Once again, we left the farm in capable hands and journeyed to the northwoods for our annual get-off-the-farm vacation. Our first evening began at the family cabin deep in the heart of Chequamegon National Forest. Going there one must be prepared for total quiet save for the glorious chorus of bullfrogs at dusk. Leave the cell phone at home, that won’t work here. And forget plush accommodations. While it is comfortable, it’s still a little rough on the edges. But that’s okay. The focus is on the natural surroundings. That includes long-standing cabins that have been around the block a time or two and exhibit the wear and tear to show for it. A visit up there always includes a walk to poke around haunting hints of these past occupancies.
A little bit of history whispers here. You can kind of hear it, but can’t quite make out the words. You almost see it, but you don’t quite see it. Like trying to look directly at a nebula. You just can’t, but out of the corner of your eye, you can see something, maybe, if you hold still long enough.
Which is what led us to our journey to Bear Island.
Bear Island may not really be an island. That is in question. Marshy land connects it to terra firma from what I gather. Tall galoshes might get you there, but a canoe would be better. That being said, this pretend island doesn’t really have a name. I just call it Bear Island out of convenience. So there floats the first mystery of Bear Island. It sure looks like an island from where I sit on the back patio of the cabin. I hear it’s siren call. Which is probably not a good thing…
Island: “Come to me you dumb fool”
Me: “oh, okay”
And so we went.
But first, let’s back up a bit. My husband told me the story of one man who in the 1950s sought to write an article for National Geographic about living on an island in the northwoods during winter. It was upon this very island he chose to build a cabin and live out the winter. This was before all those off-the-grid-living-in-Alaska-struggling-to-survive reality T.V. shows. Interesting that some 50 or 60 years ago someone else was playing with that very same concept.
The cabin still exists there on the island, and no one is to step foot on there. I’m not sure why. So it only seemed logical that Pete and I decided we would step on the island. (First premonition, watch where I step) We were going to paddle there. But first we had to do a recon. In the fading light of dusk, we slipped out on our canoe to search for an inconspicuous landfall with the intent of striking out first thing in the morning. Because we must not be seen. By what…cod? Yes, well, we mapped our landing and paddled back to the cabin to prep for the coming morn. Prep included a glass of wine and popcorn. Strenuous yes I know.
The next morning we set out across a quiet lake, and pulled ashore in our appointed place. I was very disappointed no one met us with a platter of cheese, crackers and a free ticket on the gondola ride to the top. What kind of island is this?
A secret island, that’s what. No one has stepped foot here in years so the lore goes. I’m not sure I believe that but it’s fun to imagine. So after a quick climb up we came upon this cabin built in the 50s. Despite its many years, I could tell that it wasn’t just slapped up in a day. It’s main structure held fast, while decay wrinkled its brows.
The fact that it’s still standing after some 50 or 60 years is a testament to the care taken into building it. Which is saying a lot considering someone had to transport materials across the lake to build this. Including a stove and bunk beds which are still in evidence there. I wonder how long it took them to build it, and did it have running water? And really, how isolated was he? Were there not other cabins on the main shore at the time?
It was a very interesting, secretive sojourn to this island. Just paddling out in the quiet light of morning across a very still lake was in itself beautiful. Walking amidst tall pine trees on soft, piney ground to catch a glimpse of history added to the mystique.
One other little island mystery that I still can’t figure out is how I stepped on an upturned nail that went straight through the heel of my boot, but not the heel of my foot. After that little incident, I thought it best to respect the island and leave forthwith. After a little more walking around away from debris and potential nails, we set off back home for another beautiful paddle across a still lake, leaving the island and its past residents and rusty nails to its own solitude.
I tried, I really tried.
I attended the reunion of my husband’s family from the Nordic side of the tracks. This happens every three years according to family lore. This year it was held a mere half hour from our farm. This meant that after the calves were fed and the herb garden was given a fine haircut, we were able to hop in our chalopy and make out for the gathering. I wish to make it clear that this is no random gathering of souls. It was thoroughly planned with historical exhibits, a raffle drawing for family artifacts, musical entertainment, a reflective speech, and various outdoor activities. Oh, and food. Lots of food. Good food. No wonder it occurs every three years. This takes fine-tuned planning to pull off something of this scale.
