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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.



What's On:

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?




Magnetic North: Mine. Not Mine

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, now into our second official week of spring (according to the calendar anyway). Yet, weather watchers tell us to expect even more snow, wind, sleet and...whatever.
But are we bitter? Heck no.  We who resist the urge to spend serious time away from the North Country in winter, celebrate the victories of April, however small and twisted. For instance:
*Catching sight of the long hidden dear earth on our driveways and roads, even as it morphs into tire sucking mud. Hey, mud pies y’all!
*Or offering comfort to returning snowbirds as they wander through the grocery store and Joynes muttering, “we thought IT would be over by now.”

*Or, shamelessly glorying over being one of the smarty pants who still has a stash or of sand and salt on hand.
It would be easy to be lulled into a false sense of victory, having thus far stayed the course with nary a broken pinky finger. For the fact is, it IS darkest AND more dangerous before the dawn.
Last week I bore witness to that. For the last two winters I have played hostess to a Great Gray Owl. It was a rare day when I could not find him atop a 60-foot spruce by the drive, or clinging to a poplar bough either by the goat corral or pond. So constant a presence was he in the meadow, I began referring to him as MY owl, knowing full well that he belonged to no one, least of all me.
As we have all heard, this winter killed many birds, and yet, my Great Gray thrived, not in spite of the weather, but because of it. Those fierce winds of early winter swept the meadow nearly clean of snow, making it possible for him hear his next hot meal skittering about only inches beneath the soft surface. Swooping down, talons outstretched, balancing on his wing tips as he seized his prize, the owl seldom got skunked. And I was vastly entertained by the handsome fellow’s strength and prowess. 
He usually ate the vole or mouse right there on the ground.  Then he basked in the sun awhile, and then gave his feathers a good shaking. At the end of this ritual, he often shot a stern look towards my house where Jethro, my big black retriever, barked and howled in outrage at what he perhaps thought was a flying dog.
Then, about a month ago, there was that brief warm spell and rain. Not a big rain, but just enough to harden the surface of the snow into a crust through which sound would be muffled at best. 
Now, I don’t know if the owl succumbed because he couldn’t hear his prey through the hardened snow. I can’t believe that he could not break through it. But one day, as Jethro set up a haroo at the window on the meadow, I saw the owl sitting beneath one of his favorite poplars, assuming an odd, motionless posture. Head bent, but not eating. Like he was studying something on the ground.. 
Somewhat alarmed, I banged on the window glass. And the bird raised his great round head, his amber eyes ringed with gray and white stripes like the planet Jupiter.  He looked my way, then turned his whole body in profile then just sat there as if to say, “Would you mind with the banging and barking?”
And so, drawing the curtains, I distracted the dog away with a bone and went downstairs to unload the clothes dryer. No more than a half an hour later I went upstairs to see if my owl had gotten a meal.
What I saw looked at first looked like little gray mice or voles running across the snow near where the owl had been sitting. Then I saw the two huge ravens on the ground and the storm of owl feathers that blew out around them. The predator had become the prey.  They must have been watching him as his strength ran out, which it must have while I wasn’t looking. I have heard loved ones will do something like that as death approaches, waiting until those closest leave the room or go to sleep, and only then to slip away. So it makes sense, at least to me, if he was truly MY owl, then I must have been HIS human,
“Mine. Not mine,” I kept telling myself that night, between tears and a call to a close friend who gets my attachments to critters. Long ago I found comfort in reminding myself that what I call mine can easily become not mine:  My dogs, my house, body, or at least parts of it. It’s all apparently on loan.
The very next day, more snow and more wind brought gratitude that MY owl had not had to starve any longer than he did. And it brought more. 
Out in the rabbit room, where my five angora bunnies cohabit with four bantam chickens, an unmistakable “cheep, cheep, cheep,” greeted me as I distributed the bunny bits and chicken scratch.
I looked accusingly at the one bantam rooster, a black Frizzle, Colin by name. Colin looks like his feathers are blown backwards. He oozed pride.

