Friday, September 26, 2008

How To Rustle Cattle

First, take calves, not grown cattle. They are easier to handle and cuter. They still smell though, so wear old cloths. Timing is everything. They should be weaned and eating grass. You don't want to bottle feed a bunch of calves. Trust me. Find a pasture with a side road so you are out of sight more than on the main gravel road. Never rustle cattle from a highway. The fence should be strands of barbed wire, not that grid stuff. You need an accomplice. Your accomplice stays outside the fence, you go in. The wire is slackest nearest the center of a section between two fence posts. Find a spot where there are not cowpies inside the fence. Lay down along the outside of the fence, right next to the wire, facing up. Lift the wire as high as you can above you and scootch sideways under it. You are in. Leave the calves with unique markings in favor of the bland average ones. Get between a calf and its mother to separate it. Wave your arms to scare the mother away. Grab the calf around its legs and take it to the fence where your accomplice waits. Hold it over the fence and have your accomplice put their arms under its belly so you can roll its legs up and over the fence int the arms of the other person. Your accomplice can carry it to the trailer and roll it down in. You can go back for more. Don't be greedy. A half dozen is a good start your first time. They will be more work to raise than you think. Don't become attached to them and don't name them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Drum

The drum
It is our heartbeat
The rhythm of our walk feet
It is the contractions of our mother’s womb
It is the in and out of our breath
That began then and continues until our death
When those with us will listen for the last one
And hold their own for just a second
Before they breathe again to live on
The drum
It is the running of the feet of children
It is the rum rum rum of the spinning wheel
The crack crack crack of the pounding of grain into flour
It is the kneading of bread, the crick crick crick of the warming oven
The chewing of happy family
The drum
Is the ocean wave crash crash crashing
Or river waves gently splash splash splashing
It is the prairie grass swish swish swish in the wind
And the tree branch woo woo woo
The bumble of the June bug against the screen bat bat bat
It is the rain pit pit pit, pit pit pit, pit pit pit outside the window
Or splat splat splat on our bare arms
The drum
It is the walk walk walking to the lake’s shore
And the pad pause pad pause paddling of the canoe
It is the beat of the wings of ducks as they take flight
The scrape scrape scrape of harvesting wild rice into the canoe bottom
And the reach pull drop reach pull drop of gathering berries
The drum
It is the rhythm of life
The drum
It is the rhythm of earth
The drum
It is the rhythm of us.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

State Line Wind Energy

On the border between North Dakota and South Dakota, there stands a new wind farm. With 61 towers on the north side of the state line and 59 on the south side, it is a magnificent sight. The towers are in a linear cluster that is perpendicular to the direction of prevailing winds, so that it runs southwest to northeast. It runs along a slight rise that interrupts the otherwise flat plains landscape, called the Coteau des Prairies Ridge. Much of the land in this area, due to the sandy soil and the hilly undulating topography is dedicated to cattle pasture rather than crops, and the cattle do graze unfazed by their new neighbors. Approaching from the west, with the low afternoon sun behind the car, the towers glowed white under the white clouds.
This wind farm, named Tatanka, has a generating capacity of 180 megawatts, which they say is enough for over 60,000 homes. Compare this to the largest coal-burning electric plant in North Dakota, Coal Creek Station, that produces around 1000 megawatts, at the cost of 8 million tons of coal per year. This wind farm, then, makes about the same amount of energy as 1.5 million tons of coal. Just 6 wind farms like this could replace that coal-burning plant. Considering that it felt like I drove for miles and miles to get to it, and that it was relatively unobtrusive on the horizon when I finally got to it, that would seem like a pretty fair trade.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I Say Lunch, You Say Dinner

