Posted by: sdshspress | 12/14/2009

Winter Solstice and Hope

All good things must end, they say, and whether this year-long blog has been worthwhile or not, its end has come. But if our lives are in synch with natural cycles, endings are also opportunities to begin.

Shortly after my book Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff was published last year, my editor at South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Martyn Beeny, suggested that I write a weekly blog of happenings on the Missouri River bluff—a kind of addendum to Coyote’s Call. I agreed to give it a try, and soon I was looking forward to sharing with readers each Monday some happening of the week on our bluff. Now the year has flown, and never a week has passed when “nothing happened.” There is a new wildflower in bloom, a blizzard to endure, a skunk spraying our backdoor with perfume or the sighting of a bird I’d never seen.

It’s been a great year, and I have accumulated 50 short essays of life in our prairies and woods and the thoughts this life has provoked. Truth is, I’ve been carrying a pocket notebook for 28 years, recording daily appointments, occurrences, thoughts and encounters with serendipity. Coyote’s Call itself grew in large measure from these notebooks, observations and ideas that otherwise might have vanished into the ether I breathe. So in fact this process is not new to me, except the technology, a new way of reaching out to friends old and new, readers and others who might take interest in the musings of an amateur naturalist whose eyes and heart are open to the workings of the ecosystem of which we are part.

I have appreciated the comments and reactions of readers who took time to respond, either directly to the blog, or indirectly in other ways. I have made new acquaintances with people who share my love of the natural world and who somehow related to my quirky way of seeing things. Thus, perhaps the end of my weekly posts is less a closing door than a door left ajar, a portal through which I peer further down the road, an opportunity to take these musings to a new audience through more traditional means. In short, I hope to shape these and other essays and observations, along with photographs, into a new book, something I might call “A Year on the Bluff.”

With winter solstice approaching, I close this phase of the journey with the final paragraph from Waiting for Coyote’s Call. I hope that my readers have enjoyed both blog and book, and I hope to see you all somewhere down the road.

Midnight, December 21st, the longest night of the year. In the kingdoms of birds, mammals and plants, this is a time of sleep. In the morning, in the new year, in the spring, we tell ourselves, all will be revived. The annual cycle of rebirth will come. But in the post-modern world, not all women and men take note. Will we humans, like the rest of creation, open our eyes tomorrow to a new world, a world in which renewal is both possible and required? We wait by the solstice fire for the coyote’s call.

Happy Trails,
Jerry Wilson

Posted by: sdshspress | 12/07/2009

A Bridge to Somewhere

For years I eyed the ridge of land between the two creeks that feed our pond. The west slope is gentle, shaded by towering bur oaks and hackberries, the east a steep glacial ravine marked by seeps and outcroppings of chalk rock, the bedrock from which both streams spring. The peak between the two rises more than a hundred feet above the water. We often crossed the frozen pond in winter and hiked this secluded spot, but in other seasons the peninsula could be reached in three ways: Hike north to the upland meadow above the gorges, hop from stone to stone across the west creek, or wade. Often I gazed across to this remote ridge and wished to bridge the stream.

The land declines gently, so that fifty yards from the pond the banks stand just 15 feet above water. This seemed the most likely place for a bridge, but even here I would need to span 60 feet, which posed two problems: Where would I find materials to build a bridge that long, and lacking a crane or other heavy equipment, how could I get a bridge into place? The answer to both questions came at once.

Fed by a perennial spring with a flow of 15 gallons per minute, the water in the western neck is slow to freeze. Only after a lengthy stretch of freezing temperatures would a crossing be safe. It so happened that just as the ice grew thick enough to cross, a crew employed by WAPA, the Western Area Power Administration, rolled in with big trucks and assorted power line servicing equipment to replace two 50-year-old poles that support the high-voltage power line that runs just north of our fence. These are no ordinary poles. They are massive western red cedars, 60 feet long and 18 inches wide at the base. The foreman said WAPA had no use for the decommissioned poles; they were mine for the taking.

I wrapped a log chain around the base of one and hooked it to my Ford, put the tractor in low gear, and inched the pole across field and prairie and down a ski trail I had carved through the woods to the edge of the stream. The log glided readily across frozen soil, leaving hardly a mark. In an hour’s time, both poles were positioned beside the stream.

