Summer, updates.

The semester’s over, and I’ve beeing relaxing with all my might of late, so my apologies for the lack of blog action ’round these here parts. This promises to be a comprehensive entry, encompassing the highlights of the past several weeks, in hopes of making up for it.
First off, I finally have photos up from the prairie-burning back in April. Paul, Erika, Brad, and I went out to our advisor’s cabin and bit of land out west of here, and did a controlled burn on the prairie land. It took the better part of the day, all told, but was both hard work and great fun.
Being from the east coast, I’d never burned a prairie before, so this was new to me. Doing a controlled burn means wearing non-flammable clothing, first off, and having a bandana to wrap around your face to fend off smoke and other detritus is good, too (as my fellow boat-builders will attest). The main tools for the job are water sprayers or buckets, and rakes and shovels. To prepare the area, you first clear away dead grasses and leaves and other flammable material from the areas you wish to protect — in our case, the photovoltaic array and the septic vents. You do this by raking vigorously an area about four or five feet around the important objects. You then wet the raked area down with a generous dousing of water, to keep it from catching fire. You then make note of wind direction, and plan your burn accordingly. For instance, you don’t want the wind suddenly gusting up and taking the fire in a direction in which you can’t control it. We started downwind, by the road, so that we would let the fire burn against the wind direction for the most part. This way, we were able to keep it where we wanted it.
The next thing you do to prepare the area is do small edge burns to create fire breaks along the borders of where you want the fire to stop. We did this along the road, burning about a 15-foot-wide strip along the edge of the road, where the fire would begin, and another strip along the border to the house. You don’t have to make fire breaks along every edge, because you’ll be monitoring the burn as it goes, putting it out along the way. But it is good to have at least two of the edges taken care of, so you can leave one person to keep an eye on those as the rest of the crew follows the burn.
Once we’d made our fire breaks, we were ready to start the fire. Gregg and Paul were suited up with some excellent old-school backpack water tanks with big metal squirters, real Norm-MacLean-in-the-forest-service type equipment, horribly uncomfortable but highly effective, which we’d borrowed from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, from whom you have to get a permit to do a burn in the first place. The rest of us had shovels, and our more experienced neighbor and resident fire expert had the rake, which is used to spread the fire until it takes off on its own. I took the post at the fire break, to make sure that when the burn reached the edge, it didn’t jump the break. The rest of the crew followed the burn along the opposite edge, fighting it on that side. The big burn started out slowly, but once it got going, maybe about 45 minutes or so into it, it really took off, and 15 minutes later the entire prairie was scorched. I was at the top of the hill, and all of a sudden there was a huge wall of flame coming toward me, smoke and heat and everything. It was terrifying and thrilling all at once. I had to put out some small burns where sparks had jumped the break, but other than that it was a very easy burn — and very quick once it really took. The folks down at the base of the hill experienced the real heat of the thing more than I did — and, boy, it really makes you appreciate what a force fire can be when unchecked. We were fortunate in that the wind stayed relatively steady and we had a good amount of people on hand — but a lot of things can go wrong, and you don’t want to be in the way if that wall of flame is moving toward you and has nothing to stop it.
After the burn, we enjoyed some delicious homemade gumbo and some beers on the deck, as the hillside smoked below us. The smell was incredible, a sort of spicy, sharp scent, like burnt herbs. The landscape looked completely different, like the surface of the moon or something. It was really incredible. If you ever have the chance to take part in something like this, I highly recommend it. You aren’t likely to forget it.
Since the semester ended, I’ve also had a chance to do some camping. Abby, Martha, Nick, Chris, and I traveled out to Wyalusing State Park a couple of weeks ago. The park is in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and the campsites are located on the bluffs overlooking the floodplain. The view is incredible.
Nick, Abby, and I arrived in the afternoon, and after securing our campsite, we headed back out to the Wisconsin to rent a canoe. We took a few-hour jaunt about six miles downstream at a leisurely pace, having a few cold ones and checking out the local turtle population. I’d forgotten how much I love canoeing. I’m definitely considering getting one of my own now, since I do live on two lakes, with a river connecting them.
