30 April 2010

stop and smell the....lilacs


I was wrapping up some work late this Friday afternoon and had downloaded some photographs I needed from the camera, which I sat on my desk, when my 7 year old little girl came in and asked if she could take some pictures. I've been impressed with what she can produce and I want to encourage it as much as possible so I unplugged the camera and handed it to her. The photo above was the first one she shot. When I was downloading additional pictures this evening it popped up and made me pause......because I had wanted to take this exact picture myself.

But she took the time to do it.

I've been crazy busy these last few months, both with moving & home renovations and work. This past month of April I logged in more hours than any month since breaking out on my own. It's no wonder I've felt unable to enjoy the peace and solitude out here on the Hill. But I'm trying. This place exudes the sort of ambiance to inspire even the most left-brained of people. Just breathing it in makes you feel alive.

So we have this long old hedge of lilacs between the house and front pasture. The oldest of the bushes extend 10' into the air and they've been covered in blooms for over a week. And the whole homesite is fragranced with these things. So, naturally, a bouquet ended up in the house. The other morning I looked at these blooms backlit by the rising sun and thought what a great snapshot of a farm kitchen. And then went on about my business.

So, in honor of "stopping to smell the lilacs", here are a few mundane moments from this past week:

Read a chapter to my daughter before bed
Had chicken wings with my son at a sports bar
Watched a giant hawk soar high over me and heard it call out
Stood on our hay wagon at the top of the hill in the back pasture with a buddy and breathed in spring as the breeze lifted through the meadow grass and the sun set
Had a great blue heron fly overhead through the trees in the moonlight
Stared out at the stars
Kissed my wife goodbye as she left for four days
Stood in the middle of barn swallows diving for insects like acrobats
Walked to the mailbox and realized its the same distance it was for me to step out our front door and walk downtown
Made lunch for my mom
Planted a tree

Life is good.

29 April 2010

Block it

Mock School

Last year I had the opportunity to work with a small group called the "High Neighbors Society" near Syracuse, Indiana to list a one-room schoolhouse on the National Register of Historic Places. The unique aspect of the schoolhouse is that it was constructed entirely out of molded concrete block. This led to some research on the invention and use of molded concrete block.

Did you know that the first concrete block was made in the United States in 1890? It was considerably larger than what we recognize as concrete block today. They were 8" x 10" x 30" long.....double the length of what we use now and difficult for guys to handle and lay in place. The block size became standardized to the same dimensions we use today and by 1905 over 1500 companies were manufacturing molded concrete block. It's selling point? Economic and fire-proof. Sears & Roebuck's portable mold made their use of block most prolific, along with their sell of plans and home packages. Styles of block ranged from "panel face" which has a flat face with cut edges forming a "panel" to rock face which has a rusticated surface. Other styles include chiseled, pebble, and designs to create chevrons or scored to create patterns.







There were four large concrete block producers in Indiana: Hoosier Manufacturing Co. of Auburn, Goodwin Cement Block Co. of Indianapolis, Ideal Concrete Machinery Co. of South Bend, and Pettyjohn Co. of Terre Haute. But with the Sears & Roebuck mold, a guy could produce 10 blocks per hour out of his garage. The demand for cement saw the expansion of producers, particularly the Portland Cement Company.....which takes us back to Syracuse.


Grace Lutheran

In 1898 the Sandusky Portland Cement Company opened a plant in Syracuse, Indiana, removing marl from Lake Wawasee and turning it to cement. The rumor was that the Mock School (named for the farming family who owned the land) had been built with cement block made from the marl taken from Lake Wawasee. It was unusual to have public buildings constructed from molded block, so I thought the claim may be valid. I looked for a preponderance of other block structures in the area and there were a few. Of particular note was Grace Lutheran Church of Syracuse, built in 1904, which shows incredible skill in construction execution using molded block. While I couldn't prove the rumor true or false, there certainly is high probability.

Block house in North Webster

I've had limited exposure to molded concrete block. I had been told that Berrien Springs, Michigan was a test-site for the use of the block and it is true that it is found in significant quantity in a wide variety of styles on homes. I have taken note of other churches made out the block since working in Syracuse, but most are smaller and have also been painted. The beauty in the molded block is the soft patina the aged block has, but too often the surfaces are painted. Probably due to the fact that they were so commonly used for foundations and front porches where staining was likely to occur or people wanted a bright look to welcome guests on their porches.


