Monday, December 31, 2012

Half a chance

photo of wind turbines, southwestern Minnesota
© harrington
I'm reading one of my Christmas presents, For the Health of the Land, some of Aldo Leopold's previously unpublished essays and other writings. Scott Russell Sanders wrote the foreword, in which he says "... the Midwest is plain and straightforward, yet shadowed with mystery; open and welcoming, yet reserved; full of promise and hope, yet acquainted with grief. The Midwest is a fertile, well-watered landscape, long inhabited, much abused and much adored, deeply scarred but also quick to heal if given half a chance." I had the pleasure of meeting (in person) and spending some time with Scott last autumn at the Loft's writer's workshop at the Audubon Center of the North Woods. Modest as he is, he never mentioned that he had written the foreward. Although I'm a native New Englander, I've lived in the Midwest long enough to recognize the truth in Scott's description. On this last day of 2012, please join me in looking forward to a 2013 in which we all agree to give the Midwest, and the rest of the world, half a chance to heal.
Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Path to ...

photo of deer trail through field in early winter
© harrington
Can you see the deer trail running through the middle of the picture? Not the shadow that starts at the right-hand edge. That's cast by an old oak snag. The deer trail runs across that shadow making an "X" in the picture's center. Deer wore that groove in the grass by repeatedly following the same path through the field. There is an old saying about the path being made by walking it. A path wasn't always there. Some one (or in this case some deer) led the way and others followed in their footsteps. Soon there was a path that became the easiest, most obvious, way to cross a field or pass through the forest. Most deer (and people) followed that path simply because it was there. When something changes, like a snag weakening and falling across the path, leaders and followers will have an obvious choice. Will they leap, climb or crawl over the snag, or make a new path? As we close out 2012, it seems to me to be a good time to think about the paths we've followed this past year and the leaders and paths we choose to follow in 2013 and ask if they take us where we want to go or, are they just the easiest way through the field?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Winter roses to smell

photo of rural hoar frost
© harrington
Across the road from where I live, the scene looked like this last mid-winter. Hoar frost covered trees, grasses, and forbs. I live where I do because of the beauty of the countryside. Sometimes hoar frost, sometimes a soft winter snowfall will remind me to "stop and smell the roses," even if they aren't in season. As much as I enjoy the activity and pleasures (like coffee shops and book or music stores) of the city centers in My Minnesota, they aren't they reason I remain here. Minnesota has, is, beautiful country. Country I don't appreciate as much or as often as I should. I find it difficult, way too often, to admit what I love about Minnesota. As the year winds down and I take stock of 2012 and look forward to 2013, one of my New Year's to do list items (I gave up on resolutions years ago) will be to take time to appreciate the Minnesota I have. Another will be to try to preserve what I love about Minnesota and, finally, to work to restore places of wonder and beauty where and when I can. Do you have a list for next year? Does it include any items like those on my list? Should it?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Curb appeal

photo of streetscape entering Stillwater
© harrington
This view looks south toward the downtown of one of the first cities in My Minnesota. The building in the center (appearing to block the road which actually curves to the left in front of it) is a block of condominiums with  units still for sale. From here, the boulevard trees nicely frame the condo building, providing curb appeal and softening the street face.
photo of Stillwater streetscape closeup
© harrington
As you enter the heart of this river city, the trees are fewer (there's a potted tree barely visible near the right edge of the photo) and, as attractive as the building's facade may be, it's appeal seems to me to be notably less than when it was framed with trees. There have been studies documenting that proximity to parks increases property value. Would a more attractive and walkable public space have led to a shortened time on market for those "Models Open" units?  Which curb has more appeal to you (and where's the bike lane)?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Our Common Future

photo of built and natural environment
© harrington
I've recently downloaded and started to read the Brundtland report "Our Common Future." It is well known for its definition of sustainable development, development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." One of the criticisms of that report, and the definition, is that it speaks only to needs. It says nothing about human desires or rights. The report actually has a statement that I found much less misdirected and more useful. In talking about the split between those who would preserve the environment and those who see the environment only as an opportunity for private development, the report points out in the Chairman's Foreword: But the "environment" is where we all live; and "development" is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable. We are part of the environment. The environment is part of us. It's like nature and nurture, we humans can't make do with only one. If the media and the commission had done more to emphasize the environment is where we all live, perhaps we would have more humans with more interest these days in not burning down the house to try to keep warm.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wish granted

Three weeks ago, I posted asking if any reader could provide the name of the predominant grass in the photo above. Thus far there's been no response. I also asked for a book (actually several books) for Christmas. One of the books I received was Prairie Plants of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum: Including Horsetails, Ferns, Rushes, Sedges, Grasses, Shrubs, Vines, Weeds, and Wildflowers. I looked in it and found the name of the purple plants. They're known as purple love grass, tumble grass. They're a native, perinnial grass of roadsides and sandy areas. My property is sandy if it's anything. I'm sure there's a reason I didn't think before this to simply Google "tumble grass." I'm equally sure I don't want to contemplate it. I hope each of you were at least equally successful with your own Christmas wishes.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas

photo of Christmas tree ornament
© harrington
MERRY CHRISTMAS!
May love and peace and kindness be found 
under your tree and as you celebrate.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The weight of...


photo of a black capped chickadee (coalmouse) on a snow covered branch
© harrington
This story below is from a Christmas Card we sent several years ago. In My Minnesota, a "coal mouse" is a black-capped chickadee.

"Tell me the weight of a snowflake," a coal mouse asked a wild dove.

"Nothing more than nothing," was the answer.

"In that case, I must tell you a marvelous story," the coal mouse said. "I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow…Since I didn't have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952.

"When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch—nothing more than nothing, as you say—the branch broke off…"
 
The dove, since Noah's time, an authority on the matter, thought about the story for a while and finally said to herself, "Perhaps there is only one person's voice lacking for peace to come about in this world."

