Back from the Dead


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Four generations of my Anderson ancestors are buried less than a mile south of our 100+ year old farmhouse. While my great-great grandparents framed and sheathed the house out of old-growth white pine, the landscape surrounding them was oak savanna, where oaks grew interspersed with prairie. To farm it would require the clearing of acres of oaks and other trees.

My great grandfather, Johan Erick did just that.

He worked for years to clear the land for his successful potato growing.  His efforts earned him the money to buy the first car in the township, a 1915 Buick, and the first gas generator to provide electricity to their farmstead.

Johan Erick, known locally as Erick, used various means to clear his farm. He used Dynamite was for blasting out stumps. The dilapidated dynamite shack used to stand, isolated from other outbuildings, a couple hundred yards east of where our house now sits. He also used a horse-drawn scoop to dig ditches in his failed attempt to drain a 3 acre wetland. The same horses were hooked up to stump pullers to yank oak stumps out of the ground. And the oaks that his crosscut saw dropped eventually made their way into the large cellar furnace to heat the big farm house.

His tireless efforts rendered the shaggy savanna and wetlands into an orderly farmstead.

Fast forward to the 21st century and that farm no longer exists. Most of that 200 acres is now Anderson County Park. The fields that my great grandpa worked so hard to clear have been replanted to prairie grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass, Canada wild rye, and side-oats gramma grass. Prairie flowers like large flowered penstemon, black-eyed susans, yellow coneflowers, bush clover, goldenrods, and wild bergamot paint the grounds in a collage of summer and late summer colors.

The long range plan of the park is to transform the land back into an oak savanna.  Great grandpa Erick would roll in his grave.

Recently I noticed that the bur oak outside our house was dropping its prodigious crop of   acorns on our roof. No oak in North America is capable of bearing acorns so long into its life as a bur oak. Some trees that have tallied more than 400 years are still producing good crops of seeds.

I knew it was time to go visit the oak-shaded Lutheran cemetery down the road. I rode my bike to pay my respects and to collect a couple handfuls of bur oak acorns.

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It was important that I collect the acorns from the big oak that shades my ancestors’ grave. I like to think that their long buried remains have nourished this tree. In essence, the acorns I gathered bear molecules of Great Grandpa Erick and his wife Ida. As I cycled back home past the big farmhouse they had built, I was glad to be on a mission to bring a bit of them back to the homeplace.

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During the mid-1990s, my  former ecology professor at the University of Minnesota, Dr. John Tester, was speaking to our local Audubon chapter about his then-recently released book, Minnesota’s Natural Heritage. He was passionate about climate change models that the University was involved in. I vividly recall him say, “If I were to plant trees in my yard I would now be putting in bur oaks. These oaks will be able to withstand a drier and hotter future.” But he acknowledged that most folks don’t have the patience required to watch a bur oak grow and instead choose weaker trees, like silver maples, poplars or willow, that can offer quick shade but far less strength and resistance to storms and dry spells.

Returning from the cemetery with the distinctive shaggy-capped acorns bulging in my pocket, I put my bike away and strolled through our small woods to our grassy property edge where it meets the park’s prairie restoration. I tucked acorns every 20- 30 yards into the soil, no deeper than a squirrel might bury one. I also planted some on my aunt’s adjacent property. She grew up with Great Grandpa Erick living in the same house and I suspected she wouldn’t mind that I tuck a few acorns into her fallow field that is wide open, except for scattered red cedars.

With over six decades behind me, I will certainly not enjoy the shade of these slow-growing trees. I hope to see the emergence of some of them.

I planted acorns close to the prairie line, hoping that someday maybe some acorns from these pioneer trees will push Great Grandpa Erick’s essence further on to the land he once toiled to clear.

Two pioneering species, my great grandfather and an oak, each have left their mark on the land. Yet inevitably, the perseverance of oaks and the natural world will outlast our need to have things go our way.

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Monarch Rescue

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Nancy and I found the phone message light blinking in the kitchen after returning from a 30-mile bike ride. The message was from friend, Sarah. She was scrambling to solicit folks to collect monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) that were in danger of being harvested in a combine. She explained that a nursery owned by Minnesota Native Landscapes was going to combine a three-acre field of swamp milkweed pods within 24 hours and that the milkweeds in the field held many monarch larvae.

According to their website, Minnesota Native Landscapes is a “full service ecological restoration services company that designs and installs naturalized landscape features that are biologically diverse, ecologically and historically accurate and aesthetically pleasing for corporate, municipal and private landowners.”

Within two hours of Sarah’s recruiting call, we pulled into the nursery.  We were met by the affable nursery production manager, Keith Fredrick, who drove us to one of the back fields on the 80-acre nursery. As we drove he pointed out various plots of native plants being cultivated. Some of the plants are grown for direct transplanting and others, like the milkweeds, are grown for seed production.

