Becoming Spring

Today, in our yard, the scattered juncos seem to feed in the grasses with greater fervor than in mid-January when the below-zero temperatures should have inspired a rush of tireless foraging.

Tireless. It is a trait that I have tried on recently. You see like the juncos, Nancy and I will soon join the northerly migration. Though I would rather depend on fat reserves, our journey will be measured in dollars and cents, actually mostly dollars, as we pump gasoline into our 8-cylinder truck as we begin a 2,500 journey to our log home on the Watson River, 34 miles south of the territorial capital, Whitehorse.

The truck will be engorged with Yukon congruent playthings and adornments. Summer and mostly fall and winter clothes are part of the cargo. Layers and layers of wool take up room, but we want to be ready. Why wouldn’t we each pack half a dozen pair of thick wool sox?

There is a box of favorite cooking accoutrements and tools, a heavy mechanical tool box, splitting mauls and a chain saw.

We also have spiritual cargo. There are musical instruments, skis, ski poles, snowshoes, bicycles (We have chosen to wear our indulgence proudly in that we are toting a pair of scarred mountain bikes and a pair of sleek road bikes.), tents, paddles, an assortment of colorful packs, some waterproof and others not, and a pair of backpacks will match our hiking boots. For the walls we have a couple of old framed sporting prints and a larger John Clymer print that is Yukon appropriate. And of course we hope to slide the big Yukon map that is mounted on foam core into the truck.

Two boxes of books, mostly Yukon related or natural history reference material, have made the cut for me. I had secretly tucked two additional boxes of books in the truck, but Nancy discovered them when she was frantically trying to find room for her clothes.  Sheepishly, I agreed to consolidate the four boxes of books into two. I wanted more but agreed that the Whitehorse library and the computer could serve as nodes of learning.

Two laptop computers and one desk top with added speakers that will serve multiple roles as our CD and DVD player have made the cut.

What hasn’t made the cut? Basically furniture. We have chosen to bring a small oak table (with legs removed) and a cedar bench that can work indoors or outdoors. The bench might be cut if it prohibits the packing of other priority gear. Our super favorite mattress might make the cut. While my big bull buffalo robe will not make it.

The packing list is opulent, downright decadent, when I think of my great-great grandparents and their children leaving Småland, Sweden in the mid 1880s for the new world. They likely crossed an ocean with a single trunk or two filled with the barest of necessities.

Why should we uproot ourselves? I like to think it is the work of latent genes that remind us that we are of a lineage of nomads. I want to see part of the route that the earliest North American tourists took when they hiked across the Bering Strait. Recent evidence has backed that period to some 30-50,000 years ago.

Like a compass needle that locks its direction to magnetic north, I have a similar urge to face that direction. But there is more than a homing instinct that pulls me north.

For once I want to be a sign of spring, a phenological note penciled in a calendar.

MAY 12: “Tom and Nancy heading north.”

Undertaking the odyssey of a migration is usually a dangerous and risky undertaking. There must be benefits to subject one to such dangers. Let me share a few of the reasons we will follow the swans and the budding of aspen.

Why go to the Yukon?

• Thus far there seems to be no urban sprawl in the Yukon. The human population there has actually decreased in the last 100 years. I find comfort in going to a jurisdiction that has experienced a significant drop in human population since 1900.

Today roughly 32,000 folks live in the Yukon Territory; an area that one could fit the states of California, Maryland. West Virginia, the District of Columbia and still have a few square miles to boot.

•I like the idea of living in a land where there are far more big wild critters than humans. There are roughly 185,000 caribou, 65,000 moose, 10,000 black bears, 6,300 grizzly bears, and 4,500 wolves. And there are also a few thousand mountain sheep and goats living in the Yukon.

•I want to find a decent winter like those of my youth. You know the type where I can count on good snow, no January slush and a good cold spell once in a while to remind us how puny we really are.

• I like the idea of picking my own fresh lingonberries rather than pay top dollar for a can of the Swedish imported berries. After all, they are the same species.

•I want to avoid an overdose of political pollution with the saga of the 2008 election year. An added benefit we will reduce the likelihood of dangers of frequent mudslides from excessive mudslinging.

•To avoid the glut of corn being planted for the production of ethanol.
This means that there will be even more Atrazine, the most common herbicide, spread over the fields resulting in even more Atrazine in our waterways. They don’t grow corn in the Yukon.

•Ticks are almost non-existent.

