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.

Yard War III

Yard War III

The standard

Normally I set aside Sunday afternoons for a ride through the countryside, but last week I’d managed to squeeze in a ride on Saturday. Besides, it was raining into the early hours of the morning, and the weather reports threatened more rain (because - you know - we haven’t had enough of that lately) by noon or so. So it seemed reasonable to default to some yard work until the rain started to fall.

Behind our shed we have a volunteer maple tree for which a portion gave up the ghost and fell over late last fall. At the time it was unfortunate, but did not require any immediate attention. As spring has come, however, that departed tree now stands (or rather, lays) in the path of the lawnmower. It has been time to deal with it for a while, and today provided a good opportunity, given the circumstances.

LB has been engaged in ongoing work on the yard this summer, but this was a multiple person job. So we gathered up our weaponry and struck out.

One might look at the prospect of cutting up a tree and think first and foremost of a chainsaw. And understandably so - I know it’s something that I think of every time I take on a project like this.

But I don’t own a chainsaw.

Perhaps I should, and it occurs to me at least once a year or so. But the need is an intermittent one, and typically by the end of the project the felt need has faded. Besides, swinging an axe and running a hand saw provide a workout that a power tool doesn’t offer. So each year I end the season without having purchased a chainsaw, and the following season the cycle begins anew.

And now it was time for LB to learn their way around the handle of an axe.

Axe pose

The primary goal was to remove the downed portion of the tree. It was a good 10-15 foot of maple, which meant that it had to come out in portions.

Chopping away

Rosie offered to help, but her lack of thumbs presented a particular impediment to actual assistance...

Rosie watching, thumb-limited

There was a secondary objective of clearing away lower branches so that mowing could be cut closer to the trees going forward. Progress through all of this took a fair chunk of the afternoon, and ended up with a fair amount of debris.

Debris

Once everything was cut away it was a matter of hauling it off to the ever-present burn pile. Some pieces were small and manageable, while others were slightly larger...

Hauling trunk

Some four hours later, give or take, this particular project was done, both objectives achieved. There’s still more to be done, of course. There is always more to be done. But we were finished for this day.

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.

Prairie Yard...

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

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

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

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

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

Dandelions

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

Violets and dandelions

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

Rosie, watchful

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

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

I think we’d reached that limit.

Yeah - it’s a little long...

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.

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls...

...Because it doesn’t.

Our old house, like many of the farmhouses out this way, has a bell:

The Bell

It’s been there a long time. This picture - of my mother and uncle as kids - shows them standing by the post:

Joel and Julia

I won’t out their ages by saying how long ago it was taken, but I’m less than two years shy of a half-century myself (but, of course, my mother had me when she was eight). Suffice it to say that it wasn’t doctored to make it black and white.

Unfortunately, this is the bell as it appears today:

He’s dead, Jim

As you can see, the bell is somewhat less symmetrical than would be considered ideal. And one might ask "how could such a thing happen?" Of course, I have no earthly idea how this occurred. Just happened out of the blue. Maybe it was struck by lightening.

Yeah - sure - that’s it. That’s the ticket...

Ok - I might have been slightly involved. Slightly directly involved.

Because it is outside, these bells are subject to the weather. In the winter, that means that they can sometimes freeze...

Frozen ringing

close-up freezy

If memory serves, I had been trying to call the dogs, and they weren’t responding - the yard is big enough that sometimes they are out of voice or whistle range. However, we’d found they would come to the bell reliably (liberal application of treats post-ringing may have been involved in developing that). So I pulled the bell rope to summon them and...

...nothing. The bell was stuck. Stuck sideways, wouldn't move. It was frozen.

Now by this point it’s just possible I’d been becoming a little frustrated. You know, dogs aren’t coming. I’m standing outside in the cold. I’m not dressed for the weather because I hadn’t planned to be out there for any real length of time. So I engaged in a time-honored method of addressing a thing not working.

Which is to say I did what I was already doing, only more and much harder. I yanked down on the rope, trying to break it free. This was once, perhaps twice before the rope suddenly got slack.

Everything that followed took approximately three seconds to occur. I was fortunate in that, somehow, I recognized what the slackness in the rope meant. I stepped away and covered my head as the bell hopped off its saddle and came crashing down to the ground.

And then there it sat, in multiple pieces on the ground. And of course the next step on my part was to look around for someone to blame for this travesty. Well - someone else.

There was, of course, no one. I’m pretty sure even the dogs did not come (wise on their part).

