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Magnetic North

Vicki Biggs-Anderson

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

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

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



What's On:

Magnetic North: 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.


White-tailed deer fawn - photo by Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North: Mommie Deer-est and Other Worries

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where a day-glo yellow carpet of fragrant dandelion blossoms surrounds our farm - a joyous sight for this reformed dandy destroyer. 

After leaving the city and moving north I found recipes for both greens AND blossoms, the latter being deep fried and sugared.  Heaven!  But in the main, I just devour our dandelions with my eyes, starved for color as we all are after a winter that outstayed its welcome.

Returning flora and fauna are a major source of conversation, joy and sometimes angst in these parts.  On our little plot of earth, we have the returning waterfowl - several pairs of mallards and a Canada goose we raised a few years back.  She now hangs out around our pond with her mate.  If they have a nest tucked away in the willow swamp, Gramma Goose will keep you posted on the outcome.

The two fat woodchucks living under our tool shed/root cellar are busily grazing on sweet new grass and growing fatter by the hour. Missus Chuck takes her ease on a cedar log baskiing in the sun.  Meanwhile the Mister finds choice tidbits in the grass and works feverishly perfecting the many tunnels into and out of their two story critter condo.

None of my domestic animals are expecting this year, so I’ve been pining away for some kind of baby to fuss over.  And this morning, the Cosmos came across.  A reminder to be careful what I pine for.

Just off our deck, not twenty feet from the house, there lies a newborn fawn in a clump of meadow grass.  Alone.  I saw her just as she was curling up for a snooze, having been left there to rest while her mother went off to do who knows WHAT!

I am outraged.  Even though I have read that deer do this.  That the newborns are routinely left to sleep while the mother gads about. That the babies are without scent, thereby protected from detection.  That is, unless the fawn moves around too much - or is RESCUED unnecessarily by some control freak.  Not that I would do such a thing.  I would not.

I want to.  But I would not.  My senior dairy goat is in milk now even though she has no kid.  She just eats so much grass when it comes up that she bags up as if a kid or two was nursing regularly.  Maybe, the fawn could nurse on the goat.  Maybe the goat would accept the fawn.  Maybe pigs will fly.

No, I will not intervene.  Nature is this fawn’s momma and She will do with the little one as she will.  I’m fine with that.  But I’ll just stay here by the window until the mother comes back.  There is an eighty percent chance of rain today, so doubtless she’ll come back before the deluge.  Deer can tell when it’s going to rain, can’t they?

Oh, why did I have to look out the window just in time to see that sweet little spotted body, no bigger than a rabbit on stilts, the tiny nearly transluscent ears, and those eyes!  Two shining black pools of neediness?

I forgot that babies bring both joy and free-floating anxiety with them.  And waiting for this little one to be safe with her mom again brings back so many, many memories of other critter babes - some who had the happiest of outcomes and others who put yet another crack in my heart.

Spring always seems to bring equal measures of joyous returns and sorrowful losses.  This year, the marsh Marigolds clog every moist ditch.  But my much loved crimson red rugosa rose bush will not cover the south wall of the chicken coop with blossoms this summer - winter stole it from me.  The Jack in the Pulpits back in our woods by a crumbling footbridge are returned, however.  Six years ago, another harsh winter - one with more cold than snow - stole them away.  Stole them forever, I thought.  Being wrong about such things makes my day.

And so I go around the meadow and over the trails, cataloging the missing, the saved, the downed and broken and the unexpected.  Paul often says he likes to walk in the woods with me because I notice everything.  An exaggeration, but close to the truth.  It’s a gift.  And a curse.

Well, today’s burden, watching this fawn slumber in the grass, motherless it seems, is still upon me.  Mommy Deer-est is nowhere to be seen.  And the rain clouds are moving in fast.  They say it could really pour.  In which case any goose nest in that willow swamp might easily be washed away and the woodchuck condo is basically sited on an intermittent far joy is losing out to anxiety in this part of the woods.

