Food Close to Home

spuds

Yesterday we butchered Nancy’s deer.

This was the second deer in as many years that she tagged with her archery license. Her hunt required lots of practice, learning about the life of a whitetail deer, looking for deer sign (without the help of a game trail camera) and then putting in hours of practicing stillness on various deer stands. And I might mention that she really doesn’t like climbing up and sitting on small platforms that are nearly three times higher than she is tall.

The young doe died quickly after a single arrow shot and Nancy gutted it with little help.

About two years ago, Nancy was exasperated with the deer come into the garden under the cover of darkness and pilfering her tender crops.

“It makes me want to hunt deer,” she hissed.

“Maybe you should.” I replied.

“It would increase our odds of putting venison in the freezer and besides, I think you might like the zen state of archery shooting. It can be very focusing and at the same time relaxing.”

I suggested she  bow hunt since she could get out into the woods during the fine days of autumn rather than later in the fall when the temps grow colder and snowfall sometimes makes an appearance. Nancy doesn’t do well with sitting still in cold weather.

While I use the tools of bow and arrow for deer hunting, I choose to use a recurve bow with no sights or trigger releases. But I suggested she buy an easier to use compound bow that uses a sight and a trigger for releasing the arrow. The compound bow uses a a system of cables and pulleys to bend the limbs of the bow. It makes it much easier for the archer to draw the bow back as far as possible and take timeto relax and aim at the target.

Several months later she bought a second hand  bow, from our friend and avid archer, Willy, co-owner of Full Draw Archery. He took time in making sure the bow and arrows fit her needs. Willy showed her several trigger releases to choose from and of course she chose a pink camo release.

Last year was her first year in attempting to kill a deer. As I mentored her, I recall one question in particular. “What if I cry when I kill a deer?”

My immediate response was that she should absolutely feel remorse. Crying is totally okay. More than once I have walked up to a freshly killed deer and have had tears well up. Killing an animal is not an easy act. You look at the animal as its eyes glaze over and you realize that only minutes ago this was a noble and fully alive animal. And now you have killed it.

However, I would argue that the charge of murderer can apply to anyone who chooses to eat meat.  I am also complicit in the murder of the convenient rotisserie chicken at the grocery store or the salmon I order in a restaurant. Consequently Nancy and I prefer to eat meat that we have had a direct and intimate relationship with rather than that which is wrapped in plastic or shrink wrap.

As the hunter/executor, I believe you have the obligation to treat the dead deer with the utmost respect. For me it always means a minute or so of silence and reflection with my hand resting on the animal before I begin to the task of gutting and transporting it home to hang.

I added, “The day you don’t feel remorse for killing any game of any size, you should likely not hunt any more.”

So it was not surprising when I found Nancy sitting on our porch steps crying  the evening after killing her doe. We had just readied the deer for skinning it. After the hide was removed we would hang in our cool garage another couple of days for aging before butchering it.

I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. She said, “I’m not sad for killing the deer. I’m sad at the realization that our whole food system is based on killing things.”

She is right and we all should be so mindful of the things we eat.

In killing game, I become responsible for taking the life. Call it murder if you like. But I would also argue that I commit murder when I pull a grown carrot from its nursery earth and then mutilate it by chopping it up. Or consider the green peas, embryos if you will, that I scrape from the wall of the mother pod as I shuck the peas with my thumbnail. If a seed is the promise of life, then I have cut it short by taking them from the pea pod.

We need to understand that all fresh food is made up of life and in harvesting it we are responsible for its death.

Early in the twentieth century, Knud Rasmussen, a Danish anthropologist whose mother was Inuit and his father Danish, traveled thousands of miles across the arctic collecting stories and artifacts of the Inuit way of life. These northern peoples lived a life that depended on hunting for clothing and food. During his dog sled travels, an Inuit shaman told him, “The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls.” He told Rasmussen that it was very important to gain the favor of the animal’s spirit so they continue to give themselves to the people so that the people might survive.

