Prairie Psalms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We humans would do well to emulate such a system.

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

Mindful

by Mary Oliver

 

Every day

I see or I hear

something

that more or less

kills me with delight,

that leaves me like a needle

in the haystack

of light.

It is what I was born for –

to look, to listen

to lose myself

inside this soft world –

to instruct myself

over and over

in joy

and acclamation.

Nor am I talking

about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,

the very extravagant –

but of the ordinary,

the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.

Oh good scholar,

I say to myself,

how can you help

but grow wise

with such teachings

as these—

the untrimmable light

of this world,

the ocean’s shine,

the prayers that are made

out of grass?

 

Packing Sustenance

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Just Any Tree

 

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

-John Muir

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sweet New Growth

 

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

Joyce Kilmer

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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