Tar and Chip

I was about four years old when we first moved out “into the country”1. When we moved out to the house across the field, the road we lived on was gravel, as were most of the roads connecting to it. And the road in front of the house we live in now was gravel up until I was a young adult. Many of the roadways in the region have since been paved, but certainly not all.

When the roadways in the area get upgraded from gravel they most typically are converted to tar and chip. If you’ve driven on country roads this is a surface that you are probably familiar with - it’s very common. According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong), tar and chip is cheaper than asphalt or concrete pavement, so it makes sense that it would be applied on more lightly traveled roads like ours.

The past winter was pretty hard on the roads in our area, and as a result the township road crews have been dutifully working on them. The first phase of that often involves simply patching holes, but as the summer goes on they have reapplied the road surfaces in several areas.

This leads to an... interesting period of time with respect to those surfaces.

You can tell when a road has been recently resurfaced. The visual effect is exactly the opposite of what you see on a new asphalt roadway - with new asphalt the surface is a very dark back. With tar and chip, it’s much lighter - often almost white.

Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip
Tar and Chip

I’m no transportation engineer2, but broadly speaking, as I understand it, tar and chip essentially involves putting gravel (“aggregate” - the “chip”) into a layer of tar, then rolling over it to smooth it down. I’m quite sure it’s more complicated than that, but that’s my layman’s understanding.

The reason any of this is important is that, when one starts to encounter those newly whitened roadways, one also needs to be prepared for a change in the quality of the road surface. Often, for the first few weeks following resurfacing, there can be a considerable amount of loose material on the roadway - chip that did not choose to join with the tar.

For this period of time then, roads that were once apparently solid and unyielding suddenly become slippery, sometimes in an unexpected way. For all intents and purposes, for this period of time, those roadways behave in many ways as if they are gravel roads. This means that not only can you expect material to be moving from under your wheels, but you will also have the joy of passing vehicles throwing gravel up at you as they pass (and, to be fair, you at them as well).

This is especially delightful if you are operating an open vehicle like a bike or trike when people drive by. And because people are used to driving on these roads like they would on any other paved surface, they often operate at speeds commensurate for those surfaces, rather than what you typically see on gravel.

None of this is to complain - not really. As a person who has routinely operated a variety of vehicles on both gravel and tar and chip, I can confirm that the latter is a far friendlier surface. When I was a kid I can remember having a friend who lived only about 2 1/2 miles away - a paltry distance for our bikes to manage, even at a young age, back then. But the fact that the last mile of that ride was on gravel made riding to see him seem challenging at best, insurmountable at worse.

As an adult I no longer see it as insurmountable, but as a general rule, I avoid gravel where possible, regardless of the vehicle I’m in or on3. What this means is that, if the direct route involves gravel, but there’s a way to either avoid it entirely, or at least minimize it, I’ll be going out of my way (sometimes by a couple of miles).

So the tar and chip is an overall good, relatively speaking. But you’ll want to keep your eyes open for that characteristic white roadway, and adjust accordingly.


  1. I put that in quotes because urban readers will consider the small town we moved out of to also be “in the country”, but there are absolutely differences. The primary difference is proximity. In a town, your neighbors are typically within a couple dozen feet of you in every direction. They are always in earshot, and often in view and, consequently, so are you to them. As my brother-in-law once said: “If you can’t pee off your back porch without being seen, you aren’t in the country”.  ↩

  2. I’m not a transportation engineer, but the guy who wrote the Wikipedia entry might very well be. Including the part where it’s written as if everyone reading it will also be an engineer...  ↩

  3. Perhaps somewhat ironically, gravel roads are at their best for cycling when they are in poor repair. Give me a gravel road with well worn tire tracks in it and I’m happy, but a newly surfaced gravel road is an instrument of torture.  ↩

The Living Fence is Back

The Living Fence Returns

Several years ago I wrote about the living fence that would surround our yard every summer. Of course, nearly as soon as I wrote that, the situation changed, and my cousin planted alfalfa, which has provided the scenery around our perimeter for the past several years.

