Matfield Green - Our first years

Saturday, April 22, 2006

An email from home (Bill & the Burning Bush)

It was a big day yesterday starting with pouring the basement walls at 6:30. A concrete pumping truck with a hose arching about eighty feet high on an articulated arm delivered the concrete to the formwork from four rotating trucks. I'm sure it was the largest and most sophisticated pour since the underpass was poured in 1922. The pumping truck was remotely controlled by the driver who stood a few feet from the men directing the hose into the formwork. The whole operation took less that two hours, so the weekend started early for Scott Woodward, his son, and two helpers.

Pat poured the subfloor of the last bunkhouse unit (a completely separate operation from the above) and rushed off to meet the same load of concrete at the Miller's front walk.(Unfortunately they hadn't ordered quite enough so one leg of the "Y" shaped walk didn't get poured.)

As Pat was finishing the floor Bill Haw appeared. I immediately recognized him from a picture I had seem on the internet. We had a pleasant conversation -Cottonwood Falls, scenic easements, ranch economics, the idea of a Chase County dude ranch, his three ranches in this area, soaring land costs, etc. [Rumors are that the Rogler heirs have been offered $1200 an acre to keep the farm out of auction - and turned it down!]

In the meantime, I realized that the wind velocity was low making it a great day to burn the remainder of the prairie north of the house site - about 8 acres. After last week's embarassment of starting the BNSF tracks on fire and the visit from sheriff and volunteer fire department I was a bit apprehensive. Luckily the two BNSF rail welders - the guys we showed through the bunkhouse last week - we at the grade crossing, so I asked them what they thought. They told me to go ahead and do it and confirmed with their boss via two-way radio. With this encouragement I was off to line-up help and assemble the equipment for a five o'clock burn. I found Pat and Phil Miller finishing the walk and Kenny Thomas and told them we would start in three hours.

In the meantime the welders reappeared and said that their boss thought they should help with the burn, but that they couldn't wait until five. So, we decided to do it straight away. So the welders, Kenny, and I went to it - Kenny with a small ATV and a torch and the rest of us with sprayers.

I was pleased that the fire burned throught the wooded areas. After dinner with Pat in Burns we returned to find the woods still in flames - there was one hot spot that seemed almost like the burning bush in the Bible. We decided in was a pack rat nest mounded with sticks that was sustaining the flames. We watched for awhile and then returned to the bunkhouse for sleep.

Love you.

A familiar face in a crowded lobby

There is a big conference going on here at the Holiday in Mart Plaza for members past and present of an all black fraternity. I was just walking through the lobby on my way back from class, wondering why none of these guys had brought their wives with them - or rather how all of them seemed to have gotten away with it. What was it that these women were avoiding? Why not make the trip to Chicago for the annual conference? Were they banned or uninterested?

Figuring I would not have the guts to pose the question to a stranger in the elevator, I glanced over at the sofa and there was Lloyd. We'd worked at the Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine together for 5 years in the early 1990s. I managed the bookstore; he worked in the purchasing department. I ordered the books; he delivered them from the basement up to the 7th floor.

"Lloyd?" I knew it was him. A moment of confusion as I gave him my name and he mind flashed back to Dearborn and Oak Street. The building is gone now. Condo's in it's place. Our fumbling boss is dead of a heart-attack. The students we served are making the big bucks, hopefully finally posting that last payment on their student loans. [The good thing about being a podiatrist, one of my student assistants told me, is that you keep decent hours and you very rarely lose a patient.]

Lloyd lives in Aurora now. He doesn't look much older, just a little thicker across the chest. He was, of course, able to answer my question. Turns out the wives are here. But they are all down on Michigan Avenue - where the real action is.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Chicago from a different point of view

I'm in Chicago, teaching an Advocacy class in the nonprofit management certificate program at the University of Chicago. They've put me up for 4 nights at the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza. 21 stories above downtown looking right down on Wolf Point, a perfect birds-eye view of the convergence of the three branches of the Chicago River.

A small class of 5 enthusiastic students - when it's like this I love teaching!

Friends Ted & Peggy Wolff, and Ted's dad Peter Wolff, visited us in Matfield Green last weekend. He's a train buff so our back deck is Ted Nirvana. (Ted and Peggy, you could use the comments section to record highlights of your trip!)

They'd visited us before and remembered the great food at the Burn's Cafe, so they made a couple of trips there over the weekend, learning, sad to say, that the cook is getting married and the restaurant is being sold. The current owners are looking for another Mennonite family to take over. Here's hoping!

