A Case of Two Killings

 

“It is my business to know what other people do not know.”

Sherlock Holmes

 

I have found evidence of two neighborhood killings. While there is a suspect, the potential murderer has not been seen. I paused in the morning chill to consider the evidence. There was no splash of blood or bits of bone; only small tufts of fur.

Then out of the foggy morning woods two specters appeared. The men were nattily dressed in woolen tweeds. The tallest of the pair, wearing a wool deerstalker hat, smoked a calabash pipe. The shorter gentleman shuffled behind the direct gait of his companion.

Ghostlike, the pair stopped at my side and fixed their gazes on the clues at hand. All I could offer was a quiet “Good Morning” and added, “My name is Tom Anderson and I live here. I came out to fetch some firewood and found . . . ”

With a quick, slight bow, the taller man interrupted my greeting with “Holmes. Sherlock Holmes.”

Before the other man could say anything Holmes knelt down to grasp a pinch of fur. “Well Watson, with the combination of gray pelage tipped in brown and its uniquely soft nature I can positively deduce that the victim is a Sylvilagus floridanus.”

Watson nodded but then asked, “Please Holmes, while I am not unfamiliar with the universal tongue of Latin, could you remind me of the common name?”

Holmes stood up straight, puffed on his robust pipe and said, “Certainly dear Watson, this most common of North American lagomorphs is known as a cottontail rabbit.”

Watson knelt over the fluffs of fur with his hand cupping his chin. “With so few clues are we sure a death was involved? Perhaps this individual was a female and was simply removing some fur to line a nest in which to deliver her litter.”

Holmes joined Watson in squatting and deciphering. “Look here Watson, this clump of hair is brown-tipped, which tells me it is dorsal pelage, from the rabbit’s back. I dare say it would be impossible for the rabbit to reach its back with its incisors to clip away soft fur for the nursery bed.”

Standing, Holmes nodded and continued his assessment. “Clearly, each of these murders was delivered by a raptorial being and given that the evidence was found in the early morning hours, I am fairly certain that the raptor is nocturnal in nature. Hence, it must be an owl.”

Excited, I shared that in our township we have resident great horned and barred owls. Two months ago I could hear a pair of great horned owls courting in the night. Barred owls are also around here but I haven’t heard them all winter.

Watson stood up and glanced with quizzical admiration at Holmes and asked, “Please dear friend, back up a moment. Raptorial? Indeed, your quick analysis has me wondering how you can make that judgment?”

Holmes puffed from his pipe, and swept his outstretched finger around the killing site. “A mammalian murderer, such as a canid, like a coyote or fox, would have had to venture very close to the garage and house. And being timid in nature and properly shy of humans and their affairs they would have to be in dire straits to move in so close to human quarters.

He paused while Watson follows the arc of the detective’s gesture.

Holmes continued, “Typically when owls make a kill they grip their prey with both taloned feet and hold it strongly until it suffocates or bleeds to death. While their prey dies, the raptor will peck at its back, thus the tufts of fur. And given your acute knowledge of anatomy Dr. Watson, you might find it fascinating, as I do, that the crushing power in the grip of a great horned owl ranges from 200 to 500 pounds per square inch.”

“Why Holmes,” Watson sputters, “that is nearly ten times the strength of the grip of an average human being!”

“Oh Watson, I am continually amazed at what the natural world can accomplish without the arrogance and selfishness of our Homo sapien tribe.”

Watson nodded in admiration and glanced at me with raised eyebrows, “Case closed!”

 

A Week of Poems

“A good poem should smell of tea

Or of raw earth and newly split firewood.”

-Olav Hauge

Discipline is a virtue that is often needed to succeed in life. My wife, Nancy, reminds me that only five minutes of guitar practice each day will result in me being able to accompany her fiddle playing for most songs. Cycling regularly, particularly doing tough intervals will give me better hill climbing endurance on a bicycle, And writing, putting the pen to the paper, stabbing keys on the keyboard, will make me a better writer.

Since it is still winter and I don’t like sore fingers from steel guitar strings and road biking remains weeks away, let’s concentrate on creative writing.

Recently a friend mailed me a box of books for me to read. One was a book he was returning but the other three were new to me.  Two of them were about wolves. But the third volume, a simple small book caught my eye. It was a tidy collection of poetry, called Leaf-Huts and Snow-Houses.

In that book I discovered a new, but long dead Norwegian poet, Olav H. Hauge. Professionally, he was a gardener and in his spare minutes he wrote hundreds of poems and left many volumes of diaries. This was a man who wrote of being separate from nature and yet unified by it.

He was a simple man of the land and spent most of his life alone near the mountains in western Norway. He was an avid reader of poetry finding the time to master German, Chinese, French, and British poetry.

As I paged through his often austere and pure poems I found myself smiling and even inspired.

