Posted tagged ‘Roundrock’

sonder, out yonder

January 17, 2018

I once found a stubbed-out cigarette on one of the blocks of the retaining wall behind my cabin.

My first reaction was alarm. The back of the cabin is where dried out fallen leaves collect against the wooden wall. Cigarettes require a flame and themselves burn. But it seemed that the smoker was fastidious about his habit (I assume it was a “he” though I have no reason to think that) and snuffed it safely, though packing out his trash was apparently beyond the range of his perceived responsibilities.

But after my initial alarm, I began to imagine my interloper and his visit. Had he arrived by car or had he walked the considerable distance from anywhere to reach my end-of-the-road little cabin? Did he come down my road or hike cross country? Did he walk around the cabin and appreciate the setting? Or did he sit on the retaining wall as he enjoyed his cigarette? If so, why at the back of the cabin and not on the porch where he could look down on the glinting lake? Though perhaps he started there and merely sauntered. Did he try the door to see if it was open? Peer in the windows? Did he sit in one of the chairs? On the porch or around the fire ring? Did he heft the round rocks all around? Did he come with intent, to see the cabin in its place? Had he heard of it? Or was he just wandering the woods that day and come upon it? How long did he stay? And what did he think while he was there? Did he imagine for the time that the place was his own? Imagine throwing a line in the water? Throwing a steak on the grill? Telling stories around a fire? Or did he scoff at its humble setting? What was his name? Was he tired when he arrived and rested when he left? Was he alone? Did he meet someone there? Has he ever been back? Does this happen often?

I sometimes find the spoor of interlopers in my woods: beer cans, candy wrappers, footprints, emptied shotgun shells. Once, a horse shoe.

I have no illusions about the concept of private property, especially in isolated places infrequently visited. I also think it’s presumptuous in a way to think of “owning” a piece of land, at least on the time scale of land. I sometimes think of myself as more of a tenant of the 80 acres than an owner. A caretaker, maybe. A steward. Transitory. I can point to my influences, the changes I’ve made, both successful and not, and speak of the emotional connection I have to the place. But in a century, my connection won’t really be known to the next tenant in the woods. It seems unlikely that anyone will ponder who I was in my time and tenancy.

Maybe that’s why I write stories. To live beyond myself.


a matter of perspective

December 11, 2017

In my old blog, Roundrock Journal, I had kept a lexicon of words and phrases I used regularly that I thought readers might appreciate understanding a bit more deeply. “Tawny tussocks” for example was not an exotic dancer but a reference to little bluestem grass. “Loathsome goo” was the muck and mire at the bottom of the pond, in which I had once sunk to my thighs when I had dared to venture in there, nearly losing my shoes as I tried to extract myself.

I had also defined the distinction between “critters” and “varmints.” “Critters” were any kind of naturally occurring wildlife, looked on benignly by me. “Varmints” were critters that had gone bad, making some affront to my presumed mastery over the place. The mice that had found their way into the cabin recently were varmints.

On our trip to the woods two weekends ago, we saw more evidence of varmints. Above is the only survivor of ten shortleaf pine trees I had planted on one of the islands in the lake. (That it is rarely an island because the lake is generally too low is beside the point; the definition stands!). I had raised a chicken-wire fence around the trees — about four feet tall — and visited them regularly to do what I could to nurture them (not much). Because they had to rely on the rain to be watered and whatever nutrients might be in the rocky soil of the island, their chances had never been good, and that one of them survived at all and even thrived was a kind of validation to me.

But you see it above. It’s been vandalized. Some buck deer needed to rub the velvet off his antlers, and rather than use any of the thousands of cedar trees nearby, he apparently jumped the fence into the smallish enclosure and ravaged my pine. Those green things you see on the ground are its lower branches. Varmint!

The bark has been stripped away but this, apparently, is not a threat to the tree. Several of the pines in the plantation suffered this similar abuse and have grown into tall trees.

We repaired the fence as much as we could and continued on our hike.

And I suppose the forest could consider me a varmint. See the evidence here:

There are many trees in my forest like this. I have wedged a round rock or two into their clefts and left them there. Sometimes I find the rocks dislodged, presumably from windy days that make the trunks sway and separate. But there are others where the rocks remain, and one of them now has three rocks wedge into it, the first being nearly completely swallowed by the growing tree.

one-match fire

December 8, 2017

Once again, I didn’t intend for so much time to pass between posts, but life happens, I guess. I am sad to say that for the entire month of November, I did not make a single visit to my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. And looking at the calendar for December (with family coming and holidays and obligations and such), I saw few weekends when I could visit then. So when the first weekend of December opened, I took the chance and we went to the cabin for an overnight.

