Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Price of Sand

If you think of environmental activism as an abstract concept. If you think of yourself as a boring midwesterner thousands of miles from the real news-makers, think again.

The desire  for major oil corporations to open massive sand mining operations in southeastern Minnesota has been in the news a lot. The issue is hot.

The Mississippi River meanders through bluff lands that miraculously escaped being leveled by the last glaciation. It’s a region of trout streams, caves and a resting place for numerous migrating birds. Sometimes it seems as though bald eagles are as numerous as sparrows here.  

Known as the “Driftless Region” by trout fishermen and environmentalists, the blufflands of southeastern Minnesota are a world class environmental attraction and they are literally made of frac sand.

Our bluffs escaped the glaciers, but will they escape the big yellow machines?

The mayor of Red Wing evidently didn’t realize how hot the issue is because he took a job lobbying the legislature for corporate frac sand interests. He seemed surprised when he was nearly “tarred and feathered” and forced to resign.

The level of emotion around the mayoral issue was high. It’s not surprising some people found the resignation process to be awkward and unfair. After all the mayor is a real person with real feelings and a family.  His treatment was rough.

Someone with enough power to get their thoughts placed in the local paper as a commentary stepped up to point out how inhumane the situation was. They suggested in the paper that the anti sand movement is fear mongering, akin to McCarthyism.

An individual who lives next to a proposed mine site who has been researching the issue for over two years  responded by writing a letter to the editor. He said anyone who believes sand mining in Goodhue County is a good idea, is undereducated. He took a parting shot at a respected State Representative who, until recently, has been conspicuously absent from the debate.

This weekend, the respected Representative responded with his own righteous letter to the editor, calling out the private citizen by name and saying he should apologize... I’ve never seen a politician do that. He made it sound as if the person who lives by the mine site doesn’t know what he is talking about.

What will happen next?

Yes, the frac sand issue is hot. Not only is it important right here in Minnesota, it is a pivotal part of the larger issue of fracking nation-wide.

Our sand issue is at the root of energy independence, renewable energy and national energy policy. It begins with us. You can’t understand frac sand mining by reading letters to the editor or reading a pamphlet.

This issue is right here. Be a good citizen and engage. Go to a screening of the soon to be released documentary “The Price of Sand”. You will see real frac sand mines, and interviews with neighbors. You’ll get opinions from mining professionals and truckers who invested their life savings in equipment so they can work for the mines.  You will see the real people and the real issues and you will walk away with a new appreciation of it’s scale and complexity.

And when you read about it or hear it in the news you will have some idea what they are talking about.

Here is the information for the first couple of showings of "The Price of Sand”.

Sheldon Theater in Red Wing March 22nd 7pm

Grandview Theater in St. Paul on March 28th, at 7PM

Here’s a link to a comment I’ve heard many, many times. Notable this time because someone with power says it on video.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Foreclosure - A Moment in Time

Finances have been a little scarey for our household the last couple of years. During times like this plenty of worthy thoughts go through your mind, it is just hard to settle down enough to commit them to the written word.

Today I got a questionnaire via email and thought even though I usually delete such things maybe I would respond to this one.

The first question was something like, “ what is the most important thing that happened to you this year”, followed by a question like “how has the economy affected your life”.

Well, I started to answer the questions and a lot more came out than I intended. It is not my fault. These are big questions.
What follows tells a little bit about what it is like to sell foreclosed properties for a large, well known financial institution.

It is my spin which is likely to be different than what you would expect from a Realtor. This may make sense if you know I was not born to do this job.

I graduated from college in 1983 wanting to be a geologist. Because of the economy there were no jobs in geology. I ended up "temporarily" becoming a Realtor.

I never wanted to be a sales person, I never dreamed of selling houses and buildings, I never wished people would see me as a "wheeler dealer". I liked science and rocks and being outside.
When I said "I think I'll try being a Realtor" it felt like something I was just saying. It certainly didn't seem real.

But sometimes if you repeat things they become real.

For many years I have made a living as a small town real estate broker. I am good at my job and I like it. The details of my life are interwoven with the job I have done all these years. I first met my wife when she sold her house. And the universal nature of real estate allowed us to move back to my home town. There are houses everywhere.

If the economy had been different in 1983 I would likely have found a job out west or down south in Texas. I can't even begin to imagine how my life might have played out.

At the beginning of 2009 things were looking tough for us financially, I had only sold a few properties in the past year. We were living on my wife's income combined with money borrowed against our house. Luckily my business had a substantial credit line that I had seldom used until now. I figured I could last another 18 months living off of savings and credit.

Things would not have been so worrisome except just as the national financial crisis was beginning we built a new house. At the same time real estate taxes on the office center that provided some of our income doubled and one of my major tenants decided to "go virtual" and moved out. Two of my other major tenants stopped paying rent.

At the end of 2009 I was having trouble sleeping. I would lay awake thinking about the skills I had and how I might turn them into money. I considered selling our home, and other property, but every day there was evidence those options would not be viable. I decided I would continue working and keep faith things would work out.

I was lucky. I managed to become one of the brokers representing a major financial institution disposing of foreclosed homes. I had no idea they were considering my request to work for them. I never spoke to anyone on the phone. One day, out of the blue, I was notified by email, "We have an asset in your market area please log in to our web site to accept this assignment."
Accepting the assignment meant that I was to care for the property until it was to be sold. My payment would be the prospect of eventually listing the property and earning a commission at some date far in the future. The property was fifty miles away from the area in which I normally worked. In previous years I had wondered who could be so desperate to agree to such an arrangement.

I met the locksmith at that first “asset” and we broke in. It was mostly empty with a few useless items left behind, a broken ladder, partial cans of paint, some cleaning supplies and bills from creditors. I stood in that home, which was pretty nice, and wondered what kind of person had lived there.

Gradually it dawned on me, the owner of this house had been a Realtor like me. The name on the real estate signs in the garage matched the name on the bills left behind in the house.

After the house was secured and I was driving the hour back to my own home I considered the possibility of someone changing the lock on my door someday. I ignored the buzzing on my smart phone as I pondered.

Once home I could no longer deny my insistent cell phone and checked email. I discovered three more "assets" were ready for my acceptance. In the next three weeks I became responsible for thirty foreclosed properties.

I learned to appreciate the one basic reason that people lose their homes. People don't pay their mortgages and the bank forecloses. For the bank it is as simple as that.

It is all the same. People who get sick, people who die, people who go to jail, people who get divorced, people who lose their jobs, people who just don't care. None of them pay.

Most of them leave some of their things behind and it goes in the trash.

Some people leave behind lots of things which doesn't seem to make sense, but there is always a reason. I went to a house and there was a speed boat on a trailer, a motorcycle, a new Chevy pickup truck, computers, food in the fridge, plates and dishes and a note written in red crayon tacked to the wall,"Dady I love you". I thought it would take a cold person to leave that note behind.

Cold indeed, I found out the owner, a divorced man, died of cancer two months prior. One of the neighbors gave me the phone number of his x-wife. She told me it bothered her things were being left, but she was in foreclosure herself and had no place to put her own things much less the possessions of her ex.

So many objects get left behind and that is all they are, objects. The trash-out guys coldly walk through a house opening every cabinet as they go, assessing what it will cost to throw it all away, or maybe there is something they will keep--probably not though, they've seen it all. It is too hard to separate the things of value. Maybe give them to charity, I think- no - that takes time. It goes to the dump.

I have thought several times that I could be the king of garden hoses and floor lamps. Everyone leaves them behind. My wife bought a lamp at target. The very next day I saw the exact same lamp in a heap of garbage from a house on it's way to the dump.

Just when you think you understand that people only leave what they don't want something happens that shakes you. One day I scheduled a trash out on a property that had just a few items laying around and a couple of boxes in the corner. I had tried to locate the owner weeks ago without any luck and left my phone number taped to the door. No response.

I had barely hung up the phone from ordering the trash out when my phone rang. It was the foreclosed owner of the condo, a woman in her mid seventies. She explained while they were moving she got sick and went to the hospital and had just gotten out. There were very important things in those boxes, she said, that could never be replaced.

