In the Company of Cacti

“I bought a cactus. A week later it died. And I got depressed because I thought ‘Damn I am less nurturing than a desert.”
-Comedian, Demetri Martin

Water is the defining aspect of life in the Sonoran Desert. It is the primary limiting factor in determining who lives and who dies. The masters of water management are the cacti.

Being a Minnesota boy, I am not familiar with such aridity. At home, I am usually within eyesight of a lake, pond, river, stream or wetland of some type.

On our third day of backpacking in the desert, Nels and I were running out of water. We found ourselves taking measured sips to fool our bodies into thinking we were just fine. Walking past a tall saguaro cactus, a master of water management, I wondered if there was a way to tap into the thick, spiked stem to draw some of its abundant stored water. 

Nels and I assessed our maps and felt confident that we could cover the eight miles to the next reliable water source. The sky was cloudless and the sun was pouring it on.

We dropped into a draw and found a shallow bathtub-sized seep of water blanketed in green algae.  The sinuous, tiny flow was short-lived as it disappeared into the ground. Cattle tracks caverned the edge and cow pies littered the area. This looked to be a popular watering hole. 

We pushed the scum aside to reveal three inches of clear water above the mucky bottom. We filled our water bottles with careful scoops of this precious fluid.  Nels dropped a water purification tablet into each bottle to render bacteria or other ‘ickies” harmless after half an hour of mixing. Our mood brightened.

We trekked beneath scores of saguaro that reached more than 30 feet tall. Most of these would weigh 3-5 tons. Some can grow to 80 feet tall and live 200 years.

These towering desert residents grow very slowly in their first eight years of life; usually less than two inches. Their survival depends on their germinating under a tree or shrub that shades them from temperature and moisture extremes.

In most plants the leaf is the food factory where photosynthesis takes place. The trouble with leaves in the desert is that their surface area allows too much evaporation. Saguaro conserve water in several ways: grow no leaves, photosynthesize through their stem that is covered with a thick and waxy skin, protect their stores of water by a covering of sharp spines to keep critters away, grow thick stems that are grooved to direct moisture from brief rainfalls down to the base and the shallow, widespread roots. 

On our last day, we broke camp before the sun climbed over the ridge. We picked our way down the creek bed through a jumble of rocks. 

By late morning, the descent took us through the last expanse of saguaro with their frozen waves of upraised arms. 

In the distance we could see the endpoint of our trek; the impossible blue waters of Roosevelt Lake, the world’s largest artificial lake created in 1906.  

The dam that birthed the reservoir was constructed after area ranchers and farmers sought a water storage system that would sustain them during dry years. It also generates 36 megawatts of electricity per year; enough to power approximately 36,000 households.

Human settlement of Central Arizona, with its large-scale irrigation and agricultural development, would not have been possible without Roosevelt Lake. 

But as human population growth continues to climb in the Arizona deserts, combined with the reality of climate change, there is a greater pressure on water usage of the Colorado River and fossil water drawn from aquifers. (According to a 2023 Arizona Water Department more groundwater has been allocated in the next hundred years than is present in the aquifers.)

Hiking down towards the distant lake, I glanced back and nodded a thanks to the saguaro and desert.  With the incredible human growth rate and pressures on water usage in this region, I wondered if these slopes of cacti were lifting their arms in surrender.

The saguaro, with its ancient blueprint to thrive under arid conditions, would make a good model for water conservation. They have figured out the water thing all on their own.

Christening Trail Names

Some people escape to remote areas to get away from the scrum of society, to go incognito or off the radar entirely. And if they happen to be backpacking on one of the longer routes such as the Appalachian Trail, the Arizona Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail they might be walking for weeks or months. In recent years it has become the norm to shed your civilized, birth name and take on what is called a “trail name.”  

Trail names have become a fun part of the backpacking culture that can allow hikers to connect. For some, the trail titles become an identity shift, a form of escapism if you will.  The new name can signify starting over, stepping away from any baggage or escaping the routine of life.

No matter your gender, your occupation or lack of one, your hometown status, your physical abilities, the girth of your wallet or stock portfolio, the trail name is an identity that might render fantastical or whimsical powers to your self.

Early in our backpacking venture on the Arizona Trail, friend Nels and I came across our first weather-proof trail register. We lifted the rusted steel cover and discovered a ledger. Hikers sign in with the date of their passing, and whether or not they are a thru-hiker (one that is hiking the entire length of the trail in one season). They add their trail names, birth names or both. Leaving both names is a good idea. If trouble arises it is easier for people to locate which section of trail you are on. They might not have a clue of any association to your outside world identity if you sign only your trail name. We chuckled when we saw that “Sloop” and “Putt-putt” had signed in recently.

