It Really Happened (October 26, 2020)
Two nights ago I passed through our galley kitchen on my way to the laundry room. I’d left on the ceiling light over the washer, so there was enough ambient light in the kitchen that I didn’t turn on any additional lights to guide my way. I should have, because I slipped on something and fell. Earlier in the evening I’d washed the dishes and immediately assumed I had splashed some soapy water onto the floor. However, when I got up off the floor and turned on the overhead light in the kitchen, I saw I’d slipped on a banana peel.
When I was washing the dishes, I also did an overall clean up of the kitchen. I noticed our bananas were overripe, so I peeled a half dozen and stuck them in the freezer. I thought I’d thrown all of the peels away, but one must have slipped through my fingers as I carried them from the counter to the compost container. An hour later, the wayward banana skin took me down.
It has taken me sixty-six years, but now I can confirm that banana peels really are slippery. I didn’t actually land flat on my back, but otherwise it was just like the old movies. One foot sailed out until my leg was parallel to the floor, and down I went.
I have told the story four or five times since it happened. When I tell young adults, they laugh and then ask, “You weren’t hurt, were you?” When I tell people my own age, they also laugh, but then follow up by saying, “You need to be more careful. That’s how old people break their hips.”
Four Weeks Down, Twenty-One To Go (October 19, 2020)
A chronicle of the obstacles unique to a bi-cultural interracial marriage would be a book, not a blog, but since I am in the early stages of one specific challenge, I thought I would write about it. When one spouse is from the United States and the other is from Taiwan, time away from each other is just a part of the deal. Currently Manyu is in her fourth week of an extended visit to Asia. When she visits family members who are spread across Taiwan, mainland China, and Thailand, her trip is never just for a long weekend. Usually she is gone for seven or eight weeks. This time it will be for six months. The lengthy stay is because she needs to be in Taiwan now for a family matter and wants to be there in February for Chinese New Year. Ordinarily these two commitments would involve two separate trips, with a return to the United States tucked in the middle, but because traveling during the pandemic is so difficult, her trip turned into one long visit instead of two shorter ones.
My state of mind during her travels tends to pass through three stages. The first two weeks are a great joy at having time to myself. The last two weeks are an hour-by-hour longing for her to return. The time in between is a neutral numbness where I’d rather we were together, but I get along fine. The problem this time is that Manyu’s absence is nearly twice as long as any previous separation. For all I know, there may be a stage I’ve never experienced before.
If the world was a normal place right now, I’d join Manyu in Taiwan for part of her visit. Currently, however, foreigners without essential business are not allowed into the country. Even Taiwanese nationals returning home from abroad have to spend two weeks in isolation followed by a third week away from restaurants, hospitals, and other public places. These protocols may seem extreme, but Taiwan has almost no COVID.
Manyu’s time away has been made easier for me because Clare is home. All of Grinnell College’s classes are online, so she is back in the house. This puts the Simpson diaspora completely out of whack. My wife and I should be together, but we are apart. My twenty-one year old daughter should be anywhere except with either her mom or dad, but here she is studying in a room down the hall.
Still I should not complain. Life for me during the COVID crisis has been easy. No one dear to me has been sick. My pension and Social Security checks continue to show up every month. My daily routine (e.g., writing, walking my dog, riding my bicycle, fishing) is largely unaffected by social distancing. I have been extremely lucky in terms of the pandemic. The worst impact is having my wife on other side of the world.
Thoughts About the Prairie (October 12, 2020)
It has been two weeks since my trip to the Fort Pierre National Grassland. The unique landscape left me with conflicting sensations. On one hand, the shortgrass prairie is enchanting. On the restored prairies near home, the big bluestem sometimes is over my head, so I cannot see more than a few feet in front of me. Even when I can see for a distance on these postage stamp-sized plots, there is always forest or ag land only a few hundred yards away. On the wild prairies of central South Dakota, the vegetation is waist high at best, and the vistas from any ridge top is grasslands for as far as I could see.
On the other hand, the mystique of the endless prairie has an uncomfortable starkness to it. I am not sure how long I’d be happy in a place without forests or shorelines or, to my surprise, people. I usually avoid other people when I go to nature, but I want it to be my choice. The shortgrass prairie does not offer solitude so much as mandate it. When my traveling companions were off hunting and I was left by myself, I was at peace. Still, when I looked for miles in all directions and saw fence lines as the only evidence of a human presence, I had an inkling the isolation might be too much over an extended period of time. Even as I enjoyed my time alone, I was glad my stay was short-term. Maybe I could say the same of most backcountry trips, but I felt it more strongly on the endless prairie. Only fifteen miles from Interstate 90, I was more alone on the prairie than times I’ve been dropped in the middle of nowhere by floatplane. On the floatplane trips, I was embraced by the northwoods. In South Dakota, the grasslands were indifferent to my presence. I found myself wondering what the first white settlers must have thought when they realized the Dakota Territories was their new home. I also wondered whether today’s South Dakota ranchers feel claustrophobic when surrounded by trees.
