Posted tagged ‘Roundrock’

a tree falls in the forest*

November 1, 2018

I mentioned earlier that I had found a hickory tree that I thought was suitable for cutting down and cutting up** for my friend Todd’s barbecues. As I was watching the fire die near the end of my Saturday cabin trip, I realized that I needed to harvest that tree then or I might never get around to it. (I don’t like using the chainsaw when I’m alone in the forest, and most of my trips are solo adventures.)

So, thrilled by this uncharacteristic decisiveness on my party, I pushed myself up from the comfy chair and fetched my chainsaw out of the cabin to see if I could get the thing started, a prerequisite to actually, you know, using it. I had also remembered to bring the gasoline from home, so the stars were aligning.

When I leave the chainsaw unused for a long time, it’s harder to start. In the past, when I’ve done this, it usually takes three sessions of vigorous pulling on the starter cord (as well as colorful language) before the machine sputters to life. After my third, failed round with the cord this time I was beginning to despair, but I gave it a fourth try and I did get the saw running after all!

The tree I was cutting down was standing beside my mostly overgrown road down into the acre below the dam. It was leaning toward the road, but I wasn’t worried about it someday falling and blocking the road because a) it was youngish and looked vigorous, and b) I rarely drive down that road. But its lean, in the perfect direction for felling it, meant I didn’t need to do the usual wedge cut and could go directly with a straight cut across the trunk (at its base) and the lean would direct the fall better than any wedge cut could.

I’ve cut down many trees in my forest. This one was different only in its perfect setting. The lean. The open space for it to fall into (the road). The perfect weather. The running chainsaw. I had no expectations of anything special happening with this harvest.

Which really enhanced my surprise when something special did happen.

I was cutting directly across the trunk, an inch or so above the ground, and I was about two-thirds of the way through it, waiting for the tree to begin pitching forward, when it happened.

The tree began to bleed.

I mean copious amounts of blood, which my whirling chainsaw was spreading across the forest floor, across the chainsaw, and across me.

At first I thought that some critter lived inside the tree and that I had sliced into it. But a moment’s reflection allayed that. The tree was too small (maybe a foot in diameter) to have a cavity big enuf for a critter, at least one that contained enuf bodily fluids to produce what was gushing from the cut.

It was water, of course. And it was pouring from the cut. I killed the chain saw and stepped back, watching as the water rushed and then oozed. Apparently there was enuf of a cavity in the heartwood of the tree to have collected a lot of water, and by cutting into it, I had released this water.

It was startling, as you might imagine. Normally the most common by product of cutting down a tree is very dry sawdust! I was two-thirds done with the cut (as you can see from the wet and dry portions of the stump in the top photo) and had to stop just to collect my wits.

And still the tree was standing; it hadn’t begun its fall. Once I realized what had happened, I knew I could finish the job without offending the forest gods. The ooze had stopped and the chainsaw had started, so I applied myself to the job once again and very soon a tree fell in the forest, making a lot of sound.

Then it was a simple matter of cutting the trunk into manageable pieces to load into the bed of my truck. I was curious to see what kind of cavity was in it, but that was disappointing.

It’s hard to tell from this photo, but only the lowest part of the tree had any cavity. The left end of the log on the top right shows it. Not so much. The end you can see of the log next to it is dark from the color of the heartwood rather than from a cavity. You can see my chainsaw resting on the stump, which gives you more perspective to the size of the tree than the rest of the photo does.

The tree had fallen hard onto the road, and as I bucked the log, I rolled it back and forth across the road to get the saw through it.

And amidst all of this mayhem was a turtle. Half buried in leaves and grass in the road was a common box turtle. It was in the space betwixt the top right log and the one next to it. I don’t think the tree fell directly on it, but when I was rolling the log around, I’m sure I rolled over it once or twice. The carapace appeared undamaged, so I carried to turtle into the forest and set it beside the base of a tree. It never emerged from its shell.

I got back to the business of bucking the log so that the road I rarely used would be reopened. That done, I carried the saw and gasoline back up the hill to the cabin. (The saw needs to cool before I put it back in its case and back into the cabin.) Then I jumped in my truck and backed it down the road. This road has been washed out and gullied by water coming down the hillside, so I put the truck into four-wheel drive just to make sure I could bump through it all. I had no problem.

When I got the truck in position and dropped the tailgate, I took a moment to check on the turtle. It was gone. I couldn’t see it anywhere around either. I think it made good its escape from the noise and heavy things falling from the sky.

The logs were loaded soon, and the road was cleared, and Todd’s present was ready. After that it was time to clean up and close the cabin for the day. The fire was out. The dogs were eager to go home. We still had daylight to travel by. And a good day in the forest was concluded.


*also the title of one of my One-Match Fire stories, which I wrote about yesterday.

**I love how these two contradictory-seeming wordings are exactly right


a day in the woods

October 30, 2018

My plan to have an overnight at my little cabin on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks last weekend was upset by last-minute grandparenting duties on Friday afternoon, so we hauled ourselves out there on Saturday morning and made a full day of it.

My goal had been to have a fire Friday evening, burning up a lot of junk that had been accumulating, and sitting around it musing about the universe as the darkness gathered. Since there had been rain in the forest recently, I felt more comfortable about having a fire; the fire ring is well contained and circled by plenty of open gravel. Still, I worry, so a wet forest lessened my concern. Thus when we went down on Saturday morning instead, I decided we could still have the fire and more or less tend it all day.

Before that, though, we hiked up to our northeast property line to survey the clearing that our new neighbor is doing along the fence. He’s cleared what I guess will be a wide road there, but I didn’t see anything different about it since my last survey, though later in the day we did hear some heavy machinery up that way.

