Saturday, February 11, 2023

Wi-Fi Trail Cameras: a Window into My Rural Land

Photographs are memories, and I have many fine photos of my rural thirty-five acres of Midwest land that remind me of the good times that my wife and I have enjoyed on our land. Those photos are of times past, though; they are, indeed, memories of past experiences. Sometimes, though, when I'm at home thirty-nine miles distant from our land, the dawn rises bright and clean and full of promise. The air is still and the sky is turning from starry night to shades of blue, the horizon amber and orange with the rising sun. That's when I think, I wonder what's going on with our land? What's it like out there? What we've discovered is that although our trail camera with wi-fi linkage to our cellphone is not a live-streaming video, our Verizon-linked trail cam can provide us with a virtually real-time visual link to our land--when an animal happens to wander into the camera's motion-capture space. 

At this time, our trail camera is a Spartan GoCam M 4G/LTE which we have connected to an app on my cellphone. It's always a joy when I hear that little chime notification that a photo has downloaded from our land. Originally we placed the camera down in our bottomland near the creek, where our neighbor's cattle sometimes wriggle through gaps in the fence to gain access to "the other side of the fence," where, or course, the grass is greener! When winter arrived, we moved the camera up to top of our land near the driveway entrance. The wi-fi reception is better there, and also we had scheduled some construction work on the bottomland and wanted to get the camera out of the way. We're planning on buying a second camera soon so that we can have one camera up near our living area and one down by the creek. Spartan does manufacture a camera that can take photos or live video on command so that we wouldn't have to be dependent on an animal wandering by to receive a video; however, that camera is twice the price of the one we purchased.

A bottomland buck
A coyote?
About half of the photos we receive are infra-red photos of animals out and about at night. The quality of these photos usually is not as good, especially if the animals are more distant. We have a lot of photos of what, after scrutiny, we feel are raccoons, and a few photos of what we think are coyotes or foxes. Since our main impetus for setting up the camera was for managing cattle that escape our neighbor's farmland, we will eventually have perhaps three or four total cameras to monitor the weak spots in the fence--which are mostly where the fence crosses the creek. Spotting wildlife will be an enjoyable "extra" to our land management plan.

My wife and I enjoy our little "window" trail cam app that connects us to our land when we aren't physically there. I find myself not only checking out the deer or raccoon in the photo but also just looking at the land, especially with the daytime photographs. Is there snow on the ground . . . or frost? I imagine the silence, the sense of space, the smell of rain and wet leaves. Eventually we may be able to have one "roving" camera that we will place in diverse, wilder parts of our land, moving the camera around to see what life is like in the more inaccessible parts of our property. I think this technological tool (and toy!) will not only come in handy in the future but will also provide us with a lot of pleasure. Whether it's a steer ambling across the trail cam's target zone, or a wild, strutting tom turkey, whenever that little chime alerts us to a new photo downloaded to our phone, we'll be sure to eagerly open to the Spartan app and see what nature has brought our way.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

I Am a Lotto Loser

While driving home from our rural land and listening to NPR on the radio, I heard that there was a new lotto in town with a pay-out of 1.4 billion dollars. Well, I hadn't tried my luck for a few years, so I decided that it was time to once again splurge and dream the impossible dream. After all, the radio told me that the odds were only somewhere over one trillion to one!

Arriving home, I mentioned that I was feeling lotto-lucky to my wife, and she said that she'd been talking to her daughter about buying some tickets also. We decided that Hy-Vee was an auspicious location to pull God's finger, so I bellied up to the counter and said, "We want to win the 1.4 billion lotto ticket! How do we do this?" I know that sounds like I had no clue, but I lowered my voice when saying it so that I'd sound like Orson Wells or Morgan Freeman. We bought ten Mega Millions tickets for a total of twenty dollars. "Now, I don't buy these things to lose," I told the cashier, "so these had better be lucky!" She just chuckled to herself, amused by my comment--at least, I think it was a happy chuckle and not an evil cackle. . . .

For the next thirty-six hours my wife and I engaged in scintillating conversation, planning how we'd spend our seven hundred million in cash after taxes. We'd live off the fat o' the land. We'd give money to our children so that we'd never have to worry again about their cars needing tires or about leaky water heaters or the dog that chewed a hole in the sofa. Trust funds for the grandkids were a given; a charity to help single mothers was a heartwarming idea, and a gift to the local university would be a great way to share the love. 

