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Magnetic North

Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives on a 116 year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities years ago. She shares this special place with five goats, three dozen or so hens - bantams and full size, three talkative geese, an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, two angora rabbits, two house cats, a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo with plans to add a pet turkey or two just for comic relief.

When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, makes felted and thrummed mittens for folks, wanders the woods, balances rocks and, "when a fit of discipline strikes," dives into her decade of weekly columns for the old News-Herald in search of a book or more likely, a sit-com.  

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.



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Magnetic North: Staying home

Welcome back to Magnetic North. Today I want to address the subject of staying put for the winter. Staying home instead of sprouting snowbird wings and flapping away at the first sign of frost. Fact is, most of us retired sorts could go somewhere else. Somewhere warmer. But we don’t. Too much money we say. Too much hassle we protest. And so we stay. Stoically, but seldom silently, enduring all that Mother Nature chucks at us for the next six months. We are indeed, the stuff of epic drama. And drama, my friends, is exactly what it is and why it is we stay.

Because the truth of the thing, the real reason why so many of us stay here all winter is this: This is where the good stuff is and we don’t want to miss any of it. Even for a month or two. Or, in my case, even for a week or two.

For instance, have you noticed that the pine and balsam and spruce are now taking center stage? Leaves are leaving deciduous trees naked and slightly embarrassed. To their rescue and our craving for color come the evergreens. The sight of these giants standing tall throughout a January blizzard warms me as no Florida sun could ever do. 

The apple tree in the yard is bare now, too; but one bushel of its fruit is already transformed into silky, tangy sweet apple butter. Twelve pints this year. I got the recipe from a book my husband, Paul, got me at a long gone bookshop in town, the Book Station. There, proprietors Ray and Virginia Quick, also sold angora mittens made by a local woman who spun her yarn right off her bunnies and dyed the wool with Kool-Aid! Virginia was a fount of grandmotherly advice for a newcomer like me. And Ray was a daily vision, breezing through town on his way to the little shop on his ten-speed bike. They, like their shop, are gone now, but with each new batch of apple butter, I remember them fondly. Remembering blooms in winter.

So do spectacular sunsets and sunrises. The former casting a rosy glow over the world - Sigurd Olson called it “Ros Light.” And the latter coming so late in the morning that even a slug-a-bed like me can catch it most days. And between sundown and sunup there is a delicious 14 hours in which to star-gaze, build fires in the hearth, read, write, imagine, and, most glorious of all, give in to the siren call of comfort food.

Ahh, comfort food. We must have it so we can bulk up in the event we end up in a ditch and are not found for days, don’t you know. At least that’s my excuse. On the first visit to our clinic after moving here, I found no comfort at all when I stepped on the scale in late January. Before I could protest the inaccuracy of the equipment, the nurse patted my hand and said, somewhat cruelly I thought, “Welcome to Cook County.” We transplants hear this phrase often in our first years, usually after a mind-boggling event of some kind renders us speechless.

Speech in winter tends to be as brisk as the air. Small talk is for summer. Pumping gas in a gale wind in subzero temperatures one tends to keep one’s mouth shut, conserving what little warm air there is inside. At the most, an exchange out of doors at the market might be along these lines.

“Had 21 below at my place to his morning.” To which a reply might be, “Anything freeze up on you?” The concern being, not fingers or toes but plumbing. Winter is our shared enemy and we are comrades bonded together in the fight to endure, if not to conquer it. We strategize hourly about how to get to work, then home, then to this or that meeting. We are ready for anything. And we are invariably snookered.

The power goes off. The private plowers all break down on the same day. The early winter rain turns to snow at midnight and garage doors freeze shut. 

No day is ever like one in living memory, according to the weather mavens at the Blue Water Cafe. It may be better. Or worse. But it is never, ever, the same.

And yet, in the midst all of this uncertainly we have community and the ever-present sweetness of wood smoke in the air. Add to these, the incessant meetings of committees and boards and hobby groups, like the knitters at Java Moose coffee shop or the cribbage crowd at the Senior Center. Community. It’s here to take or to leave. But it is here for us, solid and snug and comforting, 

This place, this stretch of woods and shore in winter is truly a world apart. There is a saying here that many come to our woods and shore to find themselves and when winter comes, often don’t care much for what they have found. I get that. The unbroken whiteness. The monochromatic palette and daily bouts with nature is not for everyone. But I just happen to be wired to love that kind of world and for that I am so very, very grateful. 

In the summer months, tourists often ask us, “what do you do up here in the winter?” Sometimes I say no one actually lives here in winter, that we all leave and the highway is closed at the county line. Or some such smarty pants answer. But I never tell them the truth. Because to yammer on about Northern Lights and apple butter, much less the thrill of bag day at the recycling shop on Fridays, would be exposing some of my favorite things to ridicule. And so usually, when asked that question, I just channel Jack Nicholson in the Shining and smile and say, “well now, that’s a secret.”

And that tends to end the conversation pretty quick.

(Photo courtesy of Ed Suominen on Flickr)



Magnetic North: The stuff of dreams

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the resident goats, chickens, ducks, bunnies, et al. are as baffled by our on-again-off-again, winter as are we all.

The recent rain/sleet/snow of late made chores a sloppy mess, but the result was unexpected bliss. Until this series of events, the snow base was just a little too soft for me to enjoy my daily and nightly kick sled rides up and down the driveway, and more importantly, the use of the sled to hold feed and water buckets on the twice daily chore runs. Now, however, the frozen hard layer exists and I am once more slip-slidin’ away through the winter.

