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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: Return from LaLa Land

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place I find so hard to leave that only grandchildren and my only child, their mother, could pull me away. Yes, even in March.

This time last week I was in Los Angeles, dreaming huge dreams about Oscar night. My daughter and son-in-law traditionally attend a party. And I - quite UN-traditionally, go too if I am in town.  Lest I mislead you any further, this party is a neighborhood soiree. Were it anywhere but L.A., you’d call it a potluck. Deviled eggs, lasagna, too many cakes, salad and so forth. But instead of chips and pop, foo-foo cheeses and wine.

And of course, a fat kitty of $5 bills for the lucky person who gets the most winners right. My son-in-law won this year. As perhaps the only one there with a direct line to the movie industry - he’s a film editor - there was understandably some carping about unfair insider information from the first runner-up.

Observing these highly unusual events is one of the things I like about trips to L.A. But frankly, without family there to hug and fuss over, I’d rather be just about anywhere else.

But what would you expect from someone who spends hours combing out cashmere goats at midnight in a freezing barn and thanks the good Lord every day for the privilege?

Traveling to L.A., or anywhere for that matter, is nearly as dramatic as anything encountered upon arrival. The weirdness at airports could keep a comedian in material for a lifetime. Take my check-in pat-down at LAX upon departure this week.

Thanks to modern medicine, I am packing metal in both knees, my back and my right shoulder.  So ever since 9/11, I’ve spent at least 15 minutes before getting on any plane being “wanded” and patted down by a female security agent. These gals are humorless and totally averse to chitchat whilst doing their job. And so I was surprised to hear gales of laughter coming from the checkpoint next to mine while I endured what I try to imagine is a free healing touch session.

The bursts of mirth came from a rather portly woman of a certain age who was also at the pat-down part of the ordeal. Trouble was, the poor thing appeared to be excruciatingly ticklish. The arms and legs were bad enough - causing ear-piercing shrieks followed by apologies and spasms of breathless giggling

“Oh, she’s gotta go into a private screening booth,” my guard muttered more to herself than to me. Then, “Please turn the waistband of your blue jeans outward, ma’am,” to me.

But my poor neighbor was going to be publicly tormented, it seemed.

“Oh, geez, I’m so sorry!” she squealed, “I just can’t help it! - Ha, ha, ha, OK, OK, I’m fine now, go ‘head.”

And then, the instant the guard touched her back, the laugh track began anew.

She was still whooping away as I made my way to my departure gate. And off and on I’d catch bits of conversation about her between other passengers. Like, “With my luck she’ll be in the seat next to mine.” Or, “Poor baby, it’s like when you’re in church and you think of something silly and start snickering and can’t stop because you know you’re making a scene, and maybe even getting into big trouble, but that only makes it worse?”

Yep, for the first time since I’d landed in L.A., the people around me were talking about something besides the Oscars. Real life always wins out.

Paul and I sure felt that way when we drove into our mud and ice driveway. Dear old Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz was right, there is no place like home. Now, if only I could find a pair of magic ruby slippers to click together to get me to and from.

Airdate: March 13, 2010



Magnetic North: Ruminating on ruminates

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where winter’s grip is loosening, day by day, drip by drip, and we who count the hours of daylight wax poetic…over just about anything.

As a woman of a certain age, it’s been a while since I wrote love poems of the exotic, e.e. cummings sort.

Still, this early spring finds me musing on the touch of a beloved, but in a still-frozen goat corral. Here, I contemplate; a white and cinnamon colored chicken pecks stray grains from the goats’ hay, a widowed tom turkey trills his displeasure over the slim pickings left for him, and six youngish goats chew contentedly on green hay as Summer, my ravishing brunette llama, glides among them like a soft breeze.

And I,  - the Goddess of Breakfast and Dinner, a/k/a She Who Gives Treats and Needles in the Butt  - I sit on a lawn chair in the 10 a.m. sunshine, eating dark chocolate studded with sea salt and almonds and reading poetry. Out loud.