I strung together every piece of chain I could find, crossed the creek on ice, and attached the chain to my come-along, a hand operated winch that combines the principles of pulley and lever action, enabling an ordinary human to move many times his weight. I fastened the other end of the winch to a tree on the peninsula, and began to crank. The pole inched forward, literally. Every stroke of the lever advanced the timber a couple of inches. Little effort was required in the early phase; gravity was on my side. Even when the pole hit the frozen stream, it glided readily across the ice. But eventually it reached the other shore, and that is when the real work began. Now I was not merely dragging the timber, but I must lift it eight feet to its resting place on the eastern bank. A cheater was required. I slid a piece of pipe over the handle, thus halving the force required to raise the pole another inch.

After a long afternoon of strained muscles, both logs lay side by side and level across the chasm. The hard work was done. Friends Clarence and Sandy joined Norma and me on Sunday afternoon to nail lengths of 2X6 to the poles, spanning the creek and providing easy access to the peninsula year-around. Besides its primary function of bridging a forbidding ravine, the bridge is a place to sit, fish or contemplate, and a place where raccoons love to dine. But there is another unexpected benefit. The bridge is among the world’s largest marimbas! The long trunks of the western red cedars taper from 18 inches at one end to half that diameter at the other. As one crosses the bridge, his feet play a rising or descending scale, depending on the direction of travel, the timbre of the timber.

– Jerry

Posted by: sdshspress | 12/01/2009

The Time of Fire

The winter’s wood is in—two cords of oak, hackberry, mulberry, ash and elm. If it’s an average winter, there should be a little left when spring finally comes, or at least that’s the plan. Trudging through ice or snow to cut and carry wood is not my idea of fun, though more than once I’ve been reduced to that. Among the beauties of “retirement,” of not reporting to work every day, is that jobs like cutting wood can be spread over time, and can actually be pleasurable instead of a chore.

That being said, October’s weather egged me on with a sense of urgency I might not otherwise have felt. Day after day of clouds and drizzle and below average temperatures warned me that winter could be long, and time to prepare cut short. By the end of the month we had already burned the wood that generally takes us to Thanksgiving. Yet I resisted the alarm I might have felt in working years, when I relied on stolen weekend hours to lay in wood. Instead I labored a couple of hours at a stretch, no longer than I could enjoy the job, then knocked off for a ramble or some less strenuous pursuit.

Then November rolled around, and just to prove her sense of balance, Mother Nature gave us October weather in November—calm, dry, sunny days. The sun heated our geo-solar home every day but three from Halloween to Thanksgiving, so we approach December with the north wall of the garage stacked to the ceiling with dry wood. A pile of elm trunks waits outside to be split, but that is a job for mornings when the thermometer hugs zero, when wood splits readily and hard work feels good, when you tackle the wood that heats you thrice, once when cut, a second time when split and finally when we sit by the stove.

Our hardest firewood is oak, but oaks rarely die. Ash ranks a close second in the British Thermal Units of solar energy packed into a cubic foot of wood. I like ash because its grain grows straight. On a cold January day, a seasoned chunk of 12-inch trunk will split with a single blow of an axe-faced maul. Compared to the interwoven grain of elm, ash measures up poorly in heating thrice. I have sweated in shirtsleeves on a sunny zero-degree day splitting elm, while for ash I require a jacket or vest. The other woods we burn fall between ash and elm on the scale of heat and sweat that splitting generates.

Three common native trees I don’t bother to cut for the stove—cottonwood, willow and box elder. These soft woods produce nearly as much ash as heat, as well as more air pollution and greenhouse gas, and if you forget to tend the fire, it dies.

Tomorrow is December, and whatever the weatherman says, we know the season of real winter is about to begin. When the sun doesn’t shine, we will be ready. Like ancient ancestors, we will sit cozily by the fire, luxuriating in the slow release of energy the sun has patiently stored for decades in the cells of living trees.

––Jerry

Posted by: sdshspress | 11/23/2009

Death in the Woods

The woods and prairie of the Missouri bluff are full of life—and death. That, of course, is by design. No organism survives forever. The life of some, including many insects, is measured in days. For annual plants, our growing season is six months at best. Burr oaks can live hundreds of years, and though native grasses are perennial, everything but the roots dies away each fall. Each organism, including human beings, returns in its own way to the Earth, our decomposition restoring the minerals and resources we have borrowed for a time.

So death in the woods is not new, and not necessarily a cause for sadness or concern. Frost ends the life cycle for annual plants, and even before frost, tree leaves begin to fall. When fungi grow on an ash tree, I suspect its days are numbered. Many a raccoon fails to make it across the road from Clay Creek to the bluff, but I also find dead animals in the woods, sometimes just feathers or fur and inedible parts of birds, rabbits and rodents that have fed a larger predator, sometimes the decaying bodies of creatures that may have died of injuries, disease or old age.

