A Granddaughter’s Question

I answered my phone. My 3-year-old granddaughter cut to the quick.

“Opa, why do flowers have colors?” 

Knowing that my answer had to be brief before she moved on to another unrelated question, I took a breath and gave it a shot.

“Flowers are like pretty invitation cards to bugs.  Flowers say ‘Come here!’ by using their colors.” 

“Why?” she asked. 

“The bug stops and walks around on the petals searching for sweet nectar or pollen to eat. Sometimes little specks of pollen get stuck to its legs; kind of like when you are playing out in the yard and get pieces of grass on your pants.”

“Then the bug flies to another flower and walks around on it. Some of the pollen rubs off on the different flower. This is the way that the flower will  make seeds. The big word for this is pollination.”

It was all I could do to stop there but I imagined her eyes glazing over. I dared not tell her that the second flower had to be the same species. I could only hope that she understood some of my explanation.

A couple of days later, Miss Nancy and I headed to the St. Croix River for a day of paddling. With Nancy in the stern and me getting the better view in the bow, we headed upriver. It felt good to paddle and feel the work of going against the river’s grain. Ahead the broad river made a graceful bend to the northwest, almost like the beckoning curve of a question mark. Slowly we made our way into the river’s query. 

After a monochrome winter, we are starved for the barrage of greens found in May.  There is baby green, avocado green, light green, and lime green.  The silver maples flanking the river stand like soft green explosions, tinged in subtle fireworks of reddening flower buds. The white pine are content with never changing dark green foliage. Aspen and birch give rise to their own arguments of spring green. 

Freshets tumbling downhill on the Wisconsin shore beckon us to explore. We pull the canoe ashore and walk slowly among the carpets of flowers. These are known as spring ephemerals. Ephemeral means “short-lived.” It is a perfect description of these plants that will bloom only for a handful of days.

Yellow marsh marigolds illuminated the hillside seep.  As a kid I was taught these early wetland flowers were cowslips; not incorrect, just another name for the same plant. 

Marsh Marigold

I leaned over a clump of marsh marigold and watched a couple of bees go spelunking into the depths of the bloom. They were enticed by an ultraviolet color they see as “bee-purple.” The center of the flower, where the pollen-loaded stamens are located, is a bullseye of yellow to an insect.  

Off to my right the slope was painted with what resembled shards of a  rainbow. Purple and yellow violets, light blue spring beauty, yellow bellwort, white woodland anemone, trout lily and tiny white miterwort all merged onto a common palette.  Just uphill, it appeared as if someone had thrown a box of tissue into the wind as the ground was littered with white large-flowered trilliums. This was ephemeral ecstasy. 

Spring Beauty
Trout Lily

We hovered over clumps of wild ginger. To find its flower you have to get  on your knees and probe in the leafy duff at the base of the twin heart-shaped leaves to find the flower that looks more urn than bloom. The small red cup and its nectary attracts the attention of ants as well as bees. 

Leaning in for a close look at a small bee disappearing into a trout lily blossom, I realized that in the scope of things my own life could be considered ephemeral. I wondered, how many more seasons will I view this  carnival of color? How long can I contribute to my grandchildren’s lives?  Caught in the gaze of a single bloom, I felt an urgency to live ecstatically and leave a legacy where beauty is valued.

 A smear of cloud cover was moving in so we headed back downhill to the river. We had been hijacked from our paddle by the silent party-covered landscape. Back in the canoe we pulled away from the riparian garden and headed downriver and back into the big question mark seeking another “Why?”

Drifting downriver, I looked into clouds reflected in the water and felt contentment in their brief moment. We are surrounded by ephemeral.

Two days after our paddle, we received a photo of Eleanor sitting out in the sunshine with flowers tucked into her ponytail. How could I not smile, when I was told that she asked, “Are the bugs pollinating my hair?”

