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Magnetic North

Vicki with her angora rabbit, Peaches

Contributor(s): 
Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives  on a 100-year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities 23 years ago.
She shares this special place with five cashmere and milk goats,  a dozen-plus laying hens, three talkative geese an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, six angora rabbits, a house cat , a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo and one very spoiled Bourbon Red turkey.
When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, knits, wanders the woods, balances rocks and, "when a fit of discipline strikes," dives into her decade of weekly columns for the old News-Herald in search of a book or screenplay or, more like, a sit-com.  Listen at your convenience by subscribing to a podcast.


Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.

  

 


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Magnetic North - January 17

Magnetic North 1/15/17
 
Critter Catch and Release
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where daily snowfall reveals fresh critter tracks every morning. On my chore rounds to coop and barn, I spy the telltale prints of field mice, and snowshoe hares, along with a few more concerning paw marks. The wily fox visits each night and often at dawn, sniffing out the flock of bantam chickens, ducks and two geese snugged up in the hay storage side of my garage.
 
But old Wiley can sniff all he wants. I keep the garage door and coop hatch shut tight at dusk and my two big Lab, Jethro and Zoey, often chase the handsome redhead across the meadow and into the woods by day, allowing the birds safe sunbathing outside, even on  the coldest of days. 

That is not to say there haven’t been loses over the years.. The chicken wire run has been breached by tenacious martens and raccoons.. Stubborn turkeys and guinea hens have resisted my efforts to put them in at night, paying the ultimate price for their brief freedom. And hardest to bear, there have been lapses on my part -a garage door left ajar, or the coop hatch I forgot to close.
 
And so, I have lost birds to pine martens, skunks, coyotes, raccoons and foxes.And even though I know that the predators are only doing what nature tells them to do, I am bitter, even vengeful. But over time, I think I’ve struck a workable method of dealing with the inevitable outcome of keeping domestic creatures in the midst of wild ones.
 
All of the marauders mentioned, except for fox and coyotes, I’ve successfully coaxed into Havahart traps. Skunks proved to be the trickiest to deal with humanely, for obvious reasons. And for those who say that skunks are just big pussycats who can be covered up with a tarp, then carried to a distant place and release without spraying, I say this: give me your phone number and I’ll pay you a hundred bucks to do that for me next time I catch one. 
 
Time was, Paul would dispatch trapped predators with the 22 rifle he got as a twelve year old boy for Christmas. He was a great shot and did the deed well. I can’t shoot straight and, for my own health and safety, prefer not to have a weapon in the house. For these reasons, over time I have become a catch and release fan. 
 
Oh, I did toy with the idea of snaring for a while after my pet goose, Ziva, was killed last winter. She was snatched by a fox in the middle of the day when the dogs were inside. Ziva was a dear thing, not the least bit mean. When I visited her quarters on bitter cold winter nights, the big grey and white African goose would waddle up to me as I sat on a bale of straw and wait for me to pick her up and unzip my parka so she could stick her head inside. It must have reminded her of being a gosling under her mamas wing. For me, it was like holding a big feather pillow, only with a beating heart and cold feet. I miss her every night on chore rounds, as her babies, Thelma and Louise, are not so much cuddly as combative.
 
So when I lost Ziva to a fox, I had blood in my eye and took to researching snares. I knew where the fox came and went from its tracks in the snow. He -or she- made a path off the driveway into a willow stand. The slender willows were perfect for setting up snare lines. After measuring and plotting the wire placement, I asked a friend who knew about such things what he thought my choice of location and chances for success.
 
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked me. . “Have you thought it through?”
 
I had not. 
 
“Well, the thing is,” my friend told me, “it’s not going to be pretty. The animal is going to be frantic, caught by a foot or by the neck. And right off the driveway?....What happens when you let Zoey and Jethro (my dogs) out? Are you going to borrow a gun? It won’t stand still, you know, so you’ll probably end up making a mess of it.....”” and so forth. 
 
Frankly, he had me at “it’s not going to be pretty.” The snare wire is still in the garage. And the fox is still coming, like clockwork, at dusk and dawn, outracing Zoey and Jethro across the meadow at other times. 
 
Howsoever, also in the garage are three sizes of Havahart traps. Wonderful devices that look like big wire breadboxes, with spring-loaded doors that snap shut after the hungry varmint enters and steps on a metal plate where I’ve placed stinky tidbits. The biggest Havahart snapped shut on an enormous raccoon, who clung to the wire piteously until I released her. The small traps have imprisoned three pine martens. All of them, like the raccoon, left the farm alive in my car with road trip treats to keep them happy on their way to their new hunting grounds.
 
When get to the release point - a good 15 miles from my farm - and set the Harahart on the ground, I open the trap door and sing, “Born free, free as the wind blow, free as the grass grows, born freeeeeeee.....” After a momentary confusion as to where the heck they are, the little criminals can’t get away from the sound of my voice fast enough.
 
