Surf Seekers

 

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The sea arrests the gaze. Born from the partnership of lunar-induced tides and distant winds, the waves are mesmerizing to both the lonely and the loved.

These temperamental liquid legions can be rhythmic and quiet. On the same day they can wildly chase each other to the shore.

We recently returned from the most northerly Hawaiian island, Kauai. While there I became imbued with the ocean and its moods. As a wave watcher I was not alone. There were others who were far more skilled in reading the nuances of the pounding surf than this terrestrial organism from the Midwest.

I enjoyed watching the veteran surfers, easily identified by their surf boards, bronzed bodies and often sun-bleached hair. Prior to getting wet, they stood alone or in twos or threes, pointing seaward and discussing the conditions of the ocean’s rhythm. They saw things that my untrained eyes failed to see.

Off to my right, children screamed in delight as they entered the surf with cautious steps. Soon they playfully tumbled in the tireless playground of crashing waves.

Fifty yards to my left a middle-aged woman sat on the beach with a tablet on her lap. Periodically she looked up to watch the waves, then scribbled something on her pad. Was she an artistintent on conveying the meld of bright blues, shades of turquoise and their tumultuous convergence into an explosion of whiteness? Perhaps she was a poet seeking words to paint the crash of water, the beat of the ocean and its marriage to the horizon.

With my fondness of birds, I was distracted from surfers, children and artists when another wave watcher caught my eye. A wandering tattler, a long-legged shorebird, lighted at the edge of the waves’ hissing reach.

The tattler danced back and forth between ocean and beach. The scurrying stopped when the bird probed its long slender beak into the wet sand for tiny invertebrate left uncovered by each receding oceanic pulse. And soon, the tattler will migrate over the ocean to the North American sub-arctic to nest.

With an hour remaining before sunset, an older Hawaiian man wearing a backpack walked along the beach carrying a pair of long fishing poles. He paused at the edge of the hissing surf and studied the waves. Not satisfied, he moved on. Finally he stabbed the long butts of his fishing poles into the sand, took off his pack and began the business of readying and baiting his poles. He was fishing papio, a type of jack fish that school off the edge of wave breaks. These fish are popular cuisine among the locals.

It hardly seems possible you can fish in the onslaught of such waves but after a long cast he opened the bail of his spinning rod and let the line spool freely off his reel. He understood that the energy of the undertow would carry his weighted bait beneath the tumultuous waves out to where the fish might be. And in less than fifteen minutes he reeled in his first of several papio.

With the sun dropping into the horizon of the western ocean, the gilded, tireless waves took on an ephemeral color that waxed sentimental.

The families and the wave-weary kids were gone. Only one surfer remained diligent sitting on his board waiting for one more ride. The artist had packed up and left and the tattler had flown. The fisherman stayed put watching the tip of his rod while we packed up to head out.

As we walked towards the embering sunset, we couldn’t help but spy a pair of embracing young wave watchers. Hugging fiercely in the surf, they stared like an “amen” towards the disappearing sun as it was swallowed by chevrons of seemingly never-ending waves.

Changing Hands

 

As of late, the act of typing on a keyboard has been an ordeal.

My hands are beaten and battered. But today, with sore fingers, I celebrate and feel compelled to pick and peck at the keyboard.

To appreciate the cause of celebration you need to stroll down the path from our porch stoop past our wood sheds, the outhouse, to a sinuous rabbit trail that turns east by the garden. There you will find fifty-seven shining pine logs stacked like a fleet of racked, overturned canoes. Yesterday, I finished peeling the bark from the logs, moving them ever closer to their transformation into a cabin.

For the time being there will be no more strips of duct tape wrapped over blisters and no more cold-numbed fingertips. No more rolling logs pinching fingers and hands. The wounds have been fairly minor but my right thumb remains tender, particularly where the reddened skin rolls like a gentle swell into the left edge of the nail. While not serious, the stab of irritating pain is awakened with each tap of that wonderful opposable digit as it jabs, all too frequently, at the keyboard spacebar.

On the same hand, the tip of the ring finger is slightly yellowed and feels like a hardened thick callous. Nearly all tactile functions of this finger are currently absent. I have little feeling there because I abused it during a cold afternoon when the air temperatures were below zero Fahrenheit and I allowed frostbite to nip me. My judgment, or lack of it, brought on this malady as I repeatedly pulled my mitts on and off to rig up my winch and lift the logs onto the backs of Sven and Ole, my stout sawhorses. Even as I felt the numbing coming on, my stubbornness urged me to finish one more log before the sun dropped below the western horizon.

