A Slow Walk Through The North Country

Building a box seemed the appropriate thing to do. To mark the publication of my 12th book, I constructed a wooden box to display the three novels and the five bound collections of essays, short stories, and poems in the Old Coot series and the three in the North Country series. Plus the worst juvenile fiction book in the history of children’s literature.

When I am anxiety ridden and stressed, the result of my borderline psychosis is often a wooden box. Sometimes these boxes are made for a specific purpose. Sometimes their purpose is to contain my sanity This time the box project served for both.

Shortly before the scourge of pandemic ended public life, I published A View from The North Country. A reading and book signing session was scheduled to promote that book at the local book store, Dragonfly Books. But a week before that event, precautions against public gatherings were wisely implemented, and the book signing was among the casualties.

There followed 18 months of isolation, social distancing, mask-wearing, shut-ins, shutdowns, remote schooling for children, local business slowdowns, layoffs, Economic Impact Payments, unemployment benefits, and disorganized vaccinations clinics before life in the North Country of the upper Midwest returned to a more normal pace. Through it all, I continued to write. That was probably another attempt to contain it all in a box.

Late in 2020 I published Coot Dogs – An Anthology of Dog Stories by a Crazy Old Coot. Most of those essays and stories had been previously published in one of the Coot series or North Country series books, but a few of the tales of dogs kept my writing alive when it could have died a suffocating death in the time of COVID.

On June 1, the latest book was published: A Slow Walk Through The North Country. A collection of 49 new essays, stories and poems that should nail my reputation as an outdoor writer – or, as it turned out, nail together a box to display the creative writing of my previous 12 years.

I hope you will enjoy this book. I hope you will enjoy all 12 of my books, although you would be advised to avoid the children’s book, Scrawny Dog, Hungry Cat, and Fat Rat, which saw the light of day for reasons that had little to do with literature and much to do with friendship.

The display box has room for one more book. I think I have one more book in my imagination, struggling to escape, to be written, and to be published. We shall see.

A Slow Walk Through The North Country is available in paperback and Kindle formats.

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Iowa — a good old state

The age 65-and-older population of Iowa’s rural counties exceeds 20 percent. Small towns are withering, and the small-town quality of life is disappearing,

Iowa is a good old state — quite literally.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 527,000 of us old folks, age 65 or older, live in the state: 17.5 percent of Iowa’s population of 3.1 million. That is only one percent higher than the nationwide average of 16.5 percent, based on a population of about 320 million.

But it is a sobering number, especially because the people in Iowa’s cities are younger than people in rural counties. About 1.3 million of the state’s people live in cities ranging in size from Ottumwa’s 25,000 residents to the Des Moines metro area’s 680,000. The portion of those cities’ residents who are age 65 and older is about 12-13 percent – which suggests that rural populations are significantly more elderly.

Of Iowa’s counties, 78 are considered rural, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and the percentage of people age 65 or older who live in those counties exceeds 20 percent – about 370,000. And most of us old folks do not like the way things are going.

Highest on the list of grievances are the hogs. There are 24.8 million hogs in Iowa’s rural counties. That is 67 hogs for each of us old coots, and almost none of those hogs are owned by us. The hogs have greater economic and political power than we do, and that is why we are flummoxed and distraught.

We are forced to live with industrial agriculture: CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), huge meat processing plants, environmental calamities, diminished opportunities to make a living, and shrinking rural populations as our children depart for better jobs in bigger cities. Our quality of life, the values and occupations and pastimes of our former lives, have mostly withered and disappeared with what we are told is “economic progress.”

This is not the rural Iowa of our youth. The rural Iowa where towns were vibrant, with many more locally owned businesses, more small farms, more young people, more local high schools.

The result has been a sort of implosion of the ethics and standards that once characterized rural Iowans. Many of us have retreated from civic-mindedness and public engagement, burrowing into bunkers of self-interest. We are no longer “Iowa Nice,” and with good reason. Economic, social, and political tsunamis from beyond our shores have overwhelmed our communities. Difficult to be nice when one’s quality of life is plummeting.

We can find no solutions or answers to the adversities that beset us. Probably there are no solutions or answers in this era of privately held fortunes and community impoverishment. We grope for causes, focusing the blame on a dozen factors: immigration, education, technology, diversity, taxes, welfare, the deep state.

As a consequence, Iowa’s small towns are now a stark portrait of poverty, and residents of rural counties are bewildered as to how this all came about. Desperate and clueless, six of 10 voters cast their ballot for President Orange and his promise to Make American White Again – because somehow this is all the fault of the Mexicans and the Blacks.

I do not see a better future for the rural parts of the state, especially since the Republican dominated legislature has enacted voter suppression legislation, reduced environmental regulations, cut budgets for the Department of Natural Resources and other environmental agencies, transferred funding for public education to private education, loosened firearm restrictions, and generally given a green light to any water, air and soil pollution abuses that corporate agriculture commits.

My wife and I have lived 35 years in northeast Iowa, but industrial agriculture is driving us out. CAFOs combined with GMO corn have made the state’s surface waters the most polluted in the nation. The soil is lifeless, just a medium to hold row crops in place, because anhydrous ammonia fertilizers and herbicides/pesticides have eliminated all life right down to microbial level. Iowa’s air quality is putrid; due to CAFOs, the state reeks of hog manure.

Some isolated islets of land in the state may resemble a Tolkienesque Shire, but most of Iowa has become Mordor. All of the Midwest corn belt has become a poisoned environment – stretching across parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota – but Iowa is the worst.

We rage against the machine. But there is no stopping the machine. What can a bunch of old Iowans do, after all? Our lives and our communities are collapsing, and we don’t like it. We detest it.

Sadly, we have to get out of this state while getting out is still possible.

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We taught China a lesson

Now that the COVID pandemic is subsiding in most First World countries (barring a resurgence caused by a mutated strain of the virus that erupts in Third World countries), we are returning to a more normal pace of life after 18 months of shut-ins, shutdowns, social distancing, mask mandates, remote schooling for children, business slowdowns, layoffs, unemployment benefits, Economic Impact Payments, and the jumble of vaccinations clinics across the country.

