Birch Light

I find it fascinating that so many Minnesotans like to grumble about winter. Incessant whining about the ever present ice, more snow and cold. And the color scheme of white and black is boring them. I would only add fodder to their depression if I tried to explain that neither black nor white are colors; they are shades.

I happen to like winter and its black and white landscape. While this frozen season is not a collage of color, its starkness inspires me to focus. The white landscape is streaked, dotted and smeared with contrasting dark patterns. There are tree silhouettes and shadows, lacey mouse tracks, shivering dried grasses and brittle goldenrod stems.

On a recent ski through our oaken property to nearby ski trails, I found myself striding through fleets of paper birch seeds and catkin scales on the snow.  The trees had recently shed these seeds. Now they resembled tiny, haphazardly grounded aircraft, each with outstretched wings. 

Their flight orders have worked well for millennia as a means of seed dispersal. Of the thousands of tiny airborne seeds, only a fraction will land on ground suitable for taking root and gathering sunshine. 

Feeling the slight northwest wind on my cheek, I glanced upwind and spied a phalanx of birch growing along the edge of what had been my Grandpa’s old cultivated field over 50 years ago.  

Ecologists consider paper birch a pioneer species. It is always seeking an edge or large opening with ample sunshine. And thousands of years ago, birch were among the first trees to establish themselves as the glaciers retreated northward.

Perhaps no tree in Minnesota is as easily recognized as a mature paper birch with its chalky white bark that often peels in curling thin strips. (There are five native species of birch in Minnesota with paper birch being the most widespread.)

The black horizontal lines on birch bark resemble slightly raised morse code dashes. These are lenticils and their function is gas exchange. 

The Anishinaabe origin story for birch trees tells of how thunderbirds struck the trees with their lightening, leaving their dark shapes and forms on the tree’s trunk.

High in the naked birch canopy, I spotted movement. It was a flock of ten or so common redpolls. This year decent numbers of these small finches migrated here from their subarctic nesting grounds.

Some of the birds were hanging upside down on fine birch twigs while they worried the small catkins for seeds. One small birch catkin cone can contain a thousand seeds. Some drift on the winds and others become fuel for the winter birds. 

I skied along the border of birch admiring the stark interplay of white and black. The chalky, white powder that coats the bark is mostly a chemical called betulin. (Birch are found in the genus Betula.) These crystals are arranged in such a way as to reflect light and appear white. 

This property is a survival adaptation as it reflects light during the coldest of winter days. Trees with darker bark like an oak or black cherry will absorb the sun’s heat during the day and then cool down quickly on a frigid night. The heating and cooling can kill inner bark cells; the cells that are responsible for the growth of the trunk. Rapid heating and cooling can cause severe frost cracks in the tree’s bark.

Marveling at these white trees thriving on a white, crystalline landscape, I found myself thinking of other gifts of birch.

Our woodshed holds mostly oak and black cherry but there is some split birch that I have taken from the rare windfalls.  I love heating with it as it splits relatively easily and its bark ignites quickly. It’s also a clean wood to carry in from the porch woodbox to the kitchen stove. 

I have bags of collected birch bark that I have found on the ground while visiting northern Minnesota.  In my opinion there is no better tinder to start a fire. I once soaked a piece of birch bark in a jar of water overnight and then in the morning pulled it dripping from the water, shook it and lit it easily with a match.  But bark should never be torn from a living tree as it can result in damage to the tree. 

When we lived in the Yukon Territory in northern Canada, we always looked forward to the summer limited production of Yukon Brewing’s birch beer called Up the Creek. The brewers use birch syrup boiled from the sap collected of roughly 1500 birch trees. 

Skiing home, I made a mental note to bring a plastic bag on my next ski to scoop us some snow and little seeds. I plan on making some seed-speckled snowballs and throwing them around our property, for their second flight, with hopes of perpetuating lightness. 

No mosquitos or deer flies, no humidity: only the simple shades of black and white. A perfect day to be outside.

Coyote Snow Script

“Every picture tells a story, don’t it.”

-Rod Stewart

It was a lovely winter morning, five below zero and sunny. Leaning forward in my little rocker, I eased another piece of oak into the kitchen stove. The dance of flames and my cup of coffee was a vision of tranquility.

I glanced out the pantry window and spotted the coyote. Mottled gray, it was moving steadily north just inside our woods. It was in no hurryWhile it made for a nice setting I suspect the wild canid was not feeling anything like tranquility. I suspect it was motivated on this morning by hunger and an urge to find coyote company.

I watched the solitary animal pause, tip its nose into the snow, smell a message and then move on. I wondered if this animal was part of a group of coyotes we had heard yapping and howling a few nights earlier.

In that sighting my morning plan for a cross country ski was hijacked. I took another drink of coffee, set it down on the stovetop to keep warm for my return and booted and bundled myself for a stroll. There was a hot story to unravel.

The coyote, whose track, and life chapter, I followed, has only two layers to wrap itself in every winter. The dense, soft, tawny-colored  underfur could be considered its base layer. Like the down feathers of a bird, this thick layer of fur efficiently traps air and helps hold body heat closed to its core. 

