Archive for the ‘Roundrock’ category

a good Saturday at Roundrock

April 23, 2019

I may not have given enuf heed to the weather forecast when it spoke of the nighttime temps falling close to freezing on Friday. Surely, I had thought, a day reaching into the sixties followed by a day in the seventies could not produce a night between them that would be c-c-c-cold! But it was. Through the night I kept pulling the blankets over my chilled shoulders and even covering my head with the warm afghan my mother had knitted me when I was a wee lad.

I did my best to say in bed as long as I could but finally rose around 7:00 (which discerning readers will know is a whole four hours later than my normal Saturday rise), hoping the mid-April sun would quickly warm the air. Didn’t happen. But stir I must, and I pulled on my cold clothes to face the day, vowing it was time to pack the truck and head home. (I also hoped that the phoebe had returned to her nest for the night to sit on her eggs and keep them warm.)

But my wife wanted breakfast, which consisted of assorted fruits and bowls of hot oatmeal prepared over a (dodgy) propane stove. And this consumed, I began to feel the day take shape. The morning chorus had begun by then, and a pair of ducks that may have spent the night on our lake below, took themselves into the air for whatever business they had elsewhere. And as it always the case on a chilly morning, the inside of the cabin was colder than the outside, so getting up and getting out and moving around soon warmed my reluctant body and I began to think the day might hold some promise after all.

My tree cutting plans being thwarted the day before, I turned my thoughts to the other chore I had in mind for the weekend: spreading more gravel around the cabin to improve the firebreak and to hold off for a little while longer the incessant march of plants and small trees encroaching on the cabin.

Over the years I’ve had three loads of pea gravel delivered to the cabin site. Or rather, two. The man who installed the stone steps up to the cabin had spread the original layer gravel around the area and had left me a nice pile of gravel to use as I might. So that was the first pile. And with shovel and wheelbarrow and muscle, I had scattered it here and there, attempting to preserve and even extend the open space around the cabin. A December visit two years ago with my son-in-law and grandson (a Brooklyn child who was three at the time and so fascinated with the wilderness) saw the delivery of the second pile of gravel, which my son-in-law spent most of our visit moving to deepen and extend the open space. And then, a few months ago I had a third pile of gravel delivered, in part because I now love having a pile of gravel to play with but also because of a mix up with the crew repairing the washed out spillway on the dam that resulted in them owing me money, the amount equivalent to the cost of a load of gravel.

So Saturday would involve me filling the wheelbarrow a few times and spreading the gravel around the cabin. I’m slowly working my way outward from the cabin, going “downhill,” smoothing the rough spots and building up a layer of gravel that I hope will be deep enuf to keep the weeds and scrub from finding a foothold. (I’m told about two to four inches is enuf.) It’s a big job, bigger than in seems when I’m imagining getting it done in a day. The space to the east of the cabin, where the fire ring is, is roughly 50 x 20 feet, not counting the area where I park my truck. It has a layer of gravel on it already, but it’s thin in some places, and my wife wants at least one spot that is level so the table we set on it will also be level and our food won’t slide off. All of this requires an eye for the slope of the ground and, as it turns out, sufficient muscle to keep at the work long enuf to make a visible difference.

Here’s a tip: before you begin filling your wheelbarrow with gravel, be sure to have it pointing in the direction you will go when it’s full. I’d learned that lesson with the first pile of gravel, and I’ve been diligent about it ever since. Fortunately, that direction is also slightly down slope, which makes the delivery part of the job easier.

So I filled it and then wheeled it to the spot near the cabin where I wanted to begin the work. Tipping the wheelbarrow up, I dropped the minuscule pile of gravel in place. Hardly enuf for the need. Then I used the shovel and my feet to spread it to a more or less smooth state. (A few rainstorms and gravity will smooth it further.) I could see then that the half dozen or so loads I intended to move that day were going to make not much difference at all.

But I kept at it, now just dumping the piles in place but saving the smoothing effort for later. I think I filled and moved more than a dozen wheelbarrow loads on Saturday morning, making a noticeable difference in the original gravel pile but still only covering a space of about 6 x 6 square feet. Still, the work was getting done, and the muscles were getting a work out, and the ibuprofen was waiting for me. The depth of the layer of gravel will diminish the farther I get from the cabin, in part because of the slope of the ground but also because, for whatever reason, the scrub doesn’t seem interested in growing in that area and doesn’t need to be buried.

So I had about a dozen minuscule piles of gravel laid out, and I figured the hauling work was done for the day. Then I began to spread the piles and flatten them, keeping the general downward slope away from the cabin but making it less pronounced in areas and burying some large rocks that would sometimes catch the toe of my boot. This buried the base of a large tree about two gravel inches above the true ground level. I don’t know if this will be a problem or not. Somewhere I heard or read that the substance of the wood in a tree changes at the point where it leaves the ground, so the roots have a different characteristic than the visible trunk. I don’t know if this is true; nor do I know if “burying” the trunk in two inches of gravel will affect it, but it will be worth watching (since the tree stands close to the cabin, and I wouldn’t want it to fall that direction).

