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Magnetic North

Vicki Biggs-Anderson

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

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

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



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Magnetic North: Playing With Fire

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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


Magnetic North: Christmas in May for us Birdbrains

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, the destination for every migrating feathered beauty on earth - or so it seems to us birdbrains. By that I mean every bird lover, not just the watchers. 

Oh, like everyone, I watch the incoming warblers and Canada geese. I journal the date the first honker or Goldeneye duck puts down on our pond.

But watching isn’t enough for this kid. In addition, I feed, fawn over and dispose of vast amounts of income on birds that could never arrive in this climate on their own and, given the choice would probably live anywhere else - like Kauai or Key West.

I’m talking chickens, flightless egg-laying ducks, heritage turkeys and guinea hens. Ever since I retired the Christmas tree to the goat corral, I’ve pored over the poultry catalogs. It was a given that I’d replace dear old Tommy turkey, Paul’s pet gobbler. Some nasty beast feasted on the 5-year-old bird last fall.

The big problem with getting a duplicate turkey is that hatcheries have minimum numbers they will ship. My favorite nursery, Murray McMurray in Iowa, put the turkey order minimum at 15. That’s a lot of turkey.
So I resorted to our local Internet bulletin board and offered to raise 13 of the 15 for anyone willing to pay the price of bird, shipping and feed.

In less than two weeks, all 13 were taken by eager local folk eager to feast on “Heritage Bourbon Red” turkey next Thanksgiving.
Frankly, I imagine that a few will end up, like me and my tender-hearted husband, adding an irresistible bulky pet to their family and not to their freezer.

My other order included a few chickens, some extra laying ducks - having become totally addicted to their eggs for baking - and, fool that I am, two geese.

This is the first time I’ve admitted publicly that I have once again tried to house geese on our property. Our last pair, a pair of white Chinese, were universally hated by my friends, family and neighbors. This variety of goose is well-known for being aggressive, mean, loud and given to fastening on the nether regions of all. Even I, the Goddess of Food, was not spared in the end. But the end did come and I gave the pair away.

Buff geese, McMurray’s catalog avers, are different. Calm. Sweet, even. And so, I caved and ordered two Buffs. I’ll keep you posted as to the outcome. But just in case, I would be delighted to find a nearby Al-Agoose meeting. Just to help me set boundaries, detach and well, you know, survive.

All my flock is doing great, despite the recent appearance of a small timber wolf pack in Colvill. Three dogs have been taken, as well as my entire flock of eight guinea hens.

This wipeout was the first since old Tom got gotten. And it was total. All I found was one uneaten heart and eight mounds of feathers. But I would be fibbing if I said I mourned their loss. Guinea hens are not mean. They are not fun, either. They screech constantly. The males fight. Although they did, as advertised, eat so many ticks that for once in 20 summers here, neither Paul, nor I or our other pets lost a drop of blood to a tick last year.

But the guineas had a fatal attraction besides the tiny tick: freshly laid chicken and duck eggs. And that, as all egg-lovers will agree, is a capitol offense.

So I had three plans: build them a coop of their own, give them to unsuspecting folks and thus make lifelong enemies, or eat the little criminals.

I chose the last plan. In fact on the eve of their execution, I’d collected a number of tasty-looking recipes for guinea breast and gotten directions for butchering. My only qualm was the distress I imagined catching them would engender in my sweet ducks and always-hysterical hens.

So, thanks, you voracious wolves. Just know that should you return for any more grub around here, I am packing pepper spray, plus a Red Rider BB gun.

At this writing, I am also awaiting the birth of a few wild ducks and geese. If the pair of honkers haunting our meadow since March is nesting and the male mallards have gotten lucky, I’ll be on guard down by the pond 24/7 in a few weeks.  Just about the same time that the local deer start their new families.

With all of this to watch, the extra hours of daylight are barely enough to take it all in, let alone plot and plan for new arrivals in the mail.
But that day is coming, when the post office calls and announces: “Your birds are here - you ARE coming in soon, right?” Ha! I’d sooner skip Christmas morning!

Photo by Vicki Biggs-Anderson

A pink flower for breast cancer awareness, photo by Barbara Jean Johnson

Magnetic North: Vicki's experience with breast cancer

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In 2006 Vicki was diagnosed with breast cancer. This October she passed a major mile stone for any survivor—five years cancer free. October was breast cancer awareness month, and in honor of that Vicki is sharing the commentaries she wrote at the time of her diagnosis. Vicki would like to offer support to anyone out there dealing with breast cancer. You can contact her by email.


Magnetic North: Humbled by Nature and Joy

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Ahhhhh, late summer, my favorite time of year, next to winter, of course. Now I can at last let go of any silly thoughts of completing major projects before the snow flies and just enjoy my critters, the meadow and my hourly popsicle snacks. Even in this heat wave—near 90 at our home in Colvill twice last month—I can still muster feelings of pure joy just by looking around.

For example, I see people are actually swimming in Lake Superior! Pretty much all along the shore between Grand Marais and Hovland, kids are paddling about and adults are soaking up to their earlobes in what in most years would be akin to a bowl of ice water. But when the cities, even Grand Marais, sizzles, Mother Superior almost always comes through with a few precious days of swimming in her near shore waters.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking Jersey Shore salt water warm—that would be a stretch. No, Superior relents in a typically Scandinavian way—brisk, authentic and leaving you longing for more.

