Perseverance Overture No. 2

 

“Only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience anything.”

Gustav Mahler, Austrian composer 

 

Over a lifetime of canoeing into wild places, I’ve known my share of portages.

Portaging requires unloading packs and gear from a canoe and carrying them overland to another body of water then stowing them again in the canoe. The carry-over can be short or it can run for miles. The longest portage I’ve made was a three-mile carry around Kasmere Falls in northern Manitoba while the shortest is literally a handful of steps. Sometimes, like in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the trails are well worn. In more remote areas, you might find an old hatcheted blaze on a tree that marks a seldom-used portage route. In really remote areas you literally tread your own trail.

Portaging doesn’t get any easier as I age. But with the accumulation of experience I have learned how to cope with the exercise. While fitness and perseverance are handy traits, sometimes you need to use your brain.

Earlier this summer four of us faced a mile and a quarter portage in northern Saskatchewan. It wasn’t a new experience for us since we had made this very portage about ten days earlier. Knowing we had to deal with the carry a second time had me strategizing for a diversion. How could I mask the physical discomforts of the effort?

My strategy was simple. I would shroud the task with an exercise in creativity. The resulting release of painkilling endorphins would blot out any potential pain. I decided to compose a live classical music piece.

I’ve never written music in my life. Birthing an original tune would require sharp focus and increase the odds of successfully masking pain and fatigue. The result was not a well thought out score but rather an improvised collaboration.

Instead of lifting a conductor’s baton, I flipped the canoe upside down onto my shoulders, shrugged it into its comfortable berth and stepped boldly towards my composition.

After fifty foot-sucking steps into a bog, the first inspiration for my symphony descended on me. I love classical pieces that open with only the notes of strings. Mine opened with the sound of wings. Mosquitoes joined in a most energetic chorus as they bounced around my head underneath the canoe canopy.

My wife is an accomplished violinist and fiddler. But never has she been able to reach the high pitches of the genus Aedes. On this overcast day, these female mosquitoes would aptly provide my ostinato in the score. Derived from the Italian word meaning “stubborn” this phrase is persistent with the melody delivered at the same pitch.

How perfect for me to co-create with these spritely musical blood-letters. There was no doubt as to how my symphony must unfold. I had to walk fast to escape the onslaught. This was the perfect place to insert a spirited allegro, a brisk and lively tempo, into my score.

Collectively, mosquitoes’ passionate peals have the power to make grown men weep. And even a single mosquito solo can snap you out of a deep sleep. Now that is pure inspiration.

I tried in vain to step onto hummocks or clumps of leather-leaf bushes but soon my feet were soaked in the muck. There was a tympanic rhythm to the squelching percussion as I pulled each foot from the peaty mire.

With a surprising flourish, a duo of lesser yellowlegs hammered out a string of flat “tu-tu-tu” whistles. The alarm calls of this boreal shorebird added a much-needed fanfare to my piece. I tipped the front of the canoe slightly skyward so I could watch the pair of birds alighting on the tips of black spruce trees. As they fluttered to balance on their perches, I could imagine them dancing in time to the score. They flew from tree to tree, upset at my intrusion into their bog where they probably have their ground nest.

Their musical contribution is nothing compared to their physical efforts during their migration. Amazingly, this year’s young will depart for Central and South America after the adults leave, yet will still find their way to the tropical coastal regions.

As the trail left the wetland, it rose gently upwards. Passing through a screen of alders I encountered birch and aspen trees. The wind rustled the leaves, adding a gentle patter to my composition. My own breathing provided an underlying beat.

I interrupted the rhythm of my piece with a couple syncopated steps to avoid two piles of bear scat.

Soon I crested the slight rise and began heading downslope. At this point there was a poignant shift in energy. The descent to the next lake was quiet. Surrounded by a blackened landscape of burned spruce and jack pine, I felt that my piece had become a dirge.

In the flooded last stretch of the trail, my footsteps splashed like the clashing of cymbals. Finally, I stopped at the lake’s edge and rolled the canoe off my shoulders. I released a sigh. The conductor’s baton was lowered.

Finis.

Perfecto.

Windbound

 

“No man knows the ways of the wind and the caribou.”

Chipewayan proverb

 

Sixty miles into a planned 180-mile canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan, the world told us to stop.

So we stopped. And for three days a tireless headwind buffeted the boreal waters of Reindeer Lake making any paddling progress nearly impossible and dangerous.

The thousands of islands, bays and coves on this frigid giant lake, Canada’s ninth largest, could not offer respite from wide-open crossings. This is a lake more than 100 times larger than Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota.

