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Magnetic North

Vicki with her angora rabbit, Peaches

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.




What's On:
Vicki longs for a healthy blanket of snow….hauling water to the barn gets easier when she can put her kick sled to use!

Magnetic North Dec.17, 2009: My winter drinking problem :)

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where we stagger toward Christmas week over frozen clods of mud and, alas, no measurable snow.

Believe it or not, chores in winter get easier, not harder, with snow. For one thing, carrying all those buckets of water to the barn and coop goes smoother with snow under foot. I can even use my Norwegian kick sled to transport the buckets instead of galumphing 93 steps from house to barn.

Yes, I count the steps. Call it mindfulness or mindlessness. Fact is, attention to such details keeps me in a cheerful mood, even when I slop the goat water all over my blue jeans in 20 below wind-chill weather. 

Truth be told, my critters drink too much. Or at the very least, they don’t drink fast enough. Morning chores find me schlepping two buckets of warm water to the goats and my guard llama and two more to the chickens and ducks. The angora bunnies get five water bottles twice a day. By the time I’m about ready to come inside for lunch, the water in all locations is no more. That is, it is not water. Whatever doesn’t get slurped up fast-freezes solid.

Hence, evening chores find me filling four more buckets, making those sloppy, stumble bum trips again and returning to the house laden with the frozen remains.

That is why we have, at all times between December and April, four semi-thawed black rubber buckets lining the narrow back hallway. And why there is a growing pile of bucket-shaped ice next to our woodshed.

But it’s worth it. Seeing my six goats rush to those steaming buckets and draw long, delicious sips of water never fails to warm me up. Summer, the llama, is a sneak drinker, though. In the seven months since she came to live here, I think I’ve seen Summer take a swig of water exactly once.

Not so the big white Chinese geese, Holdme and Touchme. Holdme hogs the bucket first, dunking his entire head and half his long neck over and over again. For geese, drinking is secondary to bathing. After five or 10 minutes of serious groomin’ and guzzlin’ he and his paramour run and flap their way across the lawn to the woodshed where they’ll spend the day nibbling kibble in a mound of new straw. Tough life, eh?

The bunnies are always my last chore stop, morning and night, for one big reason. Aside from the Internet, I find angora bunnies the greatest time sinks on the planet earth. Doling out their water bottles takes only minutes, but watching the little dickens belly up to the bottles and drink out of the upside-down metal tubes takes waaaaay longer. And of course, there are raisins and bits of dried papaya to hand out. Fur to comb. Ears to tickle. I tell you, the work with those bunnies just NEVER ends!



Magnetic North Dec.10, 2009: Beware The White Stuff. And Other Christmas Horror Stories

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where that icky white stuff is starting to pile up. No, not snow. We wish! Those of us with skis, snowshoes and septic systems are praying for snow and lots of it real soon.

No, the icky white stuff to which I refer is, to a very select few, a delicacy. Yep, it’s lutefisk. For those of you who have read of my own close encounter with lutefisk years back, well, a good yarn like that never really can be told too often.

And besides, it sort of fits right in with the British holiday tradition of telling scary stories while roasting those chestnuts and steaming that Figgie pudding.

So what’s scary about lutefisk? Well, I found out in the mid-1970s. My daughter and husband and I were brand new members of a big Lutheran church in the cities, a church that staged a major event just about every weekend. And the most major of all those multitude of events was the annual pre-Christmas lutefisk dinner. Of course, I bought tickets. And, since I’d heard that lutefisk, even among Scandinavians, is an acquired taste, I set about acquiring one.

My quest began at the nearest Lund’s grocery store. Hailing a smiling fellow behind the meat and fish counter, I asked brightly, “Where’s the lutefisk?”

His smile vanished. He sighed. Then, pointing to what appeared to be a pile of baggies filled with clear Jell-O, he muttered, “You’ve got more guts than I do. But IT’S over there.”

Hmmmm, probably NOT a Norwegian or a Swede, I thought, choosing the biggest sack of ....what WAS this stuff inside? The package instructions were vague. “Boil bag in water or bake contents until firm. Serve with either butter or cream sauce.”