We headed down the trail after signing in with the nicknames we have called each other for scores of years: “Nels” and “Andy.” We reflected about the small town nicknames we lived with when we were kids. Many, like ours, were simply a a shortened version of last names. Some were simply intials like “BJ.” More imaginative, and not necessarily flattering, were others like Gooey, Pickle, Mouse, Gasser, Fig, Flakey, Punch, Buffer and so many more.

How does one acquire a trail name? Just as your birth name was given to you by your parents, your trail name is generally assigned by someone else. 

At first, Nels and I felt a little too old for such silly titles, but as the silent miles passed we found ourselves contemplating proper trail names. I wondered about Elder, Yonder, Poppa T-Bone (a playful name that my son-in-law knighted me with). How about Gulch Grinder? Or more apt, Gulch Shuffler? Is it too clever to go with D.Lite? Maybe Pathos. 

Or do I simply hijack the name that early North American explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson was given by the indigenous he lived and traveled with: “Iron Legs.”

Day after day and mile after mile I considered a proper name for Nels. As a kid, he was briefly known as “Weasel” for his quickness (which served him well in high school basketball where he earned a college scholarship).

During one of our long climbs, I suggested he be known as “IthinkIcan” with a nod to the folktale The Little Engine That Could.

One day Nels took a tumble on the skittery rocks and skinned his knee. As we watched the shallow wound redden, I noted that over the course of our 65-year history of being buddies, it seemed he always had scabbed knees and shins. 

“Scabby would be a good trail name for you,” I declared.

His wrinkled nose, showing his lack of enthusiasm. 

One late afternoon we settled into our camp. I draped my silk sleeping bag liner over a bush. Unbeknownst to me this was the thorny catclaw bush. The sheer fabric was entangled in half a dozen places. I was trying to gather up the liner while freeing it from the short, curved thorns and it wasn’t going well.

 Suddenly a hiker came by on the trail only ten yards from us. “Hi,” Nels called, “Are you thru-hiking?”

The hiker lowered his pack and pulled out a water bottle. “I’m doing it all. I left the Mexican border three weeks ago.” He took a long swig of water before asking, “You two got trail names?”

We paused, almost awkwardly, before sharing, “Nels and Andy.”

With a broad smile he said “Right on! I’m Timber.”

It turns out he was christened by an old homeless guy in northern California known as Bucket (a former gold prospector). Over a shared campfire and a beer, the old man declared the younger right then and there as “Timber” and it stuck. It seemed perfect for his strong physique.

For 20 minutes, I continued my futile efforts of disentangling the liner and my skin from the cursed catclaw. Timber and Nels both chuckled at my predicament. I tried to remain calm and focussed but it was not easy when there was the distraction of company. 

Timber swung his backpack up. He hoped to get in another mile or two to meet his average of 20 miles per day. All I could manage was a head nod. A friendly farewell wave was impossible with my contorted arms still painfully ensnared.

Timber crossed the dried creek bed and was soon out of sight. Finally, I freed the liner and myself.  

“I’m a marked man!” I wailed as I inspected the thin bloody scratches on my arm and hand.

Nels giggled, then declared, “Catclaw! That’s your trail name!”

I wasn’t sure I liked the unwritten rule of trail names that you have to accept the name that someone titles you. 

The next morning, under a paint-smeared sky, I hoisted my pack and began to walk and muttered to myself, “Catclaw. Really? Catclaw.”

With any luck, Nels, I mean Scabby, and I will be hiking another hundred-mile section of the Arizona Trail next year.  Perhaps Catclaw won’t make that trip. There is another unwritten rule is that you can change your trail name with a new hike.

I Go Because I Can

“Miles and miles of miles and miles.”

– 18th century itinerant evangelist, John Wesley 

Cinching our backpack hip belts and picking up our hiking poles, we paused to let the weight settle on our bodies. The morning desert sky was cloudless and the scraggly peaks were backlit by the coming sun.

And as he has done on every backpacking trip together, Nels declared, “Let’s take a walk.” 

He wears gloves on this morning and I only wish I had dug mine out of the bowels of my pack. Frost seems odd in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. But two mornings found us shaking a hard frost from the tent. We were on day four of our ninety-mile journey on the 800-mile Arizona Trail that runs the length of Arizona from Mexico to Utah.

Before we began the hike, an Arizona friend of Nels, a retired Iowa farmer, expressed to him his concern for our choice of outings. “You know,” he said, “you two aren’t youngsters anymore.”

His concern is legitimate. Why hike any of this rugged Arizona Trail? My simple answer is, “Because I can.” I am fortunate to have a body that works relatively well.

