Monday, June 29, 2009

Giant Puffballs

The other day, we were over visiting Pat and Jack's place. They are our friends who decided to adopt little Willie (the goat in the sweater). It didn't take much convincing. All we had to do was let them bottle feed him as a baby one time.

They live in a beautiful isolated log cabin in the woods that Jack made himself after their original home burned down.

Jack said, "Hey do you guys like puffballs?"

I said, "I do, but Deb won't eat 'em."

"Boy there's a dandy one over under that tree."

So we sauntered over through the veil of mosquitoes, and sure enough, there was a giant puffball about the size of a soccer ball just as white and prime for the pickin' as I've ever seen.

"Wow. She's a beauty. Aren't you guys going to eat it?"

"Naw. Pat thinks they're poison."

"Poison? They're only poison if you season them with cyanide in the fryin' pan. Heck. If you don't want it. I'll take it."

"Be my guest. There's another one up in the garden that Pat picked a few days ago and is using it for a decoration. Take it, too."

So, loving to partake of the bounties of nature, as I always do, I picked up both puffballs, gently laid them in the bed of the truck and headed down the drive. As we were departing, I heard Pat shouting after us, "You're gonna die!"

Well, let me tell you. Here's how to prepare them without fear of dying.

Puffballs don't store well fresh, so you should get them cooked as soon as you can. First you peel the rubbery skin off. Brush the loose dirt off, but don't wash them. If water gets inside, they'll get mushy. They should be as white as a marshmallow. You can see that the one that Pat picked earlier was starting to turn yellow on the surface. I discard any part that's not white. Then you slice them and dice them into 3/4 inch cubes.

And saute them in butter and bacon grease. They will shrink down to about half the size, like any fresh mushroom. One giant puffball makes a big batch, so you can freeze the cooked cubes in a freezer bag for use in anything that you would normally use button mushrooms in.

Let me tell you. If you've never eaten puffball mushrooms, you're not missing much. It's about like eating tofu. They'll take on whatever flavor you are cooking them in. But heck. You've gotta do it at least once in your life so you can say you're cool!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Goat Transport and Real Border Collie Work

I have run across a couple of things recently on my blog visits that I just have to share.

Unfortunately, I can't remember where the first photo came from, but it reminded me so much of my days in Ghana, West Africa, that I had to save it. Goats roam freely everywhere you go. The Ghanaians transported them any way they could and you see goats tethered on the roofs of buses and tanker trucks. Any of you with goats ought to appreciate this photo.

Next, I have long wanted to attend a sheep dog trial, but we simply don't have any near enough for us to attend. Then I visited Susanne Iles' blog at from County Cork, Ireland. She has flocks of sheep roaming the farms all around her place (and sometimes in her garden), and the shepherds still use dogs to move the flocks. She has a wonderful site with photos, and she posted the following footage of shepherding from Wales. It's worth a look:

Hope you enjoyed them.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Escape/Break-in Artists and More Work

I went out to get our dairy goat the other night only to find all of the goats in our yard decimating my wife's newly planted shrubs and plants. It sure doesn't take them long.

It turns out that Deb had felt sorry for the goats in their grassless paddock and wanted to let them out in our woodlot paddock to graze on all of the tall grass there. Well, they found the weak spot in the fence. I had opened up a portion to transfer firewood to our furnace shed last year, but never got around to building a gate for it. Instead, someone had just salvaged an old piece of plywood from the scrap heap and leaned it in the opening. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side, so they say.

Each day Deb poses the following question (usually several times a day): "Isn't it about time you ___________?" It's a farm, so it isn't hard to fill in the blank(s).

So, that day it was, "Isn't it about time you built a gate for that gap?"

Sigh. "I guess."

Now to come up with the lumber for the job. A few days earlier, the question had been: "Isn't it about time you replaced those fence boards that the horses have been gnawing on?"

And I replied, "I guess" with a sigh.

I can't be certain, but I have my suspicions that the horses are attending evening seminars presented by our North Woods beavers. They seem to have the gnawing part down pat. Now if they could only learn some engineering from those rascals.

So now in the barn, I had a modest stack of old hemlock fence boards that needed to be repurposed. OK. Now how do I design a goat-proof goat stopper out of old fence boards that lives up to Deb's aesthetic sensibilities?

After some head scratching and chopping and sawing, this is what I came up with:

I'm hoping they won't fit through those holes. So I used my universal stain around the farm: Any surplus, on-sale, discontinued, outdated can of deck stain that I can buy for two or three dollars a gallon tinted with enough lampblack pigment to turn it black.

Me cheap? Only when it comes to buying fancy cameras that are so big and heavy that they won't shake in my hand.

Well, I got 'er mounted in the hole and will have to put 'er to the test as soon as I get around to herding them out of the pasture with the cows.

I have no idea how they got out there this time.

"Oh Debra, dear. Have you by any chance been feeling sorry for the goats again?"

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cold Weather Kidding and Freeze/Thaw Season

After reading about the birth of Harry in warm weather on The Maaaaa of Pricilla, it made me think that we should figure out a way to have our kidding season in warmer weather....

March 6, 2009

Yup. As usual, the -20 F weather did its job. Patches, our dairy goat, dropped two wet, slimy baby kids on the eve of one mighty cold night. When I went out to do evening chores, there they were, wobbling around in the stall with Patches kind of staring off into space as if asking herself, "Why me? Why now?"

By the time we found them, the hair on their little tails was frozen, so Deb had me run in and throw some towels into the dryer to warm. Then it was out to the barn to thaw out and dry off the little slimy ones.

Patches did not like that process at all. I sat on a bale of hay doing my farmerly duty. This bale-sitting position perfectly and strategically placed my kidneys precisely at Patches' head-butting level.

