Archive for March, 2015

Out Loud

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Sometimes when I’m all alone, I talk, right out loud. I did it tonight, and didn’t even have my dog along. When your dog is with you, you can claim you were talking to him. He always looks interested and appreciative of the attention, but we all know that it is just sound vibrations coming from a friendly human and not communication.

Franco is almost always with me when I’m outside, but not today. He’d hurt a foot and so I did my sap gather after supper without him. I got the first run of sap today that I’ve gotten in a week. It was a very cold week indeed, never getting above freezing during the day, so the trees rested. I waited until after supper to gather because I knew the first day they wake up they usually don’t give much and I wanted to maximize my collection by giving them the whole day to run.

I was travelling the well worn snow trails with tree sap sloshing in the bottom of my 5 gallon plastic pails. I’d stopped to rest for a minute with my ungloved hand on a tree. I was just getting ready to resume gathering when I stood there and looked out over my little maple orchard. It was twilight at the end of a sunny spring day. I said out loud, “It’s like a dream.” You see, as long as I can remember, I’ve liked trees. I like to feel their texture against my hands. I like to “touch toes” with trees when my feet are bare. I like to look up at them especially when it is windy, and marvel at how they can so effectively disperse the tremendous energy the wind is causing.

Almost equally as long, I’ve wanted to have my own little grove of maple trees to care for, and to spend some time each spring out among them making maple syrup. I’m so thankful my life has allowed me this luxury. There are a lot of things a human can spend his time doing, and for about a month each year, this human gets to do his thing. Like a dream come true

9 Meals

Friday, March 27th, 2015

It has been said that civilization is nine meals from anarchy. I was thinking these thoughts as I was walking into the cold entryway of our house looking for some kindling wood to start a fire in the kitchen stove. Since we heat with wood, I make this trip frequently, since this is the place I store all the stove-ready wood.

I’ve left the lovely garden stakes my artistic neighbor left for me on the table in this entryway, partly because I like looking at them, and partly because I haven’t figured out exactly what I want to do with them. So there they are, like an exhibit in a museum.

When I’m hunting for wood for the fire, I’m usually in the mindset to get this project over with as quickly as possible, so my eye falls first on the easiest materials. Yes you guessed it… on more than one occasion, I’ve thought to myself, “Those stakes would make awesome kindling.” Shame on me.

Fighting Ice

Friday, March 27th, 2015

My vast research for this article (reading a significant portion of the first page that came up in a Google ™ search) suggests that Thomas Jefferson was a great supporter of America becoming sugar independent by producing our own from maple trees. Maple proponents suggested that maple sugar was more easily made than cane sugar, which was out of favor among abolitionists because it was made in the British Caribbean with slave labor. Mr. Jefferson was so convinced that American farms should have a sugar orchard in addition to their apple orchards, that he ordered 60 saplings for his farm at Monticello. They all died. Not one to give up easily, he tried again twice more, with similar results. Poor Thomas.

What was not commonly known then is that maple trees, in order to produce the lovely sap that boils down to sugar, need below freezing nights and above freezing days. The farm at Monticello didn’t have enough freezing nights. He died a broken man (I made that part up, but I can imagine the frustration he must have felt, and it makes a better story.)

ice2Here in the northwestern UP of Michigan, the below freezing nights are seldom a problem. Having some above freezing days is the challenge. We’ve had a couple of pretty good weeks of sap run until recently, when the weather turned very cold. A bucket of sap I’d saved for the next day’s boiling turned to ice, such that, even after quite a bit of effort, there was still a solid cylinder of ice that needed to melt before it could be boiled.

ice1In order to collect the sap that had accumulated in the buckets, I had to turn the them upside down, and pound on the bottom with my mittened fist until the frozen sap water “thunked” down into my gathering pail. I did this until my right hand was too sore to continue. I then walked out and took the rest of the buckets off the trees (I didn’t lose any sap because no sap was running due to the cold) and inverted them, one-by-one, on the evaporator over the hot steam until the ice plug discharged into the pan. That is how I finished gathering.

Last night the temperature dropped into the single digits, and today is not supposed to get above freezing, so it appears we’re getting a well deserved day off today. I’ll always think about Thomas Jefferson’s claim that enough sugar for a family can be “easily made.” Clearly Thomas never had to fight ice to get the sugar he needed for his coffee.

