Listen Now
Pledge Now


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 hail the Wooly Bear

Finalcut_MagNorth_20131207.mp36.44 MB

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

Finalcut_MagNorth_20131011.mp35.74 MB

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

Magnetic_North_finalcut_20130904.mp36.79 MB

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

Magnetic_North_20130702_finalcut.mp39.66 MB
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.)


Magnetic North: Playing With Fire

Finalcut_Mag North_20130122.mp37.77 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where just a hint of wood smoke flavors the air. Air so delicious that I don’t so much breathe it as gulp it down. Icy. Sweet. Winter air infused with maple or birch smoke is one of the joys of living here year ‘round. And so much more. The scent of smoke in the chilly air signals that all is well. It says that somewhere near enough to sniff, to find, to share, there is warmth. Even at minus 20 with a windchill of 50 below. 
It’s a survival thing, something that the poetry of Robert W. Service awakened in my 12-year-old soul. Service’s “Spell of the Yukon,” published in 1907, a collection of his most popular ballads about the characters and critters caught up in the Canadian gold rush, came into my suburban Philadelphia home as a gift to my father. But I was its true beneficiary. I daydreamed my way through soul-sucking junior high subjects, conjuring up the Lady known as Lou and, though I’d never heard even a dog howl, the song of the “huskies gathered round in a ring” carried me away from the torture chamber that was algebra, taught by Mr. Miller-who-flunked-his-own-daughter.
My most beloved poem in that collection was “Cremation of Sam McGee.” Which begins this way:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
It gets worse. 
You see, Sam, being from Tennessee, hated cold weather. He knew he was dying and asked his prospector partner to cremate his corpse. Of course the fellow says OK, a clear case of not thinking things through. So with no access to timber, the partner ends up lashing Sam’s frozen body to the sled and carting it  around for heaven knows how long until he finds an old barge on the shore of, uh huh, Lake Lebarge. The barge furnace is big enough to stuff Sam in and the rest is historic macabre humor.
It goes like this:
Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."
I recited the whole thing for my junior high talent show and I think doing that - instead of belting out Honey Bun from South Pacific - changed my life. The boys in my class no longer ignored me. They practically ran the other way when they saw me in the hallway. Except for Michael Landis; he invited me to come over to his house to cremate his brother’s hamster. 
No one seemed to get it, the whole fire and ice thing…how you could love both, especially together, with wolves nipping at your heels and mountains of gold beyond every horizon? But I saw myself in that vision and kept it alive for the next 30 years when finally I moved to the North Shore of Lake Superior. Wolves, subzero winters and, according to recent mineral exploration reports, possibly even precious metals are us.
And as for playing with fire, I have a wood burning furnace, a Franklin stove, two fireplaces, more oil lamps than anyone needs, and - most sacred of all - a 10 by 12 woodshed. I can spend an entire day gathering kindling or chopping kindling and nobody thinks a thing of it. In fact, since I don’t fell my own trees, I am probably considered a bit of a wuss.
All the good trees on my 80 acres were logged long ago. Just aspen and new growth evergreens grow there now. So surrounded by woods, I need to bring in food for my furnace. Starting just about now, before this winter’s woodpile is half-burnt, I start scoping out next winter’s stash. Will I need a full logger’s cord again? Should I try for more maple? It burns so much longer than birch. And should I order right away? Last season I nearly ran out. And so forth. When I decide, I go through the list of wood sellers and order a full cord - that’s 128 cubic feet - for delivery in June. 
I hire a neighbor teenager to stack the wood, then eagerly wait for the warm weather to go away so I can burn my first 10 sticks. That’s how many split logs I can fit on my old blue plastic kiddy sled. This winter, thanks to lack of snow, pulling that load from the woodshed to the back door has been a hassle. My reward is the satisfying crash as the avalanche of logs careen down the steps to the back door.
I carry in the logs with purpose, according to which will be split and fed to the fire first. These I line up on the red tiles of the furnace room. Then comes the laying of the fire, a task requiring discipline and focus, Tough stuff when twisting at least 10 pages of newsprint, just enough birch bark on hand to cradle four to six lengths of kindling and luck. It’s a fingernails-on-the-blackboard task as it is accompanied by soot, knotty logs that resist reduction and the occasional cross wolf spider rudely wakened from under a bit of bark. 
But all that pales when I lay the perfect fire. One that burns true and fast, reducing several big logs and burning them down to neon red-gold embers. And as I perch in front of the open furnace door, basking in the glow, I search in vain for  the outline of old Sam McGee, reanimated by fire, begging his friend - begging me- to not let in the cold. To “close that door.” And, reluctantly, oh so reluctantly, I do.

