Blogs of 2018
Today We Have No Coffee ( December 31, 2018)
When I lived in Taipei in the early 1990s, there were no coffee shops there. The hotels that catered to Westerners served coffee, but I could not afford to go there often. Also I usually felt underdressed. American fast food restaurants served coffee, so I spent more time in McDonalds while living in Taiwan during those years than I ever did in the United States.
When I moved back to Taipei for the 2008-2009 academic year, everything had changed in terms of coffee. There was a Starbucks or a Starbucks clone at every major intersection. The Gongguan, the large business district adjacent National Taiwan University, had a Starbucks, and I spent the first hour of almost every day there.
One morning I walked into my Starbucks, and the cashier said, “Jīn tiān wǒ men méi yǒu kā fēi.” In spite of nearly three years living in Taiwan, my Mandarin remains poor. The biggest problem is that I don’t hear the tones within the four-tone language. In this particular case, however, I thought I understood every word. Still I could not have heard correctly, because I thought that the young Starbucks barista had just said, “Today we have no coffee.”
I tried quickly to figure out where I’d made my mistake, but then resorted to the Chinese phrase that I use more than any other. “Qǐng nǐ, zài shuō yī tsi.” It means, “Please say it again.”
The woman behind the counter repeated the sentence, this time more slowly, “Jīn tiān (today) wǒ men (we) méi yǒu kā fēi (don’t have coffee).” By now the line of customers behind me was eight or nine Taiwanese people deep, but I was stumped as to how to proceed. Then the woman in line directly behind me said in English, “You heard correctly. They don’t have any coffee.”
I responded, “Wèi shén me?” Why? I should have directed the question to the barista, but I asked the woman who had translated for me. She said, “Good question” and then turned to the barista and repeated, “Wèi shén me?” It turned out that the Starbucks employees had arrived at work that morning to discover that the entire block was without running water. Most people in Taipei don’t drink cold water straight out of the tap, but do drink it when it’s heated near to boiling and used in coffee or tea. My immediate thought was that the Starbucks staff could have gone next door to the Seven Eleven, paid retail for bottled water by the liter and still made a healthy profit, but I bought a bottle of orange juice and sat down at my usual table to write.
In an equally confusing situation, I once led a series of workshops for the docent staff at the Taipei Zoo. One day I arrived nearly an hour early, so I went to the McDonalds inside the zoo for lunch. The shop had photos on the counter with all of the standard McDonalds fare, so I pointed to the Quarter Pounder Meal. The woman at the counter said, “Wǒ men méi yǒu hàn bǎo.” Again I thought that I understood the individual words, but had missed the broader meaning. My translation of the McDonalds counter worker had been, “We don’t have hamburgers.”
In my mind the only reasonable conclusion was that this particular shop had temporarily run out of quarter pound meat patties, so I pointed to the regular sized hamburgers on the photo display. The woman behind the counter repeated, “Wǒ men méi yǒu hàn bǎo.” She then, with the wave of her arm, directed me to the cooking area behind her.
Immediately I saw the problem. The food stations inside the Taipei Zoo are very small. The space of each shop resembles the very tight quarters of a food vendor in a Taiwanese night market. When I looked at the McDonalds stall, I realized that the dimensions were large enough to accommodate a row of deep fryers or a burger grill, but not both. Because most Taiwanese patrons prefer chicken over beef, this tiny McDonalds had opted for the fryers. It had no grill. Rather than being disappointed, I marveled that I had just discovered what had to be the only McDonalds in the world that didn’t serve hamburgers. I ordered a McChicken and fries, then sat down to enjoy my lunch.
These two little anecdotes have no lesson attached to them. They are just interesting to me. When I lived in Taiwan, I botched dozens of conversations with store clerks, waitresses, cabbies. I often got food that I didn’t know I’d ordered; I often wound up at the wrong destination. In these two instances, however, I’d understood the Mandarin, but still did not know what was going on.
Springsteen on Broadway ( December 24, 2018)
I watched Springsteen on Broadway last night. I don’t think that any man could watch the show and not think about his relationship with his own dad. My dad, a hardcore unfiltered Camels smoker, died when I was still in graduate school. He was as adamant that I not go to grad school as he was that I get an undergraduate degree. He was sure that a Ph.D. was educating myself out of a job. I am sad that he didn’t live to see that I not only found work, but found work that he would have admired. He lived to see my first marriage tank, and maybe the only time he ever talked to me about my personal life was when he asked whether I’d worked hard enough to keep my first marriage together. He died before I married a second time and never saw that that part of my life also turned out well.
While I watched the Springsteen special, a half dozen memories of my dad came to the surface. I’ll just recount one. I’d gone to the stock car races with him. I was already fairly old, maybe fifteen or sixteen. My dad was a small man, five foot seven. He put on weight in his later years, but probably went about 160 during most of my adolescence. At the races, two high school kids were sitting at the top of the bleachers. They were lighting small firecrackers and tossing them at the feet of people below them. People would look back to see where the firecrackers were coming from, but no one did anything. My dad and I were sitting at the same level as the firecracker tossers and probably forty feet off to the side. After about the fourth toss of a firecracker, my dad walked over to the two guys and said, “If you toss one more firecracker, I will come back and throw both of you over the back of the bleachers.” I remember that he wouldn’t even meet my stunned stare when he walked back. He just sat down and went back to watching the races.
My earliest memories of my dad were him as a tough guy. Then when I was seven, my family moved to Green Bay and he switched from a blue collar job to white collar. It definitely took the edge off his toughness. Even as a kid, I thought that the transition did not suit him well, but financially it took my family from working poor to middle class, and he liked that a lot. To him, the purpose of a job was to make money. I don’t think it made any difference to him whether that meant getting into a good union or climbing the corporate ladder. Still the old ol’ man occasionally showed through, like that time we went to the stock car races and he offered to toss a couple of jerks off the back of the bleachers.
Waxing and Waning (December 17, 2018)
Many years ago a friend complained to me that no one paid any attention to the rhythms of nature. To make his point, he bet me a dollar that I could not tell him what phase the moon was in. I told him the moon was a day or two past full and then made him give me a dollar for doubting my observation skills as an environmental educator. I then explained that I kept track of the moon phases because they determined where I led night hikes. With a full moon, I could take kids deep into the forest. On moonless nights, I stayed more to open areas.
I miss the days when natural cycles had direct implications on my daily life. Even more important than the waxing and waning of the moon was the rise and fall of the tides. When I worked at an environmental center in the redwoods south of San Francisco, our facility was ten miles from the coast. Three times a week staff took kids to the tide pools, and we always visited the pools at the lowest tide of the day. If low tide was still fairly high, we seldom found anything unusual. Searches produced hermit crabs, starfish, chitons, and not much else. If low tide was unusually low, the kids and the naturalists could wander fifty to a hundred feet out from shore, and we’d find sea slugs, octopi, and other animals seen only two or three times a year. Staff members who’d been going to the tide pools at least once a week for five or six months would ask to be assigned to the beach on days when the tide was especially low.
Now I live in Wisconsin, and I haven’t looked at a tide table for over thirty years. I no longer lead night hikes either, and if someone asked me to identify today’s moon phase, I wouldn’t know. Worse, I’d probably google the answer rather than step outside to look.
Still I wonder whether wanting to know natural cycles isn’t engrained in the wild sides of each of us. Here in La Crosse there are people obsessed with the water level of the Mississippi River. Almost daily they check the number of feet above or below flood stage; they know how this year’s depth compares to the same day last year and to the big flood of ’65. Boaters and fishermen have practical reasons for knowing the water level, but some of the most careful observers of the river don’t actually spend time on the water.
Amateur phenologists have turned the cycles of nature into a hobby. They annually record their sighting of the first goose in the spring, of the first trillium of the year, and the date that the neighbor’s ginkgo tree drops all of its leaves in the fall.
This year I ice fished on November 28. This may be the first time I’ve ever ventured onto the ice before December, but since I’ve never kept track, I can’t really be sure. Maybe I will mark November 28 on my 2019 calendar and see if. I’m ice fishing in November next year.