Ted and Peggy treated me to a typically hip Chicago dinner at Opera last night - fusion Chinese and a light red wine. Things not seen at the Burns Cafe. Not a bite of beef on our table - though we did order the Mongolian lamb ribs with watercress. Earlier in the day, I did the typical tourist thing, dropping money for new shoes at Nordstrom's and Nordstrom's rack. A fine habit if I dont' get to come back to Chicago too often.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Heavy equipment and sweaty men

House building has begun in earnest. Jay Scott and his super-backhoe made the basement hole bigger and deeper and squarer. Scott Woodward and his crew are building forms and pouring concrete. Shirtless young men smooth and scrape in the hot sun. The footings at the bottom of the basement look like they could sustain an eleven story building.

I'm off to Chicago and Saint Paul - 10 days away. Good news is I'll make money and see friends. But it is hard to leave a vegetable garden in springtime. Pat guarantees that last nights 39 degrees was the lowest temp we'll see until fall, so my tomato plants should be safe while I'm away. Peas are 3 inches tall. Chard and beets and turnips, radishes and even carrots have all sprouted. And 6 pounds of seed potatoes are in the ground. Enough to last the winter if all goes as planned.

Bill promises to water, and I know all will be well. Still, it's hard to tear myself away.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Bill sets the tracks on fire

The Matfield Green Volunteer Fire Department was at our place on Saturday, and with them the Sheriff's Deputy. Seems Bill's fire in the north end of the north pasture got a bit out of hand. First some old discarded railroad ties on the track embankment caught on fire. Then the wind picked up, grabbing the flames and lighting a couple of ties on the active track ablaze. Volunteers Cecil and Randy (R. is also the Mayor of Matfield Green) pulled up in their 1950s vintage red firetruck, with a big tank of water on the back. But really there was nothing they could do, since the truck would never make it up the steep hill of slippery stones to the tracks.

Feeling embarrassed, I know, but determined to prove himself, Bill - who hadn't noticed the fire on the tracks until the emergency crew appeared on the scene - climbed on up to the tracks, 4 gallon tank on his back, and put that fire good and out.

The volunteers contented themselves with dousing a scraggly old elm tree, still burning from the fire the night before.

As the sheriff (or it may have been his deputy) drove away, he said to me, "Tell him that once I leave I cant' control the trains anymore. Tell him to call me if he needs to go near the tracks again." Turns out Bill and his fire had stopped the transcontinental BNSF - at least for a few minutes.

It's two days later now - Monday afternoon - and some of those discarded ties are still smoking. One was still in flames this morning. And the wood chip pile has been smoldering since Friday evening.

It's hard to learn this stuff any other way than by doing. But next time, we'll gather up those railroad ties and we'll be more careful not to light things like elm trees and wood chip piles. But most of all, we'll be much more respectful of the weather forecast when it says to expect high winds later in the day.

Pepper gets a bath

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Fire in the wood chip pile

It stays light late here even this early in the year. When Pepper & I get up to walk in the morning at 6:15 the first red of the sun is just peaking through to guide our way down the path. Last night when we finished dinner - Bill and Elaine Jones, neighbors two doors toward town, came to the bunkhouse for fish and salad and a chocalate Easter bunny for dessert - at about 8:30, it was still light enough, and the wind was calm enough to consider burning part of the area that we call "The North Pasture."

Pat handled one propane torch, lighting the backburn along the north end of the bunkhouse. Bill took off toward town to light the headfire along the creek - really just a dry bed - 800 feet north of the house. Again, a tiny piece of pasture compared to what our neighbors were burning. Northeast of the bunkhouse and from 2 or 3 spots in the east, fire and smoke was pouring into the sky from the hills burning around us.

So, with Pat at one end and Bill at the other the burn began. I took hold of the garden hose, protecting a lilac bush, and then going to Pat's rescue as he fought a renegade blaze in the woodpile. I took a few picture, stroked the dog - who'd had a bath today - and contemplated the difference between men and women. This fire-setting is not physically strenuous. I could wield a propane torch with the best of them. But I'm not going to wrestle anybody for the chance. And I'm not going to feel too bad if the big-boys take the torches and I get left out in the cold.

After awhile of watching, I came in, washed the dishes, continued my effort to understand Pepper a little bit better by reading a few more pages of "How Dog's Think," and sooner than later, went to sleep.

This morning I awoke to a spectacular sunrise, highlighted by a line of flames still burning in a neighbor's pasture east of the highway, and a persistent fire in our woodchip pile. I grabbed the hose and the rake and went down to play fireman.

