Playing Possum

Some times, when I get up in the wee hours of the morning I find that the dogs have secured some form of treasure. Often these are small treasures in the form of mice and voles. In the springtime the dogs take their toll on the fledglings as well.

And once a year or so this scenario occurs:

Playing with possum

Of course, I went for the artistic soft focus there (yeah - that’s the ticket...), so if it’s unclear, that large white furry blob is a possum. I also really enjoy the long, furtive look the dogs seem to be sharing.

Possums are the type of critter that, until one has the experience, may seem far less prevalent than they really are. I mean sure, you see them as victims of the road from time to time, but they are still pretty rare, right?

And with that, what about that whole "playing possum" thing? That’s probably a myth, don’t you think? No animal would really just lay there to get knocked about, would it? Wouldn't that just get them killed more quickly?

But the thing is, it’s all true. We see them regularly out here, plying their trade in the dark of night. And we see them often enough that I’ve developed a system for helping them out when they venture into the wrong territory.

That system involves a shovel and some leg work.

Fear not - I’m neither hitting them nor burying them with the shovel. Rather, a shovel is a handy way to pick them up but keep them at a safe distance (safe for both of us, I think). And this fella was big enough that I got out the snow shovel:

Possums and snow are both white, so...

I used a second shovel - a spade - to gently slide it into the snow shovel, and then carried it out beyond the dog fence, into a somewhat secluded part of the ditch.

Ditching the possum

The end result is the same - go back and look at that same spot just a little while later and...

No-possum

...The Opossum is now No-possum.

(I’ll pause here for laughter and applause...)

Either they are really good actors, or perhaps my dogs are just naive, but it seems to work for them every time. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a time when I’ve used this system and not come back to find the possum has scoffered off.

Now, all that said, their commitment to the role is not always as solid as one might hope. This particular adventurer reflexively curled up a bit as I slid him on the the shovel. It was subtle, and the dogs didn’t seem to notice, but it definitely happened. And I had one candidate a couple of years ago who we found laying on the front steps. He tolerated all of the investigation and attention of the dogs, but being lifted into the air on the shovel was clearly a bridge too far, and he suddenly got up and tried to run away. I’d been uncertain about its status - living or no - right up until that point.

As I understand it, these rather fearsome looking creatures are harmless at worst, and can be considered beneficial in that they will eat insects and rodents (and to that I say "more power to the possum"). So unlike some of the other critters in our midst, their presence is welcome. At least to me.

The dogs seem to feel otherwise, but until they choose to express their opinion at a more reasonable time of day (I mean, this was really early) I just don’t want to hear it.

The Grass it Isn’t...

Walk, ride, or drive along country roads out here in the Illinois prairie lands and you will see something that looks like this:

Grassy ditch

These scenes get punctuated periodically by bits of color, usually from lilies ("ditch lilies") or clover, or sometimes from phlox and a variety of flowering plans. But usually it’s a sea of green. It can be easy to look at something like this and say "it’s just grass".

And it is. But I was trying to name a particular type of grass for a post a week or two ago, and I’d originally written that it was oat grass. This because, to me, it looked a little like oats at the top. This is the grass in question, along the Hennepin Feeder Canal Trail:

"Oat grass"

I was not correct.

In trying to verify the name I was using, I found the Grasses, Sedges, Rushes, & Non-flowering Plants in Illinois page at Illinois Wildflowers.

Now, I am a (very) amateur and intermittent gardener, but I thought I knew a thing or two about grass. We all know about Kentucky bluegrass and crab grass, but I’ve heard of others - big bluestem, little bluestem, turkey grass, red fescue. I know my grasses, right?

I had no idea.

Follow that link above. I’ll wait.

...

What you found, when you went there, was links to something in the neighborhood of 100 different types of grass and similar plants, right? I thought about counting the number of links, but honestly, life is too short. Plus, I’d already lost a ton of time following many, many, many of those links.

What I realized, as I looked at link after link, was that I really don’t know that much about the grasses growing around me. And there are a lot of them. Let’s look back at that picture from before:

Grassy ditch

If you look closely at this, and start checking out the links on the wildflowers site, you’ll soon realize that what looks like a sea of green is really a varied ecosystem of multiple species:

Grassy ditch annotated

the width of the grass, it’s height and rigidity, and the presentation of the seeds at the top all mark differences between the species. And different areas yield different species still.

Another ditch

I’m often seeing these things while cycling, and then usually on a recumbent trike, which puts me at eye level with the grasses. I might not have taken notice otherwise, but now that I know it’s hard not to see it.

The really hard part with all of this is that there are so many varieties listed on the Illinois Wildflowers site that it quickly becomes dizzying. I clicked probably a third of the links there before I finally gave up, fatigued by the volume and the staggering degree of my apparent grass-related ignorance.

And I still don’t know what variety of grass it is that was growing along the Hennepin Canal Feeder Trail, but I can tell you for sure it’s not oat grass. Not Poverty Oat Grass, not actual oats, not side oats grama, not inland oats, not...

...I finally just gave up and called it "wild grass".

(Seriously - if anyone knows what the grass in the Hennepin Canal picture is, let me know)

Big Bureau Creek - High Water

It’s no secret that we’ve had an unusually wet spring here in the Midwest. Out on our part of the prairie we’ve been more fortunate than others - we aren’t positioned near a large water source, and the Homestead itself is on a hill. That’s not a great thing in the middle of winter, when the west wind is beating mercilessly on the front door, but it is decidedly a benefit when it comes to the rain.

As I sit and write this rolling into a new week the weather seems to have shifted towards the drier end of the spectrum, at least for the next couple of days. But this past week, particularly very early Thursday morning, the ground was not just wet, it was saturated. Yes, there was water on the grass from rain the night before, and low areas in the yard held the expected puddles. But walking through the grass everywhere - including higher spots in the yard - found the ground sopping, squishing beneath the feet. It’s like the water table was announcing that she was full-up.