Over in a corner, behind a boat cushion and empty rabbit crate, a lovely little Buff Orpington hen sat with a teeny black beak protruding out from beneath one caramel colored wing.
After a few muttered curses mixed with cries of delight, I crafted a makeshift brooder out of a plastic tarp held down by two old silver teapots so as to conserve heat. Inside I put a heat lamp, small chick waterer and a pile of well pulverized feed. I must have done a fine job of it, because there are now three banty chicks and all are doing well. 
So far, I haven’t so much as picked one of the little buggers up, though. Still stung by loss, I care for them. But love them? Not yet.
Chances are just about 100% that someday I will, though. 
Just as someday it will stay above freezing. And someday butterflies and mosquitos and dragonflies will replace snowflakes in the air. And often, in the midst of all those somedays to come, tourists will rave about this every so gorgeous and ever so cool place we live and ask, brows furrowed “ but whatever do you do up here in winter?”
And I don’t know about you, but I am always tempted to reply, “You want the truth?”  And of course they’ll say “why not?” Then, doing my best to sound like Jack Nicolson in A Few Good Men, I’ll grin at them and say, “Because I don’t think you can handle the truth! Heh, heh, heh, heh.”



Magnetic North: The Silent Treatment

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 Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the great lake appears ready to wake up after giving us the silent treatment for weeks on end. Her surface is open in the distance now; a jagged necklace of blue ice shards adorns her shoreline. 
But still she rests in winter’s arms. Cooling just enough to maintain her thin coverlet of ice. Slumbering quietly, but not for long. Not for months. But for weeks. Such is our hope.
And so we watch, just as fascinated with the big lake as when she roars in autumn or wears her diamonds in July. We watch over her, our “Mother Superior,” like anxious, petulant children. Peevish as we bundle and shovel and overeat. Waiting for her, willing her to wake up. Wake up and entertain us.
If this sounds snarky or whiny, it’s really not. I love winter. The solitude. The black and white expanses. The trips down the driveway at midnight on my kick sled, spying northern lights. 
Winter frees me from the physicality of warm weather - the bugs, the sweaty chores, the riot of colors, the near-hysteria of days where the sun shines for as much as 17 hours and every second must be filled with activities, visitors, festivals, fishing, hiking, swimming… only broken by the hours spent trying to cross Highway 61 in a car anywhere but the traffic light at Broadway.
Winter, on the other hand, even relentless ones like this with the trifecta of wind, snow and subzero cold, is so very different. In winter, I feel centered. At peace. In the main, given short-lived rage over a frozen pipe, possessed door handles and constantly drifted- over pathways to the barn and chicken coop,
 A real estate agent once told me that winter has a way of sorting out the folks who come here “looking for themselves” from those who knew who they were when they got here,
When faced with six-plus months of me, myself and I silhouetted against a backdrop of black and white, a good number of modern day immigrants don’t like selves they find. Their bliss is somewhere. Just not here.
I was lucky, I guess. The person I found here was no stranger. She likes to sit on a bale of hay in a 20-below garage cuddling a gray and white goose. Or nurse a lame Blue Swedish duck, carrying her to the water bucket daily so that the other birds don’t trample her. 
She considers hours spent grooming an angora rabbit or teasing lush fibers off cashmere goats quality time.  Dark and cold are simply excuses for building huge fires in the hearth, sleeping in a double bed with two large retrievers and knitting gathered fibers into cozy slippers and mittens.
Why I prefer these things to city living harks back to the hunter-gatherers we once were. I got this insight from an interview with Barbara Kingsolver in the March issue of The Sun magazine. Kingsolver wrote “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” a description of the year her family ate only what they grew or bought from other farmers within a 100-mile radius of their West Virginia home.  A biologist as well as author of great fiction, poetry, and essays, she believes that our animal natures have run amok in today's world. 
She said that, with some exceptions, we females are hardwired to forage, the males to hunt. Today, she posits, these natural drives are “subverted” -her word, not mine - into shopping and sports. 
So that someone who once might have been the best forager in the village, with a root cellar to die for, now boasts a walk-in closet jam-packed with too many clothes and 300 pairs of shoes.
Small wonder I feel like a throwback. My closet is full of unspun cashmere and angora. And my shoes, all three pairs, are in a jumble with my mukluks by the back door. 
Like Kingsolver, I was lucky to land where I did. To find myself in a place I belonged before I even got here.
This past week brought a welcome thaw to the land around the big lake. Her slumber seems broken at last. The shards of ice pushed up against her shores break up and float away. Inland, the sound of dripping water from roof and gutter, a sound so long not heard that for a while it can’t be identified. And while spring is still a distant dream, the nearly 12 full hours of sunlight lights our imaginations as we lust after seed packets and ponder the latest Murray McMurray poultry catalog.
All the while listening for that rush of water. The streams tickling the big lake into wakefulness. Making her yawn and stretch. But not quite yet. Just another month more, she murmurs. Hits the snooze button. And sends a few more inches of snow. Just to keep the kiddies happy.

