Historical Detritus

Our Homestead is old, but it is not now, and has never been, a museum. Throughout the course of its existence it has either served as a home, or sat empty, unused. This applies to the house itself, as well as to the property and it’s outbuildings.

The old barn on the property is nearly as old as the house itself, and it appears to have originally been built as an animal barn, with stalls for horses that include feeding troughs and the like. As time has gone on, the need for this type of structure has waned, and it has been put to other purposes - grain storage, general storage, and, apparently, raccoon sanctuary.

In these transitions, however, no one has bothered to remove or relocate the remnants of the prior usages. Hanging in the barn have been old bits of horse tack - various leather strappings and mechanisms designed for hitching horses up to wagons and similar devices.

I’d like to say that I know this because I’ve seen such items hanging in the barn and, to a certain degree this is true. However, it turns out that we have another, far more eager group of historical archeologists living on the property:

Our dogs.

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Over the years that we have lived here they have pulled out of the barn more bits of animal tack than I can ever recall seeing in there myself - the experience of finding yet another such item laying in the yard is a little like watching a slow motion clown car performance.

While I’d like to think that they are interested in sharing these historical discoveries with the rest of the family, I should note that most of these items have leather strapping attached to them, and I suspect it is this which actually gains the interest of our canine contingent. Still, they also have buckles and other metal components as well, which inevitably show up elsewhere in the yard (a delightful thing to encounter with a lawn mower, let me tell you).

The supply of these items surely must end at some point, and then we will no longer have these educational encounters with history. Until then, it does lend a reminder of the fact that it really hasn’t been that long since people used animals, rather than tractors, to plow the fields and get their product to market.

Roadside History Lessons

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I suppose it’s a bit of a truism to say that, despite how much you think you know, there is always more to learn. Still, new information insists on presenting itself, and sometimes in unexpected ways.

There is a site a few miles from home that I have ridden by many times, both since moving out here to the Homestead, and back when I lived here as a child. It’s a small plot of land at a very rural intersection that has always been mowed and tended, despite the appearance of there being virtually nothing there.

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Now, nothing is not an entirely accurate description. Part of what made me take notice of the site riding past it in our recent occupation is the fact that something is missing from it. When I was younger, I distinctly remember this site having a storm cellar on it. These, for the uninitiated, are concrete bunkers set low to the ground with the intention that one will get inside when high-wind storm events (think tornados) appear to be imminent. I remember this distinctly because I can remember that, as a child, I desperately wanted to go in to that storm cellar and I was, of course, also terrified to do so.

This is a distinct feeling of childhood, I think, and one that I can recall feeling over and over and over again. It usually involved choosing to do something that was likely inadvisable at best - walking across a railroad trellis, riding the rail system in the hay mount, climbing up the tower at the grain elevator late at night... (how did we not die doing these things?)

The storm cellar was dark, and indeterminately deep when viewed from the outside. And since one could not see in, one could only imagine what might be living inside - might we encounter snakes? Raccoons? A hibernating bear???

I did finally screw up enough resolve, as well as the foresight to bring along a flashlight. The outcome was... disappointing. There were no bears, no raccoons, no snakes. There was, in fact, nothing. Nothing but a muddy floor, and it was far less deep than it seemed it should be, suggesting it had probably been slowly filling in with mud flow over the years.

I always assumed this site was a former home site, with the house no longer present - either torn down or moved. Still, this did not explain why someone was continuing to maintain the site, nor why it also had what looked to me like the remnants of a bit of playground equipment set to one end.

Lilliputian Monkey Bars

So it was the recollection, and the notable absence, of the storm cellar that initially made me take notice of the site as I rode by it. I also noticed that there was a large stone there, with what appeared to be a plaque set in it. I was curious about this, but I’ll admit that I rode by it many times without stopping, always figuring that I would check on another ride, more concerned about getting my miles in.

This summer I did go ahead and stop to look, and thereby to learn the something new:

In honor of Immanuel Ev Lutheran Church

The Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church that I know - that I attended throughout my childhood - is a mile to the west of this site. I knew that it was old, and established by settlers to the area, including my ancestors - the stained glass windows at the church still display wording in German, the language those early settlers spoke. But I did not realize that the church was not always at its current site, that it had been first established further down the road. Nor did I realize when. Establishment in 1864 would set it only three years after our own Homestead was built, and place it at a time when the settlers were likely still carving their lives out of the prairie.

And the Lilliputian monkey bars? I wonder if this perhaps wasn’t a hitching bar...

I have no notion at the moment as to who decided to place the stone and the plaque at this site, it being well off the beaten path. However, I do very much appreciate that decision, opening up as it does yet another opportunity for discovery, and demonstrating that there are others about who truly care for the history of this place.

First Snow 2017

As I walked to the stairwell to begin my search for another cup of coffee this morning a glance out the window revealed this:

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Big fluffy flakes here in the middle-ish of November reflect the first meaningful snowfall of the season. We are ahead of the astronomical winter by a more than a month, but as usual, the weather gods of the Midwest feel not the limits of our puny calendars.

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There is something about the first real snowfall that always makes me happy. This is not something I’ve ever been able to really explain - it’s just a visceral thing that happens. Perhaps, like fall, or the first buds of spring, it reflects a change in the landscape, a variation what has been the typical order of things for the several weeks and months prior.