Next week, I’m sure the news will be way different.  I hope.



Magnetic North: Jeepers creepers! Have you heard those peepers?!

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where getting a decent night’s sleep can be tough if you live within earshot of a lake, pond or big puddle. I refer, of course, to this year’s spring peeper invasion. Locals in my neighborhood swear they’ve never heard the little songsters so loud. I’d Google the purported reason why Cook County has the distinction of being peeper Woodstock for year 2011, but frankly I’m too sleepy to care. Maybe one of our resident frog listeners can tell me.

And yes, there are such folk. They do this in the interest of science, as the numbers and species of frogs are of concern. Surely peepers are of no concern at all, unless it is to prepare for more hearing loss among humans in the future.

We don’t often see our frog listeners, as they drive around in the dark of night, then park in someone’s driveway—motor and headlights off—and just sit listening intently. Dangerous business in some parts of this county. I’ve told a friend of mine who does this that if he must do it he needs to think up a better excuse than “I’m just listening for frogs,” when and if he is confronted by law enforcement or alarmed citizens.

But back to those raucous peepers! They set up their cacophonous concert a month ago. Beginning well before dusk, the peeps reach a crescendo—think the shower scene from Psycho—about 9 p.m. Then, the volume backs off and a chord resembling fingernails on a blackboard for the next, oh, I don’t know, eight or nine hours, takes over.

Small wonder we haven’t had any ducks or geese nest on the pond this year! They land and swim around for a while, but after the first hour of peeper song, the poor things take off.

Now, I know that many of you judge me harshly for this attitude. You love the sound of spring peepers. You could listen to it nonstop and year round. OK. I get it. There was a time when I felt the same. Now, after a month of fitful sleep and dashed dreams of new ducklings on the pond, I am over them. Possibly forever. Too bad. But, there are so many other sounds of the season that still delight.

The aspens woke up this week. Their new leaves rustle soft and blend with the whooshing, mumbling roar of the intermittent streams that surround our meadow. Beautiful sound even if it didn’t absorb much of the peeper cacophony. But it does do that, Hooray!

Speaking of beauty, I sure hope nobody missed that big, orange full-moon rising Wednesday night. It was so spectacular that I dragged Paul out of his favorite chair and away from his favorite TV show to see it. Sure enough, he said he had never seen one like that before. Everyone I know who saw it says the same. Another sign that this spring is truly special.

It hasn’t all been music and moonbeams at the farm. I made a mistake that cost a beloved rooster his life early this week. Buster, my black and white Delaware rooster was four-years-old and huge. He put up with a new rooster, Winston Junior, all winter, drawing blood only a month ago when the young cock apparently asked for it.

I put the new rooster in the barn, hoping to merge him with some retired hens out there, but day by day the handsome youngun’ got meaner and meaner, running at me, our dog and even visitors with hackles out and fire in each eye. Disgusted, I offered him up to a friend to butcher and eat.

Alas, two days before Winston’s last day he got another shot at Buster. My fault. I let the cooped birds out of their run so that they might feel the soft green grass between their toes and eat their fill of grubs. Inside of five minutes, Buster and Winston were sparring. But mainly, they were just menacing each other without actually making contact.

I felt a twinge of concern—a message I should have heeded—when I saw Buster turn tail and run into the woods just before I walked down the driveway to get the mail. Upon returning, Winston was crowing and Buster was missing. I found his body under a tree deep in the woods. Big isn’t any match for young, I guess.

And mean isn’t forever, either. Once competition was gone, Winston’s better angel came out. He doesn’t confront anyone. He simply crows, mates and runs around pointing out morsels for his girls. So much for my chicken wisdom.

The chickens are inside their big old run again, though. Just after Buster bit the dust, Paul spotted a Goshawk and two ravens jumping up and down, flapping their wings and making a huge fuss down by the pond. By the time I got there, the only clue to their frenzy were two duck feet and two wings. A wild female mallard got unlucky. And I got THIS message loud and clear: predators are hunting to feed their hatchlings, so coop up the chickens.