I met her at the condo, she reminded me of an older poorer version of my own mother. Polite, well groomed white haired and articulate.

Her grand-daughter had taken off work at a burger joint to drive her here. She told me she had lived here for eighteen years and that actually her mortgage payment was no problem. She said that so many people had been foreclosed that the association dues went up twice as much as her mortgage payment and she had to walk away from everything.

She was grateful to get her boxes and told me several times she had always taken good care of the place. When the bank foreclosed she became a renter and her condo sold for about $30,000.
As far as I know there were only papers in the box, but they were important enough to call a stranger, take off work and drive across town. I drove an hour there and an hour back to get that done.

Sometimes people take things you wouldn't expect them to take. Like all of the kitchen cabinets in a house or all of the door knobs and cabinet hardware.

Some people must be angry. Like the man who took the water softener leaving angrily twisted and crimped pipes. Then he turned the water back on. I entered to find water spraying all over the basement and a sump pump working overtime. One guy replaced every single light bulb in the house with burned out bulbs.

In one house the people stopped paying the electric bill. The neighbors told me the owners stayed there with the power off until it rained and the basement filled with water because the sump pump wouldn't work. After they left they returned each week to leave their trash using the house like a giant dumpster. By the time I got in the house I had to wear a breather mask because black mold was growing on every surface and slimy yellow mushrooms grew out of the carpet.

In that first month I changed locks on homes that had been owned by land developers, loan officers, and contractors. People not very different from me.

Some individuals stick in my mind. There was the single woman, computer programmer, who I encountered stuffing all of her worldly possessions into a small U haul truck with the help of her elderly parents. She told me they were leaving for Florida that night and anything that would not fit was being left behind.

When I came back a week later I discovered there evidently had not been room for her two cats. They rode with me in my car for the next few hours mewing loudly in the background as I spoke on my cell phone.

There was the man who greeted me cheerfully at the door, told me he was remodeling his bathroom. He seemed oblivious to the fact he had been foreclosed. In the following weeks he refused to acknowledge he had been foreclosed.

Finally I called him one evening and told him the Sheriff and a locksmith would be at his door at 9 am the next morning and there was nothing I could do about it.

The next morning I went to the house. As the locksmith drilled out the lock of the front door the owner pulled up frantically running to meet us. "I have the keys, you don't have to do that.".
He said he had spent the previous afternoon at his job driving veterans to their appointments at the hospital, then he rented a truck and spent the night moving as much as he could, telling us he chugged energy drinks all night to keep going.

The Sheriff, the locksmith and myself , all three of us were feeling pretty uncomfortable standing there with the personal drama that was playing out. The man wanted to show me around his house, I felt weird about that and declined, he told me to call if I had any questions. Then he choked up and said to me, "You are the only one in this whole process who ever listened to me. Thank you for that." Then he hopped in his car and drove away. Leaving his home in the hands of strangers.

The locksmith who had been right there during the exchanged said, "I think I would have been more comfortable if he had just told us all to F-Off."

A year later I am responsible for fifty properties at any given time. Ten to twenty of them are for sale. When one sells they assign another to me. I work all of the time with the knowledge that one day my employer will decide I am no longer useful. If they even suspect I might be unhappy they will suggest someone else would be happy to have my job - and they are right.

I have the surreal feeling that I am living in history. Is this how my grandparents felt during the great depression? You just live your life and do your job and one day you wake up and realize you are surrounded by extraordinary circumstances.

An email comes and the wheels are set in motion. There are locksmiths and contractors and dumpsters in driveways and the constant fear of water. Furnaces stopping, pipes breaking, damage. Lots of damage. People who are losing everything comment on the weather and wish you a good day.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Memories of Young Jack

We've been living here for just about two years. Slowly we are becoming country folk. In keeping with that theme we decided to raise a few chickens. First we bought six chicks of varying breeds that were to grow into laying hens. The laying hens will mature in September and start laying eggs of their own accord. I understand one chicken is capable of producing an egg, without the aid of a rooster, every twenty six hours on average.

Then, getting into the spirit of things we bought twenty meat chickens. Unlike the laying hens the meat chickens are white. They grow incredibly fast and are ready for their destiny in the freezer in less than two months.

When Jean came home with the twenty little yellow fluff balls there was an extra, chicken number twenty one. She was almost black, an "Americanna", and would be our seventh laying hen. She would lay blue eggs eventually.

We didn't name the meat birds because of the temporary nature of their stay with us, but each hen has a name. The dark colored number twenty one we named "Jack".

From day one I have been nervous about predators. We have coons and coyotes and many other wild things creeping about here in the dark. I built a "chicken tractor" for the hens which is a small moveable coop. The chickens run free on some days, when dusk approaches they find their way back to the safety of the tractor and we close them in for the night.
Each chicken has it's own nature, a personality. Jack had the colors of a hawk, she was the first one out of the coop when it was opened, she was fast and would run circles around the others. As she approached maturity she grew fluffy black feathers around her face that looked like a beard. We joked that she looked like she should have signed the decleration of independance.
We had grown to really like Jack.

It was a little late last night when I closed up the chicken tractor. Since it was dark I didn't see that Jack had decided to stay out for the night. It wasn't until the middle of the night when we woke to hear the sound, under our open bedroom window, of Jack being killed that I realized she wasn't in the coop.

We both got up and ran outside to look for the source of the noise. I saw movement in the long grass under our bedroom window and pointed my flashlight there. I was suprised to see a small cat, the size of a big kitten, trying to drag Jack's body, which was larger than the cat, through the grass. The cat let go and ran away into the night. It is likely this feral cat will become the prey of coyotes by fall. And we will have only brown and white eggs.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Magic Light

I took a walk this evening in the fields. It's been cloudy and cool for the first of July, but this evening the clouds retreated before the sun set. I have said many times before that I think there is magic in the late afternoon sun. I say it to myself when I walk some evenings.

I can thank the dogs, they lured me away from the pile of dinner dishes in the sink with good natured barking tail chasing and imploring looks. I saw a study once that people who own dogs are healthier. We also have sinks full of dirty dishes.

On my path I came upon the broken up pieces of the jaw bone of a fawn. The coyotes must be living high this time of year. It's interesting, I've hardly heard them call for months.

There are places out here that are like food for my eyes. Just by the look of them they invite me to stop and sit and become part of the scene. Fragments of verse about long grass occupy the fringes of my mind.

A trail that crosses my path shows that deer regularly pass through here. In this place I am surrounded by soft maples and soft looking grass. The leaves on one tree look healthy, but the bark is flaking off. Pulling off dead bark shows a nest of ants. Several of the trees are like this. I notice many of the milkweeds in this area have ants in them as well. There are also ant hills three feet across.

Maybe it's better that I don't sit down in the grass.It is quiet now, I don't hear truck engines or sirens or trains. Only the birds and bugs continue their sounds. Everyone has stopped to take a breath and enjoy the evening. As the sun sets it's light is on the face of everything, the leaves, the trunks of trees, the clouds and even the moon.

Then I hear "thop, thop thop" far away growing louder. It is a helicopter heading towards the hospital. They are high above our field, in the middle of everything just like me. I wonder if they see what the evening light is doing. The people in the helicopter hover above green fields and forest, the clouds rolling away to the east and the sun setting in the west. For some reason as they pass I take a picture of them. There are people up there looking out. I am here, but I'm sure they don't see me.

The blazing sun sinks into the horizon without making any sound. As this happens I raise my camera as if I might capture this moment. After snapping the picture I look at the dogs. They continue to sniff and run. I realize it's just another night.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tweety Bird

This morning I walked in the fields and heard the sweet call of a meadow lark. I could see it sitting on a box elder sapling a couple feet higher than the surrounding grass. Not far away two fly catchers, king birds I think, were hunting. For a moment there was something powerful in the air and I was swept back forty years in time.

