Monday, April 28, 2008

Fielding Questions

The last of the snow melt has revealed what a long winter had hidden from us: hope.

Hope in the greening meadow grass needling through the brown blanket of last year's growth. Hope in the garlic, that planted last fall with shrugs and doubts, now slices through the straw. Hope in the rhubarb's red alien facing blinking out from warming soil. Hope in the wild leeks, those crazy edible garlic-onion clusters that cover the maple woods floor with a scent somewhere between wet feet and wet farts. Hope in the trout lilly, the song sparrows and the horny lunatic calls of a hundred different critters at dusk.

Besides hope, we've also discovered an impossible amount of dog poop. I guess we shouldn't be surprised, it's simple arithmetic, really: 2 Dogs + 1 Long Winter= 3 Times as Much Poop as Anyone Could Imagine in One Place at One Time. Spring cleaning has a whole new meaning.

But let's focus on hope, shall we? This weekend was the Alger County Conservation District's annual tree sale pickup. We nabbed 250 red pines and four apple trees for the homestead. The apple trees will join the two dozen wizened warriors that came with the farm to add some fresh faces to the old orchard. The pines, however, will go to a windbreak and Phase 1 of a reforestation plan on three acres of pasture.

It struck me today, looking back at our progress of new pines waving like little green flags, that the folks who ripped this farm from the forest 100 years ago are probably spinning in their graves right now. Clearing these fields must have broke the backs and spirits of generations before us, and here we are wiping away their history with a single planting bar and a sack of pines. Green spikes driven in an old Finlander's coffin.

The homesteaders aren't planted very far from this field either, just a mile away at the end of our road in the township cemetery. The possibility of a haunting has crossed my mind. Their tired, calloused ghosts may have understood us if perhaps we'd planted the trees for agricultural profit. "Treeeeeee faaarrrrrmmmm?" they'd inquire.

But I'm afraid not. We just thought there was too much field. Needs more woods, we said. More wildlife habitat for birds and stuff. They're not even planted in rows, just here and there, some single, some in clumps.

Looking across our red pine field my eyes lingered on the stone piles at the field's edge. There's was a season to pick rock, ours is one to plant pines. But it's not like we don't appreciate our fields. We do, and we're keeping the majority of them open for grazing sometime down the road. I appreciate the food our fields give us, but I could feast on a forest forever.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spinter, er, Wring?

It's 60 degrees, but there are still several feet of snow on the ground. Birds of every variety have arrived on a stiff south wind, but squirrels are at the feeder like there's a January storm coming.

Welcome to Spinter. Warmer than winter, but you still need a shovel to take a walk.

Several patches of ground are visible again since the last storms. Big brown circles of dry grass and needles under the red pines on our south-facing hill are simmering in the sun. Over lunch I put on the knee-high rubber boots and thought I'd slop around a bit by the apple trees. Too much snow there, so the dogs and I crawled up under the pines and sat in the sun for a bit. Before long the two black-and-white border collie mutts were panting after soaking up the heat. Lucky dogs. The wind, though out of the south, still has a sting--so no panting for me.

Besides sting, the wind brought us our first raptors today. One appeared to be a rough legged hawk, a shaggy and bedraggled splotch of gray and white wheeling quickly over the yard. Two male flickers are having words over the 10x30 patch of driveway that's visible. Easy boys, more real estate is on its way, day by day.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Well, I was all ready to write about spring, but another late season storm whacked us this week. So, here's a wintery essay originally published in Traverse Magazine.

I don’t know who owns the humble log structure, but I sure know I enjoy pretending it’s me from time to time. And I know there are dozens of others who feel the same way.

It’s a cabin on a bedrock bald overlooking a frozen lake in the highlands of the central Upper Peninsula. And we’re an interloping band of roving cabin poachers. Good people, mostly, I think, but not afraid to bend the rules occasionally, now and again, from time to time and over and over. We hold fast to the belief, often found in areas with high unemployment and low wages, that it’s a damn shame when certain things go unused or underappreciated. Oak saw logs that didn’t make it onto the logger’s truck become our firewood. Fender-tenderized venison fills our freezers. Abandoned, or, um, lightly used camps and cottages fill our weekends.

