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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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Goat by abejorro34 on Flickr

Magnetic North: Hard To Get Away

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 Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the skies are full of wonder - and I’m not just talking Santa here.

We had your meteor showers, your full moon, your total lunar eclipse and let’s not forget the much anticipated winter solstice, the hump day of winter. The latter may not light up the skies in any noticeable way, but let’s be clear - the mere addition of a minute or two of daylight from now on is huge in this latitude.

The gloom of early winter seems to be over as well, making it easy to heat the house just by opening the south-facing window drapes. The scene that greets me when I do this is pure magic, We live in a veritable snow globe in this part of the world. Christmas trees outnumber all other varieties and all of ours are flocked in gorgeous soft snow flakes. This most recent snow is the down comforter type. You know, the type of snow that is more fluff than uffda on the shovel. The type that softens sound and catches every precious drop of sunlight.

With all of the above, MY stocking is overflowing this year.

As if that wasn’t enough, I have been zinging around the farm on my Norwegian Spark kick sled for weeks. Fetching the mail, hauling buckets of warm water to the goats and chickens, and on most nights, gliding down the driveway late at night when the stars are brightest. It helps that I prefer cold to heat. That monochromatic landscapes delight my eye. And that driving anywhere is pretty much optional at this point in life.

The critters seem just as pleased with winter. My flock of chickens has recovered their mojo after a brutal fox attack last month. Most days they gift me with five beautiful brown eggs - as well as a chorus of clucking. There ARE challenges to keeping birds in this weather. Windows that need to be open a bit for ventilation often freeze shut. And defrosting buckets of yucky used water in the house is, well, yucky. Still, a small price to pay for the rewards.

The goats are positively psyched by snow. They shoot out of the barn every morning, vying for a place at the six pans of hay and grain scattered about the corral. Each day I put the feeding stations farther from the barn doors, just to encourage the goats to pack down the snow all over. As soon as chow is gone, all six - Bunny, Bosco, Daisy, Dolly, Harte and Poppy - wriggle through the fence wires and teeter along the skinny path to the house. The goal is to find the garage door ajar and raid the feed cans.

Summer, our ravishing brunette llama is the least pleased with the weather. It’s her fault, really, since she has taken to escaping the corral and so has earned herself mega-jailtime this month. Ditto the three white geese and Tommy Turkey. All honk and gobble with outrage when I attempt to coop them up after only eight hours of fun in the snow and sun. I am happy to report that last summer’s gosling has begun laying big white eggs, just like her mama. Another major gift for a girl who lives to bake stuff.

People often ask us if having these critters makes it “hard to get away.” Used to be, I’d explain that many friends and neighbors are happy to do a chore or two for a short stint and in a pinch we have always been able to hire house sitters. But lately, my answer to those who ask is, “Why would we WANT to get away?” After all, THIS is where we spent decades trying to get away TO every chance we got. So snow that we are here, well, we are blessedly content to just stay put and enjoy the view,

May you be similarly blessed this holiday season and for all the days to come. No other gifts will ever be needed. I guarantee.

Airdate: December 26, 2010

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Mallard

Magnetic North: Stood Up But Willing To Forgive

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 Welcome back to Magnetic North, where it appears we’ve been stood up. By winter, of all things.

 
Now before anyone goes off about the benefits to a human psyche from extended summer - temperatures in the sixties and sun nearly all day - well, at least for the barely ten hours of daylight we get in mid-November - the fact is that most of us have been in a state of ready-alert for over a month. And frankly, that takes the starch out of a person. Even a Minnesotan.
 
For example, before the first leaf fell off a tree, my chickens and bunnies and goats all got clean sheets (my term for sparkling new straw litter) on their coop and rabbitry and barn floors. Now, after all these faux summer days, and no hard freeze, their digs are as smelly and poopy looking as they are in March.
 
Then there’s the mallard flock on our little pond. By Halloween they were almost too fat to fly away. Only twice has the pond frozen over, and only for a few hours. So the six drakes and ten hen ducks have taken to lolling about midst the cattails, like spoiled kids at the cotton candy stand, making a constant racket for more treats. More, more, more!
 