This even occurred several years ago. Since then, the bell has been sitting, broken, on the porch while we try to figure something we can do about it. Sitting there, reminding me...

Enter the internet. A friend of a friend on Facebook posted the availability of a bell that looked to match our poor, damaged friend. What’s more, that bell was cracked, but it’s yoke - the part that sits it in what I call the saddle on the post - was intact.

New old bell

A little time on Messenger and we were able to make arrangements on it. It looks to be about the same size, and it came with a saddle of its own, just in case. And that’s where we are now - I’ve got a second bell here, waiting for myself or someone in the household, to undertake it as a project. That won’t happen soon, mind you, but at least now it’s possible.

Bells of a feather...

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.

Tiny Groves

This past weekend was Homecoming for Mendota - spirit week at the high school, the football game Friday night, the dance on Saturday. When I was growing up the Homecoming dance was always sort of semi-formal - you dressed up in something different than your other dance outfits - e.g. one might eschew parachute pants in favor of a Miami Vice jacket and dress pants - but it wasn’t a formal occasion. Formal wear was reserved for prom.

This has changed somewhat over the few years since my Homecoming days, and now the dance has taken on a more formal bent. This means fancy dress and pictures.

A popular spot for the pictures portion of the activity has been Mendota Lake Park, which offers large old trees to pose in front of, and bridges to pose upon. This has reached a point at which people are waiting in line for turns at specific spots to get their snaps taken.

Our family crew and their friends independently elected to avoid the crowd and have their pictures taken out here, at the Homestead.

This surprised me a bit - from my perspective our yard is nothing terribly special from a picturesque point of view. In fact, thinking about it from that perspective mostly makes me consider the efforts to tame encroaching nature and my relative failures in that respect. But when I asked LB and Malte about it, they pointed out that greenery and large old trees were key, and we have both in abundance. LB also casually pointed out that it would be great for pictures if the tree swing could be repaired, which put that on my mental list.

I realized, thinking about this, that they were absolutely correct. One of the beautiful things about the old farmhouses here in Illinois is the lots upon which they sit. Illinois was primarily prairie, of course, before European settlers came, with stands of trees in occasional groves that followed closely along the streams. The early settlers lived in those groves and, as they moved out to farm the prairie, efforts were made to make their homesteads mirror the preferred qualities of those groves - which is to say that they planted trees.

We continue to have some trees on the property that can be seen in pictures from decades ago. Consider this pic, which I believe is at least 50 years old:

B9425323-935D-4CE6-8C9D-9D9C4D60E87E.jpg

There are a couple of trees in particular that can be seen there that can still be seen today:

old trees

They are still in this picture from 2009:

Still there

And they are still there today, though the one on the right has clearly seen better days:

Still there still

Or consider these two old soldiers, fir trees that were originally part of a longer tree line:

Old Soldiers

These are tall trees - I have to stand way back from them to get the taller of the two entirely in the frame, which is why it is good of the dogs to help by providing scale.

The smaller of the two also helpfully offers up a branch for the aforementioned swing:

Swinging puppies

Of course we all know that trees live a long time. Still, an old tree is often a beautiful thing. These tiny groves dot the rural countryside here, but they are slowly diminishing. The upside is that I do see land where people are actively planting tree lines around their homes as windbreaks and/or installing the next generation’s tiny groves of deciduous trees. The irony to this is that I virtually always see that around the rate newer country homes.

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.

Paths in the Snow

When we get a real snowfall it visually changes the landscape around us. Physical markers disappear, changes in the topography are erased. Driving down the road after a heavy, accumulating snowfall finds the demarcation between the edge of the road and the sharp drop off of the ditch now invisible, suggesting a wide, flat expanse from road to field that is present at no other time.

The sights of this moment will also change as the wind picks up, blowing the snow into drifting patterns that shift as the strength and direction of the wind ebbs and flows. In other times of year what we see varies with the season - the buds of spring, the verdant hues of summer, the colors of fall - but no other time of year is so dynamic as winter with real snow.

The weather changes the landscape, and then we follow behind and change it again to suit our needs. As we venture out, we cut our paths through the snow to allow our footfall, and the wheels of our vehicles easier transit. These, again, offer an ephemeral visual change seen only now, only in the moment.

