighter in the above picture. Hint: click on it...and you can also see my family, including dogs, enjoying this day.

Today was a holiday for me and the kids and we had a reason to visit Duluth. Thanks to a very generous benefactor (my father, bless him), we had the money to order the rest of the windows and doors for the house while they were on sale. Can I say enough how thankful I am? So I herded the kids around Menard's (MN-WI local version of Home Depot or Lowes, only much nicer), admiring the Christmas displays and choosing tile for the hearth, while The Hermit did the necessary transactions. Then it was up the hill to the bank, then down the hill on one of the steepest streets in Duluth, or anywhere maybe, and out to Park Point and the beach. Park Point is a narrow spit of sand running east from mainland Duluth, and separated from it by a shipping channel and the local landmark Aerial Lift Bridge. The wind was from the north, although the temperature was mild, so on the north side beach there was some good surf and the kids could run around barefoot. In late November...amazing!

We saw one freighter headed out as we were driving around the harbor. We could see many of the crewmen standing outside, along the railing; I hope they were enjoying the mild weather and the sights of the day as much as I did. For a sailor on the Great Lakes in November, it can be risky; think Edmund Fitzgerald.

I may have some "craftiness" in me after all...

My dad found this latch hook rug in the attic recently, and yesterday at Thanksgiving at my brother's house he surprised me with it. I designed and made this rug when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. I entered it in the county fair as a 4-H project and ended up getting a blue ribbon at the State Fair. I had been looking for it for years, thinking it might make a nice wall hanging in a child's room. Or an adult child's perhaps. :)

This rug began as a photograph I took when I was vacationing at my grandpa's house in Florida. I always loved going to the beach, and that particular day at St. Augustine Beach there was a catamaran regatta. Yes, those are supposed to be catamarans, but I simplified it a bit. The bright colors of the sails against the blue sky and the bluer ocean was a scene I could not forget. I had also just recently completed a couple of latch hook rug kits, and thought "wouldn't it be nice to design my own rug." I took the idea and ran with it. First I managed to sketch the details of the photo out on some big paper, and fill in the desired colors with markers. And here I am now thinking I couldn't draw anything if my life depended on it! Then I transferred the areas of color onto a latch hook canvas, bought my yarn, and started hooking.

It made me really happy to see this rug again for the first time in maybe fifteen or twenty years. As an adult I tend to think in terms of limited possibilities: I'm not an artist, I'm not a crafty person, I can't learn anything new. I often admire the knitting and quilting and other creations on other blogs, but I think that's something way out of my league. Maybe it isn't; I used to crochet too, and embroider, and I think I even enjoyed it!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

finding roots

I know, pretty much for a fact, that I am one half Scandinavian. My grandpa on my mom's side was Norwegian, although I don't know exactly when his parents or grandparents immigrated, and my grandma is definitely Swedish, born of an immigrant mother and first generation American Swedish father. She still speaks Swedish occasionally, and when I expressed an interest in Swedish music recently she bought me a book of Swedish folk songs, which I hopefully will see on Thanksgiving.

But on my dad's side, things are not as clear, ethnically speaking. His mother, my grandma, was adopted, and there is no knowledge of her birth parents. A genealogical blind alley. All I have is a few pictures and what I remember she looked like. She died when I was eight years old. However, there is enough information on the Internet that I was able to look up today what her maiden name was. I found it easily, as well as her birthdate: November 17th, 1912.

Why have I been thinking of her the last few days? Sometimes I don't think there are any coincidences.

My grandfather's lineage, on the other hand, has been traced back to a Dutch settler in New York in the late 1600's. That's not counting the womenfolk, of course. But as far as I can tell, the heritage has been mainly along the Dutch line, with a little British Isles and maybe German thrown in. Oh well, after five or so generations, does it really matter? We're American mix.

I was fascinated though, seeing the names and wondering what my great great grandparents were like, in Clinton County Iowa (my great great grandfather was named William Clinton C... no kidding!) (and, I can't help but think: Iowa, Iowa..winter spring summer and fall, come see, come dance with me, to the beautiful Iowa Waltz--Greg Brown, folks!) and Montgomery County New York. I really have few roots here in Minnesota; who does, except for the Ojibwe and the Lakota. The rest of us are all recent arrivals in the last 150 years.

