Thursday, May 15, 2008

Love in the Air

Well, love is in the air and it's time to hit the road for a family wedding down in the steamy southern realm of Northern Wisconsin. Back to our roots. Bowling alleys and dairy farms. German beer and Polish sausage. So, in the spirit of the season, here's an essay published in 2007 regarding my passion for the farm.

If it were possible to make love to a house, I’d be a cheatin’ man.

For over a year I’ve been engaged in a headlong 100-mph affair with a very mature, white-clapboarded beauty. I’m infatuated with her build, layout and 40-acre dowry, but I think she just digs my toolbelt.

Now, I’m no stranger to romantic notions. As a woodsy type with a gooey center, I end up gaga over something almost weekly. But it’s only been this strong once before, when, nearly twelve years ago, it was a girl wearing a blue and white swimsuit at a county park picnic. It was two weeks after graduation, and I remember a spinning sensation, shortness of breath and that watery, flowery smell of June when spring ripens to summer. Everything was changing and I’d found someone totally familiar, yet tantalizingly unknown, to relearn life with.

Love is dangerous stuff, and that little fling led to marriage. These days my wife and I are as mad about each other as ever, but since finding this old farm, I’ve been rolling head-over-heels down a white-picketed path of debauchery.

I used to read books with plots and characters. Now I just pore over how-tos and house porn—you know, those photo books of scantily clad Tuscan interiors and Normandy knockouts. I’ve spent hours trying to pick out which baby blue French country costume best suits my new mistress.

My family and friends are ashamed. I know what they’re all thinking, “She’s got to be 80 years older than him.” I feel myself changing too, taking on her mature tastes. The weather has suddenly become very important. My favorite magazine has changed from National Geographic Adventure to Mother Earth News. Now, taking a year off and sailing the world doesn’t sound nearly as important as growing fields of basil and really, really big tomatoes.

The most scandalous part, is that my wife totally supports us. This summer the neighbors caught the three of us on the front lawn. The house was semi-nude, with portions of siding and trim laying on the ground where it had dropped during our…project. A car rattling up our gravel road suddenly slowed, as voyeuristic neighbors, drawn by our passionate hammering and the house’s plaintiff groans and squeaks, gawked from the end of the driveway. We simply waved, unabashed at our “household of three.” A nervous hand fluttered back as they sped away.

Some might think this is a midlife crisis, but that means I’ll be dead by 60 so I hope not. Perhaps it’s a quarter-life crisis. Whatever it is, the affair has helped me recapture my manhood, boosted my confidence and helped me open up to trying new things. It’s fair to say my wife is impressed with my new skills as well.

I’m no Casanova, and the house has never said anything, but I get the feeling it’s been good for her too. It had been over ten years since anyone touched her the way I do, and I imagine she is starting to feel young again with all this attention. When I met the house, she was like a centerfold in a snowmobile suit. Underneath the electric blue wallpaper and peach-colored plasterboard was a lady of hewn, dovetailed logs. Since we’ve been together I’ve given her new wiring, windows, paint and lots of other little things a lady her age needs.

Of course it hasn’t all been rosy. The house doesn’t have a central heating system, which can be a problem in a region with a six-month heating season. Plus it makes a lot of strange noises when it’s windy, and then there’s the whole issue of the damp crawlspace. Let’s not go there.
I admit, when things get rough I walk out on her, but a stroll through the woods to think things over always leads me back to the corner of the yard, where I can catch a flirtatious glimpse of her backside. There, standing in the berry patch where a rutted tractor path meets the old orchard, I trace the sinuous line of a blonde woodpile and watch her through a frilly tease of apple blossoms. It’s a view that leaves me red-faced and smiling, shuffling my feet and staring at the ground, like that gangly high school grad blinded by a blue bikini.

Lately my wife and I have been talking about the future, and where this affair is headed. I want wrap-around porches and an addition for the house. She agrees, and even supports the purchase of new power tools. But there’s a catch. Now that we’re settled here, she’d like an addition too. An addition to the family. Maybe even three or four of them.

