Push the Pole

The dry summer was good for something. Water levels had dropped and a slough three miles northwest of our place has unlocked the dormancy of muck bound seeds. The wild rice had returned. I had almost forgotten that it once grew there.

Nancy settled on her knees in the section of the canoe directly in front of me. I stood in front of the stern seat with a long push pole. With each push, Nancy would reach out with an old shortened broomstick and gather in as many tall rice stems as she could so that the seed heads were right over the empty canoe. Then with her other hand and a similar cut broom stick, she would gently beat the stems. It was reassuring hearing the first soft patter of wild rice grains fall into the canoe.

If you drove by on the distant county road, you would think someone was poling an unseen something across a field of golden prairie grasses.

When faced with a physical task, particularly if an action is repeated over and over, it is not unusual to break into a light song to help break the monotony. The real pros at this were the gandy dancers. These teams of African-American laborers repaired and lay rails for the southern railroads. They used songs and chants to help with the work. Not only did it help with their work but they were able to deliver a sort of code speak to each other while their foreman had no clue what they were singing about.

So while Nancy practiced the gentle percussion of sweeping the sticks over the rice stalks to loosen the grains, I kept the canoe moving forward with the help of my three word song.

“Push the pole.”

This was Nancy’s initiation into the ancient practice of gathering wild rice. I had not gathered rice for over 25 years. After getting our harvesting license at the local hardware, we drove to the slough of wild rice and were delighted to know that we had it to ourselves.

We hadn’t pushed through twenty feet of the thick stand, when we both were a bit alarmed with the sudden rush of wings all around us. A big flock of blackbirds swarmed en masse, swirled over the slough, and like a drawn out teardrop suddenly dropped into the rice along the opposite shore. We were not going to shake them from this staging area when such a rich source of rice carbohydrates lay before them.

“Push the pole.”

Slowly we passed upraised lily pad leaves extended slightly above the water surface. Each one of the bowl-shaped green pads held handfuls of empty rice hulls. It was almost as if the blackbirds placed the rice remains in their own composting receptacle.

In short order we flushed a gangly legged sora rail. Then another and another. These unlikely water birds are poor flyers with their rather short and stubby wings. They jump reluctantly in the air, scrabbling at the air with not very graceful wingbeats and then equally ungraceful, they plop a short distance away back into the thicket of rice. As water birds they don’t even have webbed feet. Instead this seeming misfit of a bird has long toes that spread its weight out when it walk on vegetation floating on the shallow waters. Their “Jesus feet” give them the appearance of walking on water.

I wonder if these ungainly looking birds migrate at night only because of embarrassment at their flying skills and silly looking toes.

“Push the pole.”

Over fifty mallards and a sprinkling of wood ducks flushed noisily from feeding in the rice. And twice we pushed up large great blue herons from the rice.

Cut rice stems above the water betrayed the workings of muskrat incisors and soon we found beautifully golden-strawed muskrat houses being constructed amidst the monotonous field of wild rice.

Push the pole.

I paused to wipe the sweat from my brow and let the slight north breeze cool me off. No calendar is needed to tell of summer’s passing. It was here in the falling of rice grains, the rising of muskrat houses, the gathering of blackbird and duck flocks.

Just then a monarch butterfly coasted by us, moving southward, bound for a shrinking mountain forest in Mexico. The butterfly is oblivious to the wild rice. Its fuel is not found here. Its nourishment lies in ditches buttered in goldenrods. I whispered “buen suerte amigo” or “good luck friend” and pushed the pole.