But now and then I find death that fills me with sadness or anger. Once I found the carcass of a red-tailed hawk, cradled in the jagged top of a rotting cottonwood. I could not reach the hawk for examination, but a natural death on that pinnacle seemed unlikely. I had just read that two men in the service of a local pheasant-shooting preserve had been arrested for shooting protected birds of prey.

This week brought another discouraging find. Passing the pond, I saw something large floating near the north shore. I walked upstream and crossed the creek to investigate. It was what I feared I had seen—a half-submerged whitetail deer. I went home for a rope, paddled the raft out to the carcass and dragged it to shore, then up the hill to where the body can feed coyotes and other scavengers and carnivores without polluting the water. I examined the deer, a young antlerless buck. Just behind the front leg was a half-inch hole. I grasped a hoof and turned the body over. Opposite the hole was a bloody gash, apparently ripped by an exiting bullet.

I do not oppose ethical hunting, and every winter we enjoy venison jerky passed to us by a friend. But our piece of the bluff is clearly marked as a wildlife preserve, no hunting allowed. The pond and the creek are not unusual places for wounded animals to die; they instinctively seek sanctuary and the water that a bleeding animal needs. The pond is a quarter mile from our boundary, but a wounded deer may run that far, so it is quite possible that whoever shot the young buck and failed to follow the trail of blood fired from outside our fence. But what is more disturbing is that I found the carcass on November 17, four days before rifle season began.

There is nothing magical about November 21. A deer shot that day is just as dead. But those who disregard the law and the science behind it to kill animals out of season are among those who give ethical hunters a bad name, like those who kill eagles and hawks and owls, and those who every fall cruise county and township roads, shooting from vehicles and tossing beer cans in the ditch.

I know hunters whose respect for nature and for fellow creatures is similar to mine. One friend, who ranks among the top archers in the state, spent dozens of hours of last year’s deer season in his stand, but never released an arrow because he wasn’t sure of a killing shot. Unfortunately some who hunt—and some who do not—have not learned to respect either the laws of the state or the higher laws of nature, to recognize their essential kinship with other animals with whom we share our Earth.

––Jerry

Posted by: sdshspress | 11/17/2009

Following and Blazing Trails

From the beginning, I was lured by woods. As a child on our 50-acre farm east of Oklahoma City, I followed the creek south from the house, crawled under a barbed wire fence and slipped into the woods my father rented for firewood and to graze his milk cows—80 acres of oaks, hickories, willows, cottonwoods, persimmons, meadow and swamp. To a boy of seven, an 80-acre forest is infinity. I knew the eighty’s orientation to the sun, where the land inclined, where the soil was boggy or dry, where groves of various trees grew, when and where to find ripe persimmons and why to avoid those that are not.

American persimmon tree

I knew the trails made by cows and men, but a boy of seven can follow trails of smaller animals too, and gradually I sketched ever-finer details on my mental map. I found the tracks of raccoons and possums and deer, sometimes following, sometimes intersecting the more predictable foot-wide paths of cows. On hands and knees, I followed the lower, narrower trails. Some tracks I didn’t know, but I followed them all, ever deeper into brambles and underbrush. I found where the possum crawled into his hollow hickory log. I knew the tall cottonwood in whose rotting trunk the raccoon lived. I found the limb on which he dined, saw where he dropped his waste, and learned what fruits and creatures he ate. Following trails expanded my universe of mammals and birds.

But nature herself is not a fan of trails. Decades before I read Rabelais’ observation that “nature abhors a vacuum,” I found it true. The height and width of each trail was no greater than that of the largest animal that regularly passed. A few large animals, moose for example, are equipped to keep trails wide, and deer help maintain trails by browsing brush. But of all the animals in the woods, only man carries nippers or saws to efficiently counter nature’s tendency to close trails. I am such a man.

There are rational reasons for trails. They provide access to otherwise forbidden places and to fallen firewood trees. They allow fuller access to the woods, whether by foot or on skis. And on the Missouri River bluff, where eastern red cedars are invading every square foot not otherwise occupied, trail blazing keeps remnants of native prairie alive and exposed to sun. So when fall rolls around, I take to the woods to make or maintain trails. That has been my occupation this fine November week. The result is a pair of new cross-country ski trails, the longest a quarter-mile run from bluff to river bottom.