Airdate: January 22, 2013

Nellie - the Bourbon Red turkey (photo by Carah Thomas)

Magnetic North: Old memories and new beginnings

WEN_20121115_Finalcut.mp35.48 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the blustery winds of winter stir old memories. So very, very many memories of getting the farm ready for winter and the holidays - they warm my heart, if not my fingers and toes!
This time of year Paul and I usually get our woodpile restocked and stacked. AND we haul half a dozen bales of golden dry straw to the goat barn and another two to the chicken coop. We overdo it, spreading the stuff in all corners and mounding it about two feet deep - so it’s really the human equivalent of dressing the bed with flannels and comforters.
For the past three years, Paul hasn’t been able to help. In March of ‘09 he broke his hip in a nasty late March ice and snowstorm while carrying water to the chicken coop! As terrible as that was, Paul’s health was already compromised. Five years before the broken hip, doctors at the Mayo Clinic said Paul had “mild cognitive impairment.” Simply put, his brain was getting smaller.
Well, so big deal, I thought, what 79-year-old guy doesn’t have have a cog or two impaired? And for a few years more, until the broken hip and three operations, Paul carried on much as always. True, in the summer of ‘08, I became the sole driver in the family. And then there were some errors in judgment - putting hot embers from the fireplace into a paper grocery bag stands out - that no old boy scout would ever make. Eventually our denial caved. Our life was getting smaller too. 
With the relentless shrinkage of his brain went Paul's marvelous talent for thinking through a project, like putting a new deck on the chicken coop or building a bird feeder. Then away went his ability to dress himself, or write his name or read.  But never, ever his sense of humor… handy thing when living with me. Not to mention a horde of accident-prone critters. 
And every single day, come snow, fog, wind or what have you, Paul would look out the windows and marvel that we could ever have found such a magical place. I couldn't imagine his ever leaving here. And I knew I would do anything to keep him where he loved being. 
And then one day Paul looked out the window and shocked me by asking “When can we go home?” It was one of the cruelest moments for me, to know that he had lost his sense of place. A place he cherished. About that time there were other frightening changes. His mind told him to walk when he couldn’t. Or to get out of bed to leave the house in the middle of the night. 
It was time. On Sept. 19 Paul moved to the Veterans Home in Silver Bay. The hardest day of my life. And probably his too.
As I write this, I am looking out the window facing the barn. A ridiculous and yet beautiful female turkey is staring in the window at me, willing me to get off my duff and feed her. The grass holds on to just a tinge of green following the morning frost and the goats wander in slow motion around and around the corral. Going into their winter trance where all that matters is the morning hay. The evening grain. And someone to keep their straw deep and sweet.
Soon I will get in the car and drive for an hour to see Paul at the Veterans Home. But first, he and I will do chores. 
Yes, I said “we.”  ‘Cause when you do something seasonally for 20-some years with another person, they are there, in spirit, from then on. For instance, in the barn yesterday, I could almost hear Paul chastising me for forgetting to bring the chore scissors needed to cut the binding twine off the straw bales. And in the coop, I imagined he’d take one look at the oldest nest box hanging by a splinter and say, “Why don’t you pop for a new box, one of those metal jobs, and just burn that piece of garbage?”
Believe me, the giggles are few and far between in these first months without Paul in the house. After living with and loving him for 25 years, with the last five being with him pretty much 24/7, I am in a bit of a daze. A daze broken often with tears over the smallest thing. Besides that, now that I am caregiver to only a motley crew of critters, I hardly know what to do with myself. When to eat. When to get up or go to bed. 
I found that as that as Paul’s impairment increased, my own mental and physical health declined. And even though I have probably never prayed so often and so fervently in my life, spiritually I was in rough shape as well.
In the beginning I tried hiring help, respite people to spend a few hours with Paul one day a week. But frankly, it was so expensive that I felt unable to do anything on my free day that required spending money. That’s when Care Partners came into my life by way of a friend who had just trained as one of their first volunteers. 
What this great local organization did for me was provide a volunteer, free of charge, to stay with Paul so I could have an afternoon off. Also free, came a registered nurse visit monthly. My "caregiver coach," she called herself. And what a great coach she was and still is.  Because when I began thinking of the next step of Paul’s and my journey together, she was there to help me think things through. Tough things made tougher by raw emotions and fatigue.
I know that had I kept Paul at home, which was always my goal, Care Partners would have helped and supported me 100 percent in that. And when I came to the conclusion that moving him was best for him and me, they were there too. They still are and will be the whole way. What a priceless gift.
And while I will never be able to repay them, I came up with a scheme to give back. Some smidgen back. It’s something that actually started many years ago with Paul’s decision to let the east end of our meadow grow up in spruce trees. It was so rocky hardly any hay grew there, but now there is a large and handsome stand of Christmas trees, within shouting distance of our house.
And so for the next three Sundays I will host a Christmas tree cutting benefit at Paul’s and my farm. Kids are welcome. Dogs have to stay in the vehicle since the goats and geese will be loose. All that is asked is a donation to Care Partners in exchange for a tree. Details are on the WTIP website, in the paper and on the Boreal calendar. 
Paul was so happy when I told him about it this week. Nothing gave him more joy than sharing our place with friends, old and new. And since the tree stand was his idea to begin with I know he will be there in spirit.  Just as he is when I do chores, chop kindling or watch the mallard flock set down on our pond. 
For this place holds on to to those who love it. It hugs us close and warms us for years to come. Come see for yourselves. Come and cut a tree on Sunday. Cider and cookies and memories, are free.