Timber, Massasauga, and Prairie Rattlers (December 10, 2018)
Hixon Forest, the 1000-acre woodland near my house, is one of the largest urban forests in Wisconsin. It also is home to a healthy rattlesnake population. Most of Wisconsin has no poisonous snakes, but the bluffs near La Crosse are good habitat for timber rattlers. Also a second species of rattlesnake, the massasauga, resides in the wetlands along my stretch of the Upper Mississippi River. In hiking among the bluffs and slogging through the wetlands for almost thirty years, I’ve never sighted either one – and in general, I guess that I am happy to not have had an encounter.
Fifteen years ago when I served on the Hixon Forest Board, we hired a biologist to assess the ecological health of the Forest. Two of his conclusions have stuck in my mind. One was that the man, who’d done dozens of assessments, had never seen a forest so overgrazed by deer. Second was that he constantly came across timber rattlers, and he was sure that the majority of people on the trails have no idea that they sometimes are within a few feet of a rattlesnake. Fortunately one of the characteristics of timber rattlers is their timid demeanor.
I remember a time when Manyu, Clare, and I stayed at a bed and breakfast just outside of the Badlands in South Dakota. From the balcony of the b&b, we could see a river flow by about a quarter mile away. The river was unique in that it was so silted that it ran white. Clare was about seven years old and wanted to wade in the river of milk (we found out later that the river is actually named the Milk River).
When I asked the b&b owner whether I should worry about snakes if we hiked down to the river, he ordered his dog to accompany us. He said that the dog would lead the way and chase the prairie rattlers away. The dog was great, and we enjoyed the river without a snake sighting.
Later that evening, I was drinking a beer on the b&b’s deck, and I saw the owner’s family walk down to the river following approximately the same route that my family had used only hours earlier. The husband and wife’s three-year old son was running wild through the scrub, and it was obvious that the parents were unconcerned about snakes. I realized the man had been indulging me with his dog and was too polite to tell me that he thought I was an ignorant and/or cowardly city slicker to worry about snakes. Even though I pride myself as a knowledgeable naturalist, I have to admit that he was right.
Freeze Like a Rabbit, Run Like My Dog (December 3, 2018)
Yesterday the weather was too cold for young children to play outside. On cold days, and rainy ones too, the campus recreation center where I exercise makes gym space available for the kids from the adjacent daycare center. Yesterday the kids were inside, and a college student was shouting ‘go’ and ‘freeze’ as the kids ran full bore around the gym floor and then did their best to stop in their tracks when ordered to do so. When the kids were frozen, I could not help but think about the rabbits in my backyard that don’t move a muscle when they think that I cannot see them. There was the exact same tension in the kids as the rabbits, the same sense that an explosion of action was about to take place. When the kids were actually on the move, however, the appropriate comparison was not with rabbits, but with my dog when I let him off his leash. The kids showed their joy by running with big grins on their faces, my dog by intentionally putting obstacles in his path just so he can jump over them.
If I, any time in my life, ever ran with such exuberance, I don’t remember it. The kids from daycare were three and four years old, and my recollections of that age reside at the very edge of my longterm memory. I vaguely remember finding a garter snake coiled up on the wet spot beneath our dripping outdoor faucet. I remember running into the house on Bloedel Street to tell my mom that I’d just seen the world’s biggest redheaded woodpecker (only as an adult did I realize that the bird had to have been a pileated woodpecker). No, wait; I do remember a joy in running. When we lived on Bloedel Street, the original farmer on the land that was becoming the edge of town was our next door neighbor. He’d planted a cover crop on the field that ran behind both of our houses. One day he came by to tell my parents that he was about to plow the field under, so if I and my brother and sister wanted to run wild through the alfalfa before he turned it over, we should do it now. I don’t remember joy in the actual running, but in the turning back on where I’d just run and seeing my exact route in the trampled vegetation. Sixty years later I still remember that my trail ran crooked even when I thought I was running straight.
My point is that my earliest memories of total happiness are tied to nature. I don’t remember a single Christmas or birthday present from that long ago, but I do recall how excited I was when my parents ripped out two rows of strawberries in our huge garden and then told me that that patch of soil was now my garden within the garden. Today I tend to intellectualize my time in nature. My blogs are evidence of that. I treasure thinking about nature even when I am not with her, but I wonder whether reflection takes an edge off the joy. Not that it matters; both perspectives are good, and there is no going back.
HIPS (November 26, 2018)
A current popular topic in education, at least at the college level, is high impact practices (HIPs). HIPs are educational experiences, usually outside of the classroom, that totally engage students and stick with them long after graduation. Pre-orientation, study abroad, undergraduate research, service learning, and internships all are examples of high impact practices. Basically HIPs are a realization that the most valuable experiences during college are not lectures and exams, but the other things that make college special. College administrators are learning that HIPs increase student retention, student satisfaction, and future success. They also work as a recruiting tool.
As an experiential educator for the past four decades, I have two reactions to HIPs. The first is, “Where have college administrators been for the last hundred years? Didn’t they read Dewey somewhere along the way?” The second is, “Steve, don’t be cynical. Be pleased. Experiential education finally has become mainstream.”
For the most part, I am extremely pleased with the popularity of HIPs – even if the recognition of their value has been a long time coming. For years, I served as internship coordinator of the Recreation Management program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. When I visited students midway through their semester-long internships, it was common for me to encounter a completely different student from the one I’d sent off on his or her internship only a couple months earlier. He or she would have grown into a confident and competent professional, thrilled to be starting a career in recreation. The more students can have that kind of experience the better.
Why did it take putting an academic sounding name to experiential learning for it to take hold? The acronym HIPs does roll off the tongue. It fits well in campus strategic plans and on college web pages. Maybe most importantly, it gives an umbrella term to all of the excellent experiential education opportunities that, until HIPs, had been operating independent of each other on campus. Individually, they were the quaint causes of various university faculty and staff members. Collectively, they became a hook that a campus could hang its reputation on. Once the collection of separate opportunities were looked at as a single entity, they achieved critical mass. I am optimistic that HIPs is a trend and not a fad.
First Ice (November 19, 2018)
My fishing, like my camping, is three seasons long. I camp in the spring, summer, and fall, but not in the winter. I fish in the summer, fall, winter, but not in the spring. Actually I am not fishing right now (late November), but only because I am waiting for good ice to form. Sometimes I need a break from the activities I most enjoy. Most fishermen on the Upper Mississippi River would not understand that I don’t have spring as part of my fishing calendar. Spring, at least on the Mississippi, offers some of the best fishing of the year. Walleyes congregate below the dams in the spring, and fishermen are more likely to limit out in the spring than at any other time of the year. The Upper Mississippi River has different fishing regulations from the inland waters of both Wisconsin and Minnesota. The legal size of the fish differs, limits on the number of fish in possession differ, and most importantly, the seasons vary. On inland waters, seasons for walleye, bass, musky, and northern pike are closed during the spawn. For example, I like fishing small-mouthed bass in the eddies of the Flambeau, but the season there does not open until mid-June. Because the fishery on the Upper Mississippi is so large and so healthy, fishery experts have concluded that fishing through the spawn does not affect the overall population of fish. The open seasons for game fish on the Upper Mississippi are year ‘round – so when walleye congregate below the dams in the spring, so do the fishermen. But I won’t be there. Spring also means high water, so those of us who fish from canoes tend not to fish in the spring. In a canoe, I won’t dare to fish the turbulent water beneath the dams at any time of the year. During the high water and strong currents of spring, I doubt I’d even have the strength to paddle up there even if I wanted to. The backwaters are accessible by canoe during high water, but the ten-foot fishing holes become twenty-foot fishing holes and are less likely to hold fish. I am happy to wait for water levels to drop and then fish my heart out. Writing this blog makes want to go fishing, but I now will have to wait for first ice. It won’t be long. A week before Thanksgiving and already the backwaters have a thin layer of ice on them. Two inches of ice supports a full-grown man, but I wait for at least four inches and prefer a full foot. Two feet of ice, however, is too much; I still use a hand auger to make my holes, and cutting through two feet of ice is exhausting. Even if the fish are not biting, I sometimes stay in the same place all day because I am too lazy to cut new holes.
