April Chased by the Sun

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This morning, I woke up groggy, but my wherewithal became clearer when I spotted a buttering of the treetops as the early sunlight touched the treetops. After three days of gray-colored and wet skies, this morning’s backdrop promised blue. However, I heard the hum of a furnace so I knew there must be a nip in the air. Indeed it was 37°F.

I hurried out to the woodshed to gather dried spruce kindling, some thicker pieces of sumac and to round out the perfect fire staring trifecta, a couple chunks of dried red oak. These are the necessary foodstuffs that my kitchen wood burning stove depends on if it is to share its warmth with us.

I am boldly declaring that this will be the last kitchen fire needed for the spring. The advent of May is only two days away and yet the yard and woods is already impatient with the stretch of chilly weather.

The past few days have forced me to dig out the wool sweater that I had put into its summer hibernacula only a week ago. This bout of a mini-November in the fourth month has been made more dark by the news of the untimely passing of Minnesota’s own Prince.

And I wonder if my April murdering of the big neighborhood gobbler that had strutted with his harem of hens is being mourned amongst the local flora and fauna. I will admit that joy wasn’t paramount in my person but I am pleased and thankful that the bird will eventually grace our dining table.

But even with the touch of ice on yesterdays back steps and the long day’s drizzle, the world around us says “Spring is in the air.”

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It seems foolish that the rapidly growing interrupted ferns are busy shrugging off their shrouds of wooly covering. I expect that in the next couple of weeks the hummingbirds will return. They will then busy themselves getting on with claiming a territory, mating and nest building. The fleecy fern covering is often used for lining a hummingbird’s tiny nest, no bigger than a fifty cent piece. (Do you remember such a coin?)

We have already tasted spring in the new growth of stinging nettles. Sautéed, the six inch plants are rendered harmless and delicious at the same time. Rich in nutrients they are a fine addition to scrambled eggs.

And the elderberry flowers seem inspired by the chill of April. Like the nettles, these are culinary delights as well. A hat full of picked blossoms will momentarily tossed, for seconds only, into a hot cast iron frying pan with spitting hot oil. Then they are taken out and dusted in powdered sugar for a real spring treat.

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The azalea, planted over a score of years ago outside our back porch is an intrepid outsider transplanted to Minnesota. It seems early to have such a celebration of purple. Or is it more than coincidence that these flowers reign purple?

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Clearly we have much to celebrate. Get outside and join in.

Beloved Birch

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Ever since humans stood erect to peer over the landscape they have had relationships with trees. We have climbed them for protection or for a better view, picked their fruits when hungry and gathered their twigs and limbs for fires to heat, cook and cast light. Trees have been rendered into homes, churches, schools, hospitals and other structures of commerce. We cannot judge one tree better than another, but through the millennia, the birches have held a sacred position in North America, Europe and Asia.

I’m partial to birch because my tastes favor the compass direction of north and it is the north that paper birch thrives best. And in the absence of pigment, the bark is snow white which sets it off beautifully in a world of green and brown.

The black-capped chickadee is likely more partial to birch, particularly a dead tree snag. Dying and dead birch don’t last long.  The  highly waterproof bark traps moisture in the lifeless tree trunk and hastens the rotting process. Consequently once the chickadee works a perfectly round hole through the bark, it can easily excavate small chunks of soft inner wood in creating a nesting cavity. Sometimes you can encounter an upright birch tube, also known as a birch chimney, where the only remaining vestige of the tree is an upright cylinder of empty birch bark; it’s core is rotted away.

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Earlier this week, I started a warming fire in the kitchen stove to ward off the April dawn chill.  As an experiment, I submerged a shard of birch bark in a jar of water. I lifted it out of the water and held a match the dripping bark and in less than 20 seconds it flared up and I lit the stove fire.

No matter the season, when I am camping in the company of birch, I always pocket shards of  bark scraps from the ground to kindle the evening campfire. Whether the woods are dripping wet, or the temperatures cold enough to pop the trees like a gun shot, a scrap of birch bark will always grab hold of the match flame.  Since the bark is resistant to rotting, there are usually plenty of scraps on the ground.

Birch bark should never be peeled from a living tree. Do to so runs the risk of exposing the tree’s growing layer of tissue to potential disease, fungal and insect attacks.

A few years ago I was in Sweden over the summer solstice. Traditionally this longest of days is a time of celebration and dancing around the maypole or majstång (pronounced “my-shtong”). The ancient ritual usually involves wrapping a tall birch tree trunk, trimmed of its limbs, with a wrapping of greenery and freshly picked flowers. This practice, and our December ritual of decorating a Christmas tree, are throwbacks to ancient pagan practices that honored God in the trees.

