Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Box elder syrup

In Southwest Wisconsin, there is a small maple syrup industry. Nothing like Vermont or Canada, but a lot of small sugar bushes, some even having a label and are sold commercially. But our farm has no maples ( except one maple planted in our yard).

I had read about syruping, and learned that box elders, being a relative of maples, can also be tapped for sap. Well, box elders are not a very desirable tree, so they grow everywhere. Funny how that works. We have our share, and some are fairly large, with trunks as large as 16". ( roughly 400mm). 

So I bought some spiles, cute little galvanized pails, and got out the cordless drill and set up my own mini sugar bush. ( 5 trees!)

I also am half way through reading Helen and Scott Neering's book "The Maple Sugar Book". They give a good accounting of the history of maple sugaring, and details and techniques of production scale syrup making. The only thing remotely relevant to my experiment was their discussion of the mysterious vagaries of sap flow and weather. I found it to be hard to figure out which days (and which trees) would flow each day, but in the end, got a fair little store of syrup for my effort.

We had our first sampling this morning on pancakes, and it was good. Not as "mapley" as maple syrup, but sweet and mild flavored.

Because each day's batch was so small, I couldn't use a hygrometer or candy thermometer to monitor concentration, so went by ( very inexperienced) eye. First day's batch went too far and crystallized, but each of the others seem to be fairly close. since I don't know the actual content, nor did I monitor temperature, these will stay in the refrigerator till used, so we don't get mold or bacteria growth.

Note that the syrup is not clear, but varying degrees of cloudy. This is because I also did not bother to strain out the sugar sand. It is harmless minerals that precipitate out during heating, and is probably actually good for you.

All in all, a fun experiment, and I might expand the "bush" to more of our trees next year.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Pest control- rodent category

The photo pretty much explains this method of mouse control. You can google bucket mouse trap or bucket rat trap and get all sorts of variations on the theme, many with crude execution. I have found that as long as you take in to account the size of the mouse, the geometry and spacing of the components, the thing can be pretty effective. We luckily have no rats, so I can't confirm how deadly it might be for them, as they are known to be pretty cagy.

Since we weren't living here full time till this past July, the buggers thought they owned the place. There is a new sherif in town, so things are clearing up. 

Following this ( my first) mouse, I caught 38 more before winter set in and the water froze. The water is key, because they can actually jump back out if not treading water. Rats would have no problem at all jumping out if no water was there. I also found that this plastic pop bottle was better than a can, as it spun with just the right resistance, giving the mouse sufficient confidence to take that last fatal step.

Now that winter is ending, I'll start this bucket back up.

These guys all go in the compost pile, completing the circle of life.

Monday, March 9, 2015

long beds

Lumber is yet another miracle of the industrial age we don't even notice here in the richest country in the world. Any homeowner can run down to the closest Lowe's, Home Depot, Menards, or whatever chain you are near. Not too many actual old time lumber yards out there, but there are still a few around. And that homeowner can buy materials cut to size and build anything from a birdhouse to a three story mansion if he has the time and money. In my opinion, lumber is shockingly cheap for what it is. Just imagine the effort to cut and hew wood to shape for building a simple cabin as in days of yore. There was a good reason the cabins were simple logs with minimal whittling on the ends to facilitate locking together.

And something else about lumber I hadn't thought about till we finally bought a farm truck this week. Why does lumber have the dimensions it has? I'm sure there is a real, historical and technical reason, but here is my pure speculation without researching it.

I think it is because of how tall humans are. While lumber can be had in any number of lengths, your basic framing stud is eight feet long, the height of the typical wall in a wood framed house. All the sheet goods, plywood and any other amalgam of glue and sawdust you'd care to consider, are four feet by eight feet( the great majority anyway). Once you have some parameters like that settled on, the other dimensions, thickness and width, are a function of how much strength is needed for a member that is eight feet long to handle the loads it will experience.

So, maybe now I'll read and see if there IS any history on the evolution of lumber. 