Last week I found the poem, “Pescadero” by Mark Doty, in the New Yorker magazine. I am beginning to suspect that at least one of the senior staff of this publication is as much a goat fancier as yours truly. Last month, a goat cartoon, now a fairly mushy goat poem.

My goats like poetry of all kinds. Shakespeare’s sonnets. Even mine. This poem, though, found a particularly receptive audience.  Bosco, the lone male, was the exception, choosing instead to butt and eat his way around the corral. But his two younger cousins, cashmere cuties Daisy and Dolly, batted their long eyelashes as I read. And Summer lifted her upper lip, showing two teeth, a llama’s way of saying, “Ohhhhh, that’s soooooooo nice!”

It seemed only fair to share this lovely poem with many. And so, I give to you my friends, “Pescadero” by Mark Doty.

The little goats like my mouth and fingers,

and one stands up against the wire fence, and taps on the fence board/
a hoof made blacker by the dirt of the field,

pushes her mouth forward to my mouth,
so that I can see the smallish squared seeds of her teeth,
and the bristle-whiskers,

and then she kisses me, though I know it doesn’t mean “kiss,”

then leans her head way back, arcing her spine, goat yoga,
all pleasure and greeting and then good-natured indifference; she loves me,

she likes me a lot, she takes interest in me, she doesn’t know me at all
or need to, having thus acknowledged me. Though I am all happiness,

since I have been welcomed by the field’s small envoy, and the splayed hoof,
fragrant with soil, has rested on the fence board beside my hand.

Nice, huh? Add chocolate and sunshine and that’s my idea of heaven on earth.

I’ll leave it to other poets to extol the other signs of spring; the softening of the ice collar around Superior, the re-emergence of the whitetail deer who nibble greedily on something just uncovered by the thaw on the south-facing slopes along Highway 61, and the eagles - soaring overhead, feasting on roadkill in the ditches and taking up residence in last year’s nests

I won’t ignore these wonders. But my poetic bursts of fancy spend themselves right in my own backyard, among creatures who, like my goat-lover friend Mark Doty, acknowledge my presence, welcome me into their world and make my day. Every day. Rain or shine.

This segment aired on Saturday, March 6.



Magnetic North: Dirt and auroras - all in one week

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where some old friends not seen for waaaay too long appeared this week.

The first, I smelled before I saw. The scent literally stopped me in my tracks as soon as I stepped outside to do morning chores. Could it be? In February? But my nose didn’t lie. There under the old red pine by the woodshed the glacier formed by my frozen bucket dumping had receded, defeated by two days of sun, wind and 30-something temperatures. And in place of ice, a dinner-plate size circle of earth. Yes, dirt…as delicious an aroma warming in the morning sun as I’ve ever sniffed.

I know. I know. It’s still a two-month slog until the real deal. But isn't the evidence of things unseen what defines faith? An elusive thing in February, faith. So to drink in the scent of spring when all is still fairly colorless and cold....well, it’s sort of an answered prayer, isn’t it?

The other old friends came to visit a few nights later. And I should have known they were about. The only sounds coming out of my radio were crackles and fleeting notes of music or spoken words. Interference. But from what?

The answer came close to midnight as I left the goat barn. A weird column of smoke undulated in the sky beyond the chicken coop. Of course, it was not smoke, but the northern lights. I didn’t recognize them  - it’s been that long since I’ve seen them. Part of that’s my fault. Without a barn full of goats in recent years I’ve finished chores well before the aurora came to dance over my meadow. And then there is the yard light, a convenience with the unintended consequence of polluting the splendor of stars’ light shows.

A new neighbor and his daughter stopped to chat the next day and we exchanged aurora stories. Some years back, I told him, I was on a northern lights phone-tree. A friend would call me, and vice versa, no matter the hour, if auroras were boogying overhead in the county skies. When did that stop? And why did it take me years to miss it? Scary.