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Perhaps. But snow makes me giddy in a way that the other examples do not. There is something more to it. IMG_5018.GIF Undoubtedly some look out the window and experience the dread of a coming season of heavy coats, cold hands and noses, and shoveling. I know these things will be coming too, and I have no illusions about the potential future swearing I will do as I’m trying to rock, then shovel, then rock some more in my efforts to get my car unstuck from somewhere, where "somewhere" is even, possibly, my own driveway.

All of that is a ways off for now, tho, and from the vantage point of my warm room, with no need to go anywhere, this is a beautiful thing.

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Of Shed Roofs and Holes...

For the past couple of years we’ve had a very large hole in the roof of our shed.

Hole in Roof

It was there for the hole winter

Like most rural residential properties in Illinois, we have outbuildings in addition to the house itself. Like most such properties of similar age to ours - that is to say, 150+ years of age - those buildings vary considerably in terms of condition.

I’ve written before about the old barn, which is slightly younger than the house itself. It was in a state of decay when I wrote that, and it continues to insist on embracing entropy. In addition to the barn, we have two other outbuildings - a small garage, and the aforementioned shed.

The garage is a smallish building - probably technically a car-and-a-half in size - into which we manage to stuff our two, smallish Honda Fits. This is an exercise in automotive yoga, involving parking one of the two cars - mine - so closely to the wall of the building that it is physically impossible for a human being to enter the vehicle from the passenger side. Prospective passengers - my wife and child primarily - must wait outside the building while I back out before they can enter the vehicle. This mostly works out fine - I almost never fail to stop and let them in, virtually never drive off having forgotten them...

Despite its smallishness, the garage also does the heavy lifting of housing most of the things we care about enough to care for them but, you know, not enough to bring them into the house. The cars, the bikes, spare lumber, dog food, and so on.

The shed is a much larger building. It is a pole structure, sided in corrugated steel. Growing up out here we called these "machine sheds" or, sometimes, "Morton Buildings". "Morton" is a brand name, suffering here in the Midwest the same fate as "Xerox" and "Kleenex" have nationwide. There is nothing on the building to indicate that it was manufactured by the Morton company and yet, on multiple occasions I’ve been heard to utter than name in relation to it. More recently, however, I’m sure much to the relief of Morton Buildings, Inc., I’ve just been referring to it as "the f&%king shed".

And this takes us to where we started: there was a hole in the roof of the shed.

While the majority of the building - both sides and roof - is covered in corrugated steel, it did feature skylights made of translucent fiberglass. I wouldn't have actually known they were made of fiberglass, but Mother Nature felt it important to educate me, and so chose to rip one of the panels off in a windstorm, providing me the opportunity for close inspection of pieces of it down on the ground.

Now, I’m all for gaining knowledge, and I don’t want to seem unappreciative, but this lesson had a rather permanent effect upon the weather-tightness of the building. Perhaps Mother Nature could, in future, email me a link to a Wikipedia entry or something...

The process for addressing this took longer than one - particularly if one is me - might have expected. First up was a call to the insurance company in hopes that repairs to the building might be covered. Unfortunately, they pronounced the repair costs to be below our deductible, and drove off with their checkbook secure and unmolested.

Not expensive enough for the insurance company isn’t the same as inexpensive, however. Given this, and given the fact that most of our items of value were already stored in the garage (even with a roof fully sealed against the elements, the dirt floor of the shed is not ideal for longevity of stored items), we moved the few other items in there away from under the roof opening and started to save up.

Once we were ready to get the roof repaired, early exploration of this found a new area of concern. As I mentioned, there is no indication on the building to suggest that it is a Morton Shed and, in fact, no indication on it (that I can find) of its manufacturer at all.

And - not only am I unaware of the make of the building, but I’m also unsure of its age. I know that it was not there when I was little, and that it had appeared at some point between when I moved away and when I returned. The progression of years is such that this seems to encompass but the briefest period of time, but reality insists that it covers a span of at least 15 years, if not closer to twenty.

I am not always a fan of reality.

This wouldn't seem much of an issue to the casual observer, but it turns out that corrugated steel siding comes in multiple, subtlety different shapes and designs. What this means is that matching the pattern on the building becomes a challenge. The pattern on our shed looks like this:

Shed Pattern

When first informed of this issue I thought perhaps of repurposing sections of siding that appeared on the old barn. Two different types of siding had been added there over the years, likely in both cases to better seal it up against the elements and extend its lifespan.

The Barn white siding

The Barn steel siding

However, given the barn’s decaying state and, perhaps more importantly, it’s ongoing engagement in providing aid and comfort to the enemy, I would have been willing to repurpose those sections. And you’d think, being on the same property and all, that they’d perhaps be the same type of siding...

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. And of course, by "you", here, I mean "me".

Shed again

Barn White up close

Barn steel up close

If you look up close and personal at those pictures you’ll see that the patterns do not match. Whether this reflects a different era of product, different style, different manufacturer, or all three remains a mystery, but they are, in fact, different nonetheless.