The Swans at Brownsville (November 12, 2018)
I have special places in nature that I keep to myself. They are relatively unknown spots; most are on the river, a few are in the woods. Each of these places provides me with solitude, and I’d just as soon keep it that way. None of them, by the way, are my favorite fishing spots. I really don’t care whether my fishing holes are broadcast to every boater on the river. Most of the holes that I get to by canoe are inaccessible to motorized watercraft, so they will never become overcrowded. To be honest, I have no consistently reliable fishing spots, because the sands of the Upper Mississippi River’s riverbed shift so often that the fish constantly are on the move, and a good fishing spot on one day won’t necessary be any good a week later.
The location of my private places will never be revealed in a blog.
I also have, however, a few special places that I tout. These are locales where the primary appeal is not solitude. These are natural areas that won’t be damaged by increased visitation. These are wonders that have a feature so unique that I believe everyone, even those who don’t usually recreate in nature, will appreciate. Near to home, the best example of such a feature is the swans at Brownsville.
Brownsville is a small town on the Minnesota side of the river about ten miles south of La Crosse. A few miles south of town is a rest stop along the river. It is not even a rest stop really, more a turn off with about twenty parking spots.
From about Halloween until first ice, tundra swans come together there to feed and rest. They are drawn to arrowhead, an aquatic plant with large tubers. The birds, migrating from the Arctic tundra to the Chesapeake Bay, rest and fatten up before completing the last leg of their fall migration. Early November the birds begin to trickle in. At first there are a dozen birds, but more come in daily until the numbers exceed 25,000. At its height, the backwater is a carpet of white. It is an annual event that serious birders drive hundreds of miles to see, and it is less than thirty minutes from my house.
When I was kid, tundra swans were called whistling swans. When ornithologists realized that the North American swans were actually a subspecies of the Eurasian Bewick’s swan (and not a separate species), the common name was changed to tundra swan for both subspecies. More important than the name, whistling swans, now tundra swans, used to be a rare sighting for me. Now, once a year, I go to Brownsville to watch more birds than I even knew existed as a kid. The Mississippi Flyway is a birdwatching treasure chest, and one of its prize jewels is the fall migration of the swans.
Ivar (November 5, 2018)
I needed to check out a quote from O Pioneers! for a book chapter I’m working on, and I ended up reading about fifty pages from one of my favorite novels. (I never cared for literature classes in college, except for the fact that they introduced me to a few exceptional books that I might not have discovered on my own.)
The main characters in O Pioneers! fall into three categories when it comes to nature and the land. Alexandra’s brothers see the land entirely as a commodity and a way to make money. Ivar is entirely a part of the land and lives as a hermit in a hole in the ground. Alexandra, the heroine, is very much in the middle and understands that she is both part the land and part not the land. Alexandra thinks Ivar possesses, in spite of his eccentricities, a wisdom that eludes most people. The brothers and just about everyone else in Alexandra’s community refer to him as Crazy Ivar. The narrator of O Pioneers!? I think that she thinks that Ivar is wise and crazy at the same time.
I know someone who is a modern day Ivar. I haven’t seen her since we were kids, but her older brother told me that she now lives totally off the grid. Every few months she comes out of the woods, visits her mom and buys a few supplies, then goes back into the woods. That is as much as I know about her life. I don’t even know whether she is alone or has a companion. There were several questions that I wanted to ask her brother about this woman, but even that seemed to infringe on her strong desire for privacy.
I am like Alexandra. I have always thought of myself as in the middle – middle class, center left politically, born and currently living in the Middle West. House, wife, kid, car, dog. Earlier in life, I might have said boringly middle, but now I am more accepting of who I am. This does not keep me from wondering about those who are more extreme, especially those who are more extreme in their connection to nature. Ivar, my reclusive former friend, Chris McCandless, Farley Mowat, Henry David Thoreau… In the previous blog I confessed that I don’t like extended periods of time alone in nature. I am not surprised that I admire those who can do what I cannot – even if, from the middle looking out toward the edge, they sometimes seem crazy.
Grouse Hunting ( October 29, 2018)
This past weekend I went grouse hunting in northern Wisconsin. There is nothing remarkable about this, except for the fact that I don’t hunt. I never have, and while I have no objection to hunting, I probably never will go myself. By that measure, I suppose that I did not really go hunting. I went to a cabin in the woods with five other guys who went to hunt. Each morning all of them except me, with shotguns in hand and dogs by their sides, left for the day to hunt ruffed grouse. I stayed behind.
I knew only two of the five men well before the weekend. Those two are longtime fishing buddies. The other three were, until four days ago, relative strangers. In fact, the first morning one of my new acquaintances was surprised when I didn’t join them. He’d never been on a hunting trip with a guy who didn’t hunt.
After everyone else left for the day, I had an empty cabin, a fireplace, a fishing pole, a finger of Wild Turkey, a stack of chocolate chip cookies, and a computer. Pen and paper (or an old typewriter) would have created a more romantic image than a MacBook Air, but I still had all the ingredients for a perfect day. If there are better solitary pursuits than fishing and writing about nature, I don’t know what they are.
An astute reader might ask whether it wouldn’t have been even better had I gone to a cabin by myself. I wish that it wasn’t so, but the answer is ‘no.’ I discovered years ago that I get lonely all by myself. I can be happy for days on end unaccompanied in a big city, but not so in the woods. Apparently sitting alone in busy coffee shops and going to the movies by myself satisfy the need for human interaction, but after a day or two of just me and the trees, I get bored even when I am doing things that I enjoy. Alone for most of the day, then dinner and a few hands of sheepshead with friends, makes for an excellent combination of solitude and companionship (if you don’t know what sheepshead is, ask any card player from Wisconsin).
This morning I returned from the hunting trip to, except for our dog, an empty house. My daughter Clare is away at college. My wife Manyu went home to Taiwan. Manyu goes back to Asia every autumn or winter, but this year her trip may last months rather than weeks. Which will win out for me, solitude or loneliness?
Flow( October 22, 2018)
I have been writing a weekly blog for nearly six months, and this morning is the first time in all that time that writing the blog has pulled me away from good progress on my current book project. Ordinarily the book writing is a slow grind – still fun, but hardly anything that I would consider a flow. If anything, working on a blog entry has greased the skids for my other writing.
The same can be said for a monthly article that I write for College English, a Chinese magazine published in English for high school and college students who want to read fairly simple English with adult content. I have read about authors who work on two or more books simultaneously. This is something that I cannot imagine, but I do understand the need to get away from one writing project by working on another.
For me, there are five things that do when I get really stuck (six things if I include staying on the computer and staring at the screen). Two of them, fishing and exercising, are putting writing aside and starting afresh the next day. Another is reading books by exceptional authors and reading them sentence by sentence rather than taking the book in as a whole. Fourth is closing up the computer and writing with pen and paper. This option I find is actually the most effective, even if three or four pages of handwritten material results in only a paragraph or two of good stuff. Fifth is, as mentioned above, working on a different writing project.
This morning, however, the book writing was going well, and I stopped mid-idea to write this blog. The result is my very first blog about writing.
Fishing for Bluegills ( October 15, 2018)
In late September and early October the bluegills on the Upper Mississippi River bite better than at any other time of the year. On Saturdays and Sundays during this autumn window, boats can be seen strung out along the steep shoreline on the Wisconsin side just upstream of Lock and Dam No. 7. Whenever I see this many fishermen (up to fifty boats and an average of two people/boat), I cannot help but think about the role bluegills play in the world of Wisconsin fishing.
No one calls himself or herself a bluegill fisherman. On the Upper Mississippi River, there are walleye fishermen, bass fishermen, and while I do not know any of them, catfish fishermen. The area also sports trout fishermen, although this unique segment of the fishing world does not fish the big river. Instead they bushwhack creeks in the nearby coulees. A friend of mine once caught a lost brown trout by accident on the Mississippi, and ten years later we still talk about it.
I was about to write that the Mississippi is too muddy to support trout, but that’s not true. At least on its upper stretches, the Mississippi is only periodically the Big Muddy. After big rains, especially after upstream farmers have tilled their fields in the late spring, suspended silt keeps me from seeing my own hand a few inches below the surface. At other times, however, the river runs clear and is no murkier than any other big body of water. In fact, it sometimes is clearer than rivers farther north where tree tannin can stain the water a permanent reddish black. The Mississippi has no trout because it runs warm, not because it runs muddy.
