Beginner’s luck, or something like that

Two weeks ago — before snow blanketed the yard and created big drifts among the trees; before a walk outdoors turned our noses red and our fingers white — I went shed hunting with a bunch of amateurs.

Shed hunting, for those of you who may not know, is the elusive search — the needle-in-the-haystack kind of quest — for deer antlers that fall from the heads of (shed by) bucks this time of year.

As I said, I was out with a crew of first-timers.

They were so excited they seemed not to know what, exactly, they were looking for. Hence, one girl excitedly referred to our expedition through the trees as a search for antler poop (OK, perhaps the chill in the air affected her thought process), and another girl said she’d like to find a reindeer antler. (This was the day of our delayed family Christmas, after all. Perhaps she had Santa on the brain.)

As for me, the chance to go shed hunting with the great-nieces and great-nephews was a welcome opportunity for this introvert to escape the farmhouse in which all 29 members of the Buntjer family were gathered. Oh, how great and wonderful are the outdoors.

No one had planned to go shed hunting that day. Jan. 12 seems a bit too early for such an adventure. However, as I walked across the front lawn at the farm with my nephew’s family, one of the great-nieces ran up to me exclaiming, “Look what I found!”

In the grip of her hand was a three-point antler.

kiera 2019 antler 1
Great-niece Kiera with the 3-point antler found on the front lawn at the farm.

Nephew Matt and I exchanged looks at the seemingly effortless discovery by the 8-year-old. I mean, she wasn’t even looking for a deer antler and there it was in plain sight on the front lawn. She didn’t have to walk through matted down grass, duck under tree branches or follow a trail of deer scat. Lucky duck, that’s what she was.

Kiera’s morning discovery led to a plan for the day. She convinced Alayna, Adrianna and Emily to walk through the trees, while Brody and Trenton split off from the girls to do a little shed hunting of their own. I, meanwhile, donned my boots, mittens and winter coat and walked off in the direction of my lucky spot — the area of the farm where I’ve found three, maybe four deer antlers in past years.

I walked back and forth through my lucky spot, stepping over fallen logs and ducking under creaking branches until my eyes started playing tricks on me. It was time to return to the farmhouse.

I was just inside the garage when 8-year-old Brody, who’d seen where I returned from, asked if it would be OK if he and Trenton went back out and walked along a different set of trees.

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Great-nephew Brody’s 5-point antler.

“Sure,” I said, knowing it would have been my next place to look if I hadn’t needed to warm up for a bit.

Well, I don’t think 10 minutes had passed before Brody came running into the house, beaming with a 5-point antler in his gloved hand. It had been found about 150 feet or so from the point where I’d given up my search. Yes, I’m still disgusted with myself for calling it quits. Yes, I tried to convince Brody to give me the antler, and no, he wouldn’t give it up. After all, it is his very first deer shed — one he and I will remember for a very long time. He found it laying right on a pile of deer scat. We recreated the scene for a photo.

There was one more deer shed found that day, in the most unlikely of places. It certainly was Kiera’s lucky day. She spotted her second deer antler about six feet off the ground, caught between some branches in a tree. My guess is it was shed a year ago, judging by the gnawed off points and overall condition.

kiera 2019 antler tree
Look up above Kiera’s head to see the antler she found in a tree in the grove.

We have speculated how the antler got in the tree. Aside from the idea that the buck may have perched his front hooves on the tree and caught his antler in the branches, Nephew Matt suggested perhaps a squirrel tried to carry it up there. Regardless, our quest for deer antlers now has us looking both on the ground and up in the trees, and my bifocals are making me dizzy.

That’s why a pair of 8-year-olds ended up with three antlers that day … yeah, it was all because of my glasses!

Seriously, I’m happy for them. The next generation of Buntjer kids has found one more thing to enjoy in the outdoors at the farm.


