Early April

Early April

Sunshine, wind, rain, snow, thunder, and lightning – we’ve experienced it all in the last two weeks. April rolled in windy and wet and transformed the landscape from browns and yellows to vivid greens.

The uncertain beauty of an April day,

Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,

And by and by a cloud takes all away.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I.iii.85-87

The world seems to have transformed since the end of March and everywhere there are signs of quickening life. Leaves are rapidly forming on trees, perennials are racing up from the ground after their long winter slumber, the first dandelions of the year are nodding their yellow heads in cheerful hello, and forsythia are bursting into bloom.

Over the last couple of weeks, we raised five painted lady butterflies. We received a jar of five tiny caterpillars in the mail and watched them grow into five big, fat caterpillars. Then they climbed to the roof of their jar and formed chrysalises around themselves. About a week later, they emerged as butterflies! It was fascinating and such a great project for springtime.

We read a book from the Let’s Read and Find Out Series a couple of times as we watched the process enfold. It’s From Caterpillar to Butterfly by Deborah Heiligman.

Our chicks have continued their own transformation as well. They no longer look like the little balls of fluff we brought home from the farm store, but look more like miniature chickens these days. They are still living in our garage as they aren’t yet ready to handle the cold spring nights here, but we take them out to play outside sometimes in the afternoon.

My daughter (7) thought putting the chicks in the dump truck was about the funniest thing ever.

The weather has often been too stormy and wet to do much outdoor work, but in the windows of good weather my husband has been hard at work building the kids a treehouse. They are delighted. I think it’ll be a lot of fun for them. You can see a few stages of the process below.

On a cold and windy afternoon, I watched two hawks flying together. One hawk streaked ahead, the other followed close on its tail. They dove and rose together in perfect synchronicity before disappearing from my sight over the crest of a hill. It was one of those moments in nature during which I can forget everything else and become totally lost in the present moment.

I couldn’t help thinking of Helen MacDonald’s excellent book H is for Hawk. Overwhelmed with tremendous grief over the death of her father, MacDonald turns to the wild to find solace. Part of this turning to the wild involves her dedicating herself, seemingly entirely, to a wild creature – a young goshawk named Mabel, whom she raises and trains. It’s a powerful and captivating book and it forever changed the way I think about hawks.

There is a way in which an experience in nature can somehow lay bare a truth of the world, and MacDonald captures this experience so well in her writing.

“It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.”

― Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

I keep coming back to the memory of those two hawks as a kind of sigil of what is right and beautiful in the world when feelings of despair start to slink in.

This week we took a ‘spring break’ from our homeschool. This spring break is an at-home affair, but I simply felt we could all use a week to refresh and just enjoy ourselves at home a bit. I had grand plans for the things I would get done with the the extra time I imagined I would have this week not guiding the homeschool routine, but I have discovered (not for the first time) that somehow I am just as busy on the ‘days off’.

There is always so much to do around the house and yard, that I just find myself going from task to task while also helping the kids with the various projects and games they get up to. With children, seedlings, baby chicks, adult hens, a parrot, a garden, and butterflies(!) to care for, the day just fills itself up. It often doesn’t feel like any forward ‘progress’ is made in the way that I sometimes hope it will, but I think it is success under a different kind of metric.

“Invest in the millenium, Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.”

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry

On Monday, there were thunderstorms throughout the day, so we read Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco and then baked a thunder cake of our own. It’s a tradition that we do a few times a year and something I did with my mom when I was a kid, so it feels very special to me. Plus, it’s cake.

My youngest son has been taking a nature journaling class online for the last few months, and he has become a very committed nature journaler. Each week the class covers a different seasonal topic. I came across this little tableau he had set up for himself before this week’s class on robins. Robins have just recently returned to our location, so it was a great time for him to observe them.

That’s all for now. I have kombucha to bottle, seedlings to water, children to play with, and dinner to make. Until next time, wishing you a happy spring.


March: Grey skies, melting snow, mud, and sowing seeds

March: Grey skies, melting snow, mud, and sowing seeds

It’s early spring. The sky is blue and the sun is shining. I pull off my jacket and let the spring sun warm winter-paled skin. It’s a blissful feeling after a long winter. I let my eyes fall closed and enjoy the pinky-orange of sunlight shining through. The next moment clouds blow in, the wind picks up, and I’m bundling back up again. March is a mercurial month. It allows us glimpses of the warmer months to come, but winter still has its hooks in March, not quite ready to let go.

There’s melting snow – gone for the moment, though it may be back. There is mud, dark and sticky, singing its siren song to the children until they are enveloped in it, and I have yet more laundry to do. The landscape is all browns and yellows, but occasionally you can find a hint of greening if you look closely.