My favorite time to ride is between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight. Think aurora borealis. Or stars so numerous and visible that it looks like the sky is dusted with powdered sugar. Or, as was the case just two nights ago, a full moon turning the new-fallen snowflakes into diamonds. Diamonds that painted the meadow and the backs of my mittens and flew up around the rungs of my sled as I sailed silent as a soft owl.

Tis the stuff of dreams, unless you are my daughter living in L.A. hearing this and demanding to know if I have my phone in my parka pocket while I am swanning about in the dead of night on a sled(!!!!) in the middle of “nowhere.” The answer is “yes, dear.” Ahhh, the sweetness of payback for all those nights when she was in high school and blowing through her curfew. Life is really, really, really good sometimes, isn’t it?

On a more somber note, not all at the farm has been moonbeams and chuckles. This weekend I tried in vain to doctor my majestic rooster, Mr. Fancy. A ridiculously fluffy blue-grey ball of sweetness, Fancy came to me as a “free, rare and exotic mystery chick” with my yearly Murray McMurray chick order. For “free” read “rooster.” So if anyone is averse to crowing, don’t bite on this offer. Only once in the 25 years of ordering have I been sorry that I went for the freebie and that was when I got a nasty little piece of business called a “game cock.” But Fancy was the best. Protective of his hens, always showing them the choicest morsels of food before partaking himself and posing strutting his stuff like a rock star when kids came to visit the farm.

I will miss him. And no, I will not take the mystery chick this spring. Fancy was just too great a rooster to top. Plus, I still have a crazy little bantam rooster crowing his head off!

It is snowing again today and I have new straw to throw into the coop and barn - the critter equivalent of starry snowflakes for us. Paul used to call it “putting on the clean sheets,” and that’s just what it is. The goats stand in the doorway to the barn as I break up the bales of golden straw, covering up the old and hardened bottom layer. Bosco, my big buff colored cashmere wether, likes to get in there with me, employing his handsome horns to lift up the flakes of straw, rearranging them as he sees fit. The others just baa a bit, eager to see if there might be some tasty bits in the bedding.

Over in the coop, though, the job is much simpler. I just take off the baling twine and let the hens tear the big bale apart. This is akin to a day at the Alpine Slide to a chicken. Scratching, flinging straw, and generally wearing themselves out rearranging all the flakes. By evening chores, the floor of the coop has been transformed into one cozy comforter of golden straw with the hens up on their roosts gazing down on their handiwork. Spent, but happy.

And so, as we head toward the spring equinox, just weeks and more hours of daylight from now, all is well at the farm. Come rain or snow. Sad farewells and remembered joys. Winter gives me the time and space to sort and piece together these things. Winter and the solitude of life at the end of a gravel road 14 miles from town and two miles uphill from the big lake. What scares some, suits me just fine. As it does, I imagine, most of you listening right now,



Magnetic North: Planting for butterflies

Welcome back to Magnetic North where Mother Nature has decided to give us the cold shoulder off and on. After several weeks of faux summer and a few gentle drenchings to turn all things green, she gave us rain, wind, frost and even a brief snow shower.

But am I bitter? Heck no.

For once, and probably for the only time, I have used Mommy Dearest’s fickle nature to my advantage. Because this weekend I sowed five packets of milkweed seeds in the meadow down by the cattail stand. 

Milkweed seeds, unlike just about any other seeds I know of, like to chill a bit after germination. And where better to do that than in the on-again-off-again warm, then cold, then hot, then frosty Cook County June.

Now friends tell me that growing milkweed - a favorite food of Monarch butterflies - is tricky when starting from seed. 

Frankly, the whole venture is a gamble, with the gorgeous black and orange butterfly declining in numbers over the past few years. Migrating from Canada to Mexico then back again, the Monarch is simply running out of food. Our bad, of course. We gobbled up the fields where their milkweed grows to plant corn and big box stores.

Still, I believe that the most fragile appearing living things on our planet often are the most tenacious in clinging to life. Butterflies certainly fit that description.

A few winters ago, I read a book centered on Monarch butterfly migratory challenges. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is part apocalyptic fantasy, part woman’s coming into her own. The novel is rich in unpleasant truths about the plight of Monarchs as their food sources disappear. And though it is long and pretty frightening, I highly recommend the book for its beautiful images painted in prose.

But as disturbing as I found the biological truths in Flight Behavior, I also found hope. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been clumping around my cattail wallow broadcasting milkweed seeds last week. 

As I let the mahogany-colored flat seed pods fly from my palm to the loamy earth around the cattails, I remembered my granddaughter Jane dancing in a cloud of Monarchs in my back yard several summers ago.

She was out there simply to pick dandelion flowers for a garland. The lawn seemed a solid carpet of yellow that day. And the warm breeze off the meadow made basking in the August sun a truly delicious experience, with the dandelion heads releasing their pungent perfume. Jane bent at the waist carefully choosing her garland specimens when suddenly she started. For no apparent reason, Monarchs, hundreds of them, were swirling about the six-year-old's bare legs. Tickling and delighting her.

And yes, I had my camera. For once. Drawn upright like a marionette, Jane merged into the flashing orange and black wings, giggling and shrieking to “Look!” “Look!” 

Honestly, I don’t even need to look at those photos to remember vividly that miraculous dance. My beautiful little blonde girl - the prima ballerina in a Monarch ballet. That’s when I fell in love with the creatures. 

And I am not alone in feeling that way. I have it on good authority - Google, of course - that the butterfly, any butterfly, carries all kinds of good portents on its fragile wings. Immortality of the soul, in ancient Greece. Fertility, love and summer breezes in China. Joy and longevity in Japan. And they are pretty and make little girls giggle when kissed by them.