But back to bluegill fishing. When the bluegills are hitting, many of the walleye, bass, and catfish fishermen slum it for a few weeks to fill their live wells with bluegills. I was raised on the Lake Michigan side of Wisconsin, so by upbringing I am partial to perch, but now living along the Mississippi, I am out there with everyone else catching bluegills.
Blue gills are appealing to fishermen for three reasons. First, when the bluegills are actively feeding, they are fun and easy to catch. There is constant action. If two people are together in a boat, it is not uncommon for both to have a fish on at the same time. I say and actually believe that fishing is more about time in nature than catching fish, but that does not negate the fact that catching fish is more fun than not catching fish.
Secondly, bluegills taste good. Fishermen who tend to be catch and release fishermen will take home a meal of bluegills because 1) they like the flavor and 2) the Mississippi River is so riddled with bluegills that there is no harm to the population in taking a few healthy fish out of the breeding stock. I also like to eat blue gills because they reside low on the aquatic food chain. Piscivorous fish (i.e., fish that primarily eat other fish) have high concentrations of mercury in their flesh, whereas bluegills tend to eat insects, worms, and zooplankton and are comparatively low in heavy metals.
Third, people fish for bluegills because it is a return to childhood. The majority of Wisconsin fishermen were introduced to fishing as a kid using hook, sinker, and bobber to catch bluegills. The quality of their gear may have improved thirtyfold in the intervening years, but the experience itself is the same. I don’t often take nieces, nephews, or friends’ kids fishing, but when I do, it is when the bluegills are biting and the action is fast.
If my last time out is an indication, this year’s bluegill run is just about over. For many, this means the end of fishing until ice fishing starts up in about two months. For me, I’ll go another four or five times. I won’t catch much, and I will remind myself that fishing is not about catching fish.
Mitja ( October 8, 2018)
On my recent trip to southern Europe, my family and I hired private drivers to take us between cities. In my younger days, I would have rejected and openly criticized such arrangements, choosing instead to make mistakes on my own and, as a result, sometimes taking the wrong train or missing a connection or, in one instance, riding with the garbage in the back of a garbage truck. Now much older and less adventurous, I welcomed the door-to-door livery service. I also realized that a good way to learn about a country is to strike up a conversation with the drivers.
On three different occasions (from the airport in Zagreb to Ljubljana, from the Plitvice Lakes to Rovinj, and from Rovinj to Venice), our driver was a Slovenian man named Mitja. On our ride to Rovinj, I found myself sitting in the front seat alongside Mitja, so I asked him what Slovenians generally thought of Melania.
He looked at me oddly and said, “Melania Trump? She’s Slovakian.” He let me stew for a few seconds in what I thought was my geographical ignorance, then smiled and said, “No, she’s from Slovenia.” And after a second pause, added, “We don’t really care.”
I then said, “I don’t like Trump, so feel free to say whatever you want to say about him.” Mitja said that he knew I didn’t like Trump. Since I’d not mentioned politics until I brought up Melania, I asked him why he’d made that assumption.
He said that he could tell by the way I talked about other things, especially about nature. He also said that the 90% of the Americans he transports don’t like Trump. He has concluded that American tourists who bother to come to countries like Slovenia or Croatia are anti-Trump, because Trump supporters don’t feel the need to see the rest of the world.
I am not sure whether Mitja’s interpretation is accurate. Some of my diehard Democrat friends don’t travel internationally, and I assume that some Trump supporters are well-traveled. Still, if the anecdotal evidence of my vacation is any indication, Mitja’s observation captures well the way most Europeans now see America.
Part of the Problem ( October 1, 2018)
Last month I traveled to Europe for the first time in my life. I stood before the David. I walked through the Roman Forum. I ate sea bass from a Croatian balcony where I could have, without getting out of my chair, tossed the fish bones back into Adriatic Sea. I even lingered over a Renaissance painting with an intensity that I usually reserve for the Impressionists. (The painting was da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, a work I did not know existed until it surprised me in the halls of the Uffizi.)
As I think about the highlights of my vacation, I realize that none of them would have happened had I been responsible for the planning. When I plan a trip, I try to get away from other people. This vacation, organized by my well-traveled little sister, seemed intent on finding cities inundated with tourists – and then going there. I have been to Hong Kong, Shanghai, even DisneyWorld during peak season, and none of those places felt as crowded as St. Mark’s Square, the Ponte Vecchio or, most surprising, the Vatican. Entering the Sistine Chapel for the first time will be a lifelong memory for me, but I cannot imagine anyone having a spiritual experience there. With a thousand tourists jammed into a small space (the Sistine Chapel is, after all, only a chapel), it felt like a subway station at rush hour if all of the commuters were looking up at the ceiling and not paying attention to where they were going.
The most interesting and fun of the overcrowded cities was Venice.With a hundred fifty canals and countless footpaths between buildings that were sometimes no wider than my outstretched arms, Venice may be the most sophisticated maze in the world.I was lost most of the time, but lost in the same way that I intentionally lose myself with my canoe in the backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River. On the Mississippi, I can always find the main channel when I need to and then get my bearings from there. In Venice, the defining landmark was the Grand Canal. No matter how disoriented I became, I inevitably ended up alongside the Grand Canal – and from there could always pinpoint my location on the tourist map I kept in my back pocket.
As much as I enjoyed Venice, its crowds bothered me more than in any of other the cities we visited on our European vacation. In Venice, the residents have mostly moved away from the heart of the city. The apartments there have been converted to hotels and Airbnb rentals, and the permanent population around the canals has dropped from 120,000 to 50,000 people over the past thirty years. Today Venice is as much an amusement park as it is a functioning city, and my presence as a tourist was part of the problem. On our first morning in the city, my sister hired a guide to show us around. I asked the guide about the impacts of tourism on Venice. She said that most of the cities in southern Europe are struggling with an explosion in tourism. No one knows what to do, but officials in Barcelona, Florence, even Zagreb all are determined not to become the next Venice.
A Innocent Abroad ( September 24, 2018)
After traveling through Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy, it feels odd and anticlimactic to be writing a blog about the books that I read on my trip – but I stated in an earlier blog that I would do so, and now I am following through on the obligation. In the previous blog (dated September 10), I wrote that I was taking A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and The Innocents Abroad with me on the trip. Three weeks later A Portrait of an Artist never left my suitcase, and I got only 200 pages into the nearly 500 pages of The Innocents Abroad. Still I chose well, because I was able to read Twain’s reflections on Venice, Florence, and Rome at the same time as I was visiting those places.
The Innocents Abroad may be the hardest Twain I’ve ever read. The prose itself is not difficult, but (maybe because I was reading the book in small snippets at bedtime) I was never sure when Twain was being serious and when he was being sarcastic, when he was writing as himself and when he was writing as his notion of a buffoonish American tourist.
It was fun when Twain’s observations matched my own. For example, I did quickly learn that any statue of a guy walking with a lion is St. Mark and any marble figure “looking tranquilly up to heaven, unconscious that his body is shot through and through with arrows” is St. Sebastion. I would have, however, totally missed Twain’s most astute observation had I not taken The Innocents Abroad with me. When he was in Rome, Twain wrote that if he based an understanding of Christianity solely on the monuments of Rome, he would have concluded that Saint Peter and the Virgin Mary were more central to the Christian faith than Jesus.
Far and away, the most interesting part of the book was Twain’s gentle distaste of mass tourism – and it was at its best when he wrote directly rather than satirically. He wondered, even though he was having fun going to new places, why he was not more satisfied than he was. “What,” he wrote, “is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.”
Fishing Firsts ( September 17, 2018)
On my most recent Canadian fishing trip, Victor, the fourteen year-old son of one of the regulars, joined us. On most days, Victor outfished the grown men, and he did it by keeping a line in the water more often than the rest of us. If it was not his turn to cook, he fished from camp. When the old guys needed to give their backs and butts a rest from fishing out of a canoe, Victor would paddle just offshore in one of the boats and continue casting.
One day our group took a side trip to an adjoining lake specifically to fish for lake trout. That evening back in camp I asked Victor if he’d ever caught lake trout before. His answer was, “This trip has been my first lake trout, my first walleye, and my first northern.”
