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.) http://www.aligningwithnature.com/wordpress/wp-admin/post.php?post=53335&action=edit

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. 

The Mountain’s Out

Folks living in the Seattle-Tacoma area often acknowledge a clear day with a simple, “The mountain’s out.” The nuanced winter fogs and rains of the region often hide Mount Rainier from view so it’s a bonus when the famed peak is witnessed.

On a clear day, Rainier is visible 100 miles away. At over 14,000 feet in elevation, the dormant volcano, the largest in the United States, is a feature worth noting.

With the help of weather apps Miss Nancy and I found a window where sunshine was supposed to dominate and we made a day trip up to the famed Paradise area off one of the shoulders of Mount Rainier.

On May 8, 1792 George Vancouver spotted the distant mountain. He was the navigator for the British Royal Navy engaged in the difficult task of surveying the Pacific shoreline of North America from 1790-95. The team of two ships wended their way through the channels and islands of the area that the local indigenous called “whulge.” Vancouver titled it Puget Sound after his Second Lieutenant Peter Puget.

Like most colonizers he christened natural features like rivers, bays, points of land and mountains with an English title.

After spying the mountain Vancouver made a brief note merely describing it as “a round, snowy mountain.”  He was unaware or simply didn’t care to find out that it already had a title. For thousands of years previous to his “discovering” it the Puyallup people called the grand mountain “taquoma.”

Vancouver named the peak Rainier, after his good friend Rear Admiral Peter Ranier. Ironically, in his lifetime, Mr. Rainier never saw the mountain nor did he ever see the Pacific Northwest.

We filled our day packs with various layers of clothes, water bottles and food and drove out of Tacoma for our ascending two-hour drive. Upon leaving the car behind us we strapped on snowshoes and grabbed  three hiking poles equipped with snow baskets. We only needed three as Miss Nancy was fitted with a cast over her left forearm and hand. Two weeks earlier she had broken her wrist at the 21 kilometer point in a planned 50 K cross country ski workout. Before heading out in the four inches of fresh snow over the deep base, I helped her tug a long black sock over her exposed finger tips and cast.

The first white settlers in this area were the Longmire’s. In 1853 they had traveled west from their Indiana home in a wagon train led by James Longmire. Local lore claims that upon viewing the open park like high country festooned with colorful wildflowers Virinda Longmire, wife of John, exclaimed, “Oh what a paradise!” The name stuck.

The fresh snow softened everything and put us in the bliss of hush. Steadily we climbed up through scattered islands of subalpine fir trees. The trees were the only forms of visible life other than splashes of lichens on exposed rock.  Higher up, we lost our sunshine and could see a wall of gray, intimidating weather elbowing its way into our sunny day.

Steadily we climbed and finally faced a steep pitch that reminded both of us of the famed “Golden Staircase” on the historic Chilkoot Trail near Skagway Alaska.

The sharp incline prevented us from snowshoeing straight up the grade. Switchbacking back and forth, we stitched our way up with frequent stops to catch our breath.

Halfway up, Nancy slipped slightly and declared that with one arm mostly useless  she was not willing to go any further. She urged me to continue on up and said that she would slowly make her way back down.

You would think that approaching 8,000 feet above sea level would not be a big deal, but as a bonafide Upper Midwest flatlander, my lungs were breathing big. Nearing an area called Palisade Vista, the snow was more wind blown making it icier.  Now I was slipping and I stepped firmly to engage the toothed metal crampons affixed to the snowshoes.

In the early 20th century, Floyd Schmoe, a local guide, instructed adventurous clients on the best way to prevent sliding down Pinnacle glacier. “Just sit loose. Let nature take its course. But don’t roll or you might get hurt. If you start rolling, flatten out on the snow. Spread eagle and the snow will stop you.”

I thought of that advice and within a minute made the smart decision not to “bend the map” and go on all by myself. I carefully turned around and began the trip back by breaking a new trail to more easily control my descent.

Just last July I had climbed nearby designated trails through amazing collages of mountain flowers. Avalanche lilies, bog gentian, mountain heather, bistorts and so many more colorful blooms surrounded our promenade. Now, in winter, the primary color is the lack of color. White dominates with the occasional gray rock outcrop. The dormant flowers are seasonally buried under more than fifty feet of snow. Yes. Fifty.

Approaching our starting point I met an older woman who was snowshoeing up. She was making her own trail rather than following snow broken by earlier hikers. We had a short chat. In her German accent she informed me that she has lived down near the park entrance gate for 32 years. She told me of her love of hiking in this high country. I politely asked if she would mind sharing her age. “I’m 85.”