Magnetic North: Shore lunch observed

Welcome back to Magnetic North, a veritable smorgasbord for the birds and beasts of the field. At least the ones who hang out along the ribbon of highway hugging Lake Superior. 
Highway 61 is definitely the critter equivalent of those ubiquitous Mid-western all-you-can eat restaurants, only without the chocolate pudding plunked in the middle of the salad bar.
And oddly enough to my thinking, this particular road gets really bountiful right now, close to our human Thanksgiving. 
Fact is, that even though white-tailed deer get hit by cars and blown to smithereens by semis the year ‘round, rutting season seems to bring out the death wish in the herd. 
Even so, in 22 years of driving up here, I have hit only one deer, and then she simply kicked a dent in my bumper and ran off. Other than that I have killed only one partridge on the highway. This may well be my year for deer, though. For I find myself on 61 for hours at a time, several days and nights a week, visiting my husband, Paul, at the Veterans Home in Silver Bay. And believe me when I tell you that on the way to and from, I encounter many, MANY deer.
Some bound into my headlights. Some betray their presence in the ditch by the reflection of my headlights in their eyes. And others just stand in the road, deciding whether or not to die. This last bunch is the worst. Often, the animal looks at my approaching car and appears to run off the road. I say “appears” because usually, the dummy changes her mind - thinking perhaps, “Nah, winter is SO not fun!” -  and runs back into my path.
Having had this happen once too often, the second that I spot a deer, whether in the ditch or the blacktop, I start honking like a New York cabbie. It’s worked…so far, at least. 
Never content to spare only myself, if I do have a near miss, I then flick my headlights at oncoming vehicles. Someone once told me that flicking headlights on and off repeatedly is a well-known sign to others that deer are ahead. Sadly, a number of oncoming drivers misinterpret my flashing lights. These often give me yet another well-known sign, the hand and finger kind. Ah well, no good deed goes unpunished....
However, when all fails and deer does meet vehicle on 61, the end result is not only death and increased auto insurance rates.  For scavengers, it is answered prayer.
Last week, I passed such a roadkill/banquet in progress just as I pulled onto 61 from my road. A majestic bald eagle presided over the banquet of ribs, innards and all the trimmings. He appeared to be the reluctant host to a flock of shiny black ravens.
These were gyrating about, tearing off tidbits, flapping their wings with joy and generally having one whale of a time. The food fight in Animal House comes to mind.
The eagle, on the other hand, held himself erect, as if offended, if not slightly sickened, by the very presence of the ravens, let alone their boorish antics.
And why should he not be? Sharing the deer with a bunch of pipqsueaks was enough to spoil the great bird’s day. But all the unnecessary folderal? Really? 
It looked me like the human equivalent of being invited to a friend’s home for Thanksgiving and finding oneself at the children’s table. The very young and tired and cranky children’s table!
A more congenial scene greeted me on the narrow band of 61 in Tofte. Most of this stretch is nearly without any shoulder at all. So the smashed-up deer carcass resting on the lakeside edge of pavement could only be enjoyed by revelers if they sat partially in the ditch, facing the passing vehicles. This afforded a view of their heads. Which lined up like this: raven, raven, raven, fox, raven, raven, raven.
The birds were nearly as jumpy as the ones I saw earlier, but the fox had the happy look of one who’d just made it into the popular clique. It was one of those scenes that made me desperate to take a picture. But I will always remember exactly how it looked in my mind’s eye.
I must say that as much as I love seeing the nature turning death into life again, the reality of it all dampens my envy of the beasts; a state of mind that afflicts me always. Imagine how wonderful it would be to fly off the ground and hover weightless on updrafts of air. Or to run and jump like a deer. Or just curl up like a fox, warm as toast in my gorgeous coat, my bushy tail curled around my nose.
But then, I see the bunch of them eating. Eating cold, stringy meat. Studded with hair and gravel. My behind in a ditch, cars whizzing by. And the whole romantic image dies, another victim of reality.
And so, I’ll have to content myself with the human equivalent of the critters’ shore lunch. The unexpected gesture of having my meal tab picked up by a friend. The holiday invite. Or the wild raspberries hanging warm and juicy on bushes in my woods, just for me and me alone. Not a bad life. Not really, even without wings... or a fabulous bushy tail.