As a boy growing up in the 1960's and 1970's. I put myself among the first of a generation that grew up with TV. Still we got outside quite a bit. My older brother always had something going on that was interesting to me, the pesky little brother. He had books in his room like the "abominable snowman" with accounts of unwary campers being swept up and carried off in their sleeping bags by Bigfoot. He had a book called "Trout fishing In America" by Richard Brautigan that completely confused me.

One spring he had books on crows. And he talked about crows. He said they were smart and that you could even teach them to talk. He and my dad built a big chicken wire cage on legs in our back yard that looked to me like it should hold a leopard.

He located a crow nest and kept track when the babies hatched.Then one day my dad and my brother; and myself, promising to stay out of the way, got into our topless 1946 willys jeep. We drove out hay creek road to the abandoned farm where the farmer used to drive across the creek to get to his house. We drove very slowly through the creek, water threatening to come through the floor boards and up a little road past where the farm house used to stand to a group white pines. In the top was the nest.

We stood below shouting instructions to my brother as he climbed towards the crows nest and the baby crows with a sack in his belt. As he approached the nest the crows dive bombed him and, I thought, nearly knocked him out of the tree. My brother reached in the nest a brought out a baby crow. Like bigfoot he put it in his bag and we headed home. My brother was well read and well intentioned but the crow eventually died and the leopard cage sat sad and empty for a while before it was dismantled.

He probably took the crow too young. It died of a calcium deficiency is what the vet said.

It could have been later the same summer or maybe the next when my sister came home from Reichert'ss(now Reichert Avenue with town homes next to Sunnyside school.) where she took care of horses and hung out with other horsey girls. A barn swallow nest had fallen to the floor of the horse stable.

She saved three of the tiny babies before they were trampled by the horses. Two died right away. We nursed the third using our previous baby bird experience. We took turns running through the grassy fields(Spruce Drive and Lidberg street now) with a net sweeping it back and forth returning with a net filled with grass hoppers and a multitude of other squirming bugs."Tweety" survived and we had a summer filled with bird stories and I had a barn swallow as a brother.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Chickens Keeping Me Up

Recently, we decided to raise a few chickens. We brought six cheeping fuzzy chicks home from the farm supply store. For the first few days they lived in a rubbermaid tub in my office. Then the smell and noise got too bad and they moved into the garage.

I built a chicken "tractor" for them. It's a mobile chicken coop about three by eight feet, easily big enough for our six chickens. When the tractor was finished we set it on the lawn with the chickens in it. It was nice that they could finally scratch around in the grass and peck at bugs.

Our poor dog was/is mesmorized by the chicks. She lays by the coop, ears perked up and tail twitching. Finally unable to take the tantalizing noise and movement any longer she lunges at the enclosure, her nose leaving a concial indent in the soft chicken wire.

We live in a place were we hear coyotes howling, on occassion even in the day. Racoons live in the dead tree by the driveway , red tailed hawks soar overhead during the day and great horned owls hoot to each other at night.

Normally we delight in the wonders of the natural world.

Tonight is different. We have elected to leave the chickens outside in the chicken tractor for the first time tonight. It is supposed to be a safe place for our chicks from predators. My wife and kids have gone to bed and are sleeping soundly.

It is still spring and the nights are chilly so we have rigged up a heat lamp to keep the chicks warm.Dark has fallen and I glance outside to see how the chicks are doing. They are eating, running around and cheaping. Balls of fuzz and feathers illuminated by the heat lamp against the dark of night. It seems that all the world is an audience and they are on a stage, unaware of the perils waiting beyond the small circle of light.

I imagine the night breeze carrying the smell of them across the fields into the woods. I imagine coyotes in the long grass like my dog eyeing the noisy little fuzz balls waiting for me to go to bed. I grab a flashlight and step out the door into the darkness.

As I stand quietly in the dark, flashlight off, the moon comes out from under the clouds and the fields are illuminated. I look out across the landscape and wonder what is hidden in the shadows. I think of predator eyes watching me and my chickens and a chill runs up my back making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I click the flashlight on and shine it towards the darkest part of the woods fully expecting to see glowing eyes. There is nothing but the beam of the light in the darkness.

The chicks see my movement and start to run around more making even more noise, chasing each other, cheaping loudly. I wish they would lie still and sleep.

It is past midnight and I am still sitting here thinking about putting out a sleeping bag in the yard near the coop. Will I spend the rest of my days sleeping out and defending the chickens?

It occurs to me the welcoming night has turned sinster before my very eyes. I fear for the safety of the chickens. What if we were depending on them for food? How would we feel about the night and the wild then?

It is no mystery why settlers, walking with their wagons across the plains, looked ahead to the moutains and saw the devil, attaching his name to surrounding geography - Devils tower, Devils Thumb and many more.

The bigger mystery is that we can live apparantly protected from the dangers in the world viewing nature as a soft and beautiful, caged and tame.

A freind told me a story about a road killed racoon that he noticed near his home. After a couple of days the Turkey Vultures discoverd the coon. When he drove by he could see they were feeding on the body. In a short time the turkey vultures lost interest in the carcass.

My friend decided to walk over to the body and take a look to see why the birds now left it alone. The coon was still there, apparrantly intact, but in reality it was only skin and bones.
The vultures had devoured all of the soft insides through a small hole in the skin leaving a coon skin bag full of bones. He expressed amazement at how within the space of a few days the process could have taken place.

The story is interesting and I am tempted to say unique. No one told me such a story before or since. The process though, can not be unique. Perhaps it is the man on foot, who stops and dares to prod a dead thing along the road, leaves the shelter of car, house and office building, if for just a moment, and looks nature in the face. Perhaps that is the unique occurence.

We are seperate from nature, by definition and with barriers of concrete, metal and glass. The bag of bones along the side of the road scares us. The nature we allow is confined to the covers of coffee table books. We assume we are removed from the contest, but in this assumption, we are fools.

Nature follows us to the office making stomacs rumble at lunch time, making us notice the status of others. Nature rides with us in our cars as the world slides by like a silent movie. We are protected from the wind that would unhinge hair and ruffle clothing, but nature still rides inside with us.

We speak romantically of nature, of "oneness" and prehistoric memories, of green things, wild flowers, and running free in the woods. It is an act. Like a circus. We tell the tiger to jump and it jumps. Nature is beautiful but it is bigger and stronger than us.

It is there waiting to pounce. We should move with inborn fear of the big cat, looking over our shoulders in case something should go wrong.

Like delicate flowers our cities grow from a seed that is no more than a dream held in the human brain. What are the rules? Where is the blue print? Really?

Like insects we move about in the environment we have created. Surrounded by comfortable familiarity, crawling from leaf to leaf. We impose rules and make guarentees, but in reality if we leave even a small opening, there are those that will pick us clean, leaving nothing but skin and bones.

My Grandfather passed away in the nineteen seventies, I was a teenager at the time. Our family piled in the car and headed for the funeral in Aberdeen South Dakota. There is only one thing I clearly remember about that trip.

My brother and I shared a room at the Holiday Inn Hotel. At night in the hotel after we had gone to bed my brother suddenly spoke up in the darkness. His voice was clear untouched by the fog of sleep. He must havew been lieing there in bed with his eyes wide open.

He said "John, what if they do it?" I said, "Do what?" Again he said, " what if they do it, what if they really push a button and start a nuclear war. What if they destroy the world?"

Fear can cement a memory, but my mind clings to that one for some other meaning it holds.

The idea that we are the end point, the ultimate creature is so ingrained, our vision so selective, we miss the obvious. In terms of natural history the end of human kind would be a non event. The world destroyed would be our own. It would matter to humans who might be left behind, not to nature. Nature was here long before us and will remain long after we are gone.

Perhaps our arrogance is not a flaw, but a feature that allows us to excel. The human race moves ahead with single mindedness, toward some undisclosed goal. Nature is at the controls.

Without growth, and change our world would fall apart. Any individual who suggests they like things the way they are is totally ignored. Each of us pursues our own specialized needs unable to appreciate the path we are on or the thing we have become.

