Listen Now
Pledge Now


Magnetic North

Vicki Biggs-Anderson

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

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

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



What's On:

Laughs, Lies and Pillowcases: My Winter Toolbox

Magnetic_North_20110223_finalcut.mp39.01 MB

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

Finalcut_MagNorth_20110114.mp35.03 MB

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

Finalcut_Magnetic_North_20101210.mp39.41 MB

 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

Finalcut_MagNorth_20101112.mp34.56 MB

 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




Magnetic North: Right Of Passage--Boiling Bear Bait

Finalcut_MagNorth_20101009.mp35.06 MB

 Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the end of summer means much the same work as in the suburbs: stacking wood, replacing the mower with the blower, and looking for the stash of gloves and hats and scarves that we may have given away or stored somewhere beyond memory. But we also engage in a number of more exotic activities that I’m pretty sure are unique to country living. One in particular was new to me when I migrated up here in the ‘90s.


When Paul and I moved here from the Twin Cities ‘burbs, we moved into a home with a few faults. One of these was, blessedly, not nailed down or built in… I speak of the coffin-size freezer at the base of our massive wood circular stairway. I find it difficult to part with things that still work. But that thing gave me the willies. Handy, it might be. But I wanted it gone.


So we put an ad in the newspaper: working big freezer, $100, you haul. The response was staggering! The very first of approximately two dozen calls came from a sweet young thing who begged me to save it for her, even though she could not come out to get it right away. She had given birth a few days earlier - her first - and her husband was engaged in work he simply could not abandon until it was finished.


“He’s boiling bear bait,” the woman said. No big deal. No giggling. No explanation. Just, “boiling bear bait.”  


“Ahhhh, well then,” I mumbled, searching random access memory for some hint of what exactly she meant by “boiling bear bait.”


I could have asked. But no. Pride pushed me into a corner and I pretended to get it. More than that. I empathized!


“Of course you have to stay with THAT!”


And so before the couple showed up to cart away the huge freezer the next day, I called my few country contacts to find out what the devil bear bait was and what was with the boiling, anyway. This was waaaay before Google, you see. Actual acquaintances were necessary for finding stuff out back then. Primitive, huh?


Well, I got the answer: bear bait, the boiled variety, is pretty much just a mish mash of sweet stuff - sugar, corn syrup, maybe even some Jell-O thrown in - boiled up and poured into a big steel canister where it hardens into a delicious, ginormous lollipop that bears just can’t resist licking and licking and licking. One imagines that they die happy when the hunters who put the bait out for the bears finally show up and shoot them.


I’m not judging, mind you. Just saying....the young couple who came, new baby in tow, to get the freezer were lovely people. Friendly, welcoming to us newbies. So they baited and ate bears. Some of the stuff our friends in the cities call food is far stranger than that!


A few days after the freezer went away with the nice young couple, we had another new house weirdness befall us. Our electric dryer quit and blew out a batch of fuses in the process. So many that we could not figure out how to fix the mess. So we called the nearest electrician, a fellow recommended by a neighbor because, “He’s good, honest and only lives a few miles away, so he probably won’t charge you for mileage.”


Great. Paul called immediately and actually got the electrician on the phone right away. “Could you come over sometime soon and help us out with this problem?” Paul asked after a few minutes of chatting. We were a little concerned that there might be wiring woes that could be dangerous, not just inconvenient.


Well, sure, the fellow said. He could come over that day, but maybe not until after dark. He was busy with something he just couldn’t walk away from until it was finished. 


“Oh?” Paul replied. “A big job at home? What’s that you say? Really! Well, sure, first things first, I always say.” Then a quick goodbye and Paul sank onto the sofa, eyes wide, shaking his head and mumbling.


Yeah, that’s right. Our new electrician was busy BOILING BEAR BAIT!


That was 20 years ago this month. Obviously, Paul and I took such hobbies of our new community in stride. Just as the folks who were here first have adjusted to our little peccadilloes, like runaway llamas, geese screaming at midnight, doing chores practically in the altogether....that kind of stuff. Or at the least, they ignore them. That's MY idea of good neighbors!