As I tromped across the rolling South Dakota hills, I often watched out for prairie rattlesnakes. This would seem a reasonable precaution, except for the fact that I live in a place with timber rattlers and massasauga – and I’ve never given either one of those venomous reptiles a second thought. What was the difference? All I can think of is that we fear the unfamiliar. My daughter Clare was studying abroad in New Zealand before the pandemic forced her home. She said her New Zealand friends were shocked to learn she hiked in areas with ticks carrying Lyme disease. In their minds, she might as well been describing a hotspot for malaria or dengue fever. (Coincidentally I have not heard a single mention of Lyme disease since the COVID pandemic.)
Hunting When I Don't Hunt (October 5, 2020)
Last week I went on an upland bird hunt in South Dakota. I don’t hunt, but I’d never spent any time on a real prairie, so I jumped at the chance to tag along with friends on their annual trip to the Fort Pierre National Grassland. Much of Dances With Wolves was filmed near the place we camped, so scenes from the movie accurately depict the landscape.
My four friends and their three dogs made three long sweeps each day over a three-day period. I walked along with them twice. Otherwise I stayed near camp and fished. It was unique fishing. Authorities (I assume the US Forest Service) dammed seasonal creeks to create large ponds for wildlife and migrating waterfowl. They also stocked these ponds with bass, bluegills, perch, and crappies to create a fishery where naturally no permanent water even existed. In late September, everyone other than me was on the shortgrass prairie to hunt sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens. I had the ponds to myself.
On our last full day of hunting and fishing, I was fishing Richland Dam Pond adjacent our campsite when 30 mile-an-hour winds hit. The only patch of calm water was immediately downwind of a small peninsula of cattails. I slipped my kayak behind the windbreak and kept casting for bass and crappies. The peninsula was directly across the lake from camp, so I had a good view when one of our tents went airborne. My friends were out hunting, so now I had to cross the windy pond and rescue our belongings. There were whitecaps on the water, and I hadn’t brought a spray skirt with me. I was able to ferry across the lake without taking in too much water, but ended up about 200 yards downwind from where I needed to be. I eventually made it to camp and retrieved tents, dishes, and backpacking chairs from what seemed a quarter mile of open land. Of course, the hunters returned just as I was finishing up. Together we broke camp and reestablished it leeward of a stand of small windblown trees. To maintain at least a semblance of social distancing, we each slept in our own tents, so relocating our living quarters took a little longer than it normally would.
In spite of the winds, the trip was very good. COVID ruined my summer plans to visit my daughter in New Zealand immediately after her semester abroad (she was called back to the United States in March), so South Dakota was my first outdoor adventure in almost a year.
A Wonder of the Mississippi (September 28, 2020)
Mark Twain wrote, “It is strange how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi.” Periodicals that have come out since Twain’s time (e.g., Big River Magazine) have somewhat corrected this shortcoming, but it does not alter the fact that when most people think about the Mississippi River, they associate it with its southern half. To those of us who live along the river north of its convergence with the Missouri, the Upper Mississippi is the Mississippi River – and except for our impression of the river as it passes through New Orleans, we don’t even have a strong sense of what the lower sections of the river look like. We, or at least I, imagine it as a single enormous navigation channel, a relatively unappealing ditch when compared to the maze of islands and backwaters that dominate the river up here. I have no doubt that people from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana would disagree with me, but so long as their opinions don’t devolve into parochialism, I have no problem with a little regional pride.
As a fisherman, the Upper Mississippi River’s diversity of fish is a wonder unto itself. Because of a series of locks and dams, the river between St. Paul and St. Louis is a conglomeration of ecosystems. The main channel has strong current, the shallow and weedy backwater has gentle current, and the “lakes” directly behind each dam have hardly any current at all. As a preservationist, I wouldn’t mind if there were no dams at all, but I have to admit that impoundments every thirty miles create multiple habitats to support a wide range of aquatic life. As a kid, I thought I knew all of the fish of Wisconsin, but growing up on the eastern side of the state, I did not know about the crazy diversity in the Mississippi. After twenty-five years of fishing the river, I still occasionally catch something new. And by new, I don’t just mean something I’ve never caught before. I mean a fish I’ve never seen before. I have to pull out my Fish of Wisconsin when I get home just to identify it.
Below is a list of the fish I recall catching on the Mississippi River. Initially I’d planned to rank them in priority order, but immediately realized I like to catch different fish for different reasons. Perch and walleye reside in a category all their own as far as good eating. Northerns and smallmouth bass are the most fun to catch, and I look for the constant action of bluegills when I take kids fishing. Without a clear favorite, the fish are just listed in the order they came to mind.
- Northern pike
- Smallmouth bass
- Largemouth bass
- Rock bass
- White bass
- Crappie, both black and white
- Channel catfish
- Dogfish (bowfin)
- Gar (longnosed or shortnosed?)