A major waterway here in western Lee County is Big Bureau Creek. Bureau Creek is a meandering affair that winds its way through Lee and Bureau counties until it ultimately empties into the Illinois River. There are areas on the creek that are wide enough to canoe down, given the right season, but up here, for the most part, it’s a smaller (if lovely) affair. This is Bureau Creek last December:

Bureau Creek in December 2018

And this is the Creek a mile downstream very early in the AM this past Thursday:

Bureau Creek swollen

To be clear, the Creek is bit wider at the location of the second picture - naturally so, given that it’s downstream - but not this wide. She’s out of her banks in parts, and the amount of water being moved is, frankly, astonishing. The channel you see to the left in the picture flowing into the main Creek isn’t really a channel. I mean, it was then, but it’s simply, typically not there. It’s water feeding in from the flooded fields alongside. I was able to get a short video of it:

As I said, we’ve been fortunate out our way, relatively speaking. Everything is wet, but we’re not underwater, and my cousin has been able to get the fields around us planted. Others have not been as fortunate. But wherever you are at, if you are in the Midwest, it is wet, and wetter than we’ve seen for quite some time.

Against the Wind

Guess we didn’t want to sit outside anyway...

It’s always a crapshoot as to when to bring out the lawn furniture here on prairie. The warmer temps tempt its retrieval from the shed, but the wind of spring frequently laughs at my optomism.

These chairs sit at the back of the house, hypothetically having a buffer from the predominantly west wind. But "predominant" is not synonymous with "always", and for fun the wind likes to change things up sometimes and come from, say, the south.

The gentleman who completed our roofing project made note of this as well. After the project was finished he said "you know, the wind out here just comes from every direction". And given that they were not only out here, but high up on the roof, I’m sure they became intimately familiar with the peculiarities of our air movement patterns.

So the picture represents a not-uncommon sight for us. You look out the window, or come up the walk after arriving home, and find the chairs face down (I guess - do chairs have faces? If so, would they be on the backs?). The miracle in this picture is that the table is still in position, and not, say, halfway across the yard.

It all works out, I guess. If one is wondering if it’s too windy to sit outside, and cannot tell for sure by, say, the sound of the wind slamming against the house or the erratic movement of the trees, the chairs being in this position can pretty much answer the question for you.

Prairie Yard...

This past Sunday I mowed my lawn for the first time of the season.

Now I realize there will be a subset of you out there who, upon realizing that last Sunday was the middle of May, will pronounce me a monster.

Fine. You’re right. While I desperately love that we have a substantial yard, I do not aspire to the tightly manicured green-striped lawn of suburbia. In fact, that’s part of the reason I do not live in suburbia. But beyond that, there is a school of thought that says that it’s better for bees - which are struggling - if we give some time to let the lawn grow.

Of course, that presumes that you are also letting things that flower grow in your yard as well.

Which we do. Trigger alert here for those for whom a yard means an extended stretch of Kentucky bluegrass and nothing else...

Dandelions

The other benefit to letting the yard grow is the view. It’s not strictly a prairie - the grass and flowers certainly aren’t that high - but you do get a crop of at least the ubiquitous dandelions and violets to pose for pictures before the lawn gets sheared.

Violets and dandelions

But there are limits. I waited long enough that Rosie seemed to be a little perplexed at what I was up to...

Rosie, watchful

Of course, by this point, Calamity could also be in the picture - with her short little cattledog legs, I’m not sure she can see out over the standing grass.

And ultimately, as you are working your way through the taller portions you realize why people started cutting grass. In addition to the occasional opportunistic tree that tries to take root, there are also a small assortment of rodents that scurry away as the mower approaches. There are actual, practical purposes to this activity besides ensuring that your dog doesn’t get lost.

I think we’d reached that limit.

Yeah - it’s a little long...

Inlet Cemetery

Spending your time on the rural backroads of Illinois will often reveal tiny cemeteries dotting the landscape. Live here long enough, and they become a common feature along the roadsides.

But sometimes they aren’t on the roadside. Very occasionally they are hidden away from view, a forgotten remnant of days and people past. Inlet Cemetery is such a place.

Inlet itself is a place that used to be. A tiny settlement situated on high ground in a wetland, back in the 1800’s it hosted an inn or two for travelers moving back and forth through the protection of the groves, avoiding the relatively inhospitable open prairie. It was ultimately replaced by the slightly larger Lee Center a couple of miles down the road, and which remains a spot on the map. Now there are only a handful of a houses here to suggest that past settlement.

And there is nothing to suggest the cemetery. You have to know that it’s there.

Inlet sits in the middle of a field, in a stand of trees. Even in early spring the leaf cover begins to obscure it. If you already know what you are looking for you can see it from the road on one side, but even that is challenging to suss out:

Inlet from the road

Don’t see it? I knew where to look, and even then I wasn’t sure if I was actually seeing it, or just convincing myself that I was...

Inlet from the road - markup

The key is the tiny hint of gravestones seen through the trees:

Inlet from the road close up

But even if you know that it’s what you are looking for, what it also shows you, from that angle at least, is that there’s no way to get there. You’ll have to go around to the other side for access.

The path in to the cemetery is more of a suggestion than a walkway. It’s a strip of grass in-between a fence line and a field. It’s passable by foot, and by bike/trike in low gear. And it’s a little less than a quarter-mile long. And there is nothing from this side of the road to suggest that it’s a path to anything . The trees completely obscure the graveyard, and while the path is possibly wide enough for a motor vehicle, there are no visible tire tracks.

The path into Inlet Cemetery

As you get back inside, you can see the stones. It’s a similar sensation to the Other Melugin Grove Cemetery, in that it’s a hidden thing, no longer appearing to be in use. But it’s different because, while some of the stones are quite old, others are considerably newer.

