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.