Dugald night skyEvery summer, debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet enters the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up, producing the Perseid meteor shower. Eager to see some shooting stars (which are not stars at all), Amy and I headed out to Dugald and the relatively clear air on the farm. We braved the mosquitoes until the wee hours, saw several meteors (peak activity is usually just before dawn, but we had things to accomplish the following day and didn’t stay up that late) and failed to capture any of them on camera (mostly due to very long image processing times for long exposures). In the picture to your left, you may be able to make out the constellations Cassiopeia in the top right, and Perseus just below it. The cookies pictured below are unrelated to meteor showers, and were baked to send to Amy’s grandparents. For those unfamiliar with imperial cookies, they consist of two sugar cookies stuck together with raspberry jam, iced with almond-flavoured icing and finished with a piece of glace cherry (very similar to Bakewell tarts, fr British readers).

Imperial cookies (1)Imperial cookies (2)

Tinkertown bumper carsOn the outskirts of Winnipeg, utterly inaccessible by public transport, is a child-specific theme park called Tinkertown – a world of pure imagination pint-sized rides and areas with maximum height restrictions. Amy and I had a day off, and decided to take Kid #3 and Kid #4 out there to give Rita and Duane some peace and quiet give them a change of scenery and see how they liked the activities. Once the initial terror (of temporary separation from the adults and the entire concept of a “ride”) had subsided, they were happy to explore a new play structure and peer from the Ferris wheel (which was actually more terrifying for me and Amy). Rita joined us later in the day, cueing a second round of their favourite attractions and a lift home for dinner.

Tinkertown Ferris wheelTinkertown train

Dugald showerTeenage Kiska

Minneapolis MobileAfter much preparation and seed-mixing, spring planting was over in the short space of a few (long) days and fingers were crossed for good weather (subsequent weather: torrential rain). Kiska and the kids have been growing (physically and developmentally) in leaps and bounds, and there have been some new additions to the animals in the form of turkey and chicken chicks. The idea is that they will form self-sustaining flocks that can be used for eggs and meat – kid #3, as usual, has some thought on foodstuffs:

We don’t chew on people, but we do chew on drinks. And food. But we don’t chew on cups.

There also appears to be some confusion about the difference between food and colour:

Kid #3: The bowl is white! And the spoon is white too.
Me: The spoon is silver.
Kid #3: Silver? Or spinach?

Post-cultivationCo-Op disker (1)

Co-Op disker (2)Evening planting

Sheridan play structure (2)After several weeks of planning and work, we finally have the front yard set up more or less the way we want it. First and foremost, the whole area is fenced in with some part-recycled chain-link fencing that was mostly assembled while I was out taking soil samples last week. Duane and I finished it off a few days ago, meaning that the kids and Kiska can run about there without getting into too much trouble (though kid #4 still prefers to experiment with the front deck door). It turns out that Kiska loves playing with the little Manitoba Hydro flags that were put down when the gas line was marked out, and most of them are already destroyed. I intend to put a trowel or similar implement on permanent standby there for poop-flinging (the yard is right next to a small wooded area) to prevent the kids from trampling it everywhere.

Shortly after this, kid #3 was given the option of going out on a shopping trip for a couple of hours or hanging out with me at home:

Kid #3: I don’t want to go out. I want to stay here.
Dad: If you stay here this morning, what will you do?
Kid #3: Um…spank my bum!

Up or down (2)Up or down (1)

Glider swingIn addition to an escape-proof running-around area, the kids also have an enormous play structure to spend time on. Rita and Duane ordered it a few weeks ago, and I assembled it (with a couple of calls to the manufacturer to check instruction and re-order a broken piece of wood) when not doing more pressing things. A delivery truck dropped off 500 lb of components (which Duane then had to go and collect with a tractor), and I set about digesting the 50-page manual for a Big Backyard Sheridan system (interestingly, the French instructions are markedly different from the English ones). Having lugged the boxes out to the front deck, I wrestled with slightly misaligned pre-drilled holes and the perils of dropped screws (which went through the desk to get stuck in the mosquito netting underneath) and eventually got most of the single-person jobs done. I then enlisted the help of others to hold things in place while I drilled and bolted them, and the whole thing came together remarkably quickly.

