Saturday, September 19, 2020

Biking in the Autumn Haze of 2020

I have been cleaning storage areas, putting away patio pots and such, and taking out snow shovels, my customary practice this time of year. In doing so, I unearthed my bike carrier and thus made a pledge to myself to ride my bike every day I can this fall until it snows. In order to not lose sight of this, I loaded the bike and will leave it on the Jeep. 

Bismarck and Mandan have invested in miles of wonderful trails and I'm exploring those bit by bit. One day, I went to nearby Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, after a picnic visit to my Dad's grave at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery. Another beautiful Sunday, when most everyone seemed to be home watching football on television or on the Missouri River with their pontoons, I had the trails at Harmon Lake, north of Mandan, nearly to myself. The Harmon Lake area has been improved using North Dakota Outdoor Heritage money and a damned fine use of that fund, I'd say. There were a few campers and one family picnic and no one at the beach (blue-green algae and cooler weather, the explanation). The trail around the land winds through native shortgrass prairie. I stopped frequently to admire the view, watch geese and ducks on the lake, and observe the fall forbs -- and to take pictures while I rested (I'm not a gonzo biker). The haze from the western fires was sobering to observe, yet provided exceptional light for photography. 

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park Visitors Center, built by the CCC

Harmon Lake scenes

One of the three other bikers I saw on the trail

Little Bluestem grass

Big Bluestem Grass


As a finale, I offer this, a short video of the healing peace of this piece of the northern prairie. My spirit was restored and I returned home to face the challenges of life. 


Monday, September 7, 2020

Red Oak House Garden Notes No. 64: Are you The Ants or The Grasshopper?

I'm trying to take the time in my life to re-discover ancient wisdom, such as that found in Aesop's Fables and in conversations with my elders, most importantly my mother. Perhaps during the upcoming fallow season, I will re-read one fable each day. Time will tell. At the same time, I'm trying to learn new lessons, from family and friends of all generations. I savor the lessons my daughters teach me with special satisfaction.  

The Library of Congress provides a beautiful digital version of these timeless stories along with rich illustrations at Read.Gov. The Ants and The Grasshopper came to my mind while we are scurrying around here bringing in the harvest to can and freeze and preparing the house for autumn. Autumn we agree is our favorite season here, but that might change from year to year, and from occupant to occupant of Red Oak House. "There's a time for work and a time for play," says the fable. Are you an ant or a grasshopper or some combination of the two in balance some years and out of balance others? Have you learned the lesson of the fable? Speaking for myself, I have to re-learn these life lessons on a regular occasion, because I am, after all, a mere mortal. 

I was raised by humble and hard-working folks who understood this lesson and lived by it. Potlucks, branding parties, family celebrations -- work and play intermingled and was shared by everyone of all ages and abilities. We had no servants -- well there were some "hired men" in Slope County in the years when a small place could afford to pay someone for jobs during the "busy season" of haying and combining. Roll up your sleeves and help! "All hands on deck!" "Many hands make light work," says my mother. At this time of the year, my parents were making plans to bring in a large potato harvest (from a field we would have spent spare time in the summer hoeing and removing potato bugs by hand) and we would stay home from school that harvest day no matter how committed they were to our education. We always kept a close eye on the calendar and knew if we did not work we would go hungry. There was a reason why opening day of deer hunting season became a day off of school. We raised and butchered our own chickens -- my Mama Crook could grab a chicken and wring its neck in a flash and in an hour or so put that chicken on the table to feed her extended family. At the Slope County place, once we had a large freezer, it was more likely to be the "guys" would go outside (after a meal of scrambled eggs and pancakes) and proceed to chop off the heads while we watched and made ready the big boilers inside on the wood stove and sharpened the knives, a full day of plucking and scalding and cutting ahead, while the myriad other chores continued outside. At the end of the day, there would be corn on the cob and new potatoes from the garden served with the fresh chicken that had been reserved for that meal, and some tomatoes if we were lucky (my father stubbornly grew tomatoes wherever we lived and for some reason preferred his tomatoes peeled, as his mother had done for him, I suppose, or maybe he just didn't like the skin much). And then dishes to wash and at it again the next day with berries to pick, jellies to make, bales to haul, jobs in town to help make ends meet (my mother was a nurse at the Bowman Hospital) and so on.  