Bam! Bam! Bam! (Now I know why kidney punches are outlawed in professional boxing.)

Well, the babies made it through that frigid night with mom under a heat lamp just fine, and Patches is now not so worried about us playing pass-the-babies. Now they are up and bouncing off the walls. They also do a lot of their own head butting right into Patches' fully distended bag to stimulate milk flow. That'll teach her.

Shortly after every birth, there are a couple of other vital little tasks that need performing. One is to check to make certain that the placenta(s) pass in their entirety. A retained placenta is not a good thing. A cow will eat hers if given the opportunity. Patches has more sense than that, so we were able to determine that everything was OK on that score.

Another thing is to watch and make certain that the babies' first poop (the meconium) comes out after a few good feeds. Unlike later feces, meconium is composed of materials ingested during the time in utero: intestinal epithelial cells, mucus, amniotic fluid, bile, water and lanugo. Lanugo is a fine downy hair that grows on fetuses as a normal part of gestation, but is usually shed and replaced by vellus hair toward the end of gestation. As the lanugo is shed from the skin, it's normal for the developing fetus to consume the hair as it drinks from the amniotic fluid and urinates it back into its environment. The lanugo contributes to the newborn baby's meconium. Meconium is almost sterile, unlike later feces, is viscous and sticky like tar, and has no odor. It should be completely passed by the end of the first few days of postpartum life, with the stools progressing toward yellow (digested milk). (Are we learning a little bit more than we really have to yet? Just wait. There's more.)

One of the babies is a nanny, and the other a buck. I have yet to detect whether the nanny has pooped yet or not. She may be far too discrete for my random observations. The little buck, however, developed a walloping case of Shitzu-butt. Shitzsu dogs have a tendency to cake up their behinds so badly that nothing can get out. The offending obstruction must be physically removed. (Just ask Bob Barker, our Schitzu/Miniature Dachshund mix. He got the wrong end of the Shitzu genes.) Well, the little buck had the same thing, but with yellow tarry meconium that barely came unglued, let alone dissolved in hot water. I had to actually abrade the tar that glued itself to the tub after the procedure.

When we had him in the house, in the tub, woefully succumbing to what was debilitating humiliation (to me, if not the goat), Louise's hospice nurse, Sue, showed up.

"Oh, isn't he just the cutest thing! Let me dry him off."


That was a mistake. I'm not going to tell you how hard it was to pry the baby loose, but it is a well-known fact that most primate mothers, especially chimpanzees and gorillas, jealously hold on to their infants for the first six months or more of life.

It took some convincing, but strictures and covenants (implied, if not specifically written) against baby goats in hospice corporate cars and private apartments won the day.

That's the thing about baby goats. They are born knowing how to work a crowd. The hummingbird-rapid tail wag, the head toss, and four feet in the air standing bounce are enough to turn even the hard-nosed cynic soft-in-the-head and weak-in-the-knee.

So without further ado, I would like to introduce: She-Nanny-kins (pronounced shenanegans), our baby girl

And Buck-aroo, our baby boy.


A few days later, the weather turned warm finally. I hate that. This place turns into an icy mess with thawing in the daytime and refreezing at night. With the ground still frozen, there is no place fcor the meltwater to go except into pools and puddles both in and out of the barn. That's the worst of it, if we are lucky or smart enough to forgo the other problem.

Did we drain the barn plumbing? Did we keep the loft heated enough to avoid freezing? Did we keep the faucets dripping to keep them flowing?

This year we bought a fancy, schmantzy, new high tech, nationally advertised, electric heater for the loft apartment/office/dog house that was supposed to save on heating bills and be guaranteed not to burn the barn down. It didn't burn down the barn, but it sure burned through our electricity budget. To keep the barn loft minimally heated (barely above freezing) we were paying more than $400 a month in electric bills. And as the winter wore on, we kept trying different techniques to lessen the energy required, like just heating the loft bathroom instead of heating the whole loft. Then we tried turning off the dripping faucets in case the drain happened to freeze.

Yesterday, I walked out into the barn to find that the loft pipes had thawed and ruptured and there was four to five inches of water in all of the stalls on one side of the barn. Patches and her babies had to be rescued from a high spot just like those Katrina victims on the rooftops, only without all of the "resources" made available through FEMA. I finally got the water turned off, and the water heater and plumbing drained, and most of the insulation downstairs tacked back up, and fans blowing to dry out the feed room, and maybe someday I might let Deb back into the barn to see what happened.

Einstein was right again. He said, "There are only two truly infinite things, the universe and stupidity. And I'm unsure about the universe."

Oh well. We'll try again next year. As Red Green says in his Man Prayer:

I'm a MAN...
But I can change...
If I have to...
I guess...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

80's Misery

June 20, 2009

I had spent a part of last week gathering big white pine branches that had come down in the last big snowfall, and mending the fence sections that they had wiped out. I took the brush and piled it in our barn arena, where I lop off the green needles for the goats. It's like candy to them. I cut the small branches into chunks to burn in our chimenea. And the bigger branches I buck into fire wood for the winter's woodpile. It's a lot of work, for a little pile of stuff, but I hate wasting btu's in a brush fire.

Today is the first of the summer weather in the 80's, and I am suffering. I'm just not used to it. Our Missouri relatives think I'm crazy, but I seem to sweat at the least exertion. The sun is intense. And I'm crabby from the stickiness and lack of progress on anything.

So I went out into the barn. It's a big metal pole barn with an indoor arena, and it was hotter in there than out in the sun.

Our llama, Olivia, who should be having a baby soon, was laying in the arena in the shade, but right in front of the open back door. I went over to see her and discovered that she knew exactly where the most pleasant place on the farm was. The open door formed a wind tunnel, and it was blissfully breezy and pleasant. Plus it was right next to my big brush heap.