Now with my right hand resting at ready on the keyboard, the frost deadened fingertip slips errantly to the north and east. Sometimes an “o” is pressed instead of an “l.” Other times I reach up to type an “o” and instead peck a “p.” I’m succeeding here in this piece of writing pnly because I’m being slpw and deliberate.

All fingers on my left hand are mobile and ready for the task of typing. But the palm is oh so tender. Over the last week, before heading out to resume peeling, I have daily applied a fresh strip of duct tape over a flap of skin opened beneath a pale yellow callous.  I have not given the blistered wound much chance of healing and I have been relieved that a handshake is done with the right hand.

I will miss the quiet time in the log yard. Peeling a log gives me great satisfaction. The unwrapping of a log’s skin brightens the day and begs the smooth stroke of my hand. The interplay of knots and wood grain reveals a new story from each log.

Now there is no need to hone the steel edges of the drawknife and axe every evening. No need to hang wet work gloves over the kitchen wood burning stove. Unnecessary to empty my pockets of bark shards before coming into the house.

Now I wait for the cycling of days and seasons to pull moisture out of the logs. Once they are properly cured I can move them, one at a time, to the building site where I will notch them, then lay them into walls, rafters, supports and a roof ridge.

I have met my deadline of completing the peeling by March 1. Now I can relax and get excited about meeting my first grandchild Eleanor.

Little Eleanor is three months old. And we are days away from rendezvousing with her on the island of Kauai.  Sore or not, my hands will feel no pain when I lift her to my chest and whisper of days ahead when we can sleep in a castle of logs.

Birth of a Cabin

 

“The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them.”

Henry David Thoreau

 

It was a frigid Christmas Eve afternoon. With a hot batch of rice pudding cooling for the evening feast, Nancy and I booted up and headed out to the stack of red pine logs. Each step elicited a sharp squeak in the snow as we wended our way along the sinuous packed trail.

I was as eager to peel my first log as any five-year old is to unwrap a coveted Christmas gift. This first log would be my Yule log and the task of peeling it would initiate a long held dream of building a log cabin.

A Yule log was a ceremonial log paraded into the holiday house. The thick end of log was set into the fireplace while the rest projected into the room. Each day the log was slowly fed into the fire over the twelve days of Christmas.

It is purported that Michelangelo, the noted Renaissance sculptor, declared, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it.” As I stood before the hefty pile of 57 logs, I want to believe there is a log cabin somewhere there. I simply have to whittle here and there and then assemble them. Sounds simple enough. In a delightful way, I now own the adult version of a Lincoln Log set.

Only weeks ago each of these logs had been standing tall in friend Joe’s red pine plantation. Back in the late 1970s, Joe and his family planted thousands of seedlings on the sandy fallow fields they owned.

Joe takes great pride in managing his nearly forty-year old trees. Over the years he has regularly cut hundreds of trees so as to create a healthier stand. The chosen survivors will respond with a thickening of girth and a filling of canopy.

Joe obliged my dream with giving me a great price for two 22-foot trailer loads of logs ranging from twelve to thirty feet long, each with a diameter of seven to twelve inches.

Other than laying a campfire or helping with a log cribbing for a lake dock, I have never built a log anything; so why now?

I’ve always wanted a small studio/writing shack/guest cabin in the woods next to our house. But it wasn’t until this past September that I decided to follow through on my dream.

I was visiting a dear 93-year old friend named Stan. About twenty years ago Stan built a small log cabin. He studied books on log building and jumped into the project. When I asked him about his later-in-life-endeavor he looked at me with his piercing blue eyes, smiled slightly and replied, “Tom, few things in life have brought me greater joy than building that little cabin.”

And with that pronouncement it was settled. I was going to build a log cabin. How could I not pursue “greater joy?”

Knowing very little about building such a structure I’ve talked to log builders, bought and borrowed books on the subject and began perusing the many video tutorials on You Tube. I love being a student of something new.

But first things first: remove the bark. The logs are green and heavy. If I leave the bark on while they cure over the coming seasons, I run the risk of having bark beetle infestations.

On the other hand the serpentine engravings chewed by the hidden beetles can add hieroglyphics that no human can emulate. While the squiggly tunnels bored into the wood can be lovely, I don’t want to run the risk of messing with the log’s integrity, so the bark will be peeled.

Nancy and I chose a twelve-foot log and we managed to team-lift one end up onto one of the pair of stout sawhorses I built for this project. Strong backed sawhorses are a must and out of respect I named them Sven and Ole.

“One. Two. Three. Lift!” We complimented each other for a job well done and then we repeated it at the other end of the log. Both Sven and Ole stood solid and never made a peep.

A new electric winch hanging on a tall, stout tripod will lift the remaining logs high enough to position Sven or Ole into place.