Airdate: November 8, 2012


Magnetic North: Migration Station

FinalCut_MagNorth_20121022.mp35.96 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, migration central for the past month. Despite the hard freeze, gaggles of Canada geese devoured our lawn. Day after day. Frost after frost. Chowing down on the grass, still green and juicy under their blanket of fallen gold aspen leaves. And frustrating my two young domestic geese, Sophie and Olivia, by taking flight at dusk. 
The wild geese were in no hurry to migrate south. Not just yet. Every day at dusk they soared high above the earth, circling the meadow and landing, loudly with trademark honks on our little pond. There to float, sleep and dream the snowbirds dream of summer.
Sophie and Olivia, my new three-month old geese, watched all this with the fascination of all youngsters. They are African geese. In my opinion, the prettiest domestic geese I’ve ever seen. Predominantly gray, with brilliant white breasts, soft honey colored beaks and feet, with black toenails and eyeliner. Their wings, when spread are easily three-feet across. 
But that is just how they look. How they feel, a soft beyond soft, is their greatest feature in my book.
However, until the Canada geese showed up, Sophie and Olilvia didn’t know they were geese. How could they? Since arriving in their bread box-size bassinet in August, the two have seen only me and my yellow Lab, Zoe, plus our cat, chickens and an occasional two-legged and featherless human visitor.
And so, barring a mirror or a true biological mother, the two goslings assumed they were one of us. 
Paddling on their flattened clown feet next to me and Zoe, Sophie and Olivia make their appointed rounds. 
To the mailbox. 
To the goat corral. 
To the chicken and duck coop. 
And on occasion, when the new storm door sticks open a mite too long, even into our living room. This last destination is their favorite, because it always results in our old brown tabby cat, Basket, attempting to scale the walls and perch atop the ceiling fan. A sensible move for a cat faced with a bird three times its size.
But their inner goose emerged when first the goslings saw those handsome black and white honkers. Watched them rise like super sonic jets off the lawn. When that happened, Sophie and Olivia raced on their tippy-toes toward the pond, their beautiful white and gray wings spread wide and flap-flap-flapping, and their twin voices raised in song. Well, maybe song is too strong a word for a sound that resembles an accordion with the croup.
Sadly, they succeed only in crashing into the cattail marsh, wings tangled in rotting stems. Their big feet mired in muck. And their song strangled by the bitter pill of man’s interference with evolution. My poor adolescents plodded, utterly crestfallen, uphill to the house. A sight many would find funny. But not I.
What, I ask, is harder than seeing ones young first taste failure? Especially when it is repeated daily for weeks.
I suffered for them. And so, I let the storm door stay ajar on purpose and sacrificed my poor cat so as to raise the goslings spirits.
Does this smack of anthropomorphizing? Attributing human emotions to a bird or non-human? Guilty as charged.  And yet I think I know hope and despair when I see it. So what if Sophie and Olivia won’t do as we do,  tucking this failure away in their cocoa puff size brains, to root and grow into a crippling neurosis? I feel their pain, however fleeting.  And I know what soothes the ache. The sight of another creature having adjustment problems. Ergo, Basket to the rescue.
The largest census of honkers on our meadow and pond came to 17 birds. All chomping grass by day. Leaving their mini-cigar-shaped calling cards as they feasted. Then relaxing on the pond by night. But even as their numbers grew slowly throughout the autumn, they thinned suddenly. One day there were a dozen birds. Then six. Then the only two.
At last, even these left us. That day, the goslings burst from their straw bed in the garage, flapping out to greet their wild cousins, and finding only an  empty landscape. But they took it better than I expected.
No, my fledglings assume the “easy come easy go” attitude we humans envy. Life is good for them, given a bit of grain and grass and drink. It is in part this quality of peace that attracts me. Pulls me outside to tempt them close. To touch and sometimes even hold one of them close for a time. Stroking their soft neck feathers, searching their bright amber eyes for some hint who they are and laughing as they pull gently at wisps of my hair.
This is pure joy. In fact, for me, there is no more potent nostrum for bringing about a state of peace and calm. And, at times like these, I have to admit, I am grateful they cannot fly away. And I fanciful imagine that they are as well.


