Friday, September 30, 2005

Prairie Phoenix

This new book is almost as beautiful as its subject: the Red Lily in Saskatchewan. It is a wonderful centennial-year tribute to our province's floral emblem, a treat to browse through just for the pictures, and a goldmine of knowledge. Authors Bonnie Lawrence and Anna Leighton share their findings from a ten-year study of the lives of lilies at three Saskatchewan sites, as well as their wisdom from many more years of keen observation of nature. We meet not only the lilies, but also many other creatures, from meadow voles to lily bulb thrips. Bonnie and Anna's creativity shines from the pages: even charts and graphs are works of art. Far from a dry scientific study, this book is rich with stories and recollections of the lily in prairie life reaching back through generations to the first days of settlement. In the back of the book you will find a section on growing the Red Lily in your garden, and even instructions for making paper lilies.

There are local references: Doris Silcox's observations of yellow lilies amongst a patch of red-flowered lilies near Carlyle; my own photo of lilies in the hills north of Arcola; and Mom's photo on the back cover, showing where someone swathing hay in a highway ditch had left a patch of hay standing where a lily bloomed. I hope that person sees this book and smiles.

Mom has donated a copy to the Arcola Public Library. I will be showing my copy to some local retailers, and I'll let you know if it becomes available around here. In Regina, you can find it at the Book and Brier.

Update - you can order Prairie Phoenix online here. Thanks Harold for the tip.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

EnergyCheck, EnergyStar, EnerGuide, energy gone

I've been hearing that natural gas costs are going up sharply, and the evidence of climate change just keeps coming, so when Garth mentioned a new motor for our ancient furnace, I suggested getting a whole new furnace instead. Our latest energy bill included a pamphlet about saving both gas and electricity with a high efficiency furnace and a variable speed motor, which not only uses less electricity but also regulates airflow for more even, comfortable heating. It's even supposed to keep the house cleaner because the filters work better at lower airflow rates. A cleaner house with no effort on my part?! I like the sound of that.

While I waited for the price quote, I decided to try another run through EnergyCheck. It's a really nifty online tool for Saskatchewan residents, that analyses your energy use based on your actual SaskPower and SaskEnergy bills, plus information you enter about your home and its windows, appliances, etc. A tip: appliances often have the year of manufacture marked on them, or included in the serial number. But don't be too sure about a likely-looking number within the serial number. My fridge has a serial number ending in "99," but after some Googling and emailing around to find out what corporation has swallowed up "Westinghouse Canada," I concluded that the fridge must be older than 1980. It's getting replaced. Today. But before I get talking about fridges: let me know if the EnergyCheck works for you. I've tried it twice and it gave me lots of detailed information, but then near the end it said there was a problem with one or other of the SaskPower/Energy account numbers I'd entered. I'll give an update here if I get an answer from EnergyCheck about that.

Now, about that fridge... I had posted a lengthy litany here about my experience with the Office of Energy Efficiency regarding EnergyStar labels, but after a good night's sleep, I decided to pull it until I've given them a fair chance to answer my complaints in private. I'll keep you posted...

It's getting dark early

This striking architectural feature...

is a trick of the dark.

There is no S-curved section in the wall, just a shallow indented section, and on it, a shadow from the streetlight's own pole.

I should get a daytime picture. I've walked by that house countless times, but rarely at night. It's only recently that Garth and I have started taking regular evening walks. (How sweet they are, and all the more so since there are only sixteen evenings left before his trip to Nepal.) We were in front of Ray and Phyllis's, and we had stopped walking. I must have been trying to say something really profound, so profound that I couldn't put words in a string and put feet in front of each other at the same time. Then I interrupted myself with, "Is that wall curved?!?" We actually walked across the street towards it before I realized what I was seeing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Shand Greenhouse Trees

You may have noticed in the Town Newsletter that you can order trees and shrubs from the Shand Greenhouse through the Town Office; they will be submitting the order in late December, for delivery in May. Shand Greenhouse has a guide to the species available, with handy information about the type of tree or shrub, how large it will get and how fast, and where it will grow best. There are also notes about the wildlife value of some species. Worth a look if you would like to add a bit of bird habitat in your yard.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Genealogical records online

Saskatchewan has just announced an online index of birth records from 100 years ago or more. I played with it a little, putting in family names of early settlers, and discovered that the place of birth is often listed as a land description for a farm. However, listing "Arcola" as the place of birth still gave me 150 records. It could be an interesting browse if you have ancestors born around here. I won't find any of my relatives listed, since my parents came to the area in the 1970s. I've become accustomed to being a bit of an outsider, not related to anyone, not connected to the local history in any way. But it was amusing to see the surprise among the students on a hike at Saskairie, when I mentioned that I used to live there when I was a kid. "You lived here?!" I suddenly felt like a local relic.