For removing the pine bark, I was armed with an antique drawknife. I had purchased the tool at a treasure-rich farm auction that spanned three days at the Carl Almquist farm near Almelund, Minnesota back in 1978. It was said that the auction attracted folks from nearly all fifty states.

I took my handmade Swedish Gränsfors axe and whacked any branch stubs off the log. I was glad I had spent time the night before sharpening the edges of the drawknife and the axe.

With the Yule log at waist height, I reached the drawknife out and pulled the blade back towards me. Strips of brittle brown bark curled and popped away as I worked down the trunk. I rolled the tree and repeated the effort until I was left with a gleaming log.

As I worked I wondered about titling this log cabin. After all, Henry Beston had his “Outermost House” and Aldo Leopold sought refuge at “the shack.”

Among the potential place names that came between puffs of exertions were •Fortress of Solitude

  • Sylvan Shelter
  • Pinus residencia (Pinus resinosa is the scientific name for red pine) •Eleanor’s Play House (in honor of my three week-old granddaughter) •Sylvan Stuga
  • Heartwood
  • The Nest,
  • Hygge Huset (Hygge, pronounced “hue-guh” is from the old Norse word hyggja,which originally meant “to be” or “to think.)

I’m open for the reader’s thoughts and ideas.

In less than half an hour, I stood sweating in the cold air feeling a surge of excitement over the skinning of this first log. Only fifty-six more logs to peel.

Uff da.

Christmas Tree Recipes

“Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree

How much I love to eat thee.

Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree

You give spruce salt and hot tea.”

 

Heaps of sugar, sacks of flour and blizzards of colored sprinkles are flying off the grocery store shelves with Christmas cookie season upon us. Hams, turkeys, meatballs and not enough lutefisk are also adding heft to those carts. And on the way home, why not pick up a Christmas tree or two.

Easing into another December, Nancy and I continue to show our eccentric colors and have once more erected a stout tripod of buckthorn trunks and wrapped it in ribbons, lights and assorted decorations. It’s quite lovely, requires no watering and sheds nothing. And it is the tree that keeps on giving. We can save the holiday tripod and set it out in the garden next spring. It makes a splendid trellis for the vines of sugar snap peas or pole beans.

This year we will be giving away some tasty gifts derived from Christmas trees; in this case specifically spruce. Red squirrels, red and white-winged crossbills, porcupines and even bears will feed regularly on conifer trees. In survival books you might find spruce listed as an emergency food, which generally implies you would only eat it under dire situations.

I learned to value spruce for culinary treats while we lived in the Yukon Territory of northern Canada. There I learned to collect and freeze the soft green tips of spruce in the spring. And if we made the sixty-mile trip to Skagway, Alaska we would often lunch at the Skagway Brewing Company where we quaffed a glass of spruce tip beer.

In Minnesota, the window of opportunity to pinch off spruce tips is late May and early June. The optimal period lasts only days, and it can vary from tree to tree. Simply take the tender, bright green tips, put them in a plastic bag and freeze them. You can process them later.

Or you can dry the clusters immediately and mince the tender needles into fine little pieces to add to various dishes.

One of my favorites is spruce salt. It is simple to prepare and offers a unique flavor that I promise will raise the eyebrows of your dinner guests. Simply chop the tender spruce needles in a food processer to a fine consistency and add to your salt. A little bit will add a distinct flavor that I especially like on broiled salmon.

Another treat is to blend minced spruce into softened butter. One of my favorite uses is to put a dollop on venison steak as it comes hot off the grill.

With cold weather upon us a hot pot of spruce tea is tasty and good for you. One Yukon friend was a firm believer in making spruce tea when he felt a cold coming on. It is a good source of vitamin C.

Last summer, while paddling on a windy chilly morning on the giant Reindeer Lake in northern Saskatchewan, we stopped before paddling a long exposed stretch to boil up a pot of hot water. We tossed in a hefty handful of freshly collected spruce tips for a flavorful tea. And I am here to tell you we succeeded in making the tumultuous crossing. Popeye might use spinach in those moments of needed strength but we had our spruce.

While out in the bush one day, a Yukon friend and forager accidentally cut himself. Immediately he took his knife and scored the bark on a spruce tree. It didn’t take long for the sticky sap to weep out of the slash. He smeared fresh sap on his cut and the blood flow halted. He left the resin in place until it dried and then later peeled it away. Sometimes repeated resin applications are necessary but with shallow injuries one application is usually enough. The sticky nature of the resin also inhibits the growth and spread of bacteria.

Some of our Yukon neighbors like to make spruce tip syrup and even spruce tip vinegar but I have yet to try them.

