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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 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.

 

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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.
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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?
 
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Goose

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.
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Lucky

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.
 
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Loading Hay

Magnetic North August 19, 2009: Harvesting Before Summer Comes

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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.
 
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Magnetic North August 5, 2009: Tripping the Shore

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Welcome back to Magnetic North. Far from the madding crowd, and just about everyplace else. 

Of late, my husband Paul and I have made the 240-mile round trip trek to Duluth almost weekly. Medical specialists are the draw. Oh, we’re both fine. We just want to keep it that way.

Of course, the scenery along the way is sensational. To think that people make driving the North Shore their entire holiday and we get to do it regularly….a little too regularly for some family members.

“I can’t believe you’ve hit only ONE deer in almost 19 years up there,” says my daughter, Gretchen. Gretchen, the Los Angeles soccer mom, who averages a collision almost yearly on L.A.’s freaky freeways.

But I digress. Paul and I usually set off on our Duluth runs with our yellow Lab, Scout, on the back seat, a backpack full of snacks and a to-do list that would take at least two days to do.
Always, always the very first to-do is stop at Dan’s Feed Bin in Superior, Wisconsin. Dan’s is a legend among northlanders. For, as the sign out front under a life-size painted statue of a steer says, “If we can’t feed it, you don’t need it.”
Over the years Dan’s has supplied me with lay mash, scratch, goat chow, hay, straw, duckling and chick starter, bunny bits, buckets, heated watering pails, a pair of geese, crates, leashes, medicines, useless pet toys and fox urine to scare away skunks.
A visit to Dan’s never disappoints. There are the cages of rescue cats up for adoption, heartbreakers all. And in early summer there’s always at least one tub full of baby birds. Last week it was bobwhite quail and pheasant chicks. Around the corner from the chicks expect baby bunnies, assorted juvenile songbirds and often, a huge parrot sitting atop a cage looking down on customers.

After taking all this in, I wander to the counter and order my 50-pound bags of feed for the week, get a slip of paper to hand the bruiser on the loading dock and then make sure the back of the car is ready to be filled to the ceiling with critter food.

Which pretty much cancels out everything else on our to-do list except those pesky doctor appointments because there simply isn’t any room left in our vehicle for stuff.
There is, however, room in the day left for play: A picnic up at Enger Tower on Skyline Drive overlooking the harbor and bridges of Duluth-Superior. And, always, always, always, a stop at Brighton Beach for Scout.
Paul and I love the little park running the length of an old road and rocky shoreline. We all three boil out of the car, towels in hand for the dog, and stumble onto the cobblestone beach. Scout wades and drinks down a gallon of good Lake Superior water while we people-watch and finally, either a snarly dog or a blast of chilly wind off the lake sends us back to the car and up the shore once more.
But the best part of road trips, be they on the scenic shore or inland highways, is conversation. The more inane the better, I say. Like, were those awful little shrunken heads they had when we were kids real? Or, remember those little rock cairns someone used to stick on top of bluffs all along the shore a few years back? So, do you suppose the guy who made them moved?
Soon enough, the Gunflint Ranger Station hoves into view and we are within minutes of home. Home, where chores await. Where messages clog the machine. So we skip dinner. Return calls. Check all the critters. Unload the car and hit the sack.
It’s a long slog to Duluth and back. And yet, as tired as we are after a trip up and down the shore, we never tire of the trip itself. Just another of life’s mysteries, I guess.
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Animals in pasture

Magnetic North July 29, 2009: Poetic Antidote to Colvill Cat Fever

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where my six goats, one llama, eight rabbits and heavens knows how many feathered creatures live in blissful ignorance.  

