Archive for April, 2016

April Chased by the Sun


This morning, I woke up groggy, but my wherewithal became clearer when I spotted a buttering of the treetops as the early sunlight touched the treetops. After three days of gray-colored and wet skies, this morning’s backdrop promised blue. However, I heard the hum of a furnace so I knew there must be a nip in the air. Indeed it was 37°F.

I hurried out to the woodshed to gather dried spruce kindling, some thicker pieces of sumac and to round out the perfect fire staring trifecta, a couple chunks of dried red oak. These are the necessary foodstuffs that my kitchen wood burning stove depends on if it is to share its warmth with us.

I am boldly declaring that this will be the last kitchen fire needed for the spring. The advent of May is only two days away and yet the yard and woods is already impatient with the stretch of chilly weather.

The past few days have forced me to dig out the wool sweater that I had put into its summer hibernacula only a week ago. This bout of a mini-November in the fourth month has been made more dark by the news of the untimely passing of Minnesota’s own Prince.

And I wonder if my April murdering of the big neighborhood gobbler that had strutted with his harem of hens is being mourned amongst the local flora and fauna. I will admit that joy wasn’t paramount in my person but I am pleased and thankful that the bird will eventually grace our dining table.

But even with the touch of ice on yesterdays back steps and the long day’s drizzle, the world around us says “Spring is in the air.”


It seems foolish that the rapidly growing interrupted ferns are busy shrugging off their shrouds of wooly covering. I expect that in the next couple of weeks the hummingbirds will return. They will then busy themselves getting on with claiming a territory, mating and nest building. The fleecy fern covering is often used for lining a hummingbird’s tiny nest, no bigger than a fifty cent piece. (Do you remember such a coin?)

We have already tasted spring in the new growth of stinging nettles. Sautéed, the six inch plants are rendered harmless and delicious at the same time. Rich in nutrients they are a fine addition to scrambled eggs.

And the elderberry flowers seem inspired by the chill of April. Like the nettles, these are culinary delights as well. A hat full of picked blossoms will momentarily tossed, for seconds only, into a hot cast iron frying pan with spitting hot oil. Then they are taken out and dusted in powdered sugar for a real spring treat.


The azalea, planted over a score of years ago outside our back porch is an intrepid outsider transplanted to Minnesota. It seems early to have such a celebration of purple. Or is it more than coincidence that these flowers reign purple?


Clearly we have much to celebrate. Get outside and join in.

Beloved Birch



Ever since humans stood erect to peer over the landscape they have had relationships with trees. We have climbed them for protection or for a better view, picked their fruits when hungry and gathered their twigs and limbs for fires to heat, cook and cast light. Trees have been rendered into homes, churches, schools, hospitals and other structures of commerce. We cannot judge one tree better than another, but through the millennia, the birches have held a sacred position in North America, Europe and Asia.

I’m partial to birch because my tastes favor the compass direction of north and it is the north that paper birch thrives best. And in the absence of pigment, the bark is snow white which sets it off beautifully in a world of green and brown.

The black-capped chickadee is likely more partial to birch, particularly a dead tree snag. Dying and dead birch don’t last long.  The  highly waterproof bark traps moisture in the lifeless tree trunk and hastens the rotting process. Consequently once the chickadee works a perfectly round hole through the bark, it can easily excavate small chunks of soft inner wood in creating a nesting cavity. Sometimes you can encounter an upright birch tube, also known as a birch chimney, where the only remaining vestige of the tree is an upright cylinder of empty birch bark; it’s core is rotted away.


Earlier this week, I started a warming fire in the kitchen stove to ward off the April dawn chill.  As an experiment, I submerged a shard of birch bark in a jar of water. I lifted it out of the water and held a match the dripping bark and in less than 20 seconds it flared up and I lit the stove fire.

No matter the season, when I am camping in the company of birch, I always pocket shards of  bark scraps from the ground to kindle the evening campfire. Whether the woods are dripping wet, or the temperatures cold enough to pop the trees like a gun shot, a scrap of birch bark will always grab hold of the match flame.  Since the bark is resistant to rotting, there are usually plenty of scraps on the ground.

Birch bark should never be peeled from a living tree. Do to so runs the risk of exposing the tree’s growing layer of tissue to potential disease, fungal and insect attacks.

A few years ago I was in Sweden over the summer solstice. Traditionally this longest of days is a time of celebration and dancing around the maypole or majstång (pronounced “my-shtong”). The ancient ritual usually involves wrapping a tall birch tree trunk, trimmed of its limbs, with a wrapping of greenery and freshly picked flowers. This practice, and our December ritual of decorating a Christmas tree, are throwbacks to ancient pagan practices that honored God in the trees.