Stop feeding them, you say? They’ll fly away soon enough then, you say? Well, come stay at my house for a day and listen to those piteous quacks ‘round the clock. Yes, even at night! Only a fiend would deny them.
 
The only hungry mouth around this place that isn’t being stuffed due to the unseasonable warmth this fall is that of our grand old Clayton wood furnace. Paul and I stacked our load of maple in late September, thinking that we would be lucky to get it in the shed before the first blizzard. But no. I’ve had exactly three fires since then. And with two, it got so blistering hot we had to keep the sliding doors, both of them, open for hours.
 
There HAVE been a few unexpected delights along the way, though.
 
The smell of fallen leaves, toasting in the sun underfoot, for one. Not as pungent a scent as the burning leaf piles of our youth, nor as earthy a one as the moist marinade covering the earth after a month of Autumn rains. But a truly mouthwatering aroma that will ever remind me of the very moment I noticed it, carrying a water bucket and grain to the chickens.
 
And then there was the luxury of time - hours not ordinarily available to check the corral fence for gaps and just to wander about gathering kindling from all the trees toppled in the windstorms of late. Those storms took out more gangly balsam pines and poplar, but they also left a treasure trove for an inveterate beachcomber like me. I may be far from my roots on the Atlantic coast where I thrilled to hurricanes, knowing there would be hours and days of gathering what the waves left behind. But I find the woods after a storm are just as rich. Birds nests as finely knit together as a lace wedding shawl, delicate bits of sea green moss and burnt orange lichen, two ledge fungi colored a deep burgundy and shined up like patent leather and sometimes buried treasure, like the three-inch tall cobalt blue medicine bottle from generations back, torn from its resting place in the earth by the roots of a fallen tree, its tiny cork still in place.
 
My pockets are never empty when I go woods combing after a big wind.
 
And so I forgive winter for keeping me waiting this year. She’ll always be my favorite season. Late, early or right on the money. And they say she’ll blow in sometime this week. That means I have a new deadline. Another round of clean sheets for the goats and bunnies and chickens. At least one more sack of cracked corn to buy for the mallards. A trip to town to replace the chocolate and cookies I filched from the winter car travel kit. And, most and best of all, another walk on our trails to gather the last of the kindling - and, with luck, even more treasure! 

Airdate: November 13, 2010

 

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Boiling Water

Magnetic North: Right Of Passage--Boiling Bear Bait

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 Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the end of summer means much the same work as in the suburbs: stacking wood, replacing the mower with the blower, and looking for the stash of gloves and hats and scarves that we may have given away or stored somewhere beyond memory. But we also engage in a number of more exotic activities that I’m pretty sure are unique to country living. One in particular was new to me when I migrated up here in the ‘90s.

 

When Paul and I moved here from the Twin Cities ‘burbs, we moved into a home with a few faults. One of these was, blessedly, not nailed down or built in… I speak of the coffin-size freezer at the base of our massive wood circular stairway. I find it difficult to part with things that still work. But that thing gave me the willies. Handy, it might be. But I wanted it gone.

 

So we put an ad in the newspaper: working big freezer, $100, you haul. The response was staggering! The very first of approximately two dozen calls came from a sweet young thing who begged me to save it for her, even though she could not come out to get it right away. She had given birth a few days earlier - her first - and her husband was engaged in work he simply could not abandon until it was finished.

 

“He’s boiling bear bait,” the woman said. No big deal. No giggling. No explanation. Just, “boiling bear bait.”  

 

“Ahhhh, well then,” I mumbled, searching random access memory for some hint of what exactly she meant by “boiling bear bait.”

 

I could have asked. But no. Pride pushed me into a corner and I pretended to get it. More than that. I empathized!

 

“Of course you have to stay with THAT!”

 

And so before the couple showed up to cart away the huge freezer the next day, I called my few country contacts to find out what the devil bear bait was and what was with the boiling, anyway. This was waaaay before Google, you see. Actual acquaintances were necessary for finding stuff out back then. Primitive, huh?

