Friday, November 28, 2014

I give thanks for trees

I give thanks most recently for the two aspen that fell down a couple of years ago right next to a path.  One had been stuck at a forty-five degree angle in another tree, but I managed to cut it last year so the remainder was lying parallel to the ground.  This past weekend my wife and I went to cut them up into fireplace lengths.

These were nine inches and greater in diameter.  It would be much quicker to cut them up with a chain saw than with a draw saw or a bow saw.  With reason, my wife doesn’t want me to use a chain saw without adult supervision.

First step is to put on chaps.  The chaps are meant to snarl up a chain saw if it comes in contact with my legs.  Next step is to put on a hard hat with ear muffs and a face guard.  Next step is to fill the chain saw with bar oil and 50:1 gas/oil mix.  Final step is to get it started before heading to the woods.

My chain saw is labelled Easy2Start and it sort of is.  One trick is not to yank on the starter rope but pull it slowly.  Even then it can take a number of pulls in colder weather before it really starts.  Oh yes, there are a couple of important steps before trying to start a chain saw.  One, make sure the chain guard is on.  Two, make sure the chain brake is set.

Finally, the engine keeps running!  I give the trigger a few pulls to keep it running and then turn the engine off.  What?  Turn it off?  Well, I started it by a tool shed and I will be cutting several hundred feet away.  No point in carrying a running saw either in my hands or in a toboggan.

We also put in a timberjack, lopping shears, and draw saws.  Oh, yeah, don’t forget a water bottle.  We don’t carry extra gas or oil because we’ll probably run out of energy before the chain saw runs out of gas.

Actually, it was time for a coffee break before we even filled a toboggan with one layer of rounds.  A round is a short length of a log, for our purposes around fourteen inches long.  But, oh, those rounds!  They were, dry, free of bark and decay, and just the right diameter to put in our fireplace.

After coffee, the timberjack came into play.  One tree had snapped about two feet above the ground, but not completely.  I cut it at the break, and the tree was now laying on the ground.  Not good for a chain saw.  To get the tree above ground to cut without cutting rocks or bending my back too far, I used the timberjack to raise the tree several inches of the ground.  You can see a picture of a timberjack at under the woodcutting category.

The chain saw ran out of gas just about the time I ran out of gas.  Time for lunch!

We filled up the longer toboggan with two layers of rounds and a few in the smaller toboggan with all the tools.  You can guess who got to pull the longer toboggan.  Even lightly-loaded toboggans have a mind of their own.  When the path turns, they want to go straight.  If the snow is a lot higher than the beaten path, a toboggan can tip as you try to get it back in the path.  Fortunately, the snow was only about three inches higher than the path and no mishaps occurred.

After lunch it was time to split our harvest.  Once upon a time, I split wood with a five-pound splitting maul.  But my aim became worse and worse.  First hit, smack in the middle.  Second hit, one inch too far to the left.  Third hit, one inch too far to the right.  Maybe after ten hits I would have a round split in two.

I did buy a hydraulic manual splitter some years ago.  If the rounds are long enough and cold enough, it works quite well with one hand.  There are only two problems.  One is getting it in and out of the wood shed.  I can still manage to lift it without dropping it on my feet.  The second is to remember to close the oil valve after opening it to let the rammer return.  Many have been the times I’ve wondered why the rammer isn’t splitting the wood.  Then, blink goes the proverbial light bulb and with a few twists of my wrist, the splitter works again.

After a short chocolate break,  I had all the rounds split in halves or quarters, and my wife had it stacked in the wood shed or boxed to take back to Duluth.  Probably to those who depend on wood heat daily, we just played around.  My guess is that we cut and split almost half a fireplace cord.  A fireplace cord is eight-feet long, four-feet high stack of sixteen inch pieces.  That could heat our cabin for possibly three week-ends.

Then it was back to Duluth, light a fire in the fireplace, drink wine, and read newspapers on our iPads.  But we had no undraped window to look out at living trees.

