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?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Duh Sawx

You may be surprised to find me writing about sports but . . .

The news media around here lean toward New York, and yeah, I grew up with the Mets, but I lived in Boston for more than 20 years and was compelled to become a Sox fan. (Resistance is futile.) If there are any life lessons to be drawn from professional sports, well, this Red Sox season offers some. Last year was a disaster, with a self-adoring fool and mindless motormouth as manager, and a bunch of underachieving egomaniacal whiners conspiring to drive the team straight into the cellar.

So, management somehow hypnotized the Dodgers into taking the egomaniacal whiners and even paying their salaries; replaced them with some hardworking, underappreciated journeymen who were grateful for the chance (even as the sportswriters were skeptical of the signings); hired a grownup to be the manager; and kept all the good guys.

At least as far as anyone could tell from the public view, they all put the team first and worried only about winning. Nobody got busted for DUI, or domestic violence, or discharging a firearm in a nightclub, or performance enhancing drugs, or any of the typical sins of professional athletes. Away from the game, they just visited sick kids in the hospital and organized charity golf tournaments.

When the marathon bombing struck at the very heart of the city, they took it as their responsibility to rally the community, starting with David Ortiz's famous speech in which he used the famous expletive that the FCC allowed this time. And they played beautifully. Two gold gloves; a silver slugger for el Papi Enorme, el Papi Tremendo, el Papi de Máximo Tamaño, el Papi Largo y Anchoso, el Papi que Ocupe Mucho Espacio, el Papi Grande, Big Papi David Ortiz; Jacoby Ellsbury stole bases at will, they got key hits when they needed them up and down the lineup; they had the best starting rotation and the best bullpen in baseball. And of course they won the championship.

At the conclusion of the victory parade, they put the World Series trophy on the finish line of the marathon. It really meant a lot to the city and I think they accepted the responsibility with sincerity. So it probably does inspire kids and help produce civic unity and strengthen community and all that good stuff that sports are supposed to do but usually don't really. Oh yeah. They paid for their own stadium. 100 years ago.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Today I finished taking apart my garden. A series of hard freezes this week finally ended everything, although I was still harvesting broccoli and lima beans last weekend. Actually I left the broccoli, it's semi-hardy and there's still some action there, plus I'm going to try to harvest seed, just for the heck of it.

But otherwise, I spent the morning rolling up the fencing, pulling up the stakes, and putting everything away. Then I ran the mower over the garden to chop up the crop waste. This would be a sad time, and it is somewhat. I'm not looking forward to winter this year. But it's also the time I plant garlic, so I get to look past the winter. I dug much of what had been the tomato patch -- you always want to rotate your crops. This is land I've been cultivating for years, but I still came up with a pile of rocks big enough to crush a mule.

It's unbelievable, they never stop coming. It seems as though the reproduce but what actually happens is that the freeze and thaw cycle keeps pushing them up from deeper down. It's a simple process. When the ice thaws, the water runs down and tends to accumulate under the rocks. When it freezes, it expands, and they work their way up. So every year there are more.

Will it ever stop? Yes, when there are no more rocks above the frost line, I'll be done. The frost line here officially is four feet down, but with the milder climate, it really isn't any more. Maybe next year, I'll be done pulling out rocks. But then of course if I decide to expand my agricultural endeavors . . .

Anybody need any rocks? I've got some.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bird brains

There's a gang of four turkeys that's been hanging around my place lately. They always stick together, and they are disturbingly unperturbed by my proximity. They just stroll around the place lazily, going nowhere in particular. I seldom see them feeding. They're just out enjoying the weather.

Turkey social life is mysterious. You tend to see them much more in autumn than summer or winter. In the spring, you'll say hens with their young. (I don't think you call them chicks. What then?) Sometimes the hens go around in pairs, so the kids have an auntie. In autumn, you can see groups of any size, from a solitary individual to a field full of dozens or a hundred. I think the latter are special events, basically like mixer parties. The toms will be puffing themselves up and fanning their tails, hoping to get lucky. But the rest of the time, why they form the groups they do, how stable they are, and where they go in the winter and summer, I don't have a clue.

For you city slickers, these are nothing like the domesticated dolts. They're obviously smart enough to stay alive out here in the deep dark woods, and they can fly just fine. They don't go long distances, but they can get up in the air in a hurry when they need to.

It's well known that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national symbol instead of the eagle. If he'd had his way, we might have a whole different attitude about ourselves.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Uppity critters

I stepped out onto my front porch yesterday evening and there was a big buck just standing in my front yard. He looked at me like "What are you doing in my place?" After a while I yelled at him, "Yo, get lost!" He stood there giving me the hairy eyeball for a couple more seconds before bouncing off into the woods.

