Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Room with a View

For most of my childhood, this was the view from my bedroom window. A second story bedroom in a house in the suburbs of St. Paul. This is how it looks now. Little has changed since 1978 when we moved into the house by Bald Eagle Lake.

The large green ash tree on the left was planted as a small sapling by my grandfather in 1974, when my parents first bought the empty lot. I remember when our driveway was being paved, but before the asphalt had been laid, my older sister held a treasure hunt for me. She wrapped up a few porcelain statues and hid them in the deep gravel layer spread for the driveway. I still have the little china doll and dog I found that day. Now I wonder how she kept me from stepping on them while searching through the rocks.

The pine tree on the left is one my little sister planted when she was in elementary school. On arbor day she brought home a pathetic little seedling tree, and Dad planted it in the front yard, not really expecting it to survive. But it did. Now Dad puts Christmas lights on its branches, and next to it stands a wooden snowman for the holidays.

My long-term memory isn't very good, but there are some bits and pieces tucked away in the dark reaches of my mind. When I was younger I used to crack rocks open with a hammer on the front walkway, hoping to find crystals inside. I remember peddling a little toy fire engine around the top of our driveway. When I was older I learned to ride a bike on the road out front. On hot days we couldn't use the kickstand on the driveway, when it would sink down into the hot tar.

I used to look for small agates in the dirt road in front of our house. I played in the rivers of rainwater washing along the side of the road, building dams and bridges and mud pools for my toys. I planted daisies for my mother one year next to the mail box. We picked lilacs every spring from the bushes that bordered the neighbor's yard.

I spent a lot of time looking through this window as a child. Usually this was when I was supposed to be asleep in bed, or supposed to be cleaning my room, or supposed to be doing homework. When I opened the window I could hear the red wing blackbirds calling, or hear the hum of lawnmowers. I could smell the newly cut grass and the smoke from the fireplace.

Every time I visit my parent's house now, I go up to my old room and look through this window again. It's been nearly twenty years since I moved away from my parents' house, since I moved out of this room. But the view is the same, and I can look through this window with the same child's eyes.

Greens in Winter

I and a few friends took a field trip in mid-December, to the Garden Goddess Greenhouse in Milan. Chuck, one of the greenhouse operators, met us at the door and showed us into his winter wonderland.

At once I could smell the sweet scent of green growing things. A small oasis of spring surrounded by white and cold. The greenhouse uses direct solar and passive solar heat to keep the air inside above 40 degrees, even when the air outside is below zero. A propane heater is on hand in case of long stretches of cloudy days.

Cool season greens, such as broccili, radishes, swiss chard, bok choy and mustard are grown in plastic gutters and in raised beds within the 16'x32' greenhouse. The growing season is from October to March. Boxes of farm-share veges are delivered to paid members throughout the season.

Chuck and Carol are writing a book about how to build and operate a cool season greenhouses in the depths of winter. They are eager to share their knowledge, and hope to inspire others to continue their experiment. If I had the time and money, I might think about it myself. Being able to grow and eat fresh veges in the middle of January is a mightily tempting proposal. But I have enough on my plate for now.

Although, we could convert part of the porch into a small greenhouse space ...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Just down the road

Got home from work yesterday and went to do the chores. Long underwear, layers of shirts and extra socks are a must these days. Dawn is back from the breeder now, and Eve is happy with her friend back. The chickens are all locked inside the coop, and I notice that the pecking order of my roosters has changed. My broken-toe red rooster is now subservient to my battle-scarred black roo, and hovers in corners and behind the feed tubs to avoid being chased.

It is very very cold. My fingers almost froze while trying to take this picture. This is looking southwest from our yard. The pine tree in the mid-distance marks the location of the tiny pioneer cemetary near our house.

There are three headstones in the cemetary, but I'm sure many more people are buried there. Their markers have disappeared over time. I've memorized the remaining names: Caroline, Ludwig and Martin. All died in the late 1800's. Caroline was 26, Ludwig was ten months, and Martin was two months.

The cemetary is small, no more than a quarter-acre in size. It is kept diligently mowed by an anonymous church volunteer who shows up in a pick-up truck pulling a trailer with a mower. Ten minutes of mowing and the pick-up zips away. Driving past the cemetary on my way home from work yesterday, I saw the wind had drifted the snow nearly ten feet high near the pine tree, with just the top of Ludwig's stone to be seen, and nothing of Caroline's or Martin's.