We went for a hike when we got back, and set up camp, and got dinner going for Martha and Chris’s arrival around 7. We then had the most amazing meal I’ve ever had while camping: country style pork ribs in delicious Jenny Street Market BBQ sauce, chicken with same, and roasted vegetables done up in foil. Also cheese and plenty of PBR and Blatz. I played some guitar, we alked around the fire, and went to bed by midnight.
In the morning we had a leisurely breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate, and went for a little walk before clearing out of there. We stopped in Fennimore on the way back and had pie and coffee at the local family restaurant, fueled up, and headed back to Madison. A great, if short, bit of car camping.
Last weekend was the annual Bratfest here in Madison, where they have $1 brats, cheap beer, live music, and fun all weekend long. It was wicked hot, up in the 90s on Saturday, but we went anyway, and I have to say it was amazing. MRhé and Scotticus, you gotta come out for this next year. There is literally a semi the entire trailer part of which is a bank of grills on which they cook a vertiable sausagefest of Johnsonville brats. It’s delicious amazing. For just a buck a brat, you can get pretty full on the cheap, and your meal will be served to you by a local city official (they volunteer, it’s some big yay-Madison thing, and for good reason, because I really do love the fact that I live in a town where summer is kicked off by The World’s Largest Bratfest in an attempt to break the world record of brats consumed that we set back in 2004). One word for you: qualitas.
And, in other news, I now have glasses. They’re for distance, mainly, so driving and lectures/talks/conferences and watching foreign films, but it was incredible: today when I put them on to drive back from the eye clinic, I was looking around and sort of sliding them on and off along the bridge of my nose, and realized that my vision is way worse than I thought. I don’t feel like I’m missing that much acuity in the middle distance — it’s only at a far distance that I really notice it, or when trying to read something that’s far away — but things are a lot blurrier without those glasses on. I’m blaming grad school, or perhaps the jobs I’ve had these past few years that require me to be in front of computers all day. That’s no good for the distance vision.
Anyway, I took some pictures of myself with the new glasses, so you can see my new sometimes-look. I think they’re pretty good, though I have to say it’s hell trying to pick out frames when you aren’t used to seeing yourself in glasses. I took Paul along with me for advice, and he was very helpful when he wasn’t trying on all the ugliest frames in the store (the ones he referred to as the “institutionalized serial killer” glasses — think BCGs-meet-Timothy-McVeigh), or asking if he should go for the hipster look while sporting some outlandishly edgy Danish-designed frame. (I tried a bunch of those on for kicks, but I’m clearly just not a hipster when it comes to eyewear. Or much else, for that matter.)
The other thing I’ve been doing of late is house-and-dog-sitting for my advisor, which has been lovely. I kind of miss the east side, but I do love having a dog and a piano and a house to myself, and I feel very relaxed. There’s nothing like a mellow, contented golden retriever at your feet to make you feel at home.
I’ll be heading east next week for Kristin’s birthday, Bobbi’s ordination, the Ag History Conference, and some QT with the fam, the friends, and hopefully Don & Jerry. Until then, I’m hoping the weather stays this beautiful all weekend: 70s, sunny, low humidity. A girl could get used to this.


5 thoughts on “Summer, updates.

  1. Nice dude. That’s the way to do it after a long absence from the blogosphere – come correct with a long entry complete with pics. Welcome back!

  2. A few questions/comments:
    A) What exactly is the point of a controlled burn?
    B) Liffa reminds me of Buddy, our old Phi Delt dog who died recently. Makes me sad.
    C) All that sausage looks fantastic.
    D) Nice frames. They look good on you.
    E) I’m Ron Burgundy?

  3. Tallgrass prairie is a fire-dependent ecosystem (like oak savannah, I believe, and certainly most chaparral ecosystems), so in order to maintain a prairie you need to either let it burn uncontrollably when it catches fire (possibly taking your house with it) or you need to do a nice controlled burn once a season to keep it from getting overgrown by deciduous forest, say.
    For more on fire, see anything by Steven Pyne.
    I’m banking on you cooking up some brats for us all so we can watch some NESN when I get to town.

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