- Lamprey (attached to the belly of a northern pike)
There remain several species I’ve seen others catch, but have not caught myself. Some, like the common carp, sucker, and musky, I’ve caught elsewhere, but not on the Mississippi. Others, such as burbot, the two species of sturgeon, and flathead catfish, I’ve never caught anywhere. My friend Yao Yin even caught a rainbow trout once, but that fish was as lost as the hummingbird that got trapped in the rafters of my garage. (I helped it escape by opening the garage door and then placing a big pot of bright red flowers on the ground to coax it down.) It is fun to think that the next time I go out on the river I might catch something new.
Because of Last Week's Fish Story (September 21, 2020)
I used to take lots of pictures. I almost never stepped or paddled into a natural area without a camera in hand. Then I began to wonder whether the desire for a good photograph was keeping me from encountering my experiences with an open mind. In the same way I see only birds when I am birdwatching, I tended to see only the next photo when I was carrying my camera. I am sure I exaggerate this tendency, but it was enough to keep me from investing heavily into new equipment when amateur photography went digital. I did buy a small inexpensive digital camera, but I usually don’t carry it with me. I pretty much removed nature photography from my recreation repertoire.
Lately I have been rethinking this decision, and it is because of my blog. Every weekend I write about something that happened to me during the previous week, and I sometimes regret not having a photograph to accompany the prose. About half of the time I am able to obtain an acceptable photo after I’ve written a blog. If I am sitting on my front porch writing about my front porch, I can go back into the house and retrieve my camera. If the subject is paddling with Clare, she usually brings her smart phone and I can use one of her shots. Overall she has a better eye than I do anyway. If I paddle or fish or bike alone, I can sometimes return to the site with my camera afterwards. More often than not I have to go without a photo.
I did try carrying my camera with me on my bicycle rides, but my old bad habit of allowing the camera to be a distraction returned. Instead of enjoying the ride, I was actively looking for the next blog entry and the photo to accompany it. Without the camera, I seldom thought in those terms. I enjoyed the hike or the paddle or the bike ride, and only days later while reflecting on the week did a particular happening turn into a story.
This blog about photography came to mind because I do not have a picture of the gar I wrote about in last week’s blog. A photograph of a Jurassic Period fish with 21st Century fluorocarbon fishing line wrapped around its snout would have made for an evocative photo.
Fish Story (September 14, 2020)
Thursday I took my kayak to Green Island on the Mississippi River. It is one of about a half dozen places I regularly put in to go fishing. Every other time I’ve gone there, I’ve paddled west and fished the inlets just off the main channel. On Thursday, largely on a whim, I headed east, paddled under the Green Island Bridge, and fished the backside of the island behind Gundersen Lutheran Hospital. Over the years I’d ice fished that particular slough a couple of times during the winter, but had never been there after ice out. Much of the shoreline is residential, and I usually look for places less developed.
For an hour and a half I worked the water’s edge without success. Then I noticed fish surfacing out toward the middle. Within a sixty-foot diameter, there were two or three swirls at any given moment. I quietly paddled to the edge of the activity and gently put down my anchor. The water was deeper than my twenty-foot anchor rope, but I left the anchor in. Even if it didn’t catch on the bottom, it would slow my drifting.
I began tossing a weighted green jig into the circle of swirls. About every third cast, I felt something hit my line, but nothing ever took the hook. Ordinarily I would assume that the fish were too small for the size of lure I was using. That day it had to be something else, because even though I never saw a fish break the surface, the dimensions of the swirls suggested something fairly large. I began to wonder whether there was a floating weed bed just under the surface. Maybe I was getting my lure momentarily caught on aquatic plants and mistaking it for a strike. I pulled up my anchor and paddled directly into the circle of swirls. There were no weeds. Fish had to be hitting my lure, but not taking it in their mouths.
Now I wanted to catch at least one fish just to see what I was dealing with. After what seemed like the twentieth strike, I finally hooked something. Often I can distinguish a northern pike from a small-mouthed bass from a walleye from a catfish by the way that the fish pulls against the line, but this fish was reacting in a way unfamiliar to me. It almost seemed to be spinning lengthwise in the water. I’ve had northerns spin once or twice in their attempts to break free, but this fish was rotating repeatedly.
After the fish made a couple of long runs, I got it alongside my kayak. It was a gar. I don’t know gars well enough to say whether it was a longnose gar or a shortnose gar, and I didn’t really care. Gars are so prehistoric and so nasty looking that I don’t like to touch them to take the hook out. In that way, they have something in common with dogfish and eels. About once a year I see a half dozen gar basking together on the surface of the water. I always paddle up to the small pod to get a good look, but never try to catch one.
I was right about the twisting. The gar’s sawlike teeth had cut my line, and my lure was somewhere on the bottom of the river. I landed the fish only because it had tightly wrapped my line a half dozen times around its snout. Basically I had lassoed it. I needed only to unravel the line to set the fish free.
