Sunday, May 31, 2009

A man, a chain saw, and the faeries

Circle round, and I'll tell you a tale. If you are open to the existence of wee folk that we humans cannot usually see, then this is a tale of how not to live with them. If you don't believe in such things, then this is a tale of blundering stubborn oaf and a power tool.

Early last winter, between Samhain and Yule, we were looking forward to cutting our Yule tree (Christmas for ye folke from the Dominant Culture). When we bought this place, we were told the big blue spruce growing very close to the septic tank should come out, since the roots would foul up the workings of the septic system. Being cheap (OK, poor), I suggested that we use the top of the spruce for our Yule decoration. All assented, though I would have hoped for more enthusiasm.

The first Saturday in December has been the Appointed Day for several years, but on that day, we all woke up surly, grumpy and ready to bite off each other's heads. After a morning full of arguments, we decided that perhaps today wasn't the day to cut a tree. End of story? Not quite. Being the stubborn male with the chain saw, I was still game to cut 'er down, especially when the grumpies had faded by mid-afternoon.

I dressed in my warm coveralls and ventured forth in the ass-deep (almost) snow. It really was over my knees, though. The chain saw was, of course, sluggish to start, but aren't they always? Finally, it roared (coughed) to life. I trimmed a few branches, then made my box cut on the side of the trunk away from the house. As I made the back cut, with only inches to go, the saw got pinched by the weight of the tree. As I studied it again, with the added eight of the snow, the tree was leaning back toward the house.

After some futile tugging on a couple branches, I gave up. Time for a mechanical assist. I tied a rope around the trunk as high as I could reach, stretched the other end toward the driveway, then backed the van up toward the rope. Not quite long enough. I fired up the trusty snowblower and cleared a bit more driveway. Just as I finished, the damn thing ran out of gas. For a normal snowblower, this would not be a big deal. But mine has an electric start. Only. The pull rope was missing. I had to drag the damn thing backward all the way to the garage.

By now the wind was howling as if to say, "How dense are you? We told you not to do this!" I had my wife back up the van, and I tied on the rope. With a bit of pull the tree finally fell! Now I had a tree top to cut off and drag through ass-deep snow. I made the cut, looked at our Yule tree lying on its side, and cut off another foot. Then came the dragging, rolling, cursing, and dragging.

The sun was sliding over the western hill as I got the thing to the front porch. After the usual 2 or 3 attempts and fiddling, I got the stand on, and it looked OK. Now the base of this tree was about eight feet wide, but we have a double front door. So with cold bare hands, I took out the center post (removeable) and opened the other door. Soon the snow-covered tree was inside! There it lay while I ate supper, and the snow melted into giant puddles on the entryway floor.

Refreshed and energized, I dragged and lugged the tree monster to the family room, with its cathedral ceiling. With a bit more tweaking and snapping at my wife, I got the thing to stand up. Minutes later, for the first time in my life, the tree fell over. More adjusting, and I tried again. This time it stood up! But the base was way too wide; we couldn't move through the room. With a pruning saw, since we were inside, I took care of the giant lower boughs. Looks great, I thought. Then my wife noticed the fresh cuts were dripping sap onto the carpet. I guess that happens with really fresh trees. Soon, the cuts were bedecked with tufts of cotton. Looked just like snow!

The next moring, we decided to tackle the lights. Yes, I tested all the strings before putting them on the tree, but by the time I was half done, two strings were dead. Not just one like in a normal year! Thank goodness for lights on sale after Thanksgiving.

As long as that tree was in the house, we felt uneasy. There was a general agitation, as if something or someone was not happy. There were strange noises, flashes of movement, and breathes of air on the back of one's neck. As I write this, the lower trunk of the tree still rests where it fell.

Now every good tale has a moral, right? This adventure taught me to heed those instincts! If you feel like you shouldn't do something, don't do it! If something is harder than it needs to be, there may be forces at work against you! Call them faeries, tree spirits, or what you will, they can make life difficult if they want to. Next year, we're going to BUY a tree. A nice, SMALL tree. Let me be the first to wish you a happy Yule!