For our human purpose, we may make large changes to the winter landscape - clearing out the driveway:

Large Paths

Or smaller ones to make moving about the yard easier:

small paths and Calamity Jane

But we humans aren’t the only ones who need to find the way through the snow. Here, Calamity Jane is content to use the path I’ve shoveled, but she has other places to be, other things to see, than I. For those purposes she - who patrols the property tirelessly - has forged her own trails:

CJ Trail

This is the type of path you get from a canine with six inch legs who is nonetheless not to be swayed from her self-appointed duties. And, other members of the canine contingent - who may not, themselves, be quite so motivated - do appreciate the benefit of her efforts:

Freyja, you lazy slug...

And all of these things are self-evident as you see them. But then, on occasion, you encounter other, less typical pathways or tracks through the snow:

Bouncy Marks

For perspective, it’s helpful to know that this shot is taken from an upstairs window, some 20’ above, and at least 20’ out from the closest marks. There is real space between each track - at least a foot on some cases, certainly more in others. This leaves one to wonder what exotic creature has ventured into the yard to take such strides...

And then one realizes: this is what the snow looks like after an Australian Shepard has bounded through like Pepe LePew chasing his true love (of the moment), refusing the indignity of simply barreling down the snow in front of her in favor of what must seem, at least in the moment, a far more elegant solution.

Winter Warm-Up

As we enter the last third of January 2018 here at the Homestead we are presented with temperatures sitting decidedly above 30°(F). As I write this we have a current temperature of 38°, with a forecast high of 41° for the day. Tomorrow is promising temps in the low- to mid-50’s, and the coming week has highs ranging from the low 30’s to the high 40’s.

387F7E35-30A2-4112-82F0-B95C3750DA69.JPG

People are predictably very pleased about the warm-up, especially coming off of the cold snap of a couple of weeks ago. While, further north, sustained tempatures in the negative single digits are not unusual (and are frankly not all that unusual here), our modern amenities seem to ill-prepare us for the realities of winter at its harshest. As such, the warmer weather is greeted with joy by many.

I am not among them.

When the temperatures rise on the prairie in winter it is warmer, to be sure. But along with it comes several other, predictable effects that, to my mind, do not compare favorably to the features that accompany the sharp bite of the air on a true winter day.

It’s Ugly Out There

Warm winter days on the prairie are typically gloomy affairs. As can be seen on the weather report, above, along with the rise in temperatures comes fog and rain. And the fog, here, she ain’t just-a-kidding. Life in the country is one of isolation by choice, but the degree of that increases markedly as the white wall of cloud descends to ground level.

The view out my back stairwell window looks something like this most mornings:

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This is the tableau that greets from the same window today:

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Go back to the first picture and count the wind turbines you cannot see in the second picture. Some of them are more distant, of course, but one of them - the largest in the picture - is less than a half mile away. These things are huge, but the fog swallows them up as if they were never there.

As the temperatures rise the snow we were blessed with over the past couple of weeks retreats. It doesn’t go all at once, of course, but pulls back in patches. The braver, heartier, cleverer flakes which chose to fall on to shaded areas remain longer, holding out as best they can. This leaves them transformed, however - like Jeremiah Johnson walking out of the mountains at the end of the winter, they are hairier, more grizzled versions of their former selves.

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The melting snow is part of the reason for the fog, of course, and the two conspire to concoct the final, perhaps most objectionable component of this warm winter weather trifecta:

The mud.

A week ago everything was covered in a lovely blanket of white. As it pulls back it reveals patches of brown and black soup lying in wait for an errant foot. And while all mud can be unpleasant, mid-winter mud has the additional special property of sitting on top of the frozen layer below. Instead of simply sinking in, the mud acts as a viscous lubricant on the slip-and-slide that your yard has now become.

As a special bonus, you will find that your dogs will appear to have made a special effort to step in each and every errant mud-bog that the yard offers, just before trying to crawl into your lap.

While you are slipping and sliding, and regretting the attention of your beloved pets, you are also becoming soaked to the bone because the ambient humidity level is nearly 100%. Single digit temperatures are cold, to be sure, but they aren’t generally wet. 35° and damp has a way of cutting through the skin that is differentially unpleasant from a cold day on its own.

A true, cold winter day has a way of inviting one outside - the bright blue skies, the shimmering blanket of snow. It’s days like today that keep me in, away, isolated.

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.

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...

The... What? Is Leaking?

Around 8:30 last night LB comes up to me and says: "that thing over the stove is leaking".

Me: ”The thing... what?"

LB: "That thing over the stove - you know - the thing."