As lovely as green grass feels between the toes and as succulent as a tender slug may be, neither is worth a hen’s life. But then, not being a chicken, I COULD be wrong there too.

Airdate: May 23, 2011

Photo courtesy of David Allen via Flickr.



Magnetic North: Snow happens - so do joy first

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place still thawing out after the longest winter in living memory. At least at this house. Where snow is now just another four-letter word.

Just last week, my husband, Paul, appeared at the breakfast table and issued this edict: “I know what is on the ground outside. I don’t want to talk about it. It does not exist.”

Well, Paul might be able to avert his eyes from the meadow in April, but not me. The migrating waterfowl began flying over and dropping in weeks ago. A pair of Canada geese were our first guests. As usual, I swore the female was a prodigal goose, a rescue gosling I raised after she was washed out of her nest some years back.

This pair hung around the pond, looking to nest in the willow grove, I’m sure, before a hard freeze took over the pond surface and snow covered up the tender shoots of meadow grasses. I saw the geese go with a great honking “goodbye,” as they twice buzzed the farmyard. Maybe next year...?

My hopes picked up soon after when three mallards sat down on the pond, now open around the edges. Again, I am convinced the birds are “MY” mallards, raised by me last year. Just as did the honkers, the two drakes and a duck flew low over the farmyard before alighting on the pond. Tourist ducks just hit the water, giving the house and coop a wide berth.

Oh, joy! Mating behavior began almost instantly. The males immediately got super-snarly with each other. Running at each other, necks curved like a teapot handles and bills nearly scraping the ice…while the dreamy little duck sat demurely nearby, thrilling to the sight of her suitors pecking the heck out of each other’s tailfeathers. By nightfall of the first day, one finally flew away in search of another mate. But the mated pair is still here and I have my fingers crossed in hopes of a first-ever hatch on our pond.

Staring at the pond to see who is coming or going is a big part of each day. So too is compiling a season’s to-do list, a chore I relish way more than shoveling snow.

This spring I have three rock gathering projects, all of which require a daily stop with our Lab, Scout, at the big lake. I look for big flat stones to hold the soil under the deck where an unwanted stream is beginning to form. Golf ball-size stones are sought for a small sinkhole over a culvert bisecting our driveway. And rocks with heft and right angles are just the ticket for shoring up the holes dug under the coop run fence. Our domestic ducks are tunneling out, or so they think. More likely they are simply opening up their safe haven to some skinny fowl-thieving varmint.

Besides my rock work, I have brush to gather and burn. A fence to mend. Baby trees to plant and woodland trails to re-blaze. Each night, I fall asleep turning the next day’s possibilities over in my head - could a single strand of wire keep the llama in the meadow? Should I tear down the old dog run or rehabilitate it for berry bushes? And where will the guinea hens live until I can turn them loose on this year’s tick crop?

Notice I haven’t even touched on expected and unexpected guests. A given in the months to come, even though we are far from the big lake and town. The first month Paul and I lived here, we had 17 overnight guests. It’s tapered off since then, even before we got the White Chinese attack geese.

This week, after our rock picking and Lab swimming stop at the big lake, Paul and I made a promise to each other to do at least one fun touristy thing for ourselves a day during these golden months to come.

*Gather the rocks for the coop repair, but look for agates or perfect cairn rocks to line the deck railing as well.

*Plant those baby trees, but for Pete’s sake pack a picnic lunch or dinner on a sunny day and then find a big tree to sit under and dine.

*And as for that burn pile, lay in a good supply of marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars for s’mores.

Because in the end, to-do lists are just a waste of a good life unless they include joy. We must not, ever, ever, ever, forget to do joy.

C. S. Lewis even went so far as to say that he thought the refusal to experience joy is the only mortal sin in this world of ours. I’m with him on that. So joy is first on my list each day. Maybe even last. Even when snow happens. Or perhaps, especially then!