My Jane isn’t a little girl anymore. She is an eye-rolling tween and doubtless will not be looking for flowers for garlands when she visits me this August. But along with her big brother, Jackson, I am confident that she will still insist on pumping the old well’s clunky hand pump and holding assorted bunnies and chasing around the pond and meadow with Zooey and Jethro, my two bone-headed labs.

Along with that, though, I hope that Jane will also find herself admiring butterflies, Monarch butterflies, as they partake of some succulent homegrown milkweed. If not, I’ll show her the pictures of the butterfly ballet she starred in when she was “little.” And I will tell her, “they’ll be back.” Because I do have hope. And because I do so want Jane to have butterflies in her world. 



Magnetic North: The Merry Month of Mud

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where spring rains brought back many sights and sounds missing for the past seven months. The bedrock along the highway weeps profusely. Spring peepers sing their little hearts out at dusk. And marsh marigolds splash Day-Glo yellow color along streams, rivers and lowly ditches.
So who cares if there be a little mud along with these treasures? Just feeling the ground give a little underfoot sends shivers of delight through me. And the smell of soil? Sheer perfume that feeds the soul and imagination and makes little chores like cleaning out the chicken coop and rabbit shed bearable.
Spring feeds us in so many ways. Not the least of which is the edible green stuff popping up all over. My goats are on the meadow again. So no more store-bought hay for me until October. I’m sure they like the fresh stuff better anyway, as do the whitetail deer. Often goats and deer feed side by each, keeping a respectful species-aware distance.  With several acres of meadow, there is enough for all. And, so far at least, neither deer nor goat shows any territorial belligerence over the free food.
That makes me wonder how I ‘d react if people, even people I knew, began dropping by and pulling up MY nettles for their soups and quiches and MY fiddlehead ferns for their stir fry.  Oh MY! I couldn’t very well do what I did with my two voracious woodchucks - trap them in Havahart traps and relocate them on a back road miles from human habitation. This isn’t Texas after all.
My mind does take odd paths with these first heady breaths of spring air - concocting laugh-out-loud scenarios as I wander, forgetting what I’ve come outside to do, my eye falling on the first dandelion leaves, or the first wild duck or goose on the pond.
Just this week I happened to see a trio of Canada geese paddling around down there, a rest stop on their way to a better nesting place. And I am glad it is just a stopover, because the little pond is deceptively risky for waterfowl in search of a home. Hundreds of acres of intermittent streams run into it, according to a government survey. One good rain and nests can and will be washed away - baby birds and all. So, as much as I love see the three new arrivals, I was happy to see them move on.
That brings me to a fun bit of writing called Lessons from Geese. It was given to me by my friend, Val McFarland, a fellow Canada Goose fanatic. Far from anthropomorphizing the bird, it nudges us humans to imagine how better our lives might be if we took a page from the wild goose book. 

Here it is, with my own somewhat snarky comments attached.
Lessons from Geese

First: As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird that follows. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.  My take? The tradeoff is taking longer to get where you want, but doing so without constant honking in your ears and wings slapping you on your beak is okay.

Second: When a goose falls out of formation the lifting power of the bird ahead of him or her disappears and it experiences the full drag and resistance of staying aloft alone. Reminds me of that old country tune, “Love Lifts You Up Where You Belong.” 
Third: When the leader tires she or he instinctively rotates back into formation allowing another goose to fly point. My thing? We just grab a tall Latte with extra shots.
Fourth (and this one is disputed by some): Geese honk when flying in formation as encouragement to each other. My opinion? That's just like New York City cabbies “encouraging“ each other the same way.
Fifth: Two geese drop out of formation and land to help and protect any one of their flock that gets sick or tired or, worse yet, shot. I’ve seen this and it IS wondrous. Semper Fi? Leave no goose behind? Whatever the basis for it, you have to admire the act.
So most of the above Lessons are believable, and even laudable. But how to tell self-interest from altruism?  Mere wings do not an angel make. Just as sharing the meadow grass with deer does not mean goats are less greedy than people. It may simply mean that they are too busy eating to notice they have company. Or they are too wussy to defend their territory. Or, maybe it means exactly nothing.
And on that note, I’m off to make the most of MY mud season before the bugs come out.

(Photo by Davide Simonetti on Flickr)



Magnetic North: Ruin and Treasure

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where all creatures great, small and in-between waken to a white with new snow. And thank heaven for that. For, as much as I detest shoveling snow, blowing snow and falling face down into snow, I dread the prospect of my septic system freezing due to not enough snow.

Not that such a thing has happened to me ....yet. But Paul and I spent a good number of our winters here fairly obsessed with the temperature of our sewage. And we were not alone. The local providers of straw bales ran out as folks spread the stuff over drain fields and mounds. Sometimes repeatedly as wind and deer unmade the straw bedding overnight.

Paul’s Norwegian ingenuity went into overdrive at these times. One year he even bought three enourmous bright blue tarps and covered the straw he’d spread over the septic field.

It was hideous. AND of course, visible from the road and all of our living room windows. But Paul was comforted, having outwitted Mother Nature yet again. And that was worth going into Christmas week with what looked like a cartoon landing strip for a Smurf Santa Claus.

But this year, I can look out on the cozily snow covered septic field and smile, both with relief and memories of my sweetheart, struggling with windblown blue tarps, cursing the clumsiness of gloved hands and the weepiness of his eyes and nose. Even after the tarps were pegged down so as to resist all but an atomic blast, Paul fretted. Scanning the meadow for thieving deer and bounding to the door should one so much as set a hoof on the lawn.

Fun memories are often woven from times like this, aren’t they? On this, my second Christmas without Paul, the good and funny times are gifts I seem to find everywhere.

