A Michigan Letter in Fall. October 2020
It is fall here in southeast Michigan; the awesome mitten. You can hear the leaves crack off of their branches as they succumb to gravity and the lengthening of the night. It’s mostly maples taking a dive at this early juncture in late September and early October. Next up will be the magnolias, to be followed by the 300 year old oaks that mark the corners of my backyard.
Imagine; the year is 1720. A massive bubonic plague outbreak sweeps through Marseille. Pirate Calico Jack is hanged in Jamaica. Edmond Halley is appointed Astronomer to the Royals, and the now-massive oak trees that mark two corners of my back yard are sprouting out of their respective acorns. They’ve seen things, those trees, and I wish they could talk. Maybe they can, but I can’t hear them.
Sitting here at my desk, in what is nominally called the sunroom, it is pleasantly fall, despite the current gloom outside. It’s wet; wet, grey, and windy. It’s fall. I’m snug, but I can’t say the same for the three yearling turkeys that have flown into my backyard. Perhaps they were interested in bird seed. We have a few bird feeders, and our dog Millie, a Jack Russell Corgi mix, seems to have reached a détente with the local avian citizenry.
She does not extend the courtesy to the marauding turkeys. Millie is currently standing on her hindlegs, front paws resting on the sill, and she is barking a storm at the three bewildered Meleagris gallopavo. While I like her chances against a single turkey, if they were to organize, I’d have to wade into the melee to dislodge Millie from one of the birds while she was being assailed by the other two.
So, in she shall stay. While I have been gifted the occasional wild turkey from a hunting friend, I generally prefer my birds to be quickly and humanely dispatched, not worried to death by an 18 pound canine.
I am worried about these turkeys. They are not bright. I cannot imagine in any way how they could represent ‘survival of the most fit.’ Nothing about their behavior gives me the idea that they will experience any reproductive success in this particular environment. In fact, I’d say they are as dumb a rafter of turkeys as ever invaded a homestead.
Although I didn’t see their arrival, as we have a five foot high barnwood slat fence around our yard, I assume they flew. That is, unless one of them developed a pair of opposable talons and found the gate. Judging from their current behavior, I suspect they have forgotten how to fly.
The three birds are next to the fence. For the last 15 minutes, I have watched them run about 10 yards along the fence’s base. The lead turkey slams on the brakes, the three stand perplexed for a moment, and the erstwhile trailing turkey becomes the leader and they run back to their starting point.
They do this back and forth dance for three or four repetitions until they are out of breath. They then stand in a cluster for several moments as they stare at each other, waiting for one of them to come up with a new plan.
Without any warning, a bird sprints off along the now-well-worn path and the turkey dash begins anew. In case you wonder about such things, as I do, the average resting heart rate for a turkey is around 180-200 beats per minute. Under stress, it can run up to 300 BPM. I’d like to see a turkey with heart rate monitor chest strap or a little fit-bit around its leg.
My attention was drawn away by the squirrels and a voiceover project on which I am at work. I happened to glance around the yard 30 minutes later. The turkeys were gone and Millie had fallen asleep. I’d like to think the idea to fly over the fence to freedom came to all three turkeys simultaneously as they watched the chickadees and cardinals and jays and finches that surround our feeders dart in and out from the neighbor’s trees to ours. But I doubt it.
The squirrels. There is no détente between Mille and the squirrels, Sciurus vulgaris. This is range warfare. The squirrels infiltrate the backyard, and Millie stands to her post. She eyeballs one, makes a beeline, and most times, succeeds only in treeing a squirrel. The treed rat-bastard then taunts her from the safety of a branch whilst its partner pillages the yard for acorns.
From my perch, I watch the squirrels as Millie is dozing in her dog bed at the side of my desk. They trot from the northeast corner oak tree to the potted plants that sit on a stone and brick knee wall just outside my office door. If I opened the door, I could shoot a spitball at them.
They dash back and forth, from oak to potted plants, mouths full of acorns. One of the squirrels, the one with the larger white splash on it, is content to bury its nuts anywhere within the garden which lies behind the knee wall. We have gaura and lavender planted there.