A Gathering in Yellowstone

First we heard a single low howl. As if on cue the rest of the wolf pack joined in, a mournful harmonic that stopped us in our tracks. In Yellowstone’s late afternoon sunlight we spotted the wolves on a bench of grasses and sage a half mile distant.  Four black wolves and three grays lay in the snow or milled casually about. 

While the calendar said “winter,” the temperature and warm sun spoke of an impending spring. About 250 yards from the road we spotted a line of tripods, each tended by a hunched over human. We pulled off to the side of the road and hiked out to the battery of binoculars, spotting scopes and powerful camera lenses.

We settled into the line of focused humans.  There was no talking or excited exclamations. A bundled middle-aged man was affixing his smart phone to the eyepiece of his Swarovski spotting scope, capable of increasing his magnification fifty times. I quietly asked, “Does the phone-spotting scope partnership give you good photos?” His one word sentence reply of “Yep” told me he had other things on his mind than answering questions.  

The wolves across the valley cared nothing about these optical enhancements; they didn’t need them as they poked about. Somebody said, “I can see an elk antler sticking out of the snow and some ribs and vertebra. There is a magpie poking around it. Looks like an old kill.” 

I wondered how long the wolves had fed off the elk. While the energy- sucking cold makes the food critical for their survival, the winter offers respite for these wolves as no grizzly will come along and take over their kill. All the bears are hibernating until. . . soon.

Suddenly in the foreground I spotted a coyote moving along the white creek bed that would lead it up near the wolves. Hungry wolves would find this brother canid nourishing. It was clear that both species were aware of each other. Not surprisingly the coyote looked more attentive. The wolves lay in the snow, heads up, simply watching. After following another bend of the creek, the coyote didn’t want to push its luck by getting too close. It moved fluidly up the steep bank to a rise, looked over its shoulder at the pack and moved on.

These wolves are among the approximately 100 wolves that currently call the Yellowstone ecosystem home. They are progeny of the original 39 wolves live trapped in Canada and reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995. 

Biologists estimate that at one time two million wolves inhabited what is now the Lower 48 states. By the 1930s, humans, the ultimate predator, had exterminated almost all wolves.  The last viable population, less than 1,000 animals, lived mostly in Minnesota. (Currently, wolves number roughly 2500-3000 animals in Minnesota.) The wolf had been the primary predator in Yellowstone for centuries.  Long vilified, the last wolf in Yellowstone was shot in 1926.  

Roughly 125,000 generations of humans have lived on earth. For most of that time, as hunters and foragers, we have coexisted with wolves. We evolved intimately connected to the natural world.   

Five hundred generations of us have passed since the advent of the agricultural revolution when humans figured out how to raise their own food through planting and domestication of livestock and fowl. That recent transition in our history marked the divorce from wolves and other wildlife, including insects, that pose the slightest threat to our food supply. 

Before we entered the national park, I chatted with a 78-year-old rancher who lives within a dozen miles of Yellowstone Park.  He was adamant that there were too many wolves and grizzly bears. I mostly listened to his perspective rather than challenge him. He feels that since his family has resided here for nearly 150 years that they have the right to raise livestock without predators. 

 A fossil record shows that wolves left Eurasia and settled in North America between 24,000 and 70,000 years ago, well before bears, deer and humans.  If anyone has a right to live on their home ground, it is the wolves.

With dusk approaching, we headed back to the car to get out of the park before dark to avoid hitting wildlife like bison, elk and deer.

It was fitting that the wolves began to howl again. It was a wilderness vespers.

What is wild?

“Beauty burns a hole in my heart and passion quickly fills it.

-from my journal entry in Sept. 2016

My gaze floats up the steep mountainside through the morning fog. Near the top of a high ridge, thick spruce, fir and hemlock wear fresh snow coats.  I find contentment in a wild summit on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.  

But if I pull my gaze downslope it settles uncomfortably on a mountain lake that is shouldered with cabins and second homes.  They are perched directly on the shore, so close that the still waters of the lake reflect a precise doubling of cabins and homes.  And so many docks, like teeth on a comb, barricade the shoreline’s sensuous curves.