It was dark when I got home and the colored Christmas lights around the kitchen windows cast a cheery glow on the gelatinous colorless fish flesh inside the two-pound bag. Even so, I was in no mood to foul my oven, so I put a pot of water on to boil and set about melting the butter and setting the table.

“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes,” I sang out gaily to my husband and daughter, who were cluelessly watching television.  It’s amazing how fast nausea can hit a person. For me, it was the second right after I cut open the boiled bag and let the lutefisk slither out and into a metal colander in our sink.

The steam stung my eyes and stopped my breath. Plus, the fishy secretions turned my colander black!

“What’s that smell?” my husband yelled. My daughter merely ran screaming from the room.

“Never mind,” I said, “we’re eating out tonight. Get your coats!”

On the way out the back door, I grabbed the still out-gassing fish in the colander and, before leaping into our car, hurled the whole mess into our Malamute Wooly’s kennel. And did she enjoy it!

When we returned, the car’s headlights shone on the kennel as we pulled in the driveway. Wooly stood inside the fence, tail wagging and a big doggy grin on her muzzle. And why not? For we all know that even more than dogs love to eat, they love to roll in stinky stuff. Yes, the two pounds of lutefisk was stuck in great frozen globs all over my beautiful 100-pound pooch.

My daughter, Gretchen, remembers this last part of our lutefisk adventure best. She, after all, had the heavy duty of leaning hard against our shower stall door while I shampooed the lutefisk off our dog. She tells me that I remained remarkably calm. No swearing. No hollering. Just a few groans and - I swear she is making this up - a sob.

And so....we skipped the big lutefisk dinner. Having acquired nothing more than a lifelong aversion to the stuff. And, eventually, we joined a Presbyterian church. There, the most exotic thing we ever ate was Indian fry bread. For me, though, every year when I see those jiggling bags of goo appear in the market I flash back to THE HORROR of it all.

And that’s why I just can’t resist telling the story over and over and over again.



Magnetic North Nov. 24, 2009: Thanks given for all things

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Welcome back to Magnetic North just as many are either coming or going in search of family and feast or both.
Since our very first Thanksgiving here, Paul and I have preferred staying put to traveling. By a happy trick of fate, that first year we had to cancel plans for the holiday due to Paul’s aching back. And so began a 16-year-long tradition of making the Congregational Church community dinner our “family feed.”

Every year thereafter I’d recall that first Thanksgiving at the church. Counting ourselves quite pitiful we discovered we were anything but. We were part of a new family, one that waxed and waned over the years. Always reconstituting on Thanksgiving, the tastes and aromas and familiar dishes conjuring up faces and conversations.

When my mother was alive, she loved to be included in the bustle of the Congo Thanksgiving dinner. Seated like a grand dame at one of many circular tables of eight, mother took great pains to speak to each person as if she were the hostess and they were her very special guests. Especially the gentlemen, and the younger the better. Mother was a flirt of the nicest sort. Even in her 80s and 90s.

One particular Thanksgiving Mom had a great chat with two handsome young fellows, Greg and William, friends of mine. They laughed at her jokes and offered to get her extra pie. She was taken with them both. So much so that afterward, on the drive home, she remarked that it was “nice” that those two men could have a real holiday dinner even though their wives were out of town.

“What makes you think they have wives?” I asked my very conservative Southern-born mother.

“Well, they were both wearing wedding rings,” she said. “Obviously, they are married.”

“They are, Mom. To each other,” I said, never taking my eyes off the road. A Herculean feat since I would have given anything to have seen her face.

“Oh, my,” she said. Then, after a few silent minutes, “Well, I guess that’s fine.”

Needless to say, mother was ever so eager to go the church dinner again the next year, asking repeatedly if “that nice young couple - you know the married ones with no wives - would be coming.”

Paul and I have missed only two Thanksgivings in our beloved hometown. Last year when we rashly decided to go to Los Angeles to be with my daughter and her family. We think we had a good time; however, the third-world experience of air travel wiped out nearly every fond memory of the trip.

The other time we were away on Thanksgiving was three years ago. I remember standing in a buffet line at a lovely Duluth restaurant, piling all kinds of fabulous foods on my plate and wondering if I’d keep any of it down in the hours ahead. You see, I’d had my first course of chemotherapy for breast cancer the day before and I didn’t know yet that the shots and pills they gave me to prevent nausea really would work.