We planted gaura and lavender in abundance because a) we like the smells and flowers, and b) our neighbors are generous beekeepers. Every season, they gift us with 10 lbs or so of fresh honey. In return, Cath usually makes a honey cake, complete with marzipan bees on top, for the neighbors and their passel of excellent kids. Bees love gaura and lavender and we like our neighbors. It’s a good fit. Given the amount of squirrel traffic in the area, we may soon have oaks sprouted amongst the flowering plants.
The second squirrel has become fixated on the potted plants, the cacti in particular. It trots past three small garden patches in its quest to bury its acorns in the dirt of the potted cactuses I’ve been ‘keeping’ for years.
Truth is, my cacti are as self-actualized a plant as exists. They require no care. Twice a year, I sprinkle them with a special “cactus and succulent” plant food that the label promises will bring blooms and health to my cacti. To me, the promise sounds more like a fortune from a fortune cookie. But I am a dutiful consumer of gardening products so I continue to feed and believe.
My concession to ‘care’ - I bring my cacti inside every winter. This makes me wonder if the squirrel will trot to this spot come snowfall, scratch its head, and say, “Now, wait a minute. I swear I buried those acorns right here. Dammit!”
I went for a bike ride the other day. Late September and October are glorious days for riding here in Michigan. I ride past cut-over farm fields, and catch glimpses of browsing deer and feeding turkeys. I see the odd fox eyeballing the fields. Last October, I was accompanied on a ride for a couple hundred yards by a curious coyote that trotted along beside me. I’d give a box of raisins at the end of a 4 hour ride to see coyotes again. I watch the winter wheat being sown and sprout before the freeze sets in. Orange and yellow and red leaves blow in front of my wheel.
I ride past Al-Mar Orchards on the way home, grab a donut and watch their pigs forage the windfalls while I have a snack. I might even buy a tinnie of the world’s finest hard cider, JK Scrumpy’s, and stuff it in a long sleeved jersey pocket to drink with supper. It’ll be okay.
Speaking of seasonal exercise, I did the fall weed & feed the other day. A little later than the handy mnemonic EMIL would have me, but with the massive changes in winter weather due to climate change here in Michigan, I don’t think the grass will care one bit. As for the weeds, I’m sure they’re fine with it. Not that I ask for their opinion.
I use spray bottles of stuff that attach to the garden hose. In the summer, if it’s a nice day, the cooling mist sprays around me a bit. In spring and fall, you try to pick a day when the winds are not howling and spitting graupel down the back of your Carhartt work vest covered flannel shirt.
My yard, front and rear, totals about ¾ of an acre, and a goodly portion of the rear is dedicated to plants and shrubbery. Those areas, of course, thanks Scotts Lawn Care, require a different spray. Over the years, I’ve learned the most efficient pattern. I walk slowly, eyeballing a section of fence or the trees so as to walk a straight path, as the sprayer covers about 10-12 feet per pass. You learn to overlap just a little.
I sweat. Drag around 100 feet of heavy-duty ContinentalTires rubber hose filled with water and you’ll see. In the early days of my yard-keeping, it took around 90 minutes to get everything weeded and feeded. These days, I’m down to 50 minutes. It’s work. I’ve been known to wear my heart rate monitor and enter it into daily training journal.
I pay for twice-monthly lawn cutting so why don’t I pay a company to do it for me? It’s contemplative. I spray in the morning. It’s calm, no traffic in the subdivision; it’s pleasant and tangible. Plan out the day, the weekend, the rest of your life. Take stock of what needs to be moved, removed, and repaired. You’re the master of your domain. Good thing that I sprayed when I did. By the following week-end we’d had a massive windstorm that covered my yard with leaves. I’d have been W’ing & F’ing thirty bags worth of leaves. That’s not useful.
EMIL? It stands for Easter.Memorial.Independence.Labor. Those are the times the ardent greenskeeper should feed and weed their yard.
I fixed a fence gate the other day. Two gates, in fact. Our backyard is surrounded, I may have mentioned, by a five foot tall plank fence. It’s one of those that alternates 1 x 6 planks inside and outside with 3 horizontal planks spaced equidistant as supports. It was here when we moved here in 2002, and as dog owners, it was a big plus.