Monday, November 20, 2006

On a lonely lake, it turned November

I called in sick to work today. Mainly because I was awake most of the night for some unknown reason, so I was tired in the morning and there was no urgent reason to go to work. So there. Actually, I think there is some higher power telling me what I should do with my life. But as long as the worldly god of health insurance rules, I must work. Aarrgghh..

The Hermit, Mr. Attitude and I did some soul searching in the afternoon by driving around and visiting a couple nearby lakes. I set out thinking I would like to see a rough legged hawk, which is a winter visitor here from way up north. I was not disappointed; we saw one fly from a telephone pole, showing its characteristic underwing patches.

I promised Mr. Attitude he could take one picture. This was it; fresh beaver gnawings on a tree. Pretty good, I thought.

I had checked out this lake once, while I was in the neighborhood on other business. The entrance is a narrow unmarked drive, to a steep incline down to the lake, which is all within tax forfeit/State land. In other words, this lake has open access to all who can find it. It looks fairly unfound.

There are lots of muskrat and beaver lodges on this lake. While we were there we saw two bald eagles and a flock of 50+ ducks (bluebills?) passing by looking for open water.

On the way back we stopped at another lake, which is actually an impoundment on a creek from an old logging dam. Most of the land around it is also tax forfeited, so it is open to exploration. There we saw another eagle, and four red headed ducks on a small area of open water. The lake had a lot of wild rice, looking like a promising duck hunting/ricing area for next year.

Ah, but the forests and waters do look lonely come November. And I found myself longing for open waters, for standing on a beach and not seeing land on the horizon. And after all the outdoor ramblings, I long for the warmth of a good woodstove fire.

morning at home

I'm taking the day off work today, so I thought I'd catch up and show a couple scenes from yesterday morning, which was beautifully clear and frosty, although cold (12 degrees).

You'd think in the above photo I could have taken the time to clean up the yard. Overturned plastic lawn furniture and cooler...not very classy.

Those peak ends should be closed in, with windows installed, in a week or so!

After I took this photo, trying to capture some essence of the sunlight on frost, I realized the camera lens had a gigantic fingerprint on it. Oh well, it kind of acted as a diffuser.

for Jim

1940 Farmall H

Saturday, November 18, 2006

okay, so I'll do some catblogging

This is Puffball, my 1 1/2 year old Siamese mix blobcat. I posted kitten pics of him in June or July of 2005. He now weighs around 20 pounds and likes to eat and sleep. A lot.

And this is Blue Flame, 6 month old son of Puffball before Puffball got altered. I guess you could call Blue Flame a true flame point Siamese. I've always had a thing for Siamese cats. I'm strange that way. :)

By the way, Calvin and Mr. Attitude (helped by Starflower) took the cat pics. I have better things to do with my time.

nothing to say, really

yeah. I'm dying to blog about something, but there is nothing that has happened here in the last 48 hours that I think anyone would find remotely interesting. I came home from work yesterday, had a couple beers, then suddenly felt too sick to make dinner, so the kids ate pot pies from the freezer while I alternately rested and surfed blogs. They watched Star Wars (the original) again. I watched some of it. I like the bar scene best, with those alien-looking musicians.

Woke up this morning still feeling half there, stayed in bed until two cats and one dog pestered me to get up and feed them. Vacuumed the house (amazing amount of detritus), washed dishes (only one week's worth, not bad.) Had a shower (check my January archives if you need a primer about showering here. I'm too lazy to look it up myself!) Managed to walk out to the mailbox to get the mail; new issue of Game Informer (for Calvin) and new issue of Heirloom Gardener (for me). I tried to learn a little yoga online. The Hermit and Calvin went to get a deer a friend had shot for us. Made cookies with Starflower (Ritz cracker peanut butter sandwiches dipped in chocolate..mmm...) and did a caraway rye in the bread machine. Dinner was fried walleye with grilled veggies. I made the veggie marinade from soy sauce, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, chili powder, and garlic powder. It worked.

It was cloudy part of the day, then it cleared up just in time for it to get really cold tonight. When you can see stars, it will be a cold night. The high today was probably 30.

Oh yeah, when I went out to check the grilling veggies the first time I found Togo standing there to greet me. He had totally broken his collar; luckily we had an extra collar. He is such a good dog; when he breaks free he would rather come see me than go for a run.