Later, I rejoined Nancy back at the parked car. We shared tales of our day. I was most amazed by two power women. One, a game lovely lady, who cast or no cast, was more than willing to go exploring on a stark but lovely landscape and the other an impressive, exuberant, 85-year old role model.

Surrender to Wonder

And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

-Matthew Chapter 18 vs 3

We gave our granddaughter, Eleanor, a small microscope for her 4th birthday. When she put her eye to the eyepiece and focused in closely on a flower, she gasped. There it was, that burst of wonder that cements indelible moments like this into our memories. 

I never tire of pushing the drug of discovery. Because once addicted to discovery we cannot help but explore and learn. 

Eleanor’s one-year-old brother, Thomas, is at the point of his life where he is barraged with wonder and first time discoveries. I am enthralled at his wide-eyed stare at a small rubber ball gripped in his hand. Such a simple marvel. 

We might be the only species that can gasp over a fiery sunset, a tanager at our bird bath or a stunning panorama. Photos can give us such a feeling but they don’t have nearly the same impact as encountering the moment.

We can all recollect those kind of “drop-to-your-knees” moments. My forehead is wonderfully scarred with a lifetime of what I call “wow” wrinkles. These corrugated ridges are the earned stripes of a life well surprised. 

These are not to be confused with the very similar markings of a scowl. But there is a difference: A scowl usually involves an angry cleft between the eyes. 

To check out the health of your wrinkles, stand in front of a mirror and let loose a wide-eyed “Wow!” There, did you see the excited skin on your forehead surge? If you have them, wear them proudly because they illustrate a lifetime of spontaneous “wows.” And that is a privilege.

Many theologians believe religions start from a place of wonder. I agree; when faced with a stunning moment of beauty or discovery there is an associated sense of reverence. And always after fully surrendering to wonder I whisper or shout out my own song of gratitude.

People need to be touched by unbridled wonder to really care for and appreciate the natural world. We need voices to sing praises for those sacred natural systems that make our lives possible. 

It’s time to head outdoors to engage with the morning and hopefully give my wrinkles a good workout.

Otter Play Lesson

River otter sketch from sketchbook of famed naturalist/wildlife biologist, Olaus Murie.

With a fresh skiff of snow, it was time to get outside to play. I quickly rubbed in a thin layer of green (cold weather) wax over the kick zone of my classic cross country skis and headed out. Twenty minutes later I skied out on to the white expanse of Horseleg Lake. Conditions were perfect and even though I didn’t have a groomed trail, it was delightful striding down the lake.

Up ahead of me I spied four trails of tracks converging towards me. Approaching the snow paths, the imprint appeared as a winter morse code with a long dashes, interspersed with two pairs of punched dots.  A few more strides and I glided to a stop over the tobogganing tracks of river otters.

I smiled, remembering a bitter cold hike with a University mammalogist up in Itasca State Park during a Christmas Bird Count back in the mid 1970s. I was engrossed with his tracking knowledge, particularly in identifying small mammal tracks. He became excited when we came across the track of an otter sliding through the woods. He pointed and said, “Otter tracks are like the front of a 1967 Pontiac. . . .the pushing pair of back feet resemble the stacked pair of headlights and the slide through the snow is the grill of the car connecting the other pair of headlights.”

The lake tracks I studied were clearly laid out. Each stretching glide over the snow was interspersed by two or three pushes with their feet. Sliding in snow is more efficient than continual loping on short legs.

The foot print itself is broader than a fox, more the size of a smaller coyote. Like other members of the weasel family there are five distinct webbed toes on each foot. The back foot is slightly larger than the front and I could make out the distinct rear foot toe that sticks slightly out to the side.

Was this quartet of mustelids a family group of now nearly full-grown otters? Or was it just a bunch of cronies out for a slide?

I decided to follow their path. It’s always exciting to find fresh tracks because you absolutely know that at the end of those tracks is a live animal. And in following and reading the tracks you get a snapshot of their lives. You can learn things such as the track-makers behavior and rate of travel.

The four trails converged, leaving the unbroken lake surface to disappear into the bordering wall of thick dried cattails. To navigate the dense cover, I had to get out of my skis and make my way slowly through the snapping and breaking cattails. 

I didn’t have to go far before I found a saucer-sized hole in the ice not far from the snow-covered dome of a muskrat house. A stain of mud rimmed the hole and bending closer I spied what looked like a twig but was a small jointed leg of a crayfish. Otter food. 