We now are hearing bird songs and calls we haven’t heard in many months. On a sunny morning, it’s a cacophony. Winter silence has its own stark beauty, but the singing of birds is such welcome sound when spring comes. The last two days I’ve heard the strange call of a whooping crane – like a spring winding up again and again. Jolly Robin Redbreast (American Robin) has returned from his summer holiday and fills the days with his cheerful songs and calls.

Yesterday, sitting outside with my son, a huge flock of Canada Geese flew overhead, at least one hundred geese, all honking to one another. They are migrating back north from their warmer winter homes. I couldn’t help but calling out to them, “Welcome back!”

We have been reading about orcas lately and after the geese had passed over us, my son pointed out that occasionally multiple orca pods come together and form ‘super pods’. Perhaps Canada Geese do the same when migrating? I was doing some research around this and found this short and beautiful video on Snow Goose migration you might enjoy:

In other signs of spring, we found our first flowers of the year this week. Tiny little crocuses breaking through the brown grass.

The increased evening daylight has been a joy. In the winter, it is dark here after dinner, so with rare exceptions we stay inside. Now, each night after dinner the kids are eager to run and play outside one more time before bedtime.

We head out into the twilight and the kids play while I drink in the beauty of the evening hours. The birds are singing, the still mostly dark figures of the trees are silhouetted by the setting sun. An owl hoots from the woods. I feel utterly calm outside at this time of day. Whatever was on my to-do list for the day is either finished or sloughed off until tomorrow. The quiet of an evening in nature is a balm on my soul. I let it seep into me and try to let all thoughts drift away.

We celebrated the spring or vernal equinox last weekend. I set up an outdoor egg hunt for the kids. We had a bonfire and made s’mores. If you are curious about what exactly an equinox actually is, I wrote a post covering the science of equinoxes here: The Vernal Equinox. This year, I read my kids a couple of books on the topic:

These are Sunshine Makes the Seasons by Franklyn M. Branley and The Reasons for Seasons by Gail Gibbons. Both books do a good job explaining how a combination of the Earth’s rotation around the sun and the tilt of its axis create the seasons. Sunshine Makes the Seasons includes instructions for an activity using an orange and flashlight that helps you visualize how the seasons work. We did a very similar activity a few months ago when we were studying astronomy, and found it fun and educational. The information in these two books wasn’t new to my kids, but reading short picture books like this is a good way to review their knowledge over the years, so they can (hopefully) grow up to be people with a strong scientific background and robust knowledge of the natural world.

One more book I picked out for the equinox is A Tree for All Seasons by Robin Bernard. This book follows a maple tree through a year of changes and features gorgeous photography from National Geographic. This one doesn’t go into the why of the seasons in anyway, but I just love it for its focus on the maple.

We have a number of large maple trees on our land, including the one photographed below whom we call ‘Mama Maple’. Mama Maple and her kin are very special to us, and this book is a fun way to learn more about how maples change throughout the year.

The snow is gone here for the moment, so it is time to get a start in the garden. We tilled a couple of the beds in preparation for planting and planted a few early spring crops – kale, spinach, snap peas, and onions. We’ve added lots of compost to these beds in the last year, so I’m looking forward to seeing how these crops fare in the coming months.

We also have lots of little plant babies started inside growing under lights – flowers, herbs, and veg. Our average last frost isn’t until the first week of May, so most of those have a while yet to continue growing indoors before they will be ready to transplant outside.

Our adult hens mostly continued laying eggs throughout the winter, but not very productively. Their productivity has definitely increased in the last few weeks and most of the flock is laying every day now. It’s quiche and egg custard season at our house!

We are also adding to the flock this year and have six two-week-old chicks busy cheeping away in our laundry room. They are incredibly cute. This is our third time raising chicks and I always find it to be a fun experience.

Excuse the strange lighting in this photo, the chicks hang out under a red heat lamp to stay warm.

I picked out a couple of books for the kids on the topic of raising chickens:

What I’m making…

I started a new knitting project this month. I’m making a sweater for my husband. The pattern is Fort by Jared Flood and I’m knitting it in Rowan Felted Tweed. Here’s a peek at the tiny beginning I’ve made on it.

It will probably take me a few months to complete.

Meanwhile, I’ve been brewing a fresh batch of kombucha. In previous years, I would always have a batch or two fermenting in the cabinet, but I fell out of the habit during a busy season of life, and failed to pick it back up until now. I have a dear friend who taught me how to make both kombucha and sourdough, and I think of her whenever making those things, which adds an extra charm to the endeavor. Here’s my big jar of kombucha besides some potted hyacinths. I always buy hyacinths for eldest son’s birthday, which falls at the end of March.