And here I was learning so much about the diversity both within the world of corrugated steel siding, and within the bounds of my very property. The nature of these lessons were such that, while I originally thought them visited upon me by a gracious, if heavy handed Mother Nature, I found myself now wondering if they were not perhaps the work of the old gods brought over by my ancestors, perhaps the whim of Loki peeking thru...

Ultimately I was pleased to find at there is a way to cover the opening with a newer roof panel that does not match, exactly, but which will function to keep the elements out regardless. In fact, this could be done using new translucent panels that continued to function as skylights, but were not made of the fiberglass material that tends to become brittle over time, and do things like break off in the wind.

The shed guys came out and repaired the roof this past week, leaving it looking a little different, but now sealed - at least at the top - from the elements.

All sealed up

October

It’s like a switch is flipped just as the calendar is flipped over.

I swear that the advent of October is like a signal to Mother Nature. "Oh" she says “they’ve enjoyed a sufficient amount of moderate, still, dry weather. It’s time to kick up the wind and rain".

It does not seem right to picture Mother Nature giving an evil laugh, and yet I cannot help but envision a Muh-hah-hah-hah at the end of her statement.

There will, of course, be very nice autumn days ahead of us and, in many ways, autumn is my favorite time of year. The weather is cool, the fall colors begin to pop, apples and pumpkins are ready for harvest, and the best of all holidays is right around the corner. But still, the sudden shift seems to throw me every year.

As I write this, it’s Saturday afternoon, October 7th. It’s been raining more or less continuously for the past two days. Not a hard rain, mind you, but rather just enough mist and moisture to make it unpleasant to spend time out in it. And then it happened:

sunlight!

Honestly, the sunlight took me by surprise. As I saw it coming in through my window, I realized that now was my opportunity - I could go outside!

What I’d really been jonesing to do was to get out and go for a ride. I made a quick wardrobe change and geared up the Catrike and, ignoring the 18-mile-an-hour winds, headed out (besides, the wind is only a problem when it’s against you, right?)

My outing wasn’t long - just enough to, as my mother oh-so-elegantly used to say (and still says) "blow the stink off of you". But you have to take these opportunities as the season offers them.

We have wind here... 

We have wind here... 

The Mantis Strikes!

A handful of times over the years I have encountered people who have found and caught Praying Mantis’s. For myself, however, despite an abundant amount of time spent in the out-of-doors I have never personally come across one.

Not until this summer - now I’ve seen three.

The very first was found by LB, who saw it along the north wall of the old barn, and pointed it out to me. I’m not sure I would have noticed it myself, but there it was. I considered myself lucky for this encounter.

Then, a few weeks later I came across another, in grass that was perhaps a little longer than it should have been around the garden. This one I came across on my own, and I spent a little time with it.

Mantis in the grass

At first it did not notice me, too busy trying to navigate its way through the long blades (did I mention the grass may have been too long?). But then it turned and saw me and my phone there, intruding on its personal space, and took offense...

Mantis Attack!

Mantis Attack! close up

This Mantis was here to say "I will beat your ass if I have to", and showing it’s martial arts cred for the world, and more specifically, for me, to be aware. We stayed in this position, the two of us, for a short while. If I moved in and out the Mantis would reassert, making certain that I would not forget the danger posed by its arcane knowledge.

Seriously Dude - I will beat your ass!

Finally, détente reached, the Mantis took its leave of me, satisfied that I would fear and respect it, and all of its kind for the remainder of my days (Dude had quite an opinion of itself).

I am outta here

The Praying Mantis, or Mantis Religiosa (yup) is apparently not native to North America but rather, like Columbus (and ourselves), is an invader. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) actually lists its page on these critters under the title European Mantis. I actually thought that it might be the case that the versions we were seeing in the yard were some different variety of Mantis, since the outer carapace was a light brown rather than green, but apparently they come in a variety of colors.

And that fancy pose, warding me off and striking fear in my heart? It has a fancy scientific name, of course. This is the deimatic display, and is intended to make it look big and frightening and show off that extra set of eye marks on its upper chest (and who wouldn't want to show those if they had them?).

My third encounter - the day following, as it turns out, which I did not realize until I saw the dates in Photos - was the one that I included in last week’s post. That fellow, of course, was happily munching on a bee when I encountered it.

Bees are what’s for dinner

That one did not attempt to ward me off. One might assume it was too taken with its meal to notice me, but I suspect it is because it was confident that it’s comrade had sufficiently cowed me the day prior such that I was no longer a concern. I was now beneath notice.

Given history as a prelude, I may never see a Mantis in the wild again, but this summer has certainly offered a rich array of experiences with them.

Late Summer Oasis

The Stand

At one corner of the property we have a stand of tall plants primarily dominated by goldenrod and false sunflowers. When I first started taking pictures of the stand, it was with the thought that I would research and write a piece about the plants themselves, in a vein similar to the one about Chicory a short while back.

I enjoy learning about the things around us, especially about the things that are ubiquitous in a way that we often take them for granted. In many respects we think of these as ditch weeds, things that grow in areas that we do not tend and likely don't care much about.

Goldenrod is everywhere in the Midwest in late summer, and sometimes blamed for allergy flare-ups. Still, according to Wikipedia (which is never wrong) this is an error of association - ragweed is in bloom at the same time, and can be readily and more appropriately assigned that blame (f&%king ragweed!).