After that we poked around the cabin — the ripening buckeye in the photo above was a happy find — and looked at the much-diminished lake. The recent rain hadn’t recharged it and I always worry — I fret a lot, don’t I? — that the water won’t be deep enuf for the fish in it to overwinter. But that’s never been a problem in all of the years, so I should stop worrying, shouldn’t I?

Our feet had steered us into the acre below the dam where years ago I had planted 50 pecan trees in more or less straight rows. Most of them died so I planted 50 more. Of those 100 hopefuls, about a dozen survive and  though they haven’t begun bearing nuts, they are nearly all taller (much taller) than I am. In one I found what you see in the photo below. Is this a mockery of my pecan plantation ambitions or just some festooning for Hallowe’en?

Years ago, in fact I think before the cabin was even built, I had cut down a hickory tree and delivered the logs from the trunk to my friend Todd. He uses the wood for his barbecues (though my palate is not sensitive enuf to appreciate whatever distinctiveness this gives the cooked food). In that time, Todd had moved from Kansas City to some place called Reno, Nevada. And then he moved back to St. Joseph, Missouri. In all of his travels, he had carried these logs with him, cutting off whatever he needed for his barbecues. He told me recently that he was down to his last bits of hickory from my forest. He didn’t say outright that it was time for me to supply him with more, but that’s the message I took. Anyway, as we were walking back to the cabin from our pecan peregrination, I saw a shagbark hickory tree that I thought was the right size for cutting down and cutting up to deliver for Todd. And someday, I thought, I might even do that!

So, a wet forest meant that the kindling I could collect would be wet as well. And experience has taught me that wet kindling can mean that a one-match fire might not happen. I think this is why I dithered about getting a fire started, that I might not do it with only a single match this time. I don’t know why this is important to me (other than that One-Match Fire is the title of my novel and a “challenge” among the characters in it). But I had a lot of tinder (mostly paper bags from my many visits to the bagelry) and I figured that enuf of that would make the difference.

It only just did (with the application of two matches, sadly). I burned up all of the tinder I had and resulted in only a few tiny flames high in the teepee of kindling sticks I had so carefully built. (Normally, you want the flames to be at the bottom, working their way up.) So I frantically dashed through the forest, looking for more kindling to add to them, hoping I could keep the flame alive long enuf for it to dry the rest of the wood and catch properly.

Perseverance paid and I did get a real fire going, adding thicker kindling and eventually adding a few pieces of larger wood, also wet-ish but when it started snapping I knew the fire had caught properly. Here is a look at the fire, supplemented with one of those packets of razzle dazzle to enhance the flames.

I didn’t burn much of the trash lumber I have been accumulating. It’s mostly rotten fence pickets and braces, and they were more wet than the wood I found in the forest. I did burn one old bird house that had fallen from its nail in a tree. And I’d brought some fallen branches from home that went into the fire. But once we had enuf flame and coals to cook our lunch (pork chops we’d gotten somewhere), I stopped stoking the fire since I didn’t want to have some monstrosity I would need to tend into the evening as it burned out enuf to leave it (or quench it with the water I had at hand).

The weather was about as perfect as it could have been. We arrived in the 40s, but by lunch time (approved of and shared with the dogs), the temps were somewhere in the 70s. It was easy to sit in the comfy chairs and eat our late lunch (supplemented in my case with iced tea, unsweetened, of course) and watch the fire. And we did this for a long time. We talked vaguely about power washing the cabin exterior and re-staining it. About maybe getting more gravel spread on our road through the trees when the men (finally) come to repair the washed out spillways (an unasked-for but appreciated benefit of the lake being low is that I don’t have to worry about the spillways being fully breached by a big water event). About upcoming travel plans. About everything and nothing.

The fire sputtered and mostly died. I quenched the sizzling coals with water and spread them around the ring. It was time to pack the truck and head home.

And then I experienced something I never have before in my forest, but that’s another tale for another day.

back to the woods for me

July 26, 2018

I had grandparenting duties on Saturday, and because there was a chance my son and daughter-in-law would be coming to Kansas City the following weekend, I took the chance to sneak out to my cabin on Sunday. (Actually, I wasn’t sneaking; my wife and the two dogs came along.)

I had no great agenda other than to survey any damage from yet another wicked storm that had moved through the area the week before. There were some downed limbs here and there but nothing serious. And since I remembered to bring the gasoline, I decided I would clear the scrubby growth around the overflow drain in the dam.

The overflow drain is the first line of defense when the lake exceeds full pool. It bleeds off the excess water and drains it out of a pipe at the base of the dam. It is built into the dam, near the top, and it’s basically a screen-covered catchment with a big drain pipe leading from it. But since it’s built into the side of the dam, plants grow up to and against it, and sometimes over it, covering the screen atop the catchment, thus hampering its ability to bleed off the excess water. (Are you following any of this?)

So now that I have that fancy weed whipper with the steel blade on the end, I felt equipped to take on the weeds around the drain. So I marched myself down there and began creeping down the steep side of the dam to get close enuf to the weeds that needed eviction. I whipped and whipped, then stopped periodically to collect what I had cut and (attempt to) throw it over the top of the dam so it wouldn’t wash onto the screen when the water was high again and block the drainage. The blade attachment on this whipper only works at the base of plants. If I tried cutting a stalk of tall grass from the top, the blade would just slap the grass out of the way. The blade needs the resisting force of roots to cut through the stalk. So my work on the steep slope around the drain involved poking the whipper into the denseness, trying not to hit too many stones or the concrete structure of the catchment.

