Taking Care

We’re enduring another big blow today–temperatures predictably plunging after a brief hiatus in the 20s and 30s, this time an inch or two of snow, and then the wind begins again in earnest and the world beyond the grove-edge disappears.


I was lazy this morning in a way I don’t often allow myself to be. Of course I let the dog out and fed her, made coffee and turned on the light in the chicken coop.  But, the newest issue of The Sun magazine came yesterday, and after fixing the floor lamp above one corner of the couch, I sat down and devoured it until almost noon.

John asked me to make a quiche, and he sautéed the bacon-and-onion filling while I mixed, chilled, and blind-baked crust, then filled it and baked it again. He kept thinking it was ready before it was, and then just as he had given up thinking about it, I brought him a plate with a warm slice.

Quiche isn’t hard. Soufflé isn’t hard, either, but I think we get hung up on anything French as being difficult or fussy or not right if it isn’t perfect. My quiche isn’t perfect, but I like eating it anyway (and thankfully, so does John). There are a series of steps, but they are enjoyable to break up a snow-bound morning at home. The most laborious thing is the crust; but it isn’t difficult when you aren’t trying to be perfect about it. Flour, lard, salt, water. Cutting, chilling, rolling, patching. If I thought my requirement was to make a perfect crust, I wouldn’t bother making it, and if I didn’t make it, I wouldn’t get incrementally closer to a perfect crust each time.

This issue of The Sun was thought-provoking as always, and also disturbing as some issues can be. The disquiet came from one story wherein the narrator describes a character injecting herself with Ritalin. I am incapable of thinking about syringes without a weak-jointed shudder, and I kept looking away from the page as if I were looking away from the actual scene of an injection–then returning as if it were my sole responsibility to follow through on a patient’s care and bring the story to its conclusion.

I admire nurses greatly for their capacity to do this kind of work–and maybe more so for the fact that I would be utterly incapable of it (though with a sterilized sewing needle I can extract almost any sliver).


In the latest Northern Star, our local paper, there is a front page above-the-fold story written by a nurse and community member, Maria Botker, about her family’s quest for treatment for their youngest daughter, Greta. Greta suffers from a severe and difficult-to-manage form of epilepsy, and Maria and Greta have moved to Colorado to seek treatment with a specific form of medical marijuana, which is legal in that state. The story was heart-felt and hopeful–Greta’s seizures have been reduced!–but their family remains separated because the drug laws in Minnesota forbid the use of marijuana as medicine, and Maria’s husband Mark and two eldest daughters remain here on the farm and in their familiar school district.

It’s interesting how relationships can change one’s perspective on an issue, isn’t it? The last thing I expected to see in my tiny, socially conservative western Minnesota community was an article by a well-respected community member asking people to think about legalizing medical marijuana. But, policy becomes personal when it affects a well-known and liked family, and when neighbors are asked to consider, “what would you do?” Of course, you would do everything you could to take care of your child, and no one wants to see families split up.

When the story is personal, it’s hard to think of as a “strategy,” but it is. The policy needs changing, and it’s the personal stories–especially about people you know–that help you relate, and perhaps reconsider your position. It may be a difficult issue, but in the end it often comes down to our values–help for those who suffer, and loving our neighbor. I applaud Maria for sharing it, and the Northern Star for featuring it prominently in their paper.

BTW, there’s also a story in today’s Star Tribune about the issue, and it features the Botker’s story as well. You can read it here.


This lazy Sunday feels like a gift after having threaded the needle in my travels of late–between blizzards and Polar Vortex sequels I managed to attend a media workshop in Minneapolis and travel the opposite direction to the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s winter conference in Aberdeen, South Dakota. I’ll admit I left before the last session (and supper!) yesterday afternoon, after becoming sufficiently spooked by weather forecasts and the anticipated route through Summit and the Coteau des Prairies on U.S. Highway 12. Viewed on a topographical map, it might be barely noticeable to those used to mountain vistas, but conditions are often several shades worse up there than anywhere else. I’ve driven out of a clear blue sky Minnesota River Valley up into sleet, high winds, and dense fogs near Summit that helped it earn its local nickname: The Bermuda Triangle of South Dakota.

However, the idea of an entirely carefree day evaporated early this afternoon, when I discovered Alice, the feral cat-who-thinks-she’s-a-chicken, lying prone between the basement windows. She’d been sheltering there off and on through the bad weather, but she’d disappeared for a close to a week, so I was watching for her return. Alice is usually very alert about anyone approaching–even growling between mouthfuls when I bring her food, so I was alarmed to see her unresponsive.

I ran inside to get her a plate of soft food and chicken broth, and as I got closer, she didn’t budge. I touched, then jiggled her–nothing. I dragged her out by the towel she lay on–the grimace of death was on her face–eyes wide and unseeing, tongue protruding between her teeth. After coming inside and having a good cry, I pulled together a couple of plastic bags to store her body in ’til the ground thaws in spring. Pulling her out of the window well with plastic bag in hand, she let out a small moan, and the very tip of her tail twitched. She was limp, not stiff. And she was alive–though just barely.

I ran inside, laying her on the mudroom’s boot mat, then frantically gathered cat carrier, blanket, and heating pad. She’s now residing temporarily in the downstairs bathroom, where I am checking on her every half hour or so. With a wide syringe (for oral medication, not injections), I tried to give her a little chicken broth, and I think at least some of it went down her throat instead of my sleeve. I’ll try to give her a little more before our supper, and again before bed. She’s still limp, but breathing. Her bowels have evacuated, her eyes stare at death, and her tongue lolls.