Being that my husband’s family is from Norway, there is the looming possibility that Lutefisk may be on the menu. I was a little worried about that. I can eat sushi, but I finally gave up on trying to be friends with the Lutefisk. I can’t do it. But I enjoy and respect those that can. And if you like it, you really like it. And if you don’t like it, here’s what you do instead:
Paint a Lutefisk:
One of Pete’s relatives had the brilliant idea to cut fish shapes out of wood, and have a table where kids can just go crazy and paint a Lutefisk fish fisk…fish. You get the idea. Paint it, don’t eat it. Yes!! I quickly gravitated to that table, slapped on an apron and was determined to get crazy with the Lutefisk. Only to find that I was outdone by the Lutefisk children who know better how to get crazy with the fishies:
How do you do that Children of the Lutefisk??! How do you manage to integrate color, design and imagination in such a glorious way without preconceived notions! You are free to create according to your own desires. I found that I was held hostage by my own adult constraints:
I’m not unhappy or displeased with my results, but I do recognize that I wasn’t letting myself loose. I did One fish, saw how controlled I felt, and went back to do Two fish, and still felt controlled. Argh. Really!!? I still can’t throw off my adult inhibitions and get Lutefisk-crazy like this Child-of-the-Fish did?:
It’s good to realize when one needs to pull back, cut the tight rubber band and go boing!! There was a time, and there are still times when I do a drawing that comes spontaneously, and it just works. This was one good Lutefisk exercise to bring that concept of spontaneity back home. I have to keep remembering that, I have to once in a while go boing. And not worry about constraints. Just go with it. Why did it seem so easy when I was younger? I suppose as an adult I’m constantly making to-do lists and checking items off accordingly. Unfortunately it’s affecting my approach to art. I need to walk away from the lists, and walk towards the crazy Lutefisk. And just get all, Go Fish Go.
Spring graced us with yet another lush, wet, soggy Saturday;
It was a nice day to stay inside, or stand on the porch and watch the weeds grow. Weeds that I had just trimmed a few days ago. Or a week ago. Okay, a week ago. The point is…they’re fast growers and they mock me with their upward mobility:
The plants are going a little crazy now too. The Dianthus and Chives have exploded in bursts of pink and purple. It’s like watching fireworks go off at ground level;
I love watching all the greenery unfurl while under the influence of rain. Even the run-away lawn. We can try to tame it but I don’t mind seeing it run a little wild just to remind us of its true nature. There’s only so much we can control. Best to keep in mind, we are ultimately not in control. Unless I brought in professionals. But what’s the fun in that? There’s something romantic and wild about lush gardens running amok against the textured background of the farm;
Looking out from my porch that soggy Saturday, the wild garden movement of the late 19th Century Victorian time period comes to mind. I’m here to bring that trend back. It works for me, there are no crisp lines, no perfect strokes. I’ll let nature guide the design with a few little tweaks on my part. It all sounds like an excuse to save me a little time and work, and it partly is, but I notice this spring I feel a lot less harried about it all than in the past. Which means I can spend more time to simply enjoy it. A fine trade-off from my point of view.
Spring is here, and along with the onset of blooming flowers and invasive weeds, tractor training has thus begun. Let’s give a warm welcome to the Allis Chalmers WD-45, or the new Allis as we refer to it:
It is this new Allis upon which I will be learning to drive a tractor. The old Allis is the tractor that Pete has been driving since God created man. Or close to it anyway. He purchased the new Allis to supplement tractor duties when needed. This is where I step in, or hide according to mood. Ha, no really, I do want to learn to drive a tractor. Partly because as a farmer’s wife, I think it’s a good skill set to have, and also I just like the sound of the engine and build up of power as the tractor leaps into life. It’s a rush.
Both of our Allis tractors are from the late 40’s to early 50’s. The new Allis was rebuilt prior to our purchase, so its origins are a little mixed. Sort of like that mixed breed puppy that we all gush over. I’m trying very hard not to gush over this one because in all seriousness, this is a machine and that means safety first. So I must pay attention and resist the urge to just stroll over and turn the key and take it for a spin.
Fortunately I have enough healthy fear and respect for this machine to not do anything as foolhardy as that. Plus, I have a patient driving instructor in Pete “The Clutch” Farm Guy:
So for my first lesson, Pete drove the tractor out and cleared a 5-mile radius of buildings, animals, people and productive crop. I kid, he didn’t really clear the vicinity but he did drive the tractor out to an area giving me enough radius within which to practice. I did notice however that the barn cats steered clear of the area during this time. Smart cats. Good cats. Very much alive cats.
