Rural Fall

We had about two inches of snow the other night, but it blew into drifts. Several weeks ago, we had our first accumulating snow that stayed on the level. I had forgotten how much traffic is recorded in a few inches of snow this time of year. These coyote tracks were all around the old farmhouse and that’s not common. Usually, they’re shy and stay down along the Creek.

The trails tell tales and raise some questions. Obviously, the coyote walked along the rabbit’s trail. Was it at about the same time and this is a picture of the hunter and the hunted? Or, was the bunny safe because it came before or after the coyote? There’s no question about the tire tracks, though. The pickup passed later because those tire tracks cut across the coyote trail.

We’re hearing lots of coyote calls on clear, calm nights. We’re also hearing gunshots because the hunting seasons for both deer and pheasants are in full swing. There aren’t many pheasants this year, but we do hear cocky blue jays scolding the persistent starlings. A few straggling geese still honk their way along the Creek. And, on sunny clear mornings we have a silent pair of bald eagles that fly up from the Rock River Valley. Are they hunting or looking for carrion to clean up?

But, this time of year the first snow usually melts so the white gives way back to the brown and gold and green. The song that the north wind sings in green pine needles is different than the one moaning in the bare branches or rattling in the dry leaves of the hackberry trees. And, over the entire landscape we hear the rush of harvest: combines, grain wagons, trucks, and tractors. After the corn and beans are out of the fields, manure applicators move into the stubble.

So, now there’s another whole new spectrum of sensory signals—smells. Seems like the solid manure with bedding mixed in isn’t as obnoxious as the injected liquid manure. But, even the liquid manure isn’t too bad if it’s properly applied and worked into the soil. I do wonder/worry, however, if there are residues of antibiotics or hormones that go into the soil along with the beneficial organic carbon. That extra stuff might impact the health of the soil microbes and that would not be a good thing. I’ve looked for technical scientific studies that would tell us what the impacts of antibiotics might be on soil health. They’re rare. It’s probably easier to get funding to study ways to suppress the smell of manure lagoons.

But, fall on the Farm has other distinctive smells too. The silage that’s fed to cattle now that the grass isn’t so nutritious has a familiar sweet smell. It used to come out of tall silos. Now, it’s stored in big plastic tubes that lay out on the ground like huge white sausages. And, then there’s the signature smells of fall shared between farms and towns. Wet leaves and brown grass both smell the same in the country and in town. If the leaves are dry and burning, the smell is universally a sign of the season.

When we moved back to the Farm twenty years ago, there were familiar sights, sounds, and smells that reminded me of specific seasons. And, coyotes and eagles were really rare. Since then, those sensory signals have re-enforced the distinctive seasonal rounds. And, we regularly see coyotes and eagles all year long.

Posted in Earth Science, Life Science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Snowbound

Earlier this week we were snowbound in Colorado. The first storm dropped about 10 inches on our kids’ home in the mountains west of Boulder. The snow piled up on the trees and then fell a second time when the breeze shook the branches. The clouds pulled out the next day, the temperature went into the 50s, and there were a couple of “blue bird” days. However, that was only the first storm.

The second storm mainly hit the open prairie east of the mountains with much less snow up at higher elevations. High winds on the prairie whipped up snowdrifts like those that we commonly get on the Farm. There’s a big difference between the fluffy mountain snow calmly piling up and the roaring prairie snow that gets pounded into hard drifts! And, there may be bare ground right adjacent to the drifts.

There are some things that are the same when you get snowbound in the mountains or out on the plains. When school was canceled recently in the mountains we did the same things that we used to do after a prairie snow storm: card games, board games, comfort food (especially popcorn), comfortable naps, and long nights. Cozy family snow holidays are the same in both landscapes.

But, getting snowbound on the prairie Farm or in the mountains also produces some anxiety. When one of our grandchildren was born 13 years ago, we were out here in the mountains and worried about the newborn youngster. When we were house bound by a blizzard on the Farm several years later, we had the responsibility of frail “oldsters” that gave similar worries. What if the electricity goes off? Do we have enough supplies? Will the stove or furnace keep up with the wind chill? And, deep snow means that the normal outside chores get complicated, even with improved equipment for moving snow.

It’s always been that way. We have letters from our homesteading great-grandmother to her sons in North Dakota that describe a heavy snowfall in southwest Minnesota before World War I. One of the sons who stayed home on the Farm also worked part-time on the railroad shoveling drifts off the tracks. There are no particular family traditions about the Children’s Blizzard of the 1880s or of the hard storms in the 1940s. However, the great-grandchildren do remember a series of winter storms that closed schools for four consecutive weeks in 1962.