So what appeared as a playful slide across the lake was in fact a commute of sorts to a food source. Wildlife biologists and naturalists have noted that the incidence of otter play, fooling around wrestling with each other or sliding down a bank and in the snow, is more likely when they have an abundance of food. It makes sense. Low food resources or other stresses results in less energy to waste in playful activities.

A few years ago while winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, I had the opportunity to watch an otter emerge from a dark section of open water where a stream entered the lake. The slender predator had a small fish in its mouth. A second otter soon slipped out of the water and pushed itself close to the successful angler. The otter with the fish quickly chewed and swallowed the fish.  Both otters began to roll over and over in the fresh snow. They vigorously rolled and shook the snow off and finished with another snow roll. 

Even though the air temperature was around zero, the fluffy snow serves as a thick towel of sorts to wick the water off the brown guard hairs of the otter. Beneath the glossy guard hairs is the soft dense layer of oily underfur. Underfur, like the down feathers of a chickadee, trap air and serve as an ideal insulating layer.

The otters loped to the sloped shoreline and lunged up the shoreline hill. One otter wheeled and pushed itself down the hill. The second followed and soon they resembled kids repeatedly climbing a slide and sliding down to repeat it again and again. This was not hunting behavior. It looked to me like sheer play. 

When defining what constitutes “play,” there are a handful of factors to meet. First, according to  University of Tennessee ethologist, Gordon Burhardt, “the action of play doesn’t serve a functional purpose and is performed solely for pleasure.” Burghardt is clear that play is valuable and significant in the development of young animals. Adult animals will also engage in play but it could originate from boredom or simply pleasure.

Clearly, play hones motor skills, strengthens cardiovascular systems, and enhances social communication and bonds. 

Now two weeks later, those benefits of play remind me of the need on this cold, sub-zero day to step back into skis with my wife, Nancy, to get out and have fun in the snow. Move the body, breathe big, enhance bonds

Humbug Adjustment

I could find no photograph of a humble pie.

I have received some constructive comments about my Humbug Santa blog post. Clearly I am guilty of “ableism.” At this moment in my life I am in good health and retired. That means I can physically rake, shovel and split wood, and have the time to do so. I certainly did not want to offend any readers who for one reason or another are unable do these tasks. My list was just that, “my list. ” These were items that do not necessarily inspire me.

After a big snowfall, I am exceedingly grateful when my neighbor swings down my driveway with his plow and cleans us out. I’m no fool when it comes to accepting the generous gift of helping out.

And I have been thinking of the no tattoo request. I recognize they are an art form and many, including my daughter’s tattoo, are beautiful. Years ago, after a High Arctic canoe trip, I had the opportunity to visit with some local Inuit people. I have fond memories of a smiling older woman bearing facial tattoos. Like generations before her she did not tattoo herself because it was a fad. My reasoning for “no tattoos” failed to take into account cultural mores and norms. At this moment in my life I simply don’t want one.

And please know, if I am at your home and you offer me a cup of espresso coffee, I will take the steaming mug gratefully. I simply don’t want the coffee maker and to be honest I don’t have room for one.

Really all I want for Christmas is to lighten my impact on healthy natural systems. My grandkids’ future depends on it.

My Humbug Santa

The holiday season is here. Our Christmas tree, made from grape vine that Miss Nancy wrapped around a tipi framework of buckthorn, sits on the bay window and is decorated and lit. As usual, a tailless bobwhite quail (my one-and-only attempt at taxidermy over 40 years ago) perches as an avian angel atop the Yule tree.

My oldest grandchild, Eleanor, age 4, shared her interesting Christmas gift list of three items which includes a magnifying glass and a book. How cool is that?? The third item, a pink computer, does not excite me so much.

I don’t have a list of things I want, I have a list of things I absolutely DO NOT want.  Note that the following list is not served up in any order. And while this list was quickly thought up, I am sure I could add more.

If anything, I would request more good cheer for all humanity. I would ask Santa to back off on his full gift sack theme and instead preach that more stuff means an increased strain on the free natural systems that allow us to enjoy the holidays. You know, the systems that control floods, create healthy soils, give us clean water and air, and absorb human-caused carbon from the sky.

Last night we had our first ever Minnesota December tornado and I am fairly confident it is tied to human propensity to add more carbon into the sky. So by creating more stuff, like plastics and synthetic schlock, we tarnish the priceless gifts of the natural world.