 

Well, I got the answer: bear bait, the boiled variety, is pretty much just a mish mash of sweet stuff - sugar, corn syrup, maybe even some Jell-O thrown in - boiled up and poured into a big steel canister where it hardens into a delicious, ginormous lollipop that bears just can’t resist licking and licking and licking. One imagines that they die happy when the hunters who put the bait out for the bears finally show up and shoot them.

 

I’m not judging, mind you. Just saying....the young couple who came, new baby in tow, to get the freezer were lovely people. Friendly, welcoming to us newbies. So they baited and ate bears. Some of the stuff our friends in the cities call food is far stranger than that!

 

A few days after the freezer went away with the nice young couple, we had another new house weirdness befall us. Our electric dryer quit and blew out a batch of fuses in the process. So many that we could not figure out how to fix the mess. So we called the nearest electrician, a fellow recommended by a neighbor because, “He’s good, honest and only lives a few miles away, so he probably won’t charge you for mileage.”

 

Great. Paul called immediately and actually got the electrician on the phone right away. “Could you come over sometime soon and help us out with this problem?” Paul asked after a few minutes of chatting. We were a little concerned that there might be wiring woes that could be dangerous, not just inconvenient.

 

Well, sure, the fellow said. He could come over that day, but maybe not until after dark. He was busy with something he just couldn’t walk away from until it was finished. 

 

“Oh?” Paul replied. “A big job at home? What’s that you say? Really! Well, sure, first things first, I always say.” Then a quick goodbye and Paul sank onto the sofa, eyes wide, shaking his head and mumbling.

 

Yeah, that’s right. Our new electrician was busy BOILING BEAR BAIT!

 

That was 20 years ago this month. Obviously, Paul and I took such hobbies of our new community in stride. Just as the folks who were here first have adjusted to our little peccadilloes, like runaway llamas, geese screaming at midnight, doing chores practically in the altogether....that kind of stuff. Or at the least, they ignore them. That's MY idea of good neighbors!

 

Airdate: October 11, 2010

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Magnetic North: Going To Seed

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place of beauty that frankly looks a bit seedy nowadays. That’s pretty normal for late summer/early fall. The farm is showing wear and tear; fences are leaning over like arthritic ciphers. And the poor old chicken coop! It’s been worn to a nub.

 

One of my goats makes a beeline each morning for the chicken wire enclosing the run and uses it like her own personal back and side scratcher. After months of this, she has pooched in the wire and pulled the wood to which it was attached up out of the ground. Not good timing, since I’ve just learned that raccoons are wreaking havoc on friends’ chickens. 

 

While measuring the chicken wire for repair, I of course found even more work: another wire panel inside the run is flapping uselessly in the breeze. The wood block step into the coop has turned to mush after a decade of bearing our weight. And the grand old tree that collapsed behind the run last year, sparing both it and our outhouse, did chuck just one branch onto the top of the run, poking a raccoon-size hole right over the geese’s winter A-frame.

 

The birds and bunnies look just as sorry as the buildings and plants. They lose feathers and fur in the hot weather, so now they have a moth-eaten look. And they know it. The hens that look the rattiest won’t lay and the bunnies with the biggest bare spots hide themselves from view at feeding time. A bad hair day for a hare is just as devastating as it is for a human. And for them, no do-rags or baseball caps to hide the hideousness! 

 

All is not grim and grungy in mid-September, though. Going to seed can be a positive experience for the gatherers among us. For instance, my nasturtiums and sunflowers set hundreds of seedpods after gifting us with gorgeous blue and red and orange blossoms day after day. The yellow marigolds were stunning this year. And so was a new variety of daisy called Gazenia…so much so that I figured a way to keep them.

 

Whenever I remembered, I took pictures of the blooms I loved most and gathered their seeds. My intent: to make seed packets out of the pictures, enclose a few dozen seeds, and send them off to friends throughout the winter. Anyone who has visited us here on this patch of heaven will certainly get a kick out of looking forward to growing another generation of posies from a place they like almost as much as we do.

 

Another gift project evolved from my never being able to pass up a nice pinecone. With a little hot glue and patience the assorted cones go into wreaths. With just a month or so of gathering left for the cones, I have already filled every basket in my home with them. But still, I lust for more. Somewhere along the way in this obsession I got it into my head that finding at least three cones in a day was akin to a blessing, an omen or “atta girl” of sorts. Call it magical thinking if you will. I just call it fun.