The Bee Garden

Since we got the bees, my older daughter has become one of their biggest fans. She's converting her herb garden to a bee-friendly garden. To date, it's planted with comfrey, lavender, lemon balm, anise hyssop, columbine, bee balm, old-fashioned single hollyhocks, bachelor buttons, Echinacea sp., catnip and borage.

My world-view has changed too. Right now, we're in a blooming gap between cherries and apples, and the almost-open raspberries. No horse-chestnuts in the neighborhood, and bees don;t seem to visit lilacs much. Aren't there some old-fashioned single types? I've located two honeysuckle bushes that I might move, and if I can make time, I might plant a patch of buckwheat.

Lately, my eye drifts to flowering shrubs and trees, looking for the clouds of bees that should be surrounding them. All too often they are untended. No hum greets the ear. Where are the bees? Have all the urban bees fallen victim to CCD as well, or do they suffer from insecticidal attacks by paranoid, "all bugs must die" homeowners?

I'm ready to scream to the world, "Wake up! We need bees!" I've only had bees a couple weeks, but it doesn't seem too complicated to just play host to Apis mellifera. If more folks in town had hives, and if everyone in the "country" had hives, we'd be in much better shape. Witness what happens if there are only a few BIG banks, or a handful of auto companies. Let's not put all our hopes for pollination in a few traveling commercial beekeepers. If one out of every three things we eat comes by way of pollination by bees, then our future is much more impotant than letting someone else worry about it.

I see it happening, though. This year, there is a huge jump in the number of people planting gardens. The Slow Food movement is taking off or well established, depending on where you live. Once people make a few connections, there may be honeybee colonies in many more backyards. In the meantime, I wish more people would put a few bee-friendly plants in with their petunias. We need to provide for these brave ladies! If you're listening, here's what I'd have you do:
1. Stop using insecticides, especially anything with imidocloprid. It's been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder.
2. Plant a bee garden, or add pollen and nectar sources to your existing gardens
3. Identify and preserve "weeds" that are important food sources for bees (goldenrod for example; go to Urban Bee Gardens for a West Coast list, and here for a more general list.
4. Start keeping bees, but do some homework first. The biggest cause of CCD may be the way we're keeping bees!

All I need is a digital camera and some photos, and I'll hit the garden club meeting circuit!

Is it spring yet? Never mind summer.

Another week of typical confused Michigan weather: days in the 70s, then 50s (same day), and almost 2 inches of rain after a couple very dry weeks. We dodged a frost by 2 degrees last night, and the next few nights could be touchy. Right now, I'm very thankful for living on a slope. Our cold air tends to slide right across the road to the neighbor's. A friend thinks it's going to be a cool spring, good for brassicas and spinach. I guess I can live with that.

The rain brought the pond back up after it had dried to mud. It's only about as big as a bedroom, but last year we had frog and toad cacophonies, I mean choruses, for weeks. So far this year, it's been spring peepers and a couple nights have been warm enough for gray tree frogs. The ducks are happy again. They don't seem interested in nesting, but they love to scarf up seed from under the bird feeders.

The garden is pretty much in; it's still too cold to put out the basil and peppers. We went permaculture this year, following the keyhole garden strategy outlined in Gaia's Garden. While digging one of the circles, my spade hit something hard. (Damn!) After several more hits, we got curious. Turned out to be an old septic tank! That explains the chunks of black plastic pipe I kept digging up. No sign of water, so I'm assuming it's an old tank.

In homesteading, I've come to realize that everything you have is an asset! The lead pellets and blocks and wheel balancing weights I found are actually trade items for a muzzleloader hunter. The old doors covered with lead paint can be sliced up into covers for a cold frame. Maybe I should paint over the lead first. Still working on what to do with the 2 dryers left behind in the pole barn. Any ideas? The motors ought to be good for something.

In keeping with this philosophy, the newly discovered septic tank became an in-ground cistern for collecting rainwater! All I need to do is lift the lid, clean it out, run a couple downspouts into it, drill a hole in the lid and fit it with a hand pump from Lehman's catalog, and we'll be all set to water the garden all through those dry Julys. Add some filters and we could drink it! That all sounds soooo easy.