Garden Insurgents

Every few years a word rises up and takes its place at the front of everyday banter. As a kid there was “fink.” Later it was “groovy, far out, stoked.” The current administration has delivered “insurgent.” Even though the word has been around since before Daniel Webster’s dictionary project, “insurgent” has suddenly become a resident in daily conversations.
For a beautiful Saturday morning, “insurgent” seems too violent a word to give much time. But minutes ago I prevented an insurgent pocket gopher from doing further damage to the rows of potatoes that I have been tending. I had set the trap last night in the unseen tunnel works that snaked beneath my Yukon Gold spuds. Yet how is that my success felt so yucky?
As I set the trap yesterday, I recalled all my youthful trapping experience and knowledge. As I scooped handfuls of dirt to widen the gopher tunnel I was mumbling curses at the garden insurgent. I recalled that midsummer gophers are more difficult to catch than in spring and fall. I also recalled how I have had years where half of my potato crop was consumed or carved by gopher incisors. Recalling those feeble harvests only made me more determined.
I slowly walked up to the house in the sunlight feeling a genuine remorse for the dead gopher. This was an innocent animal that was simply doing what it was programmed to do: feed on roots of plants. I had inadvertently provided it with a bountiful spread of growing potato tubers. The gopher was only guilty of . . . . being a gopher.
Why is it that I have absolutely no remorse for yanking young tender insurgent stems of lambs quarters or ragweed from their nursery soils that infiltrate my rows of vegetables?  Or how is that I shed no tears when I crush a potato beetle between my fingers and then spray my plants with an organic treatment of Bacillus concentrate in order to kill scores of baby beetle larvae?
My surge in tending the garden has resulted in scores of deaths and ultimately my own nourishment will be assured by the killing of crops. In my act of picking beans or peas, am I not aborting future lives? Where are the billboards with smiling peas stating, “Do you know that when I was 4 days old I was a baby pea?”
I suspect my mourning the death of the insurgent rodent might have something to do with our mammalian bond to gophers. It has soft fur, tiny, beady eyes and ears and even incisors. These are characteristics that befit the canine and feline pets we snuggle and cuddle. Perhaps the violent act of murder is too close to my own hominid lineage. And if the gopher killing was so easy it becomes clearer how easy it is to kill a label, such as an insurgent.

A Decree That All Should be Enrolled. . .