Magnetic North: Flutterbys Are Us

Finalcut_MagNorth_20120720.mp39.26 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North where the air is filled with winged things, and not the kind with feathers!

No, I speak not of the dread mosquito, or black fly or no-seeum, but of butterflies. For some reason, the population of Monarch and Swallowtails is way, way up this season. With the first blossoming of dandelions on our backyard lawn, the burnt orange Monarchs literally swarmed above the ocean of yellow fuzz balls.

My granddaughter, Jane, stood in the cloud of Monarchs with her arms literally cutting through the waves of the jeweled insects above and around her. A photo op if ever there was one!

A few days later, the Swallowtails appeared. These are the mustardy gold butterflies with black tipping on their wings. As if being beautiful weren’t enough, the Swallowtails show off by grouping on a patch of ground, usually a sunny patch of gravel. Once a critical mass forms, the little darlings appear to vibrate in unison. Makes me wonder what’s going on.

Probably innocent enough. But even bugs have their kinky side, I suppose.

On the darker side, literally, we have the creatures of the night; the stunning moths gyrating around every porch light. For sheer over-the-topness, I choose the Cecropia moth--one of the biggies, only with more than size setting it apart from the pack.

This season, I inadvertently trapped a female Cecropia inside a screen window one night. Come morning, the outside of the screen was plastered top to bottom with males, half her size but all aflutter with hormones.

Only the Luna moth outdoes the Cecropia for loveliness. Every year at least one clings to our siding for the night, pausing until the noon sun hits her sea-green wings, allowing admirers to Ohhhh and Ahhhh over her long, droopy teardrop-shape wings.

Green, yellow, orange - it’s like fireworks without the hiss and bang. Tender awe.

Memorable. Even now, weeks later, I can look out on the back lawn, where dandelions are gone to seed and nothing fills the air but raindrops and a clear picture appears: my darling towheaded Janey, pirouetting midst the monarchs.

And while I would like to see only such pleasant scenes out my window, I am sad to report that my groundhogs are still with me. Not only are they tougher to trap than I’ve been told, but they too have been inspired by our early spring. Where there were two, there are now FIVE! And the little ones are even cuter than the parents.

Time to call my neighborhood trapper. Perhaps he can catch and release them where I so pitifully failed.

Other than that, I am in baby bird heaven right now. The turkey poults are a month old and my two are so tame already that they jump out of the brooder to be cuddled.

Add to that joy, I now have two just-hatched Buff goslings that miraculously arrived on the mail truck from Duluth on Wednesday. I give the Post Office mega-high fives for navigating the flooded roads and getting the birds here in time to get the food and water they so desperately need in those first few days. Of course, being geese, they stuck their scrawny little necks out and assumed a don’t-mess-with-me attitude right out of the carton. But after a few nights of watching TV in my lap, I’ll socialize them. With geese, that is even more important than making a dog people-friendly. Geese live 20-plus years.

How’s that for optimism on my part, huh?