This is one of my kids' favorite places to take a walk in the summer. It's only a few hundred yards down the road, but with the way my kids walk, it can take over half-an-hour to get there. Rock collecting is a favorite diversion along the way, as is bird watching, cat chasing, bushwacking through the ditch grass, cloud pointing, crop inspection, and just plain meandering. When we reach the cemetary we say hello to Caroline, Martin and Ludwig. After a bit of dancing and rolling on the ground, it's time to head back home.

Some people might be offended by the image of my children laughing and dancing in a cemetary. I'm not. The image of a child laughing and playing next to a child's grave is, for me, very spiritual. Kind of a renewal and continuance of life thing, a spring following winter thing. Maybe if it was my child's grave I'd feel different, but I hope not. There's lots of serious 'hope nots' to be found in that last sentence.

On a warmer day this winter I should take my kids for another walk down to the cemetary, and say hello to Caroline, Ludwig and Martin again. It'll be hard to find pretty rocks under the snow, and most of the birds have gone south for the season, but we'll find plenty to keep us busy along the way.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Yesterday we had a blizzard. It looked like a blizzard and felt like a blizzard and sounded like a blizzard. The wind was howling and snow was blowing and it was very, very cold. But this morning when I looked out the window and saw only six inches of snow on the ground, I felt kinda let down. I want to be able to show something for our suffering. Sorta like when you hit your head against a cupboard door, and it hurts like the devil and you expect to have pints of blood gushing out of your scalp. But then you look in the mirror and all you see is a small red spot. If it's going to hurt, I want it to look like it hurts.

Someday before I die I want to experience a world class blizzard. A blizzard that is refered to by year -- 'the blizzard of 08.' A blizzard where I have to tie a rope between me and the house so I don't get lost walking out to the barn. A blizzard where we have to open up and crawl out of the upstairs windows to get outside on top of the snow.

Today, it just looks peaceful and glittery. My husband is happy there wasn't more snow. Our snow blower wouldn't start so he had to shovel out the driveway this morning. The temp was -9. It took him nearly two hours.

I guess I shouldn't complain -- I was snug inside a warm house, with the scent of newly baked bread and the taste of homemade rice pudding to keep me cozy. My neighbor Marj makes a wickedly good rice pudding, and I used her recipe. It's cooked on the stove, unlike the rice pudding my mother makes, which is baked in the oven. Both are very yummy.

Tonight we are forecasted for a low temp of 30 below. That's just the regular temperature, not including wind chill. Adding wind chill makes it closer to 45 below. Gotta love Minnesota.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Technically Fall

Yes, it is still technically fall, so we are still technically okay finishing up the last of our fall projects. Last week's was the semi-annual cleaning of the chicken coop. This thankless task falls on the shoulders of my husband. The fall cleaning is much easier than in the spring, since the chickens are free-range and spend most of the summer out of doors. During the winter the chickens tend to hang around inside the coop where it is warmer.

Hubby scoops the bedding into our wheelbarrow, then hauls the barrow out to our garden and spreads the litter over the ground. A couple of dozen more trips, then he takes a broom and sweeps the ceiling and the walls, bringing down the dusty cobwebs. It's amazing how much dander chickens can shed -- it gets over everything, a heavy coating of dust. Over the winter the shavings and chicken litter will settle down into our garden soil to feed next year's potatoes, tomatoes, corn, carrots, beans, etc.

Here is our clean(er) coop with a new substrate of wood shavings.

And some of the rewards of our labors:

Good Fun

Here's Baxter (the grey kitten) and Chloe (the calico kitten), seven months old this month. Both are very friendly and beautiful cats. Boy, have they lucked out.

The boys had some fun swimming at the hotel pool. Here's Benjimouse sporting the latest in swimwear fashions. Those are Spiderman waterwings, all the rage among two-year-olds.

Another weekend of good company, good food and good fun. It included one of the funniest games of multiple solitaire (ok, Phill -- multitaire) ever. Graham was helping his aunt Linda play, despite not knowing the game. "Anybody have a club of five?" and "Darn it! Mom beated us to it!" And his game-winning strategy of playing cards from the bottom of the pile before those on the top (which was cheating). He thought his aunt so blind, for not seeing that she could win if only she played the bottom one first. Frustrated beyond the limits of a five-year old, and despite her laughing protests, he played the cards anyway, announced "We won!" and then sat back satisfied and smug. "I told you!" he said to his aunt. Grown-ups can be so dumb sometimes.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A kitten's tale

Last night I got some bad news. Chester, one of our outside-turned-inside kittens, had died while under anesthesia while being neutered at the vets. I'll tell you his story.