So the gravel work did make a visible difference in the area I’m slowly working on, and it left a clear indication of where the work stopped so I’ll know where to begin again on my next visit. I want to maintain an even and continuous slope away from the cabin on this side because when there are heavy rains, bits of forest debris are washed across the space. Where the gravel is higher in the path of the wash, the bits of debris collect. This shows me where the low spots are and a little bit about the flow of the water across the area. I want the flow to continue into the leaves beyond the retaining wall. The same applies to the fallen leaves that blow across the gravel. They will collect in any low spot (though less than the debris will) and pile up against any barrier (which is why I raised the wood rack two feet off the ground).

The muscles in my back suggested it was time to stop this work, so I did. Yet during the couple of hours I was at it, I first shed my hoodie and then later the cotton flannel shirt I was wearing. The April sun in the unbroken blue sky was doing a good job of warming the morning, and I was glad by then that I hadn’t packed up and left when I was cold at dawn.

Watching over me as I worked, and watching over the cabin when we are not there, are a number of masks we have hanging on the trunks of the trees. They surround the fire ring area, and there are a couple on the other side of the cabin. I’m pretty sure I’ve had interlopers visit my cabin (bits of trash, cigarette butts, and the like tell the tale), but so far these masks have not been molested. (Wasps did build a nest inside one of them once.) We had brought along a new mask to hang, and since the day was warm and the muscles were tired, I suggested we hang it, though not at the cabin.

Far up the road behind the cabin, right near the northern property line, is an old oak, much older than the trees around it, and it’s right on the edge of our road. I had hung a wooden birdhouse on it years before. The birdhouse rotted and fell (and went into the fire later), but the nail in the tree was still there. So that’s where I wanted to hang the mask. It’s a faux African mask, and I suspect it’s made of some easily reduced substance, but up it went, and here it is:

I don’t suppose it provides much menace or caution for interlopers, and it may even provide target practice, but I like having new and noticeable things appear in my forest so that anyone who happens along will see that we visit regularly. (Also, to the left in this photo is my new neighbor’s property. The first thing he did was cut down a quarter mile of trees along our mutual property line, which is his business and his right, and I don’t consider it a problem, but still, the mask!)

Not long after this, we headed back to the cabin and began packing up for the drive home. The dogs were fully in favor of this. (So odd: they are intensely eager to go to the cabin and intensely eager to leave!) This coming weekend is looking good, weatherwise, and I’m pretty sure my muscles will have recovered by then.


As to the photo at the top of this post, I admit it’s not a very good image. What you see is a reflection of trees in the lake below the cabin. But it doesn’t look right, does it? The trees are out of focus at the top and the sky above them appears muddy. The reason for this is because I flipped the photo upside down. The trees you see the most of are the reflections. The actual trees are upside down at the bottom. And the sky you see at the top is the reflection of the sky in the lake water.

I had done this once before on my old blog, Roundrock Journal, but I didn’t explain what I had done. A number of comments said that the image was unnerving, but they couldn’t say why. That photo was in better focus too.

a good Friday at Roundrock

April 22, 2019

Friday afternoon, given a shortened work day, my wife and I and the two dogs hauled ourselves down to our little cabin on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks to revel in the wonderful weather. And while Friday’s weather forecast was good, Saturday’s was even better, so the plan was for an overnight. That much worked out as planned.

When we arrived at the cabin I quickly learned that the phoebe, whose mud nest is affixed to the side of the cabin under the porch roof, had moved in again. She was in her nest when I crept around the corner to spy on the porch, but she took off soon after that as our comings and goings scared her away.

She had been busy in the two weeks since I had been to the cabin, as you can see here:

My wife took this picture with her phone, and while it’s not the best image ever captured, the conditions were not good (holding her phone over the nest and snapping blindly), and it is certainly far better than anything I managed to capture with my phone.

It is our custom when we arrive to sit on our front porch and gaze down at the lake below (above) and muse and converse and more or less attune ourselves to time again in the forest. Doing this, however, meant that the phoebe would not be sitting on her eggs, and that made me feel like a bad steward of the forest. This is at least the fifth year that the phoebe has had a nest on the cabin porch wall, and most of those years have been in this same nest, which is nicely protected from the weather. (One summer we counted three broods that she had hatched and fledged.)

I took myself to the comfy chairs around the fire ring, but my wife insisted on sitting on the porch. The day was warm enuf that I don’t think the eggs were in any immediate peril without their momma, but as the afternoon cooled, my wife joined me by the fire ring where there was still some sunlight, and later, an actual fire for warmth.