And there it was. My relief from the doldrums. I set my chain saw case down at the base of some split cedar rails that my wife wants made into a hitching post, making a perfect seat and backrest. I pulled our little Daihatsu utility vehicle up to use for a work platform where I could cut up the brush. Then I went in and got my current book (The Parrots of Telegraph Hill), my reading glasses, and a go-cup of iced coffee.

It's lop up a few branches to whittle away at the pile. Then sit in the breeze tunnel, reading a few pages, listening to the barn swallows chatter away and the llama humming, soaking in the fragrance of the sappy white pine boughs, sipping my iced coffee, occasionally reaching down to pet the barn cat that is weaving in and out between my legs seeking attention, and stopping occasionally when my mind wanders from the page to daydream a bit. Work a little, play a little, work a little, play a little.

I'm retired.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My young friend, Kegan, to whom I send the Curiosity Clyde letters described in previous postings found out first hand how dangerous 4-wheelers can be. He shattered an elbow in a roll over accident, is all pinned and casted up, and has kind of blown his summer activities. There are new rules at his house. He's had better days:

December 31, 2007

Somehow this year I happened to remember that the NORAD Command Center has a tradition of tracking Santa's progress on Christmas Eve.

First the basics. NORAD officially stands for North American Aerospace Defense Command as exhibited on their official seal.

That makes no sense to me. If that were true, it would be called NAADC. The official name must have been a ruse to assure that paranoid Congresspersons would retain funding for the upkeep of the historic Night Owl Reindeer-Activated Detector (NORAD). I know, because I'm from Wisconsin, the very same state that Senator Joseph McCarthy came from. He's the guy that went after everybody for being Commies and Soviet Spies in my early childhood years. After going after the reputations and livelihoods of public officials and Hollywood stars, he turned his attention to childhood idols like the Little Red Hen and that red-suited demon, Santa Commie Claus. Senator McCarthy's original intent was to detect Santa in the night sky and blast him to smithereens. Fortunately, missiles weren't very accurate in those days. Anyway, while Senator Joe is long gone, the NORAD device is still up and running and with the advent of the Internet, we have the benefit of watching Santa's progress all across the world on Christmas Eve.

So this Christmas Eve, as soon as I remembered it, I tapped into the NORAD website and started calling Kegan, our 6-year old neioghbor. The first time I called, Santa was in Bosnia, but Kegan's whereabouts was unknown, so I had to leave a message. The next time, Santa was in London, but still no Kegan, hence another message. Then it was on to Iceland. This was really exciting to me because Santa was now in the process of crossing the ocean. I couldn't wait to tell Kegan, but all I got was the answering machine. All I could do was leave another news alert. By the time Santa was on the western shore of Greenland, I gave Kegan one last call to warn him that Santa was almost all the way across the ocean, and that I hoped that he got to bed in time. Still not there.

I gave up and went to the Bass Pro Shop website to see whether I could make a last minute purchase of a Night Owl Kegan-Activated Detector, but they were apparently sold out. (Evidently Kegan has become a very popular name.) I turned off the computer and hunkered down in bed with my book and dog and cat foot, leg and chest warmers.

Then, sometime around 8:30, Deb hollered upstairs that Kegan was on the phone wanting to know where Santa was. He had returned home and had gotten my messages.

So I dispersed my multi-component fur comforter, found a phone, and turned on the computer.

Kegan was SO EXCITED, he had to go pee while my computer was booting up. When I finally got on the NORAD site, it turned out that Santa had skipped down to South America before working his way northwards.

"Kegan, he's now in Colombia, South America."

Kegan turned his head away from the phone and started hollering, "Attention. Attention everyone. Please may I have your attention? Santa is now in Cumbia. That's real near Crandon. Everyone has to be in bed at 8:51, so go get ready. I'm going to stay up and talk with Graig now."

"No, Kegan. South America is still quite a ways away. Ooops! He just flew into Panama. He's getting closer."

"Oooooh boy." Turning his head away from the mouthpiece again, I heard him holler, "Everybody. Santa just went to Graig's Pa an' Ma's house. Hurry and get to bed."

"Well, I guess he is getting closer, so I had better get to bed myself, Kegan. I'll talk to you tomorrow morning to see whether Santa made it to your house. Good night."

Scream. "O.K. Click."

In this process, I learned that today's six year old isn't quite up on his geography yet, but there's no doubt about his Santa Claus education.

Follow up: Kegan has called me the last two years to find out how to log into that NORAD site. He's still a believer, still just as excited, and hopefully is learning some geography in the process.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

First Official Rescue

May 18, 2009

With the coming of spring, my volunteer work for the Northwoods Wildlife Center in Minocqua is supposed to be picking up. I have been officially taught the proper technique to use when capturing various types of raptors. My title is Raptor Rescue Driver. The title is nice, but I was disappointed to find out that the job does not come with a uniform, badge, and flasher bar or siren for my truck. I even have to provide my own transport box, which is nothing but a 20 gallon plastic tote with some breathing holes in it and a piece of remnant carpet in the bottom. Oh, well, I figured that it would still be interesting to be called out to rescue wild birds. It would be a good way to see new and beautiful nooks and crannies of the countryside.

A few weeks ago, my first call came in. It was from the staff at the Rehab Center. "We received a call from a person in Rhinelander who says he has seen a pheasant roaming his yard and the adjacent area for the past few days. He can't tell whether it is hurt or not, but is worried that it might be."

"But, wait a minute. I didn't think that there were any pheasants up here in the North Woods."

"There aren't, but we try not to argue with our concerned citizenry. Maybe it's a grouse or a turkey. Who knows? Would you be willing to go and check it out? Let us know if you catch it so that we can prepare a place for it."

