The past few weeks, Doug and I have been working on clearing a lane from our barn to the south-facing slope where we plan to establish a vineyard for seedless grapes. The lane travels from the relatively high ground around the barn and house to the bottom of a small valley and up the other side to the home of our future grapes.
We have been feeling our way through about a dozen rows of spruce slowly, choosing a route that is neither too steep nor convoluted, and studying the individual evergreen planted by the previous owner closely. As we come to each row of spruce, we look for passage that will save the finest young trees and remove only those that are not thriving.
When we first took stewardship for these spruce, they were gangly little trees about shoulder height. Now they tower over us and have filled out like football players.
It’s going to be a lovely lane — direct, yet not ruler straight, where we hope to be passing back and forth on for years to come as we care for the grapes.
The temperatures are rising, the sun is shining and the snow melt is running down the valley creating an intermittent stream we wondered about when we first saw it marked on the map in late summer.
I wish more of the snow would melt straight down into the earth and renew our challenged water table, but gravity is not just a good idea – it’s the law. And water always obeys gravity without question.
I go out multiple times a day to watch and hear the water coursing down our side valley.
It is flowing to the edge of our property, diverting along the ditch or our county road to a massive culvert. On the other side of the road, at the true bottom of a cross valley, it raises the level of the Smith-Connelly Creek.
Smith-Connelly Creek joins forces with the Pecatonica River, a tributary of the Rock River.
The Rock River Basin covers nearly 3,800 square miles of south Central Wisconsin’s rolling landscape and at this time of year millions of gallons are flowing into the Mississippi at Rock Island.
We all know where the Mississippi goes.
I like standing in the middle of the current in my rubber boots feeling the unstoppable water press past my ankles and wave upon wave agitate last year’s brown, snow-flattened grasses as it muscles its way down stream.. That relentless flow conjures images of the water cycle that we all learned in grade school.
Say hello to the Gulf of Mexico for me, gurgling gallons.
See you later.
In the meantime, hope your pure melted snow can help to cleanse the terrible mess we have made of that basin.
Living in Underhill House is a many-faceted experience. Moving about among its unmilled, branching timbers never seems to lose its charm, and gradually working my way through all the finishing projects is very satisfying.
But what we are loving best is that now we are living on our land and can get outside in a snap to care for the 44 acres around us.
For many years we have been pouring our vacation time and most of our “non-working” waking hours to getting ourselves out here as much as possible to help heal our little patch of land. I don’t even want to think about the hundreds and hundreds of hours spent packing the car, driving here and then back to town and unloading everything again. In the summer we hauled water and food along with changes of clothes and the tools du jour. In the winter time, all of that plus enough clothes to keep warm and snow shoes.
And I don’t want to count how many times we have found ourselves on the land or back in town only to realize that the tool we needed for the task at hand was on the other end of the commute.
Now we just step out to the porch to check the weather, pull on the appropriate overclothes in the front hall, stride off the porch, strap on snow shoes and head out for an hour or two. It is so wonderfully spontaneous and free flowing. It seems like heaven.
This past weekend, we prepared the glade for a prairie burn.
The glade is the heart of our 44. When we bought our land, a truck trail wound from the bottom of the valley all the way to the top. We named it Lloyd’s Lane after the previous owner, who blazed that trail. About half way up, there was a level section with pines to the north and an overgrown woods to the south.
Our second spring, we noticed some vivid, orange flowers in the lane that turned out to be Hoary Puccoon Lithospermum canescens.
Then we learned about the Coefficient of Conservation Concept.
Which is based on the observation that individual plant species tolerate disturbance differently. Coefficients range from 0 (highly tolerant of disturbance, little fidelity to any natural community) to 10 (highly intolerant of disturbance, restricted to pre-settlement remnants).
Those bright orange flowers that had caught our eye have a C value of 10!
We invited some area naturalists out to evaluate the site and were told that we were looking at a very rich remnant in and around the truck trail at that point. Lloyd’s Lane ran right over a jewel box of vanishing native plants that was rapidly degrading as the pines that had been planted on the north side of it were maturing, and the oaks, black walnuts and other encroached from the south.
We began work on a bypass immediately.
We’ve been working to open up the glade to sun ever since and protect this treasure trove — which is now just a few minutes’ climb up the lane from our back door.
Some of the encroaching hardwoods are now timbers that hold up our rafters. Most of their branches have been dragged into the woods to form brush pile habitat and melt back into the forest floor.
Some of those out-of-place pines have ended up as rafters in our house, and their tops and branches were piled on the edge of the glade last winter when the trees were felled.