•Sultry humid days are as rare as ticks.

• I want to grow bushels of organic potatoes (and other oversize cool weather crops such as broccoli, kale and cabbage) without having to think of battling pocket gophers and potato beetles. The Yukon is a foreign land to these beasts.

•The summer days are very long giving more time to paddle rivers and climb mountains. Conversely, the winter days are short and nights long. Some would call this season of brief daylight dismal. I believe it will encourage more potluck gatherings, novels read, music played and lovemaking.

•Art and creativity are highly valued products in the Yukon. There are more artisans per capita in the Yukon than found in any other Canadian province or territory.

• I’m an unabashed romantic. I want to live as an adjective rather than a noun. I want to know how the Yukon inspired Jack London to write:

“I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

I want to feel the winter as Robert Service did when he penned his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee, particularly the line:
“Talk of your cold, through parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail!”
I will paddle, hike and explore hoping to discover the language of romance.

•The only highway congestion happens in downtown Whitehorse when the tourists occasionally jam the streets in the summer. After all the Alaska Highway passes through Whitehorse. There are only two maintained public roads west of our Yukon home. . .until you hit the Pacific Ocean. And to the east there are four or five maintained public roads until you splash into Hudson Bay. That means there is a fair amount of ground to hike and paddle without having to cross any barbed wire fences or worry about posted land.

•How can you not want to go where the dollar is graced with the Minnesota state bird: the common loon. And the five-dollar bill has a gorgeous belted kingfisher. Seems their values are right.

•We want to study the Canadian health care system for us. It is clearly better than the USA system or lack of a system. In Canada, not only are prescription drugs far cheaper but the average life expectancy is 80.22 while in the U.S. it is 77.85. I will try to stay clear of he meds and earn the years.

•I want to try living in a land that has wind-blown peaks for me to explore. Where I can climb and feel my heart fill my chest with a workout. Where I might bump into more sure-footed climbers like dall sheep or mountain
goats and finally gain a summit and gaze out at the topography of infinity where the horizon will not be cluttered with power lines or cell towers.

•It will be much safer than the Yukon. While there are grizzly bears in our neighborhood, I’m less likely to encounter a stressed out human, the most dangerous of all animals.

•Besides, the bite of the winter cold or the threat of a grizz’ bite will keep me far more alert and observant and in doing so I will hopefully feel more alive.

• I simply need to rejuvenate in a land that is so utterly wild where I won’t feel out of place because I don’t own a cell phone.

•I love maple trees so consequently I think the Canadian flag is stunning.

•When I step out at our rural home in Minnesota, I get to hear the white noise of distant traffic, some 4 miles away, on the freeway heading to the cities. The white noise I have to deal with in the Yukon will be a rushing river located twenty or so paces from the house.

•Here the starlit nights are becoming more and more difficult to see since the excessive lighting of the cities is easily visible and even my hometown of North Branch, only 7 miles away sends up far too much sky busting light. In the Yukon the stars will have to compete with long summer sunsets and winter northern lights.

•And who wouldn’t want to live in a territory (Yukon) where the origin of its native name, Yuchoo means “the greatest river.”

• And Huck Finn, one of my favorites, perhaps said it best to his chum Tom Sawyer:

“I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Polly’s tryin’ to civilise me. I’ve tried it , and it don’t work.”

An Out of Place Red Squirrel

At first light there was an audible scuffle heard outside by the bird feeder. Cardinals are the usual first shift at the bird feeder. However, this over-sized finch cannot dislodge the cover to the galvanized garbage can that houses the fatty riches of sunflower seeds. The storage can, next to our deck, sits only twelve feet from the bird feeder.

Suddenly a red squirrel popped out of the can, leaped onto our deck, climbed a two-foot tall terracotta urn and disappeared into the three-inch opening. Obviously not only was this rust-colored rodent disturbing the peace in jostling garbage can covers, but I busted this squirrel. . . caught in the act of relocating the stolen goods. Out of sight only for a moment, it reappeared and in a flash it was back in the garbage can for another mouthful of seeds.
This little expert in storing food, which incidentally is a rather uncommon survival strategy among mammals, was creating a clever midden of seed right in front of our eyes.