It was not as though I spent the afternoon sitting around, musing or otherwise. I think we are just days away from serious tick and chigger season, so doing any work where they are in control means getting latched onto and driven insane with itching. So my plan was to cut down some trees that offended me while I still could. Such as this one:

This spot is just down the hill from the cabin, and I’ve cut away all of the trees (but one my wife won’t let me remove) so that we have a clear view of the lake below (above) and a nice view of the cabin when we’re in (or across) the lake. (In the top photo, there is a large tree on the right. This scene is just behind it, up the hill a little bit.) The tree of offense is the one on the right. It’s on the edge of the passage I’ve cut, and its upper branches are reaching into the open space to grab the sunlight. That’s what trees do, of course, but I want my view! So my plan was to cut down this tree then buck the trunk into manageable sections and drag the branchy top to the nearby brush pile. That was the plan anyway.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not comfortable using the chainsaw when I am alone at the cabin, and while I have never had a mishap with it, the conventional wisdom is that you should stop using a chainsaw as soon as you are no longer afraid of it. So with my wife present (and to a far lesser extent, the dogs), I wanted to cut down this tree while the ticks and chiggers were not yet in full deployment and my wife could drag my bleeding self to the truck and haul me (the 20 miles) to the hospital. Depending on the success of this, there were two other trees closer to the cabin that I wanted to remove as well.

But like the best laid plans o’ mice and men, this one gang aft agley.* The tree is a white oak, perhaps my most favorite species in the forest, but it was in the wrong place, and it was still small enuf to make it mostly easy to remove. I dutifully added chain oil to the saw then filled the gas tank. I managed to get it started with only a few attempts and then turned it to the base of the oak. First I cut a small wedge on the side I wanted it to fall toward (though this was hardly necessary given the slope of the hillside and the preponderance of branches, and thus weight, on the “fall” side). Then I began the back cut, which I expected to have done in a minute of effort.

The cutting went slowly. I got through the bark quickly enuf, but when I bit into the wood of the tree, everything slowed down. The blade was not sinking into the tree the way I expected. After several minutes of mostly frustration, I shut down the saw and may have uttered some Anglo-Saxon expressions. Then I fired up the saw again and leaned in. The same thing. I was cutting into the tree, but only slowly. I would have made faster progress with a handsaw, without the scream of a gasoline motor in my ear. I repeated this one more time before I admitted to myself that the teeth on the chain were no longer sharp. As with knives, the more dull they are, the more dangerous they are.

It happened that I had another chain in the carrying case, though I knew nothing about it: how old it was, how sharp it was, if it would even fit. But it was the only option I had at the time, and I could hear the ticks and chiggers planning an assault, so I carried the saw up the hill to a tree where I have a long nail protruding from it. Then I hung the saw by its handle from the nail and walked away. I had to let the machine cool before I began taking it apart to put the other chain on the bar and attempt to cut the tree again.

I hadn’t paid any attention to the phoebe all this time, but she wasn’t on her nest when I marched up to the cabin. My wife (and the dogs) were over by the fire ring, so it’s possible that the phoebe did return to her eggs and only skittered away when I lurched up the hill. As I let the saw cool, I explained the situation to my wife. In my garage in faraway suburbia I have perhaps a half dozen chains for this saw, and as far as I know, none is sharp. (It’s easier to just buy a new chain than to get it sharpened. Don’t judge me!) We discussed getting all of them sharpened and then keeping them in some better place, such as the cabin where they would actually be used. So that’s on my list of chores this week.

Once the saw was sufficiently cooled, I switch out the chain (it’s really pretty easy) and marched down the hill to the oak to give it another try. But the second chain was no sharper than the original, and I made no real progress through the tree. So I could see that the gods were conspiring against me (or just my lack of taking proper care of my tools), and I decided to give up the job for this visit. The tree seemed to be in fine shape despite the minor damage I did to its base. I fully expect it to be standing and leafed out when I return.

My hands were oily and gritty from disassembling and reassembling the saw, so I washed them with the copious cooler of water I had the good sense to bring this trip. (I hadn’t two weekend before when it was just Flike and I, and I regretted that since I had to be parsimonious with his drinking water.) Then it was time to begin the evening’s fire for cooking and musing. Being April in central Missouri, any warmth of the day was soon to disappear as the sun fell lower in the sky then dropped behind the ridge to the west. I managed to build what I’m certain would have been a one-match fire, but I used two matches just because. (Don’t judge me!)

We cooked our bratwurst (meh) and shared them with the dogs, then we sat in the comfy chairs and stared into the flames, moving more or less ceaselessly since the inconstant breezes seemed to always blow the smoke into our faces.

The barred owls hooted across the lake, and some owl gave a cackling rendition, but the real interest was when the coyotes raised a chorus not that far to the west of us. Only once of twice have I actually seen coyotes in our forest, but I know they are there by their voices.

And though I suspected it was too early in the season, I did hear a whippoorwill call from just down the hill. I loved hearing this sound as a boy, and it was one of the reasons I originally bought myself a piece of Ozark forest. It also figures importantly in my One-Match Fire stories.

With the triumphs and frustrations of the day behind us, we decided it was time to retreat to the (more-or-less) comfy beds in the cabin for the night to sleep beneath a full moon and rise on Saturday to see what that would bring.


*Not really exactly correct usage of the Scottish here, but I think you get my point.

