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?

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?

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.

Little Green Boxes

Heading out the driveway and down the road the other day I noticed something hanging in a tree at the corner of the property:

Little green box

I didn’t have time at the moment, but a little later I had a chance to look at it more closely. It’s cardboard, three-sided, and open on the sides. And I was unaware that it had been put in my tree (it’s in the portion of the tree that hangs over the ditch).

And then I began to see them elsewhere. In other trees (sometimes you have to look closely)...

Another box in a tree

And another box in a tree

...and on fenceposts:

box on a post

Closer inspection finds that these are gypsy moth traps. Apparently the Illinois Department of Agriculture places traps every year to monitor the population and make decisions about where and whether to treat for them. I don’t know if they’ve done that in our area before and I just haven’t noticed, or if this is new for us.

I’ve heard of gypsy moths before, but I didn’t really know anything about them. There’s info on the Department of Agriculture Page linked above and, of course, on Wikipedia, but the gist, from Wikipedia, is that this is an introduced invasive species. It first appeared in the northeast Atlantic States - beginning with Massachusetts - in 1869, and has been diligently working its way westward ever since. It now appears in eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois, and it is problematic because its larvae will "consume the leaves of over 500 species of trees, shrubs, and plants". According to Wikipedia this moth is "one of the most destructive pests of hardwood trees in the eastern United States". Among other things, the eggs hang out on firewood, which is at least part of the reason you’ll see materials asking that you only use local firewood at campsites.

This is one of those cases where an enterprising soul thought he’d be doing a solid by bringing the moths over from Europe - in this case to try and breed them with silk moths to get a version of a silk moth that wasn’t such a fussy eater. Turns out that Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s skills as an astronomer may not have translated well to his amateur interest in entomology - the two species cannot interbreed. But what gypsy moths can do however, apparently, is get away from you and escape into the woods around your home. Which, it would seem, is how you can have craters named for you on both the moon and Mars, but still have "introducing the gypsy moth to North America" be the only thing listed in the "known for" section on your Wikipedia page.

All of this makes one curious as to what might be in those traps, but they should not be disturbed, so I’ll just continue to wonder. But at least now I no longer have to wonder what those little green boxes I keep seeing are for...

Is it Spring?

It’s been weeks of oddball spring weather that briefly promises the season will begin, then, at the last second, pulls the ice cream cone of warmth away, shouts "psych!", and dumps an inch of snow on us. It’s the 22nd of April, and three days ago there was an inch of snow on the ground.

But this morning it’s already 53°, working it’s way up to a high somewhere in the low 60’s. And a look at the week ahead on the weather app suggests that it’s for real this time, tho that’s difficult to trust.

Could it be true?

While there is always some aspect of the feeling of final relief from the grips of winter when spring comes, the weirdness of this season makes that more acutely felt this year. There are things to be done that can only be done outside. Some of these include the usual stuff, like yard cleanup - the combined ice and wind of the winter always yield a fine supply of fallen branches and sticks that have to be gathered - to garden prep (the asparaguys need their patch cleaned out so they can grow freely). But there are also things that need to be done that don’t involve the yard and the house, but do involve being outside - for example, cleaning out the cars. In an unheated garage this is an activity easy to set aside when the temps are in the 30’s or 40’s.

So - I’m going to try to lean forward and lick this ice cream cone. I hope Mother Nature doesn’t pull it away this time...

Peaches

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

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

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

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

But sure enough, it was:

Peach One

Peach Two

a pair of peaches

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

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


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

Hidden Peach

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

Lilacs in Bloom

Lilac Up Close

The beginning of this second week of May finds the lilacs in bloom. One can see the lovely purple or white flowers swaying in the breeze, and can smell the sweet aroma wafting by. For myself, and for many of us, these bushes in bloom bring out happy childhood memories of time outside in the warming weather of spring - a harbinger of the end of the truly cold season.

These bushes are, and have been, very popular throughout our region. One can find them - and often in profusion - in many, if not most, of the yards of the older farmhouses in the region. A smaller house down the road from us actually has hedgerow covering its fence line consisting entirely of lilac bushes. While the lilac is not native to North America, it's apparently been here nearly as long as European settlers have been coming to stay in earnest.

Our old house has three lilac bushes - one white, two purple. They have been here as long as I can remember, and based on their size, likely considerably longer still. They bloom every year, reliably, about this time. And they offer this gift despite the apparent neglect I've been engaging in towards them, as one should purportedly prune them every year. Next month will mark the beginning of our eighth year in the homestead, and it will also mark the eight straight year in which exactly zero pruning of the sort described in the link has occured.

White Lilac

My Grandma Marie spent a considerable time working on things in the yard - in her garden and otherwise. It is certainly possible - tho I don't recall it - that she diligently pruned these bushes each year. But in more recent seasons benign neglect has been the law of the land.

Back yard purple lilac

Which isn't to say they've had no attention at all, despite the rough condition of the bush above. The nature of how they grow allows for things to take seed and root inside the bushes, and we do spend time each season removing those interlopers. And given the age of our lilacs, each season I do spend time extracting dead material. Lilacs can apparently live a couple of hundred years, depending on the variety, so it's possible that these have been here nearly as long as the house itself. I say nearly because, in the case of at least one of the bushes...:

No lilacs yet...

Whether it was John Foulk and his immediate family who planted them sometime after taking that picture, or a later generation, it's clear that these bushes have been here for many decades at least, and each year blooming to herald the coming of the warm season.

Old Soldiers...

A little ahead of Christmas this year we had a chunk fall out of the fir tree next to our back door.

In need of a tree toupee

Given that we live on a hill in the open prairie this sort of thing happens. A couple of years after we moved in an old Maple situated between the house and the barn fell, and I am forever cleaning up limbs from windfall.

This tree stands directly outside my home office. It's been a persistent piece of the scenery from that room since I was a child, sneaking into that room against my grandmother's wishes, playing with my uncle's train set and wondering over all of the other "ancient" toys. It's a regular friend when I gaze out the window when I'm working.

It looks to me - based entirely on my complete lack of expertise on trees - like the original hunk that came out is part of a larger splintering along the trunk, and that this is the next piece to come down. More is still hanging in the tree and will probably need to be cut out if the tree is to be kept from simply splitting in half.

Given that complete lack of expertise, my thoughts probably shouldn't be the last call on that one...