Sunday, August 24, 2014

A hiatus summer

This summer has been cool here, which is a great break from the trend of recent years. I have a regret, though. I couldn't put in a garden or do much work on the grounds for most of the season because I had surgery on my hand in April. Osteoarthritis at the base of my left thumb had gotten seriously disabling. I couldn't play the sax, it hurt to take a paper cup off a shelf or to take money out of my wallet. My cousin-in-law talked me into buying a guitar and I found I couldn't play it. So I finally gave in and went for the Hail Mary.

This surgery is pretty grotesque. They remove the trapezium bone that joins the wrist to the thumb, and stuff the cavity with tissue harvested from a wrist tendon. For the first month or so the pain is incredible. It's taken a good six months for me to get to the point where I'm thinking, okay, I would now trade this for what I had before. I can play my instruments, and the activities of daily living are painless. It's just heavy lifting that's painful and the hand and wrist are weak. But I figure I'll get all the way back in due course.

So I'll be doubly motivated for a great garden next year, but more than that, consider the overall course of my life and health had this not been available to me. I would have become increasingly sedentary, I would have lost some of my greatest pleasures in life, I would have gotten old early. This surgery depends on anesthesia, antibiotics, and techniques honed over decades. It's also expensive. Of all the people who have ever lived and are living, the proportion who have such opportunities is miniscule.

Arthritis is actually a major driver of decline in aging people. That we can replace joints in defiance of nature is a magnificent accomplishment. But just think how inequitably such really priceless blessings are distributed. In my social circles, we take it for granted. I met a guy at a party last night who'd had the same procedure. Now he's back to playing the mandolin. What astonishing good fortune.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


As I believe I may have mentioned, I upgraded my tractor for a bigger machine with a backhoe. I've spent a couple of weekends figuring out how to use it.

I believe they call it a backhoe because the digging motion is toward the operator, which is the opposite of how humans dig with a shovel. Interestingly, it is exactly how humans dig with their hands, and how dogs and other digging mammals use their paws.

The machine has four motions. First, the whole apparatus moves side to side. That's just to locate the shovel, it doesn't contribute to the digging action. Then, the apparatus moves up and down at what you might call the shoulder. Apparently that's called the dipstick motion. It has an elbow, which flexes in and out, and then the shovel, which curls at the wrist. The basic technique is to get the shovel approximately vertical at the point of entry into the ground, which you do by manipulating the elbow and the wrist. Then you use the dipstick motion to push it into the ground. It won't go any deeper than the fingers on the bucket, but when you curl the bucket toward you, that pulls it into the ground and if all goes well, gets you a full scoop. Then up pull up on the dipstick to lift it out of the ground, swing to the side, and dump it.

That's simple enough but digging out stumps is a more profound skill. I expect those big industrial machines you see at the highway construction projects can just rip stumps out of the ground, but for my machine, a decent size stump is a project. You can't break the roots too close to the stump -- you have to dig all around it far enough away that the roots are thing enough for the machine to get through. It takes a bit of exploration and you have to keep moving the tractor to get various angles at the stump. But once it starts to move, even a little bit, you're getting close. You just have to find the last couple of roots that are holding it, and finally it pops out.

Species differ a lot. Even quite a small beech stump is tough because they have dense, sprawling root masses. With oaks, there are a few major roots. If you can find and break all but one, you can pull out the stump. With beech species, you have to excavate the Panama Canal. The interesting question is why these two kinds of trees, which pretty much share a habitat, have evolved such different strategies for keeping themselves in the ground.

Anyway, I've pretty much figured it out. Now I'm going to open up my clearing a bit, do some landscaping, and build stone walls. Meanwhile, mowing what I already have will get a lot easier.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Just to get us located again

My house is in an approximately circular clearing in the woods. I have another clearing across a wetland -- really a vernal pool, it's pretty dry in summer -- where my barn and orchard are located. My property is a 20 acre peninsula in a state forest. Actually it's officially called a "Wildlife Management Area," which means a) you can hunt there, in season, with a license and b) they don't actually manage it. The state maintains no trails, doesn't have any points of entry nor do they publicize its existence. So, it's wilderness. There are some old stone walls, signs that once at least part of it was briefly pasture, but there is also some very steep land, including a very deep gorge more characteristic of California than Connecticut, through which the Merrick Brook flows. There was once a mill there but it's long abandoned, only the ruins of the sluice remain. I expect some of this would qualify as old growth, although the species composition has changed due to loss of the chestnuts. It's predominantly oak forest with hemlock, maple, and beech.

So, as you can imagine, I have plenty of critters to look at. Yesterday morning, I stepped onto my front porch and a big buck was just standing there on the edge of my lawn. It looked at me unconcernedly.  I yelled "scram!" and it just stood there. I yelled "Get lost!" and it didn't flinch. So I started walking toward it, figuring on picking up a rock, and it finally sauntered off into the woods.

If you are finding me unsentimental, I see them every day, so I am no longer enthralled by their cuteness. And they eat my shrubs and fruits. There's plenty of room for them in the woods, they don't need to be coming around here all the time. Of course what I should really do is shoot them and eat them, which is the natural order of things.

Last year there were bats patrolling my clearing every evening. This year I hadn't see them and I felt terrible, assuming my local squad had succumbed to the fungal blight. But last night they were back, at least 5 or 6 that I could count. It's impossible to keep track of their numbers because they fly around very fast and very erratically, chasing echoes from their insect prey. I have a bathouse mounted under the eaves of my barn, a gift from my sweet friend Vicki, who I no longer have the chance to see.

Right now, July 4, it's raining hard, so I'm stuck here with cabin fever. But anyway, Windham County will be reborn.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Not what I'd planned

After an early season cold snap, our solstice is unusually warm, with fog forming over the snow cover so dense I can't see my barn from the living room window. I was planning on getting a lot of routine chores done today, but it seems I need to go look after my mother who's had a bit of a setback. Yeah, it's tough being a dutiful son.