 

On the critter front, I’ve been working hard to give Summer, my wandering llama, so much TLC that she will stay close to home on those occasions when she sneaks down the driveway. So far, I’ve scored big by extending her fence line out into the meadow and by gently combing out her dreadlocks. Yes, you heard me correctly. Unless you shear them annually, llamas end up looking quite reggae. Very cool, but methinks pretty itchy and more than a little mood dampening. And so, we have beauty spa time each morning after she allows me to put the hated halter on her lovely velvet schnozzola. How could I ever have thought of selling such a beauty?

 

Folks tell me all of the above is “a lot of work.” And although it certainly is, it’s a mystery to me why I enjoy it so darn much. But my friend, Peter, said last week that life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. Like feeling blessed, not by winning the lottery, but by finding three pine cones all in one day.

Airdate: September 25, 2010

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Magnetic North: A Time To Let Go Or Make Soup

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the first fingers of fall tickled us awake on the very last days of August. Even the State Fair down in St. Paul couldn’t seem to bring back the sauna weather of the past months. And, along with Fred Smith of Wildersmith on the Gunflint, I am nearly delirious with joy. Ahhhhhhh, cold weather is so close I can taste it!
 
Of course, there are a few drawbacks to our six months of hard winter weather. For me, the first is the departure of my little band of mallards. Having finally found our pond two weeks ago, the seven drakes and 10 ducks spend more and more time away from mama duck. They show up for breakfast and dinner, as usual. But fewer hours are spent snoozing under the deck or asparagus fronds. Now, more often than not, when I hear their raucous quacks, the sound comes from afar. Either high in the sky as they strengthen their young wings. Or from away out on the west meadow, where the cattails and duckweed on the pond hide the birds from the eyes of circling hawks and eagles. 
 
In keeping with my resolve to raise the mallards for the wild, not one of them has a name. They are all simply, “Baby.” 
 
And yet, this year, I’ve crossed a line I swore I would not. I’ve fallen in love with a little female mallard. One who stands out from the rest because of her honey color. Her feathers are so different from the other females that I couldn’t help but notice her. And before long, I began looking for her first thing in the morning, before I even took a beak count to see how many had survived yet another night outside. Three of the original flock have gone missing since June 4. So far, the only predation we’ve had this year. Knock wood!
 
Now, as the mallards inch closer to their migration date, I dream of keeping that one pretty little honey duck - and, of course, a mate. My rationalization for such a dastardly act is pitiful. I tell myself that if I keep her and a drake I won’t have to buy ducklings next spring, saving about 40 bucks.  No, I have not factored in the cost of feeding a pair all winter and the prospect of losing both to illness as they’ll be cooped up with the domestic ducks and a couple dozen snarky chickens. As I said, pitiful!
 
I ask for prayers that I do the right thing and let her go. Or, that she is wily enough by now to avoid my clutches in the event I weaken.
 
My other dilemma involves my recent goat cheese making success. Each batch of delicious chevre leaves me with more than a quart of whey. Whey is the liquid that drains off the curds as they hang in the cheesecloth. I poured the first few quarts down the drain before realizing that surely such nutritious stuff would be useful. It is! Thanks to Google and a community of obsessive cheese heads like me, I now use my excess whey for soup stock and baking. Very cool and very yummy.
 
Soup and real bread are two more reasons to love winter at our house. That and stoking the wood furnace and cook stove, standing over the grate where the warm, maple scented air rises in the morning, and letting my robe billow out around me like a dirigible about to ascend into the clouds. Hardly a likely outcome for someone who has taken to stuffing herself with goat cheese and crackers twice a day!
 
Ahhhh, the joys of winter. They are so many and so delightful, what need have I of more ducks? Even one the color of honey who I’ll miss more than all the rest.
 
Airdate: September 6, 2010
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Magnetic North: A Cheesy Success Story

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Welcome back to Magnetic North and one happy goat milker. I have just turned out my first successful batch of chevre. Chevre, that’s French for creamy, sweet, almost-better-than-dark chocolate, cheese! 

