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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Knowing When to Pull the Plug

img_3632At the turn of the last century, British polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton could have been the first human to stand at the South Pole. It was January, 1909 and after trekking on foot for over two months he and his three companions were a mere 90 miles from reaching the pole. This was Shackleton’s second attempt and the weather was turning nasty and bitterly cold. Huddled in a tent with his crew, I’m sure he wracked his brain plenty on whether to go on or not. Were the risks worth it?

He weighed the options and given that the weather was becoming more severe, their meager rations and the condition of his crew, he chose to turn around. He felt they could have attained the pole but there was too strong a likelihood that someone would have died in the effort. It wasn’t worth standing at the pole while losing one or more crew members.

Before returning to England,  Shackleton was able to send his wife a long awaited welcome letter. Succinctly he stated, “I thought, dear, that you would rather have a live ass than a dead lion.”

A handful of weeks ago, my wife Nancy and I rendezvoused with friends Charlie and Elaine and their dog Cache on the Upper Missouri River in Montana. Our last adventure together was just over a year ago when we met in Utah and paddled 100 miles of Green River into the Canyonlands.

The four of us are fascinated with the history of the Upper Missouri Country. This was an area rich in wildlife and consequently it was a preferred region for early natives to frequent.

Arguably the upper river country is best known to most folks for the famed Corps of Discovery expedition led by Lewis and Clark. Sent by President Jefferson to find out what kind of country the United States had just purchased from France. The acquisition known as the Louisiana Purchase added 828,000,000 square miles to the United States thereby doubling the size of the young nation. The bargain price was $15 million or .03 per acre or .42 in today’s dollars.

My dear friend Charlie is a mountain man, a cowboy and a desert rat at heart. Dripping wet this 82-year old kid might tip the scales at 120 pounds. And that is mostly gristle and beard. His shadow is hard to find. It’s no surprise because he eats, at most, a handful of food at each meal. This is not a good strategy while exerting yourself on a canoe trip.

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Now mind you, Charlie is tough; just like gristle. In the early 1950’s while based in Korea, he survived his stint in the army on a forward observation post near the DMZ. Later in the ‘60’s he survived a crushed hip when a refrigerator-sized boulder hurried down a slope and pushed Charlie out of the way near Hell Creek in Montana where he and other Science Museum of Minnesota folks were on a dinosaur dig. He has survived a heart attack and a close encounter with a cougar. And he survived over twenty years of working with me as I found him an easy mark for a constant diet of pranks and jabs.

We started our 110-mile trip at Coal Banks Landing after shuttling a vehicle downriver 140 miles. This late in the year, few folks are paddling the river and that suited us fine.

The first five days of the trip were full of sunshine and warm weather. I was paddling in shorts and a t-shirt. Then things began to change. We had made camp just upriver from the well-known river landmark “Dark Butte.”  This is a massive dark igneous plug that pushed volcanic magma up through the overlaying sandstone eons ago. The sky was becoming more and more overcast so I put up my beloved Whelen tarp to stow our packs have a food prep and eating area. When I crawled into the tent after supper, sprinkles of rain began to fall.

All night the rain fell as a steady percussion. In the morning I donned my rain gear over a couple of warm layers and made my way under the sodden skies to the tarp to cook breakfast. While I heated water for coffee and prepared some high caloric bacon, egg and cheese burritos, the others began to pack up their bedding and stuff the wet tents into their bags.

Our plan for this day was to paddle 22 miles so we could bank some time for a desolate stretch of really wild country downstream, known as the “breaks.” This stretch of river would give us likely viewings and hearings of elk  and bighorn sheep.

Charlie, hunched and  hooded in his rain jacket, was ready to step into the canoe when I called out, “Hey, get your rain pants on.”

“I don’t have any.”

Arghhh!

Remember it is raining and the weather front appears to be moving glacially slow. This is going to be an all-day rain. So I offer Charlie a small tarp to wrap around his legs to keep dry. He says “thanks” and proceeds to wrap his daypack and camera bag in the tarp.

Did I say “Arghhhh?”

Charlie’s paddling technique is fairly worthless. He constantly reminds me that I should have more mercy for an 82-year old man. But for as long as I have known him we each throw barbs at each other and at the end of the day we still love each other.