The Saturday started with us driving west forty miles to my son’s house to watch little Emmett while his mom and dad strung Christmas lights on their house. He’s a sweet and busy boy and he kept us busy while they were busy. But that ended mid-morning and we returned home to pack the truck for our trip one hundred miles southeast to Roundrock. The dogs are always eager to jump in the truck, and most of the time they are going someplace nice: the park or the cabin or just a drive. Sometimes, though, they are going to “camp” where we leave them for days at a time. They’d recently gone to camp when we went to Seattle for Thanksgiving, but they seemed to have forgotten that trauma when it came time to jump in for Roundrock.

And so off we went. Arriving later in the day, and with sunset maddeningly early, my only agenda item was to burn the wooden parts of an old compost bin that had been rotting in our backyard for decades. You can see some of it in the photo above, at the top, to the left of the flames.

So once we were unpacked and the cabin was thoroughly checked for mice (none found, nor any sign), I began work on my one-match fire and soon, successfully, had it going. We were running out of daylight quickly, and we still had burgers to cook, so instead of throwing the bin bits on the fire, I put on some oak I had cut and split during the summer. I’d hoped it had seasoned enuf to burn fast and make coals. The white oak did better than the blackjack oak, but once we had some glowing embers (and the falling sun), we moved them under the grill and dropped the burgers on. I spent a lot of time fanning these embers to keep them hot, even rousing a flame now and then. (The constant heat of coals is better than the variable heat of flames for cooking.) Longer than perhaps necessary, we finally called the burgers cooked, and Libby slipped them onto waiting buns, prepared with Swiss cheese, pickles, and hot mustard. We devoured those, with the help of the dogs, and then it was time to burn the bin.

I had four panels to burn, and each was a larger dimension than the fire ring. So I simply laid the first atop the fire, letting it overlap the blocks until it burned enuf for me to push it all in.

The bin had been made by my neighbor and used in his yard for years. (In fact, a walnut tree had sprouted in it one year, thriving in the rich soil, and I dug it up — with permission — and planted it in my pine plantation. It’s thriving there now.) My neighbor did not do things half way. This bin was solid, and though I was able to separate the four walls, I did not want to break them down any farther. Hence my overlapping plan.

The first panel took its time getting ignited, but once it did, it burned bright, hot, and quick. The flames were taller than I am, and I began to wonder how recently it had rained in my little forest. The fire was contained in the ring, and I had been careful to rake away all of the leaves within a dozen feet of it, but even so, I worried that this big thing could somehow get out of control. That didn’t stop me from putting on a second panel a little while later. It did the same, burning slowly then quickly. I did decide after two, however, that that would be all for the evening. I could probably have burned the other two, but with the darkness having fallen, and me being exhausted anyway, I didn’t think it was prudent. So they wait for my next visit.

In retrospect, I probably should not have burned these panels. The wood had been treated to prevent rot — and that worked for a long time — so burning them likely released all kinds of toxins into the atmosphere. That’s also why we didn’t use their coals for cooking our food.

We did other things in our woods last weekend, including a hike and the usual general upkeep needed for a neglected cabin, but maybe I’ll tell you about that in another post.

meanwhile, back at the cabin*

October 16, 2017

We made a day trip down to Roundrock on Saturday, doing nothing special until is was time to leave. Then we got our big surprise.

I’m sure I could count on one hand (yes, I can count that high!) the number of months over the last decade when I hadn’t made at least one visit to the cabin, but with this October shaping up as it is, I was worried that it would become one of those unvisited months. Thus our trip.

We had nothing much on our agenda, and since I forgot to bring the gasoline for the chainsaws, even the vague idea to clean up here and there, was dismissed. Upon entering the cabin, though, I found that both of the mousetraps I had set on my last visit had fulfilled their destiny. There were two dead (and mostly desiccated) mice in the traps. While this was good, it was also disconcerting. How are the mice getting into the cabin after nearly a decade of not being able to? (Or not having done so?) Libby suggested that we couldn’t reuse the traps since they now had the “smell of death” on them, but I’m not sure mice have that level of existential thought, though I do think they are attracted to smells. (I had baited the traps with a piece of extra sharp Swiss cheese and a bit of a chewy dog treat, and topped them both with a dab of spicy mustard.) Either way, I threw the traps onto the ash in the fire ring, to be consumed in the next fire (and to add their metal mechanisms — sprung — to the ash).