So that's my world today; at ten o'clock I'm sure we'll switch from the new Cars video game to Red Green, then Monty Python. I'll probably blog surf a bit. Wish I felt like playing music, but that's not in the cards tonight. Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

something for those dark winter nights

I never was much of a TV addict, except when...

...a Minneapolis station ran M*A*S*H reruns after the ten o'clock news for years when I was a teenager. My mom liked the show, and I got hooked.

...then in my sophomore year of college, they switched to Cheers in the same time slot. I was devastated at first, not having ever watched the show. But I got hooked, my roomies and I made popcorn and took a study break every night at 10:30, and I kept the habit all through my twenties.

...I went on a business trip to Washington state with The Hermit in 1993(?) We went from Seattle to the middle of the state, and my uncle who was living in Walla Walla met us for a day of sightseeing. One of the stops was the town of Roslyn, where they were filming this very popular show called Northern Exposure. I had never watched it, but I thought the town was pretty cool. We had our picture taken in front of the Roslyn's Cafe mural, the one the moose walks in front of.

After we returned from the trip, we decided to see what this show was all about. It was good, but we got into it a bit too late. There were only a couple of seasons left before the show's demise after Rob Morrow left, and I had orchestra practice Monday nights when it was on (yes, I played flute in a community orchestra, and I was glad to have the opportunity) so I never got to see the whole thing.

The word "orchestra" sounds kind of like a bad sneeze, doesn't it! ;)

Then, a few years and two kids later we found ourselves living in a new state, with two young kids. We found out that a cable channel was showing Northern Exposure at 7 am each morning, and that quickly became a sacred ritual. I was at home with Calvin, age 2, and newborn Starflower at the time; I would have my morning coffee while nursing her and watching Northern Exposure, and Calvin would patiently wait until he could watch his Nick Jr. cartoons.

I practically memorized every episode. And I still think it is one of the best-written, most thoughtful shows ever produced on TV. I love the quirky characters, the surreal plots, and the natural beauty that is integrated into the filming. I love the sense of community shown by this fictitious town. And they had some good music. I still cry when I hear Iris DeMent sing "Our Town", which was played at the end scene of the final episode.

Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town,
Can't you see, the sun's setting down on our town,
on our town, goodnight.

So this is what I will be doing for the next few months on these long winter nights.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

music and wilderness

It appears that music, and dancing, are integral expressions of our human society. The last post seems to have struck a nerve with a few; it was agreed that music and dancing are deeply ingrained ways of marking transitions in life, in mourning and in celebration. There is no culture that does not have music. Anthropologists, feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

I have been reading, along with the rest at Whorled Leaves, Gary Snyder's The Practice Of The Wild. I am not very far into it, but I have been drawn into his discussion of what wilderness really is. Wilderness, as it turns out, exists everywhere, in every one of us. In our land-dominating society it is expressed outrightly in very few protected areas, but it still exists everywhere that a few microbes can grow freely. It still exists in our minds, if not our lives.

That got me thinking about the kinds of music I am drawn to. The basic elements of music are drawn from the laws of the universe, the laws of physics, and certain "it feels right" laws. The basic blues pattern exists because for some unknown reason, it "feels right". Many songs are written with unwritten laws of chordal pattern and meter in effect. We humans are wired to feel good about certain repetitive patterns, and certain combinations of notes.

However, there is "tame" music, and there is "wild" music. I grew up, of course, with "tame" music. Church hymns, choir anthems, and Top 40 radio. All designed with creating a predictable human response. Some of the rock music of the 60's and 70's certainly had elements of wildness in it, but as promoters caught on to what sold it seemed to lose that primal feeling, started sounding more programmed and manipulating.

As I grow older (ahem...more mature is the preferred term!) I tend to draw away from any form of music that seem to be produced as a product. I like to hear new songwriters that have a fresh view on things, who can express their views musically. I like to hear young musicians take on old time and old folk music from around the world. Bluegrass, with its high lonesome element, draws me in but never too closely. I'm a musical drifter; I don't want to associate too closely with any one genre.

I found Celtic music without having been influenced by one performance or presence on radio. I liked its rich tradition, its sound that spoke to me; the major and minor chords, Dorian, Mixolydian, a grand happy mix of musical modes. That Irish music is associated with pubs and beer and folks getting together to share tunes over a pint makes it all the more appealing.