I once said that I’d know if my spirit was in trouble if ever I drove the 15 miles to town without noticing Lake Superior. Forgetting to remember the Northern Lights is a bit like that, I think. And so, to jog my memory, when I go out to do the nighttime chores, I don’t turn the yard light on, but off. And, unless the sky is clouded over, I build in rubbernecking time after the hay is dispensed and the beaks and noses are counted. A good system so far. Why, the night after the aurora sighting, I spied a huge ring around the filling moon. Not a tight ring, but one of such girth that I nearly missed seeing it.

As for last night, I don’t know what was overhead or underfoot. My full attention went to one very sick angora bunny. And of course that trumps mere celestial antics.



Magnetic North Feb. 18: Tween time up north

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Welcome back to Magnetic North. It’s the “tween” season, a funky time in the north country. A time to test one’s mettle. A subtle measure of an individual’s staying power.

Many a city transplant finds this, the halfway mark between winter and spring, more difficult to endure than 30 below temperatures and blizzards. After all there is dramatic currency in howling winds and snow up the ying yang. We who come from the counterfeit country of the suburbs, fantasize about life on the north shore, a Robert Service idyll where we are the heroes, not the hapless doofusses who can’t bear a little frostbite.

But the reality of February in Cook County is quite tame. No epic poetry themes here, much less a potential “Survivor” locale. What it is...well, a good friend says that this time of year up here can be a bit like being pecked to death by ducks.

Nothing major. Just enough little stuff to make a trip to Duluth for painful and invasive medical tests sound like fun.

Not that I feel that way. I do not. So what if the warm temperatures of late tease just enough moisture out of the ground so that the road to town heaves into a washboard surface the closer you are to the shoulder. A thousand bumps per mile are way more tolerable to me than city rush hour on a smooth as glass roadbed.

Paul and I often drive the 17 miles to town without noticing the bumps, only the beauty. We love seeing the profile of the Sawtooths sharp against the winter sky. We search for signs of the big lake icing up and arguing about how soon that might happen. It never occurs to us that we are anything but blessed to be here at a time of year when throngs of people, quite obviously, wish to be somewhere else.

But being in a consistently mild climate would bore me stiff. Here, the incessant thawing and freezing makes our barn and coop doors resist opening one day and closing the next, a phenomenon that can lead to some pretty interesting outcomes. Why, just last week, a culvert outside the barn door heaved up above ground level so far that I had to throw my whole body against the door to close it. And I did. I also loosened two feet of snow on the metal barn roof. Snow that hit the ground outside the door and compacted like cement.

It’s all in the attitude I guess. I look in my garage, still so full of hay for the critters, and I could groan about all those trips to the barn left before the goats can graze on meadow grass again. But I’m content, because for once I’ve put in enough. There’s plenty to last ‘til spring. Ditto for wood. Only half the split maple we bought last June is burned up in the furnace. Plenty left, even if summer is as late as it was last year.

No, this betwixt and between season suits me perfectly. The cashmere is almost all plucked off the goats and the tomato and herb seeds won’t need to go under the grow lights for at least another month. In the meantime, there are months of engrossing chores and projects to tackle. Enough time, enough hay, enough wood to last. How could anything be better?



Magnetic North: F is for February, fleece and fun!

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Welcome back to Magnetic North on Feb. 11, where the warm sunny days of February find me most mornings perched on a green resin lawn chair in the midst of a herd of six goats - four of whom I watch with an eagle eye.
Hay flakes are strewn about on a new coat of sparkling white snow. I space them far enough apart so that the youngest goats get their fill without being butted by the older ones.

Two elderly hens, a recently widowed tom turkey and a reddish-brown llama who moves with a ballerina’s grace, compete for the choicest part of the morning meal - a few handfuls of goat chow scattered in five black rubber feeding tubs.

I sit absolutely still, my eyes darting between the cashmere goats, Bunny, Bosco, Daisy and Dolly. Bosco looks a bit frowsy. Tufts of fluff stick out all over Bosco’s legs and back. And what’s this? At the end of each of his curved horns, telltale wisps of fuzz cling and flutter in the breeze.