While traveling on a bus through the birch-rich landscape of northern Sweden, I was especially transfixed by an old man who stepped slowly up into the bus at a stop in a small village. He wore a ragged navy blue sweater with fabric elbow patches, a pair of homely gray polyester pants and worn tennis shoes. His thick shock of white hair and equally white full beard framed his ruddy face and ice-blue eyes. But it was his small backpack that he slid off his shoulders when he sat down in front of me that drew my attention.

The pack was made entirely of woven strips of birch bark. The shoulder straps were worn leather, colored dark brown from years of handling. During the ride, he reached down and pulled two small, frayed journals from the pack. He carefully opened one to a page marked with a slender strip of birch bark. The old man would smile and speak quietly to no one, pointing to excerpts from the journal. He was a peculiar man, a man whose very hair was as brilliantly white as the birch. I wished I could know what made him smile. Since that day I have often used strips of thin birch bark for bookmarks.

On northern canoe trips I have scribbled notes on scraps of birch bark for fellow voyageurs. Messages like: “paddled to the river to fish” or simply, “be back in a couple of hours.” One year, when I spent the fishing opener and Mother’s Day in canoe country, I fashioned a Mother’s Day card out of a curled sheet of birch bark and a sprig of white cedar.

The birch was so important to the Ojibway that they were often referred to as the “Birch Indians.” Cups, bowls, mats, shelters, and canoes were all products of birch bark.

Yukon Brewing, in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory,  makes a seasonal birch beer that is only sold in glass jugs called growlers and once it is on tap it rarely lasts a month. The sap of birch is collected from birch up near Dawson, where the Klondike gold rush started.

The very word “birch” is derived from an old English word, beorht, which translates to “bright.” It’s white skin appears white only because there is no pigment in the bark. The reflected light appears colorless or white.

In the coming weeks we will witness the flush of tree greenery. And we will be guaranteed a new “wardrobe” for the birch. Amazing, simply amazing and all because of the earth’s tilting that gives rise to a new hand of seasons.

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Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

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Never have I been so challenged as I have this past month. While my heart rate has had moments of acceleration, this test has been mostly cerebral. I’ve had to work feverishly to awaken latent brain cells and even nurture new ones in my nearly 65 year-old brain. Suddenly I’m learning how to memorize and deliver lines, and how and when to move onstage.

Please don’t misconstrue the following paragraphs as a stream of braggadocio prattle. I am merely trying to present some context about the level of challenges I’ve faced.

I’ve run class III whitewater, in loaded canoes, on remote northern rivers, hundreds of miles from help. I’ve backpacked the precipitous Napali coastline trail on the island of Kauai. I’ve carried a backpack at 14,000 feet along the Inca trail in the Peruvian Andes.

I’ve run a marathon, cycled a century (100-mile) bike ride and a year later cycled a 150-mile up and over Alaska’s majestic Coastal Mountain range. I’ve cross country skied the 55-kilometer Birkebiener ski race.

I’ve slept outside in late December with no tent when the mercury dipped to -38°F. I have been bitten by a piranha in a Costa Rica river. And have been 30 yards from a Yukon grizzly as it walked into our remote river camp.

But playing Pa Joad in the Grapes of Wrath has pushed all my limits. How would I memorize all the lines and movements. After the second night of practice, I was utterly despondent and any self -confidence was blasted away like an Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl. I wanted to quit. That night I slept miserably. To continue and fail would not only be embarrassing but it would let down a wonderful cast.

My wife, Nancy, is also in the play as Ma Joad. She is a musician who is seasoned in performing. She has played roles in other productions including three one-woman shows she wrote. While not entirely a rookie, I was in a couple of high school plays, a community rendition of A Christmas Carol and I wrote and performed a one-person show.

Nancy, being the excellent life coach she is, nursed me along with supportive words. And Jackie, the play’s director, handled me well, balancing feedback with needed criticisms and praise.

Her mantra to all of the actors is to “Move with intention.” These are wise words for living.

We are days from opening night. I’m fairly comfortable with my lines. In fact I have come to enjoy several of them for their humor and for the fact that I ain’t got to be proper in my delivery.

Not only have I had to learn poor grammar, but also I’ve had to explore “the whys” of Pa to understand his emotions and situations. Jackie has demanded, when necessary, that I toss out any Minnesota Nice delivery and release my “mean dad” voice.

To complicate things, we often deliver lines while changing props and scenery.

How will I ever remember to cross stage to my far right to pick up the toolbox after I deliver a totally unrelated line? Clearly, I’ve got more trailblazing to do in my brain.

But oddly enough, the stretching of neurons in my cranium has made me feel better and I do feel sharper. I am growing new connections in both my brain and with a cast of fine people.