Lately I have been listening to Scandinavian music, which takes Celtic music one step further into wilderness. The modes are more dark, the meters more screwed up but still making sense, the picture of a dark gloomy wild moor all the more evident.

I think our musical desires reflect some inner longing, some craving for wilderness. Is it any wonder that jazz, a uniquely American music form, came together on the edge of the wilderness that was America a little over a hundred years ago. Jazz was musical exploration into the wilderness. Bluegrass, as defined by Bill Monroe, took basic human longings and phrased them in the voices of the mountains, of the forests, of the wild that existed then.

No good music comes from strip malls and uniformity. Good music has to come from that which is still wild within us, inspired by that which is still wild in our surroundings. I hope I can draw from the wilderness that still exists in my corner of the world and make music that celebrates it.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

celebrating life

Four years ago, our friends Tom and Sal lost their youngest child, Lily, age 2, to a bad vaccine reaction. I can't imaging the heartache of losing a child; it is the fear that haunts all parents.

Lily died just a few weeks before we moved here. Tom and Sal didn't want a traditional church funeral; that just didn't seem right to them and I tend to feel the same way about funerals. They say funerals are for the living, but they are so formal and somber and dismal. When I die, I want someone to throw a party, celebrate whatever I have done in this world, celebrate the gift of life we all have. So Tom and Sal threw a party. They hired Fred, who had also just recently moved to the area and who was recently laid off from the corporate world, to play songs from "O Brother Where Art Thou", which Lily loved. They danced. I hear they had a great time; I wish I had known Tom and Sal then. It took over two years and an Internet bluegrass forum for us to cross paths.

Every year since then, Tom and Sal have held a "barn dance". This year it was also dedicated to Tom's father, who had lived with them and died in September. His last words were "I feel happy!" While it is not held in a barn anymore, there is still a dance with a professional caller, and old time musicians. This is the second year we have attended; I brought my mandolin and joined in for the last dance set, after the potluck dinner.

I think we all need to dance more and worry less. I think we need to celebrate life instead of going through somber rituals and worrying about what people think. Laughter, dancing, music...this is what it's all about.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

computer as recording studio

I have now made a great step into the tech world. At the advice of Robin Andrea, verified by my musical-audio friend Fred, I downloaded Audacity, a freeware program that makes digital recording and editing easy for dummies like me. I had thrown away our cheap computer microphone, so I had to call The Hermit while he was errand-running in Duluth and tell him to pick up an adapter so I could hook up my amateur musician microphone (had to look up on the Web to find out what it is and what it does) to the computer. Apparently we hit upon the right connection because I got the mic up and running. Before I could drag a guitar out, though, the kids had learned the basic commands and were recording themselves. They had a blast.

Oh well, there's always tomorrow. The drawback is that the computer is in the "porch", while I normally practice in the bedroom, on the other side of the house (which isn't a terribly large distance). The advantage is that my microphone picks up very little peripheral noise (video games, shouting matches, etc.) So I could maybe set up in front of the computer with the guitar or mandolin and record a few songs. Or I could even record a guitar track, mandolin track, flute track, and voice track separately if I so desire. This is going to be so FUN!

I am exploring options for sharing my musical experiments with you, my blogging family. I'll probably have to eventually pay for my own site to host mp3 files. We'll see. In the meantime, I'm excited to have recording ability again!

woodstove critters

Funny how dogs and cats forget their differences when there is good heat involved on a cold day. (barely rose above freezing...they were predicting mid forties)

Yes, that is Hopi in front of the stove. She is growing.

And on the left is Whiter Biter, our part time indoor cat. I like his personality perhaps better than any of our cats, but he likes to roam. However, this time of year he knows when the stove's fired up there's no sense roaming too far. He gave me a very indignant look this afternoon when he'd come in and I had let the fire burn out.

I did spend the whole day in an old T-shirt and new flannel jammie pants. Life is good when you don't have to dress up.

Friday, November 10, 2006

house under wraps

If we haven't started putting up the metal roofing by Christmas, I think at least we could decorate by putting a big red bow on top.

The workers finished putting up the rest of the ceiling boards this morning. I had the day off (Veterans Day holiday) so all morning I listened to the sounds of hammers and power tools. Then, for protection, they covered up the roof with two large tarps. Now, for the first time since the floor was first built, when it rains or snows, the inside will stay relatively dry.