We poked around. I swept some corners of the cabin. I screwed an attachment in a wall stud so I could hang the wheelbarrow and thus regain some floor space. I liberated some cedars from their earthly toil. I raked leaves away from the back of the cabin. I took a “nap” which mostly consisted of closed eyes and slow breaths as I imagined a scene from a story I’m working on. (This resulted in a page of notes I wrote soon after.) We ate our lunch an hour early. I pulled weeds out of the gravel near the fire ring. I loaded the wheelbarrow into the bed of my truck to take home in faraway suburbia for some much-needed yard work. That kind of thing, for about five hours. (It’s a two-hour drive each way for a cabin trip, so we strive to spend more time actually there than it takes to get to and fro.) And then it was time to begin packing to head home.

We were nearly gone — the dogs were already in the car — when Libby opened the drawer of the metal cabinet to get a tissue and made her discovery.

There was a mouse in the drawer. Not only a mouse, but a momma mouse with three babies hanging from her. (Apparently they’re called pups.) She had made a nest of the oven mitt we’d kept there. When Libby spotted the mouse, she quickly disappeared, leaving one pup behind. We slowly began emptying the drawer (and throwing out many foul-smelling things), but we could not find the mother mouse. Then we moved to the cabinet below the drawer. In here we have kept the extra sheets for the beds, towels, blankets, and all sorts of things we’d put away exactly because they would make nice mouse bedding. Slowly we began removing these, and on the fleece blanket Libby uses to keep warm on cold nights, we saw a chewed hole in it. Still, we could not find the mother mouse. But as I was holding the blanket, I saw it move and I knew the mouse was within the folds. Just has Libby had done with the one pup we’d retrieved from the drawer, I took the blanket far from the cabin and then opened it. There was momma mouse, looking bright eyed and plump, with clean, thick fur. (Another mystery is how these mice are feeding themselves in the cabin since we’ve put away all of the edibles. The conclusion is that they’re coming and going through some means mysterious.) Also with momma mouse were two pups. I shook them off the blanket and wished them well there in the woods, then I opened the blanket fully and shook it again.

We brought home all of the washables from the cabinet (and put a new oven mitt on the list of things we need for the cabin). They’ve all been laundered and are ready to be returned on our next visit.

I should say that we had purchased this metal cabinet specifically because we thought it was mouse proof. Even with it emptied (and Windexed clean), we could not find an entrance. It will get a more thorough examination on our next trip.

I’ll get more mouse traps, and I think I’ll get some of that nasty poison to stick behind the cabinet in the corner. We’ve always been reluctant to use poison because of the small dog, though there are places he can’t reach that mice can.

I intend to bring a ladder on my next visit and examine closely the eaves outside of the cabin and their corresponding parts inside. There has to be an entrance somewhere.

You may remember that we’d had a break in last spring. By squirrels, but still! Libby’s idea is that once the forest learned that there were edibles in the cabin — in that case birdseed — the word got around and now the mice, who’d never shown an interest in the cabin before, are determined to move in. That makes the most sense right now.

In my One-Match Fire story “where late the sweet birds sang” the narrator laments that his father had never been able to make their cabin mouse proof, and I was always a little smug that mine was. I am chastized.

Also, this is not a mouse:



*A paraphrase, as I’m sure you recognized, of the phrase “meanwhile, back at the ranch” which has a long and storied history.

trip to the cabin

June 5, 2017

I had said in my last post that the chest cold I’d developed (which I still have a tiny bit) prevented me from going to my cabin two weekends ago, but I wrote that before the long weekend had transpired, and it turned out to be a misstatement. My wife and I (and the dogs) did make it out there Sunday for an overnight into Memorial Day Monday. (And I don’t feel bad that I did not go to Kentucky to see my ailing mother as I had originally planned since I didn’t need to give her my cold, so the cabin trip was an acceptable fallback.)

We didn’t do a whole lot while there. I never fired up the chainsaw, for example, though there are some smallish trees around the cabin I’d like to remove. We only went for one short hike, and we penned the dogs inside the cabin while we did since the ticks seem to be bad this year. I didn’t add to the retaining wall I’m slowing extending from the cabin to the road.

But that doesn’t mean that the permanent residents in my little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks weren’t busy. A phoebe has built her nest on the side of the cabin under the porch roof again this year. She had taken literally what the sign below says.