You can’t safely have big brush piles in or near a prairie burn, so we spent last weekend stacking up and then burning the lot.
We have had bonfires in the glade before, and they are a real win-win-win situation!
- We have opened up the sky again for the sun-loving plants who have been calling this spot home since pre-settlement times.
- The intense heat of the bonfire sterilizes the ground beneath it. We always place these burns on spots where the invasive plants have become fierce. The fire creates a tabula rasa, and into that pristine place, we plant native seedlings that we purchase from the UW Arboretum spring plant sale.
- The plant sale is an arboretum fund-raiser.
It was a wonderful weekend. We prepared the site Saturday and set it alight on Sunday. We started the fire with some of our packing paper. This is the same paper that we used when we moved to Madison over 10 years ago, and used again to move to Mineral Point last September, then saved and used once more to move to Underhill House.
The newsprint packing paper has gotten a little the worse for wear each time we smooth it out, and, as we have no more plans to move, it seemed very proper to crunch some of it into little spheres and tuck it under the pine branches.
Then we spent the day feeding a very well-behaved little blaze till the site was ready to be a non-problematic part of a little prairie burn as soon as the time is right.
Now that most of the work is done to build Underhill House, I am starting to get back to my writing career. I contacted my editor at Isthmus to tell her I was ready to take an assignment. She asked me to write an article about trapping in Wisconsin because the state has just decided to open areas of the state parks to trapping.
I knew nothing about trapping and decided it was a topic I would like to learn more about, so I accepted the assignment.
I’m a vegetarian – partly because of the environmental impact of the factory farms. If you want to know more about this connection check out Mark Bittmann’s latest column on the UN’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow.”
But I also feel that because I have options, there is no reason I care to kill animals to eat them. I also accept that there may be some environmentally friendly ways to eat meat, such as eating deer or other wildlife in places where they are overcrowded.
I spoke with a number of people who trap, and state Department of Natural Resource staff who regulate trapping as a way of managing wildlife resources and I also spoke with people who are vehemently opposed to trapping on the grounds that it is cruel and inhumane.
I’m sure there are some irresponsible trappers out there, just like there are bad apples in everyoher barrel, but the trappers I met seemed like reasonable, responsible people. The DNR staff were competent and thoughtful people who care about conservation. Much of what the anti-trapping people said seemed to be uninformed and even clearly untrue.
Yes, animals can be hurt in traps, and when the trappers return, they are killed, more often for their fur than their meat. Fur is a dirty word in this country, and I am certainly not going to wear any, but in many parts of the world, it is considered a way to keep warm with a renewable resource instead of using synthetic materials. And the same people who won’t wear fur, often wear down jackets.
We live in a world of contradictions. I would personally like to see some of that energy being used to protest trapping be directed instead at factory farming where the amount of misery caused for human convenience is incalculable. I’m not personally convinced by cries of cruelty from anyone who eats meat or wears leather shoes.
If you want to read what I learned when I started researching trapping, here is the article.
Carolyn Schueppel was walking her dog in a privately owned conservation area near Lake Waubesa where dogs were commonly, but illegally, let off the leash. She let Handsome, her three-year-old Border collie mix, stretch his legs, and he raced out of sight. She found him just beyond the conservancy border in a Conibear trap that had been set to catch and kill raccoons. Terrified, Schueppel struggled with the trap but was unable to open it, and was forced to watch Handsome die.
“It was horrible,” Schueppel says. “It’s still horrible. I’m struggling. The trapper set his trap on private land about 100 yards from where he was supposed to be. I don’t want to walk in the woods by myself anymore.”
A year later Fred Strand and his golden retriever, Hank, were hunting for grouse and woodcock in northern Wisconsin when Hank stepped on a foothold trap intended to catch wolves. This time, the dog’s story ended happily. Strand is a wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and knew how to pry open the jaws of the trap. The foothold trap is the same design used by biologists who capture large predators to attach radio collars for studying their habits. Hank ran on without injury.
New legislation will open most state parks to trapping for the first time this April. These parks will also be open for trapping from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15. Under the law traps need to be set more than 100 yards from trails, park shelters and other high-traffic areas.
Conservationists say trapping is a useful tool for maintaining healthy wild animal populations. Trappers say they are harvesting a renewable resource to supply a global market for fur clothing. Opponents say trapping is unnecessary and inhumane.
Beyond the philosophical differences, are we going to see an increase in the number of pet injuries or deaths in the state parks that now allow trapping? And how safe are hikers who step off the trails? READ MORE
WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH TRAPPING?