So I tossed my tote in the car along with the other stuff that I needed and went to find the address.

The place turned out to be an old trailer home in a pretty run down area with lots of junk around. When I pulled up and knocked on the door, a younger man came out and started explaining where the pheasant was last seen and which way he was last headed. We searched and walked and looked in, under and around all of the old buildings and junk cars and trash piles, but no bird.

"Are you sure that it was a pheasant? There are no pheasants in northern Wisconsin. Maybe it was a grouse or a turkey."

"Turkey? That was no turkey, and it was too big for a grouse. What do you take me for, anyway? Nope, it was a pheasant all right. It was a beautiful bird with a brilliant red chest. Where the heck could it have disappeared to, I wonder?"

"Pheasants have an amazing ability to lay low when they want to. Hunters nearly step on them before they take wing. I'll tell you what. We've been at it for more than an hour now. If you see it again, now I know where you're located. Give me a call, and I'll come again."

That was the last that I heard from the guy, but it sure made me curious to know what in the world he may have seen. Then, in one of those mid-sleep epiphanies, it came to me that he had probably seen someone's domestic Chinese pheasant that had escaped. They are the only pheasant-sized birds that I know of that have a brilliant red chest and are strikingly beautiful. We had a neighbor that had one once in with her chickens. They can be purchased from poultry hatcheries and delivered anywhere by mail. That had to be it.

Which begged the question: what was I supposed to do if I was called out to catch an exotic species?

"Nothing. We're only licensed to take wildlife," they said. I wonder if that is how exotic, invasive species have such an easy time of it sometimes.

My next call came about a week and a half later. Someone had spotted a limping Sandhill Crane grazing out in their field and was worried that it would be easy prey.

This time the place really was one of those beautiful nooks and crannies that I had imagined that I would have a chance to see. It was a home on the headwaters of the Wolf River with an open back yard full of a herd of about 10 wild deer when I drove up. The owners had bird feeeders all over the place and were treated to a steady stream of wildlife grazing and browsing through.

The man was an older gent who had obviously grown up in the North Woods. He came out to show me where he had last seen the crane. As soon as we walked out behind the house, the deer scattered, but one of the mated pair of cranes remained behind casting a wary eye in our direction and slowly strutting away while giving its primitive sounding pterodactyl call to its absent mate. We walked around the woods surrounding the field until it was getting too dark to see, but couldn't find where the injured bird was hiding. The uninjured mate continued to stay close, but gave no clue as to where its partner might be. Again, I left my name and number in case they saw it again.

Early the next morning they called, so I hopped in the truck with my stuff and headed out. This time the only thing in their field was the limping crane. They were right. It was obviously injured and was not bearing any weight on that leg.

With cranes and herons, you don't have to worry about being pierced by talons, but our trainer recommended that at minimum some sort of eye protection, and optimally a full face shield be worn because when you get within striking range, the likelihood is that cranes and herons will go for the eyes with their long dagger beaks. So I donned my cheap pair of sunglasses.

The next piece of essential capture equipment is a sheet to drape the bird with. Most birds, when their heads are covered will calm right down and are much easier to pick up. So I grabbed my sheet and set off.

I sent the old guy out around through the woods to cut the bird off in case the crane decided to perform its woodland disappearing act again. It was a good thing, too.

Slowly I crept. Step by step. Inch by inch. Tiptoeing so as not to make a sound. And the bird kept hobbling further off into the underbrush. Eyes shielded and sheet held out in front of me, I continued my slow stealthy approach.

In the meantime, the owner came trundling through the woods at a rapid, noisy ground covering pace. I tried to whisper to him as loudly as possible to hang back so that I could proceed. But he was making so much racket that he apparently didn't hear me. Well the bird heard him, swung around on its good leg and tripped over a log, spread its wings out on the ground, and the guy just walked up and grabbed it by the beak. So much for all of that training and stealth.

I then walked up, put the sheet over the bird and gently folded the neck, wings and legs up into a compact, turkey-sized bundle and tucked it under my arm to carry it back to the truck. In the front seat of the truck, I had my tote ready and open. I gently lowered the bundle into the box, lowered the lid, and then made my mistake.

I did not want to transport the bird the hour and a half all the way to Minocqua wrapped in the sheet, so I cracked open the lid and slowly pulled the sheet off. And you guessed it.

Start singing with me: "All around the cobbler's bench, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought 'twas all in fun. Pop goes the weasel!"

Out popped the crane, banging its head on the roof of the cab. First, I felt a flush of heat from the back of my neck turning red from frustration, panic and embarrassment. That was rapidoly followed by the feeling of a cool spray from the old guy's Pppppt, Pppppt, Pppppt --- a barely suppressed, tight lipped laugh behind me.

Geez! This time I wasn't quite so slow and gentle when I reached down, to bend the crane's good leg with one hand while cramming down the head with the other and attempting to close the hinged lid with my chin. I've gotta get a bigger box!

I finished up by gathering information and filling in the requisite forms for the Wildflife Center and promising the guy that if the bird recovered from its injuries we would release it back onto his place to join its mate. All the while the box was dancing around in the seat of the truck, and it was only after I settled into a steady speed on the highway straight-away that the bird seemed to calm down.

I finally reached the Rehab facility only to find that the main man who assesses the injured wildlife had left on an errand and would not be back. So I relased the bird into a holding facility and left.

A few days later, I phoned to see what the outcome was, and unfortunately, the bird's bad leg had been so shattered that it was irreparable, and they had to put the bird down. They did determine that it was a male.

I am really hoping that the bird's injury was that way from the beginning and not from my handling, but I'll never know. It gave me pause, though.