I got caught in the great Dakota trick they play on outsiders again this trip 'back home'. My sister said she was making dinner the next day and I assumed that meant the nightime meal and that I could slink away in the morning right after my shower after sleeping in. But since she was really making lunch and it would have been rude to leave, I ended up getting talked into staying longer and missing an afternoon appointment. Once, a friend said she was going to come visit me at my mother's house after dinner, and so we ran errands all afternoon and waited for her in the evening to no avail and when I saw her later in the week, she said she got there in the early afternoon and no one was home. I have suggested to people that we meet for dinner and been told they had to work and only later realized I was asking them to lunch not supper and they probably would have been free for supper. I don't know where the Magic Line of Dining Time Name Change lies, but in Illinois where I reside most of the time, 'lunch' is the noon meal and 'dinner' is the evening meal. In North Dakota and South Dakota where 'the relatives' and 'the in-laws' reside, 'dinner' is the noon meal and 'supper' is the evening meal and at least on farms, 'lunch' is what the farmers stop and have as a snack mid-afternoon or what people visiting in the evening have before they part company, as in "Well, I guess we best be going," followed by "Oh, stay a bit longer and have a little lunch," which means coffee and some cookies or cake or pie. If there was a sign along Interstates 90 and 94 telling me where this Magic Line of Dining Time Name Change is, I would have an easier time remembering to reset my definitions upon heading 'back home' and back home.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Using The Brains You Got

I trailed a Port-A-Johnny truck in traffic for a while a couple weeks ago and was reminded of something I worked up a few years back. My friend's brilliant young son had ceased to work hard in school in favor of hanging out with friends after school and playing video games. His mother was very sad about this turn of events and was telling me about it at a backyard picnic and his response was that lots of people did just fine without good grades or college or even working very hard. So I grabbed a napkin and drew him a simple 2 x 2 matrix regarding intelligence and willingness to work hard. The guy who was smart and worked hard owned the Port-A-Johnny company and ran it from his leather appointed office and played golf with manufacturer's reps and potential customers on company time. The guy who was smart but didn't work very hard got the job in the front office answering the phones and scheduling the deliveries and the pickups and the clean outs and handling customer orders and changes and complaints. The guy who was not very smart but worked hard got to assemble the new ones and deliver the clean ones and do repairs of the clean ones and go to sites to plan where they should be delivered. The guy who was not very smart and didn't apply himself got to pick up the dirty ones and empty and clean them, and run the route to empty and clean and supply the ones that stayed at sites. Well, this might not be the actual model of how Port-A-Johhny is run but you get my point. It is good to be smart and you can't much control that but you sure can control how hard you work and that can mean the difference between a 'crappy' job and a pretty good one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


This is me reflected in front headlamp chrome and the door lever of an aged Dodge pickup truck on an abandoned farmstead in rural North Dakota. The flash and swirl of orange red is my silk WomanSong scarf from 2007. This year, I bought a hide drum.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

You Don't Miss What You've Never Known

When I was kid, we hardly ever saw this. It wasn't until after we figured out DDT was a bad thing and until after we ceased to use it and the hawks started to return that we realized they had been missing for all those years. Now you see them perched on fence posts, on the posts that hold utility wires, on the skeletons of dead cottonwood trees, on the tops of the largest of the hay and straw bales, and you see them flying and gliding and diving overhead and along the road. They are beautiful. I am glad they are back.

Monday, September 15, 2008

It's Flat Out Here

I have been driving many miles in many days through the flat land of the central part of the country, sometimes by chance, to get to people I want to visit and to places I want to to be, and sometimes by choice to experience it anew as a tourist and to attempt to capture some of its essence, as a photographer.
As a child, I took it for granted, the unending flatness of it, and had an odd notion of the word 'hill'. As a teen, I resented the boringness and distance and sameness of it all and could not wait to get out, as in 'get the hell out of here'. As a young adult I hated that it was a barrier of many long boring miles of car travel to seeing family and old friends. I really only began to give it a chance as being beautiful when a professional art photographer friend sent me photographs that treated it as a place of unique beauty and made me look closer for the details and appreciate the sense of place that is wrapped up in the horizon, the perspective, the vast plain and the vast sky. I have long loved the scenic beauty of the southwest desert, the rock formations and canyons. The epic beauty of the Rocky Mountains is common knowledge. The forests of the northeast and places like Kentucky where I have traveled are taken for granted as beautiful. I have more recently loved the rambling hills of Wisconsin. But now I have come to see the flat plains as another unique form of landscape that is every bit as beautiful, and I am taking it as a self-assigned project to capture some of that in photographs. It is a magical thing to stop the car and step out into the bean field and feel the wind through your clothes and hair and hear the chirping of thousands of grasshoppers and the rustling of the leaves of the bean plants. It is interesting to leave the car to wander the ditch of the narrow roads and find shorter versions of the prairie plants that are familiar to me, remnants of what once covered this vast land. The little bluestem along the roadsides glows russet in the late afternoon light. The clouds pile up on each other and recede to the horizon in layers of light and dark. The sun lights corn tassels a glowing orange-red and lights the nearly ripe bean fields a glowing yellow and the stubble of already harvested small grain fields glows soft gold. Light plays on the land and the sky to make ever changing colors and tints and shades and I am trying to learn to capture it. It might be my greatest challenge as a photographer to capture and convey the beauty of this place, for it is a hard beauty to love in its vast endlessness and its harsh extremes. But as I learn to love it, I also want to share it in pictures and words. Go there sometime, not just passing through, but with it as a destination, and drive its smaller roads and get out and just be there. You might be as surprised as I am at the power and beauty of the place.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Time to Move On