Granted, moments before the opening night performance, my stomach will be home to roosts of butterflies. But I will be intentional and I ain’t gonna let it stop me.

The lesson learned here is more than perseverance. I need to be more mindful of being more intentional all the time and to walk confidently on to all life stages.

Has Your Family Tried Em?

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Last week, we hosted our East Coast friend Mitch for a couple of nights. He is also the  father-in-law to my daughter Maren. Employed in the food additive industry, he was making his maiden voyage to Minnesota for business.  When he shared he was coming we eagerly invited him to stay overnight with us.

To many who reside on the East and West Coasts, the Midwest, particularly Minnesota, is practically uncivilized. Mitch emailed a tongue-in-cheek response to our invitation. “ Ah—–you make it tempting but I have some concerns-just a few amenities I am wondering about like Wi-Fi, running water, indoor plumbing (not an outhouse), GMO foodstuffs and a beer.”

 He rented a car at the airport and with the help of a voice on his phone directing him right up our driveway, he was able to find our frontier sidewalk. Halfway up the walk,  I met his generous smile with a Minnesota bear hug.

“Wow! You guys live out in the middle of nowhere!” He paused to glance into the woods that surrounds our Basecamp and painfully exclaimed, “You don’t have any neighbors!”

Stabbing my finger to the west, I continued, “Petersons are over there, just across the field.” Spinning my pointing finger 180° to the east I said, “And through the woods over there, are the Nelsons.” With a final pointing adjustment I finished, “And over across that field in the woods are the Engdahls.”

 

Mitch got settled in. After enjoying a local craft beer in front of the flickering fire in the wood burning kitchen stove, I ladled steaming quaffs of select chunks of venison that had slow-cooked on the wood-fired stove with home-grown garlic, organic tomatoes and onions, home-baked beans, bourbon, red wine, and a host of spices into Viking-sized bowls. It was his first introduction to venison and he was mesmerized by Nancy sharing her story of bagging the deer with bow and arrow.

After a delightful evening of eating and consuming family news, I banked the fire with more wood and we headed up to bed.

Unbeknownst to him the following morning’s breakfast was actually inspired by Mitch.

A little background is required here. About forty years ago, after Mitch graduated with an entomology degree (the study of insects), he found employment in the field of pest control in New York City. I could go on with some horrifying tales he shared of his experience but those should be told by him.

Since I wrote several regional editions of Things that Bite (mostly insect biters) Mitch and I have shared a common bond with each other in our interest of insects. I was pleased when he mailed me an unexpected gift this past December. It was a recently published book titled Entomolgoical Gastronomy with the subtitle, A Gastronomical Approach to Entomophagy by Addison Holt. (Entomophagy is the practice of eating insects.)

Here is where most readers will pause with a “Yuck!” The idea of intentionally eating insects is particularly repulsive to most folks in our western society.

Last year, a United Nations report was released that is entitled Edible Insect Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. The extensive report explains why it might be time, with a global population of over seven billion people, and still climbing, to consider a new protein base of insects. Direct input costs and increased demands on natural resources cost far less in cultivating insect protein than  raising traditional livestock such as beef, pork or poultry.

According to a 2011 report in the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Review, more than ten times more plant nutrients are needed to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat than one kilogram of insect biomass. And it turns out that crickets are the hands down winner in water requirements compared to other conventional meats, eggs and plants.

With climate change forcing millions of refugees to move to already crowded areas, there are increased land use pressures, food shortages and environmental degradation. Moving towards a greater dependence on insect protein will lessen our demands on natural systems.

For our morning breakfast with Mitch it was fitting that we have flaky cricket biscuits to accompany our eggs and veggies. Knowing that there are several U.S. companies jumping on the insect-eating train, I had purchased the cricket meal online after learning that Mitch was coming to visit.

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In using the cricket powder you blend it with the wheat flour. If the recipe calls for a cup of flour you use 2/3 cup of flour with 1/3 cup of cricket powder. The result was a brown biscuit that was slightly darker than a whole wheat biscuits.

Without knowing anything of the biscuit’s ingredients, Mitch “yummed”over the hot biscuits. I suppressed a smile and wondered, “Hey Mitch, let’s see if this flour is GMO free.” I got up and retrieved the packet of cricket meal from the cupboard and brought it to the table for Mitch to read. His response in discovering the cricket ingredient, was not so startling as I hoped it might be. Instead he was genuinely intrigued.

We all agreed that the gluten-free, high-protein biscuits were very tasty with a distinct nutty flavor.

I have one biscuit remaining and now I am wondering if I should build a small shed where I can raise thousands of crickets for consumption. The benefits would be appetizing and sensorial. Hearing summer cricket music through an open bedroom window could be the perfect white noise to lull me to sleep.