There’s nothing wrong with alfalfa, and I enjoy the changing nature of the scenery over time. And besides - it’s his field, so he can plant what he wants.

But I do especially enjoy what happens as the corn grows. I sit and write this now, in a glider rocker in my dining room, looking out a window facing east.

Dining Room Window

Through that window I can see the old pine trees at the eastern end of the yard, remnants of a previous generation’s tree line. For the past several years, and up until a couple of weeks ago, we could readily see beyond those trees out into the field, a verdant expanse to the horizon. Now the yard clearly ends just beyond that point in a wall of green.

Beyond the tree line

This has the effect of making the back yard a secret garden, a space alone and away from others.

I like to walk the yard on weekend mornings, and occasionally in the evening. The dogs will join me intermittently as I sojourn along through the different parts of the property, checking in and moving on and checking in again. As the corn grows it makes that walk an ever-changing experience, alters and changes the view, the airflow, and the overall experience. It will change again in the fall, when the corn comes down, and opens that expanse again to the horizon.

This is a small thing in the realm of experiences, I suppose. But where others travel and seek experiences in that way, we have the opportunity to enjoy the shifting tableau just by looking out the window or walking out the door.

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)

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.

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

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"...

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.

Cat and Mouse

So there I was, yesterday morning, having a private moment in the bathroom. Then I heard a sliding and a clacking of sharp little claws, and a quiet "thud" on the door.

A second later the mouse ran out from under the door.

Under these circumstances one has to make a decision. I was in a compromising position, of course, but the earliness of the hour virtually ensured that I was likely to be unobserved. And I had to think and act quickly. So I did what I think most would under the circumstances:

I opened the door.

The cat came skittering in through the doorway and immediately located the mouse, who (of course) immediately ran behind the decorative storage lockers we have in the bathroom.


This is a scene, the type of which plays itself over and over again across time in our old house. The building is, functionally, a web of open passageways from the perspective of a rodent looking to come in from the winter cold. What looks to you and I like a solid wall made of wood and plaster or brick looks to mousy eyes like a piece of Swiss cheese. So, as the temperature drops, in they come.

Now, our issues with these tiny furry friends has lessened over the years with the help of commercial pest control. Still, the numbers never seem to drop to an absolute zero. And while this is somewhat to the dismay of the human inhabitants of our home, the feline crew seems to prefer the non-zero situation.

The tense and tenuous relationship between cat and mouse is a story as old as time - they say that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats in part because they kept the rodents from overwhelming their grain stores and protected them from other pests. That relationship has persisted over time, and settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries have also valued feline companionship for the purposes of vermin maintenance.

Within our own home the rodent control team consists of two players - Malcolm and Inara. Malcolm is a largish gray cat with green eyes who would seem to be a Russian Blue but for two tiny bits of white - one on his chest and the other on his tail. He has a delightful, chirping meow. He’s a beefy, strong cat. You can feel the muscle when you pick him up. A natural athelete, he is able to gain the top of our refrigerator with a leap from ground.

Inara is a tortoiseshell with yellow eyes. She is noticeably smaller and more slight than Malcolm, skittish and shy with most members of the family. She has a squeaking meow that is sometimes hard to detect and never pleasant. She is rarely seen to leap, and instead must climb our tall cat tree with claws and effort.

And so of course, who would you expect to have come skittering in to that bathroom? The Adonis, the cat-equivalent of the football player, the track god?

It was Inara.

As is so frequently the case in my experience with cats over the years, it’s the lady who does all the work. Inara parks herself at key points in the home and sits patiently and listens, waiting for the thing she hears behind the wall to peek a whisker out in the open.

Ideally, once that whisker shows, we as the cat owners (owned?) would like to be able to say that the rodent invader is dispatched quickly and efficiently. Those of you with previous cat experience will know this is absolutely not the case. Rather, from the cat’s perspective the catching of the mouse is just the first step in what is about to become an event of extended rodential torture that would make the writers at the Geneva convention add another passage to the rule book if they were to see it.

