Going With the Flow

If I had a blog, today I would reflect on the start of a new year in the wake of the Flood of 2015.

The Little Piney from the Bridge at Newburg

The Little Piney from the Bridge at Newburg

Missouri is about rivers. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 named rivers and creeks plus countless back-road streams that come to life when rain is abundant. On Christmas night 2015, it started to rain. It came down in buckets for three days and nights, leaving us with a grand total of 11.26 inches. Even the tiniest stream became a roaring river, closing back roads and interstates, washing away homes and cars,  and changing the lay of the land in ways I never imagined.

Yesterday, we visited our own river: The quarter-mile of the Little Piney Creek that is our southern property line. We wished we could see the Piney when it was up and rolling, but the myriad side-streams kept us away until yesterday afternoon; until the moment we were witness to the raw and merciless power of Nature.

Before & After

Before & After

To put it bluntly, the river and the valley that lies beside it is unrecognizable. The pasture that once fed our cows and sheep is now a beach. The river gouged a new inlet, six or seven feet deep and fifty yards long, into the field, buried or ripped away the fences, and left a giant sycamore, uprooted by the flow, resting on its side where the river bank used to be.

 

The New Channel

The New Channel

The pathway that meandered through the green mansions of sycamore, river birch, and paw-paw trees is scoured clean of underbrush. Great masses of sticks, leaves, and vines are draped around tree trunks, six or seven feet above the ground. Feet of sand cover the ground and everywhere, great trees lie upon the ground, felled by the raging stream.

The Path to the River

The Path to the River

At the river’s edge, the sand bar where we picnicked, swam, and sunbathed on steamy summer days is reformed. Here, the sand is gone; replaced by stones from miles upstream. The path we used to drive down is blocked by downed trees and made almost impassable by a huge hole filled with river water.

 

A New World Order

A New World Order

It is sobering to see an entire landscape changed overnight; taken from the world of the familiar and replaced with something barren, battered and bruised. This morning I stepped into an alien world and I felt afraid. Standing on the banks of the Little Piney I faced the fear that haunts us all: The fear that we are not in control.

Nature, biology, random human violence all force us to admit that however neat and tidy we make our personal lives, nothing is certain; nothing is forever. In the blink of an eye, our world can change forever – and that is what keeps us awake at night.

The Sycamore

The Sycamore

In the face of The Flood, stepping across the threshold into a new year feels less comfortable than it has in the past. I can pretend that my vision of 2016 is accurate: That I can set goals and see them realized; make plans and see them bear fruit and walk confidently ahead on a familiar path, knowing that the foundation of my life is secure, but the Little Piney tells me to be careful because life isn’t safe. In fact, life is terribly unsafe. It is unsafe for children, unsafe for adults. Life is unsafe in any direction. Life is unsafe at any speed.

So how do I move forward? How do I face this brave, new world? The Piney offers me wisdom in her rebirth: The disaster came, but The Piney didn’t resist. She rose and fell, changed her course, and even made footprints in a foreign land. The river flows on without fear of the next flood. Even today she is coming clear again. In a few more days, her voice will be softer and, come spring, little green things will begin to poke through the choking sand and reclaim their rightful place among the budding trees. The Piney says, “Ride out the catastrophe, then start again.”

Things on the river will not be the same. New paths will emerge, old trees will fall, and water will make its home where once there was dry land, but, if we are wise, we too will adapt to the change. Even in this microcosm of life, we will find new bliss. Summer will come and one fine afternoon, we will traverse the fallen trees and muddy pools and sit beside the laughing waters once again. The wood thrush will sing, cardinals will find refuge in the brush piles, and otter will find crawdads under rocks that have come from many miles away. Life is change. Change is life. All we can do is go with the flow.

The Little Piney Renewed

The Little Piney Renewed

Winter Days

If I had a blog, today I would write about The Greenwood in winter.

The Missouri Arctic

The Missouri Arctic

Winter is back. Yesterday’s high was 15 degrees (with 25 mph winds) and today is even colder. The low last night was -2 and we’ll be lucky if we crawl into the teens for a high this afternoon. The snow that fell on Monday is reflecting most of the sun’s warmth back into space, leaving us wrapped in a blanket that offers no warmth. Until the weather breaks, our lives revolve around caring for our animals 24-7; keeping them well-fed and sheltered from the wind and snow.