In paddling, Charlie prefers to lean back on the packs behind his bow seat as if he is in a recliner chair. He complained about how tired his twig-like arms were. I reminded him that the most important paddling muscles are in one’s core and suggested that he sit up and use his stomach muscles in paddling.

“I don’t have any stomach muscles,” he grumbled.

The hours of rain continued and we were planning to stop for a much-needed lunch at a designated camping and picnicking area at the Judith River Landing. I was getting concerned. I had noticed that Charlie’s paddling vigor had lessened. Paddling generates heat but you need to have fuel and Charlie’s partial burrito at breakfast had long been burned.

We came around the last bend before the Judith Landing and I was surprised to find a bridge crossing the river here. We were nearly underneath the bridge when two pick-up trucks passed overhead. One of them was hauling a canoe trailer loaded with 2-3 kayaks. Both vehicles pulled into the landing area.

We eased into shore and I immediately started assessing if there was any kind of shelter we could eat under. I always carry a few extra soups on a trip and this was a perfect time to fire up the stove and put some hot soup into us.

Charlie, whom had pretty much quit paddling the last hour before the bridge, could hardly get out of the canoe and I could see he was really shivering. This was not a good situation. The rain continued. The Missouri was turning into the “Misery.”

Charlie and Elaine went up to use the restroom while I secured the canoe. I walked up and there was a bearded, middle-aged guy shielding his lit cigarette with his hand waiting to use the toilet. I asked if he had seen an older guy and a woman come up. He jerked his thumb towards the bathroom and said, “They two of them are in there. And the older guy is really shivering.”

He took a drag on his cigarette and asked me, “Do you know the forecast?”

“No.”

“Temps are dropping. Likely snow accumulation tonight and then another 36 hours of rain. It’s not good. And there is no way off the river in the next forty plus miles.”

At this point Nancy and I knew our trip was done. Now we had to figure out how to get out of here since our vehicles were located at the starting and end points. Nancy immediately went over to scope out the guys that were loading the kayaks from the trailer on to their vehicles. Turns out they had just completed the shuttle and were loading up to head back home to Alberta. The guy with the cigarette was the shuttle driver and he said while he would not drive us to our truck (he had already put in over 200 miles of driving on this day), he would take us to Fort Benton.

There was no group discussion as to whether we push on or end the canoeing here. In the book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales, states that in order to save ourselves from an ordeal in the wilds such as getting lost or pushing on that we must accept that where are is definitely not where we intended to be when we set out on our journey. In essence the first step in surviving is a Buddhist principle, “Be here now.”

The amygdala, the warning center of the brain, sends us “danger. . .now!” Consequently our emotions might urge us to the finish line. At this point the mental map of our trip needs to be changed. To not do so results in what Gonzales calls a “bending of the map” and that can lead to tragedy.

Our newfound savior with a pick-up truck got Charlie into the front seat of the vehicle and cranked up his heat. The rest of us quickly loaded the boats and our soaked packs into the back of his truck. Then we all got cozy in the truck and pulled away from the river. And there was absolutely no regrets in our decision.

For at least twenty miles our driver had to negotiate a road that had been gravel and now was gumbo and slick mud. He said that most of the ranchers were pretty much marooned and that there is no way a two-wheel drive vehicle could make it out.

We wondered how much traffic crossed that bridge.

Savior Driver shook his head and replied, “Today with the roads the way they are, I wouldn’t doubt that no other traffic comes by.”

Hours later, each of us were pink-skinned from our extended hot showers and we sprawled out eating two wonderful pizzas. And believe it or not, I think Charlie ate one whole piece of pizza. It was an amazing recovery for soon he was back to being one sassy piece of gristle.

 

 

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Bringing your Voice to the Candidates

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Take a deep breath. Draw yourself a glass of cool water and step outside. Now take another deep breath. Feels better doesn’t it?

Those two resources, the air we breathe and the water we drink, are easily taken for granted. Both are absolutely necessary for us to live.

Like many other natural services (flood control, plant pollination, nutrient cycling, etc.) pure air and water are vital ingredients provided at no financial cost to us, the users,  by natural systems. Of course if we taint either water or air, there is a mighty cost in dollars and health.