The deep purple of a back corner field caught my eye. It was meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis). Of the five species of blazing star in Minnesota, this one is the ultimate monarch butterfly magnet, a key nectar producer for adult butterflies.

Keith went on to explain that given all the recent publicity on monarchs and other pollinators, there has been a surge of interest in the public to procure milkweed seed. He added that next year this nursery will likely increase  production of various milkweed species to try and meet the demand.  He also remarked that the general public is not aware that there are several species of milkweed.

My favorite of the local milkweeds is the aptly named, butterfly weed in its flaming orange color. But on this day our focus would be on swamp milkweed.

Monarch butterflies can lay their eggs only on a milkweed plant. It doesn’t matter which species of milkweed, but it has to be a milkweed or nothing. The female is capable of laying about 300 eggs but she lays only one per plant to reduce feeding competition for the larvae.

I would argue that the monarch butterfly has snagged more media time this year than any other wild species in Minnesota, including the moose and walleye. Monarch populations have dropped 90% over the past 20 years.

In February of this year, the Center for Food Safety released an 80-page scientific report that made it clear that over the past two decades of increasing Roundup Ready crops, particularly corn and soybeans, in North America has nearly erased the sole source of food for the monarch butterfly. The dose of herbicides has made the genetically modified crops  “clean” of these supposed weed species. Sadly these chastised plants are the necessary nurseries for monarchs and other diverse insects.

Keith stopped the truck in front of the field. Very few of the broad rows of swamp milkweed were adorned with their characteristic pink flowers. Instead they bore the fruit, the slender pods, that would split and send their fluffy seeds to the winds if Keith waited too long to harvest them.

Soon Sarah and friend Vivian also showed up and we each slowly made our way, buckets in hand, down the rows looking for the monarch larvae. Within minutes our eyes were trained to pick  out the striped caterpillars in the foliage. We began to intersperse our conversation with exclamations of  “Got one here,” or “Here’s one!”

Delicately we removed the feeding larvae from the milkweed and set them in our buckets that were bedded with a thin layer of milkweed leaves.

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For the first time in their short lives, many of the collected larvae were NOT eating but were climbing up the inside wall of our buckets. Normally these striped larvae don’t have to worry about escaping since they spend their two weeks as a caterpillar eating and only eating. The larvae go from being the size of a rice grain to nearly the size of a child’s little finger. During that span they will literally shed their skin five times to accommodate the rush of growth.

I recall reading about an entomologist who calculated that if an eight pound human baby had the same growth rate as a monarch larvae they would, after two weeks, be the size of a school bus!

Earlier in the summer, this field would have been producing monarch butterflies that could be the parents of the larvae we picked. The big difference between those June adult butterflies and these eventual butterflies, is that this late August-early September crop of monarchs will not be mating and producing eggs until next spring after a winter high in the mountains north of Mexico City.

In the earlier summer generations of monarchs, the reproductive organs  start to develop while they are larvae. The development is driven by the presence of a  juvenile hormone. But monarchs birthed in late summer have low levels of the juvenile hormone and they will remain low until the following spring. Only then does the overwintering monarch complete its sexual development. This delayed maturity is likely a strategy that conserves energy and makes it possible for them to direct their energies into migrating thousands of miles and then quietly overwintering.

By the time we finished our rescue efforts, the five of us had easily collected over 300 caterpillars.

Driving home, Nancy and I stopped on a back road near a healthy patch of the common showy milkweed and  relocated the larvae. We ambled down the shaggy ditch, setting one caterpillar at a time on its own milkweed plant.

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It is humbling to believe that these pudgy little striped caterpillars contain the genetic material that will program  each monarch to lift off in less than a month and begin the long, dangerous flight to Mexico.

In comparison our 30-mile morning bike ride seems laughable.

Buena suerte amigos!! (Translation: Good luck friends!)

Quetico Heat Torches All Reason

 
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I knew it was going to be a barnburner of a day on our first portage of the morning.

The bite of the wide leather straps on my shoulders tried my patience and perseverance as I carried the faded, heavy Duluth pack over a long portage. The sparse path led us up a long  grade and then descended a steeper slope towards a valley bottom. On this longest of our carries, I also carried a smaller pack on my chest with paddles in my hands.  The burden of the two packs sandwiching my torso combined with the drag of gravity on the rocky uphill climb tested my morning mettle.

Four friends and I were making our way by canoe and portage further north into Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. It might be considered treasonous to declare our preference for Quetico over the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) but the primary reasons are that the country is more remote, has far fewer paddlers, and offers better fishing.

Quetico, like the BWCAW, is roughly 1 million acres. We paddled north from the BWCAW to the isolated Quetico Ranger Station where we had to check in with our Remote Area Border Crossing permits and pay the required nightly fee to camp on Canadian Crown land. The lone park ranger stationed there shared that as of August 1, only 11,000 visitors have entered Quetico this summer. In recent years this Canadian wilderness area has averaged 20,000 visitors per year. In contrast, the BWCAW is visited by approximately 1 million visitors over the same period.