I remember the Goldenrod from childhood. The false sunflowers I do not, though that could simply be due to fuzzy memory or a childhood lack of attentiveness. They are also everywhere now, blooming along the roadside. And I should note that I believe these are false sunflowers - a bit of research makes me question that a bit. Multiple sources indicate that these plants grow anywhere from 16" to 59" tall. I think we can all agree that a five foot tall plant is a respectable height, but here's the thing - I'm about 5'8" tall, and I was standing up straight when I took this picture:

too tall?

...and this picture:

these are very tall plants

As you can tell from the angle of the shot, I'm looking up at these plants as I take the pictures. They are easily six foot tall, if not a bit taller. So, either these are a different type of plant, or my internet sources, including Wikipedia, have inaccurate or incomplete information about the growth range for these guys.


Like I said, I started out approaching this with the intent of writing a piece about these plants. Then I got in close to the stand for more pictures...

Now, before we moved out to The Homestead I had grown a small garden of native wildflowers, so the fact that there were bees buzzing about didn't entirely surprise me, but the sheer volume of them did.

Bee on Goldenrod

This batch of late summer blooms is one of many across the countryside, but most, like ours, are little islands, oases in what must otherwise seem a floral desert to our bee friends. I know that the potential for getting stung can frighten some people when they come across something like this. Still, I, and I suspect many people with gardening experience, have typically found that the bees are content to tolerate your presence as long as you aren't disturbing them. As my Grandma Marie would often be heard to say "if you don't bother them, they won't bother you".

And speaking of bothering them, I also came across this fine specimen:

Mantis Lunch

I've always known that their name, while referencing an appearance that suggests penitence, also reflected a predatory nature. Still, I've rarely ever seen them in person, and certainly never seen them in action. Given the decline in bees that has been going on, I briefly considered trying to free the victim - he was still moving. But nature is as nature does, and the mantis would undoubtedly catch another.

Ultimately, what I love about areas like this is that they become their very own ecosystems. The bees and other small insects are there, of course, and the presence of the mantis shows that they, and likely other critters are also about, preying on the pollinators. There is something pleasant and peaceful about having something like this, right there, nearby.

yard War II

Amongst My Weaponry...

The sky was a steel gray as I approached the battlefield. There, across from me they stood. Some of the names I knew - Chinese Mulberry, Euonymus, Woody Nightshade, Canadian Thistle - while others were mysterious. Still, I feared them not, for I knew my weapon was fear. Fear, and... amongst my weaponry was... let me come in again...

I feared them not, for I had my weapons at hand - pruning shears, pruning saw, and - of course - my trusty axe. I knew the battle would be difficult, but that glory would be mine if it was victorious.

I moved in strategically at first, long-handled shears in hand, facing my opponents in the rose garden. I snipped off my opponents one by one in precision strikes, clearing the field to face the heavy infantry. Recognizing now that the situation had changed, and not to my advantage, I retreated and regrouped. I cast aside the shears and pulled the pruning saw into service. The saw represents a compromise - more powerful than the shears, but still precise. But it takes time and effort - considerably more than the shears, and so I must watch for attack from behind while I work (Euonymus are known for their surreptitious strikes).

As I clear the field, leaving roses standing, unaccosted now by the encroachment of the scourge of the Chinese Mulberry, I heave a sigh of relief. Even as I do this, I know that, while this battle has passed, the war is not yet over. I look across the yard to the hillside, and gird myself for the next campaign.

Along the hillside the enemy has encamped along multiple locations. As I move in I consider my prior strategy, shears in hand. I march along the hillside, and begin my attack and, moments later, I look back at my arsenal. I toss the shears aside and pick up the axe and begin to swing.

...and swing, and swing. Carmina Burana begins to run through my head1, and I am now a Viking warrior, taking down opponents with my axe like a scythe through sheaves of wheat. There are brief moments when I think "this moment perhaps requires a more subtle tool", but then I swing my axe again, and the thought flees my head as if it had never arrived.

When the dust clears I look about and survey what I have wrought. The bodies of my enemies lay on the battlefield like cordwood2.

The vanquished

bodies of the dead

stacked like cordwood

The sweat and sawdust drip down my face and I realize it's time to shift gears.

my trusty steed

I harness my trusty steed to the wagon and pull around, calling out "bring out your dead". I pile them up and take them around to their final resting place, their future pyre. One valiant foe proclaims he is not dead yet, and attempts escape from the wagon. This is to no avail, and I collect him on the way back. As I return him to the wagon I look at home and wonder - what manner of foe is this?

mystery tree
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Seriously - does anyone know what kind of tree this is?

And now, as I cast the last of the fallen on the pile, I know the battle is done. I may see these valiant warriors again one day in Valhalla (or next year, most likely), but for today it is done.

If you gotta do yard work, you may as well have some fun with it.


  1. Actually, If I Had a Million Dollars was playing through my head all afternoon - I have no idea why.  

  2. Literally.  

Chicory

Chicory

As the summer winds towards a close the landscape begins to change a bit. The first hints of drying of the leaves of the corn and soybeans begin to show, and the chicory begins to bloom along the roadsides. The picture here was taken a few miles from home on one of my Sunday rides.

