The Rhizosphere

Fall is here, and I have finally finished another soil life illustration. It definitely wasn’t easy to sit indoors and draw this summer, with so much to experience in the first year on our little farm. We finally reached the one year anniversary at the end of August, and are now into our second year here. This means we’ve experienced one full cycle of seasons and we can finally start to establish a kind of rhythm on the farm. We also recently got engaged, which has been a huge (wonderful) distraction! ❤

For this illustration I wanted to give a small glimpse into what I imagine it might be like in the rhizosphere; the area immediately surrounding a plant’s roots in the soil. Far from being a simple feeding tube, the root is very much an active participant and a hub of activity in the soil ecosystem.

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Realistically, there would be significantly more of everything shown and it would be so busy that it would probably be difficult to see anything at all. Just the fungi alone can be so dense they can create a tangled net that completely surrounds the root, and the root hairs and bacteria would be far more abundant. 

The cloudy greenish substance represents exudates that are secreted by the root, which attract and feed multitudes of bacteria and fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi have begun to colonize this root as well, inhabiting both inside and outside the root, forming an important symbiotic relationship with the plant. Mycorrhiza can even link different plants together, and have been referred to as the internet of the soil. A few larger organisms such as flagellates (small protozoa) and ciliates are swimming around too, grazing on the bacteria.

This was one of the most conceptually challenging illustrations I’ve done yet. I went over and over it, trying different perspectives and designs, aiming to give some sense of how much happens in the area around a plant’s roots, without it being so cluttered that it’s hard to look at. I wanted to show the mycorrhizal fungi on both the inside and outside of the root, and I wanted to show how integrated the root is with the soil community and the soil itself. I think towards the end part of me had to just give up, because I had been grinding through it on and off for several months, and I realized I could probably work on it for the rest of my life and never feel like I truly captured what I was reaching for. While I am happy with the result, I did not fully reach the same feeling of satisfaction and “there is nothing more to do here” as I did with my other soil life drawings. I arrived at a point where I just had enough. Sometimes the complexity of nature is just far too great to be captured by a human hand.

Here are a couple of pictures of stained roots I took with my iPhone at the microscope, to give an idea of how some of these things look in real life and where my inspiration came from.

The staining process is harsh and destroys the root cell contents along with any bacteria or protozoa, and highlights mycorrhizal fungi (the dark threads and balloons), so this is not at all an accurate representation of the living rhizosphere. This method is used specifically to look at mycorrhizal fungi in roots, and nothing else. The living rhizosphere can’t be seen very effectively in a microscope due to physical and technological limitations, and that is the main reason I do these artistic imaginations of these underground scenes in the first place. Incidentally, the picture on the left also gives an idea of how many root hairs can actually be present in a real root. They are those small, tangled, clear tubes running along the main root surface. I only included a few in my illustration to try and reduce the visual clutter. Without staining, mycorrhizal fungal threads do not look distinctly different from plant roots unless the viewer is very well trained at telling them apart. Even then, it is not easy.

I’m taking a short break now from doing the soil life illustrations, while we decide what the next subject will be. In the meantime I’ll be working on other things like harvesting and processing the mountains of produce coming out of the garden, getting ready for winter, and planning our wedding!

By the way, this drawing is now available in my etsy shop, which you can find here 🙂

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Our first sick hen

We hoped it would be a long time before we had to deal with something like this. Our flock is only 16 weeks old now, so we were surprised to discover that we had a serious health problem already.

I have read that chickens will kill a sick or injured bird to protect the rest of the flock, so I first started to suspect something when I saw two or three birds pulling on poor Bronze from different directions. Later, she was chased over the electric fence, and didn’t return to the coop at bedtime that night. We tried bringing her into the house to protect her, but she was upset and kept banging her head trying to escape the smaller enclosure so we put her back in the coop, unsure what to do.

The next morning she stayed in the coop when everyone else went out, so I put the others out in the electric fence area and let her stay in the coop with access to the run. I checked on her frequently during the day, and she just stood there with her head hunched back into her feathers, looking very unhappy. I still didn’t know what to do.

We are new to chickens, and like new parents we kept asking, at what point do we worry? Are we overreacting? Not worrying enough?

It wasn’t until she actually came over and leaned on me that I realized we had to do something. Our chickens weren’t handled much in their earliest days, so they aren’t that friendly. Having one approach me and actually initiate physical contact like that, on top of everything else, was a definite cause for alarm.

The internet is absolutely packed with backyard chicken keepers offering advice, solutions, do’s and don’ts. One person says one thing and another says the exact opposite. It’s overwhelming.