Our destination was a favorite lake. . . the name is hard to pronounce so I won’t even bother. We have etched many memories of quiet, remote campsites and quality fishing on this lake.  It had been about a half dozen years since any of us had been there so this time we chose a slightly different route to explore some new country.  With an additional six years on our aging bodies, why we chose a route that included a longer portage than our familiar route was questionable.

I think the heat hijacked common sense.

I tried to ignore the sinuous, slow stroll of sweat wending its way down my forehead, stinging my eyes. I distracted myself from the pain by making a mental list of plant species that I could identify as I shuffled along the portage trail. Luckily the path meandered under the shade of the boreal canopy. Here I found some relief from the task in the company of thick white cedars. The undergrowth of arching ferns, quartets of bunchberry leaves, blue bead lilies with their single stalk of porcelain-blue berries and wispy scouring rush plants reminded me of a dripping jungle.  It was humid and hot, so hot that the rocks that I stepped around and over were sweating.

While the rocks wore a sheen of moisture on them, it was not actually sweat but water vapor. At night the rocks cool down and then as they warm in hot morning sun, the water vapor on them condenses and resembles a glow of sweat.

The heat can initiate a madness that is unlike the anguish of a numbing cold encounter. Our escape from this boreal inferno was to languish repeatedly in the water. We stripped naked and launched in non-Olympian dives from exposed bedrock into the cooler lake waters.  Each time the pallid swimmer surfaced, he exhaled in bliss.

Portaging, paddling, fishing and swimming require energy and we found rest in our trio of hanging hammocks. It was so hot that we spent a fair amount of time napping and reading from our sleep swings. The heat drove us to our fabric berths so frequently that we feared they might wear out.

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If it had not been for the pesky mosquitoes at dusk, we would have slept overnight in our hammocks. Driven to our tents, we laid on top of our sleeping bags rather than in them.

A few hot days later, as s we paddled back toward civilization, we had to yield the right of way on the lake to allow a swimming red squirrel pass in front of our canoe. Generally not considered an aquatic mammal,  the little rodent easily swam  across the 200-yard wide lake channel. Did it also enjoy the naked, cooling swim?

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It was likely a young squirrel  dispersing  to new grounds.  As they age, some young squirrels explore areas outside their mother’s range. Juvenile squirrels must establish a territory and gather enough pine cones in their middens to survive the winter. Dispersing squirrels are highly vulnerable to predation and less than one quarter of them will survive their first year.

Leaving the squirrel behind us, we approached another portage. And before we loaded ourselves with gear, we all took long swigs of water in preparation for another walk among sweating rocks.

 

Hail to the Lawn Insurgents!

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Who decides if a plant is “bad” or “good”? Is there an objective czar of plants who flips thumbs up or thumbs down?

It’s certainly not the fat bumblebee that leap frogs in its bobbing flight from pungent blossom to pungent blossom. It’s not the honeybee that is intent on gathering nectar to convert to honey. Nor is it the monarch butterflie that flits from blossom to blossom to reenergize itself after its lengthy migration.

Recent news reports are informing us of the seriousness of the downward plunge of populations of pollinating insects like bumblebees, honeybees and butterflies. These are the same pollinating insects that make it possible for you and I to enjoy one-third of all the fruits and vegetables we eat.

We have vilified plants that are far more valuable than a bland dose of Kentucky blue grass. And yet, the average homeowner spends hundreds of dollars in applying supposedly “good” poison on the same lawn that their children and pets play on.

Americans have a puzzling love relationship with manicured landscapes. In fact an area slightly larger than the state of Pennsylvania is mowed in our country! Consequently it’s no surprise that the average American spends 40 hours per summer mowing a lawn.* And I bet that most folks sit on a lawn mower that powers them through the chore so there is little-to-no exercise there.

I would rather spend those extra 40 hours fishing, riding my road bike, or laying in my hammock with a good book and a gin and tonic. Forty hours enslaved by a stinking and loud lawn mower is not only torturous but it is downright stupid.

And if you want to buy that boat or set of nice golf clubs you could easily save the money you use in buying gas for your lawnmower by mowing either less area or pushing a reel mower. More gas is consumed EACH year in the United States just for lawn maintenance than the nearly 11 million gallons of fuel spilled by Exxon Valdez in 1989.

This is beginning to sound like a nice sequel for the movie Dumb and Dumber.

Let’s assume that you mow your lawn for 25 years. That means you will spend 1000 hours or nearly a month and a half of your one wild and precious life riding or pushing a lawn mower. Crazy!!

When we think of a lawn I am guessing that the image most folks conjure is a blanket of trimmed Kentucky bluegrass. We are brainwashed that any other insurgent plants are the villains of such a bland green lawnscape.