Apparently the mouse must be made to feel that it has a chance to escape, over and over again, just to discover that there, once again, is a swiping paw to block the way. Periodically one can hear the plaintive squeaks for help that indicate the trial is not yet complete. And apparently there are moments when it has become clear that the current venue is no longer the correct one - that the dining room isn’t the right place any more, and the mouse must be moved to, say, the living room. And so the cat is seen carrying the mouse in that characteristic heads-up position. At these moments the mouse is still and quiet and you think "it’s all over".

Nope - I don’t know why they remain still in that position - if it were me, I’d like to think that I’d be like John McClane surrounded by thieves in Nakatomi Plaza doing everything I could to get free. But no, they hang, still, perhaps hoping that, if they are just quiet enough, the cat will forget they are there... in the cat’s mouth.

This is clear, of course, because once they get to the living room and drop their rodent captive, he starts to move again.

Although he is clearly not in charge of the mousing situation, Malcolm does attempt to cooperate. It would be wrong to describe them as team players - it’s more like rivals working coincidentally towards the same goal. And now might be the right time to mention that we know he can jump to the top of the refrigerator because we feed him up there. We have to because, if we do not, Inara eats all of this big, beautiful athelete’s food.

So you can imagine how well his attempts to participate work most of the time.

There was an event once, several months ago, where he finally got so frustrated that he reached over, picked up the mouse, and simply ate it. If you are picturing the kid who shoves the entire ice cream cone in his mouth so his older brother cannot take it you are right on track.


Yesterday morning, during our bathroom adventure, I was able to move the locker so that Inara could access her prize and scurry with it back out of the bathroom. I’d like to say that I know what happened next, but I had to leave, and so have only the memory of feline and mouse silhouettes against the light of the front hallway to finish that event for me. Sometimes we find the mice later, deposited in delightful locations, once they have lost their interest to the cats due to the no-longer-breathingness they have attained.

Our ancestors valued their feline companions for the perceived assistance in pest control, and understandably so. I’m not certain that, in our situation they truly make much of a difference. The mouse sightings dropped precipitously once we contracted with pest management services. For a while we had a batch of cats outdoors on duty, but honestly our dogs seem to catch more vermin than the cat crew ever did (and the dogs are merciless on that score). But it’s possible that our ancestors also delighted in the joy cats do seem to take in their assigned duties. Setting aside the ultimate outcome, watching a cat diligently at work with a mouse is a little like watching Norm Abrams put together a chair on New Yankee Workshop... in an era absent television and video games a mousing cat would likely be (and indeed, is) quite entertaining.

Small Town Recycling

When I was a kid growing up out here on the prairie, one of the more challenging things to deal with, depending upon your point of view, was your garbage. I say "depending upon your point of view", because in many cases the answer arrived at was simple:

Fire.

In the days of my youth there was an enduring tradition of simply taking one’s household refuse out to the designated spot and lighting it aflame. Everyone that I knew who lived out here had a "burn barrel" - often a cast off steel barrel that had previously held something like motor oil. These were, themselves, durable but not everlasting items that periodically had to be replaced. You learn pretty early from this experience that almost anything will burn - or at least "go away" - if things get hot enough. To this day I can still differentiate the smell of burning garbage from other smokey smells.

This is an enduring problem, and in earlier times it was an issue dealt with by burying things in addition to burning them. Sometimes this was in a place dug specific to that purpose, and sometimes it was a secondary use of the otherwise objectionable space beneath an outhouse. Indeed there are people who make a hobby and/or career of privy digging to extract the now precious items that prior generations valued so much they tossed them into their toilets.

Fortunately, these are largely concerns of the past - garbage collection services are available even out here on the prairie, and as such, we no longer have to throw our trash in our toilets or risk conflagration to dispose of it. But what is not offered out our way is any type of recycling services. Rather, all of the refuse simply goes into one large bin to be taken away once each week.

Whether or not recycling is of benefit is actually a question surrounded by some controversy. Most of us have heard of situations where the collection company actually takes the collected recycleables and simply dumps them into the landfill with the rest of the trash, particularly at times when the materials simply don’t carry much value. But at the very least it feels better to sort out the things that can be recycled rather than simply throwing them out. As such, we’ve looked for recycling options in our area, but mostly come up empty.

