Saturday, April 25, 2020

Red Oak House Garden Notes No. 56

Meadowlark Forsythia bloomed on Earth Day
The last Red Oak House Garden Notes was written in October after a very early blizzard shut everything down. Henceforth, we spent the winter finishing a manuscript and planning for the 2020 gardening season, which has now arrived in all its glory.

Gardening is always our solace and it feels especially so during the pandemic. We cling to the few remaining normal pieces of our lives as we watch the news with growing dismay and try to be as creative and resilient as possible while also being good citizens. Like so many, we can't spend time with our elderly parents or other family members and friends, but our days stay filled with gardening chores now, and we fall behind in reading and writing. My arms ache to hold my loved ones close, yet staying busy is an antidote albeit mild. We have nightly Skypes with Rachel (we read books together and giggle over my Max and Wild Thing puppets) and frequent Skypes with my almost 96-year-old father who has a new iPad (a gift from his eldest grandson). One day while I was sorting through photos on my new laptop (which arrived in the nick of time, I might add), I was especially lonely for my daughter, Chelsea, and voilĂ , I found this recording I made at her DSU vocal performance lab in 2011, the voice of an angel which I confess to having listened to dozens of times now. A few weeks ago I participated in a Twitter book discussion led by Cambridge professor Robert Macfarlane and tonight promises a Zoom cocktail party with longtime friends. Oh, and we've watched a ton of great live-streaming music and mourned with the world the death of the inimitable John Prine (who we've seen in concert several times, most memorably at the National Park Service's 100th Anniversary Bash at the Roosevelt Arch, Yellowstone National Park, with our concert-going pals, Jeff and Linda).

Thank you, Maurice Sendak

Eldest grandson, my Pa, and me


A highlight of early spring was the delivery of a quilt Linda Suchy sewed using the embroidered dishtowels my mother churns out. Linda was inspired earlier this winter when I shared a photo of a pair of jeans my mother embroidered for me and got in touch with her idea. I wasn't able to take the quilt in person to the nursing home in which my mother resides, but I sent her a photo in the mail and the staff kindly snapped another photo.


Linda Suchy and the quilt


















A run to the Mandan Dairy Queen. That's our nephew, Ryan
























Back to gardening: As usual, Jim couldn't help himself and started his tomatoes on March 15 and he has now transferred these to pots on the patio awaiting the "all-safe" to put them in the ground. As I write these, he has tilled and planted potatoes, peas, and the first crop of lettuce. Each day the number of tomatoes he plans to plant this year increases as his excitement mounts. The fact that he is grounded and I run all of the errands might be contributing to his fanciful planning. My goal is to make it two weeks without a trip to the grocery store (right now I'm at eight days, but my daughter did make an emergency delivery of limes late last night). This will become easier as the garden begins to produce.

Brick Oven bakery bread, fresh Billings County pullet eggs, Suchy T-bone steaks




















The best part of the 50th Earth Day was the arrival of the wood chip truck, making a delivery I had pre-ordered in December. You can see the short video of the delivery here. The highlight was the driver saying that he always points out the Red Oak tree to his crews when they pass by, telling these young-uns they will never find a more beautiful specimen in this city. The story of the tree is on our website if you don't already know it. The driver was ever so careful to not damage the branches as he backed the truck into the driveway and lifted the hoist. A+ marks I passed on to his supervisor (you can see him in a green hat) and what a fun job he has!

Now the wheelbarrow and scoop shovel are my constant companions and I look forward to less watering and weeding as I transfer this mulch to my perennial beds. Each time I dump the wheelbarrow, I think "Take that, elm seedlings!"
So much -- too much -- of last year was spent dealing with a leaky roof and painting the house. I declared that this year, once I'm done with the mulch pile (I'm getting another delivery in a couple of weeks), I plan to mostly watch my flowers grow. We probably can't travel anyway. It is hard to think of our patio furniture not being used for gatherings if this continues through the summer, but time will tell.

While I work in the mild spring sunshine, I listen for new avian arrivals -- Northern Flickers and our summer resident Northern Cardinal have made an appearance. When I take a break I watch the Slate-colored Juncos pick spruce cone seeds from the ground. The American Goldfinches have returned to their bright yellow color, feasting on the thistle socks we've again hung. I'm placing the mulch in the back where there is more sunshine and the perennials have popped out, waiting for the hostas in the shade of the Red Oak tree to make an appearance so I don't inadvertently bury any tender shoots. Right now one can almost watch the irises grow (upper right corner in the photo below). You can see I've already popped for a hanging plant, hungry for some bright colors in the drab yard. Tulips will bloom soon.

Newly mulch perennial bed, thistle socks and first purchased plant of the season
It is satisfying to be a participant in the cycle of growth, both watching the aspen catkins emerge and transferring dead trees in the form of wood chips back to the earth as mulch.