I would like to know who decides that creeping Charlie and dandelions are “bad”?? Clearly the loudest warnings come from those who stand to gain from your purchasing power. Lawn owners apply more herbicides and pesticides per capita than farmers dump on agricultural lands.The ads for lawn care chemicals seduce folks into thinking that a yard has to attain a certain standard.

Biological diversity brings a richness to the natural community. And I would argue that ragged yards with carpets and patches of various plants brings more real value than a cosmetic perceived value.

You might wonder if I mow my lawn. I do. But over the years our lawn has shrunk and between a push gas mower and a push, non-gas, reel type mower we get the job done in 45 minutes. I have tracked our mowing and we mow our yard less than 20 times per spring-early fall.

That means we are mowing fifteen hours per summer. Looks like we better put in more flower gardens to reduce the mowing surface.

In the meantime I am going to revel in the heavy aroma and tea made from the leaves of Creeping Charlie and continue to munch salads and breakfast burritos augmented with dandelion greens while watching the bouncing bees as they loop from plant to plant.

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Spinach considered one of the top ten superfoods is notably inferior in delivering nutrients than the maligned dandelion. Compared to spinach, dandelion leaves have eight times more antioxidants, two times more calcium, thee times more vitamin A, and five times more vitamin K and E.

We should be enhancing our yards with less grass. I urge you to  turn your back on the manicured look to encourage the likes of such nutritious and beneficial insurgents as creeping Charlie and dandelion.

Who can possibly be against more hammock time, fishing or golf?

 

* According to: Barth, C. (2000). Toward a low input lawn. In T.R. Schueler & H.K. Holland (Eds.), The practice of watershed protection (Article 130). Ellicott City, MD: Center for Watershed Protection.

Free Range and Minnesota Organic Turkey

Breakfast gobbler

 

During the first two days of the spring turkey hunting season, I helped my 89-year old father-in-law, Dave, try and get a gobbler. I did the calling and while we managed to see a half dozen hens, only one longbearded gobbler came relatively close. He passed behind our blind some 40 or so paces away in the brush. He was intent on following a live hen, rather than be tempted to check out our faux hen decoy.

We hunted for hours and at times there was too much chuckling coming from our blind as Dave told tales and jokes that triggered our muffled outbursts. Dave is  a joke savant and it only takes the mention of a subject and he will more often than not, pull a joke or limerick from his 89-year old brain to share with anyone around him.

We were whispering about the joys of eating wild game when he shared a story of a nephew who travels back to Minnesota from his Los Angeles home every November to hunt whitetail deer.

When he is lucky enough to fill his deer tag, he will ship venison home to the west coast. He enjoys cooking and entertaining his non-hunting California guests with his culinary skills. His urban friends often exclaim wonderously about his culinary skills and will ask him, “What kind of meat is this? It’s delicious.”

His answer, “Minnesota, free range, organic,” satisfies everyone with unquestioning blissful nods.

So on the morning of the third day of our turkey season, I went by myself to a neighbor’s woods. The day was clear and flirting with temperatures around freezing. After settling down in the dawning woods, I used my mouth call to try and provoke a gobbler to answer.

Nothing. Only the raucous bugling and clattering calls from nearby sandhill cranes. After twenty minutes of watching the sun climb out of the east horizon and occasional yelping on my part, I heard a distant gobble. Ahhh. . . a response! It always warms me a bit when a gobbler answers my rendition of a hen turkey’s yelps.

I called again and a closer hearty gobble erupted through the morning chill. Clearly he was on his way towards me. Sure enough, in less than two minutes I saw movement out in front of me from inside a ragged brush line beneath some tall red pines. I was pleased to see not one but two mature male turkeys or toms and no hens.

Without a hen, they would be more susceptible to my lone hen decoy. The larger tom paused to look my way and consider my decoy, but at roughly 40 yards, I was not comfortable in making a killing shot so I waited for him to move in closer. In seconds he decided to move on and my heart sank as he dipped into some brush.

I fretted momentarily that I might have missed my only opportunity but then I comforted myself in thinking that they were not alarmed and that they might be back.

The pair of gobblers moved on a short distance, slightly behind me and to my left. The continued gobbling as a duet, particularly when I gave a soft yelping call.

Suddenly I caught sight of a third turkey moving out in front of me following the same route the gobblers had taken. It was a hen. She paused to give a dismissive look at my unmoving decoy and moved steadily toward the two gobblers.

Less than a minute after she passed my set-up, the male’s gobbling intensified. Clearly the hen had been spied and now they were in full chorus with their lusty gobbles.

I realized I would have to be patient or try and attract the hen. I’ve had luck in the past calling an aggressive hen call known as cutting when I wanted to attract a hen or hens to by decoy. It always feels so out of place to rip off a loud cutting call followed by excited yelps. Hen turkeys have their own pecking order and sometimes upon hearing an aggressive cutting call, a dominant hen will make her way over to check out who the “new girl” is in her neighborhood. And with luck if she comes, she will inadvertently troll along any male suitors.