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL. 
MAY YOU FIND PEACE OR MAY PEACE FIND YOU

Adapted from
"The Weight of Nothing"
(February 1995).
From the Link,
newsletter of Congregations Concerned for Children, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Found in The Compassionate Rebel

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas eve eve report

photo of barred owl and handler at Audubon Center of the North Woods
© harrington
Tomorrow's Christmas eve. Today's the eve of Christmas eve. You can use your imagination and picture a Santa hat on this barred owl at the Audubon Nature Center of the North Woods or you can visit the Daily Yonder site to see for yourself what Christmas owls look like. (I would add the Yonder's link to the "Other Paths" list in the sidebar here, but they're a web site, not a blog, so I don't think the updated feature would work and I haven't yet done a separate links page for this site.) If you've followed me through that digression, we'll pick up with: since I have a "thing" for owls, it's just as well that I didn't know about that breakfast in time to get there. Owls, Santa and breakfast is an irresistible combination. May next year Audubon-North Woods will pick up on the idea for a local fundraiser in My Minnesota. Anyhow, I believe that the owls and Santa are doing something much like what I was doing yesterday, am doing today and will do tomorrow: completing a pre-Christmas flight check. Thanks to my wonderful wife and daughter, I've been spared, for the most part, from wrapping Christmas presents this year. (My aversion to wrapping probably goes back to the year or so I spent working on the shipping bench of a printing plant near the Boston Garden and North Station when I was out of high school and working on my college degree. I've wrapped enough packages to last me two lifetimes.) Still with me after that digression? I suppose the need for wrapping physical presents will diminish and may disappear as we move more and more to a dematerialized economy, with emailed Christmas cards and iTunes gift card for digitized music. And now, hidden at the bottom of this long and rambling post, sort of like the last item in a Christmas stocking, is this dematerialized link to a treat that you may want to consider for next year's Christmas for children in your life or for them or yourself to help celebrate the new year in our new era if you don't feel like waiting until next Christmas. Celebrate Solhanumas (and Kwanzaa)!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

S'no cover

photo of snowy field and forest
© harrington
Congratulations to us. We made it through the end of one era and into the beginning of another. Stop for a moment. Take a look around. What do you see? A quick glance at a winter scene like the one above makes it seem as if there's nothing going on. Just the way a glance at the surface of one of My Minnesota's 10,000 + lakes reveals only sunlight reflecting off sky-blue waters. With so much of life, the activity is all or mostly beneath the surface. Under the snow's surface crust, mice and voles go about their lives hoping they're safe from foxes and coyotes in the day time (either of which could be temporarily out of view behind a tree trunk) and from barred and other owls at night (who remain quietly perched on a tree limb listening for sounds beneath the snow. Have you ever spent time stretched out on a dock, watching beneath the reflections of the surface of the lake? Bluegills and pumpkinseed sunfish fin quietly, keeping their eyes peeled for bass or northern pike looking and acting hungry. Even in cities or at home, most of the activity is rarely on the street or in the driveway. Even we humans spend most of our time inside out of nature(?), out of site of most of our fellow humans. I'm hoping that this Christmas season brings us all into a new era in which we learn to slow down, notice what's really going on and think two steps ahead. Have you ever thought about how much nicer our lives would be if we consistently learned to think about not just what happens if I do this, but what's likely to happen after that. On Christmas, someone opens a present I gave them that turns out to be something they really wanted. Step one, they're delighted and happy. Step two, I get a hug or a kiss as a thank you. Thinking ahead isn't that hard. It's like learning to walk and chew gum at the same time. You can do that, can't you? Celebrate Solhanumas!

Friday, December 21, 2012

End of the beginning


Happy Solstice to you. If you're reading this, it's a good sign that we've made it through the end of the world, at least the world of yesterday. Please be sure to listen to and enjoy the Ojibwe Love Song Winter Solstice. (Click the little, white arrow thingy above.) May the future bring you many, many happy returns of the Solstice. As Spock would say "Live long and prosper." From here we know the days lengthen and brighten for a time. May the times also brighten for all of us who live in and love My Minnesota, especially Original Minnesotans, Native Minnesotans and East Cost druid transplants. Celebrate Solhanumas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A new era dawning

photo of dawn sky
© harrington
I'm hopeful that tomorrow morning the sky will look something like the photo above. Winter solstice will dawn clear and bright, bringing us all into a new era in which we start to do much more to take care of our home planet so it can continue to take care of us. Recently, I've been thinking about sustainable living in a different way. I'm realizing that it's not about making sacrifices today so that our children and their children and their children can have a better life. It's about the quality of our lives today. Energy efficiency at home means I'm more comfortable in a less draughty house with more money to spend on books, music, coffee, whatever. Water conservation means I spend less time looking at (and mowing) boring green grass and more time watching and smelling wildflowers and prairie grasses. Sustainability has little, if anything, to do with sack cloth and ashes and lots to do with enjoying, and helping to maintain, the beauty that's all around us. I've mentioned before being raised in New England where there is a long and strong history behind the idea of "waste not, want not." Presuming that we're all here tomorrow morning to greet the dawn, check back then.  I'll have a special solstice celebration treat for My Minnesota's readers. S(olstice) minus one and counting.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Birthday celebration?