This is looking from the east loft to the west (right side to left in the first photo), with our driveway in the background. The crew will be back in a week or so to close in the ends. Then, the house will be pretty much enclosed! It will finally look like...a house. Then, all I want for Christmas is windows and doors. And insulation. And metal roofing. And a wood stove. And plumbing. And wiring...

As you can tell by the photos, it's been a mostly sunny day, although very cold. I don't know if it's gotten above 25 outside. The evening grosbeaks are back already! I saw a small flock in the tops of the pines, although they did not come to the feeder. I think they were just scouting out the area for now. I also saw a female cardinal, a rare sight for here.

cobweb clarification

I guess the cobwebs make me more cryptic in my writing than I should be at times, or maybe it's my inner editor telling me to be cautious about how much I say (which is probably a good thing). So now in the light of day, a retrospective.

We had fall parent teacher conferences last night, and while Calvin and Starflower are both excelling in classes, I can say I don't care for Calvin's teacher at all. She focuses on the negative, the "needs improvement" areas, which are few, without seeming to notice his strengths. She made it a point to tell us he was getting a B minus in science because he was "missing a few things" in his leaf collection project, one I helped him with and I know he went above and beyond to identify tree species (not required) and discuss them. He just didn't follow all the directions to the letter, in which case this should not be graded as a science project but as an exercise in conformity. She spent time discussing a few late math assignments, which happened a few weeks ago, saying that "if this continues his grades will suffer when he's in fifth grade". Ummm...he gets everything right on them, he tests well above grade level, he hasn't turned an assignment in late in weeks, what's the problem here?

She also told me he's a good reader, but he doesn't read enough. They really emphasize quantity over quality at this school; points are given for how many books are read. He has read abridged versions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and enjoyed them so much he has talked about them for weeks and even acted out a few adventures. Yet he did so-so on the "comprehension" tests. I think perhaps the tests were not an accurate measure of his comprehension; we have had twenty minute discussions on the way to school about the history, culture and geography of those books. I tend to think Calvin thinks outside the box too much on tests, and I mentioned this to his teacher who replied "but he has to learn to do it the RIGHT way."

While Starflower's teacher was pleasant, Calvin's teacher's tone was cold and condescending. I could tell he was nervous around her, not wanting to interact, and that's not a good sign. The kicker was when she sent the kids out of the classroom so she could discuss something privately with us. She then brought up a sensitive issue, one I was totally unprepared to discuss, not a really bad thing, but her way of broaching the subject, with her condescending manner, put me on the defensive. I looked her in the eye with all the strength I could muster and said firmly, "I think this is something best dealt with at HOME." I then broke eye contact for the remainder of her lecture, gathered his papers and walked out.

In fact, I think her coldness and negativity are what brings on this "issue" with him. I'm seriously considering pulling him from her class, although he would still have her for some subjects, which would not be a good situation. Maybe even home or online schooling. He has so much potential, I will not have his spirit broken by a teacher who sees only what needs improvement. I know I suffered under elementary teachers in the seventies who apparently were taught to have all the warmth and approachability of a glacier.

So there you have it, not the entire tangled mess of cobwebs, but one of the key strands.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Ever notice how the cobwebs keep you from writing a coherent post?

And, does it ever stop me? (Please, be gentle...)

I've had the cobwebs the last couple of days. It's either related to the full moon, or the female cycle, imbalances, or a little bit of all. I can't even sign my name on a check today, darn it. But tomorrow is payday, they should be good.

Really, I have days when I would rather not talk to people because it seems I cannot open my mouth without sounding like a blathering idiot! Names, facts,'s all a blur.

It doesn't help when the cobwebs are exacerbated by a couple of sources. One of them, parent teacher conferences...I stared one teacher down, left without any pleasantries. I'll write her a note when I feel more coherent, but even then it won't be too nice. But I was distracted by other sources...

And, well, I have other cobwebs that must be cleaned out. Indifference, inactivity and all that...and indignation...oh well, I'm off with my dust mop...

And, by the way, Calvin knows more about science than the rest of his class put together. Just because he didn't put the assignment together just the cookie cutter way they wanted it... sheesh...

Can I quit my job and unschool now? Oh newly elected officials, (or even incumbent lord of our state, please listen), the system does not fit all.