Even cats enjoy the season for gift giving

For the past month, the cat chores at the farm have been my responsibility. Either I go out morning and night to deliver Jarde, Tux, Cedo, Midnight and Fluffy some fresh water, canned morsels of beef, chicken, turkey or fish, a pan of dry cat food and some warm milk, or I find some other willing soul to do it for me.

So far, the cats haven’t complained.

In fact, Jarde and her boys have started leaving “gifts” in exchange for the buffet meals they’ve been dining on.

It took a little online research to identify the “peace offerings” left by my meowing minions — research that involved looking at a few pictures of beady-eyed, short-tailed, brown furry critters in full color on my large screen computer monitor.

It’s a bit difficult to compare online images of made-to-look-cute live critters with the images burned into my eyes of rodents curled as though they’d cowered to the killer cat just before their brutal demise.

The “gifts” my precious purr-boxes have left me have tails not long enough to be mice nor hairy enough to be voles, and feet not big enough to be moles. Through the process of elimination, I’m pretty sure our feisty felines have discovered a colony of short-tailed shrews.

Thus far, I’ve only seen the non-moving kind, which I’m grateful for. Still, after finding four of the full-grown variety stiff as a board next to the cat food platters — and one itty-bitty one left in the dry cat food dish — I’m ready for shrewpocalypse to end.


I still remember the time I was traumatized by a beady-eyed field mouse while doing chores as a kid.

Our barn has a little room near the front door that was often used as a feed shed. It’s where I stored 50-pound bags of goat feed, and it’s where the chute from the grinder-mixer unloaded ground ear corn for the goats and sheep. During afternoon chores one day, I grabbed the metal coffee can-turned-grain scoop, pushed the scoop into the feed sack and let out a blood-curdling scream when a mouse ran up my arm. I’m not sure if the mouse jumped to safety or if he was flung across the barn by my flailing arms.

I’d say we both learned our lesson that day. Mine was to never stick my hand in a feed sack (or a cat food sack) without first looking to ensure there isn’t a critter inside, and that mouse, well, I never did find it in a feed sack again.

Just like my furbabies, my lovable pooch, Molly, often left me “peace offerings” when she was growing up. The difference between her “gifts” and those of the cats can be described by size and shriek value. Molly left dead — or playing-dead — possums and snakes for me, both of which I’d assign a very high shriek value. I’d guess Molly thought I was saying thanks.

Dead shrews, other than making me wince a little bit, I can handle — just as long as the cats make sure they’re no longer moving.

The beauty of Christmas surrounds us

Most of the ornaments decorating my Christmas tree have a story, including this one, purchased on my first visit to Germany in 2014. The ornaments and the tree stayed packed away this year due to a lack of time and holiday cheer.

Here we are, a week away

from all the joys of Christmas day.

The neighborhood lights have lit up the nights

and I think to myself, ‘What a beautiful sight.’


I dream as I drive down our city streets

how happy the homes with little feet.

The excitement of Christmas is alive and well,

in all the houses where children dwell.


I pull in my drive and ne’er do I see

twinkling lights shining back at me.

Decorative wreaths are hung on the door,

but that’s as far as I got with Christmas decor.


The seven-foot tree is still packed away;

the ornaments won’t see the light of day.

It’s not that I want to skip Christmas this year,

it’s just hard to muster the holiday cheer.


I’ve done the shopping and wrapped a few gifts

and checked some names off my unwritten list.

The cards won’t get written; I’ve run out of time

and I’ve no more words for this Christmas rhyme.


Except to share this note from a friend,

penned by ‘Unknown’ to help us mend.

For those who’ve lost a loved one this year,

May this bring you comfort for the one you hold dear:

My first Christmas in Heaven

I see the countless Christmas trees around the world below.
With tiny lights like Heaven’s stairs reflecting on the snow.
The sight is so spectacular, please wipe away the tears,
For I am spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.

I hear the many Christmas songs that people hold so dear.
But the music can’t compare with the Christmas choir up here.
I have no words to tell you the joy their voices bring,
For it is beyond description to hear the angels sing.