During the first two days my three buddies and I found our paddling muscles with a south wind nudging us north. Life was good. Of course life was good; we are privileged to have the opportunity, the means, the time and the resources to make annual forays into wilderness areas.

Luckily, the day before the wind showed up we had found our best campsite of the trip. It was a sunny, somewhat open site and even though it was midday, we decided to stop early to relish some time off from paddling. We aired out sleeping bags in the sun and dug shorts out of our packs to enjoy this perfect summer day. The sunset that put us to bed that night had been stunning on a lake so still that the sky and water seemed to merge.

While we slept a wind began to whisper. By morning it had grown into an unadulterated blow.

We donned stocking caps and long johns and gathered around the coffee pot. We were going nowhere on this day. Even the offshore gulls were absent. They usually followed us like groupies with hopes of snagging the remains of fish that we filleted.

A tickling of raindrops urged us to put up the large tarp and we gathered there to wait for the wind to die. In minutes the lake surface erupted as the slow moving rain front deluged us. We read, sipped coffee and napped.

While it is easy to get frustrated with the anchoring wind, I realized that a lake frothing with whitecaps is a gift. It’s very elemental to be still in a remote and wild place. Here I am humbled, a Paleolithic participant in humans’ first religion of worshipping the natural world. Yet I am simultaneously a 21st century civilized man of culture and arts. The wilderness gives me a needed dose of balance.

The second day broke and while the rain had stopped, the wind had not tired. Now we absolutely knew that we had to be smart about continuing with our planned route. If the winds were bad here we could only imagine how wild they must be on the bigger water that was ahead of us. With water temps in the low 50s any swamping out in the lake would be life threatening. So we shifted gears and created a safer and easier plan that would still offer new country to explore.

Day three came and we were still held hostage by the wind. I fattened my journal entries with more paragraphs. Doug finished his book and traded it for mine. I collected some flowers for my plant press and got down close and personal to peer into the colorful world of lichens. Kurt simply stared faraway while inhaling full breaths of the unfettered wind carrying essences of pure boreal nectar. I foraged near camp for the new growth of light green spruce tips. Duane fired up the stove and steeped them in hot water for a fresh tea that had hints of citrus and was rich in vitamin C. We had abundant time for tea and storytelling.

I told the guys about a 1986 high arctic canoe trip on Victoria Island in the Canadian Archipelago. Located just north of North America, there are no trees growing there and in summer, no darkness. Much of the vast wild land is covered in frost-shattered shards of limestone with only patches of stoic greenery.

I recalled a long, rugged day that ended with us unloading the canoes and hauling our gear up a rocky slope to make camp. Carl, a tall, big man was worn out. He dropped his bulging pack to the ground. He looked around, raised his arms and smiled a weary grin before he made a pronouncement: “Here we are, learned men, men of culture. Rising at dawn. Paddling miles through a barren landscape. Running dangerous rapids in ice cold water and nearly being swept over a falls. Only to arrive here, to sleep on rocks!” Now over thirty years later, the story still gets a chuckle.

We shared more stories. We spoke of aging and gratitude. Being windbound had us being more introspective and we more easily settled into ourselves.

On the fourth day we rose early and the gale had broken. It was time to go. We dismantled our familiar camp, had a quick cold breakfast of granola and pushed off to continue the dance with wind and water.

Dawn Awakening

At this time of the year I often tuck my pillow directly on the sill of an open window next to my bed. While lying down I can easily position my head next to the window screen. The advantage is that while sleeping in the comfort of my bed I enjoy the fresh air benefits of camping outside. The disadvantages are the loud exclamations of the neighbors.

Earlier this week as the morning light washed over the treetops, I opened my eyes at “crane o’clock.” Rather than a rude buzz or radio blather waking me, a pair of sandhill cranes were trumpeting, bugling and rattling from a nearby hayfield. Their raucous wildings had me wondering if I had awakened in a Paleozoic jungle.

I am reminded of Aldo Leopold’s description of sandhill cranes. Leopold is author of Sand County Almanac (which incidentally should be required reading by all Americans): “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

The morning following the crane reveille, a male robin blasted his song from the canopy of oak branches just a few feet from my second story windowsill nest. And “robin o’clock” is definitely earlier than “crane o’clock. How can I get angry when this common member of the melodic thrush family initiates the dawn chorus?

Now consider how most folks wake up in the morning. An alarm clock startles them awake from a deep sleep. It’s no surprise we use the word “alarm,” for the way it accelerates our physical self out of restful sleep. The damn thing is alarming.

When we are abruptly awakened, our brain accelerates our heart rate. We experience the flight-and-flee response. Following the rude awakening we often experience a period of wallowing grogginess before we are fully awake. Sleep experts refer to this response as sleep inertia. Even with a shower and a cup of coffee, it can take several hours to fully awaken.