A couple of weeks ago I helped with the first ever bioblitz at the Warner Nature Center. The goal is to simply tally as many species of flora and fauna over the span of 24 hours. Well actually it isn’t really so simple. There were teams of scientists, naturalists, families and high school students. It was truly an exercise of citizen science at it’s best.
It is not often that the average person gets to interface with a honest-to-goodness scientist. One could move from table to table and watch scientists going through stacks of books in trying to key out specimens or watch them peer through high-powered scopes to note minute physical characteristics.
A duo of diatom experts sat opposite each other bent over their very high priced scopes that allowed them an intimate view of these silica walled algal organisms. Not only did I walk away with a greater appreciation for diatoms but I knew this was a discipline that I would likely not pursue simply because it seems that the necessary books required each cost in the neighborhood of $200! Not to mention that scope that cost tens of thousands of dollars!
The plant folks peered through hand held magnifiers to note key plant characteristics. Most of the time they could rattle the plants off with a cursory glance, but there are those sedges that wear the genus Carex that demanded more than a glance. There were several species of plants that were placed carefully in plant presses since they were first records for Washington County.
The fungi team reminded me of some sort of Asian market place with a table full of diverse mushrooms, polypores, puffballs and other fungi. Stacks of books, scopes and heads huddled together looking for agreement.
The folks after vertebrates depended on their observation skills through visual and auditory means. Before three of us hangers-on, crawled into our tents well after midnight, we smiled when we heard a pack of coyotes sing and yap from back in the woods. We also were serenaded by barred owls.
Spotting their tracks and droppings tallied some mammals such as deer and fox. Skunk diggings betrayed their presence. Live traps, baited with peanut butter, bagged only one small mammal species: a Peromyscus or white-footed mouse.
Seines, nets and even stunning fish temporarily with an electric shocker mounted in a boat, revealed only a modest list of fish species. The abundant fish species were clearly sunfish and largemouth bass. Scores of recently hatched bass fry were captured or viewed. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these would soon become a necessary link in the food chain.
We were up before 6:00 AM and cars started pulling in. This is the magic hour to get out and spot and listen for the dawn chorus of birds. Birders hiked and canoed tallying a good number of species. A highlight for the canoeists, who also gathered some aquatic vegetation for the botanists to identify, was spotting a pair of adult sandhill cranes sneak along the shoreline with their one young bird. (Young cranes are called colts.)
After the birding session and a bagel and coffee for quick nourishment, I headed into the woods with John Moriarty, one of the authors of the book Amphibians and Reptiles of Minnesota. Our focus was to gently turn over rotting logs and limbs to see if we could uncover any salamanders, particularly tiger and blue-spotted salamanders. The night before we had successfully captured red-belly and garter snakes and missed a fleet prairie skink. Several of the red-bellies were swollen indicating that they were gravid with a litter of young snakes.
Through the day totals of each focus groups were tallied and posted on a white board. The fungi folks and the bird group had a friendly competition going as their respective totals ran close to each other all day.
While some of the insect team was sorting through scores of tiny collected insects, others were carefully pinning specimens out on mounting boards. Insect nets, elaborate insect net traps and killing jars flanked the workers.
It was the insect team that worked well into the night hours the previous night. At 11:30 PM, after a team of entomologists put away their collection of lights, traps and sheets that they had hung in the woods with bright light splashed against them one of the scientists was still enthusiastically exclaiming about what a hoot the night had been. “I could do this every night.” The excited “Oohs!” and “Aahhs!” from the trio of bug experts as they peered into the insect speckled sheets had the same tenor as a Christmas morning and these were from adults who wore labels of graduate degrees.
Another entomologist back at the building was quite pleased with his capture of a moth fly. Turns out he caught it in the wilds of the men’s restroom. With the intention of simply trying to take a 24-hour snapshot of the biodiversity of a defined location, why is this tiny insect such a find for a bioblitz?
The dark body and wings of the moth fly are covered with tiny hairs, giving it a moth-like appearance.  The 1/8-inch spread of this Diptera (two-winged insect) appears moth like with its fat wings. It turns out that the moth fly’s preferred habitat, which incidentally is not threatened in any way, is the film of water found in drains of sinks and urinals. The eggs hatch in less than 48 hours. The larval and pupal stage takes about two weeks of living in this human created habitat. The newly emerged fly is sexually mature when it emerges. With luck it will copulate to begin the next generation in the first hours of its emergence. Talk about early development!
By day’s end the most common species was Homo sapiens exhaustus. Though some further identification of puzzling species will take place in the next week or so, the final tally of species was clearly a record for this bioblitz, the fourth official count in Minnesota. This much we do know, over 1,200 species of flora and fauna call the nature center home during June.

Blue on Blue

The lilacs are in their last week of robustness and I am reminded of the brevity of life. In walking back down the driveway from picking up the mail, I have, for the last couple of weeks, paused to plunge my nose into a plume of lilac blossom. It is quite intoxicating and sometimes a bold act with bees all jostling and pushing for their place in the petals.

I reluctantly pulled away and only then noticed a flicker of blue pass dreamily in the sunlight. It was a spring azure, a delicate butterfly that spans no more than about an inch. It flittered on some grasses and then lifted off and hovered about a lilac blossom. It seemed tentative. The flittering blue seemed to caress the full lilac as it undecidedly hovered. Was the insect seeing, or perhaps smelling, this blue as a voluptuous potential female azure?

I like the word azure. Few people have eyes so blue as my wife Nancy’s eyes. In fact they are worthy of the title “azure.” Such a title bears a dignity that is a more royal title.

I suspect that our eyes linger on pigments of blue longer in the spring than in the summer because after a monochromatic winter of black and white, we celebrate a much-needed drink of color. Even Thoreau could not hold back when he pronounced “The bluebird wears (the blue of) April on it’s back.” He also expressed lakes, in their return to a liquid state as “the eye’s of God.” Blue can do that to you.

Taking that a step further I had to pick up my annual purchase of a “Summer Delight” blue (of course) hydrangea at a local nursery. To test my theory of our sudden spring attraction to blue, I lingered and strolled slowly among the geraniums, just below the hanging pots of flowers. From here I could easily case out the cash register to spy on purchased choices.

Mostly I learned that the nursery business is very lucrative in May. Folks resemble the little spring azure butterfly in their dance around the nursery, pausing, alighting and then moving on to the next prize. Though reds were popular, I am going to declare blue having the edge. Surprisingly white petals rank high in popular purchases.