If your dog gets sick, you take it to the vet and the vet takes responsibility for figuring out what’s wrong and how to best handle it. If your chicken gets sick, you have to deal with it yourself. Maybe some people take their chickens to the vet but we don’t. I don’t know if our vet would even see a chicken. (We can get into a debate on “speciesism” another day.)

So we took Bronze in the house and gave her a calm, comfortable environment away from the cruel beaks of her siblings to see if the situation would improve at all while we researched some more. We didn’t want to start just trying stuff in case we made things worse, or caused her more pain without any benefit. She watched an episode of Orange is the New Black with us and fell asleep on my arm, making very sweet little “tut tut tut” noises. It was heartbreaking. I put her in the old brooder box and she slept peacefully for the night.

IMG_0587The next day the situation had not improved, she seemed more lethargic and even quieter than before. We realized that she was clearly suffering and it wasn’t going to resolve itself.

I learned that chickens have a compartmentalized digestive system that compensates for not having teeth. Food is first stored in the crop, then travels further to be ground up for digestion. I keep reading that it’s a very efficient digestive system, but it doesn’t seem like the most brilliant layout, since the food needs to exit the crop through a small opening before it’s broken into smaller pieces, which means if the bird eats something like a large leaf, a plastic toy, or long blade of grass, it can easily cause a blockage. If the crop is blocked, food will go in, but won’t go further towards digestion. The bird will feel full and lose the desire to eat, while the food in the crop begins to decay.

I learned that impacted crop can be fixed surgically by cutting into the crop and simply pulling out the blockage, but this was definitely not an option for us. We would likely have done much more harm than good trying something like that ourselves.

After watching some helpful videos I gently massaged Bronze’s crop, to see if I could work out any blockage.  Her mouth starting to move as if she was swallowing something, so I tipped her forward and a whole bunch of yucky goop came out. It definitely had a yeasty smell, which my research told me meant that she probably had “sour crop” and the blocked up food was fermenting.

I spent the next day checking on her and alternating between emptying her crop and force feeding (she was still refusing food) yogurt mixed with water, which we hoped would help fight the yeast and balance her crop again. After vomiting however, her crop always swelled up almost immediately with gas and fluid. I thought the crop was empty after her vomiting, but couldn’t understand why it kept swelling up again. She only got worse and worse through the day, and by the end of that day it seemed like she had given up, and there wasn’t any more we could do for her. We couldn’t let her suffer anymore.

After putting her to rest, we cut open her crop to find out what was really going on and found a wad of wood shavings and leaves still in there. I had been doing my best to help clear it out, but this stuff was packed in very tightly and I don’t think we could have removed it without surgery. I made sure to feel the body after I could see that the crop was actually empty, so if we have to deal with this again in the future I’ll be much more confident about whether or not the crop is still impacted and how it feels when the blockage is actually cleared.

I see the other chickens eating wood shavings and long grass all the time and we haven’t seen any other signs of trouble, so it’s possible that Bronze was just unlucky, or perhaps her crop didn’t work right and she would have continued having problems again and again if she did recover, or maybe she ate a whole lot at once and it clumped up in just the wrong way. Whatever the reason, I hope this never happens again but I also see how easily it can happen, and I know there isn’t much we can do to prevent it.

Experience can be a cruel, but very effective teacher. We had to face not only the stress of trying to cure Bronze, but also to decide at what point it was time to give up hope, end her suffering, and to actually euthanize her ourselves. That part was as awful as we expected it to be, but we knew from the beginning that this is part of keeping chickens and had braced ourselves for it the best that we could. It was difficult and emotional, but despite this harsh reality check we are moving forward without feeling any less motivated or enthusiastic about keeping chickens. We know that we did the best we could and feel confident that we did the right thing. We learned so much from this ordeal that we feel we have “leveled up” significantly as chicken keepers. I would still recommend keeping chickens to everyone who has the capacity to do so. The more backyard chickens there are, the less demand there will be for factory farmed chicken and eggs, and that is a win for chickens, people, and the environment ❤

 

 

 

 

Moving day for the chickens!

The chickens are in the coop! What a relief for all of us. They were getting much too crowded in their brooder box, and it was a lot of work staying on top of all that poop. The coop is much bigger, so it won’t have to be cleaned nearly as often as the brooder, especially once they are spending most of their time outside. We’re also able to position the food and water dispensers farther apart, and hang them up a little higher so they are both staying much cleaner. Chickens are very busy, constantly running and flapping around, stirring things up. When I see how active and curious these guys are I can’t help but think about factory farmed chickens in cramped cages with nothing to do, how miserable that must be for them.

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Getting ready for the big move!