Friday, September 23, 2005


The ash trees always turn first. Except, now that I think of it, ten days ago I saw shrubs with no leaves at all. It was back in the hills north of Kisbey, and there were entire patches of hawthorn and perhaps other shrubs, looking just as grey and barren as if it were November.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

No more zucchinis

I saw my breath as I stepped outside this morning, and the shadows across the yard looked more silver than grey. First frost.

Monday, September 19, 2005

A joke from James

James is always inventing jokes and riddles. Early on, the humour was mostly in the "oddness," but he's been honing his skills, as this invention testifies:
Why did the farmer cross the road?

To get his chicken back.

James Herman, 2005. Used with permission.

Katrina update

As we waited in the choir room before church yesterday, the talk turned to storms and floods. Someone commented that it makes you wonder why people keep rebuilding again and again. The farmer in the room said, "Well, we keep seeding..."

Here's a detailed overview of progress and challenges in the recovery from Katrina: Hope Re-Enters New Orleans With Returning Residents.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Subject index

This will be an evolving post page, with links to previous posts by subject, updated as I have time and inclination.

Local Interest:

Around town:
Out in the country:
Local history:
Nature observations:
My/our projects:

The Wider World:

Hurricane Katrina
Climate change
Limits to growth
Energy conservation and alternatives
Protecting natural landscapes and ecosystems

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A strawbale porch

Dan Trabue asked me for a picture of the strawbale addition that we built onto our house trailer, back when we were living on the farm with Mom and Dad.

It's a post-and-beam structure with strawbales filling in between the posts, and cement plaster covering the bales inside and out. The six posts (hidden in the walls) are salvaged power poles, painted to minimize fumes from the creosote. We built a floor deck between the posts, and a frame around the top to support the roof, which we simply moved from an existing garage. Then we filled in the spaces between the posts with strawbales, building directly on top of the floor deck (with a layer of plaster spread on the deck first to seal the bottom of the bales). Stucco wire and two coats of cement plaster completed the walls. We continued the plaster up over the existing plywood in the gables.

The plaster can be finished smooth so that the house looks quite conventional, but I favoured a rough finish for a more rustic look, and Garth went along with it.

We experimented with some of the details, such as how to shape the outside corners. The near corner in the photo is rounded (with some funny shaping at the top and bottom to meet the square corners of the floor deck and roof).

The space is roughly 10' x 13', and we divided it to make a bedroom and an entrance hall with a bit of storage.

We stopped by and got some pictures yesterday, picked up some videos that we had forgotten to take down off a "shelf" (the top of a doorframe in an unfinished wall), and looked around a bit wistfully. The building hasn't had much use in the last year, so please excuse the cobwebs on the windowsill.

We had various reasons for moving out: the convenience and fuel savings of living in town; the various leaks in the house trailer roof; the widening breezy gap where the house trailer was shifting away from the addition; and finally, the furnace rusting out.

In hindsight, there are just three major things we would do differently. We would build the roof to extend all the way across above the existing trailer roof, to avoid leaks at the join. What we did was put an eavestrough along the join between the two roofs, sort of inside the house, but it was almost impossible to get it to catch under the edges of both roofs, and we often had water running down the wall between the trailer and the addition. We would also put more substantial, solid supports under the trailer to keep it from twisting away from the addition. And finally, we would start with a trailer that was in better shape. We're hoping to sell the trailer this fall and keep the addition, adding a sunroom onto it to make a nice little strawbale cottage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

All the Arcolas

This wasn't what I planned to do today, but oh well. I tried out Google's new Blog Search, and I entered "Arcola," hoping to find some other local bloggers. Not much luck with that, mainly because I was swamped with entries from all the other places called Arcola. I knew there was one in Illinois, and I figured there must have been one in Italy or somewhere, because I'd heard that our town was named after some place where Napoleon fought a famous battle. But I had no idea there were so many other places with the same name. Then I got curious and went looking for place name resources, and found the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names. It's an amazingly detailed resource: there are a couple of Arcola Creeks, an Arcola Junction, and even an Arcola Drainage Ditch. There are also 16 listings of "inhabited places" called Arcola. But it didn't turn up any "Arcola, MN," which is listed as the location for these impressive railroad bridge photos: "My favourite steel bridge," "Arcola Bridge from below," and "Triangles, triangles..."
Altogether, here are the locations of all the Arcolas I have found:
North Carolina
West Virginia
and of course, here in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Insurance and Katrina

Did climate change make Katrina worse? Some activists are saying so, but there are calmer voices explaining that it's not that simple.

Personally, I consider it very unwise to try to use a single hurricane to convince people of the threat of global warming. For one thing, obviously, you'll make people angry. This is no time to be talking about theories; there are people who need help, and they need it now. Even after the crisis has passed, the name of the hurricane will stir up painful memories of suffering and loss. Naturally, people will resent any arguments that seem to try to profit from this pain.