But gravity is forever heartless. The gates and post have sagged over the years and they no longer swing freely over the ground. Rather than dig channels under the gates, I decided to raise the gates above the ground. The two gates are six foot panels and serve as egress for equipment that must needs be driven into the back. Our electrical lines are above ground. We have trees that need trimming every two or three years to ensure that the year’s inevitable ice storms don’t pull down the wires. Without backyard egress, we are at nature’s mercy. We are, anyway, I suppose, but let’s not stack the deck against ourselves.
Work pants, the aforesaid Carhartt vest & flannel shirt combination, old Vasque boots, knee pads, nail bags with drill in the holster, I stood before the gates of stately Briarcliffe Manor.
“Hmm, better to keep the hinges on the fence posts and drill new holes on the gates, or to keep the gate hinges in place and drill new holes in the fence posts?” I decided it was wiser to drill 3 new holes per 4 inch tee hinge into fixed in place posts than it was to try and wrestle a 6 foot panel into submission.
I put an extender and a 9/16 inch socket on my new-last-Father’s Day 20 volt DeWalt drill and pulled out the bottom 3 lag screws. They went into the left vest pocket. Standing slowly, my back is strong, but it’s also 62, I pulled the inside and outside lag screws from the top hinge. I loosened the middle lag screw so I had a little wiggle but the gate was still secured.
I had dragged over a 2 x 12 from the shed that I often use as a scaffold board. I kicked it into place under the gate, loosened the bolt a bit more, and kicked the board all the way under the gate. I pulled the screw. Due the helpful rustiness of the hinge, it didn’t fold one millimeter and there was my gate panel, balanced on the board underneath and braced by the stuck hinge at the top.
I allowed myself a quiet and hopeful “This could work” under my breath.
Kneeling, I sprayed the bottom hinge with some PB Blaster. (Pro-tip: This stuff works about 100 times better than WD-40 for loosening anything stuck. Go buy some.) I gently worked the hinge back & forth, careful not to disturb the gate/board/frozen hinge equilibrium. I moved said hinge just enough to get it out of the way so I could drill a new center hole; one inch higher and about 3/16 inch to the left. Why to the left? These are old posts and I didn’t want the new holes directly above the old, for fear they would split the wood. In goes the drill bit, out comes the wood chips, in goes the lag screw.
Standing, I aligned the vertical gap of the gate so it would pivot smoothly and evenly. In goes the drill bit, out comes the wood chips, in goes the lag screw. Gingerly, I kicked the board out from under the gate.
I gave the gate a cursory move, just a couple inches back and forth. It was spot-on. Kneeling quickly, before gravity could convince the gate otherwise, I drilled the two bottom holes and sank the lag screws. Standing, I repeated the process up top. All secured, I sprayed the top hinge with some PB Blaster.
I stood there a few minutes and let the hydrocarbons do their work. I eyeballed the gate. Vertical gap? Yep, about 3/8 of an inch from top to bottom. Bottom gap? Adequate and even clearance all the way cross. I pulled the gate open.
Success. Cleared the ground, just as I had measured it off. It swung open and close smoothly. Total time elapsed, including time spent standing and contemplating the state of my gate? 25 minutes. Now, to repeat on the other side. Again, success. Total job time? 45 minutes.
By now, the sun had come out, and it had warmed up to 55F or so. This is important. I had to fix a step. We have a lovely small stone patio that you access via a hand-built red and bronze brick stoop with two steps that lead from our sun porch. In the warmer months, the sun porch is also my office, as I mentioned above.
The three edges of the stoop are finished with bullnosed stones. One of the stones popped loose from its moorings the other day and I needed to anchor it before someone tripped on it.
Construction adhesives work best above 40F. I like Liquid Nail's Fuze-It All-Surface adhesive. It works in chilly weather and isn’t that pretty much the weather when most things break loose? I keep it locked and loaded in one of my caulk guns.
