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.

Chasing the Sun

 

If winter is about introspection then I’m off to a good start. My blog has been gathering dust as Nancy and I journeyed west for an extended holidays. Reuniting with loved ones and exploring new landscapes is a decent reason not to write.

We left cold Minnesota as the daylight was being smothered by a growing nighttime darkness. On the winter solstice, north of Fort Bragg, California,  I had to pick up my pace to hurry across a broad stretch of coastal sand dunes before the orbit put the sun to bed.

On this shortest day of the year, the air was chilly but pleasant enough to frequently pause to consider things like the scurrying tracks of previous travelers. One bore a loping gait, like a raccoon or member of the weasel family. Like me, it was heading west towards the sea. But all digit and claw details were lost in the dry sand. In this case it was enough to know that the mammalian track maker had a habit of loping.

In studying the tracks I couldn’t help but notice all the varied colors of sand grains. Even a red-green color blind Midwest boy could find beauty in the diversity. Sand grains, like people, come in different shapes and colors. I am grateful for that, as a world of sameness would be an utter bore. Hail differences!!

Below one steep-faced dune there was a small pond of water. Like an unblinking eye, it reflected the late afternoon sky that was losing its base of blue and heading towards tones of tangerine.

 

I walked up and down the undulations of the dunes. My quad muscles garnered a pleasant burn as I leaned into each rising, foot-swallowing ascent. Going down the backsides of the series of sand waves was delightful as I leaped with boyhood enthusiasm to see how far I could carry in my series of bounds.

Finally I chased the sun to the western edge of the continent.  I stopped in the wet sand and watched the ocean pull the gilded sun from the sky. I listened to the cadence of waves beating their tireless drumming like a pagan celebration.

Theological historians believe that Western Christians initiated the celebration Christmas on December 25 in the year 336 after Roman Emperor Contantine pronounced Chrisianity as the empire’s religion. Even though most researchers believe Jesus Christ was likely born in the spring, the winter solstice was likely chosen for the birthday party to co-opt popular pagan festivals. It was a brilliant marketing strategy. And it’s more than coincidental that Jesus has often been labelled “the prince of light.”

I spotted a wheeling flock of a tightly grouped shorebirds stitch back and forth along the ocean’s edge as if mending the sea to the land. And in an instant they simultaneously set down a short distance away. I could see by their size and light color that they were sanderlings. They lit on the water-washed sand and as a group ran in hurried short steps towards the receding wave. They moved like children who chase waves back and forth through the surf. The sanderlings chased the wave seaward frantically picking through the wash and sand for small invertebrates. When the next wave approached, they turned and in a skewed line, all hurried towards shore as the next wave chased them. And once more the sanderlings would quickly do an about face and chase the water back to the ocean. Like clockwork they moved back and forth from beach to water. From beach to water.

These small birds, like me, are only visitors here. They nest in the high arctic, thousands of miles north of here. With the change of seasons they must migrate south in search of sustenance. While this group of two dozen or so sanderlings hurried to find calories in the sand, I had the luxury to watch them knowing full well that I would not have to resort to frenzied feeding before dark.

As they ran back and forth, skirting the foaming wash of the waves, I wondered if they even notice the awe of the solstice sunset? Their sun- driven biological clocks will eventually arouse their need for leaving this quiet landscape of dunes and shadows. And then they will lift off and turn around, again heading northward chasing a spring solstice.

There are times when I pine for such elemental motivations. For now I will sit on the dune and feel the evening chill move in as the sun sinks.

Hail the light!

 

On your mark. Get set. Go

The week before Thanksgiving a northwest blow delivered the harsh promise of winter. The snow, driven like a battle of arrows, flew parallel to the ground through the woods behind our home.

I never heard the birch crack, twist and fall. And it wasn’t until the storm was playing itself out the following day that I decided to head into the woods to bear witness to the tracks of our non-human neighbors.

High overhead, I heard them first. Swans. The November storm triggered a predictable passage of tundra swans hurrying high overhead from their autumn north. And just like last year and the years and years before that the large white birds move in formation following their ancient bearing wending through their sky trail.

Less than a hundred steps from entering the woods I discovered the torn birch. The thigh-thick butt of the upper tree bore directly into our meandering trail. The twenty-foot, shattered limb fell violently decapitating a nearby small white pine. Over the past dozen or so years, I have fondly marked the growth of this pine and in knowing it, I initially felt some sadness for the damage to it.

The pine, in its full vigor, was perhaps 10 to 12 feet tall and well on its way towards climbing into an opening in the forest canopy. Now, savagely trimmed by the gale, it  stands maybe seven feet tall, its shape is more rounded than tapered.

