LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Garden Notes No. 37

Saturday I planted the zinnia seeds, pushing each tiny seed into a peat pellet.

The seedlings had already begun to emerge Monday, and I can almost watch ’em grow.

In the dining room, Jim’s tomatoes are thriving. He says these are the best he’s ever had.

Outside there is almost a foot of new snow and a big dump in the forecast for Thursday. Guess we’ll have plenty of seedlings indoors to keep alive for some time to come!

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Garden Notes No. 36

Winter is hanging on here, with a vengeance. We have about a foot of snow on the Red Oak House gardens. Although we are weary of winter, we do view this as critical moisture — moisture that we were lacking last summer and fall.

This is what the first day of spring looked like out our windows.

Tuesday, there was more snow in the forecast. Our social media feeds are filled with the whining of friends who are equally as weary of the winter weather. My aunt near Birmingham, Ala., tells me her daffodils are blooming as are her cherry trees. I resort to buying daffodils at the store, a dose of sunshine at our table.

I happen to love the winter, the fallow time in which we both catch up on indoor projects. I know that the thaw will reveal much outdoor work and I’m not quite ready to tackle these chores.

A survey of the yard revealed that the dag-nabbit rabbits have wreaked havoc, severing my bittersweet vine at the ground level, a vine that had just taken hold. I cursed them and considered taking my husband’s shotgun to them, but wisdom prevailed and I did not — not to mention that it is not legal within city limits, and I’m nothing if not a follower of laws.

On one warm day last week, we took Lizzie on a walk through the nearby coulee and found several waterfalls.

Tuesday, Jim was busy setting up the indoor greenhouse racks and bringing his seedlings up from the basement.

“What in your life is calling you,

when all the noise is silenced,

the meetings adjourned,

the lists laid aside,

and the wild iris blooms by itself

in the dark forest,

what still pulls your soul?”  — Rumi

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Garden Notes No. 35

March 15 is “plant the tiny tomato seeds” day at Red Oak House.

When I wandered into the kitchen this morning, Jim asked me, with great delight in his voice, if I knew what the significance of this day was. I had not yet had coffee and was stumped (I’ll admit that I didn’t try very hard).

This project is tedious joy for Jim, if I may use an oxymoron to describe this. You can see in the photo below that he has to use a tweezer (below).

Yes, he saves his seeds from the previous harvest, as shown here (above).

Wednesday he transplanted the pepper sprouts into small pots. Next week, we will celebrate the vernal equinox, the arrival of spring. We chose this date for our wedding date, after much thought. The days ahead will be busy with joyful tasks.

Spring and All by William Carlos Williams

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast — a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines —

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches —

They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter. All about them

the cold, familiar wind —

Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of

entrance — Still, the profound change

has come upon them: rooted they

grip down and begin to awaken

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Garden Notes No. 34

Last week one night, I dreamed of the upcoming garden season, a dream filled with blossoms and bounty.

The gardening season has begun here, in the basement, as Jim has planted the pepper seeds and tiny sprouts have emerged. In about a week, he will plant his tomato seeds.

Many of the seeds we are using were purchased at Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, when we visited there last fall. Jim also saved some of his seeds from last year’s harvest.

I have this year’s zinnia seeds in hand, from Park Seed Co. and have preordered bedding annuals from Baldwin Greenhouse, north of Bismarck.

The time is approaching when we must wrap up winter projects. Hopefully, Jim and Jeff will squeeze in more ice fishing in the next weeks as they are many Lent Fridays left!

Here’s to dreams filled with flowers and not woes.

“The Sun will rise and set regardless. What we choose to do with the light while it’s here is up to us. Journey wisely.” — Alexandra Elle

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — I Wish For A Friend

The mailman brought me a small package this week, book-sized, postmarked and with a return address from the town in which I grew up, Hettinger, N.D.

Well, it was obviously a book, and I love it when people send me books, so I opened it immediately. It was indeed a book, a very special book, with a letter tucked neatly into its pages, which said:

“I don’t know if you remember me, but I was in high school the same time you were. … We moved back to Hettinger about three years ago and have been getting the Bismarck Tribune. A few weeks ago, I read the article about the Red Oak Tree in your yard. … I had just finished the children’s book “The Wishing Tree” for my grandchildren. It’s about a red oak tree. I’m sending it to you because I thought you might like it for your grandchildren, and maybe your tree is a wishing tree, too.”