I would have to fake a smile and hide my shudder if I got one of these items:

1)  Espresso Machine

It’s noisy, Has zero ambience. I would take a cowboy coffee made over a campfire any day. Yes, any day, and that includes a sub-zero setting.

2. Tattoo

While some can be quite artistic I can’t think of any reason at all to have one of these. I have no need to draw attention to myself. And tattoos seem too much like a fad and I’m not a fad kind of guy. And while I have a reasonably high threshold of pain, why subject myself to more when I don’t have to?  

3 Leaf blower

This is one invention that folks have really drunk the kool-aid over. Again the noise is abhorrent. Give me a rake anyday. No noise, powered only by my muscles. Consequently a rake fulfills a task while keeping me away from any health clubs. Which brings up my next “don’t gift me” item.

4. Snow blower

Egads another machine with its diet of gas, oil or electricity. Sure it can clean up a blizzard but in doing so it assaults my hearing and sense of smell. And like the leaf blower, it robs me of a physical workout. A snow shovel stores easily on the wall of the garage instead of taking up half a stall.

Last week it took me an hour and a half to push the fresh snow off our long driveway, but I got to breathe deeply of fresh air and fully earned a hearty lunch and relaxing read in front of the kitchen fire.

5. Membership to a health club

It would trouble me to go out, start a car and drive to a workout gym. I can walk, jog, ski  or ride a bike from my own house and then, on the same day, cut, split and wheelbarrow firewood. I prefer to live a lifestyle in which I use my muscles and stay fit.

6. Harley Davidson Motorcycle

While any motorcycle would make me unhappy, a Harley would be horrific. My hearing is already compromised and why offend others with this noisy assault? It’s offensive to fine pork to call this two-wheeled noise fest a “hog.”

I could emulate a good friend who bought his first Harley after a lifetime of owning motorcycles labelled  Honda, BMW, Triumph and Indian. He ordered his “hog” with a muffler. He wanted the Harley but he hated the noise. The dealer looked at him as if he was confronting an alien. I respect that.

But as I consider shunning a Harley I could always take an electric one (yes, they do make them) and then I could sell it and use the money to get a real bike: a full-suspension carbon frame mountain bike.

7. Boat and motor

I’m a canoeist. I paddle, not motor. The canoe is quieter than the boat and motor. Four stroke engine or not, it makes noise, requires a trailer, fuel and maintenance.  The only boat I might consider, and that’s a big “might” would be a john boat and moderate motor to use for fishing on the St. Croix River.

 8.  ATV 

There is a pattern here. I really try to stay clear of noisy machines that require fuel, oil and maintenance. I cringe at the idea of even owning one. Perhaps as I age I will need one to clean snow off the driveway, haul firewood or pull in a hunted deer, but for now a rousing “no thanks.” And if I do submit, I’m hoping I can get an electric option.

I prefer receiving and giving shared experiences. And best of all if they include wild lands, a campfire and a starlit night.

So Santa, pay attention!

I hope all of you readers have a safe, healthy and memorable Holidays!

From Quiet to the Big Noisy

Over the past three weeks I have been putting in many hours, particularly those bookending dawns and dusks, perched in various trees. As an archer trying to bag a deer, I’ve tried my best to become one with the tree.   Mostly these arboreal ambushes have been a series of silent retreats. Even though I haven’t had a shot yet, I have relished banking heavy doses of quietude. 

I break the creed of quiet when I hiss at a nearby red squirrel that is scolding my presence. Or I might blow a series of deep grunts as I halfheartedly try to challenge any bucks that might be within hearing distance. Ideally a buck would amble towards me to see what amorous intruder might be in his thicket. Mostly I maintain a silent vigil.

My mind wanders to arenas where I rarely venture. Lately I have wondered about the interplay of a swirling breeze and a lingering withered leaf gripping its summer berth on a naked twig. The wind will ultimately reign victorious in pulling the dry shard from its parent tree. But why are the neighboring parched leaves not shuddering? For the moment they are still. But if they follow the seasonal script of death and decay, their destiny will eventually be the same as the shivering leaf. Is the solo leaf shuddering only because of the physics of the passing air? Or is it the architecture of a wrinkled leaf? Or both? Or none of those factors. 

This is only one of the things I ponder while a baseball-shaped conk pokes into my lower back. The fungal jab provides the necessary discomfort to stave away any urge to doze. It’s imperative that I cannot get too comfortable or I won’t be able to pay keen attention . 

