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Country Moon

The Scoop On Poop

Country MoonNothing is free, so they say in this world. That is not quite true, for there are a few things left that are free for the taking with only a little bit of effort. One of those is compost. Whether you choose animal or vegetable, all that is required to make this nutrient is a little work with what you probably already have on hand.

I started composting by mistake. There was barbed wire strung around an old stump when we moved in. It was just natural to throw leaves, weeds, food scraps and other unwanted organic material inside just to dispose of it. I soon noticed after some rain and time that it was turning into a mulch-like substance. I had created a crude form of compost without really trying!

With a little more research, I learned that compost helps put valuable nutrients back in the soil and, at the same time, it cuts waste and reduces trash by using what you are already disposing of anyway. And it’s free! It doesn’t get much better than that!

Actually, there are quite a few benefits to composting. It emulsifies the soil, helps retain moisture, and suppresses plant diseases and pests. It does this by encouraging production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to waste humus, a rich, nutritional field material. During this process, it reduces methane emission for landfills and lowers the carbon footprint on the land. It also drastically reduces the need to supplement the land with chemical fertilizers, which is not only better for consumers, but also better for our pocketbooks.

When folks think of compost they usually always turn their attention to plant-based. However, compost can be not only plant organic material, but also animal-based in the form of manure. Both of these have specific benefits and drawbacks. Animal manure is compost in its truest sense. If you have animals, or have access to someone who does, you know that there is a steady supply of manure, and if anyone wants it, farmers are usually more than happy to oblige in giving it away.

Manure composts easily and is already a perfect combination of nitrogen and carbon. It requires no specific container, usually a big pile in the open is sufficient. You just pile it and leave it alone and it quickly becomes a beautiful (never thought I would be describing manure as beautiful, but the finished product is beauty to a gardener’s eyes!), crumbly, black and odor-free fertilizer. Yes, if composted correctly, there is no odor to the finished product.

If using manure, it is best to let it set for at least six months because any fresher than that could still contain E. coli, roundworms, tapeworms or other parasites that can be passed to humans when they consume the produce. It is best to apply it in the fall and give it time to break down. Of course, manure from different animals offers different benefits to the soil. For example, chicken and bat guano are high in urea nitrogen and are considered “hot” manure, whereas cow and sheep manure are not as hot and are often mixed with high carbon materials such as sawdust or hay.

Folks have known for years that animal manure is good for the garden because it helps build organic matter content, adds nutrients, and increases microbial activity. It also improves drainage in heavy soil and helps with moisture retention in sandy soil. The key to success is knowing when to apply animal compost, how to apply and spread it, and what type to use.

Then there is plant-based compost, which is what usually comes to mind when people think of compost. Any material that was once a plant can be composted and it can be easily made by combining decomposable waste materials from the household to make nutrient-rich, plant-enriching soil.

There are two kinds of vegetable compost: hot and cold. Cold can be made by simply collecting yard waste, organic materials in the trash, fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, eggshells and other scraps and corralling them in a pile or bin. Over the course of a year or so they will decompose. Hot compost is for more serious gardeners and requires gathering the right “mix” of ingredients during one to three months of warm weather. Hot compost requires the ingredients to be in the correct proportions of nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. Finding the right combination of these components will feed microorganisms, which speed the process of decay.

For either type of compost, the “recipe” for cooking it is basically the same. First, you need to gather enough material to make at least a 3-foot pile and this material needs to be a mixture of brown and green biodegradables. Browns come mainly from trees and are rich in carbon. These include dead leaves, twigs, sawdust, wood chips, shredded wool or cotton, coffee filters, nutshells, etc. Greens come from fresher materials such as table scraps, peels, garden waste, etc. Any ingredient rich in nitrogen qualifies as a green. The general rule is to mix three parts brown to one part green.

Layer your brown and green gatherings in a pile or bin then add the next two components of water and air. Sprinkle the pile with water regularly until it has the consistency of a wet sponge. Use caution in not adding too much water or it will drown the microorganisms and the pile will rot. Provide oxygen by turning once a week with a fork during the growing season. For smaller amounts, you can put it in a barrel with holes in it and roll it. A warm center is the best indicator of when to turn the compost. Stirring helps it to cool faster and prevents it from becoming matted down and having a bad odor.

