Saturday, January 31, 2009

Day of the Snow Bunting

I saw FIVE flocks of snow buntings today. FIVE. And I think I earned them. I spent a tremendous amount of time shuttling kids around.

Calvin had basketball at 8:30 this morning at a school I'd never even heard of. After much Googling, I found it was about 12 miles north of Cloquet, about an hour's drive from our house. We left at 7. But since I was that far north, I had to travel further... Sax Zim Bog. It was only a twenty or thirty minute drive away, and basketball would last at least two hours. I had to have a sneak preview of the festival. But, despite all my driving, no owls. I did find the Admiral Road feeder, and found it amazingly similar to mine at home; redpolls and chickadees. I did see TWO northern shrikes, and my first flock of snow buntings for the day.

I got back to the school in time to catch the last quarter of the second game, then took Calvin and his friend to Subway for lunch, stopped at Wally World to pick out a birthday gift, then home.

The birthday gift was for a friend of Mr. Attitude's. He was invited to a birthday party, his first ever, so when I arrived home from basketball I had to turn around, wrap a present, and drive to Attitude's friend's house. It was not where I thought it was, and although I will not admit to being lost, we took an extra ten minutes getting there. But on the way I saw two more flocks of snow buntings. Cool.

On the way home from dropping Attitude off, I saw two more flocks of snow buntings. AWESOME! The last one was just south of the Duquette store; there had to have been about a hundred individual birds. As I followed their movement, they just melted into the sky and disappeared. Really.

My car thermometer read an incredible 46 (above!) as I drove Mr. Attitude home from his party. Whoa. This is definitely tropical for the last day of January in Minnesota. In between driving I do admit to standing out on the deck, soaking up the sunlight, sipping a beer and watching the redpolls and chickadees at my feeder.

I get to sleep in tomorrow. Life is good.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A guide for Minnesota arboreal enthusiasts

Here's what I've been reading lately:

When I heard Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota was being published late last year, I knew it would be a must-have. So often I have come across an unfamiliar looking shrub in the understory here at Sand Creek, but the tree guides I had were national in scope and gave very limited descriptions and few illustrations.

I balked at the $59.95 suggested retail price, but I bought it when I heard about a limited time promotional price of $42 from the Minnesota Bookstore. Later I found out I would have saved close to $10 buying it on Amazon; I had forgotten to factor in state sales tax and shipping. Oh well. It's in my hands now, and you can't pry it away from me!

This book is fabulous. Every species has a full page of detailed color photos, accompanied by exquisite line drawings that capture the form of the tree. The descriptions are detailed but written so one does not need a degree in botany to decipher them. And included for every species is a brief natural history which describes its habitat, ecological niche, and conservation status. There are county-by-county maps, which are good for quickly determining whether a species is likely to occur in a given location, ruling out some possible identifications.

I hope to get out in my woods this spring and summer and document as many plant species as I can. The one drawback to this book is that it is not portable enough to carry in the field; however if it were any smaller it could not contain the wealth of information it does. I will have to take digital photos, make sketches in a field notebook, or collect structures, all of which are good exercises in paying attention to detail.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

For the love of the music

I did it. I drove out into the cold, dark evening to a small town high school band room. I walked in, mandolin and banjo cases in hand, smiled awkwardly and introduced myself to the three people there. I noticed there was one other banjo, but no mandolin. Good, I'd rather play mandolin anyway.

"You got a song for us?" My mind went blank for a moment, as it usually does when I'm put on the spot to suggest a song. But then I remembered my old standard, Greg Brown's "Early". I began to sing.

If I had been nervous, I quickly realized that playing with this group was nothing to be nervous about. There were no fast songs, no unusual chord changes, no one even put anyone on the spot to play a solo. As I eased into the music I started adding mandolin ornaments to the melody, tremolos and runs, nothing too flashy. It was noticed and appreciated.

The leader, a sixty-something man in blue jeans and plaid flannel shirt, played the dobro (resophonic slide guitar). He was mild mannered and good natured. In between songs he told tales of jams and festivals and picking into the wee hours of the night.

A woman about my age was playing banjo. Normally a banjo is loud enough (or the player makes it loud enough) to dominate the sound. She played so softly, picking the chords in basic patterns, it seemed as if she wanted to enjoy the music without being heard. We joked about some of the quirks of banjo playing, and I apologized for calling "Soldier's Joy" in D, a difficult key to play in a jam unless you happen to have a second banjo lying around tuned to D.

There was another woman there, I'm guessing in her sixties, who sang and played guitar on a number of old country and bluegrass ballads. She said she used to be able to remember so many more songs, but ever since she had heart surgery, she has had a difficult time remembering them. Some effect of the anesthesia. It frustrates her, but she keeps right on singing and playing an re-learning tunes. My excuses for not playing music more often now sound pathetically lame.