‘Tis also the season of nature's purples and golds: the fuzzy-faced mauve of Joe Pye weed, the sleek grape Cool-Aid colored spikes of fireweed, the sunny bunches of birdsfoot trefoil and the in-your-face brass of black-eyed Susans. Even in a dry summer—and this has been anything but dry—these wildflowers come, coloring our world so brilliantly that even in the monochromatic months ahead I can instantly recall their lush brilliance.

Then, of course, there is the eventual relief from the heat. When the big rainstorm finally came, accompanied by far-off lightning and thunder, even my goats left their hot barn stalls to graze in the drizzle. And the mallard ducklings, now out in the run and about ready for the pond, were ecstatic as over four inches of rain fell inside of three hours. All the world was a kiddy pool for them. And for us, too, as we waited for the two roads between us and the grocery store to be restored.

Waiting for that rain, I thought of the thousands of backpackers in the nearby BWCAW and how they too were watching the weather, but with different motives than mine. The big questions in life for them boiled down to these: "To move on to the next campsite and risk getting soaked en route?" or "To sit tight?" Life gets simple on camping trips. Simple, but not necessarily without angst. This is a big reason we tend to envy the beasts. Ignorance can be bliss. But I am coming to the conclusion that, although we may chase it endlessly, bliss is a state that we humans can tolerate for only so long.

One of my favorite Peanuts strips circa July-August 1955/56 nails this sentiment perfectly. In it, Charles Schultz shows Charlie Brown and Patty staring at a starry sky, ala BWCAW.

Patty asks Charlie, "Aren't the stars beautiful Charlie Brown?"

"Uh, huh," Charlie Brown, philosopher of few words, grunts.

The next frame shows Charlie and Patty transfixed before a sea of stars. Silent. Taking it all in. And then, good old Charlie Brown turns his little soccer ball-shaped head away from the heavenly banquet above him and whispers in his sweetheart’s ear: "Let's go inside and watch television...I'm beginning to feel insignificant."

That's what too-close-for-comfort encounters with nature do to me, all right. For me, too much joy, like too long a dip in Lake Superior—even in 90 degree heat—is simply unsustainable. So I say, thank heavens for winter, popsicles and Direct TV.

Airdate: August 1, 2011

Photo courtesy of raysto via Flickr.



Magnetic North: Duck Days of Summer

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Welcome back to Magnetic North and the duck days of summer. Since last I recorded a column, over a month ago, I have been wet-nursing nine domestic ducks, I keep for their eggs, 20 mallard ducklings, I let loose on our pond to fly away in the fall, and ten guinea hen chicks. And I do mean WET nursing.

Ducklings are hands down the messiest baby birds on the planet. Whether mallards or domestic ducklings, all use their beaks like shovels, scooping up drinking water from their fountains and flinging it over their backs until not a drop is left to drink.

Keeping a ducklings pen dry is a futile, constant job. Thus, along with the duck starter, duck grower and assorted layette items needed, I also order ten bales of lovely golden straw to strew daily on the floor of their jumbo kiddy pool. Yes, kiddy pool.

For years I have brooded chickens and ducks and even turkeys and geese in a big blue plastic kiddy pool, covered by a brown tarp and fitted out with a heat lamp clipped to the underside of an old metal walker. It’s a dandy brooder, unless I go nuts and order more than a dozen birds at a time - which I always do, of course. That is why I now have two jumbos and one mini kiddy pool tricked out to grow happy hens and ducks.

And still, just about the time the ducklings are growing their pin feathers, the pools become soggy swamps of soiled straw within seconds of mucking them out and renewing their innards with clean stuff. And there is at least a month to go before I can put the mallards out on the pond without risking hypothermia - you see, since there is no mommy duck keeping them warm and in the process making their feathers nice and oily and water repellant, they need their adult feathers to prevent water from soaking them to the skin. High maintenance doesn’t even begin to describe raising wild mallards.

But this year I got a long overdue inspired thought: what if I chucked the kiddy pools and simply made a big compound out of straw bales? I could prop up the bales so that the waste water wouldn’t make them wet and useless for future use. Plus, I could expand the size of the compound easily at the first sign that the birds were outgrowing it. And so I did just that. The straw bales make lovely seating and I spend way too much time out in the garage now sitting and chatting up my kids as they drink/bath/eat and practice their quacks.

Putting in visiting time makes a difference with the guinea chicks I got this year for the first time ever. They seem to be born terrified. So it has taken a good month for them to quit freaking out each time I refill their food bowl. Define freaking out? Well, picture a dozen softballs covered with pretty speckled gray and brown feathers spinning out in all directions - mainly toward your face! Each feathered ball has two long pink legs with sharp claws and a pinhead atop a short, skinny neck. The beak on that head is open and a sound like fingernails on a blackboard and a joke cellphone tone comes out of it.
That would be a guinea freaking out.

So why, you ask, would I want such creatures? They eat lots and lots of bugs, especially ticks. They also pluck obnoxious bugs and slugs off of garden plants without digging up roots. They sound their earsplitting alarm if predators or strangers set paw or foot on the property. And their solid dark meat, I am told, is quite tasty. Now, if only I can resist giving any of them names, perhaps I can one day find out if that last item is true.

With the hottest days of the summer upon us, its unlikely that I’ll be given the guineas or ducklings much of my time. The garage is just too tropical and after twenty-plus years living here, anything over 75 degrees reduces my brain cells to primordial ooze. I figure that I’ll have just enough oomph to clean, water and feed them, plus do the same for the rabbits, chickens and goats. None of which earn their keep in any obvious way as do the tick-gobbling guinea hens.

The way I see it though, beauty is enough reason to have these critters. That and the endless supply of column material coming from coop and barn and pond.

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