(Photo by David L. Grinstead. See more at WTIP's Photos from the Edge)




Magnetic North: Polar Bearing-up

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where Mother Nature showed her Mommy Dearest face to us through the holidays and beyond.
It came to be called the Polar Vortex. A bracing name for being held in the grip of incessant snowy days at temperatures well below zero. Bringing all the attendant woes along with it.
My little part of the world got off easy. At first.
The pre-Christmas snow dumped a skinny 18 inches on the farm. But since the wind blew for three days and nights, I shoveled and blew those 18 inches multiple times in order to carry grain, water and hay to my critters.
The path to the barn was the toughest.
Since the expanse of yard is wide open to the south, the direction of the lake effect snow and wind, the 300-foot-long path drifted over time and again. And although goats are one of the two domesticated creatures on earth who can go feral and survive nicely, thank you - the other being cats - I feel compelled to make that trek at least once daily with vittles for them.
Their hay is stored in one side of my two-car garage, right outside my back door. Last year it was stored in the barn, so when I sprained my ankle doing chores in February, I merely opened the door between the goat stable and hay storage area and told them: “You’re on your own!” A fine solution.
At first. Come summer, the once towering hay bales had been trampled to a thick floor, the barn loft and its contents invaded and strewn about.
But it wasn’t all bad.
I finally found the Fisher-Price castle and purple dragon my sweet husband had “put away” in the loft 10 years before the birth of my grandchildren - they are now 8 and 12. And the hay mat covering the barn floor gave the youth group from my church a dandy project last fall.
Then there was the Polar Vortex. I could be wrong, but it seemed as though we had snow for weeks, even during the plunge into the nether regions below zero. So much for “too cold to snow.”
And so much for Christmas day plans.
 A friend and I visited the Maple Hill cemetery that day with the intention of putting beautiful wreaths on our husbands’ resting places. (Why is it so icky to say the word “graves?”)
It was the first Christmas without them for both of us. So being with them in some way seemed quite fitting.
We brought snowshoes. Ladders would have really helped.
The one plowed road into the cemetery and past the little white Maple Hill Church over looking the harbor had 4-foot-high sides. Those walls of snow were hard-packed enough for me to wedge the toes of my snowshoes in and clamber up and over them. Only 10 or so feet to Paul’s grave marker. Ten or so feet in 23-oot-deep snow.
What was supposed to be a sweet story turned quickly into a contender for winner of World’s Funniest Videos.
Suffice it to say that I got my wreath on the metal rod sticking up over Paul’s plot.  And while doing it I had the very real sensation of far-off chuckling. What we do for love!
The week leading up to New Year’s Day found our county sinking farther and farther down into the minuses. Highs were laughably reported in minus double digits. Snowbirds cruelly telephoned to see if we were OK. Give me a break! We know why they called!
My troubles of 2014 began Jan. 1 when I turned into a new ‘ driveway to welcome them to the ‘hood with fresh-layed eggs and a stollen I’d baked. Into the ditch I went. Lucky for me they were home. And super nice. We got to know each other well as I waited for the tow truck. But by the time I pulled out of their driveway I’d already missed a New Year’s Day party so headed home to feed the critters.