We are living in history. If our kind survives the thing that is happening it will be recorded as more important than the printing press or the nuclear bomb. The wonders of our time that we hold out as progress are only facets of a bigger thing that nature is building.

Nature is building something new with the materials at hand. A giant is waking. Science fictiom movies of a world ruled by machines flash across blue screens like a dream or a preminition.

We fear it as we fear death. But we are fascinated and we move toward it. The next phase in a long evolutionary line, it rises. Humans, machines and corporations go together like organs in a body to make the giant, like mitocondria in a cell we produce the energy, provide order and make it grow.

Something in me wants to scream "Live Free or Die", but it is too late. We have been absorbed. We must work each day for the machine, no longer able survive on our own. We were born for this, it is impossible to turn away.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Small Town of Welch

There is a story by Jack London called The League of Old Men. It is centered around a Native American Man named Imber who describes the coming of white men to North America. He relates the observation that white men seem weak and harmless but he has come to know they will take over the world. There is nothing that can stop them.

Imber is like all of us. The human race has brought about a wave of change that is far beyond our control. We observe technology and muse about it, but we don't appreciate what it is. We think we are in control. But like the indians who took in the starving white man and his short-haired dog we are caught in an irresistable wave of change. In our day to day life it is hard to appreciate, but on some days we are fortunate enough to be given some perspective.

I have a friend who calls me on occassion and asks if I would like to go paddling with him. He is a generation ahead of me, retired now. He knows people around here and he knows about the land. Like me, he is drawn to nature.

We put in into the cannon river in the town of Cannon Falls by a bridge. The day is warming quickly and we shed one layer of clothes before we even get on the water. The green canoe well worn. It's a good canoe, but any sign of newness has been washed and ground away. We slide into the water as if we belong. It's mid April and there are no leaves on the trees yet, but the wind is calm and the sun is warm.

There is just enough water in the river to float us through an occasional rapid. The river is still wild here. The bridge recedes behind us and we are in nature. We go with the river for miles, paddling the canoe with kayak paddles. Geese are staking out territory and woodducks take flight around every bend. An occassional bald eagle rises from the trees along the river bank disturbed by our passing. Our discussion wanders, punctuated by exclamations about the things we see. After a couple of hours we approach our destination, the very small town of Welch.

The tiny town of welch is situated deep in a valley next to the Cannon River. It is surrounded by hardwood forest. Red Tailed Hawks ride the thermals above rock outcrops that rise out of the forest above the town. Under the oaks, maples and cherry are layers of limestone and sandstone. The valleys are cut so deep into the surrounding rock that near the bottom by the town they are as deep as the water table. Water flows from the hillsides. Some houses have artesian wells. This flow feeds the river itself.

I have a friend in Red Wing who comes from a farm in Welch. She made the comment that when her Grand parents came from Sweden they chose the land they would homestead. They evidentally passed over the rich farmland of Goodhue for the less productive land in Welch with it's bluffs and valley's because it reminded them of home. The rugged terrain of the area that many would see as an impediment attracted them.

I don't know for sure why the town of Welch never grew, but it seems that it is so far down in the valley with poor access and no land to build on that it could'nt have grown.

We pull the canoe from the water by my car which we left here earlier. As we walk up the bank I reflexively reach into my coat pocket for my car keys. I suddenly realize I peeled off my coat with the car keys in it and left it in Bruce's car in Cannon Falls. We are stranded. I will have to call someone for a ride. I pull out my cell phone and after several tries at dialing realize there is no cell phone service here.

Welch is a very small town. I don't think it could be any smaller and still be called a town. In fact it makes me wonder what the definition of a town is. There is a post office though and I walk over there thinking they may have a phone I can use. It is a small brick building that doesn't look big enough to be anything. There is a little sign that says "open" in the window but for some reason I doubt anyone will be inside. The door is open and I walk into the "lobby" which is about the size of an elevator. There is a window and a counter and there is a man behind the counter. I tell him our predicament and ask to use the phone. He looks at me and tells me my cell phone will work if I just go a ways down the road towards the ski Village.

Suddenly as I stand before the little window and the man behind the counter I feel like I am outside the city of OZ and the most powerful wizard has told me to go away. I try again. "Don't you have a phone here I can use?" He says, "where are you from?" I say "Red Wing, its a local call." He warms up as if to say "well, why didn't you say so", and asks me what number to dial and stretches the cord to me.

I lean in through the post office window to take the strain off the cord and say "I hope no one comes while I'm blocking up your window like this." He says "Don't worry, that won't happen."

After my call I head back to my car, the boat and Bruce who has been waiting all of this time. As we stand in the sun with the river running by I see a black lab in the distance. I think to myself, "what a life for a dog, no leash, warm sun, no traffic and all of the dead fish you can eat".

The dog ambles up to us, he is wet and wagging his tail. I scratch the wet dog behind the ears. Another dog, a golden retriever, appears and trots up to me to have his ears scratched as well.

The dogs wander down to the river and come back with a stick. Each has an end. They start a half hearted game of tug o war. The retriever gets tired and lays down in the dusty road still holding his end of the stick. The lab keeps pulling and drags the retriever, who is laying on his side, a couple of feet. Then they both drop the stick and the retriever gets up.

Both dogs trot down the road to meet a neighbor who is approaching. He owns the retriever and warns us not to pet it because it's been rolling in dead fish. Bruce knows the neighbor who offers us the keys to his car and we tell him "thanks", we already have a ride coming. After the neighbor leaves and we continue to wait Bruce points out a house of someone he knows. They are elderly and have moved to assisted living in Red Wing. Bruce tells me the man was born in the house and until recently lived there his entire life.

This is a different world, it's not all sunshine and soaring hawks and I don't think I would give up my current life to live in a house along Welch road, but I would be sorely tempted. I want to reach out and touch it and know what it is. There is something here that is disappearing and I am sad to see it go.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Solar Water Heater Project- Step One

I'm posting this on the web as a way to encourage myself to do some thinking before I get too far into this project. We'll see if I get past the thinking stage.

A couple of years ago I built a 12' x24' metal shed for the purpose of drying wood. It has a 10/12 pitched roof which is covered with clear "pro-sky" skylight material. The shed gets hot during the day but cools rapidly at night. It retains very little heat in the winter. There is a lot of solar energy going into the shed but the siding is uninsulated metal. The heat is dissipated very quickly.

From shed

I plan to turn the shed into a regular storage shed now which requires covering the skylights to make the space useful. I'd rather not waste the solar potential of this building.

The construction of the roof is 2 x 6 inch rafters 24 inches on center. I would like to use the space between each rafter as a solar water heater. I found a plan for a solar water heater on the Internet at :

The plan appears to come from the Maine Solar Energy Association( I think it can be adapted to my use.

From shed

To use this building as a storage shed and solar water heater I'm going to have to move it. The first task will be to get the stuff that has accumulated out of it. And figure out the best way to move it half a mile across the fields.

Questions I have currently include:

1. Can a system like this produce hot water in a Minnesota winter?

2. Can the pro-sky roofing material withstand enough heat?

3. Does the pro-sky material allow enough solar energy through to heat water?

4. The plan has 1/2 inch copper pipes spaced six inches apart. Heat transfer plates available for in floor heat applications, which I'm planning to paint black and use as heat collectors are only four inches wide per pipe. Will it affect the function of the heater much if I place the pipes 4 inches apart instead of six?

5. The design of my building does not allow for space to fill the system using gravity - what is the best way to allow for pumping water into the system?

6. What's the best way to move this shed?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Conversation with the Breeze

I had a conversation with a breeze. We spoke in the woods at the edge of a field. It was warm for winter. Snow stuck in clumps on my snowshoes. I had stopped, unzipped my coat to let the heat escape. I stood a moment in silence. Then it was two, then three.

There was an old apple tree in the bramble where woods meet the field, apples high up withered and clinging in defiance of winter. I stood and considered the trees, the apples and the snow. That is when it came. The gentle scrape of branches. The creak of old limbs and the rattle of leaves.