When we bought the farm a small garage came with it, built about 1920 out of panel face molded concrete block. It remains unpainted but settling has put a crack on each side wall from top to bottom....more than caulk can cure. But I look forward to taking care of this little piece of history too.

28 April 2010

an elephant never forgets

A very few years after settling back into my hometown after my college days I realized the republican "idea" I grew up believing in and, quite frankly, was obsessed with offered a strange dichotomy to the moral code that had matured in me. And still maturing I would add.

Believe it or not politicians, regardless of party, do things for political reasons-either to make themselves look better (it was a bit sickening to listen to the most recent senatorial debate) or to forward an ideology not necessarily based on ethics. Convictions? Maybe, but not in all circumstances ethics. I don't want to come across holy and without fault here; but I will say that I always try to make decisions based on that moral code. And that, my friends, has gotten me into all kinds of trouble in the political realm.

A few times early in my public days I took my own party to task on issues I viewed as ethical. You're not supposed to do this evidently. But based on my understanding from after-the-fact discussions with party leaders, the one thing that truly ingratiated me to our local R's was "the elephant incident". There is this monstrous chicken wire and paper-mached elephant (larger than life) that is wheeled through the local parades here in Republicania County. This last year the elephant even had a rider. Patriotic music, and some religious music, is played while candidates march along side. It is quite a spectacle.

A year after being elected to public office we began a kids' Halloween parade through our downtown. Everything was built around the kids with downtown merchants handing out candy and the highschool band leading the large pack of goblins, witches and spooks down main street. Upon arrival with our own children I noticed (couldn't help but) the giant elephant parked on main street taking up several parking spaces. My heart sank. C'mon guys-this thing is for the kids not a bunch of stinkin' politicians (I didn't care which party)....the last thing that should be hogging up the day is the giant elephant. And then as we took the kids around to the merchants, and later that night, I started to receive all kinds of comments and calls.......mostly from Republicans.......that it was an embarrassment. I agreed. First, the day was organized for the kids, but second-they were in violation of our own ordinances by parking the beast downtown.

So I wrote a letter to the party chair explaining my disappointment and asking that they make an apology and if they felt like they needed to have the elephant then please follow our ordinances the next time. You would have thought I had asked him to convert to Democraticism. "I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE" the response read as he began to point out my failure to attend Republican breakfasts among other things-as if that were the issue at hand. I actually couldn't believe my eyes and thought for a long time that I should have published the letter in the newspaper to let people understand exactly what a Republican can look like when a breach in ethics is pointed out.

Interesting that in all of the decisions and public statements I have made over the years it is the elephant incident that seems to have made me the rebel of the party. Oh, don't get me wrong-there is plenty of other fodder. But a few months ago I was having lunch with a party patron....maybe I should say THE party patron......and he brought it up.

I said "hmmm......how long ago has that been? 6 years?" An elephant never forgets.

24 April 2010

mad mad tea party

Tax day rolled around this year and I joined the hundreds of thousands of other Americans who did not look forward to it. Now, there are also those hundreds of thousands of Americans who actually do look forward to it (as we used to), who get giant checks back from Uncle Sam. Actually, it seems that most people we know end up in the latter category.

Which got me thinking about the folks involved in the tea party movement....wondering how many of them were protesting while getting big checks back from the Feds they so vehemently disdain. And I also wondered how many of those folks were the beneficiaries of government projects, bailouts, or programs that under public circumstances they call "pork" and "waste".

I can think of several republicans around river city who will give you an earful about Obama and government waste and socialism.....but have food on the table, keep their employees on the payroll, or have developed real estate thanks to pork barrel earmarks.

I read with great interest the words handwritten on protest signs and listened intently to folks who were interviewed or spokespersons from the movement, the star being Sarah Palin. Their messages aren't wrong. Most of the time they are right on (with the exception of personal attacks on the President), but if you examine what is being said with reality, or the reality of the one protesting, the argument begins to break down. It's as though many were given soundbites they couldn't defend if their life depended on it.