When I first saw the bird, it was definitely limping, but it was busy grazing and was apparently getting by out there with its mate. Neither the old guy nor I had ever seen the bird fly, so I don't know whether it could or not. I do know that it did not over winter here, and that it had to have flown in not so long ago. With the bad leg, it may well have fallen easy prey out in the woods, but it would have died a rapid death and would have been terror stricken for only a few minutes. As it happened, it was in terror for hours and hours, and I am not sure that I did it any favors. The staff at the wildlife center said that sometimes you are performing the rescue more for the benefit of the concerned citizenry than for the benefit of the wildlife. You never know.

What do you think?

P.S.: The wonderful photos in this blog were downloaded from the Internet taken by unsung photographers with far more skill and better equipment than I will ever have.

Friday, June 12, 2009

County Politics and Crime in the City

Here's another letter home about our lives on the peripheries of the farm up here in the North Woods of Wisconsin.

By way of background, in order to bring in some income while caring for her mom, Louise, in our home, Deb had taken a job as the Forest County Medical Examiner/Death Investigator. She was the county's first trained medical professional to hold the job, but was not being compensated accordingly, so was heavily involved in negotiations with the County Board of Supervisors over her salary.

During this time, a very small, exceedingly energetic 70 year old lady, affectionately referred to as Squirt by the entire community, was coming to our home as a paid aid to help with Louise and some of the household chores. Her husband had recently died, and Squirt had taken a developmentally disabled woman, Cathy, into her home for some added income. We often tried to help Squirt as need arose.

This letter was dated:

December 24, 2007

This week started off on a weird note. Deb had a meeting scheduled for Monday evening to discuss what she wanted in terms of a full-time salary and benefits package in order for her to continue providing Medical Examiner/Death Investigator services for Forest County. Her current annual salary of $12,000 with no benefits for a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, 365 day a year on-call schedule just doesn't cut it. Some of the Forest County Supervisors don't seem to understand.

Anyway, before the meeting, she dropped by Squirt's house and found her a bit rattled. Squirt had just dropped by the pharmacy to pick up some meds, and a stranger that was in the store had followed her home. When Squirt got out of the car at the house, the guy pulled up and got out of his car and asked Squirt if she had a can of gas that he could have. She told him, "No, but I'm sure that the gas stations are still open." He hesitantly turned away and muttered, "I hope I have enough gas left to make it to the station." And then he appeared to drive off. This was particularly wierd since he had to have passed at least one station in following Squirt from the pharmacy to her home.

Deb had Squirt call the police to come out to report the incident. Then Deb had to get to her meeting, so she called me to come in to town and spend the night with Squirt and Cathy in case the guy showed up again. I didn't know quite what I would be able to do if he did show up, other than act as a slight deterrent. I am not a hunter, but do have an old shotgun that belonged to my grandfather, but no ammunition. I have always thought that threatening someone with a gun would just as likely escalate a break-in situation to one of deadly violence, as it would scare them off. I opted not to bring the gun, but had a two foot long ice fishing pole in the car that maybe I could snag him with if I had to.

It turned out that I needn't have been concerned because Squirt met me at her door wielding a golfing putter in one hand and a can of spray Pam in the other.

My vision was fogged for a while. And I still have that greasy kid look to my hair. Also, a throbbing soreness in my left knee cap still has me limping. But Squirt and Cathy are safe and sound.

After taking off my boots in the kitchen and convalescing on the couch for a bit, Marge, the wife of my old haying partner, Butch, showed up at the door. Fortunately, I was able to convince Squirt to crack the door a bit and see who it was before she started sprayin' and swingin'. Marge had taken Butch over to the same meeting so that he could register some personal complaints against the zoning commissioner, and she had been sent over to check on us by Deb.

After repeating all of the sordid details again, Squirt wanted Marge and me to come see some special gifts that she had made that were down her cellar steps off the back porch. So Marge and I followed her out of the house, and down the steps to see her gifts.

Then we turned around to go back into the house, but the door I had pulled shut to keep out the cold air was locked. Squirt's face turned to stone. She had just that week replaced a window that her daughter had broken out when she had gotten locked out, and Squirt did not want to pay again for a replacement.

She checked the nail where she normally keeps her extra key. Not there. She went into the garage to check the car. Not there. We were good and locked out.

Then Squirt gave herself a dope slap, remembering that Cathy had just gone to bed not too long ago, and ought to be able to let us in. We banged on the door and hollered all to no avail.

Squirt had no coat, and I had neither coat nor boots and was in my stocking feet. Nonetheless, Squirt went outside into the middle of thee street to holler to Cathy to wake up and let us in. No luck.

Then Marge and I trounced around the house in more than a foot of wet snow looking for a way to break in. All of the windows were locked, as was the front door. Eventually, I found a pry bar and broke the door jamb on the front door and got in. By that time, Squirt was shivering and hoarse from shouting. My feet were frozen and I couldn't speak coherently from the chattering of my teeth, but we were back inside. I put the door jamb back together again well enough to close the door, and sent Marge home before she caused any more trouble.

I fell asleep on the couch, ice fishing pole to my chest, and feet propped on a cushion thawing, and dreamed of pulling fish and unwanted predators/stalkers through holes in the ice.

The next day, Squirt went back to the pharmacy and found that the guy had attempted to return some razors that had not been purchased there. The police also told her that the guy had also tried to get free gas down in Mole Lake eartlier that night. Someone got his license plate number, and it turned out that the guy was from the big city (Rhinelander) and had quite a rap sheet for fraud and petty theft. Anyway, that was the last that we saw or heard of him.

I guess it sure was a good thing I was there that night. After all, I was able to report to Deb that someone did break down Squirt's front door, but I was able to keep Squirt and Cathy safe.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Curiosity Clyde

Our good neighbors, Roy and Tina, have an eight year old son named Kegan, who is one of those kids who has been obsessed about dinosaurs for most of his young life. And I swear that he knows more about more different kinds of dinosaurs, including scientific names, than anyone I have ever met.

