Sunday, November 1, 2015

The death of summer

The Virginia creeper vine climbed a tree in the backyard and I knew that fall was coming. The five leaflets glowed brilliant red against the fading green of the box elder. Red sumac leaves are the first harbingers and the Virginia creeper turn shortly after that.

People talk about the maples that turn the entire world to fire and I do  love that peak of fall color, but for me, that garland of red Virginia creeper winding its way through the forest wakes my eyes up, almost like a neon light flashing "Look at me!"

Another season is passing, leaves dying, nutrition descending  to the roots to be stored until next spring when the first tiny leaves open to delight our eyes after the winter. I don't think of winter as a time of death. It's more like a breathing space, where the outdoor chores slow down. The weeds stop growing. The lawn doesn't need to be mowed. The garden's harvest is all in the freezer or the root cellar.

That streak of crimson in the woods and the golden glow of maples remind me that we're almost done canning tomatoes. Soon I will resume my winter activities - felting, knitting, writing. Fall isn't so much the death of summer as the resurrection of my creativity.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


We've been planting apples since we first moved to the farm. We tag each tree, but as years pass, tags fade or are blown away, trees die and are replanted with different varieties. Now, most of our apples are unidentifiable.

 We periodically pick an apple on each tree to determine when to pick the rest. Are the seeds brown? Is the apple sweet?  The Haraldsons ripen the latest and are best after a light frost. Only the apples on one tree ripen early, most years so early that we don't even notice until most of the apples are lying on the ground - a feast for the wasps.

This year that tress was covered in big, beautiful apples, no worm holes or hail dents or bird pecks. I vowed to enjoy them before the wasps did. I picked the first apple in mid-August. Bland taste, hard texture, white seeds. Not ripe yet.

By the first of September, the seeds were brown, the texture was mealy and the taste was still bland. Wonder why we chose to plant a bland mealy apple? Oh well, I thought, they'll make good apple sauce. However, in spite of the blandness, they didn't fall apart when I cooked them unless I completely covered them with water and boiled for an hour. This made runny, applesauce completely lacking in heat labile nutrients like vitamin C.

Then the apples began falling - fast. We gathered them by the bucket, quartered them and cooked them in the pressure cooker. A quick trip through the Squeezo strainer made nicely textured applesauce with no flavor. Alice, Dave's mom , was visiting and we cooked up a pan of her honey crisp apples. They made wonderful apple sauce - sweet and tangy.

Then Dave, the winemaker in the family, had a brilliant idea. He looked up the concentration of malic acid in honey crisp apples and figured out how much powdered malic acid we would need to add to our bland apples. (Malic acid just happens to be one of the useful chemicals that wine makers keep in stock). The newly adulterated apple sauce was delicious and all we had done was to add a little bit of what makes apples taste like apples.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


                                             photo by Jesse Walker

Everything changes all the time, but we seldom notice. Weeds bud, bloom and spread their seeds. Socks develop holes in their heels. Lambs grow to be ewes. Our friends'  faces wrinkle and their hair grays. Most changes are so subtle that we don't notice them day to day.

Last month my fourth grandson, Caius, was born and suddenly our lives changed. Such a tiny focus for that change - a little over eight pounds, he hardly had any weight in my arms, but the space he occupies in my heart is huge. As a parent, I had no idea of the emotional impact my children had on their grandparents. In the instant when I first held each one of my grandsons in my arms, I realized that each little boy would grab my heart in his tiny hands and I would be changed forever.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Leaving the farm

At the end of last month, I left the farm in Dave's capable hands and drove north to Ely to spend time with college friends, most of whom I hadn't seen since we all turned 50, 17 years ago.

My shift in perspective was startling. Sheep sales, wet hay and weeds had been my focus for two months. Suddenly, I was looking beyond the fence lines and the world sparkled.

Gretchen identified rabbit tail clover, a plant that I found along the edge of the road. Melissa taught me about Solvay, a heat sensitive surface used to glue small pieces of fabric together, Laurie and I talked past canoe trip routes and the joy of paddling. Linda, my junior year roommate, introduced me to Fibonacci quilt patterns, wonderful repeating designs based on the Fibonacci series, a mathematical construct. Linda, my freshman year roommate, and I proudly sold My Sheep can Dance, a children's picture book which I wrote and Linda illustrated, and began planning our next collaboration.

Four days away allowed me to return to the farm full of creative ideas, looking forward to Dave's and my next canoe trip, and ready to bale our next crop of hay.

                                             Laurie, Gretchen, Joanie, Melissa
                                             Linda, Linda

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Chickens come and go

We bought our twenty chickens just in time for our grandsons to learn the joys of baby chicks. Kieran and Jasper the older two, cradled them gently in their cupped hands, satisfied just to watch them and feel their fragile bodies beneath the fluffy feathers.