I'm not sure how this will all evolve, or disintegrate as the case may be. The tea party movement, at least those who are interviewed, don't understand who their enemy is or how government functions. If they did they could be much more targeted and effective with their protest. This is going to be an interesting year. Republicans are fighting Democrats, but in many cases they are fighting each other to secure the "most outraged at government" distinction from their opponent. Congressman Souder (R) is taking it on the chin having to defend his republican-ness against a primary opponent and in at least one Indiana republican primary race for the state house the candidate is blaming state government for raising taxes..........which is their own party and Mitch Daniels......who ran a campaign saying he balanced the budget without raising taxes. Right?

We should have never given the bailouts; both in banking (under Bush) and the auto industry (under Obama). As terrible as it may have gotten, at least the economy could have been rebuilt on something other than borrowed funds.....which is what got us into this mess. You can't just say that you're against taxes; there are implications to not having tax dollars (i.e. every Indiana school system thanks to property tax reform). It is the prudent use of funds, not solely the elimination or decrease in taxes, that ultimately provides for a stable and functioning government. The problem is that we either elect desperately unqualified people to make these decisions, or people bought by someone or some organization that can't be trusted to do what is right for the people. This I don't ever see changing.
So have all the tea you want; the problem is our madness.

23 April 2010

latest from the Hill

Some people want to take issue with me when I use the term "farm" to describe our place here on the Hill. For those doubters and nay-sayers, I want you to know that there is a John Deere, Allis-Chalmers, and Ford Powermaster tractor parked in the barn. Sounds like a farm to me.

We've found about 20 mushrooms in the woods along the creek. A far cry from the hundreds it sounded like we would find from the owner's description. But then, I wouldn't eat hundreds anyway.....20 is more than enough.

We've had a hugely diverse crowd of fowl around here this past week. I think I wrote before about seeing around 15 different varieties in town and we've been running around 25 here each week. This past week we had 35 different birds. The latest to show up are White-Throated Sparrows, Eastern Towhee (pictured), Barn Swallows, Fox Sparrows and a Wood Thrasher. Of course, it wouldn't be Indiana without a Great Blue Heron hanging out in the creek.


We also had our first bonfire here Wednesday night, complete with s'mores and good company. As a few of us were walking back down the hill from the barn pasture I looked down at the fire ring and blazing fire with family and friends gathered and thought to myself......yep....this is why.

Lincoln Highway = Byway

Many of you know of the work we are doing to get Historic Byway status for Indiana's Michigan Road, but unless you've been following this site for a long time, I doubt that you know I have been working with the Indiana Lincoln Highway Association for about a year and a half now to achieve byway status for both alignments of that historic road.


Last week, after submitting a document well over 100 pages last November, we made a presentation to INDOT, tourism, and Federal Highway justifying the label "scenic byway" for Indiana's stretch of the Lincoln Highway, following suit with Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. We heard very positive comments and feel like the endeavor is very promising. The grassroots effort has brought together elected officials, Main Street organizations, tourism offices, economic development folks, preservationists and auto enthusiasts.

Our entourage left INDOT and made its way to Crown Hill Cemetery and the grave of Carl Fisher, mastermind of the Lincoln Highway and father of the Indianapolis 500. During our homage we told Carl with any luck there should be a blue line across the northern Indiana counties on the official state map designating the LH as a "byway" before year's end.

18 April 2010

places I remember-but don't see

We gathered at my folks' house for my nephew's birthday yesterday. Since it is mushrooming season and my brother is a bit obsessed with it, after the cake was cut and eaten, he wanted to go inspect the woods for morels. So my son and I accompanied him as we set out for all of the locations we found morels over the 120 acre spread we grew up on.

As we went deeper and deeper into the woods, beyond the area turned nature preserve by my dad, I began looking for the landmarks I remembered from my youth: the apple trees near the front of the old woods, the giant cottonwoods in the center of the swamp, the small drainage swale feeding the swamp from the field, the massive maple in the center of the woods, the small knoll with old oaks, the random large boulder by the west side, among others. The strange thing is that the woods looked so different from my recollection of youth 30 years ago. A few remained but looked strangely out of place....as if the drainage swale and massive maple moved from their original locations....their new environs looking nothing like their former.