Living out in the country, Kegan doesn't have many friends that he can share his enthusiasm with. So a while back, I decided to scan some of the scientific literature for new paleontological discoveries along with maps and images from Google searches, and write letters addressed to him from a field research scientist that I nicknamed "Curiosity" Clyde Calahan. In those letters, I pretend that I had heard through my network of fellow scientists of a dinosaur expert in Crandon with whom I could share some of my new finds.

I had not written one of these letters in several months because I never heard Kegan say anything about them. I thought that he may not have been interested. Then this weekend, his mom mentioned that Kegan had been asking why he never got any more of those letters, and was wondering if Clyde had forgotten about him. So I wrote another one with an explanation for my lapse in communication. Here's the letter:

June 8, 2009

Master Kegan Wilson

I hope that this letter finds you and your research staff well.

Please forgive me for not writing for so long, but I, personally, have not been well at all. I have been stuck in a hospital bed in Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, for several months and have just now been released.

It was touch and go there for me for quite some time.

I find that I continue to remain a bit too weak to sit up and write with a pen and paper, so I am using a friend's computer this time. This is a pretty interesting, efficient tool for writing. I'll have to get one someday. Too bad they are so hard to carry out into the field when digging for fossils in remote areas. Oh well.

It all started when a friend from the Singapore Zoo called me wondering if I could come up and have a look at a sick Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the world's largest existing lizard. Knowing that I am somewhat of an expert on the extinct giant Megalania, which are (or were), after all, even larger relatives of the Komodo Dragon, he thought that perhaps I might be able to figure out what was wrong with their zoo's prize possession.

In fact, when I received his call, I was fairly close by down in Southeastern Queensland, Australia. I was working with a colleague who is a chief model maker for Gondwana Studios, a company based in Tasmania that specializes in making life sized models of dinosaur skeletons for exhibit in some of the world's great Natural History Museums.

I thought it clever that they named their company after the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana that existed before our present day continents drifted apart.

Anyway, Gondwana Studios had been assembling a life-sized model of a Megalania skeleton and wanted my advice on some of the details. Being somewhat of an expert reptile man yourself, I probably don't need to remind you that Megalania was a giant varanid lizard that existed in the Pleistocene era 1.6 million to 40,000 years ago. The varanid lizards include all of the present day monitor lizards. Megalania reached lengths up to almost 20 feet, which makes them the largest terrestrial lizard that ever lived. Its name, Megalania, means "ancient giant butcher". They are believed to have been as nasty as the modern monitor lizards, including the Komodo Dragons. Here's a picture of Megalania's skull.

And here's a picture of the skeleton that we were building along with an artist's drawing of what we think they probably looked like.

As you can see, they probably looked a lot like a modern day Komodo Dragon.

Anyway, I hopped on a plane and flew on up to the Singapore Zoo to talk with Dr. Hang Fai Kwok and find out what was wrong with his Komodo Dragon. It just didn't seem to be acting right or eating much, and Hang Fai was doing a series of tests on it and injecting medicines, but without much success.

I asked what he had been feeding it. Standard commercial lizard chow was his answer. Then I asked when it had eaten last, and was told that it had been several weeks ago now.

Well, remembering that artist's drawing of Megalania, I asked if I could go into the emu pen and catch one to see if the dragon might perk up at the sight of a good fresh meal. He said, "Sure, give it a try."

So I grabbed a rather smallish emu and tucked it under my arm as best I could and slowly carried it into the dragon pen. Sure enough. At the sight of the big bird, the dragon perked its head right up and looked to me like it started drooling.

I asked Hang Fai to photograph this experiment, so he got some pretty good shots. As I walked closer, the dragon opened its mouth wider than I ever thought possible.

Then, before I knew it, that darned dragon made a lunge for the emu in my arms. Not wanting to sacrifice one of the zoo's specimens, I spun to protect the bird. When I did that, the dragon caught the back of my upper arm and started pulling backwards, shredding a bunch of my skin with its small, but razor sharp teeth. Fortunately, Komodo Dragons don't have teeth as large as the Megalania. Nonetheless, it inflicted quite a wound. Here are just a few of the bite wounds after I had them stitched up.

It is also fortunate that the Komodo's skull structure does not allow the biting force of say, a modern salt water crocodile. The killing technique of Komodo Dragons is to bite and slash the prey (the so-called "grip-and-rip" technique), then let go. Unfortunately for me, the prey becomes unusually quiet, loses a lot of blood, and apparently goes into rapid shock. The Komodo then just slowly stalks the prey and devours it. That is almost what happened to me.
Shortly after the attack, I became extremely weak and woozy and faint, and finally I blacked out. Fortunately, Hang Fai was there to save me. The next thing that I knew, I was in a hospital bed.

When I woke up and began to recall what had happened, I became extremely worried about the bite. Most scientists believe that the bite becomes badly infected with germs from the dragon's mouth and the prey dies from the subsequent infection. I wanted to make certain that my bite didn't show evidence of any bad infection, but I couldn't see it because it was on the back of my arm. The kind nurses assured me that they had properly cleansed and disinfected the bite and had given me ample antibiotic medicines.

That reassured me, but then as I was laying there, I began to think that I became too weak too rapidly for an infection from a dirty bite to have caused it. There had to be a poison involved. When Hang Fai came to visit, I asked him what happened to the dragon. He told me that they had to kill it, so I asked him to do a complete anatomical analysis of the dragon's skull and teeth and let me know what they find as soon as possible.