Be sure to take that new 2018 calendar and jot a reminder to investigate the spruce trees in May. When the tips are tender and bright green you need to get out and harvest. Remember a little bit goes a long way; in a few minutes of collecting tips you will be set for plenty of good tasting.

And you will not look at a Christmas tree in the same way.

Bear-ing a Gift

 

Our house is pretty quiet. But the other day I detected a stirring in the basement. Was a mouse twitching its nose around our stash of squash, potatoes and apples?

I eased down the stairs hoping to catch a glimpse of the noisemaker. This wasn’t the first time I’ve done the basement sneak.

A few years ago, mutual surprise erupted when I discovered a cottontail rabbit sitting in front of the washing machine. We stared at each other for a second. Then the rabbit scurried and skittered across the basement floor and disappeared into the labyrinth of piled firewood.

A quick investigation betrayed the rabbit’s entry into the house. The outside screen over the dryer vent had fallen off and the rabbit had taken an unfortunate slide into the basement. It took three days and fresh kale leaves inside a big live trap to catch the fugitive lagomorph. After scolding the rabbit to not return, I freed it outdoors.

I heard a noise again from beneath the basement stairs. Was a mouse exploring the integrity of the rubber of my chest waders? Or was it interested in the packed boxes of toys stowed away before my two daughters left home and went off to find mates and new homes.

No, this noise sounded more like a slow awakening. There was no quickness or alertness authoring this disturbance. It was born of lethargy similar to that of black bears that emerge from winter’s hibernation.

We are a long ways from spring and yet when I opened a plastic storage box, a small bear lay with its unblinking eyes staring as they always have. The rounded left ear was partially torn away but nothing that a few minutes and a needle and thread couldn’t patch. The large plastic eyes were not as clear as they once were and the shiny ribbon that graced its neck is long gone.The label was tattered and faded. But hey, what do you expect? The bear and I were introduced to each other sixty-five years ago.

From a nearby box I extracted the baby book my mother had made for me. Here was a piece of my own history with pages of black and white photos, captions inked in my mother’s cursive. Soon I was turning page after page, remembering some of the moments captured. It didn’t take long to find the image of my first Christmas Eve. I I was sitting in front of a Christmas tree, flanked by a chubby new Teddy bear, a gift from Great Grandma Carlson.

Two months ago I attended the annual Theodore Roosevelt Symposium in Dickinson, North Dakota. I heard about the origin of the Teddy bear in a presentation by Darrin Lunde, biologist and author of The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, a Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History.

After three days of bear hunting in Mississippi in 1902, Roosevelt had not seen a bear. The guides tracked down a bear that the hounds had trailed and attacked. The guides managed to capture the wounded bear and they tied it to a tree, beckoning Roosevelt to come and shoot it.

Roosevelt refused. He deemed it unsportsmanlike to shoot a tied animal.

Soon political cartoonists portrayed the president refusing to shoot the bear. New York candy shop owner Morris Michtom saw one of the cartoons and got an idea. He requested permission from the White House to christen two stuffed toy bears that his wife had sewed with the title “Teddy’s bears.” He placed them in his shop window and sold them quickly. Other shoppers began requesting such a bear. Soon Michtom was mass-producing them and Teddy bears were launched across America and Europe.

I put the baby book away and eased the Teddy bear out of its hibernacula. With the mystery of the ramblings settled, I carried the bear upstairs into the new light.

The sun glistened off the fresh snow in a manner unlike any I’ve witnessed. Perhaps all seems brighter with the birth of my first grandchild the day before. I think it fitting that I mend a bear’s ear and clean it up before shipping him overseas to know another special Christmas Eve with little Eleanor Kay.

 

A Limit of Birch

 

 

I headed into the boreal bush, across the river from the old deer shack, to hunt ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare. However, it wasn’t long before my intentions were hijacked by the parade of birch trees. I was intrigued with the array of complexions found on these white trees.

Saplings aspire to the snowy glow of their bark only after a few years of wearing a skin of brown red stippled with lenticels of white dashes. Peer closely into these thin, corky stripes and you are looking into the passage where the tireless exchange of gases pass each other.

In a handful of years the birch changes color and settles into its white finery. This is when the tree earns its genus name, Betula. In Latin, Betula means “to shine.”

As the tree grows beneath the bark, the outer layers expand and the tree literally outgrows its skin. As the tree ages the bark loses elasticity and easily cracks, splits and falls away.

 

Every November, during my deer shack stay, I pick up fallen shards of birch bark and bring them home to refill my stash of tinder to light the morning fire. Dry or soaking wet, the birch bark will pull a match flame towards itself and offer the promise of a fire like few other materials.