That’s when I found I had no water.
No water. And four 5-gallon buckets to fill twice a day. Not to mention MY needs.
Ah, but all that snow, you say. My daughter in California told me that it was so lucky I had - by this time - several feet of snow I could harvest and melt for anything I needed.
I won’t repeat what I said to her. But fact is that a spaghetti pot full of snow melts down to just over an inch of water. And there is always “stuff” in that water.
Again, luck was on my side, though. The former owner of this place tapped an artesian spring, routed it into our lower level into a huge tile and blessed all future occupants with emergency water backup.
And so, in the 48 hours it took me to find the rogue pipe - the one to the outside spigot that SOMEONE had removed the pink fuzzy insulation from - I did just fine.
Until the sink drain plugged up.
Now city folks get snarly when a drain clogs. But up here, in winter, after a few cosmic ha-has and with a nifty grey-water line given to freezing, one goes right from irritated to panic.
At first.
Finding all other drains open and draining well, I grabbed the tools of my trade - drain opener poison and a 2-yard long plumber’s snake and went to work. The poison proved worthless, so to the snake.
And voila! With only a few easy twists in the drain, the snake opened the clog! I patted myself on the back and yodeled a victory cry.
Then I perceived a wet sensation around my slipped feet. Water, poison water, yet, was pooling on the floor.
Again, that chuckling somewhere around me came. And with it a reminder of what Paul always told me: “You’ll be fine. You can fix anything.”
Well, I tried. I got all the parts, spend lots of quality time on my back upside down, head in a place where garbage and other creepy stuff dwells - Josh Grobin in the background helped - to no avail. At last, I did what my mother always told me: “Get someone who knows what they’re doing!”
Meanwhile, the snow continued. The path to the barn drifted and, eventually, the drifts sucked the power going to the electric fence right into their greedy depths.
The goats, all five, stood OUTSIDE the fence looking over the drifts at me. I stood at the back deck, new bale of hay on the sled. And I did the only sane thing. I bleated at them. “Come and get it!”
Shocked, they looked at each other and didn’t move.
“Come to me...” I bleated....”Or else!”
And so they did. Their path was serpentine, not straight. But then, they’re goats. And for over a week now, even though snowing every day has ceased and the daytime highs are actually in the positive double digits, I continue to put the hay by the woodshed just a few feet from the back door and the goats come to me.
Why didn’t I think of this decades ago?
The real proof that our deep freeze has abated came in the way folks would say hello and goodbye then and now. “How ya doing” and “Have a good one” became “Man, this is really somethin’ isn’t it?“ and “Stay warm.”
And the snowbirds don’t call to gloat, I mean, commiserate, so often.
In all, there is a sort of smugness that descends on us after nature gives us a going over and we are still standing, water running, drains draining, critters surviving. A hilarity at a sunny day showing up all the dust and dog hair. A catch in the throat at the Day-Glo peach and rose sunset over the harbor.
We have been in the whirlpool, the vortex, the roller coaster on its way down thrall and thrill of winter. And don’t we just love it?