I grip the fine-toothed comb in one hand and tuck the brown grocery bag under my arm and approach Bosco. He barely acknowledges my presence, so intent is he on eating more hay than the others. I scratch his head with my free hand, then pluck gently at the nearest puff of fleece. Ahhhhh, it’s time… time to comb out the goats. And gather my winter harvest - soft, luscious cashmere.

Ever since my first herd of cashmere goats arrived, I’ve spent late winter days - and more than a few nights - in the relaxing pursuit of their fleece. Sometimes I net less than a shopping bag full from one goat. Sometimes three times that much. And sometimes, nothing - either because I waited too long and the fleece is matted and dirty. Or because of some fault, like scaly flakes of dead skin clinging to the fleece.

But no matter the quality or quantity of the harvest, the combing and plucking must be done. Otherwise, the fleece works its way to the surface and hangs off the poor goat’s body like a beggar’s rags. Quite disreputable. Not to mention embarrassing.

My goats like to be combed. I seldom have to restrain them with a leash and yet can work on each for an hour at a time. I simply mingle with them during their breakfast. Gingerly pluck and comb and exclaim breathlessly over their great beauty and amazing forbearance. And, should their patience grow short or a stubborn mat require me to use the dreaded scissors, I offer a bribe of plump raisins or apple skins.

Bosco takes four morning sessions before I abandon what little fleece seems glued to his hide. I deeply regret robbing him of his insulation right before we are about to dive into the deep freeze with below zero temperatures and wind chills. But he’ll be fine. With his fully fuzzed out sister, Bunny, and the walking fur furnace, Summer the llama, to cuddle with, Bosco won’t even notice the cold.

Banging in the back door of the house with my precious grocery bag full of Bosco’s fleece, I sort through it hastily. Nighttime is the time for teasing the straight, bristly guard hairs out of the valuable cashmere. But I can’t wait to see how good the fiber is. This is my first year with Bosco and I worry that he is not as heavily endowed as my first goats. I shouldn’t have. Spread out on the top of our cast iron wood cook stove, I see Bosco’s fleece is a delicious creme brulee color. Better yet, it is fairly long and crimped like an expensive salon perm: wonderful spinning attributes.

His late great-great-great uncle Lucky produced more cashmere in his prime, but Bosco will get bigger and so will his fiber output.

I’m happy, but anxious too.

This morning I noticed that Bunny, my pewter gray doe, is about to “blow” her coat. That means shed it before I can get a comb on her. And Dolly, the 6-month-old white kid, is similarly frowsy-looking. Her beautiful brown sister, Daisy, looks good for another week, thank heavens. But I need to clip a clump of something yucky off her back. Suffice it to say that Daisy likes to sleep under the tom turkey’s perch.

And did I mention that when I fed the seven angora bunnies last night it appeared that five were on the verge of blowing their precious coats too?

If this all sounds ridiculously tedious, more trouble than it could possibly be worth and, yes, even nuts, I assure you that it is not. Not for me anyway. The harvesting of fiber from my critters is a tether I wear willingly, attaching me to this earth, this life Paul and I have chosen for ourselves. It’s my touchstone. My lifeline. And the only siren song that could possibly draw me away from my books and knitting out into the February sun to sit on a lawn chair in a goat corral.



