Snow on the roses

Snowy Bluebird Sophie the snow-loving dog was a lot happier with today’s April snow than the bluebirds in the woods. A stiff north wind and freezing temperatures for a second day brought 4-5 frosty inches to the Bluecircle. The Spring greens of lilac buds and the daffodil patch are already re-emerging in the noon sun but it’s too soon to put the snow shovel away in Watervliet.Greens in the snow


When the cold checks out early

A rainy afternoon made the lake ice into a splash pond resembling mid-March instead of midwinter.  This month the cold was like a guest  you prepared the house and cooked for who then departed prematurely – days earlier than expected.   The snowshoes, long underwear and mittens are collecting dust but at least the refrigerator isn’t full of leftover food.  IMG_1807

Squirrels recovering buried treasure where there was a foot of snow last week look delighted while all cross-country ski tracks around the BlueCircle are either icy or washed away.   The greenhouse lettuce succumbed to persistent clouds and freezing temperatures so gardening season is finally over.

I prefer a snow-covered dog to a wet and muddy one and she would rather delve into snow piles then almost anything else so maybe the next puff of Winter will bring at least enough for that.  Meanwhile there’s time to catch up on indoor projects and plan for Spring.

From the Duchesses of Smith’s Orchards to the Pines of the BlueCircle Farm

Smith's orchard on Heathering Hill, Watervliet Twp. ca. 1880

Smith’s orchard on Hetherington Hill, Watervliet Twp. ca. 1880

In the late 1800s Sebastian Smith and family developed one of the largest and most successful apple orchards on the southeastern shores of Paw Paw Lake.  Their apples included the Duchess of Oldenberg variety, originally developed in Russia and recognized at the time as a superior variety in New York and Michigan.   In a portion of an 1880 illustration of his Heatherington Heights orchard reproduced above (from “A 20th Century History of Berrien County, Michigan” O.W. Collidge, 1906) a single-story white “cottage” is visible above the road on the right.  A winter photograph from about the same location shows the house that remains at that site, possibly on part of the original foundation, albeit nearly hidden by new homes on the east side of North Watervliet road.

Heatherington Hill from the east, 2015

Heatherington Hill from the east, 2015

Detail of Smith's "cottage" from edge of panorama

Detail of Smith’s “cottage” from edge of panorama

Mr. Smith sold the 19 acres of this orchard that now hold the BlueCircle Farm to his son John in 1902, then retired to Florida.  The land changed hands and became Wilmer M. Pratt’s “Apple Orchard Farms” in 1918.   The farm passed from Mr. Pratt’s estate to Chicago Oak Park residents Gerhard and Lulu Schwarting in 1928.  They maintained the orchards, harvesting 6000 bushels of Duchess apples in 1930, but continued to be regular summer visitors.  They developed their Paw Paw Lake waterfront on Woodland Ave. into summer cottages and the area north of Hetherington Hill and Fairview Beach and east of Chicago Terrace became known as  “Schwartings Orchards”.  The Schwarting’s left the orchard business in 1944 when they sold to HJ Peters of Benton Harbor.   Mr. Peters and later his son Forrest owned and operated the orchard until 1952.

The orchards in the 1960s
It was then bought by Marion S. Atwill who owned adjacent orchards she had inherited from her father.  In the aerial photograph above from the 1960s six acres that will become the Woodland Conservancy appear cleared of trees except for a small area to the north. A peach orchard and tomato rows took the place of Schwarting’s apple orchard during these years. The land was bought by a developer in 1976 and after almost 100 years the orchards disappeared entirely. In late 1997 Delavan Sipes and the owners of several adjacent lakefront properties that once had been owned by the Schwartings founded the Woodlawn Nature Conservancy on the south side of Woodlawn Ave.  He described the Conservancy in a column he wrote for the Tri-City Record in 1999:

This split the orchard land into two roughly equal parcels – the Conservancy on the west, and to the east a mostly open field that eventually would become Bluecircle Farm.  Plans to develop additional condominiums or a horse farm on this site were eventually scrapped.  For the next 13 years weeds and spreads of black locust, maple, mulberry, wild grape and raspberry spread from the former fencerows – were repeatedly mowed, cleared and burnt – and persistently rose again from battered stumps.