Magnetic North: Letting Go Time Of Year

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where winter is loosening her grip, often with unintended consequences. It’s true. Just when warmth and light appear, the trees that were just hanging on, suddenly snap or fall down. Spring is a toughie. So much expectation. And for some of us, that is a bit staggering.

I think of this simply because the roof of a old shed just off our driveway collapsed sometime in the past week. No wind, no storm. Just age and spring thaw. Can anyone out there relate? I can!

We call it Johnny’s shed. It was home to a fellow by that name who made his living back in the old days logging and doing odd jobs for folks. His pay was three squares and a permission to park his modest home somewhere on the property. Often, after a few years, he and his cabin would move on. But our land was to be Johnny’s last move,

Johnny’s shed - which is what it looks like, really - is a ten by twenty foot one-room affair. Tar paper covers it, although over the decades more board than tar paper shows. It has a window on each side and the back and one door. The door, being a few feet off the ground on account of snow and all, is easy enough to clamber into in fair weather as long as you replace the stumps that serve for steps when need be.

We use Johnny’s shed for storing stuff - you know, stuff too good to toss, too meaningful to sell and too useless to earn space inside our home or garage. My mother’s garishly painted after dinner drink glasses, an outboard motor approaching museum quality status, a rusty exercise bike and various busted out window frames, spare shingles, lengths of rusted chain and, of course, a mystery box sealed in duct tape.

Well, that box and all else is wedged under the slender beams which once held aloft Johnny’s roof. And I am sorry for that. Sorry, not because I covet the stuff. I mourn those occasional forays into the old shed, always in search of something that I can’t find anywhere else. Having either found or given up on my quarry, I’d spend most of my time in there just looking around. Imagining how it might have been when Johnny’s wood stove was roaring on a cold night back in the fifties, after a hard day’s work, with so many dark hours until dawn.

Johnny hung his belongings, what few he had, from the wall joists and ceiling beams. The wooden pegs and hooks are still there. There is just on built-in shelf. Nothing more. I furnish the place in my mind with a barrel stove, a single bed strewn with assorted quilts and blankets, a wooden straightback chair and some kind of rectangular metal chest for his clothing and personal belongings that could serve as a table. No rug. But a length of wool blanket near the stove for the barn cat in winter. Of that I am certain.

Hidden outside is the skeleton of an old mill. A cobbled together frame upon which scavenged vehicle motor served to power belts and blade, a spare but essential contraption that processed the valuable white pine, cedar, maple and birch which once flourished here.

Even further back in the forest behind his abode, there’s a nearly collapsed smoke shed for fish and the yearly pig. And even farther off are still a few rotting cedar posts strung with barbed wire to contain the few cattle kept on the homestead.

Not a spring goes by in the twenty years since Paul and I moved to this place that I don’t unearth or trip over a bit of history, almost all of it once surely touched by Johnny.

* An old maul made of a mighty stump and a length of hardwood.

*A bedspring with chains attached to one end, the original trail clearing device.

*A wooden sled with hand-forged runners.

Each artifact is way better than scrapbook pictures in portraying one man’s simple, but amazingly rich life in the woods.

And now, Johnny’s shed itself is on its way back the soil, there to join the rest of his life’s tools and toils. It was just time, that’s all.

Last summer, the old shed called to me on so many days when I was too busy to visit it. On my to-do list often I scribbled, “get good stuff out of Johnny’s” but I put it off. That’s OK. I realized while writing this that I DID get “the good stuff” out of Johnny’s. I got to know a guy who chose this place to live, just like me. Who gazed up at the same Milky Way and full moons that I do. Who was so very different and yet so very much like Paul and me.

Yes, winter’s grip is loosened. And without that to pull against, some things just go boom. But so far, not yours truly. Knock wood.

Airdate: April 11, 2011

Photo courtesy of Mike Houge via Flickr.