The outer layer of hairs, the overcoat so to speak, are called guard hairs. These longer, glossy, black-tipped hairs are mostly what I saw when the animal passed into my morning.

The spoor I followed seemed purposeful. There was no playful or careless story found in this trail of tracks. A dog, living the comfortable life of domesticity, often loops and seems to celebrate just being outdoors by the cursive trail it leaves behind. Of course, it knows where its next meal is coming from and it rarely feels the pang of almost continual hunger.

In these parts, wild canids, like foxes, coyotes and wolves generally leave a more purposeful set of tracks. They are mostly looking for calories..

Over twenty years ago I was snowshoeing across the unbroken canvas of a frozen lake. Up ahead of me, I could see a convergence of tracks. Like spokes on a wheel, the quartet of coyote tracks all zeroed in on a running fox track. The hub of tracks was an explosion in the snow with blood and bits of fur scattered about. But it was the slender, dismembered black-as-coal foreleg of the red fox laying in the snow that shouted out the story of tough times.

When predators compete for a limited prey resource, encounters such as the frozen lake carnage I happened upon are not abnormal.

Far too many folks still paste the label “varmint” on a coyote. More than once I have heard humans describe these wild canids in their own growling tones: “Killers!  They wipe out pheasants, rabbits, deer, turkeys, sheep and even cats and dogs!” 

The irony is that there has been considerable predator-prey research, particularly with coyotes and wolves. Killing these predators does not usually decrease their populations. Instead there is a resulting increase in the litter size of the targeted wild canids and in short order,  populations actually increase.

Coyotes and foxes are quite adaptable to human environments. There have been some interesting studies on these predators in the city of Chicago. Yes, Chicago; a major city of slightly more than two and a half million people there are approximately four thousand coyotes.

The trail I followed varied very little from northbound, with a slight bend to the northeast. I approached a red oak seedling sticking up through the snow. The tracks paused here, disrupting its single file gait with a scramble of prints.  The snow at the base of a clump of prairie grass was sprinkled with a dribble of yellow-orange drops.

The coyote had paused to leave a scent mark, an odoriferous Hallmark card of sorts. I leaned down and scooped up the snow beneath the piddled snow and scooped the urine dappled snowcone in my mitt and brought it up to my nose. It wasn’t foul. Instead it was pungent and musky. By the way sniffing urine soaked snow is always a hit when out with kids. They never forget it.

I can deduce that this animal is a male just by the habit of the wild dog lifting its leg to pee. And I can also deduce that the alchemy of this sprinkling is more than waste. It includes a particular blend of volatile chemicals that might tell of breeding readiness, social status, and more.  There is a message in the pungent smell. This lone coyote is marking his breeding grounds and, or, his availability to any passing female who is approaching her estrus cycle when she can be bred.

Now, in the first two months of the year, there is a hormonal shift in coyotes, foxes and wolves. This is the one time of the year in which they seek company and breed. After a gestation period of a couple of months, the pups will usually be born in April or May.

I followed the tracks a little further but then came to another property line. Coyotes, like all wildlife, consider their home anywhere they can roam. Land ownership is a complicated legality practiced only by humans.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources report that most male coyotes roam an area of thirty six square miles. Females stick to a smaller piece of ground, usually no larger than six square miles. But on a given day they rarely move more than three miles. 

I was tempted to hike past human boundaries to see what other mysteries I might uncover about this lone male coyote. But in my rush to get on the trail I had intentionally left my snowshoes behind and now my post holing tracks in the snow could be interpreted as a slogging, tiring human. 

Besides, there was a half cup of warm coffee on the stove to finish and a full fridge to pilfer for a mid-morning prize of abundant calories. Tranquility regained.

Black Spruce Relics

I felt old as I leaned over a winter campfire fueled by a tree I planted myself. Spruce resins snapped and crackled. Embers arced into the cold air.

Staring into the fire I recalled the summer day when I kidnapped a pair of black spruce seedlings from a quiet thicket in the heart of the Canadian sub-arctic. I was near the northern edge of the tree line, known as taiga, where the trees are stunted. Not far to the north is the nearly treeless tundra.

A group of us had just finished paddling a remote, wild river that flowed to Hudson Bay.  At our last camp I had hiked inland for some solo time. I loved the blended smells of heather, dwarf Labrador tea and spruce. I wanted to bring that scent home. 

I knelt into the soft moss and extracted two small spruce that measured slightly longer than my boot sole. I wrapped the pliable roots in a handful of damp sphagnum moss and tucked both tiny trees in my day pack. When I returned to camp, I transferred the trees into the more cushioned confines of my larger Duluth pack.

I wanted a piece of the taiga. To me it signified remoteness. I also wanted to engage the seedlings in an experiment. What would happen when I planted the trees 1,000 miles south of this land of harsh, long winters and thick layer of underlying permafrost?  Would they thrive and explode in growth? Would they die?