Last night we dined sumptuously and humbly on her deer’s most tender of tenderloin steaks. We barely chewed the broiled rare meat as we closed our eyes in bliss. The accompanying salad was made up of greens and cooked squash all grown out in our garden. The cranberry sauce was cooked from cranberries we picked on a piece of boggy land located two miles from our house. The apples used in finale of apple crisp were collected from a friend’s apple tree only a handful of miles away.

On many levels, the meal was the very essence of  home cooking.

Doorway to Heaven

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A sun-up cup of coffee inspires both my creativity and inner bowels. Most days there is a moment, when I must excuse myself from deeds or a relaxed morning conversation with Nancy and head out the door. The destination is our beloved outhouse, christened as the “Doorway(s) to Heaven.”

The structure was built years ago when I tired of repeatedly moving a collection of old doors that I had stored in the garage. I had been struggling with rearranging the doors when I  felt the unmistakable urge to purge my bowels. It occurred to me that I had the structural materials needed to build an outhouse that would provide me with my own “fortress of solitude” while not having to rush back indoors, kick off my shoes and negotiate a slalom course to the bathroom.

While we do have plumbing and a perfectly functioning flush toilet, Nancy and I both prefer the intentional outdoor stroll to the privations of our sweet little outhouse.

I have written of our “Long Drop” that is at our Outpost in the Yukon Territory. Having spent over a total of three years in the Yukon, I am proud to admit that, no matter the season, spring, summer, fall or winter, I have yet to sit on the flush toilet in the log house. I love my quiet time, where the winds blow restful tunes through the overhead spruce limbs and I can sit and watch red squirrels and maybe even a grizzly bear.

The walls of the Basecamp outhouse were easily erected by nailing the five doors to the frame. Scrap plywood and assorted two by fours were used as well.

The main entry door is a very nice all glass, high-end entry door that was freed from the confines of a Duluth dumpster along London Road. Three of the doors are old paneled doors I had salvaged from our 100+ year old house when I gutted it over 35 years ago. Two of them still have their old white porcelain door knobs. The door immediately to your seated left is our old entry door and it has a two panes of glass that now offer a lovely view of our garden and orchard and beyond that our wannabe prairie. From my seated position I have watched pheasants, bluebirds, deer and passing sandhill cranes while listening to wind inspired spruce symphonies overhead.

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Here at Minnesota Basecamp, another day has broken and it’s time.  I empoly a hurried shuffle through October’s shards of maple leaves. Even this autumnal red and gold carpet cannot slow me into a regal proambulatory mood.

Got to hurry. I need to celebrate the greatness of regularity. Tis a gift to have a digestive system that is dependable as a dog’s wagging tail.

Past the first wood shed, whose gut is gorged with seasoned and split oak. I find contentment in knowing I’m ready for the slide of winter over the landscape. Not pausing, with the Doorway to Heaven in sight, I move past the second equally bursting shed of firewood. This shed is just in case winter goes an extra six months or is arctic cold. I call this shed, “Money in the Bank.”

I slip under the feral apple tree, adjacent to a stand of big white spruce, that arcs over the outhouse.

The one-holer, where we settle ourselves comfortably in position, was cut out of two antique white pine boards; one of them measure 22 inches in width! These boards are sacred in that they were cut from old growth ancient white pines. Some might consider it demeaning or sacrilegious to void their fetid wastes while perched on such royal timber. I beg to differ. Daily I pay homage to both the marvels of old white pines and my not-so-old well functioning digestive system.

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About ten years ago, Nancy, was invited to deliver a guest sermon at Joan of Arc Catholic Church down in the Twin Cities. She gave a bold and insightful presentation based on the popular Peter Mayer song, Holy Now. In the song, he shares with the listener of his spiritual journey and has come to realize that everything is holy.

She challenged the congregation that they needed to stretch their platitudes of gratitude. She implored that we often give thanks for our food, health, and job but rarely to unlikely arenas such as our sexual nature or “having a good bowel movement.” She beseeched the smiling congregation to celebrate these wondrous movements and to consider such an act as holy.

While some might argue that the title of our humble little outhouse is irreverent and confusing. All I ask is that you think about the feeling you experience after having an honorable bodily void. It’s absolutely heavenly!

 

A Gnarly Winter Coming?

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I’m going out on a limb. I’m forecasting a gnarly winter ahead of us.

