Dawn Awakening

At this time of the year I often tuck my pillow directly on the sill of an open window next to my bed. While lying down I can easily position my head next to the window screen. The advantage is that while sleeping in the comfort of my bed I enjoy the fresh air benefits of camping outside. The disadvantages are the loud exclamations of the neighbors.

Earlier this week as the morning light washed over the treetops, I opened my eyes at “crane o’clock.” Rather than a rude buzz or radio blather waking me, a pair of sandhill cranes were trumpeting, bugling and rattling from a nearby hayfield. Their raucous wildings had me wondering if I had awakened in a Paleozoic jungle.

I am reminded of Aldo Leopold’s description of sandhill cranes. Leopold is author of Sand County Almanac (which incidentally should be required reading by all Americans): “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

The morning following the crane reveille, a male robin blasted his song from the canopy of oak branches just a few feet from my second story windowsill nest. And “robin o’clock” is definitely earlier than “crane o’clock. How can I get angry when this common member of the melodic thrush family initiates the dawn chorus?

Now consider how most folks wake up in the morning. An alarm clock startles them awake from a deep sleep. It’s no surprise we use the word “alarm,” for the way it accelerates our physical self out of restful sleep. The damn thing is alarming.

When we are abruptly awakened, our brain accelerates our heart rate. We experience the flight-and-flee response. Following the rude awakening we often experience a period of wallowing grogginess before we are fully awake. Sleep experts refer to this response as sleep inertia. Even with a shower and a cup of coffee, it can take several hours to fully awaken.

Many sleep experts feel that people who use a regular alarm clock have an 89% chance of sleep inertia.

Compared to our ancestors, who went to bed when it got dark, modern humans have developed poor sleep patterns. Television, computers and cell phones rob us of quality sleep. The blue light emitted from these devices halts the natural release of melatonin, an important hormone regulating our sleep cycle.

To awaken naturally we would rely on our circadian rhythm, the internal system that responds to intervals of light and dark. It regulates cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals.

Few of us honor our natural circadian rhythms. For a majority of folks this would require going to bed soon after it gets dark outside, and awakening naturally as the day dawns. Waking up naturally to the dawn’s light and a pair of cranes or a singing robin is best for my health.

On the third morning I woke up at “swan o’clock.” A pair of trumpeter swans passed directly overhead calling their deep “oh. . . Oh” calls.

The swan’s deep notes remind me of a meditator’s “ohmmm.” There is evidence that the vibration and rhythmic droning slows the human nervous system and calms the mind.

Now get to bed. Shut off all electrical screens and don’t forget to open the window. And I dare you to unplug the alarm clock.

Wanted: A Lawn Revolution

I just finished mowing the lawn. I find it a mindless and boring job. Through the years Nancy and I have intentionally reduced the monotony of our lawn and let the wild and diverse woods slowly reclaim what was once its own. What used to take an hour now takes just over 38 minutes.

Decades ago I gave up the silly notion of fertilizing the grass each spring. Why in the world would I want it to grow faster? And on top of that, why add a host of poisonous weedkillers that sicken far more species than the target weeds. Such a practice sounds like a potential sequel to the comedy Dumb and Dumber.

Lawn mowing is a thief of valuable summer time. I could be using that time to embrace meaningful activities in my life like cycling, watching birds, fishing, or reading a book while lazing the summer hours in a hammock with a cold beer at my side.

The growl of gas-powered mowing assaults and batters my hearing. Its stink washes into my olfactory system. And it releases more carbon in one hour than my car does in 40 hours of running. It’s all a choice.

So why is it that 80% of all Americans have a manicured lawn? Pooled together, these “Made in the USA lawns” equals 40 million acres. That translates to more than 50,000 square miles or an area larger than Pennsylvania!

Some landscape architects believe that our infatuation of lawns come from our desire to attain status. Status often can be shown by appearance. In the 16th century, French and English aristocracyl kept lawns so guards could have clear sight lines for potential hostile invaders. They also used them for recreation such as playing  croquet.

The love of lawns was an immigrant product and came to North America by those who could afford such a luxury. By the end of the American Civil War lawns were becoming the norm.

A controlled lawnscape came to be considered a thing of perfection. From the perception of many, the natural world is a “mess.” We like to control things and that means controlling the march of the natural world into our living area.

Over the past couple of years I am noting more and more rural ditches being mowed by the adjacent landowners. I’m sure County Commissioners are smiling in glee as this means the local jurisdiction is not spending taxpayer money on their roadside maintenance budget. However, the loss is severe for bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects as well as for roadside nesting birds like pheasants and many songbirds.

