Monday, May 27, 2013

Goodbye to a Veteran

Over the weekend, members of my family held a service for Burton Millar, my mom's first cousin - a WWII vet who died last month at age 90 in Boise, ID.

Burton's brother, Walter (seated), and family
Burton Currie Millar was born December 29, 1922 to Mabel Millar, my great aunt, and James Millar on a farm just west of me here, outside Neche, ND. He attended locals school and got into woodworking, often making toys out of apple boxes.

In February 1941, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, later followed by his brother, Walter. After basic training in San Diego, he pulled guard duty at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, WA. In April 1942, Burton was promoted to Corporal and soon received advanced weapons training. In January 1943, he was promoted to Sergeant and transferred to New Zealand.

The war brought Burton to Guam and he saw combat in Bougainville but nothing like what he experienced on January 26, 1945. During combat on Iwo Jima, Burton was seriously wounded. Later that year, October 12, he was Honorably Discharged at the rank of Platoon Sergeant.

Burton and Walter
After the war, Burt settled in Boise, ID, became a long-time employee of Sears and married Shirley Vestal on November 7, 1947. (Shirley passed in 1990.) Burt and Shirley spent their years dancing and traveling while Burt enjoyed 55 years as a very active member of the Elks Lodge #310.

To my knowledge, I never met Burt, but that is irrelevant. Men and women like him who go to war and fight for my freedom, I am both amazed by their bravery and grateful for their selflessness. The contents of my entire life - with all its crazy travel and whimsical experiments - simply would not be possible unless the Burton and Walter Millars of the world were so willing to wear a proud uniform and stand in harm's way for the sake of our nation's freedom.

Burton's medals, including the Purple Heart
I'm out here on this farm, in the middle of nowhere, because of a long-held personal vision but our veterans are what allow a crazy woman like me to dream in first place. I have an inner tradition that I keep: Every time I jump into my pick-up and get ready to go on a road trip (which is often), I think about US soldiers, both past and present, and how my free-spirited lifestyle is a mere fantasy for so many people in this world, women especially.

RIP Burton. On this Memorial Day, I could never thank you enough.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

My Un-Education

Hwy 55, last week
Already, this season, I've learned one big lesson: There will be no learning this season.

Rarely have I seen Brent flustered and unsure but today, I did. Thanks to all the late-season rain and consequent floods, farmers are stuck between a muddy rock and an economic hard place.

Seeds still in packet - sigh
A few days ago, Brent explained to me a common farming formula, which is, that every day after May 10 that you don't have seeds in the ground, the farmer can plan to lose 1/2-3/4 bushels a day. Furthermore, the deeper in to the season a farmer waits to plant, the more he is penalized on his crop insurance. (Though I am still learning about what this means, I believe the cut-off date is June 10.)

Right now, every farmer in the region is walking around with a spinning mind, asking himself, "Do I dig up and replant? Wait until after this rain passes? Will it be too late?" and the bigger question, "Is the 2013 season going to be a total washout?" The latter is the scariest question of all - no crop means no income and again, the damage to one's crop insurance with regards to annual averages. Talk about taking a long-term gamble - hoo boy....

Sitting on the mower today, Brent sounded nervous. "I'm not sure what to wish for, more rain - which is due late next week - or hot and dry," he said. "Either way, it ain't going to be easy." 

Nearby "field"
And then Brent, a man who has been farming nearly all of his 56 years, said something that was so strange and bizarre, it made perfect sense to me:

"After doing this year after year, the only thing you learn is that no two years are the same. You're learning but you're not really learning. Every year is starting from scratch."

He painted a grim picture that was suddenly clear. Though one may gain experience, anecdotes and a body of knowledge each year, Mama Nature shakes that big Etch-a-Sketch in the sky and it begins anew. While the older generation continues to compare everything to a big storm in 1950, Brent's generation still refers to 1997 as a measurement. Looks like 2013 will register in there too, somewhere.  Basically, we're all a bunch of hairless meatballs running around on a blue marble trying (and mostly failing) to make sense of it all - liberating and depressing all at once.

All this makes me wonder what I could possibly learn in my own tiny effort at growing food here. Right now, I guess, I'm learning to wait and it is not easy.