I am grateful it is February and not August when many of those docks will harbor loud, growling watercraft. And yes, some will hold silent human-propelled craft such as kayaks, paddleboards and canoes.

I turn to put the sullied shoreline behind me. I walk uphill on a narrow paved access road to the highway that parallels the lake.  Between the back and forthing of logging trucks I hurry across and climb upwards through the wet snow to find mute company among a slope covered with thick conifers. 

As I meander uphill, I feel the torment of my inner-Scrooge that chastises overdevelopment of lakeshores and urban encroachment on wild lands. I understand that fond memories and even a love for the outdoors will be cemented on the lake below me where families gather from their urban homes. If you can fold smiles and laughter into any outdoor experience the outing is likely to instill a love for such places. But it troubles me that we keep pushing ourselves further and further into what little wild remains. 

As I climb, I wonder “What is wild?”

Defining “wild” is foggy at best. It lacks clear definition because each of us carries our own set of parameters.  For the child and even adult standing on a summer cabin dock “wild” might be found in the passing of an overhead eagle or convoy of wild geese. 

As a kid, we lived in the small town of North Branch, Minnesota until I was in third grade. One block west of our house was a shaggy, overgrown tangle of grasses and thickets. We called that corner of the block, at the edge of downtown, “the grassy green jungle.”  At that point in my life it was wild. As I aged the idea of wild moved further out to the creek that swung through the north edge of town. 

A bicycle gave me more freedom to range out and discover new wild areas. Then a driver’s license allowed even greater exploration. And finally, aircraft, particularly small planes on floats carried me well beyond roads.  

Nearly in my seventh decade, I have found myself pining more and more for remote wild places well beyond roads, cities, and even phalanxes of cabins. Nothing elicits a quicker scowl than when I find a wild place tainted by a single scrap of human litter or the scar of a saw cut. It doesn’t matter if the cut is recent or old. Pristine is nearly impossible to find unless you minimize the idea of vast. 

I have had many experiences in primal wilderness. From high in the Andes Mountains to the High Arctic. I have discovered my spiritual balm. And those experiences, combined with having the opportunity to live in a rural setting, have only raised my personal bar on what constitutes a sojourn into solitude. I’m embarrassed at my high standard of wildness when discussing the ideas of tamed and untamed settings with others. I often have to scold myself to remember that we all start somewhere when it comes to falling in love with the natural world. 

Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist who has traveled widely around the world recording natural sounds. He has won many accolades including an Emmy Award. He is the author of One Square Inch of Silence. The book underscores the urgent need to protect our few remaining silent havens from noise pollution. Using a delicate sound device that measures decibels, he found that the most quiet place in America was in the temperate rainforest in the Hoh Valley, in Olympic National Park, just over 14 miles due south of where I stood. I wondered how long it would take me to bushwhack up and down over high ridges and valleys to sink into such an honorably mute place?

Instead I climbed higher up the steep ridge and under the thick coniferous canopy. I can no longer hear the hurrying logging trucks. Laying in the snow is a lovely clump of lungwort lichens that have fallen from an overhead conifer. The lichen prefers shade and high humidity and is a good indicator of air and water quality.

I pause to look it over. The bright green leaf-like appearance resembles lettuce. My guess is that the saturated lichen grew too heavy with water and tore away from its arboreal perch. The green-on -white specimen arrests my gaze and offers a close look that would have been unobtainable before it dropped to the ground.

The lungwort is my model. To thrive, I need a certain level of pristine wildness where I can find unfettered quietude to focus on what is really important in my life. Visiting primal stillness soothes me and fills me with a contentment I can find nowhere else. Just to know that such places still exist, far from the thrum of human civilization calms me. Without such places to feed and anchor me a part of me dies and is lost to the noise.