I love Red Green, but he’s wrong. Duct tape isn’t the handyman’s secret weapon; construction adhesive is. Peel off the strapping tape and remove the utility screw inserted into the tube’s plastic top that I use to hermetically seal tubes in use, and we’re good to go. A generous swiggle of adhesive, press to fit, and just walk away. Four hours later, the porch is once again safe for human pedestrianism.
Not everything is bright as a new penny here. In the big picture, sure, we couldn’t be better. Still, the other day, as Cath was taking a shower, I heard the tell-tale glug glug glug of impending doom from the downstairs sinks and toilets.
Our house is old, built in 1961, and like the digestive systems of many 60 year olds, tends to the tetchy. We discovered 20 years ago in January, in the most unpleasant way, that our drains need a semi-annual colonoscopy. Or at least the prep. Suffice to say that ordinary PPE was no match on that day of discovery. Let us talk no more of that day.
Normally, we schedule the work for November and May, before the snows and after the thaw. Yet, after 4 decades as a homeowner, I believe that when a toilet launches an audible warning shot over your bow, you do not need to wait for the full load to hit you amidships. I called American Sewer Cleaner ASAP.
I met their guy Zeke in the drive around 11:00 am on Sunday. I was doing some outside work, and was pretty much dressed as I was for fixing the gate. Except for the nail bags and holster. Those were safely stowed in the locking tool cabinet. I am a responsible tool owner.
Zeke hopped out of the American Sewer Cleaner extend-a-van with a smile on his face and a nylon do-rag topped with a flatback cap over that. He was about the same age, late 20s, as my son. He was Black. (Yes, that he is a Black man is important. As a 62 year old white guy interacting with a young Black man, it’s important to the story.)
“Hey, I’m Zeke. How are ya?”
“I’m good, Zeke. I’m Dave. Thanks for coming out on a Sunday morning. How are you?”
“Could be worse, I guess.”
“Well, I appreciate you getting out here so fast. Especially on a Sunday morning. This old house, built back around ’60, I think. Don’t trust those line any too much. It’s never good when you hear gurgling in your pipes.”
“Nope, not ever. Glad I can help. And Sundays are fine. This is just my weekend job so I don’t mind at all. I got a regular job during the week. This job buys the kids presents and sends us on vacations. Me and my girls.”
“You’re a Dad? Cool. Well, lemme show you where the clean-outs are and then I’ll get out of your way.”
I opened the garden gate, a smaller gate which so far in my tenancy has needed no repair. We walked through the backyard. I pointed out the clean-outs, two six-inch capped PVC pipes sticking up through the hostas. As we walked past the drive, he stopped for a second at my deck.
“Man, I have got to get my deck built before winter. I cannot go another year without a deck. All summer, I’ve been sayin’ I’d do it, and when weekends came ‘round, I just always found somethin’ else to do.”
“Yep,” I said, “you need a deck. Saturday afternoon, you got something smokin’ on the grill, you got a cold one, you just need to set and watch the smoke heading up towards the clouds, eh?”
“You know that’s right. Man, my buddy just gave me some smoked fish he made. So good, we went fishin’, caught a bunch, mine are in the freezer, his went in the smoker. Damn, that’s tasty stuff.”
“No doubt, love the smoked fish,” I said. “ Do it up right here in this big kettle. Now, this little smoker next to the kettle, I got this Brinkmann from my Dad. He loved to grill and smoke stuff. Dad died back in the winter of 2019. He had a great life, you know? 87. It’s okay, right? I miss him but whatareya gonna do? Anyway, I snagged this Brinkmann from his deck in spring, right after he died.
“I’ve never used it. Don’ know why, just always go for the kettle. Funny, innit?”
We walked towards the front drive, him to prevent a fecal-fueled sludge disaster in my home, me to put away more of the odds and ends that accumulate around a house during the warm months that never quite make it back into their proper places for the winter.
We stopped next to his van.
“Seems like owning a home is mostly being a repairman, you know? The other day, I had to fix that big gate, it’s always something, isn’t it?”
“Damn, that’s so right. All I do when I get home is fix stuff. Man, at least you and me, we can fix stuff. I feel for those guys, well, everyone nowadays, who can’t fix anything.”