Many sleep experts feel that people who use a regular alarm clock have an 89% chance of sleep inertia.

Compared to our ancestors, who went to bed when it got dark, modern humans have developed poor sleep patterns. Television, computers and cell phones rob us of quality sleep. The blue light emitted from these devices halts the natural release of melatonin, an important hormone regulating our sleep cycle.

To awaken naturally we would rely on our circadian rhythm, the internal system that responds to intervals of light and dark. It regulates cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals.

Few of us honor our natural circadian rhythms. For a majority of folks this would require going to bed soon after it gets dark outside, and awakening naturally as the day dawns. Waking up naturally to the dawn’s light and a pair of cranes or a singing robin is best for my health.

On the third morning I woke up at “swan o’clock.” A pair of trumpeter swans passed directly overhead calling their deep “oh. . . Oh” calls.

The swan’s deep notes remind me of a meditator’s “ohmmm.” There is evidence that the vibration and rhythmic droning slows the human nervous system and calms the mind.

Now get to bed. Shut off all electrical screens and don’t forget to open the window. And I dare you to unplug the alarm clock.

Wanted: A Lawn Revolution

I just finished mowing the lawn. I find it a mindless and boring job. Through the years Nancy and I have intentionally reduced the monotony of our lawn and let the wild and diverse woods slowly reclaim what was once its own. What used to take an hour now takes just over 38 minutes.

Decades ago I gave up the silly notion of fertilizing the grass each spring. Why in the world would I want it to grow faster? And on top of that, why add a host of poisonous weedkillers that sicken far more species than the target weeds. Such a practice sounds like a potential sequel to the comedy Dumb and Dumber.

Lawn mowing is a thief of valuable summer time. I could be using that time to embrace meaningful activities in my life like cycling, watching birds, fishing, or reading a book while lazing the summer hours in a hammock with a cold beer at my side.

The growl of gas-powered mowing assaults and batters my hearing. Its stink washes into my olfactory system. And it releases more carbon in one hour than my car does in 40 hours of running. It’s all a choice.

So why is it that 80% of all Americans have a manicured lawn? Pooled together, these “Made in the USA lawns” equals 40 million acres. That translates to more than 50,000 square miles or an area larger than Pennsylvania!

Some landscape architects believe that our infatuation of lawns come from our desire to attain status. Status often can be shown by appearance. In the 16th century, French and English aristocracyl kept lawns so guards could have clear sight lines for potential hostile invaders. They also used them for recreation such as playing  croquet.

The love of lawns was an immigrant product and came to North America by those who could afford such a luxury. By the end of the American Civil War lawns were becoming the norm.

A controlled lawnscape came to be considered a thing of perfection. From the perception of many, the natural world is a “mess.” We like to control things and that means controlling the march of the natural world into our living area.

Over the past couple of years I am noting more and more rural ditches being mowed by the adjacent landowners. I’m sure County Commissioners are smiling in glee as this means the local jurisdiction is not spending taxpayer money on their roadside maintenance budget. However, the loss is severe for bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects as well as for roadside nesting birds like pheasants and many songbirds.

Accompanying our gas-powered mower in the garage is a quiet reel push mower. It requires our muscles rather than a combustible engine. Admittedly, I threw in the towel on using the non-gas reel mower. Moles have created an undulating surface with their serpentine upraised tunnels that makes pushing more difficult. I harbor no animosity for moles. They love worms and insects and are unaware of yard boundaries so I deem them innocent of wrong-doing.

To keep lawns looking  homogenous requires a drug-pusher’s tenacity. Homeowners with mono-lawns are encouraged and brainwashed to purchase what I call “lawn drugs.” Every year, Americans spread more toxic pesticides and herbicides on lawns than farmland. It’s true. Nearly 200 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides are used on lawns alone. According to the EPA, approximately 100 million pounds of glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient are applied to our nation’s lands each year.

Monsanto’s product Roundup has been touted as a safe weed killer to conveniently spot spray on evil floral insurgents like dandelions and creeping charlie. Now we are learning that the supposedly inert ingredients in Roundup “might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.” (Scientific American, 2009)

Roundup is so effective at killing weeds that it has decimated milkweed abundance, which has resulted in a crippling crash in the monarch butterfly population in the last twenty years by nearly 90 percent.

Businesses that depend on our hamster-wheel- chase of the perfect lawn often define the natural world as bushy, weedy, tangly, scruffy and even spooky. This is the place that evil mosquitoes and ticks might be amassing to rush your home. It is the job of herbicide and pesticide companies, as well as those that manufacture lawn mowers, to make you feel insecure about your yard.