But truthfully, all the logical reasons for trail maintenance are on some level rationalization for being in the woods. Perhaps my personal motive is not so different from that of the hunter who carries a gun instead of a saw, and whose object is deer rather than firewood or fun. Given the ingrained work ethic of our culture, we seem to need an excuse for frittering away an afternoon in the woods.

Trail maker that I am, I admit there is a problem with trails. Once constructed, whether by cows or coons or men, one may follow them without asking why. And perhaps that, in the end, is the attraction of cutting a new trail to find what lies in a tangle I have yet to explore. So do I face an inescapable conundrum—the paradox that in seeking adventure I tame the very wilderness I love? Probably not, recalling nature’s efficient way of countering our every move—and that we live amidst cedar trees, one of her most efficient tools.

––Jerry

Posted by: sdshspress | 11/12/2009

Halloween, Coyotes, and Cranes

Halloween, “hallowed eve,” is followed by the Day of the Dead. As we approach our longest nights, Americans and Mexicans face death, feigning fear and taunting symbols of death on Halloween, and communing with spirits of the dead. Having lost its spiritual aspect, Halloween is a night for costumes and masks, candy and outlandish acts. Across Mexico people gather in cemeteries November 2, washing gravestones, decorating tombs and offering food to loved ones lost.

On Halloween night a dozen friends sat around a bonfire with Norma and me beside the 1869 Severson log cabin. As the full moon cleared the eastern horizon, coyotes emerged from their dens and greeted the night. From then until midnight we were serenaded five times by choruses of coyotes, one pack hunting the corn fields and the narrow strip of brush and trees along Clay Creek to our south, another in our prairie and hills. The coyotes’ call is a blood-curdling cacophony of yips, wails and howls, the perfect accompaniment to the dark aura of Halloween. The exuberant yips and wails mean the pack is closing in on an unlucky cottontail or other prey, the most dramatic voice on our bluff.

I readily distinguish a lone coyote’s yip, and the practiced ear can separate the calls of a pair. But when more than two voices merge I hear discord that after years of straining, I cannot discern. Is it three, or half a dozen wailing at the moon? But on this night, one voice led the pack with sustained, hair-raising howls, while others added barks and yips. Whatever the makeup of the chorus or the reason for the cry, it brings joy to my heart; the presence of large predators is evidence of ecological health, of an ecosystem and a food chain achieving balance.

Following Halloween, the Day of the Dead dawned calm and clear. Trimming trees, I heard the distant chortle of sandhills cranes. I dropped my nippers and craned my neck toward the sky. Migrating sandhills fly at nearly stratospheric heights, so on windy days and in noisy places they pass overhead unheard. But this calm afternoon their trumpeting was distinct, and eventually I spotted them a mile up, a flock of four dozen lazily gliding south. I say lazily, because unlike geese, whose wings beat frantically and whose voices croak in seeming despair, cranes sail calmly in circles, riding thermal updrafts but with each revolution moving toward their southern winter home. The downside of their circuitous soaring is that a thousand-mile flight might require twice that many miles.

So what do the cranes have in common with the coyotes and me, we earth-bound neighbors for whom our cherished bluff is flyover country? Perhaps it is that Halloween and the Day of the Dead are mere figments of human imagination, rituals of death that have little to do with life. I raise a cheerful glass to Halloween and the Day of the Dead, and to coyotes, cranes and human friends, for this is the day and this is the world of life.

–Jerry

Don’t forget that if you would like to read more from Jerry, check out his book, Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press.

Posted by: sdshspress | 11/02/2009

Licking Salt and Locking Horns

This is the first fall for full growth of native prairie on the home forty. For years we have restored or rehabilitated a few acres of native grasses and forbs each spring and summer, but the zone surrounding our house had remained primarily domesticated—bluegrass, brome and other non-native species. This summer we set our sights on bringing native culture closer to home. Now within a stone’s throw of the house on every side, six-foot native grasses grow. That, of course, has brought wildlife closer to our doors.

buck

Over our 27 years on the bluff, the populations of many wild creatures, from possums and raccoons to squirrels and whitetail deer have expanded. Gradually our fellow inhabitants’ fear of humans has been replaced by curiosity, and we have become close neighbors. Deer, for example, have long lurked by the garden gate and peered inside at forbidden fruits. They have frequented the salt block under the mulberry tree, and on frigid days when I toss a can of corn on the snow, they miraculously materialize to dine. But in recent years, a small herd lives within a couple hundred yards of the house fulltime. Here they find cover and safety, water in the pond and spring, and plenty of their favorite foods—not just corn, but fruits, grasses and brush to browse.