A Man’s Tears

I was brought to tears last Sunday. The source of these twin salty flows was immense relief combined with shoulder-dropping humility. 

Those that know me best know that I can be overly sentimental and rendered easily to tears. But how can that be?  I’m a guy. I’m not supposed to cry.  At least that is the false narrative I grew up with. 

I followed the male script. I played football and joined Boy Scouts where we were drilled with elementary military ideals of discipline and rank. My friends and I played “army” and at times flung projectiles at each other in the form of acorns, packed snowballs and yes, even BB gun ammo. I donned boxing gloves and danced nervously in the arena of jabs, hooks and mostly flailing. And like Jimmy Carter, who admitted in a famous interview in 1976 that he had lusted after other women in his heart, I have done the same.  

I’ve shot deer, filleted my share of walleyes, trapped and skinned muskrats, and portaged canoes where no portage trail existed. I fathered two lovely daughters. I have done the “typical guy things.”

All through my boyhood and teen years, a constant message to those of us born with that Y chromosome was to “suck it up.” And even today more than sixty years later the culture continues to champion male aggression. 

For a second time, my youngest daughter, Maren and bonus son, Ben, have delivered news of a birth that melted me and renewed the flow of tears. 

The first time was nearly 4 years ago when they told us that they were expecting their first child and my first grandchild. 

Now we were on the brink of Eleanor becoming a big sister. Hours, including a night, passed with waiting. We waited with a lineup of favorite stuffed toys, Minnie Mouse, a giraffe, a panda, a hippo and monkey made from socks, all peering out the window. 

And suddenly the car pulled up. Eleanor hesitated at the window staring at her parents and baby brother. We rushed to the door, hurried out and opened our arms and exposed our hearts. Welcome Thomas Blake!! 

I cried like a baby when told his name. To have a grandchild christened with my own name is perhaps the most touching and honoring act I could hope to experience. 

Three days later, my 88-year old stepdad lost his month-long battle with Covid. And once more I cried.  Suddenly the newness of birth was clouded with death. In the hours following Orv’s passing, I pulled up memories of shared moments, whether it was travel, our usual Norwegian greeting to each other, and shared love of laughs, pickled herring and cookies.  He was a generous man who keenly loved his family.  Known as “Doc” by his great grandkids, he easily sculpted smiles on their faces. 

And now a week into Thomas’s life on the “outside,” I am cradling him quietly telling him how I can’t wait to share a campfire that Eleanor and he built. We will watch spires of sparks climb into the night sky to mingle with oh so many stars!  I will pull up stories galore about when I was a little boy, and there will be tales of the beloved “Doc.” 

I suspect there might even be quiet moments where the fire hypnotizes us into a silent surrender to wonder.  And along the way, I will happily show them, the blessed vulnerability of grown man crying.  

While the Bannock Bakes

Light up your pipe again, old chum, and sit awhile with me;
I’ve got to watch the bannock bake — how restful is the air!

-“While the Bannock Bakes” by Robert Service

There has been a resurgence in bread baking since the advent of Covid-19.

My go-to, simple bread is bannock. To bake this storied bread all you need is a handful of household ingredients, a cast iron frying pan and a source of heat. I prefer open coals because they remind me of its wild roots.

Bannock is a simple fry bread that has its origins in Scotland. During the early years of the Hudson Bay Company (founded in 1670), many Scots were recruited to sail to North America. Once landed, in what was to become northern Canada, they helped establish trading posts to barter with the indigenous people for furs to ship back to England. These early traders, voyageurs and trappers had to fend for themselves for months on end without the help of resupply.

Eventually making bannock became more associated with First Nation peoples. And to this day, many families take great pride in their bannock baking skills.

Each time I tend a bannock I am reminded of past versions. There was the delicious deep dish pizza along the remote Wind River in the northern Yukon Territory. Winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness outings have included lunch bannocks with left over bits and pieces of fried lake trout folded into the batter. Memorable lunches on the wild Gladys River in the Yukon included shredded cheese or sunflower seeds blended into the mix before frying the bannock.