My first batch, made soon after I acquired my Alpine milk goat, turned out - well.....yucky. Think Silly Putty and you’ll pretty much get the picture. Well, that was over a year ago and since then, I’ve gotten more and more milk from the goat and learned a thing or two about cheese making.

First, read the cheese-making book. Second, follow the directions for processing the milk. Third, read the recipe and don’t improvise like you usually do. One would think that having arrived at the venerable age I have, I’d have learned to do all of the above. But no.

 

Lucky for me, I’m stubborn. I come from a long line of Brits and defeat is not in my genetic profile.
And so, on the eve of our last wave of summer guest invasion, I began collecting quart jars of goat’s milk and readied my cheese-making supplies.

 

I should tell you that my goat, Harte, named not for the organ, but the writer, Brett Harte, is too much fun to milk to consider the task work. Once or twice a day I take a big old blue zippered carryall bag and stuff it with the following:

 

* two coffee cans half full of scrumptious feed, a blend specially made for lactating goats,

 

* A tall plastic pitcher with a twist-on top,

 

* A washcloth that’s just been soaked in hot, soapy water packed into a plastic bag,

 

* antibiotic spray, udder balm - like the richest hand cream you’ve ever known, and a few slices of gala organic apple.

 

Once inside the corral I am surrounded by six anxious goats and one very polite, but hungry, llama. To their credit, no one lays a hoof on me as I distribute the contents of one coffee can between two feeding stations. Then, as the rest snarf down their chow, I take Harte by her collar into the barn and shut the door. She is already up on the metal milking stand by the time I get all my supplies ready. Then, it’s give her the other can of feed - she gets as much as all the rest combined because she is making milk - thread the milk stand chain through her collar and prepare her udder. A spray of antiseptic, a rubdown with that warm washcloth and a couple of clean-the-jets squirts of milk and we are into the routine.

 

Harte finishes the grain before I have even an inch of milk in the pitcher. So keeping her content for the next 15 or 20 minutes is a challenge. Massage, scratching and my pathetic attempt at singing gets the job done. And no, I WILL NOT be sharing Harte’s top 10 milking songs. That’s between me and my goat!

 

Each milking nets anywhere from two to four cups of milk, all of which has to be cooled within a half hour to a certain temperature to qualify for the two top grades of milk. Sloppy cooling results in off tasting milk or cheese. And who wants that? Well, besides my Lab, Scout?

 

After cooling the milk in a sink full of cold water and ice cubes, I pasteurize it in a double boiler. Bringing the milk to 160 degrees for three minutes, then pouring it into sterilized glass jars which I store in the fridge until cheese-making time. I need 16 cups of milk to make two pounds of chevre. That, and some rennet tablets, yards and yards of cheesecloth, about a day to set and drain the curds and that’s it.

 

Simple? Yes. Easy? No. But then if I wanted easy I wouldn’t be living up here. Wouldn’t be keeping chickens for their eggs or angora rabbits for their fabulous fuzz. And, need I say, I wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun or stuff to write about!

Airdate: August 28, 2010

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Summer road construction is in full swing

Summer drives in unfamiliar territory

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place so spectacularly wonderful that human beings will put themselves through summer road construction hell numerous times just to be here for a matter or hours or days. Driving anywhere for pleasure in the summer in this state is what my adult daughter would call counterintuitive. Or, in plain English, bat crazy!

Bad enough that everyone who owns wheels is out on the roads and, for the most part, driving as if they are either drugged or in dire need of a restroom. Add to that the ubiquitous orange cones dotting the shoulders of every freeway and donkey path in the state - icons for the phrase “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Paul and I have had several unavoidable trips to the Twin Cities this summer. Memorial services for dear friends. Sad times that inexplicably turn into delightful hugs and conversations with those we haven’t seen for ages. We end up smiling more often than not. A nice thing, given that we had to navigate through the massive redo of the Duluth freeway, the unannounced closing of our exit in the cities near midnight on a stifling hot night and a torrential downpour as we returned via Duluth during the hour when lightning took out the lift bridge between Park Point and the city. And, because as we all know so well, God has a really big sense of humor, yes, the bridge was in the “up” position at the time.