Accompanying our gas-powered mower in the garage is a quiet reel push mower. It requires our muscles rather than a combustible engine. Admittedly, I threw in the towel on using the non-gas reel mower. Moles have created an undulating surface with their serpentine upraised tunnels that makes pushing more difficult. I harbor no animosity for moles. They love worms and insects and are unaware of yard boundaries so I deem them innocent of wrong-doing.

To keep lawns looking  homogenous requires a drug-pusher’s tenacity. Homeowners with mono-lawns are encouraged and brainwashed to purchase what I call “lawn drugs.” Every year, Americans spread more toxic pesticides and herbicides on lawns than farmland. It’s true. Nearly 200 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides are used on lawns alone. According to the EPA, approximately 100 million pounds of glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient are applied to our nation’s lands each year.

Monsanto’s product Roundup has been touted as a safe weed killer to conveniently spot spray on evil floral insurgents like dandelions and creeping charlie. Now we are learning that the supposedly inert ingredients in Roundup “might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.” (Scientific American, 2009)

Roundup is so effective at killing weeds that it has decimated milkweed abundance, which has resulted in a crippling crash in the monarch butterfly population in the last twenty years by nearly 90 percent.

Businesses that depend on our hamster-wheel- chase of the perfect lawn often define the natural world as bushy, weedy, tangly, scruffy and even spooky. This is the place that evil mosquitoes and ticks might be amassing to rush your home. It is the job of herbicide and pesticide companies, as well as those that manufacture lawn mowers, to make you feel insecure about your yard.

The profits of lawn products are tied directly to keeping the message of fear and insecurity in front of your face. Not surprising, these messages of doing battle with dandelions, creeping charlie and other so-called noxious weeds air more frequently in May and June. In my world these “undesirables” add diversity and color into my lawn. Bumblebees seem drunkenly giddy as they lob into nectar-rich patches of purple creeping charlie. Dandelions are visited by pollinating insects and Nancy and me. This time of the year there is no need to buy salad greens. We have all we want only steps away from our back stoop.

The other day, I processed a jar full of delicious dandelion pesto. And we are drying creeping charlie for a minty tea. All this is free organic food. I would never collect these foods in an area that has been sprayed.

I would argue that the manicured lawn is a greater threat to our collective well-being. Biodiversity loss can even affect important (free) ecosystem services, such as removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) and pollination services.  More biodiverse ecosystems can uptake more CO2, a greenhouse gas, than ecosystems with less species diversity. (Source: Research paper published in Nature, 2001 by Reich et al.)

 

What are the alternatives?

•Mow less often or not at all.

•Save money by avoiding pesticides and herbicides. Poisons have a way of making their way into our waters and potentially into our bodies.

• Plant a diverse prairie or wild flower, pollinator-friendly garden. There are even shade loving sedges that look like grasses and they never get tall so there is no need to mow.

•Plant native and diverse plants along lakes and wetland to create a filter strip that helps retard contaminants from entering the water. The strip acts like a buffer and creates a natural shoreline.

Time for some of that pesto, chips and a cold beer.

Surf’s Up Dude!

Let’s go surfin’ now

Everybody’s learning how

Come on safari with me

-Beach Boys

 

 An ocean wave is a beautiful thing. Each travelling swell, born from wind energy, orbits quietly like a wheel in the water until it rolls into a reef or shoreline. Then it finds its voice and becomes either a loud surging and foaming cascade of rhythmic poundings or a more gentle series of “ssshhhhhs.”

Each wave becomes an ephemeral ocean summit. These fluid peaks break the monotony of a flat oceanic plain giving dance to the water that holds our gaze like a flickering campfire.

Waves are transformers. Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagen said, “You wonder what on Earth the waves might bring – and where the sea might deposit you – until one day you know you have lived between two places, the scene of arrival and the point of departure.”

Like a pulsing beast, waves can transform stones to pebbles to grains and grains to beach. They can carry tiny seeds and heavy seeds, like coconuts, hundreds, if not thousands of miles. And somewhere in the history of oceans, a human learned that there is joy in riding a wave.

Ever since I was a teen and heard the Beach Boys singing Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA, I have fantasized about catching a wave and  the adoring gazes of scores of bikini-clad, tanned young women as I casually ride my board down into the tunnel of a massive, breaking wave.

Decades have put me beyond the bronzed, sun-bleached blonde hair and trimly muscled body idea. Nonetheless, I recently fulfilled part of that dream and finally had a surfing lesson. It seemed fitting that my wave riding session would be on the very day, at the very location of the 9th Annual International Women’s Surfing Cup on Siargao Island one of the 7,000 plus islands in the Philippines. There were lots of attractive young women on location.