We had asked when we purchased our ten "Megaplier" numbers what was the procedure for verifying our win. The online dot com was the answer. Therefore, the morning after the ten o'clock PM drawing, I fired up my computer, typed in the URL, and checked for my winnings. Of course, the title of this article does spoil the climax for any lotto optimists out there. We hadn't won. Sad emoji :(.

I wonder, though, if perhaps even though I hadn't won big . . . perhaps I had lost big! I mean, if winning big is a rarity, then isn't it possible to lose big, too? What prompts me to say this is my experience playing solitaire on my phone app. Sometimes I lose in such a spectacular fashion that I ask myself, "What are the chances of that happening?" It goes like this: The solitaire app loads up my game. The face-up cards have no moves. I flip through the stack, and not a single move is available, not a one. I have lost the game without being able to move a single card. Now, that has to be unusual, at least it is from my experience! I didn't just lose the game; I epically lost the game!

The lotto ticket looks like a receipt from a cash register, about three inches wide, printed black on white paper with a side strip in red declaring "IOWA LOTTERY." We bought ten number sequences, labeled A-J, five numbers and then the Mega Ball number. I'm not sure if numbers range from 00 to 99 or from 01-99. I checked the winning number posted online with our ten series of numbers and discovered . . . of the sixty numbers (10 sequences) not a single winning number was on our stub. To win, I would have had to have six winning numbers sequenced in the winning order. I didn't have a single winning number on the stub, much less in the proper sequence! It's like I go catfishing with a friend and use axle grease for bait. No bites.

Have I learned my lesson? Of course not! Am I going to buy another ticket soon? Of course not! And if you're interested, I searched my articles and found this title from 2013: "I Take a Gamble . . . and Lose." What I've discovered about myself is this: I rarely lose when I gamble . . . because I rarely gamble. However, sometime in the distant future when I try my lotto luck again, I really would like to win. Will it happen? Well, I'm not going to bet the farm on it, that's for sure!

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Monday, January 2, 2023

A New Year on the Land

230-year-old White Oak
The year ends and a new one begins. Whether this is one process or two is a matter of perspective, a matter of awareness, the ultimate arbiter of reality. Yes, 2022 ends; yes, 2023 begins; and, yes, this moment is, without beginning or ending.

I walked our land today with my wife Sandy. We cleared a spot near our front gates for a trail camera, removing brush and mowing so that winds wouldn't whip the growth and trip the camera. Then we strolled a loop through our thirty-five acres, down to the bottomland and creek, then back up the ridge to our majestic white oaks and a trek skirting the fenceline back to the camping area. Because of the thaw, we stepped carefully to avoid stripping topsoil and moss from the steepest parts of the trail, the unseasonable melt creating mud rather than frozen soil. Not quite six months have passed since we have purchased this land, and in the tail end of 2022, we have accomplished one objective and begun what will be a continuing maintenance procedure of our land.

One clear accomplishment has been that our "infrastructure" has been upgraded: gravel for the road to the camping area, electricity, water, and sewage storage. For the new year we will be able to camp on our land and not have to leave with our 16-foot Airstream Basecamp once a week for water or to drain the camper's blackwater tank; we will be able to use our water spigot and drain our camper's blackwater (sewage and graywater) into our sewage storage tank, which will be pumped out once a year. In addition to upgrading infrastructure, we've also bought basic equipment to accomplish quite a bit of the basic upkeep for the land--a shed, mower, and UTV, along with some power tools. Next year we hope to build a small shower/toilet building that will be connected to the sewer holding tank and electric and water lines. The shower house will allow us to more easily have guests and also, hopefully, keep ourselves from being bitten too much by chiggers. We'll have our own private campground, or to put it another way, we'll be able to use our small travel trailer as a "cabin" as we stay on the land.