Old stone

Newer stone

Walking through you can see, and the listing at Geneology Trails will confirm, that while many or most of the people interred here were laid to rest in the mid- to late-1800’s or early 1900’s, some are considerably more recent. There are stones marked with passing dates in the 1950’s and 60’s, and the most recent person laid to rest passed in 2001.

This seems impossible, given the appearance and hidden nature of the place, until one realizes that 2001 was 18 years ago...

According to Geneology Trails, William E. Shaw was the first person interred here, that back in 1839. Take Inlet road a couple of miles south from here and it intersects with Shaw Road at a place some of the maps still call Shaws. Like Inlet, Shaws is a place that used to be, though perhaps a bit more substantial. But the ephemeral reality of its existence does not keep one from realizing how most of these places got their names.

Given the range in age, the stones vary considerably. Many are old and in poor repair (though it’s clear that people have tried):

Stones

Stones

You have a family plot - DeWolf - bounded by a cement fence:

DeWolf

And - as is often the case, some of the stones have reached the stage where they are approaching impossible to read...

Obscured

...Or where there is virtually nothing of them left.

Gone and nearly forgotten

And, as happens sometimes, I find a stone type that I’ve never seen before. This particular marker appears to be suggesting a Greek column.

Josiah Rogers

Josiah Rogers

Josiah Rogers is the only person with that particular surname that appears to be here. It makes one wonder what brought him out this way, and then what caused his demise, to be buried here, apparently alone...

There are a couple of other solitary souls but, as is expected, most of the folks here have family within. For better or worse, from a family tree hunting perspective, none of them appear to be mine.

My people settled east and south of here. The distances aren’t great by modern standards - in most cases less than 10 miles, as the crow flies. But in the 1800’s that distance was enough, it seems, to discourage intermingling. And it’s worth considering that those Victorian Era folk in the Midwest didn’t - couldn't - travel as the crow flies. Between the unforgiving nature of the open prairie, and the untamed wetlands dotting the groves, those ten miles likely represented a journey of significant time and effort for a person also worried about eking out an evening’s meal.

On my way out...

I headed out from there to resume my ride through the spring countryside. Inlet is a lovely place to visit and, unlike the Other Melugin Grove Cemetery, and despite its remote placement, it appears on the maps. But I appreciate that remote placement, because though time will likely eventually take it, that placement means that a person really has to want to see it to venture in. And those are often some of the best places.

Oh Come On!

This was my thought as I looked out the window yesterday afternoon to see this:

snow at the end of April

Yes, those tinges of white that you see in the spring emerald of grass is snow. The date: April 27th. It continued, providing a light dusting that, by this morning, offered this view:

snow at the end of April

This isn’t breaking news to anyone in the upper Midwest. People further north than us, up at the Wisconsin border and beyond, got significantly more snowfall to contend with. And it will be gone by afternoon, most likely, with a High today projected to climb into the 50°’s.

But it’s there now, nonetheless. And it really should not be here - it should not be about. It should not continue snowing once true spring is out.

This was projected and expected by the weather service, so the only people surprised by it were those who were really not paying attention. But it seems reasonable to chronicle it for posterity simply because it is so out of character for this time of year. The day began with rain, and that rain persisted through late afternoon here at our latitude (the snow arrived sooner further north). A day - or two, or three - of ongoing rain is far from unusual in April (those showers bring May flowers, as I recall).

I’m certainly no meteorologist, but the variation and change in what we are getting in the weather is pretty easy to detect at this point - one doesn’t need to measure subtle changes in worldwide high temperatures to see it.

And ultimately, the "oh come on!" to this is because it’s time to be done. I am on the record as a cold kid - I enjoy the winter and everything it has to offer. But winter has had its turn, and it should find its way gracefully into temporary retirement, going into training for the next competition season. This type of thing is just spiteful and pointless. It’s not really snow, after all. It looks like it, but ultimately it’s just fluffy rain. Or, if you like, rain delayed.

I do not like it. I do not like here, or there. Not in a box. Not with a bagel and lox...

Projects Abound

As we move past the first month of Spring our little homestead has started to gather projects. This is a natural thing, I suppose - as the warmer weather emerges the spirit begins to awaken and the desire to do stuff and things begins to take hold.

The need to replace the chapeau on our chateau has significantly limited the budget for any substantive home projects, tho, so efforts are focused on activities which are a little easier to attain.

LB’s been asking for a while now to have a different color for their bedroom walls - the lavender-tinged gray they chose as a tween no longer holds the same appeal, it seems, and so we are moving to a richer blue for that space.

old to new

old to new...

In addition, they’re moving from the studio apartment-style loft bed arrangement to something more traditional. This again is by request.

It mystifies their father a bit - I think having a loft bed is just about the coolest arrangement you can have - makes the bedroom space into something more akin to a studio apartment. Still, I’m not the one who actually has to sleep on it, and I’ve been informed that I might not actually understand what cool is, so...

The bedroom project is actively underway, and mostly in the capable hands of LB and MLW. My role, due in part to work schedule (LB is on spring break, but my work doesn’t seem to get one of those), has primarily been restricted to the lifting of heavy things. This is not unwise, as MLW is more skillful than me by far with a brush and paint. And it provides LB an opportunity to learn skills in this area, skills which will likely see a lifetime of intermittent use. And MLW has proclaimed that the kid seems to have a knack for it...

As we’ve discussed here before, the room that is now LB’s bedroom was largely unused as a bedroom for a span of probably 70 years or more, instead serving the role of storage place for generational cast-offs. The activity in there over the past four years is the most action that space has seen in the form of human habitation for quite some time. For myself, I like to think that the house must appreciate it. After all, what is more sad for a home than simply sitting there, holding on to things that no one wants any more? And we have plenty of those in the region already.

There will be more coming through the spring, I believe. Modest projects, but projects nonetheless.