Far north trees generally don’t grow tall or thick. The growing conditions are too tough. Winter winds blow sharp-crystalled snow that shears tree growth. An old tree might be no taller than fifteen feet.

Back home, I unpacked my dirty, smoke-tainted clothes and found my two spruce still alive in their moss wraps. I planted them eight feet apart out near our garden and poured each a bucket of water. I had no idea if the sandy soil I tucked them into harbored more or less nutrients than their birth place. I knew that black spruce prefer poorly drained soils. It is said they like “wet feet.”

Black spruce are a common tree in northern Minnesota swamps and lowlands. But they are not found in east central Minnesota where I live.

There would be no permafrost below their roots. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?  Perhaps the buried layer of ice plays a critical role in this tree’s health. 

Since I transplanted those little spruce, back in the mid-1980s, biologists have learned that spruce depend heavily on fungal mycorrhizal relationships to augment the transfer of nutrients to the plant. It is estimated that 90% of all plants have a fungal partnership. That means healthy soils, those not tainted with modern chemical inputs, are really a vast and critical network of lacy fungal threads.

Both trees survived, but growth was slow. I would have thought that without the shackles of severe winters the trees would have shown more rapid growth. Once I brought home thin cross sections of dead subarctic spruce and sanded them to make it easier to count the densely packed growth rings. I needed a magnifying lens to count the 80 rings. Eighty years to grow a two-and-a-half inch truck.

After 12 years one of the spruce died. What happened? The remaining tree hung on and did grow taller. Last year, in 2022, it died.  The tree never made it to 80 years. It never felt the smells and essences of the lonely land where it had first rooted itself. 

Recently, I went out to cut that last dead spruce down. Because it was a wilderness vestige, it seemed more honorable to cut it by hand rather than with my loud, smelly chain saw.

I measured the downed tree and it was just under twenty feet tall. So the tree did in fact grow taller here than it would have in the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

When I trimmed the branches away from trunk I spied a clue that might have contributed to the tree’s demise. Up and down the trunk were the distinct rows of boring patterns left by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Sapsuckers feed on hundreds of species of trees and in early spring the birds often choose maples, fruit and coniferous trees. The birds can unknowingly kill the tree by girdling the trunk which impedes the flow of sap to the roots.

Sapsuckers don’t live far to the north at the harsh edge of the tree line. When I planted the subarctic trees in outwash sand, I didn’t know what factors were essential for its survival.

It dawned on me that in my young naivety, I had made orphans of two tiny spruce. Pulled away from the protective thicket of their kin, I had made them experimental souvenirs and forced them to a foreign land where they had not evolved. I was responsible for shortening their potential. I’m older now and maybe, just maybe, a little wiser.

My spruce campfire’s flames were dying down and barely flickering. Strings of sparks rose into the air as I stirred the glowing coals. Some stories by indigenous peoples told of the ancestors’ spirits riding the sparks of campfires into the sky to mingle with the stars. I smiled watching the sparks drift northward on the breeze. 

Spruce shadows heading home.

Tally Ho. . .Tally No

When I have traveled to new destinations, particularly those that are tropical and lush, my kit has always included binoculars and a bird book of that region. My grown children often lampoon my habit of festooning myself with camera, binoculars and a ridiculously thick bird book (the one for Peru was nearly 700 pages covering 2,000 bird species). I will admit backpacking the Inca Trail in Peru at 14,000 feet above sea level with all this ridiculous avian-related baggage was a bit testy. 

Birding on canoe trips that involve paddling whitewater has always demanded I have waterproof protection for my field guides and binoculars. In the thousands of miles of paddling, I am pleased to report that I have ruined only one pair of binoculars.

Call me old-fashioned but I love keeping hand written bird lists from my various trips. These tallies are sometimes on a scrap piece of paper, a journal page or in its own pocket notebook. I do keep track of the scores of bird species that I have seen on our property. I am a late bloomer to using the electronic means of compiling a bird list, such as eBird.

All these trip lists are scattered throughout the house, tucked away in books, file folders or heaven knows where. Organization of journal and bird notes is not a strength of mine. However, the discovery of a wrinkled and torn bird list serving as a maker in a shelved book can brighten my day, so I continue with this practice of surprise discoveries. 

Through my thirty years of working with the Science Museum of Minnesota I have had great travcl opportunities. I have experienced some remarkable birding locations in the world. These include remote areas in Peru, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, South Africa, Mexico, the Hudson Bay lowlands, the Arctic and many state birding hotspots. More than once folks have asked me how many birds species have I tallied for my life list. 

My quick response in answering the question about my life list is, “I have no idea.” I’m not a “life lister.”

I would rather pause and watch a particular bird and note its behavior than put a check mark by its name and hurry to garner another new bird. Besides I would need to collect and compile all my scraps with scribed bird lists.

Less than a week ago we returned from an amazing trip to Vietnam. I had never been there before. Luckily, I had managed to avoid a US Army paid trip there in the late 60s and early 70s by hitting the books and pursuing a college degree. The college deferment combined with a moderately safe lottery number kept me from being drafted.