In-between construction delays and detours to places that aren’t on any map, we can relax and enjoy the scenery. Until someone realizes that we’ve passed the same lake or cabin or pile of Red Bull cans twice in the past hour. This is no biggy....unless the driver is male. What is that about anyway? Asking for directions apparently is akin to admitting one is lost. So does lost equal loser?

I am the designated driver in our marriage and so, when I got lost last month somewhere near Two Island Lake and The Grade, I promptly admitted it. Paul seemed unconcerned. He loves to drive the back roads of Cook County.  Coincidentally, though, just as I was plotting my next wrong turn, I came upon a shiny blue sport car at an intersection with two guys and most of the contents of the Cabela’s catalog crammed inside.

The older of the two, the dad and driver, was looking both ways and the son had what appeared to be a wall map open.

I lowered my window and smiled at the driver. He pretended not to see me. So I honked my horn and shouted, “Are you lost?”

The man was trapped. “Well, we might be,” he said, at last lowering his window. “Daaaaa-aaad,” the boy croaked. “Ask her if we are anywhere near the Gunflint Trail!”

As badly as I wanted to say, “Oh, you mean back in Minnesota?” or “Define near,” I answered politely, “Just minutes away.” And I gave them explicit directions back to the Trail.

As we parted company with the visitors, Paul looked puzzled. “How come you could give them directions but we are lost?’ he asked.

“Well, I may not know where I am,” I replied. “But I know where I came from.” That struck me as the essence of summer driving. Especially in rural and remote areas like ours.  So often, I hear tourist complain that they drove miles and miles without seeing any signs indicating what road they might be on. Worse, a road might be called Bear Paw Path, but the gal at the bait shop tells you head for The Old Dump Road. Methinks that’s what happened to the boy and his dad on The Grade.

All this wouldn’t faze a true North Shore aficionado. Only heat and humidity the likes of which they planned to leave behind in the cities can do that. Uh, oh. This summer might just have wrecked that myth. Yes, some of my friends DO have air conditioners. And when summer comes with road work and lost boys and their fathers, some Cook County residents actually leave the country! After all, Canada’s only one culvert replacement two asphalt overlayments  and three “Reduced Speed Work Zone” signs away.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, all is well. Summer the llama has run away twice in the past week. She is for sale. The White Chinese goose gosling is all white, no more yellow down, but still peeping, not honking. The young mallards are flying around the house and over the pond. Maybe they’ll actually land in it one day. Harte, my Alpine goat is putting out two quarts of milk a day. Too much for us to drink. And the cashmere goats’ winter fleece is coming in. Even in this heat!

All in all, the summer has been better than good. We can’t call it great. Not with two memorial services behind us and one to go this weekend. The world without dear friends, those who make up our notion of not just where we are but who we are, is a different place. A bit unfamiliar. Slightly off. And because of that, our journey, through all the seasons we have left will be....well, different.

In Minnesota Speak, that means it’ll be “OK, but could be better.” God bless you, “Super” and Paulus and Frank. We miss each one of you so doggone much.

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Magnetic North: Failure-To-Launch Ducks And Chicken Neuroses

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where fireflies light up the nights and the meadow wears a rainbow of flowers. As always by mid-July, we are awash in yellows: birds’-foot trefoil and buttercups. Then there are the purples of clovers and joe pye weed. The daisies: big, small and nearly invisible. And, to the foragers among us, of course, the itty-bitty strawberries hiding beneath leaves so close to the ground only a clever bear could sniff them out. My summer’s harvest of these fruits wouldn’t fill a tart shell. But I’ve got my eye on two fabulous wild raspberry patches that will fill a corner of my freezer.
 
That is....if I remember to go pick. Mainly because even with so many more hours of daylight, there seem to never be enough to get everything done. My to-do list of chores looks like the outline for a farm-based reality show. Take this entry, for example: move the mallards to the pond. Today!!! 
 
Fact is, I first made that move last month. Still have the scratches on both arms to prove it. Trouble is, you might notice should you visit my farm that there are no mallards on the pond. But there are 20 such birds, larding around under our deck and eating their fill of grass and slugs. Note to gardeners out there: If you have slugs and don’t want them, get a duck. 
 