Roundrock overnight

April 8, 2019

Flike and I made an overnight trip to Roundrock last weekend. The weather forecast showed a window between rainstorms that included Friday evening through Saturday afternoon, so we talked about it and agreed to hurry out there to get in a campfire and some hiking and some chores. The weather was about perfect, as forecasted. It’s not as though I can’t go to my cabin in the rain, but the roads are soft then and more easily damaged (yes, I need a thousand dollars worth of gravel spread over some parts and the drainage ditch dug out), and there are three wet-weather streams I must cross to get to my woods. I have seen two of them in deep torrents that I didn’t want to take my truck through,* and that was in the days when I had the bigger truck that could go anywhere. So we look for dry-ish windows.

I keep a calendar on the wall of the cabin and mark the dates of my visits, and it turned out an entire month had passed since I was last out. Part of that can be blamed on unfavorable weather, and some on grandfatherly duties. Still, I’d like to visit at least twice a month so the cabin doesn’t feel neglected. Plus, it’s always good for my mental health.

Speaking of mental health, I once again had the unfocused anxiety about going to the cabin that I mentioned last time. I don’t know what that’s about, and it wasn’t as strong this time, but still! Flike didn’t seem to share this and only wanted me to throw a stick for him to chase. And if I didn’t, he foraged in the woods and came back with what he thought was a suitable throwing stick. (I’ve cut a dozen or so throwing sticks for him, and they’re in the cabin, but he tends to lose them, and then they weather and rot. So if I don’t immediately fetch one for him to fetch, he finds his own.)

We arrived early enuf on Friday to have several hours of good daylight to use before campfire time, so I donned the day pack of tools and such I usually carry, put on my blaze orange cap (to convince any trespassing hunters that I’m not a deer or a bear or a Bigfoot), and grabbed the long-handled loppers that I always take with me on hikes (to liberate cedars from their earthly toil). Then we headed west from the cabin.

The lake was once again (or maybe still?) nearly full (and I still haven’t figured out how to convert the video I took to a format that WordPress will accept without me upgrading to the professional version of the blogging software), so I wanted to go to the uppermost part of the lake to see if it had water in it. (I speak of it as though the lake is some grand body of water, but it’s really only about 2.5 acres, and by Ozark standards, that’s a pond, not a lake, but indulge me, okay?) I knew what I would see when I got there: gravel. That part of the lakebed has long since been filled with gravel washed down from the hillsides in the lake’s watershed. (As soon as I get another spare thousand dollars I’m going to hire a backhoe guy to dig all of that out, but for now, meh.)

From there we continued west, up the Central Valley that feeds the lake. Back on my old blog, Roundrock Journal, I wrote of an interesting phenomenon about the stream that runs through this valley. As I headed west, I was crunching through the rocks of the dry stream bed, just as I have many times. But then I came upon pools of water farther upstream, and soon flowing water even farther upstream. Yet just downstream, the bed was dry. What happens is that the water goes underground at some point betwixt the upper stream and the lake. This is not unheard of, and it’s called stream piracy. It’s only when there is a deluge that the volume of water coming down from the hills can exceed the piracy capacity and continue on to the lake. Obviously, with a full lake, this had happened a lot recently. (And I wonder where the pirated water goes. Into the water table? Into a cavern under my woods? Some neighbor’s bubbling spring?)

We followed the stream to the west to the point where it crosses my property line and then we turned north. We were close to the entrance to our property, and I’ve found that since we built the cabin, we tend to visit the “farther” reaches of the 80+ acres less frequently than we used to. So I wanted to knock around there for a while just to see what there was to see. Because nothing much has come out in leaf yet (except for the red buckeye plants beside the cabin!), I was able to pass through these acres without much concern about ticks and chiggers, but give it another month and such a hike will be more perilous.

I visited some familiar places and tried but failed to find some others. And then Flike seemed to think that he was done with the woods and took himself to our road (where the going is easier, but why?). I could see his black and white shape through the trees, but he refused to come to me when I called him. I considered going to him, but I wanted to visit our pond, which was not far ahead. The road he was on would pass close to the pond, so I figured we would connect. And if not, he knew the way back to the cabin (though I was not comfortable with this idea). As it happened, he joined me at the pond, which was very full. I know there are some fish in this small pond, so seeing it recharged warmed my black and shriveled heart. But the light was just beginning to fade then, and I didn’t want to try building a fire in the dark, so I followed Flike’s plan and hiked down the road the rest of the way back to the cabin.

My packing for this trip was more spontaneous than comprehensive and it turned out that I had not brought sufficient water (we had enuf to drink but nothing more for washing dishes), nor had I brought anything to supplement the turkey sausages I bought to serve as our shared dinner. I slowly discovered this as the evening progressed.

I did create a one-match fire, as you see above, but I kept it a small affair since I didn’t want to be up all night tending it as it burned its way to ashes. And I don’t like putting out fires only to leave large-ish unburnt wood in the fire ring. So a small fire that I could nurture with modest feeding for a few hours was my plan. And that pretty much was what we did. I burnt the turkey sausage sufficiently enuf to shove down our gullets, and I washed it down with a few adult beverages, and I waited, as I always do this time of year, to hear a whippoorwill. Alas, I was disappointed this evening. Though I heard a barred owl a number of times, and the frogs at the very full lake were making merry as well, I guess the whippoorwill hadn’t returned to my woods yet this season.