Good finished compost has an earthy smell and looks like rich brown soil. If it has an unpleasant odor it either has too much moisture, too much green material, or is not done cooking. Try turning more often, reducing the moisture and adding more browns. Air and water are the secrets to good composting. By adding these in the appropriate ratios, you will get better compost and the process will be quicker. Compost will happen, it just depends on the ingredients as to how fast.

In the end, you will have created humus, one of the best soil builders around. Compost, whether plant or animal-based, provides a healthy and natural means to enrich soil. The best part of the whole process is that it is free. There, in a nutshell, is the scoop on poop!

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No Power, No Problem for Food Preservation

 Country Moon

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This has been my summer of canning, and I’m loving it. I have been blessed with a bountiful garden; enough for all we want to eat fresh, enough to share with friends, and enough to can and freeze for the coming winter. It is a good feeling to know that we do not have to depend on the grocery store for our survival, not that we wouldn’t miss some of the amenities.

However, these two methods of food preservation (canning and freezing) rely on electric power. Electricity to heat the boiling water for canning and processing and continued power to maintain the freezers. What if something happened to the power supply? What alternatives would we have?

The unstable world environment and the threat of natural disasters could have a very real impact on our food supply. This brings to mind the Donner Party of decades ago. They were pioneers traveling west to California who got trapped in the Sierra Nevada during blizzards and cold temperatures. They slowly starved to death and some even resorted to cannibalism.

True, we don’t live in pioneer times, but those folks who traveled west by wagon trains for months at a time knew some secrets of food preservation without modern conveniences. It’s a sure bet that they didn’t carry heavy canners to preserve food over the open fire or have modern freezers in their covered wagons! However, they did pack enough food to get them through until they established a homestead and could begin growing their own.

Their methods of preserving food without electricity or a gas supply are still good for us to know today, not only in case of a power grid failure, but also for folks desiring to live off the grid in remote areas. Here are seven ways of safely preserving food without the aid of electricity.

1. Salt: In today’s world, we tend to think of salt more as a seasoning than a method of preservation, but this way of thinking was reversed in ancient times. Folks living near a saline or salty body of water had the ability to dehydrate the water and gather salt, a valuable commodity. Roman soldiers were even paid their wages in salt for a period of time. Salt reduces moisture, inhibits bacterial growth, and also adds a flavoring to foods. Salted pork was often standard fare for people traveling long distances over land or water. Small barrels of pork embedded in salt or a salt brine were common, as were salt brines used to enhance the preservation of fish, fowl and game before drying or smoking. It’s a standard addition to most pickling recipes.

2. Fat: Surprise, surprise, but fat has exceptional preservative properties, especially beef feet or tallow and suet. Pioneer women would often take cuts of meat and place them in barrels or crocks and cover them with tallow or suet. The important thing was to keep the container sealed from air, hence the congealed fat prevented oxygen and airborne microbes from reaching the meat. These fats are standard additions to pemmican recipes, which are concentrated mixtures of fat and protein that are used as nutritious foods. Part of Canadian cuisine, pemmican resembles dried meatballs consisting mainly of dried beef or buffalo with an equal amount of fat plus some added raisins or black cherries. They are dense and high in energy.

3. Honey: This food has remarkable preservative properties. A 3,000 year-old jar of honey was discovered in an Egyptian tomb and tests revealed that it was still safe to eat. Pioneers preserved their most prized cuts of meat in honey, which not only preserved the meat but gave it a pleasant, sweet taste. Just imagine if they would have combined the salt and honey; they would have invented the modern craze of sweet and salty! The only downside to using honey as a preservative is that it is hard to harvest a lot of it and it can be very expensive.

4. Vinegar: Good ol' vinegar. Today, vinegar is used not only in cooking, but also canning and other food preservation, and as a household and fruit and vegetable cleaner. Pioneers knew these qualities long ago. It is perhaps the most potent, natural antiseptic that you can safely consume. Actually, it is acetic acid and is usually a 4 to 5 percent solution in water. Unlike honey, it is readily available and easy to make from various fruits such as apples. It is used to preserve everything from vegetables to fruits to meats to fish and fowl. The typical process is simple, just immerse the food in vinegar in a container. Sometimes salt and vinegar are used together for extra preservative properties and flavor.