Look here. They're supposed to be afraid of me. If I had any sense I would have gone out there with my 30-30 and had his ass (literally) for dinner. The problem is, not enough people are doing this any more. Some city slickers even move out here and think they're cute, and start feeding them. No shit. Completely nuts.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

culture clash

Finally got most everything planted today. It rained all week, but today was cool and cloudy, a good climate for working outdoors. I had tilled horse manure into the entire garden a few weeks ago, but by now of course weeds had come in to the area where I planted the sweet corn so I turned it over again by hand -- coming up with seven or eight boulders in the process. Also set out my tomatoes, planted basil, cauliflower and squash, did some weeding. A good day's work.

But . . . most of the afternoon some clown was up in the woods shooting. He must have gotten off at least a couple of hundred rounds. Pow, pow, pow for an entire hour. It's illegal of course -- state land. But the rangers never come here. The locals ride around in ATVs and shoot at shadows all the time. Once a week the state police fly the pot chopper over but they always do it at the same time on Saturday so everybody knows to put their toys down. Ridiculous.

My question, obviously, is why this is supposed to be fun. I'll never figure that out.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Entre dos mundos

Today I weeded my onions, garlic, peas and beans, all of which are already in the ground. That took me a couple of hours. I don't know how people do it for a living, all day, six days a week.

I think I'll actually plant corn tomorrow, and start putting out some of the tender plants -- forecast is for rain starting Monday, and mild temperatures, so now's the time. Also tomorrow, I'm going to grab some firewood left from when I helped my neighbor clear his interior road of trees that came down in the hurricane.

Then on Monday, I have to engage in the bizarre practice of neck binding -- meeting all morning, and then a formal business dinner in the evening with various high and mighty people of importance to my professional milieu. I get a kind of psychological whiplash from this. But that's the how it is these days. The money is in the city, the peace is in the country.

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Today I did some weeding of the onions and peas. It was a good day to try to get ahead of the weeds a bit since we just had a good soaking rain after a considerable dry spell and the weeds are jumping. I also did the first mow yesterday in between showers. I'm going to put some broccoli and basil seed in the ground today -- we might get a light frost later this week but that won't hurt them, and that will be the last danger of frost, I think. Corn goes in and then the tender plants starting in the greenhouse will go out, maybe next weekend.

I need this because I'm a bit spiritually starved right now. A relationship that seemed so right that didn't work out, needing to find a second wind in my research career -- I only get excited by new ideas but I have to take the time to apply the old ones first, and it can seem like drudgery. The woods now are full of birdsong and shimmering with the pale green of new leaves. There was a tiny toad in the garden that was almost indistinguishable from the dirt, but fortunately I didn't step on it. I've seen a fox and bobcat in just the past week. So I'll be alright.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Yep, it's finally here

Last weekend my friend and I picked up a truckload of horseshit, spread it on the garden, tilled it in, and planted three pounds of onion sets. Also planted raspberries. Today, there are just a few onion shoots showing, and buds are swelling on three or four of the raspberries. I'm going to sow a third of a row of lettuce later today and maybe plant peas. Meanwhile the tender crops will get started in the greenhouse.

Buds are swelling on the fruit trees, the briars in the woods are already green, and I'm giving it a week before we start to see the beech trees come alive. I never quite trust it, somehow, but it comes.

I need to make sure I find the energy this year to make the most of spring and summer. I have to do it in two places, maybe three, for two or three people. -- the possible third being my mother, but she may be okay without too much intervention from me. We'll see. Anyway, I'm psyched to make a little bit of the world better for people I care about. It's a great blessing to have that opportunity.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The never ending struggle . . .

lest the jungle reclaim it's own.

My neighbor owns a lot of forest. He has a long road -- a mile and half or so -- from his house to the swimming hole, which is an idyllic spot in the woods with a waterfall going over a dam. Spring weather has come at last and the mud has dried so it was time to clear the trees that had fallen across the road in the storms of fall and winter. As you may recall, this included the most powerful northeast storm in recorded history, and as you might well imagine, there were a whole lot of very big trees lying across that road.

Three of us pushed down it from barrier to barrier, wielding chainsaws and using my tractor to push the big trunks off to the side. It took a good four hours and there's still a lot of work to move brush by hand and clean up the edges.

As I have mentioned before, I mow a pretty good sized clearing, right now I'd say it's about 2 1/2 acres. The fact is you can't stand still -- I have to keep pushing back the edges or the forest will come in on me, thorn bushes and beech saplings in the vanguard. No road in the forest will stay passable for more than a year without fairly serious attention. We hold nature to a draw with our petroleum fueled brush cutters, mowers, chain saws, and tractors. Our predecessors here wielded axes and scythes and two-man crosscut saws and used horses for the heavy traction. Of course they had to feed the horses which meant keeping three or four times as much land open. I don't know how they did it.