I spent about a half hour at this, clearing an area large enuf to keep any falling or leaning plants away from the drain, but it’s the kind of work I need to do every few weeks all summer long, and the reason I’d made this my first chore of the day was because it wasn’t as hot then as it was going to get later, being a summer day and all.

Once finished with that, I walked back across the top of the dam, whipping this or that plant but hardly making a discernible difference to the lush growth. And then I worked on the open area below the cabin where I had whipped on an earlier visit but left parts unfinished. (I whip until I’ve used up one tank of gas. That’s about all of the nerve damage my hands can recover from.)

So that was done and that left the rest of the day.

I have limestone gravel around the cabin, in part to keep the area walkable but also to have a firebreak. But in the gravel grows a lot of unwanted plants. Because the cabin is close to the lake, I don’t want to use herbicides on this growth, and there are just too many little weeds to even imagine pulling them all out by hand. One method I use that I think I’ve mentioned before is to spread a tarp over the gravel, starving the plants of sunlight. In the growing season this achieves its effect in just a few weeks; I pull away the tarp and then rake away the dead weeds. It only lasts a year, and the tarp is in constant movement around the gravel.

But a fried who recently spread some gravel at her rural place had told me that one benign herbicide I could try is straight vinegar. (She also said a layer of gravel at least two inches thick is usually sufficient, so when I get mastery over the weeds, I’ll spread more gravel.) I was eager to try the vinegar method since it did seem harmless. So I brought along the remains of a jar of vinegar from our home in faraway suburbia and poured it into a spray bottle. Then I sprayed several areas around the cabin that were discrete enuf for me to remember the next time I visited. I could see if the idea worked. I don’t know how long it will take or how permanent its effect will be, but I do know that the cabin site smelled like pickles.

I was debating then whether to go for a swim or to do more serious work. It was certainly warm enuf for a swim, and the water was beckoning, but there is a project I’ve been wanting to get done with the fire ring for a long time, and somehow actual motivation overcame me and I did it.

I built the fire ring out of cottage blocks, and they’re designed so that when you stack a second layer, it is offset and set back a half inch or so. This is great for building a wall since the wall “leans” into the ground it is retaining. But it’s not so great for building a ring.

I had built the base with the blocks fitting nicely, just as they’re designed to do. When I put the second layer of blocks on the ring, however, I faced a problem. I was using the same number of blocks to build a ring with a smaller circumference. Everything seemed fine until the two ends of the ring met. The blocks didn’t fit. I had to misalign them to complete the circle, and while that doesn’t seem horrible on the scale of problems, if I ever wanted to add a third layer of blocks (because the ash from so many fires had grown that deep), it really wouldn’t work.

So my plan was to remove the top layer and then pull out the blocks on the base by a half inch or so, making their circumference larger than before so that the layer above it could have a better fit in its smaller circumference.

Here you see how I had removed the top layer. The next step was pulling out the lower blocks slightly and then returning the upper ring. My efforts paid off because the blocks on the upper ring fit perfectly. (And yes, I realize that if I ever add that third layer, I’ll have to do this all over again.)

So it was a productive stolen trip to the woods.

another trip to the woods

July 3, 2018

When left unsupervised, I sometimes indulge in choices that I might not make when overseen. Because my wife was in St. Louis to visit our son and daughter-in-law and would be gone through most of the weekend, I made a dash out to my woods on Saturday.

The small town near my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks had posted on its Facebook page last week that power would be restored soon and that residents were responsible for cleaning up fallen branches on their own property. From this I discerned with my keen and penetrating intellect that there must have been a wicked storm down there.

My forest is nearly completely native plants. Each tree competes with its neighbors for the same resources, and because nature is red in tooth and claw, the weak don’t survive. Thus I suspected that my forest would have weathered the weather well enuf, any culling having been done already.

But I had introduced a non-native factor to the equation: my little cabin. While a tree may fall in the forest when no one is around to hear it (a theme in one of my unpublished One-Match Fire stories, by the way), a tree that falls across the road, or worse, onto the cabin was something I would want to know about. Thus the rationale for my day trip.

About a quarter of the way into my 100+ mile trip to the cabin I realized that I had left the gasoline can at home. With that went my ambition to use my industrial strength weed whacker and my chainsaw to do some long-overdue clearing and general tidying. Unfortunately, if a tree had fallen across the road or onto my cabin, I would have been without the resources to deal with it. (Not really. I could have gone into town and bought another gas can and gasoline. I keep the chain saw, the weed whacker, and the fuel additives in the cabin.)

When I drove into the trees beyond my neighbor’s meadow, the tree line marking the change in property, the first thing I came upon were some branches on the ground in the road. They were small enuf for me to pick up and toss out of the way easily, but I worried that they were the harbinger of more. So I peered ahead, as watchful for more tree fall as I ever am for panicked wildlife.

Happily, I saw no more, though there were plenty of low, live branches that needed trimming, as the antenna and roof of my truck reminded me. No culling of those. Nor was the cabin assaulted. In fact, there was very little tree litter in the open area around the cabin. My fears were unfounded (and relieved).

And so this left me with an entire day with no agenda. I did my usual arrival steps: I carried the sprung mouse trap with its very desiccated mouse to the fire ring for eventual burnt sacrifice. I added seed to the bird feeder. I put several handfuls* of peanuts (unsalted, of course) on the log where the wood rat lives. I checked the phoebe nest on the side of the cabin (empty). I put an asterisk on the calendar to mark my visit. And I began an entry for the visit in the journal I keep (which is an important plot feature in one of my published One-Match Fire stories). Then I carried a chair onto the porch and sat for a long while to take deep breaths and listen to the forest.