Airdate: October 11, 2010



Magnetic North: Going To Seed

Finaclut_MagNorth_20100924.mp34.67 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place of beauty that frankly looks a bit seedy nowadays. That’s pretty normal for late summer/early fall. The farm is showing wear and tear; fences are leaning over like arthritic ciphers. And the poor old chicken coop! It’s been worn to a nub.


One of my goats makes a beeline each morning for the chicken wire enclosing the run and uses it like her own personal back and side scratcher. After months of this, she has pooched in the wire and pulled the wood to which it was attached up out of the ground. Not good timing, since I’ve just learned that raccoons are wreaking havoc on friends’ chickens. 


While measuring the chicken wire for repair, I of course found even more work: another wire panel inside the run is flapping uselessly in the breeze. The wood block step into the coop has turned to mush after a decade of bearing our weight. And the grand old tree that collapsed behind the run last year, sparing both it and our outhouse, did chuck just one branch onto the top of the run, poking a raccoon-size hole right over the geese’s winter A-frame.


The birds and bunnies look just as sorry as the buildings and plants. They lose feathers and fur in the hot weather, so now they have a moth-eaten look. And they know it. The hens that look the rattiest won’t lay and the bunnies with the biggest bare spots hide themselves from view at feeding time. A bad hair day for a hare is just as devastating as it is for a human. And for them, no do-rags or baseball caps to hide the hideousness! 


All is not grim and grungy in mid-September, though. Going to seed can be a positive experience for the gatherers among us. For instance, my nasturtiums and sunflowers set hundreds of seedpods after gifting us with gorgeous blue and red and orange blossoms day after day. The yellow marigolds were stunning this year. And so was a new variety of daisy called Gazenia…so much so that I figured a way to keep them.


Whenever I remembered, I took pictures of the blooms I loved most and gathered their seeds. My intent: to make seed packets out of the pictures, enclose a few dozen seeds, and send them off to friends throughout the winter. Anyone who has visited us here on this patch of heaven will certainly get a kick out of looking forward to growing another generation of posies from a place they like almost as much as we do.


Another gift project evolved from my never being able to pass up a nice pinecone. With a little hot glue and patience the assorted cones go into wreaths. With just a month or so of gathering left for the cones, I have already filled every basket in my home with them. But still, I lust for more. Somewhere along the way in this obsession I got it into my head that finding at least three cones in a day was akin to a blessing, an omen or “atta girl” of sorts. Call it magical thinking if you will. I just call it fun.


On the critter front, I’ve been working hard to give Summer, my wandering llama, so much TLC that she will stay close to home on those occasions when she sneaks down the driveway. So far, I’ve scored big by extending her fence line out into the meadow and by gently combing out her dreadlocks. Yes, you heard me correctly. Unless you shear them annually, llamas end up looking quite reggae. Very cool, but methinks pretty itchy and more than a little mood dampening. And so, we have beauty spa time each morning after she allows me to put the hated halter on her lovely velvet schnozzola. How could I ever have thought of selling such a beauty?


Folks tell me all of the above is “a lot of work.” And although it certainly is, it’s a mystery to me why I enjoy it so darn much. But my friend, Peter, said last week that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. Like feeling blessed, not by winning the lottery, but by finding three pine cones all in one day.