What I’m reading…

I’m just finishing the absolutely lovely book, Mudlark, by Lara Maiklem. This is a non-fiction book about the author’s hobby/fascination/obsession with mudlarking – that is searching in the mud at low tide for lost objects. While the mudlarks of the past (most often women and children) searched for coal and bits of metal that they could scratch out a meager income by selling, Maiklem and her fellow modern mudlarks hunt for historical artifacts.

Maiklem’s mudlarking is focused on the Thames River in London, which is a tidal river with high and low tides. She has found a wide and fascinating array of historical objects including clay pipes, Roman coins, fifteenth century thimbles, Tudor pottery, and medieval knives.

Throughout the book, Maiklem deftly weaves the history of London and the natural history of Thames through the story of these lost and found objects.

It’s a brilliant read and one I highly recommend for anyone with an interest in history or treasure hunting.

Another read I enjoyed this month was a magazine article from The Simple Things magazine about a mother-and-daughter team of willow weavers. The mother has passed her craft on to her daughter, and together they have built a business out of craft that was once essential, but has largely been forgotten in modern times. The women weave both practical objects like baskets, as well as artistic, sculptural projects. My favorite part of the article was discovering that they grow, cut, and dry their own willow for making their projects. You can check out their website here: https://www.willowwithroots.co.uk/

What I’m watching…

As a child in the 90s, I watched a program in school about a scientific expedition aboard a sailboat. While my memories of the actual content of the program were extremely vague, the general theme of the show had lingered in my brain and over the years I would occasionally think back on it.

A few months ago as I was planning an ocean unit for my kids, I thought back on it again and wondered if I could discover what the program was. Happily, it was easy to track down – it was The Voyage of Mimi! The Voyage of the Mimi is a thirteen episode educational program about a group of scientists and students conducting research on humpback whales aboard the sailing vessel, The Mimi.

The whole series is available on Youtube: The Voyage of the Mimi playlist

My kids and I have been working our way through the episodes this month and thoroughly enjoying them. I was even able to find a used copy of the original accompanying textbook used in schools in the 1980s, so we’ve been reading along with the episodes as well.

What I’m listening to…

Yesterday, I listened to an enchanting episode of the podcast of BBC Countryfile Magazine. It was Episode 95. A Delightful Morning on a Devon River with Wildlife Photographer Jim Brown.

The podcast follows wildlife photographer Jim Brown and storyteller Martin Maudsley as they walk along a river in Devon. The two discuss how the river has changed, how to be in nature, storytelling, animals of the river, wildlife photography, and their mentors.

I loved this quote from Mr. Brown on seeing wildlife, “It’s all about the peripheral vision. It’s things that happen on the outside edge of you. You get attuned to looking on your peripheral vision. It’s not straight ahead.”

Here’s a link to Mr. Brown’s photography website if you would like to see his wonderful photographs: James Brown Photography

It is well worth a listen and was a wonderful hour long escape to the English countryside.

In closing…

Back on this side of the Atlantic, the rain is pouring down outside. The kids are beginning to stir from their beds, so there is breakfast to be made and chores to be done before the day leads us onwards, so I will leave you here for now. Wishing you a happy equinox time, whether that means the coming of spring or the coming of autumn where you are. I hope to see you here again soon.

Baldur and the Golden Bough

Baldur and the Golden Bough

Amongst all the gods, Baldur was the most beloved. Son of Odin and Frigg, Baldur was brave, gentle, and handsome. He was the god of light and truth. But noble Baldur began to have troubled dreams. Every night he dreamt of his own death.

Baldur’s mother Frigg, who loved intensely her beautiful son, became very much alarmed. She made a list of all the things that could possibly hurt her darling Baldur, and then set out to secure oaths from all on her list that they would never harm her dearest son.

To the dwarvish deeps she went, and begged favour of the dwarves:
“Let not stone or steel, nor metal forged dare harm sweet Baldur’s hide!”
The dwarves looked deep into the secret earth, at the ropes and rivers of gold, the sparkling diamonds promising the wonders
of the night sky, and the thousand secret riches that Baldur had woven into the iron deeps when the world was new forged
and so they swore. To the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, the whales and fishes of the deep did she go and beg safety
for bright Baldur, and as each would look to the beauty Baldur had woven into their world, they would promise his protection.
From Yggdrasil and all lesser trees did Frigga then beg favour, and one by one they all swore Baldur’s weal for the beauty
he had given them.

-John T. Mainer, The Story of Mistletoe

Yet, Frigg had forgotten one. Small, young mistletoe had been overlooked, for he was not a true tree at all, but rather a mere appendage, a hanger-on, a parasite of the tree. And thus, he was forgotten.