This was the first trip to an exotic destination that I chose not to carry binoculars or any type of field guide. It wasn’t an easy decision but I wanted to travel light and I did not want to be the dawdling anchor when traveling with other family members who are not really birders. (I’m really trying to change that by indoctrinating grandchildren.)

Without binocs and bird field guides, I managed to spot and identify a handful of birds with the help of my iPhone. While paddling in a surreal landscape on the Ngo Dong River in the  Ninh Bin province, we passed an aptly named species of grebe called the little grebe. Swimming near the shoreline, these small nondescript birds were quite common. I also glimpsed a kingfisher perched over the river. I later learned that there are a dozen species of kingfishers in the country. 

While visiting Phu Quoc, the southernmost island in Vietnam and the fish sauce capital of the country, I saw an adult white-bellied sea eagle. Similar in size to our bald eagle, it soared overhead with its wingspan easily six feet. With its totally white head and underside, it was quite stunning. 

While cruising through the sharply rising limestone islands of Ha Long Bay, there were numerous slender raptors swooping over the water. It didn’t take too much phone work to identify these as black kites. Wonderfully adept at combining arcing swoops, hovers and climbs, these raptors were entertaining.

The night before we were to head back on the long flight home, we found a dark small bar down a side street in Hanoi. Inside, it was very quiet and intimate. The only lights were twinkling from a small artificial Christmas tree. Otherwise the half dozen tables and bar top were lit only by candles. It was here that I tallied my last bird of the trip off the menu.  Titled “Jungle Bird” the cocktail was a perfect nightcap. It was a blend of rum, Campari and pineapple juice swirling around a large cube of ice.

Cheers to an amazing trip, a handful of new birds and a gentle and kind people.

Northwoods Confusion

“I’ve never been lost, but I was mighty turned around for three days once.” –Daniel Boone

No month says “It’s pie season,” like November, the month of Thanksgiving feasting.  So it was fitting that early this November, up at the beloved old deer shack, on the edge of the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota, that I had a big piece of “humility pie.”

Five of us veteran shack visitors made the trip this year. For perhaps the first time since 1940, there wasn’t a firearms deer hunter in the group. Instead, we were hunting grouse.

Saturday heralded the deer opener and we heard no rifle shots. In recent years deer have become mostly absent in this region. The combination of deep snow winters, predation by wolves, bears and coyotes, and an aging forest that is less diverse in its vegetation account for fewer deer.

Nels and I decided to spend the overcast afternoon looking for ruffed grouse and heading towards my old reliable deer hunting haunt, the Black-backed Knob.

We headed slowly up the drainage to the beaver dams, then arced around them to the Black Forest, below Raven’s Ledge. For roughly 80 years these landmark titles have been part of the shack lexicon. The place names are not found on any maps, but generations of shack dwellers coined names that simply stuck.

Nels and I are comfortable wandering across this chunk of land. Over scores of years we have come to know it quite intimately.

It was somewhere in the Black Forest, in the company of balsam fir, black spruce, and grand old white cedar, that Nels and I wended our way into a state of confusion. Funny thing is that both Nels and I moved wrongly together, without conversation, and with total acceptance.

Superior National Forest was established in 1909 and comprises over three million acres,  making it the largest national forest east of the Mississippi River. Its flavor is mostly boreal, dominated by spruce, fir, pine, aspen and birch with plenty of hazel and dogwood thickets. Lots of rock, miles of streams and countless clear lakes. It’s an easy place to feel small and humble. And it is an easy place to get lost.

Lawrence Gonzales, author of the excellent book Deep Survival: Who lives, Who dies and Why makes the point that decisions are often made by “bending the map.” In our case, both Nels and I felt we knew the area so well we could not become confused, so when we began to get frustrated we edited our perception of the situation so that it fit our assumptions. We started imagining that distant ridge-lines or ridge notches were familiar features when in fact they were not. What is startling is that we both agreed with each other and together we “bent the map.”

Finally, almost reluctantly, we agreed we should stop and check our compasses. In big country I carry a small fanny pack that contains some survival essentials: compass, whistle, lighter, stick matches in a waterproof case, pocket knife, cordage and a small loop of wire. Each of these components would be helpful if I should get lost or hurt and had to stay put until help arrived.

In disbelief, we both showed the other our compasses. The two instruments agreed on the direction of north and we realized that we were 180 degrees off from where we thought we were!

With the afternoon easing into its last hour we hiked uphill to the edge of a high escarpment. Looking far into the valley below us, Nels said, “There’s the river.” And peering over the edge, I added, “And there are the beaver ponds.” Somehow we had made our way to the top of Raven’s Ledge. Finally we knew where we were.

In the waning daylight, Nels and I made our way down a steep draw and through a low area to an old familiar trail that would lead us back to the warm shack.

When we were close enough that the bloom of candlelight drew us like moths towards the small glowing window, Nels asked, “Well, do we tell the guys we were lost?”