The profits of lawn products are tied directly to keeping the message of fear and insecurity in front of your face. Not surprising, these messages of doing battle with dandelions, creeping charlie and other so-called noxious weeds air more frequently in May and June. In my world these “undesirables” add diversity and color into my lawn. Bumblebees seem drunkenly giddy as they lob into nectar-rich patches of purple creeping charlie. Dandelions are visited by pollinating insects and Nancy and me. This time of the year there is no need to buy salad greens. We have all we want only steps away from our back stoop.

The other day, I processed a jar full of delicious dandelion pesto. And we are drying creeping charlie for a minty tea. All this is free organic food. I would never collect these foods in an area that has been sprayed.

I would argue that the manicured lawn is a greater threat to our collective well-being. Biodiversity loss can even affect important (free) ecosystem services, such as removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) and pollination services.  More biodiverse ecosystems can uptake more CO2, a greenhouse gas, than ecosystems with less species diversity. (Source: Research paper published in Nature, 2001 by Reich et al.)

 

What are the alternatives?

•Mow less often or not at all.

•Save money by avoiding pesticides and herbicides. Poisons have a way of making their way into our waters and potentially into our bodies.

• Plant a diverse prairie or wild flower, pollinator-friendly garden. There are even shade loving sedges that look like grasses and they never get tall so there is no need to mow.

•Plant native and diverse plants along lakes and wetland to create a filter strip that helps retard contaminants from entering the water. The strip acts like a buffer and creates a natural shoreline.

Time for some of that pesto, chips and a cold beer.

Surf’s Up Dude!

Let’s go surfin’ now

Everybody’s learning how

Come on safari with me

-Beach Boys

 

 An ocean wave is a beautiful thing. Each travelling swell, born from wind energy, orbits quietly like a wheel in the water until it rolls into a reef or shoreline. Then it finds its voice and becomes either a loud surging and foaming cascade of rhythmic poundings or a more gentle series of “ssshhhhhs.”

Each wave becomes an ephemeral ocean summit. These fluid peaks break the monotony of a flat oceanic plain giving dance to the water that holds our gaze like a flickering campfire.

Waves are transformers. Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagen said, “You wonder what on Earth the waves might bring – and where the sea might deposit you – until one day you know you have lived between two places, the scene of arrival and the point of departure.”

Like a pulsing beast, waves can transform stones to pebbles to grains and grains to beach. They can carry tiny seeds and heavy seeds, like coconuts, hundreds, if not thousands of miles. And somewhere in the history of oceans, a human learned that there is joy in riding a wave.

Ever since I was a teen and heard the Beach Boys singing Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA, I have fantasized about catching a wave and  the adoring gazes of scores of bikini-clad, tanned young women as I casually ride my board down into the tunnel of a massive, breaking wave.

Decades have put me beyond the bronzed, sun-bleached blonde hair and trimly muscled body idea. Nonetheless, I recently fulfilled part of that dream and finally had a surfing lesson. It seemed fitting that my wave riding session would be on the very day, at the very location of the 9th Annual International Women’s Surfing Cup on Siargao Island one of the 7,000 plus islands in the Philippines. There were lots of attractive young women on location.

The competitors would be carving 180°s and 360°s on a famous reef breaking set of waves called “Cloud 9.” These waves are ranked as the 7th best surfing waves in the world. I was feeling trepidation that my first-ever surf lesson would be within sight of the competitors, the spectators and the lenses of photo drones zipping over the water like scavenging gulls.

Confidently, I followed, Darwin, my young Filipino instructor as we headed to a strip of beach a quarter mile north of Cloud 9. As we walked I was tempted to speak like a surfer. After all I had picked up a ragged old surfing magazine at our accommodations and picked up some lingo. I could have said, “Hey Darwin, looks like the surf is going off today. Sure hope I can keep the grubbing down.” Translation: The surf is really good. I hope I don’t fall off my surf board too much. However, I suspect Darwin would have seen through the charade as I gingerly walked over the stones and old coral in trying to keep up with him. And it was likely that the smeared gobs of sun-screen clinging to parts of my face like misguided patches of toothpaste might have pointed at my rookie status.

I was feeling both nervous and amped to ride the “ankle busters”or lesser waves of a nearby set of waves.

Before we hit the water, Darwin set the board on the beach, digging a small hole in the sand to accommodate the single blade of the rudder. He had me lay on my belly on the grounded surf board and pseudo-paddle both arms, like a pair of windmills, as if catching a surging wave. Then I had to quickly scramble to my feet just as the wave begins to crest. I stood up, crouching, with my left foot, three-feet or so, in front of my right foot. I stretched one arm out in front of me with the other reaching out behind me for better balance. It was the classic surfing pose.  Darwin was pleased with my quick dryland progress and we took off for a walk through the coconut trees to the beach. I was wondering if I might be a surfing prodigy.