Isn’t that wonderful, and just truly amazing?

Her name in high school was Valerie Lindquist, and I think she was a year ahead of me in school. Her brother, Ron, and I used to play sandlot baseball. He was a year younger than me, I think. We all moved away from Hettinger after high school, and our paths have not crossed since, more than 50 years.

The book is titled “wishtree,” one word, small letters and written by the noted children’s author Katherine Applegate, who’s had a number of children’s books on the New York Times best-seller list. This is a good one. And it’s beautifully illustrated by children’s book illustrator Charles Santoso. You’ll like the art, too.

It’s a delightful story about Red, the talking Red Oak tree. Actually, it’s a story BY Red, the talking Red Oak tree, a story of Red’s history, told by Red himself, a wise 200-year-old resident tree in a small town somewhere in America.

But Red is not just a tree, he tells us. He’s a home, a community. At any given time, his branches, leaves, roots and hollows are home to all manner of wild critters, all friends — crows, salt-and-pepper chickadees, raccoons, foxes, opossums, mice, skunks, porcupines, woodpeckers …

The book tells the story of Red’s newest friend, a little girl named Samar, whose Muslim family has moved into the neighborhood, and is shunned by the other residents.

Late at night, Samar would come to visit Red, to snuggle up against his sturdy roots, and soon all the residents of Red’s leaves, branches, hollows, and roots came to know her as a friend.

Let Red describe her for you:

Samar has the look of someone who has seen too much. Someone who wants the world to quiet itself.

She moved with her parents into one of the houses I shade, a tiny blue house with a sagging porch and a tidy garden. She is perhaps ten years old or so, with wary eyes and a shy smile.

Samar’s New Friends.
Samar’s New Friends.

Samar would venture out in her pajamas and robe and sit beneath me on an old blanket, spattered with moonlight. Her silence was so complete, her gentleness so apparent, that the residents would crawl from their nests of thistledown and dandelion fluff to join her. They seemed to accept her as one of their own.  

If this were a fairy tale, I would tell you there was something magical about Samar. That she cast a spell on the animals, perhaps. Animals don’t just leave their nests and burrows willingly. They are afraid of people, with good reason.

But this isn’t a fairy tale, and there was no spell.

And then we learn that Red is a Wishtree.

Wishtrees have a long and honorable history, going back centuries. There are many in Ireland, where they are usually hawthorns or the occasional ash tree. But you can find wishtrees all over the world.

For the most part, people are kind when they visit me. They seem to understand that a tight knot might keep me from growing the way I need to grow. They are gentle with my new leaves, careful with my exposed roots.

After people write their hope on a rag or piece of paper, they tie it onto one of my branches. Usually they whisper the wish aloud.

It’s traditional to wish on the first of May, but people stop by throughout the year.

My, oh my, the things I have heard:

I wish for a flying skateboard.

I wish for a world without war.

I wish for a week without clouds.

I wish for the world’s biggest candy bar

I wish for an A on my geography test.

I wish Ms. Gentonini weren’t so grumpy in the morning.

I wish my gerbil could talk.

I wish my dad could get better.                             

I wish I weren’t hungry sometimes.

I wish I weren’t so lonely.

I wish I knew what to wish for.

So many wishes. Grand and goofy, selfish and sweet.

It’s an honor, all the hopes bestowed upon my tired old limbs.

Although by the end of May Day, I look like someone dumped a huge basket of trash on top of me.

And then Red tells us the story of Samar.

One night, not long ago, Samar came out to visit. It was two in the morning. Late, even for her.

She had been crying. Her cheeks were damp. She leaned against me, and her tears were like hot rain.

In her hand was a small piece of cloth. Pink, with little dots. Something was written on it.

A wish. The first wish I’d seen in months.

I wasn’t surprised she knew about the wishtree tradition. I’m kind of a local celebrity.

Samar reached up, gently pulled down my lowest branch, and tied the fabric in a loose knot.

“I wish,” she whispered, “for a friend.”

I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story, other than it is timely. I want you to read it yourself. And then read it to your children and grandchildren.