Though my garlic and shallots planted last fall survived nicely under all the straw mulch, they still need more sun and heat. In my uneducated opinion, my square section of earth looks healthy and ready for seeds but Brent tells me it is too soon. I kick the dirt and see he is right - though a chalky, white crust has formed on top, it is still dark and moist below.

After uncovering the garlic - photo by Kirk, who helped!
I also see random weeds and quackgrass already trying to take over and we agree that it could use one more run with a cultivator. "If we do it now, you'll get nothing but mud balls," says Brent.

Strange that I planned it so well to get here early and now I'm just waiting around, feeling anxious. One thing I've learned, I understand why country folks talk about the weather so much.

Last week, in the nearby town of Leroy

Friday, May 24, 2013

Limits of the Sky

Today was my first full day back at Second Chance Ranch this season. Though I rushed to get here, it’s been a slow start as I am still waiting for the soil to dry out so I can plant. We (Kirk and I) practically had to swim our way here….


Somewhere outside Valentine, Nebraska, we stopped at a gas station to pee. In the ladies room, I noted a big scale – the kind you put a quarter into for your weight, lucky lotto numbers and fortune. I couldn’t resist.

My weight was an astonishing number that I will not be sharing here. (After months of Mama Iva’s delicious cooking, generous meals of my various hosts and urban culinary indulgences, I have gotten (ahem) fluffier. I take some comfort in the knowledge that a summer of manual labor will inevitably melt some – but not all – of my hard-earned fat.  The rest will have come off through something called “sheer will power”, which sounds curious.)

I then ignored my lucky lotto numbers and waited for my fortune. Finally, it came:


Positive, right? Hopeful, no?

Alas, my fortune turned out to be a weather warning of the most literal kind. Over the next few days, the sky poured water on the region in torrential fashion. 

Approaching the farm.

 And it didn’t stop.

Rain seemed to splash down harder with each passing hour – big, fat, mean drops - which meant I could not plant. It also meant that the farmers couldn’t plant, and those that had were screwed because now their seed would flood and/or rot.  

With Brent (who had planted 500 acres already), we cruised the area, taking note of all the fields that were now lakes. Though I was disappointed that Kirk would have to leave before we could plant (he’d come along to help, again), I said nothing. In comparison to the real farmers, my problem was a mere inconvenience, not a sharp loss.

“Well,” I reasoned to my mother over the phone, “I wanted to know what it felt like to be a farmer and this is a taste of it. Weather can rearrange the best of plans.” 

Flooded field on right.
And for the nearby town of Cavalier (where I get my mail, water, groceries, gas, booze, etc.), it was about to get worse. The town of 1300 is under mandatory evacuation due to it being downstream of the Renwick Dam. There is such a surplus of water coming toward the dam, city officials fear it won’t be able to hold the volume. All citizens found lodging elsewhere, except for about 4 people, who refused to leave.

Of course, one of those four is Brent, SCRANCH hero and the ultimate guy-who-knows-a-guy. (When I arrived last Sunday, he already had the Mae Flower parked in her spot with the sewer hooked up, battery charged, propane filled – she was ready to go.) Brent’s not the kind of guy to run and hide, he’s more of a go-down-with-the-ship fellow. 

Officer Adam at one blocked Cavalier entrance. 
I hear the four remaining citizens have been passing the time mowing (a common pastime in these parts), monitoring the pumps and wondering why they did not buy more beer. The Border Patrol (?) and the Sherriff Department have blocked all three city entrances and are not allowing anyone in or out. So, Brent is trapped there which has to be driving him crazy because he’s not a man who likes to sit still. 

Cavalier citizens waiting for sandbags.
Last I heard, the evacuation will be lifted tomorrow (Friday) morning. Alas, the weekend calls for more rain. 

I shot this video last Wednesday. I was coming back from taking Kirk to the airport (about 1.5 hrs. south to Grand Forks) off of I-29, traveling west on Hwy 55, and was blocked by this waterfall. The driveway you see belongs to my cousin, Wayne Newell. Had to take the long way home from there.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


Kingman, AZ
On May 9th, I left my cozy perch at Mama Iva's house in Long Beach, bound for North Dakota - spring has swung around and it's time to farm again. After seven months of hanging in LA (give or take a few side trips to Mississippi, Costa Rica, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Nevada City, Foster City and San Diego), I am now at the Niobrara Lodge in Valentine, NE, a small town off Hwy 83.