So, the nagging anxieties and the snug comforts of being snowbound are the same today as in the past. And, the same spectrum of emotions is experienced in the mountains as out on the prairie Farm.  

Posted in Earth Science, Family History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Making Winter Wood

Now we’ve had the first frost and the first snow of the season. The leaves are turning yellow and the snow that stuck to tree trunks has melted. It was in times like this current reprieve from impending winter, that people used to “make” wood.

The furnace in the old farmhouse burned corncobs, coal, and wood. It was replaced by fuel oil during the 1960s, but there was a back-up unit attached that still burned wood. And, there was a small wood stove in the kitchen. The poorly insulated top floor had an oil burner as a heat source because none of the ductwork from the basement furnace went upstairs.

Once there was a line of mature elm trees along the State Line south of the house. That line helped meet the requirements for the original tree claim. But in the 1970s, Dutch elm disease wiped them out. Dad had all of the dead trees cut down and then spent years cleaning them up to burn in heating the house. It wasn’t really a necessity, but I think that it was “therapeutic” activity for him after my brother Bob was killed in Viet Nam.

Dad traced his hearing problems back to the noisy chain saws he used. He never blamed the old John Deere tractors like I’ve heard other people do. The cattle shed got converted to a really big woodshed where he could work protected out of the weather as well as store the processed wood. Eventually, he replaced the loud gas-powered chain saws with quieter electric ones, but the big trunks and limbs still had to be split down to the size that would fit in the small stove. That’s how the wedges and ax were used.

Over the last twenty years we’ve moved out that stockpile of reserved wood and cleaned up the shed for storage. It won’t be the same place where sawing and splitting wood was therapeutic recreation. But, in the first one hundred years, before the shed was even built, “making” winter wood was an important fall activity on Lone Tree Farm.

This buzz saw was one of the main tools used in that chore. It’s buried at the back of another storage shed, but back in the day it saw lots of action. The blade has no shields and was turned by a belt powered by a tractor. Thick logs about six feet long were hoisted onto the table and then pushed into the naked, spinning blade. It would have been a nightmare for OSHA, but was a pretty efficient way to convert big limbs to a smaller more manageable size. I don’t know why it was called a buzz saw because the noise was more like a scream that echoed all over the farmyard.

Another tool for making winter wood back then was this crosscut saw. We had two of them. The larger one was Grandpa’s who was a big man. It had jagged, wicked looking teeth that probably worked well to rip large limb into lengths that could fit on the buzz saw table. The smaller saw was Dad’s.

Grandpa gave Dad this saw as a wedding present. The story goes that even though the newly weds were in a partnership, the saw only had one handle. There was a place to mount a second handle, but this one was a one-man saw. In every relationship, each person had their own responsibility. Back then, men sawed wood.

That’s not so much true now. This is the little battery-powered chain saw that my Margaret uses to trim trees around the house yard. It’s the current version of “recreational” sawing. Sometimes, I get to help clean up the sticks and burn them in a brush pile. But, not always.

And, the two old crosscut saws that were powered by Dad and Grandpa? They’ve moved to Colorado. Now, they’re hanging on our son’s shed as retro, Rocky Mountain “chic” decorations.

Posted in Family History, Farm History | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Equinox Week

It happens twice a year. The polished surfaces of tombstones facing east, light up to reflect the sunrise. It shows up as a brilliant bright line at the base of the trees on the horizon in this photo that Margaret took. That’s the State Line Cemetery across the Kanaranzi Creek and straight west of us.

It happened this past week when the equinox sunrise aligned perfectly with the east-west State Line. But, there were a lot of other changes that happened this week. Unfortunately, the impeachment investigations pushed the climate “strikes” out of the news coverage. The next equinox sunrise will happen again next spring. We’ll see how all the impeachment stuff works out. But, climate change will still be with us. It is inexorable.

It’s a global crisis: ice caps are melting and rainforests are burning.

It’s a national emergency: there are wild fires on the West Coast and severe hurricanes on the Gulf Coast.

It’s a time of changes in the Midwest: “rain bombs” drop a month’s worth of precipitation in just a few hours and new varieties of weeds and insect pests are moving north.

So, what’s happening on Lone Tree Farm? How does climate change impact our local rural environment?

Well, global warming does put excess energy and water into the atmosphere and that aspect of climate change hits home for us.

The extra water is influencing our lakes, streams, and wetlands. In other words, the hydrosphere is impacted.

But, changes in the atmosphere and hydrosphere also affect the lithosphere. Soil and rocks don’t change as fast as water and air. But, even those seemingly more solid things change as well.

