This is the season I’m overcome with mixed emotions: I love the brilliant colors and subtle hues of autumn; I revel in the crisp cool air and bright blue skies, and I’m energized by the fierce storms magnified by crashing thunder and sparks of lightning. We have weather here.

But with each leaf that drifts toward the ground, covering it with a blanket of yellow, orange and brown, I’m reminded that winter is coming. And that’s the season I’d rather not be here. Trees are barren and stark. Shrubs slink back into sorry masses of yellow-brown brush. The landscape cries for a lid of pure snow to hide it all.

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Knowing what’s in store, I slog through the fall chores at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin lake home.  I cut back the spent flowers—except for black-eyed susans, sunflowers, and any others with seeds or pods for the birds. I supervise the “fencing” of the fruit trees, so the deer don’t demolish them in the early spring before the forest grows its bounty. And I arrange for the pontoon, lift, and dock to be stored on the lake bank and alongside the garden shed—all the while cherishing memories of the delighted screams of grandchildren as they jumped off the pontoon into the lake or were pulled in a tube—a sport they call “tubing.”

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I buy butternut squash at the farmers market and bake an apple crisp to serve during the final week-end here when family and friends will stop by to say their goodbyes. Then next week, we’ll store all the lawn furniture and pots, winterize the cabin and set the heat in the main house to 50° to prepare for freezing temperatures; they can reach 30° below zero in January.

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We’ll soon return to our condo in San Diego and I know that when we watch the sun set over Sail Bay with streaks of orange and red, we’ll fall in love with the Pacific Ocean all over again. But for now, there’s a nostalgic sadness in my heart. I’m leaving my beloved Northern Bliss.

Upcoming blogs will continue the series covering our September trip from Germany down the Danube.

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A commotion on the lake woke me up in a flash. The splashing was accompanied by a sound I hadn’t heard here—a deep note, like that of a French horn, with a lingering ring. I ran to the window just in time to see a family of five swimming past our dock. My bird book identified them as Trumpeter swans—the largest waterfowl in North America. The next day they came back and I managed to take photos. What a sight—and a privilege.

These swans have had a touch-and-go history in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The last wild nests were located in Heron and Everson Lakes in the late 1880s. The birds were killed for food; their feathers were used for ladies’ hats, and their down, for powder puffs. By 1935, fewer than 70 of these majestic birds could be found in remote areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. That year, Red Rock, Montana became a refuge for Trumpeter swans. Hennepin Parks, Minnesota hosted restoration efforts in the 1960s. Then in 1982, Minnesota’s DNR (Department of Natural Resources) joined the effort by transporting swan eggs from Alaska to Minnesota. The offspring, called cygnets, were raised for two years and released. Now, over 2000 swans trumpet in Heron Lake, Swan Lake, and St. Croix State Park. In Wisconsin, thanks to the state endangered species act and a public-private partnership, trumpeter swan populations are recovering. Trumpeter swans doubled the goal of 20 breeding pairs by 2000, and were removed from the state endangered species list in 2009. Today, the number stands at a modern all-time high of nearly 200 nesting pairs in 23 counties. You can view them at Crex Meadows in Burnett County and Sandhill Wildlife Refuge in Wood County—or come to White Ash Lake, where we have one family of five.

Family of FIve Trumpeter Swans

Family of FIve Trumpeter Swans

Life Cycle: The male and female build a nest on a muskrat or beaver dam, on a floating mat of plants, or build up enough plants to make a platform. The female incubates the clutch of 4-6 eggs for 34 days. One day before hatching, the chicks begin to peep. Cygnets can swim as soon as their down is dry, but they stay on their nests for a few days. For the next three weeks, until their new feathers grow in, they are brooded by their parents and fed snails and insects from the bottom of the marsh. The juveniles stay with their parents through their first winter until they return in the spring to the same breeding area. Then they hang out with their siblings for 4-6 years until they are mature enough to mate and raise their own young. If a pair uses the same nesting location two summers in a row, they form an almost unbreakable attachment to the site.