The competitors would be carving 180°s and 360°s on a famous reef breaking set of waves called “Cloud 9.” These waves are ranked as the 7th best surfing waves in the world. I was feeling trepidation that my first-ever surf lesson would be within sight of the competitors, the spectators and the lenses of photo drones zipping over the water like scavenging gulls.

Confidently, I followed, Darwin, my young Filipino instructor as we headed to a strip of beach a quarter mile north of Cloud 9. As we walked I was tempted to speak like a surfer. After all I had picked up a ragged old surfing magazine at our accommodations and picked up some lingo. I could have said, “Hey Darwin, looks like the surf is going off today. Sure hope I can keep the grubbing down.” Translation: The surf is really good. I hope I don’t fall off my surf board too much. However, I suspect Darwin would have seen through the charade as I gingerly walked over the stones and old coral in trying to keep up with him. And it was likely that the smeared gobs of sun-screen clinging to parts of my face like misguided patches of toothpaste might have pointed at my rookie status.

I was feeling both nervous and amped to ride the “ankle busters”or lesser waves of a nearby set of waves.

Before we hit the water, Darwin set the board on the beach, digging a small hole in the sand to accommodate the single blade of the rudder. He had me lay on my belly on the grounded surf board and pseudo-paddle both arms, like a pair of windmills, as if catching a surging wave. Then I had to quickly scramble to my feet just as the wave begins to crest. I stood up, crouching, with my left foot, three-feet or so, in front of my right foot. I stretched one arm out in front of me with the other reaching out behind me for better balance. It was the classic surfing pose.  Darwin was pleased with my quick dryland progress and we took off for a walk through the coconut trees to the beach. I was wondering if I might be a surfing prodigy.

Wading out to the reef, where the curling waves pushed a few other surfing pupils, was a slow process with the coral punishing my bare feet. Darwin’s seasoned surfing feet moved steadily through the water.  Before long he signaled me to lie on the board and he towed me, like a parent pulling a child in a wagon, out to the waves.

Turning my board to face the shore, Darwin kept looking over his shoulder for the approach of a wave I could hitch a ride on.In his broken English, I heard him eagerly say, “Get ready!” A few seconds passed and he yelled, “Paddle! Paddle!”

I conjured my inner Michael Phelps butterfly stroke and paddled like hell. In barely a moment, Darwin was yelling, “Stand up! Stand up! Stand up!

This is where the fantasy of slicing down a wave fell apart. I had barely managed to get my feet under me, almost like a football lineman ready at the line of scrimmage, when I was tossed like a puny piece of pallid flotsam.

After my fourth attempt to cleanly stand up and breath in fresh ocean air rather than fresh and salty water, I thought of the advice I had read from world champion surfing champion, Kelly Slater. Known by many as the greatest surfer ever, having won the world championships eleven times, Slater said, “A wave isn’t like a skate ramp or mountain; everything’s moving around you and you have to time how to move along with it. That’s easier with a slow wave.”

Clearly, Darwin should have started me on slower waves and offered me a board with training wheels or outriggers.

Let’s just say that my outing did not resemble my surfing fantasy. For the next hour, I repeatedly paddled myself back out to Darwin while experiencing some spectacular and some not-so-spectacular wipe-outs. I grubbed repeatedly and did it well. Once I actually managed to sort of get to my feet, looking more like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I cruised contortedly for perhaps twenty feet before I ate it into the salty washing machine. I was thankful I was shackled to the surf board by a leash that was velcroed to my ankle, keeping my board close at hand.

Finally the lesson was blessedly finished. I was spent. Slowly we walked to shore. Darwin, politely slowed down to walk at my side. Only then did he ask my age.

“I’ll be 66 this summer.”

Looking surprised, he said, I did very well for someone my age on their first lesson. I think he was mining a tip when he followed up with a confidence builder.

“You look like you are only 50. No way 65!”

Though my sinuses were filled, and my shoulders felt like pudding,  I felt a slight bolstering of my waterlogged ego and I managed a tired smile.

I was, after all, a surfer.

The Gift of Jet Lag

 

Impatiently, I lie in bed reading waiting for night to pale towards dawn. Finally, from my prone position, I can make out the dark craggy bur oak limbs only feet away from the window I peer through.

It’s early Sunday morning, a “day of rest” and yet, I am restless. Let’s face it I am messed up. My ability to sleep my usual seven to eight hours is apparently on vacation on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Quietly I get up and dress so as not to disturb Nancy’s sleep.