These two photos illustrate changes in soil and rock down in the Creek pasture. As the channel has shifted, that big boulder has slowly emerged from the eroding high bank. Three years ago it was barely showing out of the bank in the left photo. Plants were growing on it. Three years before that the rock was still buried in the soil. Now, the boulder is out in the water away from the bank in the right photo.

This shows the currant gap between the dirt bank and the exposed boulder.

The rock is located on the outside of a meander loop where erosion is naturally faster. But, there are also other factors at work.

An “altered hydrology” has been documented in our area. Stream flow after the early 1980s has increased substantially. This increased water in the total ”plumbing” system is interpreted to be due in part to increased agricultural tile drainage. But, it’s also thought to be the result of the increased precipitation associated with climate change.

The debates about climate change are so polarized and politicized that it’s hard to see any solutions. Unfortunately, there are people making big bucks and building political careers by NOT looking for solutions. But, there really are things that can be done in our local rural setting. And, they are things that make economic as well as environmental sense.

In our neighborhood along Kanaranzi Creek, farmers are raising more cover crops, doing rotational grazing, reviving longer and more diverse crop rotations, and continuing to do minimum tillage. These practices are all rooted in traditional values, but are also part of the newly energized “soil health” and “regenerative agriculture” awareness.

However, it’s the basic mental attitude that’s more important than these concrete local results. It’s better to work directly with Mother Nature than complain about big corporations or shouting demonstrators.

This equinox week has been a time of change.

Posted in Earth Science | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Picking Wild Plums

Several weeks ago, I waded across the Creek and picked twelve pounds of wild plums. That’s not so easy to do this week because the channel is back to running full after the latest “rain bomb”. Most of the major plum thickets are located on the north side of the Creek and location, as we all know, is everything.

Location within the thicket controls the plum crop. The best clusters of ripe fruit seem to be on the south sides of the thicket. That’s where the blossoms were less impacted by strong north winds this past spring. And, those are the places where fruit can ripen in the full exposure to the sun now this fall. It also seems like the smaller trees at the edges of a dense, mature thicket have the best fruit. At least that’s where the ripe plums are easiest to pick. Access is an important part of location.

Picking is tricky. The ripest fruit is on the end of small, springy branches, so you can pull those branches down to get the plums within reach. But if you inadvertently let go of the branch, it bounces back and shakes off all of the unpicked ripe fruit. Those problems don’t exist for the inaccessible plums at the top of the larger, older trees.

One clue to finding a concentration of ripe plums is smell. The fruit that has naturally fallen off the trees has a distinctive good fragrance that warns you to stop looking at the ground and start looking up in the branches. Commonly, wild plums hang in pairs; one big and one small. Both the big and little plums have a thin layer of yellow flesh between the bitter outer skin and the large pit that dominates the center. If you happen to be eating as you pick, that yellow flesh is sweet and warm from the sun. However, usually you end up spitting out both the bitter skin and the big central pit.

Wild plums have thorns. Ripe fruit that falls may get impaled on a thorn. And, the plum picker may get scratched. Those thorns are there for protection, after all.

Picking wild plums is a trip back in time. One Native American nation called September the “moon of ripe plums”. Their linguistic descendants probably still do. My grandfather, who was the son of the homesteaders, had his own technique for picking plums. A canvas tarp was stretched over a wagon box and the team of horses pulled it into the thicket. Then he shook the trees and the falling ripe fruit collected on the tarp. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people from town would come out to go “pluming”. It was quite a social event and was also a real contrast to my solitary communion with Nature as I pick.

For the children of the Depression, the plum harvest was a balance between waste and greed. They felt a deep obligation to make good use of the bounty, but it was also a big job to pick and preserve. I once offered an elderly aunt a bag of plums, but she refused forcefully. She knew that she had a responsibility to do the preserves if she accepted the gift.

One of my great-great grandmas had a unique recipe for plum jam that I really like. However, Margaret doesn’t care for that jam because it has anise in it. She also likes a clear jelly better than the lumpy jam. We’ll probably be making jelly with this batch of wild plums because the prime cook’s preference is paramount.

Posted in Farm History, Life Science | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fall on the Farm

Our currant pop culture recognizes Labor Day as the last weekend of summer. Some schools started in August, but most started this past week. The astronomical end of summer and beginning of fall is still several weeks away (September 22-23), but the meteorological first day of fall is taken as September 1, according to the National Weather Service. That makes it easier to summarize the seasonal differences by quarters of the calendar months.

Fall on Lone Tree Farm is full of color. Red grass ripens in the prairie patches and warm season paddocks. It’s mostly big blue stem, but other native grasses like little blue stem and switch grass also seem to turn red at the ends of leaves and up the stems. And, golden rod lights up the green and brown grass areas…….. and gets blamed for allergies. But, the “interweb” says the main allergy culprit is ragweed that often grows in association with the golden rod. Golden rod is another case of an innocent plant getting labeled as a problem.

