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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:

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

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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.



Magnetic North Dec.17, 2009: My winter drinking problem :)

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where we stagger toward Christmas week over frozen clods of mud and, alas, no measurable snow.

Believe it or not, chores in winter get easier, not harder, with snow. For one thing, carrying all those buckets of water to the barn and coop goes smoother with snow under foot. I can even use my Norwegian kick sled to transport the buckets instead of galumphing 93 steps from house to barn.

Yes, I count the steps. Call it mindfulness or mindlessness. Fact is, attention to such details keeps me in a cheerful mood, even when I slop the goat water all over my blue jeans in 20 below wind-chill weather. 

Truth be told, my critters drink too much. Or at the very least, they don’t drink fast enough. Morning chores find me schlepping two buckets of warm water to the goats and my guard llama and two more to the chickens and ducks. The angora bunnies get five water bottles twice a day. By the time I’m about ready to come inside for lunch, the water in all locations is no more. That is, it is not water. Whatever doesn’t get slurped up fast-freezes solid.

Hence, evening chores find me filling four more buckets, making those sloppy, stumble bum trips again and returning to the house laden with the frozen remains.

That is why we have, at all times between December and April, four semi-thawed black rubber buckets lining the narrow back hallway. And why there is a growing pile of bucket-shaped ice next to our woodshed.

But it’s worth it. Seeing my six goats rush to those steaming buckets and draw long, delicious sips of water never fails to warm me up. Summer, the llama, is a sneak drinker, though. In the seven months since she came to live here, I think I’ve seen Summer take a swig of water exactly once.

Not so the big white Chinese geese, Holdme and Touchme. Holdme hogs the bucket first, dunking his entire head and half his long neck over and over again. For geese, drinking is secondary to bathing. After five or 10 minutes of serious groomin’ and guzzlin’ he and his paramour run and flap their way across the lawn to the woodshed where they’ll spend the day nibbling kibble in a mound of new straw. Tough life, eh?

The bunnies are always my last chore stop, morning and night, for one big reason. Aside from the Internet, I find angora bunnies the greatest time sinks on the planet earth. Doling out their water bottles takes only minutes, but watching the little dickens belly up to the bottles and drink out of the upside-down metal tubes takes waaaaay longer. And of course, there are raisins and bits of dried papaya to hand out. Fur to comb. Ears to tickle. I tell you, the work with those bunnies just NEVER ends!



Magnetic North Dec.10, 2009: Beware The White Stuff. And Other Christmas Horror Stories

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where that icky white stuff is starting to pile up. No, not snow. We wish! Those of us with skis, snowshoes and septic systems are praying for snow and lots of it real soon.

No, the icky white stuff to which I refer is, to a very select few, a delicacy. Yep, it’s lutefisk. For those of you who have read of my own close encounter with lutefisk years back, well, a good yarn like that never really can be told too often.

And besides, it sort of fits right in with the British holiday tradition of telling scary stories while roasting those chestnuts and steaming that Figgie pudding.

So what’s scary about lutefisk? Well, I found out in the mid-1970s. My daughter and husband and I were brand new members of a big Lutheran church in the cities, a church that staged a major event just about every weekend. And the most major of all those multitude of events was the annual pre-Christmas lutefisk dinner. Of course, I bought tickets. And, since I’d heard that lutefisk, even among Scandinavians, is an acquired taste, I set about acquiring one.

My quest began at the nearest Lund’s grocery store. Hailing a smiling fellow behind the meat and fish counter, I asked brightly, “Where’s the lutefisk?”

His smile vanished. He sighed. Then, pointing to what appeared to be a pile of baggies filled with clear Jell-O, he muttered, “You’ve got more guts than I do. But IT’S over there.”

Hmmmm, probably NOT a Norwegian or a Swede, I thought, choosing the biggest sack of ....what WAS this stuff inside? The package instructions were vague. “Boil bag in water or bake contents until firm. Serve with either butter or cream sauce.”