5. Drying or dehydration: Although a simple process, the success to dehydration is to remove as much moisture as possible. It is used to preserve everything from vegetables to fruits, meat, fowl and fish, although different drying methods are used for each type of food. Beans and legumes were strung on sticks and hung in the rafters of cabins and tepees to dry; fish were filleted and often salted before being hung in the sun on racks or over smoldering fires; strips of meat were sliced thin, salted and also hung like fish to dry; fruits were sliced thin and left to dry in the sun during the day and taken indoors at night and hung in the rafters to finish drying. They were turned often and sometimes smoked. Drying is probably the oldest food preservation method.

6. Root cellar: This method is basically for root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, radishes, etc. This approach provides multiple benefits such as fairly consistent temperatures in winter and summer; consistent humidity, which is essential to root vegetables; some degree of protection from insects and animals; protection from sunlight; and easy access to a variety of vegetables.

7. Smoking: This method is used primarily for larger cuts of meat and whole fish to be successfully dried and preserved, for smoking is a form of drying. The traditional drying method is good for smaller pieces of meat but will not sufficiently preserve larger cuts. Smoking fish, fowl and game over a low and slow draft of smoke in an enclosed space not only dries out the food, but the smoke and moderate heat both kills and inhibits bacterial and fungal growth. The meat and fish are often cured with a dry mixture of salt and spices to add extra flavor. I remember helping my uncle hang hams in the smokehouse to cure and how good it smelled. Even after removal from the smoke house, large pieces of smoked meats will last a long time if kept in a well-ventilated, cool and dark area.

I do love canning at this time of year, but maybe it is time to consider these alternative methods.  They are not only practical, but could also add extra flavor to foods. We all need to eat, and most of us actually enjoy it, too! It is a good feeling to know that we have a “stash” of good food at our disposal without depending on the public food supply. This is only a natural progression from a successful garden.

Garage Saling 101

Country MoonEach August here in southern Michigan we have the US 12 Heritage Garage Sale. It is the state’s longest garage sale, stretching 212 miles from New Buffalo to Detroit. Homeowners and businesses alike participate in this unique opportunity to sell unwanted items and for bargain shoppers to search for bargains.

I always thought that this was a great concept as long as I could watch from afar or, more explicitly, from far, far away. That changed this year when my friend Steph and I spent a long overdue Saturday together. When I asked her what she wanted to do, her answer was, hands down, “Let’s do the US 12 garage sales. It’ll be fun!”

I have to admit that this activity had never been high on my list of things to do, but there is always a first time for everything. But before we went, I had to have my beginner’s lesson. Seriously, there is a right and wrong way to garage sale!

The first lesson was on how to dress. Being a hot day, I was in my usual capris, T-top and sandals. Tsk, tsk, tsk, I was overdressed. She sported shorts, a plain top, pulled her hair back, wore no makeup, wore sneakers and removed her diamond engagement ring. What?

“You don’t want sellers to think that you are real affluent. That sort of defeats the bartering component. One of the biggest thrills is to see what kind of deal you can get on items that you want.”

With that, we were off. We were not only going to sales along US 12, but she had also clipped ads for sales that were on the way and put them in order so we would not be backtracking. Also,  not only did she have a paper with all the ads pasted on it in the order she wanted to travel, but she also put them all in her phone. I was beginning to realize that this was serious, high-tech business.

Then she asked me how I liked to garage sale. Huh? Since this was new to me, I didn’t really have a method. Well, it seems that there are shoppers who peruse every single item at every single sale and there are more seasoned shoppers who can glance around and see if there are any items that they are interested in, sort of in and out. Not being a professional in this matter, I fell into the latter category. “Good,” she beamed. “Then we can hit more sales!”

Then I learned about the “thrill of the hunt.” It seems that there are two distinct groups of shoppers. One kind is just out to see what kind of deals they can find, with no particular item in mind that they are hunting. Then there are the ones who are hunting a certain piece. “That’s what makes it fun, when you are on a mission,” she said. “Of course, it also sets you up for disappointment when you don’t find what you are looking for.”

Well, at least I sort of had a goal. Some friends from Pennsylvania have furnished their entire home in primitives. This time when we saw them she was excited about showing me her “freaking firkin,” as she refers to a very special piece. After a little research, I discovered that a firkin is a type of keg that is equal to one quarter of a barrel and is used to hold butter, salt, sugar or a number of other things. I decided that I wanted one, so searching for one would be my “thrill of the hunt.” Off we went.