Magnetic North Feb. 3: Math and chickens just don’t mix

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where dreams of green grass and balmy breezes come to life on the pages of catalogs. Most of us wear our favorite gardening catalogs ragged before putting in that big order late in February. So many tempting choices. To go with what is known to produce or to take a chance on the hot newbie everybody is raving about? Oh, the agony.
I know it well. But the objects of my obsession sprout feathers, not leaves. And my catalogs bear names like Cackle, not Burpee.
This is my year to reorder chickens. My flock has dwindled over time and those birds who remain spend most of their time eating and squabbling with each other, rather than laying eggs. But that’s OK. They’ve earned their rest.
My husband, Paul, keeps harping on the cost of feed. So it takes a 50-pound sack of lay mash to feed a flock of 17 birds - all for a measly 28 eggs, on average, a week. “Do the math,” he says.
To which, I reply....well, I don’t reply.  I just give him The Look. And that trumps any silly argument based solely on economy.
No, my chicken coop is every bit as sacred a space as a pampered perennial garden or tenderly-tilled vegetable patch. And I fill it every few years with carefully chosen birds that will delight and drive me to distraction…the latter proving to be far better material for these columns, of course.
For example, while the Buff Orpingtons are my all-time favorite chickens, sailing across the lawn like golden galleons on a dandelion speckled sea of green, I’ve never written more than a paragraph about them over my two decades of chicken keeping.
The crazies, on the other hand, got gallons of ink. The Pearl Leghorns are a case in point. They lay ginormous white eggs while consuming a tablespoon of feed per day. Yet, psychotic is the only word that truly describes this breed. For even if you hand raise them, cuddle and coddle each chick with the care of Mother Teresa, they will greet you every day with the same wild flapping and shrieking as if you routinely chased them around the coop with a blowtorch in one hand and a bull whip in the other.
So here is my current list of probables when I send in my orders later this month:
My tried and trues are as follows:
The Partridge Rock - one rooster, like my all-time fave, Winston. A massive bird with a great waterfall of bottle-green tail plumage and burnished rusty red and gold body feathers. Gentle, courageous and generous. Any hen could count herself blessed to have a Partridge Rock rooster for a protector.
The Speckled Sussex hen, the true peck a little, talk a little chicken. Because  I like a bird who chats me up when I feed her.
The Araucana, or Easter Egg Chicken. Who doesn’t like pretty blue-green eggs?
The Black Australorp -the bird who surely inspired the old nursery rhyme, “Higgledy Piggledy my black hen, she lays eggs for gentlemen.“ Plus, the Australorp tames in a nonce, and for those of us who feel the need to walk around carrying a chicken under one arm, that’s huge.
The Buff Orpington.  Beautiful. Serene. And lays well in winter. So what if they don’t make for great stories!
As for new fun types, I’m looking seriously at the Light Brahmas and Buff Brahmas, big birds from Asia that are said to lay well in winter and are good moms, should I choose to let them hatch a few eggs.
I’m also considering the Cherry Eggers, Welsummers and Cuckoo Marans. All lay dark brown eggs, the Marans’ eggs being described as “chocolate brown.” Now, how could ANYONE resist that? And we all know that dark chocolate is good for us. Right?
For Hatcheries, I like Murray McMurray and Cackle. The latter mainly because they let you order smaller numbers - McMurray minimum orders are 25 chicks.
But if you want just a few birds, try going on Boreal and ask to share an order with someone. Be forewarned, though. Just a few chickens may turn into a lifelong obsession. One that I swear you will never regret.
Unless, of course, you are foolish enough the math.




Mysteries can’t be Googled

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Welcome back to Magnetic North on Jan. 21, where winter nights are filled with stars and song and mystery. Last Monday night I heard one long and lonely howl as I puttered around doing evening chores. Rather, I felt it. As the ancient sound hunted around in my brain for its name, the hairs on the back of my neck stiffened. Only the timber wolf’s song has that effect on humans.

“I’m putting the goats to bed early,” I told Paul as I hustled to pull my ice grippers on and slip the remote phone into my barn coat. When I told him why I was in such a sweat to lock up the goats, he was not pleased.

“Take the dog!” he suggested.

“No way!” I shot back. “Scout would make a lovely late night snack for those suckers!”

“Well, what ARE you going to take with you?” my darling inquired.

“A REALLY bad attitude!” I snapped as I grabbed my flashlight and shepherd’s crook. Obviously, Paul had forgotten the morning some years ago when I took off across the snow in my pajamas, broom in hand and wailing like a banshee, all because I spied a coyote peering through the corral fence at my precious goats. The nerve of that critter! He actually tried to stare me down, letting me get close enough to see him blink. But blink he did and I missed my chance to whack him.