With daylight coming coming on we break camp quickly and begin the walk to warm up. A flock of Gambrel’s quail flush off to our left. Down in a cactus thicket a canyon wren bubbles its Sunday morning hymn. Banter between us is irregular and usually brief. As usual, as is our practice in backpacking together, we will save extended conversation for breakfast. And that won’t happen until we put in an hour two of hiking.

After our trailside breakfast and energized by coffee, we hoist and settle into our packs again. We return to the quiet rhythm of walking. The sun tirelessly climbs higher behind us. Soon, the skinny trail becomes more of an uphill walk and then the pitches become more severe with switchbacks traversing the ascent.

My uphill strides become shorter and more measured. I stare at the trail in front of my feet to avoid loose rocks. This is unforgiving country and a careless misstep would change the nature of this trek so we focus and pay attention.

The sun sears down on us.  I feel the sweat roll off my nose. I have discovered an earworm on this morning as I repeatedly mumble his opening line from Bob Dylan’s song, All Along the Watchtower: “There must be some way outta here.”

I concentrate on the precise cadence of my footsteps on the small, fractured rocks. The beat of my feet against the small stones sounds like snare drums. It is mesmerizing but soon that percussive beat is joined by a wind instrument: my loud breathing. The whoosh of my breathing is like the measured breaks of ocean waves running up on a beach.

I pay attention to my own monotonous soliloquy. “Crunch . . . crunch. . . heavy exhalation . . . deep inhale . . .crunch. . . crunch. . .heavy exhalation. . .deep inhale. . . crunch. . . crunch. . . repeat and repeat. 

Like the tiny lizards that scurry across the trail and vanish in the rubble, our conversations likewise disappear.  We celebrate the climb with pauses in  rugs of shade provided by a boulder or mesquite tree. These breaks allow our breathing and heart rates to settle. We wipe our brows as we mentally measure how much of a climb remains.  And equally important we celebrate the gift of desert water as we swig judiciously from our water bottles.

Shade and water are key elements to our comfort. If you wait to drink water only when you are thirsty you are too late. Drinking water frequently to stave off dehydration is an essential part of the day.   

These short rests allow us to turn around and settle our gaze on the surrounding jagged mountains and cactus-stitched ridges. 

This wilderness is foreign country to me. Most of my wilderness experience is of a boreal or sub-arctic nature. I am a Minnesota boy who plays in forests, rivers and lakes.   

Paradoxically, I always feel a level of joy when I experience the twin stimulants of physical exertion and remoteness.  Here, I feel so very much alive and I celebrate a body that works. I rejoice and taste the communion of gratitude and overwhelming humility. 

We lift our packs and resume our mute climb. Soon we renew the rhythm of crunch. . .crunch. . .exhale. . . inhale. . .crunch. . .crunch. 

Wild country, encountered under our own power, strips away the extraneous. Life is rendered to the most basic elements out here. Pretentiousness cannot exist. 

Freedom in the wilderness reigns like no other place I’ve known. And even though we have no physical or cyber means of connecting with humankind out here, we both find more comfort here than amongst the chew of civilization.

At midday we reached our top, 4,200 feet higher than where we broke camp at dawn. From our vista I look back feeling the satisfaction of perseverance amid the blanketing silence.

One absolute in life is that life itself is terminal. And so while my legs, lungs and heart still work well together, I’ll continue my forays into the backcountry. Partnering with Nels, luck, and good health we will explore another 100 miles of this skinny and rocky trail next year.

Because I can.

Crunch. . .crunch. . .exhale. . . inhale. . .crunch. . .crunch.

The Romance of Letter Writing

Over twenty-five years ago I received a short, hand-written note from a lovely lady I had met at a bird-banding event a few days earlier. I  perked up when I read her last sentence. “It will be pleasure when our paths next cross.” I reread it at least half a dozen times and then pondered it before reading it again.

As I had been divorced for three years, I was interested but had no idea of the status of this woman, named Nancy. Was she single? Partnered? Maybe she was cloistered. . . caught her on a day off from the monastery.

Even though emails were quickly becoming the societal norm, I chose to respond to her letter with a scribed letter of my own and soon we were pen pals. Over the course of a few weeks, going to the mail box was an enthusiastically anticipated endeavor, not unlike unwrapping a Christmas gift. We learned much about each other and we both discovered that we liked words.

Finally I asked her out on a somewhat non-conventional date. I took the chance and invited her to join me on a plant collecting outing on our family farm followed by lunch at my place. This was not collecting live plants but instead collecting foliage and flowers to put in my plant press. She curiously accepted and we strolled among the various species of June wildflowers. 

The following week I sent her another hand-written letter thanking her for joining me and it included a single dried blossom of a wild rose. She still has that now-tattered wild rose and together we have a fairly thick packet of hand-written letters. And, I might add, a diverse collection of dried flora.