Me: "The vent hood?"

LB: "... sure".

I followed LB into the kitchen to find, sure enough, it was.

Drip

This would seem somewhat perplexing, given that there is no water run anywhere in the house higher than the kitchen and bathroom sinks, both on the first floor, both lower than the stove vent hood.

But: It started raining at about 11:30 or so yesterday morning, and continued until some time into the wee hours of this morning. There was occasional thunder and lightening, but the real player in yesterday's weather was the wind and rain. The continuous rain paired itself with an unusual East by Northeasterly wind that gusted more or less constantly throughout the day and night, striking the backside of the house where the kitchen sits.

The kitchen itself, as it stands, is not original to the house. Rather, it is relatively modern, a late 1940's remodel initiated by my grandparents, with some updating of appliances since. That 1940's work has held up remarkably well, all things considered, over the last 70 years or so. Still, events like this make one realize that one does not know what one does not know.

The vent hood feeds into a galvanized duct that goes up into the soffit above the cabinets. I believe that it then travels across, thru the soffit, over to the chimney in the wall. And when I investigated the bit of ductwork I can see in the cabinet above the hood, I found that to be the location of the leak.

Galvanized Pipe

The chimney that it goes into is one of four in the house - three original and one added later - and is the only original chimney that still rises above the roof, coming out from the fireplace in the basement (which I suspect was originally used for cooking) and traveling up the back wall of the house. In short, it faced the brunt of last night's wind and rain.

My best guess is that the volume of rain, and gusting of wind, was such that it created an unusual bit of air movement in the chimney, moving some rain back down the chimney and throwing it down the vent. I say best guess because in eight years of living here, and a lifetime of being in and around the house semi-regularly, I have never seen this before.

It's all subsided now. It's still windy this morning, but the rain appears to have mostly let up. Our as-yet still unnamed vernal ponds have returned at greater than usual size, and the wind blew over the garbage can. The dogs discovered this first and thoughtfully addressed it by distributing the contents of the can all over the driveway (there may have been the occasional utterance of foul language as I cleaned that up). But it is another of the periodic reminders that, although we are certainly not pioneers out here, with our electricity and running water and such, the weather continues to have surprises to throw at us.

Burdock

If you have spent any time exploring unmanicured areas in northern Illinois you have undoubtedly encountered Burdock.

The Wikipedia entry for Burdock describes its role as a food item in Asian countries and as the inspiration for Velcro, which is all well and good. What Wikipedia fails to do is to accurately describe this plant as a hateful, invasive weed that is designed to wreak havoc on the coat of medium to long-furred canines passing by.

It's slightly possible that I have not been as diligent as I could have been at trimming around the old barn. One consequence of this oversight seems to be that of allowing a burgeoning colony of Burdock to grow in and around that area. What's more, if I wasn't aware of my lawn care failings of my own accord, Rosie, our border collie/Australian shepherd mix has been helpfully making me aware.

I need to do some further research here, but based upon our recent experiences, it seems quite possible that border collies and Australian shepherds were selectively bred as Burdock seed distribution devices.

Sometimes you can catch the seed pods shortly after they have attached, at which point they can be removed fairly easily. However, miss a day or two of grooming, or fail to detect the presence of one of these things during a grooming session, and it can work it's way into a mat of fur that seems to require divine intervention (or scissors) to remove.

It appears that it could certainly be worse than we have it here, as a quick google image search confirms. Still, this fact does not prevent this plant's placement on my "I wonder if extinction is always a bad thing" list.

Spring Birds

One of the delights of life out on the Homestead is the veritable orgy of birdsong in early Spring. This recording was made yesterday morning, standing in the back yard with an iPhone in the air (you can hear the spring winds in this in addition to the birds).

Joining the array of LBB's and Cardinals that remain year round are the Mourning Doves, Robins, and one of my favorites, the Red Wing Blackbird.

In addition to the delight of the birdsong itself, the sudden preponderance of avian activity whips both the dogs and the cat into a frenzy of activity. Outdoors the herding dogs make great efforts to "guide" the flocks of birds from tree to tree, while indoors Malcolm the cat sprints from window to window (and we have a lot of windows) in an effort to see and, one strongly suspects, in hopes of catching an errant bird that might, somehow, wander in through the glass.

Return to Normalcy

As has been hinted at before, I've reluctantly been party to allowing an animal of the feline persuasion take up residence in our house. What has not been mentioned formally here, is that we now also have a part-time inside canine companion as well.