Now, if you’re still reading, and not dialing the authorities, you’ll be happy to know that while what we do is technically…probably…okay, most likely breaking and entering, there has never been any breaking. In fact, there’s often fixing. I don’t know what the sentence for entering and repairing would be, but up here common law and common sense seem more common place, and I’m willing to bet that a judge in Ishpeming or Eagle River would go easy on us.

I’ve heard that the owners are in Texas, or was it Florida? Anyway, they’re someplace warm and far away. I guess they own several hundred acres enrolled as commercial forestland, and probably managed as part of an investment portfolio. I wonder if they’ve ever even seen this rugged pocket of lakes and hills, a good hike in off a dirt road that only connects to another dirt road? What are the odds that they’ve pushed through blowdowns, mucked around impromptu beaver ponds and scaled the massive rock up to the shack?

Just for argument’s sake, let’s say they did make it this far, scrubbed a little circle in the frosty window pane, and peeked in at the generations of candles on the table, wood stacked along the back wall and a collection of red and white canned goods on the shelf. Would they be upset that their abandoned cabin, was being well cared for? In disbelief, would they reach out for the padlock on the front door and realize, like we had, that it was indeed locked, but not actually attached to the door?

If they stepped in they’d find fishing poles in the corner from the cabin’s trout-seeking summer friends. Winter guests, like us, have jammed cracks and crevices with insulation, while steel cables in the rafters keep the sagging old walls from splaying out under a staggering snowload. Tar dabs patch the ceiling like inky stars.

I’d be proud to take credit for all the improvements, but most of them appear to have been made by our anonymous poaching compatriots over several decades. The truth is, my friends and I have only known about the place for a few years. It started when a friend heard a rumor, about a rumor, about a cabin back in the hills. Another friend had a government job combing aerial photos day-in and day-out, mapping soils or looking for boogey men or something. We soon convinced him to put his technical skills to work surfing for our hobo realestate.

Since then our eye-in-the-sky guy has constantly been on the hunt for new prospects. He starts with public lands, or at least lands with public access, then looks for structures, or even just those familiar squares of cleared homesteads that hint a building might still remain. If the access roads are overgrown, it’s a good bet that nobody owns it, or at least nobody will care if we pretend we do. Then it’s into the bush for some old-fashioned map and compass work.

Most of his finds have just been piles of rotting logs framing the hulk of a stove or tangle of an old bed spring. Some were obviously private, and we moved on…after a little peek. One was obviously private, but a guest book made it clear that strangers were welcome. Few are locked.

The ornery old pot-bellied stove is purring now, finally roused from its January slumber. We shed wool and down, watching waves of lake effect snow wash across the valley. It would be quaint to think of this as a charming weekend in a sparkling snow globe. But this is the highlands, where Lake Superior storms tear their bellies open on forested slopes, spilling snow in amounts only quantifiable with body parts: knee, hip, and chest deep. If we’re in a snowglobe, then it’s one that’s been duct taped to a runaway snowshoe hare.

At the cabin, talk often turns to pooling our scraped-up resources for a little piece of land somewhere way back, far in and high up. Maybe we’d clear a rough trail to get supplies in, but once the place was built, we all agree the road should be abandoned in favor of a foot trail. We call it a snowshoe cabin. Just a place to get warm and dry. A winter basecamp, like the one we’re in now—but actually ours. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but if it does, you can bet the shelves will be stocked, firewood cut, and the door open.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Our Trees Runneth Over

Hank Hughes, 82, is wreathed in a sweet-smelling cloud of steam as he dips, pours, measures, then drains off and adds sap to a roaring evaporator.

We step outside the billowing sugar shack on the dairy farm in Flat Rock, Michigan where he’s lived his entire life. He points down the road to the house he was born in, sweeping his arm past the houses of his and his wife Ilene’s children and grandchildren nearby. Holy Family Catholic Church is over there on the hill. Across a field of corn stubble lies the maple woods his family has tapped for as long as he can remember.