This week we will be celebrating our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and it only seems appropriate to sit down today and write Nancy a “map letter.” The scorched corner is a touch to illustrate my heated love.

Map letters are special as they are typically fairly serious communiques about traveling through the trails of life. My children, now all parents themselves, have periodically received an appropriately timed map letter and I look forward to someday mailing such letters to my grandchildren.

At least a quarter of a century ago I had spied a stack of old topo maps in a dumpster and I unashamedly climbed in to retrieve them. Such is my love for maps. The sheets of stationary used in my map letters are cut from these old topographic maps.

When I reflect on the art and practice of writing a hand-written letter, no other person has been more of an influence than a dear late friend and work colleague, Charlie Johnson. Charlie was a dyed-in-the-wool artist and romantic. And I might add he was an ardent plant collector as well. He shunned computers and sneer at the idea of ever sending a cursed email.

Charlie being very fond of the famed Montana artist, Charlie Russel, might have been inspired by Russel’s practice of sending letters to friends that were augmented with watercolor scenes embellishing the pages. Today these are worth thousands of dollars. 

When we lived periodically in the Yukon Territory, Charlie would send me a couple of letters  from his Alaska residence each month. Often on the back of the envelope he would scribble one of his axioms: “One hand-written letter is worth 10,000 emails.”

I could almost hear his accusatory snarl. So with visions of my second grade teacher watching me practice my cursive writing, I practiced being a better letter writer. Over the years, we could have filled a herbarium with all the pressed botanical finds that we shared with each other.

He continually reminded me of the need to write letters. . . especially to him. So one day I decided to up my game and render Charlie into a flabbergasted friend. I had hired a local guy who sawed lumber to mill me a bunch of Sitka spruce for some renovations on our log abode. A thin scrap of spruce measuring roughly 10″x18″x1/8″ thick lay in the sawdust beneath the saw’s blade. I asked if I could take it and the miller said “Of course.” I had just secured my writing paper.

Using a black sharpie and a yellow highlighting pen, I artfully wrote and illustrated my note to Charlie. It was brief, bold and full of braggadocio. Slowly, I printed the following:

His Majesty Charlie,

I figured that this sheet of Sitka spruce is not only unusual, like you, but it pretty much blows away those cute little letters you mail to me.

To fully decipher this Sitka script you need to close your eyes and rarely run your finger tips over the fuzzy surface, study the clear grain and you will journey up the once tall, limbless trunk. Ahh. . . .but its the ragged edges I love best. For it’s at the edges of mountain cliffs, wild rivers, grizz boundaries and creative outburst that send my heart into overdrive. 

And don’t forget . . .you are one fortunate man. 

Love Tom

I tucked the Sitka note in in between two sheets of cardboard and sealed it with stout tape. The postal worker at the Whitehorse post office measured, weighed, gave a cringing twist to his face  and said, “This will cost you $25 dollars to mail to Alaska.” I paused and gulped. Of course a man has to do what he must and I nodded as I fished out the pretty Canadian cash. L

Charlie was humbled and nearly rendered speechless. However, he took on the challenge and later, for my birthday card, he chose a tanned front leg of a wolf to mail me with his brief, inflammatory greeting inked on the tanned side of the foreleg.

I could go on with each passing year of each of us trying to one-up the other in letter writing. But I have to say one of my letters might have set the gold standard. I intentionally stained the letter with spilled coffee, smeared mud on the totally wrinkled envelope and then shot a .30 caliber bullet through it and hand delivered to him in Utah by a local, scruffy muleskinner.

In penning a letter, there is no option of cutting and pasting or deleting to start over unless you want to start with a fresh piece of paper. Scratched out words are fine in informal shares. There is something more authentic to a hand-written letter. The ink, the scribbling cursive or bold printing become brief songs of original art.

Someone actually took the time to sit down and scroll you a personal message. I’m always surprised at the positive, heart warming feedback I get from friends or acquaintances with whom I have shared such a letter.

A handwritten letter is not ephemeral and is more of a keepsake than an email. That’s why I have a special folder labeled “Charlie letters” or “Kurt letters” and even one with “miscellaneous letters.”

But none of these treasured letters hold a candle to the shared pages mailed between my bride and me. I’m hoping we continue to be ardent pen pals.

Eating Like a Bird

Tis the season to be jolly 

making all diets nothing but folly.

Holiday eating inspires predictable and nearly impossible New Years resolutions. Every which way I turn there are sumptuous bites and gulps of calories begging my attention.  I fully understand that such a dilemma is not shared across the globe where one out of ten people is underfed and hungry.  I live a life of privilege where calories are easily garnered.

This morning, the day of the winter solstice, found the sun’s first light smearing the sky with party pastels. Peering outside into the in-between light of night and day I watch a small flock of chickadees. My night face hadn’t fully awakened and yet, the small, smartly plumaged birds pry a smile from me.