No, I have not referenced the current Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1818, and I have shunned the sophistication of doppler radars or fleets of orbiting weather satellites.

I am making my prognostication based on simple observation. In the first days of  September I have seen two birds whose out-of-season appearance have me wondering about the upcoming winter.

First, on a recent hot and humid day, we  bicycled around a curve in the road and a large bird swooped out just ahead of us. Upon first seeing it, I knew it was a raptor and in the next moment, its bulk and head shape told me it was an owl. The large owl  pitched low across the road and then swooped up and landed in a birch growing adjacent to the roadside ditch. I wondered, great horned owl?

As we passed it, I stopped  pedaling and looked into its wide yellow eyes and the large, unmistakeable facial disk of a great gray owl. This was weird. Here it was a sultry late summer day and I was witnessing a bird that I wouldn’t expect to see, and then only rarely, until winter.  Some years these large owls migrate from their boreal haunts to these more southerly parts in east central Minnesota when there are few rodents to hunt in their normal northerly home grounds.

I really want to believe that this wayward traveler has set up home in a nearby large tamarack swamp with another great gray of the opposite sex.

Two days following the owl sighting, Nancy and I were cooling off at the end of the day on our deck with a gin and tonic, when a northern goshawk shot by, not twenty feet from us and four feet off the ground. It looked like a feathered F-16 as it rocketed by and zig-zagged into the adjacent oak woods.

Typically the goshawk is another boreal dweller and a sometimes fall migrant but I typically wouldn’t spy one in these parts in the first days of September. What’s up?

Piqued, I went to the American Birding Association website. I was hoping that this up to the minute report of Minnesota birds might shed some light on my two puzzling observations.

I found nothing about an unseasonable movement of great gray owls. These huge owls are easy to spot since no owl in North America has a larger wingspan. But I did discover that on September 1 “there was a mass migration event that stunned the bird counters at Hawk Ridge in Duluth.” Even the hot and humid day on the shore of Lake Superior did not hold up over 91,000 birds of various species passing by, migrating south. This included, “28,054 Common Nighthawks, “12,842 Cedar Waxwings (represents a new state high count)” and “1,085 Blue Jays (seems early for a count of this magnitude).”

Note the tally for the blue jay count: “seems early for a count of this magnitude.” Hmmmm what do the birds know?? It almost seems like a flood of environmental refugees fleeing the threat of the inevitable unforgiving march of General Winter and his cold-hearted army.

Could it be that even the large,well-feathered great gray owl and and the fleet flying goshawk got an advance notice of a tough winter?

Reading weather, by noting birds and other wildlife and even how it affects how we, as humans,  feel, is officially know as the science of biometeorology. This is basically the same stuff old farmers have been doing for years. According to the International Society of Biometeorology, “The most important question that biometeorology answers is: How does weather and climate impact the well-being of all living creatures?”

For example, my Grandpa always could tell it was going to rain because he would feel his knee stiffen up. One theory the medical community  considers is the impact of barometric pressure on our bodies. Barometric pressure is the weight of the atmosphere that surrounds us. It could be that before a rain, when the barometric pressure is low,  the pressure pushes less against our bodies, allowing tissues surrounding our joints to expand and put pressure on the joint. Hence we might ache.

I recall that same Grandpa, upon hearing a common loon calling from a nearby lake, declare, “It’s going to rain.” He made no comment about the bird making a territorial call or appeal for a mate. No, it was simply going to rain. And you know Grandpa was always right, it did rain. Now I don’t recall if it rained in the next hour, day or even week, but it did rain.

There are hundreds of old weather proverbs that served as weather forecasters. Here is a summer forecasting proverb I can always depend on:

Birds flying low,

Expect rain and a blow.

Birds that feed on flying insects adjust their flight to where the insects are concentrated.  It turns out that just prior to rain, air pressure is low and insects are more comfortable flying near the ground.

I am fascinated with biometeorology and its role in animal movement.  I am feeling  a mysterious urge to fill the porch wood box. You can’t be too ready for a gnarly winter.

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.

giblets

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.

skillet breakfast

cirrus and rim

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.

sand tracks

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.
Reflection
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.

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