Several years ago, I shot a heavy buck that ended up in the water down river from the shack. I waded into the cold river to float the deer to a manageable place where I could pull it out and field dress it. As usual, I kept the heart and liver, but that year I carefully removed the full stomach as well. I emptied its contents and thoroughly rinsed the stomach in the river before tucking it in a plastic bag.

Back home, I turned the stomach inside out and stretched it over a small whorl of white pine branches and let it dry. The thousands of hairlike cilia that lined the inner stomach gave it a texture similar to fleece.

The stomach vessel dried tight over the struts of the pine branch. That vessel hangs on the wall near the stove and it is filled with curls and scraps of birch bark.

 

 

Sadly, many of the mature birch in northeastern Minnesota are dying. Driving northeast up the shore of Lake Superior en route to the shack, we passed many stands of dead and dying birch.

According to Welby Smith, botanist and author of Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, “As many as 20% of all paper birches in Minnesota, in all age classes, may have died from drought related causes between 1988-89.” Since Smith’s book was published in 2008, Minnesota has experienced three of its warmest years in recorded history. Birch fare poorly in hot weather and its future as a component of the northern landscape could be in question with climate change upon us.

One tree I passed on my walk had a flag of birch bark curls while another teased me with a peek of the new latest skin exposing itself to this eleventh month. And yet others bore ragged wings of outstretched bark tatters, fluttering optimistically, as if to fledge from the forest and take flight. No matter how fast the bark flaps, deep roots solidly anchor these trees.

The candlelight glow coming from the shack was a welcome sight after my three-hour outing. While there was no heft of dead grouse or hare in my pack, I was thankful for the much lighter harvest of birch scrolls. These boreal fragments will assure me of a winter’s worth of morning fires.

Aging Shacks and Aging Boys

 

With five to seven inches of snow on the ground and the wind picking up, the night seemed ill fit for man nor beast.  The beloved deer shack creaked and clattered while a quorum of five of us reconvened after making our annual pilgrimage to the piecemeal shelter.

It’s not a stretch to call our first night at the shack a homecoming. The dark aged boards that make up both the exterior and interior walls are lit by a trio of staggered candles and a lantern.  Snow falls silently outside and another chunk of firewood is tucked into the glowing maw of the stove. We pull our chairs closer to the stove. I am sure we sit in the mute company of ghosts, the shack builders and dwellers from the past. And as predictable as the current of the lively river flowing tirelessly, just down the hill, we share repeated stories of past deer hunts,  hunters, modes of getting back into the remote shack quarters and encounters with the likes of lynx, moose, wolves and even a wolverine.

Without electricity the usual distractions brought on by television images, radio blather and humming appliances are absent. And better yet, sitting among a bank of alders, roughly three miles from a paved road, there are no distant car honks or Jake braking. The noises here vary from the clatter of setting silverware, to the opening of the door on the woodburning stove, the lantern hissing or mild conversation sprinkled with chuckles that often build to a landslide of laughter.

This simple hunting shelter was built in a handful of days in early July in 1940. The builders used recycled lumber and other assorted building materials costing less than three ten-dollar bills. The temperature was hot; inspiring swarms of black flies so abundant that scores of them mired down in the morning pancake batter at the builder’s camp.

The shack still provides shelter to those who plan on staying there and even those who happen to stumble upon it. The decrepit door, hinged with arthritic rust, carries a familiar squeak when opened. And it is never locked.

Those who make the annual deer hunting trip are well versed in the oral history of this place and landscape. Only in the shack’s latter years did the historical archives include the written word.

Twenty years ago, a middle school spiral bound notebook was left behind at the shack over the annual MEA (Minnesota Education Association) two-day school break in mid-October. Four months later, a solo snowshoer kicked the snow away from the door to gain access. He stayed overnight and finding the notebook of blank pages he used it to pen in a journal entry.

Feb. 29, 1996

 Well it’s a beautiful day outside but here I am in by the fire drying off.

I decided to do a little snowshoeing today destination unknown. I snowshoed up the river and feel through the ice just down the hill from the shack. Happy that it happened near the deer shack.

 Had planned on doing some winter camping but I didn’t figure I would be staying in here drying myself. Last time I was here was in ’85. I’m just glad to see the old shack is still here and standing.

 Thanks for taking care of the old place.

 Tony

That scrawled note inspired other shack visitors, scores of them, to note their particular visit. When that notebook was full we left a second and now its pages are nearly full.

The most common thread in all the journal entries is one of gratitude. “We’re back. It’s good to be here. I’m so glad people take care of this shack.”