Enough is enough. I flew out the back door, wearing flannel pajamas and mukluks and ran around the side of house hoping to terrify the duo of red squirrels. As I came around the corner, one squirrel took to the treetops and tight-roped its way very rapidly to freedom. I caught a glimpse of the other squirrel dash to the pottery urn and disappear into the safety of its darkness. Without hesitation, I scooped up an empty plastic pickled herring bucket that was sitting on the deck and clamped it over the opening of the squirrel’s hideout.

“Got you, you little pugnacious and pompous blush-colored rodent-fink,” I triumphantly shouted, “I’ve got you now!” I picked up the tall container and held it victoriously over my head in celebrating in my own Wimbledon winning stance. I jigged on the deck hoping Nancy was admiring her heroic man and his efforts at keeping yet another rodent insurgent from our little home in the woods.

After my momentary showboating, I stopped. Now what do I do? I really didn’t want to kill this sassy squirrel but I did want to teach it a lesson that it should not mess with our seeds.

I wondered if the miasma of any lingering herring juice impregnated in the bucket might create enough misery for the squirrel. Gleefully, I thought of a just punishment. I would take this squirrel in a jug for a little walk and relocate it to a new site. Yes that was it a site not familiar for these forest dwellers.

Most of my encounters with these hyper little squirrels tend to take place in the northern mixed stands of hardwoods and mixed conifers where I hunt deer every November. No matter how quiet or still I sit, these wide-eyed, sprightly squirrels almost always figure me out and then loudly chirr a staccato of barks and spits at me. I am convinced that they are swearing mightily at me. Up and down the tree, the squirrel moves in lightening jerks. This can go on for some time and I suspect that the outburst is recognizable by every deer in the area as some sort of warning.

Finally this little squirrel was going to pay for my pent up frustration for not only seed thievery but for previous loud deer warnings. Yes, this poor little marauder and thief was going to pay.

I hoisted the jug up on my shoulder and headed north, past the two woodsheds and out into the open snow covered field. I walked almost to the gravel township road, not caring what any motorists might think of a hatless bare handed, pajama-clad, smirking man trudging through the snow with a pottery urn, capped with a pickled herring bucket, on his shoulder.

Finally, when I was within a one hundred feet of the road and a forty-acre corn stubble field, I stopped, looked around and feeling satisfied I set the urn down. This would do fine. I would release the squirrel here and watch its next move. This species, hudsonicus, speaks of the forest. It is not a prairie or savanna dweller. How would it react in such a treeless expanse?

Carefully I laid the vase on its side and took the herring bucket away. The squirrel refused to come out. So after covering it with snow, except for the opening, to hide it from passing car traffic, I headed back to the house and stopped a hundred yards away to watch. Nothing. Not even a little curious peek. Shivering in my PJs, I retreated back to our warm house. The eventual pattern of the squirrel’s tracks would have to unfold the tale of the squirrel.

A couple hours later, Nancy and I were driving out the driveway to do an errand. I looked out in the field. There I spied the rufous rodent sitting upright about 15 feet from the vase. I stopped the car on the road and the little fellow immediately retreated. . .back into the sanctity of the vase! I wondered if this little guy had grown fond of its prairie clay igloo. So in a few minutes, I am going to take old Taiga for his walk and check out the story left in the fine print of its spoor. Or I might find it still out there unwilling to make the wide-open crossing to the woods. There are a couple of local red-tailed hawks that would find the squirrel tasty.

It was after dark when we returned home and I wondered if the perky little fellow was still in the clay prison. Was it sleeping contently in a bed of sunflower seeds? Perhaps it was frozen, curled in a ball of fur.

The thought of unjust squirrel torture kept sleep at bay. Sleep did not come easy.  I wrestled with the bedcovers most of the night.

The next morning I dressed and booted and headed out to see if I could find a story of a great escape. The story was clear. The little fellow’s trail showed that it had chosen the woods east of the field as its destination. There would be no slow evolution towards a prairie dwelling squirrel. Besides, for that to happen there would have to be another hapless squirrel of the opposite sex.

The tracks showed that the squirrel had made forays out from the vase, no further than10-20 yards. The spoor resembled spokes spreading out from the hub of a wheel. Finally, it was clear that the squirrel began by running for the oak woods that lies about 75 yards from the vase. The impressions were notable leaps betraying a fast dash to the oaken cover. There was no dilly-dallying here. Finally when the squirrel was within twenty yards or so of the woods, the pattern was more so the traditional hopping pattern of an easily foraging squirrel.

