Ode to a Cottonwood

June 27th, 2014

The cottonwood tree has a storied place in American history.  Cowboys sang songs about them.  The pioneers were thankful to see a small stand on the endless prairies, a sign of water, of shade, and of a little rest.

My mother hated them.

Now there wasn’t much that Mom hated in this world.  She knew that each thing had its place, and most things had to be tolerated.  Even spiders, which would throw her into a panic, she recognized as a creature that cleaned up the unwanted flies and mosquitos.  And to be clear, she didn’t hate all of the cottonwood trees, just the lone one in the grove across the road.

She hated that tree.

In the summer, rather randomly, from as young as I can remember, over lunch, breakfast, or more often than not, sitting in the living room after a hard day’s work for the whole family, she would casually say to Dad, “Why don’t you take your chainsaw and go and cut down that cottonwood tree?”

Dad would give a little knowing smile and add a hurrumph.

“I mean it.” Mom would say with some gusto before leaving the conversation.

In a tightly packed house with four boys (five counting Dad) who would drag in all sorts of mud, debris, and items that did not belong in the house (“Who left that pocketful of rusty nails on the end table!”  “Is that where your muddy socks are suppose to go?!”  “Don’t bring that frog in here!”). 

Add in a little girl with a lot of toys, and Mom was fighting an ever losing battle, but one that she fought with gusto.

On a dairy farm, we also had to contend with flies, smells, and other work hazards that just came with the territory. 

Yet Mom endured and fought on.

But for some reason, that big old cottonwood with its cottony seeds that would fly with the wind and plug every screen on the south side of the house was the bane of her existence.  It was the final straw, the last indignity.  The cows, the mud, the dirt provided a living for her family.  It put food on the table.  The flies and other hazards were part of putting food on the table.

The cottonwood tree was just a nuisance.

The cotton would fill the screens, blocking the view and the breeze.  To clean it meant hauling the vacuum outside, or occasionally taking the screens off and washing them properly, which overall was a big job, which meant that every time that Mom looked out the big front picture window, there was a fluffy, furry reminder of that hated tree.

Like the cowboys of old, Mom would have liked to have written a song about a cottonwood, rest assure, it wouldn’t have been a love song…   

Seven Year Stretch

June 17th, 2014

Well, it is been a while. 

After seven years (you know, I thought it was four…I had to go back and count) – I stopped writing posts.  Now, there are a variety of reasons – some valid, some not.

I shouldn’t call them reasons exactly, excuses are more like it.

Somehow, someway over what seems like a long and winding seven years, I’m managed to keep the posts coming – every week.

And then I stopped.

Well, two things got me back here.  One an accident.  One poor judgment.

Both that reminded me about the goodness of the human heart.

The accident of sorts came about because of my own efficiency.  You see, when I get the bug to write, I’ll go at it hard core – in no time, I’ll have a few stories down on paper.  It helps me through dry spells. 

To manage it, my blog allows me a feature to post into the future.  So if I manage to write five stories about Christmas’s past – and there is only a few weeks to go until Christmas, I can time it to post the next Christmas.

Cheating?  Maybe.  But it is a great way to manage my time (and yours!)

Well, I had a few stories posted to go out this spring.  I couldn’t believe that people were watching for them.  The positive responses made me think – you know, bad grammar, bad spelling, embarrassing stories, and random diatribes aside, people that I know and care about are actually reading this!

It was kind of eye opening.

The poor judgment was just that – poor judgment.  The folks that organize the Mahnomen County Relay for Life asked me to come back and share a few thoughts with them.

And if that wasn’t poor judgment in asking me, then the poor judgment came when I went and said yes.

It was one of the more difficult assignments I’ve done.  First, this is my home town – they know me, they know my family.  It is intimidating.  Second, ruminating on life and past experiences can be a painful experience.

Though to be fair to the folks in the crowd, having to hear me ramble through twenty minutes in a steamy gymnasium was probably even more painful. 

But somehow, I muddled through.