Mama rant. Alone mama rant. Because no one feels the way I do, I guess.

fly by night

I just stepped outside, into the near complete darkness under a starry sky at 6 pm. Immediately, a chorus of hollow whoo's sounded from above. More tundra swans. From the location of their voices, they flew directly overhead, in a northwest/southeast path.

The moon was not up yet. These birds must know how to navigate by the stars. They'll probably be flying all night. God speed, hope to hear your magnificent voices in the spring.

Last night, The Hermit drove the kids to youth group at church, and saw the same bird twice, on the way there and back, a hawklike bird all white underneath, flying up from the ditch and disappearing into the woods. One time, it's in your mind. Twice, it's there but it's a spirit bird. I saw it the third time. That makes it a late migrating northern harrier.

Monday, November 06, 2006

breaking the ice

Usually, when a skim of ice forms over a small lake, it's a signal that it's time to put the boat in storage for the winter. Whatever fish are out there to be sought with rod and reel will still be out there in a few weeks, when enough ice has formed (4 inches for foot traffic, about a foot for vehicles, although it's always best to be overcautious!) for ice fishing. But when part of your paycheck depends on rearing and stocking fish, a half inch of ice is no deterrent. If I was in charge it would be, but whatever...

My assistant boss told me and John, the only crew who weren't out deer hunting or trapping, to re-set the nets they had pulled out of the pond last week as it was threatening to freeze. There are still a few muskies in there, and I guess the state needs every muskie it can get this year. I thought maybe the pond would have, at worst, some ice around the edges, because it was warm and sunny this weekend. But when we got to the pond, the water looked strangely calm and motionless. It looked thick, actually. And there were no geese resting on the water, which was unusual.

It was funny because I could not tell that the whole surface of the pond was frozen over. The ice was so smooth and reflective, it looked just like a calm water surface. With a half inch of ice or less, and no snow on top, the color of the water below showed thru the glassy ice. I was not sure until I backed the boat in and heard a big CRUNCH.

My coworker took the helm of the boat while I remained on shore; he was going for a preliminary spin to break up some ice. Better him than me, I thought. I watched and listened as he gunned the motor. Everywhere he went on the pond he sent sheets of ice flying, breaking, crashing. The sound of cracking ice was deafening, but the after effect, the sound of waves of water pushing up the ice, breaking it more gently, would have been nice to listen to were it not for the persistent sound of the motor and the boat breaking more ice.

Eventually John came to pick me up and we set the nets quickly, rumbling through ice chunks as we went from site to site. Then, after all eight nets were set, we went around on another ice breaking mission. This time I was on the bow of the boat, feeling every small sheet of ice hit the boat and break into smaller pieces. Like the motor was the blender, and the pond was a giant margarita.

I do not recommend ice breaking in a boat for sheer recreational purposes. It was interesting, but I think when water freezes over, it's Mother Nature's way of telling you to take a break.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

no-excuses music day

photo by Starflower; amazing quality as usual

Today was my self-designated music day. I had no excuses: there was no housework that urgently needed to be done (those cobwebs on the end wall will have to wait for another time), the kids were entertaining themselves, The Hermit and Stepson #2 were out deer hunting part of the day, and because it is deer season, even though it was a rather nice day I felt better off indoors. You never know what kind of person might be hunting nearby.

First I took the flute out of its case, where it has been for way too long. My tone quality was as expected for me not having played for a while, but it got better after a few Irish reels. However, my dexterity, usually the lesser half of my playing...absolutely surprised me. I was playing reels at twice my normal speed, and my fingers were communicating with each other and moving perhaps better than they ever have. I wish I had a recording device, because I don't know when I'll play this good again! I also played a couple slow waltzes, just to work on intonation, and if only I'd had a guitar accompanist it may have been lovely. I was just about to attempt a Bach sonata when The Hermit and SS2 returned (deerless), and it was probably better that I put my flute away at that time rather than bursting my bubble by screwing up what I affectionately refer to as The Nemesis Sonata. My college flute teacher made me play it over, and over, and I never seemed to get past certain passages.

After an outdoor lunch break, I was ready to bring out the mandolin. I started out with the familiar, and pretty soon I found myself ripping through the familiar at speeds heretofore unimaginable! I don't know what the reason was, but today was Dexterity Day. I was on, even sounding remotely like Chris Thile for the first time in my life. After so many months of hardly practicing, I sound better than ever.