And do you know what they found? There are venom glands in the dragon's jaw that drain out between the teeth. Mass spectroscopy of the venom samples showed that toxins present in the venom accelerates the deep laceration-induced bleeding and drop in blood pressure through PLA2, kallikrein and natriuretic toxins, and further immobilizes the prey with AVIT toxins. The scientists that thought the bacteria in a dirty bite killed the prey are all wrong.

When you look at the teeth in a scanning electron microscope, they have grooves that guide the venom into the wound. They aren't like the hollow fangs of snakes, but are apparently just as effective. And do you know what has me the most excited? Those tooth grooves look almost exactly like the grooves in the teeth that we find in fossil Megalania! The ancient giant butchers were almost certainly venomous too.

EUREKA! That makes Megalania (Varanus priscus) the largest venomous animal to have ever lived.

I talked Kwok into publishing this in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Isn't Science wonderful?

I think that from now on, though, I'm going to stick with fossils.

Your fellow researcher, Clyde.

I then hand addressed an envelope, pasted on some printed Indonesian stamps, stuffed in the letter, and crumpled up the envelope to make it look like it had been in the international mail a while, then delivered it.

Kegan apparently remarked, "Wow. Clyde sure got lucky that time."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Furnaces, Windows and Leaky Lakes

I had a comment from jaz on the last post that reminded me of how cold our house and kitchen gets sometimes in the wintertime. I went back and found the following letter to our families dated:

December 17, 2007

Oh, the joys of winter in the North Woods of Wisconsin!

I was sleeping soundly under my quilt, down comforter, the heavy Korean MoMo Mink blanket, overlain by three dogs and a cat when Deb shrieked me awake. The first thing that my eyes opened to was the lighted dial of the bedside alarm clock: [4:03 am].

Deb had apparently gotten up to empty her bladder and nearly froze to the toilet seat.

"Graig, I think the furnace isn't working. Get up and check it."

"I'm plenty warm and cozy, thanks."

"If you don't go down and see what's wrong, I'm calling the furnace man."

Now, please understand that the 'furnace man' is the new husband of one of Louise's Hospice Care nurses, who quit the job because Louise was outlasting her desire to be a nurse. This is the same furnace man that assured Deb in the middle of the summer two years ago that there was nothing wrong with our furnace, but that we needed to replace all of the windows in our old farm house with newer, more thermally efficient windows in order to keep warm. I haven't much cared for that guy's opinions ever since.

I said, "Deb, if you're cold, don't call your 'furnace man', just cozy up to one of those new windows I have been putting in over the past two years. They're supposed to keep you warm."


"Oh, all right. Scoot dogs. Ouch! That darned cat of yours scratched me! Jeeze, where are my slippers. These floors are cold!"

So down to the basement it was. Off came the front access panel to the propane furnace. Hmmm. A red light was flashing and there was no flame. I didn't see any dial or pilot light to even try to put a match to. "I wonder if this thing is under warranty. Oh well. Not much I can do tonight."

Back upstairs, I see Deb all cozy under the covers. "What's wrong with the heat?"

"There isn't any. The furnace isn't working."

"Well, fix it."

"From what I see, it can't be fixed."

I don't think I want to repeat the rest of the conversation. Suffice it to say that Deb's 'furnace man' got a call a few short hours later and he had a solution all right.... take a sledge hammer to it.

Anyway, I am now reading a book all about how to make a masonry stove ... a genuine Russian stove ... the kind that Leo Tolstoy describes as having a platform that Deb can sleep on. In that same book, it says that in the old peasant farm houses, farm families used to let the sheep sleep under their beds and heat from their bodies would keep the bed warm. I wonder if that's how the old method of falling asleep counting sheep started. We are trying that method until I can get the stove built, but I think that the old peasant farmers used to sleep on ticking filled with two inches of straw suspended by ropes strung across the bed frame, not 8 inches of polyester thermal fluff that resists any heat penetration. I hope the sheep stay warm.

Well, I was cold anyway and dressed for the weather, so I decided to go out with our neighbor, Roy, to try my hand at ice fishing. The ice was about eight to ten inches thick with about 5 inches of snow on top, but below the snow, there was about two inches of water over the ice. I can't figure out how that happens. I guess that the fishermen keep drilling holes in the ice and cause the lake to leak. Anyway, after sitting in the wind and freezing my bad hand (the one that I put through a table saw and couldn't afford to have fixed), I came home with one five inch yellow perch. At least I won't have to buy sardines for a sandwich this week.

It sure felt good to go back into the house. It's amazing how good temperatures above 10 degrees F can feel sometimes. You just gotta love this North Woods living.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Horse-drawn Golf Cart and Butter Toffee

June 6, 09

In the Straits of Mackinac that separates Michigan's Upper from Lower Peninsula and connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron, there is an island, Mackinac Island, on which motorized traffic is prohibited. People and things are moved by foot, bicycle, or horse. Taxis, drays, manure and tour wagons are drawn by teams of Belgian and Percheron draft horses, most of which are stabled by one organization.

Several years ago, I took on a job with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, and worked 12 to 14 hour shifts, seven days a week in the big barn mucking out tie stalls, helping harness and hitch up teams, stacking and dispersing hay, and driving the manure wagons to the centralized composting facility.

Toward the end of the season, I spent my days driving a two horse team for the golf shuttle. There is an 18 hole golf course on the island. The lower 9 holes are across from the Grand Hotel, and the upper 9 holes are 20 minutes away by carriage.

One of the things that the island is famous for is its candy... Mackinac Island Fudge... salt water taffy... and English Toffee. All are made there on the island, and are considered by many to be exceptional. Personally, I can take or leave the fudge and taffy. But the English Toffee is to die for. I had to quit the job while I still had money in my pockets and before I rotted my teeth entirely away. I'll never forget that stuff. Pure manna.

