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Magnetic North

Vicki with her angora rabbit, Peaches

Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives  on a 100-year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities 23 years ago.
She shares this special place with five cashmere and milk goats,  a dozen-plus laying hens, three talkative geese an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, six angora rabbits, a house cat , a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo and one very spoiled Bourbon Red turkey.
When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, knits, 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 screenplay or, more like, a sit-com.  Listen at your convenience by subscribing to a podcast.

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.



What's On:
Canada Goose

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)


Peaches, the elderly housebunny

Magnetic North: Ruin and Treasure

MagneticNorth_20141219_RuinAndTreasure.mp38.43 MB

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

Magnetic_North_20141101_Dark_and_Ture_and_Tender.mp37.91 MB

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

MagneticNorth_20140918_Enough.mp39.49 MB

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)


Buff Orpington

Magnetic North: What Are We Here For?

MagneticNorth_20140830_WhatWeAreHereFor.mp311.83 MB

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?

MagneticNorth_20140812_AmIReadyForThis.mp311.71 MB

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)


Vicki's Crane

Magnetic North: All things winged, wicked and wonderful

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Welcome back to Magnetic North where winged critters, both wondrous and wicked now trump the weather for the number one topic of conversation in the grocery aisles and at the early morning “roundtable” at the Bluewater Cafe. 

First, let us dispense with dissing the biting buggies: the no-see-ums, the mosquitoes, the ticks-both wood and deer varieties-and last but not least despised, the bane of all hikers, gardeners and bare legs and arms, Cook County's most reviled summer bug, the black fly. 

Now, some will spoil a good black fly rant by protesting that the bloodsucking, welt-raising no-goodnicks redeem themselves by “pollinating the wild blueberry bushes.” Frankly, this does not impress me. Even if it is true. Which I doubt. 

I am of the opinion shared by my friend Robin Johnson, who owns Johnson Foods grocery along with her husband Mark, that black flies are true spawns of the devil. In fact, I am told that when a visiting victim of numerous black fly bites asked Robin where our black flies go in the winter, my friend hesitated not a nanosecond before declaring, "back to hell.”

I like that.

These and all other winged and crawling outlaws are thwarted with massive doses of bug dope, full-head nets or simply staying indoors. Our pets, dogs mostly, can also have a chemical repellant rubbed into their hides monthly. Mainly to deter ticks. This year, however, the tick population is huge. The harsh winter was apparently good for them.

And so, my two retrievers carried ticks inside on their ears and backs within days of being slathered with bug dope.

Naturally, my answer to that problem was not to buy more dope - but to acquire nature’s natural tick consumer, four guinea hens. Ticks are to guineas what potato chips are to us. One is not an option. 

Ergo, four guinea chicks are now ensconced in my bathroom. A heat lamp warms their big cardboard brooder and even though only two weeks old, they are already sounding their earsplitting trill the second they sense something is amiss. Which is about every ten seconds. 

Imagine, a security system and tick disposer all for the price of a burger, fries and a malt. What a deal.

 The one threat that the guineas won’t be able to ward off, however is four-legged. Of late, a fox - probably a vixen with kits to feed - has been crossing the meadow twice daily, then gambling up my driveway, the better to see if my chickens and ducks are out. They are not, since after I first saw the fox approach I have kept my ducks and chickens in their run. Sad for them and me. 

Lamenting this sorry state to my friend, Tim White, he came up with a most ingenious and charming solution. Tim told me to feed the fox, rather than trap her or set my dogs on her. He claims this was a trick established by none other than St. Francis of Assisi. Legend has it that the good saint once visited a town, Gubbrio, where a ravenous wolf  regularly devoured both livestock and townspeople. Even armed vigilantes were torn apart and vanquished by the beast. Hearing this, St. Francis offered to tame the wolf. “Sei pazzo?” (Italian for “are you crazy?”) the townspeople asked the saint.

But no, the good saint was not crazy. He just got along better with animals than most folks. So, he strode off into the woods, met the wolf, who charged him, jaws agape and teeth bared. Within seconds, however, the creature lay at the good saints feet like the tamest pet dog.

What the saint said or did to achieve this miracle is the stuff of legend, but this legend has a bigger point to make. 