That book you are holding onto is over. It is time to put that old book down. Take a deep breath and turn the page. There it is: The very last page of the story, the page that says 'The End.' Read those words and be brave now. Pause for a minute, close that book, and lay it aside. It is done. History. The past.
Now, reach for that other one over there, the beautiful new one, and pick it up. Hold it for a minute. Run your hand down the spine and feel the crisp way the fabric of the cover wraps the corners. This is a good book filled with promise and hope. Take your time, but do have courage now and open it up and read on. It holds a new story of adventure, of opportunity, and new experiences. The future awaits you. Let it happen.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Hillary and Sarah and Linda and Molly and the rest of the women from Knit Nite were talking about the first time we got anything pierced and after I told my story, they said I should blog about it. So here goes: When all my friends in high school were 'doing it', in their bathroom with a potato and ice and a needle, or with those tortuous gradual spring hoop ones that dig in deeper and deeper over days of agony, or by making an appointment at the doctor's office, I was having allergy issues and it seemed pointless. But when I was something like 44 and visiting family on summer vacation, talk was all about how my niece wanted her ears pierced and her grandma, my mother, had agreed to pay for it for her as a gift. They had, in fact, made appointments with my mother's hair salon a couple times, but my niece had gotten cold feet and cancelled. I, without much thought, volunteered that if she did it, I would go along and get mine done. Pretty soon, appointments were made and there were promises to keep that had not been all that well thought out. When the fateful day arrived and we ended up at the salon at the appointed time, she wanted to go first so she would not chicken out. Well, the salon had a new 'gun' that rapidly 'instantaneously' makes the hole in the earlobe and inserts the earring and attaches the back. The 'gun' is supposed to then slide effortlessly off the ear. Well, it got stuck on my niece's ear! So I had to sit there while the salon employee broke into a cold sweat trying to loosen the device and as the manager was called for and as they tried various maneuvers to get it off. And after that was accomplished, I had to rise from my chair and bravely walk to the salon chair to face certain death by piercing gun. The longest walk of my life. Perhaps this is why I was willing to go on the 50 mile backpacking expedition in Red River Gorge in Kentucky or the 50 miles backpacking trip this past summer to Isle Royale. Because I survived the long walk from the waiting room chair to the piercing chair and never looked back or turned to run.

9-11 Made God Irrelevant

Here is what I would say about 9-11 if I had the courage: Did God know the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were about to happen? If there is a God, and that God can have an influence on our world, I have to think that God would have nudged the pilots' hands and brought those airplanes to different ends. Maybe there was a God who set this all in motion at the beginning of time as some of my scientific friends believe. Maybe there is a God who started the processes that lead to the creation of the initial life that evolved into us. But that God must have set it in motion then stood back, hands off, to let it be self-guided, self-realized, and that God must be practicing a policy of total non-intervention. Therefore, prayer is irrelevant. If God did not answer the prayers of those on board the planes to stop the event or the prayers of those in the buildings to stop the collapse, then God is not going to help me get over the flu faster or keep my children safe on the chess club bus or at college. It is up to me to take care of my body to keep it healthy and to teach my children to be competent and strong and make the right choices to keep themselves safe wherever they are. If God did not know the attacks of September 11, 2001 were about to happen, then that God does not know if we are worshipping him/her/it either. So worship is irrelevant. If God knew and did not fix it, then God cannot be trusted to keep any promises of salvation. So belief is irrelevant. If God knew and could only make it less bad than it could have been, God has limited powers and prayer and worship and belief are irrelevant. I don't believe there IS a God, as such a powerless or limited or distant or uninvolved God seems unlikely, but if there IS a God who has set us on some course to never ever interfere, then prayer and worship and church and religion and belief are irrelevant. An irrelevant God is roughly the same as no God.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Road Trip Windshield