As I sit writing this at my dining room window a handsome buck - a six-pointer I think - appears at the corner of the goat corral, placing each hoof mindfully as if walking on eggshells. He is heading for the new hay strewn on the ground by my back deck. This is where I feed the goats now, after spraining my ankle doing that two winters ago. 

One day I had an aha moment before even starting to shovel the path to their corral and dumped their hay on the new show, calling to the five expectant goats awaiting their meal, “no more breakfast in bed - come to me or die!”

They came. Along with a number of whitetail deer every now and again. A win/win in my book.

The other critters transition into winter with much less effort on their part. The four angora bunnies in the room off the garage hunker down under an old shower curtain hung close to one wall. I feed and water them once or twice daily, giving them extra energy boosts of oatmeal and dried papaya bits in their kibble just to keep their little internal furnaces going. And I resist combing their gorgeous silver and grey/brown coats for fear of robbing them of any warmth in these subzero days. The fifth bunny, Peaches, is now a house rabbit, having lost the use of her back legs, apparently due to age. A loss that seems unimportant to her. I plan to learn a thing or two from Peaches this winter.

As for the assorted chickens and ducks, with one guinea hen thrown in for sheer chaotic effect, all greet my appearance in the coop as if I were a rock star. I don’t know if they like the grain best or the huge trough of snow I haul in for their water. They shriek. They fly. They trip over each other and peck peevishly. And, best of all, a few of the darlings lay eggs. I still feel rich whenever I pluck a freshly laid egg out of a nest box.

As for the three gray geese, Ziva, Abby and Ducky, they bed down amongst the hay and straw bales in one garage and seem to thrive in winter. Their only complaint being the lack of a kiddy pool for bathing. Each day I open the garage door and they come zooming out, wings spread and feet a-flying. Sadly, their feet are the only things flying as these domestics never get more than a few inches off the ground. But the three head straight for the safe ground between the dog kennel and the coop. A place sacrosanct to my two big Labs, Zoe and Jethro who set up outraged barking and harooing should even so much as a chipmunk dare to show itself.

Yes, life is good.  Funny at times - if not at the moment, in retrospect.  Recently, I found a marvelous quote by the mystic, Rumi, that speaks to this. He said, “where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.”

And while I would not exactly label my losses and challenges ruinous, I guess I’ve always hoped for, even expected treasure someplace in the day - even if only in a lowly next box or a snug septic field or, the presence of a sweet elderly rabbit cuddling in my lap at night.

Blessings to you all for now and the new year.



Magnetic North: Dark and True and Tender

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Welcome back to Magnetic North where signs of winter are hard to ignore. Besides the naked trees and frosty mornings, winter reminders show up even indoors. On kitchen countertops, coffee turns cold and butter gets hard. Mukluks and mittens creep out of summer storage. And on the sweeter side, the incense of wood smoke fills the air.

As for me, I am a cold weather junkie. So comfortable in semidarkness that my late husband Paul suspected out loud that I very likely possess the genetic makeup of a bat.

Maybe. For one thing, I am light sensitive - shrinking from bright sunlight ala Bela Lugosi. Even so, my so-called mind gets stuck in neutral. 

Unless I stare at full spectrum lights for half an hour a day from October through March. 

Leaving all the light/dark nonsense aside, I live for the first snow and curling up in the snug cocoon of a winter’s eve inside. I love stoking the wood furnace, tending the fire on the hearth and even the incessant trips to the woodshed. 

For folks like me, being outside on a clear winter’s night, the cathedral of stars overhead - uncompromised in brilliance by streetlights - is a spiritual high. I don’t even need Northern Lights to turn on the joy. And then there is that delicious cold air - nothing compares.

Lest I come off as a complete Pollyanna about our winters here, believe me I am not. Alongside those handsome mukluks in the back hallway there will soon appear four grungy black rubber buckets, frozen solid with water you really ought not examine too closely. 

The barn and coop and rabbit room water often freezes in the buckets. Water bottles require delivery three times a day. Two of those times in darkness, as the headlamp slowly creeps from my forehead and over my eyes. All the while my mind wills my ten frozen toes to grip what is left of a solid surface on the paths to barn and coop.

Just today, I sat in a spotlight of golden sunlight on the back deck, and watched my three gray goose girls, Ducky, Ziva and Abby, dip their black beaks into a bucket of clean water, then throw droplets over their pretty heads onto necks and backs. Lovely,....and yet. Today, the wind from the east is reminds me that this selfsame morning grooming ritual, done inside the goose house in a bucket, creates a straw and ice glacier by February. This morning, however, the only white stuff I see is frost on the deck railing.  Deciduous trees are bare. Evergreens alone carry color as they stand sentry over the forest for the next six months. And but for the golden tamaracks and the crimson mountain ash berries, the view takes on a sepia hue.  Sooner than I can imagine, all will be white.

This shoulder season, in-between the departure of leaves and the arrival of snow, feels clunkier to me than before. Less the smooth transition of past years. And more like shifting gears with a funky clutch. The ducks plastic kiddy pool is still inside the chicken run and I find myself resisting the final fill-up and stowaway. Another week of this dallying and the hose will freeze and my decision will be made for me. 

So be it. My evasion of winter readiness is totally sane. The winter of 2013-14 casts its dark shadow on our collective memories. Some of us moved south. Others bought new four-wheel drive cars, or stocked up on expensive yarns, or filled the freezer and every spare bit of closet space with canned foods. And some did what they swore they would never, ever do again and hooked up to satellite tv. Don’t judge. If you weren’t here last winter, for the ENTIRE winter, you just don’t get to judge.