Now if only I can train the little buggers to trim around flower beds and fence lines, I’ll be set for the next two decades!

Airdate: July 23, 2012


Magnetic North: Groundhogs’ Day

FinalCut_MagNorth_20120528.mp311.69 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the neon yellow marsh marigolds embellish every pond and puddle, of which there are many after a week of incessant showers. Ah, May! These naturally formed nosegays simply shout to be picked. And yet, doing so reminds me to leave well enough alone. Because the blossoms wilt no matter how fast I plunge them into a watery vase. Some things simply won’t thrive in captivity.

A cautionary tale- totally wasted on this gatherer, I might add. Even though I learned about sustainable gathering as a Girl Scout. The one lesson on that score I absorbed, the hard way is that if I greedily snap off EVERY asparagus spear in the bed, there is nothing left to go to seed. Ergo, no tasty stalks next year. And still, that urge to best Mother Nature at her own game burns within. I’d settle for a draw. Just once.

Big Mama, it seems, cares not a whit about my pathetic human urges. For example, just when I put up a pricey electric fence between my voracious goats and my new rose bush, herbs and perennials, the Old Girl throws me a curve. Oh, it’s a darling, pudgy curve. My newest garden nemeses are wildly photographable, even more so than a goat. They have roly-poly bodies, itty-bitty legs, precious paws, beady black eyes, sweet little half-moon ears and begging-to-be patted reddish tummies. And the tails. Well, they are just too cute.

have here your basic groundhogs. Or woodchucks. Same thing. These are, to most civilized humans, nuisance creatures. True, there’s that coven of latter-day witches in Pennsylvania. The ones who believe that winter is truly over when a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil sticks his nose out of the ground. Baloney!

Groundhogs don’t give a toenail about temperature. All they need to bolt into action is to wake up and smell the first finger of day lily or strawberry blossom pushing through the freshly thawed earth. I know this, because lucky, lucky me, I am landlord to two of these critters. One under my chicken coop and one under my tool shed. And, frankly, I loved seeing the little fatsos puddling around their burrows until just last month. Only then did I realize that the day lilies next to the coop are still disappearing despite the goats being fenced up. Even worse, the toolshed floor is about to cave in on the root cellar below. Cute suddenly doesn’t cut it.

Searching for answers online, I found out how to catch the little criminals in my largest Hav-a-heart trap. Strange as it sounds, if the instructions I copied are correct, groundhogs are dumb as a box of rocks. Supposedly, all that’s needed is to block all exits except the one where the trap is placed. Even without a morsel of food inside, the groundhogs should crawl obligingly inside. We’ll just see about that.

Only one thing is keeping me from carrying out the plan. I can’t shoot them. After all these years, it would be like shooting my kitty, And, after all, they haven’t gnawed the head off a duck. Or sprayed me or my dog with stinky stuff. Plant burglary is bad, but hardly a capitol offense. No, relocation is the only sentence befitting the crime, But where to take them? Or, more to the point, to what poor sap’s property? I realize that announcing that I am about to dump a groundhog - or two - on some unsuspecting soul could land me in a world of hurt. Except for one thing.

In small towns like ours, trying to keep anything a secret is the best way to spread whatever one wants hidden broadcast all over town within an hour. It simply can’t be done. No, if you really want to keep something hush-hush, I suggest you blab about it all over town. The Blue Water Cafe, or standing in the checkout line at Johnson’s grocery store are good places to start. Something like this: “Hey, I just did something wild. You know those groundhogs that were wrecking my garden and outbuildings? Well, I caught them and dumped them in the back of a big white and black RV parked in the rec park. Hope nobody saw me!”

Believe it or not, no one will pay a bit of attention. Especially if you talk loud, like you are on a cell phone. It’s like being a mother of teenagers. You find that not only have you achieved invisibility, but your voice cannot be heard by the human ear.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the constant carping by Mother Nature has gone over my head all these years. Despite Her threats, punishments and outright bribes, I keep on doing exactly what She doesn’t want. I am sorry, truly I am, dear Mama, And, as usual, I count on your forgiveness. It is, after all, so much easier to get than permission. Am I right?

Oh, and by the by, groundhogs won’t give it up unless bribed with strawberries. Lots of strawberries.

This is Vicki Biggs-Anderson for WTIP with Magnetic North.

Airdate: May 30, 2012