My son and daughter-in-law (the doctors) had given me that sign several years ago, and I duly hung it beside the door to the cabin. I thought the bear on the right looked a little odd — what is it doing in that pose? — so if you look closely you can see the football I put in its hands because that makes so much more sense. Anyway, on an earlier trip to the cabin I had noticed that the phoebe was adding mud pellets to several places on the front of the cabin, and I figured on a later visit I would learn which one she’d settled on for her nest. You can she where she did.

The female phoebe builds her nest alone; imagine how much work that must be without hands. She must collect enuf mud pellets to make the clinging base, and then she must get the softer nesting material to add to the top to complete it. (Which made my slacking visit more clear to me.) I had worried that the phoebe would not return this year because I hadn’t seen her nest work earlier in the spring as I usually did, but then I recalled what a drought we’d had, so perhaps mud was hard to come by.

Anyway, she finished her nest and promptly filled it:

One summer several years ago the phoebe — I don’t know that it’s the same one actually — raised three clutches, but she’s getting a late start this year. Still, it’s heartening to see this.

Unfortunately, we come and go a lot on the porch, and we have two comfy chairs there that we sit in to gaze down at the lake (still full!) for countless hours. And this is problematic for the phoebe since she is not habituated to humans and so will not remain on her nest when we are on the porch. Instead she will fly to a nearby tree branch and scold us. Given the temperature the thermometer on the porch was reporting that day, I don’t think her absence from her eggs was a problem for their development, but I tried to keep myself busy away from the porch as much as possible so she could return to her nest.

On my next trip to the cabin it may be that I’ll find chirping hatchlings in the nest.

As to the top photo, that fallen tree rests not too far from the cabin. You can see that it’s slowly yielding all of the solar energy it collected over decades to the earth. This is the log I put peanuts (unsalted, of course) on for the wood rat who lives within it as well as for the birds who come and take a whole one to a nearby branch to peck it open and get the good stuff inside. You can see some peanuts in the lower right of the photo.

Feeding wild animals is, technically, not a good thing since they can get dependent on their human source, but given my sporadic visits and thus sporadic feedings, I consider them to be a supplement rather than a meal replacement, so to speak.


before and after

February 22, 2017


Yes, another post about my woods called Roundrock. I’m currently suffering a creativity drought and don’t have anything writer-ish to tell you about.

What you see above is a small structure that sat at the bottom of my lake, which I built with some scrap bricks . (This was after the dam was raised but before much water had accumulated.) This structure was intended to give the small fish something to hide within as they grew to be big fish. I’m not sure how well that would have worked since it eventually sat in about twelve feet of water, and I don’t think the little fish venture that low. I learned later that catfish had somehow found their way into the lake, so perhaps baby catfish used it.

Or abused it.

The lake leaks. The builder said he couldn’t promise me that it would be water tight. It’s built in a natural valley, one that’s had a million years to accumulate gravel, one with limestone ledges that likely have long, deep cracks in them. The lake fills in the spring with all of the rain, and then it generally spends the summer and fall leaking out, watering the pecans I’ve planted in the acre below the dam (as well as the upstart willows and sycamores). Then sometime in the winter it seems to have dropped below the leak point because it generally remains a large pool, about five feet deep at the deepest. (I’m told that it could eventually fill with enuf silt to plug the leaks. Alternatively, I have tried spreading Bentonite — a type of clay — to plug the leaks. It’s too big to use a liner, at least one that I could afford. I think the only real solution is to line the bottom with twenty-dollar bills.)

And that five-foot-deep pool is the state it’s in right now. Which means my fish structure is currently exposed. So this is what it looks like now:


I don’t know how to explain its current broken-down state. I can’t imagine that the fish did this. When we have heavy rains, a lot of water can come pouring into the lake from the hundred-acre watershed that feeds it. (We’ve seen clots of grass and sticks at shoulder height in the trees upstream. Some of those flows must be terrifying!) It seems possible that a strong flow could do this, but the structure is not in the main channel, and it is in a broad part of the lake bed, so any flow would be dispersed at this point.

Still, it happened.

If the water gets any lower — if the ground around the little structure gets dry enuf to walk on — I’ll rebuild it. If not, well, the bricks could have been this way for years, so if it remained, it would be no different.

I’ve been stomping around my woods for more than a decade, and it still delivers me little discoveries like this.

a tree falls in the forest

January 25, 2017

Santa (or Krampus — not sure which in my progressive household) got my old chainsaw repaired, which meant on my next trip to Roundrock, I could do some serious damage to the trees there. It happens that one of my One-Match Fire stories is called “At Tree Falls in the Forest” and involves a father introducing his son to their chainsaw and carefully helping him cut down his first tree. Because my own chain saw was in disrepair and my sloth was not, I had not used it in perhaps five years. So it was with a little bit of audacity that I dared to write about using one in a story.