So yes, this isn’t the eye for an eye punishment I feel like bestowing when I find a favorite goose missing, or a poor duck so badly injured that I have to put her down, but revenge is, as they say, a dish best served cold. I take that to mean that to punish an offender when in the grip of grief and rage is folly and just makes matters worse.. 
 
It’s not exactly the Annie Oakley image of myself I had when I moved to this wild and wonderful place. But it’s one I can live with. And so can the critters who live here too.
 
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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Magnetic North - January 10 with Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North 1/10/18
Sam McGee and Me
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where winter warmed up just in time for the Beargrease sled dog race. Not that subzero double digit windchill ever stopped mushers or their dogs. Lack of snow is the real deal breaker for the race. This year, we have snow aplenty. Perfect weather for a great race. And as a would-be adventuress in the far north since the age of ten, I am thrilled for the mushers, the dogs and the volunteers. But I’ll cheer them on, as always, not at any of the frozen checkpoints, but from my warm and comfy couch, an old book of verse in my lap.
 
This fantasy of living in the far north, dependent only on my dogs and my wits, began when I graduated from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to the poetry of Robert W. Service. For some reason, Service’s verses swept me out of my suburban Philadelphia home and into a life of adventure, tragic heroes, breathtaking natural beauty, plus the tantalizing hope of finding gold in a land where others would find only frostbitten fingers.
 
I blame my DNA for this. I just found that my DNA proves that I am of 98 percent British ancestry. A slim connection, you say, to Robert W. Service, who was actually born in England. .But we share  a taste for Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing poetry at a young age, and choosing a path less travelled. In Service’s case,  he left England in the late 1800’s to be a cowboy in the Yukon Wilderness, later writing his way to the title of Bard of the Yukon. About a hundred years later, I too took a detour from the predictable and ended up here, surrounded by forests and snowscapes, with a fellow of 100 percent Norwegian ancestry.
The Beargrease race always leads me back to the book Paul and I both loved, The Spell of the Yukon. I still have the same calfskin edition I read as a kid, a collection of Service’s greatest poems, nuggets of the purest gold panned from the icy streams of the land he loved. While others stand shivering at race checkpoints, I curl up in front of the fire and turn, as always, to my favorite Service saga that surpasses all others, The Cremation of Sam McGee,
You probably know the first lines.
 
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
 
The narrator goes on to explain how his buddy, Sam, who hailed from the state of Tennessee, succumbed to the cold on the trail while mushing on the Dawson Trail. One night, Sam asks his friend for a very creepy favor.
 
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he, "I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you won't refuse my last request."
 
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursèd cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead—it's my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you'll cremate my last remains."
 
Well, old Sam did die that night and the poor sap telling the story mushers on, weighed down with dread and a promise. The whole ordeal drove him a little nuts. But, judge for yourself....
 
“The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
 
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the "Alice May."
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry, "is my cre-ma-tor-eum."
 
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
 
Then I made a hike, for I didn't like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
 
 
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: "I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; ... then the door I opened wide.
 
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear you'll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it's the first time I've been warm."
 
So there you have it. The poem that foreshadowed my calling this place home. Not with a sled dog team, but for 22 years with a man, who also fancied the Bard of the Yukon. It’s true. If, as Jane Austen’s Darcy claimed, poetry be the food of love, The Cremation of Sam McGee was the first course in Paul’s and my courtship. On one of our first dates, sitting in a Perkins restaurant drinking coffee, Paul admitted that he too was taken with Service’s poetry and launched into “There are strange things done in the midnight sun...”  But he knew only the first stanza. I recited all the rest, learned by heart so long ago, reeling the stunned man in with every weirdly wonderful line. And the rest, dear friends, is history.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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Magnetic North - January 04 with Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North 1/3/18
 
The True Cost of Love and Art
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where our new year dawned, still cold, but without the howling winds that blew out the old one. When I set out to do the first chores of 2018, the change was stunning. The sun and stillness was more a caress, than a slap. I could actually go without the hood of my parka and do all my chores in one trip. For the past week I divided them up out of concern for my life, and by extension, the survival of my two dozen chickens, eleven ducks, two geese and five goats.
 
Going to town for anything more than food was the rule during that nasty spell of weather. But I did make it in to spend a few hours with my fellow fiber fanatics at the butt end of our show at the Johnson Heritage Post. What a deeply delightful time that was. Weavers, needle filters, spinners and knitters, like me, just sitting about demonstrating our favorite things, while greeting curious, or just plain frozen, folks who dropped in. 
 
One day of the exhibit, I brought Julia, one of my two German angora bunnies so that people could see where that to-die-for fiber actually comes from. I set up a Pack ’N Play, the ubiquitous folding soft-sided playpen, for the big, round rabbit and visitors admired and petted her, while I showed them how I use raw angora fiber to create wildly warm mittens. I do that by knitting fat rolls of angora, along with regular wool yarn - a historic technique known as “thrumming.”  I also use cashmere thrums from my goats to make things, however installing a goat in the Heritage Post didn’t seem like a good idea.
 