Some of his poems are like small surprises and I imagined him quickly scribbling down lines with a stub of a pencil and a folded piece of paper. And in that moment I found an exercise for my writing. I decided I would write a collection of lines that I could call a poem though I would not confine my creativity to be shackled by rhyming, tempo, or meter. This would be an undamming of creativity. I set a five-minute time limit to manage a complete poem. And I made a point of not thinking about it beforehand so as to the work being more immediate. Another rule was that once time was up, I could not go back and rework any of the writing. After five mornings, always tempered with a hot cup of coffee, I found the following:

 

Poem #1

March 2, 2019

Both chimneys spew geysers of oak ghosts on this frigid morning.

Ungloved I hurry to the woodshed

pick split chunks of oak and build a stout armload.

Hurry back, up the shoveled corridor towards the house.

Grab the metal door handle.

Feel the burning pain of woefully naked fingers.

Hurry into the porch to the woodbox and loosen my load.

Finally hurry back to kitchen fire and hot mug of coffee

where my fingers wrap around it in prayer, thankful for heat.

 

Poem #2

(March 4, 2019)

This morning the clear air remains frigid.

Squeaking down the carved cavern of a path

I head to the bird feeder bearing riches of calories.

Perfectly round rabbit pellets sprinkle the path

Confetti from a winter parade?

Or releases of joy as they make their nocturnal raids on bird spillage?

Of this I am certain,

sitting unseen nearby is a smirking rabbit.

A sight never seen by us two-leggeds.

 

 Poem #3

March 5, 2019

Swings can be wonderful experiences

None less than today’s.

Below zero this morning

And a breeze that cut into my face.

And 134 degrees late this afternoon

that easily urged me to freely sweat puddles

in the cedar box that brings tropical temperatures

through the magic of infra red heat.

Ho Sauna! Hey Sauna, Sauna, Sauna Hey!

 

Poem #4

March 6, 2019

The flame on the struck match trembles, almost unsure.

Emboldened by the crumple of last week’s news

and a cluster of pine splinters,

The flame leans into its job of making us happy.

We have a few moments to hustle to the cold porch

where our old woodbox sits fat

with wedges of dried oak and cherry.

Three mute chunks are chosen for their cremation.

And in their passing they will crackle and snap

urging us to join the warm chorus.

 

Poem #5

March 7, 2019

.She is on time every day

Cautiously she slips in for her share of the spillage.

A sharp-eyed hen turkey looking for feeder seeds

to get her through this seemingly eternal winter.

The juncos, chickadees and other feathereds

pay her no heed.

All are too busy eating for a chance

at another tomorrow.

 

Poem #6

March 12, 2019

I left Basecamp for four days

for mountain and family time.

Back here in temps bending as they should

towards spring,

I shoveled paths while birds at the replenished feeder

shunned me even more after my absence.

The south breeze carries warmth and the smell of rain.

Will winter’s hold retreat

and allow me

to trudge to one of

the nearby dead oaks to make firewood?

 

Swimming in Global Waters

 

 

The push snow scoop and shovels were put away. Three hours to clean out our 420 foot driveway and I had worked up a keen sweat.  Then on the way to the house I paused, and plunged into the water.

The cold shocked me. I collected myself and floated on my back in the fluff of crystalline water and looked up into the blue sky. I thought of the erratic journey of the millions of six-pointed flakes that supported my prone body.

 Like a salmon reading the sea to return to unseen birth waters, the melting snow that dripped from my cheek into the corner of my mouth had a familiar taste. Could it be the home waters of my youth? Indeed, I could be swimming in the North Branch of the Sunrise River, the flow that passes right through my hometown where I grew into an adult.

Try as I might, I cannot taste the same flavor of the waters my buddies and I found in the swimming hole below Boo’s Hill at the outskirts of North Branch. I wonder how many of the thousands of residents now living there know the origin of the city’s title, North Branch, when they scribble it on an envelope return address?

A few strokes more and amazingly I find myself in the sacred waters of the Ganges River in India. But the taste now is hardly holy. This is the same flow where floating funeral pyres cremate thousands of human bodies. Over 30 years ago, 25,000 cadaver- eating turtles were introduced to consume any partially burned corpses. I don’t wallow and frolic in these waters but instead move on.

After those foul-tasting waters I need the ethereal blue water of melting Greenland glaciers. Sadly, it tastes like too much glacial water is in this snow. How long will it be before cities and towns along the seaboards are wading in the glacially fed oceans?

Rolling over I take a few strokes and find tiny sips of the grandest of all lakes: Superior. This is water with a boreal essence; birch, fir, spruce and pine. I taste birch bark canoes that once plied these waters paddled by Anishinaabe and later French Canadian voyageurs. Other subtle, clean flavors of lake trout, herring and whitefish emerge. But like the Ganges, the water of Superior houses the dead and I don’t dwell on the memory of the quick sinking Edmund Fitzgerald taking its crew of twenty-nine. Time to swim on.