The "continuing maintenance" that we've begun has to do with our stewardship of the land. On-going procedures for regenerating or "re-wilding" the land include removing invasive multiflora rose, clearing the creek of downed trees to minimize erosion, maintaining fences (to keep the neighbor's cattle out), and thinning and nurturing tree and native plant growth. These procedures have begun in large part by hiring professional help for removal and planting grasses. We also plan to research, including hopefully advice from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, to determine what native plants to introduce and how we can include plants that provide food for wildlife. Right now, our land is mostly a bedding area for wildlife without a lot of plants available that provide food. Once we introduce more food plants, we should see a greater variety of wildlife. So far in 2022, we cleared much of our bottomland of brush and multiflora and also cleared some of our higher land, one ridge line also cleared. This next spring we'll have these areas planted to encourage grasses rather than multiflora and poison ivy.

We hope to eventually create a haven not just for ourselves but also for the local wildlife. We're not adverse to planting some domesticated crop areas, "food plot," for the wildlife. We've been told that turnip greens are good for deer and winter wheat for wild turkeys. We have this frozen winter season to research options. We'd like to emphasize planting native plants as much as possible, such as native fruit and nut trees. We already have hickory and walnut on the land, and we know of some native peach and pear options that might be possible to establish with some care and protection. Wildflowers are a consideration, but we've been told that they are difficult to establish. 

Our walk today reinforced our need to focus on minimizing erosion. This last week of above-freezing temperatures created a fragility for the soil. We didn't drive our UTV off the gravel, and even while walking we had to be careful with the soil. One major discussion with the DNR will be on soil conservation. Spring will be the most dangerous season for soil erosion when the creek runs high and muddy. We hope to eventually to drive on the land only for maintenance or construction; the rest of our interaction will be hiking. A basic consideration for creating a sanctuary for ourselves and local wildlife is maintenance of the soil. We can't very well establish a sanctuary without land! Soil, grasses, trees, and animals (and ourselves) to share the land.

After six months of interacting with this bit of our planet, our most significant acquaintances have been the huge white oaks on the land, five of which are between 175 and 250 years old. They are teaching me to experience time on a larger scale--an afternoon, a day, a season? Measuring by eras is even a narrow perspective. Perhaps just an awareness of the eternal now is the real lesson that these living giants can teach us, that it's possible to allow the flux of the world to swirl around us if we root ourselves in the moment. I've noticed that when I'm on our land, silence seems more three dimensional, deeper. Silence within me expands, extending beyond my body; and I feel the silence outside enfolding me, including me within the stillness between earth and sky. 

Our thirty-five acres remind me that once there were no boundaries, no fences, no land titles. Boundaries are imposed by our minds, not by geography. A shore, a creek bed, a ridge, a valley--these are not beginnings and endings but are just part of the wholeness, a landscape of, as poet Gary Snyder wrote, "mountains and rivers without end." Winds swirl around our Mother Oak and around me; rooted in the earth, we abide. Joy this year and forever to the wind, the seasons, rain and snow, sun and shadow. I abide and lift my arms to the sky.

For all articles about our land, follow this link: Landowner.

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Monday, December 12, 2022

A Neighborhood Buck in a Bit of Trouble

Trail camera night photo
My wife and I own our thirty-five acres of woodland and bottom land--we've got the title and it's all legal. However, for most of our neighbors, that title means nothing, neighbors we occasionally see but most often only see hints at their presence. Whether is a glimpse of a whitetail deer's tail as it leaps a barbed wire fence, the snakelike trace of a muskrat's tail in mud, or the tiny, almost-human print of a raccoon's paws at the creek side, we share our land with the animals that "possess" it as much if not more than we do. These neighbors aren't limited by property lines or signs proclaiming no trespassing or hunting. Their territory is determined by creek and ridge and hollow, by sunlight and acorn drop and seed set. Our most common neighbors are "wild" animals, although their behavior often is more predictable and reasonable than that of many humans. 

Purchasing a trail camera that is connected to our phone plan has provided us a much better awareness of the animals that live on our land. The photos sent to us via our cellphone plan do give us a real-time glimpse into wild animal activity even though we have bought and mounted the cam primarily to determine if any cattle have escaped our neighbor's pasture. Our joke has been one steer saying to the other, "Why you want to escape and get over on their land? Our farmer's been treating us right, feeding us regularly. Why, he's even been fattening us up lately!" We haven't digitally captured any strays yet, but we have managed to catch images of a number of deer, a raccoon, a fox, and a heron with the trail camera, although most images are infrared taken at night. 