Pair of adult and juvenile swans

Pair of adult and juvenile swans

The swans create quite a commotion when they take off. They run on top of the water with their wings flapping. Just after take-off they pull their necks into an S and then straighten it out. They sleep with their head tucked down under their wing.

Fluffiing feathers to dry off

Fluffiing feathers to dry off

Recently, conversations during my AquaFit class at the Y have been about water. Not the water in the outdoor pool, but the lack of water due to California’s 4th year of drought. We dream up new solutions: “Let’s pipe in water from the Columbia River. Use up some of that extra rain that falls on Washington and Oregon.”

“The new desalination plant in North County is coming on-line this fall. That’ll eventually give San Diego County about 10% or so of the water we’ll need. We should build more plants.”

“But running it takes a lot of power, and that comes from fossil fuels.”

“Northern California wastes the water that could be sent south to farmers. They’re protecting the delta smelt by letting it run back into the ocean and draining reservoir lakes to protect a few steelhead trout.”

“Los Angeles wastes water too. 65% of the city is covered in asphalt and concrete, so storm water can’t seep into the ground water. Yet their flood-control system shunts enough water into the ocean to supply water to half a million people. So where do they take water? From the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado river we all use.”

We don’t spend much time in Southern California gossiping about the weather (because it’s always pretty much the same). Here we ruminate about water. As Joan Didion wrote in her classic essay collection The White Album, “Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive. The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is.” San Diego recycles part of its city water supply in a program called “toilet to tap.” Now they changed the name of the program to “pure water” for obvious reasons, but I do not think reverently about the water coming out of our taps.

I’ve just completed a gardening project as head of our HOA (home owners association) landscaping committee. Our focus has been on xeriscaping and installing a dry creek as a “water feature” in front of the condo building. Because water rationing will only increase as the drought drags on, the creek will of course, contain no water.  What a contrast to the creek I installed last summer at our lake home in Wisconsin! That creek will funnel water off the yard because we have too much.

Dry creek using blue stones to contrast with the multicolor landscaping stones

Many California residents didn’t know what the term “xeriscaping” meant until Governor Brown used the word in his water-rationing speech last week, announcing that California municipalities will henceforth use 25% less water. Xeri means dry, as in Xerox®, i.e., dry copy. Xeriscaping is a landscape method developed especially for arid and semiarid climates that uses drought-tolerant plants, mulch, and efficient irrigation, such as the underground drip method. (Midwest and German friends, you don’t need to know this.) Our HOA committee boned up on xeri and now we’re proud to be ahead of the game. Our drought-tolerant trees, plants, and flowers now stand proud among multi-colored rocks, boulders and pebbles; and our dry creek, filled with smooth, blue river stones, winds around palms from the building foundation to the street, where it won’t leave one drop of precious water.

Palm trees used in xeriscaping

Last fall, I returned from lush Wisconsin with its 50 shades of green to parched, brown yards in San Diego. I told my friends about how I had to slope and drain that lot so that it flowed into a “rain garden” and then into White Ash Lake. Their reaction to my blog How to Drain a Wet Lot,” was “duh.” When I return to Wisconsin in May, I know I’ll find the same reaction when I describe our xeriscaping project to my neighbors there. The rainfall in Polk County in one month, June of 2014, was 9.5 inches; San Diego’s rainfall for that one year was 5 inches, 50% of normal.

For more on California’s water wars, go to http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2015/apr/18/drought-look-ahead/

http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2015/apr/17/sacramento-drought-california-environment-water/

http://www.wsj.com/articles/to-beat-the-drought-l-a-looks-to-nature-for-help-1429199299

http://www.wsj.com/articles/californias-water-woes-are-priceless-1429051903

When I awoke this morning, there was an autumn chill in the air and this poem in my head, along with visions of pumpkin patches and maple sugar trees. I remember reading the poem by James Whitcomb Riley as a child in a Wisconsin school room. You can hear it recited here or read it below:

WHEN THE FROST IS ON THE PUNKIN

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and the gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’; of the guineys and the cluckin’ of the hens
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O it’s then the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock

They’s somethin kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here –
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny monring of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock –
When the frost is on the punkin and fodder’s in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries – kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A preachin’ sermons to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below – the clover overhead! –
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too!
I don’t know how to tell it – but if sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me –
I’d want to ‘commodate ’em – all the whole-indurin’ flock –
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

Pumpkin Field

Pumpkin Field

Riley’s poems depict country life in rural America, circa 19th century. Heralding from Indiana, he was known as “The Hoosier Poet.” The whimsical nature of this poem reminds me of my own youth, growing up on a farm.

The pumpkin was quite useful to U.S. pioneers and is still valuable to third-world farmers because it is so easy to grow: just drop a few seeds into a small, shallow hole.  The pumpkin’s thick rind would allow them to keep it indefinitely.  I found that out when sailing the Northern Banks Islands of Vanuatu.  We were given a huge pumpkin by villagers as a “thank you” for giving them a propeller for their fishing boat. It rode in the cockpit of Pacific Bliss for weeks until I finally used our pressure cooker on board to transform it into a tasty pumpkin soup.

(see Sailing the South Pacific, page 284).

Fodder is food for farm animals.  The tall Indiana corn, when thoroughly dry, was gathered into “Shocks” of corn wigwams tied at the top, and left in the fields to be used as needed

Cornstalks used as decoration in Oceola, Wisconsin

Cornstalks used as decoration in Oceola, Wisconsin

During our autumn trip to Wisconsin, we paid a visit to Glenna Farms, where most of these photos were taken. Their maple syrup is to die for! We packed some into our luggage, but one can obtain their catalog or order products on-line at http://www.glennafarms.com/

“The hard edges of life move into softer focus up north,” says Joan Steffend. And Standing Bear said, “Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.”

IMG_6126 Budding Wildflower with Butterfly

During Gunter’s recovery from his knee replacement surgery, I couldn’t wait to get back into nature at Northern Bliss, our lake home. Your own “up north” could be anywhere you choose to  get away and de-stress.

“The volume of life can creep up slowly…

the white noise of the daily routine…

distortion of unnecessary busy-ness…

groans of a big picture lost in a to-do list,

as the peaceful voice of our own nature

seems to grow fainter and farther away.

Up north you can turn up

the Silence of Divinity.” –Jimmy Brandmeir

Last week, with my Canon EOS hung around my neck, I crept close to butterflies and dragonflies while touring the dikes and watersheds of Crex Meadows in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Time stood still while reeds rustled and sedge grass swayed in the light breeze. Even though July is off-season for the migratory fowl these wetlands are famous for, the day was a blissful communion with nature. As Tolstoy said, “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.”

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After seeing the Lord of the Forest, an ancient kauri tree, while touring New Zealand, I still could not get those kauri trees out of my mind. So when we saw some furniture made of kauri wood in a museum, I made a wish: Someday, if I would have a lake or mountain home, and if I could somehow manage to purchase and ship some of that kauri wood to the States, I would have a coffee table made of a slice of that marvelous wood. Never mind that this is a protected species, like the ancient California redwoods. I put it “out there” anyway.

We walk through the Waipoua Forest to see the ancient, graying Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, the world's largest living kauri tree (Photo from p. 197 of

We walk through the Waipoua Forest to see the ancient, graying Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, the world’s largest living kauri tree (Photo from p. 197 of “Sailing the South Pacific”)

Years later, part of the money from the sale of Pacific Bliss enabled us to purchase Northern Bliss, our family heritage home on a Wisconsin lake. Amazingly, my wish has come true. During the remodeling process of our lodge-style home, wonderfully completed by my son-in-law, Mike Mowers , I googled kauri wood. I discovered that—lo and behold—there was one distributor of kauri wood in the U.S. and he happened to be in Wisconsin! The company is called Ancientwood Ltd, owned by Bob Teisburg. The kauri he sells is pulled out of New Zealand swamps. It’s taken a year, but I finally have a coffee table and fireplace mantle made of that ancient kauri wood.