I enter the tropical waters of the Amazon River. I can detect schools of piranha, and the faintest taste of the pink river dolphin that are disappearing. With the largest watershed in the world discharging ten times the volume of the Mississippi into the Atlantic at its mouth, I’m convinced I can taste the jungle muskiness of the jaguar that swam across the river.

I swim on; now into the waters of the Colorado River. This taste must be from far upstream, as this over-tapped river is relegated to a mere trickle when it reaches its terminus at the Gulf of California.

In 1869 this mighty river carried John Wesley Powell and his small crew through the roiling waves and surges within the towering walls of the Grand Canyon. I recognize this taste. You see, like Powell, I have been tossed and flung out of a raft in these powerful, latte-colored waters.

Later, in 1878, after Powell was named to head the U.S. Geological Survey, he stood before Congress trying to convince them that the West did not have enough water for human settlement. His plan to slow homesteading, encourage settlement close to water and eliminate irrigation through much of the arid Southwest fell on deaf ears.

Today this same water is pulled out of the river all along its 1,450 miles to quell the thirst of growing cities, vast fields of alfalfa and orchards. In this era of drought and water shortages growing demands on a limited water supply are spawning backroom discussions about diverting Great Lakes waters to the Desert Southwest where clearly alfalfa and cities shouldn’t grow. Now nearly 150 years after Powell made his argument, we are seeing how his words are sadly prophetic.

Swimming on, I need some lightheartedness. Here I feel the energy of cavorting porpoises, penguins and humpback whales. It seems to my untrained eye as if they are all engaged in play. And the sperm whale with its catch of a giant squid has welled up water that has deep tastes from five miles below the surface. What unknown species depend on this water?

I don’t do well in the huge ocean swells and I find calmer, crystalline waters. Sips deliver subtle reef flavors. Corals (not as bold in taste as they used to be), butterfly fish, groupers, angelfish and so many more give this drink a complex nature. It hardly seems possible such tranquility can morph into mighty tsunamis or give us tidal energy to turn giant turbines that power lamps, televisions, computers, heaters and on and on.

All this swimming tires me. Before climbing out of my snowy ocean, I roll over again on to my back and stare into the blue sky. All these waters have cycled through millennia. Changing from solid ice, to vapor and to liquid the amount of water on earth is finite. Every drop of blood, piss, sweat and waterfall has been here before. Each ocean wave has been calmed on a tranquil woodland pond. Every human tear has likely stormed out of thundering clouds in a downpour.

Exhaling geysers of warm breath into the cold air, I resemble a spouting of a whale. Who will taste my breathing? Who will cry tears born from my breath and what life will swim in my waters?

I rest in the cradle of snow and wish I had the perspective of looking down from thousands of miles. Our planet is like a colored jewel with a preference towards large swatches of blue. This is our water. It’s what makes life possible. And like our planet, my own body is over 50% water.

Standing in the shallows of snow, I brush the snow off me and stamp my way indoors. In minutes I am sitting by the kitchen fire to warm up.

Snow is in the forecast. I wonder what flavor stories might be pushed off the driveway?

 

The Spoken Word

 

 

Finally, it seems we have been delivered a touch of honorable Minnesota winter. The cold front has a way of eliciting whimpers and slowing things down. This is the weather that inspires Nancy and me to pull our small wooden rocking chairs closer to the kitchen woodstove.

 Nancy said, “It feels like a day off.” That pronouncement reminded me of our first date.

Over 20 Mays ago I invited Nancy to do some plant collecting with me on our family farm. Hardly a typical first date but it served me well. Rather than consider it an odd outing, she quickly accepted. Her nodding smile and willingness to head afield set into motion the potential of love.

We spent two hours collecting plants to place carefully in my plant press before we returned to the house. Lunching and chatting in the yard, we learned about each other. We both relished a day off from our work.

Suddenly I jumped to my feet, told her to wait right there and dashed into the house to pull a book from my bookshelf. Rejoining her, I reverently opened the green cloth cover bedecked with gilt and floral decorations that bore the title Days Off by Henry Van Dyke. Printed in 1907, this book like many others of Van Dyke is a visual treat.

I began to read aloud the first essay: “A day off keeps a person from becoming muscle-bound in their own task. Such a day leads us out, away from our own garden and into curious and interesting regions of this wide and various earth, of which, after all, we are citizens.”