"I know you", I said to the wind as it carried away some of my extra heat. "You are the one who took my warmth last week. You helped the cold nip my toes". "No", it said. "I am not that old. I was just born there in the valley where the brown grass soaks up the sun. I made my way up the hill through these branches just now. I am headed for the field. Who knows what will happen then."

I knew it was true, I could smell brown grass from the valley. And then I was alone again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Up Early

It's a strange time to wake. Four am is still night time in January. I lay in bed conciousness coming to me. I listen for any irregular sound. The house pops, expanding or contracting. Perhaps that was it. I can see the sky is clear. There is a gentle light coming through the bedroom window from outside. A young sliver of a moon is tangled in the branches of a knarled white oak, the sun is coming just a couple hours behind it.
Last night the coyotes were howling again, but I stopped only breifly to listen. The house was busy. There was preperation for trips. And talk of final tests and questions asked why homework was left to the last minute. Martin Luther King had given us an extra day, but we used it earlier for other things.
It's too late to fall back asleep so I get up to investigate. It's cold, I pull on a sweatshirt and pad out of the bedroom. I stand absently at the living room window looking out over the snow pack wondering if a wind has come up. Maybe that is why I'm awake. There is no sound of wind and the tree branches are still like a painting. Its not wind that woke me.
I can hear the fan for the air exchanger exhausting stale air and bringing in fresh. I continue to stand and think at the window. The refrigerator in the kitchen checks on and runs for a few minutes. The setback thermostadt knows dawn approaches and the furnace starts up, slow at first, then building as heat builds up inside of the furnace.
I move on in the dark to the kitchen with the thought of looking at the thermometer. The refrigerator is quiet now. A blue light from the digital clock on the microwave reflects in the windows.
There is sound from the office, the cooling fan on the computer kicks in. The processor is working hard. Perhaps its an automatic software download. I stand in the doorway to the office. A green light on the network card flashes happily indicating everything is okay, a blue light shows the screen has power and is ready to wake from hibernation.
I go back to the kitchen and flick on a light briefly so I can read the thermometer. It's not exceptionally cold, fourteen degrees. I go downstairs and stand by the kids rooms and hear their regular breathing. If the dogs hear me they don't let on. Neither comes to greet me.
Life seems so complex at times. I think about work and money and the future. I think about other people who might be awake in the dark.
It occurs to me that there is another man about my age who might be awake. Like me he is married, has two kids, just one dog.
It is inauguration day and Obama will start his new job. I wonder how he sleeps at all.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Left Brain, Right Brain, Television

I walk at night in the quiet and the cold. Even with snowshoes on my feet I sink in the snow. I feel the heat build in my core and radiate outward, temporarily captured by my layers of clothes. Soon I am too warm and I unzip my coat so I don't get overly hot. I imagine moist hot air escaping on the night breeze, my scent carried to wild creatures hiding in the dark.

I admire their beauty, strength and instinct. Sometimes I think I am like them, sometimes I want to go back to be cradled in nature.

On a sub-zero night like tonight nothing will be moving. Best to curl up in a brush pile or in the shelter of some pines and wait for the cold to pass. The deer will find a place out of the wind, perhaps in the pines, and lay down in the snow, leaving behind a body imprint, a dish of ice, when they get up and move along. I consider how I would survive without a house to go back to, without a grocery store or running water.

I am not strong enough, I have become something else. I live in a controlled world of artificial light and uniform temperature. The natural world has become a form of entertainment, not a way of life.

Author Loren Eiseley in his book "The Immense Journey" writes of the evolution of man. He ponders our origins and and our connection to the past. He talks of the forces of natural selection and how they relate to man, He says modern man is physically much the same as his ancestors. Man does not evolve like animals, for man, evolution of the physical body has been replaced by evolution of the brain. "quote from Eiseley about how our body remains unchanged."

Where an animal may need a thick coat or night vision to survive, man has clothing or lights. Because of our wonderful brains, we can make tools that change instead of our bodies. Our bodies are frozen in time because our tools do all of the changing. I think Eiseley assumes our big brains, continue to evolve. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I am sure something else is at work as well.

I have made a loop through the fields and now I stand at the edge of the woods in sparkling moonlit snow considering our house, some windows glowing with friendly yellow light. Another window flickers with the blue light of the TV. I stand and listen.

I wonder about the clicking and scraping coming from the woods. There must be a breeze in the tops of the trees that makes the frozen branches rattle. There is the sound of a car in the distance on the highway that gets louder and then fades. This is not true wilderness. The distant sounds of civilization would be a thundering irritation to someone accustomed to real solitude. To me though, all is silent. I continue to stand and then I hear the sound of my dog in the house. She is barking a warning. She has detected something out of place.

Friend since the beginning of mankind. Superior senses, she is doing her job. She sees my form, she doesn't recognize it is me lurking at the edge of the woods and barks a warning. Out here it is a distant sound, barking swallowed by the night, but it must be loud in the house. I feel bad for worrying her and move towards home as her barking continues. I look for her outline in the window and perhaps that of the concerned occupants in the house. Surely they wonder what the racket is about.

Our brain is separated into hemispheres that operate like dual processors in a computer, taking over different duties and sharing information. Our delicate human minds store memories, a record of time, as nothing more than electronic impulses in the brain. The same images in different iterations in person after person.

Using our consciousness we recognize relationships between things, we make stories. We dream. I suspect that our dreams are some kind of accounting between the halves of our brain. We re-live parts of the day and relate them with important parts of our life and mash them together into stories that some how make sense and help us make our way in the world.

In our culture we value originality, but the fact is that anything I can think has been thought before. Stories come to life in our mind and through the miracle of language we share them and weave them in with our own. We share experiences with those who have been dead for thousands of years. Through our eyes and ears we are connected to others. This interconnected group thinks for us and processes information as if they were another part of our brain.

I tromp through the snow past the outside of the house. I linger there undetected by everyone but the dog, peering through the windows at what we have become. In one window my son is absorbed by the task of texting a message on his cell phone. I move on to the next window. Faces illuminated in the blue light, not the moon, but television.

We are wizards. Primitive bodies with no need to evolve because we have magic. We have medicine, science and tools. We think for each other and machines remember and think for us as well. The record of our kind is stored not just in our minds, but in delicate machines. Like our bodies, our brains no longer need to develop. Just as tools have replaced adaptive evolution, technology has replaced the advancement of our brains.

Through the window I see my family, bodies relaxed and eyes wide they see landscapes and experience deeds of courage without being there. If we are still evolving, I wonder what we are turning into.

Humans need bodies for punching buttons and reproducing and little else. We lay motionless as our brains do accounting with the television set. News shows, TV dramas and comedies stream through our eyes and ears, the collective dreams of a rapidly changing society. We don't even realize we are part of something bigger.

I am starting to get cold and I must return to the house just as I always do. I can still run and get out in nature and I can still dream. I will continue to dream.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Looking for an Upgrade

The other day I tried to go for a run on highway 58. I found myself watching a snowplow three quarters of a mile up the road heading towards me throwing a plume of snow 20 yards into the ditch. I escaped to the median with the re-enforced opinion that the side of the highway in winter is no place for a pedestrian.

The pressure has been building. I considered a treadmill for the basement. I know you have to have at least three horsepower and spend overe $1000 for a moderately good one.
Winter has caused some stress. The dark, the cold, the wind, there is always some reason for staying inside. Strange things can happen when you're under stress.

The TV was on. I passed through the room and it pulled me into stationary orbit. I stood behind the couch for ten minutes, slack jawed, engaged in a medical show.
As I stood there an ad came on the TV for a reality show about people losing weight. Then came an ad for a TV service. The famous, sexy woman looked suggestively into the camera and moved her hips and sang "you're ready for an upgrade". She was wearing a short, tight, shiney gold dress. She fell to the ground and writhed around in piles of gold coins.

Something in me snapped.