I remember my fishing firsts much like I remember my birding firsts. I know where I caught my first lake trout (Boundary Waters) and I know where I saw my first phalarope (Plum Island, Massachusetts). I remember my first northern pike and my first muskie. I remember my first non-fish species on hook and line – my first turtle and my first mudpuppy.
My most memorable experience is my first fish on an artificial lure (Peninsula State Park, Wisconsin). I was five or six, and my dad had given me a spinner to use. It may have been the heaviest spinner in his tackle box, because the heft made it easier to cast. He and I stood side by side casting for smallmouth bass. I remember that my dad caught two fish before I had a strike, but finally a fish hit. My dad talked me through it – tip up, line taut, don’t crank when the fish goes on a run. When I finally got the fish in, I was crushed that it was a rock bass. I’d caught dozens of rock bass on worms, and now I was fishing for smallies. The rock bass, however, was huge, and my dad seemed genuinely excited that I’d just caught the biggest rock bass he’d ever seen. I, on the other hand, wasn’t satisfied until I caught a smallmouth later that day. I talk a good story about not caring whether I actually catch fish when I go fishing, but firsts are something different.
As Well Read as the Books I Own ( September 10, 2018)
While this blog entry did not appear until September 10, I actually wrote it September 1. Tomorrow (September 2) I leave for three weeks in Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, and I need to stockpile a few weekly entries for while I am gone.
When I spend more than a couple weeks in a non-English speaking country, I tend to read books that I’ve tried to read at home, but never finished. Usually these are books that I think that I should read, but haven’t. When I look at my bookshelves, I sometimes wish I was as well-read as the books I own. When I am in a foreign country, I don’t have tv and an endless supply of detective fiction to distract me from difficult prose, so I stick with books I’d otherwise put aside. The best example is Atlas Shrugged. I read the entire thing in Taiwan back in 1993, and it still might be the most painful non-textbook reading I’ve ever put myself through – so much so that I regret dredging up the memory, and I have no more to say about it.
For this trip I am taking with me A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and The Innocents Abroad. I picked A Portrait… because I’ve never been able to finish anything by Joyce. I picked Innocents Abroad because it is about travel along the Mediterranean. I think that Twain’s focus was more the Holy Land than Southern Europe, but my trip to the Balkans and Italy will be as close to the Holy Land as I ever expect to get.
Do I have my reading habits backwards? Should I be reading popular fiction on vacation and tackling serious stuff at home? Should I be reading anything at all and instead using my free time to wander the streets of cities I have never heard of (Ljubljana, Plitvice)? In a blog after my return, I’ll write to say whether I actually read either book – and if so, whether I understood it.
Front Yard, Back Yard ( September 3, 2018)
Last week I wrote about lawns. It is not something that I think a lot about, so I am surprised to be setting aside a second consecutive blog on the subject. Still I had a thought when I was writing the first blog, and I want to pass it along. The thought is not so much about lawns as it was about the terms “front yard” and “backyard.” Why is ‘front yard’ two words and ‘backyard’ usually only one?
I am sure I am reading too much into this, but whether the spelling ‘front yard’ and ‘backyard’ is intentional or coincidental, the terms fit. The use of two words strikes me as somewhat formal; the use of single compound word is less so. Barnyard is one word. So is yardbirds (the hobos, not the rock band). Backyard, barnyard, yardbird all have a scruffiness to them, but they are scruffy with a romantic connotation. Conversely a front yard is a place on display – to be seen more than touched. If I felt the need to keep up with the Jones, I’d maintain a handsome front yard. In the back, I’d put up a fence and do whatever I want.
Yesterday I walked my dog through the neighborhood and was happy to see a group of boys playing football in their front yard. Several thoughts went through my mind – mostly reminiscences of my years as a kid. First of all, I realized it was football season. When I was in grade school, we could play football anytime that we wanted to, but we only played in the fall. Fall must be coming. Secondly we played football in the front yard because the backyard did not have enough space. Backyards had trees, playground equipment, and a picnic table. The front yard only had turf. We usually played at my house and not Bobby’s or Dave’s because my next door neighbor didn’t care if the ball flew over into his yard. Other kids had neighbors who didn’t want our game to extend into their yards, but Mr. Gilbert was Ok if we occasionally ran onto his grass. Next time I visit Green Bay I think will drive past the house where I grew up and see if, in sixty years time, anyone planted a tree in my old football field.
Pulling Weeds ( August 27, 2018)
The lawns on my cul de sac are not as pristine as they were last year. Part of the reason was an odd hot and cold winter. More than once snow melted quickly, then froze into a sheet of ice. Rather than protected by blankets of snow, yards were turned into ice rinks. Some of the grass never recovered. Another reason for the rougher looking lawns is that more people on the street have stopped using herbicides and have either stopped or curtailed watering. Now in late August, the difference between those who do not water and those who have automatic sprinkling systems is stark. It is a checkerboard as I look down the street.
My yard has always been one of the least groomed lawns in the neighborhood. The reason for this also is twofold. First of all, I haven’t used herbicides for years. Also, however, my yard does not have enough topsoil for the sod to lay down deep roots. Like everyone’s house in La Crosse, my house sets on an ancient riverbed and is primarily sand. The person who built my house seventy or eighty years ago scrimped on the black dirt. As a result, my yard often is the first to go brown and dormant in late summer. I know my black dirt theory to be true, because I completely redid my backyard a half dozen years ago. I cut the size of the backyard lawn by half and replaced half of the area with garden and non-lawn landscaping. I even started over on the lawn section by adding additional inches of black dirt and reseeding. Today if I look out windows of my house both front and back, the backyard is green and the front yard is not.
For the last month, I’ve gone out to my front yard most evenings and pulled weeds for thirty minutes. I do it for two reasons. Reason One is for the sport. I feel that if I’m not going to use herbicides, I should at least give the bluegrass and fescue a fighting chance. It’s not these plants’ fault that I’ve more or less abandoned them. Reason Two, as all weed pullers already know, the task is peaceful. I will never make a dent in the unwanted vegetation that has moved in, but for a little while I can look at a few square feet of lawn and see that I’ve made a difference. On those days when I write all morning and have nothing to show for it, I appreciate the visible evidence of my work.
Devil's Lake Effect ( August 20, 2018)
My wife Manyu thinks that I am an outdoor snob. This has nothing to do with the exclusiveness of my gear or the seriousness in which I take my outdoor pursuits. It is that I believe my outdoor pursuits are better than some of the other things people do for fun in the outdoors. I paddle, I hike, and I seek quiet natural places away from everyone else, and I think that these activities are superior to motorboating, atv-ing, and visiting tourist attractions.
If I kept my mouth shut and did not try to sway other people to my way of thinking, I probably would be fine – but I am a recreation professional, and I annoyingly nudge others to participate in what I consider better forms of recreation. Not all recreation leaders agree with me. The profession has a very good debate as to whether the job of recreation providers is to give people what they want or what we think that they ought to want.
Part of the problem is that personal experience continually confirms my bias that self-propelled, challenging experiences in nature are better than other forms of recreation. A prime example is Devil’s Lake.
Manyu and I often befriend visiting scholars and students from Asia who pass through La Crosse. Because these visitors usually do not have cars, we become chauffeurs and tour guides on the weekends – and one of our favorite trips is to Madison with a stop on the way home at Devil’s Lake State Park. In Madison, we visit the Capital, the University of Wisconsin campus and, if kids are involved, the Vilas Park Zoo. Somewhere in the day, we lunch on or near State Street – and if time permits, we cross the Wisconsin River at the Merrimac Ferry, dip our feet in Devil’s Lake, and hike to the top of the Devil’s Lake bluffs.
When I ask our Asian friends about their favorite activity of the day, it is always the hike up the bluffs. This is a difficult hike, a steep ascent followed by a pleasant walk along the rim followed by an equally difficult climb back down again. Even though the hike begins in a natural basin and is an ascent to the normal level of the land, our guests always refer to it as mountain climbing. They often say, “I’ve never climbed a mountain before.”
The point is that after visiting the normal tourist sites of the Capital, State Street, and the University, the rugged hike is the most exciting and most challenging part of the trip. It is the most likely to instill a sense of accomplishment. It is the part of an overall good day that stands out as the best. I am a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and I treasure walks across the campus as I recall some of the best days of my life – and even I agree that the difficult hike at Devil’s Lake beats walking across campus. Maybe it makes me a snob, but non-motorized, nature-based challenges are excellent recreation and should be actively promoted.