Of what? Well, for instance:
• They don’t know winter is three months away
• They never obsess over the price of a bale of hay or bag of lay mash
• Nor has the fact that a cougar was within nibbling distance of them recently ever crossed their so-called minds

Yes, the report about a cougar sighting in Colvill that aired last week right here on WTIP referred to MY very own neighborhood.
My neighbor across the road spotted the big cat as she pulled into her driveway. At first, she thought it was our dog, Scout. Scout is a yellow Lab, a smallish yellow Lab, but a big dog. On second glance my friend realized that this critter was waaaaay bigger than Scout. AND its tail was longer. AND its face was a cat face. Hmmmm, not Scout. Not good.
It’s funny how the human brain defaults to denial when face to face with something that could eat us. Years ago when Paul and I were just getting acquainted with our woods, he came in from a long hike through them with an almost dazed look. “I just saw a really big German Shepherd out there,” he said.
“Who has a German Shepherd on the road?” I asked.
But he wasn’t so much talking to me as doing a mental moonwalk away from denial.
“It looked like a dog, but ........more like a wolf. But it acted like a dog. I mean, I was coming up that first slope back behind Johnny’s shed when I saw him. He was just loping toward me. Then he stopped and looked right at me. Really stared and I stared back......then he just turned and disappeared into the woods. On second thought, I think I just saw our first wolf on the property. Or....maybe not.”
My reaction to all this is lost in the fog of time, but what I can tell you is that the next time I saw my dearly beloved head off into the woods, he was toting his rifle.
But back to the cougar sighting last week. My neighbor said that the cougar – a/k/a mountain lion - reappeared in her yard later that same day. One of her grandchildren saw it this time. And again the child’s first reaction was to label what she saw as something benign, sweet old Scout. Then, the mental moonwalk began...twice the size of Scout, too long a tail, cat face.....”Gramma, come here!”
My neighbor contacted local wildlife experts and me, simply because I have a barn full of tidbits for a big cat. My understanding is that cougars kill what they are used to killing, ungulates like deer. That is why humans are relatively safe from attack and my goats are not.
Still and all, after my neighbor’s warning call I alerted another neighbor down the road, someone with children running around outside. And I kept the goats and llama in for a day. Oh, and I made one trip to the barn with a bucket of water in one hand and Paul’s rifle in the other.
After a day on alert, though, I decided to envision safety, rather than danger. And I am happy to report that we are just fine. For now.
Being content with being fine for now is the trick, though, isn’t it? We time travel back and forth between what was and what might be and get good and sick in the process. When we could just as easily stay where we are.
On our farm, staying in the moment happens naturally. When I’m trimming goats’ hooves I pretty much have to be right there in my head or risk losing a finger. And I defy anyone to sit and stroke a baby angora rabbit and wander off into the ‘what if’ woods.
I agree 200 percent with the 18th-century English poet, Thomas Gray, who said, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.”
For the poetry afflicted, here is the entire stanza from Gray’s  “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.”
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! Why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
Tis folly to be wise.
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Ducklings

Magnetic North July 16, 2009: Summer rains make memories bloom

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Welcome back to a wet but happy Magnetic North. After too many days without a drop of rain, it poured Tuesday night. All that day Paul and I watched the sky. Listened to the radio. Rain was definitely prophesied, as my mother used to say. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a prophecy over a prediction any day.

And did we need rain! Grass should be soft, not crunchy. Dirt should be yielding, not petrified. And women of a certain age should be reading the latest mystery novel on the deck, not schlepping water to outdoor plants.