I struck a pose and rotated my hips and sang out in a faulseto voice, "I'm ready for an upgrade". I was was about to fall to the ground and continue the song writhing on the floor when the family ejected me from the room. With no where else to turn I stepped out the door into the cold. I rummaged around in the garage and found a pair of snow shoes.
With the snowshoes strapped to my feet I started at a slow jog into the field. I kept myself going and the images and sounds from the tv started to fade. I did the slow plodding jog until I could feel the warmth in my fingers and heat raidating from my body. I stopped on the knob of a hill to survey the world. At first I could only hear my own breathing but as my lungs caught up and my breathing slowed I could hear my pulse in my ears. I could hear the blood rushing in my head and feel it pumping in my fingers. I was comfortably warm.

On this calm night fresh snow covers everything. There is a waxing moon that alows me to see in whites, grays with suprising clarity. A snipet from some old song or poem is in my mind. "Cold orb rules the night, removes the colors from our site..." I look down to the snow at my feet, animal tracks pass by in front of me dark holes in the snow. Beyond the tracks the snow spreads unbroken with an occasional glittering caught by my perephrial vision as if diamonds are inset into the ground itself.

Before the cold could start seeping into my clothing I resumed moving at a walk. A vigorus walk, the snow shoes slowing and lengthening my stride making me feel like a giant striding across the land. I settled into my big stride singing in my head, "I'm look'in for an upgrade, an upgrade." I thought to myself, "I could be a character in a Kurt Vonegut Story." After a time, perhaps a mile, I stopped again on another rise and looked across the fields.

The landscape is truly owned by the moon, the colorless light gives the world a dreamlike quality. But in the distance are radio and relay towers with red lights blinking, out of place in the spell cast by the moon. It strikes me as an odd thing and I pause a little longer. A conversation from the past comes to mind. It was about building a house. The people as I remember liked a piece of land, but it had huge power lines cutting across from the nearby nuclear power plant. We walked the land, it was a beautiful except for the scar of the power lines. We could only find one place were the view was not obstructed. Directly underneath the power lines there was an clear view of the Mississippi river valley. You could almost imagine they didn't exist.

I continued to look at the towers lined up in the distance with blinking lights. I thought of War of the Worlds were huge machines driven by aliens stride across the land conquering all they see. My eyes followed an indentation in the ground in front of me that deepend to a ravine at the edge of the field. There I could see the dark forms of a giant cottonwood and a knarled old oak. If the wind rises, I thought, they will sway and come to life. Perhaps they will cross the hills and defend us from the alien invasion.

This is silly, I've gone too far. The cold has penetrated my gloves. I have to get moving. First step, second step, stride, stride. I'm look'in for an upgrade, an upgrade.

Monday, June 23, 2008

You Just Had to Be There

I have confirmed that I am a little bit crazy. Today I noticed little puffs of pollen coming from tall grass with little yellow flowers. It is amazing how much pollen comes from one grass plant.
Something came over me when I looked out over the fields. I thought of herds of Buffalo on the great plains. I thought of the Harvey Dunn paintings of the prairies. I thought of pioneers in covered wagons in grass as high as a horses back. I thought of sod houses. I thought of a fourteen year old pioneer boy and his mother in southwestern Minnesota. The mother made the boy plow furrows around their home on the prairie because she could see smoke in the distance. They barely survived a prarie fire.
I didn't think about the fact that I'm off the charts for grass allergies. I thought I would make a video of pollen coming off the grass. After the close-up of little puffs coming from the tiny yellow grass flowers I would raise the camera from the delicate individual plant and pan across the vast waving fields of grass to demonstrate the scale of it all.
I went to the field with my camera and shook several grass stalks and the pollen issued forth. I went into the field with grass up to my neck and shot video of the grass at all angles. I squatted down and got shots of the the grass contrasted against the blue sky. I panned across the field, lingering on patches of bright purple or yellow flowers, subtle in the distance.
Having had allergies for some time I had some idea I may be uncomfortable later, so I held my breath as long as possible. But I couldn't do that for an entire hour.I have confirmed it is grass that I am allergic to. A video camera in the hands of someone such as myself can't begin to capture the colors and textures in a field of grass. The video is quite dull - just shots of green fields with no obvious subject. Individual stalks of grass being roughly shaken by a disembodied hand. The audio of my little shoot had some very nice bird and bug sounds in between my amazingly loud sniffles of my best allergy attack of the year.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Path in the Grass

I promised myself I would hang sheetrock tonight in the garage after dinner. I hung one sheet and started to feel restless. It did not seem to be right to work inside a garage on an evening like this. Well, I thought, I could mow the grass, a noisy chore, but at least I would be outside and still get something usefull done..I found myself on the riding mower. Without a glance or a thought I steered away from our yard and out across the fields. Reasoning that I was mowing a path to walk on later.
I drove on, mowing across the field far enough that I wondered how many miles per gallon a riding lawn mower gets. As I mowed I thought of one of my grandpa's who had a bad leg. He would drive his lawn mower around the yard, out to the mailbox or up to the chicken coop. Many of my memories of him include a lawn mower. I've heard of old people, not completely in their right mind who escape on golf carts or lawn mowers driving to some unknown distant and more satisfactory place to be collected later by fussing relatives who shake their heads in amusement or dismay.
I think they, the escapees, are not addled. They are seeing the world from another point of view. As I drive this train of thought leaves my mind. I am noticing my surroundings. The sun is low near the horizon and halfway behind a cloud. This evening light has magic in it. I have seen it many, many times but it is always new. Everything near and far seems to be focused and sharp beyond reason. I imagine I can see individual leaves on distant trees. The texture of the high grass draws my eyes and invites me to touch. I notice there are different kinds of grasses with different kinds of seed tops. I see the verigated leaves of clover and the flowers on the vetch are very purple as if the color eminates from inside the blossom . I look at the clouds in the sky and see a towering thunderhead floating by like a giant battleship, the top illuminated by the setting sun.
Suddenly I feel foolish trapped on the noisy lawnmower. My only thought is to hurry home and park it so that I can return to the fields on foot and in silence. My goal is to catch the last light of day on the fields of grass. I reach home and the sun is fading fast. No time to convince someone to come with me. Even though our house is surrounded by every kind of grass, I had to get back to the same place where I first noticed the evening light. I took a camera and started to run on the trail I mowed. As I ran through the field camera in hand I could smell summer and feel the evening comming. Fresh mowed grass mingled with the fragrance of clover blossoms and a thousand other plants unknown to me. Warm summer air on my face would suddenly give way to cool moist air that felt like evening, then back again to warm fragrant air of summer. In the morning the fields would be coverd with dew, cool fog hanging in the low spots. I felt it before it could be seen.
Tonight I managed to hang one piece of sheetrock and mowed a path through the middle of one hundred acres of grass and watched the sun set while a cloud that looked like a battleship sailed by. Who would have known it could be such a productive evening.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

New Moon

There was a half moon when I posted last week. There is almost no moon today, Next week there will be a half moon again, growing larger. It seems strange that the phase of the moon follows my weekly entries.
The moon has become detached from the weeks and the months on the calendar and I forget were they come from. I live by my calander. I am busy. It is easy to forget about the moon. How do I know what else I have forgotten?
I open a window, get out of my car, set foot outside my house. Getting outside is the only thing that helps.
Sunday I took my little tractor into the field. I should have known better. Farmers make their living in the fields. Not one of them is out on a tractor yet.
On a slippery, muddy slope with no where left to go I stopped the engine and hopped off to consider my options. As sometimes happens, I found myself standing, looking around and listening. In the distance I could hear voices, boisterous yelling, a big flock of geese high in the sky honking encouragement to each other as they headed North.
I had to scan the sky to find them. They were so high and untouchable that I had to laugh in amazement when I spotted them in their distnat smallness. Who wouldn't be tempted to imagine a time before cars and airplanes and bright lights. A time when geese could push the borders of imagination.
We have it easy. We don't have to move. Arctic adventures and calving iceburgs on the nature channel can't satisfy the simple need to slip around in the local mud and scan the sky.
Much time is spent watching TV. I much prefer sitting on my front porch cleaning fragrent wet dirt from my vibram soles.
I am laughing inside as I write this(a few days early). It is the last day of March and the snow has been falling hard all day. I have been laughing all day. I don't think I can explain it, but I am sure it is the snow. It's not on my calander.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Moon & Me Talk Trash