“Of course we do,” I immediately responded. “We weren’t really lost only slightly confused. And besides, we’re too old to really care what they might think. Also, this is a great lesson for all of us. Carry a compass. And even if the sun is shining, check the compass often and trust it.”

Soon we were inside the toasty shack sitting around the old homemade table that was built when the shack was erected. The stove had its quiet, soothing noises. The trio of candles put a warm light on our faces that diffused wrinkles and enhanced storytelling. Nels and I confessed our story. The others nodded in understanding. Others shared their own misadventures.

In a moment of silence I sighed and offered, “A slice of tart humility pie never hurt anyone.”

Foot Notes

Nels beginning the one and a half-mile section of the Lake Superior Hiking Trail that runs along the big lake.

“ Shall we take a walk?” 

And with that early morning query, Nels and I would swing our backpacks onto our backs, snug the belt straps tight over our hips, clasp the chest buckle and head out on the trail in dawning light. It was good to start out briskly. We were fresh after a long night in the sleeping bag and moving out warmed us up.

Breakfast would be earned after an hour and a half of hiking. We always tried to stop at a sunny spot, fire up the twig burner to heat water for coffee and oatmeal.

Vagabonds of a sort, we carried the necessities: a small twig burner stove, a single cooking pot, a spoon, bowl and mug, energizing meals, sleeping bags, pads, a single tarp for our shelter, a handful of extra clothes, rain gear, a map, a journal and a thin, small copy of the Mark Twain book, Puddinhead Wilson.

For ten days this became our ritual as we set off on our daily stroll to complete the last 105 miles of the 310 mile-long Lake Superior Hiking Trail. Standing atop the northern terminus of the trail we looked north into Canada, across the sinuous Pigeon River. Only three months earlier we had paddled canoes on that river as we headed to the Grand Portage.

While paddling in a canoe, you can afford the luxury of looking around as you move. Hiking over rugged terrain means you need to scan the ground just in front of you to assess the next few steps while simultaneously being very aware of where you plant your foot.

Each of our feet is built on a framework of 26 bones. Everywhere two bones meet there are joints, thirty three of them in each foot. Each is tied together by a complex network of muscles, ligaments and tendons. It was necessary to take good care of them.

For long stretches of the trail we did not talk at all. During this quiet stroll I couldn’t help but marvel at how a simple, but wonderfully complex, pair of appendages could help our human species spread from Africa, our species evolutionary birthplace, to trek to new lands all over the world. 

The trail we were on has steep climbs, descents, boulders, rocks, logs and mud. Sprawling tree roots, particularly spruce, entwine across the trail. We came to call these sections “snake pits.” Then there was the mile and a half of walking in beach gravel along Lake Superior. I find it a minor miracle that even under challenging walking conditions human feet operate smoothly most of the time.

The only time we could sightsee was when we paused. We did so frequently to note blazing fall maples, a moose track, bear shit, a fresh oyster mushroom, a nervous grouse, a palm warbler flitting down the trail ahead of us.

Blazing maples along the Poplar River valley.

At the end of each day’s trek, Nels and I would sigh as we untied and eased out of our hiking boots. It was blissful to peel away our socks, wipe and rub our feet and sometimes soak them in the cold water of a nearby creek or river Each night we would ascertain how the feet were doing. We noted any hot spots, where blisters painfully announced their potential for discomfort, and taped them the the following morning. 

We encountered plenty of day hikers and I counted over 40 other backpackers over the course of nearly two weeks. One of the backpackers, Sarah, a pixyish 29 year-old from the Twin Cities, trudged up the slope to our last campsite of the trip. Jeff,  another backpacker from Kansas City, had already joined us at the site. The young woman seemed spent. In short order, while she relaxed at our campfire, we learned that she had left the northern terminus of the trail just two days before. In the span of 48 hours her feet had carried 70 miles! And this was her first time backpacking. She had started the trip with the intent of doing the entire trail, unassisted, in less than seven days.

On the last morning of our hike, with our feet wearing strips of tape, we laced up our boots, settled into our backpacks and Nels predictably asked, “Well shall we take a walk?” I replied, “Why not.” We slipped quietly away from the campsite being careful not to wake up Sarah from her needed sleep. 

Firing up the twig burner for breakfast on the shore of Superior.

Quietly Cleaning Ears


Miss Nancy and I walked down the sloping bedrock to the lake’s edge to watch the final minutes of the sun’s descent into the boreal horizon. The lake was glass. We quietly took our seats on a log, that could just as well have been a church pew, and absorbed the complete silence and alpenglow.  Sitting still in the presence of a wild or almost wild setting washes me with a calmness and a sense of the sacred like nothing else can.

Being close to the end of summer in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, there was no end-of-the-day Swainson’s thrush symphony. No loon music. No trilling of tree frogs. The calendar is well beyond the chorus of a spring bird or frog breeding season where pleas and territorial declarations are noisy affairs. Out here I can put the raucous modern world on mute and  listen to the same silence experienced by the first peoples.