One gar was enough to satisfy my curiosity. I called it a day and paddled back to my car.
Another Roadside Attraction (September 7, 2020)
Clare needed to find a flower to dissect for her online biology class. She wanted to use one of the huge lotus flowers we’d seen the last two times we’d gone kayaking. I asked her to go online to find out if taking a lotus flower is even legal. She came back and said that the information on the web was inconclusive, but picking an aquatic plant might be a misdemeanor. I responded that because lotus seeds are a wild edible that sometimes are harvested in small quantities, I had no qualms with picking one seed pod while it was still in flower form. “I destroyed more than a few wild plants during play as a kid,” I said, “and some of that destruction brought me closer to nature. I am willing to commit a petty crime with you in the name of education.”
As we pulled out of the driveway with kayaks on the roof rack, Clare told me she actually needed four or five different flowers for her dissection project. I suggested that we head out on a country road before going to the river. We could walk along the roadside and find goldenrod, thistle, and whatever else might be in bloom. Because flowers on the berm get mowed down by road crews, we should have no qualms about picking flowers out of the ditch.
Clare and I collected red clover, Canada thistle, goldenrod, morning glory, and a few other flowers that Clare will have to identify on her own. I explained DYC to her. DYC or “damn yellow composites” are the many species of yellow daisy-like flowers that look so much alike they are hard to identify down to genus and species. We found so many interesting flowers that Clare decided she didn’t need the lotus.
I told Clare I thought it was great that her biology class had her dissecting flowers. She said the subtitle of the course was “The Sex Lives of Plants.”
“But I thought it is an introductory course,” I said.
“It is,” replied Clare, “but it also is a special topics course. A few years ago the Biology Department at Grinnell flipped all of their courses on end. The old intro course wasn’t working. It was supposed to serve both biology majors and any non-major looking for a course about nature, but the non-majors hated it and usually withdrew by midterm. To make the intro course more interesting, the Department changed it to a special topics course. Content important only to majors got moved to the upper level courses.”
I said I considered the change a stroke of simple genius. When I was an undergraduate, I was a biology major for a year. After a semester of introductory botany, a semester of introductory zoology, and two semesters of chemistry, I changed majors because not a single class period had been held outdoors. I saw more nature by walking across campus than attending lectures and labs. After dabbling in three other majors (education, civil engineering, architecture) and then dropping out of college for a short time, I found a home in recreation resource management. It was a good fit and opened several wonderful doors, but I still think I would have made a good field biologist.
I Did It Again (August 31, 2020)
A few weeks ago I mentioned that I tend to make hikes and paddles with novices too difficult. I did it again, but this time someone got hurt – not seriously, but bad enough to make me question my judgment even more than I had before. On Friday, Clare and I took Clare’s former violin teacher kayaking. Busya isn’t really a novice, but she is about my age and hasn’t done much paddling since she was a young woman in her native Russia.
In my defense, I tried to tone down the challenges on our outing. It just didn’t work out. Rather than kayaking the entire length of Goose Island, which I have concluded is too long for beginners, I put in on the north end of the island with plans to meander upstream until we were half done, then reverse direction and end up where we started. I hadn’t done this route for years, but remembered it as a bit of a struggle upstream with the reward of a pleasant float back to the cars.
All was going well. I was playing it safe and avoiding unnecessary difficulties. Three times I asked Busya if we should head back, and each time she suggested we go a little bit farther. When we had gone as far north as I’d ever paddled before, it was I who made the decision to turn around. I knew from previous outings that if we could find an opening through the long skinny island on our starboard side, we’d run into a second large channel flowing south. Then we’d be able to loop around rather than just go up and back. I found a narrow passage I’d used before and assumed we were home free.
I was wrong. We paddled a hundred yards into the passage only to discover a large tree had fallen across it. The tree was massive and not something we could paddle around or drag our boats over. We had two choices. One was to get out of our boats and portage. The other was to back out the way we had come. I went ashore to scout out the portage option. To me, it looked fine. Although there was no path or evidence anyone else had gone around the tree, the ground was firm and the total distance was less than a hundred feet. There were a few nettles, but no poison ivy. The only potential problem I saw was a somewhat steep bank where we had to climb out of our boats. I was already out, and if I offered Clare and Busya a helping hand, the portage seemed a harmless glitch to our day’s paddle.
All was going well. Clare and Busya got to shore easily. Clare and I in tandem carried each kayak around the tree to open water. Busya, however, slipped on the mud reentering her kayak and hurt her wrist when she tried to catch herself. She claimed she was fine, but I was not convinced. She kept paddling, although it seemed to me her stroke lost some power. Also her smile wasn’t quite as intense. Clare commented that it was a good thing Manyu was not paddling with us that day, because she’d be mad at me for again not considering the skill level of others.