Mostly. The exceptions are for metals, particularly aluminum.

What does this mean for the rural lifestyle? It primarily means that, if something can be purchased in an aluminum container, that’s how we get it.

This actually represents an odd change of pace for those of us in the household who may have predilections towards beer snobbery (speaking here for a friend, of course). After a couple of decades of having convinced oneself that distribution in glass is the preferable medium for any ale or lager, one now finds oneself disappointed when a favorite beer is not available in a can. And there are other items - sodas, of course, and the oddly addicting LaCroix family of products - which can also be obtained wrapped in aluminum.

So nowadays we have a pattern of collecting the cans and engaging in periodic crushing sessions. When we’ve gathered what seems a sufficient volume we take them in to Buckman Iron & Metal Co. Sufficient volume is usually somewhere between five and seven 30-gallon bags.

Cans on their way in

The upside to all of this, particularly as compared to having recycling collected at the road, is that it does actually result in getting some cash back. Now, if one is hoping to generate a personal fortune through this means, one will be disappointed. My most recent trip in, with seven bags more or less full, come out to a weight of 46lbs. Aluminum was running at a price of $0.45/lb, which meant that I walked away with a whopping $20.70.

Not a princely sum, to be sure, but certainly more than I would have garnered if I’d simply thrown them away. Better, as my mother would say, than a stick in the eye.

The other benefit to this is primarily for the twelve-year old boy in me that finds it pretty cool to see the machines at work. On this last trip in, for example, I was waiting behind another customer who had brought in the remains of a Ford Taurus on a truck. This meant I got to enjoy the show involving getting the car off of the flatbed with a forklift. This was a delicate balancing act, to be sure, but one that neverless did not involve the car falling off of the forklift. If you’ve ever watched someone operate one of these things and thought "that’s no big deal", I think seeing one in action this way would get you to reconsider the error of your ways.

stacks of cans pressed

And you also get to see the results of your efforts, as well as that of others. Here I’m referring to the blocks of pressed aluminum that is produced at the far end of the machine that processes your cans. These ultimately join other blocks lined up on pallets (pictured above borrowed from DoRecycling ) that make it clear that what you’ve brought in will be taken out to be used again, which at least feels like you are doing something useful in the long run. And you are, as recycling aluminum reportedly works better than mining in both from a cost and environmental perspective.

Turbine Repairs?

I was traveling back home the other day, and came across this sight:

Blades Coming Down

As discussed here a couple of weeks ago, there’s been a lot of wind farm activity in the area over the past several months. Mostly this has been occurring in the form of raising new turbines to replace the ones taken down at Mendota Hills. This is different - the turbine you see here is one that has been up for several years.

I’ve never had the opportunity to see this particular event occur - them taking down an entire blade set. However, it is the case that the blades have to be repaired and/or replaced periodically. At times you will be driving by a turbine and see that it has new blades sitting on the ground next to it, for example. Later they will be gone and the turbine blades look shiny and new. There is also a crew that comes out with a cable and basket system - it looks similar to what you see for skyscraper window-washer crews - and appear to paint or coat the blades while they are still on the turbine.

The turbines themselves also appear to have a cable and winch system inside to pull up parts for internal repairs. I’ve seen them on many occasions with the cable coming down out of the back.

I turned the corner and got a closer shot of it coming down. They were actively bringing it down on the crane, so the blade set is lower in this shot:

Down further still

I suppose the gist of it all - besides the fact that I just find these events pretty cool - is that it shows that these are active, maintained facilities. Crews are out here performing maintenance and keeping them up and running, which seems overall a good sign. And it seems good, in a world where the urban and suburban landscape seems to swallow up more and more farmland, to see activity that makes one feel, at least, like some of this open land will remain open to other, non-residential activity.

Impending Weather

Although the calendar has not yet rolled around to actual winter - and will not, in fact, for nearly an entire month - the weather has taken to trying to prove otherwise. As such, we are sitting on the cusp of a weather alert promising (some would say threatening) 5-10 inches of snow.