Magnetic North: All hail the Wooly Bear

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where my faith in the wooly bear caterpillar has turned to rock solid belief.
Some months back I found a solid black wooly bear caterpillar on the chicken coop steps.  Reporting this stunning news in my radio commentary brought the usual comments -all denying that caterpillar colors do not a winter foretell. Well, you scoffers, let’s have a little respect for the little guy now!
Remember that bone-splitting cold snap last month, huh? And now? Now, as we are caught with our mukluks still in mothballs? Mother Nature dumped an inch of snow an hour on us in some spots along the shore. My personal best  - drift-wise - was only 18 inches. But that was before my snow plower pushed close to 3 feet of compacted snow up against both garage doors. Love the clean driveway. Just wish I could get the car out. Hint. Hint.
But am I bitter? Heavens no.
I love snow and cold. It’s just that being of a certain age, I am fed up with those downer warnings on the radio about how I should conduct myself when faced with 2 feet of snow and 5-degree weather. You know the drill:
Cold air in one’s lungs mixed with excess muscle exertion is the prime cause of heart failure among middle-aged and older adults.
Translation: Geezers, save your breath to cool your soup and get some nice neighbor kid to wield that shovel.
Well, my chickens and ducks and goats and geese need food and water and reassurances that, all evidence to the contrary, death is not imminent. Not for them. Not for this kid.
I do love winter, though. Everything looks so fresh. Clean-sheet fresh and new. The evergreen trees seem to march forward out of the forest, standing guard over their bare naked brethren until their leaves come back from the dry cleaners or wherever they’ve gone.
My mallard ducks, the ones who choose to stay the winter once the pond freezes, are true winter warriors. The small flock of nine - six drakes and three females - move around the house, choosing the least windy locale, preferably close to the heated water trough and the round blue plastic kiddy sled mounded high with chicken scratch.
One drake is a holdover from two summers back, an outcast really. He wintered in the chicken coop where he was fed well and kept warm but his plumage got dull and frowsy.
No wonder the wild birds chased him off last spring. And even though, living outside on the pond, he got just as handsome as the other drakes, still they kept him at a distance.  Night after night, throughout the summer and fall he parked himself outside the coop, not wanting in, but not welcome with the wild flock wherever they got to. Then the cold and snow came.
Being a compulsive fixer, especially of critters, whether they need fixing or not, I tried for three cold nights to catch him. In the process, I named him Marty, after the old movie starring Ernest Borgnine, about a homely guy who pines for love and spends his life pretty much alone.
Well, Marty proved mighty sprightly, even taking to the air at times to avoid my clumsy grasping. Eventually, after landing face-first in a pile of snow, I gave Marty a piece of my so-called mind and gave up the effort.
Then lo, one starry night, Marty was not alone.
The smallest female mallard in the wild bunch sat next to him in the snow by the steps of the coop. He gave me that sideways, “Yo! Wassup?!” duck look as I shone the flashlight beam at him and his sweetie. She averted her eyes shyly and snuggled a titch closer to her new best friend. They’ve been an item now for a good week. Right through the blizzard.
Although in the worst of it, they took to shacking up on the deck between the house and garage. In the way of all outcasts, old Marty has grown some serious survival chops. And it looks like at least one of the wild bunch appreciates that. Plus, his plumage does fairly glow after his summer in the sun.
Time compresses in these deep winter depths. Time to really notice the critters, let alone water and feed them. I’ve hardly finished the morning chores before tuck-in time looms. Just when I have less time, everything takes more of it.
Water buckets stand in the back hall thawing. They never completely do, so a mound of ugly ice blocks is forming by the wood shed. And, instead of a simple push of a door or gate. I need a shovel most days to get into the goat corral and coop.
And even though I do love the long nights inside, after the two dogs have their last run, I put them in and wander into the dark again. If it’s a clear night, I’ll take the kick sled and do a few loops down the driveway or around the snowblown paths. Most times, I end up in the side of the garage where my three geese and retired chickens are housed in luxury amidst dozens of bales of sweet-smelling new hay.
Sitting on an old lawn chair, I wait for the geese come over, taking little nibbles on my shoelaces and at last allowing me to pick them up, one at a time, to be warmed and fussed over. Oh, they protest, but in less than a minute, a long gray neck lays languidly over one of my shoulders and one of them settles on my lap.
Imagine a goose down pillow that makes soft murmuring sounds - call me crazy, but I feel like one of the blessed of this life to be allowed this delight. I forget the shoveling, the wall of snow blocking my car, the doomsayers on the radio. And I bless the all-black wooly bear for giving us such a wonderful early Christmas gift.

Ducklings - photo by Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North: Bird brains and other family members

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where I’m in a spot of bother with ducks…my ducks, primarily. Although, with the sheer number of mallards that show up for breakfast, lunch and dinner on my driveway, I’d never know if a migrating stray dropped in for a square meal.
It started small. As do all hot messes.