But I digress. Paul and I get mallards each year to enjoy watching them swim, not to listen to them noshing and gabbling to each other underfoot. Too bad. This year’s flock apparently took a vote after a night or two in the willows at the pond’s inlet and decided to move back in with mom and dad. I believe in human terms this is called, “failure to launch?”
 
And so, as each day dawns, I vow to move them down to the water  - once and for all. First, I tried bribes…like the pied piper, only without the pipes. Instead I shake two red coffee cans filled with duck feed, a delicious marimba sound that brings them quacking and fluttering around me. Sadly, before I’ve led them to the pond’s edge, the little flying rats have gorged themselves once more on creepy-crawling yum-yums along the way and fly back to their deckside pad. Next, I set the dog on them. Then I threatened them with starvation. They laughed at me. Well, not really laughed. But they definitely snickered!
 
Next on my list of Herculean tasks is moving yet another flock of birds. It’s high time for the new barn rooster and his girls to go to the barn. However, timing is everything with chickens. Up until now, the birds have known only a large, airy but snug garage and their straw-filled kiddy pool crib. Their digs in the barn are ready, but I waver as to the right time of day to enforce the move. If I do it in daylight, it means catching all 10 of them - scaring the wits out of them and adding more scratches to my poor arms. But they would have hours of daylight to get used to the barn before dark.  If I do it at night, though, I can pick the birds up without a struggle. They can’t see in the dark and are super easy to handle. But they would wake up in a strange place and who knows what kinds of neuroses that might bring on.
 
As I ponder these weighty issues, I do envy the critters, both domestic and wild. My bunnies and birds and goats doubtless don’t worry about where their next blade of grass or slug is coming from. Much less where they’ll go to sleep after dinner. And the wild things, the two does out on the meadow with their three fawns...well, all they seem to care about is keeping the little dickens safe. And loving them. A lesson for us all, I think. 
 
And so, on these gorgeous summer days, with meadow flowers to count, naps to take in a sunny spot, and those two wild raspberry patches to keep an eye on, maybe the best To-Do is just To Be. Methinks I’ll give that a shot. The ducks and chicks can wait a bit longer. Heck, maybe even ‘til August!
 
Airdate: July 24, 2010
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Hope, the baby gosling

Magnetic North: Hope Hatches

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 Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place of constant beauty AND almost hourly surprises…most of them pleasant. But others...well, others might just prove to be somewhat of a trial.
 
Case in point - a few weeks ago when I opened the door to the goose pen and heard an unfamiliar peep along with the usual wild honking of Hold Me and Touch Me. My two White Chinese geese are without a doubt the least appealing inhabitants of our farm. They drown out conversation with their ear-breaking shrieks. They hiss. They bite. In short, they offend everyone. Except each other, of course. Devotion between mated geese is legendary. And my pair are mad about each other.
Naturally, such involvement leads to more geese, so I have conscientiously gathered Touch Me’s eggs, allowing her to set only on fake wood eggs to satisfy her maternal instincts. I figured when she was sick of zero results, she would get up and rejoin Hold Me on his rounds. I was anxious for that day to come only because the male goose was so lonely without his mate that he followed me everywhere, nibbling my ankles and even pinching my arms if I didn’t pet him or pick him up for a little cuddle.
 
My prayers were answered on Father’s Day. Another proof positive that when I pray I really, really MUST remember to BE SPECIFIC!
 
As the late John Lennon so aptly said, “Life is what happens when we are making other plans.” And life in the form of a fluffy, yellow, wildly peeping gosling is what greeted me when I opened the door to the goose pen. Oh, yes. I am Gramma goose. Lucky me.
 
The proud mama and papa now parade their little fuzz ball all over the property, terrorizing any goat/duck/dog or chicken that dares to gaze their way. As for me, well, I am allowed the usual gramma perks. I can help the gosling up a steep step. And feed her without fear of losing an eye. Other than that, I’m on the D list.
 
Her name, in case you wondered, is Grace. Not for her sense of balance or manners. She is every bit as fractious as her parents. No, I call her Grace in the fervent hope that she is a female. Goose eggs, you see, are very big and very useful. And if one of the parents go missing, an extra girl would be way better than two grief-stricken bachelors. Trust me on that one.
 