Snow’s-a-comin’

Inevitably what comes from such proclamations is the reports that one should, under virtually all circumstances, remain at home. The roads will be dangerous and impassable, emergency crews will be busy, and the weather will make for treacherous conditions.

It is usually under these conditions that I experience the felt need to drive to, oh, Albuquerque to get a pack of gum. And maybe a Slim Jim.

This is a part of country life, the realization that, at times, the weather will dictate your activities, your mobility. The healthy and safe thing to do is to follow those dictates and remain safe and secure in your home, riding out the storm in relative warmth and security. These days, due to the benefit of a few years of wisdom, this is something I’ve come to do. When I was younger I would have engaged in that felt need, and made a run for something, anything, as long as it got me out of the house.

I’m not alone in this. I know there are other members of the family that experience it as well. This makes one wonder about the nature or nurture of such a thing. Is this a remnant of the nature that made our ancestors feel the need to move west? Was this the spark that made John and Martha Foulk and Prairie and Ziba Johnson look at the forbidding, windswept lands outside the shelter of the groves and say "that’s the life for us"?

This would have been a valuable thing, back then. It would have been the sort of thing that would have prompted them to break out of the house and lay out hay for the animals despite the blowing snow; to split the wood needed for the stoves that heated the house. Heck - I suppose a bit of this spirit is what one needs to brave the trek across the back yard to get to the outhouse...

But in all of this, with the animals fed, the wood stocked up, and necessaries taken care of for the moment, would John and Martha still have looked out the window longingly at the snow?

I can see Martha saying to John "you know what would be good on a day like today? Cornbread."

John: "Why, that would be a fine idea. Cornbread indeed!"

Martha: "But John, we have no buttermilk."

And they both look out that window, consider the blowing and drifting snow, before turning to look at each other. Then John says "I’ll hook up the sleigh Martha - let’s ride out to the general store and pick up a pint."

——

So... probably not. But I do suspect that they got antsy when the weather came to call, keeping them bundled up and indoors. That spark, if it really is a thing that is passed down from one generation to the next, may be a little less useful a thing when one doesn’t have to tend to the animals and the firewood, burning off that bit of drive.

First Snow 2018

Over the past couple of years I’ve tried to document when the first real, substantial snow of the season has occurred. In 2017 it showed up on November 12th. This year it touched down a might earlier, falling last Thursday night - November 8th - leaving us a blanket of white stuff to be seen in the early morning light Friday morning.

Early November Snow

The ground is, astonishingly enough, still covered today, three days later. This is different than previous years, where even a substantial early snowfall still disappears quickly the following day. In fact, far from being the typical November dusting, there was enough accumulation for drifting - actual drifting to begin to occur as the wind picked up later in the day. It wasn’t enough to be truly problematic, not yet. But the tell-tale strips of white across the asphalt and tar-and-chip were there, heralding days to come.

The weather report suggests that today is the last day of it, and in fact the temperature at the moment sits at 32° F, working its way up to a proposed high of 40°. These quiet morning hours represent the likely last moments of the pre-winter ground cover.

I’ve mentioned here, likely more than once, that I delight in the snow. This early example won’t last, of course - it’s more of a winter tease. But it does herald future flakes to come.

Mystery Nest

So this showed up in the yard the other day:

Nest

Bird nests showing up on the ground in our yard is not an uncommon occurrence. The wind out here is such we fairly routinely come across one or another on the ground. On very windy spring days it’s not uncommon to find multiple nests, and a little later in the season a bad storm can also result in multiple hatchlings finding their unfortunate end in the same fashion. It’s wonderful to be out in nature, but she does sometimes remind you that she’s often unkind.

Most of the nests we see, however, are the typical "cup" style - those that look like a little bowl that you’d keep something in (gee, like, I dunno - eggs maybe?). But this one is different. It’s larger than the others, and the hole that you see in it is the entrance. It’s composed primarily of grass, though there’s also a bit of synthetic stuffing (undoubtedly gleaned from one of the dog’s less-than-fortunate stuffed toys or beds).