Unfortunately, it is obvious that we Americans did not learn important lessons about how to deal with pandemic. About a third of the population refused to wear masks and abide by social distancing and small-gatherings precautions. Even now, only 50 percent of the national population is fully vaccinated, and about 300 to 700 people are still dying of COVID every day. We are nearing 600,000 total deaths, about 100,000 more than the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, a number far above that of any industrialized nation and lower only than India with its population of 1.4 billion and its deficient health care system.

Image from namipbc.org

But we sure taught China some valuable lessons.

Most epidemiologists conclude that the COVID-19 virus first mutated to enable human-to-human transmission in or around Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei Province in south-central China. In December 2019, about 18 months ago, the government of China first reported clusters of coronavirus cases that were highly contagious and potentially virulent with a fatality rate that could exceed five percent.

The prevailing theory is that the viral mutation was transmitted to humans by an animal, most likely a bat, in one of the “wet markets” that are the source of most food for the people of southern China. An alternative theory is that the coronavirus was being studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and it somehow “escaped” from the institute’s laboratories and spread like wildfire through Hubei Province.

We all love science disaster stories, especially like the one told in Stephen King’s The Stand, an apocalyptic novel about a virus that wipes out half the world’s population and all civilization. If we can layer on a secret, evil conspiracy, all the better. Unwittingly, I think, China played right into our fascination with disasters.

As would be expected of a totalitarian state that tightly limits the information its science research facilities are permitted to release, the World Health Organization’s investigation of the Wuhan Institute was restricted to the records and documents approved for WHO perusal by the institute’s directors and virology scientists, which is to say the WHO investigation was no investigation at all. (One could say the same about any potential WHO investigation of science research laboratories controlled by corporations in the United States.) Ultimately, the WHO report was co-written by a group of China’s epidemiologists.

The report is probably correct in its conjecture that the outbreak of COVID-19 in Hubei Province was a horrific but incidental animal-to-human mutation of a common coronavirus, not a blunder that “leaked” the disease from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And certainly not an intentional release of the virus. What could China have hoped to accomplish by doing that within its own borders? But China’s handling of the incident was a huge public relations blunder.

Government officials in China, where the flow of information is stringently controlled and monitored, obviously did not consider the consequences of rampant spread of misinformation in the free world’s press, and they clearly did not understand that an egomaniacal and narcissistic U.S. President Orange, having denied there was a pandemic and declaring it a hoax and a threat no worse than the annual influenza epidemic, would shift the blame for his failure to quickly and prudently deal with COVID-19 by vilifying China. Epidemiologists in this country say that the U.S. infection rates and deaths could have been halved if President Orange had taken immediate action, but he failed (or refused) to do that until late April 2020 when his advice was that we should drink or inject disinfectant.

When this suggestion was ridiculed by the medical community, President Orange politicized public health safeguards. He began to shout and tweet that social distancing, mask mandates, limited gatherings, zoom meetings, remote schooling, business closures, and all sensible actions to prevent the spread of COVID were frauds and deceptions foisted on the public by his political enemies. Amazingly, about a third of Americans believed him!

He also began to rant that it was not his fault that tens of thousands of Americans were dying from COVID, it was all China’s fault. China! China! China! Those evil and devious Chinese!

The result, in addition to the current upsurge of attacks on Americans of Asian descent, was that the backers of President Orange (white supremacists, racists, Nazis, KKK, misogynists, America-firsters, and other hate groups) became even more xenophobic, if that it possible. China became a focus of their hatred.

As much as I dislike China’s system of government and suppression of minority groups and political dissidents, bellicosity toward China is not in America’s best strategic and economic interests. China’s is the second largest economy in the world, and employing that economic power and to a lesser extent military power in Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East is gradually and inevitably resulting in China’s dominance in those parts of the world where America does not have as much at stake – a kind of de facto “Monroe Doctrine” applied to the Indian Oceanic region that China regards within its sphere of influence.

Over the course of the next 20 years, as China and India continue economic and military growth, the United States will cease to be the unilateral power in that region. Despite the saber rattling of President Orange, the better foreign policy is cooperating with the new elephant in the room, not beating it.

To return to the lessons that China learned during this 18-month period of the COVID-19 pandemic: that is obvious. China learned that Americans – when their leaders are as incompetent and divisive as President Orange, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, et al – will not coalesce but will turn on one another in times of crisis. China learned those leaders will call for voter suppression and prejudice and malice toward minorities. China learned they will promote xenophobic and vitriolic behaviors among the fringe groups that are their most loyal acolytes. China learned they will sacrifice American democracy on the altar of white privilege.

An America in turmoil for the next couple decades is in China’s (and Russia’s) best interests. Strategically and economically, a fractured and deeply divided America benefits China as it slowly and surely progresses with its influence over the third of the globe that is contiguous to the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean, rather than cooperating with U.S. interests.

China was the source of the COVID-19 pandemic, but China almost certainly did not deny or ignore the outbreak, or intentionally cause it. China certainly did learn that incompetent American leadership in times of crisis will cause divisiveness and dysfunction that will be to China’s benefit.

Looking toward the political season of 2022 and 2024, expect a flood of disinformation that will come out of China (and Russia) that will stoke social animosity and its consequent divisiveness and dysfunction. It won’t even require something as drastic as a pandemic; it will only require that, as happened during the 18 months of COVID, people will believe the falsehoods they are told. All it will require is the infectious medium of the internet and a populace that refuses to investigate misinformation.  

We taught China a good lesson.

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Facts vs. ‘The Truth’

Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls

In my former life as a journalist, a newspaper reporter, a Knight Errant of the most chivalrous of professions, I was eager to do battle with the Dragons of the Realm of Falsehoods, the firedrakes that were the scourge of honest citizens and principled civilizations. Unfortunately, the monsters would not emerge from their lairs and fight.

Most often I covered and reported on mundane meetings of city councils, county supervisors, and school boards and was seldom called upon to don my armor, strap on my sword, heft my lance, mount my charger and sally forth to combat evil and injustice in the world. Occasionally there was a dragon to fight, but not often.