photo of birthday cake with sparklers
© harrington
Driving home from work today, I was listening to a story on MPR about the effect the drought is having on folks who live and work in southwestern Minnesota, in the Worthington area. One farmer was saying that he'd soon have to spend $16,000 to join a rural water district but he and his family were over a barrel because they couldn't live without water. My Minnesota has always considered itself a water rich state. Except that we have been "free riders" for too long. Free riders being those who let someone else pay their dues for them. When I was learning the manners that good hunters should follow when on a farmer's or ranchers properties, one rule that was drilled into my head had to do with gates. The rule was, basically, leave them as you found them. If you came to a closed gate, open it, walk through and close it behind you. If the gate was open when you got to it, don't close it. Just leave it alone. From what I've seen and read about, not many farmers, ranchers or city folk follow the kind of manners I was taught when it comes to water use. I've heard and read too many complaints that "it costs too much" to return water in the quality it was before it was used. Joni Mitchell's great refrain "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" kept running through my head as I listened to the MPR story. The photo at the top of this posting is of a birthday cake with sparklers that was part of the celebration of my daughter's recent birthday. All things being equal (they never are), she's a little less than a third of the way through an average life span. If she stays in Minnesota, will she continue to have reason to celebrate based on our wise use of resources? What kind of legacy are we leaving those who must follow in our foot steps. There were too many children recently deprived of a chance to enjoy the amazing world around them. Are we in a different way depriving our children, the ones we still have with us, of the same chance? There's a very special birthday that most of us will celebrate in less than a week. Are we being the kind of shepherds and stewards we should? S(olstice) minus two and counting.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gorge-eous setting

photo of Mississippi River in Minneapolis from the Guthrie Theater
© harrington
This morning, in St. Louis Park, I had a meeting of the USGBC-MN board. To get there, I drove from my office in St. Paul along Summit and Marshall Avenues until I reached West River Road. The drive along the Mississippi River is one of my favorite places in the Twin Cities. The combination of river gorge and urban environment just pleases the hell out of me. At this time of year, groundwater seepage freezes along the stone faced cliffs set back from the bank. It contrasts nicely with the open water of the river. Joggers and bicycle riders look handsome and wholesome as they travel along the paths beneath the winter-bare trees. I have in my library a pen and ink sketch that shows the extensive Manhattan skyline from along the New York waterfront. (From the time when the Twin Towers were still standing.) Why do you suppose no one has created a similar sketch from along the river through the city. That's another drawing that would be worth having. How many Minneapolitans take for granted the treasure that flows through their city?  How many of us (all of us) take for granted the respite available from having nature underfoot. Out of sight, out of mind. Out of mind, out of sight. Chickens and eggs. We don't appreciate it because it's common and there all the time. S(olstice) minus three and counting. Will we or the river be gone this Friday?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Red sky at morning

photo of red sunrise
© harrington
This morning's predawn sky was full of lowered clouds reflecting, on their soft, vulnerable bellies, presunrise sunlight. It looked like the universe was in the midst of a forest fire. Later, snow flurries dampened the glow and another gray day took hold. While driving home this afternoon I noticed a pair of pheasants, rooster and hen, pecking gravel or seeds along the cold shoulder. I'm happier seeing ruffed grouse than ringnecks, probably due to my New England upbringing. Ruffed grouse, with their more subdued coloring, were native to Massachusetts and northern New England. Pheasants were still considered gaudy, exotic, newcomers. Here in My Minnesota, they seem to fit in and be more at home in much of the state south of the Arrowhead and Central Lakes regions. They're often out of sight, skulking between corn rows or through reed canary grass or erupting from any weed-fringe missed by the disk and harrow. When at the Audubon Center in Sandstone last September, the blackboard held a notice from someone claiming to have seen nine pheasants. It seemed kind of far north to me for anything but a stray, but then I'm neither a pheasant nor a regular visitor to Sandstone. Maybe their range is extending northward as a corollary to global warming. This afternoon's pheasant pair helped remind me that during winter, beneath or beside the snow cover (and beneath the ice on our lakes) life goes on for native and adaptive inhabitants, including me. S(olstice) minus four and counting.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

City seasons

photo of Nina's Coffee Cafe entrance
© harrington
On a foggy Sunday morning, I'm sitting at a table at one of my second homes. There are boulevard trees along the sidewalks outside. In the large picture windows of Nina's  are pine and balsam Christmas trees sparsely strung with white LEDs. One of them is a dead ringer for Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. Each table is decorated with a small planting pot full of Christmas greens with moss and some reddish berries. A cloud-blanketed sky is clearly visible over the rooftops across the streets of the intersection. One either side of the entrance is a cement planter full of fir and red dogwood branches decorated with ribbons and white lights. The seasonal reminders bring nature into the city. They also make major contributions to creating a sense of place. They reflect the owner's warm, welcoming personality. Come spring, there will be daffodils, crocuses, sometimes lilacs. In My Minnesota we're learning to balance the city with the country to create places we all enjoy. At least I do and I hope, for your sake, they're the kind of places you enjoy too. S(olstice) minus five and counting. See you on the other side?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mixed blessing

photo of bird feeder in the rain
© harrington
Outside, the rain is coming down. Inside, the bread is rising in the oven. Life is full of contrasts and contradictions. From what I've been hearing recently, before the airwaves became fixated on the horrendous slaughter in Connecticut, the ground in much of My Minnesota is still permeable enough that some of the snow melt will be able to seep in. This will be good for the drought-parched soil and the plants growing in it and the animals that depend on plants growing in soil (or water for that matter, hello, water-lilies). However, this being December, the beginning of winter in this part of the country, it's a safe bet that there may be freezing temperatures before the snow melt / rain mix finishes seeping or running off. That will leave us hardy winter-enduring types with everything, or at least much, covered with an ice/frozen snow combination. Best we humans keep the bird feeders full and give some thought to setting up feeding stations for the local deer herd. Unless of course we get enough days of warmer weather that the remaining snow melts and we get to celebrate a brown Christmas. If we make it past the Mayan end of the world, I'm going to ask Santa for a kit to help adapt to wild weather swings. May(an) day at S(olstice) minus 6 and counting.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Solstice minus 7

photo of Dayton House Christmas decorations
© harrington
One week from today is winter solstice and/or the end of the world if you accept that Mayan perspective. I don't so I haven't put off my Christmas shopping. I do think it could be a major improvement if next Friday marks the end of one era and the beginning of a better one in My Minnesota and the rest of the world. I just finished reading Terry Tempest Williams' The Open Space of Democracy, in which she argues that we as individuals, and as a community, need to be more respectful of each other and of the world in which we live. As a long-standing card-carrying liberal eco-type, I thought I was a pretty tolerant person. I think I still have lots of room for improvement on that front and others. Another writer that I'm coming to respect more and more is Rebecca Solnit. She wrote a letter that asks, and attempts to answer the question "Can lefty perfectionists ever be satisfied?" It struck home with me. As I thought about the points she raised, it occured to me that someone better than I once wrote something like: this tired old world, even with all its nicks and scratches, is still a pretty wonderful and very beautiful place. I should spend more time appreciating it as well as time trying to protect it. Please join me, especially if we make it to December 25th to celebrate Christmas. Maybe we will have reached an era of gratitude. In any case, as Pete Seeger and some of his friends say: Happy Solhanumas! (Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Icing penalty