Like a flute-playing snake charmer beckoning a cobra higher and higher out of its basket, the overhead sun has the same appeal to the undergrowth and trees in the woods where shade reigns. Unbeknownst to us mere mortals, there is an ongoing race in the meadows, woods, and wetlands. Rise to the sun or die.

I assessed the integrity of the wood of the fallen birch to see if it was worthy enough to be chunked and stowed in our wood shed. I could find no rot and actually looked forward to splitting something more easily rendered to firewood than gnarly old oak.

I glanced at the standing partial pine and felt some remorse over having to cut it down. In the next moment I realized that in the pine’s  injury had exposed an opportunity. Here was an experiment in terminal growth waiting for me to begin the observation.

When trees are young, especially fast growing ones like pines and popples, their growth is quickened. The terminal leader or main stem of the tree is tallest and most vertical because it harbors a hormone, one of the few that plants have, called auxin. (Pronounced like “oxen”)

Auxin encourages the lengthening of stems while it inhibits lateral growth. This is called apical dominance.

For illustration’s sake, imagine an old wagon wheel laying flat on the ground. The wheel’s spokes are centered on the hub and angle outwards. In the case of a pine, consider an overhead view looking directly down on the small pine and you will see the lateral branches growing from the trunk or hub. The terminal leader would be an extension of the wheel’s hub, rising skyward. Auxin slows the lateral, spoke-like growth of branches while it accelerates the vertical growth of the tree.

Amazingly, when the terminal growth is cut off or damaged as it was in the case of my beheaded pine, the auxin will be redirected to one or more of the lateral branches. Over the course of passing seasons, these lateral auxin-fed branches will be reprogrammed to bend their growth towards the sun and reach skyward as one will become the new tip leader. Plant physiologists refer to this climbing plant movement as phototropism.

So while the shortened pine I stood next to might look shattered, it is only reinventing itself. And like one’s own child, I will get to watch closely to monitor the growth and see which of the laterals wins the race to the sun.

Not much further along our trail through the woods is an old bur oak that was damaged long ago. Perhaps it was rubbed by one of my grandfather’s milk cows that were once pastured in these same woods? Maybe a buck deer, many October’s ago, roughed up the small oak with his antlers as he felt the annual rut approach. Because of the pronounced arch of the oaks main trunk, I suspect it was a storm that pushed another tree into the tender growth of the oak bending it to the ground.

With the tip of the bent tree pushed into the earth, the three limbs have each received a dose of auxin. Standing like three hefty candles off an arching candleholder, the once lateral oak branches are all racing to pull ahead of its neighboring limb. The once terminal leader is now a craggy snout of a wound bent down in defeat.

I’m trusting that my own march towards decomposition is a ways off. In the meantime I’ll be marking future seasons by watching the damaged pine’s lateral limbs race to the sun could provide some meditative entertainment and learning.

On your mark. Get set. Go!

Roasting a Deer Head

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Faced with butchering the whitetail buck that my wife, Nancy, recently shot with her bow, she declared, “We should eat the head.”

Now this is from the same woman who called me earlier in the day and told me that she had just gutted the buck and that the liver, heart and kidneys were in the fridge cooling down. And the buck wasn’t even out of our woods yet.

Nancy also holds a black belt in bold and experimental eating. And she is an ardent disciple of the school where you eat, “everything but the squeal of the hog and the bellow of a steer.”

While traveling in Barcelona, Spain and in Cusco, Peru we had found ourselves both intrigued and repulsed with the collection of sheep and goat heads hanging for sale in the open-air markets.

We take pride in butchering our own venison. By the time we are done boning out the deer the neck, rib cage, spine, and pelvic girdle are pretty much cleaned of flesh. Usually the carcass goes into the lower branches of a burr oak where the woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches will clean it by spring.

This year however, Nancy boiled down almost all the deer bones into ten gallons of rich bone broth.

Traditionally we eat the heart for our first meal after a kill. And so it was with this buck. But when she suggested that we roast the head, I only hesitated for a moment. Why not?

This past August I hosted my great grandnephew for two days of chasing butterflies and other hopping, crawling and slithering creatures. He caught a mess of grasshoppers so I suggested a grasshopper pizza. He smiled, albeit a little nervously, and said okay. I might add there wasn’t a single piece left.

So why not a roasted deer head? In many places such as Morocco, Italy and Greece, a roasted livestock head is a prize and delicacy. Serving the beast’s slow-cooked head combined with spices and vegetables is a tradition at celebratory feasts.

Native Americans who lived in buffalo country depended on these animals for food, clothing, shelter, tools and more. While they dined on much of the buffalo, a roasted calf head was considered worthy of a feast celebrating the hunt. The head was wrapped in a hide and buried in red-hot rocks and surrounded with coals. Atop the head, a fire was burned all night. The following is a quote taken from a native who had participated in such celebrations. “Next morning when we opened the hole to feast, even the birds of the plain were made hungry by the smell of the cooked meat.”