The heat index for the day was 100+ degrees, so I didn’t fancy a hike in the forest and part of me was glad I had forgotten the gas can so I wouldn’t have to use the hot, heavy, noisy machines to make more work for myself. (Chainsawing really is a winter sport.) I did eventually use one of the grass whips to knock back some of the growth in the open area betwixt the cabin and the lake, though that eventually required me to work in the sun, so I was only partially successful in this. I found the fern you see in the photo above in this area. It is doing remarkably well given that it’s on the drier, hotter south-facing slope. The better ferns are across the lake on the hillside that doesn’t get as much direct sunlight.

I was able to confirm that three of the dozen possum haw plants I had set down along the edge of this open area have survived. Two I would even say are thriving. I have this ambition to surround the cabin with red, either the red flowers of the buckeye trees I’ve planted or the red berries of the possum haw. I’d even like to plant a red dogwood near the cabin. My original idea was that this would attract hummingbirds who would then entertain us, but that would only happen in the spring. So mostly I’m just after the new color in the landscape. The soil where I planted the possum haws isn’t very good, so the fact that three have survived warms my black and shriveled heart.

Speaking of my black and shriveled heart, I also moved my grass-killing tarp in the gravel near the fire ring. I have a large graveled area between the cabin and the fire ring, and I want to keep it that way to reduce fire hazard. Since this is just uphill from my lake, I don’t want to use herbicides in the area. Instead I’ve spread a tarp over sections of the gravel to starve the upstart plants of sunlight. After a few weeks or a month, I remove the tarp, rake away the chaff, then lay down the tarp over another area. It’s a large tarp, probably 10 x 12 feet, and I fold it as needed to accommodate the space I’m attacking. This time, I had the tarp opened to its full magnificence. Since it is growing season, the effects should happen within a few weeks. (Wherever the tarp is at the end of fall is where it will likely remain all winter since the plants aren’t as actively growing beneath it then and so can withstand the lack of sunlight longer before succumbing.) A blogger friend (who uses Blogspot) responded to my question in a comment (the one that posted that I mentioned yesterday) that she has been told to use straight vinegar on any upstart weeds or grasses in her gravel. I intend to try that. I wonder if that scent might keep the critters away from the cabin so they’ll stop “eating” it too.

Even this modest amount of effort was wearing me down, and I had finished the entire bottle of iced tea (unsweetened, of course) that I had intended to reserve for my lunch. I still had plenty of water on hand, but the exertion itself seemed beyond reasonable in the heat.

And so I finally talked myself into doing something that I had flirted with for a couple of years. I decided to take a dip in my lake.

The lake has been around longer than the cabin, and my wife and I have spent many glorious hours floating and swimming in the tea-colored water. But in recent years we haven’t, and I don’t think I’d been in at all in the last two years. Great mats of bright green algae had floated in it lately, and though I think it is the blue-green algae that is more potentially dangerous, I still feared brain-eating amoebas. On this day, there were no algae mats at all. In fact, I hadn’t seen any since last summer, and maybe the “threat” is in its downward cycle.

The water wasn’t tea colored this day either. It was a muddy brown, which makes sense given the storm earlier in the week. A lot of debris gets washed into the lake after a storm, lots of nutrients for the fish and other wild things that live there. The sun was high, the heat was intense, the lake was beckoning, and I was finally ready to get in except for one thing: I didn’t bring a swimsuit.

I also didn’t bring the hard soled water shoes I wear in the lake. The bottom is rocky, even with all of the silt that has accumulated, and getting to and from the water is a rough road too. So I was without these two essentials. But as many of you know, several of my One-Match Fire stories involve skinny dipping, and it’s even possible that I’ve done this deed before. That left doing something about my feet. I hadn’t brought a second pair of shoes, but I do keep an old pair of Crocs at the cabin. (They’re easy to slip on in the middle of the night should I need to get up for some reason and go outside.) I figured as long as I didn’t try to do any actual swimming, the Crocs would probably work. So as I marched down the hill toward the lake, I was dressed in my T-shirt (so my skin didn’t burn), my underwear (I would drive home commando), and the Crocs. I had also put on a cap to shade my eyes. (I left my glasses in the cabin.) (If I’ve ever skinny dipped in the purest sense, it would have been under moonlight, which I’m not admitting.)

The lake was nearly at full pool, and I had to wade through a lot of tall grass that I hadn’t cut down with the grass whip to get to the water. Crocs don’t provide a lot of lateral support, and Ozark hillsides provide a lot of lateral support challenges. Fortunately, I made it  to the water’s edge alive and upright and all that remained was to wade in.

The lake bottom here slopes gradually for about four feet and then begins a more precipitous drop after that. Since I didn’t intend to actually swim, I didn’t want to get in over my head, so when my shoulders were underwater, I stopped and tried to find solid enuf footing in the irregular rocks and sloping slippery silt beneath me. I was more or less successful in this, but I was constantly shifting my feet just to stay in place.

And then I just stood there. My semi-buoyant arms floated a few inches below the surface. My loose shirt billowed about me. And every time I moved my feet, more trapped gas from the silt below slithered up my skin. I watched the shoreline (with my uncorrected vision), and gazed at the blue vault above me. I listened to the frogs. And I was buzzed constantly by literally hundreds of blue and orange dragonflies.

I stayed this way for most of an hour, only moving to reset my feet and occasionally look toward the dam, though that was also toward the sun. A plane buzzed overhead. A turkey vulture circled lazily. The forest chirred. My mind drifted. I thought about venturing along the shore to other parts of the lake, but I didn’t. I just relaxed where I was and for the time I was the only person in the universe.