At the takeout Busya tried to assure me she was fine and that the day had been exceptional. “If I have nature and music,” she said, “then I have everything.”
I Blame the Glaciers (August 24, 2020)
Last week I wrote about things I see while writing from my front porch. I’ll stay with the topic for one more week. Today I made the annual observation that my yard is the first in the neighborhood to get large brown patches come late summer. A few of my neighbors are as reluctant to water their lawns as I am, but their yards stay green longer. The problem with my grass is more than a lack of rain. The original owner skimped on putting down black dirt, so my yard doesn’t have enough topsoil for a deep root system. Beneath a thin layer of fertile ground is nothing but the porous sand of an ancient riverbed.
The melting waters at the end of the last Ice Age rushed down the Mississippi River Valley, creating a river channel many miles wide. Once the glacial floodwaters receded, the river became the much, much narrower waterway we know today, and every river town on the Upper Mississippi sits atop land that was once a sandy prehistoric river bottom. My dried out yard is the result of 1) a thrifty homebuilder from the 1950s, 2) a water-conscious homeowner in 2020, and 3) a major geologic event that happened over ten thousand years ago.
When I think about lawn care in general, I think back to the first time I visited my friend Ed after he’d purchased a house on the Oakland/Berkeley border. As is the norm in the San Francisco Bay Area, he did not have much lawn, but did have shrubbery and various forms of ground cover. Ed is a person who ordinarily would be critical of someone with a manicured yard, so I was surprised to see that his shrubs were trimmed and his ground cover carefully edged where it met the sidewalk. When I told Ed that I wouldn’t have thought he would care about such things, he said, “I don’t. A week after I moved in, an old Filipino guy who didn’t speak much English showed up and just started working in the yard. No one had told him the owners had changed, and I don’t have the heart to fire him.”
Me and the Cicada Killers (August 17, 2020)
I live on a cul-de-sac. Manyu and I originally bought our house because it was relatively quiet, yet only a one-mile walk to my office on campus. Now retired, I sit on my front porch every morning, write, and watch my neighbors leave their houses. I’ve unintentionally become the nosy neighbor who knows everybody else’s morning routine.
The guy kitty-corner to me walks his dog before heading to work. There are two other people who also regularly walk their dogs past my house, but I’m not sure where they come from. They do not live in any of the houses on my block. I know the names of the dogs (Ruby, Ralphie), but not the people.
The couple next door leaves in a gray pickup truck every morning around 7am and returns right around 8. I once asked them where they go, and they told me they drive to the marsh to walk the loop trail there. The husband and wife directly across from me leave about the same time as my next door neighbors and are gone for about an hour and a half. They, however, leave in separate vehicles, and I don’t know where they go. Finally the divorced dad at the very end of the cul-de-sac has three kids, two high schoolers and an older daughter home from college. Between them, they have four cars and spend five minutes most mornings rearranging the order of vehicles in the driveway.
Because our street is a dead end, we don’t get traffic just passing by. Other than the cars belonging to the people who live here, there tends to be only service vehicles. Since the pandemic, FedEx and UPS trucks come by frequently. The man who lives two doors down has emphysema, and his home health provider shows up most days around nine. Two of my neighbors hire lawn services, and those guys show up once a week usually very early in the day. Their large riding lawn mowers sound more like chainsaws than mowers, but because they drive their machines fast enough to leave skid marks in the sod, it takes them only a few minutes to cut the grass.
Usually by 10am the street goes quiet. The dominant feature from my porch becomes not the traffic, but the large number of cicada killers right around my writing table. Nearly as big as hummingbirds, they look vicious, but are no more interested in me than the gray squirrels that chase each other around the neighborhood. By midmorning it is just me, the squirrels, and the cicada killers.
Chad Erickson Park (August 10, 2020)
This summer I’ve been taking long bicycle rides every day. My route varies, but I make it a point to always go through Chad Erickson Park. For two different reasons, the park renews my faith in humanity, and right now I look forward to (maybe need) a recurrent dose of faith.
The first reason for this sense of optimism is the story of the park’s origin. The Chad Erickson of Chad Erickson Park was a boy who suffered brain damage during heart surgery in 1989. I do not know the details, but his parents received a cash settlement. Not willing to benefit financially from their son’s misfortune, the parents used the money to convert an inaccessible wet spot behind a long-term care facility into a neighborhood gem. The area was reconfigured into marshlands and a large pond. Trails, boardwalks, pedestrian bridges, and gazebos were built around the pond. Chad Erickson Park is tucked away in a far southside neighborhood, and I am sure half of the city’s residents don’t even know it exists.
Secondly, and more significantly, I get to watch children fishing. As I approach the park, I often ride past kids walking toward the pond with poles in their hands. Once in the park, other kids are standing on bridges with lines in the water. Sometimes very young children fish with their parents or grandparents, but mostly it is just kids fishing with other kids. I have been told the pond is stocked with trout, but I’ve only seen young fishermen and fisherwomen pull out bluegills and bullheads. This is as it should be; bluegills and bullheads are the fish of childhood.
