The Art of Settling In …

A few days before the blizzard Rebecca walked along the edge of our prairie with her arms raised high letting the wind take ripened milkweed puffs from her hands to distribute them into the native grasses. Her gesture seemed quite symbolic of our finally settling in, although we’ve had many settling-in moments over these past few weeks as the light and warmth of autumn gave way to the ominous warning of our first blizzard of the approaching winter.

On the eve of the big storm she worked diligently through the day … often shooing me away because of the satisfaction of doing it herself … to remove the tiller from her garden tractor for the first time so she could attach the mower. Many trips were made between the mower and the wind-free inside of the goat barn as she consulted the owner’s manual to gauge her progress and to find the next step. It was late afternoon by the time she finished; by then the battery was charged high enough to start the tractor. As dusk gave way to darkness she was still out mowing a loopy path through the prairie grasses for us to walk, snowshoe or cross country ski without being covered with “preacher’s lice” and being tripped by the thick thatch of native grasses.

Rebecca's path cut through our prairie the day before the blizzard.

Rebecca’s path cut through our prairie the day before the blizzard.

Despite the hurried preparations, I doubt if either of us was mentally ready for the reality of the deep snow we now have for it is likely our winter cover until the spring melt. Couldn’t we have eased into this? Must we have had a raging blizzard blasting horizontal snow and leaving behind wind created sastrugis across the neighboring barren crop fields? Wouldn’t waiting until the timber frame building was completed been more reasonable? Asking such questions is futile, though excusable.

Blizzards, though, serve a good purpose in that you are given time for reflection, of which I’ll take advantage.

Rebecca and her son, Martin, have a quiet moment.

Rebecca and her son, Martin, have a quiet moment.

So begins our second winter here on the farm. Our first was one of nearly daily discovery of country living here at Listening Stones Farm and of learning the nuances of our new home. Seeing how our chickens would fare, and even the directional drifting of wind-blown snows. At this time last year we were razing two decrepit outbuildings as the first snow, a lazy and light snow by comparison, gently covered our prairie. One was a granary built at the same time as this house. Holes had worked through its roof as well as through that of an architecturally interesting hog barn nestled in the grove. Both were rotting from the inside out and caving in. The excavator used a pit that had been dug previously adjacent to the grove to drag, burn and bury the refuge from the two buildings. Although we had debated over the possibilities of saving and refurbishing both, realistically they were too far gone.

We decided to use that area for an orchard, and Rebecca ordered fruit trees … cherry, apple, crab apple and plum … that we planted in the spring. We hauled several loaded wheelbarrows of chicken manure to spread over the ruffled soil where she spread clover seed. All summer long I mowed over the weeds until a staunch stand of clover emerged between the trees — most of which survived their first year from bare root to leafing to fall color and eventual leaf drop.

Vega gets a hug as a much-loved dog.

Vega gets a hug as a much-loved dog.

We considered erecting a yurt where the old pig barn stood, and we still might. Most of our energy and investment, though, has gone into building what we lovingly call our “Taj Magarage” near where the old granary stood. Our friend and wood artist, Dale Pederson, who teaches timber frame construction, designed and crafted the timber frame building we’ll use as a garage, summer kitchen and winter passive solar greenhouse, wood shop and office/studio. Dale has put his heart and soul into the project. He, along with our mutual friend, Mike Jacobs, co-owner of the CSA Easy Bean Farm with his artist wife, Malena Handeen, has been here for several weeks erecting and closing in the structure. Hopefully this week the finishing folks will come so we can actually use it yet this winter.

We eagerly await the completion of the beautiful timber frame.

We eagerly await the completion of the beautiful timber frame.

All of this sounds like we have scrunched a lot into a very short time, and I suppose we have. Yet, when I look back on my previous and recent life, all of this seems so simple and laid back. Back then I was juggling the weekly reporting and production of a country weekly newspaper with overseeing a region of Western Minnesota stretching from Bemidji to Worthington, and from the Twin Cities to the South Dakota border, for a foreign exchange student program. That meant motivating and managing a team of up to 15 community coordinators, working with high school administrators to further the program, and overseeing the placement of at least 100 students per year. This included multiple meetings as well as domestic and international travel. The pressure was constant from both jobs, and I’m sure my personal life suffered because of the pressures and time I devoted to both jobs. Interestingly and ironically, my retirement from the newspaper coincided with the unexpected death of my wife of 32 years, Sharon Yedo White. Near the end of the summer Rebecca and I began our relationship. In January of 2013, the exchange student work abruptly ended over policy and personnel disagreements. Those 21 years of recent life was suddenly no longer.