The chickadees suddenly descend on a hanging suet cake. The flurry contained an urgency, like it was their last breakfast.

A black-capped chickadee, weighing no more than three pennies, has a resting heart that idles along at roughly 500 heartbeats/minute. Consequently it has to refuel constantly. Each day the chickadee must eat 35% of its body weight.  I weigh 160 pounds. At a chickadee’s rate of consumption I would have to eat 224 quarter-pound burgers to survive another day.

Even more spectacular is the hummingbird. It has to eat 100% of its body weight each and every day. I would require 640 quarter-pound burgers to match a hummingbird’s consumption.

Proportionately, the wild turkeys that saunter through our woods don’t require near the amount of food that the chickadee or hummingbird does. A twenty pound turkey needs to eat 5% of its body weight each day. That means about a pound of food.

Small animals, like chickadees or hummingbirds requires more fuel as they have less surface area compared to its body volume. The turkey has more body mass to heat up but proportionally a smaller surface area to lose heat than a chickadee. The chickadee has a much reduced volume with a larger surface area compared to their body size to lose heat; so they must eat like it’s the holidays all the time.

In a perfect world a chickadee or hummingbird could lower their rapid heartbeat and thereby metabolism by practicing a sort of avian meditation. I love the idea of a small flock of chickadees settling on a branch, closing their eyes with their wings slightly extended in front of them and finding an inner calmness.

Pursuing a practice of meditation is another common self-help resolution that makes its way on to lists of resolutions at this time of the year. And even though a Harvard study has found that meditation has benefits such as reducing cardiovascular risks, reduce stress and anxiety, this calming resolution is often short-lived. 

If you are blessed with a high metabolism, are active and regularly move your body under your own power and minimize the intake of empty calories such as those residing in sugar, you likely don’t have to consider resolutions including the world “diet.”

May you find your inner chickadee and evoke unbounded smiles.

Happy New Year!

I’m a Squirrel Watcher

October and early November means tree climbing for me.

I’m an autumn predator. I pull myself up into the palette of fall foliage and settle among the limbs with the hope of ambushing a whitetail deer with my recurve bow and arrows.

The waiting can be onerous and almost boring. Pretending I am merely a part of the tree offers a great opportunity to simply watch the day unfold. 

This fall there was an abundant mast crop of acorns. Pounds and pounds  fell to the ground. These all represent necessary calories for deer, turkeys, blue jays, chipmunks, mice and of course squirrels. I once watched a pair of beavers snuffling up acorns at a river’s edge.

I’ve noticed more squirrels with this acorn production. In this part of Minnesota I mostly see gray squirrels, but this fall I have seen all three of the common squirrel species found here: gray, fox and red squirrels. (Our two flying squirrel species, the northern and southern, are quite common but they are less seen due to their nocturnal habits.) 

More than once, squirrel shuffling in the dry leaves has quickened my heart rate when I thought it might be an approaching deer.

I mostly enjoy watching the squirrels as arboreal acrobats. They nimbly run along high limbs, towards the bending tip, and then leap and cling to the neighbor tree. They scramble on their pathway of twigs, branches and limbs.  Their short muscular legs and fine clawed toes are perfect adaptions for the high life. Their bushy tail serves many functions. It is an umbrella when curled over their head, a winter duvet for added warmth and it is critical in enhancing their balance. 

Watching the squirrels, it becomes apparent that these treetop paths are as familiar to them as the sidewalk that curls from my driveway to my house is to me.

Recently I watched one gray squirrel make its way through several treetops. Fifteen minutes later, a second gray followed the exact route.

Was this a trail they all learned and used or did the second squirrel scent the route like a rodent bloodhound?

I watched one gray squirrel scurry, leap, pause, scurry, leap and repeat for at least fifty yards through the treetops without descending to the ground. Early frontier settlers in the Ohio River valley might have embellished squirrel feats somewhat, but maybe not. They recorded that those early forests were so dense and broad that squirrels could travel through the connected tree canopies for miles and miles without ever coming to the ground. It was noted that gray squirrel populations were so dense that “…it took a month for an army of squirrels to pass.” In fact, as the region was cleared for agriculture, gray squirrels disrupted early farming efforts in the state to such an extent that Ohio law required each taxpayer to turn in a quota of squirrel skins along with their tax payment.

Sometimes there is a real thrill-seeking squirrel who under estimates the span required to soar to the next tree. I suspect those are young, inexperienced animals. And it’s not unusual to witness a jump from one branch to a dead branch that snaps and breaks. Friend Nels, (another autumnal tree climber) watched one gray fall from high in the oak canopy. Instead of spreading out its limbs and broad, bushy tail to slow the descent into a sort of fur-covered parachute, the squirrel assumed a tuck position, as it if were cannonballing out of the tree. It hit the ground, bounced and then bounded easily away.