I remembered being a bit more agile, deer-like almost, maneuvering through downed trees and under low branches in my youth. Yesterday I stumbled through cracking large limbs and small logs on the forest floor and breaking out dead branches in my path.

I pointed out things to my son that were the landmarks of my days in the woods....signs that would let me know how far back I had gotten and how long it would take to get home. Once I said, "here are the ancient oaks....huh, wait, no.....well, where are they-oh, over here". It was at that time I began to think of this trip through the woods as a reflection on people who come and go in our lives. This has been particularly fresh with me as friendships have come and gone.

There are people in our lives with whom we've shared some gruelling or intimate moments, friendships that have as their hallmark this one, or two major "landmark" moments in our lives. And we can't hardly think of the friendship without the moment, or moment without the friend. But as we go on with our lives, with distance between us and that event and developing new friendships, the landscape can begin to look a little strange. Sure, the landmarks stand but soon their environment seems to change. "oh yeah, that was my buddy so-n-so who really helped me through that tough time in my life". But the friendship may not even exist anymore......the landscape has changed.

There have been a few major moments in my life where the relationships I had carried the day. With few exceptions the relationships are marginal at best these days....facebook friends maybe. Strange how that happens, even within a few years. Things change, people change. The landmarks are still there and point to something in our past, to relationships that somehow helped guide us home.

17 April 2010

the red tractor diaries


Wednesday, April 14...

Dear diary,

Today the most beautiful girl came to the farm. I was away for the better part of the day and came home late tonight to discover her beautiful full-bodied curves waiting for me downstairs in the east bay of the barn. I think my wife might be jealous! I've gone out and visited with her a couple times....she's older, about 53, but she has that good worn-in feel when you climb aboard. Can't wait to spend time with her this summer....I bet I can get that girl's motor runnin'!

Hoosier Farmer

16 April 2010

Hell fire or blessings?


I've been reading through the Psalms, I confess not as regularly as I should, but yesterday morning as I was reading Psalm 28 and looking at notes I had written from a previous read-thru verse 4 struck me and I noted that I had written "it's ok to pray this!" next to it. David wrote:

"Give them according to their evil deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors; give them according to the work of their hands; render to them what they deserve."

What they deserve? Ouch! I wonder if David wrote this before or after he slept with Bathsheba and had Uriah killed? And I'm not sure how this jives with Christ's words of praying for your enemies and those "who despitefully use you".

There have been times in my life when I wonder why God doesn't punish those who are just plain bad seeds, particularly those who put on the Christian name but are not discernible from the bad company they keep. And maybe especially those whose wrong-doings have affected me, my wife or my family. Many times I wanted to pray what David prayed "give them what they deserve!"

But I don't. Never have. Sure, there have been a very few times when I see consequences from wrong-doings, but I try not to find any comfort in that. I think this is why......I know what I deserve. In many ways I'm not any better. The difference is I KNOW better.

So do we pray hell fire or blessings on our enemies? I've written plenty on this blog about trying to be like David. I wonder though, on this issue, if David had it wrong. I guess when in doubt, and always, be like Christ.

12 April 2010

race for the morels

My younger brother always has to show me up by being the first in the family to find the tasty morsels called sponge morels each spring. This is truly why we moved to the farm.....the previous owner said it was excellent for mushroom hunting so in order for me to be first with the find-we staked the claim.

And the property seems to exude that sort of spring feel....as if the whole creek bank and woods would be screaming with 'shrooms. So imagine my disgust when I had to be out of town last week-300 miles away from my hunting grounds and my bro sends me this picture of his find:


And to make matters worse my sister, who we teased relentlessly as kids because she never could find a single morel, happened to find more than a dozen in her flower bed. Her flower bed! So, out we trekked looking for mushrooms both Saturday and Sunday and still have found nothing. I'm hopeful for the yellow sponge-but if this season passes us by without a single find on the farm I may file suit for sale of the property under false pretenses.

How about you.......any luck yet this year?

this wild life


Being a "birder" I had high hopes of seeing a considerable higher number and variety of birds out here in the country, particularly since we are surrounded by such a diverse habitat and number of natural features including the creek and pasture. We hadn't lived here long before I put out our feeder and suet....and it wasn't long before I realized I had under budgeted for feeding fowl.