Many years ago, when I first started driving through the countryside to commute to work, I became fascinated with learning what the variety of things I was seeing growing in the ditches were. In this quest I came across the UofI Weed Identification Site - which is honestly the sort of thing that one wouldn't even consider would possibly exist unless one were looking specifically for it.

I've learned a lot about what is around us by using that reference, but discovering that the multitudinous pretty blue flowers coloring the roadsides in the late summer were, in fact, chicory, was one of the most surprising. In most cases my searches would simply involve looking through the pictures and seeing that the items I was pulling had a name - "Oh - so you are lambsquarter. Nice to meet you - now get the hell out of my garden..."

But chicory is different. Here was a discovery that a thing I'd heard the name of for years was actually a thing right nearby, indeed, perhaps under foot. Anyone who is a fan of westerns, or civil war-era fiction, will have heard of chicory. Soldiers or traveling cowboys will be found to be brewing and sharing it while they camp by the roadside. It's one of those tiny references to historical fiction that gives the era being described a different feel and helps put one in the place of the story.

In those stories chicory is being brewed like, and in the place of, coffee. The implication, often, is that the characters in the story are living rough, and so chicory is what they have to work with. This has apparently been a common usage, as the Wikipedia entry illustrates, using chicory in place of coffee, or at least blending it in with coffee to make it go further, in times of scarcity. The Wikipedia entry on the plant illustrates this quite nicely.

That practice of mixing it into coffee still stands, though now by choice and for flavor, something we learned when friends from Louisiana shared coffee with us a few years ago.

Café Du Monde

The can, sadly, is empty now, but it made for a delightful change of pace, and felt a little like drinking history with each cup.

Critter Patrol

When one gets a dog, one anticipates many of the features that accompany such an animal. They offer affection and companionship. They provide warning of new arrivals and intruders (albeit at their discretion). One thing I didn't expect, even with a lifetime of dog experience, was the level of vermin management that our canine team offers - indeed, seems to revel in.

We've detailed some of our issues with the Trash Pandas here, including the roles the dogs have played (and frankly, which we wish they would not play) in rounding them up. But the pest management goes much further than that - our furry exterminators offer more comprehensive services.

It is not at all uncommon for us to find, typically in the grass by the patio and back step, one or more recently dispatched members of the family rodentia, as well as the odd North American marsupial and periodic avian remains. To date, the list of gifts we have been left include:

  • House mice
  • Deer mice
  • Opossums
  • Shrews (I originally had moles on the list, but Wikipedia now has me convinced that what the dogs have caught were actually shrews)
  • Rats
  • Raccoons
  • Various and sundry birds

We have rabbits at the edges of the property - relatively recent additions. Thus far the dogs don't appear to have caught any of them, though it's not for lack of trying. There are no squirrels in our vicinity, but I'm sure they would be a target as well.

For the first few years at the Homestead we had a contingent of outdoor cats, brought in with the explicit intention of pest management. They were a fine batch of felines, as far as it goes, but at this point it's fairly clear that our canine crew is far more effective - perhaps because the cats didn't always see the need to quickly finish their prey off. The dogs are, however, perhaps less discriminating about what they eliminate - the birds are not pests, and possums are not problematic.

All of which brings me to the event that made me think of sitting and writing this post. Almost every morning, when I get up to make my coffee, Calamity comes to the back step to greet me through the window. And when she came to see me this morning this is the view that greeted me:

Calamity Back step

Because of the color of her fur you have to look closely to see it, but sure enough, she has a bird in her mouth.

Calamity the bird hunter

Bird Circled

And one might think: "okay, but she probably found that dead somewhere - a dog can't catch a bird". And that might be true for this particular bird - I can't say. But I can say that I've watched both Rosie and Calamity run into flocks of birds on the ground and scoop up individual birds as they start to take flight. And to be clear, I'm not looking to encourage this - we don't see the birds as pests to manage - but it is both surprising and impressive to see.

When I was very young we had a dog - a male rat terrier named Gladys (thanks Mom) who would routinely bring captured mice to the back step. This sort of thing is common for terriers, as I understand it, but our dogs are not terriers - they are herding dogs.

And they apparently like to herd a variety of critters right off this mortal coil...

Peaches

A couple of years back we made the first foray towards planting what we hope will become a small orchard. This first group of three included a pear, cherry, and cold-hardy peach tree.

I was, I will admit, somewhat skeptical at the prospect of planting the peach tree. I think of peaches as being a southern fruit - Georgia Peaches, anyone? - and so the idea of them working out here, weathering through a winter on the open prairie, seemed dubious. Still, it's been two years, and not only has the tree survived, its faring far better in the war against Japanese Beetles than my cherry tree.

I check the trees periodically for the beginnings of fruit throughout the spring. This year, for most of the spring I saw almost nothing. The cherry tree seemed uninterested in offering anything at all, and the pear tree made an early attempt at a couple of fruits, which then later simply vanished (though I'm sure our local wildlife had something to do with the vanishing...). And in all of this the peach tree, for the second year in a row, turned its woody nose up and refused to display even the beginnings of anything fruit-like, as near as I could tell.

As near as I could tell indeed, because I was walking towards the tree on my way to the shed last Sunday afternoon and I saw something... Honestly I wasn't sure what I was looking at from a distance, because I really had no expectation of finding that the tree was bearing anything.