Fox squirrels with their yellow-orange pelage are a treat to see as they are less common around here than they used to be. As an adolescent I first hunted squirrels in these very woods where I now sit for a deer. Bagging a fox squirrel in those years was celebratory as they were more shy and elusive besides being slightly larger and more brilliant than a gray.

Fox squirrels generally don’t mingle with the other squirrel species. When they move they don’t hop as much as a gray squirrel. Instead they almost crawl or sneak around.  

Red squirrels are the hyper characters in the woods and for some reason we have more of them around than I ever remember.  I consider these squirrels saboteurs of my hunt. They have no patience for my trying to blend with their trees and they vociferously call me out on that. Likewise, I have no patience for their tireless chattering, cursing, scolding, and chittering vitriolic aspersions spat at me. I’ve got to believe that any nearby deer know that red squirrel cursing is something to avoid. 

Small like red squirrel perched on a branch of a tree looking out to see if theirs danger.

In their jerky movements, the three vociferous red squirrels close in on me on my perch. I glare at them and that only seems to turn up their volume and intensity. So I try to ignore them and stare meditatively into the gaiety of autumn.

Hours had passed since dawn and I still hadn’t seen a deer. However, there was plenty of leaf rustling. Consequently I pulled up a refrain from a 1968 hit: “I’m a girl(squirrel) watcher. I’m a squirrel watcher. Watching squirrels go by.”

Muskrats Bought My Table Saw

I pause at the door to my garage workshop. Where do I start? How do I clean a room that is both a hazard zone and a hoarder’s dream? I’m always embarrassed when someone peeks into what could pass for a flea market museum after an earthquake, but I prefer to think of it as a midden. 

A midden is the archaeological term for a trash or garbage heap. Found everywhere that humans live or have lived, ancient middens are favorite sites for archaeologists to explore. Middens contain the broken or worn remains of tools, bones, clam shells and other organic matter including charcoal suitable for radio-carbon dating.

Even wildlife biologists study middens. Red squirrels create piles of cones beneath spruce trees, using the same midden site for years. Sea otters will carry clams or sea urchins to consistent sites to hammer them open with stones. Some otter middens contain shell fragments from more than a hundred thousand individual clams. 

Our society has made sure that future archaeologists will have plenty of middens to study. Thousands of deep and spreading landfills will unveil our consumptive practices. 

I clamber my way to my work bench. Like a forgotten ship hull encased in barnacles, the bench is encrusted with tools, wrenches and coils of wire. There are numerous jars and old coffee cans full of nails, screws, bolts, nuts and staples. There are spilled fasteners and washers just waiting to be correctly placed in some organized fashion.

There is also organic matter.  Dried up turkey feet that could pass for tiny dinosaur feet. Turkey feathers and wings.  A box of found skulls that include otter, gray and red fox, black bear and coyote. There is even a core bone from an old buffalo horn. 

Any flat surface, no matter how small in area, is deemed a shelf or valuable real estate to set something on. A 30 inch tall chunk of elm, cut over 40 years ago, serves as a work surface to pound anything. But it currently has a pair of chain saws parked on it. 

Beneath a homemade plant press sits a can of oil, a thin wooden muskrat skin stretcher for drying hides and a stack of 1950s Alaska magazines. I lift an antique calendar and rediscover my Sears Craftsman table saw. I pause and reflect on the thousands of lineal feet of pine, cherry, oak and fir that I cut. 

Fifty-seven muskrats were responsible for the purchase of the saw in 1978.  That year, fur prices were high and I was paid $7 for each muskrat I trapped. In addition to the table saw I purchased a nice Grade 1 Washita stone for sharpening my edged tools and knives.  

The saw played an important role when I gutted and retrofitted our hundred-year-old house. But it has seen little use over the last decade and has devolved into a table top to store crap.

I spent a couple days trying to get the saw functioning, but it revolted and seemed perfectly satisfied in its retirement role as a tabletop. So the saw is going for a ride to the metal scrap guy. I took off the electric motor and hope I can find someone who wants it. I’ll even throw in a six-pack of coffee cans filled with nails. 

I tend to hang on to things because I am too attached to the stories that come with them. When I let an item go, its story might remain but I fear it will be less recalled.

I decided to add a piece of Americana folk art into our house so I picked up the muskrat skin stretcher. Boiling water and some scrubbing would turn that midden artifact into a dandy kitchen cutting board. It will serve as a memorial to those fifty seven muskrats that made the ultimate sacrifice so I could buy a table saw.

Muskrat skin stretcher/Cutting Board

The Fall and Rise of Water

Inspired by the beckoning words of Robert Service’s poem, The Spell of the Yukon, I found myself returning to the Yukon Territory.