Sheridan play structure (1)Climbing wall

Kiska on the slideSlide exploration

Kiska on the climbing wallKid #4 is still a little too small to use the structure by himself, but kid #3 threw herself on it and spent almost a whole afternoon running up the ladder and going down the slide. Kiska quickly realised that she couldn’t get to the upper storey, and took to waiting at the bottom to pounce on the kids as they tumbled out of the bottom. The kids also love the two-child glider swing, and quickly invented a new game where they lean backwards to bump heads (which can only end in minor injury). As testament to the hours put in building it, the family have decided to refer to it as the Tower of John, and Amy and I are expected to bring our own kids to play on it someday.

As we went inside for supper, kid #3 wanted to change her footwear:

Kids #3: I want to wear my car shoes! (translation: indoor slippers)
Me: OK, then you have to take off your sandals.
Kid #3: Why? I want to wear sandals!
Me: You can’t wear sandals and shoes at the same time, unless one of them is really big. Do you want to wear sandals or shoes?
Kid #3: Shandals!

Right on schedule, kid #4 is also beginning to learn basic deception. During a recent car journey, he decided that he’d had enough of being cooped up inside and shouted, “All done!” to indicate this. When a stop was not forthcoming, he shifted strategy to, “Poop! POOP!”, which had the desired result – nobody wants to be trapped in a confined space with an infant with a full nappy. As soon as the car drew to a halt, he perked up with an, “Ah, outside?” and, of course, there turned out to be no poop at all.

In WWOOFing activities for the past week or two, the major construction project that is the kids’ play structure continues and has now reached the stage where it needs more than one person to continue (i.e. some of the walls need holding up while supporting pieces of wood are bolted into place). As part of this general project, we are fencing in the front yard and thus creating a much-needed place where the kids can run around lightly supervised and not get into trouble with the road, dog, ditch, tractors, coyotes, doors, bears etc.

Hot on the heels of deception, kid #3 inadvertently picked up disrespect (though we are fairly certain that she didn’t know that that’s what she was doing). In her eagerness to show off a small scab on her middle finger (caused by said finger getting nipped in a door), she comprehensively flipped her grandmother, who had dropped in for a short visit, off. I was also given a short lesson in speaking clearly after dinner one day, when kid #3 enquired as to my activities:

Kid #3: John, what are you doing?
Me: I’m going to tidy up.
Kid #3: You’re going to tie me up?

We haven’t quite started spring planting yet here, but ground preparation and equipment maintenance is well under way (on organic farms, it’s better to wait for the first growth of weeds so they can be ploughed under and the actual crop gets a competitive advantage – chemical farms can just plant anytime and spray weedkiller). In preparation for some experimental crop combinations, I was given the opportunity to go out to the test field and take soil samples for pre-planting nutrient/mineral analysis – quite different from my usual forte of doing the actual analyses in the lab. I made a quick sampling plan, loaded up the quad and set out to mark the field divisions with stakes (there are four different areas to analyse). This would have been quite straightforward with a GPS system, but as we don’t have one I borrowed a measuring wheel and, driving the quad with one hand, leaned out to run it along the ground whilst riving in a roughly straight line. This worked pretty well until I hit a rock, which knocked the wheel out of my hand and under the quad (it still works, though there is a noticeable crack and the wheel is a bit more wobbly).

With the field mapped out, I turned to the actual sampling. We had decided upon ten samples per quadrant, and each quadrant was a little less than a quarter of a mile on each side (between 900 and 1100 feet), so I had quite a bit of in-field driving and stake-locating to do. I was using a hand auger about 8 " long to sample to a depth of 24 ", which would have been quite easy if the soil had not been almost 100 % clay – not only did clods of earth stick to the actual sample, but it was hard to pull up and rather difficult to remove the sample from the blades. What made the work truly awkward, though, was a constant light rain and wind – I was warm and dry thanks to appropriate clothing, but everything I was using instantly developed a thin layer of clay and became incredibly slippery. Fortunately, it does wash off.

Kid #4 has a few particular fascinations, one of which is opening and closing doors. This can sometimes lead to perilous situations, such as the time he was playing with the door to the deck, tried to walk down the stairs to the lawn and got his head stuck. These days, he never tires of playing with the chain-link fence gate to Kiska’s run, which of course has a self-closing latch. He therefore need to be closely supervised to prevent minor tantrums when he locks himself in/out and has to deal with both an immovable door and Kiska bounding all over him. I try and use these times to teach him how to ask for help politely, e.g.:

Kid #4: (shakes fence) ELLLP! OUUUT! (translation: Help! I want to come out!)
Me: Out, please!
Kid #4: (shakeshakeshake) AWEEEEESS! (translation: Please!)
Me: Out, please! (At this point, compassion usually prevails and he is released from his self-made prison)

Dugald farmIn a devastating blow to many motivational routines, kid #4 decided this week that only he is allowed to sing. Many important-yet-sometimes-disliked activities (such as bathtime, bedtime and cleaning up) have associated songs to encourage participation, but now as soon as anyone starts to sing kid #4 will yell, “NO SINGING!” He, however, is free to sing whenever he feels like it (and nobody else may join in).

