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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