This week I went for my three-year checkup. As I wrote this column I hadn’t had the checkup yet. Two friends have had recurrences recently. So I’m just a little bit freaked. It’s times like this I miss Mom like crazy.

Naturally, if all is well, for now, I will be SO grateful. But having survived this long, I know that all that gives me joy in life cannot be diminished, much less disappeared, by a collection of rogue cells.

And so, here’s to your best Thanksgiving ever. Or to memories of your best if you have already had it.



Magnetic North Nov. 12, 2009: Good Karma/Bad Karma

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Fall. Apples. Hunting. And things that go “bump!” in the night. All combined at our little farm this past month. For good and for not so good.
It began three autumns ago when we planted two apple trees. Naturally, my old goat Lucky figured they were just for him. So I surrounded the trees with chicken wire and sank ugly green metal posts in the ground to hold the wire up. 
And it worked. Lucky looked elsewhere to get into mischief. And as for our deer population, they seemed to follow his lead. Over the years the deer herds of Caspers Hill seem to give us a pass, feeding on our meadow, having their fawns in the woods and all without fear of rifle or arrow since we don’t hunt.
Of course, my new herd of goats came after Lucky’s demise. So they had no role models about respecting chicken wire. And with time, the curious and brilliant little criminals realized that “Hey! We’re not chickens! This stuff’s a pushover!”
And so it was I found myself shrieking like a fishwife - more like a sailor according to my poor husband - at the six juvenile delinquent goats as they shoved over one after another of my sad attempts at shoring up the flimsy wire barriers around the trees. 
And it worked. Both the shrieking and the shoring up, I mean. I got a nice harvest of little red cooking apples off the trees last month. Tart, but tasty. And with my first-time-ever-grown-from-seed tomatoes, plus the angora and cashmere fleece filling bag after bag, I felt quite smug.
Then came the fall…in more ways than one.
One of our favorite couples and fellow chicken aficionados asked a favor: Could a family member of theirs hunt our woods for deer this year? Without blinking, we said, “Sure!”
Paul was the decider on this, although I totally agreed. 
Paul has been the keeper of our 80 acres of woodlands lo these 19 years. He built about three miles of paths through them, “most on my hands and knees,” he’s fond of telling folks.  And so he knows each turn and twist. Each exposed rock and root. Where the ferns grow taller than his waist in August. Where the ephemeral wildflowers peek through the duff in May. And where our old Labs used to run off so often on a deer path at the top of a hill.
But this summer, Paul could only dream about his woods. The paths went wild. Trees fell and were not removed. Thanks to a still-healing broken hip, Paul is only now taking his first tentative steps without a walker, a huge victory not to be sniffed at after seven months. 
So when our friends asked a favor that meant our woods would see some use and enjoyment, of course Paul said “Sure!”
Our friend’s family member, Tom, turned out to be a super guy. He brought his grown son, who flew in from the Carolinas for the hunt. The two arrived last weekend outfitted in blaze orange. The day was sunny and balmy, not your greatest deer hunting day, but the next day clouded up nicely and the son got a spike buck, his first ever. And even though we knew well the buck was likely one of the fawns we’d watched on the meadow, we were happy for them.
Before leaving Monday, Tom stopped to praise Paul for the beauty of his paths and to thank us heartily for the chance to hunt here. The woods, he said, were a delight even if no deer had been seen or harvested. And then he presented us with a quart of his home-harvested maple syrup and a stunning offer.
“How would it be if I came back next spring and mowed the paths and got the downed trees off them?” he asked.
Paul was inside napping when Tom said this. But I knew what he would say. Not just “Sure!” But more likely, “Sure! You betcha!”
I think Paul and I both went to sleep smiling that night, imagining our paths all sweetened up and ready to hike again when the ephemerals bloomed. 
“It’s true about that karma thing,” I told Paul. 
“Say again,” he said. 
“You know, ‘what goes around comes around?” I replied.
Little did we know that karma of a different sort was taking place out in the yard while we snored away inside. The next morning on my way to the chicken coop I was stopped dead in my tracks by the twin scenes of destruction in my path. The wire barriers around both apple trees were flattened. A few branches on each tree were left, dangling and dying like the broken pact between the deer of our forests and us.
There’s a Spanish proverb that applies here. It goes: “Take what you want but be willing to pay for it.” 
And so, we did and we are. Even though we didn’t know the price in advance.