It’s true, owning a home is much as EB White described farming in an essay titled “The Practical Farmer.”
A true farmer knows that farming is about twenty per cent agriculture and eighty per cent mending something that has got busted. Farming is a sort of glorified repair job. This is a truth that takes some people years to discover, and many farmers go their whole lives without ever really grasping the idea. A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handy man with a sense of humus. The repair aspect of farming looms so large that, on a place like my own, which is not really a farm at all but merely a private zoo, sometimes months go by when nothing but repair goes on.
Back to my story. I began to moves leaves and yard waste from piles on the ground to piles in tall, heavy brown paper yard waste bags; helpfully labeled ‘bolsas de basura de jardin’ so I could keep up my Spanish. After 30 minutes of labor, I realized I no longer heard the rattle and hum of the drain cleaner. I walked around to the garage. Zeke was packing up.
“All set, you’re good to go. Didn’t really see anything in the line, probably just the old pipes, they get knocked outta line a little, doesn’t take much to get ’em backed up.”
“How much this time?” I asked.
“Hundred, that’s with the seniors’ discount.”
“Cool, write you a check or do you need a card?”
` “Check’s good.”
One of life’s ironies. I’m happy for the discount, a little sad to be reminded that I am 55-plus.
I walked into the house to grab my check book and through the back window, I saw my Dad’s smoker sitting out there.
I walked back out front with check in hand.
“Hey, Zeke! Come on, walk out back with me a sec, wouldja?”
We walked back to the deck.
“You want a smoker?”
“What do ya mean?”
“Dad’s smoker. Do ya want it? I haven’t used it since I grabbed it. It’s electric, pretty sure it still works. If it doesn’t, you can still get the chips goin’ the old way, or maybe buy a new electric unit.”
“You wanna give this. To me?”
“Yep, nobody I’d rather. You’re taking care of your girls, you like smoked fish, I like smoked fish, I haven’t used it. Dad would want it used, I know that. It’s yours. Make some stuff with your girls.”
“Dude,” he said, “You’re makin’ me well up.”
“Well, yeah, take it, okay, before I start wellin’ up, too.”
“Man, I need to hug you…but Covid.”
We looked at each other over the tops of our masks.
“I hear that. Come on back when this is all over with a couple a smoked suckers. We’ll sit on the deck, have a beer, eat some of your smoked fish.”
We walked out to the van.
“I’m puttin’ this in the front seat. It’d get to rolling around in the back.”
“Hehehe. Lemme tell you a quick story.
“Back when Dad died, he was cremated. The funeral home, usually they deliver funeral urns, but they were kinda busy, Mom wanted his ashes home, so I went over to Sharp’s, picked up the wooden box, and buckled it into the front seat next to me.”
I showed him the photo on my phone, an olive wood box, engraved, buckled into the front seat of my vehicle.
“That picture, Zeke, went all over Facebook. Everyone who knew Dad fricking loved it.”
“Man, your Dad, he was a great guy, I can tell,” said Zeke. “I’ll take good care of that smoker. Imma tell that story, too. Thanks, man. Best day ever, right here.”
“Yep, me too. Zeke. Hug those girls for me. Tell ’em, ‘the guy who gave me the smoker says “Take care of your Daddy.”’
Keeping a home is being a repairman, that’s for sure. But we don’t live only within the physical confines of the house. Our home is the world in which we live. It needs a lot of repair. Jews, Muslims, Christians, good people of every stripe, we are instructed to follow the dictum of Tikkun Olam: to Heal the World.
I know that giving Dad’s smoker to Zeke helped heal me. I’m pretty sure that Zeke felt the love and care that went along with the gift of the smoker. I am certain he will pass the love and care along to his daughters.
I am equally certain that next summer, when Zeke and his friends sit on his newly completed deck, drink some beers, and watch smoke waft into the clouds as they wait for their fish to finish, he’ll tell the story of the old white guy who gave him a smoker, and how that guy belted his dad’s ashes into the front seat; he and his crew will laugh, and hoist a cold one to me and my Dad.
I cannot heal the whole world. I can heal my little corner.