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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:
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.



Laughs, Lies and Pillowcases: My Winter Toolbox

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where we ricochet between spring mush and winter ice within the space of a long weekend. I prefer mush. Sure, ice keeps the orthopedic surgeons fully employed, but mushy snow has it’s own treachery.

Case in point: last week we had a short-lived thaw. The expanse of deep snow was no longer crusty enough for a big dog like our yellow Lab, Scout, to walk upon. Instead, the snow took on the consistency of library paste…only without that yummy taste. Still rock-hard were the snaky little paths I’ve trodden between house and chicken coop and barn. Rock-hard, narrow and slippery as the proverbial eel. So in essence, what you have then is a greased balance beam flanked by a sea of goo…deep, cold goo.

I know from experience. My first trip out on that spring-like day found me soon on my backside, flailing like a June bug as I sank deeper and deeper into the mush. Scout stood by me, for all the good that did. My three white geese circled me, shrieking and flapping their wings. And the six goats began slipping under the corral fence and heading my way - “Oh, good. Mom is being funny again!” I don’t begrudge the critters a good chuckle at my expense. After all, we humans get through winter pretty much on just that kind of other-directed humor. It’s not wrong. It’s what’s needed.

Frankly, my winter survival tool kit employs laughing at other people frequently. But this time, as my jeans got soggier, my humor grew darker and, with a growl that sent my dog and geese running for their lives, I became vertical. Sheer fury flipped me from back to belly, then I wiggled hands, elbows, chin, knees and so forth into something of a downward-facing dog posture. From there, it was one very careful move to get back on the balance beam, I mean, the path. And then on to the chicken coop where my 13 hens, two roosters and four ducks would cluck and quack my praises as I scattered grain and lay mash around their newly-filled bucket of sparkling clean water. All this adulation and delicious eggs too? How could any effort be too great?

But as rewarding as the birds are, their coop presents its own challenges, ice or mush or mud. That day, as I set the water bucket inside the door to the run, I noticed new animal tracks around the wired perimeter. Fox? Again? Then I spied a hole big enough for a fox to crawl through about two feet off the snow line on the far end of the run. No problem. I keep wire cutters in my coat pocket and chicken wire in the coop. Within five minutes, I’d patched the hole and was on my way out of the run. At least, I would have been on my way out had the door to the run not been jammed from the outside. Some moron left a shovel leaning up against the doorframe and the thing shifted just enough to trap me inside the run. What to do now? Cut my way out and face making an even bigger patch? The prospect of that got my nanny again. Employing a woman’s mightiest weapon, I aimed my right hip at wooden door and “WHAM!” it gave way. I was out.

Two disasters down and who knows how many to go, it was on to the barn. I usually do the barn chores first, but that day I saved them for last because I had a new technique for dealing with my llama, Summer. Summer has something of a prima donna attitude about being groomed and given shots. Forget manicuring her hooves!
A fellow goat enthusiast who got suckered into the “Llamas make great guardian animals” scam clued me in. “Do this and I’ll guarantee you, she won’t move,” my friend said. And I believed her. Because she is a nurse who helped save my life once. And, because I know where she lives.

The technique is simple: put a pillowcase over the llama’s head. That’s it. Seriously. Of course, this requires having the creature somewhat confined, preferably on a lead tied to a stout tree. But sure enough, once I pulled that light blue cotton pillowcase over Summer’s head, she froze. Stood there like a stone monkey while I tickled her tummy, lifted her back foot off the ground and combed out one of her ten thousand dreadlocks. And miracle of miracles, when I removed the pillowcase from her gorgeous head, she just looked at me with those enormous brown eyes like, “Oh, it’s you! Got any grain?” I was so excited at the prospect of being able to care for Summer without risking life and limb that when I went inside the house and Paul asked me how I got so wet, I couldn’t remember.

“I hope you didn’t fall down out there,” he said, fixing me with THAT LOOK. “It was more of a gradual slide to the ground than a fall,” I replied. “No big deal.” OK, I lied. But again, whatever works to get us through these next few months is justified. The alternative is being somewhere else in the winter months. Someplace hot, crawling with people. And kudzu. Someplace where not even laughs, lies and pillowcases could save my sanity. But then, like most of us who love living here, I find that sanity is highly overrated.

Airdate: February 26, 2011

Photo courtesy of Jaanus Silla via Flickr.



Magnetic North: Ice Follies Are Us

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where ice follies of all variety are played out on a daily - and nightly - basis.

Freezing rain hit Cook County the day before New Year's Eve. Of course it did. Weather that would tax the skills of an Indy 500 driver most always descends on or before a day when people who should be anywhere but behind the wheel of a vehicle are driving. In the dark. Often on roads they have never seen before. My friend Mary in Hovland calls these quirks of nature "cosmic ha-has." My name for them is not fit for family radio.