Clean Feet

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

I’ve had this thing growing on the bottom of my foot for some years now. In keeping with my doctor’s orders, I’ve applied Compound W ™ to it religiously each night. As I put that little drop on my foot, I could imagine all the little wart colonies saying, “Oh no! Cough Cough! I’m dying! Another day or two of this and I’m done for!” That is until I shut off the light and go to sleep. Then they stop pretending and thank their lucky stars for the manna from heaven. Yes, I think this thing on my foot likes its daily drop of acid. I have come to believe I’m serving them a banana split each night before we go to bed.

So tomorrow I’m going to the doctor to explain to him that despite my best efforts, this little spot on the bottom of my foot is not going away unless it get sliced out. The doc explained this to me before and suggested we try all other alternatives before we do this, because the location on my foot means the surgery will make me pretty sore for a long time until it heals.

This evening I sat in the bathtub to clean up prior to my appointment. This is important, because anything involving examination of my feet requires some pretty persistent prior scrubbing, since I seldom wear shoes. As I sat in the tub, I noticed my feet were already clean, and it dawned on me… this is the winter time, when my feet are in jail 24/7. They are clean because they have no opportunity to get dirty. A shame if ever there was one.

Some of these warm spring days have made my toes nostalgic for the sunshine, but there is still so much snow on the ground that they’ll just have to wait. The best days are coming, when my sock drawer stays full not because laundry is being regularly done, but because no cloth touches my feet.

Neighborhood Art

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Early each year in the gardening season, I’m called upon to make wooden stakes. These mark the ends of the rows, and have space for Sharpie ™ writing on them. I make them by taking a scrap of wood, cutting 45s in one end of the scrap to make the point. Then I slice the wood about 3/8″ thick on the table saw to make the stakes. It takes me a few minutes to get this done, and at the end, I have serviceable stakes. They are not art.

stakesWhen my neighbor works with wood, it seems to always come out art. When Alice and I returned from a walk a few days ago, these two lovely bundles of stakes were sitting on the table in our entryway. I had no idea they were coming, and I was struck with not only the beauty of these stakes, but with the way they were tied together, and even how they were laid out on the table. My neighbor just instinctively arranges things so they are pleasing. I don’t think he knows any other way to do it.

I spoke with him this afternoon, and he explained that these stakes came from leftover wood from a project he and I did together a couple of summers ago, when we built a chair.

I am intrigued by the different way we humans think. Some of us lean toward the practical, get-‘er-done, while others of us can’t conceive of doing a project unless it is beautiful. Both types are needed, and I suspect each type is puzzled by the behavior of the other. It’s kind of like the experience you get in a museum. Some practical type needs to design and build the walls to hold up the roof to keep the rain out, while others conceive the art that is collected and displayed inside.

Humans are a tapestry of capabilities, and we are at our best when each of us finds the fire that burns in our soul, and feeds that fire to contribute a necessary piece of the puzzle of life.

Fog Watcher

Friday, March 20th, 2015

I have been a fan of the work of Ernest Thompson Seton as long as I can remember. My first discovery of his writing was as a child in my grandmother’s house on a bookshelf in her back bedroom. The book was called, “Two Little Savages,” and after reading it, I was hooked. Besides being a gifted writer, painter, and lecturer, Mr. Seton was a great admirer of the Native Americans, whose culture was sadly declining when he was alive in the early 20th century. In one of his most famous books, “The book of Woodcraft,” he said, “When men sit together at the campfire they seem to shed all modern form and poise, and hark back to the primitive — to meet as man and man — to show the naked soul.” Mr. Seton was a great believer of the magic of the campfire.

steamWe maple sap boilers have a similar contemplative bent… we are fog watchers. In the 5 or 6 years I’ve been doing the maple syrup thing, I’ve been surprised by how active I have to stay when I am boiling by myself. It seems like there is always something to check as the sap cooks down to that delicious syrup. There are moments, though, when for a few minutes, I can sit and stare into the fog. There is something mesmerizing about it, similar to the campfire that Mr. Seton so dearly loved. Unlike the campfire, fog watching seems to be more of a solitary pastime. You don’t often hear someone saying to their friends, “hey, let’s go down to the beach and watch the fog for a while.”