I suspect that’s how it is for most journalists and most writers. We set out with grand intentions and lofty ideals, passionate about universal truths and eternal virtues, taking the long view of the human drama and applying our convictions to the here-and-now whenever we can.

During our careers we learn that evil is, for the most part, banal. We learn the validity of the journalist’s mantra: “Never attribute to malice a misdeed that is probably the result of incompetence and ignorance.” Most office holders, people in leadership positions both public and private, intend to do good, but incompetence and ignorance, augmented by greed and vanity, obscure their sense of goodness and their integrity. This is the recurring theme of the human tragedy.

The course of history is not a parade toward rightness and morality, and the procession of current events through which we now stumble is especially wayward and directionless. We march under the banners of our ignorance, and we seem proud of our incompetence. We proclaim this madness to be “The Truth.”

The publisher who hired me for my first newspaper job told me, “We report facts here. If you want to write ‘the truth,’ you’re in the wrong profession. You should be a novelist, not a news reporter.” Over the course of a 40-year career in journalism and public relations, I learned that accurate reporting is based on facts, figures, data, information, causes and effects, motivations and purposes, intentions and objectives. These are the basis of good reporting, good decision-making, and the antithesis of ignorance and incompetence.

Sadly, we now have few news reporters and many news commentators. We have a lot of “news” people ranting about their “truths” and few that report facts, figures, data, information, causes and effects, motivations and purposes, intentions and objectives. Sadly, we have a citizenry that does not comprehend the difference, that is proud of its ignorance, proud of its incompetence.

This does not bode well for a nation that depends on democracy as its ethos and egalitarianism in its day-to-day functions.

America has always had more than its share of nativists, Know-Nothings, anti-intellectuals, science deniers, populists, and religious fanatics. They all have two things in common: they are ignorant of (or deny) facts and data, and they know “the truth.”

This was brought home to me when one of my reporters in West Texas wrote a story about an alleged UFO sighting. “About one in three people believe UFOs are invaders from outer space,” she said. I thought she was joking, but surveys conducted by reputable researchers such as the Gallup organization and the Smithsonian Institution reveal:
34 percent of Americans believe in UFOs.
55 percent say they believe in angels.
34 percent say they believe in ghosts.
Only 39 percent say they accept the concept of evolution.
Only 36 percent believe global warming is partly anthropogenic.

And according to the U.S. government’s National Institute of Science: “Surveys conducted in the United States and Europe reveal that many citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans.”

Frighteningly, it seems that many of those scientifically illiterate people are elected officials.

This will not have a happy ending. When facts collide with “the truth,” the result is almost always fatal. During the 20th century, about 100 million people died when the world was caught in the maelstrom of “the truth” of fascism, communism, capitalism, colonialism, nationalism, and a dozen different religious dogmas. In this century, more than 3 million people have already died because coronavirus is “a hoax.”

But I do understand the disillusionment with evolution. Through our 200,000 years of evolving, more than 10,000 generations, homo sapiens should have become much more intelligent. We didn’t.

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To read more essays and stories about life in the North Country, visit the Author Page where my books are listed for sale in paperback or e-book format.

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A new approach

Hanging the steel gate was the easy part. The hard work was clearing the new approach into the South Ravine Pasture.

Each sub-section of our North Country farm has acquired a name, an identity, over the previous 35 years: the South Woods, the Sheep Pasture, the Big Hayfield, the Small Hayfield, the Kennel Yard, the Goat Pasture, the Hilltop Garden, the Old Garden, the West Bluff Woods, the South Ravine Pasture.  The only tract that has not been tagged with a descriptive title is the four-acre tangle of scrub woodland at the far northeast corner of our place.  We should probably call it the Trip and Fall Woods, because that’s what I do every time I blunder onto its rocky slope.

The South Ravine Pasture is particularly well-named, a steep hillside that tumbles down to the edge of a sheer and bare-walled ravine of fissured limestone. This fractured framework of rock underlies the North Country’s landscape. Torturous formations of sandstone and limestone, some stacked in cracked and shattered layers, some thrust upward to form misshapen, hulking monoliths the size of a house – these are never far beneath a thin skin of soil.

Known as Karst topography, the jumbled layers of stone are the bedrock of the Driftless Region (technically the Paleozoic Plateau of northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota), an area that owes its name to the lack of glacial deposits (drifts) because the glaciers of the most recent Ice Age did not advance across and scour this 20,000-square-mile dome of land. The terrain is unlike any plains country you have seen, rugged and crisscrossed by steep and deep coulees and dozens of streams that wend their sinuous way to the upper Mississippi River.  The rocky bones of this land often jut through the flesh of the earth, raw and exposed, the petrified skeletons of a herd of gargantuan creatures tossed and broken by some cataclysm that shook the prehistoric world.

Fascinating as our regional geology may be, I do not often wander into the Ravine Pasture. It is a difficult walk. To enter, you must either climb a four-strand barbed wire fence or struggle through a thicket of buckbrush, prickly wild raspberry stalks, and tangled cedar boughs – a challenge when you are wearing snowshoes. The exertion is seldom rewarded. Compared to the sweeping view of the river valley from the topmost height of the hayfield, this rock-sided ravine studded with gnarly old oak trees is drab.

Rarely do I see any wildlife on these Pasture walks. The North Country’s prevailing wind is from the northwest, which carries my scent and sound far in advance of me, warning the resident deer and foxes and most other animals to go into hiding. I’ve tried to enter quietly on days when light winds come from other points of the compass, but the ravine somehow causes swirling and eddying currents of air that still alert every animal except the dull-witted raccoons. If I could sit quietly for 20 minutes most of the wildlife would reemerge, but I do not have the patience to do that.

All that changed in April when I took a new approach into the South Ravine Pasture.

We have never permitted hay harvesting in that Pasture because of its steep slope and the deep waterway that divides it in the center. Not a lot of grass there anyway because that piece of ground is only four or five acres. But last autumn we did allow it to be grazed by the cattle from a grass-fed beef and dairy farm, and that was good. Livestock makes the place feel more like a real farm.