Last winter found my duck population quite pitiful; only two laying ducks, four domestic drakes, three wild drake mallards and one lone female mallard.
Oh, and then there is the faux domestic drake, a mallard who weaseled his way into the chicken and duck run. The cozy coop with its six inches of sweet warm straw was his reward for leaving the wild. But his punishment was harsh.
The domestics wanted nothing to do with him. Shunned by the females, pummeled by the drakes, his feathers soon lost their brilliant color and sheen, A clear case of “mallard-adaption.” Sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one.
So when most Cook County folk were poring over seed catalogs, I was up to my dewlaps in hatchery offerings. I ended up ordering three female domestic ducks and 10 female mallards. 
Not that I have anything against males, but when drakes outnumber the females by three or more, it’s not a pretty sight. The one wild female that overwintered with her three consorts put up with all sorts of abuse last spring. So much that I finally lost it one fine day after what seemed like hours of duck porn viewing out my kitchen window, I ran into the back yard wielding a broom and shrieking for all the neighbors to hear, “Fly, you hussy, fly. I know you can, I’ve seen you do it!”
Well, the duck’s endurance paid off for her. In late May she hatched out 11 ducklings. Nesting under the back steps, out of view for weeks, I had given her up for lost when lo she paraded the lot up over the deck and out into the sunny gravel drive.
By that time, my hatchery ducklings were in a brooder inside the garage. Oh, dear. Eleven plus 10, plus mom and the two domestic girls....An even two dozen ducks!?
“Well,” I reassured myself and friends, “most of them will fly off in the fall.” 
Sadly, two of the wild ducklings were taken by a hawk. And one of the ordered mallards failed to thrive. Then, the two adult domestics got picked off by something. Nature appeared to be cutting me a break. But no.
On July 30, mother mallard appeared with nine more ducklings in tow. So cute, so adorable. So hungry!
Just about then the new ducks from the hatchery were ready to release on the pond. I bundled them into three cat carriers and carried them down, knowing that once they got on the water and away from the featherless monster who so rudely grabbed, squeezed and imprisoned them, I might never see my little charges up close again.
That night, I tippy-toed to the pond’s edge to check on them.
Only the wild ducklings and the spring porn stars swan in the moonlight, Crushed, I went about my evening chores, closing up barn and coop and, surprise, surprise! The newly released youngsters were waddling about in the wildflowers by the chicken run waiting to be let back into the coop. 
Amazed, I shone the flashlight on each beak, counting one, two three...11?!

Aha! My old nemesis, the wild drake who would not live wild, had rounded up the newbies and convinced them that the good life lay - not in freedom - but in the sure thing of the well-heated chicken coop,
But did I open the door to the run? Did I go all soft and mushy at the return of the little darlings? I did not.
Hardening my heart, I left them there in the dark. Oh, I did put a little feed out and a motion sensor light so as to startle any passing predator. But I had the new babes to think about, didn’t I?
Mother mallard didn’t do as well with her second brood. Only four of the nine made it to adulthood. But those, added to all the others, gobble up more than three pounds of scratch feed a day, more if they can skinny into the garage and hit the tray of food set out for my retired hens.
“All you have to do is stop feeding them and they’ll leave,” more than one acquaintance has told me.

Tell that to any parent of a kid who no longer looks anything like a baby, nor eats like one. Easier said than done.
My fervent hope is that when the pond freezes, most of the mallard will, indeed fly away. The hussy and the mallard-adaptive drake will probably stay, leaving me with a manageable number of females in the coop, laying eggs that turn ordinary baked goods into tender fluff. Duck eggs do that, y’know.
At least, that is what I expect. Not plan. I know better than that. Anne Lamott, who wrote “Bird by Bird,” once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans,” Amen to that, sister! I only expect. And I keep those expectations way, way low.

For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North. 