Three days ago, Doug and I were coming home from errands in Madison in near white-out conditions. The flakes were tiny, but so thick they filled the air, and they were being driven almost horizontally through the headlight beams obliterating any sight of the stripes on the road. The same wind was doing its best to bat us off that road. Traffic on the Interstate was crawling at 30 and hoping to make it home safe.
This morning I got up to see an incredibly gorgeous snow falling outside Underhill House. Some of the flakes were the size of dimes. They wafted toward the ground so gently, they reminded me of a dreamy song by Manhattan Transfer called, not surprisingly, Snowfall.
In Wisconsin, you never know what the winter will bring. In December, one in four years tops 22.5 inches of snow. Another 25 percent of years receive less than 3.4 inches for the month. Similarly in January, fresh snowfall in the heaviest years amounts to over 19 inches, while the lightest years get under 6.5 inches. New snow for February ranges from over 13 inches in heavy snowfall years to 6.5 inches or less in light years. That makes for some very different February’s. March is a month that can really be all over the map. Last March had a record high of 82 F – smashing the previous record by 13 degrees. What should have been the last hoorah blizzard of winter was a pounding deluge of rain. We are starting March in the upper Midwest with an average of 9.1 inches of snow cover. Where it will go from there is anyone’s guess.
I’ve been doing a little figuring.
I estimate that we have about 7,000 square feet of drive. If the snow is about 6”, which it has been several times recently, that amounts to 3,500 cubic feet of snow, or a mound about 10’ x 10’ and 3-1/2 stories tall.
Depending on the nature of the snow – light and fluffy or dense and slushy, it can weigh from 7 pounds a cubic foot to 20 pounds and more. We’ve had both types this past week, so picking a number in the middle, would mean 50,000 pounds of snow – that’s 25 tons. I’ve just re-checked my math, and I think that’s right.
Yet we did it – twice (about 3-4″ each time) on Wednesday.
We’ve got a system. We have a DR brush mower that can switch out the mower blade for a snowplow blade, and Doug wrestles it up and down the bulk of the drive, back and forth many times, easing the snow gradually from the center to the outer edges of our gradually-narrowing driving lane.
My job is to do the steps, the spur beside house and the space where we park the cars. I use an array of shovels and brooms for that task.
I sweep the porch steps and our stone steps. They are lovely, but not very shovel friendly. If the snow is deep enough, I must start with a shovel, but I ultimately need to clear out all the little indentations in their irregular surfaces with the broom.
Then I get to work moving snow away from the house across the drive and dumping it over the rock wall along the edge of the drive. We have the perfect tool for the job. It’s a huge push shovel with a rectangular handle like a reel lawn mower. With it I can move all the snow I can manage, sliding it uphill with ease and gliding it up over the increasing ridge of snow at the edge of the area I’m clearing and dumping my snow load beyond.
What I love about it is that you can really tailor the amount of snow you move each trip. I prefer to make more trips but carry less than the shovel could absolutely hold each trip. I can keep myself in a gently aerobic state, gradually peeling out of my hat, gloves and overcoat, and still feeling plenty warm.
There are few activities as pleasant as methodically moving snow and clearing a path. I used to like the sound of the city after a big snow. Noise seemed muffled and the mechanical background noises were minimized. Sometimes you would hear the answering screech of a neighbor’s shovel cutting down to the concrete sidewalk. We all had a chance to catch up on each other’s lives in a Currier and Ives setting.
Out here in the country, it is very quiet as I shovel. If it’s windy, the spruces are whispering. Every five or 10 minutes Doug sweeps past with his noisy but effective walk-behind plow, and then the roar fades away, and it’s back to just me and the pure-white snow. As the climate warms, I look on each fresh snowfall as an endangered species that I feel fortunate to experience.
What do you love about shoveling snow? (I know almost everyone says they hate it — but isn’t there something that’s kind of cool about shoveling that amazing substance, snow?
Our first-choice heat source at Underhill House is a combination of passive solar and the solar hot water panels that warm our floors and thermal mass interior wall. This dual-solar supply is comfortably providing all the heat we could want during even the coldest days that this not-particularly-cold winter has exposed us to, as well as almost all of the following nights. But the sun does not shine every day.
We have over 20 wooded acres to maintain on our 44 acres of land, and its ecologically-sensitive upkeep will always generate a renewable source of heating fuel. After a tree dies, the carbon it has sequestered will be released whether it decays or burns, so burning a small amount as efficiently as possible seems like a reasonable way for us to supplement our solar sources.