Thus when I got to use mine once again over the weekend, during an unseasonably warm winter day in the Ozarks, I had the chance to check my memory against reality.

The saw requires both chain oil and a fuel additive to run properly. When we got to the cabin on Saturday morning (after a 5.75 mile run and bagels, by the way) I found that I didn’t have any chain oil. Since my intent was to cut up a Blackjack Oak — a tenaciously hard wood that eats up chains — I certainly didn’t want to run it without. So after we got all of our gear settled in the cabin, we made a trip into town about ten miles away to visit the hardware store that has parted me from much of my money in the years that I’ve owned my woods. I found the chain oil without much trouble and grabbed some fuel additive while I was there. And then it was back to the cabin.

I was eager to cut up the tree. It was a double-trunked beast, and one trunk had already fallen to the ground. I had already cut it as much as my arm muscles could with a hand saw, and then the remainder of the trunk just lay on the ground, taunting me with each visit. That would change this time, and I intended to bring its companion trunk — still standing — to the ground and eventually into my campfire.

All I had to do was add the chain oil in its proper spot and then fuel up the saw, tug on the cord until it started, and begin the mayhem.

Simple as that.

I opened the screw-top cap to add the chain oil and began pouring it in, surprised at how thirsty the saw was, but it had been five years since I’d given it any attention, so what did I know? Having topped off the chain oil using nearly the entire bottle, I then turned to the fuel to put it in. And that was when I realized the mistake I had made. I had filled the fuel tank with the chain oil. Which is a kind way of saying I am an idiot. I don’t know how much Santa/Krampus paid to have my chainsaw repaired, but in my foolish act I had pretty much just undone all of it.

And so I stood there pondering what it was I had done and what I could do about it. The obvious answer was the only answer. I had to pour the chain oil out of the fuel tank and into the bottle from whence it came then somehow clean the fuel tank before adding actual gasoline. (Also actually putting the chain oil in the proper reservoir.) And so I did. It was easy enuf to pour the thick oil back into the bottle, but cleaning the tank was more of a challenge. I carried the chainsaw into the woods (across the road and thus not in the lake’s watershed) and then tilted it so whatever gunk remained in the fuel tank could drip out. I suspect I was violating if not actual laws then prudent environmental good sense by adding this hydrocarbon ooze to the forest floor, but it wasn’t too much. I then wrapped a paper towel around my finger and poked into the fuel tank to swab out whatever gunk I could touch. After that I returned to the cabin and filled the tank with gasoline, like any otherwise capable woodsman would have done originally.

So, all was in readiness, and all I had to do was start the saw. I pulled on the cord. And pulled. And pulled. And the saw would not start. Only then did I remember that there is an on/off switch by the handle that is nicely placed so you can thumb the machine off easily in an emergency. And it was set for “off.” Having remedied this, I tugged on the cord again. After a few tugs, the machined roared into life.

And then sputtered into silence.

So I tugged again. The same thing happened. And it happened several more times as I realized that the engine needed to clear the gunk that was in it from my earlier mishap. After a few minutes of tugging and fuzzy hopefulness, I did get the chainsaw running in a sustained way. It was still a little fussy, and I had to restart it several times, but I was able to cut up the fallen Blackjack Oak as well as its standing companion. Here you can see some of my handiwork:


(That’s the much-dimished lake in the background. No swimming this visit.)

Later in the afternoon I schelpped the saw down into the dry part of the lake bed (don’t ask, I’ll just whimper) and cut up some willow trees that are growing there. It’s a defiant act of mine since there are far more willows than an afternoon and a tank full of gas can address, but it’s a start.

So the trip to the woods was a success despite my mishap. We cooked our food over a (one-match) fire (abetted by some oil-soaked rags) with wood I had cut, mused before the flames and embers, and then eventually crawled into our beds in the cabin for a sleep well earned.

I woke in the middle of the night to rain hammering on the metal roof of the cabin. It was not unexpected, and the poor, diminished lake certainly needed a recharge, but it continued through the night and into the wan light of dawn. Our plan had been to ravage the forest more with the chainsaw on Sunday, but the rain, and the falling temps, had conspired against us. So we packed our gear into the truck and steered ourselves toward home. When we could get a cell signal (our cabin is on the wrong side of the ridge for that), we learned that seriously bad weather was coming to the area, with possible tornados. So I guess it was just as well we left any tree felling that day to the wind.