Airdate: September 25, 2010



Magnetic North: A Time To Let Go Or Make Soup

FinalCut_MagNorth_20100904.mp38.65 MB
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the first fingers of fall tickled us awake on the very last days of August. Even the State Fair down in St. Paul couldn’t seem to bring back the sauna weather of the past months. And, along with Fred Smith of Wildersmith on the Gunflint, I am nearly delirious with joy. Ahhhhhhh, cold weather is so close I can taste it!
Of course, there are a few drawbacks to our six months of hard winter weather. For me, the first is the departure of my little band of mallards. Having finally found our pond two weeks ago, the seven drakes and 10 ducks spend more and more time away from mama duck. They show up for breakfast and dinner, as usual. But fewer hours are spent snoozing under the deck or asparagus fronds. Now, more often than not, when I hear their raucous quacks, the sound comes from afar. Either high in the sky as they strengthen their young wings. Or from away out on the west meadow, where the cattails and duckweed on the pond hide the birds from the eyes of circling hawks and eagles. 
In keeping with my resolve to raise the mallards for the wild, not one of them has a name. They are all simply, “Baby.” 
And yet, this year, I’ve crossed a line I swore I would not. I’ve fallen in love with a little female mallard. One who stands out from the rest because of her honey color. Her feathers are so different from the other females that I couldn’t help but notice her. And before long, I began looking for her first thing in the morning, before I even took a beak count to see how many had survived yet another night outside. Three of the original flock have gone missing since June 4. So far, the only predation we’ve had this year. Knock wood!
Now, as the mallards inch closer to their migration date, I dream of keeping that one pretty little honey duck - and, of course, a mate. My rationalization for such a dastardly act is pitiful. I tell myself that if I keep her and a drake I won’t have to buy ducklings next spring, saving about 40 bucks.  No, I have not factored in the cost of feeding a pair all winter and the prospect of losing both to illness as they’ll be cooped up with the domestic ducks and a couple dozen snarky chickens. As I said, pitiful!
I ask for prayers that I do the right thing and let her go. Or, that she is wily enough by now to avoid my clutches in the event I weaken.
My other dilemma involves my recent goat cheese making success. Each batch of delicious chevre leaves me with more than a quart of whey. Whey is the liquid that drains off the curds as they hang in the cheesecloth. I poured the first few quarts down the drain before realizing that surely such nutritious stuff would be useful. It is! Thanks to Google and a community of obsessive cheese heads like me, I now use my excess whey for soup stock and baking. Very cool and very yummy.
Soup and real bread are two more reasons to love winter at our house. That and stoking the wood furnace and cook stove, standing over the grate where the warm, maple scented air rises in the morning, and letting my robe billow out around me like a dirigible about to ascend into the clouds. Hardly a likely outcome for someone who has taken to stuffing herself with goat cheese and crackers twice a day!
Ahhhh, the joys of winter. They are so many and so delightful, what need have I of more ducks? Even one the color of honey who I’ll miss more than all the rest.
Airdate: September 6, 2010


Magnetic North: A Cheesy Success Story

FinalCut_MagNorth_20100828.mp38.99 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North and one happy goat milker. I have just turned out my first successful batch of chevre. Chevre, that’s French for creamy, sweet, almost-better-than-dark chocolate, cheese! 

My first batch, made soon after I acquired my Alpine milk goat, turned out - well.....yucky. Think Silly Putty and you’ll pretty much get the picture. Well, that was over a year ago and since then, I’ve gotten more and more milk from the goat and learned a thing or two about cheese making.

First, read the cheese-making book. Second, follow the directions for processing the milk. Third, read the recipe and don’t improvise like you usually do. One would think that having arrived at the venerable age I have, I’d have learned to do all of the above. But no.


Lucky for me, I’m stubborn. I come from a long line of Brits and defeat is not in my genetic profile.
And so, on the eve of our last wave of summer guest invasion, I began collecting quart jars of goat’s milk and readied my cheese-making supplies.


I should tell you that my goat, Harte, named not for the organ, but the writer, Brett Harte, is too much fun to milk to consider the task work. Once or twice a day I take a big old blue zippered carryall bag and stuff it with the following:


* two coffee cans half full of scrumptious feed, a blend specially made for lactating goats,


* A tall plastic pitcher with a twist-on top,


* A washcloth that’s just been soaked in hot, soapy water packed into a plastic bag,


* antibiotic spray, udder balm - like the richest hand cream you’ve ever known, and a few slices of gala organic apple.


Once inside the corral I am surrounded by six anxious goats and one very polite, but hungry, llama. To their credit, no one lays a hoof on me as I distribute the contents of one coffee can between two feeding stations. Then, as the rest snarf down their chow, I take Harte by her collar into the barn and shut the door. She is already up on the metal milking stand by the time I get all my supplies ready. Then, it’s give her the other can of feed - she gets as much as all the rest combined because she is making milk - thread the milk stand chain through her collar and prepare her udder. A spray of antiseptic, a rubdown with that warm washcloth and a couple of clean-the-jets squirts of milk and we are into the routine.


Harte finishes the grain before I have even an inch of milk in the pitcher. So keeping her content for the next 15 or 20 minutes is a challenge. Massage, scratching and my pathetic attempt at singing gets the job done. And no, I WILL NOT be sharing Harte’s top 10 milking songs. That’s between me and my goat!


