Archive for October, 2023

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.