St. Francis then insisted that the wolf’s crimes against the people of Gubbrio be forgiven, and challenged the wolf, in turn, to never again harm the people, as they would never try to harm him. NICE, but the real capper is that St. Francis convinced the people to feed the wolf, as a sign of their peace pact. 

And so they did. The wolf made his daily rounds, getting a bit of food at every door, until years later he died, fat and happy. His presence had so inspired the village that his death was actually mourned so they erected a statue to his memory: The memory of what forgiveness and the power of peaceful coexistence can bring to all creatures,

Fast forward to today and my daily fox visits. Much as I like the Wolf of Gubbrio story, heaven knows I am no saint and I love my ducks and chickens too much to tempt the Creator with a modern day miracle. So.....I set my big black dog Jethro on the little redhead one day. Heard him harooing through the woods on her trail for a good five minutes. 

And even though I would bet that she eluded him, I have not seen her since. Not exactly an inspiring conclusion, but satisfying nonetheless.

The only miracle I can remember taking place on my farm is perhaps the presence of a solitary sandhill crane in my meadow late in May. The lanky bird with the distinctive russet-colored topknot set down near the cattail swamp, sunning him or herself a bit, then gave forth with a raucous hooting call. Probably to a lost traveling companion. When none answered or flew in, the great bird left, gifting me with a great in-flight photo. It’s up on the WTIP web site this week.

And how could I forget the miracle of ten darling little black frizzle bantam chicks darting about the rabbit room. Or the nearly hatched ducklings and chickens out in the coop? True blessings, no matter the mess or expense. But then, blessings nearly always come with those, don’t they?

And so we come full circle to the blueberry-black fly bargain. I guess as the saying goes, there’s just no such thing as a free lunch, or baby bird or, darn it all, a wild and luscious blueberry.




Magnetic North: Back to the beach!