Time to get my toolbelt, and get back to work.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Moving In

Still crazy busy here--deadlines, deadlines, deadlines--so here's another previously published essay about when we first moved into the farm in 2006.

The moving van lumbers up the rough dirt road and hesitates at the end of the driveway where the faded handmade sign declares this property “For Sale.” With a nervous glance at each other, we rumble forward over the gravel curb and scrape through the tunnel of overgrown cedars and apple trees into the secluded yard.

The sign is lying. This place, a 40-acre Upper Peninsula farmstead in western Alger County, is not for sale. It had been yesterday, and for several years before that, but today it’s home. This is the place my wife, Kristen, and I have been dreaming of, a place to raise chickens and children. A place to live and love while our hair gets as white as the lake effect snows the area is famous for.

A few swings of the hammer and the sign flies loose. If we have our wish it’ll never show its face again.

Like us and our blue-collared ancestors—Poles, Germans and Swedes—the buildings are sturdy and straight, but a little rough around the edges. Shingles missing here, siding sagging there, and paint but a memory in spots. The big white farmhouse, part of it made of hand-hewn logs, is surrounded by a sprinkling of tidy red outbuildings. There’s a root cellar, a shed, a garage, the old milk barn, sauna building and woodshed. At the edge of the field squats the remains of the original log cow barn.

But at the center of it all is a familiarity that we can’t explain. A sense of belonging, like a family reunion where you might not know everyone’s name but it doesn’t matter because you share the same laugh, chubby cheeks or hair color.

This farm was built by people with winter in their blood. Swedes came first, around 1900, and hewed the forest into fields and a home. Then Finlanders took over in the 1930s and didn’t let go until the last one passed on in the mid 1990s. Since then an absentee owner has let it fall into disrepair, and only rodents and coyotes have spent winters here.

A convoy of friends roll into the driveway behind us with pickups and trailers heavy with our possessions. Boxes in the house. Tools to the garage. Garden stuff to the shed and root cellar. Skis to the barn.

“Do you know you’ve got, like, ten friggin pairs of skis?” my friend Cameron is asking from somewhere behind his armload of poles and boots.

I’m aware of how many pairs we have, though I don’t really have a justification for it other than that we live for winter. That’s why we moved to this area, a well-known snowbelt that routinely closes schools and highways. Also, with that many skis you need a place that has a barn to hold them all. We needed a ski stable.

The skinny ones are for racing, their flashy blue and white zigzag graphics leave no doubt. They are iced lightning that must be operated only during daylight hours by those in bright shades of Spandex. I have a tendency to miss turns at the bottom of steep hills at excessive speeds when on them; and Spandex doesn’t soften the cold kiss of mature timber. These snow stallions are kept stabled in all but the finest conditions and fed only the purest waxes.

The workhorses are found deeper in the pile. They are wide, with steel edges and heavy three-pin bindings. Mated with equally heavy leather boots these planks pull loaded sleds and packs into the hills for camping. These are Rosignols, but they may as well be called Carhartt or Craftsman. They are rugged tools, but once camp is established they become powder queens, linking telemark turns through knee-deep lake effect pow pow. Kneeling, turning, kneeling, turning like a powder-powered piston through snow of a religious magnitude. These backcountry boards are winter worship at its best and our new home is only blocks from the cathedral.

Of course we have 10 pairs of skis. Everyone who lives in a place where snow flies from October through May should have a solid winter arsenal or they’ll go stir crazy watching the flakes fly.

Cameron is waving from the door of the shed and babbling incoherently. He’s holding a grey and weather-checked board with a familiar shape.

“Skis. You’ve got skis…there are skis in here!” he stammers, pointing up into the exposed rafters where he’s been stowing our stuff. But there, alongside our modern gear and next to an old white door with fraying paint, is a peculiar-looking board that matches the one in his hand.

They are flat on the bottom, tapered from thin at the tips and rising to level in the center. The front tips are pointed, but not curved up. These are handmade, but unfinished, wooden skis.

“I take it back, you’ve got eleven friggin pairs of skis!” Cam stammers.