Snow covers the arbor leading into where we placed the garden.

Snow covers the arbor leading into where we placed the garden.

Two months after being fired we found this farm, had our offer accepted, and started the complete remodeling of this house while working to finish and sell both of our former homes — meaning we were working almost nonstop most of the year of our wedding on this place and our two houses. Both were sold around the end of last year.

Relatively speaking, this summer and fall has been comparatively easy. This was a year, with Rebecca’s continued encouragement, that I rediscovered the joys of photography. I have hung three exhibitions of my work and was invited to be among the 45 official artists on the Upper Minnesota Arts Meander. Life has truly moved forth for us both, and we anticipate growing on the experiences of our first winter with fewer issues and more wonderful surprises.

A moment on the prairie.

A moment on the prairie.

Our blizzard certainly enhanced a sense of settling in. Of slowing down, and discovering perhaps a different and slower pace. In a sense it’s similar to yoga, where  you are trained to align your breathing with the sense of your soul. Breathe in. Deeply. Slowly. Feel the energy surge through your veins. Hold and relax, then let it out. Slowly. Feel the tension ease from your tired and weary bones. Settle in. Deeply. Feel as your back becomes one with the soul of the earth. Breathe in …

Blizzard Meat

While running a small country weekly newspaper, one learned rather early that if the local prairie folks saw truth in a blizzard warning they would be standing four to five people deep at the local grocery cradling a half or quarter of “blizzard meat,” their eyes nervously eying the checkout lady who loved being neighborly even with doom on the threshold.

Translated, “blizzard meat” means ham. “Since they’re cured,” explained one of my coworkers, herself a native of the Western Minnesota prairie, “hams will still be good if your electricity goes.”

Ever since I’ve used hams as my blizzard yardstick. If a blizzard warning or watch is issued, just take a quick pulse of a local prairie grocery store.
11.10.14 blizzard1
So when the warnings came about a weekend blizzard I was in dismay since we’re too distant from a prairie grocery store to properly gauge the situation. One of the “Farmer’s Almanac” sure signs of a blizzard is having winds high in the treetops. Odd winds where you feel nothing on the ground, but you can hear a hushed roar up high and can see the very tops of the trees in wind stress.

We were outside most of the weekend tying up loose ends in preparation for the winter … putting up snow fences, pulling down the political signs, putting a “roof” over the chicken run and bolstering the sides with bales of straw, storing away the charcoal grill and bullet smoker, and Rebecca even took her garden tractor to mow a loopy cross country ski trail through the prairie. Sure, we kept an eye on the sky, and Rebecca kept looking at radar reports. Yet, we simply didn’t hear nor feel those high, treetop winds.

Later in the morning the winds whipped the snow across the prairie.

Later in the morning the winds whipped the snow across the prairie.

Throughout the weekend people from all around the prairie, from East River to Minneapolis, were all abuzz about the ravaging blizzard that would plant a foot or more of horizontal snow on our patch of earth. “It’s now moving north,” someone warned, meaning right in our path. Then came the posting of colorful radar-enhanced maps with concentric waves of disaster … with us right in the middle of the pool. “It’s still a fluff,” I said, time after time, for the wind just wasn’t right.

No ominous clouds were building to the west. From here we can see the distant “blue” of the Dakota Cocteau, and above it the clouds appeared peaceful, floating gently through the gray of the afternoon. Ours was a cold, gray Sunday, with a slight north wind. Dale Pederson even drove up from Wegdahl to retrieve his tractor so he would have means to clear his driveway. While here he hoisted and screwed wood panels to the north garage door opening. “The storm is supposed to hit from the north,” he warned, a look of worry crossing his face. Apparently I had been looking in the wrong direction all this time. Twice before bed on the eve of disaster I ventured outside to pace the deck and look up at the northern sky, and even the night sky seemed peaceful.

Even the pods of cone flowers bent with the wind.

Even the pods of cone flowers bent with the wind.