The Indians, on the other hand, didn't bother. They'd girdle some trees and burn the underbrush to make small clearings for gardens, cultivate them for a year or two, and move on. Maybe not such a bad way to go after all.

Friday, March 29, 2013

At last . . .

The snow has mostly disappeared (except from where the humans piled it up), the ground has thawed, at least to some depth (though I haven't stuck a pick in yet), the garlic has awakened, and the buds are swelling. No real greening of the grass yet, but I'll let you know.

Yesterday when I got up I saw a big buck walking through the woods. He had some sort of a tumor on his left rear leg and a noticeable limp. Just a reminder that wild animals don't have doctors and stuff like that, which would probably be a minor problem for us today, will kill them. Since he doesn't have to worry about wolves and mountain lions nowadays, maybe it's something he can live with for a while, I don't know. But in the end, for most sentient creatures, it's a hard way to go.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

What this country needs is a better class of groundhog

With cabin fever getting the better of me, I took a walk around the farm to look for any signs of greening in this chilly spring. So far, sadly, I didn't see much. The snow is gone from the sunniest flat and south facing ground, but it's still pretty thick in the woods. Down in my field, there's a pretty benign weed -- I don't know the name of it -- tiny, shallow rooted plants that just hug the ground. They stay green, and manage to very slowly spread, right till the ground freezes, and they take advantage of even a superficial thaw to perk up. They're looking alive, obviously, along with some patchy bunch grass in the very sunniest places. My irises are showing the tiny tops of blades poking above the ground.

That's about it. The garlic is dormant, the tree buds aren't swelling, the earth is still pretty much asleep. The prognosticators aren't encouraging either -- the rotten bastards are talking about snow on Monday. But I'll keep looking. It's time for plants to start happening.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The seasons

It's just arbitrary that we call the first day after the vernal equinox the first day of spring. In fact, it's pretty much arbitrary that we mark the equinox at all. If we didn't have clocks and clear horizons, we wouldn't even notice that it's 12 hours from sunrise to sunset. Today, in much of the country, winter weather is long gone, whereas elsewhere, including here, it's still with us.

Last year, to the extent we had winter at all, it was over by now. That was bad -- the warm dry spring left the soil deprived of deep moisture, and it never really recovered. The fruit trees bloomed early, only to be nipped by an April frost. The wooly adelgids came back on the hemlocks. Many towns had to restrict water use later in the summer.

This year, the vernal pools are full, mud season is properly muddy, the sap is running by day and stopping by night, all as it should be. Yes, it's annoying to your humble and obedient servant to still be chilly and hauling in wood and hemmed in by snowy ground; but when the time comes, my garden will jump and my trees will be heavy with fruit. The hemlocks will be green and the grass swarming with crickets and toads, much to the joy of the birds. And I'm getting solar gain already at 7:30 in the morning, so that part is happening no matter the temperature. I can't complain, or I shouldn't, even if I do.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Oh For Chrissake

I got home from work the other day to find that some deranged fanatic had driven the 3/8 of a mile up my driveway hoping to find someone to harangue with nonsense. Thank God, so to speak, I was not home, so instead I found a piece of literature wedged in my door.

"Jesus Christ is widely recognized as the greatest man who ever lived. Yet, he surrendered his life for us 1,980 years ago."

That's kind of a strange statement. According to the story I heard, he did not in fact surrender his life, he was just faking it, and three days later he was bopping around having fun surprising people. Since then, he's made occasional appearances on toast. As far as who may be the greatest man who ever lived, I suppose that's a matter of personal taste, but this particular dude, according to those who consider him the greatest man who ever lived, spent many centuries after his fake death communicating telepathically with people and ordering them to burn people alive who don't hold the proper beliefs about him. Nothing too great about that, in my view.

Also, he certainly didn't die for me, nor for my sins. I didn't even exist at the time, so I had not committed any sins. As for the sins I've committed since, I do not wish anybody to die for them, thank you. I do not feel it would be helpful. On the contrary.

If you ask me what I believe, I'll be happy to tell you. I believe that we do best when we figure out how the universe works by using our senses and our reason; and that whatever stories we tell ourselves ought to be both internally consistent, and consistent with observable reality. This whole Jesus story, on both grounds, is preposterous.

However, I don't go onto strangers' property uninvited in order to confront them with these -- I won't even say beliefs, I'll say obvious observations. That would be pointless, highly obnoxious, arrogant and would quite possibly get me arrested for trespassing. Just sayin'.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Is our critters learning?

A few days ago I looked out the window, morning coffee in hand, and beheld a line of deer walking through the woods -- seven of them. They kept a strictly orderly single file, as they will sometimes do when there is snow on the ground. As they came to my driveway, each would stop, look solemnly first right and then left, before proceeding across and up the hill toward the ridge.