As the sun disappeared Miss Nancy quietly announced, “We’re washing our ears.”  With the inflection of a question, I repeated her declaration, “Washing our ears?”

 She shared that she had just read the description from the book she had brought along on the canoe trip. Titled, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, the author, Stephen Nachmanovitch, charges that “free play” is the essence of our being, something we were born with then strive to recapture.

Nachmanovitch often performed solo violin concerts. But what made them unique is that he improvised each concert. He had no planned playlist. Took no requests and had no agenda. He simply followed his heart and creativity at each performance. As a performing musician, sound in the form of music was his product. Nachmanovitch found it necessary to occasionally seek the silent places to “clean his ears.”

Silence is nearly an extinct experience. And for many, when they do experience the enveloping dominance of quiet, they become unnerved by it. 

“Cleaning our ears” swabs away the incessant infection of clatter and babel and allows us to tune into ourselves, humanity and natural systems. Priorities become more clear.

We live in a world of noise. While our electrical devices hearken us with appeals to buy, to not engage or to click “like,” the natural world, all on its own, reminds us not to grow distant. The further we move from the quiet beginnings of our own evolutionary path, the quicker we are blanketed by numbness and uncaring.

We have evolved to listen. . . to pay attention. Our survival depended on it. We have partnered and lived hand-in-hand with the noises of the natural world for more than 99% of our human history. I believe our need to seek silent places is as powerful as the need for a salmon to leave the ocean and return to its birth stream. 

There is no need to escape far into a wilderness to find serenity. It is important that we discover or create even small islands quietude. These are the places where we ponder things greater than us, where we nurture our sense of peace, and where we mine our imagination. Our thoughts and meditations need to be touched by the sound of rustling leaves, running or falling water, cricket and bird music.

As I write these words from our small screen house in the woods, I can hear the distant motorized thrum a quarter-mile away on a paved county road. As if on cue, a faint breeze has put the overhead tree leaves into a slight tremble that whispers “Hussssshhhhhh.”

Who is the teacher?

The phone vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out. It was a reach-out from son-in-law, Ben. I answered with a hello and he followed with what has become a consistent salutation.

 “Hi Opa. Eleanor has another nature question for you.”

 I smiled at the phone and felt a brief moment of Oh oh, what will it be this time?

Eleanor is my four-year old Pacific Northwest granddaughter. She absolutely loves her “school,” a nature-based preschool. And over the past year or so she will frequently reach out to ask me a nature question.

One week she phoned and asked, “Opa, are feathers found only on birds?”  I replied, “That’s right Eleanor. No other animal has feathers covering its body.”

Another call she queried, “Opa what is the fastest bird in the world?”  

Then there was the phone call asking about butterfly larvae. And yes, she used the word, “larvae.”

One morning call had me momentarily floundering. “Opa, what is fog?”

I stalled for seconds to gather my information in a manner that she could grasp. 

“ Great question,” I enthusiastically answered. “Do you see fog right now?”

“Yes it’s all over above the ocean.”

I’m thinking, Keep it simple Opa. This is no time to throw out words like sublimation or dew point. 

Another second passed and I said, “Well Eleanor, like the ocean, fog is water that floats in the air. It’s kind of like a really, really low cloud. Water is kind of magic because it can be hard like ice, it can be wet and liquid, like the ocean or rain, or it can be a gas, like a cloud.”

That was enough. She was satisfied and proceeded to report that they were on their way to the doughnut shop where she was going to get a doughnut covered in sprinkles. I wanted to say that “sprinkles” is a form of water but I didn’t.

Eleanor is a little sponge observing the world and then casting a fusillade of questions. I love it.

When Nancy, known as Nana, and I visited for nearly a month and a half last spring we had lots of discovery walks and chats with Eleanor

At one of the neighborhood playgrounds she confided that she dreamed of playing hide and seek with a chipmunk. I agreed and told her if she was super quiet and peaceful towards a chipmunk you never know what might happen.

On another morning I told Eleanor  about an old man, named Ragnar who lived most of his life far from any city or town up in Canada. When he turned 82-years old he had to travel hundreds of miles to see a doctor about his eyes. He had not been to a city for 59 years and he couldn’t wait to get back home in the wild forest and lake country far to the north.

I went on to share that Ragnar thought the people living in cities were not friendly. When he met them on a sidewalk they would not look at him, smile at him or even say “hello.” 

Eleanor quickly responded, “What if we ALL smiled and said “hello?”  So that morning we greeted and smiled at everyone we met. And it felt really good to warm and sometimes even startle strangers with a warm smile and greeting. And even though the news of the day might speak of a polarized society, I was coached by a four-year old that we are all more alike than different.

She told us about Teacher Cresten, the tall lumberjack looking young man who was the Preschool nature instructor. She bubbled about finding feathers and bugs on class walks with him.

One day she came home from preschool really excited to tell me that Cresten had taught the class the scientific name of Douglas fir. I was mightily impressed that a group of four-year olds were introduced to genus and species titles of anything. I never knew what a scientific name or what a genus and species was until I was in high school.