The Ravine Pasture fencing had to be patched and mended for the cattle, and a gate had to be mounted at the west end to haul in water. Wire-wise, the Jersey and Devon heifers and steers did not try to push through the electric wire strung along the brush-clogged 50 yard pasture boundary by the Hilltop Garden. But we plan to put sheep in there late this summer, so more fence work is necessary. Sheep, especially lambs, are notorious for discovering and escaping through the smallest holes in a fence.

I set to work building a sheep-proof fence. Once upon a time there were scraggily strands of barbed wire running through the brushy tangle at that northeast corner of the Ravine Pasture, strung between cedar trees and clipped to a half-dozen metal posts that staggered erratically across the gap.  That fencing is long gone, except for the chunks of wire that snared my chainsaw and tangled my bushhog mower and sent sparks (and curses) flying when I attacked the thicket as a prerequisite to replacing the dilapidated fence.

The project started as a quick-fix chore, but as these small tasks often do it became, in my mind, a sacrosanct mission ordained by the holy doctrine of North Country farming. Why build a clapboard chapel when a granite cathedral is the true vision? Or in this case, a cathedral built of seven-foot, creosote-treated posts.

 By the time the job was completed, there was a huge pile of brush, five new and one old wooden posts with cross braces and wires, five metal posts standing straight in perfect alignment, four taunt lengths of barbed wire, and a brand spanking new eight-foot tubular steel gate. Best not to calculate the cost-per-foot of rebuilding this section of pasture fence.

But there were unexpected benefits that went beyond money.

What used to be a prickly thicket is now a mowed lane through a smooth-swinging gate into the South Ravine Pasture. That New Approach has given me a greater appreciation for that four-acre hillside tract.

For one thing, the bluegrass and brome and fescue have dominated over the invading wild raspberry, buckthorn, gooseberry, goldenrod, and wild grapevine, with no mowing or other assistance from me. In the Sheep Pasture, the Hayfields, and the Goat Pasture the cool season grasses are losing this battle. We have never burned the Ravine Pasture, so its sun-drenched, south-facing slope may have aided the preeminence of the grasses.

Also, the Ravine is not nearly so devoid of wildlife as I formerly thought. On this evening’s walk with my French spaniel Abbey, I counted seven different species of song birds, a pair of soaring turkey vultures, one red-tailed hawk, five squirrels, a couple rabbits, and I am sure I heard a whitetail doe and her fawn crashing through the undergrowth.

 There may be a larger lesson here, a learning moment for me. After many months of apprehension, worry, and melancholy during this time of pandemic-mandated separation from family and friends, a new approach and a different view can contribute to the transformation I must go through to adjust to the “new normal” of day-to-day life. There is no going back to the comfortable familiarity of the Old Garden. The rugged topography of the South Ravine is likely to be the landscape I must deal with for a long while.

Time to build a gate to make the passage easier.

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To read more essays and stories about life in the North Country, visit the Author Page where my books are listed for sale in paperback or e-book format.

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Fire in the compost bin!

We burned the compost bin in January. Not intentionally, but accidently. We never much liked that bin. Maybe we burned it accidently-on-purpose.

Building a compost bin frame on a slope is a challenge. But as you see, every part of our farm is on a slope.

Early one morning I cleaned the ashes out of the woodstove, shoveled them into a steel pail, and set the pail outside on the deck. Unbeknownst to me, there were a few embers among the ashes, glowing coals that were hungrily searching for something else to devour. They found fodder when we dumped the pail into the compost bin.

Firewood ash is a good addition to the compost pile because it raises the pH of acidic soils, if you do not add too much. Garden magazines recommend that no more than 5 percent of the compost should be ash. Experience has taught me that no more than .001 percent of the ash should be live coals.  Better to dump all questionable ash on the driveway where the grit may aid traction on the icy curve at the top of the hill.

But the compost bin is closer to the house, a handier place to dump the ash, and less messy than scattering in on the driveway. Unfortunately, on this January morning there were several of those small but red-hot coals lurking in the gray fluff, waiting to do their devious devil’s work.

Late that afternoon I noticed the compost bin was steaming. This is not unusual. Compost heaps remain warm down in their depths through the coldest winter weather, something to do with anaerobic decomposition. A smoky vapor arising from a compost pile is a good sign: it means the kitchen scraps and grass clippings and all else in the heap is breaking down into humus that will enrich the garden soil when it is applied in the spring.

By the next morning it was clear that the anaerobic burn had gone full-out aerobic. There was fire in the hole.

Not a conflagration on par with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 with towers of flame soaring skyward, only a steady and insistent column of smoke that implied a languid smoldering deep in the pile. This has happened to us before, a slow but all-consuming burn that reduces three wheelbarrow loads of ripe humus to a paltry two or three buckets of sludge that does not loosen and enrich the soil.

In past years, I have defeated compost bin fires by trenching the smoldering heap away from the wooden sideboards and pouring on several bucketsful of water. That smothered the burn and returned the bin to its work of slow decomposition. Not this year.

Despite my best efforts, the slow fire burned and burned, with occasional tongues of flame bursting free and laughing at my attempts to quench them. Maybe I had dumped too many grass clippings and twigs into the bin last summer, inflammable stuff that would ignite in a grease fire flash rather than gently and evenly bake down to chunks of peat.  

One night the wooden frame began to smolder, the burn was beyond control, and the firefight was over. By mid-February, all that remained was wreckage that resembled a fire-swept homeless encampment, charred wooded posts jutting up at bizarre angles and tangles of collapsed wire. Sic transit gloria compost bin.

We were never really satisfied with the old bin anyway. It was too small, even with a welded wire and metal fencepost addition, and shoveling the humus out from the narrow, sagging gates of the bin had become a noisome chore. The tomato plants never complained about its appearance, but it was crudely built and ugly.

Green-treated lumber is a must for compost bin construction. Mud is the essence of a compost heap, so the wood is always wet

A halt to compost production was not an option. There was no choice but to construct a new bin.

Determined to design and build a larger and more functional bin, I hauled away the fire-ravaged debris and then made a critical study of the site. A solid foundation was clearly the first requirement. Playing in the mud (mud is the essence of a compost pit), I trenched and tamped the earthen base, hauled three wheelbarrow loads of sand to level it, and laid the new foundation of concrete blocks, paving stones, and a half dozen bricks salvaged from a chimney torn down from our house several years ago.