Those familiar with Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods know of his lament that children no longer are allowed to have unsupervised free time in the natural world. He fears that today’s kids are so overprotected and so overscheduled that they no longer get to explore ponds and woods and creeks on their own. Chad Erickson Park lets me know that Louv’s nature deficit disorder (his term, not mine) has yet to reach epidemic proportions in my town.
"You Always Do This" (August 3, 2020)
Norma, a friend who lives down the street, won a kayak in a raffle. She’d canoed as a kid, but had never been in a kayak, so she asked me to take her out and give her a few tips. Her request coincided with me trying to get Manyu and Clare out on the water more often, so we made it a group outing. With Clare and Norma in individual kayaks and Manyu and me together in a canoe, we paddled from the canoe access at Goose Island’s Shelter No. 5 to the boat landing at Hunter’s Point.
The trip turned out to be too long for a first timer. Norma tired about three quarters into it. Exhausted, she climbed into our canoe and became a duffer. Clare towed Norma’s empty kayak. I hadn’t brought a towrope, but we jerry-rigged one by stringing together cords unlaced from my lifejacket. Norma repeatedly apologized for ruining the trip, and she wouldn’t believe me when I told her I welcomed the extra weight in the canoe. Norma and Manyu weigh about ninety pounds each. With both of them toward the bow and me in the stern, it was the first time all day the canoe was trim.
This is the fourth or fifth outing where I have overestimated the proper length of a day trip with beginners. In each instance, there were extenuating circumstances. On this particular trip, a south wind picked up so much that our boats drifted backwards whenever we stopped paddling. The direction of travel was downstream in a steady current, but forward progress was as hard as if we were heading upstream. When we reached the take out, Manyu complained, “You went too far again. You always do this.” Manyu exaggerated. She should have said “very often” instead of “always.”
In my opinion, choosing a route with novices is difficult. If I plan a short route and nothing slows us down, people are surprised and disappointed when we finish early. If I extend the route, high winds or lack of current or clunky rental equipment adds a tiring hour and a half to the trip. Even though I know the rule of thumb with beginners should be “leave them wanting more,” my tendency has been to push a little too hard.
My fondest memory of a trip-too-far was with my sister-in-law, CJ. When I noticed she was tiring, I took a secret shortcut, only to discover the shortcut completely weeded in. Rather than backtrack, which would have totally demoralized my sister-in-law, I climbed into the water and started dragging canoes and kayaks through thick marsh vegetation. Standing waist deep in marsh muck and using all of my strength to muscle boats through sedges and rushes, CJ looked me in the eyes and exclaimed, “My God, you’re enjoying this!”
Part of the problem might be that I do enjoy getting myself into minor calamities when I’m outside. I should probably avoid them when I am with other people.
Reno Bottoms (July 27, 2020)
Last Tuesday I put my kayak in at Reno Bottoms for a day of fishing. The Bottoms are a Mississippi River backwater just below the dike at Lock and Dam No. 8. I often walk the dike with my family and every time tell myself to come back with a boat. Tuesday was the first time I actually followed through.
It is not the easiest place to put in. The small parking lot is up a hill and across the railroad tracks from the dike’s spillway. I had to carry my kayak two hundred yards just to reach the water. The last twenty yards is over loose riprap and hard on the ankles. Right now lugging my boat overland to the river is not a deterrent, but at age sixty-six, the day will come when it might be. I think back to my childhood when nearly all of my fishing was from shore. I’d have been thrilled to fish out of a kayak and would have considered the portage part of the adventure.
As with all new spots on the river, I did not know the holes and did not know what I might catch. The appeal of Reno Bottoms, however, was not the fishing so much as its potential for solitude. There were always a handful of walkers on the dike and a few people fishing along the spillway, but without a boat ramp at the site I assumed I’d have the place to myself once I put my kayak in the water and paddled around the first bend. On that point, my new fishing spot met expectations. Not only were there no other boats on the water, but no buildings and no traffic noise from either motorboats or cars on nearby roads. Considering the extensive backwater on the Upper Mississippi River, it is surprisingly hard to totally escape people. I have a secret backwater channel near Lytle’s Landing that is always quiet, but otherwise my favorite fishing places are within sight and sound of civilization. I can now add Reno Bottoms to my short list of nearby wild places.
I did catch and bring home a couple largemouth bass. The taste of bass is not my favorite, but they are the perfect size for certain kinds of Asian cooking. I fillet perch, bluegills, and walleyes. With bass, I merely scale them, gut them, and leave their heads on. Manyu steams the fish and covers them with a subtle sweet and sour sauce (which is nothing like the syrupy topping served at Westernized Chinese restaurants). Then we eat the whole fish by lifting small pieces of meat off the bone with chopsticks.