As I pulled into our driveway, an intensely blue bluebird was perched on our mailbox. Not only that but this welcome overdose of blue splashed my sensorial system just as the Bob Dylan CD was kicking out, you guessed it, “Tangled Up In Blue!

I was absolutely in the midst of a blue day and my mood soared on the tail of the departing bluebird.

Stay tuned for next month’s color.

Native North Branch Centenarian Dies

Recently one of the oldest residents of North Branch was killed.  The intentional act of taking the life happened in broad daylight at the corner of 10th Ave and Main Street. The victim’s name was Quercus macrocarpa, more commonly known as the bur oak.
It likely took less than 15 minutes to drop the healthy bur oak that was at least 140 years old.  All that remains, at the moment is a broad stump that measures four feet in diameter at its widest point. The fresh cut, exposing the annual growth rings displayed a healthy and sound trunk. This was not a failing tree.
The tree was part of the rich family scrapbook of North Branch. The acorn that produced the giant oak germinated before North Branch was incorporated as a village in 1881.  And it was likely growing when the railroad line was put down in 1869. Prior to North Branch being platted, in the surrounding countryside was a blend of oak savanna and wooded lowlands and river bottoms. The bur oak, with its thick corky bark is able to survive frequent grass fires that would have encouraged a landscape of native prairie and burr oak. No tree is more symbolic to the rich ecological history of the area we call North Branch than the bur oak.
We are lucky to have a few remaining giant bur oaks in North Branch. My guess is that the reason this one was cut was simply ignorance of history and the free services the tree has provided.
Recent research out of Stanford University estimates that natural systems around the world provide at least 33 trillion dollars worth of free ecological services. For example a wetland provides flood control, water filtering, a nutrient sink, a carbon sink and provides oxygen at absolutely no cost to us.
The big oak and some large white pines next it, were cut to make room for a fourth bank in North Branch.  In the past couple of years North Branch has had other giant, healthy bur oaks cut. More historical artifacts gone.

My guess is that the tree that shaded the Pohl house did not fall into the parking lot plans. It might have served as a wonderful signature landmark for the bank, there will likely be some non-native plantings put in around the bank. My guess is conifers, which are much shorter lived. If average summer temps continue to climb in Minnesota, conifers are not a very good long-term choice. Bur oaks are ideal.

For over a century the giant bur oak provided free shade for those generations of folks who lived in the house that was built near the tree. It’s spreading canopy reduced the need for air conditioning or running of fans for the Pohl family and those who lived there before. It’s likely it provided shade for pastured cattle of horses prior to a house being built at that location. Bur oaks resist most diseases that affect other oaks. Their deep taproot makes them drought resistant and enables them to stand up to severe winds.
Humans are putting more carbon into the atmosphere than ever before and therefore, compromising the health of natural systems around the world. According to Dr. Lee Frelich, University of Minnesota Forestry Research Associate, a healthy oak is capable of absorbing 100 to 200 pounds of carbon each year. If we assume that the tree was a mature tree for at least 100 years, and it was likely more, and annually absorbed 150 pounds of carbon as an average it would have tied up at least 71/2 tons of carbon plus the carbon tied up in the weight of the tree itself. According to Frelich, the mature oak likely weighed 1-2 tons. That one tree alone absorbed about 10 tons of carbon.

Additionally, in return for the carbon, the tree released oxygen, for you and I to breathe. I would guess that over the years, scores of generations of robins and other songbirds had nested in its strong limbs.
What are the services of an impermeable asphalt (petroleum product) surface that will not allow any snowmelt or rainfall to soak into the ground? Instead the water will flow off the lot, picking up any salts, oil, gasoline and antifreeze drips and washing them down the storm drain to merge with the namesake of our community, the North Branch of the Sunrise River.

When the ancient oak was about 100 years old, popular singer, Joni Mitchell’s 1970 hit song, Big Yellow Taxi contained a couple poignant lines:

“You don’t see what you got until its gone.
They paved paradise and put a parking lot.”