I know how much you miss me, I see the pain inside your heart.
But I am not so far away — We really aren’t apart.
So, be happy for me, Dear Ones, You know I hold you dear.
Be glad I’m spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year

So have a Merry Christmas and wipe away that tear,
Because I’m spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.

Remembering a farmer’s torn and tattered coveralls

Dear readers,

My three brothers and I lost our dad last week. My mom lost her husband of 58 years. He was the patriarch of the Buntjer family; the farmer who refused to leave the farm.

He loved us, this we know. He’s in a better place, this we know. He celebrated the greatest Thanksgiving of all on Thursday — far better than we can ever imagine — this, as Christians, we know.

Rather than write about my dad through tears today, I’ve decided to share with you a story I wrote about 20 years ago while working for the Redwood Gazette in Redwood Falls. It was displayed during my dad’s visitation and funeral.


It sure has seen its better days — that torn and tattered pair of coveralls belonging to my dad.

When the colors fade from the greens of summer to the browns and golds of autumn, the thermometer dips toward freezing and the winds howl in anticipation of yet another winter on our Minnesota prairie, Dad digs behind all of the other coats and snowsuits in the closet to find that faded blue, denim-patched pair of coveralls with the little GTA Feeds emblem sewn above the left chest.

Farm bleat web
Dad and his GTA Feeds coveralls, photographed on the family farm in 1998 by the farmer’s daughter.

They were a gift to him by his brother-in-law more than 20 years ago, and on at least one occasion were hidden in the trash can — undoubtedly by a farmer’s wife who was tired of patching it and replacing broken zippers.

The farmer — whose job it is to burn the garbage — retrieved them just before they reached the flame, and put them back in the closet where they belonged.

One year, my brothers and I went to town and bought him a pair of those Wall coveralls — you know, the ones that are brown and made to fit all sizes, even big and tall.

After pulling off the wrapping paper and looking at his gift, Dad said to us, “What do I need a new pair of coveralls for — the pair I have fits me just fine.”

Sounds like a typical farmer, doesn’t it?

Anything can be fixed by the farmer’s wife with needle and thread — and when she refuses, duct tape works just as good.

There’s that rip on the back shoulder, where Dad crawled underneath the barbed wire fence, only to realize he hadn’t quite crouched down low enough.

More rips along the sleeves are reminders of other mishaps with the barbed wire — likely from the times he had to mend fences in the cattle pasture.

Patches on both legs stretch from just below the hips to just below the knees.

Over the years, Mom has patched them with faded blue jeans or whatever heavy duty material she could find.

There’s oil and grease stains that didn’t completely come clean in the wash after Dad tinkered around on his old M Farmall or 450 International, and you’ll find spots of ground-in dirt from those hours working underneath a piece of broken-down machinery sitting in the middle of the field.

Those old coveralls may be ripped and stained, patched and lumpy, but they still keep Dad warm. Like a toddler’s favorite blankie, Dad’s coveralls surround him in comfort.

And on the coldest of the cold days — the ones when undoubtedly a cow has to freshen, a sheep has to lamb or a goat has to kid, Dad’s coveralls came in handy.

Many a time when one of our goats had problem deliveries, a newborn kid was tucked in that old pair of coveralls. Shivering from the cold, scared from an unloving mother and thrust into a world of uncertainty, that new little baby was walked through the blustery cold to the farmer’s house.

A few days later and ready for the freedom of the barn, the kid was once again tucked inside those coveralls, carried to the barn and returned to a pen of straw.

Yeah, I guess those old coveralls sure have seen their better days. But they’re Dad’s coveralls. They’re comfortable, they’re warm, they’re tattered and torn … and they look just fine with one of his dusty and dirty old seed caps.

Wanderlust revisited

About a month ago, I bought an ornament displaying a portion of a world map and the words, “We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”

Escape. Wanderlust. Adventure.

One of the trails at Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth is covered in leaves. Leaf-peeper season is my favorite time to visit the North Shore.

