Archive for November, 2011

Listen. . .No Really Listen

What is quiet? And the companion question that begs to be whispered is, “Where is quiet?”

Earlier this evening, I sat in my small sauna in the basement. I closed my eyes and strained to hear anything. Nothing. I was pleasantly surprised. Clearly the sauna’s insulated walls sheathed in white cedar  keep those faint or not-so-faint household noises such as the hum of the fridge, the blowing of the furnace or the disgorging of a flushed toilet muffled.

I fear that true silence is an endangered sense. We rarely take time to be quiet and it is getting more and more difficult to find those spots that aren’t tainted by some distant human-based noise.

After a 90-mile backpacking trek on the Lake Superior Hiking Trail last month, I was most disappointed that we could not find a campsite where human noises were absent. And bear in mind that much of the trail goes through or is adjacent to large tracts of state parks and Superior National Forest.  Whether it was a distant train, a pack of roaring Harleys on Highway 61, nearby ATVs or overhead jets, it was annoying and unexpected.

For most of last week, I made a daily hike from an old deer shack to a favorite deer hunting knob in Superior National Forest. I relished the thought of sitting quietly up in a spruce tree waiting for a deer to come by. In our household, venison is our primary source of meat.

When I’m up in a tree, the world slows way down and I get to inventory the sounds of a day from its dawning to sunset. Here I have the privilege of interpreting the croaks and gurgles of ravens or listening to the uninhibited play of wind through overhead branches. I swayed on a small portable stand fifteen feet up in a spruce while naked birch and maple limbs rattled against each other like a tireless battle of sabers.

Thankfully,  the third morning broke dead still. In the first hour of hunting, my anticipation and focus is most keen. All noises out here are accentuated in the calm. I turned my head to the left when I heard a faint tick. Over the next few mornings this thin fragment of birch bark clicking in the breeze would repeatedly grab my attention.

But the overall quiet is almost overwhelming. As a society we are awash in human-induced noise and it is only growing worse. How often do kids get to experience the awe of complete silence? Or would it be so alien that it might make them nervous or frighten them?

I recall a December day when, as a naturalist, I led a small group of sixth grade urban students into the snowy woods. Our intent was to practice observation. I told the group that I would drop off each of them along the trail and that they had to stay at their drop-off point for about ten minutes. I made sure that each student was out of sight from his or her classmates. Their charge was to sit or stand silently until I returned. Some were nervous and others were excited. I assured them that I would return.

After I picked them up, we returned to the nature center for lunch and the kids then wrote in their journals about their solo observation time. The following day the teacher felt compelled to share with me a couple of the journal excerpts.

One girl wrote, “At first I didn’t see anything. . .  just snow and trees. But then I began to notice all the animal tracks. Some very tiny ones right by my sitting spot. I really liked it. I felt like I could see within myself.”

I smiled when I read a boy’s observation: “I heard a bird that sounded like a computer.” I was both saddened and not surprised that his perspective revolved around computers. I wish I had been there to tell him that his computer bird was likely a white-breasted nuthatch.

During the calm on my deer stand, I could close my eyes and hear the investigating pecks and flits of a small flock of chickadees and downy woodpeckers as they foraged for insects in the bark of nearby trees. But even this rise of boreal wilds is not shielded from human noise. A few gun shots, a distant ATV and eight, yes eight, commercial aircraft passed high overhead before noon. Their out-place roar was most obnoxious. And yet, how many of us simply tune out the background of constant noise?

It was mid-afternoon. I was still perched like a knob on a tree and it was still wonderfully calm. Then the silence was interrupted. I heard a slight rustling coming through the leaves directly in front of me. The noisemaker was screened by a mixed growth of balsam fir, birch and some maples. Suddenly I felt the tell-tale tickle in my throat that clearly wanted to grow into an out-of-place cough. I tried desperately to swallow the tickle. I couldn’t do it so as a last resort I tipped my head down and pulled the five layers of clothing from my neck up over my mouth and coughed gently down in the heated, muffled cavern.

For a moment all was calm. Nothing was moving. And then after a few seconds the red squirrel resumed its November chores. And in reasonable silence I could only smile.