Wading out to the reef, where the curling waves pushed a few other surfing pupils, was a slow process with the coral punishing my bare feet. Darwin’s seasoned surfing feet moved steadily through the water.  Before long he signaled me to lie on the board and he towed me, like a parent pulling a child in a wagon, out to the waves.

Turning my board to face the shore, Darwin kept looking over his shoulder for the approach of a wave I could hitch a ride on.In his broken English, I heard him eagerly say, “Get ready!” A few seconds passed and he yelled, “Paddle! Paddle!”

I conjured my inner Michael Phelps butterfly stroke and paddled like hell. In barely a moment, Darwin was yelling, “Stand up! Stand up! Stand up!

This is where the fantasy of slicing down a wave fell apart. I had barely managed to get my feet under me, almost like a football lineman ready at the line of scrimmage, when I was tossed like a puny piece of pallid flotsam.

After my fourth attempt to cleanly stand up and breath in fresh ocean air rather than fresh and salty water, I thought of the advice I had read from world champion surfing champion, Kelly Slater. Known by many as the greatest surfer ever, having won the world championships eleven times, Slater said, “A wave isn’t like a skate ramp or mountain; everything’s moving around you and you have to time how to move along with it. That’s easier with a slow wave.”

Clearly, Darwin should have started me on slower waves and offered me a board with training wheels or outriggers.

Let’s just say that my outing did not resemble my surfing fantasy. For the next hour, I repeatedly paddled myself back out to Darwin while experiencing some spectacular and some not-so-spectacular wipe-outs. I grubbed repeatedly and did it well. Once I actually managed to sort of get to my feet, looking more like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I cruised contortedly for perhaps twenty feet before I ate it into the salty washing machine. I was thankful I was shackled to the surf board by a leash that was velcroed to my ankle, keeping my board close at hand.

Finally the lesson was blessedly finished. I was spent. Slowly we walked to shore. Darwin, politely slowed down to walk at my side. Only then did he ask my age.

“I’ll be 66 this summer.”

Looking surprised, he said, I did very well for someone my age on their first lesson. I think he was mining a tip when he followed up with a confidence builder.

“You look like you are only 50. No way 65!”

Though my sinuses were filled, and my shoulders felt like pudding,  I felt a slight bolstering of my waterlogged ego and I managed a tired smile.

I was, after all, a surfer.

The Gift of Jet Lag

 

Impatiently, I lie in bed reading waiting for night to pale towards dawn. Finally, from my prone position, I can make out the dark craggy bur oak limbs only feet away from the window I peer through.

It’s early Sunday morning, a “day of rest” and yet, I am restless. Let’s face it I am messed up. My ability to sleep my usual seven to eight hours is apparently on vacation on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Quietly I get up and dress so as not to disturb Nancy’s sleep.

My biological clock or circadian rhythm is badly shaken and the reset button seems stuck.

Each of us is equipped with an internal biological clock driven by the daily rhythm of dark and light. Sunlight inhibits the release of the hormone melatonin from the pineal gland in our brain. Mess up that natural flow and your sleep-wake cycle can take a beating. My pineal gland is still adjusted to Asian time, easing melatonin into my system, signaling sleep a half a day ahead of right now. Confusing? I agree.

What happened to my delightful shade of sleep? How did it get recalibrated to Asian time?

For roughly two weeks we explored South Korea and then the Philippines. It might sound like a covert CIA operation, rather than a vacation, in operating in the vicinities of two respective leaders who have reputations of being suspect and cruel thugs.

Rather than espionage, our pull to attend the Asian Summit was familial. We made the long flight from Minnesota to Korea to spend time with a daughter and her husband living there and her older sister and husband who flew in from San Francisco.

We spent a few days exploring the thriving, growing and immaculately clean, graffiti-free city of Seoul. We walked miles and it got to be a challenge to spy a tiny scrap of litter on the sidewalks or streets. And homelessness seemed absent. Seoul has become one of the Asian tigers of economic growth and stability. The relatively short period of rapid economic growth since the Korean Conflict (1950-53) is known as “the miracle on the Han [River].” South Korea has raced from being a developing country to a developed country.

Now, less than 48 hours upon our return to Minnesota I can see the details of the awakening woods from my bed. I give up tossing and turning and decide to step outside and greet the rising sun face to face. The chill of the dawn air splashes me awake. Slowly I walk down our driveway, pulled by a Vesper sparrow singing from its usual summer haunt near our mailbox. Less melodious, yet equally fervent in its territorial proclamation, is the rooster pheasant that crowed unseen from out in the shaggy wetland across the road.

