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.