So we know when rutting season comes. Among the telltale signs is bark freshly scuffed from young pine or ash trees, which tells us that testosterone is flowing and young bucks are testing their antlers. One finds their jousting grounds in the woods, a pair of meter-wide spots a dozen feet apart, pawed bare of grass. When a doe or a herd of does streaks across the valley before hunting season, we can expect a buck close behind. But second only to actual mating, the most dramatic manifestation of rutting season is the meeting of bucks, the locking of horns.

On a crisp sunrise last week, I had just settled into my recliner with coffee when a young buck strolled from behind a cedar tree. At this time of year they seem to fairly strut, heads and antlers held high, nostrils flared. As I watched, a second buck appeared, older and larger, and before long the two faced off. As if to complete the cast of the unfolding melodrama, three does arose from their beds in Indiangrass, a mother and last spring’s fawns.

The presence of females brought the bucks to action. The older and larger, a 10-pointer with an off-balance rack, moved in on the younger foe, a fellow with a mere eight points to his credit. The pair angled for position, pawed the earth a time or two and locked antlers. The younger fellow was more aggression than thrust, the equivalent perhaps of a human teen with raging hormones. For the veteran, it seemed more ritual than reality. Likely the two had met before, and the young buck was merely keeping up appearances—and announcing his candidacy for a future year.

Meanwhile, the doe and her teenaged daughters strolled demurely to the salt block and began to lick, apparently ignoring the valiant battle waged on their behalf.

–Jerry

To read Jerry’s memoir of the last 25 years or so, check out Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff.

Posted by: sdshspress | 10/28/2009

The Season of Death

The season of death has come. We’ve been flirting with frost for most of October, though the unusually wet and cloudy month has kept the killing freeze at bay. But Saturday morning the bluff was glazed with ice. Not the kind that falls from above, but the sort that creeps up from the earth as accumulated warmth and moisture from the passing season meets freezing air from the north. The result is astoundingly beautiful—millions of miniature crystals coating every exposed surface from blades of grass to rooftops and still-clinging leaves.

But the effect of frost is deadly. Except for bluegrass and brome and other cool season grasses that are able to withstand temperatures below 32 degrees, the grasses are dormant or dead. The garden is finished, and the only homegrown things we’ll eat for months are those stowed in jars and freezer bags and the cellar. A few petunias and a rose protected by our south overhand still bravely bloom, but all other flowers are finished. Sweet aromas have given way to wilt and decay. For the next six months, hopes and illusions of revival are gone.

Yet today the sun has returned, and its reach through south-facing windows is strong and long; this afternoon we’ll be toasting in t-shirts and socks without fossil fuels or wood. And there are other trade-offs and benefits to enjoy. Yes, I’ll be cutting and splitting firewood, but no more weeds to chop. I may soon be shoveling snow, but I won’t mow the lawn until May. The house may need touch-up stain, but well, I can’t do that until spring. There’s less daylight to enjoy, but more time to sit by the fire with friends, and maybe I’ll even get more sleep. Songbirds that depend on insects and nectar have flown south, but they are replaced at the feeder by a United Nations of winter birds.

And there are less tangible things. Winter is a time for reflection, a time to give thanks for the fruits of the season past. We may long for fresh cherries and apples, but we can heat up the oven and bake a pie from frozen fruit. The colder the night, the clearer the sky and its million stars, and the more distinct the yips of coyotes on the hunt. I prowl the woods more silently on fallen leaves, and through the opened canopy I gaze on distant hills.

Now the pendulum pace picks up, swinging ever faster toward the longest night. And with winter solstice less than two months away, we will hold our breaths until the faithful Earth resumes her tilt back toward the sun.

Hope does spring eternal in the human breast as poet Alexander Pope reminds us, and the coming winter gives us plenty of time and reasons to cultivate our capacities for hope. The opposite of hope is despair, and yes, sometimes through the long winter ahead we will be drawn by its grip. But let us keep our eyes on the crystalline frost below our feet and the constellations overhead. Despair is a state of mind, as is hope, as is the capacity to enjoy the beauty and promises that each moment brings.

–Jerry

Read more from Jerry in his book, Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff.