Now nothing in all the worlds (with the exception of mistletoe) could harm Baldur, and Baldur’s friends made a great game of trying to hurt him with different objects. They would shoot arrows at him, thrust spears towards his heart, throw rocks at him, even let ferocious bears loose in his bedroom whilst he slept. But, since all had pledged to not harm brave Baldur, Baldur was always fine, and Baldur’s good nature allowed him to simply laugh at the antics of his friends.

Baldur’s friends being jerks. By Elmer Boyd Smith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Yet, there was another god named Loki, a trickster. Loki liked to stir-up trouble. He felt envious of beloved Baldur and set about trying to find a way to surprise him. Loki travelled the worlds looking for something that had not pledged Frigg’s oath and so might still harm Baldur.

One day, Loki climbed up high in an oak tree to survey the countryside for some thing or beast that Frigg had overlooked. It was up high in the tree that Loki found mistletoe and learned that mistletoe had not taken Frigg’s oath. So, Loki carefully bound together the many small branches of mistletoe and sharpened them into a single point.

This spear of mistletoe Loki brought to Odin’s court. There he found the young men of the court engaged in their now favorite game of throwing projectiles at the apparently immortal Baldur.

Loki approached Baldur’s blind brother, Hodr, who sat alone with his wine. “You must feel left out,” Loki said, “I will help you join in their game. Take this spear, and I will guide your hand in the direction of your brother, as you throw the spear.”

Loki put the spear in Hodr’s hand, helped him aim, and Hodr threw the spear at happy Baldur. The spear sailed through the air, and pierced unsuspecting Baldur through the heart. Unfortunate Baldur fell down dead.

All were now in grief of Baldur’s death, but none was as sorrowful as Frigg. Frigg went then to mistletoe and demanded retribution.

“Where Yuletide brings the pain of loss will Mistletoe bring love, beneath my humble leaves
let love be now kindled. What fairer grave goods for the sun bright lord than the promise
of love new kindled? When two now meet beneath my leaves, let loves kiss light between them.
Let the light of love remember him that the world weeps for this season.”

-John T. Mainer,  The Story of Mistletoe

And for all the centuries since the death of fair Baldur, we bring mistletoe into our homes each Yuletide, and kiss under it, so that loves blooms in the new year rather than destruction, and in memory of the god who loved light and truth, Baldur.

Odin at his son’s funeral. By W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This story is adapted from similar ones that are part of Norse mythology. The quoted lines are from a beautiful poem by John T Mainer found here, where you can also here the author read his poem.

Mistletoe has long been recognized as a medicinal herb, back as far or even farther than the ancient Greeks. Mistletoe was used to treat epilepsy, internal hemorrhage, menstrual cramps, and urinary disorders, along with other afflictions.

Mistletoe’s symbolic, romantic, and seasonal character in England began with the Druids. The Druids saw evergreen mistletoe as a sign of the continuance of life (and fecundity) in the darkest part of the year. Near the solstice, when the signs were right, Druids would gather mistletoe. They would bring it into their homes, and also use it as a potency aid for both beast and human alike. The practice of bringing mistletoe into the home at the time of the winter solstice, and its use as fertility aid is clearly connected to the modern day practice of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas.

Mistletoe, green and vigorous even in the heart of winter. Elie plus at en.wikipedia via wikimedia commons

Mistletoe grew to became an essential part of the Christmas season in England, being especially popular in Victorian England. The tradition is that a girl who stands under the mistletoe is fair game for kissing, and if she refuses, she will have bad luck the following year. Some also include the practice of picking one mistletoe berry for each kiss taken, and when the plant is bare, no more kissing! Dickens captured a fevered scene of Victorian bacchanal under the mistletoe as young women, “screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and did everything but leave the room, until … they all at once found it useless to resist any longer and submitted to be kissed with a good grace.” (Dickens, Pickwick Papers)

Consent much, Dickens?

Kissing under the mistletoe. The Mistletoe – A Christmas Tale, in the collection of the British Museum.

Personally, as an American, I actually don’t have any first hand experience with mistletoe. It is more a part of Christmas lore than a Christmas reality here and now, or maybe I’m just going to the wrong parties. Yet, it is still an essential element in films here, from Harry Potter to While You Were Sleeping, as well as Christmas music, from Bieber to I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, and I understand it to be more in fashion in the U.K. still.

We’ve gone from Baldur to Bieber, and while I recommend Baldur over Bieber, I also recommend some consensual snogging under the mistletoe as opposed to stabbing someone through the heart with it.

Joyful Yuletide, ya’ll!

P.S. Enjoy this nice Longfellow poem about the death of Baldur, if you so desire:

Tegnér’s Drapa

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.

I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.

And the voice forever cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And died away
Through the dreary night,
In accents of despair.

Balder the Beautiful,
God of the summer sun,
Fairest of all the Gods!
Light from his forehead beamed,
Runes were upon his tongue,
As on the warrior’s sword.