On top of that foundation, I stacked green-treated landscaping timbers (three tiers on the downhill sides, one tier on the uppermost side) and nailed them together with barn spikes. Note: I strongly recommend using a carpenter’s level and T-square to make sure all corners are perfectly square and the tiers of timbers are level. Do not trust that your eyes will “square and level” your construction work, especially on a hillside slope. Just – DON’T.

Cut into 38-inch lengths, the landscape timbers also served as sturdy upright corner posts.  I nailed the posts to the foundation timbers using barn spikes. Unless you are much stronger, quicker with a hammer, and steadier with a tipping post than I, drill pilot holes for the spikes. I cut angle braces for the posts from green-treated 2×4 and attached them with 3 1/2 inch wood screws – until I ran out of screws and had to hammer them together with 10-penny nails.    

The top boards of the frame were also cut from green-treated 2x4s, with a 45-degree angle cut at the ends of the boards atop each corner post to join them. I “encouraged” a snug fit with a rubber mallet, then nailed them down. Do not look too closely at my work. Remember: it’s a compost bin, not the Taj Mahal.

Despite being chased inside by intermittent rain, three days of work in March completed the project. Well, mostly completed it. I still have to attach the welded wire facing to the frame and build the gates. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither is a good compost bin.

This one should last for as long as we live on the farm and can keep gardening. If we don’t burn it down. My new rule: dump the woodstove ashes directly onto the garden. That is probably not as efficient for controlling the soil’s pH level, and it is possible that much of the ashes dumped on top of snow will be blown away by winter winds.  

But the evil embers will be banned from the new compost bin. When I look out the kitchen window next January, I want to know that the misty vapor rising from the compost is the warm and gentle toasting of yard waste into mulch and peat, not the bubbling, simmering subterranean lava of Mauna Loa before it erupts in flame and destruction.

We’ve had enough compost fires.   

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High-tech snowshoes

Leery of modern devices, I’m not all-in on the high-tech snowshoes.

Tradition is an anchor that secures my life in safe harbor in time of storm and keeps me from crashing onto the leeward rocks when winds of change blow strong. But at times tradition is a dead weight that holds me immobile, when no storms threaten, and I should be sailing away to new adventures.

Skimming across the late-winter’s waves of drifted snow, for example.

Long ago, in 1976 as I remember, an early November storm came roaring across our rural northeast Nebraska town and buried the countryside under more than 30 inches of snow. Temperatures plummeted, and the region was locked in winter for the duration.

In the course of a week the town streets and county roads were cleared for limited travel, some roadside snowbanks piled 10 or 15 feet high, and life struggled back to the chilly normalcy of that country’s most dreary season. It seemed prudent to buy a pair of snowshoes, although I no experience snowshoeing and only the vaguest idea of what that outdoor adventure was all about.

For starters – let’s be harshly honest here – even in the mildest of winters, northeast Nebraska would not be considered a winter wonderland. The blank white sweeps of the shortgrass prairie may have been breathtakingly magnificent long ago, but for more than 50 years the land had been reshaped into stubbly row crop fields and overgrazed pastures. The scenery compared poorly to the mountain vistas of Montana.  

But the terrain along the Missouri River Valley, the area we called the Missouri Breaks, has a rugged and disordered beauty, with slashes of wooded and brush-filled folds in the landscape. Nebraska’s winter winds are always cruel, but if you could brave them it was worth the long hike into and through those rolling breaks and coulees.

That is why I paid the outrageous price of $25 (plus shipping and handling fees of $4.75) for my first pair of ash-framed, rawhide-webbed snowshoes. The bindings were a horror; they slipped free of my boots and I fell down frequently.  But I eventually learned the skill and the art of snowshoeing, and it has been a highlight of my winter activities ever since.  

Except for the three years we lived in West Texas. No use for snowshoes there. But we moved back to the North Country in the 1980s, and were able to resume our winter hikes. We bought another pair of Michigan style snowshoe, plus a shorter and more rounded bearpaw pair for hikes in the woods where maneuverability is more important.

The original pair, now more than 45 years old, is in excellent condition. We still use them for winter hikes a dozen or more times each year.  I am convinced that the state of the art in snowshoe construction has made no significant advance in a hundred years.

But that’s just my tradition-locked bias.

Wanting to experiment with something more modern (i.e. – lighter, smaller, sleeker, handier, and much easier to toss into the pickup truck) my beautiful blonde wife rented two pair of what I will call those new-fangled, high-tech snowshoes for our latest hike. Aluminum frames instead of ash, solid composition decking instead of webbing, two-buckle bindings (although the old leather bindings of the original snowshoes were replaced with neoprene bindings long ago), permanently attached crampons instead of boot toe ice grippers, and a pair of ski poles instead of a knob-topped walking stick.

As every member of the Over the Hill Gang knows, I am leery of modern devices. My pickup, for example, has window cranks, not those fancy button-operated window controls. I do not own a GPS unit; I have a pocket compass. My boots are leather, not some composition material. Our house is mostly heated with a woodstove. I use an engine-powered garden cultivator instead of a hoe, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.

So, after two hikes of a couple-few miles, I’m not all-in on the high-tech snowshoes.

Some features are good, I will admit. The crampons for sure (you do not have to deal with separate boot-toe ice grips on icy hikes). And these snowshoes weigh only half as much as the traditional ash-and-rawhide pairs. They are more maneuverable on wooded and brushy hillsides.

But they do not track as well as the long-tailed Michigan-style, the new shoes flip powdery snow onto your back (and sometimes down your collar), and their solid decking (being only about 60 percent of the area of the old-style webbing) does not distribute your weight as well to keep you on top of the snow. Snow collects on the decking, which does not happen with rawhide webbing, and makes the techy snowshoes weigh as much or more than the traditional style. Also, they do not look as classy, and you cannot take them off and brace them against a stump to make a handy chair to sit on while you drink a thermos of Sherpa tea and eat a granola bar.