Not as easy as it looks.

Rake, rake, rake. Pour on the water. More water. Flame's gone. But step back a minute and smoke pushes up from below. Rake some more. Buried embers. More water. More water. More water.

Bill joined me, he with the rake, me with the hose. Easier this way. But still, a fire in the woodchip pile is a force to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hot, still and smoky

The grasshoppers have arrived. or better said, the grasshoppers have awakened. Here and there the pop of the hop. It's a festive springtime rhythm. But I worry. With the drought that we have been experiencing they could proliferate and desimate the garden.

Neighbor Emily raises Guinea hens to eat the grasshoppers, but we don't yet have the bunkspace for fowl.

More peas have sprouted today. And a few beets and chard peaking through. I scattered and raked in the oats, which we are using as cover crop. Tomorrow or the next day I'll plant soybeans, also as cover crop to keep weeds from invading the beds we are not planting this year, while at the same time fixing nitrogen and adding organic matter to the soil.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Our House

So that's picture a of what our house will look like. On the left are the train tracks and beyond that the prairie and the west. On the east is the National Scenic Byway. The bunkhouse is about 500 feet north of the bunkhouse with the corral and garden in between. So this is what the house will look like from the bunkhouse. The glass room on the end is the greenhouse. The rest is really a combination house/barn and studio. The barn is the whole left half. The house is the four windows upstairs on the right, and Bill's studio is downstairs on the right. There will be solar power, geo-thermal heat, and water harvested off of the roof for drinking, bathing, washing and cooking. We'll use graywater in the flushable compost toilets and are considering digging a well for irrigating the garden.

Today I feel like the project has begun in earnest. A truck pulled up with a trailer full of rebar for the foundation. Jess Dean was there, this time with a backhoe, to unload it. Digging and concrete pouring will begin soon.

In the garden, the peas are popping and little lettuces are reaching for the light. On Sunday I planted a big bed of more broccolli and kale that two people and a dog could eat in seven seasons.

I hope the neighbors like kale.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The snake in Clara Jo's bedroom

Tom and Barb Armstrong came to the bunkhouse for dinner on Friday night. Barb said to Tom, "Tell them about the snake." Well, apparently, one day last week, Tom got a panicked call from Clara Jo Talkington. There was a snake in her bedroom. Four feet long. Black. A rat snake. Bill identified it in his prairie reptiles book. Not poisonous. But obviously big enough that no one wanted to tangle with it. Tom was the third person Clara Jo called. The second person, who shall remain nameless, told her, "Oh no, I can't help you with that."

Tom tells the story simply. He used an old metal cattle noose (that Clara Jo had lying around) to capture the snake and drag it out into the yard.

The big question that remains in my mind is How Did it Get into the Bedroom? I guess I need to go visit Clara Jo.

The Long Haul

A couple of years ago Bill and I watched a few episodes of a reality show on PBS called "Pioneers", or something along that line. The idea was three families got outfitted as pioneers in the 1880s and sent out to survive on the Canadian prairie. This show was better than most since it was not overtly competitive (though people being people there was immediate and intense, if subtle, rivalary among the families). In the episode I remember most they were breaking the soil to plant potatoes and other crops. It was brutal work - no Jess Dean and his tractor in the 19th century. The ground was sodden and the potatoes spoiled. It was one big giant struggle.

This week as I struggled in our garden I flashed back on that episode. My soil is thick clay, almost impenetrable in places. But I have the neighbor with the tractor-tiller, and the nice warm house with flush toilets, hot water, and propane stove to help keep my spirits up as I worry about whether peas, carrots, chard and the rest will be able to survive and grow in such inhospitable condtions.

But mostly, it occurs to me, I have the long view. Those poor families stuck out on the Canadian plains were not going to be around in five years to see all of their hard work pay off. They were not going to be able to see this year's refuse turned into next year's rich compost and the fertile soil of two years hence. We are in this for the long haul and in that there is lots of hope. Because even if my carrots and parsnips are inedible this year, they will have done their part, each root vegetable boring a hole in the sticky ground, losening things up a little, preparing the way for a more successful crop in years to come.

Another thought about the long haul: working beside my husband in the garden, as he digs a hole 6 inches deep with his spade and I place a tender strawberry plant in the hole and cover it with soil, feels like soddering a bond between us. It feels like recommitting to forever through the soil and the spade and the delicate green leaves of each strawberry plant.