It’s a magical story, and it was the magic of my having grown up in a small North Dakota town, where these kind of things happen, that brought me this story, from an old acquaintance who read a story about our big, state champion Red Oak tree, and thought I would like this book.

Well, she was right. I wish that she will come and visit us, and our tree, on May Day, or any other day. I want to get reacquainted with this thoughtful person who was kind enough to send this book.

And as for our North Dakota State Champion Red Oak tree, well, I suppose it needs a name, and I suppose Red is as good as any. Actually, the book’s Red tells us that all Red Oak trees are named Red. So that’s it, I guess. If you don’t know about our tree, you can read about it here.

If I thought it was a Wishing Tree, I, too, would probably wish for a new friend. Actually, that wish has already been granted. Thank you, Valerie Lindquist Braun.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — The Secret Ministry Of Frost

Although this is a time of fallow in the yard, there is beauty everywhere, for those who pause to look. The hoary white bits coat everything and the air is still.

It makes me think of this poem, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Here are the first and last few lines.

“Frost at Midnight”

The Frost performs its secret ministry,

Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry

Came loud–and hark, again! loud as before

Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon. 

Last night, there was a luminous crescent moon low on the southwestern horizon. On the owl nest front here at Red Oak House, there is nothing yet to report. In time, I’m confident that there will be inhabitants. The feeders bustle with winter visitors and squirrels.

Our Red Oak tree was front-page news Monday morning in the Bismarck Tribune, and I’ve had so many cheerful comments about it as I’ve gone here and there. I’d like to see the city put in a sidewalk there, after this news!

My research took me again to the State Archives at the Heritage Center. The Capitol grounds are just as lovely with today’s frosty coating. I wrestled with microfilm and found what I was looking for, departing with a sense of satisfaction. Thirty-two cents and some time was all it took. That and the dedication of the good folks who work there. Many thanks.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — A State Champion Tree — In Our Yard!

Hello from Lillian AND Jim. We sat down this week and wrote about one of the coolest things that have happened to us in a long time, and we’re posting it on both our blogs — Wild Dakota Woman and View From The Prairie. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed writing it.

On summer evenings in the early 1970s, you could find Birgit Smeenk in her front yard with a garden hose, pouring water onto a spindly little oak tree she had stuck into the ground in hopes of one day having shade for the front of her house at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck.

It takes a long time for an oak tree planted out here on the prairie to provide shade, even with daily waterings. Birgit’s daughter, Jennifer, watched her mother water that tree every day. “For a few years, it just didn’t do anything,” Jennifer told us on the phone from her home in Washington state the other day. “Then one year, it just took off.”

Birgit’s constant attention worked. She didn’t live to see it, but today, more than 40 years later, that little stick is now North Dakota’s State Champion Red Oak Tree — the largest Red Oak in the state. So says the North Dakota Forest Service.

We bought that house at 920 Arthur Drive in late October 2009, becoming the home’s third owners, and we moved in a few weeks later. So while we took notice of that big old bare-branched tree in the front yard as winter approached, we didn’t give it a lot of thought until the next spring, when it started to leaf out and we saw the familiar shape of oak leaves.

Neither of us had ever owned (or been owned by) an oak tree that big before, and we inquired of Tim Kingstad, from whom we bought the home, about the tree. Tim, the home’s second owner, told us it was a red oak (Quercus rubra) and that the Bismarck city forester said it was the only mature Red Oak in Bismarck.

There are a lot of other trees in our yard, probably 10 varieties. The Smeenks and Kingstads had been pretty attentive to trees, especially when the kids brought home seedlings on Arbor Day each spring. Some of the evergreens, planted early in the Smeenks’ time here, in the early 1960s, were taller than the oak, but none as spectacular, as we watched it through that first full year of seasons, from bare branches to green buds, to big green leaves, then yellow, then reddish brown, holding its leaves to be the last tree to go bare in late fall.

Our longest-lived neighbors, both in time on earth and time on Arthur Drive, Dave and Myrna Blackstead, who live across the street, have watched that tree grow all of its life. Myrna thinks it was transplanted by Pieter and Birgit Smeenk from a lake cabin the Smeenks frequented in Minnesota, probably in the late 1960s.