It may be a minor point, but when I trip over the top strand of a barbed-wire fence, I use the knob-topped walking stick to thrash the offending wire while I swear at it, which releases anger and frustration. I can’t do that with the aluminum ski poles for fear of bending them, which would add to my anger and frustration. Snowshoeing should be calming, not aggravating.

Winter is drawing to a close, so I do not yet have to make any rash decisions about modernizing my snowshoes. There may be advantages, but tradition, for me, is a heavy anchor. After I varnish the old ash-and-rawhide snowshoes and hang them on the Clubhouse wall to dry, I may reconsider.

Maybe. At $175 per pair, I may not. Did I mention my first pair of snowshoes cost $25? And they are still perfectly functional…

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Two triggers

Double triggers on a side-by-side double are far superior to a single trigger for a compelling reason.

“BECAUSE there are two barrels.”

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of shooting a course of sporting clays in Texas with the sales representative of an Italian gunmaking company. As I remember, he broke 94 targets out of 100. I had one of my better days and broke 82. He shot the course with one of his company’s Pigeon Grade over-and-under 12 bores, a stunningly beautiful gun that had been expressly made for live pigeon shooting.

Banned in some states in the U.S. but still widely practiced in Europe and many Latin American countries, live pigeon shooting is considered the most challenging and difficult of the shotgun games. The pigeons are launched (sometimes thrown) into fast-moving, erratic, and unpredictable flight, and a bird must be shot and dropped before it reaches the fenced boundary of the ring – the circular shooting ground.

I was in awe of this Italian shotgunner who competed in these highly competitive and big-money shoots, which I would be too intimidated to attempt. My wing-shooting skills in the live pigeon ring would surely leave me 1) totally humiliated, and 2) dead broke.

Also, I was entranced by his custom-fitted Beretta. The most curious thing about this elegant over-and-under gun was that it had two triggers. I had never before seen double triggers on an over-under. My own Browning BSS side-by-side 20-gauge gun had a single trigger, which I thought at the time to be much superior to those awkward double triggers. I had the temerity to ask him, “Why does a best-quality gun have two triggers?”

He answered me with the obvious reason, and a pitying and condescending smile: “Because there are two barrels.”

Many years passed before I learned through experience, instruction, and reading the advice of accomplished gamebird shooters that the double gun for gamebird shooting incorporates a perfect synthesis of form and function. That synthesis includes two barrels, two triggers, straight stock, high comb, light weight, and balance.

My learning curve should have been much steeper. I should have appreciated the advantages of double triggers much earlier in my shooting life. After all, two is the universal number of rightness.

Two heads are better than one. Two of a kind. Two thumbs up. Two peas in the same pod. Tea for two. Two minute warning. Two for the price of one. Two to tango. Two by two. Two tickets to paradise. Two can live as cheaply as one. Big Two-Hearted River. One-two punch. Texas two-step. A perfect pair. And make mine a double at closing time.

Part I -Why two triggers?

Two triggers because there are two barrels. Simple as that. Double triggers on a side-by-side double are far superior to a single trigger for a compelling reason.

An aficionado of double guns since my earliest days afield, I was sadly misinformed about the supposed benefit of a single trigger and blundered through a process of self-enlightenment. The firearms and hunting writer Jack O’Connor was my guru, and he was an advocate of the single trigger on a double gun. But Jack was wrong about that, dead wrong, as he was about much else in shotgunning (read Jack O’Connor was wrong).

My first gun was a Savage-Fox Model B-SE that I believed was the best of the budget-priced doubles. Twelve gauge, 28-inch barrels choked modified and full, beavertail forend, pistol grip, thick-stocked and low-combed, it probably weighed eight and a half pounds and was quick and nimble as a dump truck. Naturally it had a single trigger (non-selective). I would not have considered anything less.

As my knowledge of wing shooting advanced and the shortcomings of that clunky Savage-Fox double became apparent, the gun underwent extensive modification, but it was hopeless. One cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

I moved to West Texas where the only birds one could hunt were mourning doves, white winged doves. bobwhite quail, and a horrid avian species locally called blue quail (more properly known as scaled quail). Unexpectedly given a bonus by my employer, I bought a Browning BSS Sporter in 20 gauge. Twenty-six-inch barrels choked improved-cylinder and modified, semi-beavertail forend, straight stock, trim, light, graceful and delightfully quick. Heavenly. I still have that gun, do most of my bird hunting with it, and love it.

The BSS also had a single trigger, but it was equipped with a barrel selector button inside the rear of the trigger guard. A push of the button and, voile!, one could choose the modified choke barrel for long shots or the IC barrel when shots were closer.

But over the course of three seasons the barrel selector was seldom used. It was set to fire the IC barrel first, and I almost never pushed it over to first shoot the modified barrel.

Selecting the tight barrel was cumbersome. I would look down at the gun and turn it sideways to punch the button, and that put a hitch in my shooting technique. Wearing gloves, the barrel switch was even more clumsy, and on two occasions the button became stuck halfway between right and left, which locked the trigger and allowing neither barrel to fire. Watching a covey of quail whirl away, I spoke a descriptive phrase about barrel selectors.

But the true epiphany came in the form of a family heirloom gun: an Ithaca-made Lefever Nitro Special. This was a “working man’s” double gun, manufactured in the 1920s, and it needed extensive modification to convert it into a gun I could take afield. From a piece of seasoned walnut I made a straight, high-combed stock, opened the chokes and lengthened the forcing cones, had the barrels re-blued and the receiver case-hardened – the whole nine yards. (Read Grandfather Clause and Lefever Nitro Special.)

But there was a problem. The old gun had double triggers, and I could not change that without going to great expense. Obviously, I would not shoot well with that handicap.

Continuing a family heritage, I took the gun to the Nebraska Sandhills to hunt prairie grouse. Cresting a dune late one morning a pod of birds flushed wild, at least 35 yards ahead. The old double gun went to my shoulder, my finger slipped to the rear trigger, I fired the left (improved-modified) barrel, and down came a sharptailed grouse.

Instant, automatic and effortless barrel selection. The “Hallelujah Chorus” did not erupt from the heavens, but it could well have. In that instant the value of two triggers was obvious. A double gun has two triggers because it has two barrels.

Part II- Why a straight grip?