But now I am repeating myself. If anyone is interested in reading about Manyu’s sisters eating eyeballs and fish cheeks and leaving only a bare skeleton in a small pool of unconsumed sauce, he or she can check out the blog “Bass Blog” posted September 2, 2019.
A Mink Skittered Across the Trail (July 20, 2020)
Ever since the young robins on my front porch fledged, I’ve been sitting out there to write. Kitchen chair, card table, laptop, legal pad, gel roller pen, and coffee. I work for as long as the writing goes well. Sometimes I am there for as long as four hours. Usually it is less. A benefit of writing for my own amusement is it does not really matter whether anything gets done. I write only so long as it is fun, and it makes no difference whether I put down fifty words or a thousand. If the fifty words are any good, it is more than adequate progress. Twice now I’ve written books with an anxious editor looking over my shoulder, and I won’t agree to work under a deadline again.
Regardless of how long I write each morning, the next part of the day is a bicycle ride. I pedal through the marsh, along both the La Crosse and Mississippi Rivers, and then into whatever neighborhood catches my fancy. Yesterday morning a mink skittered across the marsh trail in front of me. It’s been years since I’d seen a mink, so it easily was the highlight of my ride.
Soon after the sighting, however, I realized that I see something unusual on most of my rides – so as an experiment, I decided to record the highlight of each of my bike rides for an entire week. I started biking only because the health center where I usually exercise closed down during the pandemic. What additional benefits have I been receiving because I moved my workouts, as well as my writing, outdoors? The list is as follows:
Friday: A mink ran in front of me on the marsh trail between Monitor Street and the Causeway.
Saturday: An unidentified animal flashed across the trail fifty yards ahead of me near Houska Park. My instant reaction was “fisher,” but La Crosse is too far south for fishers. It was too stout and too dark in color to be a fox. It was too big to be another mink. There was a wild stealth to it, so I didn’t think it was a dog. Even though there was no waddle to its gait, my best guess is an uncharacteristically slim and graceful woodchuck.
Sunday: Taking a wide swing through Riverside Park, I rode past a fountain with a sculpture I’d never seen before. The sculpture is of Mami Wata, the Central African mermaid of sea and river.
Monday: Returning to Mami Wata, this time with a camera to take her photograph, I discovered another water feature tucked behind the Visitor and Convention Bureau Building. It was a wooden waterwheel. Both of the amenities are part of the International Garden where gifts from La Crosse’s sister cities are displayed. Mata Wata is from Kumbo, Cameroon, and the water wheel is from Bantry, Ireland.
Tuesday: Got a late start today. It was almost noon when I left home. There was less wildlife and fewer people out at midday. Still I did see wood ducks, rabbits, and a lone grebe. Nothing wrong with that.
Wednesday: I encountered two friends on bicycles, Jearold on the bike trail at Chad Erickson Park and Connie near the community theater downtown. Jearold was a colleague in my department at the university. Connie owned the coffee shop across the street from campus. Both retired in the past three years. Both bike at least ten miles a day and look healthier, certainly trimmer, than they did when they were working.
Thursday: I surprised five Canada geese on the marsh trail this morning, and they flew a short distance to the safety of open water. There is nothing unusual about this, except mid-July is the heart of molting season. Geese should not be able to fly right now, but these birds definitely took to the air. My guess is that goslings develop their initial flight feathers a little sooner in the summer than the adults replace their old ones, and these particular birds were all juveniles trying out their new wings.
In theory, recording the highlights of my daily bicycle rides was a good idea. In practice, not so much. Instead of enjoying each unique sighting as it occurred, I would see it and then wonder whether I was going to see anything more impressive that day. I began to ignore the sections of my ride through residential neighborhoods, thinking of them as dead zones compared to the parks and preserves. I was actively seeking out special moments when I should have let them come to me.
Sojourners and Freewheels (July 13, 2020)
I know Emerson’s Essays have something to tell me. Unfortunately I do not understand them. Every two or three years I read one or two to see if my ability to comprehend them has improved. Last week when I tried to read “Self-Reliance” and “The Oversoul,” the words remained as confusing as ever.
Usually I follow up my failed attempts at Emerson by reading something by Thoreau. He is not light reading either, but easy in comparison. This time around I picked up Walden. The first thing I noticed is that this was to be the last time I would get to read the copy of Walden I’ve carried with me for over forty years. The glue in the binding finally gave out. With each turn of a page, all but the center hundred pages broke off from the rest of the book. When I finally got to “The sun is but a morning star,” I no longer had a book, but a tattered cover wrapped around sequentially ordered separate sheets of paper.
I have kept the same two copies of Walden and A Sand County Almanac with me since college, and now both are broken. The paper in Sand County crumbles at the touch, and the binding in Walden is brittle. I equate the demise of these books to the freewheel on my bicycle, which also needs replacing. My bike mechanic described it as “a badge of honor,” as freewheels only go bad on bicycles that have been seriously ridden.