Myrna recalls this was their second try at an oak tree, after the Smeenk boys accidentally broke off the first one, much to their mother’s dismay. The boys’ older sister, Jennifer, isn’t sure. She thinks maybe her parents bought it somewhere. She vividly recalls her mother out there with that hose every night, though.

Well, thank you, Birgit and Pieter Smeenk.

Pieter and Birgit Smeenk were immigrants, he from the Netherlands, she from Denmark. (We believe that occasional flashes of bad karma that erupt in our now mostly Norwegian household from time to time, are the result of too many years of Danish presence — nothing personal, just institutional).

The Smeenks dedicated their lives to the children of Bismarck. Birgit was a physical therapist and worked with BECEP, the program for preschool children. Pieter was a much loved Bismarck pediatrician. He finished his career as medical director for North Dakota Crippled Children’s Services, serving in that job past his 80th birthday. To this day, frequently when we mention to someone that Dr. Smeenk owned our house at one time, the response is, “Oh, my, he was my doctor when I was little. I loved him.”

Dr. Smeenk died in 2000, at age 82, his wife in 2014, at age 85. Their children have scattered. None live in Bismarck. Upon their parents’ death, they composed beautiful obituaries.

Of their father:

“He received three things in life that are of basic importance:

Someone to love

Something to do

Something to look forward to

And he was thankful.”

And of their mother:

“She knew herself to be a child of God and lived her life with the joy and radiance which this awareness gives. She plucked thistles where she saw them, and planted flowers where she thought they might grow.

Grace was in all her steps

Heaven in her eye

In every gesture dignity and love.”

We know Birgit loved that tree, and we’ve taken good care of it. A couple of years ago, we started noticing in the mornings some sap on the Jeep, which we park under the tree. About the same time, Myrna stopped by the house one day and said she’d been watching our tree from her perspective across the street. “I’m a little worried about your oak tree. It looks a little peaked.”

She was right. There were a few small dead branches, and the leaves weren’t as thick as they had been the year before. We called the city forester and the Extension Service for advice. We were told we needed to treat it with a special chemical we could buy at Runnings.

Well, we weren’t very excited about that — we’ve taken great pains to build up an organic yard, and Lillian’s hundreds of hostas and daylilies, and Jim’s prolific vegetable garden, are a testament to our success at that. First, we tried a release of a huge number of ladybugs to go after the aphids, but that didn’t take, as these critters disappeared within a day.

But this tree was important. So early one summer morning, Jim drove down to Runnings and snuck into the store before anyone else got there so he wouldn’t be seen and bought a couple of those big blue bottles of Bayer Crop Science chemicals, came home and held his nose and mixed it up and poured it around the base of the tree, being careful not to spill on the hostas.

Well, as much as we hate to say it, let’s hear it for modern science. The roots of that big old oak tree sucked up that chemical and sent it shooting up the tree, killing all those little aphids that had been eating leaves and spitting all over the Jeep.

One day Myrna came over and said, “Well, whatever you did to your tree, it worked!”

The tree and the house have become inseparable — it’s not possible to imagine one without the other. To cement that bond, we’ve named our house “Red Oak House,” and we use that name on our fledgling business cards and our website (redoakhouse.com), which doesn’t really have anything on it yet except a bunch of photos and links to our blogs.. There’ll be more one day. We have time.

Forest Service technician Joel Nichols measures our red oak tree.
Forest Service technician Joel Nichols measures our red oak tree.

We learned of the North Dakota State Champion Tree Registry a few years ago and wondered how our giant red oak measured up. So this fall, we went out and measured it according to the specifications listed by the Forest Service on its website and sent in an application. Within days, the Forest Service responded and sent a technician to verify our measurements — a fellow named Joel Nichols, who we said has the best job in North Dakota. He agreed.

A couple of weeks later, we received a letter in the mail from Glenda Fauske, coordinator of Information and Education with the Forest Service (the second best job in North Dakota) that started “Dear Jim and Lillian, I’m very pleased to announce your red oak (Quercus rubra) at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck is the new first place champion red oak!” (Here is the list for the entire state.)

