Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bathtub Madonnas

About a year ago someone on the listserve asked what a "bathtub madonna" was. I was surprised there was someone out there who didn't know about the tradition of burying a bathtub upside down in the yard and turning it into a Marian shrine. I'm not sure where I first saw one, maybe in Southern New Jersey with relatives, but I certainly saw a lot of them in Chicago neighborhoods. In answering the person's question, I went to the Wikipedia site, where I was shocked to read this:

"Bathtub Marys in actual bathtubs are frequently found in the Upper Mississippi River valley, including western Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and are an important part of the visual folk culture of Roman Catholics in that region. A noteworthy concentration of bathtub madonnas occurs in Stearns County, Minnesota, an area heavily settled by German Catholics in the 19th century."

Right here in Stearns County is a large concentraiton of bathtub Madonnas? I had to keep my eyes open for that. I haven't done much driving around since then, but I had already taken note of some unusual Marian shrines in my neighborhood. My favorite was a mass-produced Mary in an overturned boat in front of one of the houses on the golf course. Fishing is big in the "Upper Mississippi River valley" as well. Of course, down the Shore in New Jersey I'd seen the popular "Mary in a conch shell" shrine, also mass-produced and in front of many shore homes. One of the best things about Marian apparitions is that they can happen anywhere, in any context, and the bathtub Madonnas had also adapted as protectors of all sorts of homes and people.
The two I see most often are really great Stearns County examples. Stearns County is known for its granite quarries, and this first example is in front of a house on a little frontage road for Hwy 75 in Waite Park, the main artery into St. Cloud. It has a great hewn granite cross on top and is "sided" with granite strips. This second one is at the end of my block, so I see it every day when I drive home. It has lost it's original Mary, and now houses an angel. It too is plastered with pieces of granite and concrete. These bathtubs aren't going anywhere. I also saw one that was empty, though maybe Mary will be put back now that the weather is nice, plastered with fieldstone, which is also the material our church is built from. I'd like to take more pictures of them, so if anyone has any good locations for Stearns County bathtub Madonnas, please let me know.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day 2009

Well, it's been one week since the burn, and true to the time of year-- it's all Resurrection out there! The seedlings seemed to start coming up almost immediately, by Sunday certainly, uncurling little heads that will in a few months be coneflowers. Here's a shot from the balcony today, of the tree that was scorched a week ago, and the little stand of wildflowers that wasn't totally sprayed by Round-up last Fall. You also see what wasn't burned, which is greening up nicely.

I officially started my seedlings for the vegetable garden too soon. The windowsill is totally crowded and at this point I'm going to water and hope things can handle the pots they're in until May 1, when I'll transplant. It's not completely safe to plant outside until May 15, but I'll put blankets over things if there's a threat in the following two weeks. The zucchini particularly are stretching out. The tomatoes are starting to have actual stalks, not just fragile stems. And I'm all but guaranteed to have brussel sprouts given the strength of those seedlings. The peppers, butternut squash and snow peas are struggling a bit (the peas really want to be outside on a vine trellis). I can plant those seeds again directly, along with the cucumbers, lettuce, onions and shallots and carrots. The shallot bulbs arrived in the mail today, with some dahlia bulbs. It won't be long now...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mating Dances

Thursday morning I was a little late for work, because I had to stop and watch from the upstairs window as two pheasants pursued each other in a nice little mating ritual. Now that everything is scorched black and barren, these things take place out in the open. The male pheasant had its tail feathers outspread, and chased the female, who ran coyly a short distance and stopped. He stopped short of her and waited, then made a fuss running up to her again. She again let him get right up close and then ran on. This was all out in the open, around the blackened plot. Finally she ran into the tall grass, and he didn't follow. He walked along the edge and pulled his tail feathers in. I never saw a pheasant with his tail feathers extended. It was not terribly colorful and dramatic-- they actually look more beautiful in their normal state, with the tail features extended back like a road runner and their sleek heads.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Activity and Clotheslines

It's hard to express how this place has gone from zero to sixty really, really fast. Well, for one thing, I now have too much to post about, whereas the past few weeks, well, I had nothing.

First, I didn't have a chance to post about Monday. I had the day off, and went with Nancy Ebel and five of her six children, Carmen, Blaise, Joel, Eli and Henry, to the final collection of maple sap out at Saint John's Arboretum. We spent about an hour dumping heavy buckets and bags into larger buckets and carrying those buckets to giant barrels where they could be picked up by the tractor. After that, it was Nancy, Carmen and me who continued the labor, while the boys played with snakes and dug around for other creatures. Then Carmen's attention turned more to saving moths that had fallen into the sap.