Each milking nets anywhere from two to four cups of milk, all of which has to be cooled within a half hour to a certain temperature to qualify for the two top grades of milk. Sloppy cooling results in off tasting milk or cheese. And who wants that? Well, besides my Lab, Scout?


After cooling the milk in a sink full of cold water and ice cubes, I pasteurize it in a double boiler. Bringing the milk to 160 degrees for three minutes, then pouring it into sterilized glass jars which I store in the fridge until cheese-making time. I need 16 cups of milk to make two pounds of chevre. That, and some rennet tablets, yards and yards of cheesecloth, about a day to set and drain the curds and that’s it.


Simple? Yes. Easy? No. But then if I wanted easy I wouldn’t be living up here. Wouldn’t be keeping chickens for their eggs or angora rabbits for their fabulous fuzz. And, need I say, I wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun or stuff to write about!

Airdate: August 28, 2010



Summer drives in unfamiliar territory

Finalcut_MagNorth_20100814.mp311.89 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place so spectacularly wonderful that human beings will put themselves through summer road construction hell numerous times just to be here for a matter or hours or days. Driving anywhere for pleasure in the summer in this state is what my adult daughter would call counterintuitive. Or, in plain English, bat crazy!

Bad enough that everyone who owns wheels is out on the roads and, for the most part, driving as if they are either drugged or in dire need of a restroom. Add to that the ubiquitous orange cones dotting the shoulders of every freeway and donkey path in the state - icons for the phrase “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Paul and I have had several unavoidable trips to the Twin Cities this summer. Memorial services for dear friends. Sad times that inexplicably turn into delightful hugs and conversations with those we haven’t seen for ages. We end up smiling more often than not. A nice thing, given that we had to navigate through the massive redo of the Duluth freeway, the unannounced closing of our exit in the cities near midnight on a stifling hot night and a torrential downpour as we returned via Duluth during the hour when lightning took out the lift bridge between Park Point and the city. And, because as we all know so well, God has a really big sense of humor, yes, the bridge was in the “up” position at the time.

In-between construction delays and detours to places that aren’t on any map, we can relax and enjoy the scenery. Until someone realizes that we’ve passed the same lake or cabin or pile of Red Bull cans twice in the past hour. This is no biggy....unless the driver is male. What is that about anyway? Asking for directions apparently is akin to admitting one is lost. So does lost equal loser?

I am the designated driver in our marriage and so, when I got lost last month somewhere near Two Island Lake and The Grade, I promptly admitted it. Paul seemed unconcerned. He loves to drive the back roads of Cook County.  Coincidentally, though, just as I was plotting my next wrong turn, I came upon a shiny blue sport car at an intersection with two guys and most of the contents of the Cabela’s catalog crammed inside.

The older of the two, the dad and driver, was looking both ways and the son had what appeared to be a wall map open.

I lowered my window and smiled at the driver. He pretended not to see me. So I honked my horn and shouted, “Are you lost?”

The man was trapped. “Well, we might be,” he said, at last lowering his window. “Daaaaa-aaad,” the boy croaked. “Ask her if we are anywhere near the Gunflint Trail!”

As badly as I wanted to say, “Oh, you mean back in Minnesota?” or “Define near,” I answered politely, “Just minutes away.” And I gave them explicit directions back to the Trail.

As we parted company with the visitors, Paul looked puzzled. “How come you could give them directions but we are lost?’ he asked.

“Well, I may not know where I am,” I replied. “But I know where I came from.” That struck me as the essence of summer driving. Especially in rural and remote areas like ours.  So often, I hear tourist complain that they drove miles and miles without seeing any signs indicating what road they might be on. Worse, a road might be called Bear Paw Path, but the gal at the bait shop tells you head for The Old Dump Road. Methinks that’s what happened to the boy and his dad on The Grade.

All this wouldn’t faze a true North Shore aficionado. Only heat and humidity the likes of which they planned to leave behind in the cities can do that. Uh, oh. This summer might just have wrecked that myth. Yes, some of my friends DO have air conditioners. And when summer comes with road work and lost boys and their fathers, some Cook County residents actually leave the country! After all, Canada’s only one culvert replacement two asphalt overlayments  and three “Reduced Speed Work Zone” signs away.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, all is well. Summer the llama has run away twice in the past week. She is for sale. The White Chinese goose gosling is all white, no more yellow down, but still peeping, not honking. The young mallards are flying around the house and over the pond. Maybe they’ll actually land in it one day. Harte, my Alpine goat is putting out two quarts of milk a day. Too much for us to drink. And the cashmere goats’ winter fleece is coming in. Even in this heat!