Kid #3 is beginning to get a good grasp of relative time, though she seems to think that she can sometimes bend it to her will. We had this exchange at the dinner table:

Kid #3: Can I have some dessert?
Me: You’ll have to ask Mommy when she’s finished talking on the phone.
Kid #3: (quick look around) OK, she’s done!
Me: No she isn’t – I can still hear her talking.
Kid #3: I can’t hear her talking!
Me: Well, perhaps I have better hearing than you.
Kid #3: No, I have better hearing.
Me: Oh? (whisper) Can you hear me?
Kid #3: (whisper) No!

Dugald prairieFarm fire

Similarly, she is beginning to anticipate rewards for good behaviour and thus sometimes goes out of her way to let us now that she’s behaving well. Again at the dinner table, we are trying to stop her eating with her mouth open:

Kid #3: (mouth full of food) Mmtrng wrmph mph tmnmn.
Me: Kid #3, I can’t understand you when you talk with your mouth full.
Kid #3: (finishes eating) I’m eating with my mouth closed! (ta daa!)

Field burning (5)As the weather gets steadily warmer, farm activity across the province steadily increases in anticipation of imminent spring planting. I find myself learning something new and interesting around every other day (on average) – this week, we had to clean and check a discer (a type of tractor-towed seeder) and shift some grain (oats and barely) about using shovels and an auger. I was also given quick tutorials on how to drive the farm quad and one of the tractors, immediately qualifying me for non-crucial seeding and transport operations.

The big news in the community this week – if local gossip is to be believed – was the perhaps-imprudent burning of some grass verges bordering access roads. Farmers will often set fires to inexpensively remove ground cover, and a couple of these had just started to creep out of hand. Springing into action, we put the smaller fires that had crossed the road out and then burned some fire breaks downwind of the main fire so that it would run out of fuel before getting into a populated area. This action apparently sent a gigantic plume of smoke straight to Winnipeg and forced a road closure, though it almost certainly won’t be the last grass fire of the season.

Field burning (1)Field burning (3)

Field burning (2)Field burning (4)

Field burning (6)Field burning (7)

People and puppyThere were two significant pieces of animal-related news on the farm this week, one of which will probably be a regular feature in future posts. I refer of course to the arrival of a small puppy, who will quickly grow to gigantic proportions given her parentage (Pyrenean Mountain Dog / Labrador Retriever), and also to our discovery of bear tracks (most likely from an American black bear, Ursus americanus) near the barn. In preparation for Kiska’s (the name given to the puppy) arrival, I volunteered to upgrade the dog house to one more suitable for extreme winters and a large animal (the existing dog house was quite small, and rather dilapidated). This turned out to be a major project: I first used recycled 2×4 lumber to make a basic frame (struggling mightily with the mental trigonometry required to figure out where to notch the roof joists), which I then covered in recycled oriented strand board (also used to make a floor). This was then covered in steel sheeting left over from the construction of the barn (which we cut with a nibbler – highly appropriate for a puppy that will bite anything within reach), and filled with flax straw for insulation. The result, after several day’s work, was an extremely large, sturdy and heavy (we had to dismantle the front of the pen and drive it in on tractor prongs) house big enough to accommodate dog plus kids.

Kiska (1)Kiska (2)

Super dog house (1)Super dog house (2)

Super dog house (3)This week in child development, kid #3 was finishing up her lunch while I was clearing some plates away from the table. She attempted to get my attention with typical persistence:

Kid #3: “John! (pause) John! (pause) John! (pause)”
Me: “Yes?”
Kid #3: “(pause) I didn’t just poke you in the eye!”

I gather from this that a) she perhaps wasn’t expecting me to pay any attention to her and b) she might be expecting rewards for the absence of bad behaviour.

Bear tracksBack with Amy in Winnipeg, we had a fun Easter Saturday brunch featuring krumkake (Norwegian conical waffles), frittata and lots of fruit, and found (appropriately enough) the 1973 release of Jesus Christ Superstar on television. The following week, Amy took me out to the BDI (the Bridge Drive-In, not actually a beady eye nor really a drive-in as you order standing up), which is famous across Winnipeg for its ice cream. We had a delicious GOOG, which is a large cup filled with blueberry ice cream, hot fudge sauce, bananas and whipped cream, wandered over the girder-y Elm Park Bridge with several other patrons and found that the high water in the river was causing interesting whirlpools and turbulence from hidden underwater objects.