Rain in the Snow

Rain in the Snow

Yesterday, despite the wind, we let the horses out for the day to stretch their legs and get some fresh air after three days in the barn. Horses are a great source of potential energy and when they are kept up, that energy builds day by day until they can get outside and burn it off. They made quite a spectacle of themselves, running, bucking, and even rolling in the snow; thrilled to be out in the sun and cold. Watching them play like kids on a Snow Day always lifts my spirits; at least someone is enjoying life in the freezer. I don’t really hate the cold weather, but as I get older I tend to adopt the Zen of the Hen instead.

The Zen of the Hen

The Zen of the Hen

Over at the chicken house, the tenor is quite different. My laying hens, rooster, and Ferdinand the duck prefer to stay indoors when snow is on the ground. I opened their door to the coop this morning, but no one wanted to venture out. The hens spent their day on the roost, under their heat lamp, or busy scratching for the dried mealworms I scattered in the straw as a treat. Ferdinand, my fawn and white runner duck, did have to forego his daily bath, but he when he saw his swimming pool had turned into a skating rink, he, too, was content to nestle down in the straw and enjoy winter from afar, alongside his roommate Edward, the Australorp rooster. I promised my boys warmer days will return, but even as I said it, I wondered how many times I’ll make that promise before the cold is through.

The Horse Barn

The Horse Barn

The bulk of our winter chores revolves around cleaning horse stalls. When all five horses are indoors full-time, keeping their quarters clean is an arduous job. While it is easier to scoop frozen “horse apples” and our work is certainly less fragrant this time of year, there is no getting around the fact that it’s plain old hard work. To pass the time, I turned to the mantra I used when backpacking. Most backpackers have a chant they use to distract themselves when hiking up an endless hill or trudging across rugged terrain. I adopted mine from a book I read about a woman who through-hiked the Appalachian Trail. It goes like this: “We are the through-hikers, mighty, mighty through-hikers. Every where we go-oh, people want to know-oh, who we are and so we tell them, ‘We are the through-hikers, mighty, mighty through-hikers…’ ” This encouragement has gotten me to the top of many mountain passes and today, it got me to the end of my task in record time. When I was finally able to stand up straight and stretch my aching back I felt as though I had reached the summit of Everest. Mom and I gave the horses a round of apple-treats, checked in with the barn cats and headed home for lunch in front of the fire. Mission accomplished.

Me

Me

In five hours, it will be chore-time again and we’ll start the lugging, lifting, and loading all over again. Some days I wonder why I chose this life rather than that of a business-woman. I could be sitting behind a desk in a warm office on these bitter mornings, sipping coffee and chatting with clients and co-workers, far removed from the wind that rattles the windows and the curtains of snow that dance across the parking lot, but then I open the barn door and am greeted by a symphony of nickers, clucks, meows, and crows that remind me just how much I am needed by the creatures I love. I might be able to earn more or achieve more at another job, but nowhere on earth could I feel more complete. This is where I belong.

True North

If I had a blog, today I would write about my secret love affair with arctic cold.

A Parhelic Circle that formed around the sun on our coldest day of 2014.

A Parhelic Circle that formed around the sun on our coldest day of 2014.

“Time for the weather report: It’s cold out, folks, bone-crushing cold. The kind of cold that’ll wrench the spirit out of a young man or forge it into steel.” On this ten-degree morning with 30 mph winds screaming through the tree tops, the forecast given by Chris-in-the-Morning on Northern Exposure fits the prediction for The Greenwood on this polar January day. While most people are running from shelter to shelter, heads bowed and bodies tensed against winter’s return, I have to admit, I revel in the cold. Whatever my bloodlines, somewhere in my DNA is the code for Eskimo, Laplander, or Sherpa – a string of the genome that makes me feel centered, even euphoric, when I face chores on a day like today.

Me in my Up North gear.

Me in my Up North gear.