Sometimes the image of an entire deer has been captured, and sometimes only a portion of the deer--the head of a spike buck, an ear, the south end of a doe heading north. Once a photo displayed no deer at all, only a landscape with some brush to the fore, and then we realized that the "brush" were the antler tines of a buck passing close to the camera. That was when we realized we had a good-sized buck that regularly spent time on our land. We became used to seeing images of the buck crossing our bottom land down by the creek. He became our most photographed citizen, with both black-and-white nighttime images and colorful daytime portraits. 

Fall had arrived and deer had begun moving more, mating season and hunting season causing a stir, and that's the time when our neighborhood buck got himself into a bit of trouble. I'd been down at our bottom land along the creek with our tree guy, working on a plan to both clean up the creek of deadfall and to determine the run of a barbed wire fence to create a north pasture area. We walked the creek and checked out the places where fence crossed the creek, the weakest spots and most likely places for cattle to breach the fence. We made our plan, and I walked the man up the hill to his truck. 

Heading back down the easement that skirts the gravel road a half hour later, the scene of meadow, creek, and bridge had altered; adding to the bucolic peace was our buck, he head stuck through the barbed wire fence and his antlers firmly trapping him between the strands. Well, there go my plans for the afternoon, I thought, realizing that I needed to rescue the animal. 

Buck caught in barbed wire
I approached the buck and saw that it probably was the mature animal that our trail cam had photographed. Up close, my first impression of the animal was how solid and muscular its neck, chest, and shoulders were. Its neck was faintly colored with a red streak of blood where it had fought the wire. As I approached, the buck began to fight the wire, attempting to escape, jerking its head from side to side as it tried to back away from the fence, the wire bowing and the steel fence post loosening in the ground. I stopped, realizing the animal was increasing its injury, and as a new landowner realizing this animal was strong enough to destroy the fence. 

I back away and considered what to do. Deciding first to talk to my neighbor who I knew was a hunter, I jumped into my UTV and jammed to his house, following the gravel road across the bridge. He wasn't home, though. Next I tried to call the local state Department of Natural Resources but received no reply. Deciding that the sheriff's office was my last resort, I called, and the dispatcher took my information but wasn't too enthused. Texting a message and photo to my wife, she contacted our neighbor--yes, the one who had been so negative to me the first time we met--and then texted me back that our neighbor was on his way, a quick message considering that the communication trail had been from me to my wife to the neighboring farmer's wife to the farmer himself. No direct link to Mr. Curmudgeon.

I arrived from camp back down the hill to the trapped buck to find my neighbor approaching the animal, which jerked at the fence mightily until my neighbor laid his hands on the animal, which then froze, not moving. Then with some jerking and pulling, the buck was free. As I walked down the hill toward man and deer, I saw that the buck wasn't moving but was just standing by the fence, still imagining that it was entwined in the barbed wire, I suppose. My neighbor shooed at it, and then it backed off and leapt down the creek bank and crossed beneath the bridge, following the stream bed to freedom. I saw that my neighbor had some scratches on the back of one hand--more blood given to the land.

This was my chance to thank my neighbor, who was the hero in this little adventure. After shaking his hand and providing thanks, he said, "I've been doing this for fifty years. It may seem heartless for you to hear, but I do it as much to save the fence as the animal." I replied that I understood, having seen how the buck had almost jerked a fence post loose when I had first approached the trapped animal.

I felt glad that the buck had been saved--and the fence--and that an opportunity had been provided for my neighbor and me to have one more interaction that was positive overall. Trust can be gained bit by bit over time, with patience and understanding. That's my hope, at least. 

"I tried DNR first and then the sheriff's office," I said. "A deputy come out to help?" he asked. When I replied in the negative, he just chuckled. "Yeah, they didn't sound like they were coming with sirens screaming," I said. It was, after all, deer season, and the DNR in Iowa plans for between a hundred and a hundred twenty thousand deer to be harvested each year. A deer stuck in a fence? That's probably right up there with someone calling in saying there have been some old tires dumped along the road.