She was so excited to share what she had learned that her delivery of the scientific name was rushed and sort of garbled. I didn’t totally understand the genus name, but I did pick up the species name, menziesii. (The only reason I remember the scientific name of Douglas fir is that it is really fun to say. Pseudotsuga menziesii. Pronounced Sue-doe-suega  men-zee-see).

Then without thinking I smothered her bubbling enthusiasm. I made a major mistake in correcting her on the genus name. The look of pride and joy drained out of her face. Her confident smile melted and her eyes rained tears.

What was I thinking in snuffing her sharing and pride? Clearly I was not thinking. I scooped her up and squeezed her in a hug while explaining that I misunderstood her. I told her I was so proud of my little scientist.

Minutes later she was wondering how trees got so big. I told her how trees drink water from the ground through super tiny rootlets and eat sunshine through their leaves or needles.

Returning to the house for supper, Eleanor declared to her mother, “Mommy, it’s a good thing your dad is so smart.”

Those were words fluffed me up and assure I can die happy.

I knew my sins of correction were forgiven when later I  helped Eleanor get ready for the night ritual of bedtime reading. She had brushed her teeth and was brushing her hair. She paused, gave me an elfin smirk and thrust her hair brush up to my nose. 

“Smell it Opa. It smells like unicorn poop.”

And you know what? Of course it did.

Black Fly in my Eye

There’s a black fly in my eye. 

As I trod the portage with a canoe on my shoulders, I muttered to no one but myself. The bubbling melody of a winter wren did little to lift my spirits. Rapid eye blinking was failing to remove the mired fly. Multitudes of the bloodseekers swarmed my face while I tried to concentrate on my footing.  

A year ago, we paddled and portaged part of the 200-mile Voyageur’s Highway.  Four of us, Nels, Duane, Kurt and I had been about 150 miles into the trip when Kurt’s artificial hip  slipped out of its socket at the edge of Clove Lake on the Granite River. More than 12 hours later, he was canoed, flown and ambulanced out of the bush to Duluth where St. Mary medical staff successfully urged the union of ball and socket. (For more detail see last year’s blog entry.)

On the first day of June this year, we “Boyageurs” returned to Gunflint Lake to pick up where we had left off to complete the trip to Lake Superior. 

The Minnesota-Ontario section of the Voyageur’s Highway was a portion of the route that would take the voyageurs from Lake Superior up to northern Saskatchewan, Alberta and beyond. However, they dreaded the 200-mile stretch that ran from Lake Superior to Rainy Lake because it involved many portages. 

The evening before, we eased the canoes to shore at our last campsite at the head of the Pigeon River rapids known as the Cascades. Over 200 years ago, during the rich fur trade period, this was the western end of the historic eight and a half mile grand portage that ends at the shore of Lake Superior.  

After downing a hearty pot of spaghetti, we all agreed that this year’s 50-mile leg was more physically demanding than the previous year’s 150 miles. Last year we had some headwinds to paddle into but the portages were not that difficult. This year, we relished the pushing westerly breezes but had to deal with longer portages that included a two-miler, a one-miler and another that approached three-quarters of a mile. Not to mention the final grand portage that faced us the following morning.

Now, with the sun just climbing into the clear morning sky, we  hefted our packs and the two canoes and started the long portage. It was so cool we could see our breath and the temperature made the work of carrying loads more pleasant. As the day warmed the black flies were invigorated and seemed most urgent to find sanguinary sustenance.  

To make matters more challenging, spring winds had toppled a number of trees over the portage so we continually found ourselves bushwhacking around the windfalls or pushing the canoes through a jungle gym of tree limbs. Duane, whom we dubbed “Ole the Saw Cutter,” would pull his sharp-edged tool from it belted scabbard and cut trails through windfalls where it was feasible. We heard numerous “Uff das!”

With unusually high water this year some of the portages were muddy and even flooded. More than once we paddled the last segment of a forested portage out on to the lake. And halfway through the two-mile portage we had to load the canoes with our packs and paddle 150 meters of a beaver pond that had inundated the portage trail.

We marveled at the efforts of the early voyageurs and their ability to carry two ninety-pound packs over the long portage. Most were from French Canadian farming backgrounds and in their teens or twenties. 

I managed to blink away a tear that flushed the black fly hitchhiking in my eye. Through the morning, as we alternated carrying packs and canoes, I had time to think. 

I pushed discomfort aside by reciting the famed Robert Service poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee. 

“It wasn’t much fun.

But the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.”

I also tallied bird species by noting calls and songs. Away from the river’s edge, there were no northern waterthrushes singing. I heard the tinkling of the winter wren, numerous ovenbird stanzas and more. 

I quieted the pain in my left shoulder by thinking how this lonely trail had once been a thoroughfare of commerce when thousands of voyageur footsteps hurried along. 

Gratitude washed over me as I carried gear. On this day the interplay of good health, balance, strength and privilege played a role in my having the opportunity to be on this trail. 

I pondered the good luck of paddling, portaging and camping with three dear, young-spirited friends (average age is 70 and a half) who eagerly help each other and find joy in wild places.  