Actually, I took the first few days of living atop 1 to 2 inches of solid ice quite well. Paul and I were able to drive into town without skidding through too many stop signs. And we had enough gravel and salt stashed in the garage for several winters.

My serenity first began to erode on New Year's Day evening. The goats and llama were slip-sliding around the corral a few hours past dark and I decided to put them in a bit early - early for me is anytime before midnight.

The old wooden barn has four doorways - all of which have "issues." The double doors to the hay storage room are sprung open because 60 hay bales are pushed up against them. A manure fork holds them shut just enough to prevent a barn-break.

The north side door has three latches - two out and one inside - but still flies open for no apparent reason now and then. Summer, the llama, checks that door hourly.

The north stable door is off its hinges but stays firmly in place due to its immense weight: a good 150 pounds. Once a year I release the latch holding it upright just to fork out the year's waste hay and muck. How I get it back in place is lost in a memory fog, like childbirth. Then there is the corral door. This is the door through which passes hay and water and clean sheets - that is, clean straw bedding. And so, of course, the corral door is the worst of the bunch for causing trouble. It faces south, as does the barn's tin roof. Ergo, drip, drip drip, and before you know it, you have a skating rink! Right where I need to carry bundles and buckets twice daily.

It was this door that I found ajar just enough to allow the animals to squeeze in and out, its lower edge totally embedded in 2 inches of ice. Nothing I could do, short of blasting, moved the thing.

Ah, yes the corral door is a cruel teacher of all things ice. Here are some of the lessons this cursed door and our Minnesota winters have taught me:

One, the later one goes out to shut the door at night, the more likely that door is to be frozen into the ground.

Two, when chopping frozen ice in a barnyard, keep your mouth SHUT, even if you can't breathe through your nose. Suffocation is nothing compared to a frozen goat dropping hitting your soft palate.

Three, salt is highly overrated, but boiling water, a pick ax and maul are golden.

Four, make sure that everything you need to open a frozen shut door is never behind a door that can freeze shut. Case in point: this week I found the door to my garage frozen solid to the cement floor. The garage doors are electric, so wouldn't budge either. Since I keep my maul, calcium chloride pellets and thermos of boiling water on my person 24/7, no problem. I was inside the garage in 20 minutes flat. And the door is missing only a little speck of wood down near the bottom. Big deal.

I hope it is clear by now that any of the problems I have described can happen whether or not one has 22 chickens, four ducks, three geese, six angora bunnies, a turkey, a llama and six goats to feed and water twice daily. Well, maybe not the barn door thing, but admit it, if you DID have a barn you'd probably stuff it full of something you had to get at morning and night. Like…oh, I don't know…chocolate comes to mind.

My chocolate substitute has feathers and fleece, so getting past the ice dams surrounding my world right now is pretty much life and death. Really quite a lot like chocolate come to think of it.

Frankly, my New Year's wish for us and all of you is NO MORE ICE. Cold is OK. Ditto, snow. But if perchance we do get more of the stuff, remember, I still have plenty of sand and salt. And a pick ax and maul are easy to come by in town.

Airdate: January 15, 2011



Magnetic North: Hard To Get Away

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 Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the skies are full of wonder - and I’m not just talking Santa here.

We had your meteor showers, your full moon, your total lunar eclipse and let’s not forget the much anticipated winter solstice, the hump day of winter. The latter may not light up the skies in any noticeable way, but let’s be clear - the mere addition of a minute or two of daylight from now on is huge in this latitude.

The gloom of early winter seems to be over as well, making it easy to heat the house just by opening the south-facing window drapes. The scene that greets me when I do this is pure magic, We live in a veritable snow globe in this part of the world. Christmas trees outnumber all other varieties and all of ours are flocked in gorgeous soft snow flakes. This most recent snow is the down comforter type. You know, the type of snow that is more fluff than uffda on the shovel. The type that softens sound and catches every precious drop of sunlight.

With all of the above, MY stocking is overflowing this year.

As if that wasn’t enough, I have been zinging around the farm on my Norwegian Spark kick sled for weeks. Fetching the mail, hauling buckets of warm water to the goats and chickens, and on most nights, gliding down the driveway late at night when the stars are brightest. It helps that I prefer cold to heat. That monochromatic landscapes delight my eye. And that driving anywhere is pretty much optional at this point in life.

The critters seem just as pleased with winter. My flock of chickens has recovered their mojo after a brutal fox attack last month. Most days they gift me with five beautiful brown eggs - as well as a chorus of clucking. There ARE challenges to keeping birds in this weather. Windows that need to be open a bit for ventilation often freeze shut. And defrosting buckets of yucky used water in the house is, well, yucky. Still, a small price to pay for the rewards.