I knew the traffic would be horrendous and it didn’t take me long to learn that there were three kinds of drivers when it came to dealing with garage salers. The first kind were people just like us who would start and stop often and would, literally, be part of the traffic flow problem.

The second type are the drivers who are annoyed by all the confusion that the sales were causing. They would fly by, never slowing down, showing no regard for all of us. It’s really sad that they can’t slow down and tolerate a little inconvenience for a couple days a year, especially for safety’s sake.

The third type were just the opposite. I call them the shop-from-the-roaders. They would cruise by very slowly, checking out each sale as they went and when they saw something they liked they would abruptly pull off the road and come to a screeching halt. I’m not sure which type was the most dangerous, them or the ones that raced by.

Then there was the stuff itself. It is amazing how many people try to sell things that, to put it politely, have just outlived their purpose and should go quietly away to a nice landfill. However, among all this stuff, every once in a while there would be something unique and interesting. I found a couple of interesting bottles for another bottle tree, a rototiller that turned out to be a snow blower (Duh!), antique crocks, and a couple of galvanized tubs.

The tubs brought up another interesting point about garage sales. I found myself checking the price of items that I already had, just to find out what the going value was on them. The guy with the tubs told me a buck or two and, when I started to walk off, he almost pleaded me to make an offer. Turns out the poor guy was just trying to get rid of stuff that he had inherited from his relatives’ estate. We took pity and told him that his price was way too low.

We ended up hitting all the sales on Steph’s list by midafternoon. She had a nice little stash but, as for me, I was content with my two bottles and two containers of sanitary wipes. Nope, no firkin this year. However, with looking all day and having no luck, I found myself really wanting one more than I did when we started out. Steph just smiled, she knew that I would get caught up in the “thrill of the hunt.” I guess I’ll keep my walking shoes out, for something tells me that we’ll be hitting the sales again. 

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A Different Kind of Dance

Country MoonThere are many different forms of art. Personally, for something to be considered art to me it only has to be beautiful; something that brings a sense of peace, tranquility and awe. One of these things I consider beautiful is the art of dressage, or as some refer to it, horse dancing.

Dressage is defined by the International Equestrian Federation as “the highest expression of horse training where horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.” It is also sometimes referred to as “horse ballet,” and rightfully so. All the movements in dressage seem to flow in sequence and, if performed properly, it seems as horse and rider are one.

For centuries horses have symbolized a unique kind of freedom and untamed beauty that some cultures have called God-like.

Although truly an art, dressage has also been perceived as the sport of the elite. Everything takes money to pursue, but dressage can rack up the costs pretty fast. Just the average annual cost to own a dressage horse is roughly $4,000 and this does not include travel, competition, and training costs.

Dressage can usually be divided into two groups: competition and classical. Both require extensive training for both horse and rider, although the training for each kind is totally different. The word “dressage” is a French term meaning “training.” Either way, it is a highly skilled form of riding performed in exhibition and competition and sometimes as an art, performed solely for its mastery of techniques.

Competition dressage is held from amateur to Olympic to World Equestrian Game levels. For these, the fundamental purpose is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform. The ultimate goal is to have the horse perform smoothly to minimal aids from the rider, have the rider relaxed, and have the horse perform the requested movements almost naturally. This is accomplished through successful training at different levels and judges rate horses and rider on a series of tests for these different levels.

Dressage training for competition is based on a progression of six steps developed by the German National Equestrian Foundation, all arranged in sequential fashion. The first one they are judged on is rhythm and regularity. Rhythm refers to the sequence of foot falls included in pure walk, pure trot, and pure canter. In each of these areas, the rhythm, gait, tempo, and regularity should be the same on straight and bending lines. Regularity ensures the evenness and levelness of the stride.

Relaxation or looseness refers to the looseness or sign of it. This is characterized by even strides, tails swinging like pendulums, soft chewing of the bit, and relaxed blowing through the nose.

The third criteria for judging is contact, which is the result of a horse’s pushing power, which is never determined by pulling on the reins. The rider encourages the horse to gently stretch the neck, resulting in coming up in the bridle, following the natural motion of the horse’s head.

Impulsion is the actual pushing power of the horse. It entails good forward movement, which encourages good muscle and joint movement, which is used to engage the mind of the horse, which is focusing on the rider.