Magnetic North Nov. 4, 2009: Chicken calendars and other fowl weather tales

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Welcome back to Magnetic North where the gales of November seem to be giving us a break, at least for the moment. Fifty degrees due this weekend and the cattails around the pond have barely begun to pop.

But I’d know we are just weeks away from Thanksgiving even if it was as balmy as a summer’s day. All I have to do is look in my chicken coop. There I find walking, squawking calendars on legs. And let me tell you, in late fall my chicken coop is NOT a pretty sight.

For those of you who have never seen a hen in molt, count yourself blessed. I’m talking the human equivalent of fright wig hat hair with a touch of baldness and really bad eczema thrown in. It’s sad. Especially since - even though there are no mirrors in the coop - the hens seem to KNOW how really, truly awful they look.
They hang about inside on sunny days stuffing their beaks with scratch, also known as chicken candy. They artfully avoid the rooster’s clutches, leaving him to crow piteously well past sundown. And most tellingly of all, they quit laying eggs.
Now I know books tell us that molting hens don’t lay because they need to grow more feathers, and making both eggs and plumage is just too big a workload. That’s only part of the problem. My girls are mortified, not to mention chilly. Who among us could possibly produce an egg feeling like that?
The good news is that round about the holidays, just when I string up the Christmas lights on the coop window, the laying boxes will once again be cluttered with pretty brown eggs. 
And those fully feathered-out white and black and rusty-gold galleons will sail about the chicken run - proud and perky again.
Sad to say, that will be the very time when we’ll expect to say goodbye to the mallard flock we’ve raised this year. Not that the ducks ever really come quacking at the door before they take flight and leave for the winter. For forever, really. 
“That’s the kind of critter I like,” my husband, Paul, is fond of saying. “You give them a good start and they take off.” He just won’t admit how much he misses those daily walks to the pond to feed our little flock of 10. 
This year we have a perfect pairing. Five drakes, the males, and five ducks, the females. Weird isn't it, how only the female of the species is called a duck. That would be like if only the females of our species were called humans. Hmmmmm. Now THAT’s something to mull over.
But back to the mallards. Signs of their imminent departure started popping up in October. The birds began testing their wings, flying just above the surface of the pond water from the inlet to the spillway. Next they’ll start venturing out over the browned meadow grasses. Making ever widening loops back to their safe haven among the cattails and duckweed lining the little pond. 
For it’s there they’ve learned to evade the eagle and the fox. And there they’ve met the passing migrants, older mallards from faraway lands. As the pond ice forms and the young birds’ wings strengthen, the primal urge to follow these seasoned travelers becomes irresistible. And so, even if we faithfully set out the food, one day all 10 will be gone. 
And that’s a good thing. Mallards are not domestic fowl, like chickens. They are wild creatures. I never give them names, never try to pet or tame them. Of all MY critters, these wild beauties are the least MINE. 
But I’ll miss them even so. Their insistent quacking reminding us to “hurry up with that chow!” Their physical beauty. Is there any bird more striking than a drake mallard with that bottle-green head? And their antics, bottoms up as they cull the ponds depths for muddy morsels. That stuff I’ll miss.
Paul doesn’t admit to such soft, squishy sentiments. He always says, “Ten less beaks to feed,” then seeing my distress, “But I’ll bet some of them come back to nest next year.”  So like a rooster. I mean, a guy.




Magnetic North Oct. 7, 2009: Harvesting the Wind

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where gatherers like me are having as much fun as the hunters this fall.
The infamous big bad wolf winds of late September robbed us of electricity and phone service for hours and days on end. But they gave more than they took away. At least the way I keep score.

Oh, one of my special trees went down. Mitten’s tree, named for a sweet little six-toed black and white barn cat. I’d grab Mitten after doing chicken coop chores and go sit with her on the axle of an ancient Model T Ford under a really, really, really big spruce that rose out of the cool dark woods behind the chicken run and dog kennel.