Part of my love for les temps froids is simply that I thrive in the cold and wilt in the heat. My inner furnace keeps me warm regardless of the wind chill, but apparently I have no internal cooling system and summer heat sends me to the mat. But that’s just a small part of the story – a story that begins in 1990, with the advent of a television show called Northern Exposure. I was in college, living alone for the first time and searching for an identity that fit my solitary, wilderness-loving nature. When I saw Northern Exposure, a critical piece of my inner puzzle fell into place telling me The North was the place for me. Not only did pointing my compass in that direction lead me to my own version of Cicely, a little town called Ely in Northern Minnesota, it also introduced me to the fascinating world of dogsled racing – the world of The Beargrease, the Yukon Quest and The Iditarod.

True North - A piece of original art I created in 2000.

True North – A piece of original art I created in 2000.

Overall, I have no interest in professional sports, but when the dogsled racing season begins, I’m as rabid as a fan can be. I have no idea who won last year’s World Series, but I can tell you who’s won last year’s races, their finish times, how many dogs they used, and what strategies they employed to beat their competitors. I follow The Iditarod online and often stay up well past midnight to watch the winner pull under the burled arches at the finish line in Nome. Watching the men and women who spend ten days travelling day and night through treacherous landscapes and bone-chilling cold, I am filled with admiration – and, in my younger years, a dream of running dogs myself.

My Iditarod Gear

My Iditarod Gear

Now that I am now well into my forties, and deeply invested in my life here in Missouri, I imagine my Iditarod dreams will stay just that. Though I may never have the experience of crossing Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range or running down the frozen Yukon River at -40 degrees, I can still get my fix when the polar vortex comes to call. Then, standing on the rise beyond the barn, with snow swirling around me and the wind ruffling the rabbit-fur lining of my hat, I know for just a moment what it feels like to face True North, what it feels like to come home.

The Spring Chicken In Winter

If I had a blog today I would write about the first snowstorm of the season.

Snow Day

Snow Day

It’s snowing. Real, heavy, stick-to-the-ground snow that’s been piling up since late morning, transforming our little valley into a winter jewel. I am glad the snow has come; not only because of its beauty, but because it justifies the three days of back-breaking work we’ve put in preparing for the storm.

November 15 - Frosty Morning

Frosty Morning

I love nothing more than getting ready for foul weather. There is something utterly satisfying about working your knuckles to the bone so your animals will be warm, sheltered, and well-fed with the snow begins to fall. Since I am the main farm-hand these days, I’ve  taken on most of the storm prep myself. I spent one whole day cleaning and bedding the horse-stalls, washing up the bowls in the the indoor automatic waterers and setting up water-heaters in the outdoor troughs. Once that was done, I set up a heater in the cat-room at the barn so Toby and Miranda can enjoy a balmy 60-degree environment and I placed heat-lamps over the chicken roost to protect my hens from frostbitten combs and wattles. I was a little concerned that by evening, I couldn’t walk or straighten my back when bedtime rolled around, but, I rationalized, “I’m just getting warmed up. Surely my muscles will get with the program in a day or two. After all, I’m still in my forties – a spring chicken you might say.”

The Storm Begins

The Storm Begins

Day two gave my “inner chicken” another run for its money. Early in the day, I took the big truck to town and got a load of straw to use for the hens, Edward the rooster, and Ferdinand the duck. Straw is much lighter than hay, but when one’s muscles have been compromised, unloading a pickup full of bales and stacking them in the barn can be a bit of a challenge. Bedding Ed and Ferdie is easy. Their domain is a box-stall at the barn and I had their bachelor pad looking good in minutes, but the hen house is big and it took two big bales to get their house fresh and clean. I cursed my aching back once the bedding was done, but watching my hens scratch for bits of wheat in the golden straw made it all worthwhile. If I could have called it quits at that point, life would have been grand, but, because farm-life takes no prisoners, I still had horse stalls to clean and horses to feed. By bedtime even my toenails hurt and I began to have concerns about that this spring chicken had passed her “sell by” date.