I freeze in my tracks to take in the slow, almost oozing, flow of sunlight as it gilds the tops of the greening oaks.

I am celebrating jet lag as a gift, a reminder that these early minutes of the day are precious. I stroll out to the mailbox for the mail that we forgot to fetch the day before. The latest copy of Time magazine is among the contents. The headline on the cover is hardly restful for this gilded day of Sabbath. Warning: We are Not Ready for the Next Pandemic. These words are practically sacrilegious on this morning where the sun is highlighting the “green-coming” of May. I prefer a title such as, “Warning: Are You Ready for the Next Sunrise?”

I rather like this quiet time of the day. I am confident that the pattern of my pineal will get things straightened out. The lesson here is that I want to join the vesper sparrow and pheasant for more dawn encounters so I will accept my maladjusted circadian clock and follow Benjamin Franklin’s credo: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

No Place Like Home

 

The phoebes are back. This is a bird whose vocalization is its own name: “Fee-bee. . . fee-bee.”

The foot-long ledge under the eave of our screen house has hosted a moss-covered phoebe nest for the past six or so years.

While it would be unusual for a phoebe to live that long, it’s not impossible. Bird banding has helped unlock secrets of bird migration, territories, and age.

The phoebe, a rather drab smudge-colored bird, holds a special place in bird banding history. In the early 19th century, young John James Audubon* noticed that a pair of phoebes showed up at his father’s Pennsylvania farm each spring. The budding teen naturalist wondered if they were the same birds. So to help identify the birds he captured the pair and tied a short piece of silver thread around their legs.

In the fall the phoebes left and he wondered if they would come back the next spring. Lo and behold, the following April, two phoebes showed up, each with a duller piece of silver thread wrapped around its leg.

Audubon’s experiment in marking the phoebes gave rise to the practice of bird banding using lightweight aluminum instead of thread.

I have banded hundreds of songbirds, including phoebes. To capture the birds, federally licensed banders stretch a forty-foot long and seven- foot tall mist net in locations where birds are apt to pass, such as thickly vegetated cover or along the edge of habitats. The nets are erected and taken down daily.

I recall a memorable day when we untangled a cantankerous chickadee from the net. The bird we removed had already been banded. It wore a tiny, lightweight aluminum band around its leg. With the help of a magnifying glass we could read the stamped identification numbers. We were mightily surprised that the little fellow had worn the band for 11 years! Truly a Methuselah among songbirds who rarely experience five years.

While banding we record data such as age, sex, wing length, breeding readiness or status of incubating. We send this information to the federal banding laboratory operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If the bird is recaptured by a licensed bander or found dead by anybody, that person can call the phone number noted on the band and help unravel a part of the bird’s life history.

Once I caught an ovenbird, a small woodland warbler, on May 30th. The bird had recently returned to Minnesota after spending the winter in southern Mexico or Central America. I carefully untangled it and carried it in a cloth bag to the banding table to get the bird processed and banded.

Unlike most warblers, sometimes referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world” because of their bright coloration, the ovenbird is fairly inconspicuous. Its back is olive-green and it has a heavily spotted breast making it ideal camouflage for this ground-nesting bird.

I banded the bird and released it.

The following year, I caught a banded ovenbird in the same thick swale. I was excited to discover it was the same bird I had banded the previous year. But what made it most remarkable was that it was exactly one year later, May 30th in exactly the same location!

The following year I did not catch it. No surprise as migration is extremely dangerous and life expectancy is low.

But on spring number three we recaptured the bird in the same net location, on May 31st.

In the four years that we had our relationship, the banded ovenbird, weighing an ounce, had migrated back and forth from Minnesota to its tropical wintering grounds eight times, covering roughly 4,000 miles with each trip.

As spring unfolds into more bird song and daily phoebe nest building duties, I really want to push aside the taboo of anthropomorphism or designating human qualities to animals, and allow myself to believe that the loud dawn bird chorus is all about a joyful homecoming.

It’s not. But spring is so ephemeral that we get to believe anything is possible.

 

*Audubon eventually became a renowned naturalist and wildlife painter. He would become best known for his oversized, four-volume set of bird paintings. Titled the Birds of America, the set stood over three feet tall and each volume weighed sixty pounds. He included the phoebe, painted in Louisiana, among the 435 species illustrated. Two hundred sets of the hand colored sets were completed between 1827-1838. Amazingly 134 of the original sets remain. Not surprising they have increased in value. The original cost was $1000 per set. In recent years one set sold at auction for over nine million dollars!