“How long does it take you to make these?” was an often asked question. In reply, I just laughed and shook my head. Because time has little to do with what I, or most of my fiber friends, love about our art. Instead, making and experimenting and sharing are at the root of it all. And for me, of course, there is having an excuse to keep and feed and clean up after rabbits and goats. 
 
Having critters I love, and that love me back, then getting to relax and create all winter, making beauty things, is beyond satisfying. Why on earth would I count the cost in time or money?
 
The only cost involved that I can say I hate, is that inevitably I have to say goodbye, to suffer the loss of one of my beloveds. Not all are gut-wrenching, though.  I remember one which was actually laugh out loud funny. It involved a chicken, a big White Wyandotte. I named Twisted Sister. It fit her, because she had a beak that crossed, top and bottom, so picking up dry feed like other hens was not to be.
 
Now a true farmer would have culled the chick right off, but not I. Instead, for the several years of her life, Twisted got her egg mash mixed with water, a gruel she could scarf up even with her scissor beak. Naturally, we became fast friends and, when she died one spring day, I decided to have a proper burial for her in one of the raised beds near the goat corral.
 
Armed with Shakespeare’s sonnet 118, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate...” and so forth, I popped Twisted’s body in a fabric feed sack, and dug a hole in the raised bed. Wouldn’t you know, that day the goats got out of their fence and, spying the feed sack in my hands, made a beeline for it and me, just as I was reciting Twisted’s eulogy.
 
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” I said, between curses at the goats as they nipped at Twisted’s burial shroud. “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date...Ahhhh, get off me you fiends!”
Finally, the mood totally blown as I sound the sack around my head to keep it from the leaping goats, I gave in, chucked my dear old friend into the hole and shrieked,’

“Thanks for the eggs!  Amen!”
 
So there you have it, why I do not count the time or treasure involved in surrounding myself with critters. Or in turning their output into art, or in the case of chickens, breakfast. It’s about joy. It’s about love given and returned. And, truth be told, dear friends, it’s about having a never-ending stream of stuff to write about. 
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 

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Magnetic North - December 14 with Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North 12/12/17
 
Lasting
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where several days and nights of gentle snow make all things sparkle and bring the evergreen trees into sharper focus. The towering White Pine standing on the southeast edge of the meadow seems to take center stage, a kind of palace guard standing watch over my winter world. Summer meadow flowers and deciduous trees proved fickle. One good frost and a few days of wind and were out of here. But not the pines or balsam or cedar or spruce. They are in it for the long haul. Their colors last and I am grateful for that.
 
That word, “last,” crops up a lot these days in my imagination. For instance, on a particularly wretched day of sleet and high winds, I imagined the outcome if I took a crippling fall on the skating rink that annually forms between the house and chicken coop. How long would I last, I wondered. And then, I thought, better to fall outside the coop than in. Chickens, especially starving ones, would not be kind. And so forth.
 
These nightmare fantasies are not peculiar to me. Anyone living in a remote spot like this has them from time to time. Even if one does not live alone. I remember how Paul and I had a come-to-Jesus conversation one below zero night when I stayed out in the barn from 10 until midnight, combing cashmere off the goats. I lost track of the time and when I finally looked at my watch  I felt terrible for worrying Paul.
 
Well, as you might have guessed, Paul was sound asleep in bed. But not for long!  “What’s got you in a tizzy, sweetheart?” he mumbled, trying to pull back the covers I so unceremoniously ripped off him. So I told him. “What if I’d broken a leg or fainted out there? In this weather, how long would I last?” He protested that he didn’t worry about me, not because he cared so little, but because he had so much confidence in me.” It was a good effort. But it fell on deaf ears.
 
“Here’s the deal, my sweet,” I growled at the poor man. “If you EVER go to bed and leave me to freeze outside you’d better pray that I’m good and dead when you finally do come to look for me!”  
 
Another way I think of “lasting,” besides physically surviving is in the way folks begin to see their big decisions in life. My friend, Sylvia was furious when someone admired her new car, then added, “Well, this will probably be your last one.”  Who needs that?
 
But it got me thinking, always a dangerous thing for me. There will be a “last car” and a “last order of chickens from Murray McMurray,” not to mention a last vote or meal or belly laugh. There will even be a last time I look across the meadow and say my morning prayers gazing at the old White Pine. One of us simply will outlast the other.
 
Oh, now please don’t think I linger in the shadows of my imagination. But often they give me the best giggles of the day. Case in point. When I told my only child, a wonderful, albeit slightly controlling know-it-all, that I’d paid a fortune for a Norwegian Forest cat - she scolded, “Mom!  Do you really think that was necessary, with all of your other animals?”
 