But sure enough, it was:

Peach One

Peach Two

a pair of peaches

There are only just the two of them on the tree - it's still very young - but they are absolutely there and look very healthy. I can't imagine they were quite ripe yet, but I'll be checking them periodically. And I've gone from skeptical to cautiously optimistic. Given that it does look like the tree will yield fruit, even here on the periodically frozen northern prairie, it may be worth it to plant another of the same variety to allow for better pollination.

And - of course - the real bonus is that, in the near future, I'm gonna get to eat a peach!


Update: Somehow, when I was discovering the two peaches on our peach tree, I missed a third. It was apparently hiding, lower in the tree.

Hidden Peach

I've looked over the rest of the tree pretty closely, and I don't believe there are any others - three appears to be the limit. Of course, I thought I had looked over the entire tree before, and it's really not that big...

Things Can Stop Breaking Now...

I spent a little time in the last entry talking about the seasoned technology that is the clothesline. In part, this was inspired by necessity in the form of a dead electric dryer.

And here's the thing - it wasn't alone in its ailments. Over the past couple of months we've experienced the dysfunction and then death of the dryer, an air conditioning system failure, and have needed the repair guy to come out to look at our washing machine. Add in the imminent demise of one of our floor fans ("I'm running, I'm oscillating, and... I'm not running, not running... oh yes! Running again!"), a furnace repair in late winter, and a dripping kitchen faucet and it can feel like the very universe is crumbling around us.

We've been out here at the Homestead for a little over eight years and, I suppose, some of these items are reaching the stage of their planned obsolescence... err - normal lifespan. Still, it would work a lot better for us if, perhaps, the universe could stagger these things out a bit.

Universe... hello?

In the longer term part of our idealized goal for the Homestead is to restore and move it towards more sustainable technology, preferably in a fashion that does not make that sustainability readily apparent from the outside (and altering the vintage appearance of the home). In some ways this echoes the events of our ancestors, one of whom, I understand, installed a wind generator and battery for electricity and because he did not trust rural electrification (gotta love that paranoia... err - independence).

These types of shift take time, however - time and, perhaps more importantly, resources. When everyday things break and/or die it slows the pace towards those goals.

Ugh.

Clothesline Tech

A clothesline is a handy, and almost deceptively simple technology. On a warm and sunny summer day, particularly out here in the wind farm, clothes hung on the line will often dry more quickly than they do in the electric dryer.

Our clothesline is something special, as clotheslines go. Often when one sees a clothesline it's 10 or 15 feet of cotton line stretched from the side of the house to a mounting point. A trip to Amazon will find you a rotary clothesline perfect for a small backyard area. But our ancestors, given ample yard space and an apparent sense of industry, left this for us:

Big-ass clothesline

The posts are solid steel, a good three inches in diameter and about six foot tall. The cross-bars are also steel and, given how well they hold and how long they've been there (I remember them from my childhood, and I'm sure they are older still than that), the posts are almost certainly set in concrete. If the distance between them seems vast, thats only because it is - they are set a good 70 feet apart. No cotton clothesline here - plastic-wrapped wire line is the rule of the day.

Given the length of the span, the line will tend to sag as clothing is added to it. I've followed family tradition on this front, and built a very fancy support pole to be placed somewhere in the middle of the line (it's a hunk of old door frame with a couple of notches cut into it. But it works). LB recently made a second pole for the second line, using the trunk of a weed-tree they recently cut down, continuing the long family tradition of, shall we say, repurposing existing material...

Probably the most challenging part is getting and maintaining a taught line across the space. It's difficult to pull the line tightly enough when putting it up, even with a significant amount of elbow grease. Even if one does get it pulled to a state tightly enough that one is content, the line stretches over time. However, MLW discovered these nifty clothesline tighteners and ordered them from Amazon.

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I'm sure these aren't a new idea. The mounting points on the clothesline poles themselves have eye bolts on them, undoubtedly installed with the idea of doing much the same thing. However, due to age and rust and paint these are well past the point of being useful. But I put the line tighteners into place, and was able to pull both lines taught enough that Nik Wallenda might find them attractive were he to wander through our back yard.

What I especially like about them is that they promise the possibility of addressing future sag with just a turn of the handle rather than needing to pull the line off and try again.

Having the clothesline in place and available was especially a boon over the last few months, when our dryer started to signal it's intent to retire by requiring three or more cycles through before getting things completely dry. It was a greater benefit still when, a week or two ago, that self-same dryer decided to call it quits entirely (here I had been hoping it was just feeling a little tired, and would recover after a bit of rest. Sadly for the bank account this turned out not to be the case).

Japanese Beetles

Bastards!

Gardners are well aware of the difficulties these unwelcome intruders offer. Out on the homestead they appear to relish in stripping down a very select crop of cherished plants.

On the property we have wild roses that were purportedly brought from the east by the ancestors, and have grown here ever since. I picture them hauling rose seedlings in burlap sacks in the back of a Conestoga wagon. I also picture John Foulk periodically swearing in German as he attempts to pick them up, or even brushes against them on the trip - the thorns on these things are so wicked they'll pierce leather work gloves.

