Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The season of mud


Somewhere between February's bone-chilling cold and May's crisp, white bloodroot blossoms,  the sap rises in the maple trees on the lake shore. Between the ice crystals and the first scent of summer comes the season of mud. This is the time when we forsake our jobs and other responsibilities to play in the woods - to make maple syrup with friends.

We tap maple trees with a brace and bit. We carry five gallon buckets of sap fresh with the scent of spring, from trees to sugar camp. We split one foot lengths of maple, ash and ironwood  and feed the fires until the hair on the back of our hands scorches. We boil the sap down to sweet, golden syrup. We share our days with people who return year after year, to walk the trails, to work and to talk.

Nights below freezing and days above forty degrees, when the ground is frozen first thing in the morning but melts to mud by noon, are ideal for sugaring. If the wind blows over the lake ice before it hits the trees, or if the temperature barely drops to thirty-two degrees at night, or if the sun doesn't shine, the sap may not run. But whether the sap runs or not, the sugar bush is a wonderful place to be.

In March, the woods are an etching in black and white, branches against snow. The downy woodpecker hunts bugs beneath the bark of dying trees, a sharp rat-a-tat-tat in the silence. As the snow melts and the mud deepens around the fire pits, the sap dripping into the cans sounds a steady plink, plink, plink. By April, V's od Canada geese fly overhead, looking for open water, and crimson cup fungi poke through the mulch of pale brown leaves. In

early May, the last drops of sap have turned yellow and the mud has dried. Wild leeks thrust their pungent leaves upward toward sunlight. We pull the taps from the trees,  clean our equipment and say good bye.

Another season in the sugar bush has come and gone. Our lives return to normal. No more daily picnics, no more trying to do a week's work in a day and a half, no more long days in the woods with friends until summer has passed and winter has come again. Then, we know that it is almost time for the sugar bush -   that we have almost, once again, reached the season of mud.




This essay first appeared in Otter Tail Review

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mighty hunters


Two winters ago, a 50 ft ash tree in our sugar bush lost one of its two  major branches. The branch split from the main trunk and fell south, to  rest 30 ft up on half a dozen small maples. The branch was still attached to the tree by a wood and bark hinge. Dave couldn't figure out the best way to get either the branch or the tree down. They call those kinds of branches "widow makers" because they can break from whatever is holding them up and crash to the ground at any time.

Last winter the second main branch ripped away from the trunk at the same point. It fell to the north with the tips of it's smaller branches resting on the ground, and there it hung, still connected at the top by a  hinge of wood and bark.

The tree was dead - no viable branches, just two widowmakers. We had to get it down before it fell on someone. Normally, to fell a tree, Dave cuts a small notch  about 2 feet off the ground on the side of the tree to which he wants it to fall. Next he cuts through the tree on the opposite side, leaving a small hinge of wood. Then, if the winds are right, and his eye is good, the tree falls, missing all the trees in the way and comes to rest on the ground where we want it.

 With a widow maker on both sides of the tree, Dave was uninterested in cutting a small notch in the trunk and then cutting almost all the way through to the notch. There were just too many things that could fall from the sky, too many unpredictable branches.

Sometimes, when the stars or the planets are not aligned, or the woods are too dense, a falling tree hangs up on other trees, or leans, but doesn't fall. Then we get out the come-along and 100 feet of  rope and encourage the tree to fall all the way to the ground with brute force.
The come-along usually does the trick.

On our double widow maker, Dave carefully trimmed the small branches off the main branch until it hung vertically beside the trunk. This didn't rip the hinge at the top and allow the branch to fall. Next he tied the  rope to the hanging branch and connected it to the come along that was anchored on a big tree 50 feet to the south, twisting the hanging branch around the trunk. Dave and Chris tightened up the come-along, The branch rose almost to horizontal, but didn't release from the top of the tree. They took it all apart and pulled the branch to the north, twisting it the other way around the main trunk. They put tension on the branch and tightened the com-
along over and over. Next they added their weight to the situation, three grown men swinging like monkeys from the rope, trying to  rip the branch away from the main trunk. It seemed like such a little hinge of wood, just a light wind should have ripped it free.