Thus began a long tradition of Nancy and me reading aloud. Besides reading books on our own, thus far Nancy and I have read aloud over 70 books together. Some of them have promoted great discussion, such as issues of racial injustice unveiled in Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson or the core question of nonhuman consciousness brought to us by Carl Safina in his well-crafted book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

Reading the classic novel Big Sky we wondered if Pulitzer Prize author A. B. Guthrie was giving the reader a lesson in humility when his young, early 19th century Missouri River traveler, Jim Deakins, was pestered by hordes of mosquitoes around an evening campfire. Deakins grumbles, “What’s the good of a gnat anyways?” He pauses before answering his own question. “They don’t serve no purpose, unless to remind a man he ain’t such a somebody.”

Every year we reread Truman Capote’s holiday classic, A Christmas Memory, and every year we release a freshet of tears.

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is perhaps my favorite read. Oh how we guffawed when Huck swims out to a large river raft and spies on the loud boasting by the Child of Calamity and Bob. “Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’ed by an earthquake, half-brother to cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on my mother’s side!”

Nancy and I have been provoked and inspired by Daniel Quinn’s amazing novel Ishmael. This is a book I believe should be required reading for all high school students. It is a series of philosophical dialogues between a gorilla and a man. “The world doesn’t belong to us, we belong to it. Always have, always will. We belong to the world. We belong to the community of life on this planet–it doesn’t belong to us. We got confused about that, now it’s time to set the record straight.”

When we encounter a beautifully crafted sentence we often pause, back up, and read it again. Tara Westover, in her critically acclaimed memoir, Educated, gave us several read-over sentences. Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like a River is another well-crafted book and should be read aloud.

We were saddened last week to hear of the death of poet Mary Oliver. She is my favorite contemporary poet. I feel as if I have lost a dear friend.

Mary Oliver would not allow something so trivial as cold weather to keep her from going out, notebook in hand, to ponder things like grass stems, a feather, or the shape of a naked winter tree. And so on this day off, it is only fitting that we boot and bundle up for a short hike into the frigid woods.

Upon returning to the house I pulled one of our Mary Oliver books from the shelves. Back in our rockers and close to the warm stove I read aloud an appropriate poem with Nancy.

 

When Death Comes

When death comes 
like the hungry bear in autumn; 
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; 
when death comes 
like the measle-pox

when death comes 
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: 
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything 
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, 
and I look upon time as no more than an idea, 
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common 
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, 
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something 
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life 
I was a bride married to amazement. 
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder 
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, 
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Finding a Mountain Wren

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

-John Muir

 

I buckled my snowshoes and carefully swung the pack on to my back. The operative word, “carefully,” is used for two reasons: to care for my back and more importantly, to care for the cargo of a bundled-in-blue, one-year old granddaughter, Eleanor.

We waved goodbye to the downhill skiers and headed up a slope directly opposite the mountain ski runs. In short order, the first pitch of the climb demanded a quickened cadence of my breathing. While I tried to fall into a sustainable rhythm, Eleanor asserted her protests. Perhaps her kicks to my flanks were urges to move faster. I was grateful for the lack of baby spurs.

Easy breathing became more difficult and clearly audible. At the front edge of an exhale, I told Eleanor, “Let’ stop for a break” (puff) “to look at the new day.” (puff) I would argue she is an exceptionally bright one-year-old, but I’m sure she could not decipher my declaration. By now her flank nudges had disappeared and her vocalizations had become bubblier.

Those clear, rising and falling baby notes, like a bird’s sweet song, have given rise to my occasional affections to my “little wren.”

Back and forth we steadily switchbacked up the trail through the forest. The previous night a fresh snowfall on this Washington mountain had added another four inches to the snowpack and flocked all the trees with pure crystalline highlights. Finally we stood before a fork in the trail. Do we take the groomed left or the unbroken path to the right?

“Hey Little Wren, let’s take the road less travelled.” I stepped into the deeper snow and added, “Never ever underestimate the road less travelled.” Her reply was a soft, cooing affirmative.

Finally we were beyond switchbacks and on a gentle, more lung-friendly section of trail. In short order it was apparent that my wren was limply roosting and engaging in a most serene, soft song of slumber. A glance over my left shoulder spied her tipped head bedded in precious sleep.

We passed a small routed that sign that said we were on the Crystal Creek Trail and that I was just over two miles from the famed Pacific Crest Trail. Known as “the PCT” this path is over 2,600 miles long and runs from the Canadian border all the way to the Mexican border. For the next ten minutes I fantasized about Eleanor and I backpacking the PCT together someday.

Moving quietly under the tall tree canopy I began to quietly sing and sermonize. I praised the unbroken span of tall Douglas and Noble fir trees with their slightly shorter companions of western hemlock and yellow cedar. Here, I explained, we are in the company of royalty and saints. And here, I admitted to Eleanor, is where I am most humbled.