All things in earth and air
Bound were by magic spell
Never to do him harm;
Even the plants and stones;
All save the mistletoe,
The sacred mistletoe!

Hoeder, the blind old God,
Whose feet are shod with silence,
Pierced through that gentle breast
With his sharp spear, by fraud
Made of the mistletoe,
The accursed mistletoe!

They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
Odin placed
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.

They launched the burning ship!
It floated far away
Over the misty sea,
Till like the sun it seemed,
Sinking beneath the waves.
Balder returned no more!

So perish the old Gods!
But out of the sea of Time
Rises a new land of song,
Fairer than the old.
Over its meadows green
Walk the young bards and sing.

Build it again,
O ye bards,
Fairer than before!
Ye fathers of the new race,
Feed upon morning dew,
Sing the new Song of Love!

The law of force is dead!
The law of love prevails!
Thor, the thunderer,
Shall rule the earth no more,
No more, with threats,
Challenge the meek Christ.

Sing no more,
O ye bards of the North,
Of Vikings and of Jarls!
Of the days of Eld
Preserve the freedom only,
Not the deeds of blood!

The Dog Days of Summer

The Dog Days of Summer

We are clearly in the dog days of summer now. Sunny hot day follows sunny hot day, interrupted by only the occasional late evening thunderstorm. The dog days of summer get their name from the ancient Romans, and before them, the Greeks. No, they are not called the dog days because they ‘aren’t fit for a dog’. They are called the dog days because the hottest part of the summer coincides with the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, also known as the dog star.

That's Sirius on the bottom right - just above the horizon. Sirius is the brightest start in the sky. Photo by Luis Argerich via Flickr.
That’s Sirius on the bottom right – just above the horizon. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. Photo by Luis Argerich via Flickr.

“Heliacal rising?” you ask. Heliacal rising means that a star (Sirius, in this case) rises just before the sunrise, early enough to be visible. Before the date of a star’s heliacal rising, it rises too late in the morning to be visible to the human eye, it’s light is blocked out by the much brighter light of our sun.

The ancients watched the stars closely. They paid attention to heliacal risings and other astronomical conjunctions. In his book, How We See the Sky, astronomer Thomas Hockey writes, “Imagine watching morning after morning for a favorite bright star. Then, one special morning, you can see it-but only for an instant because soon thereafter, as the sun gets higher in the sky, twilight gives way to daylight and the star (like all stars in daytime) disappears from view. You have witnessed the heliacal rising of a star.”

The ancients not only noticed sky events like heliacal risings, they attempted to draw connections between astronomical and Earthly happenings. As a Mediterranean agricultural people, the Romans saw the supposed effects of Sirius’s heliacal rise to be quite negative. Drought, extreme heat, wilted crops, plagues, and madness were attributed to Sirius’s evil influence.

Here in Minnesota, the dog days of summer are much more tolerable. Drought is rare. The temperature seldom breaks the 100 degree Fahrenheit mark (only about 20 percent of summers in Minnesota see a 100 degree plus day). Summer flowers are in bloom-finally breaking up the mostly green curtain of late spring and early summer.  Bees and butterflies abound in our pollinator garden.

Summer flowers in full bloom.
Summer flowers in full bloom.

Junior botanist
Junior botanist

Rather than straight up heat, we experience occasional high humidity here during the dog days, which can make even relatively mild temperatures quite uncomfortable. Meteorologists refer to the combined effects of heat and humidity as the heat index. Temps in the 90s combined with high humidity produce heat indexes of well over 100 degrees. In 2011, an excessively humid day in Minnesota led to a record setting heat index of 134 degrees in Moorhead, MN. Strange as it might sound, Moorhead was actually the hottest place in the U.S. that day.

Kicking back poolside.
Kicking back poolside.

Digging some sand.
Digging some sand.

But, for the most part, the dog days of summer in Minnesota are mild, sunny, and beautiful. People from all over the Midwest head to Minnesota to spend their vacations at our many lakes.

2015-07-20 10.23.53

2015-07-20 09.24.40

2015-07-10 12.57.15

At our house, we are enjoying the long, lazy, unscheduled dog days of summer. Daily morning walks, bike rides, eating fresh produce from our garden, splashing about in the kiddie pool, and digging in the sandbox. Summer is short in Minnesota and I try to forget the haste with which brisk autumn winds follow the dog days here. Instead, I focus on absorbing all the sunshine and simplicity that these warm days have to offer.