According to some anthropologists, current humans are only four hundred or so generations removed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. That’s not much time in the big picture. Their hearing was likely far more acute. I wonder which generation will find silence only an idea?

Amazing Weight Loss Secret

My blog has been dormant for over a year now. The brown fat of hibernation has long burned off and creative neurons are awakening from my right brain hibernacula. It’s time to write.

The last blog was written up at our Yukon Outpost, 2500 miles from our Minnesota Base Camp. I wish I could say I was beyond any computer range, say advancing on the Himalayas, paddling across the continent, or bushwhacking down the Amazon, but nothing quite that arduous.

I like to think of the blog-drought as a sabbatical while we tended to a full calendar year. There was a major kitchen renovation, Ben and Maren’s (my daughter) wedding, a long road trip to Boulder, Taos and Helper, Utah, a trip to San Francisco to visit my older daughter, Britta and her husband, Blake, three major writing projects (The Rocky Mountain and Southwest Editions of Things that Bite < keywords=great+lakes+edtion+of+Things+that+Bite&x=0&y=0> are now at the printer and I completed  an informational brochure on the Anoka Sandplain.) Whew. . . just noting these mental and physical forays down makes me crave a nap.

It’s significant that my youngest daughter was married this past June in New Orleans because with both daughters married, I am in position to be a legitimate grandfather. I even turned sixty this past July and somehow that makes grandfatherhood more credible.

I can always use tutoring from a neophyte grandfather. It was time to go for a walk with my dear childhood compadre, Nels. He is at the brink of six decades, but unlike me, he has a young grandson, and I have been granted the title of “Uncle Tom.” Even though the linkage of Nels and Anderson DNA likely intersects centuries ago in Sweden, I am an honorary uncle by virtue of being a steadfast friend for a long time.

It was Nels’s idea to hike the 240-mile long Lake Superior Hiking Trail. The lovely trail climbs and drops and crosses many creeks and rivers. Its route is never more than a handful of miles from Lake Superior as it parallels the shore in a NE/SE course. <>

Nels and I have shared an adventurous history together. It has included paddling remote Canadian rivers, numerous BWCA/Quetico wilderness canoe and winter camping trips, hitchhiking in Mexico’s Yucatan area and years of searching for the mythical whitetail buck, named “High Boy” in Superior National Forest. So it only seemed fitting that we shoulder our backpacks and head north.

As we carried our forty pound packs, hour after hour, I noted that this was a great base work out and that this kind of physical activity was key in being fit and burning calories. We stopped for a break to snack on my homemade “Save your Ass” bars and to rest the protesting shoulders. And there, beneath a tall white pine, we had a brainstorm for teaming up to write the ultimate diet book.

Every year there are scores, perhaps hundreds or thousands of new diet books published that promise “a new you.” And every year, those same diet books get put in boxes and carted to thrift stores or serve as a quick fix couch leg.

It was after a few more roller coast ascents and descents that I heard Nels offer a partnership of sorts. He wondered aloud if we should co-author a new diet book; a book that would make the Atkins Diet or South Beach diet books look archaic. Now I was surprised by the offer because I have never known Nels to be an ardent scribe. He is perhaps best known for his one sentence entry into his journal that he kept during a one-month Canadian sub-arctic canoe trip we shared in 1982. Printed neatly, barely taking up half a line, it said, “Left Andy’s at 9:15AM.”

As we climbed another rise, he enthusiastically declared, “This book would be a guaranteed weight loss book and the best part is that we can complete the premise of the book in one or two sentences.” I smiled as I knew what was coming. “All you have to do,” he continued, “is to take in less calories than you burn.” And since this was a team effort, I added, “And to burn calories all you have to do is move your body more than snoring.”And there’s the book. Like his succinct journal entry of nearly thirty years ago, Nels still carries his skills at getting quickly to the point.

Even after we shouldered the backpacks again and steadily climbed another ridge, we chattered excitedly about the book that would likely allow us to each create a non-profit foundation for the causes we hold most dear. It’s amazing how enthusiastic brainstorming can distract pain receptors from growing watery feet blisters or cramping shoulders.

Three days later, we finished our walk. We were stronger, less soft in the middle and solid on the ultimate diet book.

Any comments or suggestions?