So yes, I have a few more critters than most: two big dogs, two long-haired cats, two angora rabbits, eight bantam chickens, five Swedish ducks, eleven mallard ducks, two buff geese, twenty-nine laying hens and five goats. 
 
She had a point. But, to my everlasting shame, I countered with a sucker punch no parent should ever throw. Sighing mightily into the phone, I said, “Ohhh, but honey, this will probably be my last cat.”
Yes, I said that. I played the Old Lady Card on my own child, no less.
 
Of course I apologized for doing that and vowed never again to use my nearness to the Great Beyond to win a point with her.
 
Today, Wolfie, the Norwegian Forest cat, sits on the back of the couch, hungering for just one bite of the black capped chickadee feeding on sunflower seeds outside.  The short-eared Northern owl we both watched for weeks on the meadow seems to have moved on. One day it simply did not appear. The last time I saw it was on my way to Thanksgiving dinner with friends. He (or she ) was sitting on the fence rails surrounding the vegetable garden. I waved as I drove by. The pretty buff colored owl stared right at me. And that was the last time I saw it.
 
Another “last” that I didn’t see coming. And really, when I think about it, isn’t that just as well?
Thanks for listening. For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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Magnetic North - December 7 with Vicki Biggs Anderson

Magnetic North 12/07/17
Early Winter on Ice
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where high winds and sun combine to polish the ice crust covering most roads and driveways. Until last night, folks in the Banana Belt, about half a mile uphill from Superior’s waters, still had bare earth and even grass showing. A good friend and fellow chicken keeper’s flock was even enjoying free-ranging, while my poor hens were cooped up. Now they are all in it together for the duration of winter.
 
My hens do have advantages when it comes to getting out for a few hours of winter sun. Paul and a friend built a huge chicken run 27 years ago and it still stands, affording the girls 200 square feet of outdoor access. Not that they always want out. Chickens are a titch wussy about stalking about in snow, so I always toss in a few of my female ducks come winter to stamp down the snow in the run. Why just girl ducks? Well, suffice it to say that male ducks- drakes - are not gentlemen. One might even put their photos up there with the likes of Harvey Weinstein. So in winter I have to segregate my three Swedish drakes in the dog kennel where they coexist with my two big Labs, Zoey and Jethro, neither of whom look the least bit enticing to a duck.
 
Tomorrow marks one of my favorite winter preparations. Not the hanging of ornaments on the tree. Not the baking of cookies. And for sure not shopping madness. For me it is the annual hay delivery from Dan’s Feed Bin. Fifty bales of sweet green hay will be off-loaded from the huge semi by two bully boys who swing those bales around like feather pillows. As they do this, a chore that takes only about ten minutes, my five goats hover on the deck between the house and garage where the hay is stored. Now, I’m not sure that goals actually drool, but they do something just as, well, weird. When new food, like fresh hay appears. Their upper lips curl up so as to fully absorb the delicious aromas released by the bales. 
 
This crazy looking behavior is actually performed by many creatures, from cats and dogs, to zebras. It’s call Flehman behavior and has more to do with finding members of the opposite sex than in locating dinner. By rolling back their gums, pulling a face so as to let scents enter their mouths, critters allow pheromones-the animal equivalent of Old Spice or Chanel #5-to flip a switch behind their front teeth.  The message? “Get ready for something good!” In this case, that’s fresh hay. And while hardly better than sex, when it’s below zero and the meadow is three feet under snow, hay and the occasional dish of cracked corn, spells survival.
 
Survival in the coming months for us hairless, featherless creatures depends primarily on warmth. Thus, my weekend delivery of beautiful split maple has me feeling all cozy and safe. Now all I have to do is fetch my daily stack without cracking a hip or twisting an ankle. These hazards are the reasons I always take my phone with me whenever I do chores. Plus, I popped for a special bracelet with a “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” button from my home security provider.
 
Oh, yes, I’m in that stage of life. If I ever doubt it, I’ve only to listen to my peers’ endless “organ recitals” or joint replacement sagas. Plus, my middle age daughter recently suggested that I install a granny cam, of all things, in my home. “Just so I won’t worry about you, Mom.” she cooed over the phone. “After all, you are all alone out there.”
 
Bristling at the “out there” remark, I put a stop to the whole thing by telling her that a “granny cam” would not be a good idea as I had taken to walking about the house naked. Just between us, this is a bald faced lie. But tough times call for tough measures. So now she is content with a gadget that will alert her if I don’t open the fridge within ten hours. Still irritating, but a small price to keep her off my case.
 
Sitting here now, listening to the wild wind, watching the ducks and geese goats sheltering from it in the woodshed, now stuffed with a winter’s worth of maple, I am sinfully content to be “out here” and feel anything but “alone.” I am blessed to have been born an introvert and an only child who learned how to enjoy my own company and find endless opportunities for entertainment. I have some very close friends, fresh eggs, money to indulge my knitting addiction and can, thanks to brilliant physical therapy help, can now walk without a limp, albeit with Yak Tracks strapped to my mukluks.
 