There was a string of friends and neighbors there – well, would say growing up in a small town, all of them were friends and neighbors.

More than one of them commented about this darn blog.  So – here it is.

Maybe the start of another seven year stretch?

Welcome Summer

May 13th, 2014

The ice went off the lake this last week, fishing opener is behind us, Mother’s Day has come and went, we are in the middle of university commencements, and road construction has started.  Clearly, it is a sign that we are in the full throws of spring and summer can’t be far away.  Indeed, an early morning walk up in the north country had daylight peaking over the horizon

I’m a big fan of Minnesota, it is where I was born and raised, and one of the prime reason’s is the diversity of the seasons.  But let me tell you, there are six reasons that I’m looking forward to summer this year:

1)      I bought a bike.  It has been years since I rode bike.  When I did, I enjoyed it.  It was great exercise and, not surprisingly, faster than walking.  My muscles (and butt) need to get used to riding again.  I’ll admit that I’ve got high hopes that the summer will give me plenty of opportunities to get out and enjoy mother nature and fresh air this summer…what better way than a bike?

2)      4th of July – I haven’t had a full week of vacation in well over a year.  It seems like every time that I try to take some time off for a little R & R, either work or personal things get in the way.  Several years ago, I bought a ‘rustic’ cabin on a lake in Northern Minnesota, close to where I grew up.  It isn’t home, but it is close.  The fireworks on the 4th are spectacular on this lake, and I’ve only gotten to watch them once – so I’m looking forward to one whole week of biking, reading, swimming, and entertaining.  If you need me the week of the 4th, you’ll find me at the lake.  Bring beverages.

3)      Spending time at the cabin – it was a lifelong dream to own a little spot of the Minnesota dream.  My cabin isn’t much, but it gives access to the water.  As much as I enjoy the sun rises, the sunsets, and the time in the water, the greatest joy is watching my nieces, nephews, and friends enjoy it.  We used to look forward to getting the invite to go out to a relatives cabin on the 4th of July…now I’m that relative.  See kids enjoy the water, splashing around, throwing them off the end of the dock, watching them catch fish, building sandcastles on the beach – in short – just being kids – well, there isn’t many better things in life.

4)      WeFest – it might seem strange that a guy that never went to a music festival in his life is looking forward to the largest in the country…well, it is a mile walk from my cabin.  It wasn’t the reason that I bought it, but it is a good time.  The last couple of years have been trying.  Let me tell you, nothing relieves the stress quite like 80,000 people cheering to some of the best country music that the world has to offer.  In short, I’ve had a ball the last two years and looking forward to this year!

5)      Farmfest – coming right after WeFest, this is the blockbuster of the summer.  Walking around the grounds of the Gilfillan Estate in Redwood County, Minnesota.  As a farm kid and in the agriculture business (in more ways than one) it is great to get out and see the latest and greatest in farming technology.  As a political junky, the big tent usually has all of the state and federal office holders and their competitors haggling about the best way to run the country and farm policy.  There isn’t anything better.  In between sessions and meeting with suppliers, I enjoy a great porkchop sandwich served by the local FFA Chapter.  There isn’t anything better – but the annual banquet that night at the Kaiserhoff in downtown New Ulm is pretty close.  Food, fun, and political banter.  Summer at its finest.

6)      The Minnesota State Fair marks the end of summer.  I’ve been going to it for almost 20 years.  With a few exceptions, I’ve tried to make it every year.  In fact, there were a couple of years when I could say that I literally lived at the fair.  A lot has changed for the fair – and for me – but it is still great to go walk the barns, visit the miracle of birth center, sit out and watch acts at the Lenie Bandshell, drink a milkshake from the Gopher Dairy Club, have some cheese curds, and if I’m really lucky – go to a concert at the Grandstand.  Isn’t anything better in late August/early September.

Well, that’s six things that I’m looking forward to this summer…but I have to admit, that is far from an inclusive list.  There are also all of those little moments with family and friends.  The sights, the sounds, the smell of summer – fresh cut hay on a summers day, loons gliding across an open lake, the green of the grass after rain, the rustle of corn, the laughter of good friends, the stories over a camp fire….