All in all, the summer has been better than good. We can’t call it great. Not with two memorial services behind us and one to go this weekend. The world without dear friends, those who make up our notion of not just where we are but who we are, is a different place. A bit unfamiliar. Slightly off. And because of that, our journey, through all the seasons we have left will be....well, different.

In Minnesota Speak, that means it’ll be “OK, but could be better.” God bless you, “Super” and Paulus and Frank. We miss each one of you so doggone much.



Magnetic North: Failure-To-Launch Ducks And Chicken Neuroses

FinalCut_MagNorth_20100724.mp39.16 MB
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where fireflies light up the nights and the meadow wears a rainbow of flowers. As always by mid-July, we are awash in yellows: birds’-foot trefoil and buttercups. Then there are the purples of clovers and joe pye weed. The daisies: big, small and nearly invisible. And, to the foragers among us, of course, the itty-bitty strawberries hiding beneath leaves so close to the ground only a clever bear could sniff them out. My summer’s harvest of these fruits wouldn’t fill a tart shell. But I’ve got my eye on two fabulous wild raspberry patches that will fill a corner of my freezer.
That is....if I remember to go pick. Mainly because even with so many more hours of daylight, there seem to never be enough to get everything done. My to-do list of chores looks like the outline for a farm-based reality show. Take this entry, for example: move the mallards to the pond. Today!!! 
Fact is, I first made that move last month. Still have the scratches on both arms to prove it. Trouble is, you might notice should you visit my farm that there are no mallards on the pond. But there are 20 such birds, larding around under our deck and eating their fill of grass and slugs. Note to gardeners out there: If you have slugs and don’t want them, get a duck. 
But I digress. Paul and I get mallards each year to enjoy watching them swim, not to listen to them noshing and gabbling to each other underfoot. Too bad. This year’s flock apparently took a vote after a night or two in the willows at the pond’s inlet and decided to move back in with mom and dad. I believe in human terms this is called, “failure to launch?”
And so, as each day dawns, I vow to move them down to the water  - once and for all. First, I tried bribes…like the pied piper, only without the pipes. Instead I shake two red coffee cans filled with duck feed, a delicious marimba sound that brings them quacking and fluttering around me. Sadly, before I’ve led them to the pond’s edge, the little flying rats have gorged themselves once more on creepy-crawling yum-yums along the way and fly back to their deckside pad. Next, I set the dog on them. Then I threatened them with starvation. They laughed at me. Well, not really laughed. But they definitely snickered!
Next on my list of Herculean tasks is moving yet another flock of birds. It’s high time for the new barn rooster and his girls to go to the barn. However, timing is everything with chickens. Up until now, the birds have known only a large, airy but snug garage and their straw-filled kiddy pool crib. Their digs in the barn are ready, but I waver as to the right time of day to enforce the move. If I do it in daylight, it means catching all 10 of them - scaring the wits out of them and adding more scratches to my poor arms. But they would have hours of daylight to get used to the barn before dark.  If I do it at night, though, I can pick the birds up without a struggle. They can’t see in the dark and are super easy to handle. But they would wake up in a strange place and who knows what kinds of neuroses that might bring on.
As I ponder these weighty issues, I do envy the critters, both domestic and wild. My bunnies and birds and goats doubtless don’t worry about where their next blade of grass or slug is coming from. Much less where they’ll go to sleep after dinner. And the wild things, the two does out on the meadow with their three fawns...well, all they seem to care about is keeping the little dickens safe. And loving them. A lesson for us all, I think. 
And so, on these gorgeous summer days, with meadow flowers to count, naps to take in a sunny spot, and those two wild raspberry patches to keep an eye on, maybe the best To-Do is just To Be. Methinks I’ll give that a shot. The ducks and chicks can wait a bit longer. Heck, maybe even ‘til August!
Airdate: July 24, 2010