But this was more than Pair Eleven. It was the passing of two wooden, Nordic batons, and it was the best housewarming gift imaginable.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Favorite Folks-Daisy May Erlewine

From time-to-time I hope to feature profiles or interviews or something on the good folks that warm the north and make it such a great place to live.

It's going to be called Favorite Folks. But also from time to time the manure hits the windmill here at Northstead, and when that happens, I'm just going to reach into the archives of my published writing and post it up like lukewarm leftovers.

This post is the convergence of these phenomena. Enjoy.

This is a Q&A with Daisy May Erlewine, a singer-songwriter from Big Rapids, Mich., that originally ran in Traverse Magazine. She and partner Seth Bernard are much loved in the U.P. and should be sought out and enjoyed wherever they may turn up.

Like a bluebird on a rusted barbed wire fence, Daisy May Erlewine's voice is shockingly beautiful and perched on something darker, sharper and slightly dangerous. With three solo albums and enough indie-credo for a boxcar full of singer-songwriters, Daisy May doesn’t need any help hoeing her row in today’s folk scene. But then anyone who’s seen her partner Seth Bernard perform knows he’s not your average gardener.

Together the pair blend whimsical sentimentality with the work ethic of hand-hewn homesteaders. In 2005 the Big Rapids couple left their southern fields and traveled to the Keweenaw Peninsula where they recorded an album at the historic Calumet Theatre. The album, released in spring 2006, is as rich as the earth the singers sprung from. We caught up with Daisy May during a short break in a busy summer touring schedule.

The new album is recorded in the Upper Peninsula, how are you connected to the U.P.?
Seth’s dad is from Marquette, and his grandma and uncles are still up there, he spends a lot of time up there.

How did you come to record at the Calumet Theatre?
Dear friends of Seth’s family live in the Keweenaw, and we would go there a lot, sort of as a retreat, and write songs. One time the guy who books acts for the theater, and kind of keeps it going, Davey Holmbo, asked us to play there. Later, our bass player had the idea to record there and Davey set it up and gave us a good deal.

How did it all come together?
Davey set aside two days in August 2005—that was the longest open period in the theater’s schedule—and Seth and I, our upright bass player Dominic Suchyta, Drew Howard on pedal steel, cello player Andrea Moreno-Beals and the engineer Ian Gorman all made the trip up from down here. They set up mics all over the theater to get a really live sound. The theater has all kinds of ghost stories, it was a really cool atmosphere.

Did you see any ghosts?
No, not necessarily…but there were definitely some weird overtones in the recordings, we’re not sure if it was just the acoustics or something else. In order to get a really good live feel we played back the vocals really loud one night and recorded it to get good reverb and we were wondering if there was going to be anything else on the track when we came back the next morning.

Up until this point both yours and Seth’s albums have been solo, what was it like to record with a group?
It was really fun to work with other musicians; when you’re writing the songs you have this world in your head and then when you hear it come to life through the other artists, but with different interpretations, it’s really special. It was really a joy to work with everybody. We hope to keep the quintet—that’s what we call ourselves, the Copper Country Quintet—alive for the next duo album.

When’s the next album planned?
Well, there are no concrete plans. We’re both working on our next solo albums, then we’ll probably do the next duo album. So, maybe a year. It’s in the ether.

Both of you seem to put out albums quickly.
Yeah, Seth and I are like recording junkies. We both have trouble continuing to write when all the other songs haven’t been put somewhere. We both love the recording process; as soon as we’re finished with one album we’re excited for the next one.

How do you think of your type of music?
I’m a singer-songwriter, that’s how I describe myself. But as far as the sound, there are so many sources of my inspiration, so that’s harder, but I think about my singing as blues and soul. When I’m singing I think of these beautiful black women that sang their hearts out.

The album is put out by Earthwork Music, tell us about that.
Earthworks is a music collective Seth started, a group of friends really, that is trying to enrich Michigan culture on many different levels.

Seth Bernard and Daisy May Erlewine can be found on the web at Visit the Calumet Theatre online at