Aerial View

Aerial View

This past week the roofing project started.

roofing underway

This took a little longer to get to than anticipated, largely owing to product (wrong color shingles came in) and weather issues. Thus far things seem to have gone off without a hitch. As the old shingles have come off, and the new ones gone on, there have been no concerns expressed about the solidity of the roof underneath. I’ve spent my fair share of time in the attic area, and I do look at the roof when I’m up there - seems reasonable to take that opportunity when it presents - and I’ve never found evidence of issues.

And the new shingles look good, so there’s an aesthetic improvement as well as a practical one. And, of course, now we don’t have to worry about the roof for the next 20-30 years or so.

(I’ll add a picture or two of it post-shingles here in the near future. I planned to take them this morning, but the fact that it is snowing in the middle of April has temporarily foiled that plan)

I feel like I should want to say more about it than that - such a costly event feels like it should be something about which considerable commentary could be made. But the reality is that getting a new roof done is like getting socks for Christmas.

However, having the roof done also provided the opportunity to have the old TV antenna taken down.

Aerial View...

I knew the roofing crew wouldn't want to work around it if they didn’t have to, and it’s been on my list to remove for quite some time. Several years ago, when I had to remove the satellite antenna for Wildblue I had planned also to go up and take down the TV aerial. This was a reasonable confluence of events because the height of the house is such that it takes a special extra-long extension ladder - which I had to borrow - to get up there. So, you know, two birds with one stone. However, I’ve never really been a "ladder" guy, and the 10 minutes on an extra-long one, with all the bounciness that entails, while removing the satellite antenna turned out to be more than enough for me. So it waited.

For those old enough to remember working with these old antennas, this was one of those deals with the motor on it to change orientation. I grew up with these out in the country, and it meant that watching your desired shows required you to have some knowledge of the relative geographic locations of the stations you wanted to watch. For example, if you wanted to watch Mr. Mustache you needed to turn the dial for the antenna to north. If you wanted to watch Son of Svengooli, tho, it needed to be oriented to east by northeast.

And, to be clear, saying "turn the dial" really makes it sound all too simple. Because you were activating a electric motor that ratcheted the antenna on an axis set with detents (one assumes to keep it from moving in the wind). This means that you turned the dial and waited, listening to it move:

Me: turns the dial to north

Antenna: rrrr-click-rrrr-click-rrrr-click-rrrr-click

Me: looks at tv, picture still not quite clear. Turns the dial a little more.

Antenna: rrrr-click-rrrr-click

And heaven forbid you turn it too far. Then you have to go all the way back around to the right spot.

That’s right - you really needed to plan ahead and get your antenna oriented before your show started, or you might be plagued with static for the first few minutes of the show. Kids today really don’t understand the struggle of the late 70’s rural childhood...

That antenna has been mounted to the roof literally my entire life, or at least the entire portion of it for which I’ve been aware. It could realistically have been there longer still. But it never looked right. This is not something I would have thought about as a child - it was simply always the way it was, from that perspective. But as an adult, coming back to the house, it looked really out of place - a piece of late 20th century sitting glaringly on top of my mid-19th century home. That might be forgivable if it were useful - I do have an antenna for our internet service on the edge of the roof still - but it wasn’t. The motor is long since gone, and all of our viewing in this day and age is through other means.

So now, at least, the roofline looks a little more like it once did. I don’t have any expectation that it will ever return to its actual 1865 appearance - that would require pulling down one chimney and putting two additional ones back up through the roof:

two chimneys, no waiting

And that seems excessive...

Spring Mist

Winter is Coming...

My first thought, looking out the bathroom window this morning, was winter is coming...

But no white walkers came out of the mist, so it appears it was just a foggy spring morning.

I am sometimes a little bitter about being up so early in the morning. Up until a decade or so ago I was a night owl - 1 AM was a familiar companion. Nowadays, given the pressures of schedule old 1 AM and I don’t speak much, and when we do see each other it’s in passing as I transition from sleeping on the couch to sleeping in the bed. But it’s still a tenuous change - my body would rather go back, and mornings are not a delight.

Morning views like this, however, would be absent and inaccessible without early morning rising out here at our country home. It almost makes up for the need to wake at ungodly hours.

Almost.

window mist

Raising the Roof

It’s been a while, but we are about to embark on the next improvement/maintenance project for our old Homestead - replacing the roof.

Not the whole roof, mind - just the shingles. Or at least, that’s what I’m hoping.

As projects go, this is one of those that falls into the need rather than the want category, and as such it’s a little hard to get terribly enthusiastic about it. I mean, how does that work?

Me: Woohoo! We are getting new shingles on the top of the house! It will be so great to... look at them... from the ground... where it’s hard to see them... I guess...

Still, it’s something that time - and the insurance company - seems to have decided should be tackled. It is a thing that I’ve thought about over the years, realizing that it would be coming along as a need at some point. In my more fantastical modes I’ve fantasized about perhaps doing a set of solar shingles through Solar City - and even suggested that Elon Musk might want to use our home as a real-world durability test.

Of course, that’s because getting Elon to jump at that opportunity is the only way we could afford it. I love the idea of using shingles to generate electricity, but given the cost of solar shingles, I believe we would recuperate our expenses in approximately 750 years. (This may not be an entirely accurate calculation)...

So - you know - not as financially practical as one might hope.

According to my uncle, who installed it, the current shingle job is somewhere around 30 years old, so it’s done it’s job admirably. This is particularly true when one remembers that we do live in a wind farm (hence the durability test - Elon? Hello?). I’ve been in the attic many, many times during our stay here at the Homestead, and I can verify that the roof appears to have remained watertight. Still, every such product has a lifespan, and it’s clear this one is at its end.