The roots of that tree, like gnarled fingers, stood out from the earth around its trunk - a trunk so ample that I could not encircle it with my arms. In between the exposed roots I’d spy treasures as I sat stroking Mitten’s long hair. There were bits of crockery. A tiny blue glass medicine bottle. A three-tined fork, perfect for cutting butter into pie crust dough. Precious artifacts that set my imagination to wandering. Precious moments with a too-soon-gone pet.
When an owl took Mitten one night, I wept under that tree, thus its name. And for a few years, every time a songbird would fall dead by our picture windows, I’d lay it to rest under the axle by the massive trunk. It never occurred to me that such a steady presence could simply fall down. But it did. Of course it did.
Not until my second trip to the coop the morning after the storm did I see it. And frankly, my brain didn’t register exactly what it was I saw, clinging as it did to a phantom image of what was. The outhouse between the coop and the dog kennel seemed strangely shaded though. No, not just shaded, it peered out from under branches. Spruce branches. On the ground by the outhouse door, a double treetop lay, snapped off on impact.
“Oh, no. Mitten’s tree!” I said out loud. And then gasped to see how respectfully the gentle giant had fallen. Only inches to the south and it would have crushed the chicken run. Inches to the east and the kennel would be history. But instead, the tree appeared to have pirouetted on its exploded trunk, falling onto the outhouse, a structure so unloved that Paul disposed of a dead skunk in it just last year.
Call it a coincidence, luck or booga booga. But it was one cool tree right up to its last act.
Within hours of finding Mitten’s tree downed, I began breaking pinecone-studded tips off its corpse - sentimentality be damned. I need stuff for my window boxes. The impatiens and pansies look scalded after the frost. Now, thanks to the wind, the remaining late bloomers nestle between lush spruce boughs that only weeks ago waved a good 60 feet in the air.
I wasn’t the only one cleaning up after the storm. My gluttonous goats continue to munch dawn to dusk on the choicest aspen branch tips and leaves that litter the grass. Finding an entire tamarack limb down, the horned beasties form a veritable vortex and strip the branch in minutes.
It’s been but a week since the outage, but already I have a new pinecone wreath for my front door. A way bigger one is on its way to L.A. for my daughter’s birthday. And kindling to take me into deep winter fills every bucket and basket in the woodshed.
The intangibles are just as fine. Memories of drawing water from the old hand pump for my critters came back with every stroke of the handle. And the creaky metallic “yowch” sound on the downstroke pulled me back to the days of my first cashmere goats, Baby and Nimbus; to the watering of my most bizarre hens, Twisted Sister and Pearl. And to the drought summer when I nonetheless grew a stand of ginormous dinner-plate-sized yellow sunflowers with a measly 49 pumps on the handle. That’s three bucketfuls a day.
And so. If you ask me if I “lost anything” in the big winds of September I’ll most likely tell you “Just one tree.” No big deal. See, most folks really don’t get all the rest. I’ll keep those secrets between me, myself and my fellow gatherers in the north country - we who harvest the wind.

Baby goats

Magnetic North Sept. 16, 2009: Can't Beat 'Em? Eat Em!

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Welcome to Magnetic North where we have apparently run out of trees to hug and are now into embracing noxious weeds.
Haven’t you heard? Just last month the county commissioners declined a request for money from our highway engineer so that she could do the annual noxious weed spraying. In truth, there are no villains here. The state says all counties have to spray 11 noxious weeds. And, the spraying concerns many of our citizens. Here’s why.
The herbicide most often used, Transaline, stays in the soil -including soil where weeds aren’t growing, for over a year. And the “so what?” here is a doozy: transaline is implicated in causing reproductive, skeletal and neurological problems. Doing weird things to babies, bones and brains? C’mon guys, I have a better way. Goats!
Seriously. In Western states, goats are famous for weed eradication. Of the 11 noxious weeds on the Minnesota hit list, I see only two that my goats might spurn: bull thistle and purple loosestrife. Goats just don’t cotton to the biggest thistle and they absolutely will not pad around in water in order to graze on loosestrife.
As for the other nine....we’re talking caprine smorgasbord! Field bindweed, garlic mustard, leafy spurge, perennial sowthistle, Canada thistle, musk thistle, plumeless thistle, poison ivy and, to aid with any unpleasant side effects from the ivy, good old cannabis sativa, AKA hemp. What’s not to like?
My goats weeded a wicked patch of Canada thistle out of an overgrown perennial garden munching the flowering heads off the stalks. No pulling or poisoning. Just beheading. For some reason, nipping the head off plants discourages even a perennial weed. I’ve gotten rid of the gorgeous alien, yellow tansy, in my meadow by determined decapitation. It was peppered throughout a half acre of timothy hay two summers ago and this year I found only two plants. I did this myself, with scissors, since tansy is terribly bitter and the goats have some standards.
I’d recommend this method for getting rid of the bull thistles. But purple loosestrife? Man, if I had a silver bullet for that stuff, I’d patent it.
So, here’s the deal. The weeds in question grow on only 13 acres of county land, the perfect amount of lunch chow for a small herd of goats. So next summer, hows about renting goats - mine and/or those of my friends? As soon as the weeds blossom, we’ll sic the goats on them, making sure that our little darlings don’t wander and eat something they shouldn’t.
My guess is the cost will be oodles less than buying chemicals and spaying them. How about it commissioners?
Bunny, Bosco, Dolly, Daisy, Harte and Poppy await your response. Although none of them has ever had a paying job, I can vouch for their eating skills and work ethic . Plus, no offense to our county road warriors, my goats are super cute. Not a baaaaaaahd deal, eh?