Let's get something out of the way here: I love animals.

I cannot remember a time in my life when, the opportunity being present, I have not had either a dog or cat as a part of the household. As a child growing up in the country my earliest memories were of a dog - a male dog - named Gladys (thanks Mom), who was my constant companion as I ran around the yard engaged in different outside adventures. There were a series of different farm dogs over the course of my youth and, when we lived in situations where dogs were not an option, typically there were cats.

And this is not to suggest that the cats were merely dog substitutes. We've had a lot of personality in our feline companions, with cats that would fetch, cats that would walk on leash (hiking with a cat on a leash brings much apparent amusement to others you encounter on the trails, I can personally verify; more amusement still when said cat gets startled by something and jumps, claws out, to cling to your leg... But I digress). Our current cat compadre is no exception, frequently, suddenly, running at speeds of 90 mph from one location to another in the house for reasons that are clear to no one except, maybe, himself.

My reluctance has little to do with the animals themselves, and more to do with their potential affect on the home itself. As I've likely mentioned here before, buildings of this era were typically constructed with the materials locally available. The upshot of this, in our case, is that much of the wood in the house, including the floors, is soft pine.

It's lovely stuff, taken from a big picture perspective. It takes both paint and stain beautifully; it feels wonderful under bare feet, both warm and pleasantly textured. The problem is in the operative term "soft". The wood in these floors has a Moh's Hardness rating slightly above that of modeling clay. Have a rock in the tread of your shoe? Now you have pits at regular intervals across the floor. Slide a chair out from the table on to the floor? That action has now been recorded for generations of enduring posterity. God forbid one sits in an office chair with wheels and actually rolls back and forth along this material.

And so our companion animals, it turns out, have claws. The upside with our feline friends is that they are retractable. The canine ones, not so much. Allow a dog to go marching along the floor - especially an 80 LB Rottweiller mix who wants to engage in bounding play with a certain feline - and you end up with fascinating cross-hatch patterns in the grain that will likely entertain future generations for hours as they try to puzzle out their origin. Or so I imagine.

...Ahem...

Fortunately, it turns out that there are potential solutions for this sort of issue. MLW researched and turned up...

...drumroll please...

Dog socks.

So here you have a product designed with exactly our problem in mind. They completely cover the dog's claws, up to and including the dewclaws, and as a bonus also have traction areas on them to help the dog better gain purchase on the slippery floor (much to the cat's dismay). And, as an additional bonus, you get to watch the dog struggle with the irritation and embarrassment of having socks on.

Why have you done this horrible thing to me?

Ultimately this solves a couple of problems for us. Aside from the floor issues, two of our three dogs are completely comfortable outside virtually all of the time (fear not - they have shelter available outside and we do bring them in when it's beastly cold), but the third - the Rottweiler mix - has shorter hair, and doesn't seem to have the traditional Rottweiler undercoat (a result, no doubt of the mix, which seems likely to be Boxer) that purebred examples have. Her temperament also makes her much more suitable to extended stays inside. Our high energy herding dogs spend most of each day and night on patrol about the yard, while this one is perfectly content to patrol her dog bed for hours at a time.

What does this all mean? For the moment, at least, it means that we've got a way to have this critter inside, along with our new feline friend, without worrying about the utter destruction of the house. Which means life seems a little more normal for us.

Sudden Cat Toy

As I walk up the steep back steps of our old homestead, as I mount the first landing and turn to make my way up the second, shorter flight, I find myself face to face with a sudden cat toy.

Sudden Cat Toy

When we moved out to the Homestead we had four animals in our entrouage - two cats and two dogs - all of significant advanced age. Three of the four, though beloved, struggled to retain their bodily fluids, choosing (or, rather, not) instead to share them with us throughout the home. Often this occurred in unexpected and intimate places, it becoming not uncommon to find the need to change bedding before going to sleep, a laundry basket now reeked of something more than the human sweat of the day.

The fourth member of the coterie didn't seem to have this problem, surprisingly enough. He, struggling with Canine Cognitive Disfunction, simply could no longer remember his name, and wandered throughout the house following the other dog, often appearing slightly surprised at each location, though they were not new to him.

After these companions moved on I announced, as the man of the house, the king of the castle, that there would be no more inside animals.

As did Henry VIII, I have discovered that, king or not, there is still a parliament to contend with. I have been outvoted. And so there is a cat toy, suddenly there, at the top of the steps.