Coffee table made of kauri wood from New Zealand

Coffee table made of kauri wood from New Zealand

Here’s an excerpt from Sailing the South Pacific:

The Lord of the Forest

I cannot get those giant kauri trees out of my mind.They say that even the redwoods of Big Sur, California, cannot compete with the kauris’ ancient appearance and aura. I must have another look.

We take the West Coast Road (also called the Kauri Coast Road) south. We follow signs posted for Tani Mahuta Track and the Waipoua Forest. There, we have been assured, we will find Tani Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, the world’s largest living kauri tree, guaranteed to take our breath away. This great work of nature was discovered in the 1920s by surveyors who had been contracted to build Highway 12 through the forest. They called it Tani Mahuta after a god in Maori mythology. Tani was the son of Ranginui, the Sky Father and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother.  Being a jealous child, he separated his parents and then, out of love for his mother, created the living forest to clothe her. As a result, even today, all creatures of the forest are considered to be Tani’s children.

Walking the short track that leads through the cooling shade of the forest canopy, I flush with anticipation. Not far into the walk, we sweep around a corner and I stop dead in my tracks. There he is! Suddenly, I’m brought face to face with the Lord of the Forest. I stand perfectly still. I stare. My first glimpse of this magnificent tree takes my breath away! I can sense Tani Mahuta’s ancient presence and animal strength. He dominates the forest. 

Almost 2000 years old, he, too, is almost 16 stories high, but he has a circumference of over 45 feet.  He is the giant of giants!  An enormous growth that dwarfs everything else. 

A wooden fence protects him. A viewing bench surrounds him. I sit in silence. Awed. I wonder at the centuries that have come and gone under the spreading branches of this primeval forest patriarch. Then, I stand and move back…farther…farther…farther.  I must fit this entire majestic being into my camera lens. I must…I must….And, finally, I rejoice…because I have him!

Part I of the “Northern Bliss/Heritage Home” blog series

August 2012, Balsam Lake, Wisconsin

“What will happen to all your beautiful flowers when we leave here in three weeks?” Gunter asks as he watches me just a’diggin’ in the dirt.

I’ve been gardening for over two hours this morning. Enhancing the flower gardens here at our lake home is more than just a chore.  I am returning to my roots. I was born in Polk County, Wisconsin—in Cushing, less than 30 miles from here.

I set my tools down and move my kneeling pad over to the next clump of weeds to be pulled. “Leave? I’m just settling in, marking my territory.”

Digging in the dirt has become a compulsion since we moved many of our belongings from San Diego in mid-July.

“This reminds me of carrying pails and pails of water for my mother’s and grandmother’s gardens,” Gunter answers.  He points to the foxgloves. “The flowers in Bavaria were very similar to these. Only the flowers had different names.”

Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea)

Huge hydrangea

Tiger lilies grow well in Wisconsin

I’m not sure how to explain this drive to dig in the dirt, to go back to one’s roots. The compulsion comes from deep within and the process provides deep satisfaction. And when I’m all tired out, my chores completed for the morning, Gunter says I always return with a smile on my face. So it must be good for me.

Even though I’ve been a sailor throughout much of my life, and made my home on the sea for eight years, as a farmer’s daughter, the need to return to the land is a primal instinct. This is not unusual. Captain Cook, who sailed farther than any man had sailed before, retired on a farm in England near where he grew up, that is, until he was called back to sea again for his final voyage.

This land also provides for me a sense of completion. My family lost its dairy farm to foreclosure after the dreaded Bang’s Disease swept through the herd and the milk could not be sold. I was a freshman in college at the time, and I never had an opportunity to say good-bye to that land. It all happened so fast. Perhaps that created a longing in me that I’ve buried as deep as the foxgloves I have planted here.