It’s so great to watch them in their new house. They are so much happier now, with space to do all their running around and squabbling with each other. They have enough room to play “keep away” with treats now too, instead of crashing into the walls. We blocked off the nest boxes for now so that they don’t establish a habit of sleeping in them. We’ll open that area up later on when they are ready to start laying. We also aren’t letting them play outside just yet because we want them to become comfortable and establish the coop as their home so it’ll be easier to keep a routine of closing them up at night later on. I tossed in a few chunks of grass that I dug up from between the stone walls to give them something to “forage” indoors. They love picking off the greens and digging through the roots for little bugs and grit. Also, they finally have a nice sandbox for a dust bath now, which they started using right away.

The webcam is installed in the coop already, so we (and you) can check in on the 24/7 livestream anytime (find that here or click the picture below) 🙂

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We decided to use heat lamps at least for now, because it’s still quite cold out and I think they are still too young to handle that. The coop isn’t insulated, so without heat it’s pretty much the same temperature as the outside air.

We woke up to this the day after we moved them:

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I was playing on the grass in the sun with the dog the day before that! It’s snowing again as I write this… and it’s almost May already. However, the trees and bushes are really taking forever to leaf out, and I haven’t seen nettles yet. Nature knows best. I have already wasted some carrot and radish seeds out in the garden by planting much too early. I couldn’t help it. It’s hard not to be overly eager when it’s our first year here and spring seems to be moving in ultra slow motion. I’m so envious when I read blogs and see posts on instagram and everyone is talking about all their spring gardening and posting flowers, meanwhile I’m up here tossing snowballs for the dog to catch.

It does feel a bit strange to listen to all the spring bird songs while looking at this winter weather.

Hope it’s warmer and sunnier wherever you are 🙂

Spring is here, and so are the CHICKENS!!!

Finally, after our first long winter on the farm, the ice is receding, the stream is bubbling, and ten fluffy little birds are peeping in the living room. It feels great to finally take a little step further towards self sufficiency and sustainability, and in my opinion there is no happier sound on earth than that of peeping chicks.

We have been planning for around 6-8 hens, but we ended up buying ten chicks, since we don’t know the genders and there will surely be some roosters in there. They are a mix of different breeds that lay different colours of eggs. We originally planned to raise a breed of chickens that Tux had seen before that have green legs and lay green eggs, but I came across a farm advertising that they had chicks available from hens laying a mix of colours, and we couldn’t resist. So we actually have no idea what kind of chickens we ended up with!

The chicks are two weeks old except one that is a week younger, so they aren’t as tame or comfortable with us as they would be if we hatched them here, but we plan to spoil them with treats, so we’re pretty sure they’ll learn to like us. It’s so addictive to watch them! We have two chairs set up next to the brooder and we spend as much time as we can sitting with them.

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We enjoy watching them so much we set up a 24/7 live video stream! You can find that here, if you feel like you could use a smile 🙂

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By the way, if you’re watching with audio on and you hear a lot of banging or rumbling, that’s probably one of two things (besides us walking around and closing doors etc). The chicks really like pecking on the wall that holds the camera, and they also make quite a bit of noise when they drink from their water bottle, so that might explain some of the noise. You’ll also hear us chatting from time to time as we watch them 🙂

The Brooder

Our brooder is mostly made from materials we found around the house, plus a few things that were just a lot easier to purchase. Here’s how it looks:

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The plastic container is a water tank we found in the basement when we moved in. It hadn’t been used before, and since it was so big Tux and my dad had to cut it in half to get it out of the room it was in. It happened to be a perfect size and shape for the chicks. The feeder is a bird feeder which we also found on the farm when we moved in. I gave it a good wash, and it seems to be working nicely. I’m amazed at how quickly they manage to empty it, though a lot of the food seems to just get kicked around in the shavings.

We bought the heat lamp and water bottle. The lamp arm came from a microphone Tux had over his desk, and it allows us to raise and lower the lamp to adjust the temperature.

The wooden divider (a board we found under the barn and cut to size) is just clamped to the sides of the tank, so we can expand it as they grow and start to need more space.

For water we are using one of those rabbit water bottles with the little metal ball (which is what makes the rumbling sound when they drink):

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Since they aren’t in a cage with bars to hook the bottle onto, I made a holder out of an empty plastic bottle and put rocks in the bottom to keep it from falling over.

The wooden block raises the bottle so it’s at a comfortable height, and prevents any water from dripping into the shavings.

The feeding station:

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They still like sleeping all piled up together in a big mass of fluff and feathers, but I nailed a small branch from the firewood pile onto two little blocks, so if they want to try roosting on a branch they have a little perch they can use for practice. Some of them do climb up on it now and then, but it doesn’t seem like they have good enough balance or stability to really fall asleep like that at this point.