Well, this time was much less dramatic. No wolf sightings, only a few more mournful notes, then silence. By the time I’d distributed the evening hay meal, tucked in the baby goats with their foster mom, Summer the llama, and locked the barn tight, only the sound of my own boots crunching the crusted snow echoed in the night.

And what a night. We might have had foggy days this past week, but the nights have been stunningly clear. Stars up here have no competition from manmade light, so you can easily see the full range of them, dusted across the blackness like so much confectioner’s sugar.

Earlier that day, Paul and I drove into town just as the sun was setting. A whisker of moon dangled over the lake. And tendrils of mist rose from the chilly waters of Lake Superior drifting away, shape shifting into clouds. I wonder sometimes how far away those clouds go before they spend themselves as rain or snow. Or what the average life span of a cloud is.

Such wonderings once were the stuff of poetic musings. Now, they are grist for Googling. Way less satisfying. Facts are, after all is said and done, a bit like fiber: necessary, but in need of spice and sweetening.

The morning after my wolf fright, I stepped out onto a sparkling of snow on all the paths. Now is the time of year when I walk on our paths as if on a balance beam, lest I sink knee deep into the untrammeled snow on either side. With each step I add one more to-do to my list of chores: scrape the chicken roosts; give the yearling goat kids their booster shots; try moving the injured black hen into the barn with the other retired layers.

My friend, John Hendricksson, a Gunflint Lake summer resident and author, is a bit puzzled by my recent acquisitions of bunnies and goats and one llama. When I told him early last summer about my newly filled barn and rabbitry, he asked, “So......what’s the point of all this?”

I couldn’t answer him to my satisfaction, but babbled something lame about collecting fiber to spin or sell. Surely not excuse enough for all this effort. But trekking carefully to the barn on my perilously narrow paths, recalling the adventure of the night and the pleasant chores stretching out before me, I found the answer to John’s question.

It’s a mystery.

Like the hair-raising reaction to a wolf’s song. Or where Superior’s clouds end up.

It can’t be explained. It can’t be justified. And thankfully, it certainly can’t be Googled.



Nothing nosy about counting noses

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Welcome back to Magnetic North  on this fine Jan. 7, where counting noses and beaks every day and every decade is the start and end to my days. Six, one, seven, two, five and 13. Good. Only sometimes the count is off.

Once I counted beaks in the coop and came up with one more than I’d ever counted before. Odd, I thought. But numbers have always been a foreign language to me, so I just accepted the new count. Until I heard more than one rooster crowing. Lo and behold, there was a Rhode Island Red rooster now living in my coop. Someone’s unwanted chick. Foisted upon me while I wasn’t looking.

Just in case the jokester who did that is listening, know that I have forgiven you. A fox got your rooster. And I’ve got a rather large and messy male turkey that would just love to spend the day in the back seat of your vehicle if I should ever find out who you are.

But I digress. My point - and I’m within sight of it - is that knowing who is out there and how many are out there is a very big deal. Mostly for them. And as it is with winged and four-legged creatures, so it is with us.

That’s the main reason I found myself taking a multiple-choice test this week in a church basement. I want to help get the Cook County nose count done. Done as completely as possible. So I applied and tested to be a census worker. After all, after being a reporter most of my life, I’m used to asking questions. Even ones people might see as being nosy.

There were just five of us testing in the cozy pine-paneled room beneath the sanctuary of Trinity Church in Hovland, four women and one man. I’d expected more. After all, the work is the kind of thing most can fit into just about any schedule. The hourly pay is around $14 plus mileage. And it’s a short-term commitment. Done in most cases by the end of summer.

Our county recruiter, Diane Stoddard, tested folks this week in Grand Marais, plus the East and West ends. But she has a whale of a big goal to reach - some 240 people to test - before she can rest assured that our county will be counted thoroughly by US and not people from Iowa or Kansas. Or worse!