Super Tuesday in the Big Quiet

 

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One of the benefits of spending days out in the bush is the privilege of forgetting about time and dates.

A caterwauling stomach is really the only timepiece required for knowing when to eat. And the frequency of stretching yawns pushes you towards your sleeping bag. Hours later, a tickling bladder is your silent morning alarm clock.

But I tend to write dates in my journal so I was aware that it was Tuesday, and not just any Tuesday: It was Super Tuesday. A handful of states were caucusing to decide how the hefty collection of presidential candidates would fare in the race towards their political party’s respective summer conventions.

We had pulled our gear into this wild stretch of lakeshore 6-7 miles from our truck. and the closest caucus from our BWCA winter camp was in Grand Marais, Minnesota, some 40 miles distant. But we nonetheless had a Super Tuesday. The candidates for being “Present of our Inner States” were of the boreal nature.

After a hearty breakfast we loaded three sleds with fishing gear, ice auger, extra clothes, survival fanny packs and plenty of lunch food. Our quiet caucus was nearly two miles away across a couple of portage trails.

Our spirits were high when we hit the first portage and discovered that no people had been here for a long time. The only tracks we found were the soft crisscrossing hops of snowshoe hares, the post-holing strides of an unhurried moose, and the single file tracks of a group of wolves.

I suspected that this was no Super Tuesday for the wolves who must spend most of their days in a state of perpetual hunger. Then I considered how my earlier breakfast served me well and my stomach was not hollowing yet.

After climbing a long forested slope we emerged onto a serene lake surface, broken only by the characteristic “dot-dash-dot” spoor of an otter as it loped a few bounds before sliding on its belly before returning to the loping gait.

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I wondered how does this aquatic weasel gain access to the brook trout calories beneath the 20+ inches of ice?

Our already Super Tuesday got even better after we augured a few holes through the ice and began the business of angling.

Nancy built a lively campfire to roast bratwurst. After a few hours of fishing we noted the arc of the west-wending sun so we packed up and headed back. Will the otter, whose tracks delighted us, discover our augured ice fishing holes and slip into its own version of an aquatic pantry?

While we had lightened our load of lunch we had added a brace of colorfully speckled brook trout. One was 16 inches and the other, a dandy at 21 inches.

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The day had not been so super for them.

The return trip was much faster now that we had both a downhill aspect and a broken trail to follow. With the sun painting the surrounding hills butter yellow and our shadows taking on the cold dark blue that precedes the black of night, we pulled our sleds for an hour and a half to get back to base camp.  The caucus continued behind canvas walls, just beneath a star studded sky that seemed to hang just out of reach.

I filleted the brookies quickly in the dim twilight, cut the orange flesh into pieces and hurried inside the tent. They swam their last swim in a frying pan spitting with hot oil and onions. While the fish fried, Nancy put the carcasses into plastic bags to render into a rich fish soup once we returned home.

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An hour later, fully sated around the small wood-burning stove, we wallowed in the day’s memories and looked forward to a Super Wednesday.

And most importantly, no one wondered aloud of anything remotely close to politics.

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To Fear or Not to Fear. . . That is the Question

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Something caused Miss Nancy to look up from our supper preparations.

“That’s a bear,”  she said. A moment passed for her to focus on the beast with the shoulder hump before she followed up with more vigor, “That’s a fucking bear!”

All eyes followed her gaze to the silver-backed  grizzly that was ambling towards our camp.

Our party of six canoeists was descending the remote Wind River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. We had made camp at the base of a long steep ridge that ran parallel to the river.

The moment we saw the bear, our fight-or-flight response kicked in. The amygdala, that almond-sized feature deep in the center of our brain, signaled the threat. This ancient part of our brain creates instant responses — sometimes good, sometimes bad.

In this case our prefrontal cortex vetoed the amygdala’s first response: to flee. The prefrontal cortex is located directly behind our forehead. It is the planning center where decision-making and mental processes take place. Unlike the primitive character of the amygdala, this forefront of the brain is a relatively late feature in the evolution of  humans. These two brain loci often wrestle with each other, sometimes causing delays or a poor decision. Ill decisions can result in serious injuries or death.

We knew that you never run from a grizzly bear. Our flight might trigger an attack. Knowing that, all of us merged together resembling a twelve-legged oddity.We picked up a nearby bear spray and realized that the other two cans were in the tents, some fifty yards away. So like a moving football huddle we slowly shuffled towards the tents and recovered the other two cans of high-octane pepper spray.

By this time, the bear was thirty yards from us. Nothing about the bear’s body language appeared threatening. . .yet.