In short, I have enough. Best of all, so too do my darling and completely frustrating naughty goats, drakes and all creatures great and small who inhabit my wintry world.
Life is good, even on ice. 

Thanks for listening. This is Vicki Biggs-Anderson for WTIP with Magnetic North

 
 

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Magnetic North: Staying home

Welcome back to Magnetic North. Today I want to address the subject of staying put for the winter. Staying home instead of sprouting snowbird wings and flapping away at the first sign of frost. Fact is, most of us retired sorts could go somewhere else. Somewhere warmer. But we don’t. Too much money we say. Too much hassle we protest. And so we stay. Stoically, but seldom silently, enduring all that Mother Nature chucks at us for the next six months. We are indeed, the stuff of epic drama. And drama, my friends, is exactly what it is and why it is we stay.

Because the truth of the thing, the real reason why so many of us stay here all winter is this: This is where the good stuff is and we don’t want to miss any of it. Even for a month or two. Or, in my case, even for a week or two.

For instance, have you noticed that the pine and balsam and spruce are now taking center stage? Leaves are leaving deciduous trees naked and slightly embarrassed. To their rescue and our craving for color come the evergreens. The sight of these giants standing tall throughout a January blizzard warms me as no Florida sun could ever do. 

The apple tree in the yard is bare now, too; but one bushel of its fruit is already transformed into silky, tangy sweet apple butter. Twelve pints this year. I got the recipe from a book my husband, Paul, got me at a long gone bookshop in town, the Book Station. There, proprietors Ray and Virginia Quick, also sold angora mittens made by a local woman who spun her yarn right off her bunnies and dyed the wool with Kool-Aid! Virginia was a fount of grandmotherly advice for a newcomer like me. And Ray was a daily vision, breezing through town on his way to the little shop on his ten-speed bike. They, like their shop, are gone now, but with each new batch of apple butter, I remember them fondly. Remembering blooms in winter.

So do spectacular sunsets and sunrises. The former casting a rosy glow over the world - Sigurd Olson called it “Ros Light.” And the latter coming so late in the morning that even a slug-a-bed like me can catch it most days. And between sundown and sunup there is a delicious 14 hours in which to star-gaze, build fires in the hearth, read, write, imagine, and, most glorious of all, give in to the siren call of comfort food.

Ahh, comfort food. We must have it so we can bulk up in the event we end up in a ditch and are not found for days, don’t you know. At least that’s my excuse. On the first visit to our clinic after moving here, I found no comfort at all when I stepped on the scale in late January. Before I could protest the inaccuracy of the equipment, the nurse patted my hand and said, somewhat cruelly I thought, “Welcome to Cook County.” We transplants hear this phrase often in our first years, usually after a mind-boggling event of some kind renders us speechless.

Speech in winter tends to be as brisk as the air. Small talk is for summer. Pumping gas in a gale wind in subzero temperatures one tends to keep one’s mouth shut, conserving what little warm air there is inside. At the most, an exchange out of doors at the market might be along these lines.

“Had 21 below at my place to his morning.” To which a reply might be, “Anything freeze up on you?” The concern being, not fingers or toes but plumbing. Winter is our shared enemy and we are comrades bonded together in the fight to endure, if not to conquer it. We strategize hourly about how to get to work, then home, then to this or that meeting. We are ready for anything. And we are invariably snookered.

The power goes off. The private plowers all break down on the same day. The early winter rain turns to snow at midnight and garage doors freeze shut. 

No day is ever like one in living memory, according to the weather mavens at the Blue Water Cafe. It may be better. Or worse. But it is never, ever, the same.

And yet, in the midst all of this uncertainly we have community and the ever-present sweetness of wood smoke in the air. Add to these, the incessant meetings of committees and boards and hobby groups, like the knitters at Java Moose coffee shop or the cribbage crowd at the Senior Center. Community. It’s here to take or to leave. But it is here for us, solid and snug and comforting, 

This place, this stretch of woods and shore in winter is truly a world apart. There is a saying here that many come to our woods and shore to find themselves and when winter comes, often don’t care much for what they have found. I get that. The unbroken whiteness. The monochromatic palette and daily bouts with nature is not for everyone. But I just happen to be wired to love that kind of world and for that I am so very, very grateful. 

In the summer months, tourists often ask us, “what do you do up here in the winter?” Sometimes I say no one actually lives here in winter, that we all leave and the highway is closed at the county line. Or some such smarty pants answer. But I never tell them the truth. Because to yammer on about Northern Lights and apple butter, much less the thrill of bag day at the recycling shop on Fridays, would be exposing some of my favorite things to ridicule. And so usually, when asked that question, I just channel Jack Nicholson in the Shining and smile and say, “well now, that’s a secret.”

And that tends to end the conversation pretty quick.