Bannock is a versatile bread. A morning fire is perfect in fending off the chill and for boiling up a pot of cowboy coffee. Pair it with a breakfast bannock and you will be fueled for another day on the trail. Adding fresh picked blueberries, raspberries, currants, or even dried apples or raisins will perk up the most lethargic campers.

I have turned to it several times over the last half year. On a recent morning, while baking a bannock, augmented with raspberries, in our kitchen woodburning stove I committed two sins. First, I overworked the batter after adding water to the mixed dry ingredients. Secondly, I was impatient. I should have let my coals burn down a bit more. With too much heat I was worried I would burn the bannock so I pulled it from the coals earlier than I should have. The result was a bannock that didn’t rise like it should have and was slightly doughy.

My preferred recipe comes from Edna Helms. She is a Carcross/Tagish First Nation Elder living in in the Yukon Territory. Well known for her bannock making skills, she leans towards a sweeter bannock. I am including her recipe here. I have adapted the recipe to make one 8-10 inch diameter cake of bannock.

Edna Helm’s Best Bannock

1.5 C flour 

1/4 C sugar  (you can reduce this if you want to reduce sweetness, a good idea when making a more savory bannock)

2 tsp baking powder 

1/4 tsp salt

Mix all dry ingredients

3-4 C water (The key here is to add only enough water until the dough has a biscuit-like texture. Some folks use milk or you can carry dry milk and add to water)

Put frying pan on or just above the coals and add 1/3 C solid vegetable shortening or cooking oil. Note: You can also bake a bannock over a stovetop burner.

The bannock will rise. Gently flip it. You are aiming for a golden top and bottom. Be patient, making sure to not let the frying pan get too hot or you will scorch the bannock. After 10-15 minutes, test the bread by poking it with a sharp stick or knife blade for doneness.

And if you feel like it light up a pipe while your bannock bakes.

Revised Corvids Blog Entry

For some reason my recent blog entry did not include the photos. Don’t ask me why, I abhor trying to solve computer issues. I am hoping that this link includes them. And if it doesn’t and you want to see them, go to my Facebook page.

For the Love of Corvids

I heard it first. Overhead, just above the naked canopy of the woods, a muffled cadence “whoosh. . whoosh. . whoosh” pulsed through the early morning silence. I glanced up and the raven gurgled a call as it passed over in its direct flight to somewhere. And I knew as I looked up, the raven was looking down at me.  Did I see a slight nod?  Wishing me luck? As it flew out of sight, a second raven croaked off to my right. 

Minutes later, well south of me, a group of crows were cawing up the morning. Their vocalization was not the typical “caw, caw, caw,” but instead almost sounded like chuckling between caws.

Maybe these crows and ravens were giddy because it was opening morning of the firearm deer hunting season, which in their world could be seen as a corvid thanksgiving.  I was perched in a tree, with my bow and arrows, hoping to fill our freezer and maybe, just maybe, the passing corvids would also find sustenance in my luck as a hunter.

I love ravens, even more than I love crows. And I love crows more than I love magpies and jays.  All of them belong to a group of birds known as corvids, a shortened moniker from their official family name:  Corvidae. They are among the smartest and most adaptable birds in the world. They are skilled foragers and scavengers.

Successful deer hunters field dress their kills, leaving gut piles. These are steaming feasts for all scavengers. 

Ravens and crows keep things simple in their singular plumage color of black. I can only imagine this make life easier.  No dressings for a bright, colorful courtship. Instead they utilize their amazing range of vocalizations and interesting behaviors to attract attention.

Jays are the only corvids around here that have any color and they wear it well. Lots of folks think jays are piggy and bullies at the bird feeder. I would beg to differ. I find them beautiful, sassy and damned smart. I love ‘em. Here in Minnesota we have two native jays, the blue jay and the gray jay, also known as the Canada jay or whiskey jack. 