Magnetic North Sept. 9, 2009: Life Lessons From A Goose

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where we learn lessons both bitter and sweet from Mother Nature. Or, as she is known best in Northern Minnesota, Mommy Dearest.

Lessons this fall have been delightful. My first red, ripe tomato grown from seed is going to grace our table tonight. True, we may have to hunt for it on our plates, given its minute size - think misshapen marshmallow. But it is the right color and I grew it without benefit of greenhouse, wall-o-water or animal sacrifice.

The other 156 still-green tomatoes on the deck are lovingly wrapped in flannel sheets nightly so as to trick them into thinking it is still summer and so time to turn red and juicy. I have, to paraphrase Blanche DuBois, “always depended on the stupidity of vegetables.”

So the lesson here? I don’t have a clue. I DO, however, have a picture of my little gem to brag on. Hey, it might even be our Christmas card this year! All I know for sure is that next year I’ll start growing seeds indoors earlier. Say, Valentine’s Day?
Walking to the barn nowadays I notice our meadow color changing by the hour. Just yesterday a riot of color dotted the acres of tall grasses: yellow birds’ foot trefoil, and black-eyed Susan, sky blue asters and lavender joe pye weed and, of course, a variety of white daisies.
The browns now dominate the greens. Ripe satiny cattails, leathery toes on the thousands of birds’ foots gone to seed and the sea of grasses nodding with heavy heads, aching to burst and be done with yet another year.
I gather seeds, both wild and cultivated. The black-eyed Susans from the meadow and the teensy Johnny jump ups and pansy pods from the window boxes go into carefully labeled baggies. Now if I can just find a place to store them so that I find them in time to plant!
But back to the next sweet lesson of late; it involves none other than Hold Me, my White Chinese gander. Hold Me and his mate, Touch Me, are so named because of their incessant neediness. Not just for food, for cuddling. But only by me. Anyone else gets a beak in the backside.
Sadly, I fell from grace with the two geese last spring, about the time I moved them from their home in the barn to the chicken run, same as last year. The kiddy pool gets filled and the ducks and geese get summer vacation.
But this year, they also got constant rain and the run turned into a big, gloppy slime pit. It was worth my life to reach the kiddy pool when it needed cleaning, sinking as I did up to my ankles in wet clay and all else. Worse, as the muck deepened the geese began to attack me on my way to clean their pool.
Yes, my darling gander, the very same goose who I tuck inside my parka each night in the winter and carry about like a baby, actually fastened on the back of my leg one day in June, leaving a bruise the size of a silver dollar. Only later did I realize that the goose didn’t like the mud any more than I and was trying to tell me in the only way he knew how.
Come August I decided the big white meany didn’t deserve to spend summer by the pool. I moved him and his mate back to the barn…a barn considerably altered from the one he left. Six new goats and a llama made quite a welcoming committee. The honks of horror from Hold Me and Touch Me went on day and night for two days. And I laughed in sick satisfaction at every one.
Then I noticed a change in temperament in my old gander. Gradually, over the last month, he came closer and closer, head bowed in supplication instead of striking out like a cobra. Yes, all was forgiven. He wanted to make up.
For those of you who enjoy sleeping on goose down pillows, I can tell you that hugging the real deal and resting your check on a sleek white wing beats that luxury by a country mile. And then, there are those amazing blue eyes and the gentle touch of his CLOSED beak on my back as he hangs his neck over my shoulder. Summer the llama, and my six goats watch me sitting in an old green resin lawn chair in the barn at bedtime with Hold Me, and are clearly puzzled. To them, after all, the goose is a noisy nonentity. A nuisance. A nut job. They just don’t know.
And so these are the faith lessons of late summer. Faith is truly “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen” - the tomato I always knew would one day be mine, and the goose that surely would love me again.