Day Three should have been a cake-walk: Regular chores with a quick detour to clean the silt out of the automatic waterers. The dirt that was clogging the water-flow came from repairs our plumber made to a broken water pipe. No big deal: Just remover the filters and we’re back in business. Not. The filters came out easily, and they were filthy, but when I turned the water back on, nothing happened. The little spigots were as dry as a bone. I got out the repair manual and my heart sank. “If cleaning the filter does not restore full-function to the waterer, remove the bowl, basket, and counterweight; open the control valve and clean thoroughly.” Egads.

Let It Snow

Let It Snow

And so began the six-hour siege. Dad and I disassembled each waterer, removed the control valve, cleaned it and put things back together again. Then we had to calibrate the waterers. This is an inexact process whereby one tinkers with adjustment screws and weight placement until water flows freely but doesn’t overflow the bowl. “Trial-and-error” really doesn’t do this tedious process justice. Not only is it frustrating and time-consuming, it requires the repair-person to stand hunched over for hours, utterly destroying one’s back, legs, and hips. In three days I had gone from spring chicken to stewing hen and a nice, hot soak in a crock pot didn’t sound half-bad. Dad and I crippled through the evening, faced off with chores this morning, and then, about ten o’clock, our labors were rewarded. It began to snow.

The aimless flurries that came first soon turned into a proper storm and I had to hurry to get the horses inside before they got wet. Moisture is not necessarily a problem to horses, but when the low is forecast to be eleven degrees, hypothermia can be a concern, especially for the fine boned and delicate Arabian horses in our herd. I wasn’t thrilled to return to the barn less than an hour after I had left, but once the horses were settled in their stalls, munching hay and drinking their clean, clear water, all my aches and pains seemed a small price to pay.  All across the farm, my babies were tucked in safe and warm while the beautiful snow fell all around. It was a Christmas card ending to a mid-November day.

Good Night Chickens

Good Night Chickens

It is dark now, the only light the soft glow emanating from the barn and hen house. All is calm. All is bright. As for the spring chicken, she is comfortable on the couch, heating pad and hot coffee in tow. Its been a heck of a week, but worth every ache and pain. That’s what love is all about.

Dancing in the Rain

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of the rain.

A Perfect Morning

A Perfect Morning

It has been a dry summer here on The Greenwood. Since the first of June, we’ve only had a quarter-inch of rain and its absence has left our green-world crisp and brown. Since then, I’ve tried every rain-dance, rain-prayer, and rain-spell in the book, but nothing has worked. The weather, it seems, is a force beyond my control.

Summer Evening

Summer Evening

Last night, with a forecast that promised rain, I was tempted to beg, plead, dance, cry, and threaten any deities who would listen, but then I stopped. I had been down this path so many times before and my cosmic temper-tantrums never worked. Maybe it was time to try something new; something radical. Maybe it was time to trust the wisdom of The Universe over that of my fragile human mind.

When I said my prayers, I skipped my traditional “begging-prayer,” and instead, said an “I trust you” prayer. As much as I wanted rain, I would trust that The Universe knew better than I and would provide what the Earth needed instead. I went to sleep with a lighter heart, though I was unsure what the morning would bring.

Mist on Hawk Ridge

Mist on Hawk Ridge

At 2AM I was was awakened by the sweetest sound imaginable: The sound of thunder rolling down the valley, followed by the sound of pouring rain. At last, the time had come.

We had half-an-inch of rain in the night and it continues to fall as “a gentle hickory” this morning. There is mist on Hawk Ridge, the air is pungent with the smell of damp earth, and none of it is thanks to me.

Although it goes against my nature to surrender control (or the illusion thereof), I find there is relief in the knowledge that I am not allowed to control everything. It is a lesson I am sure I will have to repeat, but for now I will rejoice in my epiphany: The realization that, hard as I may try, I cannot see all ends. As the raindrops splash on my face and run rivulets down my arms, I see the beauty in trusting a power greater than myself, one that allows for miracles in the most unlikely places. I can put away my pleas and bargains, my threats and bribes, and revel in the words of an unknown author when he penned: “Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain.” That’s the only kind of rain dance I need.