In the right circumstances, the sunlight can play with the fog in interesting ways. My boiling shack is sided with aluminum sheets that were once the roofing of my neighbor’s barn. The sun can hit the holes in the siding and make darts of light through the fog. It is really quite beautiful. Sometimes I’ll go outside and watch fog erupting from both gable ends of the little building, and also from under the eaves. For about a month every year, I’m in a fog.

Maple 2015

Friday, March 13th, 2015

mapleThe winter of 2014/15 seems to be the winter of defined edges. The snow came in early November as it often does, but this time it didn’t melt. Then around the first week of March, pretty early for up here, the days got much warmer, and it was suddenly time to tap the trees. I felt it was too early, but the most of the trees disagreed with me. It took me 3 days to get the tapping done this year, because of the extreme cement shoe snow conditions.

Today was my first gather, and I’d say 3/4 of the trees had some sap in their buckets. I gathered about 15 gallons of sap, which meant I was able to start the evaporator today. There is something magic about that first fire. I usually run outside and watch the first smoke come out the chimney (where else did you expect it to come out?) When the steam starts rising from the evaporator pan, and it starts making its simmering-sound, I get goosebumps. The maple season has arrived!

This year the only equipment I’ve had to replace so far was the cap on the chimney. The snow had squashed the old one, so I ordered a new one on Amazon Prime. I like this one better because it has a bird guard on it. The poor birds that unfortunately get stuck in the chimney have no means of escape, so it is a good thing to guard the chimney entrance with a bit of wire mesh.

If I calculated today’s sap gather correctly, I’ll get around a quart and a pint of syrup once it is boiled down. Not bad for 4 days work!

Good Tools

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

tablesaw1We’ve had a real cold spell up here for the past several weeks. It was such that I didn’t even consider going out to the garage to work on any projects. It was so cold out there that it would have taken me days to warm up the building.

The other day, though, I told a friend of mine I’d tackle a small wood working project for him, and so I went out and started a fire in the big garage wood stove. It did take about 2 days to get it warm, and about 2 hours to do the project. As I was cleaning up from the project, I thought to myself that it was a shame to waste all this heat on such a small project. What about the table saw, I wondered?

My table saw is the centerpiece of the power tools in my workshop. It is big, has a 5 hp motor, and I keep it tuned up such that I can depend on it to do anything within reason. This tool and I have bonded. It is going on 25 years old, and I still remember when it was delivered. The shipping weight was over 900# as I recall, and I moved it from the road where the freight trucker dropped it off to my shop with the bulldozer. I wrapped heavy chains around the crate, lifted it up with the bucket, and carefully drove it over to my tiny shop (in those days, I hadn’t built my nice big workshop/garage yet.)

tablesaw2A good table saw has to be mobile, unless it lives in a space that is bigger than my shop. Ripping long boards requires a different space configuration than cutting plywood, for example. So I bought a set of casters at the same time I bought the saw. And they worked pretty well for about 20 years. Then the solid rubber on one of the wheels split and came off. I repaired it with some special rubber cement I happened to have. I fixed it several more times after that. For the past couple of years, all 4 casters were noticeably deteriorating, so I bought 4 new heavy duty casters from Menards in anticipation of swapping the old ones out. Well, those casters sat on my workbench for several years.

Several things made me hesitate to tackle this project. The major one was, the table saw is a precision instrument, and it is heavy. The casters are underneath the whole thing, and finding a safe yet gentle way to lay the saw on its side had me pretty stumped. One smart thing I did when designing my workshop was to commission a heavy duty 20′ jib crane to be installed before I poured the floor. The plan I had for lying the saw on its side involved the crane, but that was about as far as I took it, until the other day.

Like so many projects, once I’d gotten into it, it wasn’t that bad. I just used my good tools, my brain (notice the lack of the modifier “good” when talking about my brain), and my strength. I levered one side of the saw up with a pry bar, placed blocks of wood under it as I went up, and wrapped a heavy chain around the table. Once it got to its tipping point, I had to trust that everything would hold, and push it over. It held! All that was left was to use the chainfall to gently lower it to the floor, add some props, and voila, all four feet were sticking out.

tablesaw3 Then it was just a matter of removing the old casters and installing the new improved ones. I had to drill a bunch of 7/16″ holes in some pretty thick steel, but having a good Milwaukee drill motor, bit, and a good grinder saved the day for me. I’m grateful I took the time in my life to learn how to sharpen a drill bit, because this was tough drilling. I had to sharpen the bit every two holes, but finally the newly greased casters were bolted on, the saw back upright on its new feet, and we were once again mobile. I pushed the saw around the shop a couple of times just for the sheer joy of feeling it work the way it was supposed to.