(Photo courtesy of Ed Suominen on Flickr)

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Vicki on her kick-sled

Magnetic North: The stuff of dreams

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the resident goats, chickens, ducks, bunnies, et al. are as baffled by our on-again-off-again, winter as are we all.

The recent rain/sleet/snow of late made chores a sloppy mess, but the result was unexpected bliss. Until this series of events, the snow base was just a little too soft for me to enjoy my daily and nightly kick sled rides up and down the driveway, and more importantly, the use of the sled to hold feed and water buckets on the twice daily chore runs. Now, however, the frozen hard layer exists and I am once more slip-slidin’ away through the winter.

My favorite time to ride is between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight. Think aurora borealis. Or stars so numerous and visible that it looks like the sky is dusted with powdered sugar. Or, as was the case just two nights ago, a full moon turning the new-fallen snowflakes into diamonds. Diamonds that painted the meadow and the backs of my mittens and flew up around the rungs of my sled as I sailed silent as a soft owl.

Tis the stuff of dreams, unless you are my daughter living in L.A. hearing this and demanding to know if I have my phone in my parka pocket while I am swanning about in the dead of night on a sled(!!!!) in the middle of “nowhere.” The answer is “yes, dear.” Ahhh, the sweetness of payback for all those nights when she was in high school and blowing through her curfew. Life is really, really, really good sometimes, isn’t it?

On a more somber note, not all at the farm has been moonbeams and chuckles. This weekend I tried in vain to doctor my majestic rooster, Mr. Fancy. A ridiculously fluffy blue-grey ball of sweetness, Fancy came to me as a “free, rare and exotic mystery chick” with my yearly Murray McMurray chick order. For “free” read “rooster.” So if anyone is averse to crowing, don’t bite on this offer. Only once in the 25 years of ordering have I been sorry that I went for the freebie and that was when I got a nasty little piece of business called a “game cock.” But Fancy was the best. Protective of his hens, always showing them the choicest morsels of food before partaking himself and posing strutting his stuff like a rock star when kids came to visit the farm.

I will miss him. And no, I will not take the mystery chick this spring. Fancy was just too great a rooster to top. Plus, I still have a crazy little bantam rooster crowing his head off!

It is snowing again today and I have new straw to throw into the coop and barn - the critter equivalent of starry snowflakes for us. Paul used to call it “putting on the clean sheets,” and that’s just what it is. The goats stand in the doorway to the barn as I break up the bales of golden straw, covering up the old and hardened bottom layer. Bosco, my big buff colored cashmere wether, likes to get in there with me, employing his handsome horns to lift up the flakes of straw, rearranging them as he sees fit. The others just baa a bit, eager to see if there might be some tasty bits in the bedding.

Over in the coop, though, the job is much simpler. I just take off the baling twine and let the hens tear the big bale apart. This is akin to a day at the Alpine Slide to a chicken. Scratching, flinging straw, and generally wearing themselves out rearranging all the flakes. By evening chores, the floor of the coop has been transformed into one cozy comforter of golden straw with the hens up on their roosts gazing down on their handiwork. Spent, but happy.

And so, as we head toward the spring equinox, just weeks and more hours of daylight from now, all is well at the farm. Come rain or snow. Sad farewells and remembered joys. Winter gives me the time and space to sort and piece together these things. Winter and the solitude of life at the end of a gravel road 14 miles from town and two miles uphill from the big lake. What scares some, suits me just fine. As it does, I imagine, most of you listening right now,

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Monarch on Milkweed - Photo by Wplynn on Flickr

Magnetic North: Planting for butterflies

Welcome back to Magnetic North where Mother Nature has decided to give us the cold shoulder off and on. After several weeks of faux summer and a few gentle drenchings to turn all things green, she gave us rain, wind, frost and even a brief snow shower.

But am I bitter? Heck no.

For once, and probably for the only time, I have used Mommy Dearest’s fickle nature to my advantage. Because this weekend I sowed five packets of milkweed seeds in the meadow down by the cattail stand. 

Milkweed seeds, unlike just about any other seeds I know of, like to chill a bit after germination. And where better to do that than in the on-again-off-again warm, then cold, then hot, then frosty Cook County June.

Now friends tell me that growing milkweed - a favorite food of Monarch butterflies - is tricky when starting from seed. 

Frankly, the whole venture is a gamble, with the gorgeous black and orange butterfly declining in numbers over the past few years. Migrating from Canada to Mexico then back again, the Monarch is simply running out of food. Our bad, of course. We gobbled up the fields where their milkweed grows to plant corn and big box stores.

Still, I believe that the most fragile appearing living things on our planet often are the most tenacious in clinging to life. Butterflies certainly fit that description.

A few winters ago, I read a book centered on Monarch butterfly migratory challenges. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is part apocalyptic fantasy, part woman’s coming into her own. The novel is rich in unpleasant truths about the plight of Monarchs as their food sources disappear. And though it is long and pretty frightening, I highly recommend the book for its beautiful images painted in prose.