I’ve done roofs before, but honestly did not consider doing this one myself (by which I implicitly mean with help from friends and family). Our house is just... tall. I mean really tall. To get to the roof I have to borrow extra-length extension ladders. And let me tell you, if you are not someone who regularly works on a ladder, being at the top of an extra-long one is not a place of confidence. (Yes - those of you who routinely work in construction can count me as a weenie on this one - I can’t argue the point).

So next week we’ll have folks out here stripping away the old and putting on the new. While it really isn’t an exciting project on its own, it does address an area of basic maintenance that, once complete, gets an area of concern out of the way for an extended period of time. With the roof completed we won’t have to think about that for quite a while, and can return focus to other things.

...Whoohoo?

Limbs Down

Now that spring is officially underway - Punxsutawney Phil’s dubious predictions aside, spring officially started with the vernal equinox on March 20th - temperatures have started to rise, melting back the snow cover. The uncovering of the ground reveals the consequences of this winter of repeated ice and wind storms, backed by a polar vortex - our trees have shed what looks to be an unprecedented volume of material.

Limbs down

There are a lot of nice things about having a country yard full of mature trees, and there are many things to look forward to about spring. The yard cleanup is not one of them.

Every spring involves some degree of impending yard cleanup, to be sure, but the area around all of our trees looks like some sort of lost elephant graveyard. It’s like all of the trees coordinated on an extreme weight loss program, and came to the conclusion that they really had only one way to achieve their goals - radical shedding.

The ice storms probably are to blame for much of this. Few things will take a toll on a tree like being first encased in thick, heavy ice, being made brittle by the cold, and then being buffeted by 30-50mph winds. Honestly, in the big picture, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more damage in general (though I haven’t done a comprehensive overview of the yard, so I may be speaking too soon).

Each year we end up with a large pile of yard material - mostly downed limbs of various and sundry sizes and composition - that provides an opportunity for a bonfire. This year’s pile is likely to be epic tho, likely we’ll want to burn it in sessions rather than all at once.

I started doing a bit of cleanup earlier this weekend to get the ball rolling. Just the bigger stuff, not the heavy-duty raking to pick up the smaller sticks that are hard (and tedious) to get by hand. Those I’ll leave until the remaining autumn leaf cover blows off (one of the bonuses to living on the prairie - the wind does the leaf raking if you let it). One of multiple such piles is shown below.

Pile

And - of course - this is just the beginning. As we go rolling towards spring we will also be moving into thunderstorm season. Looking up in the trees, still bereft of their leaves, one can see additional limbs which are either damaged or completely broken, but caught partway down. They will fall as well. And while spring does remove the effects of the ice from the equation, one can count on more arboreal detritus before it’s all over.

Whoopee?

Time for the St. Patrick’s Day... White?

Our old house has a back stairwell that abuts our bedroom and my office, and that’s my primary route to and from the downstairs. At the top of the stairwell is a window which looks out on the side yard.

The window

Regular readers have seen many pictures from that window. It’s my first view of the wider world virtually every day, letting me know what I can expect to encounter as I venture forth.

This morning was an unexpected surprise.

The calendar tells us that it’s March 17th, the day we here in the US celebrate as St. Patrick’s day by wearing garish amounts of bright green clothing and turning other things green as well. But Old Man Winter had other ideas this year, and gave us an overnight gift in the form of a blanket of white:

Out the window

Things vary, of course, depending upon one’s latitude, but it is surpassingly late in our winter season for snow to be happening here in northern Illinois. My offspring - I’m not entirely an evolutionary failure - joined us some 17 years ago now within the first week of March. LB was earlier than expected by a month or so, and so I can vividly remember getting the call from my wife and driving the hour or so back home across the countryside at a pace that was, perhaps, a little bit more than the law would allow.

This memory comes up here because on that automotive adventure I remember being surprised that it had begun to snow - just flurries - because it was so very late in the season for that to be happening. The ground itself was completely clear of the white stuff at that point, as is typically the case.

And despite all of that, here we have complete coverage more than 10 days later into the season. Anyone denying climate change is really not paying attention.

That aside, though, it’s kind of a late season gift given us by OMW, or at least that’s how I was thinking about it as I geared up for one last snowy trike ride. Of course, LB expressed what was more likely to be the popular opinion when we talked about it after I got home:

Yeah - you are all like "its a white biking day", but I’m looking out the window from my bed thinking "aw crap"...

Yuck

People talk a lot about how they hate winter. What they mean, mostly, is the cold and the snow that accompanies the presence of January and February on the calendar.

And then they herald the changes that roll in with early March - the higher temperatures, the rain coming down in place of snow.

People are nuts - this is the absolute worst time of year, weather-wise, as far as I’m concerned.

This weekend the rain falls.

It falls because the temperature has risen. It’s risen just above that critical freezing line, and so it remains liquid, not solid.

It falls on ground that is reacting to those warmer temperatures, and so is defrosting itself.

But just on top.

yuck

So what this leaves is a layer of thoroughly saturated muck that slides about atop a still-frozen substrate, like oatmeal on top of glass. And thoroughly saturated means that the water that falls ultimately just sits on the surface - no where to go, absorption impossible.

yuck

In short, it’s gross. And it sucks. Would not recommend, zero stars.

In the winter - in the real winter, with the frozen ground, sometimes covered with lovely snow, it is possible to go out and enjoy the out of doors, the countryside. But what does one do with weather like this.

Sit. Inside.

Sit inside and resent the weather.

Winter Moanings

Well, it’s here.

We’ve reached the part of the winter where virtually every conversation starts out with a reference to how tired of the season the person is, and how ready they are for spring.

I feel a little bad for winter in that respect. I mean, no one ever tells you how tired they are of summer, or how ready they are for the fall colors to just get it over with already. No - winter is clearly a thing to be endured rather than enjoyed.

I get it - we’ve absolutely had our own challenges with this winter, and though we’ve weathered through them, it does help one see how and why the yearning for the vernal equinox occurs. But mostly this sort of thing makes me think back to what life must have been like out here in the days before central heat and rural electrification.