Summer 2014 – welcome.

Glove it or Leave It….

April 15th, 2014

Last year, a trip to see my beloved Minnesota Twins take on the New York Mets was a bone chilling experience.  In the new outdoor stadium, a magnificent place to watch a ball game, was a little chilly on this spring day that seemed much more like winter.  With highs that barely reached 40F and flurries in the air, the boys of summer were more like the boys of the Artic.

But they played ball nonetheless, and we watched them with gusto…and gloves.

As I was watching the game in the frigid air, it got me to thinking how this all might have sounded back on the farm, in the am radio that was tucked up in the rafters, as the voice of the Twins, Herb Carneal, who never lived to see the new stadium, might have done the play-by-play…

“Good afternoon everyone!  This is Herr-rr-rr-rr-b Carr-rr-rr-rr-neal br-br-broasting live from this chilly April afternoon in the cold snowy heart of Twins territory.”

The Minnesota Twins are playing hockey…er…baseball today with the boys from the New York Mets who would probably rather be in New Jersey today then playing ball here, and you could say that here in this beautiful outdoor ballpark, one of the nicest in professional baseball today, they are turning blue with envy…well, actually just blue here today…

The Met’s actually have a few former players for the Twins on their team, a few players that came, thawed, and transferred.  The temperature today is a brisk 37F at the start of gametime as the pitchers defrost in the bullpens.

There is a good crowd out there today that have come on to cheer on their Twins in this beautiful open air stadium.  We should see a great game of baseball today as the snow comes down, this should be where the elite meet the sleet today.

We have about fifteen hundred fans in the stands today, where I’m sure many are cold, but few are frozen…and they are currently being treated by the crack medical staff from Fairview Hospital – and official sponsor of our Twins, and experts in hypothermia and frostbite..which will come in handy here this afternoon.

There is an additional five thousand fans packed into the bar above the first base line, about thirty-five hundred more than capacity.

Our designated hitter today is local boy Joe Mauer, who got his start right across the river and between the frostbite, the fans, and injuries, he is proving that if you survive in Minnesota, the rest of the world is easy. 

There is a chill to the air as we watch a flock of geese heading north…no wait…that is definitely south here today.

With the anthem over and the players taking the field, they are knocking the ice of the bases and prepare for the opening pitch.  Twins take to the outfield where they are saying it is time to glove it or leave it here today.

And with that, it’s time to pl-pl-pl-play b-b-b-b-b-ball!

Somebody Had To Do It

January 21st, 2014

When the temperatures got bitterly cold, the daily routine task of cleaning the barn could turn into a real hazard for man, beast and machinery.  Machinery didn’t like the cold.  Normal steel with all of its strength, would turn brittle in the bone chilling cold that would sweep down out of the Hudson Bay.

In the winter time, cleaning barn was a necessity.  The manure needed to get out.  The trouble was, in order to clean barn, the back door would have to be opened and cold air would rush into the barn.  Now the barn was heated by nothing but the body heat of the cows inside – in the extreme cases, any lost heat could take hours to replenish, and the risk of pipes freezing and bursting was very real.

But even worse than the mess would be the fact that the cows would be without water until the pipes were thawed and fixed.

Any delay in getting that door closed and the barn sealed up back up again to keep the heat in was a danger. 

And there were always threats. There were always things that could go wrong.

The barn cleaner chain would stretch and catch on places in the gutter and outside where it normally wouldn’t – frozen clods of manure, ice chunks, and just brittle metal could spell trouble.  If the chain broke, with wire stretcher, hammers, and iron bars, it would need to be spliced back together again.

Which was always a wet, cold, sloppy mess.

The tractor’s PTO turning at three thousand revolutions per minute, running the gear box that would operate the paddles pushing the manure out the back to be spread across the field was a lot of power and a lot of pressure.