We didn’t really have time to put up firewood this fall while we were in the midst of our building project. Doug and I did take the time last spring to saw up the small branches left on the ground when several oaks that succumbed to Oak Wilt were felled for timbers in the house. We stacked them up on the far end of the drain field where they lay, and now we snow shoe over and grab a few arm fulls every few days. I think we will make it till things brighten up a bit and we can get by on direct solar heat.
We chose a Regency F-1100 stove because our house is small and very well insulated and we don’t need to generate much heat to warm it. Most wood-burning stoves would be overkill for us. Many cast iron stoves and those with soapstone insets are designed to absorb heat from their fires and release it slowly. Masonry stoves are the king of slow release. But we don’t need a slow release stove. Our concrete floors and thermal mass wall can hold and release heat.
What we want from our wood-burning stove is a quick fix to fill in when the sun hasn’t been shining for a few days. That’s why we liked the steel-walled Regency, which passes its heat along to the room as soon as the wood is burning.
We have also learned that Regency plants a tree for every stove sold. That doesn’t seem like a lot – I would rather they plant the equivalent number of trees to provide heat to a small house for a winter – but every little bit helps.
All Regency wood stoves have been certified by the EPA because they have a firebox designed to create airflow around the wood so it burns completely with very little ash or polluting smoke. It is supposed to burn with up to 77% efficiency and meets the DEQ Washington Phase II Clean Air Standard of 4.5 grams/hour or less.
Catalytic versus Noncat
A lot of wood-burning stoves use catalytic converters to get a clean burn. Smoke normally needs to get really hot to combust – about 1100º F. A catalytic converter gets around this by passing smoke through a ceramic honeycomb that burns smoke at about 500-550º F. This gives you the option of burning a long, slow, overnight burn and still combusting the polluting smoke.
Non-catalytic stoves use an air injection method. The draft pulls hot pre-heated air into several tubes running across the top of the fire-box. Each tube has rows of tiny holes. Heated air squirts through these holes, creating jets which fan the smoke into very active, beautiful, secondary flames that hover above the burning logs.
Regency uses this non-catalytic technology. They claim that with durable air tubes and baffles that encourage total combustion and low emissions, the Regency non-catalytic appliances burn cleaner and require less maintenance than stoves with catalytic combustors. The downside is that they don’t work well for an overnight fire, which we don’t need because of our well insulated walls and heat retaining floors.
The EPA has created a consumer information sheet on how to reduce air pollution from residential wood burning. Check it out here.
The timbers that hold up Underhill House were cut from trees on our 44 acres. We were looking for trees that had the right dimensions, interesting forking patterns and were too close to their neighbors or not doing well for other reasons. These “weed” trees made great timbers, but the part we wanted was often 20 or 30 feet in the air atop a rather thicker trunk.
We had a good use for the trunks too.
Later they were moved to a nearby solar kiln for further drying.
Then they were brought home and stored in the barn till we were ready to use them as window trim and sills, bathroom counter tops, kitchen counter tops and a set of shelves for the kitchen. We have oak from trees stricken by oak wilt, some fine elm from an elm tree that was just succumbing, as most elms do by a certain age, to Dutch elm disease. We had some black walnut that was just growing too closely and some amazing cherry from a large tree that forked almost at the ground. A year ago, one side of it went down, tearing away from it’s twin with a disastrous gash. It feels good to salvage pieces like these.
Putting together the elm slabs into counters and shelves has been a particular joy. We decided not to put cabinets on the corner wall because they would cut off the view for people working in the kitchen beside them. Instead, Michael Donovan, one of our carpenters, has shaped some really gorgeous shelves where we will store our plates and bowls and drinking glasses.
How we finished these slabs
We considered several finishes for all the horizontal slab wood in the house. We explored oils and various water soluble finishes and settled on Ceramithane.
Our paint dealer, Phil at Premiere Paint in McFarland, WI, said he used Ceramithane on the counter in his store, where he has been sliding gallons of paint across it for three years, with no ill effect.
It is really neat stuff!
Ceramithane is a water-borne acrylic-urethane finish that cross-links, which is a chemical process that forms a very hard, durable coating. It’s made by Graham Paint, a small company in Chicago. Ceramithane contains ceramic microspheres that turn it into a hard finish. We are also using it on the wood floor in our loft and on our stairs.