Since that day I have only seen one red squirrel. Waves of gray squirrels look for dropped seed and look longingly at the feeder above them. They cannot figure out how to negotiate the piece of stove pipe that hangs directly below the bird feeder perched on top of a pole. Cautious as a swamp buck, I spot a slightly heavier fox squirrel sneaking towards the feeding area. But only one red squirrel is spotted. But since I cannot tell individual red squirrels apart, since they all look alike, I don’t know if this is “Freedom” or “Urny.”

I’ve got to remember to retrieve the pickled herring bucket from out in the field. Even in these parts, where herring is part of nearly everyone’s winter, the red looks out of place in a prairie.

Baking Below Zero with Sol

It’s mid January and supposedly the coldest day of this winter. We have around minus 12 but hey, it’s January and it’s about time we had an honorable winter day. I’m heading out to the south side of the woods to the oven to bake a pan of chocolate chip bars.

Carrying the eleven-pound, suitcase-sized oven along the sinuous, packed trail, about a block and a half through the woods, I reach the edge of the old open field. Here the world is bright in sunshine and it is here that I set the solar oven down. I clip on the reflector that resembles an awkward funnel to better direct the sunlight to the cooking chamber. I aim  the oven south, slightly right, or west of the sun. Though the sun is not high at this time of the year it still blasts out the same energy it would on a hot July day. It’s that energy that I am going to call on to do some emissions-free baking.

One could argue that I have no emissions spewing from my house when I turn on the electric oven. The problem is that it requires electricity and if you live in Minnesota, that likely means electricity generated from coal.

No matter what the advertisements say about “clean coal,” there ain’t no such thing yet. Sure it’s a dream and we can hope that there will soon be a way to sequester the carbon released from this fossil fuel, but for now it contributes mightily to greenhouse gases. Not to mention that coal is a nasty purveyor of mercury and all one has to do is read the Minnesota Fish Advisory to learn that this is one nasty toxin.

I have intentionally chosen this frigid day to initiate my new solar oven. Why not choose to bake outdoors on a day where the snow squeaks loudly and bundled folks hurry from car to warm shelter? I have been told that the oven works well in winter so why not try it.

The enclosed solar oven is no more than a uniquely shaped molded plastic box that is covered with a transparent double-filmed cover. The inside is black, as are the cooking pots, to absorb the sunlight. I attached a collar of sorts, which resembles a ring of foil flanges that help reflect more sunlight into the box. Inside next to the pot holding the sweet dessert, I have placed the oven thermometer that comes with the oven.

Think of the solar oven like your car parked out in the sunlight on a hot August day. With your doors and windows closed the temperature inside your car can reach 180ºF. A benefit of using the solar oven there is no need to add water, therefore flavors and nutrients are retained better than conventional cooking.

At 11:15 AM I set the oven in place and hurried back to the house to warm up.

Exactly one hour later, just past noon, with the air temperature still below zero, I bundle up again and trek out to the oven. (It’s actually colder due to the wind chill inspired by a northwest breeze.) At noon, on a clear day, such as this one, the sun, some 93,000,000 miles away delivers about 1,000 watts. Though it is considered a middle-aged dwarf star, one of approximately 400 billion stars in our home, Milky Way galaxy, it can deliver 1,000 watts per square meter on a clear day! This is amazing. I can’t help but think what if we put a fraction of the money we have spent on the war in Iraq in research and development for solar and wind technology. Would the quality of life for humans around the world be better or worse?

One-third of the earth’s human population must do their cooking over open fires. The job of gathering firewood not only contributes to deforestation in many areas but it requires hours and hours of work. Most of the time this work is done by the women and sometimes up to seven hours of their day is devoted to scrounging for firewood to cook meals for their family.

In one hour the oven temperature has climbed to 250ºF! I shift the oven slightly west to stay on pace with the westerly route of the sun and hustle back to the house again.

I don’t go out until 2:15 PM and the oven temperature still reads 250ºF. I am curious about the progress so I crouch in the snow, remove the reflector and unsnap the cover. I am surprised at the heat that is released and pleased at the aroma of the baking treat. Not wanting to cool things down, I immediately cover the oven back up but not before I remove the cover to the kettle that I am using for baking. I don’t know if this is a good idea, but I tell myself that this will help put a slight crust on top of the bars.

The smell of chocolate chip morsels hangs and as I head back to the house for a third time, I can’t help but wonder if the smell might attract a host of squirrels, coyotes, crows and other neighborhood residents. The image of them encircling the oven hatches a grin under the wool scarf that wraps my face.

