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Magnetic North

Vicki with her angora rabbit, Peaches

Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives  on a 100-year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities 23 years ago.
She shares this special place with five cashmere and milk goats,  a dozen-plus laying hens, three talkative geese an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, six angora rabbits, a house cat , a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo and one very spoiled Bourbon Red turkey.
When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, knits, 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 screenplay or, more like, a sit-com.  Listen at your convenience by subscribing to a podcast.

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 July 16, 2009: Summer rains make memories bloom

MagNorth_20090717.mp33.56 MB

Welcome back to a wet but happy Magnetic North. After too many days without a drop of rain, it poured Tuesday night. All that day Paul and I watched the sky. Listened to the radio. Rain was definitely prophesied, as my mother used to say. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a prophecy over a prediction any day.

And did we need rain! Grass should be soft, not crunchy. Dirt should be yielding, not petrified. And women of a certain age should be reading the latest mystery novel on the deck, not schlepping water to outdoor plants.

Well, for a few days now, all that is forgotten. The rain began after dark Tuesday and continued well past bedtime. It was pure magic. The rains sure fingers tapped out a steady beat on the roof. And the land drank and drank and drank.
I sat on the couch, chores done, dishes washed, listening to the rain and replaying the day: in my head:
*bonding with the new goat kids;
*hand-training the baby angora rabbits;
*moving the mallard ducklings from the brooder to their outdoor run.
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhh Nooooooooooooo!”
I was out the door before I heard Paul calling, “What is it now? Or who?”
"The ducklings!” I hollered back. “They aren’t old enough to get all wet.”
Fortunately, I was out of earshot by the time my beloved could comment about the danger of letting a duck get wet.
Fact is, folks, that ducks raised without a mother - like the ones I get in the mail from a hatchery - are at risk of hypothermia should they get wet before their adult feathers come in. Why? Oil. Water runs off a duck’s back because water birds preen their feathers with oil from a little sac hidden on their back.
Sort of like hair gel for humans. The big difference being that we human moms don’t need to rub hair gel on our babies lest they freeze to death after a bath. With ducklings, it doesn’t take much water to soak them through to the skin. The skinny little things just can’t make enough heat to combat that kind of thing.
Thus, about five minutes before our deluge arrived Tuesday night, I threw together a makeshift waterproof retreat. A big plastic trashcan laid on its side and stuffed lightly with straw was the perfect choice. Clambering around inside the small wire enclosure attached to the chicken coop, terrified ducklings around my ankles, a cloud of fireflies surrounded me, following me back to the house, then flitting about in the rain like naughty children at camp.
Around 5 a.m. the next morning, I stumbled outside to check on the ducklings. They were - of course - fluffy dry. Some even appeared to have grown tail feathers overnight.
Walking back to the house in the early dawn hours, I enjoyed the watery world around me. The spider webs framing the garage doors wore crystal beads of rain. Tiny droplets of dew sparkled on the fuzzy stems of my tomato plants and everywhere else my eye wandered.
And though there was no ocean roaring in the distance, no salt in the air, the memory of summer mornings after a rain at the Jersey shore bloomed in my mind. And I went back to bed in a hurry. Lest the image of beach combing fade before I could weave it securely into my dreams.