National Palace Museum ( August 13, 2018)
In my opinion, the only must-see tourist attraction in Taipei is the National Palace Museum. It is one of the great art museums of the world and houses the Chinese paintings, sculptures, and ceramics that Chiang Kai-shek brought with him when he escaped from Mainland China. Depending upon whom you ask, the generalissimo either saved priceless art from certain destruction or stole China’s greatest treasures as he slinked into Taiwan.
Before the Museum’s latest remodel, there was a simple room just inside the entrance. The interior of the room was empty, but the walls themselves were painted with parallel timelines. One showed the Chinese dynasties in chronological order along with significant Chinese historical events and representative art of each dynasty. The second timeline showed corresponding major events in the West. Westerners interested in Ming vases could look at the timelines and see that the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) coincided with the Italian Renaissance.
I still remember my first trip to the National Palace Museum. As I worked my way around the chronology room, I reached the Zhou Dynasty and saw that Confucius and Lao Tzu lived at approximately the same time as each other. I think that I actually knew that. But then I looked at the Western timeline of that period and saw that the historical equivalents in the West were Plato and Aristotle. I was struck with the realization that the foundations of Asian and Western philosophy occurred at nearly the same time – Confucius, Lao Tzu, Plato, Aristotle – as if intellectual development on opposite sides of the world reached its apex simultaneously. Biologists would call this convergent evolution
John Muir Said ( August 6, 2018)
photo from National Park Service
John Muir once wrote that he didn’t know how authors found time to write when there were so many wild places to visit. I’ve been trying to find the exact quote all week, but haven’t come across it. I first read the passage when I worked full-time and my obvious thought was, “How do I find enough to time to do either when a job takes up most of my day?”
Now that I am retired, I finally understand Muir’s dilemma. I’ve been writing every morning, and as a result, my outdoor recreation has suffered. Of course I could do both – write in the morning and hike, fish, and paddle in the afternoon, but inertia sets in. So does life, as in mowing the grass, shopping for groceries, walking the dog, spending time with family and friends. Even as write about my chores and obligations, I realize that family, friends, and dogs are not always distinct from nature. It is largely experiences alone with nature that suffer.
Next month I travel for the entire month. Some of the time will be in cities, some in the countryside, some in national parks, but nothing I consider wilderness. I won’t take my computer, but will bring pen and paper. It’s how I do my best writing anyway. So for a month, having experiences to write about will take precedence over actual writing – and I’ll miss writing then just as I miss nature now.
Am I making retirement too complicated?
Weak Anthropocentrism ( July 30, 2018)
Some of my academic writing is interpreting (deciphering?) academic environmental philosophy. Up until now I’ve avoided using this fairly technical writing in my blogs, not because it is not interesting, but because the blogs have been my main escape from my professional writing. Both are equally enjoyable, but very different from each other. When I get jammed up on one, I often can successfully write the other.
This blog, however, is about a little bit of environmental philosophy. It is about a concept called weak anthropocentrism. Usually associated with philosopher Bryan Norton, I mention weak anthropocentrism today, because it touches on a problem in my own environmental thinking. It does not solve the problem, but at least it shows me that I am not alone in trying to figure it out.
Anthropocentrism is the perspective that humans are more important than other life on the planet. Everything is viewed and interpreted in terms of human experience and values. My problem with anthropocentrism is not that it justifies nature as a commodity (which it does), but that 1) I find anthropocentrism distasteful, yet 2) I am a somewhat anthropocentric myself. While I don’t look at forests in terms of board feet, I do look at them in terms of their recreational value. Recreation is not as destructive as clearcut logging, but it is anthropocentric. I’d like to think that I value nature’s innate right to exist, but whenever I imagine wild nature, I almost always put myself in the middle of it.
For that reason, I am intrigued by Norton’s attempt to distinguish between what he calls strong anthropocentrism and weak anthropocentrism. Strong anthropocentrism is limited to consumptive use of natural resources, whereas weak anthropocentrism is more encompassing and includes less tangible nature-related human values. Such values include spiritual growth, personal renewal, and even a sense of satisfaction with oneself for possessing a worldview that stresses a close relationship between humans and nature.
Critics of Norton see weak anthropocentrism as a rationalization that does not get at the deeper meaning of less human-centered thinking. Katie McShane wrote that even when Norton includes rejuvenation and spiritual growth in his thinking, he still ignores feelings of respect, awe, and love toward the natural world. Respect, awe, and love are exclusively ecocentric/biocentric feelings no matter how broadly anthropocentrism is defined. Respect connotes an equal relationship between humans and the nonhuman world, and awe signifies a greatness that goes beyond humanity. And as to the emotion of love, McShane wrote, “I might be able to act as though I love you if I judge it in my self-interest to do so, but . . . really loving you requires me to see you as having value that is independent of me.”
Dabbling in environmental philosophy sometimes complicates more than clarifies, but usually it is interesting.
The Weather ( July 23, 2018)
Every Friday evening I meet with a group of Chinese students from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The group is actually a Chinese/Taiwanese Bible study group that my wife Manyu co-leads, but she was getting so many basic questions from the students about living in the United States that she asked me, as a homegrown Wisconsinite, to sit in for the first thirty minutes. After about a month of visits I’d answered all of their questions about buying cars, dealing with landlords, taking GREs, and writing resumes, but the students asked for our conversations to continue. The short Q & As had evolved into a nonthreatening way for them to practice their English with a native speaker.
I agreed to keep coming, but reversed the roles. Instead of the students asking the questions, I’d bring a question each week and the students were expected to respond in English. The first prompt question I ever asked was, “What is one thing that you like about La Crosse, Wisconsin, and what is one thing that you don’t like?” As an experiential educator, I should have known that this was a poor discussion question. It allows for one-word responses and it invites cliches – and I got both. I learned that the students liked the peacefulness of La Crosse. They did not like the weather, and they did not like having to go to Minneapolis, Madison, or Chicago just to find authentic Chinese food.
Last week I thought that enough time had passed that I should, in spite of the question’s shortcomings, again ask the students what they thought of La Crosse. Seven months had elapsed, and I wondered whether the students’ responses would have more substance. One student immediately spoke up and said, “I like the weather here.” I replied that he might like the summer weather, but reminded him that just this past January everyone had complained about the cold. Three other students jumped into the conversation and said that they’d discovered that they enjoyed the change of seasons. Apparently the students still spoke in cliches, but had adopted the cliches of the natives.
In spite of the propaganda of the state tourism bureau, Wisconsin has only three very good months in terms of weather. They are May, September, and October. June has its moments. July and August are good so long as a person stays within a hundred yards of Lake Michigan or Lake Superior. I have always assumed that Midwesterners who say that they enjoy the change of seasons were either rationalizing or lying. When I heard the same claim come out of the mouths of international students, I actually believed them. The students obviously had acclimated, but had they acclimated to the weather or to the storyline of the locals?
WisCorps ( July 16, 2018)
My daughter Clare’s summer job is with the Wisconsin Conservation Corps (WisCorps). She and the rest of her crew of young adults travel the state of Wisconsin maintaining hiking trails, building boardwalks, and removing invasive species. Electronic devices, including cell phones, are banned, but about once a week Clare is allowed to use the crew leader’s work phone to call home and let Manyu and me know how things are going.
When Clare called and told me that her crew was passing through La Crosse, I invited them to stay in our house for the weekend before they moved on to their next project. Usually the group camps near its job sites, so when she mentioned to the rest of the crew that they might escape mosquitoes and ticks for a couple of days and actually sleep in air conditioning, there was not much debate. From Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, seven corps members took over my living room, my family room, and my basement. During their short stay, two thoughts came to mind.
First, Clare was having an excellent experience. She already had a good heart and a commitment to service, but a summer with WisCorps was reinforcing those attributes. With her mom’s sensitive skin and her dad’s propensity to sustain minor injuries during physical labor, she looked a little banged up – but she also glowed with the joy of doing meaningful work in the outdoors.