Here too, it was the simple things that would cause problems – brittle metal, clods of frozen manure, a small bur of metal, something would catch…and a chain would break.  This was especially dangerous as there were now multiple issues facing us.

First, the manure spreader needed to be used daily.  It had to be fixed.  In the extreme cold, the load of manure, which left the barn at 70F, could quickly freeze into one big clump.  The alternative was opening up the barn doors and backing it into the barn to keep it warm while the fix was done.

Costing us heat in the barn.

It was always a calculated risk.

If it was an easy fix – which meant it was underneath the manure spreader, and place that could be unpleasant to work (especially if the manure was wet and sloppy i.e. drippage) but relatively easy to access, the repair would be made (pliers, crow bar, fence stretcher, hammer).

But there was usually better than 50% chance that the fix would entail something much more unpleasant…

Unloading the manure spreader.

The load, usually already freezing, would have to be taken out to a field, and with pitch forks, shovels, picks, and axe, would be hacked and heaved out of the spreader, exposing the broken bits in all of their slimy, gooey, disgusting glory. 

It was a scavenger hunt of sorts. 

But the manure spreader would be fixed.  The manure hauled, the barn shut up, and the temperature slowly brought up to a level safely above freezing.

It was a crappy job, but someone had to do it.

Fulfillment

January 19th, 2014

I had the pleasure of catching up with an old friend, eating a good meal, and going to a concert over the weekend.  Both my friend and I have had our share of trials and misfortunes along the way.

As I sat in a restaurant in St. Paul – we shared our latest trials and tribulations, but also stories of hope and renewal.  As my friend said, as she gets older, the more she realizes that things work out, that things happen for a reason.

Sometimes, the best we can do is stop fighting it, accept what is happening, and take the next step.

Now, I’ll admit – it didn’t hit me right away.  I was too self-absorbed into what was happening around me.  We were surrounded by mobs of people – drinking, eating, and seemingly carefree of everything in the world.  Walking into the concert, there were thousands of people – dressed in the latest fashions, seemingly without a care in the world.

“Is flannel back in?” My friend asked.

“I never knew it was out.” I replied, looking at my staid carhart pullover.

It was a great concert.  It hit me later that night, what my friend had said, “the best thing we can do is stop fighting, accept what is happening, and take the next step.”

I mulled it over all day Saturday…it is easy to give in to the whims or the world…and I must admit, I do at times, but it struck me as I read the readings for today:

From Isaiah: “The Lord said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I shall show my glory.” 

Or from Psalm 40: “I waited, waited for the Lord, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.  And he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God.”

Or from Paul’s letter to Corinthians: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”

And finally, we are pointed to the way in the Gospel of John, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

We can fight, we can go down the easy path, but in the end, it is not our way or our will, but the will of God that must direct us.  It is not always an easy road – but it is the road to fulfillment.

Valuable Piece of Machinery

January 16th, 2014

There was another circle of life that we learned on the farm.  That which goes in, must, in one form or another come out.  A good dairy cow, well fed and well cared for, could produce a lot of milk.

But it produced a lot of other stuff as well.

Inevitably, any of the feed that we put in front of them would end up coming out somewhere else.  In truth, much of it also went to building muscle mass, for energy, and to produce calves.  But there was the other by-product, call it manure, call it cow pies, or call it something that must be “shipped high in transit.”

Whatever you call it, it has to be moved out of the barn.

Now in our old stanchion barn, the cows all faced the windows and the water, feed, hay, and silage would be provided.  The stanchions allowed them to stand up, sit down, and stretch as needed.  Straw underneath gave them good warm bedding, and because of the body heat, only once in my life did ever see the temperature drop below freezing.

Behind the cows were square concrete troughs – what we called gutters, about a foot deep into the foundation of the barn. The gutter held a chain with paddles that would scour the bottom of the trough, taking everything out of the back of the barn, up a brief incline – called, poetically, the barn cleaner – and dump it into a waiting manure spreader. For those that haven’t guessed it, the cow’s excrement would fall into this gutter.