So where is the political discussion and leadership on keeping those systems intact and running smoothly? As a fiscal conservative, I am all in favor of letting the natural world providing us clean air and water at a minimal cost.

In the big picture, I would argue that jobs, security from terrorism, health care, immigration, social security, education, wages, agriculture, guns, parks and other issues fall behind the need to maintain the integrity of those natural systems that ALLOW us to live. Plain and simple, the above-mentioned issues that most candidates and the electorate focus on require living and healthy humans.

So how is it that we hear very little from any presidential or congressional candidates on the need to take care of our nest, the biosphere?

The biosphere is the relatively thin layer of the earth’s crust, waters and atmosphere that supports life. If you look at a photo of the earth from outer space you get a real sense of how thin the biosphere is. You can actually see the light blue color of the biosphere. Mess with it too much and life would not exist, as we know it.

I’ve never been a big fan of the bumper sticker that asks us to “Save the Earth.” As a planet, the home orb we call earth will be just fine without humans. With or without us, it will continue it’s ring-around-the-rosy course with the sun. I want to see the bumper sticker that cajoles us to “Save the Biosphere.”

We Homo sapiens are a complex critter. We are amazingly compassionate and/or utterly evil. These are choices.

I am suggesting that we lean in towards the compassionate choices when considering our ability to allow natural systems to function as they have done for eons.

Like most creatures, we need healthy air, water, food and shelter. Seems a simple formula but we have made complex when we assigned a monetary value to each. Suddenly there are those folks who can attain their needs and those who can’t.

I propose that we let the engines of natural world do their free good works of helping us survive by moving our efforts in a direction that allows those systems to do their job without our interference.

I’ve been frustrated in the lack of discussion by any candidates, other than the Green Party, of issues that pertain to the health of our biosphere.

Climate change has hardly been discussed yet it has been deemed one of the Pentagon’s primary concerns for national and global security.

In the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, authored by the US Department of Defense,  the following was included in the first chapter entitled “Future Security Environment”:

“Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics, including growing, urbanizing, more affluent populations, and substantial economic growth in India, China, Brazil, and other nations, will devastate homes, land, and infrastructure. Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Ignored, climate change will exacerbate the global refugee issues. Sadly, the current Syrian refugee issue will likely look like a practice swing for what might be unleashed when millions of environmental refugees flee their flooded homes.

And as far as jobs go the renewable industry is leaping ahead of the traditional fossil fuel industry. Recently an article in Think Progress  stated that “Over the last year, the solar industry added jobs twelve times faster than the rest of the economy, even more than the jobs created by the oil and gas extraction and pipeline sectors combined.”

So what can you do?

Go to a political forum in your community and demand meaningful answers on actions the candidate will pursue in addressing a healthy biosphere.

Don’t ask them if they believe in climate change. Don’t ask any question that requires a simple “yes” or “no.”

For example, you might consider asking a question like one of the following:

1 China is moving ahead rapidly in the domain of renewable energy. What steps would you take to ensure that Minnesota (fill in the state you reside in) position itself as a leader in renewable technology?

2 Numerous peer-reviewed studies show the transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy (sourced by the wind, water, and sun) is technologically possible. What would you do to help our cities, towns, states, and country make this transition as quickly as possible so all Americans have access to affordable clean energy over the next 30 years?

Given that innovations in science and technology will stoke the engines of the 21st-century economy, it is important to pin down a candidate’s policies on science and technology.

During times like this I remind myself of the wise words of a friend. “If something means a lot, you do a lot. If it means little, you do little.”

Folks, this means a lot. Finish your glass of water, take another deep breath and get to work.

Treasures of Toadstools

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Markers of late summer include the elegant, swooping migration of night hawks, the gilding of goldenrods in meadows and the buttering of wetland edges with yellow blooms of Bidens (commonly called beggar ticks). But I have a marker that is unknown to others. My neighbor will call me and pronounce, “Those toadstools you like are on one of our oaks. Come and get them if you want.”

And my predictable and wry response is, “Are you sure you don’t want to eat them?”

“No.”