I carefully crossed  a narrow foot bridge over a lively stream. Tumbling like a writhing dark ribbon in the snow through the  forested mountainside, the water music anchored me for a moment.  I ached to hear the explosive, seemingly tireless song of the tiny and shy winter wren. But given that it was December in the mountains, the winter wrens and most other songbirds had migrated to warmer latitudes. On this day we heard only the occasional guttural squawks of ravens and the sharp cry of a Stellar’s jay.

Every time I hear a winter wren sing, I am awed by its ability to let loose such an exclamation all in one breath. It is not unusual for one loud vocalization to cover nearly ten seconds. How is it possible that a bird that I could easily hide inside the gentle hold of my closed fingers cast out such a long song?

I wondered about the May dawn chorus here on Crystal Creek. I imagined the bubbling notes of the tiny mountain wrens with the ethereal, flutelike background of a hermit thrush song. Both are among my very favorite bird songs and to hear them together in the same moment would be sheer bliss.

Eleanor slept through my shuffling sermon.

“No matter, little mountain wren, someday we will sit together, under a forest canopy, and let ourselves get lost in such a duet.” I smiled with the obvious classification of this newly discovered wren species, the mountain wren, with its scientific name, Troglodytes eleanorii.

For now the creek was making the only noise. The snow buffered all other sounds. Here we could not hear the ski lifts, the distant sounds of skiing laughter and whoops.

I was mesmerized by the silence. After spending some weeks in a fully urban setting, this was pure tonic.

Arrangements had been made to reconnoiter with Eleanor’s mom and dad for lunch down at the lodge.

I was less than a mile from the PCT but gaining it would mean we would be late and possibly incite a needless state of worry. Reluctantly, I let good sense prevail over explorer and I side-kicked a turn around and returned on my own trail.

With the return trip following my own tracks the going was easier and faster. I continued my walking silent meditation interspersed with snippets of sermons. And the rare, one-of-a-kind, mountain wren took it all in while sleeping, head on my shoulder, beneath a majestic cathedral of fir.

 

Tree Talk

The other day I took a midday break to lie down on the carpet of maple leaves colored in hues of fire. As I looked up into the colorful canopy, with its backdrop of blue sky, breezes surged and died like an autumnal tide. A sudden gust caused a flurry of dried, gilded leaves to seemingly leap from the tree hurrying towards a date with disintegration.

I wondered about the language of this maple. While it is an individual I knew that its very survival was made possible through linking with other life forms. My mind drifted back to recently experienced trees of an ancient sort.

Recently I kayaked for three weeks in the Haida Gwaii archipelago, (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) off the coast of northern British Columbia. Many times on that trip I lay on a luxuriant bed of thick moss shaded beneath a towering canopy of giant Sitka spruce, red cedars and western hemlock.

The “Britta-Maple” in our yard is so named because I transplanted the spindly five-foot sapling in the spring following my oldest daughter’s November birth. That makes the tree between 35 and 40 years old. Not that old in the world of trees. Many of the Haida Gwaii giants that stretched over me are centuries old.

At trips end, I returned to our Minnesota basecamp with a new respect for tides, native knowledge, wind and certainly for trees.

Only days upon returning I learned that a British Columbia scientist would be presenting at this year’s Nobel Conference, held at Gustavus Adolphus College, only 120 miles from my home. She studies these giant trees but more amazingly has discovered how they communicate with each other. I quickly registered.

Dr. Suzanne Simard* is a professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. She was born and raised in a family of several generations of British Columbia loggers. She could hardly help but study trees. And to study trees more thoroughly she has embraced the old knowledge carried by the native people.

Simard, of European descent, implored, “Aboriginal people who have called this area home for nearly 14,000 years have much to teach us.” She was haunted by the refrain she heard as she interviewed elders about the forests and trees. “We are one. We are one.”

As she studied forest soils in her home province, she learned that there are thousands of species of mycorrhizal fungi that exist in this living system we call dirt.

Mycorrhizae translates to “fungus-root.” These super-tiny mycorrizae will colonize the exterior or interior of a plant root. The fungus and the host plant have a mutually beneficial relationship. The fungus facilitates the uptake of water and nutrients to the plant. The plant root provides food and nutrients made possible by photosynthesis through the plant leaves and/or stem.

Dr. Simard and her field assistant performed experiments at forest sites that involved identifying myriad of mycorrhizal species and then unsorting the complex networks between the fungi and the tree roots. Amazingly, she and other scientists have discovered that these tangled mycorrhizal networks are responsible for directing water, carbon and nitrogen to other plants in their local community.

More amazing is that trees can communicate though biochemical signals when an area is under threat from an herbivore or insect attack. I was astonished by her discovery that a full-grown “mother tree” can direct nutritional support to other trees that need it. Investigating further, Simard found that the mother tree will favor her own progeny by directing more nutrition their way through the plant and mycorrhizal pipeline!

When Simard shared some of her findings with First Nation elders they reminded her, “We are one and connection is important.”

