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Crystal Glaze

The ice storm two days ago left everything on the farm glazed in a layer of shimmering crystal.  Every twig and blade gleams in the sun, a fantastic winter landscape.  The slightest breeze sets the branches swaying against one another in myriad musical chimes.

The day after the storm was warm and some of the ice melted.  An ice coating about 1/4″ thick remains, bending limbs and boughs dangerously toward the snapping point.  Every so often, an overloaded branch breaks with a resounding crack.  The supple birch trees bow to the ground with the weight.  Most will never stand straight again.  We will probably have to cut this birch as it leans right over the driveway now.

We lost power for over two and a half hours during the storm.  Some still have not gotten their electrical supply restored.  Dinner the night of the storm was ham and cheese sandwiches by candlelight instead of the turkey stroganoff I had planned.

The day after the storm I drove to town.  In one place, a downed, dead electric line snaked across most of my travel lane.  The stressed-out utility workers merely cut the line and left it to collect later.  Large trees were uprooted and hung dangerously over the road in other areas.  Our neighbor lost several major branches from his pine that fell close to the road.

Although the ice can be dangerous and a serious inconvenience, for a brief time it turns even the most mundane landscape into a glittering wonderland before the temperatures rise and the glaze drips away into memories.

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From the Deep Freeze

There has not been much to report these last few weeks.  The most popular topic of conversation is the bitter cold of mid-winter in Maine.  We have just suffered through at least three weeks with daily highs barely clearing 0F.  The coldest nights reached -20F here at the farm.  The chickens, horses and rabbits do fine in this sort of weather with proper shelter from the wind and wet.  Hens drop off laying when it’s very cold, so we only got one or two frozen eggs per day from 19 layers.

The chill is hard on wild animals, especially the song birds.  The feeders are emptied quickly.  The resident cardinal pair made sallies to eat the red holly berries from my outdoor holiday arrangement by the front door.  Cary and Kai, our year-old cats, sat for hours in the window waiting for the cardinals to show up.  All the feeding birds provide plenty of entertainment for the cats.

We’ve enjoyed several winter storms including a blizzard with 18 inches of snow four days ago.  There is now about 3.5 feet of snow on the ground.  Running the farm tractor to clear the driveway has kept me occupied.  I was also busy a week ago with a frozen washing machine drain that caused an entire load worth of soapy laundry water to dump across the bathroom floor.  The hot water supply line to the washer froze as well.  I was worried the leak was from a rupture to the pipe in the wall and was so grateful it was only waste water I had to mop up that I didn’t even mind the mess!

The great news is that the January thaw is here.  Today we hit 19F!  Tomorrow is forecast to be above freezing.  And the two days following that, the weather people say, will be in the 40s with rain.  Maybe it will warm up enough to allow the heavy snow load to slide off the roofs so we can stop the back breaking labor of roof raking.  Once the January thaw arrives, the back of winter is broken.  We will still get some chilly days and maybe even a few more Nor’easters, but the endless days of sub-zero weather are behind us.

Joyful Yule!

Joyful Yule to all!  This shortest day of the year finds the farm tucked into an 8″ blanket of snow.  The temperatures struggle to the 20sF during the day and dip toward zero at night.  This morning the sun favors us with a watery, weak glow, halfway to its zenith at 8:30 am.  The light has a yellowish cast due to the angle.

We modern humans understand how the tilt of the Earth determines the seasons, unlike our poor ancestors who huddled in fear through the dark and cold.  What if the sun just kept fading and didn’t return?  No wonder sacrificial rites were performed during the depths of night and celebration ensued when the daylight lengthened.  Today we know spring will return and our fear is more of how warm the world is becoming.

The last couple weeks haven’t felt too warm!  Chickens snuggle on the roosts, sharing body heat, and don’t lay eggs when it is so chilly.  The horses are wrapped in thick winter coats.  They stand in patient reverie awaiting the next feeding as icicles form on their long whiskers.  Angora rabbits are made for cold weather.  Six inches of angora fiber is just the thing to keep a bunny toasty.  The dogs delight in snow.  They would spend hours romping in it if we let them.  The cats pine for their outdoor cage, which must come down in the winter or be destroyed by snow.  They content themselves sitting in the windows and chattering at the multitude of wild birds flocking to the feeders.