Our old house is several miles from the nearest town. That distance is easily covered in just a few minutes in a car, but it would have been a much longer period of time by foot or by horse. This would have been a journey of some effort in the winter, and something probably undertaken only under specific, favorable conditions.

And they would have been prepared for the weather when they went. This is something that is a recurring theme in my thoughts about this and, oddly enough, in my conversations with LB about the weather (not odd that I bring it up, but odd that LB engages the conversation). While I am certainly not interested in going back to the days prior to those modern conveniences - let’s be clear, I’m writing this on an iPad, not, say, scrawling it with a fountain pen on parchment - the conveniences themselves have absolutely changed how we modern people regard the weather.

On even very cold days you see people moving about in lightweight gear - maybe a jacket, maybe not, wearing tennis shoes, eschewing scarves, gloves, and hats. It is easy to see how this happens: if all one is doing is moving from their home to their vehicle, and then from their vehicle to a heated office or other sort of workplace, then their winter gear could certainly seem sufficient.

Of course, this means that the exposure one experiences while outside has the dual components of being always that point of initial contrast to the warmth of the inside, and so especially shocking; and it is experienced with insufficient weather protection, compounding the effect. All of which is to say: no wonder it seems so cold.

Now, before this becomes too much a get off my lawn post, let me note that I’m not suggesting that everyone should bundle up like they are tackling a South Pole record ride in order to go from home into a warm workplace. But I do think that we are losing, as a culture, both the understanding of how to remain warm and safe under cold conditions, and some degree of the general weather-hardiness that previous generations had - that ability to go out and tolerate, perhaps even enjoy, winter conditions for extended periods of time.

This is one of the gifts life in our old house on the prairie can offer. On the harshest winter days it absolutely is not as cozy-comfy as a modern ranch in a housing development. It might be technically possible to get it there one day, but short of a lotto win or the passing of an unknown, beneficent wealthy relative ("Great uncle Otto? I don’t think I ever met... what was that? You say he left us $40 million? Oh yeah - Otto. I always loved that guy...") its not going to occur any time in the near future.

But it means that we do have to employ older techniques - understanding how to dress for cold weather to remain warm in the house, and how to outfit a bed so that it’s warm and comfortable for a night’s sleep as the winter wind wails about the home. Our ancestors knew how to do these things well and would have had human and bed clothing specific to the purpose. One has to bear in mind that, even if one has a heating stove in the bedroom, the fire inside will go out in the middle of the night - it’s going to be pretty cold in the bedroom by morning.

None of which is to suggest that I think those ancestors did not complain about the winter weather. I suspect that pissing and moaning about the cold has been a universal since humans first evolved speech. Probably the first word was something like "rock" or "fire"; but I’ll bet the first sentence was something like "sure ready for this cold weather to end..."

Ice Storm

This past week Old Man Winter saw fit to slap northern Illinois with a truly next-level ice storm. When these things happen - and they do, on occasion - ice gathers on absolutely everything.

Iced over trees

The trees are covered with ice, and branches get weighed down and stretch to the ground or break off. Doors and windows get covered and ice has to be broken away before you can open them. And ice gathers on other things as well, most notably the power lines.

Outages are not uncommon out here, as has been discussed before. But this particular winter event was something special. The power went out Monday night, and remained out until Thursday morning.

The ice gathering on the power lines has a similar effect as it has on the trees, adding weight and pulling downward on them, and gravity is a harsh mistress. This means that lines break, and break in multiple locations.

Along our mile-long stretch of road alone I counted three breaks in the line, and I am by no means a power line expert (which is to say that I could have missed others). In the couple of days that followed I had opportunity to drive along the stretch of line that leads up to our house (there are several miles of it), finding at least two additional break points.

line down

line down illustrated

This meant that, despite the diligent work on the part of the power line workers (and it was diligent - they could be seen, out day and night, in sometimes very unpleasant conditions, struggling to put things aright), it was going to be some time before our spark was rekindled. This was complicated by extreme weather Tuesday evening, resulting in whiteout conditions on the country roads and rural highways. For myself traveling in it the short distance from town to home, there were times where nothing but the foot or so of roadway to the sides of the vehicle were visible, and one would find, in the breaks offered by buildings and trees at homesteads, that one had wandered out into the middle of the roadway. Progress down these roads on the trip home was glacial, with 20mph seeming radical and dangerous. I have lived in northern Illinois my entire life, have been driving here for over 30 years, and I drive a lot; I have never seen anything quite like it. I can only imagine trying to repair a power line in it.

This meant that Tuesday night was another night in the cold, and that, while it would have been nice to retreat to a place of warmth, having made it home through the whiteout, it was clearly safer for everyone to stay there than it was to venture out again. But we learned some important things as a part of this adventure:

  • Blankets work. Implicitly one thinks one knows this, but it’s still surprising just how warm one can be under the right blankets (wool, eiderdown), even in a house that is pretty chilly. MLW and I have always said in the past that there really is no such thing as having too many blankets, and this experience bolsters that.
  • Our ancestors knew what they were doing. At its coldest - after we had finally been able to retreat to a warmer haven - the house never got down below freezing. I’d drained down the pipes anyway, just to be safe (better than sorry). This despite the functional air sieve that is our front doorway.

I have typically been putting insulation in the doorway between the front door and the screen doors as a compromise between nothing and the insulation over everything that I’d done in the past. Between the polar vortex and the power outage that wasn’t enough, so I gave the door it’s own blanket this year.

Door quilt

door quilt poofy

The thing that one realizes, with some thought, is that our ancestors would not have had our modern conveniences such as central heat. Each bedroom would have had a small franklin-style stove in it for heat (the original chimneys for this still in the walls). Still, they understood that the fire they stoked in that stove at bedtime would have long gone out by morning. As such, they would have dressed their beds, and themselves, accordingly. Nightcaps) are inherently easier to understand in this context.

