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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 6

Finally, we burnt our home down, everything except the house that is.  And what a day it was.  I can’t think of anything so dramatic and terrifying and sad.  My torch dripping liquid fire.  Dry grass withering then rising, reborn in flame.  Long lines of smoke billowing into walls of cloud.   Ash blanketed mice scurrying for their lives.   And in the midst of it all, Home the Land Built, protected only by its moat of short green grass, its white cedar siding screaming, “Keep those sparks away from me!”
At 1:30 we assembled our five man crew, Johnny’s Chimney Rock Forestry team of experts (they’ve fought and defeated raging western forest fires) and me.  Don’t laugh!  They even wrapped me in an official yellow fire-proof shirt, crowned me with the white burn boss hard hat and strapped a radio to my chest. “Johnny.  Mike here.   We’re under control.”  Bummer Linda had to work.  She not only missed out on all the fun, but also the complements, “We should hire her to mow fire breaks for all the other prairies.”  The fire struggled to snake across her green paths. 
West to east, parcel by fire-break surrounded parcel, we burned our way across the Land, transforming tufts of dried thatch into ash, all in a few fiery minutes.   Aided by an atmospheric stability index of 5 (on a 1 to 6 scale), smoke rose not at us but up, up, up into the blue.  Four hours later, as the final northeast-most parcel burned itself out, my radio popped on.  “Mike.  Johnny.  Would you like to start the brush pile?” 
That darned brush pile, layers of dozer-stacked boxelder, dirt and all from our pond-clearing effort six years ago, has been a pain in the arse.   The government’s been us to burn it (they pay us to grow native prairie and expect us to follow a few rules in return).  “I’ll  be right there.  Mike over.”    Anticipating a raging 80 foot long by 40 foot wide tree-high inferno, I can’t tell you how disappointed I felt.   Marshmallow roasting mellow.  Too much dirt and green.  Not enough fuel.  The best part came after dark.  I dragged dry branches out of the nearby shelterbelt and stoked the smoldering coals back to bonfire-sized flame.  The spring peepers loved it, doubling the volume of their chorus.  And when the coyotes joined, I felt like Dances with Wolves, spearing the fire, offering the rising sparks to the stars.
Burning prairie:  why endure the cost and the effort?  Isn’t it crazy?  If crazy means jumping off a cliff and building my wings on the way down, then yes, that’s what this whole Home the Land Built thing is all about.  We could plow under 40 acres of thriving life, allow the exposed soil to wash down into the Whitewater River, spray anhydrous ammonia, plant a monoculture of corn seed impregnated with Roundup-resistant scorpion genes, spray the Roundup, harvest with a $300,000 combine,  sell the product, not as people food but for ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup and feed for confined animals, and collect my government subsidy.  Then, at least, no one would call me crazy.
Unlike corn, a tallgrass prairie only requires one input from me:  fire.  Without fire, the balance is tipped first to goldenrod and sumac, then to boxelder and buckthorn and finally to maple and basswood.  Photos and paintings from the 1800’s depict far more prairie and oak savanna and far less forest than we see today on the hills of Southeast Minnesota.  Settlers, whether farmers, townspeople or nature-lovers stomped out the enemy fire, killing the prairie.  Familiar only with parcel-agriculture, they did not, could not perceive the scope and scale of land management by the indigenous peoples.   They lit fires.  Always and everywhere.  To increase game.   To ease travel.   To make safe their homelands.  They, like the prairie upon which they depended, were the people of the fire.  And now as I sit in the yoga loft, looking out at an ash black sea, I hope the Land will remember. 
I am indeed leaping.  Will the prairie, the head-high sea of waving grass, return?  I’ve ingested the book knowledge and now I’m learning by living.  Where will my flaming wings carry me? 
“I’ll call you next year,” said Johnny as he loaded the water-hauling ATV back onto the trailer .  “You can join the fire crew.  Burn a few more prairies.”
I just might be crazy enough to do it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 5