I started paging through my dog-eared copy of The Fiddler's Fakebook. I'm on an old-time kick lately, and I want to expand my repertoire. Little did I know, however, that by the time I put the mando back in its case, I would have expanded my repertoire by over a dozen tunes. It was remarkable; I have never been able to play a tune on first sight so accurately, and with such speed. And I had the energy, and the attention span, to do it. I have not felt like this in a long time.

I don't know from whence this gift of musical ability, which somehow descended upon me threefold after eluding me for years, came, or how long it will stay, or why it all seemed to come together, but it was more fun than I've had in a long time. The only thing that could have made it better would have been to be in the presence of a few other musicians, playing off each other's energy.

Sorry if this sounds like a self-important brag-fest, I'm just basking in a musical afterglow right now!

Saturday, November 04, 2006


This is, from the left, my stepson Tom (22), Mr. Attitude (almost 5), and Calvin, 9.

Tom is engaged, which means I will have a step daughter in law in 2008. She is really sweet, has been to enough family functions that I know her well, so that is good. Interesting that the youngest of my stepkids is the first to get committed...also have a stepdaugher 24 and stepson 27.

They are having a great time tonight playing video games. Tom was out on the deer stand all day but didn't see anything. The Hermit was out a good part of the day with him.

I hope they get at least one deer. There were a few nibbling at the garden in the summer.

Now you've done it, Ben and Jerry's

Just when I thought I could maybe live without ice cream, you came up with a flavor that I cannot resist. Well, besides Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, Cherries Garcia, and Phish Food...among others. But I've been walking by the freezer aisle lately, not giving in to the luscious pints lurking behind glass doors. I can say I have not consumed more than a pint of ice cream in the past year. And, up until now, I have not felt deprived.

But you did it, Ben and Jerry's. You created an ice cream than incorporates one of my favorite consumable substances...BEER. That, along with another delectable treat, CHOCOLATE. Yes, that's right. There is now an ice cream that combines cream stout and chocolate. Is this heaven?

Way back when I worked at Baskin Robbins, before I even knew what beer tasted like (yes, there was a time...) I remember a few male customers joking that if only they made beer-flavored ice cream. How gross, I thought. Now, uhh...twenty years later, here it is. That pint in the freezer may not live until morning. :)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Dog on the loose

I just went outside to...ummm..well I just had to go outside. Anyway, I was greeted by Togo, my husky, sans collar or chain. I went back to where his run is, and found no evidence of collar or chain. is 11:30 at night, later than I normally would be staying up, but I can't just go out and run around and find a chain et al for the night. Guess I'll just let him run free and hope he stays close, which I think he will.


the road trip

Rollin, rollin, rollin
keep those fishies rollin,
folks'll come a trollin, walleye...
(to be sung to the tune of Rawhide, and I have many more words where those came from, after all it was a long drive..)

Walleye. This is what Minnesota is all about. These are eight inch or so fingerlings, being released to grow, with unknown success, into adults into lakes that lack spawning habitat for these babies.

I drove over 300 miles today to pick up and stock 160 pounds of them, less than a thousand individual fish altogether, into a 600 acre lake. I don't do the math, I just deliver.

This is North Big Pine Lake, a dreadful lovely spot where I have stocked walleye recently. It looks so lonely now.

At Powder Ridge, a glacial moraine, they were making snow for skiing, snowboarding, etc. Don't know what that McMansion is doing in the foreground. I don't think the artificial snow will melt tonight.

And this is at Maine Prairie, near Powder Ridge, where apparently a bunch of settlers from Maine tried to settle until the railroad company decided to run the railroad through the town several miles south. The railroads decided everything in those days.

I also saw lots of disturbing rural sprawl; that is, formerly small towns like St. Cloud and Hutchinson now boast populations rivaling those of Twin Cities suburbs, and there are look-alike townhouses and factory homes and mega churches ("worship centers") in former farm fields. (Would God approve?) When will it stop? It was nice to see some country I haven't seen for a while, but I was getting plenty tired by the time I stocked the fish and drove back to the office. Hopefully, I'll spend the whole day in the office tomorrow, which means a blogging break once in a while...;)