My biological clock or circadian rhythm is badly shaken and the reset button seems stuck.

Each of us is equipped with an internal biological clock driven by the daily rhythm of dark and light. Sunlight inhibits the release of the hormone melatonin from the pineal gland in our brain. Mess up that natural flow and your sleep-wake cycle can take a beating. My pineal gland is still adjusted to Asian time, easing melatonin into my system, signaling sleep a half a day ahead of right now. Confusing? I agree.

What happened to my delightful shade of sleep? How did it get recalibrated to Asian time?

For roughly two weeks we explored South Korea and then the Philippines. It might sound like a covert CIA operation, rather than a vacation, in operating in the vicinities of two respective leaders who have reputations of being suspect and cruel thugs.

Rather than espionage, our pull to attend the Asian Summit was familial. We made the long flight from Minnesota to Korea to spend time with a daughter and her husband living there and her older sister and husband who flew in from San Francisco.

We spent a few days exploring the thriving, growing and immaculately clean, graffiti-free city of Seoul. We walked miles and it got to be a challenge to spy a tiny scrap of litter on the sidewalks or streets. And homelessness seemed absent. Seoul has become one of the Asian tigers of economic growth and stability. The relatively short period of rapid economic growth since the Korean Conflict (1950-53) is known as “the miracle on the Han [River].” South Korea has raced from being a developing country to a developed country.

Now, less than 48 hours upon our return to Minnesota I can see the details of the awakening woods from my bed. I give up tossing and turning and decide to step outside and greet the rising sun face to face. The chill of the dawn air splashes me awake. Slowly I walk down our driveway, pulled by a Vesper sparrow singing from its usual summer haunt near our mailbox. Less melodious, yet equally fervent in its territorial proclamation, is the rooster pheasant that crowed unseen from out in the shaggy wetland across the road.

I freeze in my tracks to take in the slow, almost oozing, flow of sunlight as it gilds the tops of the greening oaks.

I am celebrating jet lag as a gift, a reminder that these early minutes of the day are precious. I stroll out to the mailbox for the mail that we forgot to fetch the day before. The latest copy of Time magazine is among the contents. The headline on the cover is hardly restful for this gilded day of Sabbath. Warning: We are Not Ready for the Next Pandemic. These words are practically sacrilegious on this morning where the sun is highlighting the “green-coming” of May. I prefer a title such as, “Warning: Are You Ready for the Next Sunrise?”

I rather like this quiet time of the day. I am confident that the pattern of my pineal will get things straightened out. The lesson here is that I want to join the vesper sparrow and pheasant for more dawn encounters so I will accept my maladjusted circadian clock and follow Benjamin Franklin’s credo: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

No Place Like Home

 

The phoebes are back. This is a bird whose vocalization is its own name: “Fee-bee. . . fee-bee.”

The foot-long ledge under the eave of our screen house has hosted a moss-covered phoebe nest for the past six or so years.

While it would be unusual for a phoebe to live that long, it’s not impossible. Bird banding has helped unlock secrets of bird migration, territories, and age.

The phoebe, a rather drab smudge-colored bird, holds a special place in bird banding history. In the early 19th century, young John James Audubon* noticed that a pair of phoebes showed up at his father’s Pennsylvania farm each spring. The budding teen naturalist wondered if they were the same birds. So to help identify the birds he captured the pair and tied a short piece of silver thread around their legs.

In the fall the phoebes left and he wondered if they would come back the next spring. Lo and behold, the following April, two phoebes showed up, each with a duller piece of silver thread wrapped around its leg.

Audubon’s experiment in marking the phoebes gave rise to the practice of bird banding using lightweight aluminum instead of thread.

I have banded hundreds of songbirds, including phoebes. To capture the birds, federally licensed banders stretch a forty-foot long and seven- foot tall mist net in locations where birds are apt to pass, such as thickly vegetated cover or along the edge of habitats. The nets are erected and taken down daily.

I recall a memorable day when we untangled a cantankerous chickadee from the net. The bird we removed had already been banded. It wore a tiny, lightweight aluminum band around its leg. With the help of a magnifying glass we could read the stamped identification numbers. We were mightily surprised that the little fellow had worn the band for 11 years! Truly a Methuselah among songbirds who rarely experience five years.

While banding we record data such as age, sex, wing length, breeding readiness or status of incubating. We send this information to the federal banding laboratory operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If the bird is recaptured by a licensed bander or found dead by anybody, that person can call the phone number noted on the band and help unravel a part of the bird’s life history.