Friday, May 15, 2009

It's a girl! It's about 18,000 girls!

I got a call at 6:45 a.m. from the "U.S. Government" according to the caller ID. Hello, Mr. President? It was the local Post Office informing me that our bees were there and could be picked up anytime (with the unspoken tone of "real soon!"). We put a hold on breakfast and drove over to pick up our 2 packages of bees.

Within a couple hours, and with the help of my knowledgeable beekeeping partner (he had a hive several years ago), we installed "our" bees safely in their new homes. Things went smoothly,and I was amazed how easy it was to stand in the middle of a cloud of buzzing insects. Perhaps this was because they were in a state of confusion, not a state of rage. Perhaps it was the veil and bee suit! Our daughter is often in the middle of things, and this was no exception. Dressed in a veil and gloves, she dove right in, brushing bees into the hives, and holding a queen cage at one point.

In the middle of the excitement, a bee landed on my shoulder, and I looked down into those compound eyes. It was one of those beautiful inter-species moments where we somehow connected. It felt like my admiration and adoration was returned in the form of trust. I know I'll do all I can to ensure the health and well-being of the hives, and not out of obligation. Somehow I know I'm gonna love these little ladies!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mowing, herbs and bees

I pulled to zero-carbon reel mower out of the barn and cut some grass today. Just like last year, I found myself wrestling with the merits of mowing, which are few, versus the merits of leaving the "weeds" for their useful and enjoyable properties. Once you know a bit about herbalism, it's damned hard to mow a lawn! This year though, I got to it earlier and I didn't have the big thistle to leave for the goldfinches, or the fuzzy leaves of mulleins to leave for the kids to feel.

I did leave two patches of dandelions, however. Heresy! How could I do it? It was sooo easy; I have much more respect for dandelions than for grass. Dandelion greens are great in a spring salad, their blossoms can be made into wine (need to try that!), the dried roots can be used as a coffee substitute. As if that's not enough the tap root pulls nutrients up from deep in the soil. Can grass do all that?? Just say no to Roundup, and say yes to a yard full of sunshine.

As I walked by those patches of dandelions, I checked for any bee activity. True, the high of the the day was maybe 50 degrees, but there were no bees. It's just spooky to see so many flowers blooming right now, and so few bees.

We have 2 hives set up and the bees are due to arrive any day by U.S. Postal Service. Neither rain nor snow, nor buzzing boxes .... Stay tuned!

My daughter and I are going to participate in a bee survey this year, too. We found it at . Sounds like fun, and we're waiting for our sunflower seeds to arrive. If anyone actually reads this, check it out and participate. The bees need you!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A glimpse into my world

So here I am, digital world. Just a few clicks for me, but a giant leap away from Amish-kind. In my careful consideration of the impact of technology on life, we'll see how this goes. This blog may disappear if it starts sucking up too much of my time. Still, I am driven by a desire (?) to share thoughts and stuff I find with those who surf late at night and stumble across this site. I am under no illusions that I will hand down great wisdom, but maybe something will be useful to someone.

If you're willing to read my rants and such, so much the better. I'll try to offer something worth reading. As a disclaimer, those with minds like steel traps (i.e. rusted shut) should click the back button right now. We all need to stretch our minds with some intellectual yoga now and then. If you're unwilling to do so, well, you
already know everything you need to know.

Snowy Hollow is a small acreage in northwestern lower Michigan, on a north-facing gentle slope, just down from one of the highest spots in the county. We moved here a year ago, almost to the day, with the dream of growing some of our own food and raising our kids where they can get dirty in a good way. Most of the place is wooded, but some of that was thinned heavily and sloppily. Several trees were "barked up" in the logging operation. Our habitats include mature maple, some middle-aged bigtooth aspen, a power line swath, and a bit of grassy front yard.

Our big adventure here is raising a family and nurturing a relationship with this piece of Mother Earth. In so many places, the spirit of the land has been driven into hiding, or it has abandon hope and deserted us. Perhaps, over the course of a lifetime, I can create or restore a place where that spirit would feel welcome. For me, that presence makes the difference between occupying a plce and really living there.