Feature image of the dog in the pool by Matt Deavenport via Flickr

The Full Buck Moon

The Full Buck Moon

This year, July is ushered in by a full moon. July’s full moon has a number of different names attached to it by the indigenous tribes of North America. American Indian moon names are typically descriptive of seasonal happenings that occur around the time of the full moon. So, the July full moon was known by some tribes as the Buck Moon, because in July male deer (bucks) began to regrow their antlers. The family and I actually spotted a couple of deer today while out walking in the woods, though they scampered back into the brush before I had a chance to see whether they had any small, velvetty antlers emerging from their noggins.

Look at this cutie.  Photo by Larry Smith via Flickr.
Look at this cutie.
Photo by Larry Smith via Flickr.

Another name attached to the July full moon is the Thunder Moon, as frequent thunderstorms appear at this time of year. Here in southern Minnesota, we receive on average 40 or more thunderstorms each year, many of them in July. While most tornadoes occur earlier in the spring here, July can bring thunderstorms which carry the risks of flash flooding and damage from straight line winds. For example, on July 23, 1987 Minneapolis received a whopping 9.15 inches of rain in just six hours, setting a state record for one-day precipitation. This followed another storm just 72 hours earlier that dropped 4 to 9 inches over the same area. This deluge caused massive flash flooding throughout the region. In Minnesota Weather Almanac, meteorologist Mark Seeley writes, “Roads became rivers; storm sewers spouted like geysers. All Twin Cities watersheds flooded.” Thunder Moon seems apt.

Another name I saw commonly listed as a July moon name is “Hay Moon”. July is the month in which hay is ready for harvest – to be cut, dried, and stacked. I can’t think of this process without recalling Tolstoy’s Constantine Dmitrich Levin at work in the hayfields beside his serfs:

“He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.”

Harvesting Hay Camille Pissarro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harvesting Hay
Camille Pissarro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One element of the name “Hay Moon” gives me pause, however. While many American Indian tribes were productive agriculturists, hay is not a crop that I associate with them. Hay is grown is used as fodder for livestock, which American Indians didn’t keep. I’m thinking this moon name must have either arrived with European agricultural techniques or, perhaps, was a name never used by American Indians at all.

In Minnesota, we have very short summers. The old joke goes, “Sometimes summertime in Minnesota falls on July Fourth, and sometimes it comes on another day.” The beginning of June is often still chilly, and the last week of August may bring harbingers of fall. But, July! It’s really summertime! If you are an American schoolkid, last school year was a distant memory and the next isn’t even on your horizon yet. When recalling the Julys of my childhood, I think of fireworks, running through sprinklers, popsicles, cook-outs, swimming in lakes, and camping. Classic Midwestern American summer. I think I’d call July the ‘Water Moon’, because of all the lazy summer days spent in lakes and pools.

My kiddo enjoying the season of the Water Moon at the local creek.
My kiddo enjoying the season of the Water Moon at the local creek.

I’ll end with a surprise twist…July 2015 actually has two full moons. That’s right. One tonight on the first, and a second on the 31st. The second one goes by another name…a blue moon. I’ll write about that later this month!

So, how are you spending your July? Scything any hay? What name would you give to the July full moon based on your location and lifestyle?

The Shepherd’s Pipe

Shepherd's Piping by Elihu Vedder via Flickr
Shepherd’s Piping by Elihu Vedder via Flickr

Recently, I’ve been reading about English folk music, specifically about the shepherd’s pipe. The shepherd’s pipe is a simple wooden flute with no reed, typically with 6 holes. These would be similar to the recorders and tin whistles that some of you may have learned to play in school.

Amazingly, humans have been playing this type of flute since the late Pleistocene(!). The Divje Babe Flute, made from the femur of the now extinct cave bear, was discovered in a cave in Slovenia in the 1990s. This flute is about 43,000 years old and was most likely carved and played by Neanderthals. That is awesome.

“Flûte paléolithique (musée national de Slovénie, Ljubljana) (9420310527)” by dalbera from Paris, France

Returning to our own epoch (the Holocene, for those keeping score), English shepherds carved their own flutes by hand, for the most part, but typically from wood rather than cave bear femurs. The music of the flute served both functional and recreational purposes. It was functionally used to call the flock, drive off wild animals, and to communicate with other shepherds. And it also served as a method of entertainment on long days out with a flock.

In her informative book on medieval English folk ways, Lost Country Life, Dorothy Hartley writes, “Here we try to imagine the music of the landworker when he herded his beasts on the common, or worked in penfold or field. With long hours, often working alone, he would have plenty of time to practise, and he would hear and incorporate the sounds around him.”

These are the pastoral sounds truly lost in the modern day.

In A History of European Folklore, Jan Ling writes, “The grazing fields, the mountains, and the forests used to be an exciting soundscape of calls, music, barking, mooing, and bleating.”

This is a soundscape that is for the most part extinct. Now, even in our state parks, I hear the sound of the freeway and jets overhead.