It is really bringing out the grain in this cherry slab. It is self-leveling, which means the brush strokes are supposed to wmooth out and disappear. They do, however sets up pretty fast, after which the self-leveling feature no longer functions, so it’s a little tricky to apply, but I spent a very enjoyable weekend finishing our kitchen shelves. That was before Jacob Williamson of Alchemy Painting showed me how to minimize brush strokes more effectively.
Any water-based acrylic will raise the grain in wood, so the makers advise that you wipe the wood first with a damp cloth then let it dry. Sure enough it will feel rougher. Before putting on a coat of Ceramithane, sand the wood lightly till it is smooth again. With each coat, the wood grain will rise a bit more, so each coat needs a light sanding after drying.
We started with 2 coats of the high gloss Ceramithane because that is the hardest form, followed by a coat of satin Ceramithane because we didn’t want such a high sheen. Because that still seemed a bit glossy, we rubbed in gently with fine steel wool.
Then Michael mounted them to the wall, which was also tricky. He used wooden cleats against the back wall and steel rods driven into the timbers to support the bottom shelf and the highest shelf, which will be used to support a stereo speaker.
Those in between are supported by cleats and metal tubes which were actually the same tubes used to cover the wires of our kitchen pendant lighting. We ordered a few moer. We thought they would look good, and they are much stronger than necessary.
MOVING IN AND PARING DOWN
Last Friday we packed up the furniture and other belongings with which we have been camping in our temporary Mineral Point apartment and moved them to Underhill House, where we are continuing to camp for the present.
This period of camping with a few of our belongings is proving very valuable. It’s serving the purpose of detatching us from possessions that I felt very committed to a few short months ago.
MEETING OUR MOVING DEADLINE, BUT NO OTHERS
Doug wanted to move in before he began teaching, and the new semester began this week, so that dictated moving Friday – even though there are still a lot of finishing details to complete Underhill House. Our crew still comes every morning and continues to measure and cut and shape shelves and trim around the unmilled timbers that hold up the house. The compressor that roars to life to power the nail gun, the whining power saws and droning sanders continue.
Before we moved, I thought our lives were about as packed full and distracted as they could get, but living in the middle of a building site does up the ante.
It has increased our personal productivity because now instead of going back to our apartment, we can continue painting trim and chasing down plumbing mysteries into the wee hours.
After the furniture movers left Friday, we wandered around feeling like intruders. It was like being in a construction museum after hours.
ATTACK OF THE TARP MONSTERS
Saturday morning , watching the first light fall on our interior was pure joy.
All day we worked in full sun with our painter, Jake. Just about dusk, the sky darkened suddenly, and the wind kicked into high gear.
We heard something hit the side of the house hard and quickly determined that several roof tarps had broken loose and were beating against the house.
The tarps on the roof are protecting the rubber membrane till spring when we can add soil and dirt and create our living roof. These tarps were secured by the fascia boards along the outside of the roof and held down on the center by sand bags.
We don’t want anything to puncture the rubber membrane!
The liberated tarps were being flung about by winds gusting up to 58 mph.
We didn’t dare approach them. Our flailing roof protection had turned on us like a rabid guard dog.
After dark, I stood in the bedroom watching a huge tarp that had spent its early life as a billboard ad hurling itself against the wall and window like some kind of berserk tarp monster bent on breaking through the window, snatching us up and gobbling us whole. It was an unsettling image. After it occurred to me, I could not shake it.
I haven’t seen many horror movies, but I felt like I was a character in one — one of those hapless individuals who die early in the show to demonstrate just how threatening the monster really is. If you are an old Trekkie, you’ll know what I mean when I say I felt like Ensign Rickie.
It made for a long night.
By morning, the wind had died down, and we ventured out to find no damage to the plaster or the fascia boards.
Those tarps were cut off Sunday, and more will soon replace them with extra sandbags so they will hopefully hold their ground in the face of any further high winds till spring.
OUR NEW ROUTINE
Since then, we have gotten up, dressed, breakfasted and tried to finish a short project before the crew arrive, haul their tools out of the corners and set to work.
My office is up and running. In my old office, my desk sat against an uninsulated, concrete wall on the exposed side of the basement – cool in the summer and far too cool in the winter.
My new office is smaller, but was made to fit my desk. It is well insulated, with lots of electric outlets and line-of-sight to one of those dreaded cell phone towers we hate to see but have come to depend on.
We still don’t have shelves in the pantry, poles in the closets or most of the doors, but I’ll start with a working office and take it from there.
Each night when we go to bed, a little more progress has been made, and each morning when we wake up, it feels a little more like home.