Posted by: sdshspress | 10/20/2009

Hawks

RedTailedHawk

Laying stones is solitary work. Whether you’re building a wall or a walk, it’s one stone at a time. Eye the pile, choose one rock for possible fit, try every angle, then more than likely put it back and choose another. Sight and touch are fully engage, but rocks have no odor, and nothing is more silent than stone. That was my task on a recent afternoon, in this case building a pathway of basalt to the upper room, the space above the dug-into-the-hill garage accessible only from up the hill. On hands and knees, I concentrated myopically on the task at hand, oblivious to all overhead–until the air was pierced by the scream of a red-tailed hawk.

Any birdcall is a signal to stop whatever I’m doing and take a break and a look, even if it’s a robin or a dove. But of all our birds, the red-tail’s cry is perhaps most dramatic, splitting the air like a steam locomotive’s shriek. True, blue jays are capable of a fair imitation; they’ve fooled me more than once. But this cry came from high in the firmament. I had no doubt what I’d heard. It didn’t take long to spot the hawk circling directly overhead.

I put my tools aside and sprawled on my back in the grass for a better point of view, a perspective that would not strain my neck. Now I saw that there were actually two hawks, a pair gliding together on the updraft above the bluff. Round and round they went, drifting up the bluff on the wind. Focused intently as I was on the pair, I didn’t see the eagle until he entered the red-tails’ arc.

The bald eagle was engaged in the same activity as the smaller birds of prey, riding the updraft, searching for dinner. But then I realized that the eagle had something else in mind. Each revolution brought him closer to the hawks. His circle was wider, but his flight was faster, and he was closing in. Presumably the eagle saw the smaller raptors as competition for whatever rodents or rabbits might be exposed, and he was the biggest bird on the block.

But with greater size and speed comes diminished agility. The four-foot wingspan of the red-tails enabled them to easily evade the advancing eagle, which though not fully mature, had a wingspan a third wider than that of the hawks. The buteos didn’t seem especially concerned about the larger bird, but neither were they eager for a confrontation with the ruler of our skies. Gradually the eagle pushed them with the wind, and up the bluff they drifted, leaving behind any unlucky mammals the eagle-eyed monarch of the bluff might spy.

–Jerry

To read more from Jerry Wilson, check out Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff.


Posted by: sdshspress | 10/13/2009

Ready for Winter?

It’s October 12, Native American Day in South Dakota, and snow is already falling. Am I ready for this? I’ve removed the tomato cages and uprooted the garden plants so decomposition can begin. I’ve drained the garden hoses and put them away. I’ve cleaned the chimney and cut a little firewood, though I’ll surely need more.

Enchanting as it is, snow induces uneasiness about what lies ahead—and about how much we all have yet to do. But am I ready for winter? The real answer is yes. I don’t exactly look forward to cold and snow and the season of death, but I intend to enjoy it with bundled-up hikes and cross-country skiing across the prairies and through the woods. And those fall details left undone—I’ll get to them next week. I will face the coming season with confidence, because I’ve finally followed my father’s advice.

Years ago he told me I should convert the electrical system of my 50-year-old Ford tractor from six volts to twelve. I was always too busy to get it done, but the real reason is that compared to my father and brothers, I’m mechanically challenged. I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. So for decades I’ve limped along, hoping the old beast would start when I woke up to a blizzard and the crankcase and its contacts were below zero and the 500-foot driveway had to be cleared. Usually it did start, groaning and straining and coughing, but finally catching fire. But sometimes it didn’t, and that meant driving the pickup down the hill to the barn, jump-starting the tractor, and hoping I could get the pickup back up the hill. It was time for more certainty in life.

So I went to the local farm store for a 12-volt battery, found a Delco-Remy alternator from a 1982 Chevy pickup, picked up strap iron from the local welding shop and set about reconstructing the mounting brackets and eventually getting the new charging apparatus in place. Then came the hard part—wiring the new system so it would function. I called both of my brothers, and even a technician at Delco-Remy, and eventually I got the wiring figured out. Imagine my delight and surprise when it worked!

Now the old Ford fires up so fast that the mice that build nests above the radiator have little warning to leap for life. The ignition is hotter too, so the engine runs better than it has for years. So let it snow! I’m ready. Maybe not mentally, and certainly I share the trepidation of my neighbors, but I am more confident than ever that I’m prepared for the most dreaded task of winter, moving snow. Now I’d better tune up the chainsaw, because we’ll need lots more wood. As always, the black stripe on the wooly caterpillars is fuzzy and wide.

–Jerry

Read more from Jerry in his book, Waiting for Coyote’s Call


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