Archive for January, 2019

The Spoken Word



Finally, it seems we have been delivered a touch of honorable Minnesota winter. The cold front has a way of eliciting whimpers and slowing things down. This is the weather that inspires Nancy and me to pull our small wooden rocking chairs closer to the kitchen woodstove.

 Nancy said, “It feels like a day off.” That pronouncement reminded me of our first date.

Over 20 Mays ago I invited Nancy to do some plant collecting with me on our family farm. Hardly a typical first date but it served me well. Rather than consider it an odd outing, she quickly accepted. Her nodding smile and willingness to head afield set into motion the potential of love.

We spent two hours collecting plants to place carefully in my plant press before we returned to the house. Lunching and chatting in the yard, we learned about each other. We both relished a day off from our work.

Suddenly I jumped to my feet, told her to wait right there and dashed into the house to pull a book from my bookshelf. Rejoining her, I reverently opened the green cloth cover bedecked with gilt and floral decorations that bore the title Days Off by Henry Van Dyke. Printed in 1907, this book like many others of Van Dyke is a visual treat.

I began to read aloud the first essay: “A day off keeps a person from becoming muscle-bound in their own task. Such a day leads us out, away from our own garden and into curious and interesting regions of this wide and various earth, of which, after all, we are citizens.”

Thus began a long tradition of Nancy and me reading aloud. Besides reading books on our own, thus far Nancy and I have read aloud over 70 books together. Some of them have promoted great discussion, such as issues of racial injustice unveiled in Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson or the core question of nonhuman consciousness brought to us by Carl Safina in his well-crafted book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

Reading the classic novel Big Sky we wondered if Pulitzer Prize author A. B. Guthrie was giving the reader a lesson in humility when his young, early 19th century Missouri River traveler, Jim Deakins, was pestered by hordes of mosquitoes around an evening campfire. Deakins grumbles, “What’s the good of a gnat anyways?” He pauses before answering his own question. “They don’t serve no purpose, unless to remind a man he ain’t such a somebody.”

Every year we reread Truman Capote’s holiday classic, A Christmas Memory, and every year we release a freshet of tears.

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is perhaps my favorite read. Oh how we guffawed when Huck swims out to a large river raft and spies on the loud boasting by the Child of Calamity and Bob. “Look at me! I’m the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane, dam’ed by an earthquake, half-brother to cholera, nearly related to the small-pox on my mother’s side!”

Nancy and I have been provoked and inspired by Daniel Quinn’s amazing novel Ishmael. This is a book I believe should be required reading for all high school students. It is a series of philosophical dialogues between a gorilla and a man. “The world doesn’t belong to us, we belong to it. Always have, always will. We belong to the world. We belong to the community of life on this planet–it doesn’t belong to us. We got confused about that, now it’s time to set the record straight.”

When we encounter a beautifully crafted sentence we often pause, back up, and read it again. Tara Westover, in her critically acclaimed memoir, Educated, gave us several read-over sentences. Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like a River is another well-crafted book and should be read aloud.

We were saddened last week to hear of the death of poet Mary Oliver. She is my favorite contemporary poet. I feel as if I have lost a dear friend.

Mary Oliver would not allow something so trivial as cold weather to keep her from going out, notebook in hand, to ponder things like grass stems, a feather, or the shape of a naked winter tree. And so on this day off, it is only fitting that we boot and bundle up for a short hike into the frigid woods.

Upon returning to the house I pulled one of our Mary Oliver books from the shelves. Back in our rockers and close to the warm stove I read aloud an appropriate poem with Nancy.


When Death Comes

When death comes 
like the hungry bear in autumn; 
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; 
when death comes 
like the measle-pox

when death comes 
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: 
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything 
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, 
and I look upon time as no more than an idea, 
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common 
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, 
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something 
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life 
I was a bride married to amazement. 
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder 
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, 
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Finding a Mountain Wren

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

-John Muir


I buckled my snowshoes and carefully swung the pack on to my back. The operative word, “carefully,” is used for two reasons: to care for my back and more importantly, to care for the cargo of a bundled-in-blue, one-year old granddaughter, Eleanor.