That said, I still expect to love winter. Still look forward to riding the kick sled at midnight under the stars. Entering the chicken coop bathed in the glow of the Christmas light strung around the window pane. 

For me, loving the cold and dark is like inviting my own shadow side in for coffee. Discovering that I, like the North, can be “dark and true and tender” all at the same time.

So, have faith, my friends. And, while you’re at it, have a well-stocked woodpile and extra flashlight batteries. Me? I’ll be knitting and spending many of the dark hours in the dual glow of my fireplace ....and my newly installed tv.

(Photo by Martha Marnocha)



Magnetic North: Enough

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where folks in the know are celebrating the prediction of a MUCH less severe winter than last. Yes, dear listeners, the winter of ‘14-’15 is going to be just cold and snowy enough to satisfy. This breaking news comes via the most respected authority on the subject, the WBC, aka, the Wooly Bear Caterpillar.

My first sighting of the expert fuzz-ball came on Sept. 15. Two wooly bears were inching across the gravel in my driveway, unmistakable in their black and yellow striped coats. I fairly fell over with joy when I realized that the width of the head and posterior black bars were just about equal to the width of the middle yellow bar. 

The pseudo-science of the wooly bear predictor goes as follows: the wider the black band, the more severe the winter; and the wider the yellow, the milder the season. Extremes of either color bode ill for us. So the appearance of the equally striped woolies put me over the moon.

“Holy flapjacks,” I squawked and ran inside to get a camera so as to post the image online and thus spread the joy.

Now those who scoff at such beliefs need to know that this time last year I found a pure BLACK wooly bear on the step to my chicken coop. It had only three yellow hairs, or cilia, on its head.  And about a month later began the windiest, coldest and snowiest winter in most people’s memory.

But this winter we get a pass. And isn’t that great news?

Not all of my sightings lately have put a smile on my face. Two evoked dread and disgust and one made me drool. But all three were bogus.

The dread-evoking sighting came as I carted water to the chickens. Opening the door to their run, I saw the “unmistakable” shape of a half-eaten bird at the far end of the enclosure, tail jammed up against the chicken wire as, presumably, the predator had tried to drag the poor victim out through a breach. Sighing, I drew closer, only to see that the victim was a clear plastic bag that had somehow made its way into the run and gotten pooched up into the shape of a chicken rump.


The disgusting sight was indoors. One night as I swept up the daily tide of dead cluster flies by my sliding glass doors, I spied an oddly shaped glob, about the size of a poker chip, halfway up the window casing, partially hidden by my lace curtains.  The thing was a mottled grayish yellow and appeared to have legs. Worse, it was breathing.

This is the place in horror movies where the audience screams, “Don’t pull the curtain back, you moron! Run!” And of course the doofus does just the opposite and gets transformed into a grayish yellow blob herself.

Well, guess what I did? Yep, pulled the curtain back. Minutes later, I was out on the deck. Not transformed, but singing “Born Free” and releasing the traumatized tree frog who had been frog-napped when I brought in some plants on one of our first chilly nights.

Double whew!

The drooling thing was much less dramatic. I simply thought I’d finally spotted a nice big puffball mushroom growing in my lawn. Paul used to torment me with tales of how he brought home baskets of puffballs to his mother in Excelsior, Minn. back in the day. Fried in butter, they made a meal and were highly prized by all. 

Yet not once, in 25 years living on the shore, have I seen one. Even though I know others have been luckier. Well, sadly the big puffball turned out to be nothing more than a piece of birch bark. Cheated again!

Frankly, I’ve nothing to crab about. The past few evenings, my meals have been 100 percent locally grown and as fresh as the morning dew: Roasted beets, crispy cucumbers, juicy tomatoes and, best of all, sweet and tender lake trout…all compliments of friends and my local CSA. 

Tonight, new potatoes, roasted peppers and garlicky basil pesto atop just picked pole beans, all grown within a hoot and a holler of my front door.

Munching on all of the above, considering the carrots and fennel and, of course, zucchini, crammed into my fridge, I can’t help counting my blessings: All chickens alive and well, no creepy monsters in the house (that I know of) and, best of all, a decent winter ahead. Not too much snow and cold, but enough so as to have fun and, almost more importantly, put a nice protective cover atop our septic fields.

Long ago, somewhere in my midlife crisis decade, I began to suspect that having “enough.” was the secret to a contented life. People I knew who felt that they had “enough” appeared happy.  And folks always chasing after  “just a little more” appeared, well, like their shirt-tails were perpetually on fire.

As luck would have it, I am in the former category. How is something of a mystery to me, but all I know is that it’s a good place to wind up.

Sure, I still hanker for a puffball somewhere in my future. And chances are I’ll cave to my “just one or two more angora rabbits,” addiction. And when a loved one or beloved friend passes on, of course I’ll feel trapped in the fog of grief for a time. But then, gradually, that will lift and all I’ll remember is the goodness that person put into the world in life. And, for me, that is  “enough.”

So, happy autumn everyone. May apple cider and ginger snaps and great good gulps of that cool fall air be yours in enough quantities to make you content. 

(Photo by Dave Huth on Flickr)



Magnetic North: What Are We Here For?