The Weecher Bird

If I had a blog, today I would write about my family’s tendency to go on lyrics-safari when it comes to bird songs. It might be because we are a creative and humorous lot, but most of the time its a need for common sense ; a trait that sometimes seems lacking in the world of birding professionals.

Now, I grant you it is hard to put words to a melody that is not your own, especially when the composer is of the avian species, but when I read the description of  bird calls in field guides and online, I wonder, “What were they thinking?” For example, how many of us really think the brown thrasher sounds like he’s saying “plant a seed, plant a seed, bury it, bury it, cover it up, cover it up, let it grow, let it grow, pull it up, pull it up, eat it, eat it?”  I think that’s pretty ambitious even for a smart bird like the thrasher. So, in the face of this mishmash of lyrics, my family simply makes up our own “bird-words” and thus far, it has served us well.

Miss Carolina

Miss Carolina

First, there is The Weecher Bird, aka the Carolina Wren. I know this because it is the alarm that wakes me each morning, rain or shine. Miss Carolina sits outside my bedroom window and blasts me with her morning aria.”Weecher! Weecher! Weecher!” she proclaims over and over. Whatever it means in wren-speak, it certainly gets my blood flowing. According to “the experts,” the Carolina says “teakettle-teakettle” or “Germany-Germany,” but I assure you, my wren is using a song-book from a different conservatory.

The "Tornado Bird"

The “Tornado Bird”

Next we have The Tornado Bird, aka Tufted Titmouse. As a severe weather aficionado, I’ve tested this somewhat ominous lyric and amhappy to report  it does not correlate with the onset of storms.That said, if the titmice of the world could learn to forecast the weather, they would give meteorology an big push forward. In the meantime, I guess we’ll have to rely on Weather Underground to keep us informed.

The Titmouse Knows All

The Titmouse Knows All

Another name for the Titmouse is The Stupid Bird: This should, in no way, impugn the intelligence of my little grey friends. No, no. This song was written just for me. When Mr. Titmouse sings this song, his accuracy is depressingly accurate. The rapid-fire solo of “stupid-stupid-stupid!” is performed most often when I am working on some hare-brained carpentry project at the barn and, believe me little bird, you aren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

Psycho Bird

Psycho Bird

There is one more song that seems to rise above the others lately. It is the well known “what-cheer, what-cheer,” of the Northern Cardinal. In the past, I have been on the bandwagon with those who feel uplifted by this happy song, but this year, it is a cover for one particularly deranged red-bird.

The cardinal in question is obsessed with his reflection in car mirrors. We assume he thinks it is another bird, one he must drive out of his territory, but before we knew it, Mr. What Cheer had vandalized three of our vehicles to the point we had to have the mirrors replaced. We now keep the mirrors covered with removable bags, but I no longer feel my spirits lift when I hear the cardinal greet the day. I guess its true that “one bad apple (or cardinal) spoils the lot.”

With the fall migration coming on, I will soon be bombarded with new bird songs. I will hear the White-Throated Sparrow as he sings, Oh-sweet-canada-canada,”  the Dark-Eyed Junco’s “musical trill of 7-23 notes that resembles the Chipping Sparrow, the Pine Warbler and the Goldfinch” and  the Field Sparrow, whose song is described as “having the quality of a bouncing ball coming to rest.” I will be dumbfounded on a regular basis and although I will carry a field guide on my treks, I will be making notes in the margins; making my contribution to the worlds of music and bird watching as only one who knows The Weecher Bird can.

Cane Toad’s A Comin’

A Bolt from the Blue

Bolt from the Blue

If I had a blog, today I would write about my lifelong fascination with weather. What does this have to do with a giant amphibian native to Australia? Honestly, outside my quirky family, nothing at all, but we adopted this phrase as an omen of a coming storm after hearing the opening lines of a song called “Cane Toad Blues” on a documentary about these massive and, might I add, poisonous members of the toad family. Right here you see that I was destined to be a science geek. Any child who knows the lyrics to “Cane Toad Blues” and whose mother read National Geographic to her kids at bedtime was going to be a little off the grid. Given that I was raised on documentaries and real-life nature adventures, it was only a matter of time until my love for all things meteorological came to the surface.