Once I caught an ovenbird, a small woodland warbler, on May 30th. The bird had recently returned to Minnesota after spending the winter in southern Mexico or Central America. I carefully untangled it and carried it in a cloth bag to the banding table to get the bird processed and banded.

Unlike most warblers, sometimes referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world” because of their bright coloration, the ovenbird is fairly inconspicuous. Its back is olive-green and it has a heavily spotted breast making it ideal camouflage for this ground-nesting bird.

I banded the bird and released it.

The following year, I caught a banded ovenbird in the same thick swale. I was excited to discover it was the same bird I had banded the previous year. But what made it most remarkable was that it was exactly one year later, May 30th in exactly the same location!

The following year I did not catch it. No surprise as migration is extremely dangerous and life expectancy is low.

But on spring number three we recaptured the bird in the same net location, on May 31st.

In the four years that we had our relationship, the banded ovenbird, weighing an ounce, had migrated back and forth from Minnesota to its tropical wintering grounds eight times, covering roughly 4,000 miles with each trip.

As spring unfolds into more bird song and daily phoebe nest building duties, I really want to push aside the taboo of anthropomorphism or designating human qualities to animals, and allow myself to believe that the loud dawn bird chorus is all about a joyful homecoming.

It’s not. But spring is so ephemeral that we get to believe anything is possible.

 

*Audubon eventually became a renowned naturalist and wildlife painter. He would become best known for his oversized, four-volume set of bird paintings. Titled the Birds of America, the set stood over three feet tall and each volume weighed sixty pounds. He included the phoebe, painted in Louisiana, among the 435 species illustrated. Two hundred sets of the hand colored sets were completed between 1827-1838. Amazingly 134 of the original sets remain. Not surprising they have increased in value. The original cost was $1000 per set. In recent years one set sold at auction for over nine million dollars!

 

 

Christening a Raft

 

 

In the last days of March, Nancy and I unloaded a small raft from our truck at the Anderson County Park canoe dock one-half mile from our house. This was no ordinary raft. It bore a title: The U.S.S. Gavia. A floating nesting platform intended to attract the attention of a pair of loons.

Gavia is the genus for the common loon. The word “loon” is thought to be derived from an old Scandinavian word, lom, meaning a clumsy person. While loons are graceful swimmers and powerful and direct in flight, they are clumsy on land. Their legs are positioned well to the rear of the bird’s body. This placement makes them superior divers but awkward shufflers on land.

The ice on Horseleg Lake had been off for a week. Now, at water’s edge, we busied ourselves in last minute touches such as tying anchor ropes to opposite corners of the four-foot by four-foot platform.

We are hopeful that a pair of loons will find it homey. The lake has mostly undisturbed shoreline, no outboard motor traffic, and most importantly, populations of minnows for loons to feed on.

The haunting yodels of tundra swans interrupted our work. We scanned the sky for the birds. On they came, high overhead in a ragged “V” moving steadily northwest. These birds have a long ways to go before they can nest in northern Canada.

We tied the floating platform to a rope fastened to the stern of our canoe. Slowly we towed the U.S.S. Gavia to its berth, some two hundred yards distant.

We were barely underway when we heard the familiar yodel of a loon. It was the first loon call of the spring. The call came from Horseshoe Lake, a short hike south. We took the vocalization as a good omen.

Does the distant bird spy the fruits of our labor? Is it pleased? Does it feel a spike in breeding hormones when it spies the floating bedroom? Unlike grebes and many species of waterfowl that copulate on water, loons mate on land.

It’s early for the loons to come back but with the shortening of winters, I shouldn’t be surprised. Open water by the end of March just might be the new norm.

It took us ten minutes to tow the Gavia into position. We stopped offshore of the park observation tower where visitors will have a good view without being too close to taunt or disturb any nesting birds.

The pair of anchors sank into the clear water and through the swirling jungle of aquatic vegetation. We spread a layer of old shoreline vegetation and a chunk of hummock over the top of the raft to make it look like a wee island. I tried to get a small chunk of earth with a two-foot alder seedling but the swamp ground was frozen rock hard.

Suddenly from the north came excited honking from a pair of Canada geese. Ten yards above the water they approached us. For a moment they even set their wings into a glide. It looked as if they wanted to immediately claim the faux terra firma before any common loon could inspect it.

The pair of geese swung over us and landed a couple hundred yards away and continued their noisy honking. We quickly departed and paddled back to the dock.

Attention loons, geese, loafing turtles and muskrats: The U.S.S. Gavia is open for business.

 

photos by Steve Kingsbury

The Gym Out Back

 

I’ve never joined a gym or workout club. Part of the reason is that I don’t have the time. You might ask, “No time for physical fitness?”