Eventually I decided that I had defied the amoebas enuf and decided to get out. This was not easy. Not only did I have to reacquaint myself with the force of gravity, but the Crocs were wet and filled with silt. The lake bottom wanted to suck them off my feet and one time did. I learned that Crocs do float, which is handy. Getting out of the water was one thing; I still had to get up the hill to the cabin (where there was a flat floor and dry clothes). I stumbled up, sometimes throwing my body in whatever direction my slippery Crocs decided. But I made it to the cabin and peeled off the wet things.

I stood on the porch much as I looked on the day I was born and used the towel I had found in a cabinet to dry myself. What I quickly learned was that much of the silt in the lake had clung to my body and was streaking the white towel. One of the advantages of a late-in-the-visit swim is that I can wash off most/many/some of the ticks and chiggers, but I clearly wasn’t washing away any dirt. No matter. I would shower at home.

Sufficiently dry, I pulled on my second set of clothes (always prudent for a spring/summer/fall visit in the Ozark forest) and packed my truck. My last deed was to set a fresh mouse trap. Swiss cheese had worked before, but this time I tried cheddar. I’ll let you know the results.

And then it was home to let the dogs out, do some laundry, take a shower, and relax from my day of relaxation.

Also, here’s a different kind of round rock I found out at my place:

*Anyone want to fight with me about this? I think most sticklers would say that the proper spelling in this usage is “handsful” but I disagree. I think with units of measurement like this “handfuls” is better.

the latest from Roundrock

May 21, 2018

I managed to get myself (and my dog) down to Roundrock between violent storms last weekend. I’d actually skipped out of work early on Friday, spent a little time packing Prolechariot (my truck) and then trying to sneak off without Flike (my dog) knowing. But somehow he discovered what I was doing and whined to his mother, and soon he was in the truck with me, burning up the highway betwixt here and there.

If I think I’m going to be visiting my woods in a coming weekend, I tend to study the weather maps throughout the week, watching as the forecasts change and get refined. If the reports were true, then my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks had received rain all week. This was good since I had more old wooden fence to burn in the fire ring. Friday evening was my window of opportunity. (As I was loading the rotten fence bits into the bed of my truck I was amazed at how much work I had actually gotten done in my last fit of motivation. No wonder I’ve not been motivated at all since!) I much prefer having large campfires when the woods are wet.

The last few hundred feet of road leading to my cabin goes through the middle of my woods, and first I can see the green roof of the cabin between the trees, then I can see the lake. Ever since I’ve had the lake I’ve worried that I would come out and find it missing. (This came close to happening a couple of times!) I worry that the heavy spring rains will fill the lake so that it overcomes the overflow drain and the two spillways and washes over the top of the dam itself. If the dam began eroding, it would likely continue until the lake behind it was drained. That hasn’t happened yet (though, as I said, it came close twice), but I still peer through the trees every single time I drive down that last bit of road to my cabin.

As it was when I visited on Friday, the lake was about three feet below full pool. That’s fine with me. That gives it capacity to absorb more spring rain without using the drain or spillways. (The lake was built in a gravel-filled valley. Plenty of water leaks underneath the dam — and through it in some places — so even when it’s full, water is bleeding away from it.) I took the picture above from the top of the dam, looking west. It’s always a pretty sight. Flike wasn’t too interested though.

Here is the view from the front porch of my little cabin. I spent my first hour or so there on Friday just sitting in a chair and taking in this view:

The light-colored bit of shoreline you see in both photos is the same spot.

I may have mentioned that a phoebe has built a nest on the wall of the cabin under the porch ceiling. I checked it when I arrived and found five baby phoebes huddled in it, and during my hour of decompression, mama phoebe was scolding me from the trees nearby by to get lost.

My plan for the weekend was to burn a lot of stuff on Friday (though preferably not my hamburgers) and on Saturday to take my awesome weed whacker into the acre below the dam where I have a hapless plantation of pecan trees. I want to clean out some of the scrub growing in there that is beginning to look like trees as well. Wading into the tall grass and scrub to do this work would, inevitably, cover my body with ticks and chiggers, so my plan after that was to take a dip in the lake to wash off as much of that infestation as I could. But as I think I’ve said before, nature always wins.

Friday came together just as I planned. I made a one-match fire (it’s all in the tinder — this time I used a year 2000 paper map of some place called Iowa) and was soon tossing rotten fence pickets onto it. They are made of cedar, so they popped and sizzled as they burned. They gave a lovely light, as the poet said, but I began to have misgivings about burning the fence. To me, a campfire is a place for quiet reflection not a place for disposing of trash. I much prefer burning oak logs I have cut and split myself than trash I’ve hauled 100+ miles. So I’ve decided that I’m not going to bring any more ex-fence to the cabin for burning. (I still have at least two fires worth of fence parts already down there.) I cooked my burgers and gave half of them to Flike, and I waited as I always do to hear a whippoorwill. I didn’t hear one. I understand that they are in decline in their natural range, and I think it has to do with habitat destructions. I try to maintain my forest as much of a wild place as I can, and I want to think that a whippoorwill will find it a favorable place to live and raise a family.

I did manage to burn up what I think are the last of my grad school spiral notebooks.

How long ago had I scribbled in those pages? And never opened them once since then! Simplify, as Mr. Thoreau says.