The rest of us watched  from a safe distance, adding our suggestions and watching the hinge at the top of the tree for progress. The last suggestion of the day came from Edgar. "Why don't I bring my 10 guage shotgun and shoot that hinge."

Sunday, Edgar brought "Boomer" and from 50 feet away, Dave shot twice. After the first shot the branch dropped a few inches. After the second the hinge shattered and the branch crashed to the ground.  We all cheered. The second act will be the really tricky one, to fell the tree with one  widowmaker still tangled in the tree tops. This may take more than a well aimed shotgun blast from a vegetarian hunter.


Friday, April 18, 2014

How to make felted Easter eggs


Felting is a fantastic introduction to fiber arts. Anyone can learn to felt in just a little while. Although it takes longer to become an expert, beginners do well.  These  beautiful decorations can be made by all ages and skill levels. An adult should work with young children as the needles are very sharp.

Materials:
3" styrofoam egg or ball
1/2 ounce carded wool batt or roving, various colors
felting needles
nylon stocking
hot water, clear dish soap

1) Separate carded bat or roving into thin, narrow pieces
2) USing a felting needle, secure thin strips of wool to the egg, adding different colors of wool to make your design. Push the needle repeatedly straight into the egg, through the wool.
3) Carefully insert the wool covered egg into a nylon stocking. Tie off the end of the stocking next to the egg.
4) Add a squirt of dish detergent to a small bowl of very hot water. Submerge the egg. Roll the wet egg in your hands, between your palms, to felt the wool. This should take three to four minutes.
5) Dry in a bowl with a hand held hair dryer.
6) You may add further designs at this point with your felting needle.
7) To hang your egg, use sewing thread and a doll makers needle to pull the thread through the egg. Tie a pony bead at the bottom of the egg and make a hamging loop from thread at the top.

The important thing to remember about felting an egg is that wool can move as you felt it. The end product may not be at all what you expect until you become an expert felter. But no matter what happens, you will have a beautiful egg, guaranteed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How to photograph a baby on a lambskin rug


It takes planning and luck to get a traditional photograph of a baby on a lambskin rug. If you follow the directions below, you can’t possibly get a worse photograph than I did.


  1. First, planning. You have to take the photo at the right age. The baby must be old enough to hold his chest and head up, but not yet crawling. (This baby crawled so fast that he made it off the rug in seconds. In this photo he also demonstrates the problems involved with a baby who can’t hold his head up, although you don’t usually have to deal with both problems at the same time.) 
  2. Clear away everything distracting in the background unless you want your friends and family to focus on your messy house rather than your beautiful baby. (And let’s face it, all of us have messy houses when we have young children).
  3. Work with a partner. One person works with the camera and the second person works with the baby.
  4. Work in good light, but plan on stopping action with your flash.
  5. Get down on the baby’s level so that her sparkling eyes and laughing smile are the most important part of the photograph. (This photo has been closely cropped because the baby’s bare bottom turned out to be the most obvious part.)
  6. Once the baby is in place, work fast. Position and expression are subject to change without notice.
  7. If you don’t get a good photo, try again tomorrow. Don’t wait a week, chances are he’ll be crawling and/or walking by then.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Feeding the sheep

We fill four buckets of corn to feed the sheep. 1, 2, 3, 4.

It takes two people to carry the buckets.

We don't usually spill the corn on the ground, usually it goes in the feeders.

Then we throw eight bales of hay out of the barn. Once the sheep are fed we can go in the house and feed ourselves a snack..
 



Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sheep albedo




Dr. Ewe Noh-Watt of the New Zealand Institute of Veterinary Climatology has discovered that global warming is caused not by a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but rather by the decline of New Zealand's sheep population. The reasoning is that sheep are white, and therefore large numbers of sheep increase the planet's albedo (the amount of sunlight reflected back into space). As the sheep population declined, the ground has been absorbing more solar radiation, thus warming the planet. Dr Noh-Watt explains "It can be seen that the recent warming can be explained entirely by the decline in the New Zealand sheep population, without any need to bring in any mysterious so-called 'radiative forcing' from carbon dioxide, which doesn't affect the sunlight (hardly) anyway — unlike Sheep Albedo."

Noh-Watt also warmed of a potentially destabilizing feedback mechanism: "As climate gets warmer, there is less demand for wool sweaters and wooly underwear. Hence the sheep population tends to drop, leading to even more warming. In an extreme form, this can lead to a 'runaway sheep-albedo feedback,' which is believed to have led to the present torrid climate of Venus."

However, skeptics disputed the Sheep Albedo Hypothesis. Steve Ramsturf, spokesman for the New Zealand Sheep Farmers Guild, was quoted as saying, "Baaah, Humbug. No matter what goes wrong with the world, they're always trying to blame the poor New Zealand Sheep Farmer."

Monday, March 31, 2014

Peace




Peace met me at the door of the barn both figuratively and literally. The ewes were sleeping with their babies. The chickens were muttering in their coop. The bottle lambs slept piled on top of each other in the warm glow of a heat lamp. 

When I shut the door, the bottle lambs woke. Peace, number 7 yellow, an older ewe walked right up to me. She stayed beside me as I fed the two most insistent lambs. She followed me as I walked through the sleeping flock, looking for new babies. 

Peace was an experienced mother. She obviously needed me for something. I crowded her into a corner, knelt beside her, grabbed the two feet on the far side of her body, and pulled her over onto her side.  I had to force my fingers into her vagina; the cervical opening was barely dilated. When I withdrew my hand, a sack of golden amniotic fluid followed. So she was ready to lamb, but her cervix hadn’t opened. I knew that I could solve that problem, but it would be easier if Dave was holding Peace down. 

He was just waking when I returned to the house and was easily persuaded to come out to the barn. Peace waited for us just inside the barn door.  Dave pulled her down and then lay on top of her. I washed and lubricated my hand and, fingertips together, I slid it into her vagina again. This time I pushed until my hand was through the cervical opening. Clouds of amnion wrapped themselves around my fingers as I searched blindly for a lamb. 

There!  Two feet, facing up instead of down. These were hind feet. No wonder her cervix wasn’t dilating well. There was no head or shoulders to force it open. I gathered the two hooves between my fingers and began to pull steadily. There are several  problems with breach presentations beyond that of narrow cervical openings. One is the danger that the lamb could take a breath before we get it out into the open air as its chest moves through the birth canal. The second is that we might not be able to get the chest beyond the cervical opening. The head and shoulders act like a wedge in a normal birth. In a breach birth, the rib cage just runs into the cervix with no wedge to go before. 

This lamb was slender enough to pass through the cervix once I began exerting pull on his legs. Chest followed hind legs, shoulders and head followed chest and the front legs came last. I swung the lamb into place in front of Peace and began scrubbing the amnion and amniotic fluid from its face. Dave grabbed a towel and also began rubbing.

By the time Peace’s first lamb had her head up and was beginning to struggle to her feet, Peace was in hard labor with her second lamb. This one delivered with no help from me. When the lamb slithered to the barn floor, I swiped the amnion off her face and passed her up to her mother’s nose. Peace began licking and the lamb began breathing all on her own.

When Peace and her babies left their jug two days later, she was completely uninterested in me. Her entire attention was focused on keeping her lambs in sight. She will probably never approach me again, but the fact that she did, that she knew I would help, changed me. Now I know that I have a relationship, more than just the bringer of hay with the sheep. The knowledge brings  me a kind of peace.