 

 

Christening a Raft

 

 

In the last days of March, Nancy and I unloaded a small raft from our truck at the Anderson County Park canoe dock one-half mile from our house. This was no ordinary raft. It bore a title: The U.S.S. Gavia. A floating nesting platform intended to attract the attention of a pair of loons.

Gavia is the genus for the common loon. The word “loon” is thought to be derived from an old Scandinavian word, lom, meaning a clumsy person. While loons are graceful swimmers and powerful and direct in flight, they are clumsy on land. Their legs are positioned well to the rear of the bird’s body. This placement makes them superior divers but awkward shufflers on land.

The ice on Horseleg Lake had been off for a week. Now, at water’s edge, we busied ourselves in last minute touches such as tying anchor ropes to opposite corners of the four-foot by four-foot platform.

We are hopeful that a pair of loons will find it homey. The lake has mostly undisturbed shoreline, no outboard motor traffic, and most importantly, populations of minnows for loons to feed on.

The haunting yodels of tundra swans interrupted our work. We scanned the sky for the birds. On they came, high overhead in a ragged “V” moving steadily northwest. These birds have a long ways to go before they can nest in northern Canada.

We tied the floating platform to a rope fastened to the stern of our canoe. Slowly we towed the U.S.S. Gavia to its berth, some two hundred yards distant.

We were barely underway when we heard the familiar yodel of a loon. It was the first loon call of the spring. The call came from Horseshoe Lake, a short hike south. We took the vocalization as a good omen.

Does the distant bird spy the fruits of our labor? Is it pleased? Does it feel a spike in breeding hormones when it spies the floating bedroom? Unlike grebes and many species of waterfowl that copulate on water, loons mate on land.

It’s early for the loons to come back but with the shortening of winters, I shouldn’t be surprised. Open water by the end of March just might be the new norm.

It took us ten minutes to tow the Gavia into position. We stopped offshore of the park observation tower where visitors will have a good view without being too close to taunt or disturb any nesting birds.

The pair of anchors sank into the clear water and through the swirling jungle of aquatic vegetation. We spread a layer of old shoreline vegetation and a chunk of hummock over the top of the raft to make it look like a wee island. I tried to get a small chunk of earth with a two-foot alder seedling but the swamp ground was frozen rock hard.

Suddenly from the north came excited honking from a pair of Canada geese. Ten yards above the water they approached us. For a moment they even set their wings into a glide. It looked as if they wanted to immediately claim the faux terra firma before any common loon could inspect it.

The pair of geese swung over us and landed a couple hundred yards away and continued their noisy honking. We quickly departed and paddled back to the dock.

Attention loons, geese, loafing turtles and muskrats: The U.S.S. Gavia is open for business.

 

photos by Steve Kingsbury

The Gym Out Back

 

I’ve never joined a gym or workout club. Part of the reason is that I don’t have the time. You might ask, “No time for physical fitness?”

Nancy and I have intentionally leaned into a lifestyle that requires us to move and exert our bodies. In spring, summer and fall we garden, push a lawn mower, bicycle, hike and canoe.

In the winter we play pickleball once in a while or head to the basement for a spinning cycle workout but mostly this is the season where we merge fitness and creating wealth.

I know some of the neighbors raise an eyebrow when they see us manually shoveling snow from our 300-foot driveway. No stink of gasoline fumes, no noise, just the push-push rhythm of the snow scoop and the welcome thump of a working heart.

According to a recent article in the New York Times on brain health, the author shared, “Exercise also, and perhaps most resonantly, augments adult neurogenesis, which is the creation of new brain cells in an already mature brain.” Consistently research is showing that exercise is far better for an aging brain than crossword and Sudoku puzzles.

In our winter gym out in the woods behind our house, we team together to put up firewood. In recent years oak wilt disease has killed a number of mature trees on our property. If the standing dead tree poses no threat, we let it stand and dry out on its own. Usually within a few years it falls on its own and I don’t have to worry about dropping it. Then I fill up my trusty Stihl chainsaw and chunk up the trees, one gas tank at a time.  I have learned that limiting myself to burning one tank of gas per day is good for both my body and the chainsaw. Then I always split what I cut before I head back to the house.

We have two splitting mauls. One is a 40-year-old Craftsman with a 6-pound head and the other is a newer Swedish Gränsfors weighing in at 3 pounds. It’s Nancy’s favorite and a thing of beauty. The two of us can make a pile of wood pretty efficiently with no gasoline required. When gnarly, forked chunks of oak won’t split, we recruit hefty steel wedges. Repeated blows to the wedge with the hammer end of the maul head forces the oak apart. Two of those old wedges are mushroomed from years of pounding blows as both my grandfather and great-grandfather used them.