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The food we’re starting with is organic chick pellets, which were kind of expensive. As we get more established we’d like to produce as much of their food as possible ourselves both to save money and make the whole thing more self sufficient and sustainable. We also want the chickens to have a more natural and varied diet which we feel will be healthier and more interesting for them than commercial pellets.

The Coop

The original intention was to have the chicken coop finished before getting the birds. That didn’t happen, so the new plan is to have it ready when they are ready for it. My prediction is that we’re going to end up with ten big chickens flapping around the living room and we still haven’t figured out what kind of fencing to secure their run with. Sometimes we just need a real push from some outside force to actually get things done. We’ve been talking about getting chickens for a very long time now, even before we bought the farm, but we still ended up slapping the brooder together the day before we got the chicks. That’s how life is when both people in the relationship are heavy duty procrastinators 🙂

But that’s ok! Things work out. We have the chicks, they seem to be doing great, even though we really have no idea what we’re doing and have to google everything.

Here’s the coop as it stands now. We’ve never had chickens before, so we decided to start out by building the coop in such a way that it’s not actually a permanent structure and if we end up liking the whole chicken thing (I suspect we will) we can build a bigger, more permanent coop or fix up the barn so it’s chicken-friendly. With a few small adjustments this coop can be used as a nice chicken tractor, or if it all goes horribly wrong we can just take it apart and forget about it.

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Other Spring Updates

Phoebe is growing up incredibly fast! I can’t believe how much she has changed since we first brought her home. Now that she’s a little bigger we go out hiking together almost every day. We usually spend about an hour exploring the forests around us. Phoebe loves sniffing through the moss and carrying sticks around. We have a lot of fun our walks, and I can already feel a difference in my own physical fitness since I started hiking with her.

We are incredibly fortunate to live in such a beautiful area with endless opportunities to explore and enjoy nature just outside the door.

The critter cam has been busy keeping tabs on the local wildlife. I recently moved it up the hill where I’ve noticed a lot of moose poop and tracks, so hopefully we’ll have some nice moose pictures in the near future!

Our first farm animals, the worms, are also doing very well. They have a much nicer home now than what they started in and they are thriving in there, along with enormous numbers of small arthropods and microorganisms. At this point they consume about a third of the food waste we produce, the rest goes into the compost bin outside or we send it to the township if it’s things like meat scraps or bones that we aren’t set up to compost ourselves. The worm bin doesn’t stink, even if you stick your head in it (I can say this from experience), and there is already a decent layer of rich finished compost forming at the bottom. Overall, this project is a huge success!

I’ve also been taking a Norwegian class in Notodden at the adult learning center, so altogether I haven’t had as much time to draw as I’d like, but I have been continuing work on the soil life series, here is the newest work in progress:

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This drawing is taking quite a lot of time, because it’s fairly detailed and takes significant time just to mentally get into working on it, especially with so much other interesting stuff starting to happen around me. Imagine drawing a gravel driveway, stone by stone.

*yawn*

Still, I do what I can when I can, and it’s getting there. The effort is always worth it in the end 🙂

 

 

 

Ciliates

The fifth installment of my soil life illustration series is finished!

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The two large protozoa pictured here are of the genus Euplotes, which are common in aquatic and terrestrial habitats. I used to see them frequently in freshwater biofilms (algae slime layers) in university, and I still see them every now and then in my agricultural soil samples too. They have a long ridge along the underside with a fringe of fine cilia to help filter and draw food in. Longer cilia (the things that look like tentacles) around the cell help them to swim and control movement in the water. I still find it incredible that so much can be accomplished by one single cell, and that something this tiny can be so complex. Watching them navigate through samples searching for food is truly fascinating.

The three smaller green protozoa on the left side of the picture are of the genus Euglena. They are flagellates, unlike Euplotes which are ciliates. Another flagellate of the genus Anisonema can also be seen working its way through the soil just below the ciliates. Flagellates are also single-celled organisms, but they are typically smaller than ciliates and travel by only one or two long whip like tails, as opposed to ciliates which travel using larger numbers of shorter “hairs” called cilia. Unlike most protozoa which are heterotrophs, Euglenids often contain chloroplasts like plants, which means they can also photosynthesize and create their own food, in addition to eating food from outside sources. So does this make Euglena a plant or an animal? Euglena is not the only protozoan to give early taxonomists a unique challenge, and this lead to protozoa being given their own kingdom in taxonomy, instead of simply being included in the animal or plant kingdom.  

For the next illustration I’ll be featuring testate amoebae again, this time focusing on the genus Difflugia. This time I’m using a screen recording program to try and create a time lapse video of the entire process from start to finish. I’ve noticed that people often look a bit bewildered when I try to explain how I make these drawings, so I thought it would be interesting, and maybe even helpful, to make a video showing exactly how I do it.