Those damp and chilly winds blasted us throughout much of last week and seemed more eventful than anything over the weekend … although late Friday afternoon gale force winds whipped up such a frenzy that the house wrap had torn into huge flapping pieces when we returned from an art show opening in Granite Falls. Those had calmed down by Saturday, and the calm continued into Sunday when a tall stack of wood scraps were burned in the fire pit. We were both busy doing chores around the farm not so much in preparation for the incoming blizzard as for winter itself. Over dinner we were both rather proud of ourselves and even made a few toasts of wine in self congratulations for being so organized and ready for winter.

Note I said winter, not blizzard. At midnight there was nothing, and I crawled back into a warm bed smiling about the fluff of impending doom.

Birds, like this American Tree Sparrow, took refuge in the grove.

Birds, like this American Tree Sparrow, took refuge in the grove.

By daybreak, though, the fluff had called my bluff as winds howled and horizontal snow sliced across the windows. Drifts were thigh high in places. We simply could not see past the edge of the lawn, which was further than we could see in at least a couple of complete white outs we had in our first winter here. “Know what we forgot?” asked Rebecca at one point. “The snow shovels are still down in the barn.”

So I was mistaken. This was a good, old fashioned blizzard, a day when those with the right frame of mind realize our modern world has come to a basic halt. Schools were closed. Our five mile stretch of country road was barren of traffic. Birds laid low in the cover. Neither the chickens nor cats dared venture outside. Our garden, a patch of summer life that will sustain us for months, sat cold and dormant; Rebecca’s arched arbor was an arc of dead, shimmering leaves in the mist of blowing snow.

The arbor leading into Rebecca's garden.

The arbor leading into Rebecca’s garden.

When I came back inside to the warmth of this old farm house, where those before us likely found refuge from similar blizzards since 1912, I came to a sad realization: We have no “blizzard meat!”

I’m Voting

I’ve told this story before, but it bears re-telling on the eve of Election Day.

On my eighteenth birthday, my mom took me to the town clerk’s office so that I could register to vote. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet (that was later in the week, as I recall, on account of the governor having a heart attack and the state offices being closed). So, my mom drove me into town, and I went in to fill out the paperwork and to take the Freemen’s Oath, which is a thing you do in Vermont when you register to vote.

The Freemen’s Oath (now called the Voter’s Oath) is a pledge that no one is buying your vote or coercing you to vote in a certain way. In other words, you are voting your conscience, and for what or whom you deem to be in the best interest of the state.

It goes like this:
You solemnly swear (or affirm) that whenever you give your vote or suffrage, touching any matter that concerns the State of Vermont, you will do it so as in your conscience you shall judge will most conduce to the best good of the same, as established by the Constitution, without fear or favor of any person.

Three little lines. I said them, and then turned around and smiled at my mom, who was fighting back tears. I guess it’s that same feeling I get when I see my own child take a big step toward adulthood.

Wikipedia tells me that Vermont is the only state to require such an oath. I think that’s unfortunate because standing there in the town clerk’s office and saying those words made me feel that voting is not only a right; it is a solemn duty. Yeah, it felt a little cheesy in an era where everything solemn feels slightly cheesy. But it also felt real and important.

I can’t imagine not voting. And while I tend to vote by mail in other elections, I pretty much always vote in person for the November elections. There’s something about being there—of standing up in public and taking part in that process—that makes me feel like Election Day is a special day, and that I am participating bodily, concretely, in an amazing, important process. I like to see the election workers’ faces and the people coming out from the booths ahead of me. Here we are, doing this democracy!

I understand that some people just want to get it done, and I understand that some people are uncertain about being able to get to the polls on the actual day. I get that. You mail it off or you go in early, and you know it’s done. What I don’t get is people who don’t care—who say their vote doesn’t count, or it’s choosing a lesser of two evils, or it’s all screwed up anyhow so why bother.

I’ve voted in a state where there was no way in heck pretty much any candidate I voted for would get in. I’ve voted in a state where my vote was a drop in an ocean of support for my candidates. I voted for an outsider candidate in a national election in an urban precinct that went something like 97% for that candidate when the rest of the country said, “who?”

And I’ve seen elections in this state go to recounts that went on for days and came down to a few dozen votes.

Every vote counts that gets cast and gets counted. Whether you’re part of an ocean swell or just a single raindrop that wears away at the powers-that-be. Lesser of two evils, you say? Yeah, I vote for less evil. Because less evil is better in my book than more.

All screwed up, you say? Yup, I think that’s something that we should work on together, and the way we start (start!) to work on it is to vote.

See you at the polls.