It was dark when I got home and the colored Christmas lights around the kitchen windows cast a cheery glow on the gelatinous colorless fish flesh inside the two-pound bag. Even so, I was in no mood to foul my oven, so I put a pot of water on to boil and set about melting the butter and setting the table.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” I sang out gaily to my husband and daughter, who were cluelessly watching television.  It’s amazing how fast nausea can hit a person. For me, it was the second right after I cut open the boiled bag and let the lutefisk slither out and into a metal colander in our sink.

The steam stung my eyes and stopped my breath. Plus, the fishy secretions turned my colander black!

“What’s that smell?” my husband yelled. My daughter merely ran screaming from the room.

“Never mind,” I said, “we’re eating out tonight. Get your coats!”

On the way out the back door, I grabbed the still out-gassing fish in the colander and, before leaping into our car, hurled the whole mess into our Malamute Wooly’s kennel. And did she enjoy it!

When we returned, the car’s headlights shone on the kennel as we pulled in the driveway. Wooly stood inside the fence, tail wagging and a big doggy grin on her muzzle. And why not? For we all know that even more than dogs love to eat, they love to roll in stinky stuff. Yes, the two pounds of lutefisk was stuck in great frozen globs all over my beautiful 100-pound pooch.

My daughter, Gretchen, remembers this last part of our lutefisk adventure best. She, after all, had the heavy duty of leaning hard against our shower stall door while I shampooed the lutefisk off our dog. She tells me that I remained remarkably calm. No swearing. No hollering. Just a few groans and - I swear she is making this up - a sob.

And so....we skipped the big lutefisk dinner. Having acquired nothing more than a lifelong aversion to the stuff. And, eventually, we joined a Presbyterian church. There, the most exotic thing we ever ate was Indian fry bread. For me, though, every year when I see those jiggling bags of goo appear in the market I flash back to THE HORROR of it all.

And that’s why I just can’t resist telling the story over and over and over again.



Magnetic North Nov. 24, 2009: Thanks given for all things

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Welcome back to Magnetic North just as many are either coming or going in search of family and feast or both.
Since our very first Thanksgiving here, Paul and I have preferred staying put to traveling. By a happy trick of fate, that first year we had to cancel plans for the holiday due to Paul’s aching back. And so began a 16-year-long tradition of making the Congregational Church community dinner our “family feed.”

Every year thereafter I’d recall that first Thanksgiving at the church. Counting ourselves quite pitiful we discovered we were anything but. We were part of a new family, one that waxed and waned over the years. Always reconstituting on Thanksgiving, the tastes and aromas and familiar dishes conjuring up faces and conversations.

When my mother was alive, she loved to be included in the bustle of the Congo Thanksgiving dinner. Seated like a grand dame at one of many circular tables of eight, mother took great pains to speak to each person as if she were the hostess and they were her very special guests. Especially the gentlemen, and the younger the better. Mother was a flirt of the nicest sort. Even in her 80s and 90s.

One particular Thanksgiving Mom had a great chat with two handsome young fellows, Greg and William, friends of mine. They laughed at her jokes and offered to get her extra pie. She was taken with them both. So much so that afterward, on the drive home, she remarked that it was “nice” that those two men could have a real holiday dinner even though their wives were out of town.

“What makes you think they have wives?” I asked my very conservative Southern-born mother.

“Well, they were both wearing wedding rings,” she said. “Obviously, they are married.”

“They are, Mom. To each other,” I said, never taking my eyes off the road. A Herculean feat since I would have given anything to have seen her face.

“Oh, my,” she said. Then, after a few silent minutes, “Well, I guess that’s fine.”

Needless to say, mother was ever so eager to go the church dinner again the next year, asking repeatedly if “that nice young couple - you know the married ones with no wives - would be coming.”

Paul and I have missed only two Thanksgivings in our beloved hometown. Last year when we rashly decided to go to Los Angeles to be with my daughter and her family. We think we had a good time; however, the third-world experience of air travel wiped out nearly every fond memory of the trip.