After a few songs I realized that, unless the leader was holding back, I was probably the most accomplished player there. I'm not trying to brag or anything (well, maybe! ;) ), but I realized by mostly playing alone over the last few years, I tend to hear only my own inner critic. I compare myself with mandolin greats like Sam Bush and Chris Thile, and of course when you do that you're going to fall short. I think a steady diet of professionally recorded music, unless it is tempered by real live playing with ordinary folks, can lead to a musical inferiority complex. I suspect this feeling leads more than a few aspiring musicians to keep their light under a bushel.

I am grateful for the musicians everywhere who let their light shine. It's not about the best voice, or the flashiest solo; it's about being there, playing for the love of the music.

I'll be more prepared next time. I'll bring a song list. :)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why I find it hard to play music lately

photo taken by Mr. Attitude

I mean, when you have two lap kitties and a big three year old Lab who thinks she's still a puppy, what can you do?

My other lame excuses:

Driving kids to stuff.
Too cold to move my fingers.
My pesky full time job.
Feeding birds.
Hauling wood.
Feeling a sense of dread at the idea of getting a musical instrument out. Yeah, it seems like I have so much I don't know, that I know I don't know, and well, it just kind of spirals from there. Today I did get the banjo out, and the mandolin, as you can see from the picture. And it was fun. I can't believe my fingers remember what my brain has long ago tossed aside.

I just found out there is a bluegrass jam every other Tuesday night not too far from here. It will be next Tuesday, and I will try it out. I so need to play music with other people.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

All right, I'll play!

I grabbed this off Lynne's blog. Or was it Jayne's? RuthieJ's? I haven't done a meme in a while, so here goes:

37 Random Things About Me

1. Do you like blue cheese? Yup
2. Have you ever smoked? A couple times when I was in college. Oh yeah, I've shared a cigar with The Hermit once in a while.
3. Do you own a gun? Yes
4. What flavor Kool Aid is your favorite? the red stuff
5. Do you get nervous before doctor appointments? No.
6. What do you think of hot dogs? I like the old fashioned ones.
7. Favorite Christmas movie? National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
8. What do you prefer to drink in the morning? Coffee.
9. Can you do push-ups? I think so. I haven't done them lately.
10. What's your favorite piece of jewelry? I don't have much jewelry. My wedding ring I guess, but I haven't been able to wear it for a few years.
11. Favorite hobby? Playing music. And blogging.
12. Do you have A.D.D? No.
13. Do you wear glasses/contacts? No. But I'm getting close!
14. Middle name? Conover. It was Ann but I changed it to my maiden name when I got married.
15. Name thoughts at this moment? I should be doing something productive!
16. Name 3 drinks you regularly drink? Celestial Seasonings Tension Tamer herbal tea, beer, ice water.
17. Current worry? None really.
18. Current hate right now? ego freaks.
19. Favorite place to be? At home.
20. How did you bring in the New Year? I think I went to bed about 9 or 9:30.
21. Where would you like to go? Ireland and Scandinavia.
22. Name three people who will complete this? You, you, and you.
23. Do you own slippers? Yes, but lately I've been lounging around in an old, holey pair of felt boot liners. They're really comfy and breathable.
24 What color shirt are you wearing? A gray sweatshirt.
25. Do you like sleeping on satin sheets? Nope, I'm a flannel gal.
26. Can you whistle? Yes, I probably annoy the kids with it.
27. Favorite Color? Blue.
28. What songs do you sing in the shower? Whatever I feel like at the moment.
29. Would you be a pirate? I like to say "ARRR", but I'm not into the whole pillaging thing.
30. Favorite Girl's Name? Nina.
31. Favorite boy's name? Joe, or Vincent.
32. What's in your pocket right now? Kleenex.
33. Last thing that made you laugh? The new edition of the employee safety handbook. Of course, lots of things make me laugh.
34. What vehicle do you drive? Subaru Outback.
35. Worst injury you've ever had? I've never really been injured badly. I think I broke my right ring finger at the first joint once playing volleyball, but I was able to play the flute a couple days later. It's been a bit crooked ever since.
36. Do you love where you live? YES.
37. How many TVs do you have in your house? One. I hardly ever watch it.

Come on, you know you want to do it!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

our winter house

This is the view from the compost bin; it's a walk through knee deep snow to get there.

We have now spent half a winter in this structure, and it has been good. The snow slides off the roof at unpredictable times, making mini avalanches. If we keep the stove stoked, things are warm. The birds at the feeder cheer me up. I really want things to be more finished, but that will come with time. and money. What really matters is, we have the space to be ourselves.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Saturday stuff

Temperature: 15 degrees and sunny/partly cloudy. Nice, but a bit windy.