It’ll probably take some time to get it done, I’m in school four days a week now and we have a new puppy in the house plus it’s time to start really getting into planning the spring gardens, so there really isn’t much time leftover for drawing. There has also been quite a bit of logging in the area for the past few weeks, and I have to say I don’t find the sound of chainsaws very inspiring to my art process, much less when it’s falling on top of general exhaustion and a tight schedule… but I’m doing what I can.

On the bright side the days are getting longer and the sun has finally started rising high enough to shine into the windows once again, and that has been a very welcome change.

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Here’s a picture of our newest addition, Phoebe ❤

 

Predatory Fungus in Soil

This is a gruesome example of how nutrients can move through the soil food web. Drawing this scene was complicated and very challenging, but I learned a lot in the process. The other soil life illustrations took about 10-15 hours each, this one took 32 hours over the course of several weeks. I had to leave and come back to it a few times, and I’m still not sure if it’s really finished. It might be one of those pieces that never really feels finished because there is so much to look at, but I had to draw the line (no pun intended) somewhere.

This drawing requires a bit of explanation, unless you’re a soil biologist or just know a lot about the soil food web.

The main subject of this illustration is the big worm, which looks kind of like an earthworm but is actually a nematode. Nematodes are roundworms are usually very small and are unsegmented, unlike earthworms. There are over 25,000 known species of nematodes, but they are so ubiquitous that scientists estimate there are actually about a million different species of them. If you’re an avid gardener or maintain a lawn you might have heard of nematodes before, either to help fight pests or as pests themselves. I’ve seen packages of parasitic nematodes in garden centers that people can buy as a biological pest control against grubs in their lawn.

Soil nematodes are very small; you usually need a decent microscope to see them. There are a few main types of soil nematodes that gardeners are interested in: fungal feeding, bacteria feeding, predatory, and root feeding nematodes. They have specialized mouthparts according to their diet. The nematode pictured here is a root feeding nematode, with a needle-like mouthpiece called a stylet used for piercing through plant roots to feed on them. This can cause bulges or lesions in the roots, which are not good for the plant.

The fungus pictured is Arthrobotrys dactyloides. You can find a very good video demonstrating how it traps nematodes here. I used this video as a reference to get a better idea of how the fungus should look, since I’ve never seen one in the microscope myself.

Nematodes don’t have any eyes, so they find their food by sensing chemicals in the area, kind of like our sense of smell. The fungus emits something to attract the nematodes into the rings, and when the nematode swims through the ring it senses the heat and the ring cells rapidly swell up like balloons, trapping the nematode and killing it. Then, fungal hyphae (like roots) grow into the nematode’s body and begin to digest it from the inside.

In the illustration, all this is happening on the surface of a plant root. A plant which is probably very happy to have the fungus around protecting its roots from hungry nematodes.

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As usual, if you look closely you can also see some other small critters in the picture. There are two small flagellates just above the plant root between two root hairs on the left side, and a ciliate just below and to the left of the nematode’s head. There are also scattered bacteria, demonstrating just how ridiculously small bacteria are, so small that even at this scale they just look like little specks of debris.

I kept the soil background relatively simple in this drawing because it was already busy enough with all the scraggly root hairs and fungal hyphae. I wanted to make sure it was easy to focus on the nematode and the fact that it’s trapped.

I hope this drawing, along with the others in the soil life series, will help demonstrate how complex, fascinating, and alive the soil ecosystem really is. It is essential that we as gardeners or farmers take care of our soil by protecting and encouraging a diverse and thriving soil ecosystem. Just being a bit more aware of what goes on down there is the first step towards more sustainable food production on any scale.

There are still more drawings to come in this series. I’ve already started the next one, which features some of my favourite protozoa. Here is a sneak preview of the work in progress:

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If you would like to use my existing artwork in a publication or display, or if you want to discuss commissions of any kind, feel free to contact me using the contact button above, or you can email me directly: artborean@gmail.com.

 

Arctic Tern Painting and Winter Update

This acrylic canvas painting of an Arctic Tern was a Christmas present, so now that the gift has been given I can post it here:

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Tux’s family lives near the coast, and when we visit I enjoy watching terns hover over the water, scouting for fish before they strike. As usual with phone pictures, the colours and lighting have been exaggerated a bit. Sometimes I wish I had a giant scanner just for paintings because taking pictures of them can be quite a challenge if the lighting isn’t ideal, and in my studio it’s far from ideal.