See the bird nest in the branch (upper center)? Several Pine Siskins danced about my head when I shot this picture. 
"Birch trees are least beautiful when fully clothed. Exquisite when the opening leaves just fleck them with points of green flame, or the thinning leaves turn them to a golden lace, they are loveliest of all when naked. In a low sun, the spun silk floss of their twigs seems to be created out of light."
Nan Shepherd The Living Mountain

Pink Moon over the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Good Friday 2020

Thursday, April 2, 2020

My heart friend, Bart

Bart Koehler performing at Wilderness 2000 (photo credit Sandy Marviney). Steve Robbins and I attended this gathering where Bart sang a song in honor of Mardy Murie, on the occasion of the premiere of the film about Mardy, titled Arctic Dance.
Today's April blizzard gifts me with the time to sit down and write about my heart friend, Bart Koehler. Bart came to be my friend by the actions of my friend and colleague at Dickinson State University, Steve Robbins. Steve was a charter member of Badlands Conservation Alliance (BCA) and his brain is always problem-solving, generating bright ideas. BCA was in need of support to launch us to the next level.

Steve did some digging and discovered an organization whose mission was to support grassroots conservation groups such as BCA, the Wilderness Support Center (an affiliate of The Wilderness Society). So Steve and I sat down and composed an email to the Wilderness Support Center, a plea that they consider BCA as a worthy cause. A day or so later, I answered the phone and I was gobsmacked when Bart introduced himself. He made arrangements to fly into Dickinson and I cleared my calendar. The grin on Steve's face when I told him of this was huge.

Bart arrived on a very cold January day, in 2000, the beginning of a new millennium, slipping into western North Dakota between blizzards. He had told me to look for someone who looked a little like Yosemite Sam. This was my first glimpse at his dry and self-deprecating sense of humor. He crashed in the guest room in my Dickinson home and early the next morning we headed west to the Bad Lands, his first trip there, mindful that the days were short, and while we drove we became better acquainted. I learned that two of Bart's heroes were Mardy and Olaus Murie. You can read more about them here. Bart grew up in the Adirondacks and went to the University of Wyoming as an undergraduate, and then stayed in Wyoming to work for The Wilderness Society (TWS). This placed him in the paths of many luminaries of conservation history and he was witness to remarkable events. After his work took him elsewhere including for a conservation organization in Alaska, he returned to TWS to start up the Wilderness Support Center, recognizing the importance of working on the ground with the people in communities who had started organizations to protect their homelands. And now, his path had crossed with mine.

Another of Bart's heroes in Theodore Roosevelt, and that is a clue as to why BCA caught his attention. Thus it was my privilege to show him the Bad Lands that had such an important impact on Roosevelt. We drove north on the West River Road and it was immediately apparent to Bart that oil development had left a spider-work of roads everywhere. Travelers must take care to not take a wrong turn, especially when early winter darkness was soon to fall. I had made arrangements for us to spend the night at the Rough Riders Hotel. Randy of the TRMF staff met us there at the appointed time and explained we had the place to ourselves. As he departed, he locked the door behind him. Bart was especially thrilled to sleep in the very room Theodore Roosevelt had used when in Medora.

Bart discovered with a quick glance at my bookshelves that I had a deep admiration of the writer Terry Tempest Williams. He had been a friend of hers for many years and he promised that one day he would put us in touch with one another. It took some time but he kept that promise, and the action that Steve took brought Bart and his wife, Julie, and Terry into my life, friendships I treasure.

Once when Bart and Julie visited while I was living in Medora, my husband Jim hauled us south to Bullion Butte where we launched for a day's float on the Little Missouri Scenic River, Bart and Julie in our trusty yellow canoe and me in my kayak. The river was high and the day sunny and warm. It was glorious to show them the secrets of the river, glimpses only available to those who paddle. I have a very clear memory that day of the baby beaver who I unwittingly nearly trapped between my kayak and the riverbank, a magical close encounter that resulted in some terror for the little guy but ended well. We also had to navigate the new river channel that had been carved by the river, cutting off an oxbow, because of the big snowmelt that year.

Bart also kept his promise to support BCA and the organization thrived with that support in a thousand ways, even after the Wilderness Support Center ceased to exist. He has traveled to North Dakota many times and once made the arrangements for TR IV to visit the Bad Lands.

Bart and TR IV, center
Most recently, he and Julie joined BCA for the 2018 Earth Day service project at Cottonwood Campground in TR National Park.


Bart often brings his guitar when he comes to North Dakota and we have two of his Coyote Angel Band's CDs on our shelves at Red Oak House. Wild Heart was recorded in Montana in 1997, with most of the songs written by Bart. The other CD is Coyotes Sing All Night.


Bart performs at the BCA 2003 Annual Meeting in Dickinson

Bart's lovely wife, Julie, makes pottery, with the imprint Wild Heart. When Jim and I were married, they gave us a beautiful bowl she made as a wedding gift and we use it regularly, with a smile and a nod to wild places. They are now retired and their annual Wild Heart missive brings us news of the far-flung places they visit in their old pickup towing a small camper. 


Bart & Julie
A deep bow to Bart and gratitude for the crossing of paths on the wild journey of life.


BCA campout at the TRNP North Unit group site in 2006. Bart sleeping on the picnic table in the sleeping bag he borrowed from me. It was a cold night. 

Lillian and Bart, 2006, Dickinson
Coda: Todd Wilkinson writes about Bart in a 3-part series in Mountain Journal. Part 1 and Part 2 (delves deeper into his connection with the Muries & other stories of Bart's early career). Part 3 can be read here