Henry, who is four, did join us now and again. Finally, Henry said, "Mom, WHY do we have to do this?" It did seem unreasonable, though there had been a lot of enthusiasm at the start of the process. So we called it a day. I'd say we collected about 200 gallons of sap, which roughly means 5 gallons of syrup after it's carted and boiled and finished and bottled. But it's been such a good season, they've run out of gallon jugs, so who knows. Unfortunately, I forgot to take my camera.

Steve finished the renovation project inside, including the cool steel banister and cables, rather crudely bolted and shimmed but quite solid and functional. Then he turned to his next project, a new clothesline. He's been talking about this design for a clothesline for maybe a year, perfecting it in his head. The banister got him going on welding, so he went and got the gears and metal for it, and put it together. Three pictures here: extracting the old T-style clothesline with the skid loader, and then the new clothesline. Then me getting my training lesson on how to use the new clothesline, engineering wonder that it is.

It spins, because of course you want to stand with your basket in one place. You start at the center, and after filling the four center pieces, step back once, and proceed to fill the next set of lines. Then step back once again, and repeat the process, until all clothes are hung. Steve's idea was to put giant metal blades on the four outside posts, so the wind would rotate the clothesline. I said I didn't really want my clothes to be on a "drying ride" whipping around in the wind. So he'll go back to another sculpture idea for a mobile with the giant metal propeller blades.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Controlled Burn (2)

Today, the long-awaited controlled burn. A perfectly still, dry day, the first day in the 60s, and everything ready to burn. Tim got permits for yesterday, today and tomorrow, and last night at 10 p.m. was out doing his patch of prairie. But Steve's projects are always larger, more ambitious, and there was a vast area ready to burn-- the two places, at front and back of the house, that he sprayed with Round-Up last fall to kill everything off, and then basically a couple acres behind the house.

First, they drive the water wagon around the perimeter of the burn area. Then they start some grass on the edge, and spread the fire around the perimeter with rakes. It burns inward, consuming everything, flaring hot, and then burns down and off. It goes right through small trees in its way, and I guess the fire helps the trees so far, as they don't seem to mind it. It doesn't seem to bother the frogs at all-- they keep croaking and singing away in the wetlands. I wonder if the heat of the fire reflects the heat of their passion, the intensity of spring mating.

It's beautiful, really, strong-smelling. It was the three men out there doing all the fire work. I didn't see a single sign of Amy or Annie, and Chloe and a friend showed up only at the very tail end to watch it burn out. I took pictures, and there was lots of direction about which shots I should take, where I should stand-- most of which I ignored.

It's beautiful, really. And now the black, scorched acres out of which will come the prairie grasses and thousands of cone flowers, is also beautiful. And we'll try to keep the Reed Canary grass out, and the thistles, and the buckthorn. And it will take years of burning and planting and Round-up and burning and planting to take these acres all the way back to what we imagine it was like before the farmers came.
I'll post many, many more photos at (flickr cut me off after 1MB-- I'll upload more next month...)
Here's a link to an earlier blog entry on our unsuccessful controlled burn at the end of November 2008. Click here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monastic Humor

There are certain very counter-cultural things that monks and nuns have trouble explaining to the outside world. They invariably make their way into stories or jokes. Killian McDonnell, OSB, an 84-year-old poet and monk at Saint John's Abbey, has a poem about losing "Car C." The monks and nuns have a community car system, so they "check out" a car, and sometimes they forget what car they have, let alone where they parked it. In Father Kilian's poem, he writes about parking at a large shopping mall, forgetting what the car looked like, and going down the row trying the keys in every car. Security comes to check this out, of course, and do not understand what he means when he says he is driving "Car C" and cannot tell them the make or model. When they look at his driver's license, they realize he is a monk.

In the newsletter for Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota, there was another of these stories last week. It seems a few of the brothers went by plane to a conference in California. One of the monks got stopped, however, by airport security. There was something metal in the lining of the coat. It turned out to be two .22 shells. How to explain? The monks (and the Sisters) get their clothes from a common room where donations are collected and available. The coat had clearly belonged to a North Dakota gun owner before making its way to the abbey clothing room. Eventually, too, this gentle monk was let go and proceeded to the gate.