Back to the fable. When the work is done, there is time for music and merriment and games and celebration and the World Series. Fall dinner gatherings are a tradition that center around the harvest, and, I fear, a tradition that might go by the wayside during the 2020 pandemic. I sure hope that a vaccination brings back the conviviality that is so vital to our lives. I also hope that my housemate can go back to fishing and hunting with his pals, both to put food on the table and to get him out of my hair now and then. I'm sure he hopes for this even more than me. This year he will have to adjust for perhaps the first time in his life to hunting without a dog (we have agreed to not have a dog anymore).  

Meanwhile, we put our shoulder to the chores we have here and make plans for the fallow season to come. We dig around in our closets for winter shoes and clothes, we sort the piles of reading material, and lay in a supply of firewood and kindling, and our diets shift to roasted food more than grilled and chilled. When we pause to rest, we watch the migration of birds and butterflies through our yard and think about getting the bird feeders staged in a way that might at least occasionally thwart the pesky (but entertaining) squirrels and rabbits. We watch the pollinators with whom we share the space and acknowledge that with the arrival of yellow jacket season and cool temperatures we won't be eating outside as much as we have been. We put away the patio umbrella and pull out the patio firepit and anticipate some quiet evenings before we retreat indoors to our space we heat with the woodstove. I've been cutting back perennials, digging and rearranging some, and giving away extras. In some future year, I may have a perennial sale in the driveway, but it was not in the cards this year. I get joy in giving these away so all is good. The hummingbirds have been visiting the bright annuals on the patio as they move through headed south and the Canada geese are overhead. Soon we will hear the large flocks of all sorts of birds here in the Central Flyway, many in the night, following the ancient pathways including the Missouri River. And I try to spend as much time with my mother as I can, despite the lockdown, listening to her stories and talking of the news of the day, sharing with her what I've learned and hearing what she has learned, and keeping her up with the happenings of her grandchildren. 

Because of the pandemic, we have not been eating out and have not been able to easily deliver fresh food to Mother, nor have our family at our table as frequently as we might. I especially miss not being able to have Chelsea over for a meal now and then. While we are pretty experienced and seasoned cooks and live where delivery is abundant, we have no complaints. We even got creative with the most recent birthday celebration and cooked our own fresh lobster (knowing of the carbon footprint to have that lobster delivered to North Dakota). It was a rare treat and birthdays only come but once a year. All in all, we are pretty frugal and practical and aspire to life-long learning. 

Jim, who holds the vegetable portfolio here, starts to talk about planting garlic and how to avoid problems with next year's vegetables. Most of the problems this year were caused by the drought. We are thrifty with our water and nature was stingy with the rain in 2020 here in our part of the world. Soon enough it will be time to clean the fallen leaves from the gutters and put the hoses in storage. Perhaps we will squeeze in a quiet fall camping trip somewhere nearby while we accept that gatherings might need to be virtual for some time to come, for everyone's sake. Fortunately, we have the tools to do that and there isn't much point to getting down-in-the-mouth about our lives being topsy-turvy. We may as well strive to be as practical as our ancestors. Why risk a virus that strains the social fabric more than it is already strained? Why put loved ones and the health system professionals more at risk? It is a luxury to ask these questions and we do not take that for granted. Some days we figure it out, and some days we are flummoxed.   

For today, we savor the rain that has fallen all day and given me time to write this entry of Red Oak House Garden Notes. 