Grandy and Gran in the 1950s

Grandy and Gran in the 1950s

My mom’s father was my first weather sensei. Grandy Kent was a man of few words and my only clear memories of him revolve around stormy days. Whenever storms were in the forecast, Grandy and I would watch the western sky and when the first anvil-shaped thunderheads appeared, we sprang into action. Granny and Grandy’s house was in a subdivision, but it overlooked acres of undeveloped land to the west, giving us a clear view of approaching storms. There was an old wooden fence at the edge of their property and Grandy built me a little seat on top of one of the posts so I could see what was happening far afield. I would sit on my perch, leaning back against Grandy’s chest, his arm holding me safely in place, and without saying a word, we would watch the storm roll in. We saw the white wind-clouds ride before the blue-black skies and listened for the first deep rumbles of thunder. I’d count the seconds between the flashes of lightning and the thunderclaps so I’d know how fast the storm was coming. The wind would rise, the smell of ozone heavy in the humid air, and then we’d see it: The curtains of rain as they danced over distant hills. As soon as we could hear the rain on the trees just beyond the field, Grandy would say, “It’s coming across the pea-patch!” and he’d lift me from my seat, take my hand, and we’d try to beat the rain to the back door of the house. More often than not we’d make it, but Granny Ruby was always standing by with big, soft towels in case out timing was a little off. It has been 40 years since those magical spring afternoons, but I can still feel the promise of rain in the wind and hear the patter of droplets rushing across forest and field on those magical days.. Grandy passed away when I was ten, but the love of storms he gave me grew into a passion that I carry with me today. The year before Grandy died, I saw a film in school about amateur weather-forecasting. It featured a boy who built his own weather station and made his own forecasts with a barometer, thermometer, and a cloud chart. I was hooked! I desperately wanted to make my own forecasts and started gathering books from the library telling me what to do. The one thing I didn’t have was a barometer. Amazon.com was thirty years in the future and living in a rural Missouri town didn’t present many options for this kind of purchase. The only barometer I’d ever seen was an antique brass model Grandy kept on his dresser. It was a “look but don’t touch” situation, although we would get readings together when I was at the house. Shortly before his passing, Grandy gave me that barometer. It was the best gift I was ever given and it sits proudly on the sideboard in my living room, advising me whether to expect “Rain, Change, or Fair.”

Inside the Storm

Inside the Storm

As the years rolled by, my whole family supported my love of weather. Mom, Dad, and Granny Ruby kept me well supplied with books on forecasting and Granny faithfully clipped newspaper articles about anything weather-related, which we pasted in my Weather Scrapbook. I wrote to every TV weatherman in our area and received wonderful replies from all. Dave Murry, a meteorologist in St. Louis sent me stacks of satellite imagery from severe weather outbreaks and I got volumes of Civil Defense pamphlets on all manner of severe weather. I knew nothing about sports stars, but knew the names and “stats” of ever tornado researcher in the field: Howie Bluestein, Tim Marshall, Kelvin Droegemeier, Gene Rassmussen, and Tim Samaras were my “team” and I haunted PBS for any documentaries they sent my way. Today, storm forecasting and photography are still my passion. Since my academic strengths were English and art, a degree in meteorology wasn’t in my future. Happily, with the advent of the internet, I can indulge my interests as an amateur and be part of the storm-chasing community without ever leaving home. It goes without saying that no storm enthusiast wants an EF5 tornado to form for their entertainment. Tornadoes are terrifying, destructive, and tragic. For me, as for many, the fascination is the study of something we still don’t understand. It is (for me) armchair exploration of uncharted territory and awe at the forces of Nature. So, when I get an iPhone notification from the National Weather Service that says storms are in the offing, I will go out and drink in the heady air. I will check the radar and the thermodynamic fields from the Storm Prediction Center, but, in the end, I will make my forecast based on the moment I hear the rain coming across the pea patch. Then I will call Mom and she’ll join me as we watch the clouds and make our judgment. If “Cane Toad’s A Comin’,” you can be sure we’ll be standing on the front porch, watching the storm roll in.