Perhaps much of my love of corvids stems from a stolen kiss. Four years ago we snowshoed up near a sunlit Mt. Baker in Washington state. Stopping for lunch, we attracted the attention of a gray jay who obviously had learned the art of sneaking in for spilled crumbs. The bird was bold and I fooled it into a kiss by offering a piece of sandwich held delicately in my lips as the bird hovered and gently plucked it from me.  So is it any wonder, my infatuation with corvids? No other bird has showed me such affection. 

Corvids are crafty. Ravens and crows have been known to divert the attention of a predator feeding on a kill only to have one of their gang sneak in and pilfer a bit. There is evidence that ravens intentionally help predators find prey. Once the predator kills the prey the corvids perch in nearby trees awaiting their turn at the spoils.  

Who knows,  maybe that hunting partnership is also aligned with us. 

Years ago I was hunting deer up in Superior National Forest, not far from Lake Superior. In the early morning light, I heard a raven pass directly overhead. I looked up and witnessed a perfectly executed barrel roll with the bird nearly going on its back in flight.  I wondered, was that move for fun? Showing off?  It reminded me of a passage from anthropologist Richard Nelson’s book, Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest.  Nelson lived with Koyukon people for an extended time. He wrote of the their belief that when an overhead raven rolled in flight it was emptying its pack over the Koyukon hunter and that would ensure hunting success. And it worked. I shot a deer later that morning. I like to think the barrel-rolling raven returned to feed on the gut pile of that deer. 

 Back when I was in high school, I used to spend a fair amount of time down by the confluence of Goose Creek and the St. Croix River, which separates Minnesota from Wisconsin. (This was prior to the establishment of Wild River State Park.) One spring, friend Nels and I found a crow’s nest in a white pine. Thinking it would be really cool to snatch a baby crow and raise it, we decided to check out the nest. With the help of a boost, I reached some lower branches and laddered my way up to investigate the twiggy nest. There were five recently hatched nestlings huddled in their near nakedness. They were too young to take and try to raise as pets. 

My idea was to teach a crow to talk and have it ride on my shoulder. Crows have complex throat muscles making all kinds of vocalizations possible.  They are excellent mimics. In the book Lost Art of Crow Taming by Pete Byers, the author claims all that is needed to teach a crow to talk is “patience, perseverance and repetition.” He knew one crow that could say, “I’m Jim Crow.” 

A couple of weeks later we returned to the nesting tree. The mosquitoes were thick. Scrambling up through the branches, I found the nest empty. My dream was voided as well as some of my blood. 

I should add here that at that time crows were not protected. In 1972 they received federal protection when the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was amended to include the protection of raptors and corvids. 

Each year that we butcher a deer we hang the skeleton in the big bur oak at the edge of our yard.  This bony bird feeder attracts crows only in the quiet early hours of the day. They don’t tolerate our closeness as much as the woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches that flit over the prize. 

Note the downy woodpecker and the mesh bag with deer fat.

By winter’s end the pair of deer skeletons will be picked clean. Sassy corvids will feel the seasonal tide of hormones urging them to find a mate and start all over again.  And with luck, I will have the privilege of sharing nods with an autumn raven again.

A Fine Day of Sledding

We had just been graced with another inch or so of snow and I wondered if this November covering would pronounce the birth of a winter landscape or would we teeter-totter into another unseasonable warm stretch. So while there was snow it was time to fetch one of our sleds.

Opening the garage door, I wove my way around the car and stored canoes. Suspended above me is the homemade birch toboggan that hangs from the rafters as a sort of winter gear shelf. Beside a stack of cross-country skis and poles is a pair of six-foot plastic sleds. 

To minimize a clattering avalanche of winter fun, I carefully extracted one of the red sleds. Both are veterans of work and fun and each have collected their own stories.