As I lay on the sheet of party-colored maple leaves I pondered the connections directly beneath my lawn. If only I could hear the gossip of trees. Are they expressing concern? Sending a sort of mycorrhizal SOS out to each other? Do they mock us two-leggeds for our continual abuse of the soil and the land?

I want to believe they are tirelessly reminding us “We are one.”

 

*Simard delivered a popular TED talk and appeared in the documentary Intelligent Trees.

 

Prairie Psalms

On this Sunday I slowly walk to worship along the wooded trail that is shaded and spackled in sunshine. I stop under the trees for communion. Reaching down I pinch off a clump of chickweed and nibble it. It tastes freshly green, of life itself.

Further along, I stop next to a ten-foot high white pine. I look up at the top whorl of branches arcing towards the sun. This pine’s top was broken off by a birch that fell a couple of years ago. Now each of these branches jostles for the role of terminal tip. Right now I wouldn’t put my money on any of them. Each of the tender limbs appears equal in its climbing abilities. Only time will tell which branch is knighted as the top of the tree.

There is no need to hurry, as there will be no church bell tolling my tardiness. I expect that part of today’s lesson will speak of the values of dawdling and paying attention.

Emerging from the woods I stop and squint at the bright, treeless world of prairie. Though not as vast as these grasslands once were, this one, measured in acres, will do as a Sunday church. It seems a fitting place as any to hold sacred.

Reflecting on the poem Mindfulness by Mary Oliver, I am sure that in this ragged assembly dominated by big bluestem, I will find “prayers made out of grass.”

I stepped into the prairie and was brushed by pastels. Flowers ranging from yellow to blue rise among the grass stems. At this place of worship, whispering is allowed.  The hot breeze inspires the grasses into conversation.

Louder drones come and go as bees of varied sizes and colors visit the blooms. Mute butterflies give homage to the petal altars as they alight for their communion. They sip on perfumed nectars for only a moment before they are drawn to another flower. This is their offering of pollination.

Watching the beetles and bees bustle among the blooms I find today’s lesson. These flowers invite everyone to the table. It doesn’t matter how the visitors look. Their color, lineage, and status in this natural community make no difference. Each plays an important role no greater than the other. I marvel at the diversity expressed here and the genius of a prairie functioning as a healthy society.

We humans would do well to emulate such a system.

Humbled by the Sunday observations and heated by the climbing sun, I wade back through the grasses, seeking the shade of the woods again. Back at the house I continue the service by pulling out a book of Mary Oliver and finding her poem.

Mindful

by Mary Oliver

 

Every day

I see or I hear

something

that more or less

kills me with delight,

that leaves me like a needle

in the haystack

of light.

It is what I was born for –

to look, to listen

to lose myself

inside this soft world –

to instruct myself

over and over

in joy

and acclamation.

Nor am I talking

about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,

the very extravagant –

but of the ordinary,

the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.

Oh good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help

but grow wise

with such teachings

as these—

the untrimmable light

of this world,

the ocean’s shine,

the prayers that are made

out of grass?

 

Packing Sustenance

 

 

With the heat index sweating over 100 degrees, running the food dehydrator in the house was contributing too much heat. Grumbling, I hefted the big box out to the garage. I set it up and then hurried indoors to fetch trays of cut fresh peppers. Over the next few hours the pepper juices would be driven off leaving me tiny red and yellow bell pepper fragments.

 

Today, the temperatures are much better but taking no chances, the garage remains a food drying center.  I am declaring mission accomplished when todays trays of dried sliced mushrooms and chunked chicken breast are pulled out.

They will join bags of dried wild and domestic mushrooms, dried tomato pasta sauce, sweet potatoes, onions, venison burger, shrimp, peas, corn, cooked basmati rice bananas and blueberries that are staged in a big box awaiting to be assigned to the proper meal bag.

A highlight of any lengthy camping excursion to a remote area includes careful food planning. Carbohydrates and calories are necessary. Spices sparkle the mundane. Sweets, even a mere taste, are savored, and for me, essential.

A good Yukon friend once shared two great tips for camp and domestic meals. One is to provide as quick squeeze or spritz of citric on any dish just before serving. And listen closely as your collective of tastes buds exclaim joyous surprise. The second tips is to put something a little spicy hot beneath a meat serving. Listen again as the taste buds sing praises of Diablo. (At home adding a gentle pillow of yogurt with the heat is a sensorial treat.)

Whether it is paddling in the flow of a remote river, along a chain of lakes, backpacking a range of mountains or cycling across longitudes, food becomes an obsession. I can’t tell you how many hours I have paddled discussing the upcoming camp meal with my paddling partner. Another foodie favorite topic is to make a case for the first meal I am going to treat myself to when we get back to civilization. It often includes ice cream or a cold beer.