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where change is not only in the air, but in the bird nests as well. My chickens and geese have finally called their summer vacations from laying eggs over. And am I ever glad!
Not only do I cheer over every huge goose egg and a nice clutch of chicken offerings daily, but my birds’ molt is done. For weeks the chickens and geese looked like they’d just gotten off a roller coaster - bare patches of skin, feathers askew, a punk look gone goth. Now, they look pretty again, and do they ever know it.
The Buff Orpingtons and shiny Black Australorps fairly parade around in the autumn sunlight inside their run. Vying for the attentions of Mr. Fancy, the huge grey/blue Cochin rooster, and suffering envious pecks from their dowdy stepsisters, the skinny, prolific egg laying, White Pearl Leghorns. Their muted clucks might well be translated as “Don’t hate us because we’re beautiful.”
The three gray and white African geese seem to want their kiddy pool water refreshed every day now. Those sleek new feathers simply cannot be allowed to gather any dust! Ziva, Ducky and Abby dip and dive for half an hour at a time several times a day. I watch them go under and torpedo each other, then stand up on the tips of their big orange feet and flap their huge wings. I could watch for hours. And I do.
But my domestic bird watching got cut way back early this month when I noticed the absence of two guinea hens, a black frizzle bantam rooster and three ducks from the flock. The culprit was a goshawk. I didn’t catch him in the act, but caught sight of the unmistakable 4-foot-wide wingspan as the bird sailed off over the trees on the west side of the meadow.
Thus, the chicken run stays shut. I go in every day to scatter leftover salad greens and scraps and fill their kiddy pool, but they want to go out on the soft green grass so badly. They are dying to scarf up all manner of bugs and buds and scritch-scratch wherever and whenever they please. And let’s not forget the chicken spas, those delightful little shady depressions in the bare earth where one or two lucky ones take dust baths.
Some would say, “Why deny them? Going out of the run is their decision.” Ah, but it is an uninformed decision, I shoot back. 
Meanwhile, the remaining guinea hens and banties stick close to the hay storage area of one garage where they have taken up occupancy. No doubt the fate of their brethren registered somewhere in their Cocoa Puff-size brains, for no longer do they venture forth down the driveway.
The other change hereabouts seems to be the universal cessation of visiting families. My daughter and grandkids came in late July and I played tour guide for a few days. We did the usual stuff, swimming, the Alpine slide at Lutsen and just hanging out while the kids played with chickens and rabbits and set up handmade targets for BB gun practice. As fast as the summer days passed in general, that handful of days with my little family flew the fastest. So fast, that within hours of their departure for home in L.A., I’d booked flights to visit them in September.
Aside from family, I remember the strangers encountered most vividly. 
There was the 60-something couple I spied beating the bushes down by the turnoff to Paradise Beach in mid-July. Both dressed to the nines in khaki from head to foot, they appeared to be searching for something. So I stopped my car and called to them, “Lost your dog?”
The man, bespectacled and carrying a notebook and camera, came up out of the wild rose and rangy dogwood underbrush first. Panting slightly, he immediately began telling me that he and his wife had just found no less than three wild orchids in that little patch of brush. She followed and nodded excitedly as he ticked off the varieties. 
“Well, well,” was all I could offer in reply, having never so much as looked into that triangle of brush on my way down the short turnoff to the lake shore. “I’ve lived here for 25 years and never knew there was such a find,” I said, somewhat sheepishly.
Asking if they were staying in the area and finding that they were, I decided to give them a tip that just might net them even more wildflower finds. If they could spare a day to travel to Isle Royale, I told them that they would not be sorry. 
And then I told them about the little used bog path from the highway to Paradise Beach. Paul and I often went there along and with guests to picnic and search for pretty stones, almost always having the beach all to ourselves for as far as the eye could see in either direction. 
But the real area of interest to my botanically minded new acquaintances would be, I guessed, the boardwalk winding through the bog between beach and road. It’s a spur of the Superior Hiking Trail. Muddy and buggy even in drought years, but worth the struggle. And for this couple, I figured they might never even reach the beach, yet have yet another thrilling expedition.
My secret beach, as Paul and I called it, is no secret now. I told a couple that was also watching their grandkids whoop it up on the Alpine Slide about the bog path. “Wear shoes that can get really muddy, take bug spray and a bucket for agates,” I said. “You’ll love it.” Their eyes fairly glowed with the “inside tip” they’d received.
Recalling these moments from summer brings to mind a snippet of a poem I came upon in a novel this spring. When I found it, I was in Yosemite National Park, oohing and ahhing over mountains and sequoia groves and feeling so very grateful to the people who saw to it that this wondrous place had been preserved for all the peoples of the world to enjoy.
Bearing camera, sketchpad and all to capture what I would see and experience, I was at a loss to know where to start. And found myself just simply staring about or taking dumb shots of the ubiquitous squirrels that haunted eateries begging for treats.. 
And then, tucked inside the novel, “The Painter,” this T.S. Eliot verse came to me. It goes like this:
                             “You are not here to verify/
                             instruct yourself or inform curiosity/
                             Or carry report. You are here to kneel/
                             where prayer has been valid.”
I was so taken by this that I used my drawing paper to copy the lines a few times, leaving the poetry on tables, or tucked into the crook of a tree branch around the park before I left. And I’ve passed it on to others now that I’ve gotten back to the North Shore.
I think of these words as I look long at my geese bathing and my chickens preening, or when I find eggs where just a week ago there were none, and remember strangers who might even now be recalling something wonderful in a place so special to me and to Paul.
There is such an urge for me, for us, to capture our treasured moments and people and things, to stash them away in photographs, poems, even radio commentaries. And that’s all good. Better though, perhaps is the simple act of seeing the grasshopper, or pumpkin blossom or centuries-old tree. Seeing and saying a silent thanks…even if kneeling is no longer in our skill set.



Magnetic North: Am I Ready For This?

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Welcome back to Magnetic North where wildflower colors shift rapidly now from the predominant yellows and whites and oranges to the royal hues which announce the coming of.....are you ready for this?....WINTER!