But this aspect of country living hasn't failed to entertain. The second week here we saw a Golden Crowned Kinglet (I had never seen one before). And soon we began to see a wide variety in high numbers. Brown Creepers to all species of woodpeckers including a pair of Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, and lately a number of different sparrows including a pair of Fox Sparrows have made their way here. We've had turkeys with their tail feathers spread out in the field and a Great Horned Owl keeping watch along the road. Pheobes sit on fence posts and Mallards swim in the creek. And on Saturday we welcomed the barn swallows back, who take up nesting in the lower level of the barn. We typically had about 15 different bird species in town-out here it's been running over 25....only the House Sparrow is absent (thank God).

But that's not the only wildlife. Last night the raccoons were active again (I saw one make its way into the chicken coop), the frogs were hopping into the creek while we hunted for morels, a large coyote sauntered across the pasture early Sunday morning and we have on average 8-20 deer either in the field or pasture each morning. There also seem to be a handful of bats hanging out in the barn-much larger than our city-nemesis friends that found their way into our house each summer.


This weekend I spent two hours mowing (hmmm.....doubled my mowing time, but multiplied my lawn by 20x), a short time sticking donated plant starts in the ground and blazed a trail (or improved a deer trail) along the creek through the woods while looking for mushrooms. We're still waiting to set off the bonfire from Spring Break stick pick-up.

Blessed? You better believe it. And while the house remains unfinished, the dog fence is a bit shabby, and landscaping is non-existent......we're enjoying life here at Sycamore Hill.

11 April 2010

Worthy of our Roots?


I've been traveling a great deal across our state over the last several weeks. Hammond, Angola, South Bend, Valparaiso, Shelbyville, Rensselaer, Vincennes, New Harmony, Warsaw, and certainly not least, Indianapolis. Most of these towns and cities have impressive glimpses back to our Hoosier roots. As my wife and I were returning from a conference in New Harmony last week we came through Indianapolis.

Not around Indianapolis....through it. And I have this quirk about making a pilgrimage-if downtown-to drive around the Circle. And so we did.....at 5pm...just as people were leaving all of the parking garages in the downtown. As we approached, a warm golden light fell on the monument's west face as the sun settled low in the horizon, and I looked out the rear view mirror at our Capitol building and for once it struck me...."are we Hoosiers today worthy of our roots?"

Maybe this is part of a larger question "are we Americans today worthy of our great heritage?"

We passed three large billboards between river city and New Harmony that sought more to enrage rather than engage the public in debate. Our great cities and intimate small towns were created by visionary people engaged in intellectual debates concerning the welfare of their inhabitants. They didn't plaster "enoughisenough.com" all over the countryside to secure votes.

I'm not trying to romanticize the past in any fashion other than to make the observation that what we aspire to today is really.....well.....nothing. Maybe it's to have the latest, greatest franchise restaurant set up shop on the highway outside of town. I know what the political parties aspire to....that's simple....control. And so this is what we have filling the void of intellect, ethics, and vision in our state and our nation. To put it crassly, we've castrated our minds and succumbed to believe whoever has the loudest message because we can no longer birth ideas ourselves.

I'd like to believe that there is hope. That someday civility and common good will outweigh the costliest message. That we will have raised a generation short on greed and long on conscience. Until that time I'm afraid we are at the mercy of tyrants gnawing at our very roots. Have you thought of this question "what does your community aspire to?"

p-a-t-h-e-t-i-c

What does that spell? How about a pathetic past month of blogging. And not much better the month before.

You know, I thought moving to the "farm" would be become more inspiring, more...contemplative, and better foster my creative juices.

Instead I find myself in a bit of a state of malaise. And I'm not sure why. Although it is true that I am an organizational and control freak and since my life is rather out of control....I can hazard to guess why things are the way they are.

Now, I have been exceptionally busy over the last 30-45 days too. If it wasn't work keeping me from spilling out dribble, it was likely the house or farm. At my month-end close-out I realized I had worked more hours in March than any other month since beginning my business. And I've taken several full days "off" to work at cleaning out the barn and traveling to conferences.

So...I guess I'm making excuses. I've had so many blog-thoughts going through my head it really is just a matter of tickling the keyboard. I'm coming around folks....I'm almost "back".