My earliest recollections of travel are family trips to the Black Hills, Wisconsin Dells and Amana Colonies. In between those adventures, I’d watch airplanes fly high above the family farm and wonder where the travelers had been and where they were going.

I was struck with wanderlust at a young age.

My favorite destination is anywhere, but I have a special fondness for ocean roads and scenic byways. From Puget Sound to the Outer Banks, I am calmed by wistfully watching the waves roll toward shore.

When the ocean is too far to reach, relax and return from in just one week, we Minnesotans can be grateful our northeastern shore follows the greatest of the Great Lakes — Lake Superior.

Last week, my mom and I set off for a three-day escape to Duluth, Two Harbors and Ely. Planning a quick getaway to see the fall colors on the same day that five inches of snow fell on the Worthington area had me a bit worried, but we packed our winter coats, hats and mittens and left town with a weather forecast predicting warmer days ahead.

Canal Park in Duluth on a brisk October afternoon.

Cloudy skies and a brisk breeze welcomed us to Duluth’s Canal Park, where I donned my hooded winter coat and alpaca fiber mittens, grabbed my camera and traipsed down the pier to visit the familiar black and white lighthouse.

Mom, inching closer to knee replacement surgery, stayed in the car and tossed popcorn from her window for the squawking seagulls.

We both had smiles on our faces. Adventure — a change in scenery — does a body good.

After being sufficiently chilled by the pier walk, we settled into our room at a lovely harbor view motel on Minnesota Point and made steaming cups of tea. We dined on homemade sandwiches, fruit and snacks as we looked for activity in the harbor, and when it was too dark to see anything but the lights of cars traversing the Bong Memorial Bridge, I pulled a book from my travel bag and settled in for the evening.

Even reading is better with a harbor view.

Sunrise on the second day lured us down the pier to Duluth’s south breakwater lighthouse before Greta Garmin led us toward Ely on a roller coaster of a road. I maneuvered curves and hills, through snow and ice and slush, all while hoping to see a moose just beyond the next bend or hilltop.

The last time I’d made this drive — some 20 years ago — we saw a moose in the middle of the road. Unfortunately, by the time I grabbed my camera and took her picture, she was stepping into the trees and the photograph revealed a blurry brown blotch that did nothing to convince my friends of the sighting.

The only moose we saw on this trip was stuffed and on display inside the North American Bear Center in Ely. Our visit — just days before the center’s seasonal closure — included seeing black bears Ted, Lucky and Holly before they crawled into their dens to hibernate for the winter. The center features lots of educational exhibits, interactive displays and a theater that shows a short film on bears.

One of the black bears exits from the den at the North American Bear Center in Ely in mid-October.

I’d hoped for a return visit to the International Wolf Center, also in Ely, but due to its switch to winter hours it was closed the day we were in town.

Ely is also home to the original Jim Brandenburg gallery (located right on the main highway through town), and the city is in the midst of several access points to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Our quick trip to Ely left us enough time to revisit Minnesota’s iconic Split Rock Lighthouse before returning to Duluth and our room with a harbor view.

Just as quickly as our getaway plans came together, our trip drew to a close and we were homeward bound … back to laundry, back to work, back to reality … and happy to have fed our wanderlust.

Look What the Cat(food) Dragged In

When my folks decided this summer to take in a rescued stray cat and two of her kittens, the idea was to have them live in the barn and patrol the family farm for fresh meals of whatever it was they could find.

They had bowls of water and cat food, and straw was heaped up for a cozy little cat nest. The idea lasted for less than a week.

Now, a mere two months later, Jarde and her black-and-white beauties — Tux and Cedo — have taken up residence in the garage. The boys have claimed the dog bed that once belonged to our dear, sweet lovable pooch, Molly, and Jarde, well, she’s hiding out inside a tin coat closet freshly lined with rugs and rags.