I search my meadow for the lush waves of daisies, buttercups and birdsfoot trefoil blooming so profusely this wet, wet summer. They are still there, but fewer and fewer by the day. Only the perennially late-to-the party goldenrod lift their gaudy heads in steadily growing numbers as we slide into autumn.

In fact, as far as the wildflowers go, the purple reign starts now. That’s r-e-i-g-n, as in all powerful. I see many purples in the Joe Pye weed, fireweed, bull and canada thistle, and wild aster ringing the meadow and invading my tiny garden patch. These newbies to summer 2014 paint the highway shoulders around the big lake as well as on all our roads less traveled. Their arrival on the scene is, depending on one’s experience during the winter of 13/14, either ominous or thrilling.

I lean toward the thrilling but many a hardy resident has good reason to welcome these signs of seasonal change with as much cheer as an infestation of bedbugs.

In fact, a fair number of souls opted to “git while the gittin’s good” and put their homes up for sale this summer. Winter takes a toll on all of us. And last winter, even folks who live to be outside in cold weather to ski or ice fish found it nearly impossible to do any of that with the triple whammy of wind, snow and brutal cold gripping our region from mid-December through March. Oh, I know April was no picnic either, but we could see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel - summer!

Sadly, that light proved to be more of a train. A tanker car filled with water. Rain, rain and more rain gave us those lush stands of wildflowers. But it also took away a big chunk of planting season from area crop gardeners.  With one of the county CSAs (that’s community supported agriculture) on an acre of my land, I feel the pain of my hardworking friends working that soggy plot, only to watch plants fail to thrive when nighttime temperatures stayed low. Surrounded as that acre is with bumper crops of wild roses, thimbleberries and such, it seems that our Mother Nature is in her Mommy Dearest mode still.

I am not one of those “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” saps. Still, I do plan to collect as many wild raspberries, thimbleberries and rose hips as I can this season. As soon as the mosquito population dwindles a titch. The guinea hens I brought in last June have de-ticked the place. And now the dragonflies are doing their 24/7 feeding-on-the-wing thing directed at mosquitoes. 

My berry picking is not so much for me as for my grandchildren. Jackson and Jane and their mother, Gretchen, my one and only child, just left for their home in L.A. with nary a single berry in their possession. Just a bit too early in this cool, wet summer. But I promised them that I would come bearing berry jam and rose hip tea on my next trip out. Which, if I had my way would be tomorrow, I miss them so dreadfully.

As do most folks hereabouts, I do not divulge my berry patch location, except to family. So Jackson and Jane had better keep their little traps shut. Oh, you don’t think word about a boffo berry patch could travel from L.A. to someone here? You obviously have not lived in Cook County for long. 

I, on the other hand, am happily entering my 25th year in these parts. That’s longer than I have lived anywhere. And I like the feeling. From the first day of owning land here, I felt at peace. That was a surprise. Paul and I were just looking for a nice place on the shore and ended up several miles uphill from the big lake on an old farmstead. But as I made my first trip into Joynes Ben Franklin, the first of literally hundreds of such trips, I turned and looked up and down the Grand Marais main drag, then out into the harbor and voila! Peace. A strange sensation to me at that time in my life. But one I recognized instantly.

And, right then, I knew I would stay. That I was home. Even though I did not have the required two sets of grandparents in the cemetery needed to claim “local” status. But I have my application in. My mom and dad and beloved Paul are all resting in a shady patch of earth overlooking the town and lake up on Maple Hill. So that’s a start.

Staying and knowing I will stay has its rewards but also its pains. A big one is saying goodbye to those who choose to not stay. Those who want to “be nearer family” or big medical facilities. And those who find winter more grueling than glamorous. 

I get that. One of my dearest life friends just sold her home and will be gone with the golden leaves of autumn. Understandable? Yeah. But acceptable? I am working on that one. My heart is slow to let go. With good reason. 

This friend and her late husband were anchors for me and Paul. She tended to my wounds after my breast cancer surgery. Helped my sweet husband adjust to his first hours in a strange place as I filled out mountains of forms at the Veteran’s Home. And even though I know she will always, as the saying goes, “be there for me,” I find myself staring at her whenever we are in the same place now. Memorizing her features and her voice. Saving to memory all that I can while I can.

So I tell myself that I feel loss because having such a friend just ten miles from my door felt really, really good. I tell myself also that I WILL spend at least one country mouse weekend with her in her new digs in the Twin Cities. And that she WILL come visit here. 

So it will be fine. We will be fine. I have faith - which is belief mixed with doubt - that what I tell myself will come to pass. And I fix my gaze on the trees ringing the meadow, towering above the fattening cattails in the wetland, and the swaying seed heads of the meadow grasses. 

And there I see yet one more shade of gold. A lone aspen dares to be the first to turn. And that first glimpse of the coming season takes me back to that first autumn here. The day I drove up my road and saw aspen leaves skittering in circles in front of my car on the gravel. Portents of winter. And I said out loud, “Oh, Lord, am I ready for this?” Meaning winter spent in a place that, while it felt like home, was more strange than familiar. 

Perhaps all transplants like Paul and I ask themselves that same question as they leave old friends and family for a wild and beautiful dream. And none of us really can ever know the answer. 

And truth be told, after 24-plus years, when I see the aspens turning and the fireweed burning with the last burst of summer color, I find myself wondering yet again, “Am I ready for this?” Only now, I know the question needs less to be answered than lived. And that, ready or not, I’m here for as long as luck and life and the good Lord will allow.

(Photo by goonarlflc on Flickr)  



Magnetic North: Skunked!