The other time we were away on Thanksgiving was three years ago. I remember standing in a buffet line at a lovely Duluth restaurant, piling all kinds of fabulous foods on my plate and wondering if I’d keep any of it down in the hours ahead. You see, I’d had my first course of chemotherapy for breast cancer the day before and I didn’t know yet that the shots and pills they gave me to prevent nausea really would work.

This week I went for my three-year checkup. As I wrote this column I hadn’t had the checkup yet. Two friends have had recurrences recently. So I’m just a little bit freaked. It’s times like this I miss Mom like crazy.

Naturally, if all is well, for now, I will be SO grateful. But having survived this long, I know that all that gives me joy in life cannot be diminished, much less disappeared, by a collection of rogue cells.

And so, here’s to your best Thanksgiving ever. Or to memories of your best if you have already had it.



Magnetic North Nov. 12, 2009: Good Karma/Bad Karma

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Fall. Apples. Hunting. And things that go “bump!” in the night. All combined at our little farm this past month. For good and for not so good.
It began three autumns ago when we planted two apple trees. Naturally, my old goat Lucky figured they were just for him. So I surrounded the trees with chicken wire and sank ugly green metal posts in the ground to hold the wire up. 
And it worked. Lucky looked elsewhere to get into mischief. And as for our deer population, they seemed to follow his lead. Over the years the deer herds of Caspers Hill seem to give us a pass, feeding on our meadow, having their fawns in the woods and all without fear of rifle or arrow since we don’t hunt.
Of course, my new herd of goats came after Lucky’s demise. So they had no role models about respecting chicken wire. And with time, the curious and brilliant little criminals realized that “Hey! We’re not chickens! This stuff’s a pushover!”
And so it was I found myself shrieking like a fishwife - more like a sailor according to my poor husband - at the six juvenile delinquent goats as they shoved over one after another of my sad attempts at shoring up the flimsy wire barriers around the trees. 
And it worked. Both the shrieking and the shoring up, I mean. I got a nice harvest of little red cooking apples off the trees last month. Tart, but tasty. And with my first-time-ever-grown-from-seed tomatoes, plus the angora and cashmere fleece filling bag after bag, I felt quite smug.
Then came the fall…in more ways than one.
One of our favorite couples and fellow chicken aficionados asked a favor: Could a family member of theirs hunt our woods for deer this year? Without blinking, we said, “Sure!”
Paul was the decider on this, although I totally agreed. 
Paul has been the keeper of our 80 acres of woodlands lo these 19 years. He built about three miles of paths through them, “most on my hands and knees,” he’s fond of telling folks.  And so he knows each turn and twist. Each exposed rock and root. Where the ferns grow taller than his waist in August. Where the ephemeral wildflowers peek through the duff in May. And where our old Labs used to run off so often on a deer path at the top of a hill.
But this summer, Paul could only dream about his woods. The paths went wild. Trees fell and were not removed. Thanks to a still-healing broken hip, Paul is only now taking his first tentative steps without a walker, a huge victory not to be sniffed at after seven months. 
So when our friends asked a favor that meant our woods would see some use and enjoyment, of course Paul said “Sure!”
Our friend’s family member, Tom, turned out to be a super guy. He brought his grown son, who flew in from the Carolinas for the hunt. The two arrived last weekend outfitted in blaze orange. The day was sunny and balmy, not your greatest deer hunting day, but the next day clouded up nicely and the son got a spike buck, his first ever. And even though we knew well the buck was likely one of the fawns we’d watched on the meadow, we were happy for them.
Before leaving Monday, Tom stopped to praise Paul for the beauty of his paths and to thank us heartily for the chance to hunt here. The woods, he said, were a delight even if no deer had been seen or harvested. And then he presented us with a quart of his home-harvested maple syrup and a stunning offer.
“How would it be if I came back next spring and mowed the paths and got the downed trees off them?” he asked.
Paul was inside napping when Tom said this. But I knew what he would say. Not just “Sure!” But more likely, “Sure! You betcha!”
I think Paul and I both went to sleep smiling that night, imagining our paths all sweetened up and ready to hike again when the ephemerals bloomed. 
“It’s true about that karma thing,” I told Paul. 
“Say again,” he said. 
“You know, ‘what goes around comes around?” I replied.
Little did we know that karma of a different sort was taking place out in the yard while we snored away inside. The next morning on my way to the chicken coop I was stopped dead in my tracks by the twin scenes of destruction in my path. The wire barriers around both apple trees were flattened. A few branches on each tree were left, dangling and dying like the broken pact between the deer of our forests and us.
There’s a Spanish proverb that applies here. It goes: “Take what you want but be willing to pay for it.” 
And so, we did and we are. Even though we didn’t know the price in advance.