A greater challenge has been convincing my cohorts of The Over the Hill Gang that a straight grip (English grip) on a gamebird gun is a better choice than a pistol grip (American grip).  More than one Old Coot has said “a straight grip twists my wrist at an odd angle, and I can’t hold the stock as tight.”

Yes, that is the whole point, and the advantage, of the straight grip.

Proper shooting technique afield demands that the shotgunner point out his flying target with his lead hand. If you were to point at a flying bird without a gun, you would not press your closed fist against your cheekbone and point at it with an extended forefinger; you would fully extend your arm and point at it with a sweeping gesture that swings through the flight path of the bird.

That is what the straight grip more or less forces the shooter to do. The shooter’s trigger hand cannot tightly grasp the straight stock, especially with the little finger and ring finger. Consequently, he automatically and unconsciously shifts the control of the gun to the lead hand and therefore tracks and swings through the bird’s line of flight more smoothly and precisely. (My 16-gauge double gun has a pistol grip; when I approach my dog on point I whisper to myself, “shoot with the left hand, shoot with the left hand.” If I fail to do that, my wing shooting goes to hell in a handbasket.)

A pistol grip, conversely, tends to make the shooter point out his flying target with a “closed fist to the cheekbone” style. He over-steers the gun with his grip hand, which is almost always his dominant and stronger hand, which makes the barrels swing less smoothly and precisely, more herky-jerky, and liable to interruptions. An interrupted swing usually means a missed bird.

When shooting the clay target games the pistol grip has a lot going for it.

When shooting the clay target games the pistol grip has a lot going for it. Dedicated shotguns for trap, skeet, sporting clays, and 5-stand are heavier, often longer barreled and therefore barrel heavy, with a mount and swing that is less quick and nimble but more steady. But the clay target games are unlike gamebird shooting. The shooter calls for the launch of the target when he is ready, he knows about where the target will appear and how it will fly: its speed, angle, direction, line of flight, rate of deceleration, etc. And all the clay target games (with the exception of FITASC – Federation Internationale de Tir Aux Sportives de Chasse) permit the shooter to shoulder his shotgun before he calls for the clay target’s launch.

The clay target sports are great games, but they are games. Even an indifferent clay target shooter (me, for example) will be able to break 20-plus targets at trap, skeet, 5-stand, and about three of every four targets on a typical sporting clays course. These games have some features in common with field shooting, but not many.

Clay target shooting requires measured control of the gun, and the shooter disciplines himself to track the target with a balance between his lead hand and his grip hand. Shooting gamebirds afield, the gunner cannot pre-mount the gun and has no idea of the escaping bird’s moment of flight or its speed, angle, direction, line of flight, and rate of acceleration. He needs the quickness and precision of shooting with his lead hand.

And that is why the straight stock is an advantage.

Part III – Why do we go afield with double guns?

The ultimate question is this: Why do we go afield with double guns? Especially side-by-side double guns.

For that I have no logical or reasoned answer.

Appraise the shotgun choices of a million bird hunters and you will find at least a hundred semi-automatics and pumps for every double gun, and by far the largest share of the doubles will be over-unders, not side-by-sides. Many (I won’t say most) of the bird hunters who choose semi-autos or pumps are skilled wing shooters. Many more of the hunters who choose over-unders (especially those who shoot thousands of rounds at sporting clays targets each year) are awesome bird shooters afield.

Well, yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choyce.  

For me the choice has always been a side-by-side. I think this is partly because a tradition of more than 200 years graces the side-by-side double gun, all the way back to its creation by English gunmaker Joseph Manton. And in part it is because the double gun demands more discipline and dedication to master, to learn to shoot it well. There is something almost mystical about double guns that weaves the man who shoots one into the fabric of the long history of bird hunting like no other type of gun.

Pick up a semi-automatic, a pump gun, or even an over-under, and you will immediately perceive the gun’s similarity to a rifle – the heft and feel and balance of it. No mystery there; American hunters are a nation of riflemen, and we are more comfortable with a shotgun that emulates a rifle. The side-by-side is different, especially the English style doubles that have not been Americanized with pistol grips, single triggers, beavertail forends, raised sighting ribs, and other adulterations. This is a birdgun. This double gun has no other purpose than to delight the man who takes it afield in pursuit of wild gamebirds.

Whenever I meet someone afield who carries a classic double gun, we strike up an immediate camaraderie. We always have excellent bird dogs, too, but that goes without saying.

With good fortune, there will be a few more years of bird hunts in my future. With good fortune, all those hunts will be with a double gun.

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Groundhog Day

Groundhog day has long passed, more than a week ago, but canny old Punxsutawney Phil was spot on with his prediction of six more weeks of winter. A Polar Vortex escaped its whirl around the Arctic and dropped down across the upper Midwest, chilling us with sub-zero temperatures and conjuring up a February storm that dropped another five to six inches of snow on our farm atop the accumulated snow from earlier storms.

I love winter in the North Country, but these bone-breaking cold days days of February seem to have become an endless series of colorless re-runs. The days are slowly lengthening, it’s true, but it would be nice to see some sunshine and blue skies.

Fifteen minutes. That is about how long it takes to rekindle the fire in the woodstove each morning. Beneath a layer of ashes, a bed of glowing coals smolders patiently while I twist open the flue damper, swing back the stove’s glass-fronted door, grab the ash shovel and heap the coals into a pile on the left side of the firebox, and lay three or four splits of firewood atop the pile. With the door ajar, the fire will soon be roaring.

The digital display clock of the microwave oven reads 5:37 a.m. Time to brew a pot of coffee.

No use whining. Living in the North Country you soon learn that Old Man Winter will make one or two serious attempts to kill you each year, and it is best to be prepared for his unexpected attacks. We complain about unreliable weather forecasts from the National Weather Service, but in truth those forecasts are incomparably better than they were 20 years ago, so there is little chance the Old Man will sneak up and hit you over the head with a two-day blizzard or a week of sub-zero temperatures.