Along with the letter was a certificate for framing and a news release, which has generated interest from the Bismarck media. We’ll likely be in the paper next week. We’re not sure how we’ll handle the fame. We’re also not quite sure how our neighbors will like the steady stream of onlookers and gawkers on our quiet little street, which has an average daily traffic count of 12.

But what the heck, if you’re interested in seeing the largest red oak in the state, come on over. Arthur Drive is one of those little streets off Ward Road that doesn’t go anywhere except to the houses on that street. We tell people that if somebody hits a really bad hook off the No. 6 tee box at the Tom O’Leary Golf Course, their ball could end up in our yard.

But wait until June. Our oak is the last tree to leaf out on the street (oaks are just that way), but the wait is worth it. If you want to stop and visit and examine the tree up close, bring wine. And we’ll toast Birgit and Pieter Smeenk for planting that tree. And Dave and Myrna Blackstead for keeping a close eye on that tree all these years.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A State Champion Tree—In Our Yard!

Hello from Lillian AND Jim. We sat down this week and wrote about one of the coolest things that have happened to us in a long time, and we’re posting it on both our blogs — Wild Dakota Woman and View From The Prairie. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed writing it.

On summer evenings in the early 1970s, you could find Birgit Smeenk in her front yard with a garden hose, pouring water onto a spindly little oak tree she had stuck into the ground in hopes of one day having shade for the front of her house at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck.

It takes a long time for an oak tree planted out here on the prairie to provide shade, even with daily waterings. Birgit’s daughter, Jennifer, watched her mother water that tree every day. “For a few years, it just didn’t do anything,” Jennifer told us on the phone from her home in Washington state the other day. “Then one year, it just took off.”

State Champion Red Oak Tree.
State Champion Red Oak Tree.

Birgit’s constant attention worked. She didn’t live to see it, but today, more than 40 years later, that little stick is now North Dakota’s State Champion Red Oak Tree — the largest Red Oak in the state. So says the North Dakota Forest Service.

We bought that house at 920 Arthur Drive in late October 2009, becoming the home’s third owners, and we moved in a few weeks later. So while we took notice of that big old bare-branched tree in the front yard as winter approached, we didn’t give it a lot of thought until the next spring, when it started to leaf out and we saw the familiar shape of oak leaves.

Neither of us had ever owned (or been owned by) an oak tree that big before, and we inquired of Tim Kingstad, from whom we bought the home, about the tree. Tim, the home’s second owner, told us it was a red oak (Quercus rubra) and that the Bismarck city forester said it was the only mature Red Oak in Bismarck.

There are a lot of other trees in our yard, probably 10 varieties. The Smeenks and Kingstads had been pretty attentive to trees, especially when the kids brought home seedlings on Arbor Day each spring. Some of the evergreens, planted early in the Smeenks’ time here, in the early 1960s, were taller than the oak, but none as spectacular, as we watched it through that first full year of seasons, from bare branches to green buds, to big green leaves, then yellow, then reddish brown, holding its leaves to be the last tree to go bare in late fall.

Our longest-lived neighbors, both in time on earth and time on Arthur Drive, Dave and Myrna Blackstead, who live across the street, have watched that tree grow all of its life. Myrna thinks it was transplanted by Pieter and Birgit Smeenk from a lake cabin the Smeenks frequented in Minnesota, probably in the late 1960s.

Myrna recalls this was their second try at an oak tree, after the Smeenk boys accidentally broke off the first one, much to their mother’s dismay. The boys’ older sister, Jennifer, isn’t sure. She thinks maybe her parents bought it somewhere. She vividly recalls her mother out there with that hose every night, though.

Well, thank you, Birgit and Pieter Smeenk.

Pieter and Birgit Smeenk were immigrants, he from the Netherlands, she from Denmark. (We believe that occasional flashes of bad karma that erupt in our now mostly Norwegian household from time to time, are the result of too many years of Danish presence — nothing personal, just institutional).

The Smeenks dedicated their lives to the children of Bismarck. Birgit was a physical therapist and worked with BECEP, the program for preschool children. Pieter was a much loved Bismarck pediatrician. He finished his career as medical director for North Dakota Crippled Children’s Services, serving in that job past his 80th birthday. To this day, frequently when we mention to someone that Dr. Smeenk owned our house at one time, the response is, “Oh, my, he was my doctor when I was little. I loved him.”

Dr. Smeenk died in 2000, at age 82, his wife in 2014, at age 85. Their children have scattered. None live in Bismarck. Upon their parents’ death, they composed beautiful obituaries.

Of their father:

“He received three things in life that are of basic importance:

Someone to love

Something to do

Something to look forward to

And he was thankful.”

And of their mother:

“She knew herself to be a child of God and lived her life with the joy and radiance which this awareness gives. She plucked thistles where she saw them, and planted flowers where she thought they might grow.

Grace was in all her steps

Heaven in her eye

In every gesture dignity and love.”

We know Birgit loved that tree, and we’ve taken good care of it. A couple of years ago, we started noticing in the mornings some sap on the Jeep, which we park under the tree. About the same time, Myrna stopped by the house one day and said she’d been watching our tree from her perspective across the street. “I’m a little worried about your oak tree. It looks a little peaked.”

She was right. There were a few small dead branches, and the leaves weren’t as thick as they had been the year before. We called the city forester and the Extension Service for advice. We were told we needed to treat it with a special chemical we could buy at Runnings.

Well, we weren’t very excited about that — we’ve taken great pains to build up an organic yard, and Lillian’s hundreds of hostas and daylilies, and Jim’s prolific vegetable garden, are a testament to our success at that. First, we tried a release of a huge number of ladybugs to go after the aphids, but that didn’t take, as these critters disappeared within a day.

But this tree was important. So early one summer morning, Jim drove down to Runnings and snuck into the store before anyone else got there so he wouldn’t be seen and bought a couple of those big blue bottles of Bayer Crop Science chemicals, came home and held his nose and mixed it up and poured it around the base of the tree, being careful not to spill on the hostas.

Well, as much as we hate to say it, let’s hear it for modern science. The roots of that big old oak tree sucked up that chemical and sent it shooting up the tree, killing all those little aphids that had been eating leaves and spitting all over the Jeep.

One day Myrna came over and said, “Well, whatever you did to your tree, it worked!”

Red oak tree in early fall, in front of Red Oak House.
Red oak tree in early fall, in front of Red Oak House.

The tree and the house have become inseparable — it’s not possible to imagine one without the other. To cement that bond, we’ve named our house “Red Oak House,” and we use that name on our fledgling business cards and our website (redoakhouse.com), which doesn’t really have anything on it yet except a bunch of photos and links to our blogs.. There’ll be more one day. We have time.

We learned of the North Dakota State Champion Tree Registry a few years ago and wondered how our giant red oak measured up. So this fall, we went out and measured it according to the specifications listed by the Forest Service on its website and sent in an application. Within days, the Forest Service responded and sent a technician to verify our measurements — a fellow named Joel Nichols, who we said has the best job in North Dakota. He agreed.

A couple of weeks later, we received a letter in the mail from Glenda Fauske, coordinator of Information and Education with the Forest Service (the second best job in North Dakota) that started “Dear Jim and Lillian, I’m very pleased to announce your red oak (Quercus rubra) at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck is the new first place champion red oak!” (Here is the list for the entire state.)

Along with the letter was a certificate for framing and a news release, which has generated interest from the Bismarck media. We’ll likely be in the paper next week. We’re not sure how we’ll handle the fame. We’re also not quite sure how our neighbors will like the steady stream of onlookers and gawkers on our quiet little street, which has an average daily traffic count of 12.

But what the heck, if you’re interested in seeing the largest red oak in the state, come on over. Arthur Drive is one of those little streets off Ward Road that doesn’t go anywhere except to the houses on that street. We tell people that if somebody hits a really bad hook off the No. 6 tee box at the Tom O’Leary Golf Course, their ball could end up in our yard.

But wait until June. Our oak is the last tree to leaf out on the street (oaks are just that way), but the wait is worth it. If you want to stop and visit and examine the tree up close, bring wine. And we’ll toast Birgit and Pieter Smeenk for planting that tree. And Dave and Myrna Blackstead for keeping a close eye on that tree all these years.

 

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Red Oak House Christmas Bird Count

Fifteen below at noon New Year’s Eve 2017 with record lows in the night convinced me that this was a year to participate in the area Christmas bird count by making observations at the Red Oak House feeders. These are my tools for the day.