Where I'm heading with this is our truck shopping experience. I am not a car guy. My brothers read Car and Driver, and other mags focussing on trucks, of which I don't even know the titles. They know a LOT about trucks. I only recognize maybe 10% of the cars on the road, because of their distinctive design, but many guys know all of them, what year they are, what city it was made in, which engine it has, what the major good and bad aspects of that model (and year!) are, and how much it would cost new or used. There: I've admitted it, I've failed my shade tree mechanic father.

One thing I did know, or thought I knew, was that you buy a pickup so you can haul stuff, including and especially lumber. So we soon found out that hardly any truck on the road these days has an eight foot bed to haul lumber in. If there was a standard ( which there isn't, nothing is standard anymore) bed length, it is 6 feet, 6 inches, and a short bed, of which there are many, is 5 feet, 6 inches. The average man couldn't even lay down in the bed of his truck, or dispose of bodies I suppose, without bending the knees a bit. 

And get this- a bed which is eight feet long is now called a long bed. The pickup truck these days is a fashion statement, or a confirmation of rugged manhood, or a result of hypnotized consumers falling for advertising once again. It is not a working truck, that is for sure. Not even sure why they mostly have four wheel drive, but ours will need that.

We finally found one, so I am done cramming eight foot lumber ( only maybe a dozen or so) into the car, and my "new" truck ( used, but in immaculate shape) will soon be getting the dents, scrapes and mud it was meant for.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Winter birds

This has been our first full winter here, and our first winter as retired persons, so there has been a good bit of down time. More time to set up and watch the bird feeder outside the sunroom windows. More time to look them up in the field guide.

More time to start a "birding life list". I'm not going to get serious about this, it's really just being more observant of our new home's fellow inhabitants. What I've noticed so far is that there aren't as many species hanging around our feeder as I would have thought.
As follows:
black capped chickadee
purple finch
blue jay
red bellied woodpecker
rose breasted grosbeak
american goldfinch
downy woodpecker
mourning dove

Some of these we only saw once or twice, and maybe were flukes, or just passing through. The far and away greatest numbers have been the first two, black capped chickadees and juncos. I'm sure during migrations, and during summer, we'll see plenty of others.

And what has slowly dawned on me is how amazing these little guys are to stay here through the winter. These little puffs of feathers stay here through blizzards, -20F or lower temps, combined with high winds, and I can't bundle up enough to go get the mail without whining. I don't care if feathers are super insulation, they lose heat, and have to eat enough calories to counteract that, while all that's left to eat are the few seeds still above the snow and maybe not even much of that by late February. 

A little reading about bird thermoregulation tells me that some species huddle. I don't know if these guys do that, but it's still amazing that they can survive the winter. Some species also do a partial, controlled hypothermia.

Prior to watching the birds the last few weeks, I had been admiring the mammals that live here. This admiration came about while sitting in a tree freezing my tuchus off during deer season, and again thinking how the deer ( as well as all the other critters) are out there in the coldest, windiest, most miserable weather ALL THE TIME! I've now decided that birds are even more impressive, as they have the highest surface area to volume ratios, the highest base metabolism rates, and the most exposure to high winds, which increases heat transfer. ( that's the rationale behind wind chill ratings).

While I note that being out and active every day helps me acclimate, and tolerate colder weather than otherwise, I'd be dead without all the clothes and boots, the shelter and other accoutrements of our technology. It is common sense to me that while we humans have colonized nearly every region of the planet, our origins are tropical.

On a related note- this photo is of the cat that has been a regular this winter, coming past the house as part of his hunting routine. He is very wary, and I am not sure if he is a barn cat, or an inside outside cat, but I don't think he is feral. He is a big, healthy appearing guy with a beautifully marked coat, and we have seen him actually catch a mouse in the grass right outside our patio doors. He doesn't care about the cold either.

This photo was taken through the patio door, or I would never have gotten this close. He was poised, ready to leap at my slightest move inside the door as we stared at each other for probably 15 seconds.

Cats- to my mind, not sure we should call them domesticated.