Monday, March 30, 2015

Day at a Time

Missing Rex, his ability to structure the relative import of projects, things, and to take time to tell stories. Home ownership can be overwhelming, at times. It was easier, in some ways, when this house was his and I fixed things only on his list. My list is often way too long, sometimes obsessive and aesthetically driven, and usually dissuaded by finance. One day at a time...

Friday, March 27, 2015

An Inconvenient Truth

To a food corporation, the deep, four-year long California drought is just a supply issue. Do they not want the customer to feel bad or resent them for not supplying us with lettuce? They reduce it to an "inconvenience," but it's so much more than that.

I don't think WF should downplay this serious, exceptional drought in a region that supplies a huge amount of our nation's produce as "a weather issue." The biggest brand name in food responsibility ought to be an educator. I think we're all brave enough to buy our vegetables and think about drought, to consider what it takes to feed us all so well, don't you?

Are you, grocer, brave enough?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Snow on the Sugar Tree

I woke to collect any sap to come after the prior tipping.

That's when the snow began to fall.

Two hundred fifty six ounces of sap, nearly fluid as water, and hardly sweet.

And the snow continued to fall.

The sap continued to boil, scenting the kitchen with caramelized sugar.

And as the snow began to accumulate

the sap grew thicker and thicker.

Nearing one fortieth the volume, it left the pot for the filter.

When it was over, four inches of snow

and eight sweet ounces of maple syrup. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Good Humus

This old sugar tree came down a few years ago. It cracked like an egg where it hit the ground 

Animals have been making use of it for nesting and storing food, notably acorns. Now, it's my turn to get in on the action.

The amazing product of rotting maple wood, fungus, and animal activity is this perfectly brown, soft, but not spongey, humus. I shoveled some over the compost pile to cover newly dumped scraps. The blue-gray stuff is our mineral soil, still frozen as ever, except for what I could excavate from the nearest maple tree (a peculiarity- the soil is not frozen solid among the fibrous roots of the tree). Our soil looks incredibly rich, but its looks are deceiving. Although we expect dark earth to be full of organic matter, here the topsoil is mineral. There is very little humus in these woods, so compost will be key.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Herd

I often see them running.

Particularly in the woods behind the house, running northeast to southwest or the reverse.

This time, it was out in the fields, down the road. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sugar Tree

It takes forty gallons of maple sap to yield one gallon of maple syrup. 

Archaic drilling tools are not the way to go. How on earth did they use these? A strong cordless drill and short and sharp boring bit is the way to go for just a few trees. Please be careful while hiking on slippery slopes with long, sharp tools.

If the sap is running, a clear liquid should be expelled once the hole is bored. Note the thickness of the bark and the lighter wood inside. Drill a hole around 2.5 inches deep, sloped upward by a few degrees to promote draining, The circumference of the hole is entirely dependent on the circumference of the spile. I used a half-inch bit.

A healthy tree and clean tap hole will heal in time.

We couldn't find Rex's old metal spiles, so I made some real quick out of half-inch wood dowel. After cutting the dowel to length, I drilled an eighth-inch wide hole down its length and then cut a small perpendicular groove.

The can was drilled to slip over the spile, then hook into the cut groove.

 And the sap flows into the can.

Wearing cans for the next several days.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Good Blanket

Raking leaves. This is a thing now, a must do thing. So why not do it when it is unseasonably warm in March? No good reason. Although the top inch of the soil is a mushy, slippery mess, underneath that top layer it's frozen solid. Except near tree trunks. There I find I can dig a little, but there's no good reason to.

 And, there's this.

But, also this. It took me too long to identify this garlic mustard. Shame on me. Visibly green before the snow had fully melted and the soil still completely frozen must have thrown me. It's the only thing growing out there, well, besides the garlic in our little plot and the duckweed in the swale.

Seventy degrees F on Sunday, a high temperature and highly unusual, possibly a record. I sat on the front porch steps in the evening swatting away mosquitoes. Yes (you say No). Yes. Thankfully, yesterday afternoon, a cold front came in. Twenty four degrees F when I rose this morning, and with St. Patrick's luck the mosquitoes had no warm places to hide. Our little pot of gold.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Slow Life Or I Just Turned Fortyfive

One of the tropes of speaking about a move from the city to the "country" is that life slows down, that you slow down. Some falsely reason that to slow down, they should aim for the country. 

What I have found is the movement of the earth. I see it in the shadows and celestial bodies.

Before I can see the rising sun, a window reflects it from nearly a half mile away.

Frenetic, self-centered city life dispenses with this perception. Time is human time, measured in seconds and minutes so numerous as to seem endless. It becomes the measurement of how long to, intervals of trains, a meeting at four, of dinner at eight. Children are unformed adults wed to their colleges before they can speak (yet only they have the perception of slowed time). Nursing facilities are horror houses, what happened to these people?  Celestial events are spectacles detached from prescience. 

No, the country hasn't slowed me down. It's only made me aware of how fast we are going.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Feeling Lucky, Bud?

Above the groundwater ponding in the middle swale (there's two, you see) are rather tall trees, maples and basswood, mostly. I don't think I need to point out that it is still winter, technically anyways, but the maples above the water are budding. Yesterday a great wedge of Canada Geese flew overhead, actually making their way to Canada, on strong southerly winds. Does everything know something I do not? I'm hardly ready for spring, as always I want to hold onto the slow pace of winter for just a bit longer, get some last thing settled before the rush of warm weather busy-ness.