Magnetic North Nov. 4, 2009: Chicken calendars and other fowl weather tales

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Welcome back to Magnetic North where the gales of November seem to be giving us a break, at least for the moment. Fifty degrees due this weekend and the cattails around the pond have barely begun to pop.

But I’d know we are just weeks away from Thanksgiving even if it was as balmy as a summer’s day. All I have to do is look in my chicken coop. There I find walking, squawking calendars on legs. And let me tell you, in late fall my chicken coop is NOT a pretty sight.

For those of you who have never seen a hen in molt, count yourself blessed. I’m talking the human equivalent of fright wig hat hair with a touch of baldness and really bad eczema thrown in. It’s sad. Especially since - even though there are no mirrors in the coop - the hens seem to KNOW how really, truly awful they look.
They hang about inside on sunny days stuffing their beaks with scratch, also known as chicken candy. They artfully avoid the rooster’s clutches, leaving him to crow piteously well past sundown. And most tellingly of all, they quit laying eggs.
Now I know books tell us that molting hens don’t lay because they need to grow more feathers, and making both eggs and plumage is just too big a workload. That’s only part of the problem. My girls are mortified, not to mention chilly. Who among us could possibly produce an egg feeling like that?
The good news is that round about the holidays, just when I string up the Christmas lights on the coop window, the laying boxes will once again be cluttered with pretty brown eggs. 
And those fully feathered-out white and black and rusty-gold galleons will sail about the chicken run - proud and perky again.
Sad to say, that will be the very time when we’ll expect to say goodbye to the mallard flock we’ve raised this year. Not that the ducks ever really come quacking at the door before they take flight and leave for the winter. For forever, really. 
“That’s the kind of critter I like,” my husband, Paul, is fond of saying. “You give them a good start and they take off.” He just won’t admit how much he misses those daily walks to the pond to feed our little flock of 10. 
This year we have a perfect pairing. Five drakes, the males, and five ducks, the females. Weird isn't it, how only the female of the species is called a duck. That would be like if only the females of our species were called humans. Hmmmmm. Now THAT’s something to mull over.
But back to the mallards. Signs of their imminent departure started popping up in October. The birds began testing their wings, flying just above the surface of the pond water from the inlet to the spillway. Next they’ll start venturing out over the browned meadow grasses. Making ever widening loops back to their safe haven among the cattails and duckweed lining the little pond. 
For it’s there they’ve learned to evade the eagle and the fox. And there they’ve met the passing migrants, older mallards from faraway lands. As the pond ice forms and the young birds’ wings strengthen, the primal urge to follow these seasoned travelers becomes irresistible. And so, even if we faithfully set out the food, one day all 10 will be gone. 
And that’s a good thing. Mallards are not domestic fowl, like chickens. They are wild creatures. I never give them names, never try to pet or tame them. Of all MY critters, these wild beauties are the least MINE. 
But I’ll miss them even so. Their insistent quacking reminding us to “hurry up with that chow!” Their physical beauty. Is there any bird more striking than a drake mallard with that bottle-green head? And their antics, bottoms up as they cull the ponds depths for muddy morsels. That stuff I’ll miss.
Paul doesn’t admit to such soft, squishy sentiments. He always says, “Ten less beaks to feed,” then seeing my distress, “But I’ll bet some of them come back to nest next year.”  So like a rooster. I mean, a guy.