So this is a plug to get with the count this year. Either help take the count or at least cooperate with it when you are contacted. Think of it like voting or stepping up when a neighbor needs help. Or even getting your blood pressure taken. It’s patriotic. It’s important to your community’s well-being. And it’s part of being a grownup. You can e-mail Diane at

Odd sentiments from a woman who spends her days and nights playing with goats and rabbits. Speaking of which, it’s way past chore time. With temperatures of 15 below or worse, I’m praying that none of my critters is sick. So along with the nose and beak count, I’ll be doing some condition sleuthing armed with my bag of potions and nostrums. In short, I’ll be doing a tail check.

Compared to this little activity, asking folks a bunch of personal questions seems just short of glamorous.



Magnetic North Dec. 31, 2009: Snow and Ice

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the first decade of the millennium is slip-sliding away on a solid sheet of ice.

Our beautiful Christmas Eve snow, perfect for making snowmen, turned to cement. You could cut igloo bricks out of it. Not my idea of fun. Ice coats all surfaces. And as if to emphasize the danger inherent in stepping outside, great frozen Windigo fangs hang menacingly from downspouts.

Yes, yes, I know that a few weeks back I prayed for snow. Proof again that prayers must be specific….a fact I learned one winter long ago stranded on my own road. After stumbling on black ice in the dark, loaded down with groceries, I made my way up a neighbor’s driveway, praying only that someone would be home and would answer the door. Sadly, I did not think to specify that the someone have clothes on.

By the by, the fellow doesn’t live here anymore, so I can tell this without embarrassing him any more than I did that cold, dark night.

The poor man had been in the shower, then ran to answer the phone just as I was approaching the back door. As I knocked, I glanced inside the storm door to see a flash of bare skin as my would-be rescuer dove behind his kitchen counter. Happily, the fellow was a forgiving sort. In fact, after dressing and revving up his truck to drive me home, he even apologized for “being naked.” Now THAT’s Minnesota Nice!

Nothing so dramatic has happened this winter as a result of my snow prayers. My paths to the barn and coop were wrecked by the heavy snow so I can’t kick sled for a while. In fact, I could barely walk a straight line for a day or two. Imagine walking 200 feet by jamming each foot through 10 inches of crusted-over snow. Even pulling a sled with heavy water buckets isn’t enough to moosh down the ridge between footprints. So the impressions just get deeper and deeper. More likely to twist an ankle with every trip.

Would you believe this nasty situation was completely solved by my six darling goats and a malfunctioning electric fence? The fence shorted out around Thanksgiving, so the goats soon learned to shimmy under the high tensile wire and wander about, eating all my pretty evergreen boughs out of three window boxes and committing other unspeakable acts. During one disastrous trip to the coop with three cans of chicken scratch, the gang of six formed a goat vortex around me. Within seconds, the cans were butted out of my grasp and, many curses and kicks later, I stood red-faced and furious. Now my dog, Scout, escorts me and herds the little bums back to the barn if they bother me.

Then came the cement snow. Surely this would keep the ravenous goats inside the fence. But no. The first time I tried to fill our bird feeder with sunflower seeds, something I have to scramble up a stepladder in the middle of a snowbank to accomplish, here come the goats! I threw both cans of seed at the thundering herd and saved myself. Little did I know that even as they sought to deprive the poor chickadees and nuthatches of a meal, their pointy little hooves were smoothing the path between barn and house. Serendipity strikes again!

Naturally, my critters are a big part of my New Year’s resolutions. Forget diet and exercise and money. Except for the usual - eat only good chocolate, spend one whole day a month in bed and buy locally - my resolutions are all about time. I am, as my friend Sally says, a “time optimist.” I always think I have plenty and so tend to do “just one more thing” thus arriving late to almost everything…including going to bed. For example, just one resolution of mine is to never begin grooming an angora rabbit after 10 pm. I’m pretty sure that’s one that won’t show up on many resolution lists, even in Cook County.