If so, that longing didn’t surface until I attended my 50th class reunion in St. Croix Falls in September, 2010. I rarely attended reunions, and may not have come to this one had not my granddaughter scheduled her wedding the week prior. During the event, a classmate of mine asked me, “Are you here to look at a summer home?” Her question startled me. “Lake homes here are selling for half of what they were before the 2008 crash.”

That comment set the process in motion.

For the next two days, Gunter and I drove through the countryside admiring the fall foliage.  “I love all the deep blue lakes, the lush rolling hills, and the wonderful colors. It reminds me of my own roots in Bavaria,” Gunter exclaimed.

“That’s probably why so many German immigrants settled in Wisconsin,” I replied.  “They must have thought the same thing.”

“Lots of FOR SALE signs around here,” he noted. “Interested?”

My heart skipped a beat. “Yes! The home should be here in Polk County.”

Now why did I say that? I’ve never even thought of buying a home here. Not sure I want this. Too many memories—not all of them pleasant.

But the die was cast. Actually, the die had been cast two years earlier, when we completed our world circumnavigation. The planned trilogy, “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss,” would cover the eight years of our sailing adventures. But even then, I thought about writing a book about what happened in the years before we left to go sailing.

During presentations promoting the first book in the series, MAIDEN VOYAGE, many readers asked about our lives before sailing. That would make an interesting story: how did a farm girl from Wisconsin who wanted to escape her past and succeed at business and a boy from Munich who loved math and science meet each other—after many wrong turns in life—and become soul mates?

What would I need to do to write such a book?

I would need to pick up the dialect I’d forgotten. I would need to stay where I grew up for a while to re-acquaint myself with the farming culture again, to regain that sense of place.

OK, I can do that!

Beware of setting a goal. It just may have a way of happening before you know it! I had only a goal. I had no strategy in mind, not even a plan. My writing goal, however, seemed to fit with our shared goal of providing ways to keep our families in touch with each other. Since both of our parents died, Gunter and I have taken seriously the responsibilities of being the matriarch and patriarch of our respective families. We sponsor family reunions where all the children, grandchildren and cousins can get together. Could having one central property for those reunions—sort of a Heritage Home—work for us?

The following year, 2011, we organized a family reunion by renting a cabin on the shores of Balsam Lake, the largest lake in Polk County, to market test the idea.

If we build it, will they come?

It worked!  During the main event, a barbeque on the cabin’s big deck, I counted 28 attendees; they were all related. So the search for an appropriate lake home began.

If it all proceeds smoothly, it’s meant to be.

By the time we left the cabin, Gunter and I had made an offer on a home on nearby White Ash Lake.  After returning to San Diego, and negotiating back and forth, we soon found ourselves the proud owners of a family home.

But the task of remodeling it to make room for our four children and their spouses, five grandchildren (two with spouses), and two great grandchildren was just beginning. We would knock out three walls to make a massive Great Room. I planned the kitchen and dining area to seat 17, the patios to seat 16 and all the bedrooms—including a bunk room we would build—to sleep 16, with space for additional air mattresses. Not all would always come at the same time, but there are always a few extras in any gathering! I am the eldest of ten (nine living), visits by siblings needed to considered as well.

As my readers know by now, Gunter and I love to travel! We had already committed to two international trips—to India and South America—when we purchased the home. In between trips, Mike, my son-in-law, and I managed the remodeling (he did most of the work himself). It was an amazing process and a tight schedule, but a mere two hours before the first visitors arrived in July, the carpet had been laid in the bunk room and the bunk beds installed! (For those readers asking why the India and South America travel blogs remain unfinished, this is my excuse. They will be completed sometime this winter!)

When all the hub-bub becomes too much, I retreat to my garden to dig in the dirt. The birds chirp merrily as they perch on their feeders and splash in their birdbath. The breeze whispers through the pines, birch and oak—so different from the palms in Southern California. And across our dead end street near the woods, a doe stands and stares, daring me to chase her from my hostas.

Life is good here.

She dares me to chase her away from my hostas

 

Yellow Goldfinch at the bird feeder