Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Taking Out The Trash

Our pails, a silent sentry, as instructed -three feet apart, at the intersection of the woods, road and drive. A hawk, circling high overhead, issues its gritty reeeeeeeahh. The road, here, is quiet and I am noise.

Downslope, down road, toward the late autumn sun, down low.

Removing the trash and recyclables is a journey by any New York City standard. I, for one, was fond of dropping my trash right out the window into the pails below, but not here. No, trash removal has several steps, one of which is rolling the bin down slope, toward the culverted passage between one wetland and the other, then upslope to the road.

To my mind, it is cold out, for November, maybe six degrees F, yet the empty-handed return along the tenth-of-a-mile drive frees my senses for seeing, and I found myself trailing farther down slope, into the wetland, along a deer trail.

The wet lowlands contain the most attractive sites on this land, but the green season mosquitoes chase me out too quickly. In the white (or brown) season, I take time.

The drainage opens up, like a park, onto the wetland, the edge of which is favored by deer, coyote, turkey, and me.

Although the ground has yet to freeze, the wetland is firm enough for walking. I've explored its perimeter, before this moment, in December or January.

The wetland is, by its nature an amphitheater, a concavity, surrounded almost completely by upland elevated fifty to a hundred feet above the occasional water line. On its western flank is the headland of an esker that carries southward to frame lakes that were at one time deeper and larger. Our (Rex's) house sits on land that was likely a small island or peninsula, long ago, near this lake's northern boundary.

Recent heavy rains have been quickly eroding the steeply sloped land to the northwest and northeast, washing out sediment that fills the small wetland due north of house island. Soil and organic matter have been filling this basin for thousands of years. Trees have taken root in drier spells, then were soaked out in wetter ones. Water enters the large wetland at three points -east, north, and west, converging, then heads south toward a pinched outlet that funnels the water to a small, nameless pond, then farther on to Dutch Lake, and finally into Harrison Bay.

The cattails (I haven't yet identified the predominant species) have exploded into their fat and furry season, regal and rough. Finally, my camera and fingers are beat back by the cold and I head back into the woods.

The bones of the land are most clear in winter. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Animals

In the absolute dark of early morning, along the tree line, coyotes were illuminated by headlights. Two hours later, as the light began to swell, deer browsed the leaf litter where Rex's bird feeder had been strung, and squirrels scamper about playfully all day, while various birds make appearances (although less so since the feeder has come down). 

Turkeys are plentiful, crossing the yard dutifully every day, but are hard to approach on the squeaky, newly fallen snow. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014


In the upper Midwest, and probably other regions, dinner is called supper and lunch is often dinner. For supper, then, I made the 15 minute, thirty mile per hour drive through town and then out of it, curving west, at thirty-five miles per hour, then forty-five, until just over the Dakota rail trail. Slowing down for an acute right, gassing it uphill, past the Gale house, the event barn, the market garden (frozen as it is), yielding left, toward the visitor center. One other car, facing west, shared the lot. Over packed, snow-covered gravel, a soft left at the chicken coop, pushing the glass entry door, an unfocused hello and then scope the upright, glass door freezers. 

All of two shelves empty. A sign reads pork is coming in on the fifth of December. I tally four roasting chickens, five "Frenched" racks of lamb, a single leg of lamb steak, copious beef liver and tongue, eggs, a head or two of cauliflower and romanesco broccoli, a basket of onions, garlic, and of all things, late-frost tomatoes. 

I pick out two whole chickens, a leg of lamb steak, one onion, one garlic (although I have plenty back at the house), cauliflower and broccoli. Before leaving I ask how long this can possibly last, to which the startled clerk replies, oh, we have no intention of going anywhere. It is hard to fathom this attitude of permanence, but I will work on it.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Could a dying man's last wish be a new set of steps? In his slow decay is it trying or comforting to see rotten and skewed rebuilt upright? Is time best spent fixing the things that can be fixed? Our answer was yes, so Betsy and I spent the last ten days or so in Minnesota rebuilding the porch legs and constructing a new staircase with Rex's blessing. He and his aide sat porch side, observing, while we took to our work.

The porch was sinking in the northeast corner, evident at the junction of house and porch where a gap had formed over the years. It wasn't until we removed the porch steps and it's stock standard, 45 degree, three step stringer that we could begin to see the whole of the problem. The house architectural drawings indicated below the frost-line 12 inch concrete piers and 4x4 treated posts. The problem was that these posts were to some degree covered at the base with wet clay soil, not at all elevated above the moisture-holding concrete, and not at all anchored in any way to the concrete piers.  They simply rotted and moved from their original position allowing the porch to slowly pull downward. Although our intention was only to replace the staircase, and as is so often the case, when you look into it you realize the full extent of the work before you.

First, remove the old staircase, the lattice work under deck, then the fascia boards.

Old, rotten-bottom posts removed as we jack up the porch with a very old school jack. 

New treated posts installed with steel post-header ties (the old were toe-nailed).

Not choice, but available: plastic post bottoms to separate the new post from the concrete pier. Each is said to be good for five thousand pounds.