So Happy New Year all. Thank you and this station for giving me a forum for my funny life. May your 2010 be all that you hope. And may all your prayers be answered. Just remember, don’t just be careful what you pray for. Be specific!



Magnetic North Dec. 23, 2009: Wood burning magic

MagNorth_1223.mp310.32 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, a whiter and brighter and softer walking place since our recent snowfall. My kick sled is fired up and ready to go. No more clunky trudges to the mailbox. Or tedious treks to barn and coop with buckets growing out of each mittened hand. Now I glide, I zip, I LOVE winter!

There is, of course, the problem of staying warm. Not outside. Outside’s easy. You just keep moving. Moving the snow off the deck. Moving the water and hay and feed to the critters. Moving the wood from shed to house. Heck, most days I get so OVERheated from moving around outside I have to shed my coat and hat way before I’m done with the chores.

No, staying warm INSIDE the house is the biggest winter bugaboo in these parts. With electric heat getting more and more costly, I ordered double the amount of firewood this year. It’s hard to spend money on firewood just when your’re taking down the storm windows. But as soon as the mountain of split maple got dumped in the yard, I sensed that distant glow of September warmth to come.

Paul and I love wood heat. To us, nothing warms you faster or deeper. Soul deep, not just skin deep like electric or propane. Our wood furnace vents its delicious warmth through a rectangular metal floor grate in our hallway. When the inside temperature of the furnace gets high enough, a fan automatically begins pushing warm air up through the grate.

Ah, the sound of that fan. It brings both Paul and me to our feet, each hoping to be the first one to stand over the grate - ideally still in jammies and robe - so as to let the warm breezes fill our robes and our hearts. Gives me goose bumps just to think about it.

This guilty pleasure is but one reason we are wood heat junkies. Another is the ritual. Gathering kindling. Twisting the newspapers.  Incessantly fiddling with the damper. The simple starting, tending, fussbudgetness of it all. Really now, can merely twisting a thermostat come close to that?

Thanks mainly to our wood burning furnace, I start and end my days in winter with meditation, if not outright prayer. The metallic squawk of the black iron furnace door shifts my fevered brain into a serene neutral. Then, mmmmmm, the sharp sweet sulfur scent of the diamond match reaches me. One match sets papers and pine twigs ablaze. I hold my breath. The fires fingers reach all corners of the wood box.
The bigger sticks start charring. And now comes the hard part.

Just when the heat is flowing towards my chilly bones. Just as the beauty of the fire bursts into bloom. Just then it is time to shut the door and wait. Wait for that lovely sound. The fan, the fan. Calling us to stand over that fire grate, sipping our coffee and grinning like sleepy puppies.

When we bought our wood stove, a Clayton, we gathered way more facts about burning wood than we did wood to burn. What  species of wood is available up here? Among those - birch, poplar, maple - which burns best? Gives the most heat. How much will we need to heat our house for the winter? And what the heck is a cord anyway?

And all that was very good to know. Helpful. But nowhere in the mountain of factoids about burning wood for heat did the poetry of the act come through. That was a bonus. One we delight in every day between September and May.

And so, in honor of the joy of wood heat, here is a Christmas present of sorts for my fellow wood heat junkies. Or for anyone considering going that way. I don’t know the author, but found it online on one of dozens of sties extolling wood heat’s virtues. 
“Fireside Lore”

Hickory makes the hottest coals in stoves when winter's bleak,
Apple wood like incense burning through the hall both fragrance seek,
Elm wood fires have little smoke and warm both serf and lord,
Oak logs split and dried this year make good next winters hoard,
Beech burns bright and fill a the room with warmth and dancing light,
Maple sweet, not white or red will burn throughout the night,
Birch logs cut, need ne'er be stored they blaze, then heat the pot,
Ash, straight grain and easy split the kettle sings, and stove is hot,
Poplar logs must need be dried lest smoke both then ensue,
Pine and fir midst showers of sparks burn fast and line the blackened flue

Merry Christmas all. May your own fires burn bright, and sweet all through the shiny bright New Year.