There’s just so much of it.  I wonder how I missed it, that great moving mass just outside the bank of windows.   An ocean, extending as far as I dare see, full of creatures beyond count.  Three years ago, when we asked Architect Paul to design a house which “enabled the Connection”, inviting the outside-in and the inside-out, I was often imagining a view to the land:  waving grass, grazing deer, the first green flush of leaves.  Well, Paul did his job all right.  Home the Land Built is connecting me  to something I never really imagined.  How did I ever miss the sky?
The sky?!!!  Not that I didn’t see the sky, but until just this week, it seemed more like the glazing in a window, something to look through not at.   Invisible as it is, why start “seeing” it now? 
Maybe it’s the wind.  The small orange flags---markers for the 25 white spruce trees and 50 hazelnut bushes we just planted---flapping as they point like dancers where the wind is going.  The white gutter downspout rolling across the green lawn.  The extra few chunks of wood I stack into the masonry heater when the wind swipes its cold hand across the bank of windows.  The invitation (or not) to rise from this yoga loft chair and open the door onto the porch:  what mood of the wind will greet me (or retreat me)? 
Maybe it’s the clouds.  I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much I’ve learned about clouds by descending into the windowless bowels of our house, the cellar.  Just two little gauges:  the solar electric (Mate3) and the solar hot water (SunMaxx).  Sure, when its noon and not a cloud in the sky, the Mate 3, says the PV panels are cranking out 2700 watts and the SunMaxx says the solar hot water panels is getting hot (170F and rising fast).  What amazes me is the difference a cloudy day produces. Even through a solid grey bank, the Mate 3 brags the PV is producing 500 watts, enough to power our house for an entire day.    Always honest, the SunMaxx confesses that the solar hot water panels are languishing (85F), not nearly enough to heat the 80 gallon storage tank for cleaning our soiled dishes and bodies.  So now, when I step out under the cloud cover, I feel this difference.  I’m a plant, a blade of Indian grass, sighing as I turn toward this diffused light, this light that is enough to feed me, fueling the alchemy which turns thin air into me.  Yet I’m a summer loving grass and I’m cold.  There’s no heat in this light.  The clouds have stolen it to make more of themselves out of thin air.  How greedy!
Mostly I think it’s the birds.  Oh glorious bird!  Crow flap, flap, flapping nearly to the window.  Hovers then suddenly drops, pounces and pecks at globs of mud which turn into fist-sized bunnies scurrying for their lives.  Meadowlark announcing the morning from his post, then relinquishing it to blackbird who fluffs his red wings and trills.  Oak-a-lee!  “That’s how its done,” he says to meadowlark.  Its not like I hadn’t seen birds before.  At 4140 we loved to watch them.  14 cardinals shining in the snow at dusk.  But here, where there the trees are so far away and there’s so much tall grass to hide in what I see, what I thrill at, is birds flying, flying, flying.  There is so much sky. 
An ocean and I’m in it.  The wind is the current.  The rolling clouds and the many shades of blue is the unreachable surface high overhead.  And the birds, oh glorious bird, you are fish.  Singing whale.  Leaping dolphin.  Twisting school of flashing jewels.  I spread my arms and reach skyward, toward the dream.

And I sit by Paul’s bank of windows, inviting the outside-in and the inside out.  What could be more connecting?  The ocean of sky, the very same sky out those windows, fills Home the Land Built as she rises from the yielding floor.  The sky bathes me.  Breathes me.  The thin air ignites the fire that turns the earth into me.   
Thank you Paul!  I always wanted to live by the sea, only to discover that I always did.  In it actually.  Now I wonder one thing.  What, as I wander the thriving floor of this wondrous ocean, am I?
One thing for sure:  I’m a lucky man.  Rah-dur!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 4

After breakfast and a cup of tea, I felt it high time to haul buckets.  I opened the toilet’s cherry lid, looked down inside the Fleet Farm Black Logo bucket.  
 “Yup, that’s full alright.”  Good timing.  You definitely don’t want to discover the toilet’s fullness when you sit on the seat.  I  snapped on the lid, hoisted the bucket up and out and lugged it (five gallons of mostly liquid is heavy!) into the garage where another Fleet Farm Black Logo bucket, already full and lidded, awaited its companion.  Then down into the cellar, I slip like a jail breaker between the staircase studs and there, hiding behind the rack of hanging coats, I find it. 
Built by my friend Bob and I for camping, this rustic cousin of the upstairs toilet reinvented himself for a life in our house:  “In addition to an emergency toilet, I’m a used kitty litter container.”   I scoop Kirby Cat’s two litter boxes into the toilet, topping off the green Enviro Smart bucket (fancy name for a bucket of doo).  A minute later there’s 3 full buckets side-by-side in the garage.  But wait!  There’s more!  Soon the steel compost pail, from under the kitchen sink, joins the party.  Finally!  To the compost heap!  Strangely it’s much easier to carry two full buckets, one in each arm, than only one tipping me lopsided.   A hundred feet from the house, I dump each bucket onto a rake-leveled compost heap, scrub the bucket with water and a toilet brush then dump the wash water onto the heap.  All four buckets dumped and washed, I cover the heap with lawn rakings  (and chicken wire and two wooden pallets to keep out the critters) then prop up the buckets to dry and sterilize in the sun and wind.  
Now all this is what I’d set out to do between my first and seconds cups of tea.  Ten, maybe fifteen minutes of work I suppose.  “The chores,” I thought to myself as I walked back to the house.  I never liked that word:  chores.  Somehow, when Aunt Dorothy used to say it out at their farm, it sounded so shrill and unpleasant.  But now, like nearly everything in this grand experiment I call Home the Land Built, I tried it on.  No sooner had the word escaped my lips when I noticed the gutter downspout lying in the grass half out into the lawn.  “I’ve got to learn to respect the wind,” I thought.  This time I secured the downspout by driving a forked stick into the ground, pinning the spout between.  Brushing off my hands, feeling a little proud, I then noticed what the wind had actually done.  The downspout was a mire diversion.  Yesterday’s gusts had knocked over the wood pile stacked so neatly, 7 feet high, under the lean to.   An hour later that task was done.  I really needed that second cup of tea.  Finally, sitting with Linda, looking out on the land as I sipped my hot chai, I wondered what part of tall that effort was chores.  I’d always imagined chores as routine.  Cadenced.  Hauling buckets fits neatly into that category. But what about other tasks, especially those that call to me while I’m doing chores:  fixing downspouts, restacking wood. 
Maybe the tasks would be better off without a label.  I know I don’t like labels put on me.  I almost never put them on myself.  Be a rare day when you hear me say, “I’m a liberal”  or “I’m a writer”  or “I’m a retiree”.  They feel too defining, too confining, in need of a jailbreak.   So, this morning, when I scooped Kirby’s litter, maybe that’s all I did.  It doesn’t need another name.  Unlike the litter, I don't need to put the task into a bucket. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 3