The half moon came with me this morning at sunrise. It's at its zenith and will share half of the day with the sun. It seems the moon takes an interest in my blogging activety. Last week the full moon was low in the east as I drove home from work thinking of what to post in the blog. It was big and waxy, a warm yellowish orange in its rising. The beauty of it struck me but I dismissed it, because it was the official turn of the season and my blogging thoughts were on the equinox and melting snow that would be in my post.
I turned my head for just a moment. When I looked back at the moon it was cool and distant. Half its previous size and nearly blue. There was nothing I could do.
The damage to our relationship was not too great though because this morning the moon was with me again marking another post with another phase. As I moved down the road it followed me shining through the bare tree branches ocassionally disappearing behind the hill. The turkeys have gotten bolder, now I see them in the road and the gobbling in the hills barely stops when a car goes by.
Up on the highway there is a dead deer that has been frozen there all winter. It puts me in mind of a road killed coon I saw last year. Obviously a mother by the look of her. Someplace nearby there was a brood of kits that would starve. I had the impulse to go look for them, but I would not know what to do if I found them.
Once around this time of year I found abandoned baby red squirrels in a tool shed and we raised them. From helpless, hairless little things they grew strong and energitic. They were not designed to live in an aquarium. Their energy was fearsome. When out of the cage they could be up your sleeve and down your leg in a heartbeat. Finally we let them go to meet their fate in the woods.
I have noticed tracks in the snow that indicate some coons are smart enough to use the culvert under the highway as an underpass. This morning deer stand in a little group in a nearby field as if holding a meeting to form a a petition to get a culvert big enough for them.
As I head back down the highway towards home the trash of winter has been exposed by the melt. It is ugly what we leave behind. Maybe someone could design a fast food container that, like a seed, could ride the edies of wind behind passing cars and follow them to their destination.

Off the highway now, I notice a shiny black garbage bag that has landed here in the last week. Today I stop to look. It's half full, not split. It is tied tightly shut with bright red handles. It looks clean. I imagine it riding in the passanger seat next to some anonomous person. Tracks in the soft mud along the road suggest it was carefully set there and not tossed. It takes a minute for me with the moon looking over my shoulder to untie the cheerfull red handles. Inside is what appears to be an entire winter's worth of dog feces. Someone out there has the good sense to pick up after their dog.
This is a small thing, I'm happy its not a microwave. The sun is rising now. The moon and I need to get moving.

Monday, January 07, 2008

I don't need no stinkin GPS

I value being comfortable in the outdoors. Being able to start a fire, read a map, knowing where I am, dressing for the weather.

My reaction was mixed when a relative gave me a GPS for Christmas. I do like gadgets.
My first thought was "GPS? I don't need no stinkin GPS". I couldn't resist the curiosity, though, and a played with it a little bit. Soon the novelty wore off and I left it on a shelf.

January 4th, the thaw hit. By morning the hard crusty snow was soft and slushy. Animal and people tracks from the day before were obliterated. For the first time since fall I noticed fresh coon tracks, easy to follow. I thought it would be fun to get one of my sons and follow the tracks to see what the coon was up to. Maybe we could find his den.

Having the boys with me didn't work out. I got a quick refresher course from my oldest son on the workings of the GPS and headed out on my own.

I found myself electronically marking property corners, brush piles, deer beds and of course, a coon den. In my mind, every time I marked something I was showing it to my sons. Of course if I had been with my sons I would have been talking too much, which is what I tend to do.

Who knows if they will ever try to find the points I marked. Maybe they will, and I enjoyed showing them all kinds of things even though they weren't there.

I will eventually find uses for this little contraption.


The tracks of the coon near our house got trampled by dogs, kids and me, so I went walking to find others. Not a hard thing to do. The coons were out. I found good tracks near the border of some private land and state land. The state land was logged a couple of years ago.

An interesting note, the brush is pretty thick in the logged area, as I would expect. What I didn't expect was sign of heavy human activity. Someone, from the DNR I suspect, had been out with a chain saw cutting non-native buck thorn. Seems like a losing battle to me. They'll have to do that for years to have any effect. How do you wipe out a plant like that when you have birds pooping little seeds all over? I wonder if they factor the cost of that into the economic benefit of logging.

If the brush is hard to walk through, the slashed brush and little stumps stained with blue weed killer are almost impossible to navigate. The coon evidentally agrees and stays out of the brushy mess.

I follow his perfect little hand prints in the soft sticky snow. When he comes upon a down tree he jumps up and walks along the length of the log, making his tracks disappear for a stretch. He knows where the logs span deep washouts and uses them as bridges, slippery enough to make me wary of following his lead. His path seems to be from one big rotting log to the next. I see rotten wood chips freshly strewn in the snow where he was tearing through the rotten wood to get at something.

I'm thinking about bugs, In the fall box elder bugs gathered by the thousands on the southern exposure of our house. I tried vacuuming them up, but there seemed to be an endless supply of them hiding in nooks and crannies. I ended up with gallons of bugs from one side of the house.

This winter, on a ledge in the garage where the electric line comes in I found a big pile of box elder bug wings and legs. What happened to the bodies? Closer inspection revealed mouse poop mixed in with the bug parts.

It appears I have found the table of a feast that lasts all winter. There is someone who likes box elder bugs. Looking at the rotten tree I know it is full of different kinds of bugs. From my logging of fallen trees I also know it is full of mice.

There is meaning in this. Since I was a kid I've heard and read, that a climax forest is a dead forest. There is no life because the trees are too big. Logging allows young trees with tender buds to grow which provides food for wildlife. There is some truth in this, I'm sure. But it is a half truth. It's the company line.

An ecosystem does not start with deer browsing on young buds. Even grade schoolers learn that it starts with the smallest creature and leads up the chain to the top. The logged area over the fence line does not have big dead, standing trees, and it won't for 150 years.

What will a coon waking temporarily from his winter slumber find to sustain himself in the young brush. No rotting wood, no bugs, no mice, no den. The logged area is certainly no good for woodpeckers. What about other bug and mouse eaters?

You can't easily walk in the thicket that replaced the forest, its not pretty to look at. My point is that logging is not an environmental activity any more than pumping oil. Likewise, we are not any more likely to stop using wood than we are to stop using oil.

Wood may be a renewable resource, if it's grown like a crop, but a forest is not. Not in our life time and not in the way forests are "harvested".

It would be good to leave some places alone. The economics we use to evaluate a lumber sale on public property probably don't take into account the loss of the forest environment.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter Solstice - Random

It is the day after the winter solstice. It was warm, in the 40's, but the cold air has come rushing back. It is snowing hard but the snow doesn't seem to hit the ground. Instead it remains suspended in the air, blowing horizontally making it hard to see trees in the distance.

We go out with our dogs, Luka, a husky, mix and Ali, a twenty pound rat Terrier mix that looks like a German shepherd in miniature. The little dog doesn't belong out here. I feel guilty for bringing her. I can tell she wants to be picked up, but once I do that I'll be forced to carry her the whole way. She sprints around in the blowing snow looking uncomfortable and hunched up.

Luka was born for this, she rolls in the snow with her mouth open in a smile. The wind catches her ears and holds them up even though they are normally floppy. After we walk awhile even the husky is taking things seriously, head low to the ground trotting in a business like way rather than bounding and rolling in the snow.

Humans don't belong out here. I can feel the wind through my Carhartt , my cap and my snow pants. I thought I was dressed warmly, but I can feel the warmth leaking away into the wind. We are in an open field and my face is freezing pretty quickly. I turn around for a minute with my back to the wind. I think of an old James Taylor song and a snippet of it runs through my mind, "Lord knows when the cold wind blows it'll turn your head around".