Luckily for us and perhaps for the bear, a gust of wind caught a loosened corner of our tarp lean-to. It cracked loudly, like someone snapping a towel at the bear’s derrière. The sound sent the bear running.

For hours afterwards, we all experienced a welcome blend of feelings. There was a rush of pleasure tempered with a splash of nervous giddiness and sweet horror.

As I worked on writing the four regional editions of Things that Bite: A Realistic Look at Critters that Scare People, it became clear to me that we humans often wallow in unfounded fears.

While bear attacks on humans make the front page of newspapers across the continent, bees and wasps are responsible for far more deaths per year than bears. Their stings can trigger anaphylactic shock and potential death in approximately 2% of our population. Yet have you ever seen a front page story about a bee attack?

And now, as if bees and  bears  aren’t enough, we are fed daily doses of fear from the media. We are supposed to think that disease carrying mosquitoes and shadowy terrorists are lurking right outside our door. As a result we become paralyzed instead of exercising critical thinking skills in our brain’s prefrontal cortex.

I recently saw a clever photo of a sign that was altered by changing one letter.  It said, “Please Don’t Feed the Fears.”  I wish all media outlets would post that sign in every journalist’s cubicle.

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The reality is that while you are enjoying a summer parade you are statistically more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a terrorist, bee sting or a bear attack.

So get outside, take a deep breath, embrace your lightning quick amygdala and exercise your prefrontal cortex.

Embracing Winter

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Perhaps it’s my Nordic lineage that requires frequent doses of frigid temperatures and crystalline landscapes of white and deep snow. In my opinion this winter has been tainted with unseasonable warm weather and too little snow. It looks like General Winter has been outflanked by the tag team efforts of El Niño and Climate Change. One descriptor I would use to describe the last few months  is, well, feeble.

Yet, in the few days when  air temps have actually dropped, barely, below zero, it has been embarrassing to hear television news and weather folks feed the “wimpifying” of society. Listening to them you would expect that the impending weather might cause social collapse. Sadly, folks eat it up. Social networking conversations and grocery store and coffee shop banter often lean timidly towards the doomsday forecast. It’s pathetic that a simple forecast can lead to such trembling and hunkering down indoors.

We in the Midwest used to take pride in our stoic view of winter. Bud Grant wouldn’t be caught dead in a stocking cap and his team of Vikings would take to the football field in bitter temps with no sideline heaters. School girls  wore slacks under their dresses when going to school, took them off in the restroom and then put them on for their walk or bus ride home. And I’ll bet there were far more tongues stuck on metal playground equipment when kids played outside, regardless of the temps. More and more we are divorcing ourselves from winter’s  embrace.

Deep cold reminds me that I am very much alive. The squeak of sharp-edged snow crystals grating against each other as I walk out to fetch kindling. The burn of frigid air being drawn into my lungs. The sting of thawing fingers.

The week after Christmas we hosted our dear Canadian friends Beth and Dieter, visiting from their remote Yukon cabin located 25 miles north of the nearest road. Their roadway is the Yukon River. During the summer months they fetch supplies and mail from Dawson in their 19-foot Grumman square stern canoe powered with a small outboard motor.

During the winter, without a snow machine or a dog team, they snowshoe, ski or hike to get around. Dog mushers occasionally pass their home while running on the Yukon River to Eagle, Alaska.  One winter, when Beth had some health issues, Dieter scribbled “Help” on a piece of cardboard and placed it along the dog mushing trail. Within a day or so a musher came by and carried Beth into the medical clinic in Dawson.

Like most Canadians, they are unpretentious, polite and refreshingly understated. After finishing supper the discussion came around to Beth’s work as a fibre-artist. She occasionally flies across the Canadian Arctic, particularly to remote villages to teach her skills to others. She shared how a year ago she walked on the frozen Yukon River into Dawson to catch a flight the following day. Remember, it’s 25 miles to Dawson and winter days that far north are brief. As an afterthought she shared, “It was pretty cold.”

I asked, “How cold?”

Very matter-of-factly, she answered, “Minus 40.”

“Yikes!” was my wide-eyed response.

She played down the stroll by adding that Dieter walked with her for two hours to keep her company before he headed back to their small boreal cabin to tend to the fires while she was gone.

“In my pack of clothes and art supplies I had a spare pair of boots and a mess of moose meat. The trip took twelve and a half hours.”

She paused and smiled, “I have to admit I relished the hot shower at the Dawson hotel I stayed in that night.”

In northern Norway, the town of Tromsø has played host to studies looking at the role of winter on human attitudes. Folks in this community, located well above the Arctic circle, actually love the polar-dimmed landscape of winter.

Pessimism is one of the greatest contagions on the planet. If someone gripes and whines about the cold, it’s always easy to agree and before you know it everybody says the cold sucks.