You can find more of Mel’s whimsy at

This was published in the Reader Weekly of Duluth, 2014-11-27 at

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

VA: problem is not the government

Many have been raising complaints about service at many Veterans Administration centers, and many of those blame President Obama and his administration.  But what critics overlook is that they got what they wanted: a smaller government.

How is there a smaller government?  By outsourcing management to private companies.  In the case of the Veteran Affairs Clinic in Hibbing, Minnesota, it is managed by Cincinnati-based Sterling Medical Associates.  See “Elected leaders meet with Hibbing VA workers over scheduling concerns”.

According to many of these same critics the purpose of a company is to generate profits.  In other words, good service is secondary.  Some companies do provide good service as a means of increasing profits.  Too many others will short-change good service if it means costs are cut and profits raised.

The sole purpose of government is to provide service.  Sure, this gets side-tracked too, but it is far easier to bring that leviathan back to its purpose than it is to get profit-driven companies to put service first.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I like trees, dead or alive

For as long as I can remember, I have been near trees or wood products.  If trees were not on the block I lived, there were some just a minute or two away.  Probably every building I lived in was wood framed, and each had wood door and window frames.  And of course I’ve had access to books, magazines, and newspapers everywhere.

When we lived in Plymouth outside Minneapolis, we planted a small variety of trees in addition to those left on the lot when our house was built.  Over the twenty-two years we lived there, we cut some of them down and planted new ones.  We cut trees down because they became diseased or otherwise threatened to fall down.  We cut trees down because we wanted to plant something else there.

Two of the saddest removals were of a very large box elder and a clump of small box elders. 

We had the large box elder taken down because it threatened to drop large limbs on our roof.  Besides our visual loss, it might have been the loss of a home to a three-legged squirrel whom we saw raise several families.

I forgot why I cut down the smaller clump.  When I cut down the first, a pair of crows were trying to land where the tree had been.  “Where’s our nest?  It used to be here.”

When we bought our property in Brimson, we also bought thousands of trees; mostly aspen and balsam fir and way too much alder.  We also have a section of black spruce swamp, a small stand of red pine planted by a former neighbor, and tamarack.  The first year we saw many large dead or dying birch; we thought that was the end of birch.

A few years before we bought the property, local loggers had clear-cut a large swath of aspen on the Federal land behind us and a section of the property.  The aspen coming up were about ten-feet tall and an inch or two in diameter.

The DNR forester who gave us a stewardship plan told us that if we want moose, we should clear-cut.  Moose like to browse on young aspen.  We did see some moose tracks the first few years but haven’t seen anymore for a long time.  Much of the aspen is five inches or more in diameter.  Moose may still be in the area; a neighbor is a shed hunter and a few years ago found three interlocked horns.

Did you know that aspen is one of the largest organisms in the world?  Aspen grows from an interlocking root system.  I didn't find a reference to the largest in Minnesota, but Pando in Utah is considered the largest.  It covers over 100 acres, weighs over thirteen million pounds, has over 40,000 stems, and is considered to be over 80,000 years old.  If a single stem (trunk) dies, another will replace it from the root system.

Clear-cutting aspen is like giving it a bad cold.  If you treat the cold, it will take seven “days” to heal; otherwise it will take a “week”.

Most of our firewood is aspen, but we don’t even have to cut it down.  Enough aspen three-inch in diameter and larger breaks from wind that we only need to cut it up before it rots.  Even then, I can’t keep up with clearing it.

Our preferred firewood is birch, but we have to wait a few years for cut birch to dry out.  My rule of “thumbs” is that if I can’t touch my thumbs together as I wrap my hands around the trunk then it is a firewood candidate.  Ah, yes!  I didn’t tell you that birch is another “weed”.  Some is growing surrounded by other trees, but most is growing along the edge of paths.  Some is also growing from old stumps.  And some I have transplanted from the utility right-of-way before the periodic brush cutting.