Magnetic North Sept. 2, 2009: Dreams That Feed the Soul

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where preparations for winter are underway.

With my winter’s hay supply nearly taken care of, I turn my attention to another matter of life and death in this part of the world: warmth.

I lost my old goat, Lucky, last winter during a particularly horrid spell of below zero weather. As the only goat left in a barn once heated by seven big fuzzy cashmere bodies, Lucky had to make do with deep straw bedding and the company of a small flock of feathered admirers, three chickens, two turkeys and two geese.

And he did well. I am certain that it was age, some sudden goat malady PLUS the forty-below night that did Lucky in. That allows me only a percentage of guilt. Enough to satisfy my eternal maternal need to suffer, but not enough to drive me to a warmer climate. Or to give up keeping goats.

Now, only six months after losing Lucky, the barn is once again fairly bursting with life. Six goats, two geese, a turkey, three chickens and a big - and I mean REALLY BIG - super fuzzy llama.

My llama, Summer, is named well. For it appears that she will extend the warmer months, at least INSIDE the barn, for all of the other critters. On a chilly morning just this week, I found the two youngest kid goats, Daisy and Dolly, snuggled against Summer’s shoulder. The six-plus foot tall camelid sleeps on the straw. Her long, long legs are tucked under her belly. And the generous lengths of her fiber on her flanks and shoulders and neck fan out around her like the coziest of shawls.
No wonder the little goats seek her out. The heat that emanates from her body would be enticing enough. But that thick, luscious fleece! Come to think of it, with Summer out there, I finally have a heated barn! And without spending a nickel on insulation or electricity.
Now if only there were an animal that could fill three water buckets twice a day and muck out the barn floor weekly. Alas, that animal, I fear, is me. But hey, with all those extra critters to water and clean up after, I’m thinking I’ll be baring arms as buff as First Lady Michelle Obama’s in no time.

My workout this past week came as I moved the dozen Mallard ducklings from their juvenile detention facility to our meadow pond. With Paul unable to drive the tractor trailer from the duck yard to the pond, I cheat and load two dog crates into the back of my vehicle, back it up to the pen and proceed with the roundup.

Just in case you ever need to relocate wild ducks - never say never! I’ll walk you through the process. It’s fun. Really!
First off, do not grab a duck by its wings or feet, lest you render them unable to live anywhere but by your back door. Catching them in fish nets or grasping their bodies is also out. Their bones are like china. Again, you break. You buy. That pretty much leaves the neck. The perfect handle for duck transport.
But won’t they hate that? Wild ducks hate to be caught in any fashion. So believe me when I tell you that as long as you carry them only a few feet by their necks they won’t be any the worse for wear.
They will hate you no matter how you carry them. And after a few feedings, they will forgive.
I’m into my sixth season of Mallard roundups, so I catch and carry two ducks at a time and no one’s ever passed out in the process. Me included. All in all it took less than ten minutes to catch and release the lot into the pond. Paul and our dog, Scout, rode down to the water’s edge with me this time and stood by while the flock bolted from their crates.
There are few sights more delightful than water birds enjoying their very first real swim. They roll. They dive. They flap their wings and seem to stand on their tail feathers amidst a shower of diamond droplets. It’s magical. But for my insistence on bleating out a stanza of “Born Free” it is almost spiritual.
Now, every day until freeze-up, we deliver the ducks their feed. Soon their first feathers molt and the green on the drakes will appear. The females color up less, but are still gorgeous.
Some years the flock flies up into our yard daily, seeking to steal food from the domestic birds. Other times, the mallards keep their distance. These always take off the soonest. None ever come to say goodbye. Maybe they resent that neck carry after all.
This summer has been a strange one for us. Paul is just now walking without the walker more than with it. It’s over five months since he broke his hip the morning of the last big blizzard. We call this his “lost summer.” No tending his three miles of trails. No riding mower. No putzing around anywhere but the deck and one floor of our home. Yuk.
With all these no’s in his life and mine, I questioned my sanity in bringing home more goats, rabbits and Summer, the llama. But long ago I realized that dreams are the stuff that keep us strong. That feed our souls. When Lucky died and then Paul fell, starting over seemed more like something I could only dream. Like moving from the cities to the North Shore, just because we loved it here? Yeah, just like that.
Paul and I are dream chasers. And apparently it takes more than a walker and some other inconveniences of life to change that. Oh, there are those confounded patches of ice thrown into the bargain.
But by a large, there are more pleasant surprises than not. Like getting a bit of heat in our barn. “Lost summer?” Just the opposite, my friends. Just the opposite.