The moral to this story is, if you find yourself settled into a living situation with some room, invest in some good tools, and invest some time in learning how to use them. And every 25 years or so, replace the casters.

My Own Hotel

Friday, March 6th, 2015

On a recent trip downstate, I had a bit of a hotel adventure. I’d gone online to book the 4-night stay (how did we find hotel rooms before the internet?) It was as close as possible to the place I was visiting, and was also convenient to the highway and walking distance to several good restaurants (I didn’t have a car this trip.) And it was cheap; like about half the cost of the nearest place. Uh oh. I booked it anyway, because I’m always up for an adventure.

My neighbor, in whose car I’d caught a ride, dropped me off and continued on her way, leaving me to my fate. The parking lot had only a half-dozen cars in it, which wasn’t much for such a big place. When I got into the lobby a very competent and friendly clerk checked me in and gave me the room keys. My room was on the first floor adjacent to the pool, which was in a large room covered with a clear dome shaped thing. The room was fine, except it was the first tube-TV I’d seen in some years. The heat worked, the window opened out onto the highway, and it was pretty quiet. Maybe this will be ok, I thought to myself.

Wherever I looked, I saw evidence of a place doing things as cheaply as possible. The towels/washcloths in the bathroom were clean, but were the thinnest and scratchiest I’d ever seen. There were little tubes of shampoo, conditioner, and soap, but they were just sitting on the bathroom counter top, and not arranged as I’d seen in other hotels. The bathroom sink worked, except the hot and cold water were reversed, and the faucet was very loose. The toilet, likewise, was so loose I had to get on and off it carefully, or it would bang against my neighbor’s wall.

The place made a big point about its continental breakfast, which I was looking forward to. It was one of the most depressing continentals I’ve ever experienced. These folks had clearly shopped the used hotel equipment sites and found items on the verge of being thrown out. The toaster reminded me of the one we had when I was a youngster over 50 years ago. There was a display case that had slices of bread and bagels displayed next to the toaster. The crowning glory of the whole setup was a waffle maker complete with a batter dispenser and a water carafe full of syrup (covered with plastic wrap when I was there.) I’m pretty sure the waffle maker worked, because one of the mornings I saw someone in there actually eating a waffle. I did make myself a bagel a couple of mornings, but the little packs of creme cheese were so suspect to me that I quit after that, and the bagels were not the freshest.

As my stay developed, I became more interested in the place. It was really big with probably hundreds of rooms. I feel as though I had the whole place to myself for a night or two, although things picked up on the weekend, to the point there were a couple of dozen cars in the parking lot. So what happens to a place like this that was built at great expense, and did a good job for its customers for years. What causes places like this to fall on such hard times they are hard to keep heated and cause the owners to skimp on towels?

I thought of a couple of scenarios. Perhaps the previous owners felt entitled to a larger wage than the thing could support, and took so much money out of it that necessary maintenance was deferred. Perhaps the city I stayed in came onto some hard times during the recession such that only the strongest hotels could afford to keep themselves up, and this one was not among them. Perhaps it was just plain bad management that caused good people to shy away from employment there, while the employees that stayed helped themselves to the till.

There was also a restaurant attached to the facility, but it was closed. My Mom mentioned that we used to eat there years ago, and it was a nice place. I couldn’t remember it myself, but could imagine how hard it might be if they decided to reopen the restaurant. You’d have to win back the people who used to enjoy their meals there but had found other places to eat after it closed.

As I was in and out of the place for my stay, I found myself rooting for the owners. If they were careful with their expenses and could gradually increase their clientele, then perhaps they could bring the old place back up to snuff. Some luck would be involved of course. If the roof of this huge place needed to be replaced, it could doom the entire operation. I doubt they’d have the money, and I can’t imagine a bank loaning them the necessary cash.

I spend some time each year in hotels across the country, and find most of them to be fairly similar. This place had some character, and seemed on the cusp of a big change. It was neat to experience it first hand. In the future, when I drive by the place I’ll be interested to look that direction and determine which way the balance is tipping.