Another welcome “volunteer” is red maple.  We planted some sugar maple in our cabin yard and elsewhere.  Some sugar maple did well; some never grew over a foot.  However, in the same area we planted sugar maple, red maple has come up without any help from us.  We also have a stand of red maple along the back line that is doing well.  It would do even better if I cut all the alder that is growing among the maples.

Alder, ah! There is a “noxious” weed if there ever was one.  Alder grows in clumps that go every which way.  Some will go just above the ground for six feet or more and then shoot right across a path at eye level.  We cut down what we can, but we don’t work hard enough to keep paths open.  We did find a tip that household bleach can kill the stump.  We have only tried it on a few stumps.  All I can say is that the stumps went from orange to white.

At our Duluth house we went from six or more trees to one, and that one is a replacement for one that was getting damaged by heavy snows.  Most of the trees we took down were where we wanted to build a new garage or in the way of power or telephone lines.  The best tree to take out was an American elm right next to the house.  Squirrels used it to get to a vent.  No elm, no squirrels in the wall.

Mel would have rather written this looking at hundreds of trees than a garage and other houses.

This was published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-11-20 at

Monday, November 17, 2014

Advice for the Democrats

Kevin Baker wrote an interesting opinion for the New York Times: “Delusions of the Democrats” subtitled “Demographics will not save them”.

He asserts that more female voters and more non-white voters will not help the Democrats in future election.  He asserts that past successes were built on bottom-up ideas rather than top-down pronouncements.

My own take on the Democrats is that they have too many who focus on identity politics and not enough on issues that affect larger groups of people.  Which is a larger group?  Gay marriage proponents or people looking for good jobs?

His closing remark sums it up:

“Invite us to dream a little. You don’t build an enduring coalition out of who Americans are. You do it out of what we can be.”

Friday, November 14, 2014

We the People Lost; They the Corporations Won

The election results are in and I am very disappointed.  Not in who won and who lost, but in how few bothered to even vote.  Those who didn’t vote gave the election away to those who were determined to vote.  And many of those who didn’t vote, if they had voted, might have flipped the results the other way.  This is probably true of both those who normally favor Democrats and of those who normally favor Republicans.

Too many claim they don’t like to choose the lesser of two evils.  Well, guess what?  If you don’t choose the lesser of two evils you might get the “worser” of two evils.

Many in Duluth are proud that they had one of the highest turnouts in the country at a bit less than 60 percent.  I think it is not something to be proud of because a bit more than 40 percent of registered voters didn’t even bother to show up.

Who makes up these no-shows?  Are they people that don’t even care about politics?  Are they people who have other priorities, like Dick Cheney?  Are they people who don’t think their vote counts?  Are they people who don’t think their candidates have a chance?  To those who think their vote doesn’t count – of course it doesn’t, you didn’t cast it.  To those who think their candidates don’t have a chance – of course they don’t have a chance, you didn’t vote for them.

I hope that those who did win have a bit of humility by realizing that most registered voters didn’t support them.  Most registered voters didn’t support them?  Well if 40 percent didn’t show up and a candidate received 60 percent of the vote of those who did, then only 36 percent of the registered voters supported them.  Hey, that’s a lot better than Ronald Reagan’s “landslide” with the support of less than 30 percent of the registered voters.

Let’s look at two races familiar to many in Duluth – 8th District for the U.S. House and 7A for the Minnesota House.

Let’s take the closer race first - 8th District with Stewart Mills, Rick Nolan, and Skip Sandman.  Only 266,081 of the 389,425 registered voters showed up.  Less than four thousand votes separated Mills and Nolan.  Nolan had a plurality of 48.51 percent vs. Mills’ 47.11 percent.  Nolan did not win a majority of the votes cast.  But if we look at the candidates’ support among registered voters, the support is even less.  Nolan received the support of about 33 percent of the registered voters and Mills was close behind with a bit more than 32 percent of the voters.