Some of you who have grown up on farms must find driving a tractor second nature. Not so with me. I wish it were so, but holy crap, this is not like driving my car. Sure there’s that key to start it, but there’s this wire that one pulls to really get it going. Once pulled, the engine roars to life and my heart leaps with excitement, fear and anticipation. My car doesn’t have that little trip wire.
Understand that Pete “The Clutch” Farm Guy made sure to walk me through the mechanics before I even sat in the seat. But it’s one thing to walk through the process and see him do it, and another thing to plop my butt down on the seat and commence engines on…and realize that 1) I can barely engage the clutch entirely, and 2) THERE’S TWO FREAKIN’ CLUTCHES! My car is a stick shift and I prefer that mode, so I’m good with clutches and shifting. But this was a challenge reaching the clutch and engaging the gears. That’s going to take more practice. And muscle. And longer legs!
You know how people say they can feel muscles ache that they’ve never used before after doing something new? I felt muscles ache that had no business aching after clutch and shift exercises on this tractor! This is embarrassing but I was breaking into a sweat just trying to shift gears. I need more arm muscle. Or the tractor simply needs to get more use. Cue me. This has left me with an incredible and invigorating feeling, and with more practice hopefully I will become more confident in taking the helm. But before this first session closed, I had to learn to reverse, back up, turn, and ultimately, drive the tractor into the garage whose doors seemed unusually close together upon my approach. I questioned Pete about whether the doors should be pushed wider apart but he said that they were fine. Fine. Just fine. And this is where I realize I have to just go for it. Be scared but go for it. My god is Pete a trusting fellow. I could’ve very well driven the tractor straight through the garage into the calf pen next door. But either that guy has a tractor remote tucked in his pocket, or he has great confidence in me.
Either way, I’m breathing a sigh of relief that I got that tractor in the garage without tearing down the property. And now, I have a hint of that bond one must feel for a tractor he or she utilizes on a regular basis. Just getting to know the nuances and particularities of Allis on this one day has already drawn me closer to it. I can’t wait for more Allis days!
The wind has been really knocking things and me around these days. Though it’s been pleasantly warm, I feel like my head is spinning within Lady Vortex. I need to lie down. No I don’t, so I went outside instead and ended up in the barn. I forget why, most likely checking on the barn cat situation. Everyone present and accounted for. However a persistent banging of a reckless door drew my attention, which led me into the belly of the beast known here as the silo. It’s not a place I oft go into but the siren call was clear, and I heeded it. Idiot.
This is not a safe place. This is hard hat territory. The vestibule leading into the silo is slowly crumbling within itself, the roof sadly sagging. But I went in mostly to quell that banging door with a cinder block pushed against it. Once that was done, I couldn’t help but poke around a bit more.
I don’t spend a lot of time in silos, but there is something captivating about the engineering and in this case, the slow sense of decay. (Much like our basement I might add) It’s whispering its past history and sense of usefulness in my ear. I never quite understood exactly how the mechanism of a silo works until I crept into this one. But apparently, this cable seen below was cranked from within the vestibule…
raising or lowering this unit to follow the level of the silage stored therein. Cat not included. (Can you see the cat?)
As silage is needed, it is then that a “window of opportunity” is opened, again within the vestibule, and the silage pours down the chute into a waiting wheelbarrow or some such mode of transport below:
Gad, that looks like a subway tunnel but really I’m looking up, so think vertical here with those rectangles being windows. It’s not just the wind that was making me dizzy at this point. Being a little afraid of heights myself, I don’t envy the fellow who had to ascend the silo ladder on the outside for whatever reason.
Pete has actually used this silo way back when he first purchased this property, but when I showed him this picture, he was kind of puzzled about the missing bottom half of the ladder. Where did it go? I say someone just didn’t want to go up there anymore and lopped it off in the dark of the night. That’s what I would do.
