Archive for February 13th, 2009

There is a monster living in the garden. A fire-breathing, smoke-belching monster. I’m in charge of feeding him.
Here he is:


This monster eats wood, and lots of it. He requires feeding first thing in the morning, last thing at night and once or twice over the course of the day, depending on how cold it is. He is the central feature of the complex heating system that came with Willow House, an outdoor wood burner. Outdoor wood burners enjoy modest popularity in rural areas, owing in part to the availability of relatively cheap firewood, and in some cases, woodlots. Theoretically, we could cut our own firewood and heat the house cheaply with the 40 acres of forest on the property. The system has one very appealing feature. It allows you to use wood heat without the disadvantages and safety hazard of having an open flame inside the house. The wood burner heats water, which enters the house via underground water lines that terminate in a complex tangle of hoses.


The water heats air, and the hot air heats the house via a forced air furnace.


The system is a decade old or more, and not as efficient as newer units. There is also a bit of a leak in the line which requires topping up the level in the water pipes from time to time. When the water lines are refilled, the excess water begins to spill out onto the roof of the wood burner through a safety valve, which makes a wonderful sputtering, hissing cloud of steam. It’s a labour-intensive system, demanding regular attention, but it does keep the house at a reasonably comfortable temperature round the clock.


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A week ago, it looked, not surprisingly, like the middle of winter around here. The world was covered in a foot-deep blanket of snow and the river, the south branch of South Nation River, looked like this:


That began to change as a February thaw set in. Yesterday, the rains began. By midday, the river looked like this:


After lunch, I braved the rain and took a walk to inspect the changed aspect of the river. The current of the newly released river was strong and the water level was still rising as the rain continued. Big slabs of broken ice were adrift and piled up along the banks. A small dark figure on one of the ice flows caught my eye:


On closer examination, the little critter turned out to be a star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata). In his sadly compromised state, his star nose isn’t conspicuous, but his strong front claws and long furred tail are good identifiers. Star-nosed moles live in wet lowland areas and often have tunnels that exit underwater. Although I have always associated them with digging in soil and eating earthworms and the like, star-nosed moles are good swimmers and are happy to eat aquatic insects and snails.


These busy little animals are active both day and night, and throughout the year. The star-nosed mole is named for the 22 feelers, or tentacles, around its nose, which are covered with tiny sensory organs called Eimer’s organs. These enable the mole to rapidly detect information about its prey. About 15 to 20 cm long (6 to 8 inches, including tail), the mole is covered in dark, water-repellent fur. Its tail acts as a fat storage reserve that may help it through the breeding season in late winter or early spring. The female typically bears one litter of 4 or 5 young in late spring or early summer. How this particular individual came to end his days on a February ice flow, one can only guess.

By this morning, the rain had stopped, the sun was shining and the temperature had dropped to -11 C. The river had slowed to a casual pace and the water level was down slightly. The view from the window looked like this:


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