Next let’s look at the more lop-sided race – District 7A with Becky Hall, Jennifer Schultz, and Kris Osbakken.  Less than 16 thousand of the over 23 thousand registered voters showed up.  Schultz had 62.1 percent vs. Hall’s 33.3 percent.  But Schultz did not have the votes of a majority of registered voters; less than 41 percent of the registered voters cast a vote for her.

You can find the data I used at on the Minnesota Secretary of State’s pages at

I didn’t go through all the Minnesota races, but I think you’ll find this lack of majority support in most, if not all races, in Minnesota and throughout the country.  For example, Sen. Al Franken may have had a clear majority of the votes cast, but he received the support of less than a third of the registered voters.

It is easy to blame corporate interests for the big gains by the Republicans across the country, especially when the New York Times has headlines like “Business Leaders Cautiously Expect G.O.P. Win to Open Some Doors” (2014-11-05).  Given the statements by some Republicans, one could expect a floodgate of legislation that favors corporations over the environment and public health.  It is easy to blame the Supreme Court for letting corporations have all the rights of people that led to huge amounts of money spent on attack ads.  It is easy to blame the Koch brothers for manipulating legislation and public opinion to their benefit.

It is hard to remember that this has been going on in politics for over two centuries. 

Newspapers in the early Nineteenth century often were libelous in their attacks on politicians they didn’t favor.  Corporations lobbied for their pet projects.  Remember “Honest Abe” was a railroad lawyer and, as President, even called for doubling the subsidy for building a transcontinental railroad, a corporate give-away if there ever was one.

For over 100 years the turnout of the voting age population has been “dismal” in presidential elections.  The high was 73.2 percent in 1900, the low was 48.9 percent in 1924, and average since 1900 have been 57.0 percent.  Interestingly, Bush I and Bush II had 50.3 percent turnout, Bush II did better in his second election with 55.7 percent turnout.  Then Obama did better and better: 57.1 percent and 59.3 percent turnout.  Hope does increase turnout.

Will the turnout continue to climb in 2016?  It depends on you.

Mel voted and hopes you did, too.

This article was published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-11-13 and can be found at

Monday, November 10, 2014

My great influence as a writer

Every so often, somebody tells me they enjoy my columns in the Reader Weekly of Duluth but few write a letter to the editor about my columns.

I have people all over the word read my blog entries, but I suspect many of them are only occasional readers or even reverse spammers.

Well, I just had the wet pail of reality dumped on my head.

Only three people have read “Be Counted!  We the People Are Counting on You”.  Even posting a link to it in a comment to a turnout article in the New York Times didn’t help.  In fact, only one person recommended my comment.

On the other hand, seven people have read “Consideration for Garlic Lovers”.

Oh, well!  I guess three readers is better than the none I would have had if I had left the ideas in my head.

First snow and I wimped out

We were going to go to the fitness center by bus this morning, but we kept having one delay after another.  When we finally were ready we decided to drive instead.  Because of the snow we decided to take the SUV which has more aggressive winter tires.

When I was on the main street approaching a stop sign, I put on the brakes well in advance.  Da-da-da went the ABS.  I stopped without entering the intersection.  I drove down a hill and up a hill keeping my speed at about 20mph.  Nobody caught up to me.

When I got to the next stop sign, I wondered about continuing.  When I got to the third stop sign two blocks before a major downhill, I decided discretion was the better part of valor.  I turned around and headed back home.

When I got to the last stop sign near our house, I approached it carefully because I knew downhill traffic would be coming to my left.  Sure enough, a driver couldn’t stop and went right on through the intersection.  If I hadn’t waited, we would have been T-boned!

As we approached our final turn I had a tailgater!  Plus an illegally parked car on the side street was across the street from a legally parked car, a street that is barely three-cars wide.

The skid control did go into action before I went between them, but I was going straight as I passed them.

Finally, we pulled into our garage and hunkered down with some coffee.

We do think we’ll walk out to the corner restaurant for lunch, crossing the street only when we see no cars coming.