Some relish the isolation and quietude. “Back again for a little quiet time.” Another noted, “Glad to find the cabin clean and quiet. It’s been wonderful to come and sit around and read.”

 In the accumulation of Novembers there have been many deer tales and many clattering nights where the shack groans and a piece of roof tin clatters. The shack, like us, is showing its age

The youngest among the November pilgrims is a young fifty-four. His father was one of the builders of the shack. Behind the fifty-four year old, there are no children. No camp followers.

Sitting around the fire on the last night of our stay, we broach the subject of extended care for the shack. The roof is in need of attention. Without the integrity of a proper roof, the elements of nature will ultimately cripple and fall the shack.

Nels, the most veteran of current shack dwellers, asked the question none of us want to face, “Well maybe we just let the shack die a natural death. With no one really following us, who will take care of it in years to come?”

No one disagreed and we pondered while the stove, in its frolicking fire noise, seemed to say, “Oh come on! I’ve got a lot of years left in me!”

More discussion followed and then we found renewed energy and smiled when someone said we should start a shack improvement campaign and call it, “Make the Shack Great Again.” We all agreed that our revised campaign slogan would likely be more successful than the original promise.

So just like that we came to a conclusion. We would take a few months to seek out and squirrel away the necessary steel sheets and 2x4s to give the shack a new roof. A decision was made to reconvene early next fall, two months prior to the deer hunt, to perform the makeover.

I think we ultimately made our decision based on optimism, not only for the shack, but also for ourselves. Here, where boreal forest and shack commingle, time stands still and the silence demands introspection of things greater than our sum.

We cannot ignore the health of this historic hovel. It has given us so much. Here, up at the shack, in the quiet fir-scented air where an opening decrepit door squeals a welcome every time we arrive, here, we become boys again.

It’s only right that we make the shack great again.

So with a plan in place, we blew out the candles and climbed into the bunks for the night. I like to think a host of smiling and nodding ghosts remained sitting around the stove’s banked fire.

Homeland Potatoes

 

 

When all things spoke the potato said,

‘set me warm, dig me warm, eat me warm that’s all I want.’

-Irish proverb

 

 I must grow potatoes.

It’s no different from my need for eating, sleeping, reading books and poking around in wild places. Potatoes run deep in my lineage.

For generations my Scandinavian ancestors grew potatoes in Sweden. As a boy, my great grandfather Eric arrived in Minnesota, having left his poverty stricken province of Småland in Sweden.

The family eventually settled in east-central Minnesota among other Scandinavian and German farmers. Here the well-drained, sandy soil was perfect for growing potatoes. It was the potato that grew my great grandfather’s farm here on the Anoka sand plain.

I am the fifth generation of my family to plant potatoes on this piece of land. I am compelled to tuck several pounds of cut potato seed into the ground every spring. I pat the soil over each earth-cradled piece of spud and silently urge it to greatness. I don’t grow potatoes by the acre like my ancestors did, but I still plant them.

The potato is an alien in Sweden and the United States. This starchy vegetable, a native of the Andes Mountains in South America, was shipped to Portugal in 1567. Up to that point the Inca Indians had cultivated it for 10,000 years.

Potatoes first arrived in Sweden around 1655. It took almost a hundred years before Jonas Alströmer, a pioneer in agriculture and industry, started testing the plant on his farm near Alingsås, prompting Swedish farmers to plant potatoes.

Great Grandpa Eric was known for his hard work ethic. The demand for potatoes was growing along with the human population. Consequently he converted acres of his wooded lands to farmland using dynamite and his team of three workhorses to clear stubborn stumps.

I wish there was a record of the number of wagonloads of potatoes that Great Grandpa Eric steered seven miles to one of the five starch factories in North Branch, Minnesota. In those years North Branch bragged that it was the “Potato Capital of the World.

Those annual heaps of potatoes made it possible for my great grandfather to buy his first automobile, a black 1915 Buick. Decades ago, an old hired hand of Eric’s told me that Eric’s car was the first auto in the township.

A few years after the Buick, the potato harvest yielded a new gas generator in his barn. Now he could milk cows under shining light bulbs. Then he strung wires from the barn, across the gravel road, to the big farmhouse, allowing the flow of electricity to turn night into day. This was the first electrical hook-up in the township.

His son, my grandfather, grew potatoes, but he also diversified as the sandy soil became more nutrient depleted and the potato harvest dwindled. His son, my father, won a medal for his potatoes at the Minnesota State Fair.

My potato growing efforts have not earned me any medals, recognition or new cars, but it has brought me an annual dose of humility.