photo of heavy snowfall
© harrington
Take the amount of snow above, double or triple it, and cover the roof(s) of my house and garage. That's how much snow has been melting for the past couple of days and freezing during the past couple of nights. My house has a gable roof that slopes north/south. The attached garage, located on the south side of the house, has a gable roof that slopes east/west. It collects all the snow melt from the south half of the house roof and then the east-facing half of the garage roof adds its own flows to the gutter at the edge of the front entrance. This week, that gutter managed to collect enough freezing snow melt to fill itself full of ice. Since the weather forecast calls for freezing rain and snow tomorrow and/or Saturday, and the front steps and handicap accessibility ramp in front of the house have become suitable for practicing ice-climbing, this afternoon's chore was ice removal. The gutter drains into the front flower bed. Salt is rumored to be contraindicated for happy flowers and other plants. Hot water, brute force, hammers and chisels were successful alternative deicing stratagems. Whoever designed my house and placed in on the lot must have learned site design and architecture in Mississippi or Florida. Otherwise, the alignment and drainage patterns would have been designed to limit the negative impacts of snow fall and rain fall. I expect that one of the major features of My Minnesota's climate will continue to be that, even with global warming, it's going to snow during the season unsuitable for road construction. If snow would fall only on the fields and in the forests, and not on the roads, the driveway or my ineptly aligned roof, I could learn to like winter lots more. For the record, I don't consider this posting a rant as much as it is an expression of my concern that we humans don't have the ability to learn enough, fast enough, and to act on what we learn promptly enough, to successfully adapt to climate change. Minnesotans have been building houses for quite some time. I still see many roofs, in addition to mine, with overwhelming evidence of ice dams. Why is that?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thrive, Minnesota

Rural Arts and CUlture Summit Morris MN
One of the many wonderful things about My Minnesota has to do with the equitable distribution of its cultural leaders. I've mentioned the poets and writers in the Duluth area. Joyce Sutphen, our current poet laureate was raised on a farm near St. Joseph Minnesota. She teaches at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, not exactly a booming metropolis (not that there's all that much wrong with booming metropolises [metropoli?]). Bill Holm was born near Minneota and taught at Southwest State in Marshall. Robert Bly spent much of his life living on a farm in western Minnesota. Paul Gruchow was also a gifted writer associated primarily with Minnesota's natural places and beauty. Next June, the 5 and 6 to be specific, the University of Minnesota Center for Small Towns will be hosting a summit on Leveraging Arts and Culture to Build Thriving Communities. As a Christmas present to myself, I'm planning on participating. Several years ago I participated in a similar event in Morris. One evening's entertainment was a Peter Ostroushco concert. His rendition of Bob Dylan's Girl from the North Country damn near brought me to tears. I hope to see and meet at least some of you there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

O tannenbaum

photo of our 2012 Chrsitmas tree
© harrington
This year's family Christmas tree, seen above, is a balsam. For the past several years, our tree has been either a Fraser fir or a balsam. They have the requisite Christmas tree smell that seems to be missing from scotch pines and norway and white pines and spruces. Several years ago, in a pique of "living off the landness," or something, my wife and daughter reduced to possession one of the blue spruces living on our property. That tree was pretty enough, but hazardous to decorate or remove. I've never dealt with such sharp and solid needles. It did teach the dog not to chew on trees in the house. Anyhow, the trees we've bought the past several years have been grown and cut on a local (next county over) family owned tree farm in My Minnesota. There are other tree farms closer to home, but they don't have either balsams or frasers of a height needed to reach our ceiling with just enough room left for the angel. Our angel is a flasher and sings of the coming of Christmas regardless of what Benedict XVI has recently written. I'm also hanging tough on animals in the stable. If animals weren't kept in it, why was it called a stable?

Monday, December 10, 2012

For the birds

photo of goldfinches and chickadee at feeders in snowstorm
© harrington
There are 1.3 goldfinches (note the tail sticking out from the rear feeder) and 1 chickadee (the light spot with a tail below the front feeder) in the preceding photo. They are a nano-fraction of the multitudes that descended on our bird feeders yesterday. We also enjoyed visits from red-bellied woodpeckers (which have red heads and what look to me like tan bellies, but what do I know?), hairy and downy woodpeckers, dark-eyed juncos, pine finches, cardinals and probably a couple of species that I missed. All in all it was a day for the birds in My Minnesota. One of winter's pleasures, for me, is keeping half an eye on the birds at the feeder to see who's new in the neighborhood. My wife reported seeing, on her way in to work this morning, a flock of five swans in the air over downtown White Bear Lake. Several years ago we saw a pair of swans emerge from a snow storm along the St. Croix river. Magical sights! Other than the birds, there isn't much sign of activity among the local wildlife. They seem to have enough sense to slow down at this time of year. People have created Slow Food, Slow Money, and even Slow Living. Wouldn't we be as well off by just  following nature's example and slowing down ourselves (or is that slowing ourselves down)?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Let Minnesota Be Minnesota

photo of snow covered deck
© harrington
This is about what the deck looks like this morning. It was a fine morning for baking scones, so that's what I did. There's a deep satisfaction in the physical activity required for baking, whether from scratch or using a prepackaged mix. It's a nice alternative, a counterweight, to the miniscule physical activity required for talking or typing, which is what I spend many of my waking hours doing. Later today there will be a flurry of activity (sorry, I couldn't resist) as we blow the snow from the driveway and shovel it from the deck. It's approaching forty years since I moved to Minnesota. In that time, there have been many changes, most for the better. Having My Minnesota's climate become more like Missouri's, as it seems to be doing, isn't a change for the better as I see it. I remember being attracted to Minnesota because it had the reputation of being a state that worked. At that time, the Metro Council was THE national leader in metropolitan governance (not the same as metro government). Minnesotan's were at worst tolerant of paying the taxes needed to support equitable, economic and effective public education. We got our streets plowed on time. There was a spirit of cooperation that I'm hard pressed to find these days. Isn't it time we went back to the future? (Thanks to my daughter for suggesting today's theme. The rants are all mine.)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