The pressure to add venison to our winter larder was lessened a couple of weeks ago when Miss Nancy arrowed a big doe. She had already filled much of the freezer with her summer gardening efforts. After butchering we canned seven quarts of venison and the rest we wrapped and stowed in the freezer  

Tranquility partners with me when I sit inside the log walls of the small cabin I built. Not only do the red pine logs block out noise but there are no operational clicks, buzzes or hums of electric appliances that effectively hijack silence inside the conventional home. 

I relish silence and yet rarely experience blanketing quietude. We live awash in noises that range from barely imperceptible to intolerable. We can’t avoid it. As our species has become more urbanized and “cyber-connected,” silence is a rare commodity. The constant thrum of daily living becomes more normal. 

When Miss Nancy and I spent extended periods of time in the Yukon Territory at our beloved Outpost, we came to meet a precocial three-year-old boy named Juneau. Juneau and his parents were neighbors of sorts. They lived 16 miles further down the gravel road. Their house, a stone’s throw from the Wheaton River and in the winter shadow of Anderson Mountain (no relation), was more of a cabin. It was small, totally off-grid and far from the rush of traffic and city noises. 

Juneau’s mother Rose was born and raised in New York City. After returning from his first ever odyssey to her hometown, he told us about his visit to what he called “the Big Noisy.” He preferred talking about how good red squirrel stew was as a favorite supper.

Tomorrow I fly to Tacoma to spend some time with my daughter, her husband and two grandkids. Silence, during waking hours, will be a rarity. Amidst the banter of make-believe, potions, and oh-so-much-dancing and singing, the space will be punctuated with squeals, owl calls,caterwauling, howls and expected bouts of overtired wails. At such moments I will display the amazing ability for humans to adapt and I will cherish the familial noise while simultaneously reaching into my vault of stillness for the necessary balance. 

Because I need both.

Bur Oak Elders


Head down, I strolled beneath the centenarian-plus bur oaks reside along the city streets elders of my hometown North Branch. My intention on this lovely evening was to collect bur oak seeds (acorns) from what I call the “North Branch heritage trees.” I was  searching for only the most robust and unscathed acorns from bur oaks that had a girth well beyond my own. These elder trees were part of the now extremely rare oak savanna that was growing here before North Branch was incorporated in 1881.

These trees are loyal providers of shade, beauty and sustenance, but they will die. I fear that future city decision-makers will remain blind to honoring the tree that set roots here first.

The most rotund acorns were from the bur oaks found on the block where I lived until third grade. These were easy to pick since they had fallen on the asphalt of the Methodist church parking lot. Some of them had settled in cracks where they sat like a perfect row of tomatoes in the grocery produce section. I wondered if these especially healthy looking acorns were more blessed by growing where they can hear the tunes of hymns sprinkled with prayers?

In his most informative book, Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, Welby Smith writes, “Bur oak is the most common and ubiquitous oak in Minnesota.” It has me wondering why the red pine (Pinus resinosa) was selected as the state tree. Don’t get me wrong, red pine are lovely and I have just built a log cabin whose walls are red pine, but I would vote for a long-lived tree that wears the title “most ubiquitous oak.”

These oaks are the easiest of oaks to identify with the broad upper leaf with deep cut lobes. The acorns are capped with a bur of fringes unlike any other acorn.

I am puzzled why a spruce tree imprint was used on the North Branch freeway overpass. The spruce is a fine tree in a boreal setting, but in these parts it is entirely introduced rather than native.  The ground of east-central Minnesota is genius at growing oaks.

Sadly, homeowners rarely plant bur oaks in their yards. Instead, following our human nature of being sorely impatient, they lean towards a faster growing tree that will more quickly give them shade.

I argue that planting a bur oak, with its adaptations to cope with drought would be a smarter choice given the direction the climate is going. Besides, the bur oak is sturdier than most and can better withstand severe storms to assure future generations of dependable shade. 

I took my small bag of acorns home and tried three methods to keep the lineage of North Branch heritage oaks going. I strolled out in our 3-acre prairie and cast small handfuls into the native grasses and forbs.  I suspect that many of these broadcast acorns will be prized by foraging rodents.

With a lesser number of acorns, particularly the rotund Methodist ones, I stabbed a trowel two inches into the ground, tucked in an acorn, and pinched the soil back together to cover the seed.

I  planted other acorns in pots to bring indoors sometime in November, to plant out next spring.

I dispersed over 80 acorns, but if I get half a dozen oak seedlings to emerge next spring, I will be quite happy.

For the moment the simple act of planting was enough. I find great contentment in knowing that perhaps one of these acorns will stand strong in another 200 years.

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