In the winter time, the dirty straw from under the cows, the and wide area behind them where we worked to move feed and milk them, would need to be scraped and cleaned, and the old feed from in front of them would need to be removed and placed in the gutter too.

All of this refuse would end up in the gutter, going up the barn cleaner, and out into the waiting manure spreader.

Now the manure spreader was a simple piece of machinery.  It was a three sided trailer that had chain running down the long sides with series of paddles connecting them – pushing anything inside towards the back of the trailer – the one open side – where a drum like beater would hit the pile of moving manure and fling it high into the air and behind the machine – onto the ground where the nutrients would be absorbed back into the ground and used by the next plant life that would spring up.

That plant life would be used for grain, fodder, and bedding, where it would end up under or inside a cow, only to end up back in the manure spreader again.

It is the circle of life.

But it also reminds me of my dear friend Ole who started a machinery dealership back up there in Northern Minnesota.  His slogan was, “I’ll stand behind everything that I sell…except the manure spreader.”

Uffda.

Circle of Life

January 14th, 2014

Like death and taxes, some things in this life are just certain.  Minnesota will get cold in winter.  Cows will have to go to the bathroom.  Manure spreaders will break.

In the far reaches of Northern Minnesota, where the great plains meet the big woods, our little farm nestled in a copse of trees.  There was little separating us from the cruel bitter winds of the Hudson Bay except for a few trees and four hundred miles. 

When the cold winter air from the north decided to make a run for the south, there wasn’t much we could do except grit your teeth, put  on a few more layers of clothing, and go about work for the day.

Usually at least once a year, we would suffer through the bitterest of cold weather with the mercury plunging below -20F and at times below -30F. 

That is cold.

But the cows still needed to be feed, milked, watered, and the barn kept clean.  The youngstock outside had to be feed, watered, and fresh bedding (aka straw) laid out for them.  It was a matter of survival, but also good morality.

At times, temperatures could be lower than would you could find on the surface of Mars.

Inevitably, chores became that much harder.  Fingers stuck inside of big mittens didn’t work as well in the cold.  Bulky close slowed down the chores.  Both man and beast moved slower.  Anything with moisture froze.  Exposed skin could freeze in minutes…and I’ve got fingers that are still sensitive to prove it.

Watering the youngstock outside was a laborious affair.  Using an axe, a thick layer of ice would have to be chipped from the stock tank.  Then the water would flow until all of the cattle had their fill.  The remnants that didn’t freeze would be shoveled out of the tank – leaving a frozen layer on the bottom that would inevitably have to chopped out the next watering.

But it was the machines that seemed to suffer the most.  Tractors would need to be coaxed to life as they sputtered with cold diesel in the tanks, or in the case of gasoline tractors, just cold oil in the engine.  It would be a challenge to get the tractors to fire up, let alone at times to turn over.  Electric heaters, magnetic oil pan heaters, and battery chargers were all employed to make sure that things started.

But even then, the battle wasn’t done.  Hydraulics, necessary for loaders and snowblowers would be stiff in the cold.  Normal chores – hauling hay and silage for feeding, moving straw for bedding, turned into a slow motion affair as the loader seemed to jerk and jimmy to action.  The jobs that might take thirty minutes in normal weather would stretch to an hour or more in the bitter biting winds of the bleak midwinter.

But the chores must be done.  The animals must be fed, watered and kept warm.  It was good economics, but it was also good animal husbandry – we learned early that well treated animals would treat us well.

It was part of the circle of life that we learned on the farm.

Godchildren

January 12th, 2014

I’ve been blessed to be asked to be a Godfather not once, not twice, but three times.

Each one of those kids is special to me.  It has been fun to watch them grow and to see each of their personalities grow – from the very youngest, Tess, to the oldest, Tommy, and Parker in the middle.

Now, I take the role of being a Godparent very seriously.

It wasn’t until the very last baptism of little Tess that there were actually formal instructions given to me – but most of them were pretty straight forward and common sense. 

