Backyard beauties

A brief stroll up the hill in our backyard revealed an amazing variety of spring flowers. Many prairie wildflowers are diminutive and understated. The prairie golden banner is an exception – bright yellow blankets of these beauties are abundant this year.

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The bright blue shining penstemmon is our earliest blooming penstemmon.

IMG_0763Like many plants, this one has a couple of common names – the star lily or sand lily.

IMG_0767It is hard to positively ID an onion without digging up the bulb. But my guess is that this is a nodding onion. When the flower opens, it will be an umbel (think umbrella-shape) with 5 – 40 individual flowers.

IMG_0768Field chick weed has but five petals – each is deeply notched, making the flower appear more complex.

IMG_0774Nuttall’s violet, also called yellow prairie violet, has a delightful 5 inch tall flower.

IMG_0776Cous, also known as biscuitroot, has an umbel flower structure like the nodding onion.

IMG_0781Phlox species, surrounded by some woody winter deer scat.

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The shrubs are all in bloom too! This is sticky currant, a cousin of the yellow currant that grows along the river. The leaves are sticky to the touch.

IMG_0786Skunkbush sumac has tiny whitish yellow flowers and trifoliate leaves (a compound leaf composed of three leaflets). If you rub your finger on the bark, it emits a pleasantly pungent smell.

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The world comes alive

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As spring marches into Montana, there is a surprise awaiting me every time I step out the door. Day by day the spring migrants are returning from their warm winter locales. The first harbinger of spring is the Sandhill crane. This year they arrived on March 15th to a world still blanketed in snow. Their long legs maneuvered lithe bodies across the crusty snow in search of patches of bare ground. Within a week, their graceful courting dances began as the world around them melted out.

Next to return to the neighborhood were the mountain bluebirds. Their brilliantly colored feathers are a delight to my eyes, which had become accustomed to the flat white light of old snow and mud. Within days, they were busy bringing twigs and grasses to the hollow post in our yard where they nest each year. On the Equinox, the official start of spring, the red-winged blackbirds made their first appearance. Their buzzy “konk-a-ree” song will become the backdrop of life along any body of water for the next six months.

As March comes to a close, the western meadowlark at last arrives. Its sweet, flute-like melodies permeate the summer days on the prairie and grasslands of our state. Within a few weeks, we may become so accustomed to birds’ songs that we forget how utterly silent the winter was without them. Even the black-capped chickadee, a year-round resident, is singing more frequently and ardently now than in the dead of winter.

As many bird species arrive to spend the summer with us, so too do some species depart. These winter residents prefer cooler climates, and head north as far as the Arctic to breed during the summer months. The rough-legged hawk, for example, breeds in the far northern tundra and only winters in the northern U.S. It is more difficult to notice the departure of these species. They exist in the fabric of our daily lives for months, and then one day we realize that we haven’t seen them for a while. Their return in the fall will signal the arrival of winter, just as the many birds this month are heralding spring and the warm months to come.

* I wrote the above article for the Montana Audubon Center April e-newsletter.

When smoke gets in your eyes…

Intense smoke from western wildfires has settled upon us, and made it nearly impossible to see the horizon. It is time to focus on the world immediately underfoot! I took a short walk in the woods along the coulee cliffs and found some interesting things to look at up close, such as this pine cone, resting atop a bunch of silver sage.

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Woodhouse toads love our water tanks; I found three in the tank at once today. We gave them a board to crawl up on and hop out to freedom when they are done swimming and feasting.

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IMG_0418Sandstone slabs pile up in their angle of repose above Coulee Creek

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Golden currant leaves in the sunshine – the flowers and berries are long gone.

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Ponderosa pine bark flakes off in puzzle pieces

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I took shelter from the heat in a juniper bush, and sat to watch a chickadee sing. Below me, the team of horses paced along the fence and whinnied, wondering where I had gone.

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The scar on this tree looks a bit like a mitten surrounded by barnacles. It could be that the ocean is on my mind after a trip to the astounding Oregon coast last weekend.

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Skunkbush sumac, another favorite forest shrub.

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I took this photo before the smoke settled in on us last week – somewhere there is blue sky with fluffy white cumulus clouds!