So I cut like crazy and sure enough within a couple of minutes I glimpsed the hen making her way towards me with two strutting, fan-tailed toms following her like love struck groupies.

It was 6:40AM when my shotgun erupted erasing the morning quiet and a gobbler’s life.

Less than an hour later I was dicing an onion, garlic and mincing the fresh heart, liver and gizzard from the turkey. Nancy came down the stairs from our bedroom still yawning and commenting on the blend of smells that pulled her from bed. She could hardly believe that I was already back with a bird.

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In short order a couple handfuls of freshly picked nettles were sautéed and bowl of cracked eggs were stirred. Soon we were sitting down to a skillet of “Minnesota Free Range, Organic Nettles and Gobbler-Infused Scrambled Eggs.” A proper thanks and acknowledgement was made for the gifts of the turkey and nettles.

And all was good.

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Eight of us, four Canadians and four Americans, paddled down the taupe- colored Green River in Utah for nearly half a dozen days before making camp at the head of Horsethief Canyon. This was said to be one of the very canyons that famed train and bank robbers, Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid, had found refuge with their shadowy cohorts.

Even though it was mid-April, it was hot and after the tents were put up, we sought shady shelter to eat some lunch before heading switching footwear and heading up the meandering sandy wash that snaked up a canyon.

A large boulder cracked and worn from millions of summers and winters had once tumbled and settled, like a solitary feature at the base of rocky and steep slope. It’s tapered aspect angled over us like ramp and made a perfect sun shelter for our camp kitchen area. And we were not the first to pause here.

Stippled chest high is a small herd of sheep, desert bighorn I suspect. The artist had tapped the images hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Was it a Fremont culture native or Anasazi hunter who paused to create this mysterious billboard of sorts? Was the intent of the boulder art to give a message to followers? Or perhaps it was rendered out of respect for the game that nourished “the people.” I kind of like to think the native had found himself resting in the shade of the boulder and was simply expressing his creativity for no reason other than to do some stone doodling.

If the thicket of thieves had sequestered themselves in this remote canyon hideout, had they paused here to ponder the petroglyphs?

Tom lunching with visions

Horsethief Canyon was one of several of Butch’s favorite hideouts. While it did not have the notoriety as his remote Robbers Roost further north up in the San Rafael Swell in Utah, Horsethief Canyon is in rugged and isolated country that is mostly described as desert and sinuous canyons.

With water bottles filled and stowed in our daypacks we began hiking up canyon. The creek soon disappeared beneath the loose sand and we soon found ourselves weaving amongst impressive water-smoothed boulders. While the land wears its aspect of desert impressively, I couldn’t help but wonder how a rainstorm could turn this canyon into a mighty rapids of water rushing to merge with the Green River. With the azure sky overhead, I was confident we would not have to clamber up any canyon slopes to avoid any deadly, surging washout.

We were not alone inside the deep sandstone walls. Tracks of small desert dwellers squiggled their hieroglyphics up and down the washout banks. Small lizards were common sights and Say’s phoebes flittered ahead of us, always keeping their distance from us.

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I wondered if the sandy score of footprints and tail drags came from a lineage of snakes and lizards that might have skittered from Butch and Sundance. My guess is that this canyon acts somewhat like a biological bank where species can remain undisturbed from human alterations to their homes.

An hour of hiking up canyon we delighted in finding small pools of fresh, clear water. The pools beckoned us to take a dip, but with a mysterious bend in the canyon up ahead we pushed on to explore for signs of Butch and Sundance.
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With the day waning we finally halted at an immense water-smoothed sandstone bowl. We could only imagine the torrents of water that must pour through here, rushing to join the Green River.

A raven called from up canyon. Knowing the raven’s importance in many native myths and stories, particularly as a magician or trickster, combined with Butch Cassidy’s love of tricking and disappearing from the law, I couldn’t help but wonder if Butch’s spirit now flies black and still haunts prickly, rocky, and heated hideouts.

Snacking on a Pinch of Ants

 

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Spring weather came swooping in and whittled the snow away in just a matter of days. Before the snow was gone, I had taken my woodcutting tools into he woods for an hour or two of putting up firewood. After cutting a large windfall oak, I turned off the growling chain saw, took off my helmet and began the maul work of splitting the oak. In a short time I was hatless and into a rhythm.

As I worked my way through the increasingly larger rounds of oak, towards what had been the base of the tree, I paused, feeling the satisfaction, of watching the oak split into two pieces. As it flew apart, the soft snow on the ground became peppered with winter dormant carpenter ants that tumbled from their upended cold weather sanctuary. I set the maul down to cool off. The maul needed no cooling but I certainly did.