White out?

photo of Jackson Meadows white housing in Marine on St. Croix
© harrington
When I drove through Jackson Meadows last spring, I was particularly struck by the monotone of the palette used in the built environment. Please use your imagination to picture the green grass above all white like the field in yesterday's posting. Then tell me how you'd like to deal with that for four or so months each year. If we're determined to develop the countryside in My Minnesota (and we seem to be), then conservation planning and zoning may be the way to go. I am, however, mindful of how much nature avoids monoculture, which is part of what I think I see above. Several books on sustainable development that I've read in the past few years (The Original GreenThe Shape of Green) make the (what should be obvious but isn't always) point that for the built (or natural) environment to be sustainable, humans have to love it. Otherwise, we won't protect or maintain it. I suppose that Jackson Meadows is lovable to those with modernest aesthetics and even more so when the spring flowers enliven the meadows. I just can't imagine spending the winter there in a white out and enjoying it. I'm not sure why, but it reminds me of the apocryphal stories of the old time Minnesota farmers who strung a rope from the house to the barn in the winter so they could find their way during a blizzard.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Winter wondrous

photo of snow covered field and trees
© harrington
The snowflakes falling outside are so fine they could be drifting from the mills of the gods. Winter may finally be settling in to My Minnesota. Two weeks from now will be winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. By then, the backyard may well look like the picture above. By then, maybe I'll start to settle in and try writing something more than a blog post a day. I've already dragged out the heavy winter Hudson's Bay Point Blanket (4 points). One of winter's finer pleasures is pulling it up to my nose and staying warm while I wait for the coffee to finish brewing. If this season is anything like normal, we're six to eight weeks from the nadir of winter, but that's not the hardest part of the season. The hardest part is just before spring when we're well beyond any point of return and some of us have found that our taste for the fourth season has ebbed lower than we thought it could. But, before that happens there may be snowball fights to be fought, snow men and women to be sculpted (I wonder if Michaelangelo ever tried a snowman in Italy.), coffee to be sipped, books to be read (and maybe written), naps to be taken and silence, broken by coyote howls, to be enjoyed. May all your winter pleasures be cool, or warm.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Snow job?

photo of snow covered oak branches
© harrington
Snow in the forecast for tomorrow and Saturday, maybe an inch or two all told. My daughter is all happy and excited about the prospects for a white Christmas. As we all know, snow eventually becomes snow melt, which, because the ground is usually still frozen at snow melt time in My Minnesota, becomes runoff rather than groundwater recharge. Winter snow fall may be good for school closings, snowmen, snow ball fights and the general appreciation of winter-loving snow flakes. It probably won't do much to help White Bear Lake. After noting the story in MinnPost (and elsewhere) about WBL's imitation of the disappearing man, I checked the DNR web site to see what a groundwater appropriation permit requires. Among other things, a permit application for a non-irrigation appropriation is supposed to include a rationale or justification of why conservation won't meet the need and what alternative water sources were considered. I haven't checked (yet), but I think it could be really interesting to see what's on file in the appropriation permits that supposedly result in the indirect draw down of WBL. Were there thorough discussions of alternate sources and conservation, or was that element provided little more than a pro forma response? The Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, done in 2010, calls for a holistic approach to land and water management. I suppose that plan, along with lots of other good work, would be collecting dust on the shelves of public buildings except it's published in digital form which hopefully doesn't collect dust.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Prince's purple grass?

photo of purple-pinkish grass
© harrington
I'm hoping that one of the readers (the reader?) of My Minnesota can help me with a Christmas wish. I can't identify the purple-pinkish grass in today's photo. This field is in the back yard (on the Anoka Sand Plain if that helps). I've checked for prairie grasses etc. in my standard resources to no avail. None of my references have been helpful on this particular identity quest. In autumn, the plants release tumble-weed-like long multi-armed (legged?) yellow/tan stalks that accumulate on the porch and in the driveway. One of my field guides is black and white drawings. The other doesn't seem to include whatever it is. Help!  One of my Christmas wishes is to find out what's growing all over my back yard.  Can you grant my wish? Please post a comment with either your answer to what this plant is, or a field guide title that you're pretty sure contains its name and picture. Thanks!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dense-city?

photo of downtown Minneapolis
© harrington
Can you remember when the Foshay Tower was the tallest building in Minneapolis? Now it's almost like a mushroom in a forest of redwoods. It seems that, in My Minnesota, we grow taller, we spread out, and we do both. Two of the buildings helping to dwarf the Foshay Tower are the Carlyle (behind it) and the IDS Tower (to Foshay's left). One has become iconic, the other is relatively new. What you can't see in this picture are the multitudes of parking lots within a few blocks of these towers. Is it just me or does that kind of situation seem kind of strange to you too? What could it be about the proximity of a central business district, "downtown Minneapolis," that makes a parking lot (not even a garage) the "best and highest use" for a nearby piece of urban land? This seems to involve elements we haven't quite worked out about urban design and development. It's becoming more important to get these arrangements working better since now more than 50% of us are living in cities. As we learn to create great cities we do more to protect the wilderness.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Traditional knowledge