What do you think? I think the maples crazy, but then I saw the very same thing at the ever so slightly warmer Mississippi River yesterday evening. Did I mention there are two months, sixty days, until last freeze? Is this how spring always is in the Big Woods? Probably not. After all, we went from negative eleven degrees last Thursday to over fifty or sixty degrees each day this week! What could be holding the plants back? I can hardly blame the maples for not holding it in, but they may just make a mess of sap season.

In other news, I have been keeping my eyes on the exposed groundwater in the back swale. There is still ice, with plenty of water on top. The frost heaved muck makes for treacherous travel where giant air pockets sit waiting for a boot to suck on. And then there's the duckweed. It's already growing. Yes, a week after subzero temperatures, boom, chlorophyll, CO2 and everything. 

Of course, duckweed, Lemna spp., is a fascinating plant. Not only are there many species, they can be hard to identify. I'm not fanatical about this, but this guy is if you're up for it. All we really need to know is this: duckweed likes still water, sun, and a boatload of nutrients. If you've got duckweed, you got those. What I want to know is from where the nutrient load is coming. Is it inherent to the organic material decaying in the back swale or is it running off from, say (don't mean to gross you out) a few upslope septic systems? Small point, really, and I don't have an answer, may never.

 And finally, the elusive Pileated Woodpecker tap tap tapping away, before the sun came up.

Feeling Out Boundary

For years I have been looking across the wetland, visually leaping from this side to that. I hardly noticed it was a farming plot, hardly recall seeing corn or soy. When visitors see it from the upper floor in the snowy winter, they say how nice it is that we have a view of a lake, which is of course, an illusion. For quite some time I wanted to follow the edge of the wetland, crossing the wide drainage that marks southwestern boundary of our land, and I knew well enough this had to happen in winter. It turns out March is a good time, the soil is deeply frozen, and the air might be fifty degrees.

At the beginning of this great March melt, snow becomes puddles, ground frost begins to let go.

Water is beginning to move. A warmish day, sunshine, and then an attraction to any hint of burbling, the sound of moving water, is the first symptom of spring fever.

Crossing the wide drainage at the southwest corner of our lot where electrical infrastructure meets the woods, marsh grass and cattails meet the scoured land of the gravel mine. This is a boundary I've often met, but never crossed.

Along the western edge of the wetland we find the most Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoides. It likes wet feet, and can be found on wetlands, along streams and rivers, on lake edges, and occasionally upland. Large trees with trunks often bending and soft wood, they are prone to break. This is the source of its common name, I think, not the downy white fluff it distributes in late spring.

The wooded hillside slopes sharply, then levels out in a zone that accommodates occasional flooding. I have found that the four-legged and the two-legged creatures like to share paths whether made by us or by them. Here, we walk along a well-trodden deer path, one well-scoped by bow hunters.

As we gain on the farm field, the land rises up just enough to take it out of the soggy soil well-defined by the Cattails, Typha latifolia. Here I see a close resemblance to an oak savanna, a wonderful little spot containing grasses, annual and perennial plants, a large Bur Oak, Quercus macrocarpa (I think) and several smaller ones.

Growing too are large buckthorns with their countless berries. The oaks probably pre-date the buckthorn. New oaks are unlikely to be seeded, sprouted, and survive the shading without the regular fires that give oaks an edge.

Lichens (maybe orange Xanthomendoza weberi and grey-green Physcia aipolia) grow on even the lower oak branches. Rampant buckthorn growth will shade out the lichen too. I have to start seeing the positives of buckthorn, what were they again?

The farm road, which bisects the wetland and forces the drainage through a culvert.

The immaculate, stone free, black earth of the farmed hill to our south. I wonder why cover-cropping is not practiced in this region and have yet to do the research. I suspect that there might not be enough growing season to get soy or corn and sprout a cover before a freeze sets in, but then I am guessing. According to the MCWD, an agency that monitors our watershed, our sub watershed is draining phosphate-laden water to Dutch Lake. This field is near the head of the shed and yet another guess is that it's providing a good part of that input. Residential septic systems and lawn fertilizers are providing the rest. 

My knee-jerk response is to worry that it soon will have homes on it. The owner leases it to a local farmer, and from what I can find, its owner does not live on the property which totals 68 acres of woods, wetlands, and farm fields (other than this one, which is isolated by topography, woods, and wetlands). A quick search shows the owner as Stone Arch Development, but a google search for that shows only a corporation named Stone Arch Organizational Development. Adding more complexity to property ownership, the notion that our own "development" is acceptable, but any future development should be off limits, or at least out of sight. 

At the culvert, water flows in from the big marsh.

And flows out toward the south, draining another few miles of wooded hillsides, residential yards, and horse fields until it reaches Dutch Lake, and ultimately into Minnetonka, overtops into Minnehaha Creek, sent over the falls, then into the Mississippi, and off to a stint in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Turning back to the north we get the only wide open view of the woods within which we live, apart from satellite views. The cropped view highlights the house, toward which I drew an arrow. Witnessing the open, bright marsh and dark woods together is eye opening.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Two weeks ago we went to a late showing of the Chris Nolan film, Interstellar, at a three-dollar theater. The take away is manifold, but one thing sticks to my ribs: we are more than corn farmers contented to feed 5 billion people. We have to tackle our fears, (spoiler alert) we have to dive into the black hole if we are going to achieve our promise, and we can't forget who we are (emotional beings) in the process.  

Humanity hates toiling in the dirt, we're intellectual beings, explorers, so get on to it. 

Don't be nostalgic, either -leave our prior existence back where it belongs. When we're in that new place, be in that new place. Don't burden us with longings for home or waste energy trying to recreate it. Our minds are the only thing that make us unique and they are built for adaptation. Adapt.

Don't let climate calamity slide us into a new dark age -get out into the dark.