Morning Zen at Red Oak House

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Red Oak House: A Bird-y Essay at the height of tomato harvest

A mosaic photograph, taken by Lillian Crook, of some of the books at Red Oak House that inspire our lives. Yes, we know some (not all) of the writers, and, yes, we have read the books.

At Red Oak House we are birders. And foodies. And frugal.

Yesterday at dawn I heard a bird strike a window just as I was stepping out to the patio to sip coffee and quietly read the morning newspaper. The signs of autumn migration are all around and we have a small birdbath that is critical water for the birds right now. We are doing lots of backyard birding whilst we harvest the vegetables, complete household projects, and tend to life's deadlines in general (like getting my mother's sunflower bird feeder in Mandan filled). 

I went looking for the likely dead bird and spotted it and determined quickly that it was not yet dead. Being a lifelong birder, my head was spinning on what to do and in what order. My phone was in my hand so I snapped a photo whilst drawing upon my experience for the ID and determining it was not (yet) dead. I left it alone knowing it might just be stunned and would fly off given the time to recover and the opportunity. Then, I shot some video and went on with coffee and paper. About 45 minutes later I looked and it had flown off for the rest of its bird life, a happy ending. 

Meanwhile, I was using my birding apps Merlin and Audubon to ID it with my picture and correctly report the sighting to the folks at Cornell. I knew it was a warbler, but warblers are hard and most of my limited knowledge of warblers is centered on many long years in western North Dakota. I live in a migration corridor where the habitat maps of eastern and western North America overlap -- and accidentals happen. I yearn for authenticity and accuracy and I embrace collaborative learning and decision-making, all elements that change over time.   

Merlin said "Connecticut" but I was dubious based on location and experience. I uploaded the Morning Wood Warbler video August 24, 2020 and started sharing it with my birding networks. As the day went on, I was consulting with my personal birding networks, sharing the video and my photo in a variety of ways (text, email, social media, and so on). Friendly and knowledgeable fellow birders started to weigh in (carefully so as not to incorrectly ID the bird or overplay their hands). I was also checking my lifelist to see if this might be a life bird for me (warblers are hard!) without corrupting my data. If I was John James Audubon I would have steeled myself and collected it for confirmation, but I have a soft heart and an abiding sense of the USFW regulations about this very thing (did you know my family's deep commitment to following rules while also approaching these with some skepticism?). To not mention I take reasonable steps to avoid negative impacts on the bird population trends in as sensible a manner as I can (whoops, I just mentioned that) and I want no protected species investigations or violations on my record, for the record. In my lifetime I've worked and recreated with botanists, ornithologists, artists, photographers, and more, both amateur and professional. I've helped with North American Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts, and the annual Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association Bird Walk, and I've gone on countless bird walks led by experts where new friendships are made and expertise is both generous and analytical, where the gifts shared by all ages range from aural skills to visual to deep knowledge and appreciation of the natural world is a shared experience. Ask the young people in my life, kids and nieces and nephews, how many campfire programs I took them to over the years. Get my mother started on how many she has taken us to and prepare to enjoy a long conversation filled with a lifetime of happy memories, whilst keeping an eye on our backyard bird feeders. These are the things that inform our sense of place in the world.    

Back to my morning story: all of this mini-drama occurred while I watched with bemusement as the tomato harvest continues here and we figured out what to cook and eat and process for winter. Jim counts his tomato harvest (even the cherry tomatoes!) and shares his Legendary tomato juice with a fortunate few. I rib him about how much real estate the tomato plants take up in our urban yard and eat my fair share of tomatoes. 

For some reason, my Dad wanted his tomatoes peeled (I believe it is because that is what his mother did when she prepared Mississippi grown tomatoes for serving on the table, but I'm not confirming that at the moment). Wherever he lived in his long life, he made valiant efforts to grow tomatoes, including North Dakota and possibly even Okinawa. 