Magnetic North: Moonstruck By Spring

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the color white still dominates the ground around us, reflecting the sun and moon even as it melts quietly into springtime.

Yes, as we slip-slide up to the first day of spring on the calendar, snow—albeit crusty, collapsing snow—still covers the meadow, all paths to the barn and coop and woodshed and—depending on the daytime high temperature—our deck. Friday, for instance, bunny-tail size flakes fell lazily, coating the cedar decking and railings that I’d finally chopped clean of ice and snow on Thursday.

But, truth be told, I was happy for the whitewash. Mid-March can be pretty ugly around a farmyard. And, with three adult white Chinese geese running around loose—very loose, unfortunately—the corral isn’t the only place one must tippy toe around the yucky stuff.

By and large, the geese are mudding right now. That’s their little rite of spring when the driveway first shows its gravely face and puddles begin to form all along the margins. The two adult geese and their offspring, Gosling, race out each morning to find the best mud wallows.

The taste of gritty water must be super good because the birds can’t seem to ingest enough of it before rubbing their silly heads in the puddles and throwing the brown water over their backs. Body scrubs are big in the bird world too, I guess, especially after a really long winter with no baths.

Dusk finds the soggy but sated trio at the door to the garage, ready for dinner and bed. They are a mess, a muddy mess, to my eyes. But my heart tells me these are three contented critters.

Contentment rules in the coop and barn as well. There, hens are setting new personal bests for egg laying. I count nine on a good day. And from the scruffy necks on my fertile ladies, most of those eggs could yield a new chick, given 28 days under a willing setter. Tempting to a baby chick lover like me.

But, I resist such urges, because I am still harvesting cashmere from the goats and angora from the bunnies. Peaches, my favorite lap bunny can’t seem to stop growing her gorgeous peach-colored fluff. I love it, but not in my food, something any Angora rabbit owner will tell you is inevitable, even if you never bring a bunny inside the house. I am trying to cultivate the attitude of considering my crop of cashmere and angora just another source of fiber in my diet. Or, as a judge for this year’s Westminster Dog Show remarked, “In my house we consider animal hair a condiment.”

For those of you who think me animal obsessed—which I don’t deny—know that I find much more than fur and eggs when I tend my beasties. Day or night reveal all sorts of treasures on the way to coop, barn, rabbitry and garage. The tiny tracks in the snow make me marvel on a forty below night. No roaring wood furnace to keep such an itty, bitty vole warm. And what to eat? Something even ittier?

Then there was the fearless flying squirrel encountered in the coop in January. She found her smorgasbord in the hatchway where I spread lay mash and scratch for the birds and was determined to fill her pouches with corn and grain even if I kept my big old flashlight trained on her pretty face. Those eyes! So huge and shining and trusting. I left the hatch open and left her to eat, returning an hour later to close up.

Speaking of ginormous orbs of I write this piece we are creeping up on the biggest full moon anyone has seen on this earth since March of 1993. This March the perigee moon, so-called, appears on March 19. When I looked up the reason on the Internet, I found it: something about the moon’s orbit and one side being closer to earth than the other side. And, it is not an optical illusion. The moon really is bigger and brighter; brighter by 30 percent, according to NASA, than moons showing their lesser side.

Here on the farm, a full moon of any size while snow still coats the ground is cause for celebration. A moon dance or howl, at the very least. The reflection of heavenly light means I don’t even need a flashlight to see my way around, even inside the coop. And just standing on the path, taking in the beauty of the trees shadows on snow, the old barn’s familiar profile, the lone white pine all the way across the meadow, I long for even more perfection—a bale of straw or log to sit upon, a cup of cocoa to sip and my old sweetheart by my side.

And no, I do NOT mean my dog, Scout!

Here’s hoping you got to see that moon, or can conjure up some sight just as wondrous to warm the cockles of your heart until spring finally arrives.

Airdate: March 22, 2011

Photo courtesy of Kris H. via Flickr.