  • Celebrate the birth and baptism of your godchild.
  • Listen and share in the struggles and triumphs of living a Christian life
  • Keep informed of doctrine and share insights
  • Encourage a life of faith by cards, letters, and gifts
  • Participate or send assurance as the godchild enters the other sacrements
  • Be supportive of the parents and their faith
  • Become a model of Christian living

That is a heavy responsibility, especially that last one.

But that is what each of us is called to be.  At our baptism, when the priest, minister, or deacon said the words, asked our Godparents the vows, and anointed us with the oils of the sacrament, it was more than just a sign – it was our commitment to live a life of, for, and in Christ.

It was our introduction.

The baptism of Jesus was much the same way.  John the Baptist was preaching the good news to all that would listen – the good news of repentance and forgiveness.  He was met with a wave of sinners that came out to hear the message and to be washed in the waters of the Jordan River.

And then came he that was without sin – and John didn’t know quite what to do.

“You should be the one baptizing me!” John protested, an exchange that we can probably imagine among cousins.  They were, after all, very remarkable cousins.

But Jesus insisted.

When the baptism was over, a voice came from the heavens that said, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

It was a powerful witness to anyone that was there that day, and certainly the word spread through the countryside far and wide.

It was Jesus’s introduction to the world – the announcement that He that would open the gates of heaven was here on earth with us.

Each of us is called to be like Jesus.  It is the job of parents and Godparents to ensure, that when the day comes that our charge is set before the gates of heaven, that the same voice might be heard…

“This is one of my children, with whom I am well pleased.”

Highest Recommendation

January 9th, 2014

Applying for scholarships was not a solitary affair.  It required a great deal of time and help from many people in the community.  Dad would have to relent on chores once in a while as I pushed a deadline.  Mom, though ill, still checked the applications for spelling, grammatical errors, and overall cleanliness.

But it was the help and support of the friends, neighbors, and teachers that impacted me most.

Most of the scholarships required letters of recommendation and most stipulated who they wanted them from.  Usually it was a teacher, sometimes an administrator, sometimes it was someone from the community or from my church.

No matter who I approached and asked, they always wrote them not only willingly, but gladly.  Most of them required that they be sent directly in to the committee, without my seeing them – and more often than not, that was just fine with me.  I trusted these folks.

One required me to attach the letters, unsealed, with the application when I mailed it in.  It also requested a lot of letters.

“Why don’t you ask Vern?” Dad said.

Now Dad normally let me go my own way with little help or guidance, when it came, I knew it should be listened too.  Vern was our neighbor down the road.  He and his wife Lois were some of our families best friends.  It was a relationship built on neighborliness – they would be there to help us at the drop of a hat – baling hay, chopping corn – what ever the task was.  And we would reciprocate.

For me, Vern was a special friend.  From as young as I could remember, he treated me as an equal.  He would ask questions, ask my opinions, and generally engage me as he would anyone else.  As a youngster, that stuck.  Vern and I would discuss things that most grownups wouldn’t think of discussing – politics mainly.  And he always seemed to value my opinions, regardless how simple or naïve.  He never brushed them off – but probed, inquired, and in his own gentle way – taught me.

“It would be an honor.” Was Vern’s response when I asked him.  “Get me a list of the things they are looking for and I’ll write it for you.”

True to his word, I got it about a week later.  It was then that I faced a crisis – what to do with it.

Vern was very direct in his letter, as you would expect a long standing and proud veteran of the military to be.  But he also talked poetically about who I was, how I was raised, what I stood for, and gave examples of each.

He made me sound very nobble, and no one had said nice things like that about me before.

My conundrum was two-fold – first all, could I submit it?  It said such things…but when Dad read it, and I shared my fears with him, he merely looked and me and said, “It’s true, why wouldn’t you?”  My second conundrum I continue to face to this day, how to live up to those words penned by Vern so long ago.

I still keep a copy of that letter around.  Now you might call it prideful, I’d say it is a good reminder to live up to what a good friend thought I should be.  It is also a good reminder that a letter of recommendation is a special thing, and never to take the opportunity to fill one out for granted.