We've been aware for some time that the wild roses are on the interloper's list of preferred delicacies. It's not uncommon to look at the roses around this time of year and find them nothing but a lacework remnant of their former selves:

Lacework Roses

What we discovered this year is that, in addition to the roses, these little bastards have also taken to our cherry tree:

Sad Cherries

And the thing is, it's just the cherry tree, at least at the moment. There are a handful of beetles on the peach tree next to it, and on the pear tree a little further on, but the cherry tree has been completely laced - not a single leaf was spared.

Sad Cherries close-up

And the thing is, we have a yard full of other dining options. It seems to me that what is really needed here is a Japanese Beetle palate re-education project. Instead of wasting their time on the relatively limited supply of roses and peach trees, for example, such a project could introduce them to the abundant wonders of White Mulberry trees, the unbelievably resilient Woody Nightshade, and the supposedly many and varied uses of Burdock.

Once complete, that project would open up a world of opportunity to the beetles. Not only would they have access to a plethora of new dining adventures, but they'd be on the "must have" list for every farmer and gardener in the Midwest.

Clearly this is one of my finer ideas. Now where can I get a set of teeny-tiny school desks and chairs...?

Thunderstorms and Rainbows

Yesterday evening offered a rare visual opportunity:

Double-Rainbow

Rainbows themselves are not all that unusual out here, particularly in the spring - we have more than a sufficient supply of rain showers followed by sunshine to present that opportunity. Still, a double-rainbow with a thunderstorm as a backdrop is a sight I don't believe I've seen before.

MLW first noticed it out the picture window in the dining room. I grabbed up the phone and went out to get a couple of pictures. And, with the lightening flashing in the clouds behind it, I decided to take a little video as well:

It's a quiet scene, all told. LB and I had driven home through part of that storm a little earlier in the evening, with rain so heavy that, for a short while, it was virtually impossible to see even with the wipers on high. That part is not pleasant (and seems to be a more regular occurrence over the past few years). Still, scenes like this remind me that Mother Nature Giveth as well...

Battling the Summer...

As we roll into mid-June the temperatures are starting to rise. This old house has an abundance of windows and can offer some considerable airflow (aided, no doubt, by our location in the wind farm). We deploy a series of fans - both ceiling fans and floor models - as well as blocking out light to prevent solar heat gain, as we've discussed here before.

All of this works well until temperatures rise up into the 90° territory with its accompanying humidity (at no point in the Midwest is it ever a dry heat...). Then the central air needs to come on.

However, like so many things, the age of the house and the intermittent nature of its improvements have an impact on what is needed to cool things down. My grandparents lived their lives in the downstairs of the home, and as such the ductwork upon which the central air relies to distribute its cooling goodness feeds only the downstairs and a couple of select spaces upstairs. Since heat rises, this gives the upstairs region of the home the potential to be very warm indeed by the end of the day.

As such, we continue (for the short term, at least) to be plagued by these:

window air conditioning

Window AC units are noisy, and of course block off a chunk of the window in which they are placed. Still, at the moment it's either that or enjoy the sweltering heat and humidity of a 90+ degree day.

And as I write it, it seems more than a little extreme to use the term "plagued" to describe an implement that, while not perfect, functionally keeps the house comfortable to live in through the summer heat. It makes me think of stories my Grandma Marie would tell about summers in which, at times, everyone slept outside because that was the only way to get comfortable.

I suppose the downsides to the window units are slightly more tolerable than having to bed down in the back yard...

All-Too Invisible Fence

I do not usually mow the lawn - often this is a task that others either enjoy (MLW) or have inflicted upon them (LB), but I decided to give it a go today. One of the things I decided I was going to do with my mowing adventure was really cut in close to the edge of the property and trim back some of the tall stuff that tends to grow along the field.

Back in October of 2015 I relayed a situation in which my cousin had inadvertently cut our invisible fence line. After this event I had put in several steel fence posts as markers to provide reference points for him, and for myself, indicating where the fence wire was. I thought myself pretty clever for doing so and, in fact, my cousin hasn't encountered the fence since.

What I didn't anticipate is that I might later be a victim of my own cleverness and drive over one of those fence posts in my effort to trim close to the edge of the property. I was fortunate, however, to only roll over it with a tire as opposed to the more serious problem of hitting it with the blades (did I mention that I do not usually mow...?).

I chalked this up to life experience and largely forgot about it until LB fed the dogs and said "the alarm on the invisible fence is going off".

I'm not sure the swearing was out loud, but the volume of it in my head was considerable.

It could be worse, though. I had a rough idea of where I thought it was (around the aforementioned fence post), and I had purchased a kit to help find breaks in the fencing during the adventure in October of '15.

So I gathered up the items from the basement shelves and got to work. As I started the process of searching I became aware of a couple of things:

  • All of those teachers in elementary school who accused me of not reading all the way through the directions before starting a task were a pain in my ass. And, incidentally, they may have been right; and
  • I get very crabby when I think I'm winding things up for the day and a new problem pops up.

That second item isn't really a revelation, per se, as much as it is a periodic reminder.

At any rate, I gathered up my cheapie radio and telescoping handle and walked out to the area I thought the damage was, only to find it was doing nothing but bringing in local radio stations. I messed around with this for a little bit before finally admitting that it was at least remotely possible that I'd forgotten how the procedure all works since my single experience with it 20 months ago.