Straightness is what gives the smooth, fluid motion. It is merely where the hind legs follow the front legs in two straight lines, channeling all movement into one.

Last, but not least, is collection, which is the ability of the horse to move its center of gravity to its rear. This allows for advanced and more complicated movement.

As is the case in any form of competition where the prize is either money or prestige, dressage competition sometimes takes on an ugly face. In the past, some trainers have beaten their horses into submission. This was the case in the London Summer Olympics when a Swedish jockey used the “roll bar technique,” a controversial practice where horses are made to hyperflex their necks down to their chests. This resulted in the 2012 Protection Act to guard against such procedures.

This fact is part of the reason that I like classic dressage; it is truly an art itself and the pressures of competition are gone. Classic dressage dates back some 2,000 years and is best described by the Greek general Xenophon who said, “Riding is a fusion of two living beings, horse and rider, into a living work of art with a unique beauty.” So it is.

Training for this art form is two-fold, with the emphasis on both educating the horses' minds and developing their physical qualities. The rider must develop a fine-tuned and sensitive feeling for balance and harmony. These traits require time to hone. A rider must have patience, self-discipline, a sincere love of the horse, and possess a glowing passion and strong will to reach the highest performance level. And the best part is that all of this is done without compulsion or violence.

Classical dressage is essentially gymnastic training of a horse’s body with loving education. It cultivates and improves the horse’s natural gait and emphasizes beautiful and natural movement. The end goal and result is the horse’s enhanced natural ability, which makes them a flexible, obedient, and calm horse that is attentive and one that achieves a perfect understanding with the rider.

To achieve this perfection, classical training involves five main principles. The first is a straight horse, which is a desire to move forward. Secondly, the absolute regularity of the gait. Following this is the constant and confident acceptance of the bridle, which helps promote the relaxed attitude. Next, the horse must learn well balanced, smooth and flowing transitions from one movement to another. Last, but so important, is the obedience and total submission under the rider’s command.

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All of these points translate into the graceful, flowing movements that make classic dressage such an art. When I watch a horse performing this classic dressage, it is total escape for me into a world of wonder and tranquility. Dressage is one of the beautiful things in life and part of that beauty is the relationship between horse and rider where they perform as one. Now that’s a beautiful thing!

Something About an Auction

Country Moon

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There is just something about going to an auction. The excitement, the hunt of what you will find, and how good of deal you can get on an item. Auctions benefit the buyer and the seller alike. There are, literally, some “professional auction goers” who can be found at nearly every auction in an area. Some do it for resale and some do it to add to their own collections of … whatever.

I, myself, am not an auction person. Perhaps I got tainted on them from  going with Jim to farm and antique auctions. It doesn’t matter what he found that he wanted, it would inevitably be the last item sold. Perhaps it is because I am short on patience sometimes, but my idea of shopping is to buy it at the moment I see it. They do, however, provide an excellent opportunity to sell at a fair price — whatever someone is willing to pay.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to an auctioneer, Darrel Hartman, and get an idea of what it is like “on the other side of the fence.”  He is a seasoned auctioneer and there is no doubt that he enjoys what he does. He used to do auctions on his own but now works for Lestinsky Auctions, admitting that it is easier to let someone else have the headaches while he can still do what he likes.

One of the biggest things he stressed about auctions was the fact that prices reflect what items are really worth based on the value people place on various items. Many times, stores inflate prices and consumers have no choice. At auctions, the people actually set the prices.

It used to be that an auction was an auction. That has changed in that there are more specialty auctions now.  There are the general consignment auctions where anything goes, the farm auction where land is sold, and estate auctions where household wares and other personal items are auctioned after a person passes or simply because they wants to downsize. But then, there are the specialty auctions such as motorsports, gun, jewelry, and sports memorabilia.

“The key to an auction’s success is to have a specialty item, something that will attract the crowd," Darrel says. "This is something that is unique, not a lot of them around. Anything that is different will definitely draw people and the more people that you draw, the better it is because it seems that when one person wants something, everyone wants it.”

There is also the interaction between people. “You have to be a people person to be an auctioneer,” Darrel says, laughing. “Many times when they bring items for you to sell, there is a story that goes with it. It’s interesting to see where an item came from and how it got to where it is today and sometimes relating that story strikes a cord with the buyers and we get a better price.”