“There’s a land where the mountains are nameless, 

And the rivers all run God knows where. . .”

Far from any road, tucked in a lakeside log cabin built scores of years ago by a pair of intrepid squatters, I lay in a bunk in the dark, listening to the tireless, tumbling notes of last winter’s snow rushing downslope. Meltwaters hurry off the alpine meadows high above the lake valley. They accelerate down through groves of scattered, scented subalpine fir. They carry the petals of monkshood, dryas and forget-me-not. They flow over dried lichen and caribou and ptarmigan droppings. The water melds all these into a signature flow, releasing a melody sung by gravity. 

Well after dawn I shrug a dead twelve-foot fir log off my shoulder. The six-inch diameter timber is the last log required to replace rotting stringers on one of three bridges over the narrow stream.

I wipe my forehead and drop to my knees before stretching out on my belly at water’s edge. I bring my lips to drink the musical water that is the color of clear. In that sacred communion of myself and water it is as if I kissed the earth. 

Refreshed, I roll onto my back, staring up into the blue sky and the small convoy of cloud puffs. I marvel at the witnessing of the water cycle from cloud, to snow, to stream. I am humbled at the realization that this drink is necessary for my life and all life to exist. Water is life.

Indigenous peoples around the world often refer to water as a living entity. In her book Water Always Wins, described as “quietly radical,” Erica Gies reinforces the ancient belief that water has rights.

Kelsey Leonard, a First Nation citizen and assistant professor at the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo in Ontario reminds us that many indigenous traditions don’t consider water a “what” (a commodity) but a “who.” Many global indigenous peoples not only believe that water is alive but that it is kin. 

Leonard says, “that one way to solve many water injustices is to recognize water as a legal person with an inherent right to exist, flourish and evolve.That’s not as radical a notion as it might sound: in the United States, corporations were granted legal personhood with all the rights that implies.” 

In 2017 New Zealand granted the Whanganui River legal status as a living being, making it the first river in the world to gain such status. Since then some European legal systems are considering the rights of nature.

I believe the rights to clean water are more important than the rights of any corporation since no corporation can exist without clean water. 

How do we change our relationship with water? We need to practice falling in love with it rather than taking it for granted. We care for that which we love. In our lifetime, it might be the most important relationship we can have. 

Choose water as a lover.

Nuptials Abound

Has anyone else noticed all the outdoor sex recently?

I was walking through our three-acre prairie and had stopped to look closely at a blooming goldenrod. Crawling on top of the yellow inflorescence were two pairs of mating goldenrod soldier beetles. I looked for other goldenrods to see if similar orgies were taking place. 

To my right a pair of monarchs sailed by ten feet off the ground.  Their abdomens were connected in a post-nuptial coupling flight. They may stay attached for up to twelve hours until the sperm packet is transferred to the female.

Generally we think of spring as the time of rebirth. However, as summer wanes there is an urgency for further mating. Every night I can hear the pulsating rhythm of male crickets. They make their stridulations by rubbing their appendages together. You might think of them as fiddling to attract a potential mate.

All this sex afield had me thinking of how sex sells.

Perhaps no one knew this better than the famous 18th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He was the creator of binomial nomenclature, the system of classifying and naming flora and fauna according to their genus and species. We call it an organism’s scientific name. 

While ascribing Latin names to plants and animals might seem dull and boring, Linneaus raised some eyebrows in 1737 when he publicly addressed what he called the sexual mores of flowers.

He described each plant as possessing male and female sexual organs. These would be the stamens (male) and the pistils (female). He liked to refer to them as the “husbands and wives.”

Linnaeus called it a “sexual system.” Without the help of radio, television or social media, his ideas spread through Europe quickly. Some academics and religious organizations were horrified; some scientists were jealous of his rising notoriety; and many biologists fully accepted this new system of classification.

I love this description Linneaus penned:

The flower’s leaves … serve as bridal beds which the creator has so gloriously arranged … and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much greater solemnity. When now the bed is so prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and offer her his gifts. 

As I headed back to the house I made sure my route would pass the cherry tomato plants in our garden. I plucked a plump tomato from the vine, pinched off a basil leaf from a nearby bed and wrapped the leaf around the tomato. I admired the red and green marriage before I slipped the morsel into my mouth. I slowly bit down, mulling the sweet acidic tomato with the pop of basil spice. 

How would Linnaeus describe it? I like to think he would call the union of basil and tomato a blissful wedding where the act of my love bite culminates in a state of ecstasy.

Like Linneaus, I hope I haven’t tainted your image of the garden’s innocent treasures.

A Wayward Caterpillar

You hurried, as only caterpillars can do.  