One thing that strikes me about the shepherd’s flute is the way it celebrates a different pace of life. A time when people weren’t always busy, weren’t always concerned about turning every moment into an opportunity for productivity. I think of the shepherd in his field, whittling his pipe by hand, and then slowly, day by day, learning to play. But, with no urgency. There is no try-out or rehearsal waiting for him. He is learning to play for the simple pleasure of it (oh, and to keep the wild animals away, apparently).

I’m no luddite. I looove my phone, kind of to the point of embarrassment. But, that said, it has changed things. Just like the soundscape of calls, music, and mooing has been replaced by the freeway and jet traffic, the boredom and slowness that compelled that Neanderthal and that shepherd to craft a flute and play it has been replaced by a life of bustling, industriousness – where we are perpetually a click away from more entertainment and more distraction.

And I wonder, do we need that quiet place of boredom? Is that where creativity is born? Is that where character is built? Is it what children need to grow and adults need to heal? Who would bother to turn a cave bear femur into an instrument when Madmen is on Netflix?

Until next time, here is a professor of biology playing a replica of that cave bear pipe:

Ode to Your Zip Code

Ode to Your Zip Code

What would you say about your zip code? Miami public radio station WRLN recently launched a project where they asked listeners to “memorialize your federally-appointed numerical designation by writing an ode to your ZIP code”. So, you take the digits of your zip code and each number corresponds to a line. The number for that line then determines how many syllables go into that line. So zip 33140 would go:

3 syllables

3 syllables

1 syllable

4 syllables

0 syllables

You get it…

Anyway, I found the project pretty fun, so I thought I would give it a try myself. Here are a few attempts for my zip 55406, in Minneapolis, MN:

Trees in abundance

Plenty of lakes too

Nice to live here

Continue reading “Ode to Your Zip Code”



There’s something about coming back to the same place. The way that you can really get to know it
in a deeper way. When you’ve seen the same place at different times of day, at different times of the year, in different moods.

There are some elements of a place that stay the same – the structure you might call it. But, there are countless changes on the surface of that immutable structure that only a frequent visitor might notice.

When we come to a place repeatedly with our senses open – to listen, and smell, and see that place – we began to know it in a profound way. We internalize it, begin to carry it with us.

One place that I’m fortunate to be able to visit often enough to know deeply like this is beautiful Minnehaha Falls. It is amazing to experience the seasonal changes at the falls, from the roar of late spring waters to the frozen falls of winter. Today at the falls the ice has almost fully melted, brown vegetation slowly, slowly turning green abounds on the banks and the water is falling almost gently down the drop.

2014-06-19 13.07.18 Last June at the falls after a rainstorm
2015-04-14 09.21.05 Today, April 15
by Jenna via Flickr by Jenna via Flickr

Late Season Snowfall in Minnesota

photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr
photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr

A week ago today, the landscape in southern Minnesota was snowless. Our lawn was bare – covered only with brown grass (which I convinced myself was most definitely turning green by the hour) and the desiccated leaves of last autumn. I imagined myself getting to work in the garden, planting hardy seeds of kale and spinach. I threw the kids’ snowsuits down the stairs to wash and dry them to put in storage for next fall. As retribution for such thoughts and actions, we received 3.6 inches of snow on Sunday night and more is coming down even as I type. After nearly 30 years here, you’d think I would know better. In Minnesota, you must keep your dreams of spring in check until at least April, possibly May.

In the Twin Cities, the average snowfall for March is 10.2 inches, beating out all months besides December and January. In March of 1951, the Twin Cities received a whopping 40 inches of snow. (Tangent: They shoveled this by hand. No ‘snowblowing’. Although snow throwing machines were invented as early as the 1880s for clearing train tracks, the domestic use ‘walk behind’ machines were only just coming on the market in the early 1950s.) Calling March ‘spring’ here might be tempting fate. March is a month of extreme variability in Minnesota with a record high of 88°F and a record low of -50°F. That’s a 138 degree spread!

I’ve been reading meteorologist Mark Seeley’s informative Minnesota Weather Almanac this week. In this book, Seeley details Minnesota’s worst and most remarkable winter storms. I was surprised how many of them occurred in March. My surprise is probably due to my annual (and naive) belief that winter is over in March – a belief which is perpetually crushed. Do I learn? Of course not, I’m an optimist; we never do.

A few notable late season snow storms:

March 19-20, 1826: Like 1951, March of 1826 brought about 40 inches of snow, including 18 inches on these two days causing snowdrifts of 6 to 15 feet. This snowfall was followed by a further 8 inches in early April. Subsequently, a blast of cold air (4°F on April 10th) arrived further delaying the breakup of ice on the rivers. This sequence of events led to massive flooding carrying away low lying buildings at Fort Snelling and Fort Crawford as well as Chief Little Crow’s village at the site of modern day South Saint Paul. The river ultimately crested at 20 feet above low water.