Nancy pulled out a clipping from a Montana outdoors magazine where a game chef shared his big game head recipe.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Build a hardwood fire and let it burn down to a bed of coals.
  • Skin the head. Cut off antlers if it is a buck.
  • Rinse the head in cold water.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Wrap the head in three layers of aluminum foil.
  • Wrap the foiled head in a water-soaked burlap.
  • Dig a slight trench and set the head in the coals.
  • Cover the head and coals with three inches of dirt.
  • Build another hardwood fire on top of the dirt.
  • Let it roast for 3-4 hours.

Like two kids on Christmas morning we carefully peeled away the burlap and foil. The steamy smells that wafted out inspired a saliva release. Seriously.

Some folks might find it distressing to face a roasted deer head perched on a platter. But with candlelight and two flanking glasses of a good red wine, it looked exotically delicious. And it was. The meat was moist and sweet with a slightly carmelized flavor.

The two of us could not finish the meat on one head. While the top and front of the skull have little meat there was a good amount on the upper neck next to the head. The cheek muscles were also excellent. If the idea of eating its jaw muscles makes you queasy consider the prized delicacy of walleye cheeks.

The other bonus was the roasted tongue. We cut the tongue into medallions and they were outstanding. Some folks prefer saving the tongue for sandwich meat. We could not restrain ourselves from feasting to celebrate the hunt.

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My Church

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“Everything that lives is holy.”

William Blake, 17th and 18th century English poet

 

A week ago, on Sunday morning, I found myself getting properly dressed for church. I slipped on two pairs of wool socks, warm boots, one glove and a wool stocking cap for my prayerful walk through the blessed sanctuary.

The recent wind-driven snows had transformed the gray November woods to zebra stripes. This patterned cathedral surrounding our rural home has experienced its seasonal makeover. The snow-covered limbs and underbrush filigreed the landscape. I’ve never experienced a church confessional booth but I wonder if this crystalline confinement might be similar. But rather than experience a blanket of guilt, here, I could only sing praises.

I choose to seek my spiritual growth beyond human-crafted religion. I have no regrets in searching beyond the familiar dogma of my Lutheran upbringing. There was much to love about those Sundays with familiar faces and equally familiar hymns. To this day some of those old tunes are like a comfort food. These include, I Love to Tell the Story, Beautiful Savior and Children of the Heavenly Father.

As the years passed, I continued to hum these tunes but my familiar Sunday path began to feel to me like an old itchy wool shirt that I had to shed. Now I guess I would be labeled a bona fide “blue-domer.” Author and filmmaker Robert Perkins introduced me to that term and I would have to say that, like him, I am a disciple of wild and open spaces where the blue sky ceiling and even the tempestuous, stormy or night sky becomes my church’s canopy.

Centuries ago, royal “forests and chases” covered 20% of England. These holdings were to remain wild for the pleasures of the hunt or be tended as gardens where the elite could stroll. The intent was to preserve the flora and fauna from the relentless push of settlement.

I entered the snow-quiet woods, and was reminded of the words of one of my favorite American presidents, Teddy Roosevelt. This champion of conservation and wilderness referred to wild lands as the “silent place unwritten by man.”

Outdoors, away from the babble of telephones, radios, televisions, fans, furnaces, air conditioners or any artificial sounds, I can pay attention, really pay attention, to the moment. Consequently, all is made new. Here I can fully surrender to wonder.

 Here, I don’t have to worry about singing praises off key or even being judged by others. The only offering I have to tithe is to promise diligence and offer dollars to those efforts that serve to protect the integrity of natural systems. These not only assure the survival of humanity but countless other non-human lives, from microscopic invertebrates to whales and giant sequoia trees. I guess that you could call our dollar contributions support for an ongoing operating expense.

During the morning walk I pondered this time of great change and asked for the courage to find a loud and effective voice for the natural world that sustains me both physically and soulfully.

I admire the writing of Wendell Berry. He is a favorite essayist, novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic and long time farmer with a unique gift of telling meaningful stories of the land. He once wrote an essay entitled Christianity and the Survival of Creation and delivered it from the pulpit of his home church in Kentucky. His sermon moves me and much of it augments my own thinking.

Here is a short excerpt:

“We will discover that, for these reasons, our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.”

I love wild places. Consequently that means I love church. . . as long as it has an open ceiling, unfettered winds, the pungent smell of musty leaves, and the aroma of fresh growth. Here the liturgy will include a dawn chorus of thrushes and cranes. Evening vespers are delivered by bell-like peals of frogs and the musical stridulations of crickets. I believe these are the most beautiful hymns. These are the living verses of the book of life that humble me and put me to my knees like nothing else can. Here I am inspired to work harmoniously with the natural world and in doing so, experience heaven on earth.