All of this historical realization aside, retreat to warmer options we did, as soon as the weather made it safe to do so. It is, after all, interesting to learn how things were in ancestral times, but one realizes there are reasons why we don’t do it that way any more...

The thaw started early Thursday, with temps rising to above freezing overnight. Out back at the house in the wee hours just prior to sunrise to feed and check on the animals I got to stand and listen to the somewhat eerie sounds of chunks of ice dropping from the trees around me. It’s not quite like anything else.

Those diligent line workers had everything at our homestead back up and running again by sometime later Thursday morning. Astonishingly, aside from a few limbs down, the old girl seems to have weathered through just fine. It’s nice to see that things hold together so well after all of those years.

For the record, however, I don’t believe we need another demonstration of that any time soon. You listening, OMW?

Snow Days

Our encounter with the Polar Vortex out here on the prairie the week before last offered some opportunities. Since it was preceded by significant snowfall, the combination of cold, wind, and snow made travel out of the home challenging at best, dangerous a worst. In some senses of the word, we were effectively trapped at home.

But another way to look at that is that we got the adult version of one of those things that kids long to hear in the short-day season: snow day!

Last Monday we had some continuation of the struggles with drifting and getting stuck that were chronicled here recently. In this case I ended up leaving a car at the end of the driveway because the volume of drifting in front of the garage was beyond the little vehicle’s capacity to clear, and dealing with it in the dark was competing poorly with the idea of sitting on the couch watching TV.

The following morning though, the snow offering up some time, and the day offering up sunlight and brilliant blue skies to combat the single digit temps and negative wind chillls, it offered a much more attractive option. I needed to get the car in the garage, and besides - I wasn’t likely to get any other exercise, so the snow and shovel could be my equivalent of the gym (isn’t that sort of how CrossFit works? I’m not sure - I may not have a compete understanding of that...).

So I pulled on some (several) layers, and the dogs and I went out to tackle the drift.

Now there are certainly animals that struggle in the snow and the cold - a Chihuahua would be miserable in weather like this (or, frankly, probably anything below 40°). But one does get some perspective when one sees this:

Calamity pic

Calamity close up

That is our Blue Heeler, Calamity Jane, rolling in the snow. Because, you know, the air isn’t cold enough on its own - she also wants the white stuff all over her.

And so, with her help, I gathered up my shovel and started throwing some flakes around.

Yup. That’s what we call snow shoveling around these parts: throwing flakes. Doesn’t everyone?

Anyone?

Anyone...?

Uh - anyway... I didn’t have the foresight to get a decent picture of the drift before I started, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say it was monumental. It took me a solid hour to clear a space in the driveway as wide as the garage door, which was my goal - wanted to be able to move both cars if needed. When I was done this is what it looked like:

Garage pile

And this is the pile of snow I created with my shoveling efforts.

Erin’s snow pile

Ok - technically a part of that pile - the part in the back - is from my cousin Glen clearing the entire driveway the day before, but the part in the front is mine.

Erin’s actual snow pile... ...

Ok - if I’m being entirely honest, the top few inches or so of that second pile is mine. But that’s still a lot of snow, and I worked really hard. Shut up!

So maybe this is more true

Erin’s actual, actual snow pile

At any rate, it was clear, and I was able to go get the car and pull it in.

Feeling buoyed by my accomplishment, I walked down to the end of the driveway to see how much work that would be to clear. I mean, at this point I’m a snow moving monster - you saw the mountain I created (err - added to) above, right?

So when I got there what I found was this:

End of driveway

And as I stood and looked at this, leaning against the handle of my shovel, out there in the open wind coming off the field to the west, my hand - in the glove that I’d been wearing while shoveling for the past hour - began to freeze and hurt. And I thought "well, that’s probably enough shoveling for today".

And I went inside and had a cup of coffee. For three consecutive days.

Wascally...

Quite a while back we noticed that we had rabbits living on the outer edges of the yard.

This was a delightful change because, although we are in a considerably rural location, we have a limited variety of actual wildlife we encounter at the homestead proper. We have birds, of course, and certainly have had our issues with trash pandas and the smaller members of the rodent sect, but the more common, semi-benign outdoor companions like squirrels and rabbits have largely been absent. We know they are out here - I routinely see them on my rides through the countryside - but they hadn’t been on the property. This is why that initial rabbit sighting was such a treat.

We still see them periodically, and over the past several months I’ve seen them run across the front yard - this usually as I’m pulling out of the driveway. Across the front yard seems somewhat unusual, since that’s dog territory. Our earlier sightings of our leporid friends saw them on the outer edge of the property - outside of, or at least within a short running distance of, that line. But the front yard is solidly within the canine zone.

And then the other day I saw this in the snow:

Rabbit tracks out the window

rabbit track

rabbit track out the window annotated

Rabbit track annotated

It’s hard to tell from the initial shot, being directly overhead, but this track is within 10-15’ of the house.

Dog territory

This would not only be within canine territory, but a considerable distance from the boundary line. There are a couple of bushes nearby - lilac and mock orange - which could potentially provide some cover, but otherwise it’s a long run to escape from interested dogs.

And then, the other morning, I looked out the window at the back stairwell and saw this:

There are actually two rabbits there. The one is easy to discern because it is moving, the other is a gray lump to the left side of the screen at the beginning. This is on the opposite side of the house from the rabbit track, and again well within the dog fence. The dogs were actually inside at the time I took this - I believe I was on my way down to let them out - so that might be why they were so bold. But it seems pretty risky territory regardless.

This probably seems, to the average suburbanite, a pretty banal thing to be excited about. But as I noted, it’s been a long time in coming. These farm homes are little islands of horticultural variety in a sea of monoculture. If the "island" loses its variety of critters, it seems difficult to get them back.