I  urge you to rebel against others in your shivering tribe and sing praises of the quiet cold.  Backyard trees, shrubs and many
flowering plants depend on the mid-winter interval of cold to thrive in the summer. It offers them needed dormancy.

Winter is suited for our own sort of dormancy and quiet introspection. There is no better place to embrace the quietude than to get outdoors, at ALL times of the year and silently marvel at those abundant natural systems that make it possible for you and me to thrive.

 

Yeti Search

These Boots Are Made For Walking

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“Well, these boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do.”                                                                                                      -Nancy Sinatra, from her 1966 hit song, These Boots Are Made For Walking (written by Lee Hazlewood)

A little over a month ago, I strolled through unseasonal Pacific Northwest sunshine amidst the tall canyons of downtown Seattle. I could have sworn my faithful foot companions clutched my feet tighter when we entered the REI mothership store and passed ranks of stiff, new hiking boots. While those boots were awaiting to be chosen for the trials of the trail, my old Vasque Sundowners have tromped, scuffled, leaped, slogged, crept, climbed and waded well over a thousand miles.

 When my feet slide into the snug foot-formed stable of Vasque, I am one with them.  Donning them usually signals an adventure.

 My beloved Vasques moved into my house about eighteen years ago. Their maiden voyage was a “courting” backpacking trip with Miss Nancy in Ontario’s Pukaskwa National Park on the true north shore of Lake Superior.

I have just picked up the boots from the top of the kitchen woodburning stove. Like a dog curled next to the warmth, the pair of worn and scruffed boots were heated to better absorb the mink oil that I was about to massage into the leather.

 I rubbed slowly, working the oil into the dry leather. I was careful around a small tear in the leather on the left foot. The tear has been patched for the time being with a glob of Shoe-Goo.

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Repairs and maintenance are not foreign to my boots. Three years ago I mailed them off to a distant cobbler’s bench where a new pair of Vibram soles replaced the old ones. The originals were worn nearly as smooth as a creek’s stone. The boot doc told me that this would be the last pair of soles my boots could handle. Like a desert elder, my boots’ skin is showing its years in the accumulation of tiny cracks and wrinkles. And yes, I have been a steadfast applicator of mink oil. The leather uppers can only go so many miles before they tear or open up and release the sole.

I leaned into the stove’s warmth and kneaded the boots like a sinner worrying rosary beads. I reflected on previous adventures that we three old pals have had together. 

Did they form perfectly to my feet after being soaked in the icy rush of Skookum Creek in the Yukon Territory? Wearing wet boots until they dry allows them to  mold perfectly to my feet.

Or was it the frequent post-holing of my feet in deep snow patches on summer Yukon summits with names like Goat, Tally-Ho, Twin, Perkins, White, Caribou or Needle that soaked and stretched the foot wear’s hide to form so well on me?

If the frequent soaking was the Yang, then the parched heat of desert was the Yin. These boots navigated through slickrock speckled with sage, cacti and juniper in Utah’s Canyonlands. Here the boots became dulled with sandy dust. This country is conducive to cracks in boots and grander ones in the land.

Then there was the dizzying, eleven-mile hike along Kauai’s lush Napali coastline where sticky red mud clogged the lugged soles.  

The boots even made a pilgrimage to the old country in arctic Norway. I strolled among enormous boulders called erratics. Left behind after the last glacial sheets melted thousands of years ago, these massive markers lie like giant dice in the midst of a craps game and invoked a welcome humility.

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The Sundowners have been bloodied. After taking a fall on top of Needle Mountain, I broke a metatarsal in my left hand and my gashed right leg spilled blood down into my boot. It should be noted that both feet, firmly protected in my snug Vasque shells were fine, allowing me to take take the long descent down the mountain.  The blood of several whitetail bucks have spilled onto my boots as I field dressed the animals in northern Minnesota. 

I rubbed my boots and stared through the stove glass at the pulsing embers. I wonder who first tried tying some semblance of a shoe or protector on their foot. The earliest evidence can be found in the15,000 year old cave paintings in Spain and France. The illustration shows what appears to be animal skins bound to the feet.

Fast forward to the 20th century and most mountaineers were wearing boots with small nails sticking through the bottom. These hobnail boots provided better gripping in icy and slippery conditions.

In 1935, Italian alpinist Vitali Bramani lost six of his friends to exposure in the Alps when they could not get off the mountain due to severe weather conditions. The tragedy inspired him to develop a new lugged sole made from vulcanized rubber. It left an imprint like a waffle iron and gripped well in wet and dry conditions. Named after merging the first few letters in his birth name and surname, the patented sole was christened Vibram (pronounced VEEB-rum). 