You hustled past Miss Nancy and me as we sipped our hot coffee on your island up in Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. Nancy noticed you first, pointing down at your neon-yellow body as you undulated past us like a hairy two-inch slinky. 

We marveled at your blazing attire. Your thick yellow suit was quite natty with six black spikes projecting above your back.  Seeing those spiny hairs evoked memories of a similarly dressed moth larvae that I encountered over thirty years ago in the forest in northern Minnesota. 


I had found a nice diamond willow to convert into a handsome hiking staff. After cutting the sapling, I peeled the bark to expose the “diamonds.” I didn’t see the caterpillar feeding on the underside of the willow leaves and as I trimmed the branches, my hand and lower forearm brushed over the insect. Within minutes I experienced a burning and irritating sensation followed by nasty welts. 

It turns out that I had brushed against the primary defense tools of the American daggar caterpillar. This animal is named for the clusters of “daggers” of urticating or poisonous bristles. From that experience long ago I knew not to touch you. Your bright yellow was a warning to birds and other predators that they should not mess with you.

We decided to postpone breakfast so we could follow you to see what was on your mind. You crawled with a purpose.

Coffee cups in hand, heads down, we shuffled behind you like monks on a pilgrimage following your circuitous path. Bending closer we could see your black compound eyes on your shiny black head. Like a grazing cow, your head moved back and forth. But it appeared that you were not eating. And that seemed odd since a caterpillar larva is generally an eating machine. Instead, you were seeking.

“It’s so busy out here it’s hard to relax,” said Nancy as we hunched behind the little furry nomad. “That is a lot of energy output. There has to be a reason for its march.”

You remind me of the flustered white rabbit in the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland. “I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date! 

You appeared to traveling at a rate of about one foot every minute. We were now beneath a small stand of jack pines some ten human paces from where you first interrupted our morning coffee. 

Now you passed a group of ants carrying cream-colored bundles that were likely eggs. We wondered if this was house cleaning or simply moving the ant colony. Such a busy world underfoot. 

We also noted that this is the first morning that the male spruce grouse, with his bright red eyebrow hasn’t strolled into our camp gleaning seed heads off of grasses. Nancy wondered if the grouse had considered you over grass seeds? Or does it know better to mess with the likes of your brilliant warning?

After an hour of tailing you, Miss Nancy declared, “This is hard work, I’m going to cook up some pancakes.”  I approved as I love Nancy’s recipe that calls for more berries than batter. Soon we were both holding our bowls of blue pancakes peering at your erratic peregrinations.

I took a break to fetch my journal and returned to find Nancy seated on the ground intently staring. I am reminded of the image of Jane Goodall sitting quietly on the African jungle floor observing wild chimpanzees. 

A pause. You had crawled up on top of a spent jack pine cone and you lingered. You seemed so very interested in it. But within a minute or so you slink down and move into the canyons of Cladonia lichens. Also known as reindeer lichen, these clumps must be like a maze of small hills with abundant fissures and cracks to check out. 

You left the lichen fields and moved beneath our hammocks hanging between two jack pines. You didn’t even look up at the brightly colored nylon.

We were distracted for a moment when you explored beneath a small birch sapling and a spruce. Unbelievably we lost you. Almost frantically we got on all fours and carefully scanned the ground without disturbing anything and taking care not to squash you. After several minutes of our fruitless searching you  suddenly reappear, trudging uphill right towards me. I froze as you negotiated climbing the heel of my shoe. Nothing worthwhile here, so you moved on, looping back towards the little stand of jack pine.

“Aren’t you getting tired? Hungry?” I asked you. “Is your drive powered by a shifting going on in your  fuzzy body?  Are you seeking out a shelter to shed your bedazzling attire to transform into a pupae?” The larvae continued its slinking, march without responding to my query.

After three hours of tireless travels you had covered at least 180 feet. Nancy left to wash our dishes. I should not have been scribbling notes because in that span of inattentiveness you once again ditched us. Nancy returned and we both searched as if nothing else mattered.

After some time we gave up and walked away feeling a little sad to lose you. I fetched my book and returned to stretch out in my hammock. Just as I was about to climb in, I spotted you heading towards me! Was this an enthusiastic reunion?

Nancy returned at my shout, and we continued to follow you with more astute diligence. 

Within ten minutes you paused, raising the front half of your body up off ground as if to get a better view. Inches in front of you was a half-rotted jack pine stump. After a short pause, you disappeared beneath the leaning piece of pine. After five minutes we lay on the ground for a better vantage to see you. All we saw was your rear end easing up into the wood.

“Ahh so this is your changing room! Drop your fur coat, try on a cocoon and ease towards becoming an awesome moth.”

I could swear I heard a tiny sigh and a whisper, “Ahhh. . .home.”



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