We also compromised on the anchor -galvanized steel angles at the back of each post, then each post backfilled with course gravel.

I found this blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale, under the plastic near one of the posts. Trying to get it out, it only climbed in deeper, so I let it be. I wonder how it keeps dirt out of those bulging black eyes.

After the posts were set and anchored we set about doing the staircase. The main complaint about the old steps was their steep incline and rickety railings (they had rotten) so we stretched the run to five feet from the porch. This changed the configuration from four, eleven-inch treads with eight-inch risers to six, twelve-inch treads with five and three quarter-inch risers.  The longer run had the structure landing on the concrete pad, adding concern about frost heave (which every one else was less concerned with). We compromised by designing the railings so that they are integral to the staircase structure but do not attach at all to the posts holding up the porch roof. This allowed us to remove the chance that frost heave pressure would be applied to the porch posts.

I reused as much of the original cedar risers as I could, but this also meant that I was limited by their length. We had wanted to overshoot the stringer sides by an inch or so but the old boards wouldn't allow it. We compromised by bringing the riser board to the top of the tread instead of behind it, and extended the tread board just a half inch on either side.

The treads were notched around the posts.

I fitted the post notch with a small piece of cedar to fill.

The different shades of cedar on a cloudy day.

While it was a marathon effort for him, Rex made the journey out to see the finished staircase. The following afternoon, I found him sitting on them.  I don't think I will get as much joy out of doing these projects without him there to appreciate it. Things need to be done, to be sure, but his glowing appraisal makes it worth the extra effort. As I had to leave to get back to work in NYC, not two days after I wrapped up the work on the staircase, I knew I could be seeing him for the last time. He said to me "you have value, remember that." Seems like such a simple thing, but it chokes me up. Rex was motivated to get the staircase rebuilt because his elderly friends were having trouble climbing the old set when they came to visit. I suppose, then, that a staircase could be a last wish. It's a way to extend oneself beyond the boundaries of life and death, a courtesy to those friends who will thank me for the effort and good work, at his house, soon enough.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Farm Park

Minneapolis has a farm within its park system, Gale Woods Farm.

They raise cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens, in addition to a number of crops. They expose school groups to farming and offer volunteer opportunities. The park is about 15 minutes from our place.

You can buy pastured meats at a fraction of the NYC price (5 lb leg of lamb -$36). As far as I know this is unique to the region, is hardly known even to locals, and is a great resource in a region that has not quite made pastured meats accessible to the urban population. Food is generally more expensive in the Minneapolis region than it is in NYC, variety is dismal, international foods are harder to come by, and produce is not well-stocked or good looking. There is a grand farmers' market in Minneapolis, but it's a drive into downtown. Fortunately, smaller markets are popping up including one in our town despite the fairly short season.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Lily Pad

 You might find a frog on the side of the porch. It happens.

 But would you expect to find one inside a day lily?

Hiding spot, feeding hole, great place to meet the opposite sex?

 Do you leap in a single bound or climb the stalk, waiting for the flower to open it's doors?

And do they know the doors close after dark?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Vernal Pond

There's been a lot of rain this spring, creating what may be the deepest vernal pool in the swale. On it, a coating of duckweed.

Friday, August 8, 2014


We arrived in Minnesota early Sunday afternoon after two days of driving and two nights of miserable lodging. It's hard to imagine making this drive anymore after a dozen years of doing so, twice annually, and it's quite possible this will be our last. Rex's ability to take in oxygen is at its limit as is the machine's ability to provide it. He is slowly suffocating to death. We like to imagine his lungs will finally give out under the influence of morphine and heavy sleep, but one can't know. 

His days are filled with an anxiety of breathlessness and jokes mustered around such a condition and a general disposition lighter than one might expect. Every now and then he makes it to his Estonia grand, orchestrating his nimble, digital memory. We cook and although he passes on most lunches, he eagerly takes in dinners under the magical influence of prednisone. We are lucky for his nine to five caregiver, Patsy, whom he listens to as much as she patiently listens to him. The dissolution of age will come for us all, gradually or quite suddenly. It is best to have a plan.

The best indicator of Rex's declining health was the gradual but evident retaking of the trails by plants and fallen timber. Many have become impassable with tangled windfalls and occasional widow-makers, the soft padding of chips disintegrated into soil, the buckthorn and even trillium growing center trail. There was considerable flooding this spring and the smaller marsh became the smaller pond, it's overflow draining underneath this bridge. The rain fell so long and heavy that pond waters rose high enough to float the bridge, dismantling it, and nearly over washing the driveway forty feet beyond. In other words, the woods is a mess and in need of a chainsaw samaritan who will work for cord upon cord of wood. Do you know one in the Twin Cities area? Email me.

The moisture and cool, darkened understory has produced a good crop of mushrooms, like these corals and those below.

Ductifera pululahuana or the White Jelly (Roll)

Last year's unharvested chicken, the ghost chicken.

Right alongside the driveway, growing on a strategically placed, chainsawed oak stool, is this summer's small but wanted chicken.

A day later it looked like this.

And the day after that, we harvested.