Expeditions have tragically failed with poor food planning. Food is fuel and without it the trip can break down quickly with morale sinking and physical strength weakening.

Paired with the unplanned, such as sudden harsh weather (i.e. blizzard), equipment breakdown (i.e. crumpled canoe) food stores can be tragically compromised.

British polar explorer John Franklin on his first arctic expedition, known as the Coppermine Expedition was an overland trek that spanned the years 1819-1822. The expedition carried minimal food expecting to find plenty of game. In the second year of their trek, they were forced to overwinter. The voyageurs were not good hunters and caribou and other game was scarce. They were forced to boil and eat, lichens, their buffalo sleeping robes and even leather boots. Ten men died. And from that low point on, Franklin was often referred to as the “man who ate his boots.”

Think of the Donner wagon train party heading to California in 1847. They got caught in an early snowstorm high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and had to build a crude winter quarters. Of the overwintering 87 folks only 48 survived to reach California. And they survived only by eating the flesh of the dead.

One of my heroes is the stout Scotsman Sir John Rae, who singlehandedly mapped much of the north shore of North America along the Arctic Sea. He snowshoed thousands of miles with little extra equipment. He was the first European to adopt the ways of the northern aboriginals and dress in warm layers of furs and hunt for food as he traveled. He knew such methods would not work with a large expedition force so he usually traveled alone or in small groups, almost always with native guides.

While we will have our collection of dried meals, we will begin our sea kayaking trip off the coast of British Columbia with some fresh food for a day or two. We will carry fishing gear for salmon, rockfish and lingcod. We are contemplating adding a crab trap to trap Dungeness crabs. This country is rich in foods.

As I work hard to complete a manuscript deadline for a guidebook on foraging for wild edible plants, I am trying to focus on some northwest coast species that can augment our meals and keep scurvy at bay.

And it wouldn’t hurt to pack a pair of softened leather boots. Like I said a squeeze of citric spritz can work wonders.

Not Just Any Tree

 

“Tug on anything and you will find it connected to everything else.”

-John Muir

 

 

It was record setting hot as I began my stroll into the woods. I had a mission: find a white pine seedling to plant in honor of my granddaughter Eleanor.

I stepped into the thick cover following the distant, high-pitched pee-a-weee of the eastern wood peewee. This woods is basically our back yard. It used to serve as a pasture for several generations of milk cows for both my great grandpa and grandpa. When I was a boy, the grazed understory provided a perfect squirrel hunting haunt. It hasn’t been pastured in over 50 years. The only remains of its bovine history are rusted strands of barbed wire fencing buried in the leafy duff.

Once the grazing cattle disappeared, the woods quickly changed. Now it is thick with dogwood, brambles, sumac, serviceberry, tangles of wild grape vines and a steady advance of the alien buckthorn. Oak wilt is whittling away some big red oaks. Now red maple and white pines are elbowing in. Change is the only constant here.

My oldest daughter, Britta, was born in November of 1982. I wanted to plant a tree in her honor but had to wait until the following spring. The small sapling I chose was a sugar maple I dug up in a neighboring county. This species of maple is not a common native in the sand country of our township in east central Minnesota. With tending, the tree thrived and now at nearly thirty feet tall it blazes red and orange every fall. And every October, I send Britta, living in California, photos of the annual foliage fire.

 

 

My second daughter, Maren, was born on Valentine’s Day in 1986. Her dedicated tree would likewise have to wait to be tucked into the earth. Her tree is an apple. A Prairie Spy? Or was it a Harelson? It doesn’t matter because the fruits are delicious and have given us many dishes of apple crisp.

One bountiful fall I mailed Maren the prettiest apple from the harvest. The carefully boxed fruit made it all the way to her home in Tacoma, Washington.

 

As I dawdled through the woods a scarlet tanager sang unseen high overhead in the thick canopy. Stooped over and moving slowly, I pulled the lush herbaceous layer aside with hopes of discovering a wee pine.

It was nice to get reacquainted with the nearby wild. I paused to assess the creep of the invasive buckthorn and soon I was yanking young buckthorn shrubs while I strolled. Recent deer beds had me wondering if the doe I have noticed sneaking quietly around has a fawn or two curled nearby.

I wondered if my half year-old granddaughter, Eleanor, would join me on expeditions into this scrappy piece of wonderful woods. Will she find the patience to stop and listen to life here?

My mission is to plant a tree in her honor in this woods or leave it be and simply declare it hers, so that she feels ownership. My job description as a grandfather is to help connect her to the natural world and to reinforce that she is a part of it.

I know it can be construed as manipulation but deep down I want her to fall solidly in love with this place so that she might want to move here someday and become the seventh generation of family to live and grow here.

In my hour of searching I passed several white pines, all over ten feet tall, including one familiar friend standing more than 30 feet tall, but no seedlings. Sweaty, a bit frustrated and dusty, I trudged back to the house with an empty water bottle.