While traveling on a bus through the birch-rich landscape of northern Sweden, I was especially transfixed by an old man who stepped slowly up into the bus at a stop in a small village. He wore a ragged navy blue sweater with fabric elbow patches, a pair of homely gray polyester pants and worn tennis shoes. His thick shock of white hair and equally white full beard framed his ruddy face and ice-blue eyes. But it was his small backpack that he slid off his shoulders when he sat down in front of me that drew my attention.

The pack was made entirely of woven strips of birch bark. The shoulder straps were worn leather, colored dark brown from years of handling. During the ride, he reached down and pulled two small, frayed journals from the pack. He carefully opened one to a page marked with a slender strip of birch bark. The old man would smile and speak quietly to no one, pointing to excerpts from the journal. He was a peculiar man, a man whose very hair was as brilliantly white as the birch. I wished I could know what made him smile. Since that day I have often used strips of thin birch bark for bookmarks.

On northern canoe trips I have scribbled notes on scraps of birch bark for fellow voyageurs. Messages like: “paddled to the river to fish” or simply, “be back in a couple of hours.” One year, when I spent the fishing opener and Mother’s Day in canoe country, I fashioned a Mother’s Day card out of a curled sheet of birch bark and a sprig of white cedar.

The birch was so important to the Ojibway that they were often referred to as the “Birch Indians.” Cups, bowls, mats, shelters, and canoes were all products of birch bark.

Yukon Brewing, in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory,  makes a seasonal birch beer that is only sold in glass jugs called growlers and once it is on tap it rarely lasts a month. The sap of birch is collected from birch up near Dawson, where the Klondike gold rush started.

The very word “birch” is derived from an old English word, beorht, which translates to “bright.” It’s white skin appears white only because there is no pigment in the bark. The reflected light appears colorless or white.

In the coming weeks we will witness the flush of tree greenery. And we will be guaranteed a new “wardrobe” for the birch. Amazing, simply amazing and all because of the earth’s tilting that gives rise to a new hand of seasons.







Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done



Never have I been so challenged as I have this past month. While my heart rate has had moments of acceleration, this test has been mostly cerebral. I’ve had to work feverishly to awaken latent brain cells and even nurture new ones in my nearly 65 year-old brain. Suddenly I’m learning how to memorize and deliver lines, and how and when to move onstage.

Please don’t misconstrue the following paragraphs as a stream of braggadocio prattle. I am merely trying to present some context about the level of challenges I’ve faced.

I’ve run class III whitewater, in loaded canoes, on remote northern rivers, hundreds of miles from help. I’ve backpacked the precipitous Napali coastline trail on the island of Kauai. I’ve carried a backpack at 14,000 feet along the Inca trail in the Peruvian Andes.

I’ve run a marathon, cycled a century (100-mile) bike ride and a year later cycled a 150-mile up and over Alaska’s majestic Coastal Mountain range. I’ve cross country skied the 55-kilometer Birkebiener ski race.

I’ve slept outside in late December with no tent when the mercury dipped to -38°F. I have been bitten by a piranha in a Costa Rica river. And have been 30 yards from a Yukon grizzly as it walked into our remote river camp.

But playing Pa Joad in the Grapes of Wrath has pushed all my limits. How would I memorize all the lines and movements. After the second night of practice, I was utterly despondent and any self -confidence was blasted away like an Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl. I wanted to quit. That night I slept miserably. To continue and fail would not only be embarrassing but it would let down a wonderful cast.

My wife, Nancy, is also in the play as Ma Joad. She is a musician who is seasoned in performing. She has played roles in other productions including three one-woman shows she wrote. While not entirely a rookie, I was in a couple of high school plays, a community rendition of A Christmas Carol and I wrote and performed a one-person show.

Nancy, being the excellent life coach she is, nursed me along with supportive words. And Jackie, the play’s director, handled me well, balancing feedback with needed criticisms and praise.

Her mantra to all of the actors is to “Move with intention.” These are wise words for living.

We are days from opening night. I’m fairly comfortable with my lines. In fact I have come to enjoy several of them for their humor and for the fact that I ain’t got to be proper in my delivery.

Not only have I had to learn poor grammar, but also I’ve had to explore “the whys” of Pa to understand his emotions and situations. Jackie has demanded, when necessary, that I toss out any Minnesota Nice delivery and release my “mean dad” voice.

To complicate things, we often deliver lines while changing props and scenery.

How will I ever remember to cross stage to my far right to pick up the toolbox after I deliver a totally unrelated line? Clearly, I’ve got more trailblazing to do in my brain.

But oddly enough, the stretching of neurons in my cranium has made me feel better and I do feel sharper. I am growing new connections in both my brain and with a cast of fine people.

Granted, moments before the opening night performance, my stomach will be home to roosts of butterflies. But I will be intentional and I ain’t gonna let it stop me.

The lesson learned here is more than perseverance. I need to be more mindful of being more intentional all the time and to walk confidently on to all life stages.