And of course I celebrated the fact that our lightweight Kevlar canoes had replaced the earlier aluminum and plastic boats of earlier paddling years. Even those boats would have been easier than a 300-pound birchbark North canoe used by the voyageurs. It felt ludicrous to grovel, snipe and whine about black flies, the warming day or the length of the trail.

A black-throated blue warbler sang nearby. As tempted as I was to seek it out for a look at this handsome songbird, I partnered with momentum and kept walking towards the distant big lake.

Not surprisingly my mindfulness was tested.  And once more I growled from under the canoe, “There’s a black fly in my eye.”

Oh I am a lucky man.

Taking a Walk

“Can you recall dear comrade,

when we tramped God’s land together,

And we sang the old, old Earth-song 

When we drank and fought and lusted, 

for our youth was very sweet;

as we mocked tie and tether,

Along the road to Anywhere, 

the wide world at our feet.”

  From the poem; "The Tramps" by Robert Service

Grandson Thomas is on the brink of walking. He grabs a nearby chair leg. A human leg. Or anything he considers stable and pulls himself up from the floor. He totters and then slides his hand along whatever bit of solid he can find, and takes tentative steps.

Each passing day there is less teetering, and one of these days he will take off. His smile will broaden as he learns fast walking and soon after that will be the joy of running. And his universe will expand as he effortlessly explores.

As a species, humans walked out of Africa. There was a point in our evolution when we stood up, lifting our knuckles from the ground, and began perfecting the art of walking. It allowed us to use our other two limbs, our arms, for other tasks such as carrying food, tools and children. 

Most healthy humans walk fairly effortlessly. There is no need to focus on our locomotion. Consequently our minds are free to concentrate on other things. 

The other day while walking a trail that switchbacks its way up to Pyramid Peak in Olympic National Park in Washington, I experienced a rush of gratitude for the ability to promenade over all kinds of terrain. 

On this morning my son-in-law, Ben, wife Nancy and I climbed through the temperate rainforest. It was a green world of moss-covered trees and an understory of sword ferns and sisal. 

An hour into our hike we had to cross a steep pitch on a bare avalanche slide. Nancy, still wearing a cast on her healing broken wrist, cautiously scuffled along the narrow goat path. 

More switchbacks followed and we passed underneath some hefty Douglas firs. These trees had likely shot up after this ridge was logged prior to this region becoming a national park in 1938.

Walking. I take the act for granted. As I climbed towards the summit on this cool morning, I found myself recalling one of the first days after we moved to the Yukon Territory in the spring of 2008. Friend Gerry had called us from his home in Whitehorse and asked, “You two settled in? You want to go for a walk?”

We were excited to get out on the land and Gerry knew some good hikes out our way. He suggested a stroll up Red Ridge. We loved the idea. An hour later Gerry pulled up.

It turned out that Gerry’s definition of a “walk” was an all-day outing. Luckily he had enough food to share with us after we finished our dry granola bars. After that day, we learned all future “walks” would require bringing far more calories and gear for rain or snow. Gerry is a beast hiker.

However, my all time hero of hikers was a Scotsman named John Rae. He was a lifetime Hudson’s Bay Company man having signed on in 1833 as a surgeon. His feats of walking and snowshoeing thousands of miles from the Arctic Ocean to what would become northern Minnesota are beyond superlative. Rae’s stamina, ability to persevere and resilience made it possible to travel on foot and by canoe more than 23,000 miles in his years of exploration. He was able to do this because he adopted native ways in moving light and swiftly. He used his hunting and fishing skills and adopted indigenous practices in camping and clothing. 

As we gained elevation the temperature dropped and we were hiking through four inches of snow. With the steeper trail, we talked less. I listened to my duet of exhalations and heartbeats. 

By the time we reached the summit of Pyramid Peak, we had walked four miles and gained nearly 3,000 feet. 

We emerged from the trees and found a simple wooden cabin under the blue skies. It was built during WWII, in 1942, as an aircraft warning lookout point. It would serve for two years as a spotter station watching for potential Japanese aircraft entering air space on the USA west coast. 

The hut no longer has any glass windows or a door to keep the elements out.  We avoided the gusting winds by hunkering inside away from any openings and ravenously ate our packed lunches. We couldn’t help poking our heads out the vacant windows to enjoy stunning views of Crescent Lake below us. Peering to the horizon from our high vantage, we were captivated by the layers of mountain peaks.

After eating, we were hurried by the swirling winds rushing inside the old shelter. We began the descent back to the car. The walk down was much faster, less meditative and more social.  I couldn’t help but wonder if this outing would have even counted as a warm-up for John Rae. 

Nonetheless he would have nodded his approval of getting out enjoying the old Earth-song as we explored the trail to Anywhere.

Note: We flew from Tacoma back home to Minnesota and learned that same night that little Thomas had taken his first legitimate walk across the vastness of the home living room. And so it begins. 

 Page 2 of 24 « 1  2  3  4  5 » ...  Last »