This time of year it’s almost always dark in the house. It’s near the base of  a large hill which is higher than the winter sun, so regardless of windows we can’t see the sun at all in the depth of winter. On nice days we still get blue skies and light of course, and on a sunny day I can determine approximately where behind the hill the sun is, but we can’t see the sun itself. Now I understand why so many holidays were originally based on things like the changing seasons; we are eagerly waiting for those first golden rays to reach over the trees signaling the return of warmth and light. After living in the city for three years, now I finally understand the Norwegian love of sitting in the sunshine, and why the easter holiday is such a big deal here. On one of the first days when I was in Canada this past Christmas, I realized it was sunny outside and I stepped out onto the porch, eager to feel the warmth on my skin, but it was -15C and that didn’t quite go as I expected. I hurried back inside before my feet froze to the deck boards. It was sunny almost every day while I was there, and not every day was that cold (boxing day was +9!), so now I consider going home for Christmas to be my “sunny holiday” for the winter. Norwegians go to Spain, I go to Canada 😉

I still love winter, and we have plenty to keep ourselves busy indoors, we just can’t do much outside these days because the whole landscape is a sheet of ice. 

It’s so slippery even the cat wipes out!

I sit inside painting and planning the coming gardens, waiting. It will be a relief when we can just walk outside and not worry about breaking a wrist or tailbone. I’ve got some lovely new bruises just from walking across the backyard to check on our new wildlife camera.

Speaking of which, here is our first catch from the “critter cam”!

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There have been loads of fox tracks around and we were told that a fox lived under the barn, which is why I’m determined to keep our kitty indoors at night as much as possible. It was fun to finally see the fox itself. I’ve seen lots of moose and deer tracks in this spot too, and we were told there are badgers around too, but so far haven’t had pictures of anything other than this fox and a neighbour’s cat prowling around.

As soon as I arrived back in Norway after Christmas, exhausted and jet lagged, we took a 10 hour drive up to Trondheim to pick up our “new” 40 year old electric garden tractor, which we are very excited about. The tractor came with solar panels for charging, so it’s totally self sufficient and emission free. These were never sold in Norway; it was imported from the states and as far as we know it’s the only one of its kind here, so we are absolutely thrilled to have it. It’s something we can fix ourselves if it breaks down since it was built before everything was so high tech and built to be “disposable”, so things were made to be fixable. The tractor came with all kinds of attachments, and we are super excited to see what it is capable of. I especially love how quiet it is compared to the diesel tractor or the gas lawn mower.

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Now things are starting to feel normal for the first time in what feels like forever. There are no more major life changes on the horizon. We’re settled in, the chaos of the holidays is over and I’m recovered from all the travel and getting back into work mode. I’ve got a contract coming up soon so I have had to push myself a bit to get back into drawing, which is always difficult if I’ve been away from it for a while, especially picking up where I left off on a work in progress. The current project involves a nematode being trapped by a fungus, like this. Nature can be pretty gruesome!

Hope you’re staying cozy and warm this winter 🙂

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Winter from the kitchen window ❤ 

First Weekend at the Farm

 

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5am view from the front yard

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Finally! After several long weeks of ending each day with a high-five, celebrating that we made it 24 hours closer to the farm, moving day actually came. We packed up the van and drove down to meet with the previous owner. He gave us a thorough walkthrough of the house, talking about chimneys and well pumps and things like that, papers were signed, and then he drove away. Suddenly the place was ours.

For a moment it was surreal, and a bit scary. It almost felt like when you’re going down the stairs and there was one less step than you thought and you try to step down again but hit the floor instead. We’ve been talking and dreaming about doing this for a few years now, and suddenly the time has come to face the fantasy and see if it lives up to our expectations. After just three days on the farm (in summer and off work), I can’t say we have really experienced the reality just yet but we are still fully confident that this was the right move and we will be very happy here.  IMG_7267Overall things seem to be even better than we thought they were when we first visited and made the decision to buy it. I expected that to go the other way.

I am still struggling to come to terms with the downed forest, since that was one of the things I had been most eager about when we were first looking at the (apparently outdated) satellite images of the property. I had anticipated easy access to beautiful forest trails near the house, and to rest assured that nobody would come and chop down my sanctuary. We do still have forest surrounding us in all directions and it is spectacular, but all the land closest to the house has been cleared right up to the edge of the property, so the beautiful backdrop and convenient access to the woods from the house are not ours, and therefore not safe from logging.

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Nope, we didn’t have a tornado.

I have already walked through some parts of the intact forest and it will be hard not to get attached. But as I keep telling myself, what’s done is done and the seventy year old trees (I counted rings) will not return anytime soon, so we have to just watch and admire the way nature slowly rebuilds itself after catastrophe. Tornadoes and forest fires would have had a similar effect, so I try to see humans as a different kind of natural disaster and that makes it a little easier to deal with. The property is still incredible, and with the loss of the forest comes many unique opportunities. Permaculture is about embracing and working with what you’ve got around you, and this is an opportunity to do that.