Dead bugs on the windshield.
Clouds so perfect they look fake.
Driving across all of two states and parts of two others give you time to ponder.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Proud Moments

I got a blister drumming. At WomanSong. On Saturday night, when it rained, the program was moved from the bonfire area to the main tent, but a resilient and hardy group of women took to percussion around a fire anyway. I tried to be polite and pay attention to the goings-on in the tent, but the drumbeats called to me. I snuck off to linger at the edge of the drum circle and was shortly handed some sort of clattering devise to jangle along with the drummers and was nudged into the circle. I was enjoying that when someone put a drum into my hands in trade for the other, so I put a little effort into beating the thing, and pretty soon the other drummers and percussionists were picking up my rhythm and adding ornamentation to it and we were circling, dancing around the fire. After I got back to my tent, I found a very sore spot where my index finger joins my hand and under the light of my headlamp, found it to be a blister. Right where the stick pivots as I beat the drum. Yes, I got a blister drumming!

Meet Jennifer

What you are seing here is Jennifer, my GPS device, telling me that now that I have turned onto I-94, my next turn is in 145 miles. Yep, it is a long trip when you are driving segments like that! But worth it to get to WomanSong 2008!

Road Trip Aesthetics

Beauty is where you find it, but you'll only find it if you are paying attention to what is around you and open to the possibilities.

Monday, September 8, 2008


The house has walls. The walls make separate rooms be. One step closer.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

How Many Kinds of Bees?

I have to write it down because I cannot quite believe it myself. I was arguing one day about whether the demise of the honeybee was such a bad thing and my argument was that the honeybee is not native to North America, so it is suppressing the populations of the native bees. If there were no more honeybees, the native bees would repopulate the continent to take over pollination duties and improve the environment as ecosystem. My friend said there were not nearly enough native bees to do all the pollination that honeybees do and I said there were at least 5 native species of bumble bees and 400 species of native solitary bees and he called me a liar. Well, admittedly, I pulled those numbers out of the air. So I looked it up. And there are 45 species of social bumble bees native to North America and . . . I told you I could hardly believe it myself . . . over 4000 native species of solitary bees! And it is true that if honeybees were eliminated from North America, the native bee populations would rebound. It would take a season or maybe two for them to increase in population enough to take over all the pollination now accomplished by honeybees, so we would indeed have a reduction in the quantity of some products like almonds and peaches and apples for a season or maybe two. But they would come back from the remnant populations that still exist to populations that fit the availability of pollen and nectar.
Have I piqued your interest, making you wonder what social bees and solitary bees are and how they differ from honeybees? Well, solitary bees work alone, finding or making a hole in a plant or in dead wood or even finding holes in rocks, and filling that hole with plant nectar and pollen. They then lay an egg in the hole, then sealing it shut. The egg hatches into a larva, whose food is the pollen and nectar packed into the cell. When the food supply is gone, the bee larva pupates, then emerges from the holes as an adult. These bees range in length from 1/8" to over an inch and can be black or brown or even metallic colors like red, orange, amber, blue, and green.
It is while they wander from flower to flower to gather pollen and nectar that they accidentally brush pollen from one flower onto another flower. This pollen exchange is how the genetics keep mixed up and how the open pollinated plants keep diverse in their ability to tolerate moisture conditions, temperature variations and so on, and this cross-pollination allows the diversity on which natural selection works to cause the slight genetic shifts through which evolution happens.
Social bees work together instead of alone and they make their own groups of cells instead of finding them. The workers pack pollen and nectar into the cells, and a special queen bee lays eggs in them while the workers go about the other business of making, filling, and maintaining cells. Each cell is filled with just enough food for that one larva, and at the end of the season, a new queen is grown, who goes out and mates with a drone and then hibernates until spring. The entire rest of the hive, all the workers and drones, die off. The queen wakes in the spring and begins to build some cells that she lays her first eggs into. When these emerge, they become the workers and she then specializes on only egg laying.
Honeybees are special because instead of the workers dying each fall, they live over the winter, so they must have food stored for when there are no flowers. This stored food is honey. It is make entirely by evaporating nectar. The only reason they make it is to have food to survive the winter. If we harvest it early enough in the season they recognize the shortage and make more before winter, and that is how we get them to make honey for us in addition to making if for their own use over winter. Other social bees do not make honey because they do not need it since all but the hibernating queen die.
Let's review: How many native bee species? 4000. Yes, four thousand! How many bumble bee species? 45.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