The first pines of the BlueCircle Farm were placed in late 2010, beginning a fresh cycle on this hill above Paw Paw Lake.

The mystery of the green beads path

Most Bluecircle months yield discovery.  In March the melting drifts finally gave way to brown sand and sticks, but colder than usual weather delayed the first bits of green that promise the growing season ahead.  On cloudy days the Conservancy woods looked as much dead as alive.  Toppled and broken trees, victims of storms or disease, mutely block paths or place heavy burdens on their standing neighbors.  But swaying of still limber treetops in the afternoon wind argues that the broken grove will survive.



Green beads turned from a sandy path

Green beads turned from a sandy path


IMG_1139So what about the mystery?  A day or two after St. Patrick’s Day the thin roots of an uprooted tree bled green, dripping glassy beads into the sandy crater where it recently stood.  If it had not fallen at the edge of a walking path, and if its limbs and branches had not obstructed other ways up the hill the beads would not be seen – unknown they would have washed back into the sandy subsoil.

There were no holes in these beads so they would not have come from a broken string.  There were too many to have decorated lost jewelry, or a sash.

To be entangled in  roots of a substantial tree they must have been lost many years ago.  Their past is a unknown – but those that remain on the path have already rejoined the woodland cycle of growth and regeneration.


Seeing when not looking

IMG_1069Wandering eyes, not looking down the road to the Monday morning workplace – a new way to begin the week after many years.  This morning the snowbanks basked in the crisp sunshine while the tallest treetops glittered with frozen fog that had not reached the ground.  Starkly white against the windless winter sky they awaited inevitable warming that would spoil the moment.  Today there were no Jays in the sumac, but in the Conservancy a woodpecker was already drumming for its breakfast.


Twisting in the sun, rain and wind

After what feels like weeks of rainy days the leaves have fallen on the Bluecircle.   This brings to a close the farm’s second year, and the image of withered sunflower leaves against the autumn sky is a fitting close to the year.   It was a difficult Summer – only the late summer weeds thrived.

Paw Paw lake levels were significantly low for most of the Summer but treatment to eradicate invasive milfoil was very effective.   Water quality is better everywhere in the lake, possibly  because water circulation in shallow areas was not impeded by dense weed banks.  With falling temperatures it’s time to put away the summer tools and water toys.

A year ago tractor barn construction was in full swing.  A more ambitious reconstruction and expansion of studio and gallery space is now nearing completion on the southwest corner of the Bluecircle where it meets the Woodland Conservancy.  This project went by the filename “garage 12” because its design evolved, through a dozen iterations, from a simple 3-car garage.  Last week was devoted to grading and leveling the old orchard property line to complete the union between farm and studio land.  We hope to seed this area, weather permitting, and get a few bird-friendly shrubs started at the boundary between the nature conservancy and mowed areas.

The nine-cornered farm begins

In late October 2010 deep old furrows and groups of bush-hogged stumps bore no relationship to the irregular outlines of the property that was to become the farm.  A survey showed that nine corner posts would be needed for property lines created by multiple adjacent plats and subsequent divisions of ownership.  The northwest corner was defined by an old oak tree, another was a bend in an otherwise straight boundary on the north.  Because the southwest corner was at the crest of a small hill new markers would be needed to define the south and west boundaries, and at some points the “rediscovered” property line was closer to decades-old summer cottages than we, or their owners, expected.  When  the last leaves had fallen in the wooded area to the west dense underbrush was no longer a barrier and a few posts were driven to identify the boundary of the adjacent Woodland Conservancy.   Lake-effect snow is abundant at Paw Paw lake, and as it blew off Lake Michigan and buried the stubble and stumps it was time to begin planning the Bluecircle farm.