With the title of “toadstool” it is no wonder that so many folks don’t want to eat wild mushrooms. It’s absurd to think of a toad sitting perched on a piece of furniture yet, that is the unappetizing image. Consequently wild mushrooms have a public image problem. Most folks wouldn’t associate them as kin to those fungi found in the grocery store packaged on a sterile bed of styrofoam and swaddled in plastic wrap,

Too many kids that ramble through yards, gardens or woods are warned “Don’t touch that mushroom! It’s poisonous.” Additionally when you grow up hearing that not only are they poisonous mushrooms but they are toadstools, that only adds to the fodder of blasphemizing the beautiful.

In the Middle Ages people really believed that the skin of toads with its warty glands was poisonous.
So poisonous fungi were christened a title evoking the image of a stool for poisonous toads.

Let’s not besmear our midwest toads for their drab and warty appearance. Catch all the toads you want. Stare into the gold speckled eyes and smile at their pudgy demeanor but then let them go and get back to work catching those insects that like to harvest your garden.

The fungus that my neighbor so generously guides me to each August is the sulfur shelf fungus. It is considered one of the “foolproof-four” edible wild mushrooms in Minnesota. They are very easy to identify.  The other three species are shaggy manes, morels and puffballs.

Non-poisonous fungi outnumber the toxic ones but some of them look similar so you need to be certain in your identification. Good field guides,  mushroom identification classes and experienced fungi collectors can help ease your fear of fungi and enhance your culinary skills. And regarding touching, none of them are toxic to touch but ingesting some can make you very sick and on occasion kill you.

Sulphur shelf is one of my all time favorite fungi to collect. It tastes like chicken. Really, it kind of does have the texture of chicken breast and tastes kind of like poultry. Not surprising, another common name to this fungus is “chicken of the woods.”

Called a shelf fungus because it grows out from its host tree like a fluted shelf. It is named for its glowing golden to blaze orange color. This makes it easy to spot in the shadows of the woods. Rainy and humid conditions seem to inspire this late fungus to suddenly appear. While I can find it in June, it is most prolific from mid-August to late September.

Collect it when it is really fresh because in just a matter of days the brilliant colors fade and scores of tiny black beetles will have deposited eggs which quickly hatch into tiny cream-colored worms that riddle the flesh with serpentine tunnels.

Upon discovering a sulfur shelf a quick glance will tell you how fresh it is. The freshest sulphur shelfs are those with the most intense flame colors. In a matter of days, after their emergence, the colors fade and a quick glance will tell you it is too late to harvest. Additionally, I always break off one of the shelflike fronds. It should break almost crisply the flesh should be firm. Closely inspect the underside and the interior of the broken off flesh for small, shy black beetles running about. I move on to seek fresher fungi if I discover tiny writhing cream-colored beetle larvae (worms) riddling the fungus flesh. They won’t hurt you and if you are willing to put up with an additional dose of protein, you could eat them.

For easy collecting, use your pocket knife and carefully cut or if you have no knife, carefully break the fungus from away from its attachment to the tree. Around my east-central, Minnesota home, oak trees, both dead and alive, are the most common hosts. It is not unusual to cut five pounds or more of this meaty fungus from the tree. I like to carry an empty paper sack or plastic will do, to carry my prize home.

After proudly displaying my find to my equally glowing wife, Nancy, I trim away any dirty or damaged pieces. This fungus stores well in the fridge for several days. We have dehydrated small slices for future use but we usually freeze slices on a cookie sheet and later bag them and tuck them in the freezer.

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 Our favorite way to prepare them is to  slice them approximately 1/8 inch thick and slide them into hot melted butter in a cast iron frying pan. Stir them occasionally. As the pieces turn slightly brown, you can squeeze or mix finely chopped fresh garlic  over them. One clove is good, but I like two better. Garlic salt can be added or substituted. Salt and pepper to taste and get ready for a fine treat to serve as an appetizer or a side dish.

Be forewarned, it is easy to overeat these buttery morsels and if you do you could feel the ills of indigestion.

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Sulphur shelf are also a delightful addition to egg and pasta dishes.

With September here, there is a good chance that I will be outdoors contemplating goldenrods and nighthawks. And that puts me out of reach of our phone.*  I can’t afford to miss my neighbor’s toadstool alert.

*(I’m a rebel and rarely carry our flip open cell phone.)

 

Our Trip was the Berries.