Magnetic North: Wooly Bears and Laying in the Winter Reading

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Welcome back to Magnetic North where the flannel sheets are ready for use - on both my bed and the tomato plants. For despite the record-breaking heat of late - 97 degrees at the State Fair on Aug. 25 - we are not fooled. It is folly not to plan for frost in the waning days of August…even if it is 90 degrees in the shade at the farm.
Truth be told, a fierce winter is in our future. The predictions for it are piling up like zucchini in the fridge. And I’m not just talking Farmer’s Almanac here. Heck no. Yesterday I found a nearly solid black wooly bear caterpillar on the chicken coop stoop. Only a few tufts of brown fuzz on the creature. And, as we know, the wider the brown band on the wooly bear, the milder the winter. A skinny band means a nasty winter. And no band at all.....well, you get the picture. And it’s white and windy.
But I’m ready. My woodpile is neatly stacked for and I’m in the process of laying in a generous store of books. Stacking them like logs on the hearth, on top of the chest freezer and virtually on any other available space, including the bathroom and back seat of my car. They say that burning wood warms you twice: Once while splitting and stacking it, next while basking in its cozy heat. Well, laying in the winter reading does much the same thing. Only different.
In culling our lifetime collection of good reads, I’ve sweated biscuits. And not just because of the temperature.  Letting go of half of my wildflower guides and cookbooks was agony. Each seemed to call out to be kept. And the ones I’d hardly looked at fairly shrieked, “Philistine! You’ll be sorry you gave me up!”
But Paul always said that when you haven’t touched a thing for three whole years, it is time to give it up. Of course, that only applied to MY things, not his. Thus, the ice fishing spear and tackle boxes filled with ancient gee-gaws and gimcracks untouched for a quarter century remain in the hunt room. When I would remind him of that, he would counter with, “Some things are just nice to have,” or “I’m saving those for the grandkids.”
Beyond a few things, though, Paul was no hoarder. But I have felt like one by hanging onto many of our books. Only a few were bad choices to begin with – “Sewing for House Chickens” comes to mind instantly - so the ones I intend parting with are not only valuable but are not embarrassing to put up for sale. 
The historical books written by David McCullough, and Bill Moyers on theology for example: Brilliant and compelling reads, yet I doubt that I’ll want to dive back into them as I do with any of the T.S. Eliot books I’ve stacked to reread this winter. Then there are my cookbooks. Sadly, I have succumbed to the lazy cook’s resource, Google, when wondering what to do with my bounty of fresh veggies. Sentiment alone counts in choosing the keepers.
And so, while I will keep my duct-taped Betty Crocker’s ode to Jello and canned condensed soup, dear old chop-until-you-drop Dean Ornish will go. I can find potfuls of healthy recipes online, but the soup-stained pages of Betty’s book abound with memories. 
So too the Norwegian Christmas recipes booklet, from which I made Paul’s favorite, Risengrot, or rice porridge. A simple dish that requires only several hours of stirring off and on to produce a fragrant concoction to spoon into bowls, sprinkled generously with sugar and cinnamon, then topped with a pat of butter and a dash of heavy cream. Norwegian custom had it that whosoever got an almond in their bowl would have their wish granted. Being British and not given to chance, I made sure that both Paul and I had an almond with each and every bowl. My wish was always for the caloric content of the dish to be cut in half.
My current favorite cookbook is The Pie Place cookbook. And NO, not just because Paul and I are in it! I am working my way through making a recipe a week. They are all so good and easy to do. I’ll admit that we did spend so many good times at the old and new restaurant that the Pie Place family has a special place in my heart. It was always where Paul wanted to go. Unless of course he was hankering for a Blue Water strawberry malt and grilled cheese sandwich, which he persistently called “girl cheese.”  His old childhood buddy Supe (for Superman) Lundsten called it that, he always reminded me. And by saying that, Paul usually started spinning one of his famous yarns about growing up in Excelsior on the shores of Lake Minnetonka and all of the kids and situations he encountered.
Food, recipes, stained and torn cookbook pages... all of these conjure up times past, people loved and places in the heart. Even the way people eat their food feeds memory: For me, the first bite into corn on the cob brings a clear picture of my missionary aunt Nellie on summer visits to our cottage in Ocean City, New Jersey when I was little. Nellie could talk a blue streak even as she stripped the corn off the cob, which traversed her mouth like a typewriter roll as she carried on about her latest shell treasures found at the beach. As for watermelon, it calls to mind Nellie’s tobacco-chewing husband, Clayton, as rough as she was polished, who could send one shiny black melon seed from his lips, up and over our porch railing, clearing the lawn and sidewalk and landing in the street. Mother was always terrified he’d land one in a passing car. And I always prayed he would.
Foods that feed memory satisfy more than mere hunger. They fill me with gratitude. Make me laugh, even.  And best of all, they’re calorie free.
But back to the coming winter and my wooly bear sighting. So taken aback was I when examining the little blackguard, that I decided to find out just how accurate predictions based on his fuzz color were.
And I am sorry to say, they seem to be - if not bang-on, pretty darned good.
Back in the 1950s  one C.H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History, tested and confirmed - sort of - that the little larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth has an 80 percent accuracy in predicting the severity of winter. And so I am thinking that I had better put in a call for yet more maple and birch logs. Beyond that, perhaps it would be prudent to add to my stack of books as I cull: Say, cull two, buy one new? 
I’ll stock up on rice too. Ditto butter and cinnamon and almonds. After all, one can’t be too cautious in this part of the world. For as a very wise young man told my visiting grandson this summer, “The wilderness can be harsh, dude.”