Nancy and I have intentionally leaned into a lifestyle that requires us to move and exert our bodies. In spring, summer and fall we garden, push a lawn mower, bicycle, hike and canoe.

In the winter we play pickleball once in a while or head to the basement for a spinning cycle workout but mostly this is the season where we merge fitness and creating wealth.

I know some of the neighbors raise an eyebrow when they see us manually shoveling snow from our 300-foot driveway. No stink of gasoline fumes, no noise, just the push-push rhythm of the snow scoop and the welcome thump of a working heart.

According to a recent article in the New York Times on brain health, the author shared, “Exercise also, and perhaps most resonantly, augments adult neurogenesis, which is the creation of new brain cells in an already mature brain.” Consistently research is showing that exercise is far better for an aging brain than crossword and Sudoku puzzles.

In our winter gym out in the woods behind our house, we team together to put up firewood. In recent years oak wilt disease has killed a number of mature trees on our property. If the standing dead tree poses no threat, we let it stand and dry out on its own. Usually within a few years it falls on its own and I don’t have to worry about dropping it. Then I fill up my trusty Stihl chainsaw and chunk up the trees, one gas tank at a time.  I have learned that limiting myself to burning one tank of gas per day is good for both my body and the chainsaw. Then I always split what I cut before I head back to the house.

We have two splitting mauls. One is a 40-year-old Craftsman with a 6-pound head and the other is a newer Swedish Gränsfors weighing in at 3 pounds. It’s Nancy’s favorite and a thing of beauty. The two of us can make a pile of wood pretty efficiently with no gasoline required. When gnarly, forked chunks of oak won’t split, we recruit hefty steel wedges. Repeated blows to the wedge with the hammer end of the maul head forces the oak apart. Two of those old wedges are mushroomed from years of pounding blows as both my grandfather and great-grandfather used them.

 

Nancy has turned into a black belt wood splitter. It hasn’t always been that way. I remember the first time she tried it. I demonstrated how to read the grain of the wood in the piece you are about to split. “Look for cracks to guide your blows and avoid grain that is swirling or where a branch emerged from the piece.” I explained that these are tough and will not reinforce your quest for success. Such resistant pieces are the equivalent of adding a bunch of extra weight onto a set of barbells.

“Hitting the piece consistently and walking your blows across the surface in a straight line will make the job easier.”

I set up a hefty round of red oak, and she began raining blows all over the surface of the piece. It was ugly but I knew better not to come to the rescue. After several minutes of working up to some serious huffing and puffing, she paused, glared at me and in between deep recovery breaths she ordered, “Do not. . . split this one. . . .This one. . . is mine. . . I might not. . . get it today. . .but I will . . . get it.” And we walked home for supper.

Seven afternoons later, the mangled piece of oak gave up and fell apart. I’ve always wondered, what is the difference is between perseverance and stubbornness? Nancy’s victory whoop could have been heard across the township.

Splitting wood burns 400 to 500 calories per hour. Most assume that raising and hurrying a maul down into a chunk of wood is all about arm strength. Wrong. It is a great abdominal workout. Good core strength equates to a stronger back which allow me to keep up with the backwoods workout.

I do the bulk of the splitting. Nancy hauls all the wood and stacks it in our woodsheds. She relishes loading up the wheelbarrow and snaking it through the woods, sometimes up to three hundred yards.

Her wheelbarrow trails become nice single track mountain bike trails over the snowless months.

When there is too much snow to push a wheelbarrow, Nancy uses the heavy- duty sled we employ for hauling winter camping gear into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. A few months ago I asked her, “Think we should buy an ATV to fetch wood?”

“No, I love the workout.

Not only are we saving real dollars, getting a workout but also we are heating our home without burning fossil fuels. When we’re gone for extended periods, the propane furnace is our backup. We work hard at keeping our energy footprint down.

While wood burning does release carbon, it is carbon that was already in the biosphere and not carbon sequestered for millennia under the earth’s crust. For clarity’s sake the biosphere is the area where life exists on the planet; roughly from a half-mile below the earth’s surface to perhaps as high as 30 miles above us.

Admittedly there is some particulate matter released during our wood burning but our two stoves, the one in the kitchen and one in the basement are both low-emission, EPA-certified stoves and we used seasoned firewood.

After a recent wood cutting workout, we retreated to the house for a relaxing 45-minute sauna. After showering, we sat in our old rocking chairs that sit barely an arms length away from the kitchen wood burning stove. Mesmerized by the dance of flames and glowing embers through the glass door, Nancy sipped her glass of wine and said, “I love days like this.” She sipped again, smirked and added, “It’s like printing money.