It can also cause conflict. I have always found it sad to attend estate auctions because many of the items have been in a particular family for many years and now they are being sold to strangers. It just seems like they should stay with the family. However, after going through this with my parents’ estate, I understand more clearly why this is necessary. We three kids divided up most of the mementos, but when a couple has run a farm and household for over 50 years, there is just too much stuff to keep. I guess it is better for it to find a new home as to set and deteriorate.

Darrel admits that this situation can often cause tension. “I have run into more than one case where siblings couldn’t agree on who should inherit a particular item, so it was put on the auction. Then one of the siblings will come to me and complain that the item just can’t be sold, that it should go to the family. As much as we as auctioneers hate to see this happen, it is out of our hands. Once an item is placed on an auction bill, it must be sold. If we didn’t, it would be false advertising. All I can say to families is to make sure before you do place an item on the docket.”

Of course, this serves another purpose, too. If family absolutely cannot agree about an item, by placing it on auction it gives everyone a fair advantage to purchase it. I do think it is sad to see folks bidding on items that have been in their family for generations, but at least then every member has an equal chance to keep it.

Darrel notices another trend in auctions, too.  Many people are into antiques and the younger generation is getting further and further removed from items that maybe their great grandparents used on the family farm. Before everything was mechanized and computerized, most everything was done by hand. Horse-drawn farm equipment, butter churns, and crocks are just some of the items that are becoming shorter in supply simply because there is no need for them to be manufactured any longer. Thus, finding them is getting to be harder and harder.

“This can be good or bad,” he says. “It can be good for the seller because of the law of supply and demand, the fewer there are, the higher the price. But then, sometimes the demand isn’t there because this generation sometimes has no idea what items are because they have never seen them used like their parents and grandparents have.”

Some people, though, delight in the old. I knew a former auctioneer whose two sons were auctioneers. He would actually buy unique items at auctions and fill his barns with “unique stuff” and then resell these items to folks looking for a particular item. Another couple I know from Pennsylvania built a new house and furnished it completely with primitives. They say that half the fun is having the treasures and the other half is going on the hunt for them.  Another friend of mine can take an item that no one else wants and make it into something that she could sell over and over. It’s all in the potential  that you see in the piece. Some folks have the vision and some don’t.

“It’s all in what sets you apart from the next guy,” Darrel explains. “Once a year we do our anniversary sale on January 1. It’s huge, with six auction rings running at once. It gives folks something to do on New Year’s Day and it really packs them in.”

The excitement of the auction has a place all its own. I do enjoy seeing the folks and being in the auction atmosphere. I guess I am just not big enough on patience to wait for something I really want! As Darrel points out,  I definitely enjoy the adrenaline of the moment when I hear “Going once, going twice!” and I have to decide in a split second how badly I want an item. That very second describes the draw of an auction in a nutshell!

Four Day Stress Away Getaway

Country Moon

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As much as I love summer, sometimes it feels futile to try and keep up with everything. The yard continually needs mowed and trimmed. The garden, it seems, is a daily rotation of herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide. All vegetables are starting to come on, a couple of this and a couple of that, but not enough yet to really get into canning. It is never ending. So, what is a person supposed to do? Go on vacation!

Even though the garden and yard are labors of love, sometimes just getting away for a few days provides a whole new outlook on things. That is exactly what we did. We put the tools away, took one final inspection around the yard, loaded a bag in the truck, and headed north, leaving everything  totally in God’s hands for a few days.

Choosing the direction was easy. We are going east for a family reunion in a couple of weeks, when we go west we want to go further than you can go in just a couple days, and south would have been way too hot. That left only one choice.

Our destination was Split Rock Lighthouse at Two Harbors, Minnesota. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Even though that was our destination, we saw so many spectacular things on the way and our destination was not quite what we had planned.

We drove to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, always a favorite getaway spot because of the peace of the slower pace. Since we had already seen most of the attractions, we headed for the seclusion of the Porcupine Mountains, located 3 miles from Silver City on M-107. Known as the “Porkies,” they offer towering virgin timber, secluded lakes, and miles of wild rivers. It is one of the few remaining large wilderness area in the Midwest. While there, we met a young couple who told us how stunning the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior off the north shore of Wisconsin are.