You may remember this picture from my June post, 'spring pics.' These were Pepper Cat's kittens, born in early May. Four kittens, as cute as can be. We could never get near enough to pet them, but they came up with the other outside cats for feeding and the occasional bowl of fresh milk.

When the neighbor's dogs attacked our farmyard in early September, all of our outside cats disappeared for a few days. Slowly, one by one they came back: Pepper, Sally, Calico. Two out of four of Sally Cat's kittens returned. Three out of four of Pepper's kittens returned. The light orange kitten from the above photo never came back, and we still don't know what happened to him or to Sally Cat's missing kittens.

In mid-September we had a family get-together at our house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all visiting and celebrating Graham's fifth birthday. At these occasions our farm animals get a lot of attention. People vie for the honor of collecting eggs and feeding the outside cats. My brother Bob and his wife Linda were there too. Being animal lovers of a high degree, they took an interest in our outdoor kittens.

They knew about the life of outdoor cats, and what the chances of survival are. When they were visiting, one of Pepper's kittens (the grey one in the photo) was sneezing and wheezing a lot. Bob and Linda live near Brookings, and in Brookings there is a really nice animal shelter. After a bit of serious thought, my brother and his wife decide that they would like to take the kittens to the shelter when they drive back home. They are going to keep the kittens at their house for awhile, to see if they can be 'socialized' before going to the shelter.

This is good news, but the devil is in the details. On our first attempt to catch the kittens, my brother catches the calico female. On the second attempt, my brother manages to grab the dark orange one, but decides to let go after his arm gets shredded to a bloody pulp by claws and sharp teeth. So my brother leaves with one kitten in a carrier. Over the next two days, luring them with food, I manage to corner and capture the remaing grey and orange kittens. I then drive them down to Brookings. This is the trip I mention in my September post 'uh-oh.'

So, Bob and Linda now have three new kittens, and to make an already-long story short, they successfully socialize them into playful, purring pets. And, as might be expected, they fell in love with them in the process. They name the calico Chloe, the grey Baxter, and the orange Chester. They decide to keep all of them.

Yesterday was their appointment with the vet to get neutered and declawed. Yesterday afternoon the vet called them and told them the bad news. Yesterday evening I got a phone call from my brother. Chester had been his favorite, of course.

This weekend we are having another family get-together at Bob and Linda's house, this time to celebrate the upcoming Christmas holiday. Kind of a pre-celebration celebration. I'm pleased that I get to see the two remaining kittens, kittens that were born on our homestead and that are now living a very happy life in a loving home. I'll be sad to miss the little orange kitten, but I'll be happy knowing that the calico and the grey can look forward to a long, happy, contented life of an indoor cat.

Trimming the Tree

Our tree tradition: Grandma (my mom) buys the tree, Grandpa (my dad) puts it up. Grandpa strings the lights, Grandma strings the garland, kids put on the ornaments. Kids fight over using the stepping stool to put the ornaments on the upper branches, and then Grandma puts on candy canes and tinsel. Below are some pics of us 'kids' ornamenting the tree.

Some ornaments work well as bracelets, too.

We did all this at Grandma & Grandpa's house last Saturday. We had a good Thanksgiving, lots of good food Thursday at my sister's house, lots of good food Friday at my father-in-law's house. Lots of good people at both places. Lots of things to be thankful for.

Sunday, when we came home, we pulled into the driveway at around 5 pm. Who should we see scuffling along the drive next to the woods? Yes, Mrs. O. It seems four days with the hen door closed wasn't enough to discourage her from our farmstead. That night, after we had let the hens out for an hour or two, I found Mrs. O back in the coop. She saw me approach, and climbed up the stone wall a few feet. Try as I may, short of grabbing her by the scruff of the neck, I could not dislodge her from her perch. I used my long stick to poke, prod, and even pry her from the side of the wall, to no avail. Maybe I was being a wuss, but I didn't want to injure her.

I gave up at that point. Fine, I thought. Let her stay in the coop overnight. I left the hen door open in case she wanted to leave, and the next morning she was gone. Then, last night when my husband shut in the chickens, there was no sign of her. Tonight my hubby is going to set the live trap in the coop. We'll bait it with a boiled egg and lay some feed sacks over top of it. The hens are too big to go inside it, but it's possible that we may trap a cat. If Mrs. O is in the coop when we shut in the chickens, then we'll just set the trap and shut the door.

Oh, and when I said earlier that we'd bring Mrs. O to the state park, I was of course not serious. Don't drop off your unwanted wildlife at state parks! Big no-no. But there are plenty of abandoned homesteads around that would make a lovely home for a lovely opossum. I'll let you know what happens.