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the sweet smell of wildflowers mingles with those of grilled burgers, campfires, and sunscreen, as well as some not-so-sweet smells such as of wet dogs, fish guts and, worst of all, skunks.
Up on the shore and woods beyond, skunks are as common as groundhogs, but while the latter will simply steal your lettuces, the winsome skunk will take your very breath away should you as much as hint at the possibility of doing him dirt.
It has been a week since a trapped skunk was dispatched at the farm. But believe you me, in this warm and muggy month of June, her memory lingers on. And on and on and on. 
Over the years Paul and I matched wits with about half a dozen skunks. Some vacated the property without making a stink. Or, sad to say, paying the ultimate penalty for doing so.  Most, however, did neither.
Our first skunk appeared one early summer evening just as we were heading out for dinner at a neighbor’s home.
“Criminently, will you look at that!” cried Paul, gesturing to a spot between the barn and our back door. A big and rather chubby skunk scuttled purposefully toward our house. Not running, mind you, but clearly on a mission…one that boded ill for the coming summer.
“What’s that in its mouth?” I asked, squinting at something little and wriggling at the end of the skunk’s black nose.
As if in answer, Paul growled, “Oh no you don’t!” in the skunk's direction and set off to fetch his .22.
The cause of his alarm was clear as the black and white bustling furball came near enough for me to see that the big skunk carried a tiny baby skunk, grasped by the back of its neck like a cat would carry a kitten. 
“Oh gosh, she’s bring her young somewhere over here,” I hollered over my shoulder. “And I’ll bet this one isn’t an only skunk!”
By the time Paul had his rifle loaded, it was too late to stop the immigration. We found a freshly dug foot-wide hole leading to a nice, cool and secure home under the cement slab of our garage. And judging by the number of trips we witnessed, mama skunk had at least half a dozen babies just a few yards from the busiest traffic path around our house, woodshed, garage, chicken coop and dog run, way too many opportunities for a close encounter of the four-letter-word kind.
“I think the best thing to do now is, not to shoot, but to outmaneuver her,” Paul said.
“Aw, how sweet is that?” I cooed giving him a hug for being such a big mush. 
“Not a bit,” he huffed, zipping the .22 back into its canvas case. “If I shot her now it wouldn’t just be her smell we would have to bear, but that of her orphaned kits.”
He decided to leave the skunks alone until they were big enough to follow mom out at night to forage. Then we would board up their den while they were out to dinner. Simple. But hardly easy to do. For weeks, we had to walk wide around the skunk hole doing our chores and keep the two yellow Labs, Ollie and Jubilee, leashed until well into the woods or in their kennel. A nuisance for all.
Around about the third week of den watching, mama and babies set out to forage shortly after dark. Never mind how we happened to pinpoint the hour, but being married to a former Boy Scout and being generous with my expensive cake flour was involved.
“Got ‘em! Paul announced one early July evening after putting the dogs in their bunkhouse and scoping out the skunk hole. 
“They’re on the prowl so quick bring the big flashlight while I get the tools and board.”
Never a more nerve-wracking half hour have I spent than that night, kneeling in a cloud of mosquitoes and no see-ums and training a flashlight beam on a skunk hole while Paul fitted a newly cut cedar 2 x 4, with a strand of barbed wire nailed to the bottom, across the opening. And that was the end of that. Aside for what looked like a skunk square dance in the flour spread on the grass outside the hole, we saw no sign of the skunk family again.
Since then, we had only one more infestation. Again, the barn was the birth center of choice, Only this time, the mother stayed put, raising her small brood of three under the stable flooring and using an entrance that Paul simply could not locate.
We tried chemical deterrents touted by locals - first pouring bleach around the barn’s foundation. No luck. Then we sent away for fox urine spray. Quite odorous in and of itself, but totally ineffective on the skunks, although we did attract a female fox or two and later had to deal with a den of foxes under the barn.
It wasn’t until later that summer that Paul spied the three, now full-grown, skunks pawing through our compost pile by the barn door. He was just coming in from the woods and happened to have his trusted rifle on the tractor. What luck, huh?
The trio was an easy shot for a lifelong duck hunter, aiming from just a dozen yards away. Little did he know that I was right inside the barn door at the time. And I was struggling with one of our four goats, trying to give him his annual tetanus booster. “BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!” came the rifle’s report. Memory fails, but I am pretty certain that I got the booster, not the goat. But all three skunks siblings got a quick trip to critter heaven.
You would think that after all that I’d recognize the sign of skunk digging when two gaping holes appeared on the east and west sides of my garage early this month.

But no. “Groundhogs, again,” I thought.
So I blithely set out the big Havahart trap and baited it with a nice piece of salmon and a big, overly ripe strawberry. Next morning, both dogs on leashes - thank heavens - I spied the telltale white and black shape in the trap. Did I mention it was right next to my front door? It was.
Having been told - no, PROMISED - that a skunk won’t spray if it can’t see you, I approached the trap holding a 6-foot-square plastic tarp in front of me. “Nice kitty, kitty, kitty,” I cooed slowly, gently, ever so sweetly easing the tarp over the oblong wire cage.
Fortunately, it took only two hot showers to rid me of the smell and I never like those old overalls, no big deal.
As I said at the beginning, it’s been a week since the poor skunk met her end via a good neighbor’s rifle. Warm, wet weather hasn’t helped dissipate the aroma she left. But her abandoned babes under the garage are doubtless to blame for much of that.
Times like these, I miss Paul and his .22, which he left to his grandson, Sam. I miss the laughter as we would plot together how to best rid ourselves of the uninvited guests. And the shared thrill of victory and agony of defeat as we waged our little Critter Olympic struggles on this blessed piece of ground.
Those are truly sweet, sweet memories…even if they do center on the not-so-sweet and ever-so-stinky skunk.

(Photo by fieldsbh on Flickr)