(Photo by Tony Fischer Photography via Flikr)


Magnetic North: The rest of my life

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the summer solstice is over and days get shorter as I speak.
My husband, Paul, loved to share that bit of Norwegian gloom.  For even as we glory in the flower,  he would remind me, the darkness gathers.  Is it any wonder the Scandinavian folk get teased about their stoic, yet clearly long-suffering demeanor?  I think not!
Light matters. Too much or too little makes all the difference, especially in these Northern climes. A friend of mine recently joked - bitterly, I might add - that there are so many folks of Scandinavian heritage in this county that we really ought to put Prozac in the water.
Today- in fact, most days of late - I find myself on the pebble beach just off the road leading to my farm. I look for certain stones. Black smooth ones. The blacker the better. About the size of a quarter. Just to rub between my fingers. No deeper reason other than I like the feel of them. And I like to see them on my dining room table, surrounding a pitcher of yellow wild mustard and blue forget-me-nots. 
Also, I seek out oddly colored or stained stones. Any size at all. If my eyes light on one - maybe it looks like the planet Jupiter, or has a bit of quartz stuck in it - I seize it. Or perhaps I’ll find ones that look like the head or the body of a duck. These I admit to collecting. 
It’s an odd obsession.  One of the first women I met after moving here from the city got me started. She had a procession of rock ducks on the railing of her little cottage in town. She said she loved finding just the perfect head to a triangular duck-shaped body. Sometimes the ducks were all one color and variety of stone. Often, I think because she was an artist, the colors were mixed. I liked her so much I copied her creations.
Now, I too have flocks of the flightless creatures in my life. Some lurk among the fireplace tools on the hearth. Others cluster around the feet of a twig trellis on the deck. The bigger ones serve as Christmas stocking holders on my mantle. Each is chosen simply because light drew my eye to them. Light made their shapes visible. Showed me what each might be, if only I would stoop and pick them up.
Light is critical when searching out the perfect pebble or rock duck.  I like late afternoon light, when the sun is low in the west. That way, as I walk eastward, black stones can’t hide. Turn west into the sun and they somehow fade and merge into the clutter. Even duck heads and bodies show up most vividly at that time of day. 
Of course, on a cloudy day, or midmorning, I go to the beach simply to be there, which is really not all that simple. After 23 years of visiting that beach, the undertow of memory sweeps me back, back, back. 
Back to that day in August of 1990 when Paul and I first set foot on that beach. Back to the next fourteen summers when our twin Labs, Ollie and Jubilee did their double-dog retrieve, swimming side by side with one piece of driftwood between them, paddling madly in an effort to make the other one let go of the prize. And back to when Gretchen, my only child, and her one-day husband, Les, had their farewell picnic and campfire the night before leaving for Los Angeles. Such seductive tugs at my mind and heart. So easy to drift away from today. If I let it.

Last weekend was Paul’s memorial service; over a dozen years living with the diagnosis of dementia over at last.  Most of those years were just fine. Only a few were something else. Something as so absorbing, so precious as they were dreadful, that all else simply disappeared. Like the light of summer stolen even as we swim and fish and plant tomatoes caring not weather they ripen or not.
And so,during these last years my collection of rock ducks and smooth black pebbles grew not at all.  It’s not that stopping at the beach was such a big deal; it wasn’t.  I simply didn’t  do it, not because I forgot it - I resisted it. 
C.S. Lewis once said that to him, the only sin in this world is the refusal to feel joy. I believe that. Time after time as I approached the turnoff to my road, I consciously resisted the urge to pull over at the beach. Paul would have happily waited while I rock picked. The light was often perfect,  but for whatever reason, I refused each and every opportunity given. 
And yet, now, every day since Paul’s memorial service - a grand event he would have loved - every day when I approach the turnoff to my road, I do stop at the beach. Even if the light isn’t perfect, I stop. 
Not to wallow in memory, or to plan the rest of my life - although I’ll admit to doing that at other times. I go there as I used to go there, just to be. To stoop over again and again. To pick up those warm, black perfectly smooth pebbles. To rub each between my fingers, for the sheer pleasure of it. And even to let my eye light on the perfect duck head and body.  And sometimes I remember my Norwegian sweetheart’s doleful prediction; the light is disappearing every second from now until December 21. And I know that come the first big snow, the pebbles will vanish from sight. Safe from my greedy fingers.
But for now, I make that stop - every single chance I get. 


(Photo via  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)