My yearly harvest has often been compromised by seasonal battles with pocket gophers that also find the firm white flesh of the spud delicious. For the time being I am keeping their incisors at bay by growing the spuds in deep raised beds with a bottom of galvanized wire mesh to prevent tunneling raids.

But mostly I am humbled by the privilege to work a piece of land that our family has intimately known for over a century.

Every fall, I drop to my knees on this home place ground and push my fingers into the sandy soil beneath the collapsed and withered summer stem of the parent potato plant. Like a fallen flag of surrender, it shows me where to dig and blindly probe. Each carefully excavated potato is like a gift and results in a slight jolt of joy.

Satisfied that I have found all the spuds under the hill that I mounded last June, I crawl to the next hill, a measured length of my forearm from the first. Again and again, like a magician, I pull potatoes out of the ground and set them to the side to air dry.

In good years, there is a trail of potatoes like a lumpy pearl necklace delineating my harvest crawl. I linger on soiled knees to remind myself of the privilege of growing spuds here. I understand more completely that both the potato and I are of the earth.

Later, I gather them in a bent wire basket that was used by Great Grandpa Eric. I hold a potato in my grubby hand. Thin crescents of dirt under my fingernails and a heavy old basket are testimony of a job well done.

And now, I must eat potatoes.

Gross. . . Or not

I spied a dead deer lying along the edge of the gravel road when I walked out to the mailbox.

The glazed eyes and bloated belly signaled that this deer had been killed too long ago for me to salvage some meat. However, the twenty-four hours it had been lying there had ripened it perfectly for the first scavengers.

When an animal dies, the march of decomposition begins immediately. Without breathing there is no cycling of oxygen and the wastes of carbon dioxide. Consequently, cells rupture and flesh-eating enzymes bloat the belly.

The rich bouquet of gases causes the dead animal to nearly double in size. Within 24 hours of death, during warm months, a host of odorous gases including “cadaverine” and “putrescine” begin to rise from the swollen carcass. Air currents quickly disseminate them.

For turkey vultures, the advance squad of the carrion corps, putrid exhalations of death are a silent dinner bell. The turkey vulture is equipped with an oversized olfactory bulb nestled next to the brain. Of the thousands of bird species on the planet, turkey vultures bear one of the largest sensory organs for smelling.

Flying low over the countryside, effortlessly riding thermals of swirling air with wide swept wings, the vulture can detect whiffs of gases from up to a mile from the dead.

Vultures lazily wheel overhead peering down to locate the point of death. Other vultures in the area visually hone in on the scavenging swirl and they in turn create a tall living billboard-of-sorts that attracts the attention of other scavengers. Crows, ravens, jays and eagles know that a slow tornado of soaring vultures means food is at hand.

The following day, day two since the deer collision, I was driving home from fetching groceries. When I turned down our road, I could see all kinds of activity a quarter of a mile ahead of me, where the dead fawn lay.

Six turkey vultures, two mature bald eagles with white heads gleaming, a pair of ravens and a murder of two-dozen crows, scavengers all, gathered at the death scene. I marveled at how the twisted fawn could give a clarion call for feasting.

I pulled into our driveway without disturbing the feeding frenzy. I tossed the bag of groceries on the counter, coaxed Nancy to grab her binoculars and to follow me. We eased our way into the brushy treeline that partially screened us and peered at the assemblage of seamy scavengers.

Even though we were sneaky, the crows and ravens busted us. These wary scouts got up and winged away. Their departure caused the eagles to fly off and the vultures to look up, but the vultures continued to surround the dead like mourners paying their last respects. In fact a group of vultures is aptly referred to as a “wake.”

Two of the vultures stood near the dead deer with black wings spread wide, as if ready to embrace something. In the chill of the morning they were spreading their wings to better absorb the warmth of the sun. During the night roost their body temperature drops so they need this thermoregulation trick.

One vulture walked on top of the stilled fawn, paused, and dipped its naked head into the corpse. The featherless vulture head keeps blood and bits of flesh from sticking. It’s an adaptation to keep clean.

A couple of minutes passed and an immature bald eagle glided in and landed near the deer. It hopped to the carcass. The vultures, being lower on the pecking order, sulked away from the banquet. The eagle is an important visitor as it has a sharp, curved beak to tear into the flesh. The vultures and crows are not so handily equipped and take advantage of the eagle’s skill at tearing the deer hide open.

The next day, death’s day three, I hurried out to peek at the carnage to see who was there. One eagle and a handful of crows watched from nearby. I never did see any more vultures. They prefer meat not so rotted.

Curious, I walked over to take a closer look. Some mammalian scavengers, likely coyotes or raccoons, had fed on the fawn in the night. The carcass had been moved several feet and was more skeletonized and twisted. Shiny blue and green bottle flies flew about the carcass while others crawled around the exposed flesh.