“Home is where bright morning breaks upon far valley wall.  Can you hear sweet running waters call?”  These words, the music Amelan hears as the folk of Jordan bear his ailing grandmother into the healing waters of the river, have echoed in the backwaters of my mind since first they floated into my novel seven years ago.   Now, especially after this past weekend, with my river boat rocked so, I feel the need to tie up and lie down in the warm and familiar waters of home.  Wherever that is.  Saturday morning, I finished my novel.  Seven years and nine months ago,  I paddled out into what I then thought was just a safe little stream.  Silly me!  Good thing I didn’t know about all the twisting, turning, rock-crashing whitewater.  Somehow, I managed to steer my way, nearly drowning in the last storm of scene, and set my feet again onto the dry shore, the last lines of the book.   Though much remains to do---edit, publish, market--- it’s still an unbelievable milestone.  Unbelievable indeed.  Being done feels less real than the soothing voices of Jordan.   I know where to go next.  I just don’t recognize where I am.  Where are the familiar voices of home?  Though I could feel myself slipping back under, I managed to keep my head above water.  Barely.   Thank goodness for 150 year old barnwood.   What a life raft!  The very afternoon of my struggle, our new dining table arrived.  Or should I say, our old dining table. 
Duane, from Winona’s Pieces of the Past, delivered it himself.  He’d not only made our harvest table---fastened with square nails---but he’d salvaged the 150 year old Fountain City barn, board by bug-chewed board.   Much of this we learned as he joined as for our first meal at the table:  Linda’s moist and dark ginger bread.  Since Duane left, I can’t tell you how time my fingertips have spent tracing the dents, scratches and inch-long former homes of bugs.  And I listen; like Duane, the table, the wood itself, has a tale to tell.  To sing even.  “Home is where bright morning breaks upon this table top.” 
I do love breakfast!  Care to join us?

5:05  Arise
5:05:01 Eat 1st breakfast (roasted sunflower seeds, craisins, maple syrup, milk, PB)
6:15  Complete blog
6:16  Beg Linda to edit blog (as always)
6:17  Morning read:  Becoming Animal, David Abrams (I’m trying, I’m trying)
8:45  Wave sad good-bye to Linda as she heads to MPLS
8:46  Console myself with 2nd breakfast (honey tangerine)
8:55  2nd Morning read:  The Hobbit (what a treat, I’ve haven’t read a novel since beginning my own novel 8 years ago because I always got sucked into their writing style)
9:45  Indulged my inner hobbit with 3rd breakfast, (honeycrisp apple)
10:05  Always trying to use existing resources, determined I can roof Humanure Hacienda with pallets
10:45  Mixed up batch of sawdust (just add water) and refilled sawdust toilet bin
11:14  Vacuumed up sawdust mess in bathroom
11:47  Lunch (fried egg sandwich, two eggs layered between two slices toast dashed with Tobasco)
12:06  Readied guest bedroom for visit overnight visitor:  nephew Daniel.  Can’t wait!!!
12:39  2nd Lunch (popcorn)
1:08   Called HVAC Arnie.  Filled my inner geek with engaging conversation to optimize heat transfer from solar hot water storage tank to in-floor loops
1:45  Dug wild parsnips from lawn with Parsnip Predator.  Soaked in water.   Ready to eat.
2:43   Hauled 12 wheelbarrows of dirt from our mini-mud mountain to fill sink hole between east porch and septic tank
3:48  Built fence around transplant garden.  Hoping to have better luck keeping deer and rabbits out of our 4140 perennials than we had keeping mice out of our 4140 furniture.
5:26  Supper.  Burrito:  beans with cinnamon, cloves, nettles, sweet potatoes.
6:45  Walked Kirby Cat.  Hah!  As if anyone can “walk” a cat.
7:05  Tolerated conversation with financial planner. 
7:30  Finished this blog.
7:31  Wished Linda here to edit.  L
Now, reading this list, I realize that none of this begins to describe what it’s like to BE on the Land.  For that, you'll just have to come on down.