Usually, when I find such things I will spend some time on the interwebs trying to sort out the details. In this case, I’d like to know what type of bird would have made this.

Unfortunately, an internet search on this topic thus far provides primarily information on what you need to know to identify a bird nest - e.g. shape, size, composition materials. I can find multiple sites that tell you those are the important, relevant pieces of information. And then none of them tell you anything about which birds go with which types of nest.

So today I live with a mystery. Anyone out there know what type of bird matches this nest?

Summer Visitors

There are a lot of little benefits to rural life in the midwest, kind one of them is the abundance of wildlife we get the opportunity to experience.

Yes - this may seem an odd statement - isn’t even the rural territory of Illinois largely tamed? It is true that we don’t have to fear wandering grizzly bears or marauding packs of wolves (though wolves aren’t really the danger that children’s stories would suggest), but we certainly do have a variety of other critters, including coyotes, foxes, and an array of marsupials and large rodentia, not to mention the f&%king raccoons...

But mid- to late summer here also offers an explosion in activity of the insect variety. Some of this is less than desirable, of course - it’s amazing how quickly after cracking open a beer the picnic bugs arrive, for example. But then there are the moths and butterflies.

Between the agriculture around us, and the array of things we allow to grow in and on the borders of the property, butterflies seem to find our little homestead a fine place to hang out.

I’ve discussed this tangentially before, but spying multiple examples of this little guy brought it to the forefront.

fuzzy little guy

It’s a curious looking little fella, and when I see things like this I find, more often than not, I want to know what it is. When I was younger, of course, that would require a trip to the encyclopedia set and/or the library, all assuming that a) I would remember to look it up once the opportunity presented itself; and 2) that I would accurately remember the thing that I’d seen days (or possibly weeks) before well enough to match what I was seeking.

Of course, the naturalists of the 1800’s would simply have sketched themselves a drawing of the thing they’d seen in their notebooks. This makes me think, nowadays, how nice it must have been to have the time to sit there and sketch things into one’s notebook. It also makes me wonder what became of all of the naturalists out there who were poor artists. Were they shamed by their peers? Or did the Royal Society require them to be able to pass a drawing test before allowing them to join? "Why I’m sorry old chap, but if you cannot accurately render Tippy the Turtle, it strains the mind to consider what would occur if you attempted to represent a tortoise in the Galapagos..."

Instead of consulting with my tweedy colleagues in the smoke-filled gentleman’s chambers at the Royal Society or combing through their notebooks, I was able to look the little guy on the grill up on the North American Caterpillar Identification site (how cool is it that such a thing exists?).

A little scrolling there finds that it is the caterpillar guise of the White-Marked Tussock Moth. If that doesn’t sound like a familiar species it may be because, like a child star, the stand-out part of this critter’s existence is in its youth. For Orgyia leucostigma adult life is one of blending into the background like a desk worker wearing khakis and a polo. Adult males are gray and black in a fashion that suggests they are moths we’ve all seen time and time again, paying them no attention except perhaps to be irritated by them. The females get the real short end of the stick, however, as they don’t grow wings strong enough to fly - they live their lives in and around their cocoon.

They are a small part of the array around us, of course. Yet, they do help to remind how much there is to see here, even within our own little wild space.

The Little Things

Evening’s Entertainment

There are little moments in life that can be close to perfect. This is one of them.

There are trade offs to rural living, to be sure - it takes time in the car to get to anything, and sometimes the weather makes getting anywhere impossible. But then it offers the opportunity to sit outside, in front of a fire, enjoying nothing but the sounds of nature, the company of good dogs, and a crackling fire.

The Coleman outdoor fireplace I’m sitting in front of was something we had when we lived in the city. On occasion we’d light it up and enjoy a bit of a fire. But while the crackling was still there, the sounds of crickets and tree frogs were eclipsed by the noise of cars driving by, neighbors arguing, and the general drone of mechanical equipment from houses that were, at best, 30 feet away.

Our old house, ultimately, is a huge project. I know, in these quiet moments, that we’ll likely never complete everything we’d like to accomplish here. But when it offers these moments I realize that’s really ok.