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The obligatory photo of Doc – he loves to rest around the corner in the washroom, but always manages to keep an eye on me.

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Midsummer

Oh sweet, cool August! You have provided such soothing relief after the searing heat of July. Already we have had two evening rainstorms to freshen and moisten the parched earth. The daytime highs are merely in the mid-80s, far closer to a bearable average. I have actually been able to work comfortable outside in the afternoon. I feel far more productive. And yet, I never seem to get it all done. The school year starts in just a month and my teaching responsibilities will ramp up again. Even with my work load lightened in the summer, I still don’t have time for all the projects that I think I’ll get done. The days just skip along, full to the brim.

It seems like all the wildlife in the neighborhood has discovered my garden this summer. It began with the ground squirrels – more commonly known as gophers around here (although we don’t have true gophers in Montana).  The ground squirrels popped up into the garden in June, just after I planted it and went down to Colorado for ten days. While I was gone, they took over! They seemed to most enjoy the lettuce, and kept it expertly trimmed down and completely unedible.

Then in July the rabbits showed up. It turns out my “rabbit-proof” fence is completely penetrable by rabbits. I watched them squeeze through the openings; I have visual proof. They enjoyed eating all the young carrot tops and sunflower shoots, and managed to reach and nibble on my first ripe tomatoes. Simultaneously, aphids were sucking the lifeblood out of the tomato leaves, despite a couple of applications of neem oil.

Just yesterday I saw a chipmunk in the garden. This is a particularly surprising intruder because it is the first chipmunk I have seen in the coulee. They live in town, about two miles away, where there are a variety of deciduous trees and shrubs, not out here where ponderosa pines, grasslands, and sagebrush dominate the landscape. The interloper was busily munching on the seeds that I planted last week – a cover crop mix of clover, peas, vetch and ryegrass. I tried to rake the seeds under, but apparently the nutritious and delicious seeds were too tasty to hide from the chipmunk. Unlike the rabbits and ground squirrels, I couldn’t chase him out of the garden. He immediately hid in the winter squash jungle and despite my best efforts to cajole him out, he wouldn’t budge. It was amusing to watch. He flattened his body down to the ground under one of the big leaves and didn’t move, as if perhaps I couldn’t see him there. When I got closer, he’d move to another spot and do the same thing. After a few rounds of this he chittered away at me and was feisty enough that I didn’t pursue him further. After all, I was wearing flip-flops, and could envision him making an about face to attack my toes.

The sunflowers that survived the rabbits are in full bloom, the beet harvest was large enough to make a batch of pickled beets when my mom visits, and everything else just might ripen before frost. Next spring, I’ll be installing chicken wire around the garden!

Tidbits from July

Late June strawberry harvest – one of the simple delights in life!

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July 1, 2017

We’ve been spending long evenings on the porch, watching the world go by while the house cools down. Nighthawks high above, blackbird flocks dancing on the ridge, and the messy pigeon swooping in to roost in our barn. A dragonfly buzzes by, dropping a deerfly on the rock in front of me. The fly is motionless, its innards sucked clean by the predaceous dragonfly. I quietly celebrate; deerflies have a nasty bite. The dogs sprawl in synchronized sleeping, heads touching in a reverse swan dive. I suppose that might be too poetic for a pair of mutts.

I am tired from the heat. I move quickly in the morning (after slowly savoring my cup of coffee on the couch). I try to get as many outdoor chores accomplished as possible before the heat intensifies. Mornings are cool, upper 50s, and pleasant. But the high, direct sunlight quickly seers the dewy suppleness from the air. By early afternoon the heat is harsh, and I move indoors to escape the sun. I read, study, nap, write… anything to be in cool environs for the hottest hours of the day.