Sunflowers are running riot in the ditch near the mailbox and also in some of the waterways. We need to harvest some of the seeds and get them established in our prairie patches to go with the good standing crop of milkweed. Golden rod, sunflowers, and milkweed all add biologic diversity and provide support for pollinators. OR, are they “weeds”?

Thistles are weeds, but they are also monarch food. We do have some monarchs migrating through, but not as many as some of the clusters that we used to see. We’ve got a friend who is raising and releasing monarchs that she collects from milkweeds. Someone commented that she’s saving the world one monarch at a time. Another friend is involved in a program to tag monarchs to document migration patterns. I think that both of these are worthy causes.

Trees are starting to turn color. This is Margaret’s flame-shaped red maple (and her picture, like the monarch on the thistle). Some cottonwoods and box elders are starting to show yellow. However, hackberries and ash are still mostly green. They both seem to last longer in the fall after getting a late start in the spring. Dad used to say that they were “careful” trees that waited to green up until later in the spring when the risk of a killing frost was reduced.

Fall is harvest time. We’re just starting to see these spider webs get set up as bug traps in the short grass. So, that’s one harvest that has begun. There are a few apples on the old tree up at the “Greats’ house”. It’s the last apple tree in the yard and it hasn’t got many more fall seasons left. There are more dead branches than green ones with apples. After the warm days this past week, we’ll check the wild plums down at the Creek. They should also be ready for a fall harvest.

Posted in Life Science | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ice Age Animals

Last week we left the Farm on a quick, nostalgic trip to the Black Hills. We did all the “touristy” things that we haven’t done for decades, including the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs. My bright wife suggested that we take along a box of bones from the Creek (why didn’t I think of that?) to show them to the professional staff at the Mammoth Site. And so, that’s what we did.

The director of research at the Mammoth Site is the same paleontologist who worked on a tusk excavated at Hills, MN, (about 20 miles west of the Farm) earlier this month. Dr. Jim Mead was extremely helpful and identified several of the fossils that were illustrated in the post from Lone Tree Farm last week. This currant post has lots of pictures from our visit to the Mammoth Site. Thanks to Dr. Mead we now know that our Kanaranzi Creek pasture has the remains of several animals from the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago.

The tooth on the left is from the Farm. Dr. Mead described it as a lower tooth from a young Columbian mammoth. The teeth in the right are still in place in the excavations at the Mammoth Site. The flat ridges on mammoth teeth are designed to grind up grass in contrast to the conical ridges on mastodon teeth that were more effective for browsing twigs on trees and shrubs. There are no mastodons at the Mammoth Site. Last week I incorrectly said that our tooth is from a wooly mammoth, but there’s a big difference in size and population. For example, the Mammoth Site has the remains of 56 Columbian mammoths, but only 4 wooly mammoths. 

Mammoths only had four big teeth, two upper and two lower. Here’s a picture of a reconstruction that shows the position in the skull. That skull is part of the total skeleton shown on the right.

The bone on the left is from Lone Tree Farm. It eroded out of the Creek bank this past spring. Dr. mead identified it as part of a leg bone from an extinct Ice Age bison. The picture on the right is a similar bone on display at the Mammoth Site. So, now we have a 10,000 year-old bison bone to go with the 1,000 year-old bison bones from our archaeological site located in about the same area.

Here’s the location of the leg bone in the Ice Age bison compared to the human skeleton. And, here’s the skull that shows how large the horns were. These are both displays from the Mammoth Site. These Ice Age animals were big!

This partial horn from the Creek may be from an Ice Age bison. Dr. Mead was not absolutely certain, but the size and curvature do suggest that it’s probably not one from a modern bison.

There are a couple displays at the Mammoth Site that illustrate just how big these extinct animals were, relative to their modern counterparts. The Columbian mammoth is the big dark gray guy, the wooly mammoth outline is brown, and the modern African and Asian elephants are also shown in shades of gray. The biggest bison is the extinct long-horn species probably represented by our leg bone and the smallest bison is the modern one that is probably associated with our archaeological site.

Last fall we had some preliminary work done on the archaeological site located down in our Creek pasture. She helped us get this Native American site registered with the state and another archaeologist identified a piece of pottery associated with a culture that was here about 1,000 years ago. We need to have some more work done on those artifacts and buffalo bones, but now we additionally have a nearby site of fossil bones from Ice Age animals. The work on these bones from 10,000 years ago will have to be done by a paleontologist. “Science marches on!”

Posted in Earth Science, Farm History, Life Science | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment