A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Fire and Ice

     Winter is such a totally different season in our life on the land. I realize just how much the hours, work and rhythm of our lives shift with the seasons come January, when we return to our Missouri homestead, transformed by a blanket of snow. Our daily activities shift indoors. We find ourselves flipping from “active doing” to “planning and dreaming”. Our cookstove becomes a central element inside our home and freezing temperatures become a central element outside our home, defining what is and isn’t possible. So we tend fires and break ice (mostly in our yet-to-be-fully-buried-cistern). We also read, and reorient ourselves for the year to come. This past month we have spent more time than ever with folks in our community, in conversation about the year of big transitions to come. Twice or three times a week we have had meetings where we work on a vision of how we want to come together as a single community entity. What kind of legal land-holding structure that will take has been a central part of the ongoing conversation, but also the nuances of life together: possible shared structures, decision-making models, processes for joining and departing, co-operatives and income-sharing businesses, etc. The work of creating a life together seems never ending, but then again, this is the season to do it in.

      Perhaps to counteract the often serious gravity that sitting indoors hashing out “bylaws” and such has, we have been embracing the recreational possibilities of the snow and ice with some regularity. Spontaneous sledding parties result from the right combination of hill + snow + kids. Frozen ponds turn into ice skating rinks, capture-the-flag fields, mazes and forts (when snowed on), and vast expanses to be explored together. The way ice forms is so exquisitely beautiful and mysterious—and somewhat fraught with the ever-lurking possibility of breaking through as one glides across it. I don’t think I have ever stopped to consider it very much before this year. Sometimes deep, narrow, fissures will break up thick plates of ice, menacing fault lines running through the pond. Out on a bigger lake, we discovered strange white spots appearing like spilled paint layered into the ice. These were such a fascinating mystery until someone pointed out the possibility that they were caused by hibernating turtles and other creatures buried deep in the lake muck below, emitting the occasional air bubble that trapped itself in the freezing ice. Still, other formations remain unexplainable.

     The snowfall is equally as varied and beautiful, sometimes driving down in forceful slivers with the blustery wind, other times wafting slowly in fat flakes with all the time in the world to land. The air seems so still and quiet then, and standing outside, I could swear that I was the only one stirring in the whole natural world around me. Sounds can transport much longer distances then, unimpeded by tree canopy and such. I can hear the clink clink of our neighbor Brian hammering out steel at his blacksmith forge up the way. Or the voices of our neighbors checking on their sugaring buckets hung on black walnuts and silver maples through the woods to catch sap running on warm days that have freezing nights.

     Mike has taken on tapping our trees this year, an exploratory project to see what potential there might be for making our own syrup. Having tried out this project a decade ago when I lived in Vermont surrounded by sugar maples, I feel less than enthusiastic about it: I almost burned down a cabin in the process of boiling down the sap, so my only stipulation is that we do that part outside this time around. Other projects squeeze into nicer days: burning up brush piles, pulling out an old fence line to make way for a garden expansion, putting in orders for planks of wood at a few mills with future projects in mind, and climbing under the house to fill in cavities with insulation that somehow missed it years ago. Indoors projects include putting up shelves in the kitchen, cleaning and organizing, and a big one—educating ourselves about a larger solar system that we are planning to install this spring. President Trump’s increase in tariffs on imported solar panels has somewhat motivated this, as a group from nearby ecovillage Dancing Rabbit decided to put in a rush bulk order before the deadline. A good friend from that community has kindly offered to help us procure used lithium ion batteries from scrapped electric vehicles that he has a source for, which also is helping bring down the cost (and increase performance) on our future system. It is an exciting development for us, to imagine ways in which we can re-invite some amount of electricity back into our lives all while staying off the grid: at the very least, we will be able to run our chest freezer off of power from the sun instead of Missouri’s default source: coal. Ugh.

     While all of this progress in our community and on our homestead has been encouraging, the last theme we have been grappling this month is somewhat darker and harder to know what to do with. It started with a friendly conversation between Mike and an elderly Amish man who runs a nearby business. When Mike told him where our homestead was located the man nodded with recognition and reported to Mike that he knew of it because he has gone hunting with his dogs out our way… hunting for predators. “Why yes,” he reported with some satisfaction, “we shot quite a few animals just a few weeks ago—18 coyote, 6 fox and a bobcat”. That is to say, he let his hunting dogs sweep through our neighborhood and surrounding woods, chasing out predators and rounding them off toward the road where hunters cruise slowly along with their trucks, taking shots from the road. It isn’t just the Amish who sport-hunt this way, another local man reported he did the same along our road as well. There are few things that quite make my blood boil such as this, as I love these inhabitants of our woods, love hearing their yipping and howling on cool fall nights, love the rare flash glimpses we catch of them. My community members feel the same and are equally livid about the slaughter of such important and rare members of our ecosystem. But the Amish hunting culture and mindset is a hard thing to change—when someone in their community caught sight of a mountain lion a few years ago (an extremely rare and wonderful thing as they begin to repopulate this far east), and reported it to the conservation department (who denied the possibility perhaps in a preservation effort), a group of Amish men hunted it down, delivering its body to the conservation department with a “told you so”. I imagine they quite enjoyed doing it as well. What does one do with this kind of practice, occurring right here, on our road, in our woods? It is part lack of understanding about the important part predators play in the balance of an ecosystem, and part cultural inheritance, something very hard to change….

      At any rate, a few weeks ago one of our neighbors found a frozen Great Horned Owl down by the train tracks, caught by a train perhaps mid-swoop. It is a magnificent bird that I have rarely seen, much less up close—the patterning on its feathers, the long flinty talons, one gold eye still cocked open. It is one of the earliest birds to nest and lay eggs, right around this time of year actually. We all crowded round and admired it for awhile, showing all of the kids so they might understand its specialness and remember. After a little while it was buried down in the woods. With so much death in the air, it is hard to remember that in a few short months, rising up from that grave site will be mayapples and morels, frog song filling the air, all below the great canopy of oaks leafing out again. For now, the stark black and white of winter continues on....
Perhaps coyote tracks in the new snow?

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