We waved goodbye to the downhill skiers and headed up a slope directly opposite the mountain ski runs. In short order, the first pitch of the climb demanded a quickened cadence of my breathing. While I tried to fall into a sustainable rhythm, Eleanor asserted her protests. Perhaps her kicks to my flanks were urges to move faster. I was grateful for the lack of baby spurs.

Easy breathing became more difficult and clearly audible. At the front edge of an exhale, I told Eleanor, “Let’ stop for a break” (puff) “to look at the new day.” (puff) I would argue she is an exceptionally bright one-year-old, but I’m sure she could not decipher my declaration. By now her flank nudges had disappeared and her vocalizations had become bubblier.

Those clear, rising and falling baby notes, like a bird’s sweet song, have given rise to my occasional affections to my “little wren.”

Back and forth we steadily switchbacked up the trail through the forest. The previous night a fresh snowfall on this Washington mountain had added another four inches to the snowpack and flocked all the trees with pure crystalline highlights. Finally we stood before a fork in the trail. Do we take the groomed left or the unbroken path to the right?

“Hey Little Wren, let’s take the road less travelled.” I stepped into the deeper snow and added, “Never ever underestimate the road less travelled.” Her reply was a soft, cooing affirmative.

Finally we were beyond switchbacks and on a gentle, more lung-friendly section of trail. In short order it was apparent that my wren was limply roosting and engaging in a most serene, soft song of slumber. A glance over my left shoulder spied her tipped head bedded in precious sleep.

We passed a small routed that sign that said we were on the Crystal Creek Trail and that I was just over two miles from the famed Pacific Crest Trail. Known as “the PCT” this path is over 2,600 miles long and runs from the Canadian border all the way to the Mexican border. For the next ten minutes I fantasized about Eleanor and I backpacking the PCT together someday.

Moving quietly under the tall tree canopy I began to quietly sing and sermonize. I praised the unbroken span of tall Douglas and Noble fir trees with their slightly shorter companions of western hemlock and yellow cedar. Here, I explained, we are in the company of royalty and saints. And here, I admitted to Eleanor, is where I am most humbled.

I carefully crossed  a narrow foot bridge over a lively stream. Tumbling like a writhing dark ribbon in the snow through the  forested mountainside, the water music anchored me for a moment.  I ached to hear the explosive, seemingly tireless song of the tiny and shy winter wren. But given that it was December in the mountains, the winter wrens and most other songbirds had migrated to warmer latitudes. On this day we heard only the occasional guttural squawks of ravens and the sharp cry of a Stellar’s jay.

Every time I hear a winter wren sing, I am awed by its ability to let loose such an exclamation all in one breath. It is not unusual for one loud vocalization to cover nearly ten seconds. How is it possible that a bird that I could easily hide inside the gentle hold of my closed fingers cast out such a long song?

I wondered about the May dawn chorus here on Crystal Creek. I imagined the bubbling notes of the tiny mountain wrens with the ethereal, flutelike background of a hermit thrush song. Both are among my very favorite bird songs and to hear them together in the same moment would be sheer bliss.

Eleanor slept through my shuffling sermon.

“No matter, little mountain wren, someday we will sit together, under a forest canopy, and let ourselves get lost in such a duet.” I smiled with the obvious classification of this newly discovered wren species, the mountain wren, with its scientific name, Troglodytes eleanorii.

For now the creek was making the only noise. The snow buffered all other sounds. Here we could not hear the ski lifts, the distant sounds of skiing laughter and whoops.

I was mesmerized by the silence. After spending some weeks in a fully urban setting, this was pure tonic.

Arrangements had been made to reconnoiter with Eleanor’s mom and dad for lunch down at the lodge.

I was less than a mile from the PCT but gaining it would mean we would be late and possibly incite a needless state of worry. Reluctantly, I let good sense prevail over explorer and I side-kicked a turn around and returned on my own trail.

With the return trip following my own tracks the going was easier and faster. I continued my walking silent meditation interspersed with snippets of sermons. And the rare, one-of-a-kind, mountain wren took it all in while sleeping, head on my shoulder, beneath a majestic cathedral of fir.