Magnetic North Oct. 7, 2009: Harvesting the Wind

MagNorth_20091010.mp39.84 MB
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where gatherers like me are having as much fun as the hunters this fall.
The infamous big bad wolf winds of late September robbed us of electricity and phone service for hours and days on end. But they gave more than they took away. At least the way I keep score.

Oh, one of my special trees went down. Mitten’s tree, named for a sweet little six-toed black and white barn cat. I’d grab Mitten after doing chicken coop chores and go sit with her on the axle of an ancient Model T Ford under a really, really, really big spruce that rose out of the cool dark woods behind the chicken run and dog kennel.

The roots of that tree, like gnarled fingers, stood out from the earth around its trunk - a trunk so ample that I could not encircle it with my arms. In between the exposed roots I’d spy treasures as I sat stroking Mitten’s long hair. There were bits of crockery. A tiny blue glass medicine bottle. A three-tined fork, perfect for cutting butter into pie crust dough. Precious artifacts that set my imagination to wandering. Precious moments with a too-soon-gone pet.
When an owl took Mitten one night, I wept under that tree, thus its name. And for a few years, every time a songbird would fall dead by our picture windows, I’d lay it to rest under the axle by the massive trunk. It never occurred to me that such a steady presence could simply fall down. But it did. Of course it did.
Not until my second trip to the coop the morning after the storm did I see it. And frankly, my brain didn’t register exactly what it was I saw, clinging as it did to a phantom image of what was. The outhouse between the coop and the dog kennel seemed strangely shaded though. No, not just shaded, it peered out from under branches. Spruce branches. On the ground by the outhouse door, a double treetop lay, snapped off on impact.
“Oh, no. Mitten’s tree!” I said out loud. And then gasped to see how respectfully the gentle giant had fallen. Only inches to the south and it would have crushed the chicken run. Inches to the east and the kennel would be history. But instead, the tree appeared to have pirouetted on its exploded trunk, falling onto the outhouse, a structure so unloved that Paul disposed of a dead skunk in it just last year.
Call it a coincidence, luck or booga booga. But it was one cool tree right up to its last act.
Within hours of finding Mitten’s tree downed, I began breaking pinecone-studded tips off its corpse - sentimentality be damned. I need stuff for my window boxes. The impatiens and pansies look scalded after the frost. Now, thanks to the wind, the remaining late bloomers nestle between lush spruce boughs that only weeks ago waved a good 60 feet in the air.
I wasn’t the only one cleaning up after the storm. My gluttonous goats continue to munch dawn to dusk on the choicest aspen branch tips and leaves that litter the grass. Finding an entire tamarack limb down, the horned beasties form a veritable vortex and strip the branch in minutes.
It’s been but a week since the outage, but already I have a new pinecone wreath for my front door. A way bigger one is on its way to L.A. for my daughter’s birthday. And kindling to take me into deep winter fills every bucket and basket in the woodshed.
The intangibles are just as fine. Memories of drawing water from the old hand pump for my critters came back with every stroke of the handle. And the creaky metallic “yowch” sound on the downstroke pulled me back to the days of my first cashmere goats, Baby and Nimbus; to the watering of my most bizarre hens, Twisted Sister and Pearl. And to the drought summer when I nonetheless grew a stand of ginormous dinner-plate-sized yellow sunflowers with a measly 49 pumps on the handle. That’s three bucketfuls a day.
And so. If you ask me if I “lost anything” in the big winds of September I’ll most likely tell you “Just one tree.” No big deal. See, most folks really don’t get all the rest. I’ll keep those secrets between me, myself and my fellow gatherers in the north country - we who harvest the wind.