I stopped stoking the fire after I’d burned up about half of what I had hauled down that day and let it smolder into ash, then I retired, heading in to the cabin for a restless night with Flike burrowed against me, panting with anxiety because despite how much he thinks he wants to go to the woods, he always hates it. (He’s afraid of flies and thunder and it turned out we had an abundance of each over the weekend.) So Flike, probably more covered with ticks and chiggers than I was, nestled very close to me on the bed and panted. He was in high anxiety mode. I told him to stop panting a number of times, which he did, until he didn’t any longer. I saw a long night ahead of me, but then a bit of redemption came. Outside the cabin, through the open windows, from what sounded like a tree directly above me, a whippoorwill began her repetitive call. I stopped counting the iterations when I got into the thirties, but she stopped as well and then returned once more a little later. So I got my simple desire after all.

I slept until I woke, well after sun up, which is rare for me. Flike must have gotten the message because he had moved himself to the rug on the floor beside the bed and didn’t pester me with his frantic panting. Before I rose from the soft mattress, though, the whippoorwill gave me one more serenade.

When I’m staying at the cabin on my own (wifeless, that is), I rarely cook myself a hot breakfast. (I make do with bagels or beef jerky or such.) But on this Saturday morning, I did. I set up the propane stove out of the porch and heated enuf water for two bowls of instant oatmeal. Nothing fancy, certainly, and hardly even cooking, but along with a banana and plenty of iced tea (unsweetened, of course), it was satisfying. As I was puttering about with this work, I could hear rumbling in the southeast. The sky was blue that I could see through the trees, so I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. There is an Air Force base within a hundred miles, but that is to the northeast. And there are some two-lane highways far beyond my southern ridge. But neither of these explanations seemed sufficient. Nor did I think the normal doings of the cattle ranch in that direction would be so noisy. As time passed, the rumbling didn’t. In fact, it grew more well defined. It was definitely thunder I was hearing, and as I glanced up through the trees again I saw that what I took for blue sky before was actually unbroken blue gray cloud.

Flike hates thunder, and he was soon back in the cabin, under the bed, panting frantically. There wasn’t anything I could do for him, so I just watched and waited. The thunder was almost continuous, and I realized that the good people to my southeast were getting a wicked storm. But the thunder was getting louder, the sky was getting darker, and the temperature was actually falling. It looked like I was going to see the storm next. (Also, a curious thing: when I arrived the night before the lake water was a monochrome brown, which it generally is after a storm since it plenty of mud and leaf matter has washed into it. My guess is that as the storm approached, the barometric pressure dropped because soon I was seeing the green mats of algae floating in the lake. I guess somehow they felt free to rise to the surface with their load of brain-eating amoebas given the change in pressure.)

So the stars were not aligning for me. While I could certainly weed whack in the rain and thunder, it wouldn’t be fair to Flike to make him suffer through it locked in the cabin (or in my truck). With the temperature falling as it was, I didn’t see myself getting in the lake that day at all. (It was in the 60s then.) And on top of that, there are three seasonal streams I have to cross to drive out of my woods and reach pavement. Two were dry when I came in the day before, but they have hundred-acre watersheds (each) and if I waited for the storm to hit, it was possible I couldn’t get across them if they were torrents. (This has happened, though I was coming from the other direction at the time.) So with all of those consideration, I began to pack up camp and prepared to go home early. Flike eagerly jumped into the truck when I made the offer and graciously let me pack up and clean up. As it was, I left the mouse trap baited but unset, so when I return next time I should find the cheese missing and the mouse laughing. I also left a small bag I use to carry things back and forth for cabin life. That was no big problem, but still.

I drove home in the downpour. For most of an hour I had the wipers on their fastest speed and my truck at a much slower speed. Fortunately, most of the good people in that part of rural Missouri had sense enuf to stay out of the rain, so the road was all mine.

On Sunday, the county where my cabin is issued a flash flood warming. It seems I skedaddled in time.

So I’m not sure when I’ll get back again. This weekend has possibilities.

two days in the woods

May 1, 2018

On the last weekend of April I made my first visit of the month to Roundrock. The weather wasn’t very cooperative through the month, and with my wife away in Seattle for two of those weeks, I had chores and other things keeping me bound at home. But the stars aligned and I was able to dash down to my woods on Friday afternoon (with my dog, Flike) for an overnight. I managed to get some chores done but my big ambition, to wreak some havoc among the pecan trees with my industrial strength weed whacker, didn’t happen. I had left the gasoline for it at home.

Still, I managed to occupy my time. Back home in faraway suburbia I have been regularly repairing and replacing parts of the wooden fence that has surrounded my back yard for three decades. It rots. The neighbor dogs eat it. (Really!) The wind worries it. And so when time, resources, and gumption are all in one place at the same time, I repair or replace this part or that, going for the most grievous dilapidation generally. (I think over the decades I’ve replaced nearly all of it, which leads me to ask if it is still the same fence or if I have my own version of Theseus’s Paradox.) Then I collect the rotten pickets and braces and drag them down to my Ozark cabin to add to the campfire. You can see some of the fence parts in the fire in the photo above.

This was a one-match fire (unlike my last attempt with wet wood), and the trick to a one-match fire, as everyone knows, is the amount of tinder you use. Lots, mostly. We will collect scraps of burnable paper as we’re puttering about the cabin to use as tinder for our next fire, but on my most recent visit I used something unprecedented. I used old paper road maps that have been sitting in the door pocket of my truck for years and years. Who needs paper maps anymore, right? And I can testify that they make excellent tinder. The pickets are made a cedar and as they burned, they snapped and popped. The oak logs I normally burn aren’t as noisy.