Turns out there are several additional pieces of paraphernalia, and some additional setup, that is required before you can detect your break in the fence. It also turns out, oddly enough, that all of those additional pieces were sitting on the shelf right next to where I'd retrieved the first couple of pieces. Who would have guessed?

As I noted back when, the repairs are fairly simple once the break is located and uncovered. Today's repairs, though, were somewhat complicated by the extensive colony of ants that had apparently made their home somewhere in the vicinity of my damaged wire. They were not shy about making their objections known:

unhappy ants

For the record, they were not just crawling, but also biting. As it all went on I'm sure I appeared the monster, since many of them would end up returning home on their shields...

It's all better now, though, assuming there is not some giant ant overlord coming for revenge...

Simple Pleasures

The final day of a long weekend out here on the prairie, particularly when the weather cooperates as it has been, offers some opportunity to appreciate the simpler things.

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The sun and the wind of the open prairie present an option that we don't take advantage of often enough. It's a little more work to haul the clothes out to the line than it is to simply toss them in the dryer, I suppose, but it requires 100% less electricity as well. Besides, there is something nostalgic about seeing the clothes on the line, and something rather therapeutic about hanging them there. This is an activity I watched, and helped, both my mother and my grandmother with many times as a child. Something feels right about it.

Working around the yard yesterday I was greeted multiple times by the peonies in bloom:

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While all of this is happening, we also have sun tea brewing in a gallon jar on the sidewalk.

tea a-brewin'

This will provide many delightful glasses over the next week or so. I add a few orange tea bags to the mix for mine - just a hint of extra flavor. No sugar or sweetener here tho - those seeking "sweet tea" will have to take that up with the McDonalds in town.

Drive Through Country

There is a lot to be said for country life - much of what I have to say about it is chronicled here. The open spaces, the room between one's self and one's neighbors offers a sense of separation, of privacy that cannot be easily found in the city. The connection with nature is enhanced by this solitude.

As wonderful as this is, that sense of solitude clearly can mean something else to people who are passing through it rather than living in it. For some it presents an emptiness that must be endured in order to move from one actual destination to another - drive through country, if you will. For others it reflects an area where one can do things unobserved, undetected.

Infamously, the empty areas of the Midwest can hide meth houses and similar objectionable sites. But while the media presents this sort of thing as if it's rampant, actual sightings of these are relatively rare. What is more common is the use of our countryside as a dumping ground for things one is, apparently, unsure of how to otherwise throw away.

This isn't a new phenomenon - I can recall variations on this theme going back to childhood. But the thing I see more recently, and which is a bit more striking than a bag of beer cans, for example, is this:

TV in the Ditch

Another TV in the Ditch

These pictures reflect two different, large CRT televisions sitting in the ditch, just a couple of miles apart:

TV's on Henkel Road

This road isn't unpopulated - there are several houses within relatively close proximity of both of them. But it has the distinction of being just off of a fairly major thoroughfare - US RT 52 - which one suspects offers just enough access, and just enough privacy, that one feels one can dump them without being noticed.

And dump is the operative term here. Anyone who has ever had to pick up and move a large CRT television knows these now-outdated devices are anything but light. This is a factor, as much as anything else, in why they've been replaced flat screen TV's. All of which is to say: these didn't just fall off of someone's truck. They aren't sitting, smashed, at the side of the road. They are out in the ditch. One of the two - in the second picture - is so far into the ditch that it's nearly to the field. It is also accompanied by a second, unwanted item that appears to be a microwave.

I'd like to say that this was striking enough to take a picture of because I've never seen such a thing before. Unfortunately, that's not the case - I've seen this same sight multiple times over the time that we've been out here - large, tube televisions tossed in the ditch. I suspect this occurs in part because disposal of old TV's is becoming more and more challenging. It also comes to mind because we have our own departed TV to dispose of.

The state of Illinois does maintain a list of electronic devices and materials that must be recycled rather than sent to a landfill, as well as a list of organizations and business that will recycle electronic devices and materials. This looks pretty hopeful when you see that Wal-Mart is at the top of the list - after all, they are everywhere. However, the big-box giant's website indicates that they only accept smartphones and tablets, along with a short list of other devices, none of which are televisions.

Staples offers a laudably longer list, but limits its program to items that could be considered office equipment, such as monitors and printers. Goodwill will accept a number of electronic items, but any mention of televisions is carefully absent from their site. The Salvation Army is listed as a recycler as well, but specifics about this are either not listed, or well hidden, on their site. A regional site - Stockpiled Electronics Recycling appears on a search with a Facebook page as their business site (folks, Facebook should never be your primary business site... but I digress), but it was posted in 2013, and the number to call is a scam line to sell you a Caribbean cruise.

So it's extremely challenging to find a home for that old TV. With all of those negatives, I did find this positive:

Best Buy will recycle a lot of electronics for free, and will recycle your television for a $25 fee. Best Buy is not a company I particularly love, and stores are few and far between in this region, with the nearest examples requiring an hour or so in the car or truck. Still, the company deserves kudos for stepping up here where others will not, and driving a bit to allow for proper disposal is far better than being a waste of human biomass who dumps his TV in the ditch.