It's all right here, the whole story. The tallgrass prairie of big bluestem and Indian grass interspersed with deep taprooted forbs like the compass plant and abundant forbs like the tall coreopsis. Plants such as these covered the land for centuries, since the last glacier departed more than ten thousand years past. Wide spreading thick bark oak trees made occasional stands in the tallgrass prairie. All of the prairie, or very nearly so, was plowed under for the sake of farming, for the growing of another kind of tallgrass, corn, and for growing softer European pasture grasses for the cattle. Most of the oaks became lumber for houses and barns and fences and firewood and the farms were soon sheltered from the driving prairie winds by linear unnatural rows of other less stately trees.
But in some places, we are putting some of the prairie back and we are teaching our kids about how beautiful and valuable the prairie is so that they might continue to preserve what is left and restore what can be restored and plant prairie gardens where there is no longer any trace of prairie. The history is rich with stories of people and their struggles and the future is bright for the direction we have set with places like this prairie recreation on the land of an historic farm, now a museum where families learn together.

Friday, September 5, 2008

One of the Costs

We don't do a very good job of recycling and reducing and reusing when it comes to building. At our new house, the workers try to order the right sizes of materials and they try to begin and end things in ways to use the whole product, but materials do need to be cut and trimmed to fit. They keep piles of scraps around to pick from when they need smaller boards instead of cutting off a fresh one. The lumber yard takes back the odd lots of unused stuff and puts it back in inventory. There is a lot of material just used in packing and shipping but it needs to be used to prevent the items from being damaged, which would be even more wasteful. The workers save boxes of soda cans to take home to recycle and they saved out some of the smaller pieces of aluminum trim but an awful lot of wood and cardboard and metals and plastics and other materials end up in the giant dumpster that has been emptied already and nearly refilled. I don't have an answer but I wish we did.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The House at E4670 East Redstone Drive

We have an address for our new house!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Day's Work

The 'kit' was lumber of various lengths and species. We cut the posts to just longer than they will finally be and stacked them together. We cut the treads to just longer than they will be and sorted them for suitability and determined their top and face surfaces and arranged them in an aesthetically pleasing order and labeled them and stacked them it their own pile. The 'kit' still very much resembles a kit but the directions are clearer now. The parts are all punched out and arranged and we merely have to insert tab A into slot A and tab B into slot B and so on and we will have stairs in our house.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Acme-Swan Staircase Kit: Some Assembly Required

The timber framer promised to come back and install stairs for us so that they would match the timber frame. This was in April. Now he has a giant job in Michigan for some horse breeder and we are small fish. So he suggested he would supply the materials and the carpenters could assemble and install it. The carpenters want nothing to do with potentially messing up that fine wood. So guess who is taking on this task in addition to all that past sanding and varnishing and all the future flooring? Yep, the homeowners. The 'kit' arrived magically between Satuday afternoon and Sunday morning one weekend and we began 'assembly' last Saturday.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Job Site Hazard

It can be shocking the first time you see it. It is one of the dreaded and known risks of allowing too many subcontractors onto a job site simultaneoulsy. It is probably more common than we would like to think. It starts out innocently enough. The carpenters show up and run a couple cords to power their saws and drills and electric screwdrivers to patch the hole in the particle board subfloor. Then the drywallers arrive for the day and run a few more cords for their lights and drywall saws and Roto-zip trimmers and power screwdrivers. The plumber steps in to try to get those shower supply lines in while the wall is still open on both sides and runs a couple more cords to power his soldering iron and saw. The electrician makes his appearance to install that one missed light fixture with his own cords for his tools. Pretty soon, the mass of cords on the floor is exuding powerfully attractive pheromones and all the cords stored in all those subcontractor trucks get a whiff and are irresistibly attracted into the building, and the mass grows and grows and grows. It can take days for the mating ball of the Elasoidea electricalii orangeri to accomplish its natural mission and for the individuals to quiet down enough that the subcontractors can return to the site and begin to sort out their own individual cords to return them to their own individual trucks. This is just one of the many ways that delays are introduced into the construction process.