Bedtime coincided with a cloudless black sky full of stars. Since it was a new moon, they were especially bright, and as I happened to arise several times in the night, I took a quick look at the stars and listened to the frogs that were going about their “business” nonstop through the night. I slept until I woke, which was four hours later than my normal time! (I’m pretty sure I don’t get enuf sleep.) Then it was time for breakfast.

Two things coincided then to make me especially stupid, I guess. One was that I had not packed any iced tea to drink in the morning. (See paragraph above about insufficient packing.) The second was that my phone’s battery was at one percent. I have no electricity (or plumbing) at the cabin, so the only way to recharge my phone was to plug it into the truck. And since I didn’t have any iced tea, I thought the best solution was to drive to the nearest town with a McDonald’s (their tea is acceptable), recharging my phone on the way. And that’s what Flike and I did, which was really pretty dumb since the nearest McDonald’s was something like 25 miles away! I didn’t want to go through the morning without a useable phone (in case of an accident, though I get no signal at the cabin), but I had a propane stove as well as some water and plenty of loose tea leaves; I could have provided for myself.

But I didn’t. About halfway to the McDonald’s (in the next county!) I realized how foolish I was being, but then I was already halfway there, so I just kept on. The tea I got was glorious, and Flike had no objection to the Egg McMuffin we shared as we drove back to the cabin. So with that out of my system, it was time to consider what chore to devote my morning to.

I had the chainsaw with me, and there are a few small trees around the cabin I’ve wanted to take down for a while, but I’m always leery about using the chainsaw deep in the woods when I am alone (Flike doesn’t count in cases like this). Instead, I decided to sling some gravel.

There is a pile of gravel near the cabin (supplemented twice) that is as old as the cabin, and I’ve been slowing spreading it around the area, both to keep the area passable and to maintain a firebreak. This was a less hazardous chore, so I decided that was what I was going to do. And I did.

I think I moved five wheelbarrow loads of gravel to places around the cabin. When I am done (!) I intend to scatter colored glass and marbles on the gravel. I had seen this done at a Christmas Tree Farm in Seattle several years ago and really liked the look. (They used red and green shards of glass there. And since only a fool would walk across gravel barefoot, there is no concern about getting sliced up. Also, the interaction with the gravel will removed the sharp edges from the glass shards.) When anyone asks me what I want for a birthday or Christmas gift, I tell them I want a bag of marbles. (I’ve even used this in one of my stories.)

I’ve only just started scattering the marbles and dragon’s tears because I haven’t built up the gravel bed around the cabin sufficiently yet, but here is what it looks like in one small area:

Between slinging gravel and throwing a stick for Flike, I managed to use up a few hours of the morning. I thought it was time to begin packing up for the return home. But while insufficiently preparing for this visit meant I would travel light, packing up to go home proved incongruously more involved.

I don’t like to leave a mess when I go, so I generally will sweep out some of the cabin and/or sweep the braided rug on the floor. Plus I always sweep the porch (and the return of the phoebe to her mud nest on the cabin wall meant more mud on the porch), plus I tidy up around the fire ring (someone had left empty beer cans there overnight!). But I also decided this trip that the sheets on the bed I sleep in ought to be changed, so that involved more time and effort. Then there is the putting away of whatever tools or fixtures I used (the chair I sit in beside the fire has often been found blown down the road on return visits, so I nest it with the other chairs then turn them on their side so they are less of a target for the vandal winds).

Anyway, all of this took time and I think it was after twelve o’clock when Flike and I were on the road, pointed toward home. We stopped at the McDonald’s again for more tea (unsweetened, of course) and ate up the miles under gathering clouds until we reached my driveway.


*So we left the truck and walked through the torrents and hiked in the half mile or so to our property. Then we walked through them again on the way out and later threw away our leather boots that were literally growing things. See below:

a dash to Roundrock

March 20, 2019

I made an abbreviated trip to my woods last Saturday. My wife was out of town (in NYC, seeing the grands and catching every virus they had, apparently), and I had obligations in town that morning. But when those were discharged, I threw some things in my truck, including the two dogs, and turned it toward my cabin.

The plan had been to have a fire in the evening as the sun went down, burn some hot dogs and maybe enjoy a few adult beverages, then crawl into bed in the cabin and sleep till I woke on Sunday.

It didn’t happen that way. I felt oddly anxious the whole time, like I should have stayed at home, and that seemed to put a pall on the visit. The lake, I’m happy to report, was at full pool (and the partly repaired spillway wasn’t washed away). The spring peepers were enjoying all of the water leaking under the dam in the acre below it. The temps were moderate — into 50+ degrees under a blue, blue sky. I had groceries to carry me through the weekend and enuf chores that did not involve starting the chainsaw (something I don’t like to do when I’m out there alone) to keep me busy the whole time.