We headed to the charming little town of Bayfield where we took a tour of the islands. I had heard of them before, but never knew where or what they were. They are actually 22 islands off the Bayfield Peninsula and they have one of the greatest concentrations of black bears in North America. On the islands? Yep. Turns out that Stockton Island has the most bears, even though bears can be found on all the islands as they swim between them. I never would have guessed!

We also got to see the magnificent sea caves located on Devil’s Island. Centuries of wave action and freezing and thawing have interacted with the sandstone to form the sculpted shoreline. Arches, delicate chambers, and honeycombed passageways are visible on the north shore of the island. In winter, visitors can see frozen waterfalls, chambers with windswept beaches, and sandstone cliffs. We were lucky enough to be there at sunset, which casts a different glow on the structures. Ancient native people thought the caves were haunted because of the echoes of the wind howling through the formations.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has more lighthouses than any other site in the National Park system with nine historic towers on six islands. Individual island tours are also available to visit these.

Leaving there, we headed toward Duluth, Minnesota, and our destination of Split Rock Lighthouse. We forgot that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, as the saying goes. We thought we would just grab a motel room along the way. They were few and far between, and the ones we did see had the “no vacancy” shingle hung out. Things always have a way of working out, though. Arriving in Duluth at 1 a.m., we saw the lights of a Hampton Inn. It turns out that it had opened just that afternoon and we were one of the first guests to stay — a brand spanking new room! Now, we will probably never be that lucky again.

The next morning, we visited the Duluth Trading Company before heading to Two Harbors. It was nice to see the “real deal” after getting all the catalogs all these years. Split Rock Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses of all. All the excitement to finally reach our destination soon turned to disappointment as we found we could not even get down to the lighthouse to photograph it without paying a fee. It seems the historical society bought it and you have to pay to take the inside tour or get a day pass for Split Rock State Park to even look at the outside. Not that we are cheap, but we just don’t believe that you should have to pay to see a national landmark. It shouldn’t always be about the money.

Heading back south, we came to St. Paul where we took a short paddle wheeler ride on the Mississippi. We met some delightful people with whom we have stayed in contact.

The only ways home were to go back the way we came, drive around Chicago, or take the ferry across Lake Michigan. We chose to take the Lake Express from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Muskegon, Michigan. Driving toward Milwaukee, we took Wisconsin backroads and saw some of the most beautiful scenery. Rolling hills dotted with sprawling dairy farms and crops planted on hillsides made for some great photos. The farmers that we are, it is always nice to check out farms in other parts of the country.

We boarded the ferry at 7 p.m. and it took 2 ½ hours to cross the lake. It happened to be a perfect evening and we got to witness a true Lake Michigan sunset, uncluttered by any buildings or structures. Pure awesome!

I call this our “unvacation” in the best sense of the word. There was nothing spectacular along the way and yet we saw so many spectacular sights. I know, this just gives fuel to Ron’s theory that when you don’t always plan, things just work out. In this case, he was so right. Did I just say that!

We had a general destination, Split Rock Lighthouse. Although that turned into a disappointment, if we had not headed for it, we would have missed all the other special moments and places along the way.

It was also the unvacation because we just picked up and went for a few days, no months of planning in advance. And, you know what, when we got back the weeds didn’t disgust me quite so much, the garden still wasn’t ready to give up all its bounty, and home and all its work looked pretty good. It’s true what they say, “It’s so nice to get away, but always good to come home.”

I know that longer trips take some planning and it is nice to see things further away sometimes, but don’t discount the “four day stress away get away." Sometimes it is just what you need to put a whole new perspective on the familiar.

The Lights of Summer

Country MoonThe magic appears right after the first of June and lasts for a couple of short months. They bring enchantment to summer nights and the show is free for all, you just have to be still and enjoy. I am talking about lightning bugs, aka fireflies, or whatever you choose to call these small creatures that make a big impact.

Fireworks are special in their own way but, given a choice between the two, I will choose a night spent watching fireflies any day. There is nothing more spectacular than watching them come alive at dusk and lighting up a bean field for as far as the eye can see. How many country kids grew up not catching lightning bugs at night and putting them in jars? There is just something magical here.