And what if she is a he? In that case, the name will be pretty close to unspeakable on a family radio station, I can assure you.
 
That said, Happy Independence Day, everyone. May your fireworks be glorious, your charcoal stay lit until the burgers are done and all children be willing to go to bed before July Fifth.
 
As I said before, specificity in prayers is vital. Vital!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Mallard ducklings

Magnetic North: Wisdom from the beaks of birds

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, a place that people who absolutely, positively HATE hot call the best place on earth...usually.  This past week, temperatures inched above 80 degrees waaaaay too soon. And that makes most of us more than just a little snarly. Fact is, we really don’t expect more than a handful of sauna-like days in a whole summer. And here we are, well BEFORE Memorial Day weekend, sweatin’ like prize piggies at the State Fair. All I can say is, this better be short-lived. 
 
Despite wanting to do nothing more than curl up in the cool and comfy downstairs level of the house with a good book last Monday, I dutifully readied the outdoor pen for the mallard ducklings. That means stringing a tarp - for shade - over the top of the wire enclosure built onto our chicken coop: a job calling for flexibility, working overhead bent over backwards, and the willingness to ingest spider webs and their winter leftovers. 
 
In the process of doing that I find numerous breaches in the wire perimeters. My new electric staple gun closes the gaps in minutes. A good thing, since I’m seriously considering ripping all my clothes off just to cool down a bit. To complete the duckling palace, I lay a deep layer of straw on the dirt floor of the pen, plunk a big old round rubber stock waterer in the center of the pen and place a plywood panel up against the coop for their bunkhouse. I’ll transfer the little darlings from their nursery in the garage later tonight. One of my favorite to-dos, as I get to catch, cuddle and release all 21 ducklings in the process.
 
Paul and I have raised mallard ducklings for years, putting them on our pond and feeding them until the leaves turn and they strike out for warmer places. We watch them paddle around all day, obsessively count the flock, worry about raptors and land predators but, best of all, just sit on an old bench close to the water’s edge, and the growing ducks and drakes swim and bob for food as the cattails and duckweed grow taller and then go to seed. One or two birds stand out, usually drakes. This year, that one will be the duckling with a super-dark face. We haven’t picked a name for the bird yet, but it will be gender neutral. Like the one we gave our oldest Blue Swedish, Bubba. When Bubba began to lay eggs, she became Bubbles without any strain.
 
Doing seasonal chores like duckling transfer is one of the joys of living as we do. Less fun are the unexpected break-downs and -outs. I think of the six-hour-long llama chase last Sunday that had Summer, our gorgeous llama, leading me and our friend Nick up and down Caspers Hill Road and through two neighbors’ property before she allowed herself to be penned up. 
 
But not even that compares to being dragged to the ground by a hungry goat, Bosco, who decided to plant both his front hooves in my right coat pocket in his quest for grain. I’ve had many a pratfall courtesy of my critters over the years, but this was a first. And thanks to WTIP news director Barbara Jean, who just happened to be doing a feature story involving our farm that morning, this ignominious moment is yours to behold on video on the station website. Note to self: Be aware that ANYone these days is possibly filming every move I make, so no matter how hot it gets, keep clothes ON.
 
Frankly, I’d sooner concentrate on the beauty all around us now that heat and moisture has arrived. The wild strawberry blossoms underfoot in the meadow, the red buds on the tamaracks, the bullfrog channeling Pavarotti in the vicinity of our rain barrel and the wild song of Canada honkers overhead. When first I heard them this year, I felt a stab of envy for my earthbound White Chinese geese. Descended from wild swans, my noisy pets can fly, but only high enough off the ground to lightly sweep the grass with their feet. “Don’t look up,” I muttered as the honkers soared and taunted us. But my gander, Touch Me, just rubbed the underside of his beak on the ground while making his “I need - I need” noise. I pick him up, lifting him farther off the earth than his wings will ever take him. And for him, that’s enough.
 
Me too.
 
Just a little critter wisdom on a much-too-hot-day in the best place on earth.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
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