The famous 18th century American naturalist, thinker and writer, Henry David Thoreau aptly penned, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

Amen.

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Vermin? Look in the Mirror

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I often keep a journal while on wilderness or near-wilderness trips. In my note taking I often keep a tally of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. My skills in identifying insects and other arthropods are woefully inadequate for me to note them. I need to work on those joint-legged critters.

Last month while paddling down the Upper Missouri River I kept such a species list. Far from being a true wilderness, it has some desolate stretches. And with your imagination you can squint as you pass through the country and almost make the cattle along the river’s edge into buffalo.

Sadly, the most common mammal species noted on our trip were the cattle. But that is no surprise since much of this country is made up of private ranches and Bureau of Land Management lands (BLM).

I grew more exasperated when we encountered frequent trenches eroded into the riverbank where the bovine beasts came down to the river. There were stretches where the shoreline looked groomed as it was grazed to a nubbin. My experience was further tainted, as was the quality of the river water, by the frequent cow pies in the river.

Nitrogen levels and other poisonous soups comprised of agricultural herbicides and pesticides are part of the run-off that are responsible for the BLM warnings that urge paddlers to carry their own water rather than filter  river water. The recommended volume of water to carry is one gallon per person per day. Using that formula we had 40 gallons of fresh water to tote and that translates to an additional 320 pounds in already crowded canoes.

Admittedly I am a flaming romantic and as much as I wanted to see the land as Lewis and Clark found it in the first decade of the 1800s, I knew that wasn’t likely.

Here is an excerpt from the journal of Lewis:

May 4, 1805 – “I saw immense quantities of buffalo in every direction, also some elk, deer and goats. Having an abundance of meat on hand, I passed them without firing on them; they are extremely gentle. … I passed several [bull buffalo] in the open plain within 50 paces. They viewed me for a moment as something novel and then very unconcernedly continued to feed.”

The only point in that journal entry that I can relate to is the numb stare that the various-colored cattle gave us as we floated by; as if we were “something novel.” Like Lewis and Clark we too passed an amazing amount of meat-on-the-hoof.

One morning we managed to put on a couple of miles without seeing one bovine intrusion or fence line. Floating quietly around a bend there were several of the invasive beasts standing placidly swishing their tails at the river’s edge.

“Damn vermin,” I muttered.

Charlie, my paddling partner and elder of the crew answered, “Tom they can’t help it. They are not responsible for their being here. We’re the vermin.”

He’s right. We did it; we introduced this non-native species.

Today 170 million acres of BLM lands in America are grazed and they produce only a tiny fraction of the nation’s beef products.

According to Debra Donahue’s book The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity, she claims the BLM has ignored the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act’s direction that public lands be allocated to grazing only if they are “chiefly valuable for grazing. “ The author goes on to conclude that where mean annual precipitation is 12 inches or less, livestock should be removed from BLM lands.

Nearly every day I expressed my desire for making the Upper Missouri a cattle-free zone. Instead there should be a vast commons where buffalo (bison), elk, wolves, grizzly bears and other wildlife and plant species could be reintroduced to help move the land towards a pre-settlement ecosystem.

Cattle cannot be considered a grazing substitute for buffalo whose numbers were in the millions. Buffalo and cattle have different diets and different foraging patterns. Bison were migratory, often not returning to an area for years. They didn’t concentrate in the river and stream bottoms. And perhaps most important, they weren’t managed by humans in a way that magnified their impact on the soils and the native flora.

The late Edward Abbey, the Southwest rebel author and disciple for a truly wild west called cattle run landscapes as being “cowburnt.”

His colorful rants won him many allies and enemies alike. But he was not one to back down. He often referred to western cattlemen as welfare parasites. “They’ve been getting a free ride on the public lands for over a century, and I think it’s time we phased it out.”

Abbey’s bluntness was often delivered to audiences that most of us would shy from. The following is part of an address he gave in cattle country at Lewis and Clark College in Lewiston, Idaho.

“Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague.”

Upon finishing our canoe trip, I  discovered that there is an ongoing super effort by the non-profit organization called the American Prairie Reserve to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States. Their stated goal is to create a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage.

Piecing together existing public lands with acquisitions the goal would be to preserve roughly 3 million acres or an area the size of Connecticut. They envision an area that wildlife and flora can be restored where tourists can visit the area to bear witness to large herds of bison and other wildlife. It would be the West’s version of Africa’s Serengeti.

Amazingly this ambitious project has some momentum. There are few places on Earth where a dream of this magnitude can even be imagined. Imagine seeing a slice of something remotely close to what Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery witnessed. As for this vermin, I plan on directing some money their way. I like vast dreams.

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