When I retire these excellent boots, I’ll find another similar pair and introduce them to wild places and frequent massages. These are ingredients that assure a long partnership.

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wading the little missouri

Gramma’s Bodybuilder for Colds

 

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I was mired in the “mother-of-all-colds” when we returned home from a week of thanks and giving in Washington State. I can’t blame the airplane bugs for this one. I was already experiencing the harbingers of tough times ahead with a scratchy sore throat as I checked in at the airport. I felt some relief when the airline agent handling our solitary checked item went wide-eyed after asking what was in the old cooler that was wrapped in duct tape. “A dead turkey,” I replied.  But that’s another story.

For a week I suffered mightily. I fought my flagging health with naps, lots of water, tea, and perhaps too many vigorous hikes. Returning to Minnesota, I had another five days of middle of the night coughing jags that were so intense they squeezed tears out of my eyes.

When you lay in bed you have time to think. I recalled various cures such as hot chicken noodle soup, oil of oregano in hot water or a nightly shot of peppermint schnapps. I tend to eschew pharmaceuticals but I had even resorted to some tablets of something that phonetically sounded spooky.

As I lay semi-comatose, sketches of a life unfinished danced through my mind. One was like an angel-delivered epiphany as I recalled how my late Great Grandma Schmidt dealt with a cold.  She lived 104 years, but this tale took place when she was younger, in her spritely and sharp 90s.

I remember it quite clearly because Gramma, as the family called her, was battling a cough and cold. She had gone to the doctor and reported to him that the prescribed medication wasn’t working. She told the doc that she was going to go home and make a batch of Bodybuilder just like her mother used to make her when she was sick.

Curious, the doc asked about the ingredients of this miraculous potion. As she told him she wondered aloud if she could get all the necessary ingredients.

Like all honorable Grammas, this one never went to the liquor store and she wasn’t sure if they would have the needed rye whiskey. I don’t know if it was out of genuine curiosity or because he felt bad that his prescribed medicines didn’t work, but the doc called the liquor store to ask if they had rye whiskey. They did.

Born in Nebraska well before Henry Ford wheeled his first auto out, Gramma moved with her family to South Dakota when she was eleven.

I recall asking Gramma how she garnered the recipe for this healthy concoction. “Well,” she said, “I was seven or so . . . .no, no, I was six.” (Remember I noted her sharpness.) She continued, “My parents had just bought a new Round Oak Heater. You could load the firebox with coal before bed and that stove would hold heat all night. A pamphlet called Home Remedies and Household Hints came with that stove. And my mother recognized a recipe for ‘consumption’ because she had a bout with consumption when she was five years old in 1864. It was called Body Builder.”

Gramma explained, “Consumption could get in your lungs and begin to deteriorate your body.”

For centuries, “consumption” was used to describe any fatal wasting disease. In essence, the body was consumed by the unknown malady that most often affected the lungs. It wasn’t until 1882 that a German physician, Robert Koch, identified the bacterium that caused tuberculosis.

I was visiting my recovering Gramma when she showed me the Body Builder recipe:

½ lb. of fresh beefsteak, finely cut or ground with no fat

1 dram (or 1 oz.) of pulverized charcoal

4 oz. pulverized sugar or powder sugar with no cornstarch

4 oz. of rye whiskey

1 pint of boiling water

 Mix all together and let it stand in a cool place overnight. Take 1-2 tsp. of liquid and meat before each meal.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you choose to try this cold fighting remedy, you do so at your own risk.

Gramma smiled as she recalled recruiting her perky 75-year old daughter-in-law to drive her around town to pick up the Body Builder components.

First stop was the local butcher shop. Gramma closely watched the grinding of the fat-trimmed piece of beef. Then they went to the drug store for the pulverized charcoal. The local pharmacist knew her well and asked, “Elsie, are you going to make gunpowder?”

Both tee-totaling ladies felt “a little naughty” at the final stop, the liquor store. When the clerk set the fifth of whiskey on the counter, Gramma asked if she could have just half the bottle as she didn’t need that much. Regrettably she had to buy the whole bottle. “But,” Gramma reported with a grin, “the nice man gave us each a pen.”

While Gramma was relaying the story to me, she walked slowly over to her fridge and returned carrying a jar of what I thought might be a glob of oil sludge. She opened the jar and dipped a teaspoon in the Body Builder and offered a few drops for me. Not bad. Really. Not bad.

Then she shuffled over to her cupboard and carefully took out a nearly full bottle of rye whiskey. She unscrewed the cap and held the bottle up to my nose. With an impish, elderly smile she said, “Smells kind of strong doesn’t it?”

I knew she was feeling better when she said, “You know I’m a naturalist, I let nature dictate my life.”