Despite our agreed-upon prohibitions against any more inside cats, Alice–on the seemingly unlikely chance she survives–will be granted a reprieve from “outsider” status to regain her strength away from the icy winds and stinging snow.

Meanwhile, we wonder when our reprieve will come–when the white-outs will subside, when we can break through the still-mounting drifts, and step into a warm and spring-heralding sunshine.

[Update 1/27: Alice passed away yesterday evening. She will be buried on our farm in spring.]

Alice, circa 2008, with one of her kittens. Photo credit, Joanne Svendsen.

Alice, circa 2008, with one of her kittens. Photo credit, Joanne Svendsen.


Each winter has its own special trials. Last year we were still battling wet snows and howling winds while starting the farmhouse renovation project in April and then on into May. It didn’t help that the snow fence at the end of the drive had collapsed, and the ground was too frost-bound to drive the posts back in place. The drifts blew right over it, blocking our access.

Traveling the six miles out to the farm from Clinton each day, we’d grit our teeth with a “Here We Gooooo!” and gun it down the gravel road turned to soup and slush, calculating that perfect acceleration point to blast through drifts and potentially bottomless mud holes without careening off into the ditch–wipers on full blast to clear the spray.

It occurs to me that the reason I have no images of the road when it was bad is because I was focusing on avoiding getting stuck.

It occurs to me that the reason I have no images of our road in full-on mud season is because I was focusing on avoiding getting stuck.

There is an art to this kind of driving that rural people learn at an early age. Failure to master it can mean a long, cold slog to the nearest inhabited farm or paved possibility of a ride back to town–even worse are the decades of ridicule when everyone finds out.

Granted, I’ve only lived up here for a little over three years, but for sheer volume of snow, my first winter in 2010-2011 was the biggest pain. I was living in a little cottage down by Big Stone Lake–one with a shared parking area and steeply-inclined approaches. The problem was, it just kept snowing, and no one was living in the houses on either side of me to help pay for a plow to clear the whole darn thing every two or three days, which seemed to be the frequency of the storms. Instead, I’d shovel the patio by the door, then up the stairs to the parking area, then an increasingly narrow and walled-in path across the parking area and up the second set of steep stairs to the highway, across which I parked my continually plowed-in little pickup.


Actually, I had to shovel down that second set of stairs–and sometimes two or three times a day because the MN DOT plows would come by and shove big hunks of snow and ice down into the stairwell, which was bordered by high retaining walls. Once I managed to get all the snow and ice chunks down to the bottom of the stairs, I’d scoop and fling them up on the top of the two, then three, then four-plus foot high piles I’d created by attempting to keep my walking path open.

I moved off the lake as soon as I could get out in March–though getting in to the new rental place was also a problem–the driveway and front walk had untouched four foot high drifts that I stabbed at valiantly but ineffectually with my shovel until the guys at lumber yard across the street took pity on me and made short work of it with a loader. I still had to carve and stomp and snowshoe walkways in the backyard for the dog to do her business–it’s hard to squat when you’re already up to your ass in snow! I think it was late May before the last little bit of snow on the north side of the house finally melted.

Compared to that first winter, the second one seemed like a breeze. It never got brutally cold for more than a couple of days; we had snow, but it came in manageable doses. After a mysterious fire in the rental house and a few months living with friends on the South Dakota side of the border, I’d bought a house and returned to Clinton, and even though it was a good-sized space, it wasn’t unreasonable to heat. All in all, 2011-2012 was an easy winter, requiring little of the heroic efforts of my first western Minnesota season.

I don’t want to jinx it by commenting on a season still in progress, but I don’t think we’ll look back on this winter and curse the snow (it IS snowing now–I think–and the wind is creating the white-out conditions we’ve grown accustomed to). We’ve yet to call our neighbor to come with his tractor, and we’ve fired up the snow blower only once–and even then the situation wasn’t dire–we could still get out; we just wanted to clear in case of second and third “helpings” piled on top.

No, this year’s need for fortitude isn’t about the snow; it’s about the cold. Blistering, brutal, ridiculous cold. Subzero cold that lasts for days, with weird little intervals of 24 hours or less where the wind shifts suddenly and raucously to the south, the temps rise overnight, and then plunge again the next afternoon. Last Wednesday, the temperature was 26 when I walked into a evening meeting. On leaving two hours later, it was 41. The next morning, the warmth had fled like a summer dream, and the melt water was ice. Just yesterday, it was a balmy 40 degrees, but the wind whipped up again, and overnight it dropped into the teens. This morning it was 18 with a +4 windchill; this afternoon it is 0/-26.



“Real” temps are supposed to hit 20 below tonight.The mailbox just beyond the edge of our grove is playing its usual game of now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t, and in the latest of a series of cancelled events, missed meetings, and best-laid-plans, our expected dinner guests won’t be joining us tonight. John finally took down the wind chimes yesterday after I couldn’t take their nightly cacophony anymore–two of them had lost their clappers–one was recovered but the other we can only hope to locate in the spring.

And this is before we get Polar Vortex, Part Two starting next weekend and potentially lasting through the beginning of February. Will we even be able to tell the difference? Do I have the fortitude it takes to face the answer to that question?

Since I can’t bury my head in the sand (it’s frozen solid, after all), maybe I’ll just bury my nose in that pile of seed catalogs and order forms. In my four layers of clothing. Under a blanket.

With a BIG glass of wine.