The hyperborean dawn revealed that the kitchen window suet feeder had fallen to the ground. Red Oak House’s Word of the Day, “hyperborean” (late Middle English), is from the Greek huper for beyond and Borean for Northwind.

I finally channeled my inner North Dakotan, put on the serious coat and went out with the ladder to rehang the feeder, filling it with the Suchy beef suet they gave us at our annual Winter Solstice potluck.

While I was outdoors, I also brushed off last night’s snow from the surface of the sunflower feeder. Lizzie, the springer spaniel, was of no help, but she was eager to be with me nonetheless, and then equally as eager to go back into the warmth of the house, to nap in the sunshine.

The thistle and sunflower feeders are covered with pine siskins, and I also observe them scratching about in the spent vegetation of the perennial beds. By this point of the winter, the birds have stripped the crab apple trees of their fruit, yet the saffron dots of bittersweet remain as a bright spot in a somewhat drab landscape. The low sun shone brightly all day.

With a cup of lemon tea, I settled in near the woodstove to read a couple of books, checking the feeders now and again throughout the short day while Jim napped while he “watched” football.

Earlier today, Jim had been over to get our daughter’s dead car going, attaching the battery charger in the hopes that this will do the trick. She is not alone in struggling with this, a common problem here on the northern Plains in these frigid days. Jim has ice fishing on his mind. The car didn’t start and I can see neighbors dealing with the same issues.

Last year, we constructed and mounted an owl nest in the big old green ash tree, and a couple of weeks ago, we placed a hunk of beef soup bone within in the hopes of luring nesting great-horned owls. We are certain this gave the neighbors something to puzzle over — “What are they up to now?” A few hours later, Jim spotted one plucking at the meat, but we have not seen it since. For Christmas, I gave Jim a beautiful screech owl nesting box and am confident that Eastern screech owls will use it as I so often see and hear these in our yard.

I researched the hairy woodpecker in my book “Words for Birds”: “Dendrocopos villosus, which is Greek for “tree cleaver” and coined from dendron, “tree,” and kopis, “cleaver.” villosus which is Latin for “hairy or shaggy”; the reference is to the general appearance of the plumage, which gives the species a hirsute but combed appearance.” The downy woodpecker is “Dendrocopos pubescens, Latin for “coming into puberty,” which seems to be related to the species being less hairy and less mature.” (pg. 168) The downy is the smaller of the two.

On and off all afternoon, this downy woodpecker clung to the huge blue spruce in the front yard, puffed up for warmth, feeding on the resin. Later, I observed the same behavior by the nuthatches. I hoped for a brown creeper to show up as I have occasionally observed one on this big tree that is right outside my kitchen “office” window.

We are not the partying sort, so our end of the year celebration will consist of my homemade Swedish meatballs, made from Striefel beef and Napoleon sausage. The special taste comes from the cardamon and the lingonberry jelly I include in the creamy sauce. Add to that some of our own bubbly, with daughter, Chelsea, as our guest and we will savor the last day of 2017.  I included black-eyed peas to the menu, as they are a Southern tradition, thought to bring prosperity to the upcoming year. Remember, my father is from Mississippi. While I cook I listen to Jason Isbell and Greg Allman.

The sun has set and my tally of birds is:

  • Hairy woodpeckers.
  • Downy woodpeckers.
  • Slate-colored juncos.
  • Black-capped chickadees.
  • Red-breasted nuthatches.
  • Pine siskins.
  • Goldfinches.
  • House sparrows.
  • House finches

The hoped-for brown creeper was a no-show as were any owls. Here’s to more birding in 2018!

A New Year’s Eve full moon has risen, good tunes are playing in our kitchen, and while we wait for our child to get off from work, we dine on mussels, crackers and cheese, with white wine.

I wish for you as much joy and love as I’ve received in the past year, highlights of which include the Bismarck Women’s March on the Capitol grounds, the beginning of my blog, new friendships, my dive into Twitter, an abundant garden, many good books, time with my parents and Rachel, my husband’s 70th birthday, our trip in the Midwest and to the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival, my visit to one of my oldest friend’s home in Tucson and my daughter Chelsea’s adventure to Colorado for vocational training (it is good to have her home). A little thing in the year was a revelation to one of my best friends my secret ingredient for marinara, a resolution to not hold on to such silly things anymore. And how could I not include the total solar eclipse in Wyoming!