Dave and I enjoyed walking out to the barn first thing in the morning to let them out into their run and returning to the barn every evening to shut them up safe. We checked on the sheep and talked to the chickens on each trip. It was very bucolic, perhaps too bucolic. I was actually looking forward to the day the last chicken learned to fly so that they could use our automatic chicken door that closed at dusk and opened at dawn.

And then one morning when Dave went out, there were only three live chickens left in the coup. A critter had climbed the fence and found her way through the automatic chicken door. What ever kind of animal it was, the critter must have been working for weeks to find a way into the coup and had finally succeeded.

Dave shut off the automatic door and reinforced the fence, but the next morning the last three chickens were dead.

I was stunned at how sad I felt, way out of proportion to the amount of love I thought I had for those chickens. But I cared. I had treasured the joy in Kieran and Simon and Jasper's responses, the expectation of someday gathering eggs, the pleasure I got from watching the chicks change from fuzzy balls of down to scraggly adolescents, to beautiful adult plumage  in black and white and brown. We would have been butchering our soon. But to have something else butcher them, and not to even eat them all, that was so sad.

Dave and I are working on plans for a more secure chicken coop. Next spring, we'll begin again. After all we should have remembered, chicken lives are fragile, they come and go.

Monarch Festival just down the road

                                                                                               photo by Glen Larson

Why do butterflies matter?

For over a year now, several of our friends have been working on the Monarch Festival in Fergus Falls, to find ways to show as many people as possible the answer to that very question.

Their answer has grown into something wonderful. The Festival, which is going on this week includes music, art, literature, community conversations, talks by local experts about monarch butterflies and prairies and butterfly gardens, puppetry, several art workshops, and the premier of The Butterfly Effect, a documentary film by Deb Wallwork. Every one of the events listed on their web page is worthy of your time.

The Monarch Festival is brought to you "by people who are giving their energy and heart to the effort to save this magnificent and mysterious  insect,  a symbol of the simple, carefree joys of summer,
whose very existence  is now in jeopardy."

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Lake Region Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage fund.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Prairie Grass

                                              photo by Glen Larson

Several years ago when we began planting prairie grasses on low lying, frequently wet  parts of our hay field, I recognized two different prairie grasses - Big Blue Stem with tall purplish and three flower stalks (the reason for its common name, Turkey Foot), and Side Oats Gramma, a distinctive shorter grass with all its seeds dangling from one side of the stem. I was ecstatic when I first saw the tall purplish grasses in our fields.

As that first summer progressed, I keyed out the flowers expecting to find the prairie forbs I knew we had planted - Black-eyed Susan, Purple Prairie Clover,  and Yarrow. I found the Yarrow, but all the other flowers were volunteers, not the species we had planted, and most of the blooms were thistles. This summer was completely different. Not only did we have prairie flowers, but I could identify them all, and hardly any were thistles

So, I decided to key out the grasses, hoping to find more than Big Blue Stem. My books were unhelpful. One key differentiated between reeds, sedges and grasses. Sedges had triangular stems. Grasses had round stems. That was as far as the key went. After a collecting walk, I had ten kinds of round stemmed grasses, all very different.

Photographs are really useless in a grass guide except for Big Blue Stem and Side Oats Gramma - perhaps the reason I can recognize them. Line drawings turned out to be much better for identification. I tentatively labeled one specimen Switch Grass because of the airy spray of tiny, delicate pinkish flowers at the end of each stem. Fantastic. Now I had nine unidentified samples labeled "grass."

Then I found University of California -  Davis' guide to grasses online. It was a real field guide with a real key. I got out my magnifying glass and began:
1) seed heads close to stem or standing away from stem
2) leaves clasping stem with a slit, overlapped, or continuous overlapped
3) nodes or no nodes on stem
4) shape of leaf as it meets stem
5) shape of flowers - tube-like or not
6) root structure

It was a new world. Differences I had never noticed jumped into view when I looked carefully. Switch Grass turned out to be actually Reed Canary Grass,  just as  the yellow daisy like flowers with dark centers which I had identified as Black-eyed Susans  differentiated into both Black-eyed Susans and Grey headed Cone flower when I studied them up close.

From a distance, the prairie is a beautiful sea of waving, undifferentiated flowers and grasses like something nebulous from a poem or a landscape painting. But up close,  each grass is a little miracle, flowers designed to release pollen to the winds and shoots sinking deep into the earth to ensure survival during droughts and prairie fires. Beautiful in form, function and utility.  I'll never look at grasses in the same way again.