I suspect that the earliest use of sleds by humans was to more easily move things. Early humans were nomadic so it makes perfect sense that a sled of some form, likely a large animal hide, could ease the task.  And during those sledding passages, they learned the agony of pulling uphill and the relief of a downhill glide.

Ecstasy was an added reward once people realized that sleds, combined with the magic of gravity and a steep hill, could be used for simply carrying the cargo of passengers only. 

My annual reunion with sleds evokes memories. In years past, and hopefully in future winters, Miss Nancy’s and my sleds have resembled Conestoga wagons when they were loaded with winter camping and fishing gear to head into the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness for a week of solitude. 

I have used a sled in imaginary international luge competitions held above the Watson River in the Yukon Territory. (See blog entry for 2009)

And then there was the day I tried using the sled as a surfboard where for a brief moment, okay “brief” is being generous.  I caught a frozen downhill wave and ended up trashing in a wipeout.

But on this day, I would be using the plastic sleigh to stage firewood from our north woodshed to the door stoop where we could more easily carry armloads into the porch woodbox. The sled is used to carrying chunks of oak and black cherry.

Every winter Miss Nancy and I pull cords of firewood from our woodlot to the woodsheds. While I cut and split the downed trees, Miss Nancy plays draft horse and repeatedly pulls the sled and its cargo out of the woods.  She loves it for the workout it gives her.

We were once offered a great deal on an almost new ATV to help with Basecamp chores such as gathering firewood and snow removal. We deliberated the acquisition for long seconds before turning it down. We both felt the machine would be more of an anchor and hassle than a red plastic sled. Storage, gasoline, oil and associated noise, smells and costs would have to be dealt with. And more importantly, our homestead workout would mostly disappear. Why complicate life when it can be simpler and healthier?

After I messed around giving firewood sled rides, I leaned the craft up against the shed. I’ve learned long ago that it is a good idea to store a sled on its vertical axis with the bottom facing the low hanging south sun. Even the slightest bit of snow or ice can impede the smooth glide of the sled and make pulling a task rather than fun.

With firewood sledding done, the sun read mid-afternoon. I walked into the woods, climbed into a deer stand with my trusty recurve bow and arrows to hunt deer for the last couple hours of the day. 

As fate would have it, before sunset I needed my sled again. I had a heavy whitetail buck to pull home. I felt like a red-cheeked boy returning to the warmth of  home after a grand day of sledding.

Sunrise Sneezes

The glow in the east slowly fired the sky. I was sitting on my little platform of a portable deer stand with my recurve bow lying across my lap. With the daylight coming on, I always relish the moments before the sun brings its bright dome into play. The trees between the glowing orb and my gaze appear as tangled filigree in their November nakedness. The silhouette of chaotic canopy branches is an art piece that cannot be improved and brings on a quiet moment of reverence. 

However, the peaceful setting is almost always interrupted with a sudden, short-fused sneeze. I try to stifle and capture the obtrusive “ahchoo” with a frantic smothering of my nose with a hankie or cupped hand. The sneeze is like a starting gun that initiates the predicable flow of nasal effluents. 

I am here to say that a normal hankie is inadequate for the morning tide that flushes from my sinus passages. While easily foldable, the fabric is thin and inadequate for copious mucus dabs and dribbles. A tablecloth would make a better hankie on such mornings but it is much too large and cumbersome to deal with on my little arboreal stage.

A couple of weeks ago I tried a new experiment and converted an old t-shirt into three torn scraps. The cotton is thicker, more comfortable and is far more absorbent than your standard handkerchief. But as the morning progresses the soaked t-shirt doubles in size and weight.

The dribble seems worse as the sun slowly climbs above the horizon. Is it possible that the sun is responsible for my nose flooding?  

It turns out that 17-35 percent of humans have what is called photic sneeze reflex or “sun sneezing.” Most sneezing cannot be controlled and is usually associated with an irritation in the nose. 

Medical folks seem to think that somehow mixed signals happen along the trigeminal nerve, the largest and most complex nerve in our heads. The paired nerve connects eyes, nasal cavity and jaw. 