Normally we would cross the top of the field, you can see more distance that way. This isn't a normal day and we make a quick decision to head for a trail that follows down a ravine into the woods. I doubt any animals are moving in this. They've found some bramble or grove of evergreens and have hunkered down waiting for the wind to pass.

In the woods its relatively calm, but we can hear the wind roaring in the branches of the larger trees. They sway and move like they have woken from sleep. Their limbs creak and crack like they are stiff from standing still for such a long time. It doesn't take much to imagine them pulling their trunks from the ground to walk off swaying and groaning. The little dog looks warmer now but she is nervous and on the alert because of the wind and moaning trees.

Something in me is a little bit afraid as well. Not of the trees falling in the wind --This is not like that. It is more knowledge or instinct that if I stop moving the heat will be drawn from my body in short order. I imagine a husky dog sitting by my frozen body like some Jack London Story. If I fell for some reason I wonder if she would run for help or curl up next to me. I hope so.

It's funny, but the moving trees have put me in mind of something that happened in the summer. I'm not sure if I discovered this myself or read about someone else seeing it first. Perhaps reading it allowed me to see it.

I was walking through weeds and grass. Looking down my eye was drawn to one grassy plant animated, jerking around like it was dancing. I stooped down and watched as the plant continued to dance, the surrounding plants almost still. The more I watched the plant the more I wondered how it could move that way. Delicately balanced and touched in jsut the right way by the breeze.

People can be like plants, moved in unexpected ways by unseen forces. I wonder if the plant moves on purpose.

Eventually we cut up the side of the ravine and headed home across the field with the wind at our back.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Well, we had a bear

The bear came to our area.
He caused a big stir, we don't often see bears around here.
He ate some bird food, left some tracks.
People called the DNR, alot.
"What should we do?" they'd never seen a bear.
They chased it up a tree and shot it.
Now someone has a bear skin and the dangerous animal is gone.

Wow, that was a short visit. I won't invite any friends that look like bears.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

New House in the Country

It's about 4:30 in the morning. I woke up about an hour ago. I was laying in bed wondering why I woke up. I thought maybe I was cold. It's down around freezing tonight outside and we haven't turned the furnace on yet. As I wake up more I know I have plenty of covers and it is something else that woke me. I realize it is an unfamiliar sound that has reached through sleep to wake me.
At first I have a slight panic. The sound is muffled. It could be a voice or music. Maybe it is coming from downstairs where the boy's rooms are. Instinct makes me wonder if one of them is hurt. No, maybe one of them is talking loudly or something in his sleep.

Now fully awake, I wait for the sound again. There it is again, hard to distinguish, it has rhythm. I can't really here it so I get up. There it goes again. It must be outside so I go open a window. It's a familiar sound now, though not common for me. It must be two owls in the trees about twenty yards from the house. The first one starts with a low Hoo Hoo and is joined by a second slightly higher voice HOO Hoo... Hoo Hoo Hoo.

I think this is a horned owl. The night is lovely , clear and crisp, no wind now. The stars are out .


All day it was chilly and windy. The radio is talking about our first frost. We built a house this summer and moved in a little more than a month ago. We have 17 acres of hills woods and field surrounded by state hardwood forest.

We haven't run the furnace yet. We are still impressed by the possible energy efficiency of this new place. Our old four square in town would adjust to the outside temperature in a matter of a few hours. It was 70 degrees in here when we went to bed. Outside its about freezing. We've lost about three degrees during the night.

I didn't feel like we had to move to the country. Our old place was just fine. We already owned the land and the idea got started and just wouldn't go away. Se here we are.

I was working hard to get the yard graded and seeded managing to get that done last week. Just before I seeded one morning I was admiring some raccoon tracks in the soft dirt of the front yard. I started following his path forward from where I noticed his trail. After a few feet I stopped to look at a new track. I haven't seen this before and I'm trying to make some sense of it. It's a big paw. the track is about the size of my hand, the five toes are a little thick than my thumb. There is just one track immediately visible. I'm trying to register what this is. It's in the mud. Could it be a malformed dog track? I circle outwards and find more tracks all around the house and just outside the bedroom windows. Some tracks are shaped more like a human foot with claws.

I realize it's a black bear. Most folks don't think we have bears around here. I guess we don now, at the moment.


The stars are much better out here. I don't know a lot about the stars, but I do have to stare at them when they are out. When people lived out in the elements everyone must have been experts. I recognize Orion and I love the Fall, so I have been waiting for him to make his appearance.

Tonight as I lay in bed with my glasses off listening to the owl duet, I look out our east bedroom window. My eyes are pretty bad. If you asked I would say I couldn't even see a star without my glasses. Well, I guess I can see stars, kind of, and can definitely make out a bright shape framed perfectly in my window sky.

It is the hunter, making his appearance on this night of the first freeze.


I tend to be a hard facts person. I tend not to go to church. Most mystical touchy feely stuff turns me off. I am not a scientist, but that is an accident. I am drawn to science stuff like a fly to fly paper.

I have noticed in this world that if an idea is worth stating, if it is viable enough to have life, it's opposite must exist as well. The opposite is required for existence. If nothing was bad, there would be no such thing as good. To be recognized, pure goodness must be thrown into relief by evil or pain.

Well I am no cave man or ancient Greek. I live in a house and type away on my computer. Today I came home from work for lunch. I walked around the yard looking for little grass sprouts in the uniform blackness of our bare yard. I stepped around the corner of the garage and saw a white bird standing on the ground in the middle of all that black soil, a dove?

It was perfectly white. So white it was striking. It was just 15 feet away. It didn't fly, but it looked at me and walked around. Now if I were an Ancient I would know exactly what this meant. I sensed importance. I stopped in my tracks. Before this white bird in a field of black could turn into some fickle Greek god, I turned quietly around and walked away so as not to disturb it.

It was a pigeon. I wouldn't give it ten seconds in front of a farm boy with a shot gun.


I want oak trees in our yard. I know they will never be big trees in my day, but I would sooner live with the anticipation than bow down to my mortality. I could plant soft maples or basswood or some other fast growing perfectly good tree, but now I want oaks.

A long time ago I was mowing a yard and noticed hundreds of young soft maples sprouting. I took a hand trowel and replanted as many as possible in rows in what was supposed to be a vegetable garden. They got pretty big over the summer. In the fall they got transplanted all over the place and a few still live today as big trees.

But I want oaks. In nature acorns are saved like money. Everything eats them or hoards them. My dogs even eat them when we go out.

Several weeks ago I could hear the acorns falling through the leaves and hitting the ground at night. Now they have lain in the rain and mud. I notice little splits in some of them. If I pick one up it is stuck to the ground by a tap root making ready to put up a small tree in the spring. There will be thousands of new trees!

I have tried planting acorns before. If you take them right when they fall it seems like they won't grow. They need to lay awhile in the weather. I have picked up these acorns that are just putting down roots in a repeat of my maple endeavor. I discovered that the stem that sprouts in the spring is not just a small tree with a leaf or two. In nature it is a billboard that says FOOD!

My little oaks were rooted up and eaten by squirrels. I trust other things eat them as well. Out of millions of acorns, very few become old oaks.

Maybe its best to rely on natural selection. With my shovel I went looking for little oaks around the field edges - they grow in fields, not in the woods. I found several trees only a foot tall. I pushed my shovel into the ground all around the tree and pried the chunk of dirt upward.

My clod of dirt wast at least twelve inches deep yet the dirt came up and the tree stayed put with the sod and dirt pulling up and over the branches like a t-shirt coming off. The tap root on these trees was deeper than I could go with a shovel.

So I borrowed a little tractor with a front end loader and found a slightly larger sapling growing on eroded overhang. I managed to scoop out the tree with about a ton of dirt. Turns out I still broke the tap root. I planted something that looks like a healthy young red oak, but I fear it is just a stick with leaves that will shrivel and fall off. Spring will tell all.

The light is coming. I will say good bye to Orion for now and greet the first cool fall day!