Then a few years ago, my wife took me into a local shop in Crandon that imported llama wool clothing from South America. It was the Christmas season, and the owner had placed out a plate of toffee that she had made herself for her customers . I took one piece. Then discretely took another. Then blatantly another and another. It was as good, if not better, than the Mackinac Island version. I told the owner, Barb, that I had to have the recipe.

"Riiight. I'm glad you enjoy it."

"No, I'm serious. If I don't get it, I'm going to forbid my wife from purchasing this ever mounting pile of sweaters, scarves, and mittens."

"Riiight. I know Deb. All I can say is you can try to stop her."

"Aw. Pleeeez? I need that recipe."

"Do you really cook?"

"Well, yeah! I can't live on the frozen pizzas that Deb cooks."

Finally, Deb, overhearing our exchange, came over. "Oh, he's serious all right. He was a scientist. You can't be a scientist without knowing how to experiment in the lab and in the kitchen."

So I got the secret recipe, which she had committed to memory, and have made the stuff periodically ever since.

And only because I know what special people bloggers tend to be, I share that secret here with you. Warning: Do not make this for friends and relatives on a diet (unless you are in a weight loss contest with them).

Barb's La Llama Butter Toffee
  • Butter a 9 x 13 inch baking sheet.
  • Combine 2 sticks (1/2 lb.) real butter, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, and 6 Tbsp. water in a saucepan.
  • Stirring constantly, slowly bring the mixture to a boil, and continue until a candy thermometer reads 300 F.
  • Stir in some chopped almonds, if desired.
  • Pour onto the prepared baking sheet.
  • Sprinkle the hot mix with milk chocolate chips and spread around as it melts.
  • Add more chopped almonds as topping, if desired.
  • Let cool and break into portions.
Even though this is poured into one large flat piece, and later broken apart, when hubby or kids ask for "a piece of that toffee" you will find that you have to explain that one of those shards compromises a portion, not the whole original one piece puddle. Also, do not send friends home in a car with an unsealed, open container of this stuff, or it will never make it home. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Death of a Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

June 4, 2009

Our mama Hemingway cat, Polly (short for polydactyly), is venturing out away from her litter of kittens more now. The other day, I was outside and was intently watching the year's first Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly flitting past, when Polly flashed up and swept it out of midair. It really took me by surprise. All I could think of was the long migration that Monarch butterflies make every year, and what a shame it would have been for something so frail and delicate and slow moving to have made it all the way up to Northern Wisconsin only to become a slaughtered plaything for our cat. Even if it didn't migrate, it had made it through our Northern Wisconsin winters only to be snuffed out the first chance it had to bask in the warmth of the sun.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly
Jerry A. Payne / USDA ARS

I had no idea whether the swallowtail makes migrations, so I started searching for information on it just to satisfy my curiosity and learned some pretty fascinating things.

First of all, the swallowtail that I saw could have been one of two possible species: the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus, or the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio canadensis.

OK. The genus name Papilio is Latin for butterfly, and papillon is French for butterfly. (Does anyone remember the old Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman movie entitled Papillon about the French penal colony on Devil's Island?) Anyway, in taxonomic science the genus name Papilio is now used only for the swallow-tailed butterflies.

Everybody can guess where the species name canadensis comes from, but according to most dictionaries, glaucus refers to a bluish-white coating. Well, that makes no sense. Alternatively, in Homer's Iliad, Glaucus was the name of a co-leader of the Lycian allies of the Trojans, and he foolishly exchanged his gold armor for the bronze armor of Diomedes. I guess that gets a little closer to the yellow color of the butterfly I know.

Then I found out something that I never knew before. All of the butterflies that are yellow are males. The females are usually dark blue and I would never have guessed that these are the same species.

Female eastern tiger swallowtail (black form)
photo by HaarFager on Wikipedia published under
terms of the GNU Free Documentation license Version 1.2 or later

OK. That's cool. I'll have to keep an eye out for that one. But we're back to glaucus referring to blue or yellow? I don't know.

How about Eastern versus Canadian? It turns out that until 1991, they were thought to be the same species, but two subspecies. With the advent of genetic technologies, scientists have determined that there are actually two different species that are "parapatric", which is a fancy way of saying that their geographic boundaries butt up next to each other, but don't overlap.

OK. So where is that boundary? I found a map that shows it right along the dotted line. Those numbers were collecting sites for P. canadensis (Stump AD, Sperling FAH, Crim A and Scriber JM. Great Lakes Entomologist, 2003:41-53.)

Well, heck then. That settles it, we live just a little bit south of the bottom of the 2 on the map. Polly must have nabbed a Canadian swallowtail.

But what if historically, the governments got our national boundaries all wrong? It looks to me like nature has drawn the line between Canada and the US with the butterfly population, and that line is to the south of us.

As of 1991, when this was discovered, maybe I became a Canadian. That might not be so bad, come to think of it.

Canadian banks didn't crash like the US ones did (

Deb and I are among the medically uninsured. Does this mean that we qualify for Canadian universal health care and cheaper pharmaceuticals? Did you know that contrary to what the US health and insurance industries would have you believe, the World Health Organization has ranked the US health system performance as 72nd in the world, and the Canadian health system as 35th (

Should we not need a passport to drive around Lake Superior on a vacation after all?

But wait a minute. The bottom line of that scientific study is that we should be using genetic techniques to watch for any shift northward of the P. glaucus species that could be caused by global warming.

Oh, oh. Is the naturally defined US-Canadian boundary creeping northwards? Should I be in a rush to make my butterfly natural history boundary plea for health care before it's too late?

Well, as of the night of June 3, 2009, we still have frost warnings. If I can't garden yet, there should be some bright side to living up here.

I don't think I need to be in any hurry to make my plea.

Quite yet anyway.

P.S. -- Sorry. Sometimes I just need to vent.