April 5, 1933: A heavy snowfall struck the north shore, dumping 28 inches of snow in Cook County, a still standing record for 24 hour snowfall in April.

March 15-16, 1941: A blizzard hits western Minnesota. 85 mph winds were reported at Grand Forks and 75 mph winds were reported at Fargo-Moorhead. The wind chill bottomed out at -35°F. Although snowfall from this storm was light, a number of people died from exposure due to the extreme winds and temperatures. Before this storm, Minnesota only had observational weather services, but upset over the lack of warning and the resulting fatalities resulted in forecasting services being added by the National Weather Services.

May 2-3. 1954: Yes, you read that correctly, MAY. A huge storm moves across northern Minnesota. Dropping as much as 10-12 inches of snow across much of the northern half of the state. I would be pissed.

March 14-15, 2002: A storm of mixed precipitation, thunder, and lightning, brought 10-21 inches of snow.

March and April snowfalls aren’t the outliers I’d like the believe they are. They are, in fact, the norm. And while they are often minor interludes between luxuriously (to Minnesotans) sunny days in the mid-40s, they can also be severe, even dangerous. Huge winter storms can even arrive in May (as they did in 1954), but it’s uncommon.

Well, at least we have June, July, and August, because it sometimes snows in September too.

The Vernal Equinox

Equinoxes occur twice a year, once in the spring (the vernal equinox) and once in the fall (the autumnal equinox). On the equinox, the number of hours of day and night are equal over the entire Earth. So, on the equinox northerly Barrow, Alaska (71°N), equatorial Bogota, Colombia (4°N), and Dunedin, New Zealand (45°S) all receive about 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. If we flash back to the most recent solstice (December 21, 2014), we can see how different these times were. On the last winter solstice, Barrow received zero hours (or seconds!) of daylight. Poor Barrow. Bogota received 11 hours and 51 minutes of daylight (daylength varies little throughout the year near the equator). And Dunedin received a pleasant 15 hours and 44 minutes of daylight – the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice being the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. So, while there was a great deal of variation between these locales on the solstice (nearly 16 hours from north to south), they all receive about the same amount of daylight on the equinox. 

 The vernal equinox is considered the first day of spring. While first signs of spring may vary based on your locale, this designation makes sense astronomically. The Earth doesn’t orbit the sun in a straight up and down alignment; it is tilted on its axis – this is why we have seasons. From a northern hemisphere perspective, during our winter the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. During our summer, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. On the equinox, the celestial equator (the Earth’s equator projected out in space) passes through the center of sun. Which means, that neither the South nor North Pole are tilted away from the sun, so all parts of the Earth receive the same amount of sunlight. So, the moment before the equinox, the northern hemisphere is still (just barely) tilted away from the sun. The moment after the equinox, the northern hemisphere is now (just barely) tilted toward the sun. Thus, astronomically, the seasons have changed. The equinox marks the beginning of spring and spring will continue until the summer solstice (June 20-21). On the summer solstice, the northern hemisphere is tilted the most toward the sun it will get, so we receive the most amount of sunlight on that day. After the summer solstice, the northern hemisphere is starting to tilt away from the sun little by little until we reach the next equinox, and then the winter solstice, when we will start to tilt back toward the sun again.

If you are having trouble wrapping your mind around this, I found this video extremely helpful. I posted it here before. It really makes the whole concept much clearer to me. 



 As with the solstices, cultures throughout the world have celebrated the equinoxes for millennia. The Mayans built El Castillo at Chichen Itza around 900 A.D., where on the equinoxes, observers can see a huge shadow depicting the body of a wriggling serpent rise up along the stone wall. 



 A simple equinox celebration:

In much of the world, the new year is celebrated close to the winter solstice. This new beginning is often celebrated by making resolutions. People are filled with intentions of turning over a new leaf and beginning again. To me, this seems out-of-sync with the world around us, however. While sun is gradually returning to the land, we don’t see fresh starts or literal ‘new leaves’ around us (especially in places with cold winters). At the vernal equinox, however, the world is full of new beginnings. The snow is melting, buds may be forming, daffodils and tulips popping up through warming soil, and if not yet – they will be soon. I think this is a more appropriate time to think about starting fresh and new, leaving behind the old and opening yourself to the new.

Consider what has been holding you back or what has been keeping you down. What narrative have you carried with you through the winter that you are ready to let go of? Write it down on a piece of paper and take it outside to burn (safely) on your patio, in your firepit. Let it go; you don’t need to carry it with you any longer. Make room for fresh, new growth.