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Nancy and I paddled into Quetico Provinical Park for eight days of solitude. We had no timekeeping devises only maps and a compass and ate and slept when our bodies requested the favor.

On the last morning of our sojourn, I crept out of the tent as the sun climbed out of the eastern horizon. With camera in hand, I quietly headed off for a discovery stroll. I didn’t get far as I was hijacked by clumps of beckoning blueberries that teased me with their plumpness and sweet promises.

I like eating things that are titled “wild.” But they have to be truly wild, not falsely christened “wild.” Just because the menu offering or grocery store product broadcasts its offering as “wild” doesn’t mean that the plant, fish or beast had any aspect of a wild life.

The early morning blueberries I gathered were quintessential wild blueberries. They were glistening with the night’s wash of dew and they grew in the company of a boreal band of flora.

Admittedly Nancy bears a black belt in berry picking and she picked most of our daily indulgence in blueberries. Two favorites stand out on this trip. Of course you have to tip the hat to blueberry pancakes when the blueberries made up more volume than the batter mix.

blueberry pancakes

After living for awhile in the Yukon, in northern Canada, we learned to love the French Canadian word for blueberries. Bleuets.

I really like intuitive cooking and our colorful walleye, red cabbage, onion and garlic stir fry topped with bleuets was a four-star supper. Add any French word in your cooking vocabulary and you can fool the best of them.

Walleye stir fry cooking

On my morning walk I discovered and marveled at one tight cluster of twelve berries growing on the same stem. The heavy berries weighted the small branch to the ground. These dozen berries were immediately drafted to my team “handful.” It didn’t take long to cup a collection of sweetness. I carefully brought the foraged bounty to my mouth and poured them in. Rather than chew, I simply held them in my mouth, feeling their roundness, before I slowly lifted the mouthful to the roof of my mouth them with my tongue.

“Sweet, sweet, morning sweet” was the refrain that came to my mind as the combined juices released their nectar over my tongue.

On this morning it didn’t matter if I was getting a major infusion of antioxidants, my elevated sense of being was heightened by all kinds of sensorial stimuli that surrounded me. Red and white pines strained the morning breeze and provided string music that is never repeated; each moment is a new song. The heavy smell of fresh white cedar likely enhanced my taste buds. And somehow I want to believe that the duet of loons just offshore from this patch of blue serves to inspire the wild sugars to greater sweetness.

The low-bush blueberry was officially classified by the famous 16th century Swedish botanist, Carl Linneaus. He named over 8,000 plants and animals with scientific names using a naming or classification system that he developed called binomial nomenclature. It’s way easier to simply say “blueberry” than low-bush blueberry. And I’ve yet to bump into any berry picker referring to the year as a “good Vaccinium angustifolium year.”

Domesticated blueberries don’t hold a candle to the wild variety when it comes to pure sweetness. While smaller than their lesser, more plump, domestic counterparts, the wild blueberry contains less water in each berry, making them easy to freeze and thaw. The wild blueberry has more intense flavor and twice the antioxidants than the garden variety. These fruits are among the most rich antioxidant fruits. One cup of wild berries has about 10 times the USDA’s daily recommendation.

The medical community is continually revealing the value of antioxidants in combatting free radicals in our bodies that are often associated with cancer, heart disease, and the effects of aging.

Wild and organically grown blueberries have significantly higher concentrations of total antioxidants than conventionally grown domestic or farmed blueberries. They also have significantly higher total antioxidant capacity.

As Nancy and I were blissing out on berries, fresh fish, swimming, reading and casual exploring, two good friends were doing their own fishing and berry foraging in a lake no more than five miles from us as the raven flies. The primary difference was that the lake they were on had experienced a major burn less than ten years ago. During a wildfire, the blueberry shrub can burn but the deep horizontal rhizomes can survive. Consequently the plant vigorously resprouts and spreads. Burned over forests can become the motherlodes of blueberries. My two buddies ended up gorging on berries and bringing home eight, yes, eight, gallons of blueberries!

Even without a clock, we returned back to Basecamp, our house, on the proper day. Not long after returning home to Basecamp,  I was reading and came across a 1920’s slang expression, “the berries.” It was used to declare how great something might be.