Now - will I be as excited to see the rabbits if (when?) they, say, start digging in our garden? Possibly not. But that actually seems a pretty reasonable thing to have to deal with out here on the prairie, so excited or not, it just feels more right.

Stuck!

As everyone who lives in the mid-upper Midwest is well aware, we’ve had our first real snowfalls of the season over the past couple of weeks. Mostly I delight in the snow, but it has presented its challenges over the past few days.

Mostly those challenges have to do with our driveway.

When I was a kid, growing up out here in the country, we lived in a house up close to the road, with a short circular gravel drive. And this was the most common presentation - not the circular part, but the house situated near the roadway, with a short drive up to some type of garage (or structure serving such a purpose, anyway).

But while that was the common driveway solution, it wasn’t the only one. One of the virtues of riding the bus to school every day was that one got a pretty good look at the surrounding countryside. Most houses were like mine, but occasionally the bus would pull up to a driveway that was different. In these cases, you would see a gravel entryway that was distinguishable from a side road only due to the presence of a mailbox rather than a road sign. And if you looked up from that mailbox and followed the trail you would sometimes see, if not occluded by trees, the house that it led to in the distance.

Sometimes these were straight, direct affairs, and sometimes they wound a bit on their way to their destination. In some cases the property surrounding the drive was pastureland, sometimes plowed field. On rare occasion it was manicured lawn, but this was not typical. For the most part these all would have been 19th century farm houses, and so the location was likely not selected to provide a grand presentation. One suspects that it was a case more of practicality - perhaps they were simply located on the site elevated enough to keep the house from being flooded out when the vernal ponds emerged.

Still, the me that was a kid on that bus didn’t have thoughts of practicality. Rather, to my mind those long, sinuous driveways were cool - this in a romantic, isolative sense. The distance away from the road made the destination remote, protected from prying eyes; and that distance bred fascination.

Long Drive

Long with Trees

Yup - Long

Let me tell you that you only have to get stuck in your driveway once or twice before losing any desire for a long, remote driveway, serpentine or otherwise.

We’ve already reached our quota for that this season.

Our driveway is not particularly long, in relative terms. We don’t have a winding path leading to a secluded spot. According to the measure feature in Google Maps, our driveway is about 180’ from the garage to the road. This is certainly a greater distance, than, say, the average suburban household contends with, but it’s not the extended pathway that you see in some of the pictures above. It is, most certainly, more than one wants to have to shovel by hand.

Mostly this isn’t an issue. For a while we had contracted with folks to come out and clear the driveway. When they stopped showing up (yes, literally just stopped showing up - isn’t that delightful?) my cousin from down the road began to clear it for us (now he is delightful). But in either case, you are victim to the snow remover’s schedule.

What this means, for the most part, is that people stay home until the snow is cleared. Well, at least, people who are not me.

I seem to have inhereted a genetic condition that works in the following fashion:

Weatherman: Conditions are hazardous, so we recommend that people stay at home. Folks, if you don’t have to go anywhere, don’t.

Me: Well, that’s it. I need some chewing gum. From Peoria.

Well, it’s not just that (really!). My work schedule is such that I often have to leave earlier than plowing occurs. And besides, someone has to get the gum, right?

(For the record: I do not chew gum...)

We deal with this mostly with a combination of snow tires, a bit of experience driving in the winter, accented with a touch of dumb luck. Essentially, when Old Man Winter conspires to make our driveway disappear I will venture out with an application of judicious speed and careful feathering of the throttle. Usually this works.

Occasionally it doesn’t:

yup - it’s stuck

snow, snow, and more snow

So. Twice over the past week I’ve had to dig our cars out of the snow in our own driveway. This would probably seem a universally bad and frustrating thing, and it does come close, except it offers a couple of different upsides:

  • I get to play in the snow; and
  • I get to play with cars; and
  • I get to solve a puzzle.

All assuming, as was the case both times this week, that I don’t have any place that I need to be, it is actually possible to look at this as a bit of fun.

Part of the challenge is that, as one can see in the pictures, we are working with cars that don’t have a great deal of ground clearance. The net effect of this is that, when one doesn’t hit the drifted snow at a sufficient speed, or maintain momentum, one rides up on the snow and ends up astride the snow, with it gathered underneath the chassis. This is, peradventure, an impediment to forward motion.

When this occurs the situation calls for multiple steps. If the car isn’t sufficiently crowned up on packed snow, it may be possible to use the old-fashioned rocking technique (do they still teach that in driver’s ed?) to gain traction and free the vehicle.

This was not successful in these situations.

Failing that, one has to go for the Full Monty and break out the shovels and rakes and implements of destruction.

Well, the shovels anyway. And, ideally, something to aid in what is known in these parts as gription. That could be sand, cat litter, or anything else you have handy that provides a similar composition. This week’s candidate was an old bag of charcoal briquettes that we happened to have sitting in the garage.

The key is to shovel around and under the car. Around in order to give clear space for it to move both forward and backward without hanging up on more snow. And by under I really do mean under - pulling material out from underneath the front, back, and both sides as much as possible; and breaking up what cannot be removed.

Then your gription material has to go around each of the drive wheels - both in front of and back of the drive wheels to catch in each direction.

Once all of that is accomplished, you get back in the car and repeat the rocking exercise. If you are smart, you have left the car running while doing all of that so it’s nice and warm inside (though, honestly, the work you are doing may take care of the staying warm part by itself). And if you have done your work well the car should concede to the idea of moving one direction or the other.

If it will only go backwards, it may be necessary to get out and remove the remaining pile of snow that had been underneath, but is now in front, as well as whatever else is still underneath (yes, believe me, there will be more than you thought) in order to get the vehicle to comply with a request for forward motion.

And although it may have been frustrating to have had the thing happen in the first place, there is something particularly satisfying when the car does break free and start to move forward of its own accord.

It’s an achievement; You’ve beaten Old Man Winter one more time. I mean really - screw that guy.