As I was standing around the fire, adding fence parts slowly, I heard a commotion down near the lake and looked up at just the right time to see a large bird fly across the lake and alight in a tree down the hill from the cabin. The branch it alit on broke under its weight and the bird flapped about for a while before settling on a larger branch of the tree. I had to peer at it through the trees (since I didn’t want to scare it off by approaching for a better view) and I could see that it was dark brown with what looked like a white head. I have seen bald eagles high in the sky over my woods, but I had never seen one in one of my trees before.

And I hadn’t this time either. As I watched, the bird took off again and flew in a large circle over the lake. From this I could seen that its underside was white, which meant it was not a bald eagle. Later, when I retired to the cabin for the evening, I took down one of the several bird guides we have on the shelf there and by lantern light determined that what I saw was an osprey. With the massive Corps of Engineers lake to my north, it is not unlikely to see an osprey in the area, but I always assumed my lake was too small to interest them. Perhaps not having any humans around my lake for a month made the area appealing to one, though if so I guess I jinxed that with my visit. Still, it was nice to see such a big bird at my cabin, just as it was nice to hear honking geese splash down on my lake after dark.

Had I remembered the gasoline, I would have ventured into the tall grass in my pecan plantation (twelve trees are all that are left of the hundred I had planted years ago) to clean up woody scrub and such. But since I couldn’t do that, I didn’t want to wade into the grass or scrub at all since tick season has begun in the Ozarks. On Saturday morning (when I rose after sleeping eleven hours!), I kept myself around the cabin doing what chores I could there. I did more backfill behind the new-ish retaining wall, and I used some repurposed cottage blocks to extend the retaining wall behind the cabin. And I did a very thorough sweeping inside the cabin. Every spring we have a hatch of lady bugs and paper wasps inside the cabin. It’s not much of a nuisance, but if they can’t get out of the cabin (say, for example, the door is kept shut for a month straight), then they expire. And so the floor was littered with their corpses. I pushed the broom around, poking into corners and under things, and I shoved the little carpet sweeper on the braided rug (rescued from my mother’s house when she was moving to Kentucky). Flike was not much help with this work, but I managed to get the job done pretty well.

And then, since grandson Emmett was due at my house in faraway suburbia that afternoon, I packed up the truck and pointed it in the direction of home. I’m not sure when I’ll get back down to my cabin again, but I’ll watch for my chance.

meanwhile, at Roundrock

March 28, 2018

It hasn’t been all writing fun and games for me. I have also been visiting my Ozark acres and little cabin in the woods. I was there two weekends ago for an overnight that involved having a large fire to burn more junk as well as to do battle with the blackberries and chores around the cabin.

I’ve told my wife that when we retire, I no longer want to have a yard to care for or gutters to clean or all of that suburban nonsense that we endured in order to have a nice place to raise our children. (And now that we have two dogs, we’re pretty much still raising children.) I can see myself in some two-bedroom urban condo, a floor or two above the street, maybe with a nice view of the downtown and no lawn to mow or neighbors to “keep up with.” (I’ve never been a joiner or one to want to fit in especially, but I also recognize that if you live in a community — even vanilla suburbia — you live with a community and there are certain minimum appearances — like a mostly green lawn — that must be maintained for the good of civilization.)

And all of that is a way to say that though I may yet realize this ambition, having 80 acres of Ozark forest with a small cabin and a lake that leaks is pretty much taking my suburban woes and multiplying them. My yard is 80 acres! And each visit to Roundrock* means chores and chores and chores to be done!

On this most recent visit my main chore (after doing battle with the blackberries among my pine trees) was to set up a new place to stack the firewood I cut. Several “problems” aligned in this latest project, and it was mostly the delivery of the load of gravel (recounted here) plus overcoming inertia that allowed me to address them.

I’ve been maintaining and expanding the graveled area around my cabin not merely to have a tick-and-chigger-free space there to move around in but also to keep a buffer between the wooden cabin and any ground fire that may sweep through the forest. (Ground fires are not uncommon in the Ozarks, though there has been only one during my tenure and it didn’t get close to the cabin, and they’re mostly considered benign as long as they stay on the ground and don’t get into the tree tops.) By having an area that is not combustible, I feel that I am performing my due diligence (so that the insurance man won’t reject my claim should I need to rebuild the cabin).

A fact of life about any forest is that leaves will fall from the trees. And then they accumulate, often just where you don’t want them. (One of those places is the north side of my cabin, and raking leaves from there is a year-round chore for me.) The past structure I had for my firewood was too low to the ground. It allowed leaves to pile up against it. Not only was this a potential fire hazard, but it provided haven for all sorts of vermin I might not want too close to the cabin, and it allowed any rain that fell on the firewood to keep the wood damp since the leaves prevented normal evaporation. (Same three points regarding the leaves against the cabin.) So my hope was to create a new place to stack the firewood that would be raised sufficiently to allow the wood to stay mostly dry and to allow any blowing leaves to pass under on their way elsewhere.

Another chore of mine through the years has been to build a retaining wall in front of my cabin. I did this originally because I worried that the cabin was perched on a hill too steep for the good of the concrete floor/foundation. So I got several pallets of cottage blocks over the years and built my wall to shore up the cabin. (I backfilled the wall with very good soil so that I could have a garden of red flowers in front of the cabin to attract hummingbirds. Nature had other plans!) But this wall has continued to the east, toward the area where the fire ring and its attending wood pile is. Part of this extension was not only to satisfy my human need to impose order on chaos but also to ensure that not all of the gravel I (and others) laid down would wash down the hill.