photo of a rainy day
© harrington
Most of today, the weather matched the photo above. It was dreary, mild (unseasonably so for My Minnesota in December) and damp, but not wet enough to help the drought. Several days ago I touched on some of my concerns about water quality and quantity and what seems to be a lack of systemic thinking about solutions. Yesterday, I wrote about my view that links exist between health of our economy, the health of the environment, and our own health.Although water has always played an important role in my life, until today I hadn't thought a lot about how much more important it is to the Minnesotans who were here before us.  Today, I came across a blog about Protect Our Manoomin (wild rice) and an entry by someone who is working so hard (and smoking so much) he had a heart attack at Thanksgiving. I'm grateful he recovered and felt well enough to post his story, especially the part where he writes "We have a word for that. That word is Gete-gikendaasowin – traditional knowledge. Gete-gikendaasowin provides us with an understanding of how to live in our world. And, in particular, how to live in agoozo miinawaa gikinootaadiwin (balance and harmony) with Omizakamigokwe (Mother Earth). This understanding comes from the Original Instructions that were given to us by Gichi-Manidoo (the Creator)" The similarities, as I see it, between The Aninishinaabe Factor and yesterday's quote from Bobby Kennedy absolutely delight the hell out of me. This once again proves to me that no amount of planning will ever replace dumb luck. It was through dumb luck I found the Manoomin blog. I'll check it regularly. (In case you find the pronunciation of some of the words I quoted above challenging, you might want to check out the on-line Ojibwe Dictionary.)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Christmas wishes

photo of old fashioned Christmas decorations at the Dayton House, Worthington
© harrington
The past few days here at home we've been writing and trading Christmas lists. That's got me thinking about what I believe is an Indian proverb "a healthy person has many wishes, a sick person has but one." We know that our economy isn't as healthy as it could be so a wish for a healthier economy might not be out of place. But then I think about the number of places in My Minnesota that have fish consumption advisories. Limits on the amount of fish we can safely eat certainly doesn't seem to me to be a sign of a healthy environment. And then there's the just concluded political contention that ended in an election, immediately followed by other partisan contentions about our politically self-inflicted fiscal cliff. (Isn't there some way we could let the politicians go over that cliff by themselves, like the lemmings they are, and leave the rest of us behind?) There are increasing studies that indicate that our choices don't have to be between the economy and the environment. Tell me again why we decided to expedite environmental review and permitting for an iron ore processing plant that isn't going to expand here. One of my heroes, Robert F. Kennedy, delivered a wonderful quote years ago: "Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans." (This kind of wisdom is one of the reasons he's one of my heroes.) So, my Christmas wish for My Minnesotans is that we all have more of the wisdom Bobby showed in his assessment of the GNP.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Christmas, sweet Christmas

photo of ginger bread house
©E Harrington
For the past several years, I've been impressed by many of the architecturally accurate gingerbread houses shown in a green architecture and lifestyle blog I follow. I don't recall seeing a gingerbread version of Falling Waters, but that my be due to faulty memory. Anyhow, this year my wife and daughter, wise souls that they are, assigned me and SO (daughter's Significant Other), the intimidating responsibility of getting the required candy elements for shingles and decorating, while they dealt with hot stoves and ovens and sharp knives. Having delivered the requisite sweet elements, SO and I wisely got the hell out of the way and let more capable hands and minds create. You see the results above, courtesy of a photo taken by self-same daughter. Look at those icing icicles! There is something else different about this creation that particularly delights me. It's not the cool LED lights (pun intended) my wife put inside, although I like those and admit they're different. No, my delight arises from the fact that the house has context. It's in a setting. There's a skating pond in the back yard. (Since this photo was taken, those skaters have acquired faces. Younger, steadier hands than mine were at work.) No matter whom the architect, no building stands alone. If the context isn't respected and reflected, the building fails. This building is an amazing success to me. Skating ponds were a significant part of my childhood, Christmas seasons and growing up in New England. (I have a vague recollection of a warming house and a first ever kiss.) I hereby publicly thank wife, daughter (and SO) for helping create a wonderful Christmas centerpiece that ties together My Minnesota with my New England childhood. For me, it doesn't get much better than that.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Land of 10,000? 9,999? 9,998? 9,997?

photo of Missippi River headland near Lake City MN
© harrington
Lake Pepin is disappearing from the bottom up, as it fills in with excessive sediment that belongs on farm fields. DNR is being sued for allegedly permitting the withdrawal of too much groundwater from the Jordan and Prairie du Chien aquifer, causing White Bear Lake to disappear from the top down or, more accurately, the edges in. Minnesota's impaired waters list is growing because a number of rivers and lakes can't support wild rice growth.  My Minnesota is a water rich state. Perhaps that's been the problem. We haven't been good stewards of our resources because there seemed to be more than enough to go around. I worked on protecting and improving water quality for many years. The issue then, as now, it seems to me is that we keep thinking there really is a free lunch and someone else will get more of it than we will. Washington isn't the only part of the country suffering from gridlock (iced in?). The Clean Water act Amendments of 1972 became law 40 years ago. Although we've made much progress in reaching the goals of "fishable, swimmable" water, it becomes increasingly clear to me that we haven't begun to do enough. There could, and should, be much more emphasis on resource conservation, especially water conservation. These days I'm working on environmental protection through green building. The technology is there and relatively inexpensive to reduce water and energy consumption. It seems we'd rather spend out money on granite counter tops. In My Minnesota, we can and should be wiser than that. Only magpies and pack rats are easily distracted by bright shiny objects. Look again at the photo above. Isn't it too valuable to lose through selfish indifference?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Prairie paen