Gravid female flies were leaving batches of 150 or more eggs on the putrid flesh. These eggs hatch in less than a day and the maggots will have readily available food.

I didn’t get out to investigate the deer the next day, but did stroll out on the fifth day since the fatal collision. I found a flow of writhing life spewing from the fawn’s frozen final gasp. Resembling swollen rice grains, the tireless larvae whittled the carcass away.

While a seething mass of maggots in rotting flesh might seem repulsive, maggots’ hunger for the fetid aids human medicine. Through history, the newly hatched, germ-free maggots were often applied to clean out wounds and combat gangrene. In the 21st century the demand for medical maggots has increased 25 to 50% annually.

I stood mesmerized by the sheer numbers of maggots and their perpetual motion. The melting carcass was a far cry from the bouncing fawn I had spied in the adjacent soybean field only a week prior.

With the corps of corpse-eaters erasing the fawn while recycling nutrients into the biosphere, I could only salute them all and offer a hearty “Carry on!”

Perhaps the more apt cry of encouragement would be “Carrion!”

 

(Abundant thanks to Joe Sausen for use of the turkey vulture and eagle image!)

In the Company of a Star

 

I love putting myself into wild arenas where I am forced to pay attention. The adrenaline surge I feel while easing a canoe into the slick drop of a rowdy rapids or scrambling up a ragged peak fuels my aliveness.

Today I wanted a gentler dose of awareness. I packed a water bottle, journal, camera and folding camp chair in my daypack. After a ten-minute walk I stopped in front of a single plant in a sea of diverse prairie flora.

I had chosen a solo blue wand of my favorite prairie flower, a blazing star. I’m not alone in my fondness for this late summer bloom. The blue color combined with the essence of the blossom’s nectar hails many pollinating insects to pause on the flower for nourishment.

There are five species of blazing star in Minnesota and they are not created equal in their ability to attract butterflies. The monarch butterfly, in particular, considers the northern plains blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis) the champagne of flowers. It is not unusual to see a number of monarchs clambering over one of these flower stalks to feed.

I settled comfortably into my small chair, with my back to the sun, no more than three feet from the blazing star. Admittedly I could have parked myself on the ground and been less conspicuous but as a good friend used to say, “Any fool can be uncomfortable.”

In mere seconds a pair of copulating soldier beetles, also known as Pennsylvania leatherwings shuffled into view from the backside of the flower stalk. Both sexes look similar with orange and black colors on their wing covers. At first glance the ponderous shuffler looked to be one big beetle but closer scrutiny revealed that the male was on top of the female. The duo sidled into view like a pair of shy exhibitionists.

I did not avert my gaze but instead leaned in for a closer look. Does this make me guilty of flagrant voyeurism as I watched them move tortoiselike up the vertical boudoir of blue?

Minutes passed, then a half hour. I was impressed with their skills of lovemaking. A movement just above the beetle lovers caught my eye. A brown and orange Peck’s skipper butterfly landed momentarily and then flittered back into air before alighting closer to the intimate beetle pair. Was this arthropod equally guilty of sexual spying?

The Peck’s skipper is one of many species of skipper butterflies. Skippers are all relatively small, a quarter the size of a monarch or less. They do not flitter buoyantly. Instead they hurry to and fro and tumble as if they do not want to be seen. If you look closely you will see the unique club-shaped antennae that resemble a pair of crochet hooks.

The Peck’s skipper is named after William Peck, Harvard’s first natural history professor in 1805. The small stocky-bodied butterfly is common in grasslands and gardens.

Like most skippers, it did not alight with its wings spread out. Instead, it held its wings upright like a small sail above its back. Consequently I was viewing the underside of the hindwing. Both sexes have large yellow spots in the center surrounded by dark brown.

This skipper was likely a male, as they typically alight on a perch at midday to survey the area for the appearance of a female. In other words, he was cruising.

I didn’t get to study the little skipper very long as it suddenly dropped from the blazing star and fluttered into some nearby grasses. Had he seen a female rustling nearby?

Unflustered by the skipper and me, the pair of soldier beetles continued their lazy coupling.

Minutes passed. Soon a similar skipper landed on the blazing star. Was this the same male or a different one? It soon tumbled off while the soldier beetles practiced connectivity.

I sat for two hours observing the comings and goings at the blazing star.

My water bottle was empty and I was getting warm. If I were to take a lesson from this prairie sit it seemed I had two options. One, the skipper model, would be to tumble away. The other, the way of the beetles, would be to amble back to the house and share my learnings with Nancy.

And who knows what might come next?

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