KrumkakeFrittata ingredients

Elm Park BridgeBDI

Wild cucumberThis week in kid-wrangling and WWOOFing, we (the entire family and I) got to visit a near-neighbouring farm with a veritable menagerie of livestock. As we drove up, we were quickly surrounded by five boisterous Chihuahua puppies and two wary Shelties (a bigger dog having been banished to a kennel lest he not like us), with an aloof (yet ultimately playful) tabby cat watching us from a safe distance. After a quick tour of some rare chicken breeds, we headed out to the paddock to greet three foals and two calves – all took a definite interest in how our clothing tasted, and had a clear disdain of all the puppies scampering around their feet.

Breaking through the iceA few days before this, kid #3 and I were sitting on the sofa reading a book. At some point she lost interest (a typical three-year-old has an attention span of about three minutes) and began trying to scrape the stubble off my face with her fingernails, exclaiming, “You face is all scratchy! Holy smokes! Where does it come from?” Shortly after this, kids #3 and #4 were playing in the basement under my supervision when kid #4 noticed a set of light weights used for aerobics exercise. Upon attempting to pick up the lightest (2 lb, I think), he toppled backwards and sat down with the resounding “klunk!” familiar to Peanuts fans everywhere.

St. Norbert stupaAt the weekend, Amy took me down to the nearby neighbourhood of St. Norbert and its Trappist monastery ruins (the monks moved out in 1975 due to urban encroachment, and the structure was burned down in 1983). We weren’t allowed to enter due to ongoing restoration work, but did have free run of the grounds which included, bizarrely, a Buddhist stupa erected by some Bhutanese monks. The former guest quarters is now the St. Norbert Arts Centre, offering various New Age-y workshops such as crystal healing and shamanic astrology, and more practical ones such as cart-building.

Temperatures across the province have been unseasonably warm for the past week or two, and the Red River is well above normal levels due to all the snowmelt. When we went out to King’s Park for a short walk one afternoon, small icebergs were floating past at a not-inconsiderable pace and there was a continuous tinkling (like glass breaking or wind chimes) as they collided with each other against the banks. This was very impressive for a temperate-climate-dweller such as myself, though apparently not quite as awe-inspiring as the first breaking-up of the ice sheet (which I have only been told about).

Red River icebergsRed trees

King's Park ice crystals (2)King's Park ice crystals (1)

Pioneer ox cartAfter a thoroughly relaxing day, kid #3 attempted to get kid #4 into trouble this evening – as we were finishing dinner, her voice drifted through to the kitchen with a distinctive I’m-telling-Mom lilt: “Kid #4 is touching something!”

Prairie sunsetFrom Korea, the changing times swept me across the Pacific into temperate Vancouver and the mass exodus of (mostly European) sporting types following the Winter Olympics. I had a few hours to refresh myself, and then stepped onto a surprisingly manageable two-day bus ride through the frozen expanses of the Prairies to Winnipeg, and Amy. Lack of sleep and discomfort aside, the only real trial on the bus ride was the presence of two guys reeking of carrion who got on at Saskatoon (about 11 hours from Winnipeg) and sat next to and behind me.

Grain elevatorMy first weeks in Canada were a wonderful mixture of delicious home-cooked food, wedding planning, walking around with Amy and toying with ideas for future jobs and locations. I also started a WWOOF-esque placement in a small community not too far from Winnipeg (but sadly, not too near either) – principally kid-wrangling at the moment, but once the ground thaws there will probably be some farm work too. It is probably the best parenting practice I could get, so I’m confident that any children Amy and I have will be brought up brilliantly with minimal stress on our part.

Nobody expects raising (or even wrangling) kids to be a breeze, but the wearing/frustrating events are more than eclipsed by the constant stream of escapades, unexpected exclamations, learning experiences and general cuteness. This morning, I noticed while changing a particularly stinky nappy that the soles of kid #4’s feet (everyone will be anonymised to protect the innocent/embarrassed) were forest green. After an exhaustive search of the house for spilled colouring materials, we worked out that he’d been standing on a horizontally-laid blackboard to reach a shelf and the blacking (actually greening, I suppose) had been rubbing off. I also started teaching kid #3 to throw and catch a bean bag, with the almost immediate result that she started trying to throw it into the light fitting.