But as disturbing as I found the biological truths in Flight Behavior, I also found hope. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been clumping around my cattail wallow broadcasting milkweed seeds last week. 

As I let the mahogany-colored flat seed pods fly from my palm to the loamy earth around the cattails, I remembered my granddaughter Jane dancing in a cloud of Monarchs in my back yard several summers ago.

She was out there simply to pick dandelion flowers for a garland. The lawn seemed a solid carpet of yellow that day. And the warm breeze off the meadow made basking in the August sun a truly delicious experience, with the dandelion heads releasing their pungent perfume. Jane bent at the waist carefully choosing her garland specimens when suddenly she started. For no apparent reason, Monarchs, hundreds of them, were swirling about the six-year-old's bare legs. Tickling and delighting her.

And yes, I had my camera. For once. Drawn upright like a marionette, Jane merged into the flashing orange and black wings, giggling and shrieking to “Look!” “Look!” 

Honestly, I don’t even need to look at those photos to remember vividly that miraculous dance. My beautiful little blonde girl - the prima ballerina in a Monarch ballet. That’s when I fell in love with the creatures. 

And I am not alone in feeling that way. I have it on good authority - Google, of course - that the butterfly, any butterfly, carries all kinds of good portents on its fragile wings. Immortality of the soul, in ancient Greece. Fertility, love and summer breezes in China. Joy and longevity in Japan. And they are pretty and make little girls giggle when kissed by them.

My Jane isn’t a little girl anymore. She is an eye-rolling tween and doubtless will not be looking for flowers for garlands when she visits me this August. But along with her big brother, Jackson, I am confident that she will still insist on pumping the old well’s clunky hand pump and holding assorted bunnies and chasing around the pond and meadow with Zooey and Jethro, my two bone-headed labs.

Along with that, though, I hope that Jane will also find herself admiring butterflies, Monarch butterflies, as they partake of some succulent homegrown milkweed. If not, I’ll show her the pictures of the butterfly ballet she starred in when she was “little.” And I will tell her, “they’ll be back.” Because I do have hope. And because I do so want Jane to have butterflies in her world. 

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Canada Goose

Magnetic North: The Merry Month of Mud

Welcome back to Magnetic North, where spring rains brought back many sights and sounds missing for the past seven months. The bedrock along the highway weeps profusely. Spring peepers sing their little hearts out at dusk. And marsh marigolds splash Day-Glo yellow color along streams, rivers and lowly ditches.
 
So who cares if there be a little mud along with these treasures? Just feeling the ground give a little underfoot sends shivers of delight through me. And the smell of soil? Sheer perfume that feeds the soul and imagination and makes little chores like cleaning out the chicken coop and rabbit shed bearable.
 
Spring feeds us in so many ways. Not the least of which is the edible green stuff popping up all over. My goats are on the meadow again. So no more store-bought hay for me until October. I’m sure they like the fresh stuff better anyway, as do the whitetail deer. Often goats and deer feed side by each, keeping a respectful species-aware distance.  With several acres of meadow, there is enough for all. And, so far at least, neither deer nor goat shows any territorial belligerence over the free food.
 
That makes me wonder how I ‘d react if people, even people I knew, began dropping by and pulling up MY nettles for their soups and quiches and MY fiddlehead ferns for their stir fry.  Oh MY! I couldn’t very well do what I did with my two voracious woodchucks - trap them in Havahart traps and relocate them on a back road miles from human habitation. This isn’t Texas after all.
 
My mind does take odd paths with these first heady breaths of spring air - concocting laugh-out-loud scenarios as I wander, forgetting what I’ve come outside to do, my eye falling on the first dandelion leaves, or the first wild duck or goose on the pond.
 
Just this week I happened to see a trio of Canada geese paddling around down there, a rest stop on their way to a better nesting place. And I am glad it is just a stopover, because the little pond is deceptively risky for waterfowl in search of a home. Hundreds of acres of intermittent streams run into it, according to a government survey. One good rain and nests can and will be washed away - baby birds and all. So, as much as I love see the three new arrivals, I was happy to see them move on.
 
That brings me to a fun bit of writing called Lessons from Geese. It was given to me by my friend, Val McFarland, a fellow Canada Goose fanatic. Far from anthropomorphizing the bird, it nudges us humans to imagine how better our lives might be if we took a page from the wild goose book. 

Here it is, with my own somewhat snarky comments attached.
                                               
Lessons from Geese

First: As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird that follows. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.  My take? The tradeoff is taking longer to get where you want, but doing so without constant honking in your ears and wings slapping you on your beak is okay.

Second: When a goose falls out of formation the lifting power of the bird ahead of him or her disappears and it experiences the full drag and resistance of staying aloft alone. Reminds me of that old country tune, “Love Lifts You Up Where You Belong.” 
 
Third: When the leader tires she or he instinctively rotates back into formation allowing another goose to fly point. My thing? We just grab a tall Latte with extra shots.
 