The feral pheasant may still be around.  Last week he came into the barn twice to eat scratch grain I left out for him.  Then we got a brutal storm with snow, wind and cruel freezing rain overnight.  The pheasant has not been seen since.  The scratch grain was still disappearing so I figured the bird was coming in to eat.  Then I surprised four bold mourning doves who flew right into the barn to take the offerings.  I moved the scratch into the lower barn where I know the pheasant will look, but the doves won’t dare to venture.  Yesterday the pile of grain was depleted and I thought there were some larger bird footprints in the dust.  So, perhaps the pheasant still holds his own.  I’m rooting for him.

Now there is little for us to do but turn our heads from the wind as we trudge through winter chores, sit by the woodstove and let the heat work into the bones, finally read that book we’ve wanted to get to, catch up on inside work, nap.  And wait for spring.

Winter Has Arrived

Overnight we received the first measurable snow of the winter.  I’d guess it’s about 7″.  The stuff really came down for a few hours.  I especially like the way the heavy snowfall dampens the sound of traffic on the road running past the farm.  After a while, the highway empties and the road noise of any stray slow moving vehicle is muffled.  I can almost imagine we live in the country and not beside what has become, in my lifetime, a major thoroughfare.

This may look chilly, and the ground beneath is frozen, but the air temperature is nearing 32F.  With a ten-day high of 38F forecast for today, it looks like the snow may be here to stay.  Next week the weather prognosticators call for more snow.  Several days of snow.  Yesterday my husband and I worked from mid-morning till near dark to finish all the little chores that must be done before snow arrives.  We sat, smugly content, and watched the white pile up.  Now I look forward to a long winter’s rest disturbed only by a few barn chores, some snow plowing and the occasional jaunt outside for cold weather exercise.

Emerging Rocks

Periodically, rocks buried in the soil at our farm will come to the surface.  This is usually a very slow process aided by weather conditions.  It can take years, decades, or in the case of huge boulders, centuries for the rocks to be pushed out of the dirt.  After many years of mowing the fields and orchards, I have memorized the locations of all the rocks that jut from the surface enough to catch the mower blades.  Or, at least I thought I had.

In recent years new rocks have lifted their heads within just a few winters.  The piece of granite above is an example.  It measures about 3.5 ft x 2 ft and for most of my lifetime at the farm has been nearly submerged.  The stone is a piece from the cellar of a barn that stood on our property back in the 1800s.  Until recently I have been able to mow right over this chunk of granite.  Starting around four years ago, things changed.  I hit the thing with my mower blade.

Trying to mow a rock with a rotary mowing machine is not recommended.  I cringe whenever I hear that telltale ringing crunch of metal on stone.  Luckily, it is a rare occurrence since removing the mower blades for sharpening is a tedious, time-consuming task.  Yet, in the past few years I have caught several previously unknown rocks that have suddenly surfaced.  What is so quickly moving these buried chunks of mountaintop or ledge?  Most likely the power of ice.

Our weather here in central Maine has changed since I was young.  Even in the last ten years there have been noticeable shifts in patterns, something I’ve discussed in prior posts.  The current pattern involves much more rain in winter.  Storms that once would have been pounding Nor-easter blizzards now deluge us in rain.  The ground does not freeze as deeply as it once did so the water soaks in.  Since it is still Maine in winter, a heavy rainstorm in December is often followed by several days of below-zero F temperatures.  All that moisture runs down around and under the rocks in the ground and then freezes.

Freezing water expands with an irresistible power.  The ice crystals push the rocks higher and higher until they break the surface.  I believe the new warmth and excess rain are why rocks are appearing with such annoying regularity when I’m mowing.  And also why older rocks are rapidly working their way more completely from the earth.  As they pop to the surface, most of these stones can be loosened with the tractor bucket and moved out of the way.  The great chunk of granite above will require some effort with chains, pry bars and the tractor to get it out of the middle of a hayfield.  I’ll put that job on my To Do list.

Neanderthal Among Us

I’m a little bit Neanderthal

For Christmas my brother gave me a genetic test kit.  You send in a sample to a company and they determine your genetic heritage and health profile.  I carefully followed the directions and dutifully filled the sample tube with saliva.  It took me nearly five minutes to produce enough spit.  That was the most disagreeable part of the test.

Several weeks later the results were posted to my personal site online.  Most of the information was similar to my brother’s and, of course, 50% similar to my mother’s, both family members having completed earlier tests.