I would like to let some of it return naturally to wilderness or semi wilderness (zones 4-5 in permaculture design). Ideally we’d create a gradient of management zones, with the most intensively managed landscape closest to the house, and the lower maintenance areas such as orchards farther away towards the wilderness. Our heads are just spinning with ideas and possibilities. I feel like an overexcited kid jumping from one thing to the next, all these years of thinking and wishing for this opportunity are bubbling up and exploding in all directions now that we have actual land to work with.

Moving in

The first night was really weird. We were bringing stuff into the house from the  cars, and it really felt like we were just unpacking for a weekend at the cabin or house sitting for someone, and pretending or wishing we were going to live here. We kept reminding ourselves that this cool place is our new home.

We couldn’t move everything in one go, so meals were pretty basic over the weekend and it was fun figuring out how to do things without all the stuff we are used to having on hand.

IMG_7253We did lots of grilling too which was amazing after living in an apartment for so long and not being able to BBQ on the balcony.

On saturday we realized that we had enormously underestimated the amount of fruit that is already growing here. Plums, two types of gooseberries (stikkelsbær), red currants (rips), white currants (hvit rips?), and more black currants (solbær) than we will ever know what to do with. There are also several large patches of blueberries around, but it seems like humans or wildlife have been into them as there aren’t many actual berries left.

We spent some time picking red currants for eating (great with vanilla sauce and in cereal) and making jelly. I didn’t bring any jars or sugar to make jelly but I did happen have a large container, so I cleaned and froze the berries for later. I used lined cookie sheets to freeze the berries individually in batches, so that they wouldn’t end up in a solid mass. This way I can take out a handful now and then as needed, or use larger amounts to make jelly when I’m ready to do that.

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I had berries with vanilla sauce, and Tux had vanilla sauce with berries.

We have many steep learning curves ahead of us, in all aspects of managing this place. Just from this little berry-picking experience I’ve already leveled up and learned some new things. Next time I will pick the twigs rather than individual berries, so that both picking and cleaning them is easier, and I’ll use a smaller container or pick smaller amounts at a time so the bottom ones don’t get crushed.

There is quite a bit of lawn to maintain (eventually much of it will be gardens) so the lawn mower got some use right away, but there wasn’t much fuel in it and we didn’t think to bring any gas with us so we didn’t get very far.

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The road leading to the farm was closed on saturday, so we weren’t able to go out and get a gas can, then of course it’s Norway so everything is closed on sunday and it didn’t happen then either.

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This is why the road was closed on saturday

Wildlife

There are definitely moose here. Either a lot of them, or a few that visit frequently. We haven’t seen the animals themselves yet, but their presence is obvious. There are moose droppings and tracks all over, including two big plops right on the front lawn. Like many people, I thought moose droppings were always big pellets like those chocolate covered almonds they sell as “moose poop”. At first I was mildly freaked out, wondering what else could have possibly dropped such big piles. Thanks to Google I learned that moose poop can be more like a cow patty too, depending on the season and what it’s been eating.

The tracks are surprisingly big too…

In case that wasn’t enough poop pictures, here is one more. This one I believe is from a deer who I suspect is the reason we don’t have many blueberries around. Hopefully soon we’ll get some pictures of the animals themselves!IMG_7228

There are birds around, but not as many as we had expected. We found a bird feeder on the lawn and put some seed in it, which the local magpies found pretty quickly. I’ve also seen and heard some songbirds and have heard ravens a few times but considering the vast forest around us, it is a lot quieter than I would have expected.

Behind the barn we have a massive ant colony. I can’t say for sure, but I am pretty confident that these trails in the grass are actually ant highways leading to and from the main colony (which surrounds the stump in the bottom pictures). The first time we were here I wandered over there in flip flops and the ants made their presence known immediately, so now I only go there in boots. The colony is pretty fascinating to watch, I just hope they don’t decide to invade the house.

The loggers were anything but gentle here and left behind massive scars in the landscape which have collected quite a bit of water and formed mini ponds. Nature has a way of making things work though, and we have seen some dragonflies patrolling around the mini ponds and by the house. I think this is why there are surprisingly few mosquitoes around despite all that standing water. I thought we would have been smacking them all day but we really only notice them further into the forest (away from the water), and around the house in the early evening when they are normally the worst anyway. Dragonflies are a mosquito’s worst nightmare, hunting them both as larvae and adults. I think we would be smart to work around these wet areas and try to incorporate them into our plans in order to leave the dragonfly habitat intact as much as possible.