So you wanna a be a writer!

I intended to write about writing this week, but before I even started I looked for an old column that I wrote.  It was in January 2005 and I really don’t have much new advice. I have cut some to fit in my usual 900 or so words; and I have updated a few paragraphs.

If you want to be a writer, you have to write.  If you don’t write, then being a writer will only remain a dream.  That is what I told myself over fifteen years ago.  Then I submitted my “Bear Stories” to the Northland Reader, a month or so later “Tech Staff Shortage”, then “Berlin Wall”, and before I knew it I was writing for almost every bi-weekly issue.  When the Northland Reader went weekly as the Reader Weekly, I soon started writing weekly.  Every so often the muse left me and I didn’t submit a column, but now it is hard not to write a column.

One way to start writing more is to keep a journal or a notebook, not necessarily a “What did I do today” but a collection of your ideas, no matter how fragmentary.  I have a small collection of hard-back blank books in which I jotted ideas about what I did or felt or saw for years.  One of these years I might transcribe them to my computer

You can also use little spiral bound notebooks that fit in pocket or purse.  Don’t forget to carry a pen or pencil.  Or you can use scraps of paper.  The problem with scraps of paper is that they pile up and don’t get organized.  It is fun to unbury them and read what you wrote a month or a year ago.  I posted a few of these on my blog last week. Now you can put your ideas in your smart phone or tablet, but just like the scraps of paper, you may bury them among all your other info.

The really best place to start serious writing, that is writing that other people read, is to write letters or emails to your friends and relatives.  Before putting your letter in an envelope or clicking the send button, reread what you wrote.  Does it give information clearly, does it convey your mood, and does it encourage a response from your reader?

Write in sentences and paragraphs. Each sentence should give a single idea, and a paragraph should give a set of related ideas.  I have a relative who sent emails as one big run-on paragraph; we found his messages very hard to read because we couldn’t focus on his thoughts.

Another good place to do serious writing is letters to the editor.  Why not write a letter to the Reader Weekly about this column?  Or to the News Tribune or the Star Tribune about what you think on an issue.  I must be getting stale because my letters are not published as frequently as a few years ago.  I try to follow the TUT principle; that is, a letter to the editor should be Timely, Unique, and Terse.  If you wait two or three weeks to write, if you write a letter similar to all the others, and you ramble on like this column, you probably won’t get published.  But if you email your letter as soon as you read an article, if you state an idea that is not given in the article, and you write in sentences and paragraphs and keep it to the size the newspaper wants, you greatly increase your chances of having your letter published.

The best basis for writing is lots of reading.  Read newspapers, magazines, and books. Unless you want to write about TV, turn it off and read instead.  Read novels, biographies, and histories.  Read books about writers.  One I particularly enjoyed is “It’s Been a Good Life” about Isaac Asimov.  If you read it you will sense the joy of expressing your thoughts to others.

Every good writer has an editor.  Pick up any book and read the acknowledgments; not only have many people contributed with ideas, but others have read the book and given the author comments, not only the publisher’s editor, but friends and colleagues. Before you dash off that important letter to the editor, ask someone else to read it.  You might be surprised at what familiarity with your letter lets you overlook.  My wife often reads these columns before I email them.  Although I complain that she can be too picky, very often she finds either a blatant error or suggests a better phrasing.  She’s out of town this November 2014 weekend, and so any mistakes are wholly my fault.

If you would like to meet and talk with other writers, contact Lake Superior Writers – or 1301 Rice Lake Road, Suite 129, Duluth MN 55811.

Finally, what do you do about the dreaded writer’s block?  Generally, just go do something else for a while and try again later.  The humor writer James Thurber discussed this at a party with other writers.  One said he typed “The” in his typewriter and then words started coming.  Thurber tried it the next time he had writer’s block. He typed “The” and just stared at it.  After awhile he typed “hell with it” and went back to bed.

Or you rewrite an old article:)

This article was published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-11-06 and can be found at