Archive for August, 2011


We bought our land the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the next summer I walked around with big eyes watching to see what would come up.  In a handful of places I saw a single tall, plant.  On the edge of a meadow.  By the side of our main trail where there was a little erosion.  In the shadow of the new barn.

Mullein up close and personal. (photo credit

It seemed  majestic towering above the other plants, so solitary with its torch of tiny yellow blossoms.  I hoped it was a native prairie plant.

Now I know it is Mullein Verbascum thapsus.  It’s not a native.  Europeans brought it with them in the early 18th century for it’s medicinal properties to treat various ailments such as lung diseases, diarrhea, colic, migraines, earaches, coughs and cold.

It has long been a useful plant. (more…)

August 29, 2011 at 12:01 am 10 comments


I’ve been thinking about irrigating as we plan to sink cisterns beside the barn to store rain water.  With precipitation starting to come in more intense episodes in the Midwest followed by long dry spells, it seems like the best idea.

This press release from UW-Madison writer Jill Sakai takes irrigation to the global level:

Irrigation increases global agricultural productivity by an amount roughly equivalent to the entire agricultural output of the U.S., according to a new University of Wisconsin-Madison study, according to Mutlu Ozdogan, a UW-Madison professor of forest and wildlife ecology and member of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. (more…)

August 26, 2011 at 12:10 am 4 comments


We’ve been spending about half our time out on our land this summer fighting invasives, finishing the barn and preparing to build a house next year.

On a rainy day last week, I opened the door to the greenhouse, which had some overgrown herbs  I intended to clear out.  I paused  in the doorway, looking into the lush foliage and found myself puzzling over what I was looking at.  It seemed to be some kind of exotic white, fuzzy mold, which made sense in the heat and humidity.

Then it moved.

What I saw looked a lot like this (photo credit

I stepped cautiously into the greenhouse and found myself staring into the wide, green eyes of a kitten.  It was past the fuzz ball stage, but not quite grown to the leggy, big eared moment just before adulthood. (more…)

August 23, 2011 at 12:06 am 6 comments


We came across some rough-sawn elm cut to 5/4″ that we thought would work well to make the loft floor in the barn, but it turned out to be only about half the needed number of board feet.  Then a good friend kindly offered us some old white oak timbers that have been sitting in his back yard for going on seven years.  Wayne got some friends (including Doug) to help him haul them to his yard when an acquaintance of his had been given an ultimatum from his wife to get those timbers out of their back yard.  I don’t know how long they had been sitting in Wayne’s friend’s yard, and I don’t know where they came from before that.

These orphan timbers have been hauled about who knows how long waiting for a rebirth.  Unfortunately the last few years have been the hardest of their long life, and much of their formerly sturdy wood has succumbed to some carpenter ant invasion and dry rot.

Each piece had to be hauled out and evaluated. (more…)

August 19, 2011 at 12:05 am 6 comments


I went back to school a few years ago and got my masters degree in journalism from the UW-Madison.  I graduated with an emphasis in science writing and burning desire to write about environmental topics.

Bill Bryson is my hero!

I was  not surprised when Bryson,’s A Walk in the Woods was assigned reading in a creative non-fiction writing seminar I took in 2008.  My professor, Deb Blum, is a Pulitzer Prize winning author herself, and she called Bryson a master of incorporating hard science into some very congenial reading.

Bryson has aimed his all-encompassing curiosity, humorous touch and his awe-inspiring ability to put complex topics into very accessible form on many topics.  Wikipedia breaks him down into travel, language, science, biography, history and memoir.

Here are four of his many books that I think everyone should read.

Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, 1998 – you step away from this work with a wistful smile on your face from the misadventures of two unlikely hikers who have tackled the 2,100 miles of the expansive and fragile Appalachian Trail together.  While we follow the pair of non-campers as they stagger under their burden of random supplies day after day and week after week and mile after mile, the terrain and history and possibilities and perils of the eastern forests comes into sharper and sharper focus.  Bryson manages to make their slog humorous and poignant, and at the same time fills your head with an amazing amount of information about the national parks, and environmental issues that transcend them.  This is what I love about reading Bill Bryson.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003  This is an amazing compendium of not only what we know about our place in the universe but how we know it.  Bryson likes to paint a picture of the scientist and their circumstances, which makes topics from particle physics to paleontology come alive.  But what really puts this book on the map for me is his final chapter, titled “Good-bye.”  It’s about what humans have done to other species.  He begins with the last of the dodos, “the famously flightless bird whose dim but trusting nature and lack of leggy zip made it a rather irresistible target for bored young tars on shore leave.  Millions of years of peaceful isolation had not prepared it for the erratic and deeply unnerving behavior of human beings.”  He ends with a reminder of how lucky we humans are to be here and how precarious our hold really is.

Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: a Memoir, 2006

Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951, and his perspective on the evolution of the largest generation in American history, we boomers, using the perspective of his own simultaneously normal and quirky family (aren’t they all?) really puts what has happened tour economy, society and environment in the last 70 years into a clear perspective.

According to Gallup polls, 1957 was the happiest year in American history.  It’s been downhill from there.  And yet these were people who owned a lot less stuff than we do now and lived much less “comfortable” lives.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, 2010 looks at how our current conditions of wealth and comfort have come to be.  Louis Bayard called the book, “a pip and a spree and, almost incidentally, a serious education,” in a Washington Post review.

What we take for granted as our right to this kind of life has not existed for very long.  It’s only been a few hundred years in which a portion of the humans on this planet can feel assured that we will have enough to eat, plenty of clean water, medical care when we need it and a boggling array of entertainments.

Bryson is a true environmentalist, but he is not a doomsayer.  You will finish any of these books with a better sense of who you are and how you got here.  It’s not inevitable.  We’ve all been very, very lucky.


August 16, 2011 at 12:07 am 2 comments


A crew from Whole Trees Architecture and Construction spent Tuesday and Wednesday on our land and completed peeling all the trees that need peeling this summer to serve as the unmilled timbers we will be using to build our house next spring.

Selected not only because they are the right dimensions for construction of our house, but also because they were crowding other trees, or likely to die soon for other reasons, the trees are peeled now and left standing till early winter because:

  1. After its bark is removed, the tree will die and dry to a much lighter weight by the time it is cut sometime next winter.
  2. Felling takes place after the ground freezes to cause minimum damage to the forest floor.
  3. The lighter timber is easier to handle and requires less power equipment to move around, and that in turn minimizes disruption to the surrounding growing area.
  4. Peeling the trees also allows us to see any flaws, holes, disease and structural damage before dragging them out of the woods.

Peeling trees is hard work, but incredibly engrossing.   Each species reveals different characteristics as it peels.  You become aware of how much water is moving under the tree’s bark as you peel it.  Sometimes you can be splashed in the face as you pull back a strip of bark.

Peeling trees is a 1-2-3 process. Get your tool under the bark and pull away from the tree. Cut the loosened bark. Take a hold and pull.

Peeling a tree is like unwrapping a present.

There is an element of surprise as its inner, often muscular shape is revealed.   Most of the trees we have peeled have been pine and spruce because we have a lot of those, and they’ll make great, straight rafters and joists.  That meant a LOT of branches to be sawed off before the peeling began, and I was on branch removal detail until all branches were gone.

Then I picked up a tree spud and joined the peelers to realize what a fascinating task I had been missing.

It is intensely moving to work so closely with these beautiful, strong trees that will retain their shape as they become part of our dwelling.

The highest we needed to peel any pine was 19 feet, and when you are working at the end of a long pole, peeling is more problematic.
Many of the more individually-shaped posts with forking branches will have to be felled before they can be peeled because they are too tall to reach with our tools.   That task will be undertaken later.

One amazing walnut, which will become part of our bedroom wall, was low enough to peel in this round, and the crew saved it for last.  We all worked on it together, admiring this fine tree as we prepared it.

Walnut bark peels off in great swaths.

This branch will stretch all the way across the bedroom wall. Had this tree not been chosen, in the long run this branch would have probably split off the trunk. This wonderful walnut will make a fantastic addition to our home, but it would be a reject to a conventional forester.

We could not stop admiring this fine tree as we worked.

We had a great time with the tree crew.

After they headed back to LaCrosse, Doug and I peeled three more trees — small, overcrowded examples of pine, cherry and walnut, which we will use to test various finishes this fall.

The next step for Doug and I will be to spray each peeled tree with a borate solution to keep them from becoming covered in mildew.  It will be wonderful to touch base with each of them again.

How many times will we thank these trees for becoming our part of our home?

Not enough.

August 12, 2011 at 12:17 am Leave a comment


Guest Post by Doug Hansmann

With daytime high temperatures staying in the 70s this week, we’re getting a much-appreciated reprieve from what’s been a roasting summer here in Wisconsin.  And as Denise and I finalize the orientation of the passive-solar house we intend to build next year, minimizing all possible summer solar heating  is definitely on the front burner.

So does that mean we’re waffling on a passive solar design?  Definitely not!   But we are going to do passive solar with a twist -  a twist, to the east.

All good passive solar designs call for facing a lot of windows, equaling 8 – 13% of the total square footage of your house, toward the south.  Check out Geoflo Energy Services  and Build it Solar for primers on the subject. (more…)

August 9, 2011 at 12:09 am 8 comments


This exciting news release from University of Wisconsin Madison offers another reason to like lichens!

Lichens and mosses are well-known barometers of the environment.