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Sunday 9 July 2017

When I became a teacher, I mostly kicked swearwords to the curb. When they are part of one’s everyday vocab it is all too easy to accidently drop the f-bomb in front of a group of students. But there are times when angst, anger, or pain will drive me to swear. This past week, at least once a day I’ve exclaimed “fuck, it’s hot”. Something about the word fuck allows me to decompress and let off steam. Today it was close to ninety degrees by nine AM, and still ninety degrees at nine PM. Our thermometer has declared temps over 100 by two pm on a couple of afternoons. It is too hot. Too dry. The grass is crisp underfoot. And the heat brings out the flies. I long to be too cold. I dream of -20 degree weather with snow and wind. I would bundle up and get moving. Or sit by the fire and drink tea. I would be able to cope somehow. But this heat is brutal. There is no escape. Work outdoors must go on and for most of it I must wear boots and pants. Our house stays about 15 degrees cooler than outdoors, which is small comfort when it is 103. Punishing heat. It makes me cranky, tired, and prone to swearing. I am not my best self in this heat.

July 15, 2017

I went back to the river and found the offending plant tucked among the snowberry bushes along the shore. Poison ivy. My nemesis! I had completely overlooked it last Saturday and paid the price. Sunday night the first bumps appeared, and in my naivety I assumed they were bug bites. Monday, more itchy bumps popped up as the uroshiol oils spread from legs to hands to face to stomach. By Tuesday it was crystal clear; I had poison ivy hives everywhere! Having suffered from a brush with it in the past, I recognized the oozing blisters and slow, insidious spread of the rash. How could I have been so foolish as to think these were bug bites? I began the detox process: three thorough scrub-downs with tecnu soap, then bagging infected clothing, bedding, and shoes to be laundered in extra hot soapy water. At this point, I felt relieved that the spread of it was over, but the blisters I did have were just entering the intense itchy, oozing phase. I commenced a recovery regimen: oral antihistamines, steroid cream, loose clothing, cool bathing and trying hard as I could to not scratch anything!

Heat, flies, and poison ivy. That about sums up the worst of July. But there was a silver lining. My sister Lara and her family visited, and then my friend Pippi and her kids visited. All of the kids loved helping with chores, learning to ride horses and visiting the cows. It is a delight to see the world through the eyes of a child! And in the afternoons we all enjoyed relaxing in the cool waters of Deadman’s Basin (an unfortunate name, but a fantastic spot to go swimming).

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Evan, my nephew, checking on the cows
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My niece, Claire, and her blue tongue – someone has been eating Otter Pops!
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Talus, Pippi’s  son, rides Buddy with me
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Annika, Pippi’s daughter, meets Bic
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Claire riding Whiskey
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Bart ground-driving our new team on a cool morning in June – the world is so green!
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Pippi examines a bull snake skin
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Annika and Talus meet the heifers
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Evan, Claire, Lara, and I go for an evening stroll (photo by Brendan)
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Annika and her “baby” – Who needs a playground when you have a flatbed trailer to play on?
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Annika and Talus chilling on the beach
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Even Doc loves swimming at Deadman’s Basin
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Pippi floating carefree on the lake
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Evan and his dog, Sadie, out for a paddle (photo by Brendan)
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The lavender is in bloom despite the heat and drought
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The Snowy Mountains under a smoky evening sky

Grandma’s Gift

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The plane launches through the cloud bank over Syracuse into the evening sky. The auburn-tinted horizon is aglow with the light of the setting sun. A waxing crescent moon floats with its companion star above us. I wonder to myself if this star always lingers so close to the moon. Is it always such a bright beacon in the baby-blue sky of early night? Is it actually a planet? I could probably look it up, and may. Or I might just watch the night sky to see what happens over the next few weeks, months, and years. So many times over the past few days we wondered about something, our questions often triggered by a faded family photo or relic. We wished beyond hope that we could ask Grandma for the answers. She always had the answers.

A tight-knit crew of Clark descendants gathered for four days and nights in her house of seventy plus years. We celebrated and grieved, laughed and cried. We are bound together by our history and by our love for Esther Elizabeth Baker Clark. We are bound together because of the compassion and care she shared with each and every one of us. At Grandma’s, I was surrounded by kinship and hope. Each room of her beautiful old home held a connection to past, present, and future. In every nook and cranny a photo or memory gave me pause and brought a smile to my face.

I feel the loss of Grandma deep in my heart. Yet, wrapped around that aching hole, I feel the love of family. This was Grandma’s gift to us all. She brought us together. She created and nourished the loving bonds between us. These bonds will live forever. Grandma’s love lives on. With every act of kindness and compassion, Grandma’s love radiates out from her family to our communities. It spreads in ripples across the world.