Hmmm. I wonder if she added a bit of “Wisdom Builder” in her last batch?

 

 

 

Taking the “Ish” Out of Fish

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Dead animals are magnets for children and flies.

Nothing morbid about that since such a rendezvous is often one of the first encounters a child has with death. Try this scenario. A parent is walking with their child and they come upon a dead robin, rabbit, June bug, salmon or whatever. Rather than being curious about the moment and taking the opportunity to ask and receive questions, parents often command, “Don’t touch that!” or “Ick! Get away from that!”

Sadly, those utterances will serve as walls, rather than building blocks for learning.

Granted, if the child could get hurt then I understand the need to divert his or her actions. And I fully appreciate the need to teach good manners.  But all too frequently hawking parents are stifling their child’s curiosity. Ironically such parental hovering shackles a child from surrendering to pure wonder.

There is a fine line between managing children’s safety and letting them discover the magic of spontaneity.

More and more it seems that child-rearing has become an exercise in casting out broad nets of “don’ts and “be carefuls.” We are creating a culture based on mis-guided and phantom fears.

The irony is that we are now learning that exposing  kids to the plethora of germs is the healthier option than the ultra-hygienic path.  Research shows that exposing kids to germs  builds stronger immune systems and  diminishes problems with allergies and asthma.

Over Thanksgiving,  my family and I were in Bellingham, Washington.  It occurred to me that one of my all-time favorite students from my days of working at Warner Nature Center in Minnesota was now living with his family in the area. A little detective work and a phone call put us in touch.

Peter was 8 years old when he showed up at a class I taught about reptiles and amphibians. That began an eight year history in teaching each other. We fed off each other’s enthusiasm and to this day I only have to reflect on those days to recharge my own.

Shortly, we joined Peter, his wife Lucy and their children Grace, age 10 and Wilder, age 8 for a  post-Thanksgiving lunch of delicious planned-overs. We were actually helping them finish off a turkey they had raised and named “Thanksgiving.”

I was pleased to learn that the raising of the bird, the killing and butchering did not cause any family strife. These kids have been involved with home-grown food before and understood that plants and animals die for us to eat.

After eating and visiting we took a 20-minute drive to a small  fast running creek where Peter and his family had seen some salmon the day before. We parked and walked a short distance to the ten-foot wide flow, less than a hundred yards from the Pacific. Standing on a low railroad bridge over the water we could see a number of chum salmon directly beneath us  that were slowly making their way to their death.

These salmon are sometimes called “dog” salmon because of the long, curved canine teeth that the males develop during the spawning stage, the last hours of their lives. Some say their namesake is derived from the common practice of feeding these fish to sled dogs.

Both adult male and female chum return to the stream of their birth and make their way up the gravel-bottomed shallows. Here the female  prepares a shallow depression on the  bottom to lay hundreds or even thousands of eggs. The dominant male will shoulder his way close to the egg-laying female and release a thin milky cloud of sperm or milt. This act might be repeated several times before both the male and female are worn out and shortly thereafter die.

Spent salmon, those in their final hours of life, have lost their fresh color of living in the ocean. Now they become mottled, with patches of their body turning pallid and ragged. The fish literally begin to decompose while alive. In their final minutes of life, they lie on their sides, with only their gills slowly fanning the last drinks of oxygen from their home waters.

It was such a fish that eight-year old Wilder stood over in the creek shallows. Nearby, fresher fish surged upstream against the current and a handful of salmon carcasses were grounded in the shallows.

Wilder excitedly looked up at his dad, Peter, and asked, “Hey dad can I touch it?”

This would have been the moment that I dare-say most parents would respond with “No! Ish!” Any curiosity and potential for learning would be immediately skewered.

Peter paused a moment and answered, “You know, I don’t know Wilder.” Another pause and he asked his son, “Why don’t you listen to what your heart and gut say about it.”

Brilliant. He honored Wilder by giving him the chance to make the decision himself and in doing so communicated that he, as a parent, was perfectly fine with either choice. It was that simple.

Wilder leaned over the stilled fish and tentatively reached forward to touch it. He had barely poked its flank when the not-quite-dead fish found the energy to flop and struggle in the shallows, splashing a very surprised young boy.

Wilder pulled away and stood frozen.”It’s alive Dad!!”

Peter and Lucy had told both Grace and Wilder about the salmon’s cycle of life and death the previous day.  For children, death is hard to comprehend. Encountering death can be an opportunity for a quiet and reverent discussion that honors a child’s natural curiosity.

The sun was setting on that cool November afternoon and we all walked away with our own memories of what we had experienced. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilder’s fingers smelled a bit like fish. No problem, he had just found an amazing  story.

Surrender to Wonder 2

 

 

 

 

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