Actually, they are not flies at all, but rather beetles, and good beetles at that, compared to many of their cousins. They do not bite nor ravage plants. It is unknown exactly how they got the name "fireflies," except that the name ‘firebeetles” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

How fireflies “light up” is intriguing in itself. They are alchemists, creating light as if by magic, except it is not magic at all. Their tails contain two chemicals: luciferase, which is an enzyme that triggers light emission, and luciferin, which is heat resistant but glows under the right conditions. ATP is a chemical that is found in all living beings that converts to energy and, when combined with the first two, it initiates the glow. This glow is bright but not hot to the touch, which is why kids can catch these “night lights” without getting burned.

They are light geniuses because the light produced by a firefly is the most efficient light ever made. Almost 100 percent of the energy in the chemical reaction is emitted as light. In comparison, an incandescent light bulb only emits 10 percent of its energy as light with the other 90 percent being lost as heat.

They definitely have strange diets. The underground larva feast on slimy slugs, grubs, worms, and snails. As they mature, most eat pollen and nectar and some adult species even feast on each other. However, some never eat during their short life span. Can you imagine never eating during your life? But, I guess the world is always in balance because even though they are denied the pleasure of dining as adults, their sole purpose in life is to mate and lay eggs. Even though larva live one to two years, the adult life span is only three to four weeks, long enough to mate and lay eggs.

Not only do they light up our world, but they light up the underworld. Firefly babies emit a subterranean glow and, even stranger, some eggs glow underground. Talk about an eerie sight! They are quite adaptable as some species have gills that allows them to live in the water until they find their way to land for their next phase of life.

They are flashy flirts. Each species has a specific pattern of light flashing and they make use of this pattern to let the ladies of the same species know that they would be a mate. When a female notices a suitable male, she replies with her own species-specific flash. Females also make use of this flash info to decide which male with whom to mate. Nothing like synchronized dating!

Seriously, as if woodlands weren’t made wonderful enough by the firefly’s glittering glow, some species actually synchronize their flashes in a light show. Scientists don’t know why they sync up, but one theory is that it is a competition of males trying to be the first to flash. Or it could be that flashing the species pattern in unison ensures that females notice “their guys” as opposed to males of other species. Their light appears to be white, but the light they emit can actually be a rainbow of colors ranging from yellow, light red, green or orange. The Photinus Carolinus is the only species in America that flashes simultaneously. Such a spectacle that this is, they actually have firefly tours in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A firefly’s natural defense against predators is that they taste disgusting. Their blood contains lucibufagins, a defense steroid that tastes gross. A predator associates the bad taste with light so, naturally, they do not eat bugs that glow. Thus, they have few predators.

In spite of this fact, their numbers are declining due to other factors such as light pollution, pesticide use, and habitat destruction. If something happens to their natural habitat such as a field, they do not migrate, but rather simply disappear forever from that location.

There are some simple things that folks can do to attract fireflies and help make sure that they stick around providing their shows:

• Beware of the pesticides since those that kill other harmful insects also kill fireflies. Lawn chemicals kill their larva.
• Leave snails, worms, slugs and grubs alone as that is the main food supply of the larva.
• Plant flowers and provide other good ground cover such as shrubs, high grass, and some low growing plants since these provide cover and shelter for them. They like moist areas such as wet meadows, forest edges, marshes, wild bogs, stream and lake edges, and farm fields. In some cases where you follow set rules, you can certify your backyard as a wildlife habitat. Check with the National Wildlife Federation for details.
• Dim the lights. They rely on “fire” and when artificial lights like street lights, garden lights, and porch lamps are too bright it confuses them. They respond by being shy and staying away.
• Most of all, resist the urge to catch them and put them in a jar, which usually leads to their demise. The “Firefly Project” was a big factor in this when they paid people to collect fireflies. They paid $12 per ounce or $12 for approximately 600 fireflies. Thankfully, the two chemicals that were sought from their bodies are now produced synthetically.

In diseased cells, the ATP may be abnormal. The chemicals derived from fireflies are injected into these cells and through this, changes in the cells can be detected and used to study many diseases including cancer and muscular dystrophy. Electronic detectors built with these chemicals have been fitted into spacecrafts to detect life in outer space. They have also been used to identify food spoilage and bacterial contamination here on earth.

All in all, these little creatures are fascinating and the world would be a much duller place without them. Few pleasures in life are free and simple. The gifts of the fireflies are. I can’t imagine the summer dusk without the beguiling beauty of their bioluminescence.

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