Fourth (and this one is disputed by some): Geese honk when flying in formation as encouragement to each other. My opinion? That's just like New York City cabbies “encouraging“ each other the same way.
 
Fifth: Two geese drop out of formation and land to help and protect any one of their flock that gets sick or tired or, worse yet, shot. I’ve seen this and it IS wondrous. Semper Fi? Leave no goose behind? Whatever the basis for it, you have to admire the act.
 
So most of the above Lessons are believable, and even laudable. But how to tell self-interest from altruism?  Mere wings do not an angel make. Just as sharing the meadow grass with deer does not mean goats are less greedy than people. It may simply mean that they are too busy eating to notice they have company. Or they are too wussy to defend their territory. Or, maybe it means exactly nothing.
 
And on that note, I’m off to make the most of MY mud season before the bugs come out.

(Photo by Davide Simonetti on Flickr)

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Peaches, the elderly housebunny

Magnetic North: Ruin and Treasure

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where all creatures great, small and in-between waken to a white with new snow. And thank heaven for that. For, as much as I detest shoveling snow, blowing snow and falling face down into snow, I dread the prospect of my septic system freezing due to not enough snow.

Not that such a thing has happened to me ....yet. But Paul and I spent a good number of our winters here fairly obsessed with the temperature of our sewage. And we were not alone. The local providers of straw bales ran out as folks spread the stuff over drain fields and mounds. Sometimes repeatedly as wind and deer unmade the straw bedding overnight.

Paul’s Norwegian ingenuity went into overdrive at these times. One year he even bought three enourmous bright blue tarps and covered the straw he’d spread over the septic field.

It was hideous. AND of course, visible from the road and all of our living room windows. But Paul was comforted, having outwitted Mother Nature yet again. And that was worth going into Christmas week with what looked like a cartoon landing strip for a Smurf Santa Claus.

But this year, I can look out on the cozily snow covered septic field and smile, both with relief and memories of my sweetheart, struggling with windblown blue tarps, cursing the clumsiness of gloved hands and the weepiness of his eyes and nose. Even after the tarps were pegged down so as to resist all but an atomic blast, Paul fretted. Scanning the meadow for thieving deer and bounding to the door should one so much as set a hoof on the lawn.

Fun memories are often woven from times like this, aren’t they? On this, my second Christmas without Paul, the good and funny times are gifts I seem to find everywhere.

As I sit writing this at my dining room window a handsome buck - a six-pointer I think - appears at the corner of the goat corral, placing each hoof mindfully as if walking on eggshells. He is heading for the new hay strewn on the ground by my back deck. This is where I feed the goats now, after spraining my ankle doing that two winters ago. 

One day I had an aha moment before even starting to shovel the path to their corral and dumped their hay on the new show, calling to the five expectant goats awaiting their meal, “no more breakfast in bed - come to me or die!”

They came. Along with a number of whitetail deer every now and again. A win/win in my book.

The other critters transition into winter with much less effort on their part. The four angora bunnies in the room off the garage hunker down under an old shower curtain hung close to one wall. I feed and water them once or twice daily, giving them extra energy boosts of oatmeal and dried papaya bits in their kibble just to keep their little internal furnaces going. And I resist combing their gorgeous silver and grey/brown coats for fear of robbing them of any warmth in these subzero days. The fifth bunny, Peaches, is now a house rabbit, having lost the use of her back legs, apparently due to age. A loss that seems unimportant to her. I plan to learn a thing or two from Peaches this winter.

As for the assorted chickens and ducks, with one guinea hen thrown in for sheer chaotic effect, all greet my appearance in the coop as if I were a rock star. I don’t know if they like the grain best or the huge trough of snow I haul in for their water. They shriek. They fly. They trip over each other and peck peevishly. And, best of all, a few of the darlings lay eggs. I still feel rich whenever I pluck a freshly laid egg out of a nest box.

As for the three gray geese, Ziva, Abby and Ducky, they bed down amongst the hay and straw bales in one garage and seem to thrive in winter. Their only complaint being the lack of a kiddy pool for bathing. Each day I open the garage door and they come zooming out, wings spread and feet a-flying. Sadly, their feet are the only things flying as these domestics never get more than a few inches off the ground. But the three head straight for the safe ground between the dog kennel and the coop. A place sacrosanct to my two big Labs, Zoe and Jethro who set up outraged barking and harooing should even so much as a chipmunk dare to show itself.

Yes, life is good.  Funny at times - if not at the moment, in retrospect.  Recently, I found a marvelous quote by the mystic, Rumi, that speaks to this. He said, “where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.”

And while I would not exactly label my losses and challenges ruinous, I guess I’ve always hoped for, even expected treasure someplace in the day - even if only in a lowly next box or a snug septic field or, the presence of a sweet elderly rabbit cuddling in my lap at night.

Blessings to you all for now and the new year.

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