I woke up at 7:15 AM to drive Calvin and friend to basketball in Moose Lake, about 25 miles away. It turns out we were an hour early; we somehow didn't get the message that the schedule had changed. Oh well, I had time to go to the nice coffee shop in town and refill my mug.

Calvin played very well. I am pretty proud of him; before this year he has not played on a basketball team. He signed up for this team at the urging of his friend. I'm sure they appreciated having a 5'3 (5'4? I can't keep track these days) sixth grader; I think he's the tallest one on the team. His skills have improved greatly in a short time, and today he played for the "A" team. They don't really call it that, but they put the better players on one team to ensure no one sits on the bench too long.

When I got home, I turned around and drove Mr. Attitude to a new friend's house. I'm glad he finally has someone to play with; there is no one his age nearby.

I was going to go running or cross country skiing, but the wind is a little too strong for my tastes. And there are dishes to do...

This is supposed to be my day off, right?

Friday, January 16, 2009

emerging from the deep freeze

Today's official low temperature from the New House thermometer: -32 F

The temperature on the Subarumometer: -22 F. I'm beginning to think it won't read any lower than that.

I didn't read the cabin thermometer this morning, but applying the formula from yesterday it may have read -40 F.

I have added the Weather Underground sticker so you can keep track of the latest temperatures here. If you care. But at noon it said 16 degrees ABOVE zero. Here at work it is still ten below. I don't believe Weather Underground.

It's not supposed to get too far below zero tonight; it may even stay above. Zero seems to be the big turning point, where we are able to keep the house warm with the wood stove at night. We just got another load of oak yesterday, delivered this time, and it seems to be drier and easier to burn than the load we picked up on New Year's Day.

UPDATE: It turns out the Subarumometer was stuck at -22. I found this out when I left work at 4:30, and it read -22 at that time, when I knew it was maybe a few degrees above zero. As I made my way home, the temperature reading gradually increased, until it read +7 when I arrived at home. Now there's a temperature I can live with!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Does anybody really know how cold it is? (does anybody really care?)

I had three different temperature readings at my home this morning:

The Subarumometer read -22. (This was at 6:45 when I drove the kids out to meet the school bus, only to find no bus. No school. Just about every school in the state is closed. I'll spare you my rant about that. I said enough last night.)

The thermometer by the new house read -27.

The thermometer by the cabin read -35.

How cold was it? Which of these three thermometers is correct?

My answer: all of them. and none of them. It's in the eye of the beholder.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

tired of cold weather reporting

Okay, so we've been told it is going to be bone chilling cold tonight. The reasonable among us will not go outdoors unless necessary. We know that, after all we were born and raised in Minnesota. We're used to this.

So I get annoyed at the media weather forecasters who keep emphasizing the predicted wind chill numbers for tonight. Wind chill is a calculated number, and frankly, those of us who are affected by wind chill have no way of knowing whether the calculated numbers are representative of what really goes on out there. It's just another way to exaggerate the perfectly normal human experience, I think.

We just know, from experience, that it is freaking cold out there, the wind just makes it feel worse, and staying indoors is a very good idea.

I just put my faith in the National Weather Service, who says we will hit 30 degrees above by Sunday. Now there's a mid January forecast I can live with!

I must add, a couple of my coworkers are taking the day off tomorrow to go ice fishing. Yes, it's the winter trout opener, and they would not miss it for the world. I would like to go, but I would miss the opener for a nicer day out ice fishing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

being Minnesotan means...

...playing on the ice once in a while. The kids wanted me to drive onto the ice, and there were several vehicles doing so successfully, but my common sense side prevailed.

...Getting out and having a little January fun with the Twins Caravan. Every year, groups of players and coaches tour towns and cities outside of the metro area to meet with fans. We saw pitcher Matt Guerrer, catcher Mike Redmond, and not-quite-Hall of Famer Jack Morris who pitched the best baseball game I have ever watched in 1991. No photo ops though; I had to settle for TC, the mascot. :)

...waking up to -22 degree weather. And actually going outside.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I took this picture out my living room window. Yes, I am grateful for the awesome view!

I have found that in winter, the moon rises in the northeast, and is more visible from my vantage points. In the summer, sometimes I hardly notice the full moon because it stays so far to the south, hidden by tall pines around here.

I'm in for some wild dreams tonight. The moon has a way of doing that. Or else I will be awake and restless in the wee hours. I hope your view of the moon is beautiful!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Reading Thoreau. now that I am a middle aged woman who cares!

I remember reading bits and pieces of Thoreau's Walden in a literature class in high school. I do not remember any of it sticking to me at that time. I wonder if the circumstances of being assigned to read something take something away from the total comprehension of what is assigned. Or maybe it's just bad teaching. Or an impossible assignment for the teacher.