This wall extension needed to be higher than the current level of the gravel since I intended to lay more until it and the gravel bed were level, thus allowing blowing leaves to keep moving and not collect. And then I got the gravel delivery two days before Christmas last year, and my excellent son-in-law shifted about a third of the delivery to its new location against the wall, but the woodpile area remained untouched.

And so this story finally comes round to my visit two weekends ago. I had my wall of cottage blocks. I had my pile of gravel. I had weather that was just slightly chilly, which is ideal for running and manual labor. I had a full day before me. And I had that rarest of things in my life: actual motivation!

The first task was to move the too-low-to-the-ground current wood pile and disassemble the existing “rack” I had built for it. Much of the wood, it turned out, literally crumbled in my (gloved) hands because it was so rotten (from being constantly moist). The former rack consisted of several bricks with an old hickory wheel barrow handle and a thick cedar plank stretched across them. Once I had those out of the way I could begin my real work.

First I raked the area clean of the collected bits of bark and forest debris and whatever might be living in it. This all went over the side of the wall (being only two blocks high). Then I began moving fresh gravel into place. I estimate that I shifted twenty wheel barrow loads of gravel into an area maybe fifteen feet long. It’s not hard work while you’re doing it, but you remember doing it the next day. Then I needed to level the twenty piles of gravel, grading them to the top of the wall. Easy enuf work as well. So the prep work was done.

Many years ago, a friend was making an addition to his house and had many paving blocks and bricks he wanted to get rid of. He offered them to me and I hurried to his house with my eldest boy to stack them all in the bed of my truck. I don’t know how long I drove around town with that weight in my truck before I got to visit my woods, but as I remember, it was a couple of weeks. When I did get down there, I unloaded the blocks and bricks and stacked them beside a tree where they would be handy when I finally found a use for them. They turned out to be a fine place for two forest creatures to call home: black widow spiders and scorpions. (Yes, I saw the scorpions with my own eyes. Black things with yellow chevrons. I’ve never found their match in any critter guidebooks.)

Eventually the blocks became my original fire ring. They served there well for many years until I got my latest load of cottage blocks and built a new fire ring. So the old paver blocks were stacked neatly near the new wall, waiting their next role in life. It happened that I had eighteen of them. I thought that if I stacked them three high and stretched steel bars across them, they would be high enuf to allow blowing leaves to pass through and strong enuf to hold firewood. The trouble was finding steel bars that were long enuf to do the job. (The steel fence posts I have all over the place are only about six feet tall.)

When we had bought the land (how long ago? I would have to look it up to know), the realtor said that our particular 80 acres had been leased to the Have to Hunt Club. (There was even some signage left of their tenure.) In addition to the lake that we added, there is a small pond on the property, and this is a game magnet, especially favorable to deer hunters. Near the pond was an old blind up in a tree. (It would be a tree fort if you were a child.) The tree was dying. The blind was rotting, and the whole thing was going to fall soon, possibly across my road in. But one solid piece of the blind was the ladder leading up to it. When the blind finally fell after a strong storm (not across my road in) I collected the planks and parts as well as the ladder, which I just knew I would have a use for someday. Many of the rotten planks and parts went into the fire, and now they exist as the ash that is rising there. Some of the planks I use to weigh down a tarp I spread over parts of my graveled area to kill the upstart weeds. But the ladder just rested against a tree for years, awaiting its new life.

And because I could not find the steel bars I wanted, I realized one day that the ladder (made of good quality, treated lumber it seems) would serve just as well. I carried the ladder to the area I had added the latest gravel to so I had sense of how long my new wood rack would be. Then I spaced the old blocks along it to make six stacks of three blocks apiece; the eighteen blocks divided so nicely it seemed meant to be. After a bit of leveling, the old ladder rested evenly on the blocks, and you can see the result here:

There are a number of things to say about this photo. First, the lighter colored gravel is the new stuff I laid down. (Farther up in the photo is the gravel my excellent son-in-law laid down in December.) To the right along the edge of the photo is the older gravel. It’s darker for several reason: it likely came for a different part of the quarry and it’s been in the weather for a decade at least. In fact, after the oak trees release their pollen, everything has an orange tint, including this white gravel. It’s hard to tell from this photo, but the lighter gravel is higher than the darker gravel. I need to spread more gravel there to even out the two, the darker gravel being on ground that rises up the slight hill on the right.

You can also see some of the retaining wall at the top of the photo. That’s the old part. The cabin is to the right of this old part. It happens that the new part aligns exactly with the left side of the old ladder; it’s there, just under it.

You can also glimpse the lake through the trees on the right. When we visited, we were delighted to see it as full as it was. (About four feet below full pool.) I watch the weather in the area, and I hadn’t thought there had been enuf rain to fill the lake this much, especially as dry as the forest has been in recent months. Much of this will leak out under the dam, but spring rains will also fill it. (The night we spent there, nine Canada geese circled the lake a few times then splashed onto the water. They spent the night. Keep in mind these were not golf course geese accustomed to humans. These were truly wild ones, and it warmed my black and shriveled heart to think my attempt at stewardship was working.)

I don’t think I’ll ever cut enuf firewood to fill this rack. I’m not sure I’d ever want to have a need for that much. But I have capacity now, and I hope it works as intended to prevent leaves from accumulating.

I still have most of the pile of gravel; I don’t think my son-in-law and I have moved half of it yet. But as I said, there are areas I need to bring to even grade, and it would be nice to have an actual level area near the fire ring so we could put a table there that doesn’t cant down hill and let dinner slide off.


*Roundrock is the name I’ve given to my property because of the obvious reason that it is filled with round rocks. I realize naming property is a bit pretentious, but I tired of referring to it as “the land” since that was vague.