Well, for a few days now, all that is forgotten. The rain began after dark Tuesday and continued well past bedtime. It was pure magic. The rains sure fingers tapped out a steady beat on the roof. And the land drank and drank and drank.
I sat on the couch, chores done, dishes washed, listening to the rain and replaying the day: in my head:
*bonding with the new goat kids;
*hand-training the baby angora rabbits;
*moving the mallard ducklings from the brooder to their outdoor run.
"Ohhhhhhhhhhhh Nooooooooooooo!”
I was out the door before I heard Paul calling, “What is it now? Or who?”
"The ducklings!” I hollered back. “They aren’t old enough to get all wet.”
Fortunately, I was out of earshot by the time my beloved could comment about the danger of letting a duck get wet.
Fact is, folks, that ducks raised without a mother - like the ones I get in the mail from a hatchery - are at risk of hypothermia should they get wet before their adult feathers come in. Why? Oil. Water runs off a duck’s back because water birds preen their feathers with oil from a little sac hidden on their back.
Sort of like hair gel for humans. The big difference being that we human moms don’t need to rub hair gel on our babies lest they freeze to death after a bath. With ducklings, it doesn’t take much water to soak them through to the skin. The skinny little things just can’t make enough heat to combat that kind of thing.
Thus, about five minutes before our deluge arrived Tuesday night, I threw together a makeshift waterproof retreat. A big plastic trashcan laid on its side and stuffed lightly with straw was the perfect choice. Clambering around inside the small wire enclosure attached to the chicken coop, terrified ducklings around my ankles, a cloud of fireflies surrounded me, following me back to the house, then flitting about in the rain like naughty children at camp.
Around 5 a.m. the next morning, I stumbled outside to check on the ducklings. They were - of course - fluffy dry. Some even appeared to have grown tail feathers overnight.
Walking back to the house in the early dawn hours, I enjoyed the watery world around me. The spider webs framing the garage doors wore crystal beads of rain. Tiny droplets of dew sparkled on the fuzzy stems of my tomato plants and everywhere else my eye wandered.
And though there was no ocean roaring in the distance, no salt in the air, the memory of summer mornings after a rain at the Jersey shore bloomed in my mind. And I went back to bed in a hurry. Lest the image of beach combing fade before I could weave it securely into my dreams.
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Baby bunnies

Magnetic North July 10, 2009: Fourth of July surprise

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Welcome back to Magnetic North, where nature never ceases to amaze and surprise.
Take this past Fourth of July, for example. Holidays around our house tend to be uneventful.
We planned nothing more for the fourth than going to a memorial picnic for our dear, departed old buddy, John Anderson, then watching televised fireworks.
Sounds dull, right? But it wasn’t.
First off, the memorial involved a cannon and four solid blasts into the big lake in the vicinity of Five Mile Rock. Oh, and if the folks in that little fishing boat east of the rock are listening, know that you were not the target of the day. It was all about giving a lifelong fishing fanatic and friend the sendoff he wanted.
I swear, from now on whenever I drive by that old bump of a rock off the Colvill shore, I’ll smile and remember John. A man of legend, even six months after his untimely parting.
But it was early in the day of the Fourth that I got MY big surprise. A rat. At least, I thought it was a rat. Midway through chores, as I was doling out dandelion greens to my four angora rabbits, I saw this small, dark THING scurrying along the wall in the rabbit room. But let me back up a bit.
My rabbits live in a little shed attached to our garage: two in cages and two free-range on the tarp-covered floor. The floor bunnies are sisters. Plain brown and gray rescue rabbits named Muff and Puff. The other two are fancy bunnies, English Angoras. One, a white buck I call Harvey, is the rabbit equivalent of Brad Pitt. The other, Peaches, is featured on my WTIP website right next to my grinning face.
A while back I got it into my head that it would be interesting to breed Harvey, to Puff. But after just a few hours alone, Puff looked like she’d gotten caught in the lawnmower. Clearly, little Harvey, for all his handsome white fur, was a big fat bully. Nothing more! Puff recovered, but over the past month or so showed no signs of pregnancy. She did, however, begin to look a little scruffy. Post-traumatic stressed out, I figured.
Well maybe, but as it turned out, Puff was pulling her own fur out. Lining a nest. All on the QT while I busied myself learning the fine points of goat milking.
And thus, the “rat” I thought I saw the morning of the Fourth was a baby bunny, one of four. With eyes wide open and fully furred out. And judging from their size, at least three weeks old!
So much for delusions of indispensability on my part!
In fact, had I known the babies were there I probably would have done more harm than good, peering into the recesses of the nest with a flashlight or, worse, trying to pick one up. Now I spend the few spare minutes left in the day wondering how to house them all.
When I bragged about the newborns at John’s memorial later that day, my friend Harry had a word of warning. “So you went from four to eight just like that - y’know eight could become 64 pretty fast.” Thanks Harry, I needed that.
For while it is true that one can never have too many friends, especially friends like John, one can definitely have waaaaaay too many rabbits!
 
 
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