There were a couple surprises.  One is that there is no Native American DNA showing up on my father’s side.  The family lore holds that my dad was 1/64th Abanaki.  No such relationship was evident.  On the contrary, the only possible Native American blood came from my mother’s side, and it was merely a trace.  Most likely this DNA came into the family while my mother’s ancestors lived in the Ukraine during the middle of the 1800s.  Someone might have mated with a Russian of Siberian heritage.  My mother’s family is almost exclusively of German ancestry that moved to the Ukraine at the invitation of Catherine the Great, then onto the plains of America at the turn of the last century.  They were all farmers.

The most surprising revelation to me was the relatively high level of Neanderthal variation in my DNA.  The Neanderthals are often called a species of human that came out of Africa, moved into Europe and went extinct with the advance of modern humans.  Turns out that picture is not as clear as once supposed.  Neanderthal DNA seems to be turning up regularly in individuals of European descent.  My own DNA has 299 variants, greater than 81% of people who have been tested by this company.

Neanderthals can not have been a separate species from human or they would not have been able to interbreed and produce viable offspring.  Neanderthals were actual humans.  Research into their caves and burial sites is showing that these people were not the brutish, stupid cavemen once imagined.  They had sophisticated societies with weaponry and knowledge of animals and plants including medicinal plants.  They cared for their old and infirm.  When an individual died, the others provided a decent burial.  There is also evidence of cannibalism, so I guess not everyone was treated the same.  Perhaps they ate their enemies or their particularly venerated elders?

So DNA testing has shown that Neanderthals did not go extinct, they became us.  Many of us would not exist without their genes.  Somewhere in the dark and misty past, Neanderthals combined with what is considered modern humans to produce us; ultra-modern humans, I suppose.  Or perhaps we are merely glorified cavemen coping in the modern world we have constructed?

Debit Card Rip-Off

Photo: Ben Skirvin

Photo: Ben Skirvin Source

Yesterday morning someone stole one of our debit card numbers and tried to run up over $850 in charges on our PayPal account.  Imagine my surprise to find messages from PayPal in my email with all these charges!  Especially since I knew the charges weren’t mine.  The card they were made on was my husband’s, and he was at work, not running up charges online.

Here are all the charges as they show on our PayPal account.  Not sure why some appear more than once.  PayPal is often a mystery to me.

pp2

So after the shock wore off and I could think straight, I called our bank.  The PayPal account is backed up by our checking account.  Since the first transaction wiped out the $94 balance I had in PayPal, all the charges should have gone directly to our bank.  Yet none of the charges had come through, they weren’t even pending.  Immediately I severed the link between the bank and PayPal.

Then I called PayPal and very quickly was connected with a helpful and sympathetic customer service person who canceled the card and the transactions.  They restored my $94 balance.  Phew!  Disaster averted, we hope.

Now comes the interesting part.  It just happens that my husband, Tim, never uses his PayPal debit card.  It’s been resting comfortably in his wallet for months.  For Christmas someone gave us a cash gift through PayPal.  On Monday, Tim decided to use the card at the local gas station.  He bought gasoline at the pump and also went in the store to pay for diesel for our tractor.  It surely is a lovely gift to have someone buy fuel for us!  We were very grateful.

We realized that since this card has not been used anywhere else, it may be possible to find the thief!  I called the local police today.  The gas pump receipt even gives the number of the pump used.  The police officer suspects someone placed a skimmer on the pump to steal credit card information.  Generally, people use their credit cards all over and it is hard to figure out where a theft occurred.  Luckily, Tim didn’t use his card anywhere else and we can pinpoint the theft to the gas station.

The police officer checked the gas pump and talked to the store owner.  There was no skimmer evident today.  But the card information was swiped Monday and the thefts happened yesterday.  Plenty of time for the thief to remove the evidence.  Tim said he didn’t see anything unusual about the card reader when he paid at the pump.  You insert the card into the pump to pay, there is nothing sticking out.  I’m not sure how the skimmer would work.  Maybe it just has to be in the proximity?  Tim’s debit card is the old kind without a chip, so I’m not sure how this skimming could have happened.

Now the police are going to subpoena the Galls and WalMart transaction records to try and find the individual who ran the charges.  The thefts were likely made online.  How this scam could work, I don’t know.  If you make an online purchase, the merchandise is not shipped until the charges clear and the items have to be sent to an address.  If the transaction is canceled, the item never ships.  Perhaps the thief hopes the activity won’t be caught until after shipment.

Maybe the police will work with the merchants to send something and try to catch anyone who collects the shipment.  That would be great!  Then the thief will be reading a sign like the one at the top of this post.  “Go to Jail, go directly to Jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”

If only people spent their energy getting and holding jobs instead of finding ways to rip others off.  Then they would have legitimate money of their own to spend.