 

Nancy has turned into a black belt wood splitter. It hasn’t always been that way. I remember the first time she tried it. I demonstrated how to read the grain of the wood in the piece you are about to split. “Look for cracks to guide your blows and avoid grain that is swirling or where a branch emerged from the piece.” I explained that these are tough and will not reinforce your quest for success. Such resistant pieces are the equivalent of adding a bunch of extra weight onto a set of barbells.

“Hitting the piece consistently and walking your blows across the surface in a straight line will make the job easier.”

I set up a hefty round of red oak, and she began raining blows all over the surface of the piece. It was ugly but I knew better not to come to the rescue. After several minutes of working up to some serious huffing and puffing, she paused, glared at me and in between deep recovery breaths she ordered, “Do not. . . split this one. . . .This one. . . is mine. . . I might not. . . get it today. . .but I will . . . get it.” And we walked home for supper.

Seven afternoons later, the mangled piece of oak gave up and fell apart. I’ve always wondered, what is the difference is between perseverance and stubbornness? Nancy’s victory whoop could have been heard across the township.

Splitting wood burns 400 to 500 calories per hour. Most assume that raising and hurrying a maul down into a chunk of wood is all about arm strength. Wrong. It is a great abdominal workout. Good core strength equates to a stronger back which allow me to keep up with the backwoods workout.

I do the bulk of the splitting. Nancy hauls all the wood and stacks it in our woodsheds. She relishes loading up the wheelbarrow and snaking it through the woods, sometimes up to three hundred yards.

Her wheelbarrow trails become nice single track mountain bike trails over the snowless months.

When there is too much snow to push a wheelbarrow, Nancy uses the heavy- duty sled we employ for hauling winter camping gear into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. A few months ago I asked her, “Think we should buy an ATV to fetch wood?”

“No, I love the workout.

Not only are we saving real dollars, getting a workout but also we are heating our home without burning fossil fuels. When we’re gone for extended periods, the propane furnace is our backup. We work hard at keeping our energy footprint down.

While wood burning does release carbon, it is carbon that was already in the biosphere and not carbon sequestered for millennia under the earth’s crust. For clarity’s sake the biosphere is the area where life exists on the planet; roughly from a half-mile below the earth’s surface to perhaps as high as 30 miles above us.

Admittedly there is some particulate matter released during our wood burning but our two stoves, the one in the kitchen and one in the basement are both low-emission, EPA-certified stoves and we used seasoned firewood.

After a recent wood cutting workout, we retreated to the house for a relaxing 45-minute sauna. After showering, we sat in our old rocking chairs that sit barely an arms length away from the kitchen wood burning stove. Mesmerized by the dance of flames and glowing embers through the glass door, Nancy sipped her glass of wine and said, “I love days like this.” She sipped again, smirked and added, “It’s like printing money.

Strife in the Woods

The toothy snarl was frozen in place. On the shoulder of the road, the raccoon sprawled like a summer hound. Except this ring-tailed animal was dead.

I guessed by its size that it was a male, just like the three other dead raccoons I passed this week. Each of them was duped by tepid February temperatures rather than bawdy female raccoons. In a normal year male raccoons in Minnesota, stirred by mating urges, emerge from dormancy before the females in early to mid-March.

Two days earlier I overheard someone at the grocery store titter, “I love this gorgeous weather!” And while it might have felt good to forego gloves and a stocking cap, there is a dark side to it. Could it be that we are on our way to a fourth consecutive warmest year on record?

While not true hibernators, raccoons experience a sluggish state of dormancy called carnivore lethargy. Their vital functions do not plummet as in true hibernators like woodchucks, frogs or bats. The raccoon idles through winter mostly sleeping but with its metabolism easing along rather than put on hold.

Last fall, while their fur coats thickened, raccoons were accumulating as much fat in their bodies as they could. Fat is winter fuel. With the approach of cold and snow, raccoons make their way to winter quarters which can include hollow trees, abandoned buildings or even attics.

Over the course of an Upper Midwest winter, a sleeping raccoon can lose up to half its body weight. When it leaves its winter den earlier than normal, it burns some of its valuable fat reserves. Foraging for food in February is difficult and compromises their health.

Native Americans referred to each month as a moon. The second month of the year was known as the “hunger moon.” By this time food and fat reserves are running low. A “false spring” that activates denning raccoons jeopardizes their survival.

Not only are humans the most numerous species of mammal on the planet, we are clearly the most adaptable. We can live comfortably in the desert or on the ice pack at the poles. While we may celebrate a nearly tropical February we must consider the ramifications on other plants and animals.
I drove away from the stiffened raccoon. A pair of crows watched from the top of a tamarack tree just down the road. While the untimely warmth hastened this raccoon’s death, the cold flesh will provide calories for the survival of scavengers.

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