Anyway, I've found an annotated version of Walden online, and I've been sneaking away a few guilty moments to read it while I am at work. I have to do something to break up the monotony. Reading online is nice in a way, because I can copy and paste lines that really move me, for later reference.

I always knew I was different, but wow, I think, after reading most of the first chapter, that I am a kindred spirit of Thoreau. Why just this morning I was chiding my oldest son for using the electric heater in his room, when he could just pile on another blanket and he would be fine! Or he could just get used to being cold. Either way I think he would survive.

And fashion! My sense of fashion stalled somewhere in the early nineties, when there were some sensible things going on. According to Thoreau, as long as it's functional, it's okay. I can certainly live with that! I just have to stop looking in the mirror...

Anyway, I have discovered that I am into what may be best described as deep simple living. And I had a dream to underscore that last night. Somehow, I had devised a plan where I would be dropped off in a small town where I used to live, and I would meet a bus to go to work. Unfortunately, I had not studied the schedule, so I became obsessed with whether or not I knew when the bus would be there. The bus did come, eventually, but I missed it, just because I was so occupied in finding out exactly when it was to arrive. So I ended up sleeping on a bench in the street, feeling so despondent I jumped up and down on the pavement, trying to wake myself from the dream.

The message: (and Jesus has said this I think....) don't sweat the details.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Year birds

I decided to keep track of all of the bird species I see this year. I didn't really do it last year, although I went through my archives the other day and found I had blogged about 70+ species. The highlights were the Western tanager that made a brief appearance in my yard, and a probable cattle egret I saw across the road on the morning of my stepson's wedding (so I was too busy to properly document it!)

So far my list is pretty ordinary; my first sighting of the year was a goldfinch, and there have been numerous chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, crows, ravens, and others. But today Stan the Cardinal came for a long visit, so I was more than happy to add him to the list! He almost looked like he enjoyed a place out of the wind, in the company of other birds, more than the objective of finding food. I put a pie plate of sunflower seeds out, but Stan was not very interested. He did hover over it once, but for some reason found it not to his liking.

Other additions to my list today were downy woodpecker (for some reason I have not seen many of these lately!), common redpoll (one positive ID among the flock of goldfinches), and American tree sparrow, which was a cool find on the Christmas bird count! This one was pure luck; it was working some grass heads near the ground by the feeder, and it looked different enough for me to take a closer look.

One of my nemesis birds is the boreal chickadee. I have decided to increase my chances of finding it this year by going with Lynne to the Sax Zim Bog Winter Bird Festival in February! Am I excited?! Woo hoo!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

hauling wood on New Year's Day

The first of the year was one of those classic north woods winter days, air warm and calm enough that you can breathe a bit, but chilly enough to keep things frozen. The sky was slightly overcast, but it was not dark like some days we get in winter.

The Hermit had bought a full cord of well seasoned oak firewood from a guy north of Duquette. If I could burn only one species of wood, oak would be it. It seems to radiate warmth like no other wood can, and it lasts a long time. On New Year's Day it was warm enough to start the truck, so I agreed to go with him to load the wood. I wanted to get out and look for birds, anyway.

You really could not get any further into the woods than where this guy lives. He has 200 acres on a gravel road that gradually narrows down into a lane. As we drove in, we marveled at all the mature hardwoods on the land, primarily oak. When we first bought our land I thought this was pine and aspen country, but now that I've explored a bit I see some fine stands of oak and maple.

I could not believe my eyes when I saw the wood we were about to load. It was cut short, 12-16 inches, and split so there was not a log more than 4 inches in diameter. Furthermore, he told us he cut this wood five years ago, and it has been drying and seasoning since then. Five years! Last year before we got the propane heater we got a load of wood that was primarily birch and aspen, some of it so green you could almost see the sap flowing out of it. This year we have gotten a couple loads that have oak, albeit in very big chunks. Some of them do not even fit into the new wood stove. So this was well worth the price we paid.

We got about half the wood into the back of the truck. It was good work, really. Physical exercise, for a good cause, on a nice day. We'll come back for the second half when we have a similar nice day.

When we arrived home, we rearranged things in the entry way and put almost the entire load in there, against the south wall under the window. Better that than to have it outside under a tarp, and continually have to bring armfuls inside. I feel warm just looking at it.

I cannot put into words how it felt to be outside, doing something, on such a beautiful winter's day. I really feel like a resident of the woods now, instead of just a visitor.

Sorry no pictures. I left my camera in the back of Jim's car during the Christmas bird count, and it's in the mail. It wouldn't be a Christmas bird count if I did not leave something behind!