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I leaned close to inspect the stilled insects. Not a movement from any of them. I felt a little guilty exposing them to winter. Tumbling out of their gallery, they would either die ofexposure or from foraging small birds, like chickadees and downy woodpeckers, that sometimes are attracted to the “thunks” of my rising and falling maul. They have learned that a pile of freshly split oak oftentimes reveals calories in the form of insects.

Feeling a slight pang of hunger, I reached over and took a good pinch of ants and without hesitation popped them into my mouth. When eating insects in a society that rarely intentionally eats these arthropods, it is best to not dilly dally and just go for it. The crunch, crunch, crunch of my molarsrendering these insects to a very quick death was followed but an explosion of flavor that is not unlike a powerful Sweet Tart candy.  The blended sour taste with the sweet flavor danced on my tongue and actually served as a rejuvenating break during my chores.

Carpenter ants are classified in the family of ants called Formiciidae. The origin of the family name comes from formic acid which, in my mini-dose, gave me the blast of “ultra-sweet-tartness.”

Formic acid plays an important role for the ant’s defense. It is an effective deterrent for aggressive threats to the ant. Some biologists wonder if the bird behavior known as “anting,” where the bird grasps ants in their beak and rub them all over their feathers, is an action that rubs formic acid on them to help keep parasites off the birds.

 

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Besides the jolt of surprising and energizing taste, I was ingesting a form of food that is energy and nutrient dense. Many insects are equal if not superior to conventional livestock, eggs and even milk in delivered energy and garnered nutrients.

Intentionally consuming insects this is abhorrent to our upstanding picnic practices. At the picnic table we often flutter our hands and fingers over heaping summer bowls of potato salads and other delectables to keep curious insects away from our outdoor feasts. Perhaps we should be attracting the fresh “toppings” to enhance our cuisine. But habits are hard to break and we are products of our upbringing.

Eating insects, known formally as entomophagy, is not a common practice in Western Society but a recent UN Report entitled Edible Insects Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security estimates that two billion people on the planet regularly eat nearly 2,000 species of  insects. The report’s Forward lays out the premise of the report.“It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accomodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.”

The word insect derives from the Latin word insectum, meaning “with a notched or divided body”, literally “cut into sections”, from the fact that insects’ bodies have three parts. (Head, Thorax and Abdomen) Given that these small livestock, are more efficient at creating protein than beef, with far less global impact on natural resources such as water and acreage required, we might do well to lean towards insectum. . . or more aptly put, “insect-Mmmmmmmm.”

According to the UN Report,the most commonly consumed insects globally are beetles (31%), caterpillars from butterflies and moths (18%), bees, wasps and ants (14%), grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13%), cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers scale insects and true bugs (10%), termites (3%), dragonflies (3%), flies (2%) and all other orders (5%). 

With more than 12,500 species classified and more out there, ants are the most numerous insect group in the world.

World renowned biologist and author, E. O. Wilson, has spent over 60 years at Harvard University studying ants. He is fond of reminding students that ants work together, share food and send their elders into battle to protect their young. Furthermore, these amazing insects make up more than one quarter (25%) of the world’s insect biomass. And almost unbelievably, Wilson and his colleagues estimate the world’s ant population, estimated at one million trillion at any one moment weigh roughly the same as all human beings.  

In Minnesota the largest ant species are generally one of the several species of carpenter ants. Carpenter ants are so-called because of their habit of excavating wood to make their galleries and egg-laying chambers. These social insects DO NOT eat wood. They are primarily insect eaters.

We have found a few renegade carpenter ants that patrol our kitchen for bits of sweet syrup, jelly or honey. These innocent trespassers were likely carried in by us when we hauled in armloads of firewood. Once indoors, they warm up and awaken from their winter dormancy and begin to explore for food.

A couple hundred yards away from my wood cutting and ant-feasting is a wrecked birch tree that has been excavated by a pair of pileated woodpeckers all winter. Carpenter ants are essential to the survival of these largest of Minnesota woodpeckers. The long troughs carved out of standing trees are oftentimes near the base of the tree where the colony of ants tends to have their primary or parent colony. Outlying smaller colonies are called satellite nests.

For the time being the local pileated pair need not worry about the slow, two-legged anteater. He has the luxury of exercising his curiosity more than foraging for his food.

A Bread Economy

bread on tabletwo loaves on racktwo loaves on rack

bread on table

bread on table

While shuffling along the potluck supper line at my cousin’s wedding I paused frequently to scoop. I found myself worrying that the surface area of my plate was not equivalent to the desires of my palate. I had to choose carefully as the choices and arrays of foods were mighty.

I came to the section of breads and there was a label that caught my eye. “Grandma Fran’s Orange and Anise Rye Bread.” The baker, a man named Duane, known to me and most others as “Whitey” is my uncle’s brother. He lives only a handful of miles northwest of our house. So given that I know the baker and I remember the late Grandma Fran as a woman easy to smile, I gently placed a slice on my heap of celebratory grub.