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A Moment on Coulee Creek

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Ice crystals on Coulee Creek

While caught up in daily chores, listening to the endless chatter of my mind, I am stopped in my tracks. I wake from the trance of “getting things done” and become acutely aware of the moment. Usually it is nature that provides the reason to pause, admire, and be inspired. I live in close proximity to the natural world – the small inconveniences of poor cell service, inconsistent internet, and a grocery store over 45 miles away all become insignificant in comparison to the wonder of nature.

Earlier this morning, Bart and I walked to the cliff edge to look down on Coulee Creek. Seemingly from out of nowhere a golden eagle floated beneath us, soaring west toward the horizon. Moments later, a second eagle appeared, gliding effortlessly away from the sandstone cliffs a hundred feet above the earth.

Later, while taking Doc on his daily duck-hunting hike, I came upon a coyote. The coyote stood partly hidden behind sagebrush, stoic and alert. Doc’s soft curves and floppy ears appeared cartoonish in comparison to the sharp lines of the coyote’s muzzle and ears. When Doc caught scent of the coyote, he followed the trail towards the sagebrush. Doc, with nose to the ground, was oblivious to the wild dog that he was rapidly approaching. Doc came within twenty feet, before the coyote took off in a flash, retreating to a small knoll only fifty feet away. The coyote’s sudden movement finally got Doc’s attention. Doc stopped and watched the coyote, apparently mystified by this creature that he had surely smelled before and never came so close to touching. Doc hesitated, unsure of his next move. I called him back to me, and he seemed all too eager to get away from the mystery animal that was now barking in alarm at us. Its yips echoed in waves off the cliffs behind me. I stood frozen in place as the sound washed over me.

After a moment or two, the chill of five-degree air began to penetrate my jacket and gloves. Time to move on. Doc trotted on down the frozen creek, in pursuit of his usual pal, the duck. I followed Doc toward our cabin in the coulee. I was eager to get to my destination, and my mind began chattering with plans again. I would feed the horses, then stoke the fire and finish turning last summer’s tomatoes into spaghetti sauce. But before I could get too far ahead of myself, I lifted my head toward the cliff where earlier we had seen the eagle, and which now resonated with the call of the coyote. All around me were tangible reminders that where I was right now in this moment was the only place in this world to be.

 

Feeding the old fashioned way

Why not take the team out to feed the cows when it is 1 degree above zero? At least the air is still, even if clouds are completely blocking the sun and a gentle mist of snow is falling from above. We’ve only fed with the team once, and that was before we had the new harnesses, refurbished by a generous man from the Montana Draft Horse and Mule Association. The team has been away; we are borrowing them after all, and their owner requested their presence for a few days. The wagon was gone too, for holiday rides with Santa, and only came back to the ranch yesterday. With everything finally back in one place, we can’t not feed with the team this morning. It is positive one degree after all, not negative.

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On go the layers: long johns, canvas pants, and wool pants on the bottom with two long john tops, a sweater, down vest, wool shirt and canvas work coat on top. Then a unique neck/head tube from my friend Pippi, a silk scarf and an alpaca wool hat made in Bozeman to top it all off. We are ready to roll!

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I give the dogs a boost onto the loaded hay wagon and grab the reins while Bart hitches up the horses. It is a quiet, smooth, and beautiful ride down the county road.

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When the cows see us approaching, they run and a few even buck with excitement. Maverick whines and quivers, eager to work the cows. Doc quivers too, but his shakes are from the cold. This twelve-year-old bird dog is not too impressed with the whole affair. I pile some loose hay in a corner of the wagon to make a bed for him out of the wind. Then I climb on top of the hay, eager to move a bit and pitch bales to get my blood moving.

 

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Bart moves the team a little way at a time so I can spread the hay out. I break the small squares roughly into thirds and toss them left, right, back. Move forward. Left, right, back again. I am toasty warm, and slow my pace to avoid getting sweaty, a sure way to get chilled to the bone in this cold. Bart’s beard has become iced over, creating a frosty face mask.