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where migrating birds and wide open beaches draw my eyes and heart. Driftwood washed ashore by winter winds and waves adorns the neck of Lake Superior - a folk art necklace begging to be admired. What treasures await me as I teeter over the newly thawed stones like a tipsy crane? 
A cedar stump as big and heavy as an armchair and polished as smooth as bone china rested on a sliver of beach just past Five Mile Rock. Long gnarled roots, pointed like accusing fingers at something closer to the water. A furry carcass. A fox? OK, I had to check this out.
Doing a U-turn I went to investigate. The dead thing turned out to be, not a fox, but a very young deer.  Hooves no bigger than a tablespoon gave it away. How and when did it die? Not this year. Too early for fawns and nothing this small would have made it through the winter. 
I set about hauling the big piece of driftwood up the steep, but mercifully short slope to my car, running several grim scenarios through my mind. Did it fall in the lake early last summer? Is the water really so cold that it would have preserved the body for nearly a year? Another mystery to add to the pile.
The driftwood filled the entire back of my SUV and I rode home with the longest root resting on my right shoulder like a peevish back-seat-driver. I had just the place for it - in among the beach pebble garden I’d started last summer. I invisioned a terra cotta saucer filled with water, cradled in the roots. My geese, Ziva, Abby and Ducky, will no doubt tip the saucer over every day. But that is the price I pay for seeing them gabble and wander around the lawn, live-in clowns devoted to my endless entertainment.
As it was a two-trip-to-town day I found myself on the same strip of highway at dusk and watched, not for  beach treasures, but suicidally inclined deer. Sure enough, just past the Kadunce River, a medium size deer lay dead in the westbound lane. 
As I drove past the body, I looked back at the deer in my side view mirror and was horrified to see her, still lying on her side, but with her head up, gazing after me. I screamed, then I prayed, then I reminded myself of other times I had come to the aid of injured deer, only to prolong their suffering.
Most of the creatures who share our woods and waters arrive, live out their lives and die unseen. Un-prayed for. Un-mourned. And so forth. Others are glimpsed, photographed and exclaimed over, living new lives as treasured memories.
 And then there are the ones we don’t want to see. The injured or the old and starving. Over time, I have decided that it is a fair, if bitter, price I pay for finding the beautiful bones of a long-drowned cedar on the shore. Or for enjoying countless days watching a Great Gray owl hunt on the meadow. The alternative is to stop looking. And I cannot do that.
Watching, and sometimes rearranging nature's bounty runs deep in my mind, heart and very soul at this time of year. The slush storm of a couple weeks back brought down dozens of tree limbs and in some cases, whole trees at the farm. Limbs from the willow that thrives in a wetland on one side of the driveway make up the majority of the downed lot. The rest are birch, tamarack and spruce limbs. 
It’s a pretty tacky sight to the unimaginative eye, but to me, it looks like weeks of fun and playing with sticks. The willow limbs will surely turn out to be a few spectacular pieces of diamond willow. Walking sticks, railings and such. The bark and living tips are goat candy, pure and simple.
The tamarack and birch will go into the woodpile. That leaves the spruce  - a bit more of an issue. I’ve dreamed of a Norwegian style wattle fence but am afraid that my dreams will be the only place such a folk treasure will ever exist. But I’ll give it a try with the half dozen good-size trunks I have already down and just waiting to be useful.
Not that the limbs of all of the above are on the ground ready to be picked up. Almost all are tangled in other tree limbs. Or dangling brokenly, but attached by impossibly strong sinews of pulp. Sometimes in pulling on a downed spruce top or willow bough I feel like I am in a tug of war with some sentient and very crafty opponent grasping the other end. Too many Disney movies, maybe. Still, I have found that cursing and whacking away doesn’t work as well at freeing a mysteriously hung-up branch as a more respectful approach, “excuse me while I just tweak this bit of bark” and so forth. 
The best gathering project of the month involves, as usual, feathered creatures. My ducks - both mallards and Blue Swedish are mating every waking minute. I gather their eggs each morning to slip under, not another duck or chicken, but a very broody goose.  Ducky, the aptly named African gray goose, has planted her ample backside and breast in her nest for two weeks now. She hisses ike a cobra each time I gather one of the eggs she and her sister produce. With no male goose in residence, poor Ducky is doomed to disappointment but for my interference. So each time I steal a big goose egg from under my fussy goose I replace it with a fertile duck egg. In a month, Ducky will be a true and proper Mother Goose.
 All the action is not just in the coop, though. Wild ducks arrive daily for a rest stop on our small pond. A pair of lanky pintails dropped in for a few hours on May 3. And just this morning I saw small flock of Buffleheads darting and diving after a night of steady rain. Buffleheads are easy to ID with their squat mostly white bodies and synchronized diving behavior. A true water show.
All the comings and goings and washing up and crashing down is enough to fill all the extra hours of daylight now. Morerover, the sounds of spring multiply by the hour. Huge V's of Canada geese honk overhead. A dull roar of streams running every which way around the meadow and down into the big lake is a constant white noise day and night. True, there are no leaves on the trees or Marsh Marigolds in the ditches yet. But there are no bugs either. 

Yet another reminder that having it all, and even seeing a small part of it, comes with a price. A price that, so far, is one heck of a deal.

(Photo by Dan Dzurisin on Flickr)



Magnetic North: The horror

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, to spring rain, spring sunshine, spring breezes and spring cleanup. 


At the farm, with three geese, a dozen or so chickens and ducks, five goats and two very large dogs, all of whom decorated the perimeter of my house with poop since November, my first words upon viewing the big meltdown this week were straight out of Apocalypse Now...The horror....the horror.”


And so, I scoop, trying hard to NOT be in the moment. I focus instead on my seedlings, basking under grow lights. Lights not unlike the full spectrum shop lights I dutifully turned on and stared at, but eyed daily this winter. Twenty minutes a day. Every day. And yes, they did seem to keep me from falling into clinical despair, but happy? The label didn’t mention happy. But hey, for the relentlessness of this particular winter, being “not unhappy” is quite an endorsement for the treatment, I’d say.


But back to the scooping detail. Looking around and over the quickly melting drifts, I found that the absence of snow gave me just as much reason for complaint, as did its omnipresence.


 For one thing, all the animal tracks have vanished. A bonus of every snowfall was the fresh blank canvas behind.  Awaiting the signatures of tiny voles and field mice, snowshoe hares, red squirrels, fox, pine marten and, of course, deer.


Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at identifying the critters who come to call when I am not looking. But this year there was one set of tracks regularly leading from the south driveway snow bank and disappearing under my front deck that had me completely stumped. 


The footprints were round, regularly spaced and with just the hint of toenails. Such an arrangement just did not match any of the prints from the usual  suspects’ either in my memory bank, nor my online searches. 

The fact that it had gone under my deck, three times over the long winter, made me suspect a feral cat, but now I’ll never know. 


And that is perversely satisfying. Such a winter should end with a bit of mystery, like a truly good book or movie. Lingering questions tickle at the edges of our mind in a way that solid facts simply cannot.


 The winter of 13-14 is, I have found, one that we seem to be at something of a loss to describe. I am calling it “relentless,” but others have equally memorable adjectives. Most can’t be uttered on air, but one stands out - “malevolent.” This from a young man working behind the counter at the Grand Marais Holiday store. “Malevolent,” he repeated, looking out over his cash register into the blue spring sky. But the sun and fluffy white clouds were lost on him. Snow was in the offing. He would not be fooled.


His words and affect reminded me of the old Anishanaubae legend of Weendigos, the cannibal spirits. These spirits, or Manitous, known to the Ojibway of our land, are brilliantly described by Basil Johnston in his book, "The Manitous: the Spiritual World of the Ojibway.”  He paints the portrait of the hideous being this way:

“These manitous came into being in winter and stalked villagers and beset wanderers. Ever hungry, they craved human flesh, which is the only substance that could sustain them. The irony is, that having eaten human flesh, the Weendigos grew in size, so their hunger and craving grew in proportion...; thus they were eternally starving.” 

Sounds a bit like those of us who crave carbs and more carbs as soon as the temperature plunges.


 But I especially love Johnston’s final line on the Weendigo: “They could kill only the foolish and the improvident.”

So! that rules out those of us who spend quality time under human grow lights, remember to stock up on sand and salt and/or wander about with backpacks stuffed with emergency supplies like space blankets, flares, chocolate, candles, and so forth.

But reading this, having done all of the above,I feel, neither wise nor provident for surviving the winter of 13-14. Just darned lucky. So far, at least. With nearly eight inches of new snow on the ground this morning, I can’t really claim victory yet.


My critters are also in good shape. The goats are about to get a haircut, their cashmere loosening to the plucking point. I find it on tree trunks where they’ve scratched places their horns can’t reach. I like to imagine such tufts lining bird nests. Welcoming the newly hatched creatures in luxury.


The chickens and ducks can finally go out through the little hatch leading from their coop to their big enclosed run. The ducks beat down the deep snow more and more each day, providing a solid surface for the finicky chickens who would otherwise wait inside until all was mud to venture forth. And having all that snow to eat, the birds don’t need my twice daily water bucket brigade. For that, I am way grateful.


The garage is a different matter. Thanks to sighting several foxes this week, I’ve yet to release the three African geese, four bantam roosters and three retired laying hens from their winter quarters in what has become a hay storage area. And it is, after nearly seven months of confinement, one hot mess in there. 


Back in the bunny room, however, though cobwebby and dusty, the scene is much tidier. My four angora rabbits, Auntie, Violet, Fiorella and ZuZu no longer huddle together in the thick straw on the floor like one enormous hairball. And the three black and white bantam chicks hatched last month don’t need mama chicken constantly now that its above freezing most days, so they race about the little shed room as if they had mini-rockets tied to their tail feathers. 


I spend as much as an hour a day just sitting in various locations watching the antics of these critters, sometimes scooping up a protesting hen or bunny to check out a perceived limp or just to snuggle. Better this than lying prone on my back under lights. And, to my mind, much better food for the soul.


Given the animals I have, these end of winter months are harvest time. The cold caused my goats and rabbits to grow their luxurious cashmere and angora. And warming triggers its release. The geese have begun laying too and I’ve blown and colored dozens of their enormous eggs for Easter.


Thinking of the bounty of the winter - be it relentless and even malevolent - and the use I’ll make of the wondrous fibers, the amazed expressions when a child gets a giant colored egg to keep for their very own, makes the cleanup chores so much more bearable.  And, then there is that new cover of snow. Presto, out of sight, out of mind, out of scooping. Is that a great deal or what?