Half an hour after eating my small feast, I spotted Whitey so I waddled over to him to commend him on his bread baking skills. It turns out he has been baking the bread for years and has built up quite a reputation in the community. I soon learned that his offerings always disappear whenever his church has a bake sale.

“Come on over sometime and I’ll give you a lesson,” he offered. Of course I smiled and nodded.

In two weeks time, I was standing next to Whitey in his kitchen. We were surrounded with sacks of flour, bowls, measuring cups and spoons, graters, mortar and pestle, a pastry sheet to keep the mess of kneading bread off the counter.

But before we began he insisted on a ceremonial fueling. He poured us cups of coffee and what else . . .two pieces of toasted rye bread with Whitey’s rhubarb/strawberry jam.

Soon he had me grating orange peel, grinding anise seeds, preparing the yeast, mixing molasses into the blend of sugar, powdered milk and molasses before adding the rye and white flour.

He explained that as a young man he had badgered his mother into teaching him how to bake her famous bread. Whitey was the youngest of four sons, so it was likely that Fran was pleased that he showed an interest.

Whitey and I each worked on a batch of five loaves of bread. Finally it was time to let each of our batches sit in a warm place to rise for a couple hours. My rotund flour mass sat tucked in a big covered Tupperware bowl in a warm bath of water in the laundry sink.

By this time we had worked up a hunger again and so Whitey fed me another of his signature items . . .northern pike fish cakes. Excellent.

After eating, things had progressed with the flour and we began the physical part of baking bread. No machines here, Grandma Fran would never approve. We each dumped our flour in front of us, rolled up our sleeves and began the work of adding flour and kneading.

“More flour,” barked Sgt. Whitey. “You’ll know when you are there.”

I could feel the pleasant to almost painful workout my forearms were getting while I dug my fingers and kneaded the flour.

“More flour. You’ll know when you are there.”

And so I kept on. I was getting into a groove like when you are on a long arduous run or bike ride. You find a zone where you are able to displace the pain.

“More flour. You’ll know when you are there.”

My brow was breaking out in a sweat line and I wondered if the batch of bread would be tainted if I added more salt that dripped off my forehead. Luckily Whitey called a halt. We then divided our respective batches into five equal loafs. He showed me the geometrical trick in dividing a large round of bread dough into five similar bodies.

We sculpted and primped our loaves before placing them carefully in the greased round pans. Each rounded, “smooth as a baby’s butt” loaf was covered with dishtowels and placed in a slightly warm oven.

By now we needed to cool down so we bundled and booted up to head outdoors. It was on this stroll that I learned another value of baking Grandma Fran’s bread.

Whitey directed me to his evaporating cooking set-up when he boils down his maple syrup in early spring. He showed me how he built it up with cement blocks that he had procured a few miles away near Weber.

“Guess what I paid the guy for the cement blocks?”

I shrugged and Whitey smiled, “Some loaves of bread.”

Then as he showed me the welded steel door that is part of his wood burning syrup-cooking operation. It was custom done.

“Guess what I paid the welder for his work?”

Another smile, “Yep, some fresh bread.”

Strolling to his garden we noticed some deer tracks. This brought up the subject of hunting. Whitey has a yellow lab that has been his primary pheasant hunting partner. Surrounded by farmland, sloughs and woodlots, Whitey is able to secure permission to hunt on neighboring lands. He never leaves his house on a day of hunting without several loaves of bread in the back seat of his truck. He smiles when he shares that he is often urged to return for a hunt.

He has even bartered bread for other foodstuffs. At the above -mentioned church bake sale, there is a woman who makes equally legendary homemade pecan pie. They always make sure they keep one of their baked items from the sale table so they can exchange them before heading home.

We returned into the house, delicately lifted the bread shrouds away and then put them into the now-hot oven for half an hour or so of baking.

I went home with five treasured gifts of manna that night. I’m thinking of giving Whitey some . . . . No, that won’t work.

 

Just days ago, maybe a month after my lesson, I tried my first attempt at baking without my mentor at my side. I’m so proud of my efforts that I took photos.

Yesterday we got a fresh dumping of 3-4 inches of snow and wouldn’t you know my good neighbor had me plowed out before I could get out and shove snow around. So even though the wind-chill is a bit nippy, I’m going to take one of my loaves of bread for a one-way walk.

Thanks for the lessons on bread baking and generosity Whitey.

 

 

 

 

 

His mom, Frances Sundberg, moved with her family from central MN when she was 18 years old,

Didn’t take long and she was dating a native I. Falls fellow named “Swede”Clarence Sundberg.

She had four sons. So taught Whitey how to bake the bread after he badgered her on how to bake it.

She never measureded out ingredients. A bit of this a bunch of that and son on.

 

First time he baked he kept asking, “Isn’t that enough flour?” More flour.