After leaving SoCal (Bye Mom! Bye massages! Bye In-n-Out! Bye helicopters! Bye smog!), I stayed one night in Kingman, AZ, then on to Albuquerque, where I hung for a few days with Laurianna and her wonderful boys, Wyatt (who just graduated 8th grade) and my godson, Jack, the shortest as-yet-uncredited marine biologist that I know. He's 5. Together, we went to see Iron Man 3, one of the best cared-for action sequels I've ever seen. (They are taking that character to some very human, relatable places without the suit - so smart.)

After leaving my loved ones in New Mexico, I drove to Crestone, Colorado, known as a spiritual vortex of sorts - a small community at the foothills (elev: 8,000) that is home to one of my favorite couples, Bliss (yes, that's her real name) and her husband, Nealio. (Real name Neal but I never call him that.)

Nealio and his two favorite tools.
 There, in the vortex, I was taken to a spiritual gathering where I met a beautiful poet named Istacia (sp?) and a fascinating woman named Helen, among other folks. I held a ceremony to bless my seeds and Bliss and I got slowly drunk on champagne - it was glorious.

Bliss, with a dog named, Bliss
The next morning, Bliss and I hiked to the Tashi Gomang Stupa, the stupa of "many auspicious doors, symbolizing the 84,000 paths taught by the Buddha to reach enlightenment." I'd given three seeds (from last year's bean crop) each to Bliss and I to represent whatever we are trying to manifest these days. My seeds represented Creative Strength, Home and Love. 

After an overnight stay with family in Wahpeton, ND, we will arrive at Second Chance Ranch around mid-day on Sunday, May 19th, exactly two weeks earlier than last year, which is grand. And thanks to some last-minute divine intervention, Kirk is accompanying me on this trip, thank the lord. Not only is he, once again, going to be a huge help in planting but he brought along a water pump too, which will bring me all the way into last century, technology-wise.

My favorite "scenic overlook" - off Hwy 83, over the Dismal River in NE.
It will be interesting to see just how much - if anything - I've learned since last year. Already, it's about 8,000 times less stressful knowing that I have a place to live, an electrical source, homemade sewer system and a far better understanding of what needs to be done. Last year, I was swimming in ignorance - which was liberating, actually.

I think this year is going to be a gas.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Cousin Pride

Might I brag for a moment?

In the May 1 issue of the Walhalla Mountaineer, I learned that my SCRANCH neighbor/friends/second cousins, Wayne and Mark Newell, won the 2012 Soil Conservation award! Presented by the Pembina County Soil Conservation District Board of Directors at the North Dakota Soil Conservation Convention in Bismark, the award honors farmer efforts in improving soil, water, air, plants and animals.
"Mark and Wayne Newell are 4th generation farmers, they took over the family farming operation in 1995. they have implemented strip tilling, crop rotation, nutrient and pest management as conservation practices on their farm. They also currently raise wheat, corn, soybeans and dry beans." 
In the paper, they included this photo:

And this is where I have to step in because, holy cow, they look so serious and boring here - which is not true - so I feel the need to flesh our their personalities a bit with some additional shots:

Outside my bedroom window on one of my first mornings - Mark (I think) and Brent changing a tractor tire.

This is Wayne and one of their (he and his wife, Paula) awesome dogs, Abbie, in front of "the shop" - the gigantic man cave that would make any suburban husband cry from sheer longing. In it, you can find things like this:

My weakling arm is no match.
I thought Kirk would die from joy when he saw these drill bits.

In addition to the giant wrench, Brent can also be found here daily.
Also, here's Mark Newell, ever-so-patiently explaining the technology of a modern John Deere combine to me:

Then came the day when Wayne came to my rescue. I was at the end of my mental health rope - which was frayed and coming undone - when he included me in a family 4WD outing.

Can you find the Californian in this photo?

Wayne Newell, in one of my fave shots.
Mark, Wayne and their brother-in-law, Sheldon. Great guys.
Congrats to the Newell brothers! Well deserved.