Strife in the Woods

The toothy snarl was frozen in place. On the shoulder of the road, the raccoon sprawled like a summer hound. Except this ring-tailed animal was dead.

I guessed by its size that it was a male, just like the three other dead raccoons I passed this week. Each of them was duped by tepid February temperatures rather than bawdy female raccoons. In a normal year male raccoons in Minnesota, stirred by mating urges, emerge from dormancy before the females in early to mid-March.

Two days earlier I overheard someone at the grocery store titter, “I love this gorgeous weather!” And while it might have felt good to forego gloves and a stocking cap, there is a dark side to it. Could it be that we are on our way to a fourth consecutive warmest year on record?

While not true hibernators, raccoons experience a sluggish state of dormancy called carnivore lethargy. Their vital functions do not plummet as in true hibernators like woodchucks, frogs or bats. The raccoon idles through winter mostly sleeping but with its metabolism easing along rather than put on hold.

Last fall, while their fur coats thickened, raccoons were accumulating as much fat in their bodies as they could. Fat is winter fuel. With the approach of cold and snow, raccoons make their way to winter quarters which can include hollow trees, abandoned buildings or even attics.

Over the course of an Upper Midwest winter, a sleeping raccoon can lose up to half its body weight. When it leaves its winter den earlier than normal, it burns some of its valuable fat reserves. Foraging for food in February is difficult and compromises their health.

Native Americans referred to each month as a moon. The second month of the year was known as the “hunger moon.” By this time food and fat reserves are running low. A “false spring” that activates denning raccoons jeopardizes their survival.

Not only are humans the most numerous species of mammal on the planet, we are clearly the most adaptable. We can live comfortably in the desert or on the ice pack at the poles. While we may celebrate a nearly tropical February we must consider the ramifications on other plants and animals.
I drove away from the stiffened raccoon. A pair of crows watched from the top of a tamarack tree just down the road. While the untimely warmth hastened this raccoon’s death, the cold flesh will provide calories for the survival of scavengers.

Humility in the Pines

 

It was cold as I made a snowshoe trail into the forest. This wasn’t any forest; it was a snapshot of what much of northern Minnesota looked like 150 years ago. I was in the company of quiet giants. I had found the Lost Forty.

I understand how folks can get lost but misplacing a 40-acre piece of ground seems improbable. Admittedly, I’ve known about this wayward parcel for some time but had never visited it. The Lost Forty is a Minnesota DNR Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) located in the Big Fork State Forest within Chippewa National Forest. To join the esteemed ranks of Minnesota’s SNAs, a site has to contain “native plant communities, rare species and geologic features of statewide significance.” 

To understand the reason for the title Lost Forty we need to step back into the nineteenth century. In 1882 a surveying crew of four men left the young settlement along the Mississippi River called Grand Rapids and traveled 40 miles north through the wilderness. Their charge was to work on one of the first surveying jobs in northern Minnesota.

The men tented in the bush for a month, eating mostly flour, pork, beans and dried apples to sustain them while they surveyed. It was late fall and the weather was likely turning cold and snowy. Perhaps the coming of winter caused them to hurry their work but they mistakenly ended up plotting Coddington Lake a half mile further northwest than it actually is located. Roughly 144 acres of pristine and majestic pines were mistakenly mapped underneath the lake. While surrounding forests were logged off, this piece of old growth forest was left alone and never logged.

My own great-great grandfather emigrated from Sweden and worked in a logging camp near Moose Lake, Minnesota. In short order those forests were completely logged. In the mid 1890s he moved south and settled near North Branch, Minnesota. Before he left the camp he shipped enough white pine lumber south to build his first house.

I live in that home. I am humbled to be wrapped in boards rendered from old growth pines that cast a shadow well before Lewis and Clark made their epic journey to the Pacific and back to St. Louis. Some of the boards that sheath my home are over 18 inches wide and mostly clear of knots. I often wonder about the native peoples and creatures that walked beneath those pines that now shelter me.

I shuffled uphill and found myself on a serpentine esker, a glacial ridge left 12,000 years ago when the giant ice sheets last melted out of Minnesota. The pines grew all along it. Here I found eight deer beds bowled in the snow. Bedding on the esker gave the deer a good vantage point to watch for threats such as predators and human intruders. The deer also find benefit underneath the cover of a coniferous canopy as it shields them from falling snow.

The deer tracks meandering along the esker seemed in no hurry.The zigzagging stroll of a ruffed grouse showed no concern and nor did the easy hops of a snowshoe hare’s trail. I wondered if they all felt at ease in the presence of such stout elders as the pines.