 

We circle the wagon around and stop by the creek to open the ice for the cows. On the way home, we walk the horses, careful not to let them get too sweaty and chilled either. The drive back seems to take five times as long as the way out, with the chill setting into my toes and fingers. I move my limbs vigorously back and forth to shake blood out to the extremities. The snowflakes become fatter as they drift down, beginning to coat Doc’s back as he lays curled in his hay bed. It was a beautiful and thrilling journey, and I am glad to return home to the warmth of the cabin, where I put on a pot of tea immediately. What a great way to start the day!

 

Better Late Than Never

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July 2016 – Toadlet. I am not sure if this is correct scientific nomenclature for the wee toads I’ve been seeing, but I certainly like the ring of it. It perfectly fits the thumb-sized creatures that are spitting images of fully grown palm-sized adults. For a week now, whenever I’ve detected movement in the grass out of the corner of my eye it has turned out to be a toadlet, hopping nonchalantly through dry grass and dirt. I want to put them all in my garden to help keep the leaf-hopper population at bay. They would be right at home with the bull snake, another welcome garden denizen that keeps the pocket gopher population in check. On Friday, I found the bull snake ensnarled in the bird netting that covers our strawberry patch. At first I thought he was dead, but as I cut loose the netting from his body, it began writhing and he even gave me his rendition of rattlesnake tail wagging, though his head was so tied up that he couldn’t make the vocalization to make it sound like rattles. I cut his head free last, and cautiously placed him in the shade to recover from the trauma.

Can you spot the woodhouse toad in the photo below? img_5311

November 2016 – The garden was hit or miss this summer- the cucumbers refused to flourish, but three types of peppers made up for that shortcoming. Root vegetables also did well despite the heat. Luckily, my mom arrived in August to help trim and store an abundance of onions, and to can pickled beets and cucumbers img_5334

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We had many visitors this summer – Pippi and her kids returned for a third year of ranch camp, and helped me pick a 5 gallons of choke cherries. We cleaned and stemmed them together, and then I cooked them down to make syrup. We got just 2 pints of syrup from all those berries! Another Teton Science School grad, Katie, visited us later in August just in time to celebrate Bart’s birthday and our one year anniversary of life in the cabin at Coulee Creek. The only downside to a simple life off the grid? We’ve chosen not to have internet at home, which makes my blog posts few and far between! So here is to summer, now long past, but whose memories will always last!

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An Unusual Sunday

Three quarters of an inch had fallen by the time we checked the rain gauge at seven AM on July 10th. Over the next four hours bursts of heavy rain followed by steady slow showers brought the total for the day up to one and three quarters of an inch. Unbelievable for July on the prairie of central Montana! After weeks of continual work (gardening, fencing, tending to the cows, chickens, and much more), I thoroughly enjoyed lounging on the couch while reading a book and listening to the rain cleanse the world outdoors.

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Muddy pools of water now dot the brown landscape, dry and parched from the last few weeks of intense heat. In the afternoon, the sun peeks out for a few hours and we take the horses up to the CRP pasture to check on the cows. We find the herd in the southwest corner, farthest from the creek where the grass hasn’t been grazed as heavily. Huge puddles on the side of the road allow them to linger there eating and drinking all afternoon. My horse rides well. He is recovering from a sprained tendon that I’ve been treating with ice and leg wraps since we moved the bulls to pasture with the cows in May. I am relieved at his smooth gait and apparent lack of pain. We take it easy, walking leisurely across the wide rolling plain. That evening when we head to town for dinner, I am surprised at how quickly the puddles on the driveway have disappeared. The thirsty ground absorbed the rain in a hurry!

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The next morning we wake to the sound of more rain on the roof, another tenth of an inch has fallen overnight. The air is cool, mid 50s, and moist. I feel like I am back in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, which can be damp and chilly even in the summer. I emerge from our cabin wearing pants, a sweater and down vest. It’s as though I’ve landed in a different world than where I stood just four days ago, sweltering in shorts and a tank top. The garden is vibrant green and thick with mud. Last week I replanted the cover crop in the fallow portion, having determined that the mammoth red clover just wasn’t getting ahead of the weeds. Now the ryegrass will get a jumpstart on life following the storm. The rain wraps the world in cool, comforting moisture as it soothes my mind and body. I’ve been cranky from the incessant dry heat of late. One storm like this every week or two would do the earth and me a world of good!