The sun is in its last hour giving the world a golden-yellow cast. It’s time to fetch the baked dessert. I hurry out to the field where dark blue shadows are starting to stretch across it. I remove the reflector, fold it up and pick up the oven and encased treat.

I am pleased with the result. And I know that when Nancy gets home later, she will be tickled by both the sweet treat and the fact that it required only sunlight.

I am in awe of what is possible.

(For more information on solar ovens and the Solar Oven Society go to <>

Hard Times and Good Times in North Dakota

“There’s a house on my block
That’s abandoned and cold
Folks moved out of it a
Long time ago
And they took all their things
And they never came back”

-“House Where Nobody Lives” by Tom Waits

Southeast of Noonan, North Dakota, a handful of miles from Saskatchewan and Montana, there are an increasing number of farm homes that are shards of a previous society. They haven’t seen a coat of paint in decades and the tall grasses around them hide rusted hulks of farm implements. Most are without panes of glass and some are without doors.

At one place a great horned owl had taken up residence in the south- facing upstairs window. It is doubtful that the cottontail, venturing out at twilight, whose spoor laced the feral lilac hedge, can even see the raptor that watches from the former bedroom.

What might be described as hard times have suddenly become good times for the horned owl.

At another place, near a thick patch of what the locals call “buck brush,” we discovered two gravestones leaning in the tall, dry grasses. One simply said, “Our Beloved Baby, Born 1909, Died 1911.” Hard times one might say, but sunsets come and go and no one laments their passing. But like all babies, this one was “beloved,” and that alone gave rise to my lingering while the wind, oh the constant wind, gave the yellowed grasses their last dance before the coming of winter’s snows.

In this landscape of stubbled wheat and barley fields, the empty and sullen homes are testaments of former times. Without the plow and scythe these homesteads become woodland islands. The tireless winds favor limber stemmed bushes over taller trees. However, here and there are tall cottonwoods climbing into the big Dakota sky. These have become pulpits of sorts for the red-tailed hawk. Without the occasional fire to keep the woody ones at bay, even the potential of a prairie-takeover is unlikely.

Many of the farmsteads were showplaces in their time. The kind where the black and white daguerreotype images show the family standing outside, with the women, dressed in their humble finery, sitting in the dining room chairs. The men looking awkward dressed in their Sunday best, stand stoically behind. They don’t smile. Did they already know that in the coming years only the house would remain?

I cautiously entered a home relic that bore two levels and an attic. I stepped across the sagging floor from the old kitchen into the living room. An upright piano slumped against the crumbling, plaster wall. I stood in front of it and wondered about its life as a household merrymaker.

“Oh! Susanna, don’t you cry for me;
I come from Alabama, with my banjo on my knee.”

Or was it a Sunday hymnist?

“I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.”

Perhaps the piano was a cheerful Christmas caroler?

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to sleigh in a one horse open sleigh!”.

Or a dirgemaker after the death of a beloved child.

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee”

Why, I wondered, would a family leave so suddenly as to abandon a piano? Like the attraction and security of a Paleolithic campfire, the piano was the focal point for many human gatherings. The piano could have provided an escape from the tireless moan of the ever-present winds.

The decrepit keyboard was covered in dust and debris. Most of the ivory coverings from the keys were gone and the C chord was frozen, as if depressed by a phantom hand. No longer was this a lively home, as its soul, born from the folks it sheltered, has long departed.

Above the piano, a slab of plaster hung precariously, held to the wall only by the glues of wallpaper. The hanging plaster exposed the ribs of old lathe, the foundation for the plaster man to finish the new, smooth wall. The layers of wallpaper fluttered  resembling a tattered book with four pages of various patterns and hues. I wondered if the family changed the wallpaper to deal with the monotonous landscape outside their windows.

When one of the floorboards creaked below my weight, I retreated, leaving many story-echoes unfound.

The conversion of old homesteads to patches of unkempt shrubs and grasses is a clear reminder of the resiliency of wild places. The genius of this land favors craggy plums, buck brush and Indian grass.

The old houses will melt into the landscape, and host a new group of music makers, like meadowlarks and bobolinks. The forced geometry of crop rows and right-angled farmhouses gives way to the wonderful chaos of unrestrained nature. And for countless other species this is indeed the good times.

(Written: Nov. 25, 2007

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.

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