Seems fitting, because our trip was “the berries.”

red pine clusters and clouds

Vacancy for Non-Social Bees

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It wasn’t just another Sabbath. This past Sunday was  “Pollinator Day” at a Twin Cities garden center. Did you miss it? So did I.

Did you forget to give thanks to the legions of bees, butterflies and other insects that pollinate much of the food we depend on?

More than $15 billion a year in U.S. crops are pollinated by honey bees alone, including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa, and almonds. And that doesn’t include the provided value delivered by other non-semidomesticated native bees, butterflies, moths and other insects. It’s one more example of how we puny primates are intricately dependent on natural systems for our survival.

How is it that not one presidential politician will make mention of this undeniable maxim?

On Sunday afternoon, I strolled confidently out to an artificial  bee nesting box to make my biweekly observations. Confidently is the operative word since most folks associate bees with stingers. But in this case I’m looking for mostly non-stinging bees, those that tend to be solitary and non-social. There was no need to don my old beekeeping protective garb to tend to this innocuous task.

One of the adaptations of social bees and wasps is that they must protect their hordes of vulnerable young (larvae). Consequently, they have evolved to defend the nest with a stinger that can inject a painful venom. Not all bees have venom.

As a volunteer bee nesting box observer for the University of Minnesota Bee Atlas project, I have agreed to regularly go out to a nearby bee box that I erected back in the spring and see if any bees have decided to move in. No efforts to census the bees of Minnesota has been undertaken since 1919. And then 67 species were tabulated. Entomologists feel that the real number of bees could number around 400 in Minnesota with over 4,000 species in North America.

The intent of the project is to help University entomologists figure out how many native bee species there are living in Minnesota. While most folks have a simple image of a bee, there are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and many of them are solitary and reclusive. They come in different sizes, colorations and patterns. Many are not social in working to create a social unit of hundreds or thousands of individuals.

Earlier this spring, I mounted the wood block of wood, deemed the bee box, onto a common wood post that hosts an old bluebird nesting box. The block of wood has a grid of various sized holes drilled into it. The idea is that scouting bees of various species will find the holes irresistible nesting cavities. Rather than see the bees that take choose these quarters,  I will likely see the fruits of their labor.

The bees lay their eggs inside the cavity. This is called a brood cell. After the egg is deposited, the adult female  will stock the chamber with nectar and  pollen. Then she will plug the entrance to the hole with natural materials such as sand and mud or grasses and small plant fibers. Unbeknownst to the motherly instincts of procuring nectar and pollen from nearby flowers, she is a keen agent of pollination.

Bee atlas volunteers submit our observations  online to the University of Minnesota. The bee blocks will be collected and sent to the university in the fall where entomologists will raise the larvae to adulthood for easy identification.

The intent of the project is to decipher the information and hopefully learn more about  species distribution and bee diversity. This will provide a base as to how to track how bee populations are changing and how those changes might affect land management decisions.

Over the past month nearly all the largest diameter holes, under the number one column, have been plugged with shaggy plugs of dried grasses. I have no clue which species but it appears to be valued real estate. And only the bottom three or so smallest of holes in column 3 are cemented by dense plugs of what looks like sand.

I wonder will August bring on the hordes for the mid-sized holes?

 

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Timely rains, combined with a prairie burning program has resulted in an amazing prairie flower bloom this summer. Bumblebees seem to care less about my strolling through thick lavender patches of bee balm or clumps of orange butterfly weed. They are too busy collecting nectar.

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The dazzling  celebrities of pollinators are the butterflies. They are far more popular to the public because not only are they beautiful and graceful andthey don’t sting.

The popularity of the monarch butterfly has skyrocketed over the past two years and recently the 1,500 mile Interstate 35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota has been titled the “Monarch Highway.”

Last month, the Minneapolis StarTribune reported, “The Monarch Highway is part of a program backed by President Obama, who formed a Pollinator Health Task Force in 2014. The group, which consists of representatives from government agencies in six participating states and private entities, is crafting a plan to protect pollinator habitats nationwide, including I-35.”

The reward for the day came when I lay down amongst the stand of black-eyed susans and light purple bee balm. Looking up into the sky through the filagree of stem and bloom pollinators were stitching their hurried selves back and forth in a parade of pollinators.

 

black-eyed susan sky

 

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Great spangled fritillary butterfly on bee balm.

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