Magnetic North: Death By Hanging Basket

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Winter was hungrier than usual this year. Our well-stocked woodshed is nearly bare. So too the hay storage garage. And the last bales are so dry and yucky that even the goats turn up their noses at it. It’s not that I can’t get hay and wood this time of year. But, it comes dear. In my March madness, I wonder if it wouldn’t be cheaper just to chop up and burn the furniture. The goats would love upholstery. Oh, dear. The wheels, they are surely comin’ off. ‘Tis the case every year when - regardless of the amount of snow or cold endured - I look out the window and hear a voice whispering, “I’m not going to make it!” And the voice, of course, is mine,

And still, have not been so battered in mind or spirit to contemplate doing something drastic, like moving someplace crawling with kudzu or cactus.

However, one of my white Chinese geese tried to hang herself yesterday. She failed, but just barely. Gosling, the offspring of Hold Me and Touch Me, is in her preteen stage and pulls something weird almost every day. But this was a doozy.

As we all know, geese love grass. Preferably growing grass. But not until I found Gosling hanging by her slender neck from a wire hanging flower basket did I realize that geese will even go for sphagnum moss in the dead of winter. Even if they have to jump two feet off the ground to get to it.

When I entered the garage, Mom and dad goose were making their pitiful squeaky door sound, instead of the normal full out honk. They normally go totally nuts when I touch their big baby. But this time, as I cradled Goslings body and eased her head up and out of the basket’s grip, the two older geese just stood by.

Initially, it appeared Gosling was just weak, but not injured. So I gave her back to her parents. But once the pressure of the wire had worn off and circulation to her neck was restored, Goslings feathers began to go red with blood. This time, when I scooped her up, her parents went into their usual hysterics. They pecked at my heels as I swept Gosling into the house where I keep my vet supplies. Then they stood wing to wing at the back door waiting noisily for me to give her back to them.

“What’ve you got now?” Paul croaked, just waking up from a nap on the couch. “You can’t tell this is a goose on my lap?” I shot back. Gosling didn’t look injured. Now honking and biting, the young goose resisted all my ministrations. And rightly so. She’s never had antibiotic gel smeared on her neck before. Never been in the house. And probably never felt so sore and abused. The only plus for her was the unexpected warmth of the heated living room. A few times during her treatment, she even snuggled her beak under my barn coat and lingered. By the time I carried her out, my little patient was definitely feeling better, perhaps even enjoying her place in the spotlight.

For my part, I felt quite goddess-like. Vetting my own critters is one of my joys. That is, when it works. My failures rest under the ancient white pine on the southern border of our meadow. A plot well watered with tears. And well tended by the wild things of the air and earth over the years.

The past few days I’ve spent most of my critter hours pulling cashmere tufts off my goats. It’s a chore I alternately dread and adore. Dread, because starting anything is a big deal for me, a professional procrastinator. Adore, because each tuft of luscious cashmere fiber gives me shivers of delight. I feel richer even than when I find a clutch of more than six eggs in my chicken coop. Bosco’s fiber is a light caramel color and easy to pluck off him. He loves my touch. Not so, his sister, Bunny. Her fiber is light gray. Her attitude is part disgust and part fury. Even so, she gave three bags of fiber this year, a personal best for Bunny.

These sunny, warm days I sit on a new bale of straw in the corral, the goat of the day either tethered by my side or - in the case of Bosco - leaning against me lost in ecstasy - I find my mind wandering to other years and other goats. Baby, Nimbus, Tory and the notorious Nightshade. Each gave up his or her fiber in their own way. And their colors and temperaments are as much a part of my mental landscape as the old white pine is. There is an always-ness to this odd hobby of mine that anchors me in a way nothing else can. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Here’s hoping your soon-to-be born springtime is as delightful. Or, if not, you happen upon a bliss you can call your own very, very soon.

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

Airdate: March 14, 2011

Photo courtesy of Bryan Alexander via Flickr.