Baby bunnies

Magnetic North July 10, 2009: Fourth of July surprise

MagNorth_20090711.mp33.61 MB
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where nature never ceases to amaze and surprise.
Take this past Fourth of July, for example. Holidays around our house tend to be uneventful.
We planned nothing more for the fourth than going to a memorial picnic for our dear, departed old buddy, John Anderson, then watching televised fireworks.
Sounds dull, right? But it wasn’t.
First off, the memorial involved a cannon and four solid blasts into the big lake in the vicinity of Five Mile Rock. Oh, and if the folks in that little fishing boat east of the rock are listening, know that you were not the target of the day. It was all about giving a lifelong fishing fanatic and friend the sendoff he wanted.
I swear, from now on whenever I drive by that old bump of a rock off the Colvill shore, I’ll smile and remember John. A man of legend, even six months after his untimely parting.
But it was early in the day of the Fourth that I got MY big surprise. A rat. At least, I thought it was a rat. Midway through chores, as I was doling out dandelion greens to my four angora rabbits, I saw this small, dark THING scurrying along the wall in the rabbit room. But let me back up a bit.
My rabbits live in a little shed attached to our garage: two in cages and two free-range on the tarp-covered floor. The floor bunnies are sisters. Plain brown and gray rescue rabbits named Muff and Puff. The other two are fancy bunnies, English Angoras. One, a white buck I call Harvey, is the rabbit equivalent of Brad Pitt. The other, Peaches, is featured on my WTIP website right next to my grinning face.
A while back I got it into my head that it would be interesting to breed Harvey, to Puff. But after just a few hours alone, Puff looked like she’d gotten caught in the lawnmower. Clearly, little Harvey, for all his handsome white fur, was a big fat bully. Nothing more! Puff recovered, but over the past month or so showed no signs of pregnancy. She did, however, begin to look a little scruffy. Post-traumatic stressed out, I figured.
Well maybe, but as it turned out, Puff was pulling her own fur out. Lining a nest. All on the QT while I busied myself learning the fine points of goat milking.
And thus, the “rat” I thought I saw the morning of the Fourth was a baby bunny, one of four. With eyes wide open and fully furred out. And judging from their size, at least three weeks old!
So much for delusions of indispensability on my part!
In fact, had I known the babies were there I probably would have done more harm than good, peering into the recesses of the nest with a flashlight or, worse, trying to pick one up. Now I spend the few spare minutes left in the day wondering how to house them all.
When I bragged about the newborns at John’s memorial later that day, my friend Harry had a word of warning. “So you went from four to eight just like that - y’know eight could become 64 pretty fast.” Thanks Harry, I needed that.
For while it is true that one can never have too many friends, especially friends like John, one can definitely have waaaaaay too many rabbits!

Milk goats

Magnetic North July 1, 2009: Harte of my Heart

MagNorth_20090703.mp34.13 MB

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where my first try at goat milking is going much better.

Harte, my newly acquired Alpine doe, is still ensconced in my barn with her kid, Judith. And I am still milking her. When last I wrote, I was close to giving up. And why not? She laid down. She put her foot in the milk pail. She slid her backside off the stand. She did everything but break wind in my face.

And throughout all this, the amount of milk I got dwindled, along with my hopes for my very own goat’s milk, cheese and (sigh) ice cream.

And then - magic! The morning after e-mailing my wretched failure to a goat-milking friend, I opened the barn door to a stunning sight; there, inside the stable, Harte and Judith stood in profile in the early morning light flooding through the old barn board siding. A magazine cover shot. Norman Rockwellian even!
My fate and theirs was sealed.
I need to issue a warning to the squeamish at this point: Talk about the business end of a milk goat is ahead.
My friend Geri, who has a number of milkers, e-mails me tips on getting more milk. She says that her milk amount varies day to day. She recommends getting to Harte before her kid feeds, AND watching for a “tight udder.”
This fried me. Geri has a full-time job and I am retired. Yet, even with 16 hours of daylight nowadays I don’t have five minutes to spare to watch for a tight anything!
Geri’s breakthrough tip is something I can manage: She says to just push up into the udder BEFORE squeezing the teat. Push and - here’s the key - JIGGLE.
“Push and jiggle. Push and jiggle.” I repeat those words to myself as I tie Harte’s collar to the milk stand and position her yummy grain under her nose. Petting her head, then wiping her teats with a warm, soapy cloth, I keep up the mantra: “Push and jiggle.” Only I sing the words to Elvis tunes. “Love me Tender” works really well.
I’d be lying like a rug if I told you that this trick alone makes all the difference. It does not.
What keeps me milking and gets me more and more droplets of white gold every time is this: I QUIT MEASURING THE OUTPUT!
Instead, I concentrate on the color of Harte’s coat - white and black and brown with tinges of red. Or once I get the flow going, I talk to her about plans for adding another strand of electric wire to the corral fence or insulating the barn for winter, or teaching her and Judith to pack. She looks around at me often with various expressions of interest. No more snickering…just an occasional low gurgling bleat. A contented, “That sounds sort of cool,” kind of sound.
All this up close and personal interaction with Harte is filling my milk jars and depleting my available chore hours. My new mallard ducklings are farmed off to Bubbles, the super mommy blue Swedish duck. The angora rabbits get more of a brush off than a really good brushing daily. And my adoring white gander comes running to me now not to be cuddled, but to fasten on my calf or forearm. Hell hath no fury like a white Chinese goose scorned.
As for Paul, he has been too busy recuperating from a repair to his repaired hip to take note of my latest animal husbandry tangent. Although I did hear him telling a friend recently that, “I’ve never seen my wife happier - that’s all that counts.”