Meanwhile, the silo sits. And next to the silo sits its sister silo. Two silos in the same state of quiet crumble. But they are such icons to an era gone by that they remain along with so many other silos sprinkled across our Wisconsin landscape. They are so familiar here that there is no horizon without one. Ours are staying until time takes them down. But if we could, we would somehow repurpose them. Wouldn’t that be interesting! I’m thinking a Silo Bed & Breakfast perhaps, or a multi-level restaurant…how is that for farm to fork?! Or how about just a simple tack room albeit with a very high ceiling. Of course we’d have to get a ceiling, cause right now…eh, no ceiling:
March is in like a lion and out like a lion. No lamb yet. Still cold, blustery and icy with a little bit of tundra on top. But that is no match for me I thought. The roads may still be icy, but guess what? I still have my snow tires on. So screw you post-Winter weather. I’m still going out to run my dumb errands. So I stepped out the door, and stepped right back in the door. Icy, icy porch. Where are my crampons? Where are my big girl pants? I guess I have to find them out there on the icy road because Pete wouldn’t let me back in the house without them. Thanks guy, next time you need a gate watcher we’ll see what happens.
One hour later, “I may need you to watch the gate for me.” Good thing I found my big girl pants out on the icy road.
But this is no problem. We’re just above the freezing mark so I’m comfortably numb. No freezing. In fact I went without gloves. And along comes the straw man. So, I ran to the gate and opened it feeling like this is a breeze. Just unlock the gate, usher back the steer, let in the skid steer, Pete and myself, lock the gate, stand in the pen and watch. As usual it took me a few seconds to really secure the lock before I looked up to observe. And when I did finally look up:
Oh shit…I mean, hello Sir. Mister Sixteen sir. Crap. Okay, who forgot to take the horns off of this one?? I mean I know he’s not a bull, but if you’ve got horns you’ve got balls. Or pretend balls anyway. So I just figure let’s not play games here. Nod politely and don’t look him in the eye. Oh crap, too late:
We locked eyeballs again. I couldn’t help myself. He looks quite proud with his unshorn horns and tuft of unruly hair crowning his poll. One might even say he’s handsome, once one gets over the fright of standing eyeball to horn with him in a locked pen. I wonder if he knows just how handsome he is. And I wonder how he managed to slip by without getting dehorned. A clever ruse I suppose. I asked Pete last night how that came about. I don’t think I got a solid answer. I do think I got an eye roll. No matter, it’s nice to see a Holstein with props and a little attitude. Check you later Mr. Sixteen.
I’m feeling that faint blush of Spring in the air. At last. Maybe I can peel off a layer if I dare. Not sure yet, it’s still early March and we can still get a blizzard. It’s not unheard of. In fact, I still have my snow tires on for just that reason. But I did put away the heavy duty, insulated, I-feel-no-cold-or-limbs overalls for the season. That should put a knife in winter. And if that doesn’t, then putting in the spring window display at the Hydro Street Brewery is a good start.
Those of us on the Hydro Street Window Committee put our frozen brains together and came up with a laundry line, rain boots and umbrellas theme. Because that is what Spring is to us; the crisp snap of bloomers on the line, puddle-splashing boots, and dancing umbrellas performing a duet with raindrops. Why do I feel like I should be breaking into a song here? I won’t. Can’t hold a note. But we took the bloomers and aprons to the line and dressed the window in a spring sonnet. So put that in your bonnet!
Just like Spring though, the window is a work in progress. We intend to fill the space with a flowery field of rain boots, if we could find enough boots. Seems it’s a hard thing to pull the boots off of people’s feet. They actually want to wear them rather than display them. There ought to be a city-wide ordinance; if you have rain boots, you must have a secondary pair for display. It’s all for the good of Spring people!
Like any good laundry line, a few birds came to roost. I’m very encouraged to hear the Spring sing-along-song of birds announcing milder weather. If they say so, then it must be. Still, I’m not ready to pull down the draft drapes yet as March always has a few tricks up its sleeve. Until then, we look forward to Spring while glancing back over our shoulders with a Winter-weary eye should we need to layer up again.
Meanwhile, watch your boots, these gals may try to grab them off your feet for the window display, and you don’t want to mess with them. Best to just hand them over, and have a beer!
Whitewashed, glass-tiled, cool in the summer, cold in the winter. That is the milkhouse that has become my studio where I hope to get back to my basic roots of drawing, painting, and at some point, printmaking.
And just in case you think this is all about my artwork, I'll be posting about daily life on a small, working farm as well. And since I didn't grow up on a farm, and have no idea what to do in many cases, you may find a few amusing anecdotes as I grow accustomed to life here.
This will be an evolving, and in all probability, ever-changing site as I figure things out. So stick around and let's see what happens!