At Saint Benedict's Monastery, clothing and other donations are distributed from "Aunt Laura's Closet." Sister Laura was quite fashionable and for a long time ran this ministry for the hundreds of Sisters. (Like all the Sisters ever mentioned in any story, the Sister speaking of her gets a sparkle in her eye-- these Sisters express their love for everyone in their community every time they talk.) One of the current novices, in her second year at the monastery, loves "shopping" at Aunt Laura's. The first year at the monastery she "gave up" Aunt Laura's for Lent. Not so this year. She found it was just a distraction, as she planned what she would get as soon as she was able to return on Easter Monday. This year, she simply tried to detach from Aunt Laura's a bit more, but continued with weekly trips to see what had arrived and pick out a garment or two. At Aunt Laura's you are encouraged to return an item for each item you take. In that way, it is like a large lending library for clothing and household goods. I only know of one Sister for whom this suggestion had to be made a requirement. I believe Aunt Laura's Closet is also where many gifts to the Sisters go. I'm wondering if it's where the two gifts/prizes I've been given/won came from-- a planter filled with bath goods and a brand new teddy bear.


Yesterday we hosted Easter for about 30 folks in Steve's family. They're pretty easy, and everyone brings food, but it's a sit-down dinner with glass plates and real silverware and so a bit of work. Everyone was very grateful. Mostly, it was fun. Steve takes care of the outdoors, including moving the rowboat up to the small pond, and bringing out the haywagon. I "hid" eggs with candy in them-- in clear sight so they would all be certain to be found. The kids had a blast. I got some video of the haywagon ride but can't figure out how to get it off my camera and edited... I'll put it up here when I figure it out. I also got some requisite spring cleaning done the day before.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Two Ducks

For the past three days these two ducks have been trying out the small pond behind our house. The water is high, as you can tell by the view of the dock below. The female duck sits somewhere, as though she is on the nest. The male duck is behind her, at a distance, I assume watching to see what the predator situation is like.

The first morning she was in the high grass along the edge of the pond, and he was floating out in the center of the pond with his beak pointed toward her.

The second morning she was out in the stubble of the field that marks the edge of the "prairie restoration," recently killed off and mowed to try to get rid of some of the weeds that have encroached. The drake was under a pine tree about 100 feet away.

The female duck sits very still, as though really nesting. I find myself watching, and then holding my breath, hoping that they'll decide this is a good place. Today is the third day, and they were nowhere to be found when I woke up. But last evening, and again this evening, they've been out circling the pond, together, and I hope that means they've chosen our pond.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


This morning was the first time this year I've woken up to birds. And there are birds everywhere-- in the field, in all the trees, on the log in the pond, turkeys roaming the wetlands, pheasants rising up from the brush. I'm so glad to hear them-- the first real break in the long, deep silence of winter. Last night I was awake at 3:30 and again thinking of and aware of the complete silence. I thought about how I'm coming to know the seasons here, and this will be my first spring. Winter is silence and movies and thinking about things.

Already Tim and Steve and Paul are moving out onto the land and into the barns. Steve works on his machinery, and has set up a welding shop in one of the hog barns where he made the railings for the stairs and the upstairs balcony. Steve is restless as he makes his transition from design work in the winter to landscape work, talking about the possibilities brought about by the purchase of a tree spade, and psyching himself up into the work. Tim has been going off to play tennis when that's possible. Soon he'll take out his motorcycle and the rig he has for his golf clubs on the back, and be off to the golf course. Paul and his friends have started playing frisbee golf again, and he's often busy in his workshop in another of the barns.

I'm transplanting a few of the plants into larger pots. Not many of them are thriving (I think I overwatered), but there will be a couple zucchini plants, a few squash plants, maybe a cucumber, and snow peas, brussel sprouts and tomatoes when the garden is ready to be planted. Whatever doesn't come up I can buy from Thomsen's Nursery, which opens for the first time next weekend.

This is my first spring in my new world. We will see what it is about as it goes along.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Flood 2

Locally, we have the Sauk River, the Mississippi River, and many lakes. There hasn't been much sandbagging to speak of, nothing like the 10 million sandbags in Fargo/Moorhead, but it's still been dramatic. There's a restaurant nearby, Anton's, that is one of those places that you hear was a speakeasy during prohibition-- perfect for running booze up and down the Sauk River. These days it has a Western theme, log cabin-like interior and exterior, booths that look like covered wagons, and things like that. It's a steak-and-walleye place. And I guess it is built into their business that they flood every few years. These days they're completely underwater, and I heard a rumor the renovation people were supposed to come yesterday-- before eight more inches of wet snow started falling.

Someone sent me a link to a video of my old neighborhood in Cold Spring. I sold my house in Frogtown Park last summer, right before we got married and I moved to the farm. Across the street is a big, beautiful, pretty new park with a pavilion which is where we had the rehearsal dinner. The pavilion and houses seem dry, but this is a lot of water. My house was the fourth in from the park, and this video shows the water coming right up to the end house. At the end it pans the street-- my house is next to the green one.

Click here for a longer video of Sauk River flooding.