Anyway . . . It's time to renew my insurance and my agent found a much cheaper carrier. The new policy came in the mail and it's got the usual -- won't pay for floods or earthquakes, not a big problem where I am. But it also has a lot of exclusions of liability coverage. Now, understand, this is paying when people sue me for stuff that I do, e.g. if I assault somebody or run over them with my boat of more than 50 horsepower. Okay, not a problem. Also, any liability (on my part), "caused directly or indirectly by war . . . Discharge of a nuclear weapon shall be deemed a warlike act even if accidental."

In other words, if I discharge a nuclear weapon, even by accident, they won't pay for the damages. Now I'm pissed.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Changes in the land

Our town historical society owns an 18th Century farmhouse, full of furniture and artifacts dating from its early years through the early 20th Century, when one of the sons went off to World War I. It's only open to the public by scheduled tour (unadvertised -- you have to know who to ask) and on special event days twice a year.

The curator, a descendant of the builders, is my neighbor. Out here, that means his house is about a mile from mine, although our driveways are much closer. Knowing that I'm deft with a chainsaw and happy to be paid in firewood, he asked me to take down a sickly maple tree on the property. When I met him there, he pointed out a huge tree near the house which the Hysterical Society proudly claims to be the oldest English walnut in the Americas. I couldn't tell you how they know this, or whether we should believe it.

The black walnut is native to North America, but the commonly available nutmeat comes from a species native to Persia which is called the English walnut. Yes, it's complicated. Henry called the tree an "English black walnut" but I think he's just confused. The black walnut does produce edible nuts but it is not commonly cultivated.

Anyway, the English walnut is not a problematic invasive species, but its presence there does remind us of the total transformation of the ecology caused by the English invasion. They didn't just dispossess the original human inhabitants, they radically changed the floral and faunal regime. In fact, much of what we now treasure as endangered nature is actually artifact of the changes wrought since the 1600s. Most notably, these include species that favor the border between forest and open space, of which there is far more today than there was before the coming of the Europeans, but less than there was 50 years ago as pasture has been overtaken by second growth forest.

And yes, that includes your friend Peter Cottontail. The eastern cottontail rabbit benefited greatly from land clearance and of course Peter was famous for raiding the farmer's vegetables. Whether it's regrettable that there are fewer of them now is hard to say. We can't go back to 1500 either. The warming climate is letting the wooly adelgids kills the hemlocks and eventually, the pine bark beetles will get here too. We'll just have to see what happens.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The idiocy of rural life

So, I had one main project on my punch list for yesterday, which was to replace the battery in my tractor. Nothing is easy, of course. The nuts on the cable ends were rusted and one of the terminal clamps just broke in half when I tried to turn the nut. I somehow cut the back of my thumb and you would not believe how much blood came out of that tiny slice. I found  I couldn't cut off the old cable end with my lineman's pliers so I had to walk down to the barn for the bolt cutters. The new cable end had too big a clamp for the cable so I had to find a piece of copper to shim it with. The dealer didn't have the right battery in stock so we had to figure out a way to get the one he did have to fit in the hold-down bracket.

I could go on but you get the idea. It's always like that. Hofstadter's law: Everything takes longer than you expect, even after taking into account Hofstadter's law. This creates an infinite regress and proves that you can never accomplish anything, but as it turns out I did finally get the battery installed and the tractor started right up. This shows that what is logically impossible can happen anyway.

 But the background to this silly story is that on Wednesday, my mother fell in her bathroom and wound up with a compressed fracture of the L5 vertebra, along with awful looking bruises. This is the second time in about 18 months she's had a disastrous fall.  She lives about an hour away -- my sister is there now but she's going back home tomorrow morning. I'll go tomorrow and look in on her, but of course I have to go back to work on Monday. So, it's coming to some sort of a decision point. I don't know what we're going to do but whatever it is, she won't like it. I'll probably come to that point myself in 20 or 30 years. I may have to stop supplying myself with firewood and repairing my own tractor some time before that. Our reward for self-knowledge and intelligent understanding of the world is that we know the bad news about the human condition.

So be it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

About those white tails . . .

When I got home on Friday a doe was standing in the corner of my yard, by the edge of the woods. I've said before that they're getting much too tame. She just stood and looked at my car, and didn't move for a few seconds even after I got out. She finally bolted and to my astonishment six more patches of white exploded in the woods as her companions took off in various directions. I hadn't noticed any of them until they turned tail.

A couple of minutes later, they had reconvened and I saw them walking single file through the woods as they often do. So, I got to thinking. Why is a creature which is only prey and a threat to nothing but vegetation, which is otherwise well camouflaged, equipped with a conspicuous advertisement of its presence? For you city slickers, the white-tailed deer has a brown coat that fades into the background of fallen leaves and shrubbery. When there's a group of deer in the grove below my living room window, it can take several minutes before I manage to count them all, assuming I ever do.

But, the underside of their tails, which they usually carry raised so as to show it off, is a big patch of almost incandescent white. Now, this evolved before people were shooting at them with firearms, but as many a tragic story shows, hunters will fire when they see something white in the woods. I don't expect that people were shooting at them with arrows long enough to affect the evolution of their wardrobe either.

So, this signal evolved while they were being hunted by cougars and wolves. I suppose they were perfectly capable of spotting their prey even without the illuminated posterior, but still, what good does it do them? My guess is that the white tail helps them spot each other. It keeps the group together, helps the fawns and mothers keep track of each other, helps the followers stay behind the leader. The value of maintaining social cohesion outweighs a slightly greater chance of winding up as lunch.

Does anyone have a better idea?