On a shelf in the library is a collection of cookbooks and recipes including a large section of tomato recipes. My favorite tomato is Dagma's Perfection (what a perfect name). Above is a food porn photo I took this morning with one of this year's Dagma's Perfection shown on a recipe that is a decadent treat at our house (that is, when I borrow my sister's ice cream maker from her Mandan home). 

Back to the birds. By this morning, my friends in the birding world were confirming that, in fact, it is highly likely the warbler was a Mourning Warbler. Not Morning warbler but Mourning Warbler. I'm sure there are many explanations for that moniker. 

A life bird for me (without losing my credibility in the birding world). 

Morning bird chorus at Red Oak House before the pollinators arrive, in the habitat we maintain at our home. I'm a human mosquito and tick magnet. All my life my mother has said, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Hmmmmmm......maybe, just maybe, this is why I don't like pickles, but I like sweets, and a sense of smell informs my life too. Like the smell of a dead squirrel that led me to its carcass in the yard earlier this summer (Lizzie was so nose-y that she usually took care of that task) or the time I called MDU about a possible gas leak here that turned out to be fish guts in our garbage bin (that was embarrassing, but they did find some needed maintenance so all's well that ends well.) 

Hope the neighborhood cat lovers don't misinterpret this seemingly random paragraph, but cats and other pets have been in our conversations of late. It is true, my father put up with us bringing home lots of stray cats in our lives. Once when we took him to catch a plane for US Army TDY in South Korea, my mother routed us home via the El Paso animal shelter and we brought home a cat. And, yes, it is true that when I was in my early twenties, I adopted a stray cat we named Jack. How original. Please don't accuse me of being "catty" or thin-skinned. Once my mother brought me a newly homeless cat, post-Grand Forks flood, and I took it in until I realized that one of my daughters was clearly allergic to cats. Since then I've been firm about no pet cats, and on this Jim and I clearly agree. And finally, yes, the rumors are true that it took my daughters and me some time to adjust to the reality that Jim shoots prairie game birds (carefully, according to USWF and NDGF regulations) and, yes, we all enjoy eating that harvest in our omnivorous household. Simultaneously, we embrace all evidence that pets at various stages of our lives teach us responsibility and enhance our mental health -- all in good balance, according to the rule of the household and community in which we live (get any of our friends telling yarns about the misadventures of the dogs and cats in our lives). Fortunately, we did not keep a spreadsheet of the cost of pets in our lives (well, I do have a file of receipts for Lizzie, our Springer Spaniel.) For fun, look at the etymology of the word "cat" in the history of English language here.  Research is "catnip" to an old librarian and English major. 

Please attribute all photos and videos in this blog to moi. Any mistakes and bloopers are mine as well. Enjoy. 

Oh, in the chess game of marriage, it is Jim's week to cook and I have to reset all the devices that allow me to write this blog and take these photos (well, my Mom or Dad must have taken these two old photos of me and one of our cats) and collaborate with my friends and family -- and fix my lunch. I take some joy that my daughter rings me up now to go birding when her time permits, her hobby of photography is blooming, and we teach each other lessons. I'm humbled that TTW is my friend, something I never imagined when I was young. A final word about my Dad in this essay: at his burial, I heard the clear song of the Western Meadowlark on the boundary of the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan. 

I'm fairly certain the oil painting in this photo was done by Jesse Crowe Henke of Rhame, North Dakota, in her kitchen studio, of the badlands of Slope County. I had to laugh when I noticed the ceramic black cat in the corner, ceramics being a hobby my mother picked up while we were living in Okinawa and continued when we lived in El Paso (I don't suppose she had the time once we returned to Slope County). I can't remember if the white cat ate the goldfish, but I'm betting on the cat, not the goldfish -- a catastrophe. 

I'll let my friend Terry have the final word today while I listen to the jar lids pop signaling the tomato juice jars are sealed and ready to shuttle to the basement. 

Photo by Jan Swenson 

"Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated." 
Terry Tempest Williams When Women Were Birds