“Sabbath” on the Farm

Voluntary self-isolation during this current COVID-19 crisis can be considered an opportunity to celebrate an extended “Sabbath”. That was the suggestion made by one of our favorite pastors in his virtual sermon this past Palm Sunday. He reminded us that a “Sabbath” is supposed to be a time of detachment, rest, and reflection.

The pastor drew a useful parallel between the Holy Week leading up to Easter and the stay-at-home rules that are in place for COVID-19. Pushing the analogy further, we could say that our new normal after this pandemic will be a fundamental change similar to the spiritual changes that some people experienced after the first Easter.

Exactly fifty years ago on Lone Tree Farm, our family experienced a crisis that resulted in a “Sabbath” time that changed our lives forever. On April 13, 1970, Robert J. Shurr was killed in action in Viet Nam.

Our “Sabbath-like-Holy-Week” came over the next several weeks after we got word of his death. We went into a self-imposed exile on the farm while we waited for his body to return home. Of course, there were family and friends trying to provide comfort. But, most of the time it was mainly just the immediate family dealing with the tragedy in their own way.

The late Sixties and early Seventies were similar to today in many ways. Fear and distrust and polarization were extreme. The “hard hats” hated the “hippy peaceniks”; capitalist economies were scared of Communism; and many Americans did not believe our Federal government’s propaganda about the Viet Nam War. The country could have used a “Sabbath” time of reflection and regrouping, but it never came. The war just dragged on.

While we waited for Bob’s body, we missed out on some history. The Apollo 13 accident and recovery happened from April 14 to April 17. We also had very little idea that the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970. Here’s a link to the blog post last year dealing with Earth Day on the farm: https://lonetreefarm.blog/2019/04/22/earth-day-on-the-farm/

During our ‘Sabbath” time of waiting, we planned the funeral and interment. There’s a hill slope down in the Creek pasture where several large boulders are eroding out. These two pictures above show how that hill slope looks today. Back in 1970, we found one particularly large boulder at that location to use as a headstone for Bob’s grave. The monument company refused to carve words directly into the rock because they were concerned about internal fractures. However, they did suggest a metal plate fastened to the boulder as an alternative.

And, that’s what we did. The pasture rock was mounted on a slab of commercial red granite and the plate was fitted into a flat surface cut into the front of the rough fieldstone. The tree design was done by one of the priests who officiated at Bob’s funeral. It’s intended to represent the Lone Tree that gave the farm its name. He initially didn’t have leaves on the tree, but then decided to add them as the symbol of hope in new growth. The final design was used on Bob’s funeral folder. About forty-five years later we used the same tree design for my parents’ headstone.

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Kanaranzi Creek and Covid-19

The last two years we’ve had record rainfall and Kanaranzi Creek has changed a lot because of it. Although the spring melts have not produced much flooding, the summer “rain bombs” have resulted in bank-full flows sustained over long periods of time. Large blocks have slumped off the walls of the channel and wide new areas of fill have given the Creek a new look.

This photo shows the location of the channel in the spring of 2019. It’s a high resolution air photo available from the local county. Areas of fill are obvious because of the light-colored sand deposits, but the cut banks and eroded slump blocks are a little harder to see. The blue line is the channel position taken from mapping many years ago, so you can get some idea of how the Creek has shifted. This total photo is data. It has information that can be used to interpret exactly how much cut and fill has happened in the last three years.

The specific areas of cut and fill can be mapped and measured on air photos. This image was prepared by Arlyn Gerke who works in the Rock County Land management Office and is an expert in geographic information systems (GIS). It shows that between 2016 and 2019 more than 8 acres were lost to eroding cuts (shown in red) and almost 2 acres were gained by depositing fill (shown in yellow). These are interpretations based on the data. The eroding red areas could be stabilized and the yellow fill areas could be planted with a cover crop protection. However, both of those statements move beyond observation and interpretation and into the realm of opinion.

Opinion is a slippery slope. We could argue about the ultimate causes of the flooding, like climate change or agricultural drainage tiles, or we could argue about how to “fix” the channel with riprap protection or planting native grasses with deep roots. But, these are ideas based on interpretations and these ideas get progressively farther removed from the basic data. The people with the best ideas are the ones who understand the interpretations and who are closest to the data.

Still, opinions can lead to useful action. In the case of the Kanaranzi Creek, one possible action will be to plant a diverse mix of native plants in the areas of bare fill. Another possibility would be to establish native grasses along the steep banks, although the existing brome grass sod will make that difficult.

In the case of the currant Covid-19 crisis, we need actions based on opinions that are rooted in data-based interpretations. That’s the job of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other governmental agencies. That’s what Dr. Anthony Fauci is trying to communicate to the nation. And, that’s what we need to understand as informed citizens.

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Old Books

Winter is a good time to do some reading. Sometimes the books themselves have stories that are just as interesting as those on the pages between their covers.

My family has been blessed with school librarians. Our daughter is currently a school librarian and I plan to give her these two old books to celebrate that continuing tradition. They’re probably more appropriate for curio display rather than content, because things have changed a lot in in the past 70 or 80 years.These two textbooks belonged to my mother who was also a school librarian. The copyright dates are1941and 1953 so there’s no mention of eBooks or any digital media. Those things weren’t even dreamed of back in those days!

The inscription in this book says that my dad and his sister gave it to their grandpa (my great-grandpa) for his birthday in May of 1921. Actually, since Dad was only 3 years old and his sister was 11, it was probably their mother (my grandma) who gave her own father the book. He was Scotch-Irish and loved Bobby Burns poetry; the copyright date is 1900. I recently gave our grandson who has an interest in music, a book of gospel songs. It was used by my grandpa (his great-great-grandpa) who sang in a male quartet in the early part of the twentieth century.

This set of encyclopedias carries a copyright date of 1915. It probably belonged to my grandparents who were the gospel singer and the mom who gifted the poetry book. They both enjoyed reading and raised their two children to do the same. These books were the Wikipedia back in those days, except that the content was rigidly controlled by the publisher. That’s a stark contrast to the open-source exchange of information that we enjoy today. Some things HAVE improved!

This series of books is called the “Student’s Handy Shakespeare” and the single volume on the right end is titled “A Child’s History of England”. That single volume is by Charles Dickens; it carries an 1881 copyright. I think that these books all belonged my grandma. My aunt gave these books to my daughter for a college graduation gift. My aunt was the 11 year old who “gave” the gift of Bobby Burns poetry and she also grew up to be a school librarian.

So, some member of my family has basically had their nose in a book for six generations. And, we’ve been blessed with school librarians.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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