A second problem is this: in any discussion of climate change, you have to be clear about the difference between climate and weather. As soon as you focus on a single weather event, you encourage people to confuse the two. You also leave yourself wide open to skeptical counter-arguments that focus on a single cold spell, early frost, or the like. The threat of global warming is not that we're all going to die of heatstroke. Instead, small, seemingly insignificant changes in the average temperatures seen over decades or centuries are expected to trigger large, socially and economically significant changes in things like sea levels, agricultural productivity, and overall losses from hurricanes and other severe storms over long periods.

Having said all that, I still found this ironic:
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) was scheduled to discuss the implications of climate change on the insurance industry at its fall meeting scheduled for September 10-13 in New Orleans. The meeting was canceled due to Hurricane Katrina, and the climate change discussion is now slated for the NAIC's winter meeting in December.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The other side of the world...

... is a point in the ocean somewhere off the southwest corner of Australia. But Nepal is almost as far away as that, and Nepal is where Garth will be spending a large part of this coming winter. It's almost exactly 180 degrees longitude around the planet from here, so it will be easy to remember what time it is there: just reverse a.m. and p.m. and you pretty much have it. If you want to be exact, you have to allow for the fact that Nepal sets its clocks 15 minutes off those of adjacent India, just to be different. You might have heard that Mount Everest is in Nepal, so you might be thinking that winter will be chilly there, but Garth won't be climbing Everest. Actually, Nepal is about 20 degrees latitude closer to the equator than Arcola, so the truth is, Garth may be in for quite a shock when he gets home in early February. That's assuming that all goes according to plan. From what we've heard, he will have to be flexible. Nepal is among the poorest 25% of countries in the world. It is also in turmoil, with its parliament suspended by the king since February, and Maoist rebels controlling large areas of countryside and carrying on a prolonged conflict which has claimed over 12,000 lives since 1996. I found an English-language online newspaper from Nepal, and its headlines are full of demonstrations and clashes. In each of the last three years, there were more journalists arrested in Nepal than in any other country in the world. So why would Garth go there?

He is going as a volunteer with the Canadian Co-operative Association, to help Nepal's credit union system with database programming and management. There is some worry, for sure, but Garth is excited too, to be facing some challenges, using his skills, and hopefully strengthening some organizations that can really help the people of Nepal to help themselves. One comforting thought is that both sides in the conflict view credit unions as a good thing.

I get to stay here with the kids and watch from a safe distance. A very long distance. I hope he sends lots of stories and pictures.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

My poor truck

They wandered away before I needed it again. Afterwards, my side mirror was showing me the ground right next to the door, and there were muzzle smears all over the passenger window, but as I expected, there was no real harm done. I don't know why they like vehicles so much. It makes sense in a huge open pasture, they love anything they can rub on, but in this case there were plenty of fence posts and signs and other well-site-related objects available. Just the novelty, I guess.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Happy Birthday Saskatchewan

As I write this, I assume that the last smoke from the fireworks is drifting away, and the happy people are walking back to their cars, the barn dance, or whatever they are doing for the rest of this "party-of-the-century" evening. I spent the early part of the evening biking south to Perry's Hill and lingering there for awhile watching the sunset and the changing hues of the landscape, and listening to a combine working nearby.

In honour of the big party, I offer you a link to the official centennial song, "Saskatchewan, We Love This Place!" by Stan Garchinski.

In honour of the farmers who couldn't be there, I offer you the lyrics for one of my own songs.

Saskatchewan Song
© 2004 Laura Herman

They were standing by the field in late September
as the sun turned all the stubble into gold.
He said, "Son, I don't know where you'll be
at the end of harvest next year.
I suppose you're going to want to hit the road.
I don't blame you if you're itching to be gone
but if you stay, you'll do okay,
here in Saskatchewan,

because we reach
for a farther off horizon.
We still count the stars that others cannot see.
We say, 'Hey, there's always next year,'
and we laugh, and lend a hand.
That's the way this land has brought us up to be.

Still, if you decide to go, we'll be here for you
and you know we'll help in any way we can.
Sure, we always hoped you'd take the farm
but you gotta chase your own dreams,
and no matter what they are, we'll understand.
Son, I know there's lots of places far beyond
that sure could use a boy like you,
raised in Saskatchewan,

because we reach
for a farther off horizon.
We still count the stars that others cannot see.
We say, 'Hey, there's always next year,'
and we laugh, and lend a hand.
That's the way this land has brought us up to be.
The way Saskatchewan has brought us up to be.

They were standing by the field in late September
and the sun turned all
the stubble
into gold...

Crop checking revisited

I found out what those messy-looking fields are all about. A farmer explained to me that if there's lodging, you know you have a good crop, because the heads are heavy. But we had drought in August, and some crops didn't fill out, so they weren't heavy enough to lodge. When the wind pounded them last week, they just bent over at the top and got that messy, tangled look.