Two deer, a fat doe and her yearling fawn, are in the south yard eating sunflower seed from the bird feeder. I watch them through the kitchen window. They raise their heads, ears erect, then relax and go back to feeding. The doe is practiced at robbing the feeder and nibbles seed from its rim. Hanging by a metal cable attached to a tree, the feeder sways back and forth each time she bumps it. The yearling doe, not yet as skilled as her mother, eats the seeds that fall upon the hard-pack snow that they and other deer have trampled during their nightly feedings. The old doe is round-bellied pregnant. The yearly may also be, but her coat is shaggy, not sleek like her mother’s, and it’s difficult to tell. When I turn on the light over the sink to look for the coffee bag in the cupboard, both deer whirl and leap and are gone in one second. Wish I could still do that in the morning. Or any other time of day.

One thing I will grouse about: winter winds. Those frigid gusts never used to deter me from my winter walks. Twenty below zero temperatures and 20 mile-per-hour wind seldom scotched my enthusiasm for snowshoeing on a sunny February day, but come lately I won’t venture across open ground unless the wind has dropped below 10 miles-per-hour.

Maybe my beard has become thin and scraggly in my old age, but heading into a north wind makes my face ache, eyes water, ears throb, and nose runs. Total capitulation to Old Man Winter. I’m defeated.

At this stage of life my recreation time should be enjoyable, not miserable. Although I still like to snowshoe the trails on our farm and nearby wildlife areas to view the woodlands the day after a snowstorm, a wind-burned face and frost-bitten ears take all the enjoyment out of my winter hikes.

Standard morning routine: make coffee for my beautiful blonde wife who likes to sleep later than I. Carefully balancing two full cups (mine with a dash of milk, hers strong and black), I climb the stairs with laptop computer tucked under my arm. A few times the laptop has slipped out and tumbled down the stairs; probably an un-accident that is an expression of my repressed hatred of digital communications technology. Back in bed, propped up with pillows, I open the laptop and scan the morning news, including the weather report. Sixteen degrees below zero and 15 mile-per-hour winds. Damn. Just… DAMN!   

The sub-zero temperatures predicted by the NWS forecast may not spoil my plans, but if wind speed is double digits, forget it. I’m content to sprawl in my easy chair in the den above the garage that I call The Clubhouse, read, write, surf the web, drink Sherpa tea, and take an afternoon nap.

“Do you want me to warm your coffee in the microwave?” “Ummm – sure.”

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Project Gun Syndrome

HELLO. My name is Jerry, and I have PGS.

Project Gun Syndrome.

Not just any Ithaca Model 37 pump gun. A Model 37 in 16 gauge, plain barrel, modified choke, and rattail slide handle.

Each winter, for as many winters as I can remember, I have devoted my shut-in time to tinkering with a project gun. Some of these projects have been as extensive as the Ruger Model 10/22 semi-automatic .22 rimfire rifle that I converted to an accurized target rifle: Green Mountain heavy barrel, Volquartsen trigger group, custom-machined bolt, Hogue overmolded stock — in fact, every single part of that rifle except the receiver cover. (It shot marvelous 1-inch groups at 100 yards with subsonic ammunition; and, of course, I stupidly sold it.)

Others have been as simple as renovating an 90-year-old old Eastern Arms single-shot 12-gauge shotgun: reshaping and lengthening the buttstock, cutting the barrel length to 28 inches, re-choking the bore, rebluing the barrel and case hardening the receiver.

However, I have not worked on a project gun for the past three winters, and I am experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Anxiety, depression, nervous tension, memory loss, apathy, ennui, inability to concentrate, and worst of all – actual interest in the NFL football playoffs. I have also ceased smoking cigars and drinking beer, and I fear these bizarre behaviors may spiral completely out of control.

At least I recognize the cause of this affliction: the PGS problem. It is often said that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. That is incorrect. The true first step toward recovery is wanting to change. I admit I have a PGS problem. But I have no compelling desire to change.

In fact, since winter began I have been lusting for a project gun, a pump shotgun. Not just any pump gun, but an Ithaca Model 37 in 16 gauge, plain barrel, rattail slide handle, modified choke. I could accept a 20 gauge, but that’s as far as I will go.

This is a curious desire because I do not shoot a pump gun well. Since I wrecked the rotator cuff in my shoulder and dislocated my elbow in an accident several years ago, a pump gun is no better than a single-shot for me because I can only spasmodically operate the slide handle.

But shooting the gun well is not the point. My father had an Ithaca Model 37, so it’s sort of a family tradition. More importantly, I like playing with a pump gun. I used to take one out of my gun safe, shoulder it, work the slide, and say “pow! pow! pow!” as I shot an imaginary triple on pheasants. Currently, I do not own a pump gun, and each time I open the gun safe I feel bereft.

Did you know, by the way, that the slide action (pump action) and the lever action are the only exclusively American action designs? All other action types are copies or variations of designs that originated in Europe, even John Browning’s famed long-recoil semi-automatic Model A5 shotgun.

I do own three lever-action rifles, Marlin models in .22 caliber, .35 Remington caliber, and .44 Remington Magnum caliber. I could, of course, take one of these all-American rifles from the gun safe, shoulder it, work the lever action, and say “pow! pow! pow!” as I shoot an imaginary triple on deer or squirrels, But somehow that is not as satiating as play time with a pump shotgun, and it leaves a man unsatisfied, as when he imagines having sex some fifty-plus years ago with his high school girlfriend Joanna, who was quite plain and a bit chubby and small breasted, as compared to imagining sex with Raquel Welch, who was not.

Surfing the web for the perfect Ithaca Model 37, I have fortunately found very few and those few are overpriced, probably because there are many other PGS addicts out there.  I have toyed with the idea of using our anticipated stimulus check from the federal government to purchase one of these pump guns, but I am conflicted. We donated the previous stimulus money to agencies that need it much more than we do (the local Food Pantry, for example), and there will be much self-induced pressure to do the same with the next potential stimulus check, rather than spend it on another shotgun that I do not need.

That I clearly do not need.

I do not need this shotgun. This pump-action shotgun. This Ithaca Model 37 pump-action shotgun in 16 gauge with plain barrel and rattail slide handle.

There, I’m feeling better already.

No. No, I’m not.

Get thee behind me, Satan. I can overcome this PGS addiction.

All of you pray for me.

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