Second, grumpy old men (and women) who prop up their own self-worth by complaining about the character of young people ought to have a conservation crew stay in their homes for a couple of days. To a person, the good intentions of these kids came out just about every time I had a conversation with one of them. If I can just use Tom, the crew leader, as an example, the guy joined the Peace Corps after college, took an AmeriCorps position after the Peace Corps, and now is working conservation corps for a year before heading off for another service project in Sierra Leone. (I can imagine some old codger saying, “Yeah, but when is he going to get a real job?) Willie Bittner, the Operations Director for WisCorps, once told me that most of his young seasonal hires are more interested in having rewarding experiences than in making lots of money, and Clare and her coworkers personify Willie’s assertion.
The Cairns at Cave Point ( July 9, 2018)
photo by Wu Hanqing
Last week I complained about the sound of floatplanes disrupting my wilderness experience. This week I’ll do a 180 and complain about a park management’s efforts to return one of its parks to a more natural state. The park is Cave Point County Park in Wisconsin’s Door County. Adjacent to Whitefish Dunes State Park just northeast of Sturgeon Bay, Cave Point is one of the most accessible places to walk along a craggy section of Door County’s Lake Michigan shoreline. Much of the shoreline in Cave Point is a sheer fifteen-foot drop into the cold waters of Lake Michigan. At the northern end of the park, however, the trail drops nearly to lake level, and it is easy to walk out onto a long rocky shoreline. By rocky, I mean rocks, not pebbles, with the rocks ranging from the size of cupcakes to small day packs.
For as long as I can remember, people have stacked the rocks into cairns (see photo), sometimes so close together that was hard to walk through them without knocking one over. Ninety-five percent of the time I prefer natural over manufactured (this applies to people just as much as it does the natural world), but the Cave Point cairns were one of the unusual exceptions. I found the shoreline of piled rocks charming and surreal. When I looked along the long beach of cairns, I never saw intentional destruction, but an attempt at people’s art. The rock piles were a constant work in progress, because while the piles usually withstood heavy wave action, they were no match for the annual break up of winter ice. Each year required a new version of the artwork, with hundreds of visitors making their own small contribution to the larger effort.
Just before the Fourth of July, I made my annual trip to Door County and discovered that the Cave Point cairns were gone. In their place were signs every thirty feet requesting park visitors not to stack rocks. My first reaction was a feeling of disappointment. For a moment, I even considered stacking a couple of rocks as an act of civil disobedience, but quickly realized that I would be protesting a management decision that I agreed with in principle. The problem, when it really came down to it, was that the signage asking people not to stack rocks was uglier than the stacked rocks themselves (July 9, 2018).
Floatplane In ( July 2, 2018)
photo by Tom Spaeth
This week and next I will write about my own inconsistencies as far as level of naturalness. Next week the topic will be about Wisconsin’s Door County. Specifically it will be about Cave Point. This week is about my recent fly-in to Ontario’s Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.
Two weeks ago five friends and I drove fifteen hours to Red Lake, Ontario, then took ancient floatplanes (the planes were older than I am, and I’m sixty-four years old) into the backcountry. With two guys per flight, a canoe lashed to one of the pontoons, we were dropped into Haven Lake and told to be on the north end of Mexican Hat Lake eight days later. Over that period of time, we talked to no one else and saw a total of three other canoes. However, two or three times each day we heard and sometimes saw planes flying other paddlers into adjacent lakes. The noise of the planes really bothered me, and I came to appreciate that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness back in the United States is a no-fly zone.
How do I justify taking a plane into the wilderness, then begrudging anyone else for doing the same thing? I can’t. When I complained to my paddling partners, they actually made a little bit of fun of me. The noise of each plane took maybe five minutes total – a couple minutes flying in and another couple flying out. For a total of about fifteen minutes a day there was human noise that I hadn’t made myself, and I considered it too much. Jack, my tent mate, blew bubbles in his sleep. The noise of Jack’s sleep should have bothered me more than the occasional float plane, but it did not. The sound of the planes shattered the false impression that had I created for myself, a belief that for eight days my friends and I had a million acres to ourselves.
The Nature ( June 25, 2018)
In my two stints teaching in Taiwan, my Mandarin was barely better than survival level, so I taught in English. Students were forced to interact with me in their second language. Some of them were more interested in working on their English than in the content of my resource management/environmental education courses. Several wanted to pursue an advanced degree in the United States, and they took my courses specifically to experience an American professor. Still I was embarrassed that my students had to speak to me in a foreign language in their own country, so I rarely corrected their English. However, one day, after hearing the same error from just about everyone in one of my classes, I said, “In English, we don’t say ‘the nature.’ It is just ‘nature.’
Of course, the students wanted to know why this was. I had no idea, but one of the students bailed me out. “Maybe,” he said, “it is because nature is an idea, not a thing. In English,‘the’ is to be used with things, but not with ideas. Maybe nature is like freedom or democracy.” Other students immediately nodded their heads and agreed that this rule fit the situation. I stood dumbfounded in the front of the room, because I’d never heard of such a rule.
Anyone whose first language is English and has spent time with people whose second language is English quickly realizes that non-native speakers understand the whys of English much better than native speakers. Assuming that most of the people reading this blog are native English speakers, how many of you knew about the ‘the’ rule? Not many, I’m guessing.
The Photos on My Homepage ( June 18, 2018)
A visitor to my website asked me to explain the two photographs on my homepage. I am pleased to do so, mostly because I was not sure anyone other than a few friends had even seen my website.
The photo of the old wall and the ocher building tiles was taken on the island of Big Kinmen. Big and Little Kinmen are a pair of small islands governed by Taiwan, but only a couple of miles off the coast of Mainland China. Kinmen is home to the world’s best examples of ancient Fujian architecture, and the Taiwanese government is paying residents to restore buildings using traditional construction methods. The restorations are beautiful, many now bed and breakfasts, but the most interesting photos are of the buildings still in ruins.
The second photograph, of me taking in the morning sun while the dog enjoys the shade, also is from Asia. It was taken on the back porch of my sister’s-in-law home in Thailand. Niensheng and her French husband, Yves, recently left their long-time home in Bangkok for the rural life just outside of Khao Yai National Park. Manyu and I spent the month of February at their home this year, and I think that I ate more mangoes in those four weeks than I had in the other sixty-four years of my life. (June 18, 2018)
In a City with Nature Just Outside the Door ( June 11, 2018)
Every comprehensive* university has professors who are excellent teachers and renown scholars who could easily find work at more prestigious research institutions. Sometimes they stay put because they enjoy the heavier teaching load, yet have carved out a comfortable niche to conduct their research. More often than not, however, I think that these exceptional men and women are where they are for reasons that have nothing to do with their jobs. My former university, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, is an excellent example. For every young scholar who has used UWL as a stepping stone (entirely their right, and I have written several glowing reference letters to help them on their way), there is another who came here and realized that he or she was home.
I write on this topic now, because I know that one of the reasons that many professors stay in La Crosse is the excellent nature right out their front doors – and that is never more evident than in early June. Whereas those of us who hole up during the winter come out of hibernation anywhere from late March to early May, it is June when the beauty of this area is most evident. The greenery is at its most lush. The water level on the Mississippi River is low enough for canoes, kayaks, and johnboats. Those with gardens watch their rows of carrots, radishes, beans, and peas poke out of the soil. And although we complain about the mosquitoes and ticks, even they are reminders of why we live here. If we weren’t spending every free evening walking or bicycling the nearby trails, the mosquitoes and ticks wouldn’t bother us.
- Comprehensive universities usually are smaller public universities where the emphasis is undergraduate teaching. There are graduate programs and a fair amount of research, but undergraduate teaching tends to take precedence. Much of my teaching career was the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a good example of a comprehensive.
Easy As Falling Off a Horse ( June 4, 2018)
I read at least ten books of fiction for every work of non-fiction, but I recently read Patricia Hampl’s memoir The Art of the Wasted Day. In it, she wrote about 14th Century philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s essay about falling off a horse. Montaigne sometimes is considered the father of the personal essay as a literary form, and Hampl described the fall as a ‘conversion moment’ in the history of writing. She wrote, “In being knocked off his horse, he experienced the doubleness necessary to empower personally voiced writing. He experienced the fall – but he also observed the fall. Both. In separate but related strands of consciousness he experienced and he saw the experience.”