Friday, September 02, 2005

What's a levee, and why, why, why...

There were times today, as I stared at the grasses where my sampling frame had fallen, when my work seemed ridiculously unimportant. I know there are always tragedies unfolding somewhere in the world, and some huge tragedies pass without our notice. Still, that knowledge does nothing to ease my mind about the devastation in New Orleans.

I've been reading a lot about it on the Internet. At first, people were just sharing what they knew of the events, and how to help. Then there was a shift to dismay and anger as the situation got worse instead of better. Today, perhaps because the relief efforts seem to be taking hold, people have begun to tackle the questions of why. Why did so many people stay? Why were there no buses to move those who couldn't drive? Why is the relief taking longer than we expect? Why? Why?

Some have suggested, in comments ranging from subtly patronizing to blatantly dismissive, that all this was just the natural consequence of building a major city below sea level. That seemed much too simplistic for me. I had to ask:

How did New Orleans get to be below sea level in the first place?

Was there really a decision some decades ago to pump out a hole and put buildings in it?

According to Wikipedia, there was, but there were also other factors. When New Orleans was first established nearly 300 years ago, the site was chosen because it was high ground. It was also a very important location, near the mouth of the Mississippi River which allowed water transport deep into the interior of the continent. Because of these natural advantages, New Orleans grew rapidly. It stretched out along the natural levees (raised banks) that bordered the river and its former channels. Behind the levees was swampy ground that flooded often, limiting the growth of the city. Finally, early in the twentieth century, the city began using pumps and canals to drain low swampy land for new construction, allowing great expansion. Obviously, this lower land was vulnerable right from the start. However, some other slow and subtle changes have made the situation worse.

No, I'm not talking about climate change.

One change is a complication of draining the low land. Constantly pumping out water has allowed formerly saturated soil to shrink and settle. Gradually, over the last century, the ground under New Orleans has sunk.

Another change is a partly natural process. When a river floods, leaving the confines of its channel, its flow is spread over a much larger area and therefore slows down. In slower water, silt settles to the bottom. Much of this silt ends up on top of the river bank, where the water first slows down. Over time, with repeated flooding, a ridge builds up along the bank. Then the river floods less frequently, so more of the silt is dropped inside the river channel, instead of out on the floodplain. Eventually, the entire river can be raised above the surrounding land. In fact, the term "levee" comes from a French word meaning "lifted."

Of course, once there are buildings on a floodplain, people want to protect them, so they build the levees even higher, and the river floods even less frequently. More silt builds up in the riverbed, and less gets added to the floodplain. Slowly, slowly, the water level moves even higher compared to the land.

These changes, happening over most of the last century, and to some extent over the last three centuries, have put the city lower with respect to surrounding waters.

Then there are changes to the coastal marshlands. When a storm surge driven by a hurricane comes onto the Louisiana coast, it loses much of its height and force in a huge area of marshes. However, these marshes have been disappearing since the 1930s, when the levees of the Mississippi were raised for greater flood protection. Silt from floods used to build up the marshlands, but now that silt goes straight out into deeper water in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, the marshes have been eroding faster than before, because of numerous canals cut through them for shipping and oil exploration. Almost 2000 square miles of marshes have vanished since the 30s, and the loss continues at a rate of "roughly one acre every 33 minutes" (National Geographic, October 2004). If you start into the article I've linked, and the opening description of the hurricane's devastation seems slightly off, just notice when it was written.

Having read all this, I now realize that New Orleans wasn't always a disaster waiting to happen. Its vulnerability grew slowly over many decades. In the meantime it had already become a major port city, an important cultural centre, and a treasured place for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.

What happens now? How much of the city will be rebuilt? Can the artificial levees be built to withstand higher storm surges? What about the problems of subsidence, and silt deposition in the riverbed, and loss of coastal marshlands? What can be done to slow or reverse these changes? Or will they continue unabated? When the next major hurricane hits, will the devastation be even worse?

And why do I spend my time monitoring the regrowth of grass on old oil well sites?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Crop checking

After all the wind and rain yesterday, and seeing the leaf-littered streets and my bedraggled, leaned-over garden, I was afraid to look at the crops. But as I drove out to an oil well site south of Carlyle today, I decided it could have been worse. (Keep in mind that I wasn't raised on a grain farm, so I'm not a good judge of crop condition, especially when I'm just driving by.) A lot of fields have been combined already, and there didn't seem to be many down in swath. I expected to see some lodging, but I only noticed a few small patches that were lying flat. I did see some fields that looked not quite right, as if most of the heads were bent over and only a scattering of them were still standing straight up. I'm wondering if it was hail, or just the cumulative effect of a whole day of gusty wind on a wet crop that's too ripe to straighten up again after.