Here I have the opportunity to feel wonderfully small. And given the big picture, I am awed at how insignificant I am.

Back home, I pulled up the old rocker next to the blazing kitchen fire and wondered what the pines at the Lost Forty and the ones rendered into boards shaping my home have known.

 

 

A Shrewd Outing

It was cold. Good old fashioned January cold. Or as the Old English might have called it, a “shrewd day, “one that is piercingly cold.

I was sitting in The Shining Light café in Northome, Minnesota with Jason and John. Both are much younger and far more fit than I am. They are ultra-marathoners who relish this kind of weather. We consumed heaping plates of calorie-rich breakfasts and noticed through the foggy window that the bank clock across the street read “-30° F.” This is the kind of day when you need to start with a heap of fuel in the furnace.

After eating, we drove north for nearly an hour before we pulled off and unloaded our gear for the hike into the Big Bog. The temperature had already warmed up to -28°F as we donned skis and snowshoes. The two younger guys were planning for a 20-mile day, so they each pulled a lightweight sled with calorie rich food, an arctic sleeping bag and extra clothes. I had been honest with myself and had opted out of the big bog crossing. I would only be going partway so I carried only a lightweight backpack with a thermos, food, a survival pack and some extra clothes.

While there was a part of me that wanted to make the two-day crossing with them, I knew that my body would revolt after a 20-mile day. I chose to hike in with Jason and John to a point that seemed far enough to then turn around and make my way out on our packed trail before nightfall. If all went as planned I would be back at the Northome Motel by dark, soaking under a steaming shower, full bellied and soon slumbering in a warm bed.

After three hours of hiking it was becoming clear that the planned crossing would be much tougher than planned. Jason and John wore Hok skis.  These are a four-foot hybrid of a ski and a snowshoe. They are wider than most skis and there is a strip of mohair skin on the base under the foot that serves as a gripping agent to stride easily and even uphill. It turned out that my of 75 year-old Alaskan snowshoes were the wiser choice.

The fluffy snow was deep and in some places provided too much insulation over the ice of ditches and wetlands. Both skiers broke through the ice repeatedly. Upon doing so they had to hustle to get out of the skis and scrape the slush off the bases before it froze solid in the bitter temps. With the greater surface area, my snowshoes negotiated the deep snow and I never broke through the ice.

At 2:30PM, with the sun arcing downward to the west, I decided to do an about face and make my return trip to my truck. We had only gone 4½ miles but had burned substantial energy. Already the idea of crossing the big bog had been scratched by Jason and John. Instead they decided to push on to the latitude and longitude that marked the “most remote spot” in Minnesota. I wished the guys good luck and said I would see them the next day.

I paused to drink the remaining water from my thermos. Cold days are dry days and a common mistake in winter outings is not to drink lots of water. I discovered that the screw cover to my thermos was frozen shut. I had to shove the whole thermos down my sweater so that my body heat would thaw it free. After 15 minutes of warming I was able to unscrew the cap and drink.

Head down, I continued snowshoeing east. I could feel the air temperature dropping as the afternoon waned. I was suddenly drawn to a stop by an out-of-place dark spot on my white trail. It was a shrew. A dead shrew. I knelt down to scoop it up in my mittened hand. Inspecting it closely, I found no visible wound.

These amazing little insectivores look like a mouse with a stretched-out snout. They are the smallest of Minnesota mammals and one could say the most hyper. They have exceedingly high metabolic rates. Some of them have heart rates of over 1000 beats per minute. That means they have to consume a lot of food, sometimes two to three times their weight in food each day!

Why would a subnivean creature be on top of the snow? Perhaps the shrew had been scuttling through its snow tunnel and fell out onto our packed trail. If the little fellow had been caught out in the open air too long, maybe only a matter of seconds, it could have succumbed to the biting cold. Because of their tiny size they live on the edge of life.

I examined the brown-gray fellow and wondered which species it was. Given that I was out in the open area of grasses, sedges and stunted tamarack trees, I really wanted it to be the arctic shrew. Similar and far more common is the ubiquitous masked shrew.

Minnesota is home to seven species of shrews. Several of them are so difficult to identify one has to look at the pattern of their teeth, sharp and excellent tools for tearing insects or even small mice.

I’m going to believe it was an arctic shrew. It fit the day: A most shrewd day.

 

NOTE: Jason and John made another mile of progress before returning. They ended up hiking out with headlamps illuminating their path. We all enjoyed hot showers that night. And it seems fitting that “most remote” remains untouchable.

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