With no real roots, they literally soak up their food from thin air – living on water and nutrients extracted mostly from the atmosphere. They come and go depending on factors of environmental quality such as air pollution, humidity and temperature. Both mosses, known to scientists as bryophytes (and which in fact include liverworts and hornworts, as well as mosses), and lichens, a botanical amalgam of algae and fungus, have been used as environmental sentinels to monitor changes in air quality. Increasingly, they are being used to identify the subtle manifestations of climate change. (more…)

August 5, 2011 at 12:01 am Leave a comment


When we are trying to live more responsibly, consuming less, burning less greenhouse gasses – bikes keep popping up as an integral piece of the puzzle.

Just think how much more space would it take at the train station in Den Haag, Netherlands, if all these people had arrived by auto? (photo credit:

There was a great article in Monday’s NYTimes on biking in the Netherlands.   The Netherlands is bike heaven.  Doug and I loved the more sane pace that bikes bring to that country when we lived there during Doug’s postdoc.

In the Netherlands EVERYONE rides bikes from tiny tots to gray-haired grandparents, from school kids to bankers in business suits.  Sure there are cars, but cars are the alternative not the default, and drivers respect bikes because the next time they could be the ones on two wheels.

Coming to the Netherlands from Madison, Doug and I found it easy to plug in.  Doug biked 7 miles, ferrying across the Rhine River to work, rain or snow along with a mass of fellow bikers.  Dutch bikers keep their seats a little lower, which makes it easy to put your feet on stable ground in slippery conditions.  Along busier roads, there are two-way bike lanes everywhere.

The first place we lived when we returned to the States was Indiana.  No way was Doug going to bike to work along the equivalent country roads in Indiana.  There was no such thing as a bike lane.  There wasn’t even a shoulder.  But the most dangerous part was the attitude of drivers – a kind of belligerence about having to share the road with bikes, move over, or heaven forbid – slow down and wait for a safe chance to pass.

The area we moved to north of Chicago had a good set of bike trails, and we were able to use our bikes a lot more for fun and business there, but we are now back in an oasis of biking bliss.  Madison Wisconsin.

I’ve blogged about the bike boulevards that Madison is incorporating.  We have an amazing set of bike trails here, and now we have B-cycles, a bike sharing system where you can pay by the ride for a bike where and when you need it.

Trek Bicycle has donated a full B-cycle bike sharing system to Madison.  Here’s what Trek has to say about it:

“Madison is our home and Trek is committed to making it a world-class bike city,” said Trek president John Burke. “We are very excited to be able to give this gift to the city.” The initial Trek capital investment of $1.4 million will include all of the 35 stations and 350 bikes that will be placed throughout the city while the company will contribute $700,000 per year to cover the operational costs throughout the 5 year contract.

The investment also adds two years to the original agreement, ensuring that Madison residents and visitors are guaranteed to enjoy the benefits of B-cycle for a longer period of time. “This is going to be a great program for the people of Madison, our visitors and B-cycle,” said Madison’s Mayor Paul Soglin.

B-cycle is a next-generation bicycle sharing system that replaces the need for a car for short trips in, and around, urban areas. Since debuting in Denver, CO in 2010, B-cycle has been utilized over 100,000 times, 43% of which replaced a car trip in the city’s downtown area. In addition to Denver, B-cycle is currently operational in Chicago, IL, Des Moines, IA, San Antonio, TX, and Kailua, HI and will soon appear in Broward County, FL, Boulder, CO, Omaha, NE, Spartanburg, SC, and Madison, WI.

How it works is you can walk up to any B-cycle use your charge card to check out a bike for a quick trip.

And the system is solar powered.

Here’s how the Wisconsin State Journal describes it:

• An annual pass for unlimited rides under 30 minutes costs $65, or $45 for students. Weekly passes with unlimited rides under 30 minutes are $30. A daily pass with unlimited rides under 30 minutes is $10. For all passes, a second 30 minutes costs $2, the third 30 minutes $5, and subsequent 30-minute intervals $5 each.

• B-cycle hours are from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Bikes can be returned at any time and the system will log the appropriate charge. A new bike cannot, however, be checked out after 11 p.m.

• Because each bike is equipped with a GPS, B-cycle officials know where each bike is and can go out at any time to make room at full stations and bring new bikes to stations without any.

• The bikes come with software that measures the distance traveled, calories burned and the estimated carbon footprint offset by the ride. 

• B-cycle bikes come equipped with a basket, lock and lights, but riders are encouraged to bring a helmet.

The system has its detractors.  It is probably more expensive than owning a bike if you use it often,  so we’ll see how it goes.

Any move to make it easy for people to get on a bike and move around

is a move in the right direction!


August 2, 2011 at 12:01 am 8 comments

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