Of course, we have plenty of bees and butterflies around too 🙂

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Wild Treasures

While walking through the deforested areas I found a few cool souvenirs. There are large slices of logs lying among the debris, including the one pictured below. I had actually noticed this one at the first showing, noted the location and then went back to get it once we moved in. Sadly that crack you can see at the bottom right has opened into a big split and it won’t work as a platter or decorative piece anymore. I also found several longer chunks of thick logs that we can haul down and set up around the fire pit for sitting.

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In addition to the cultivated fruits near the house, there is plenty of wild food around. There are wild strawberries, blueberries, and a few more berries whose identities I need to confirm before tasting, and the place is filled with mushrooms which I also don’t plan to eat until I can confirm who’s who. There are abundant wild edible and medicinal herbs too, including St John’s wort, meadowsweet, yarrow, fireweed, nettles, and wood sorrel which I love to nibble on while hiking. Maybe someday I’ll do some herbal posts describing these plants and what they are useful for.

It seems like everywhere I look here there is an edible or otherwise useful plant, but there are also some most definitely non-edible things around, like this cool looking but hallucinogenic and highly toxic Super Mario mushroom, aka fly agaric or fly amanita. This one is obvious but I know there are many other poisonous mushrooms and plants around here, so I won’t be tasting anything from the woods unless I know exactly what it is.

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What now?

The next big things on the to-do list are to renovate the shower upstairs (for some reason the drain is on the highest part of the floor…), and to plan and build a chicken coop. Very soon I should have my art studio set up as well, along with my digital drawing stuff. I’m really looking forward to that as it’s been basically impossible to do much artwork in the apartment these last few months and I have missed spending time on that. We have many visitors coming soon to prepare for, and we also have more moving and settling in, of course, and then there is all the general planning and deciding what to do and how to really get started.

It will be pretty busy going forward, but busy in the best way imaginable 🙂

 

 

How do you paint an invisible animal?

The soil under your feet is crawling with invisible life forms. Well, not exactly invisible, but you can’t see them without the help of a microscope. Most people I’ve met don’t know what a protozoa is, or if they do they often have vague associations with things like water contamination and diseases. Protozoa, like bacteria, are not all bad, and there are many species of them that have different functions. I work in a lab where we take soil samples from farms and look for protozoa and other microscopic life in them. Soil protozoa are an important part of the food web that recycles nutrients into forms plants need to grow.

We often host or participate in events that involve teaching the general public about soil life. Every now and then we catch someone’s interest and they hang around asking many questions, which for us is very rewarding. Most people though, find this topic to be quite abstract and distant, possibly even boring but I personally can’t see how that’s possible.

Here is what soil looks like in the microscope, magnified 400x:

On the left is a ciliate, a type of free living protozoa that swims around and catches food using tiny hairs. It’s super cute and fun to watch. On the right is a testate amoeba, just an amoeba, which is another kind of protozoa, that lives in a shell, or “test”. It’s the round thing that looks kind of like a little basket.

Here’s a video I took of my favourite (yes I said favourite) protozoa, called Vorticella, at work in a soil sample. The quality of the video isn’t great but it’s about as good as it gets when you’re holding an iPhone up against a microscope.

Isn’t it cool though? This creature is made up of ONE single cell, yet it is so complex! In the video you can see little bits flowing towards the mouth. It has all these tiny hairs around the opening which flow in a way that creates a vortex and draws material towards it. These are super fun to watch and after five years I still get excited every time I see one. In a water sample I once saw a colony of over 300 and yes, I went around telling everyone in the biology department to come look at it.

Anyway, you can see that these microscope images have a bright white background. The organisms are clear. There are big blobby things and weird abstract shapes, and basically nobody knows what any of this stuff is when they look at it for the first time. I can see why it’s hard to connect what you see in the microscope with what you imagine it looks like in the soil. For most people, soil is just dirt. It’s just dirt and worms. These images are bright white, lively, clean looking, and rather abstract. People can easily dig in the soil and find earthworms, mites, and beetles, but since these other creatures are invisible to the naked eye, it can be hard to wrap your head around the fact that they are in there too.

So I’ve decided to start a series of paintings that attempt to visualize microscopic soil life in context. How might a protozoa look from the perspective of a fellow protozoa? How might these animals look if they could be captured with a regular camera in their natural habitat, rather than isolated under blinding white lights in the microscope?

Here is the first painting in the series and I am very curious to find out how people will react to these. It was very difficult to avoid making the picture look dark and muddy, since that is exactly the environment I’m trying to depict… and many of these creatures appear transparent in the microscope, so adding solidness and colour was quite challenging as well.

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I’m hoping that this series will help people connect what they see in the microscope with what they are used to seeing as soil, and give them a better appreciation of these important and fascinating creatures.