On Sept. 22, Jarde became a momma again. She gave birth to six adorable kittens inside the closet, and with the new litter, she has absolutely no love for Tux and Cedo (they came from Jarde’s springtime litter of six). The poor boys are still trying to figure out why their mom hisses and swats at them.

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Jarde’s new batch of kittens, six in all.

Looking for love elsewhere, the boys have warmed up considerably to their human caretakers. Their purrboxes are constantly rattling — even when they aren’t curled up in our arms — and they’re often attempting to get inside the house to explore. They are curious little kitties, that’s for sure.

They love to hide and pounce and paw and play and purr. For a family still missing Molly, these kitties have brought us joy, along with an occasional dead mouse or bird.

We could start a segment, “Look what the cat dragged in!”, but I’m sure you really don’t want to know.

Sunday night, it wasn’t what the cat dragged in, but rather what the dish of cat food lured into the garage.

Mom had opened the door off the kitchen, intending to shut the garage door for the night and make sure the kitties were inside. Before she pressed the button to lower the door, she saw something at the cat food dish … and it wasn’t a cat.

The beady eyes met hers before it turned around and drug it’s rat-like tail as it scurried outside.

It was an o’possum. A disgusting, pointy-nosed, fanged, hissing o’possum.

It went outside, the garage door came down and Tux and Cedo were just going to have to sleep under the stars, because Mom certainly wasn’t going to open the door and call for them.

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Tux — or Cedo — is warming up to humans and is constantly purring.

I would have done the same thing — and then some. The neighbors a quarter-mile down the road would have heard my blood-curdling scream! And then I would have slammed the door and screamed some more.

This is why I moved to town, I recall. Molly had o’possums in her dog house a couple of times when I lived in the big, rented farmhouse. Molly went around and around the light pole with a woodchuck. Molly scared up skunks. Molly killed snakes.

These kitties, as adorable as they are, are not Molly. And that’s OK, we know Molly is irreplaceable. But could they at least be attack cats and keep the riff raff out of the garage?

The Kitten Caboodle

After the death of my dear, sweet lovable pooch, Molly, in May, the farm became a rather dreary place to visit.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself before asking, “Wanna go for a walk, Molly?”, or how often I’ve looked at the spot her pet pillow once occupied, expecting to see her watching me.Kitten Caboodle blog 1

I’m sure it’s been just as, if not more, difficult for my parents, who were her caretakers to the end.

We can all agree Molly — the dog who killed snakes, ran like a deer and trained herself to become a house dog in her older age — is irreplaceable.

And so, because we needed something new to love, something furry to pat on the head, a pet to talk to and make us laugh, we now have a trio of cats. Actually, it’s a momma cat and two of her kittens.

We’re certain the momma was at one time a house cat in the city of Worthington, booted or escaped from her home and left to fend for herself on the city’s streets. A good samaritan discovered her one day in the backyard flower garden and christened her the name, “Jarde.” This same woman eventually opened her door to the very pregnant tabby, and with a level of trust built up over time, the cat went inside the apartment and eventually birthed six adorable kittens.

Eight weeks later, to the day, Jarde and the twins of the litter — Tux and Cedo — were captured in a pet carrier and driven out to the Buntjer farm.

Kitten Caboodle blog 3We are no longer petless.

The cats have worked their way into our hearts and migrated from the barn to the garage. They nap in the lawn chair, curl up inside a cardboard peach crate and rest on a nest of old clothes inside a storage cabinet. They’ve made themselves at home and, as cats often do, they think they own the place.

Jarde, who absolutely refused to be held by her previous caretaker, is comfortable enough to be picked up now. She expects to have the top of her head scratched, and actually grins when she gets her wish. I’ve even heard her purr.

The kittens, meanwhile, prefer to run and jump and play rather than be cuddled by the Buntjer grandkids. The other day, they were playing with a dead mouse in the garage.

It’s a sign our new pets are doing what we’d hoped — being hunters of unwanted and unwelcome critters around the farm yard.

Now, if only they could get rid of the snakes.