The branching nerve and its network is crowded and sometimes the signals get  crossed. With the bright sunrise causing my pupils to contract, its possible the signal triggers a nasal response. 

Geneticists have determined that this trait is inheritable. They have titled it with an apt acronym, AHCHOO (Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-opthalmic Outburst

After a couple of hours watching the woods, a fawn being pursued by an amorous forkhorn buck, chortling ravens overhead and me drenching an old t-shirt, I quietly climbed down as I was feeling dehydrated from the loss of liquids and needed to drink a quart or two water. 

Lucky I have more old t-shirts because I will be back tomorrow morning to bow my head to the sun, burst out a prayer that is amen’d with a sneeze and renew my quiet, slow movements of nose wiping.

Hurry Tom Hurry!

The juncos and white throated sparrows have arrived from their boreal summer haunts.  And this morning’s winds are loosening Autumn’s colorful skirts, sending tatters to the ground. Fall has taken on a new sense of urgency.

While temperatures drop and politicians yammer, I find a joyful quiet as I commute one hundred feet from our house to my perfect Covid project: building a little log cabin. Since last April, I have missed very few mornings strolling into the woods to the work site. 

Now the days are arcing towards darkness with daylight hours shrinking and I feel an inner restlessness to zip up the project for the coming winter. In my mind, I hear “Hurry Tom!  Hurry!”

Two Novembers ago I helped thin a friend’s red pine plantation. He shipped truckloads of logs to be rendered into garden mulch, and I bought enough logs to attempt to Lincoln-log a cabin together. That winter I resurrected my antique draw knife and peeled them all. I levered them into neat piles with plenty of air space between so they could slowly dry. 

For the most part I am a one-man show. Admittedly I lack the skills of famed Alaska cabin builder and public television star, Dick Proenneke, but I often invoke his spirit.  In late March when I decided to skid the logs from the drying site, seventy five feet to the building site, I hooked up my electric winch which is rated to pull 1,200 pounds. I was mortified when I turned the winch on and almost immediately it overheated. I looked with dismay at the red warning light. 

I was devastated. What do I do now? I have no tractor, ATV, or even a draft horse to pull the logs. For that matter I didn’t want anything that required undo maintenance, fuel or food. How was I going to move the logs? I returned to the house and broke the news to Miss Nancy. 

I reached out to dear Yukon friend, Mike, who is a fine wood craftsman specializing in timber framing. I have never seen huge beams with such fine joinery as his work. Immediately he offered a solution.

 “Tom,” he said, “Why don’t you build using short log construction?”

 I recollect my answer as a simple “What?” 

He replied, “You need to read James Mitchell’s book, The Short Log and Timber Building Book.”

I turned one hundred eighty degrees in my chair to face the floor to ceiling bookcase. I scanned for a moment, reached up and pulled down a book. “Oh this one.” Mike laughed and then like a master ordered, “Now read it.”

And so that led me to my current project. Instead of a classic log cabin with scribed interlocking corners, my walls consist of shorter horizontal logs slid between vertical posts. The beauty is that by using levers and fulcrums, I can handle most of the logs by myself. I don’t want to even consider how many pounds of logs I have hefted, grunted, rolled and pushed.  Since starting this project, I have lost 15 pounds and punched two holes in my belt. 

October is ticking away. Snows are coming, at least I hope they are. My goal is to finish the walls in the next few days. Then recruit some human power to help position the hefty ridge log. After that, the log rafters can be erected and roof put on.  

Hurry Tom!  Hurry!

Oh and of course through this project, I am committed to bow hunt for deer. I am hoping for future winter stews and steaks grilled in our kitchen woodburning stove. Hunting is hard because my mind nags me to climb out of October’s tree canopy and get to building the cabin. 

Leaves are blanketing the work site adding a seasonal charm. No time to admire the decor, winter is coming on!

Hurry Tom! Hurry!

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