Tides of Spring

Whoa slow down!!

About two weeks ago my wife, Nancy, and I had finished up some serious trekking in Kauai and watching the daily comings and goings of surfers. We came back home to nearly two feet of snow and over the following week we watched the packed, crystalline water take on a more liquid state as it disappeared under warming south winds.

One week upon returning, I watched my first bluebird of the year, followed the next day by half dozen red-winged blackbirds, followed the next day by the primeval calls of a pair of sandhill cranes. And then it was a handsome male harrier kiting over the field. Clearly the migratory cascade was underway.

These are the signs that spell spring far better than the tick of the clock and the turning of calendar pages. And now, as I type these words wearing a pair shorts, I look out the window and can spot only vestiges of snow patches. Taiga, our 120 pound, “sled dog,” moves frequently from his usual pone position, seeking these shrinking cool patches to lay on.

And while the world is accelerating towards spring, I have my Sorel boots, ice auger, snowshoes, winter camping sleeping bag and assorted camping gear and sleds piled in front of the garage. In less than two hours we, like the stream of migrant birds will move north in pursuit of a retreating winter.

In 24 hours my brother-in-law, Bill and I will be pulling our gear even further north as we move into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. While one can safely assume that we will not likely have to deal with bitter sub-zero temperatures, I am far more concerned about a greater threat and that is getting wet. And getting wet is far more of an issue when confronting hypothermia possibilities. So, we have extra boots and clothes and our accumulated gear looks like a deportation station.

Given that this is the last week we can fish lake trout, we felt compelled to help our families in securing necessary protein, high in Omega fatty acids. Someone has to do it. I’m hoping while I practice the ancient art of hunting and gathering, I can watch the cavorting courtship flights of ravens.

And if the going gets a bit rough, and a moment of humor is needed to lift the spirits, I will break out my packed pair of shorts, stained from the red dirt of the Kalalau trail and my Hawaiian shirt.

Musk Ox Warming

I clutched the musk ox fur inside the boiled wool liners of my weathered leather mitts. I am thankful for this shaggy beast that lives on as a relic of the ice age where it shared the landscape with wooly mammoths.

I have a passion for the arctic. Recently I have been thinking of the arctic as the threatened home to musk ox.

With humans impacting climate change by the increased release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, it saddens me to think of the rapid change in the arctic. Some scientists are forecasting an ice-free arctic before 2050. And what will come of the overdressed musk ox?

No mammal in North America has longer guard hairs. The two-foot long hairs hang straight down giving this beast, that is more goat than ox, a push broom appearance.

Oomingmak is the melodious Inuit word for musk ox. The translation is “the bearded one.” This beast thrives in the arctic winters because of its soft, thick under fur. The Inuit call the wool “qiviet.”

I live in Minnesota, but my hands clutch a ball of qiviet inside my mitts as I drive a tractor pulling a hay wagon of firewood.

Over twenty summers ago, I journeyed to the high arctic. While hiking on the tundra, I discovered clumps of shed musk ox under fur clinging to stunted willow shrubs. Attracted to the soft sensory pleasure of simply handling it, I stuffed handful after handful into my pockets.

On hikes, I jammed my chilly hands into my pockets.  They quickly warmed in the nests of qiviet. I brought a zip-lock plastic bag full of of the soft underfur home to Minnesota.

On a cold winter day, my fingers always prefer the company of each other. That is why I choose loose fitting mitts instead of gloves. Gloves condemn each of my fingers to a cruel sentence of solitary confinement. Alone, without the ability to snuggle with each other gloved fingers soon turn numb and useless.

I am to the point that my stash of qiviet is almost gone. Each winter I freshen up each of my mitts with a small handful of under fur. By winter’s end the wool is matted into a tight ball. The compressed hair no longer effectively insulates my hands.

As I pull into our driveway, my face is cold enough to crack but my fingers are cozy in the comfort of qiviet. If I make it back to the arctic, will the change be too much to bear? Will the musk ox survive? In a world that is gradually warming I fear that my Minnesota winter will be experienced without the company of qiviet.

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