The goats are positively psyched by snow. They shoot out of the barn every morning, vying for a place at the six pans of hay and grain scattered about the corral. Each day I put the feeding stations farther from the barn doors, just to encourage the goats to pack down the snow all over. As soon as chow is gone, all six - Bunny, Bosco, Daisy, Dolly, Harte and Poppy - wriggle through the fence wires and teeter along the skinny path to the house. The goal is to find the garage door ajar and raid the feed cans.

Summer, our ravishing brunette llama is the least pleased with the weather. It’s her fault, really, since she has taken to escaping the corral and so has earned herself mega-jailtime this month. Ditto the three white geese and Tommy Turkey. All honk and gobble with outrage when I attempt to coop them up after only eight hours of fun in the snow and sun. I am happy to report that last summer’s gosling has begun laying big white eggs, just like her mama. Another major gift for a girl who lives to bake stuff.

People often ask us if having these critters makes it “hard to get away.” Used to be, I’d explain that many friends and neighbors are happy to do a chore or two for a short stint and in a pinch we have always been able to hire house sitters. But lately, my answer to those who ask is, “Why would we WANT to get away?” After all, THIS is where we spent decades trying to get away TO every chance we got. So snow that we are here, well, we are blessedly content to just stay put and enjoy the view,

May you be similarly blessed this holiday season and for all the days to come. No other gifts will ever be needed. I guarantee.

Airdate: December 26, 2010



Magnetic North: Stood Up But Willing To Forgive

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 Welcome back to Magnetic North, where it appears we’ve been stood up. By winter, of all things.

Now before anyone goes off about the benefits to a human psyche from extended summer - temperatures in the sixties and sun nearly all day - well, at least for the barely ten hours of daylight we get in mid-November - the fact is that most of us have been in a state of ready-alert for over a month. And frankly, that takes the starch out of a person. Even a Minnesotan.
For example, before the first leaf fell off a tree, my chickens and bunnies and goats all got clean sheets (my term for sparkling new straw litter) on their coop and rabbitry and barn floors. Now, after all these faux summer days, and no hard freeze, their digs are as smelly and poopy looking as they are in March.
Then there’s the mallard flock on our little pond. By Halloween they were almost too fat to fly away. Only twice has the pond frozen over, and only for a few hours. So the six drakes and ten hen ducks have taken to lolling about midst the cattails, like spoiled kids at the cotton candy stand, making a constant racket for more treats. More, more, more!
Stop feeding them, you say? They’ll fly away soon enough then, you say? Well, come stay at my house for a day and listen to those piteous quacks ‘round the clock. Yes, even at night! Only a fiend would deny them.
The only hungry mouth around this place that isn’t being stuffed due to the unseasonable warmth this fall is that of our grand old Clayton wood furnace. Paul and I stacked our load of maple in late September, thinking that we would be lucky to get it in the shed before the first blizzard. But no. I’ve had exactly three fires since then. And with two, it got so blistering hot we had to keep the sliding doors, both of them, open for hours.
There HAVE been a few unexpected delights along the way, though.
The smell of fallen leaves, toasting in the sun underfoot, for one. Not as pungent a scent as the burning leaf piles of our youth, nor as earthy a one as the moist marinade covering the earth after a month of Autumn rains. But a truly mouthwatering aroma that will ever remind me of the very moment I noticed it, carrying a water bucket and grain to the chickens.
And then there was the luxury of time - hours not ordinarily available to check the corral fence for gaps and just to wander about gathering kindling from all the trees toppled in the windstorms of late. Those storms took out more gangly balsam pines and poplar, but they also left a treasure trove for an inveterate beachcomber like me. I may be far from my roots on the Atlantic coast where I thrilled to hurricanes, knowing there would be hours and days of gathering what the waves left behind. But I find the woods after a storm are just as rich. Birds nests as finely knit together as a lace wedding shawl, delicate bits of sea green moss and burnt orange lichen, two ledge fungi colored a deep burgundy and shined up like patent leather and sometimes buried treasure, like the three-inch tall cobalt blue medicine bottle from generations back, torn from its resting place in the earth by the roots of a fallen tree, its tiny cork still in place.
My pockets are never empty when I go woods combing after a big wind.
And so I forgive winter for keeping me waiting this year. She’ll always be my favorite season. Late, early or right on the money. And they say she’ll blow in sometime this week. That means I have a new deadline. Another round of clean sheets for the goats and bunnies and chickens. At least one more sack of cracked corn to buy for the mallards. A trip to town to replace the chocolate and cookies I filched from the winter car travel kit. And, most and best of all, another walk on our trails to gather the last of the kindling - and, with luck, even more treasure! 

Airdate: November 13, 2010