Two days have passed since my fruitless search. Walking out to my log pile with drawknife and axe in hand, I nearly stepped on a tiny white pine seedling. It is a minor miracle that the seedling still lives as I have wrestled and peeled over 55 red pine logs now stacked just a few feet away. And less than a shovel handle away from the seedling is a spring-disked firebreak that would have torn it out of the ground.

The wisp of a pine is only 9 inches tall. This spring’s light-green growth makes up two and a half inches of that reach. I just got word that Eleanor is now 25 ½ inches long. I recorded both measurements to compare their thriving.

It began raining so I quit peeling logs, put my tools away and fetched a pail and a spade to dig up the seedling and carry it to a more protected place in the woods.

I chose to plant the pine seedling in a clearing, maybe 200 or so steps from its birthplace. I created the clearing after recently chunking up a downed red oak and a long pallid birch trunk into firewood.

With those trees removed the canopy now had an opening. I carefully tamped the wet dirt around the little white pine with my hands and smiled thinking of how Eleanor is as sweet as a June rain.

It is that same June rain, and many seasons more, that will nudge a simple white pine towards an opening of blue sky.

 

Sweet New Growth

 

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”

Joyce Kilmer

 

 A tardy spring has erupted like a housebound child awaiting the passage of foul weather. Pent up with unseasonable cold and snow, the business of spring is finally off to the races.

Consequently my writing output has suffered, as it does every spring. I too, find the pull of outdoors irresistible when the smear of delicate greens grace the trees. Every spring I am stunned at the array of greens that emerge from the treetops. Mere words like “soft,” “mellow,” “pastel,” “bright,” “verdant” and even more, fall short in adequately describing a leaf’s unfolding.

This year the looking at the newness of trees started in March. Our family eagerly rendezvoused in Kauai to meet little Eleanor, my first grandchild. The newness and blessedness of her anchored me in awe every morning when she was handed to me for our quiet stroll out onto the open deck to greet the day. This is a ritual I hope she carries throughout her life.

During our shared morning time, I was captivated by Eleanor’s discovering the world. I need to reclaim that sense of newness of unveiling a place and moment. Imagine if each of us started the day with a template of discovery?

Eleanor’s stare pulled me in, like a silent siren, for close inspection. Look closely and you will discover that her pupils are dark starbursts. Look even closer and you will see that the points of reflection are actually palm trees.

On these shared mornings, our gazes were targeted in different directions. The trees seemed rooted in the morning of her eyes. And my stare was locked into her peering.

The pair of four-month old blue eyes moved back and forth hypnotized by the palm trees swaying in the morning breeze. She was mesmerized by the dance of fronds. In fact, her attention was mostly directed to the trees more so than to me, her proud Opa.

This fact gave me great pleasure, as it is my grandest hope that she is imprinting on the natural world. I hope that the trees sear an indelible image deep into her growing brain igniting a  fireworks of synapses and emotional fodder. This is the stuff that can be the catalyst in forging a love for wild places and critters.

While Eleanor could not be distracted by the flowing palms, I was awakened, almost surprised, by the distinct gift of “nowness.” I cannot remember having this feeling of being so very present when my two daughters were only months old. Back then, as a new father, I was in my thirties. Now I am easing closer to seventy rather than sixty. Do I know more? Do I appreciate more? I like to think so. Certainly I don’t take the gift of life lightly. Staring at this baby, who shares my DNA, is an exercise in confronting my own mortality. I am coming to realize that I am easing, not always painlessly, towards my disintegration.

Eleanor’s dad, Ben, is a pediatrician in the U.S. Army, based in Seoul, Korea. He is patient with my questions about a child’s developing vision. When I mention Eleanor’s focus on the trees he shares that at this young age, she likely can focus on objects within twenty feet. Beyond that, it is a world of contrasts and more black and white. The trio of swaying palm trees is more like fifty feet from us. So it is likely the movement and the contrast of darkness against a morning sky that has grabbed Eleanor’s attention.

I want to believe that Eleanor’s gaze is born from an ancient attachment humans might have to trees. After an aquatic nine months in her mother’s waters, Eleanor is connecting to a terrestrial life. Her journey is not unlike her ancient ancestors journey, moving from the open grasslands of the African savanna towards trees.

Perhaps it is in the gathering of my own years that I have discovered that my granddaughter will not likely reside in a biosphere as healthy as the one I grew up in. That saddens me. Are the natural systems in a more desperate state? Yes and that is why I will continue to work towards helping Eleanor and others understand our role in protecting and nurturing biological systems.

And it is why Eleanor must start each day communing and wondering about trees and other bits of the natural world.

 Page 1 of 18  1  2  3  4  5 » ...  Last »