But it wasn’t pulling together for me. All I could think about was that I should have stayed home. That I had forgotten something important to do there. That I needed to get back. It didn’t help that our small dog, Queequeg, was being willful and wouldn’t stay inside the cabin. I look at him as coyote bait when he’s out there, so he needs constant watching. When he could escape — the clever beast would wait inside the door and slip out as I stepped in — he would dash for my truck and sit under it, presumably where a bird of prey could not reach him, but also where I could not reach him. I fooled him once with a treat and managed to get him back in the cabin. But he didn’t fall for it the second time.

I had collected the makings for a one-match fire, but with the recent time change, the sun wasn’t going to set for hours, and like dogs that are coyote bait, fires in a forest need constant watching. So I didn’t want to start the fire hours before dinner or darkness and then have to be tied to it for those hours. (I was already tied to a dog.)

Somehow I managed to get both dogs in the cabin at the same time and threw myself on my bed, thinking I could luxuriate with an actual nap. But sleep wouldn’t come. As I lay (?) there I realized that I didn’t really want to spend the night, only to wake to just-above-freezing temps that would linger all morning. And that made building a fire superfluous since it would take me well into the night before I could leave it, and who wants to drive home at highway speeds through deer country in the dark? So in a moment of uncharacteristic behavior, I decided just to give in to whatever demon was deviling me and go back home. (Never mind that I spent less time at my cabin than it took me to drive to and from it.) The dogs, as they always are, were fully in favor of this idea when I proposed it to them. So I put them in the truck and then packed up what little I had brought down (that I didn’t intend to leave, including several hundred marbles, but that’s for a different post). Then I turned my truck toward home.

I did make a few observations while I was in my woods though. You may remember this mineral block I had put near the cabin:

My goal at the time was to see if it would be favored by the gnawing critters rather than the cabin’s doorjamb that they’ve been chewing to bits. The doorjamb showed plenty of fresh chew marks, but the mineral block looked like this:

You can see that the corners have been nibbled a little, but I’ve seen these reduced to slivers, and it had sat there for more than a month (since my last visit) with little attention. So this doesn’t seem to be my solution to the gnawing of the doorjamb.

I had also hung this bird feeder — one big mass of seed — on a tree in front of the cabin on my prior visit:

Note how the lake looked pretty full then.

Here is what I found when I returned last weekend:

So I think it was a big hit, though I don’t suppose it did anything to prevent the gnawing of the doorjamb either. It’s not easy to tell, but the lake in the second photo is actually much fuller. If I can figure out how to post an actual video here, you’ll get to see what I saw over the weekend.

I’m not sure when I’ll be back down again. Winter seems to have gotten the message and has retreated — at least in this part of the Midwest and for right now — so that should mean more opportunities to visit.

unseasonably Roundrock

February 5, 2019

When early February in Missouri hands you a weekend forecasted to be in the 60s, you’d best cancel any other plans and hie out to your 80 acres on the edge of the Ozarks to set your priorities in order.

My wife and I (and the dogs) had an unexpected overnight at the little cabin and did some work that couldn’t be done in the summer. Mostly this involved wading into the tall grass, which would be foolish to do in the spring/summer/fall since the ticks and chiggers would be legion then. But not so after a so-called Polar Vortex had passed through.

On my agenda was to work among the pines I have planted and nurtured through the years. I posted this photo recently that gives you an idea of how some of the big ones are doing (after a little more than a decade):

These weren’t even a foot tall when I planted them. I’m going to say the tallest ones are close to 40 feet tall. But to get there, they had to get past this common insult:

The darling buck deer have to rub the velvet off of their antlers and will use any reasonably straight and stout tree to do it. They also rub off much of the bark or branches of whatever plant they afflict. (The one in the photo above is inside a 10-foot square fence, on an island in my lake, and yet some damned deer got there, jumped the fence, and then thrashed the sole surviving pine of the fifteen or so I planted there some years ago. Then jumped out and got off the island. Sweet little thing!)

So my care and feeding of the pines have involved considerable investment in steel fence posts and lots of chicken wire fencing. It has worked for the most part, except when it doesn’t. Sometimes the deer use the fencing itself to rub off their velvet, and in doing so, will often knock over the cage, taking the pine down with it. (Cages with less expensive posts made of nearby cedar trees limbed and cut and then pounded into the ground.)

So my plan was to venture into the tall grass where the not-so-dandy pines are and repair or restore the fencing around them, adding new posts (scavenged from elsewhere in my woods), and generally making it look like I actually cared (which I do). Take as an example this odd little solution I came up with for a pine that was leaning. I didn’t want the rope pulling it upright to bind against the bark, so I sacrificed my glove as padding.

I’m actually surprised that some critter hasn’t eaten that old leather glove in all the years it’s been there. It’s earned its place in the pine forest.