picture of cover of Letters to a Young Madman by Paul Gruchow
One of the Twin Cities' newspapers had a long article yesterday about Paul Gruchow and his recently published memoir, Letter to a Young Madman. I've read most, if not all, of his previous work: Journal of a Prairie Year, The Necessity of Empty Places, Boundary Waters, Worlds Within a World and Grass Roots. At the time I was reading his words, which magically brought me once again emotionally close to so many of the places that I love, I wasn't aware of Paul's demons and the way he would eventually lose his struggles with them. I was, however, able to grow increasingly envious of his ability to write the way I wished I could. He always seemed to have an amazing ability to be anchored in place, often a prairie place. I still remember skating the line between wishing I could write like Paul and wishing I were Paul so I could learn from the inside how he did it. It was only a little bit later I learned he tragically had taken his own life. Paul is among a handful of writers who have inspired me to try to emulate writing about places in My Minnesota and how special they are. I am, and always will be, in his debt. I'm looking forward to reading his memoir to learn more about how to live graciously under duress. Last spring, I finished a suite of poems, dedicated to Paul, about prairie grasses. They turned out well enough that they were winners in the Prairie Sampler contest for which I had written them. Thanks, Paul. I couldn't have done it without you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Christmas geese

photo of a flock f flying waterfowl
© harrington
Today, on my drive home from work, I got an early Christmas present. For 5 minutes or more, as I approached Forest Lake, the sky was filled with flock after flock after flock of Canada geese. (They would be Canadian geese if, and only if, I knew they came from north of the border of My Minnesota.)  Seeing them made my heart soar. The marshes and smaller ponds have frozen. Larger water bodies, like Forest Lake, are open, for now. There is still food in the harvested fields. The geese will be here for at least a while longer, and I may get other thrills seeing that many of them trading north, west, east and south in flocks large and small. Years ago I hunted geese at Lac qui Parle. Seeing and hearing 60,000 to 80,000 geese all at once was a phenomena. I've also been lucky enough to be driving through the southwestern regions of My Minnesota when the flocks of geese decided it was time to head south and filled the sky most of the afternoon. Aldo Leopold, in Goose Music, wrote But to those whose hearts are stirred by the sound of whistling wings and quacking mallards, wildlife is something even more than this. It is not merely an acquired taste; the instinct that finds delight in the sight and pursuit of game is bred into the very fiber of the race. I am one of those for whom wildlife is not merely an acquired taste. My Minnesota is home not only to wildlife but to many who share my love for wild creatures and places. I hope your Christmas season is filled with whatever brings you as much pleasure, for as little cost, as today's geese vision brought me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Well bread Minnesotans

photo of bread cloche, bread baked in it and bread recipe book
© harrington
There are numerous numinous artisans in My Minnesota. Some of them are extraordinary bakers who have created the likes of St. Agnes Baking Co., French Meadow bakery and others centered around the Twin Cities.  I live on the western (Twin Cities) edge of the St. Croix watershed. This puts me within reach of an astounding number of potters who throw, fire and sell their creations in the St. Croix valley. The bread cloche in the photo is one of many pieces we've acquired from Guillermo Cuellar. The loaf of bread came from the cloche using the recipe from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day and parchment paper to line the bottom of the cloche. As we enter the holiday season and approach the Winter Solstice, we also inhabit the season of soups, chowders, stews and artisan bread (home made strongly preferred). In My Minnesota, working at living an artisan life is a rewarding way to live and let live. Cold hands, warm heart, fresh bread, hot stew, good life.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Slippery slope

photo of a field in spring
© harrington
This picture is what my back yard looks like in the Spring. It looks to me as if it could be one of the better places in My Minnesota to raise chickens. Lots of grass produces lots of ticks which, when not collected by one of the houses canine companions, could be eaten by chickens. I know that chickens, when not being free range, live in chicken coops. It seems to me that a decent coop should be adequate protection for my flock-to-be from the neighborhood coyote pack and the stray fox or raccoon. However, we also have black bears in the neighborhood. I doubt that any coop I could buy or build is likely to protect the flock-to-be from the menu of a hungry bear come Spring, before the local blackberries and wild strawberries are available. So then the choice seems to be adding one or more dogs, of the guardian more than companion variety to protect the flock-to-be. Or, maybe a lama or two which should work on the coyotes but I'm not so sure if they serve as bear repellants. And would either guardian dogs or lamas be a solution that would protect an apiary, should one of those become one of the delights of rural living. In My Minnesota, urban farmers don't know how good they've got it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Creative corners

photo of WA Frost and Nina's/Subtext at Selby and Western St. Paul
Frost's and Nina's/Subtext

photo of Nina's/Subtex and College of Visual Arts at Selby and Western St. Paul
Nina's/Subtext and College of Visual Arts

photo of College of Visual Arts and YWCA at Selby and Western St. Paul
College of Visual Arts and YWCA
Creativity has been a notable element in the life and economy of My Minnesota. The photos (all © harrington) above are of the corners of Western and Selby in St. Paul. Nina's is a coffee house par excellence with displays by local artists, and incorporating overflow space in the lower level at Subtext, the bookstore that is the successor to Common Good Books which has headed to the environs of Snelling and Grand. On any given day, I'm likely to be found at or near one of these establishments. Nina's keeps track of writers creating on the premises and offers live entertainment from time to time. Subtext hosts author readings. The College of Visual Arts, in addition to providing numerous guests to Nina's, offers a 4-year BFA in drawing, painting, printmaking, or sculpture. The YWCA, eliminating racism, empowering women, has a useful computer lab in addition to the expected pool and exercise equipment. Based on personal experience, I've found their staff to be professional and extremely helpful. Finally, there's WA Frost and Company, a tradition for summer patio eating and a welcome member of the locally sourced food contingent. This combination of food for your mind, body, heart and soul may be unsurpassed by any other neighborhood intersection in the Twin Cities. Nominate your contenders in the comments section.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Main Street Musings

photo of a small town Minnesota Main Street
© harrington
Small Business Saturday on Main Streets throughout My Minnesota is a lot more pleasant shopping and buying occurrence than can be found in a Big Box Black Friday. Most of the time, when I shop in a Big Box, I experience  only a transaction: do they have what I want; is the price low enough; are the lines short enough; is the oversized parking lot full? On Main Street, I'm much more likely to begin, or continue, a relationship: here's an example of what I need, what do you have like it; can you suggest an alternative, a better way, to meet my needs or fulfill my desires? On Main Street, I stroll sidewalks which, crowded or not, I prefer to crowded big box aisles. Today, to get the decorative elements for a gingerbread house project, I found myself in not one, but two distinctly different candy stores on a nearby Main Street. Each had a distinct personality, selection of confections and, although both had friendly people behind the counter, in one store they went out of their way to be helpful. One of the elements of My Minnesota that I most value is community. One of the elements of community is supporting local businesses. If Main Street stores aren't there, neither is Main Street. As Main Street goes, so goes the community. How many vacant big box grayfields need to undergo restorative development in your neighborhood?