This is truly new. The motor vehicle is undoubtedly their most important predator; now it looks as though they've been watching public service announcements on kiddie TV about safely crossing the street. I have also noticed that the squirrels no longer dance suicidally in the road before attempting to throw themselves under my tires -- they run straight across. Whether this is cultural learning or evolved behavior I do not know; it's taken what, 80 years? But they seem to be getting it.

Has anyone else noticed this?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Faunal ranges

I was in northern Vermont, specifically a semi-rural area near Burlington, for the past three days. I thought I would post here but ended up getting distracted. Anyway . . .

The fauna there is little different from here, with two major exceptions that I know of. One is the red squirrels, which we don't have here, as far as I've ever seen, even though Wikipedia claims otherwise. In my youth I noticed that the pine woods in Maine had almost exclusively red squirrels, whereas all I've ever seen in Connecticut are gray. Further south, in the D.C. area, you'll see black ones, which if I'm not mistaken (easy enough to look it up but I don't want to pretend omniscience about these matters) are actually a different color regime of the same species as the gray. If I'm wrong, let me know.

The red ones are a different species, however. They're smaller, territorial (unlike the grays that will be seen in numbers at times), and specialize on conifer seeds. I happen to have a large patch of pine on my property, but it doesn't harbor any red squirrels that I'm aware of. For whatever reason, they seem to be more prevalent farther north. I have occasionally seen gray squirrels with a touch of red on their tails and sides, however. I wonder if they're capable of hybridizing after all, or if this is just a variation?

The second big differences is moose (mooses?). They used to come this far south in winter, which is why a nearby town is called Moosup. (Really. That's where the moose turned and went back up in early spring.) But they never make it south of Massachusetts any more. I have no idea why. Oh wait a minute, could it have something to do with the climate?

Friday, March 8, 2013


The snow melted as fast as it came down yesterday, but overnight a few inches piled up. It filled up the hemlocks and plastered the oaks. It's enough to make the critters hunker down, so all that bird song that has been gradually building with the approach of spring has suddenly ceased.

It's all conducive to contemplation and the solitary, exquisite savor of regret. Sadly, I will have to shatter the silence and fairyland white perfection by firing up my tractor to plow the driveway, before heading off for Vermont later this morning. It won't be Windham County, but I'll record what's happening up there this weekend.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Apocalypse!

March 7 at 7:00 pm

We have a weather forecast of light snow mixed with rain, totaling maybe 3 or 4 inches of accumulation over the next 24 hours. The only precipitation we had of any kind until early this morning was drizzle, and right now there is a little bit of confectioner's sugar on the ground. But . . .

Last night the teevee news had a crawl at the bottom announcing the hundreds of events and activities that had been cancelled. There were long lines at the gas stations and the stores have been stripped of bread and milk. The local news programs consisted largely of people wearing no hats, so their hair could blow around, standing on eroding barrier beaches predicting further erosion.

I don't need to characterize this for you, I hope. We are a nation of coddled twits. I, for one, am off to work.

On the other hand, when it's snowing at 4 inches an hour, there's a blinding wind, and already a foot of snow on the ground, you see people out and about in their SUVs and sliding off the road or getting stuck overnight trying to go uphill on the Interstate. Any chance to be a fool, we'll take.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Back at it

March 6, 2013

Overcast today at 7:00 am, but on the mild side, 36 f. The patchy remnants of the Great Blizzard of 2013 are still on the ground, gone from the south facing slopes, but a bit of new snow is predicted over the next couple of days.

Last night I had an unusual dream. In the dream, I was lying in my bed, at night, as I was in reality. The only difference was that in my dream, I was awake, whereas in reality I was asleep. In my dream, I thought that I should start a diary, and that I could do it on this blog easily enough, since every morning I am at my computer with my coffee. That was after all the whole idea to begin with, so I don't know why I haven't been doing it.

So how do I know this was a dream? I heard a siren in the distance, which as far as I can remember has never happened as long as I have lived here. We have a volunteer fire company but they seem to exist only to drill and drink beer. There must be occasional need for an ambulance, but there isn't any traffic so they probably don't use their sirens much. Anyway, a few minutes later -- subjectively, in my dream -- I heard a voice outside the door. "Police!" There is nothing illicit here, for better or for worse, but there they were. In my dream, I struggled to get out of bed, and could not do it because I was, well, asleep. Then I woke up, and immediately I could tell the difference. Now I could get out of bed, but there was no need, because the police were not here.

So, I take it as a sign. I should start writing the Windham County blog every day. And I will. There will always be something worth noting or discussing, be it only the weather and the vegetation. Sometimes it will be about humans and their strange ways, sometimes about other creatures. We shall see where this goes . . .