Loading Hay

Magnetic North August 19, 2009: Harvesting Before Summer Comes

MagNorthMixdown_20090820.mp39.95 MB
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where harvest started before summer did this year. I think most would agree with me that the first dog days of summer came not in July, but in early August. And just as they came, so too did the first of our winter food.
Fifty some bales of hay. Lovely, solid, square bales carried one by one into my garage by a local couple I’ve been lucky enough to connect with. Fact is, knowing a good source of hay is as much a treasure in these parts as knowing where the big blueberries grow or rainbow trout bite….maybe more so.
Standing inside the stuffed garage after my friends leave, I inhale deeply and sigh. For fresh cut and baled hay, even though it’s been dried a bit, imparts a deeply satisfying scent. A perfume. Think cocoa on a cold night. Or just-ground coffee beans in the morning.
And, to a woman with six growing goats, a llama and eight angora rabbits, all of which gobble grain like candy, the smell of a garage full of hay says I can cross one big worry off my to-do list. The worry of “Will I have enough hay for all those hungry mouths when all the world turns white?”
Other harvests come as surprises, albeit anticipated surprises. Nick and Kristin Wharton leave bags of produce from their farm every week. This week it was glorious rainbow chard, garlic, red potatoes, green onion, cucumbers, yellow squash and zucchini.
How long has it been since I had groceries delivered to my home? I think 40 years, back when I lived in Cleveland and shopped a dinky little neighborhood grocery. Sadly, the home deliveries and even the weekly shopping stopped when the butcher took leave of his senses and gave me a little squeeze as I left the store one day.
How times have changed. Well, at least I can brag about the home deliveries again!
Other harvests come in the form of berries: strawberries planted under my cherry tree, wild raspberries from the woods and meadow, and perhaps blueberries if I can ever find a day to zip up the trail to my friends’ cabins. I hear there has never been better picking.
Aside from these, I have the usual luscious eggs from my sweet hens and silky angora fiber combed off my bunnies. The litter of four is just about old enough to go to other homes now. So each time I tend them I torment myself with whether to sell them all or keep just one. Or maybe two.
Add to all of the above the odd sightings of this particular summer: the bulbous spider who insists upon spinning her web right inside the door to the coop so as to catch my face every morning; the flock of new phoebes hatched over our side deck; the great number of jewel-bright garter snakes - my count is over 30 so far - darting through the grass and among the straw bales; the luna moth clinging to our siding one June afternoon, her soft green wing tips trembling even as she dozed in the sun.
And then there were the memories of things not seen: last summer’s fox kits from under the barn and tool shed; the Canada goose orphan gosling growing into her wild nature down on the pond with the annual mallard flock; and bright shadows of old friends, Lucky the goat and Ollie and Jubee, the twin yellow Labs, all gallumphing ahead of us into the woods.
Sometimes it’s almost more than I can take in. Sensory overload, so to speak. And when that happens, as it does almost daily, I wander in my books of poetry. Here is what I found when considering the harvests of this late-blooming summer and all that have come before:
It’s by my very favorite author/poet/crone-sister, Margaret Atwood.
And it is titled, The Moment
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can't breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.