But there was other work to be done. I know I’ve mentioned before that something is eating my cabin. (No, it’s not made of gingerbread.) Behold:

My guess is that male coyotes come along (when we’re not around) and “mark their territory.” Then other critters follow and gnaw the wood, seeking the minerals in the urine. (This is an older photo. It looks worse than this now.) I can’t really get rid of the coyotes or smaller critters — it’s pretty much their forest and I’m the trespasser — but I thought I might do something about the mineral deficiency. So with the little money I had left on a gift card to a sporting goods store, I bought a mineral block and decided to set it near the cabin. Maybe the critters could get their minerals from this rather than from my cabin.

The brick colored block is the mineral block; it’s about a foot square and weighs about the same as a brick would at that size. I set it on those pavers since I didn’t want the minerals to leach into the gravel, which I figured the critters would then tear apart in search of the goods. I’ll see how much this has diminished on my next visit (though I suppose I’ll lose some to rain and snow). Maybe it will make a difference. Either that or it will attract more critters to eat my cabin.

After we had a day of hard work — you try wielding a post driver for a few hours! — and stomping about, the evening was given over to a nice campfire, some burgers, and some beers. This fire was started with one match, which is my personal challenge (though I don’t always achieve it).

That’s Flike in the background, resting in the road after chasing the stick I would throw, and throw, and throw for him.

As tinder — always use lots of tinder — I used the pages from an old notebook I found in a box in the back of my closet. It was one my wife had used when she took some continuing education courses at her work, years before she had met me. When I found the notebook, I gave it to her thinking she might want it, but after she flipped through the pages, she said she didn’t, so it went the natural course of such things:

Note that I also used one of those packets in the fire that makes colorful flames. I think there must be a technique to these packets because I’ve never been very satisfied with their performance. (I think they’re intended to indoor fires, in a fireplace, where the flames are more contained and visible.)

When I was stoking the fire, I gathered some logs from the stack nearby, and I think I disturbed one beetle’s long winter’s nap.

When I returned later, it was gone, and the weather is supposed to be “mild” until mid-week, so I hope it found some refuge.

The coyotes woke us several times in the night with their yipping and howling from what sounded very close to the cabin. Curiously, the dogs did not stir. I wonder if the coyotes were excited about the mineral block. (They weren’t that close to the cabin.)

In the morning, after a breakfast of hot oatmeal and some fruit, we were back in the pine plantation, shoring up the fencing (more nerve damage from the post driver) and doing general tidying. Once we felt we’d done all that we could, we returned to the cabin and I started wielding a pick axe instead, digging a hole where I hope to plant a red-flowering dogwood in the spring. (Digging any hole in the Ozarks requires a pick axe first.) Such a tree is an iffy idea. I can get forty pines from the Conservation Department for a few bucks, but a flowering dogwood — especially a red one — won’t be as cheap, and so I don’t want to leave it to its own pluck and resources to survive and thrive. It needs soil amending and plenty of water. But if my summer time visits are as infrequent as every few weeks, I may lose my investment. But that’s in the future.

Oh, and that photo at the very top? That iridescent puddle is some of the watering escaping under the dam of my leak lake. The fact that it’s taken on this sheen suggests to me that there is a lot of organic matter within the dam, likely knocked down trees that the builder used as fill and form. And it makes me wish I could grow leeks there because then I could say I grow leeks in the leaks of my lake. And who wouldn’t want to say that, right?

Roundrock reckoning 2018

January 10, 2019

Are there weather gods who sometimes smile favorably upon me, or is it merely the machinations of a complex climate and a zillion factors, including the beat of a butterfly’s wing in Beijing, that gave me a nearly 60 degree, sunny day in early January to make my first visit to my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks for 2019? Probably best not to try to examine this too closely.

I did get down to my woods last weekend, and among the chores for the day was to collect the calendar that hangs on the wall in my cabin to make a reckoning of my visits for last year. I have this sense that I’m not getting down there as much as I did in yore, but I don’t want to pull out the old calendars (yes, I’ve kept them all) and run a comparison. I may find my fear mistaken or confirmed, and neither is desirable.

So here is my month-by-month for 2018:

  • January – I made two visits this month, on successive weekends, and the second visit was an overnight (Friday and Saturday, which is itself uncommon), which means it may have been truly favorable weather, or I shivered through the night in the unheated cabin under insufficient blankets.
  • February – An odd middle-of-the-week Wednesday visit, likely to meet someone about getting some work done, though I don’t recall what that might have been. I’d also made a visit only four days later on the following Sunday. Something must have been afoot.
  • March – Only one visit, but it was another Friday/Saturday overnight. The weather was more likely favorable by this time, and I probably had a campfire to burn a bunch of scrap lumber from the fence I am slowly rebuilding around my back yard in far away suburbia.
  • April – Pretty much a repeat of March, with a Friday/Saturday overnight. I think perhaps I should not call these uncommon anymore. (If I can get out of the office early enuf on a Friday, I can get down to the cabin with sufficient daylight left to build a fire and burn a burger.)
  • May – Yep, only one visit and it was a Friday/Saturday overnight again. I probably had most of the scrap lumber burned by then, or else I replaced another panel of the fence and had more.
  • June – I made two day trips to the cabin this month. Both on Saturdays, and the second, on the last day of the month, included swimming in my leak lake, so it must have had sufficient water to dip in a toe or two.
  • July – THREE visits this month. A day trip on the 8th that included a swim as well as another day trip on the 22nd and then yet another Friday/Saturday overnight on the last weekend of the month. It was surely hot and buggy by then, so maybe I was escaping responsibilities at home or something.
  • August – Only one visit, but what seemed to be becoming my norm: a Friday/Saturday overnight.
  • September – Only a single day trip visit on a Saturday late in the month. I may have stolen time to make the visit just so I wouldn’t clock a whole month of my life without a visit to my cabin. I think I was visiting the grands in New York this month, which could account for the infrequency.
  • October – Two day-trip visits on the first and last Saturdays of the month. One year it was both warm enuf and there was enuf water in the leak lake to swim in October, but it was not this year.
  • November – A repeat of October, with two day-trip Saturdays bookending the month. The latter was my one-day-delayed annual anti-Black Friday visit when I thumb my nose at the crass commercialism of our society and escape to the woods.
  • December – Again with the two day-trip Saturdays. It may have been on one of these that I saw an osprey on my lake and on the other that I saw a bald eagle. My son and his wife were in town for the holidays, and I thought there might have been a cabin trip then, but for whatever reason, it didn’t materialize.

For years I have kept a visit journal on the little table in the cabin.* In it I record each visit and what I saw or did then. Who was along. Interesting wild events. And such. If I brought that home with me each January, I could write a more detailed account of my visits, but I fear that would probably bore you, and I also tend to write accounts of most of my visits on this humble blog anyway, so I’d probably be repeating myself.


*I actually began this as an exercise for a story I was working on that eventually became “where late the sweet birds sang” published in the Selected Places anthology in the summer of 2017.

return to Roundrock

December 17, 2018

I had received a call two weeks ago from the man I had contracted to do some repair work on the spillways for my (much-diminished) lake. He said they’d done some of the preliminary work, so I was eager to get down there to see. Unfortunately, the weather and other circumstances prevented me from dashing out right away, so it was a week later — last Saturday —  before I could.

The spillway on the north side of the dam has washed out twice. This is not so terrible farther down since it is relatively far from the dam, and it washes down to bedrock, which is as far as it’s going to get in my lifetime. The problem is near the top of the spillway, where it is actually part of the dam and where it is made of dirt. A few more feet of erosion there and the dam itself could be breached, which is not on my list of desirables.

When I’d had the spillway repaired the first time, I duly overseeded it with fescue so that the resulting grass would hold the soil in place when the lake overflow raced down the spillway. The problem with that plan was the “resulting grass” part. There wasn’t enuf soil on the spillway to sustain even the sparse bit of grass I ever saw growing there. So the next spring, when the overflow did happen, there was not much more than gravel meeting the deluge, and it washed out again.

Thus this time I asked the contractor to pour me a slab of concrete at the top of the spillway (where the erosion is most problematic) so that even if the rest of the spillway gets washed out, there will be no risk to the part on the dam. He described what he had in mind, and it was far more elaborate than what I had envisioned, but when he quoted me a price, it was about half of what another man had quoted me for less work, so I agreed.

The slab is not poured yet. When I got to the cabin, the first place I directed my steps was down the hill to the spillway. After more than a year of looking at a deep gouge there, filled haplessly with whatever rocks I could carry and throw in, seeing a swath of black dirt formed and smoothed warmed my black and shriveled heart. There were tracks on the dirt of the big machine that they had used to do the work, and I know that passing over and over soil or rock will help compact it, which is what I suppose must happen before they pour the concrete slab that will rest on it and save my dam.

So the spillway work is underway. Once they are finished, I’ll need to seed the exposed dirt of the dam and spillway, but I won’t do that until the big machines are gone.

I had also asked the contractor to deliver another load of gravel for me to spread around the cabin site. The more gravel I have there, the fewer weeds and the more fire break I have. And so the pile of gravel was waiting for me. Along with a surprise.

So this requires a little explanation. A tiny section of the big gravel pile is on the left. The wood you see on the right is a remnant of a compost bin that rotted in my suburban yard for years and that I’d taken to the cabin to burn in some future fire. The yellow bucket is a bonus from the gravel delivery. My guess is that it was in the bed of the delivery truck when the gravel was poured into it at the (nearby) quarry. When the gravel was dumped at my cabin, the bucket tumbled out with it.

I tugged the bucket from the pile and set it in the sun where it could perhaps regain its original shape. There are many uses for a sturdy bucket like this around a cabin.

Also accompanying the gravel was a fair amount of organic material, some of which you can see to the top left of the yellow bucket. There were some large chunks of green grass too. Not sure how that came to be a part of the delivery. Maybe it, too, was in the bed of the truck when the gravel was poured in. Or maybe it was on the ground at the quarry and scraped up when the scoop dug into the (huge) gravel pile there. However it found its way to my little cabin, it’s not much of a problem. The couple of wheelbarrow loads of gravel that I’ve already scattered from the pile has been enuf to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.