As a nature writer, it would have been reasonable for me to incorporate Hampl’s insights about Montaigne into my writing, but instead it was the educator in me who took notice. Engaging in an experience and simultaneously observing the experience is exactly what I’ve been asking my students to do in over thirty years of teaching experientially, but I’d never considered the two acts separate. I’d always thought of them as a single linear act – action followed by reflection followed by more action followed by more reflection. Hampl’s notion of separate, yet related strands actually makes more sense, but it also makes it more difficult. It is multitasking, which means nothing is given full attention. No wonder that students sometimes are unable to speak beyond clichés when asked to explain their observations. When students are truly engaged in the task at a hand, they don’t have the reserve brain power to also observe. That Montaigne rode a horse and was equally busy observing himself ride a horse probably explains why he fell off in the first place.
Cell Phone Coverage in the Backcountry (May 28, 2018)
About three weeks ago I read a newspaper article about Penn State University banning student outdoor clubs from going to natural areas on their own. While entirely a knee-jerk response, I have three thoughts on the matter.
First of all, I know that I do not have enough information to state one way or the other whether the decision makes any sense. Before I retired from my own university, I served on a risk assessment committee. I know that trying to develop general policy for off-campus learning experiences is just about impossible – and if risk managers always erred on the side of caution when reviewing the specific questions that come before them, all field trips would be prohibited and all learning would take place within the confines of the campus. The problem with the Penn State decision (if the press coverage is accurate) is that the university focused on the dangers of nature, when every outdoor leader knows that the most dangerous part of any outdoor adventure is the car ride to and from the natural area. Banning students from using their own vehicles to get to nature at least makes some sense. Banning them from nature does not.
Secondly the university spokesperson listed poor cell phone coverage in the backcountry as rationale for the outdoor recreation ban. At best, this explanation was tone deaf. At worst, it was admission that Penn State authorities do not understand the role of nature in people’s lives. One important reason for going to wilderness areas is to temporarily escape technology – especially cell phones. It should gnaw at all of us that students would not be allowed to go the wilderness expressly because the cell phones they ought to leave behind might not work. I cannot think of anything that would be more symbolically repulsive than a cell tower in the wilderness.
Thirdly, Richard Louv, in his now classic Last Child in the Woods, lamented that children today are no longer permitted to have unstructured and unsupervised play in nature – and as a result, might never develop a personal love of nature. If Penn State is an indicator of things to come, the same individuals whose parents would not allow them to play in nature by themselves when they were children still cannot play in nature by themselves as young adults. By the time they are allowed to play in nature without supervision, they will not want to. I know that Penn State provides university-sanctioned outdoor trips, but such trips are not the same as students going out on their own.
I once asked a Taiwanese friend of mine why he so passionately objected to the use of simplified Chinese characters (Taiwan uses traditional characters, and Mainland China uses simplified characters). He replied that readers of simplified characters can read Mao, but they can’t read what Mao read. Following this same line a thinking, are we moving toward a point where American students can read John Muir and Rachel Carson in their lit classes, but cannot visit on their own the wild places where these great naturalists received their inspiration? The ghost of Thoreau will haunt each of us if every encounter with nature becomes supervised. (May 28, 2018)
Farewell to a Compost Pile (May 21, 2018)
My backyard is small and only one corner of it is in garden, but still I compost. I don’t really need to. My sense of environmental responsibility does not push me to do it, and the City of La Crosse sets out its own mountain of compost for anyone who wants to come by with a shovel and a garbage can. It takes me thirty minutes, and that includes driving time, to pick up more compost at the City compost pile than I could produce myself in a year. Still I compost, because I get a thrill out of the results. I expect to get strawberries from strawberry plants and tomatoes from tomato plants, but black soil from dead leaves and kitchen scraps remains as mysterious to me as lead into gold. It is also full-proof. While I often get lousy tomatoes, and I once suffered through one season with no strawberries at all, I’ve never had a bad crop of compost. It is hard to mess up decomposition.
Two years ago I started a second compost pile, not in the garden, on a corner of the brick patio just off our back door. This spring Manyu asked to me to clean the mess up. Compost piles have something in common with pocket-size prairie plots in that they are ecologically laudable, but ratty in appearance to anyone who cannot see their inner beauty. I’d never did much with this second pile, and I don’t think that I turned it once. As a result, when I hauled it away, there were three distinct layers. On top was last fall’s yard waste, which didn’t look much different than when I put it there. In the middle was a compressed mass of rotting leaves. These leaves were as heavy as wet snow, but I was happy to laboriously pile them on top of my main compost pile because it was brown matter on the verge of decomposition. When I peeled off the last of the leaves, all that remained was black soil. The line between the leaf layer and the soil was so distinct that the black dirt appeared as a buried treasure. I showed it to Manyu before I disturbed it, and she immediately wanted it for her potted plants. She didn’t care much for the eyesore on her patio, but was more than willing to reap the results. I shoveled a wheelbarrow-full for her, then sprinkled the rest over the strawberries.
The Best Johnny Winter Song (May 14, 2018)
Last week I mentioned that I’ve moved from the coffee shop near the university to one in a small mini-mall several miles from campus. The clientele is very different. The former, not surprisingly, is students with a smattering of university staff. The latter is almost entirely retirees. They also are people who don’t know me from Adam. I moved because two of the regulars at the campus shop constantly converse too loudly for me to concentrate. For me to write, I need distraction, but no single sound that rises above the din. That is not to say that people in the ol’ folks’ coffee shop don’t occasionally get loud. The difference is that the annoying conversations at my new coffee shop sometimes are about things that are interesting to me. For example, yesterday two guys, both pushing eighty, were arguing about the best Johnny Winter song. Since Winter’s live cover of Johnny B. Goode didn’t come up in the conversation, I can only conclude that they didn’t know what they were talking about, but it was still fun to eavesdrop on two old codgers so passionate about their music.
Return to Birdwatching (May 7, 2018)
Last week the first barges of spring pulled into St. Paul, Minnesota. Tow boats and barges arriving in the Twin Cities unofficially mark the beginning of the navigation season on the Upper Mississippi River, and this year had the latest first arrival (April 11) of commercial traffic in a year that was not a flood year. For once the endlessness of the Wisconsin winter was more than just my imagination.
Here in La Crosse, the first warm and sunny day in almost six months occurred during the fourth weekend in April, so Manyu (my wife) and I hiked the dikes of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge north of the city. At the last minute I grabbed binoculars and decided to birdwatch. I used to birdwatch seriously in the 1970s and early ’80s, but it has been hit or miss ever since. I quickly learned on our trip to the refuge that holding the binoculars steady with a dog pulling on its leash is almost impossible, but it was fun to hike with a purpose again (not that hiking without a purpose isn’t fun as well).
Birdwatching is not like riding a bicycle. I was a little surprised how inept I was. I’d forgotten so much. The distinctive birds were easy – white pelicans, coots, and common loons (the loons, which only pass through on their way north, were the highlight of the trip) – but everything else felt like starting over. I never could differentiate gull species, and they still remained a mystery, but other identifications that used to be automatic had to be relearned. I had to use my bird guide to identify ruddy ducks. I mistook buffleheads for hooded mergansers, even though the two species have some fairly distinct differences. The biggest frustration was failing to identify waterfowl that were off in the distance. In the past, I might have recognized them from their dark outlines and general behavior, but this time I had no idea what I was looking at.
My difficulties in identifying birds at a distance reminded me how much I used to enjoy birdwatching with someone dedicated enough to own and lug around a spotting scope. Maybe with retirement, I’ll become one of those people. I noticed that of the dozen people I saw during our hike, all but two of them were in their 60s or 70s. I mentioned to Manyu that most of the things that I do these days seem to be dominated by old people. I play cards with old men (i.e., men my own age). I’ve moved from the campus coffee shop to one that attracts retirees. Now the walk along Kiep’s Island Dike at the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge was dominated by old folks. After our hike I spoke to my daughter Clare on the phone. She is a first-year student at Grinnell College, and she reminded me that students are already gearing up for finals and too busy to go on a hike. It made me realize that in years past, I also missed many springs because, as a university professor, I was busy as well. This is my first April/May since retirement, and I must make a point of not missing any more springs.