Friday, April 07, 2006

On the way to McPherson

A brown and white calf chasing a butterfly across the pasture.
A grown up cow chasing a coyote away from the herd.
A rainbow over Marion.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Checking in with myself

Earlier this week friend Wendy Lane, artist from Saint Paul, asked if I ever found this new life overwhelming. I've thought about that question a lot since she posed it.

It's a pretty simple life. My work is interesting and I am having fun building my nascent coaching business. I miss my close friends and some of the familiarities of life in Chicago but so much of what I have here is absolutely satisfying. We have wonderful people right here in Matfield Green that I enjoy spending time with and am eager to get to know better. I have my husband and my dog, and Pat Moss not only keeps everything running smoothly (he's working on replacing my office water heater today), he also adds a different point of view to our evening's conversation.

This blog, and the knowledge that you are reading, helps me feel connected and keeps me alert to what is new and noteworthy.

I have the birds - some teeny little ones tapping away looking for bugs on the gravel road outside my office window. I have my early morning walks and lots of time for contemplation (Pepper would rather sniff than contemplate). This week I've been considering the journey out from home and the return along the same path that is never really the same. So much changes as the sun rises and the day begins. This morning I felt like I glimpsed a secret promise as the sun shown through brightly at 6:30 and was overtaken by clouds by the time I returned home at about 8am.

And here I am at 1pm with the promised fulfilled. After a too brief spattering of rain, the storm that threatened the Great Plains has missed us and I can, after all, plant strawberries today.

I have four tiny asparagus shoots. Tom and I buried some transplants from Chicago last October. To my joy, they have survived the winter and I will have an asparagus patch behind my office.

And I have apple blossoms and red bud on the trees outside the office door.

So many blessings.

It is a little overwhelming after all.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

More seeds in hard sticky ground

Carrots, radishes, parsnips, beets and chard. Dig down, sweethearts! Dig down!

Fire in the east

Last evening there was a long line of fire and smoke across the eastern sky, getting brighter and clearer as the sun went down. This morning the same hills were bordered in the same color red - This time it was the sun gone round the earth and rising again.

Saturday night's burn at the bunkhouse

Jess Dean and his tiller

Monday, April 03, 2006

My favorite things

I love walking out to the mailbox, slipping a letter in and lifting up the red metal flag to alert the postal carrier.

I love gliding down the hill into town on my bicycle - on my way to my office - barely needing to pump a pedal.

The way home, now that's another story.

Controlled burn

It's been a busy few days at Camp Bunkhouse. On Friday Jess Dean tilled the garden. Thanks to his efforts, the soil is dense but workable, so this afternoon I took a mid-day break from the office, gathered up tilling fork, rake and seeder, plus a bag full of seeds, and headed down to the garden. A couple of hours later I was breathing a sigh of full of relief knowing that spring would not, in fact, pass me by. I've taken that necessary step of getting the first seeds into the ground: snap peas, shelling peas, lettuce, arugula, corn salad, basil, parsely, dill and oregano. The garden-season, long and lovely, has begun.

I'm especially excited about the lettuce and basil seeds, which I'd saved from last year's garden. Some of the lettuce is from a third generation of saving.

On Sunday I transplanted a few tomato planats, moving them out to the coldframe to make more room under the growlamp for melons and hot peppers.

On Saturday evening Bill and Pat and I burned a small patch of prairie between the Bunkhouse and the corral, a particularly delicate area to burn since it contains our propane tank.

Armed with our tools: Pat carried propane torch and garden house, Bill had the garden rake and I strapped on the 4-gallon sprayer backpack full of water. The wind was blowing but in the perfect direction, from the southeast, away from the road and away from the bunkhouse. It was twilight, soon to be dark - not a problem given all the light we'd soon be generating.

The first step with a controlled burn is to light a backfire, into the wind, which you control carefully with rake, hose and sprayer, burning a swath around anything you wish to protect. In this case the corral, the outhouse, and, especially, that propane tank. I experienced a moment of panic feeling the fire racing toward the corral, pinning me against the fenceposts. I was not in danger - I could easily jump the fence and run for cover, but I was worried about the corral itself lighting fire. I sprayed and Bill "raked fire" until the corral was out of danger. No harm done. However, we agreed that next time the wise thing to do would be to mow an inner circle around those structures we are protecting, then back-burn, and then finally light the headfire.

A headfire in action with a medium-strength wind blowing in the perfect direction is a sight to behold. We lit the fire at the south end of the area we were burning and just sat back and watched it flame, knowing that we'd secured our assetts with the backburn. Off it roared, consuming the old growth and making room for the new tender shoots of healthy grass and wildflowers.

There's poetry in that.