I am a shy and reticent person, an introvert and too old to even want to change this about me. Writing this blog has been a huge step for me, and the universe has answered me back with more blessings than I could ever have dreamed. Jim cheers me on every day, and I love him for that.

And that is the truth.

“And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done.” — Ranier Maria Rilke

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Winter Interlude

We went away over Christmas for a winter interlude with my sisters and their families and my mother, gathering in a large house in the woods of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Driving west across the Memorial Bridge, we could see chunks of ice in the Missouri River. We traversed familiar west Dakota roads, in the midst of the first true cold snap of the season, all of our cars loaded full of passengers, food and family.  As I drove, I counted 22 ruffed-legged hawks from Belfield, N.D., to Belle Fourche, S.D., and spotted a large herd of antelope south of Crow Butte, S.D. The prairie was mostly brown (the drought continues,) and we only experienced one near-whiteout south of Buffalo, S.D.

The rental house was in the aspen and pine forest near Lead, S.D. We work together as a well-oiled machine and in no time at all, we had transformed the house to our gathering space for the next four days, each of us taking turns cooking the meals and performing KP. A long folding table was heaped with cookies and other holiday treats and at the end of this table, we set up a bar.  Some of the famous Walby Tom & Jerrys were whipped up, too, and the wine was uncorked.

Jim and I attended Christmas morning Mass in Lead. For the next four days, everyone did what made them happy, a variety of activities that included card and board games, reading, movies, visiting, napping, downhill and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, sprinkled with a few visits to the nearby Deadwood, S.D., casinos.

We had given each other books for Christmas and taking turns, both read the new Louise Erdrich novel (too bleak for my taste). We caught up with the kids who live on the East Coast and played lots of pinochle and cribbage with my mother.

The first couple of days were bitter cold, but the youngest headed to Terry Peak right away for some skiing.

My mother is a stitching wizard, and she presented me with a beautiful new apron, with the words “Red Oak House” and some of the leaves of the plants in our yard. We were particularly happy to have been able to bring her on this trip as she has a deep love of the Black Hills and seldom is able to travel anymore.

My sisters and I bundled up and took a walk, stretching our legs and exploring the area. There was adequate snow and more in the forecast. Later on Christmas Day, our friend, Valerie Naylor, who lives nearby, came for a visit.

The two fireplaces were quite popular with everyone as was the hot tub. Relatives who live in the southern U.S. texted me that we were very hearty folks, having seen the news of the temperatures in the Dakotas.

On Day 2, Jim and I drove over to Spearfish Canyon and took a two-mile hike to Roughlock Falls, relishing the fresh air and quiet grandeur. There were a few other folks on the trail here and there, but we mostly had it to ourselves.

On Day 3, my sister, Beckie, and I took our cross-country skis to Eagle Cliffs trails and did a few loops in the lovely powder snow and burned off some of the cookie calories. It was very peaceful there and we saw no one else on the trail.

With the sunset, came the first flakes of an all-night snow. And in the dawn light, we could see that there were about 6 inches on all of our cars. Time to load up and head north to our homes!

The temperatures were a little on the upward trend Thursday, but the forecast of more frigid weather was on our minds.

My mother rode from Bowman, N.D. with us and as we passed through Slope and Stark counties, I enjoyed her stories of those old days so long ago. She has very interesting and funny memories.

Today has been unpacking and dealing with Chelsea’s dead car battery, greatly touched at the friends and family who had attempted to assist her in our absence. While Jim got her car going, I hauled in heaps of firewood in preparation for the upcoming cold snap.

The Missouri River is now frozen over and will be for the foreseeable future. My husband has ice fishing on his mind. Our gardening boots are replaced by winter boots. I’ve had my trusty black Sorels for 25 years now.

It is time to add another down comforter to the bed and settle in, reading books, writing manuscripts and fighting the proposed refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And maybe we will squeeze in the Bismarck Christmas Bird Count.

This poem by T.S. Eliot is on much my mind today as we anticipate the Epiphany. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

The Journey Of The Magi

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.