Friday, November 23, 2012

White Friday

photo of a pair of swans in a winter marsh
© harrington
Thanksgiving left on the shoulders of a howling Northwest wind, accompanied by enough light snow to coat the fields and roads. We had been planning a trip to Brownsville to take a look at the habitat restoration islands project recently complete in Pool 8. This type of project is one of the ways I like to see my tax dollars at work in My Minnesota. The Mississippi backwaters have long been known for their attractiveness to waterfowl. A couple of weeks ago there were reported to be about 7,500 trumpeter swans in Pool 8. The storm may offer them a helpful tail wind since its about the time of year for them to move on. We'll make the trip another year. A "recreational" drive of several hours through snow flurries and thirty-plus mph winds has about as much appeal to me as standing for hours in a Black Friday lemming-line to "save money" that I can spend on something, anything, else I don't really need (said the writer/reader/book lover who's slowly driving his family out of their house with his accumulating stacks of books and bookcases, all of which he "needs"). Meanwhile, I'll try to celebrate "Buy Nothing" day and look forward to shopping at some of the local independents who offer coffee and treats to their customers at this time of year. Big Box Black Friday now makes me think of a paraphrase of Ross Perot's line about "that sucking sound you hear is the profits leaving your community."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Raptors rule

picture of the State of the River cover (Metro segment Mississippi River) 

Driving north on 35E yesterday afternoon on my way home from work,  near the Hugo-Forest Lake border,  I noticed two bald eagles perched near the top of a bare tree on the east side of the road. One or both are probably the same eagles I've seen soaring over the roadway and fields in the same general area from time to time this year. The sight reminded me of something I learned at a recent State of the River event I attended. Along the Mississippi River as it passes through the Twin Cities metro area there are about 36 active bald eagle nests, compared to about 1,300 in Minnesota and only 400 or so in the early 1960's. That's 36 active bald eagle nests in the middle of a metropolitan area. Christopher Alexander, in his book Pattern Language, proposes the pattern "fingers of country in the city." Although we have more than enough low density development displacing farmland in much of the metro area, we must also be doing somethings right to support that many eagles. It gets better when we include the nesting ospreys and peregrine falcons in Ramsey County, home to St. Paul, the state capitol. In My Minnesota, raptors rule.

Thanksgiving memories

photo of small pond and autumn foliage
© harrington
Yesterday's expedition for this year's Christmas book was exceptionally successful. We returned with two choice reads, Donald Hall's Christmas at Eagle Pond, a nod to my New England origins, and Richard Paul Evans classic The Christmas Box. This Thanksgiving week, as I've been pondering what I'm grateful for, it slowly occurred to me that I'm most grateful for connections to people, places and values I care about. The photo above was taken just down a gravel road that runs in front of my house. Its beauty helps me connect to the place I live, My Minnesota. I'm thankful that those I care most about weren't washed out by Sandy. I don't know of any way to collect on insurance against the loss of memories connected to where you grew up or raised a family or took family vacations or worked for years and years. You can move on and rebuild, but the connections to your history, your memories, are broken and lost. This Thanksgiving, I'm most thankful for my memories and my dreams and living in My Minnesota with those who share them.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Traditions

photo of exterior of Dayton House at Christmas
© harrington
Several years ago I had the pleasure of spending time in Worthington during the holiday season. I stayed at the historic Dayton House. I'll make it a tradition to stay there again, should I ever again need to  overnight in that area. One of the pleasures of the season in My Minnesota is following family traditions to help celebrate giving thanks, sharing religious and cultural holidays (including Solstice for us druids), and renewing and restoring memories. Historic preservation, in all its many forms, is a worthwhile alternative to always seeking the newest, biggest, most improved. In My Minnesota, we try to measure value as much with our hearts as with our heads. Soon my wife, daughter, her significant other and I will head off to local bookstores, one a national chain, several independents (another aspect of My Minnesota for which I'm perpetually grateful), to start this year's episode of a family tradition begun many years ago, finding, taking home and reading the "Christmas book." Its sort of like a literary Christmas tree hunt. The book has to capture the spirit of Christmas/Chanukah/Solstice/Kwanza from the perspective of those of us who live in My Minnesota. Recent years have seen additions to our library from Carol Bly and Bill Holm. Enjoy the season. Build your traditions.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude III

photo of a street with a sense of enclosure
© harrington
This morning I'll be participating in a meeting of the board of the US Green Building Council-Minnesota Chapter. One of the many things for which I'm grateful is that My Minnesota has one of the most active and dedicated chapters in the organization. USGBC are the folks who brought us "green building" and sustainable development through LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). One of the less used, but I think more promising, LEED rating systems is for Neighborhood Development (ND). Many of the other systems (except LEED for Homes) focus largely on the design, construction and operation of the individual building or project. But, as we learn more about reducing energy consumption and how many people actually want to live in walkable neighborhoods, we're discovering that often it takes as much or more energy to get inhabitants to their destination as it does to keep them comfortable and healthy once they're inside. LEED-ND is one way to get a handle on that king of concern. I have some quibbles with the criteria in LEED-ND and how well they may fit with rural centers, many of whom also want to be known as being "green and sustainabe." That's one of the reasons I'll be at the board meeting. The Minnesota chapter is prioritizing a collaborative "Dynamic Green Approach" to engaging communities, schools and the governmental sector. I'm excited about that approach because My Minnesota certainly doesn't have one size or shade of green that fits all.