Now, among those maples the staccato pinging of sap splashing into pails is accompanied by the chug of a diesel tractor, the clank of silver pails and the voices of the Hughes’ grandchildren as they race against darkness to collect from the 2,400 tapped trees. It’s a Thursday evening and they just got home from work and school, but the sap doesn’t wait for anybody’s schedule. Cell phones ring and ATVs whine as cousins come and go, lending a hand for as long as they can.

When Hank was their age the sounds were of draft horses huffing as they pulled a sleigh of barrels through the spring snow, and a crackling wood fire under the evaporator. But there has always been the ringing of sap-on-tin, a sound that fixes these laborers to this place and this time with roots that would even make the maples jealous.

The last pail is emptied just as twilight rolls across the fields. The last tractor emerges from the darkening woods, a farm dog nipping at the tires in a game only it knows the rules to.

Opening the door to the shack, warm light and steam roll out to reveal a crowd gathered for the night’s work. Sons, cousins, brothers, sisters, great-grandkids, grandparents—they’re all here and ready to work. A big pot of chili has appeared along with a moist maple syrup cake.

Bottles and cans, caps and seals are all brought out of storage from last season and then the finishing begins. Small batches are brought to the perfect consistency and filtered, then bottled one-by-one and handed down an assembly line--son, to brother, to nephew to mother. Friends and neighbors stop by and samples of fresh, hot syrup are sipped out of small cups.

Hank and Ilene sit near each other at the center of the hubbub. This is the first day of the season, but by the end of spring the family will have produced between 300 and 400 gallons of syrup.

Not to mention a few more memories.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Early Birds

A robin joined us a few days ago. She was a cheery splash of orange in a still, monochromatic landscape. Unfortunately, we had little to offer in the way of robin amenities.

Warmth? Sorry.
Leaves? Nope.
Bare ground? Just one spot, over the septic tank, I'm afraid.
Worms? Good luck.

It's tempting to think of the first robin sighting as the turning point in the seasons, but I've noticed that the real signs of spring are the scavengers.

Behold, spring comes on the wings of crows.

Though crows spend most of the winter with us, their numbers seem to slip south as we get deeper into winter. During a melt in mid-March, I noticed their numbers seeming to swell. They follow the pulsing interstates north, necking down to state highways, county trunks and finally slushy township and village roads. With each exit ramp the south fades from them like the tans that those of us who stayed behind lost in November.

They are migrant workers harvesting the season's first crop: roadkill. Fender-tenderized whitetails emerge from snowbanks alongside rabbit-ala-road. Four months of plowing has arranged a steady stack of carrion blooming in the ditches, as the warming temps throw open the door on the north's roadside meat locker. The crows eat their way home on this, bumper crop.

There's been no sign of our robin guest since the blizzard. Gambling on spring is risky business in the north, so sometimes, when the early birds can't catch their worms, they're caught by the weather.

And then by the crows.

White Fang

The blizzard came last night, burying its white fangs in the back of our skulls. It was an attack from behind as we slept, dreaming of warm, far off places--like Wisconsin.

At 3 a.m. I woke to the pacing of nervous dogs, and was able to watch the assault in cinematic fashion, a montage of violence choreographed with the flashing of the motion lights on the garage.

Darkness and growling wind. Floodlight and lilacs doubled over, writhing. Darkness and the staccato kiss of sleet. Floodlight and the propane tank has vanished. The picnic table too. Casualties.

All schools are closed, in mourning I suppose. The state police have issued bulletins to keep everyone off the roads while plows and graders grapple with the beast.

Within a few days it will be subdued, pushed back in banks, scraped into ditches and thrown twenty feet from our driveways. Cut by steel plow and churning auger, the blizzard's flesh will break, spilling into puddles and overflowing the banks on Slapneck Creek down the hill.

We'll overcome this April onslaught, but not before it claims a shovelful of swear words and the last of our shear pins and sanity.