I’m afraid he beat you to it.  Nephew Daniel is first to sleep the night in the Murphy bed.  When he arises, I’ll learn how they got on.  Right now, his door is closed and that’s a good sign.  And a comforting sign;  so good to have him here.  And so good to have a guest for the night. 
The night!  We even pondered the nature of night as we sat on the moonlit yoga loft porch, perched within the glass-less cedar framed windows, Daniel’s favorite spot in the whole house.  “What is night?” I asked.  You’d think I’d know, having experienced over 20,000.  Perhaps I hadn’t really noticed before.  Or perhaps it’s just too darn big to notice.  Now, with the darkness all around us, and me just having read David Abram’s opinion on that in his Becoming Animal, we thought we’d try it on.  “You can’t say what it isn’t,” I grinned, making up rules.  “When the sun isn’t out, doesn’t count,” I said.  “Evil!” he guessed.  “Ah, poetry.  At the soul level,” I nodded.  “But are not other things evil?  Can you tell me what night is and ONLY night is?” We pictured launching at night in a moon-bound space ship.  “As we climbed, suddenly night would end.  What is it that we left behind?”  As I had done a few days earlier, he awoke.  I recognized the child-like wonder in his moon-lit eyes.  “The earth’s shadow!  Night IS the earth’s shadow.”  Seated in our perches, we let the immensity of night wrap around us and our shared understanding bind us.  Suddenly, wide-eyed, he looked at me.  “What is the moon’s shadow?” he asked, turning the game around on me.  Now, it was my turn to struggle.  I could see our own moon-shadows, cast dimly upon the porch floor.  But he wasn’t asking about my shadow, whether cast by sun or moon.  I shrugged, gave up.  His smile beamed wider than the moon.  “A solar eclipse.”  In my amazement, all I could do is nod and clumsily add,  “Maybe you and I can go see one someday.” And I meant it.  And he knew it.  Who knows if we will, but there, wrapped together in our earthly shadows, it seemed quite possible.  “We’re not just going to SEE a solar eclipse,” he said, breaking the silence.  “We’re going to sit in the shadow of the moon!”
More and more I find myself pondering my legacy.  No so much about what, if anything, anyone will actually say about me---maybe I don’t want to know---but about my positive impact, what good, if any, will linger because of me.  So the Novel:  a possible legacy of ideas and inspiration.  So the Land:  a possible legacy of healing and abundance.  So Medtronic even, though retired (or more preferably refired).  I enjoy meeting my old work team, who I had some hand in building, and seeing my legacy unfold, their successes and challenges.   Yet there is one more legacy, more basic, and perhaps more uplifting than all the rest:  my nieces and nephews and their engagement with the Land.  And today, nephew Daniel went at it as if Star Trek’s Captain Picard issued his command:  “Engage!”   I lost count of  the firsts for Daniel.  We unhooked the PTO generator from the tractor, the New Holland TC45D, otherwise known as Little Blue.  A Daniel first.  Daniel mounted the beast, turned the key, pulled out of the shed and navigated our never-flat terrain to the trailer.  A Daniel first.  He backed up the tractor, and after only three attempts at perfect alignment, I hitched the trailer.  A Daniel first. 
Then we were off to trail clearing, with Daniel and Little Blue pulling our trailer of tools:  chain saw, weed whacker, splitting maul and all the paraphernalia associated with converting trail-blocking deadfall into firewood stacked alongside the mowed path.  We cleared, snapped, sawed, split and stacked the gifts of two trees:  one boxelder we call the mother tree and one Siberian elm, both of whom we'd girdled (killed by stripping a ring of bark) years ago and are still clinging to life.  A Daniel first.  We learned the personalities of boxelder (vindictive, my jaw still hurts from the whack she gave me) and elm (stubborn as rock).  A Daniel first.  Our task finished, Linda handed us a bag which we half-filled with nettles to contribute towards our supper, carefully avoiding the painful stingers as we plucked the top tender leaves.  A Daniel first.  After dinner---blanket nestled in our yoga loft porch window perches---we let our hearts pound, fantasizing how we might approach the ten deer lolling from the east pond up the draw toward the house.  A Daniel first.  Of course, all this really is a first for me.  Like a new parent, I’m learning how to hand down what I have, what I am able, to Daniel, to my nieces and nephews.  I’m learning how to create a legacy.