“You’ll know when you’re there.”

 

Hurts so Good

cheek pull

-art by Jeanie Tigullaraq, Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada

I had been outside less than two minutes and now my naked-ape fingers were numb. Okay so at -10°F and a stout north wind,  I should know better than to go out and dump ashes from the kitchen wood burning stove without wearing any gloves or mittens. Admittedly I did pause to take in rising sunshine and draw in a “good morning” deep breath of air. That inhalation was also a wake-up call that the day was nippy and not suited for an ill-clad encounter.

I hurried back to the house from the frozen compost pile, stopping to clutch a couple pieces of firewood from the wood shed. My hands that were quickly becoming rigid claws rather than flexible and tactile digits.

Back indoors, I hovered over the stove. I clutched a couple water-polished pieces of Lake Superior basalt that I keep on top of the kitchen woodburning stove. They are ideal hand and foot warmers. As warmth seeps back into my pain-riddled fingers, I grimaced as I grunted lyrics from John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurts so Good.

Rolling the black silky smooth stone over in my hand I couldn’t help but marvel at how traditional Inuit hunters could tolerate existing and even thriving in Arctic conditions without a stick of wood to throw on a warming fire.

Three weeks ago I frostbit three of my fingertips while out cutting and splitting firewood. The tips on three fingers of my right glove had worn through and exposed the flesh on my fingertips. Over the past few days that damaged skin peeled away and I am equipped with new epidermal coverings on the tips.

Such a mistake in Arctic conditions could be fatal. I stand in awe of the Inuk hunter who would stand on his small swatch of polar bear fur to add both warmth to his feet and make it quieter for him to shuffle. Cold air and snow crystals combined can make for a loud squeaky ruckus. And if you are trying to remain silent above a ring seal’s breathing hole in the frozen sea ice you must remain as quiet as a falling snowflake. You need to hear the muted exhale of a seal as it pauses in its underwater excursions to catch a breath at one of its breathing holes. Shaped like upside down ice cream cones, the breathing hole on the frozen sea allowed the seal to catch a breath. With the primitive harpoon poised at the tip of the inverted cone, the patient and quiet hunter will hear the seal’s appearance in the inverted ice funnel and drive the harpoon towards the seal.

Bending over at the waist, the hunter, resembled a frozen underling bowing to the vast, desolate and frozen landscape. . . sometimes for hours. There are stories where hunters would diligently wait at the hole for the quiet exhale of a seal for over two days. No screen of trees or walls to divert windchilling winds that can easily steal your life. This was not recreational seal hunting, this was grocery shopping. Their family’s survival depended on their hunting skills and their perseverance.

Hunters were covered in layers of caribou hide, one layer, fur to the inside against the skin, and a second outer layer, the parka, with the fur exposed to the weather. The most successful hunters could deal with adversity, suffering and pain.

.How could they do it?

Developing a high tolerance of pain was a valued and necessary attribute. So it is not unusual that as children many of the games they played helped them develop skills and a mindset to hunt and deal with pain.

Sometimes, I wish we would inject only a modicum of suffering into children’s activitys. With electrical games the only suffering comes with strained thumbs as they type and peck across the keyboard. Sad.

Consider the traditional Inuk child. They learned physical games that would help them endure pain and suffering. A marshmallow might best describe modern games of our more urban society. On the other hand the piece of smooth basalt is a better symbol of the games of nomadic hunter-gatherer children. They had to be strong and tough while understanding the polished survival benefits of working together.

One Inuk game emulated two musk oxen bulls. Each child got on all fours and faced each other. Rather than ram into each other they carefully placed their foreheads together and on the signal, they simply pushed until one pushed the other away or one would give up.

Another game, called the mouth pull, would have two youngsters stand side by side. Before the game would officially commence, both participants would reach their arm around the others shoulders and then reach up to their opponent’s mouth. Each player would hook one or two of their fingers into the corner of the other player’s mouth and hook the cheek. At the signal players pulled their opponent’s cheek until one person surrendered.

To learn seal anatomy and how to do with less, children were given a leather pouch filled with the bones of a seal’s flipper. They were instructed to reach into the bag and pull out as many bones as they could grab. Once they had their hand full, the drawstring of the pouch was tightened around the child’s wrist making it impossible to pull out all the bones they wanted to pull out. With only a few bones, they had to lay their retrieved bones in the configurment of the seal’s flipper.

Nothing soothes pain like laughter. Consequently the laughing contest was an important balm. This game, my favorite, was best played during social gatherings. Participants pair up and face each other, usually holding each other’s hands. At a signal everyone begins to laugh. The person who laughs most robustly and longest is the winner. It is not unusual that soon everyone is out of control in a continual flow of laughter.

This simple game could very well be the anecdote for politicians. Imagine these hucksters paired up with a member of the opposite political party, holding hands and then laughing. Who knows where it would lead.

inuit

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