We're not at the end of the story, though. As my neighbor was driving off in his UTV, he stopped and gestured me over, saying that the buck was stuck in a thicket of multiflora across the road. These wild roses thickets can be brutal, and evidently the buck after his barbed wire experience psyched himself into thinking the thorns of the multiflora were barbed wire. My neighbor asked if we should shoo the buck out of the thorn patch.

Early photo of me setting up the trail cam
"He can get out of that," I said. "It's not like the barbed wire." I was thinking that this is a big buck during rutting season, and that now there was no barbed wire fence between us if it decided to get aggressive. My neighbor approached the buck again, though, and before he got close, it moved out of the multiflora and away, down the creek. We chatted for a bit while on the road at the bridge, the mailman stopped and chatted for a bit with us, and then we all went on our way. 

Later I phoned my wife, and she said that the farmer's wife had texted reassurance, that everything would be okay. She was right! We had all cooperated in a neighborly way, and the buck had escaped the danger of the barbed wire just in time to deal with the opening of the shotgun segment of deer hunting season. I wonder now, a couple of weeks later as I write this narrative, how that buck has fared. He may be free, he may be venison for some hunter, food for the table, but at least he isn't stuck in that barbed wire fence, suffering his way toward a cruel death. We do what we can and let the wide ways of the world roll on. It's a good world, in part because of good intentions and unexpected heroes, some of whom arrive in a muddy UTV, wearing blue denim and Carhartt canvas. Actions speak more loudly than words.

Note: This is one of a series of articles written about the thirty-five acres of land my wife and I own in southeast Iowa. To read all the articles, go to the label link aggregate provided here: Landowner.  

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Monday, November 21, 2022

Snow Falls and the World Changes

We awake to a cold, clean silence, a remembrance that if silence could have a color, it would be white crystals of snow drifting their serene journey to the earth. This pristine white, this cold, clean silence was our first snowfall on the thirty-five acres my wife and I now own, and we celebrated the morning with a walk cradled in quiet contemplation of the beauty surrounding us. The trees were draped with snow which accumulated and fell in feathery clumps--one down my neck, providing an early-morning wake-up! Our footprints painted the canvas of the snow as side by side Sandy and I walked the familiar yet newly-created trails across ridges and down hills to the bottom land. 

Ours were the only tracks on the land, the animals we shared the land with bedded down. No squirrels chattered at us, hiding behind the gray, shaggy bark of hickory trees. No ground hogs lumbered across the gravel to the safety of brush across the drive. We had evidence in our Airstream Basecamp travel trailer that a mouse had moved in, and Sandy, while sipping her morning tea, had even seen the little critter moving around behind a smoked plastic cabinet door in the kitchen area. It was a quiet morning, though, and would be a quiet day, the insulating blanket of snow absorbing and muffling sound until it slowly melted as the morning advanced to afternoon.

That evening we sat outside beside our campfire, enjoying the crackling of the fire that accentuated the silence of the evening. It was then that we shared a moment on the land with a creature other than ourselves--and that wild citizen of the woods turned out to be a spotted white and gray domestic cat, some neighbor's pet ranging wide and making its way to us. We called to the cat but it would not approach, staying tucked safely and half-hidden at the base of a tree about thirty yards away. Sandy stood and approached the cat, calling reassuringly, but the cat, although curious, was also cautious and slid away into the darkness. Perhaps it will be more trusting with its next visit.

Wilderness writers have described the "cathedral of the forest," the forest as a place to awaken the spirit or to enliven the spirit on the level of the senses. The bare limbs of trees or the umber of oak still retaining fall's russet splendor; all the shades of autumn's fallen leaves that carpet the forest floor; the rich smell of the moist earth; the sharp, cold breath of wind as it whispers across the crowns of the trees; the swaying of limbs and the hollow, sodden sound of clumps of snow falling from sun-warmed branches--to be a part of this morning, this first snowfall--to be a part of this world rather than a stranger who intrudes--this means all the world to me. It puts me in my place, where I feel at home, reassured by the continuity and continual rebirth of existence. There is no ending that there is a beginning, no heartbeat without the silence between. The unique beauty of a snowflake drifts the silent sky and falls upon a tree branch. I see that beauty, a frozen moment in time, and become it. The world is still, the sun shines, and for a timeless moment I am wondrously at ease, fulfilled to simply be.

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