I have a second copy of Walden and probably should have put the broken one aside and read the other. I would have, except the old copy has notes in the margins. At the same time I read Walden, I get to revisit all of my past readings. I am intrigued how much my reactions to certain passages vary over time. A paragraph that meant nothing to me in one reading jumps off the page in the next. Some of the scrawled comments I must have considered insightful when I was in my twenties now make no sense at all.
For example, the very first paragraph of Walden has Thoreau explaining that his two years alone at Walden Pond are over and he’s now back in Concord. He concludes the paragraph by writing, “I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” In the margin, I’d written, “Why only one extreme or the other? Can’t I be in between?” It is my handwriting, but I don’t remember ever saying or thinking that. Now I wonder where I was, both geographically and mentally, when I wrote it.
The phrase “sojourner in civilized life” caught my attention again this time around, but for an entirely different reason. I am in the middle of editing a book chapter where my choice between two words is important. The words I am considering are “wayfarer” and “sojourner.” Ordinarily I do not fixate on the distinctions between similar terms, but in this case, picking one word over the other affects the meaning of the entire chapter. Both wayfarer and sojourner refer to travelers, one emphasizing the mode of travel and the other the places along the way. A wayfarer is a person who travels by foot. A sojourner is a person on a long journey, but a journey with extended stopovers between periods on the move.
The discovery of “sojourner” in the opening paragraph of Walden does not necessarily mean it gets chosen for my chapter. If I was relying solely on Thoreau for terminology, I’d be using “saunterer” instead of either “wayfarer” or “sojourner.” “Saunterer” was Thoreau’s word of choice in the essay Walking. Still it is quite a coincidence I should come across such an unusual word as “sojourner” exactly at a time I am overthinking its use.
Dead Aquatic Rodents on the Upper Iowa (July 6, 2020)
On Friday my daughter Clare, friends Pat and Buzz, and I paddled a stretch of the Upper Iowa River. We chose the Upper Iowa because hardly anyone ever paddles it. Decorah is the only city within fifty miles, and with dozens of other rivers in the Driftless Region to paddle, it tends to get ignored. Except on Fourth of July weekend apparently. On some parts of the river, it was as if the coronavirus did not exist and social distancing was no longer an advised practice. The private campground where we’d planned to leave our shuttle vehicle was so crowded we never got out of our cars. Instead we drove away and found a nearby mudflat to use as our takeout spot. The significance of the mudflat will become apparent soon.
In spite of too many people on the river, we had a good trip. Two highlights of the trip, however, were a little unusual, certainly unexpected. First of all, Buzz noticed what we assumed was a beaver carcass floating in the river. As we passed by it, he noted that the dead beaver, with just its back above the surface of the muddy water, looked like the top of someone’s head. I knew the hairy object was a beaver, maybe a large muskrat, but Buzz’s comment bothered me. What if we saw a body in the river and did nothing? I reversed my kayak and paddled upstream. As I approached the thing in the water, I did not want to touch it, not even with my kayak paddle. I did get my paddle beneath the object. It was too heavy to lift, but I got it to rotate just enough for me to see that it was covered with fur, not hair. Still, as I paddled away, I was not completely convinced. I realized that I did not want to be lying in bed that night thinking about dead bodies in the river. (When I told the story to Manyu, she immediately said I’ve been binge watching too many creepy tv shows.) I paddled upstream a second time to make certain of my identification. This time I used my kayak as a fulcrum and was able to pry about half of the carcass out of the water. I then saw a pair of forelegs and was sure the object was not human.
An hour later the four of us beached our kayaks on the mudflat of our takeout spot. Some of the mud was solid and supported our weight. Some did not. Taking a short rest before Buzz and I climbed into his car to retrieve my car at the put in, I noticed a second carcass setting atop the mud. This time it was a muskrat. It was mostly decomposed, with a few pieces of skin and fur on an exposed skeleton. As I hovered over the bones to get a better look, a small garter snake slithered out of the muskrat’s ribcage. I jumped and made a little yip, which seems to me a reasonable response to a reptile slinking out of a dead body. Everyone else noticed my reaction, but Clare especially enjoyed it. I sometimes kid her about her irrational fear of spiders, so she welcomed the chance for payback.
I opened this blog by writing that the highlights of this trip were unusual and unexpected. Now that I think about it, most special moments in nature can be described that way.
Caves Books (June 29, 2020)
My friend Ed emailed me to say he’d read The Razor’s Edge. After four previous attempts, he’d finally suffered through the first hundred pages to reach the heart of the book. He knew the novel was one of my favorites, and even though we tend to agree on the books we like (e.g., Shoeless Joe, Trout Fishing in America, Catch-22), he assumed The Razor’s Edge would be a book where we would disagree. Now that he’s read it in its entirety, he’s discovered some of what I see in the book.
Because of Ed’s email, I pulled my copy of The Razor’s Edge off the shelf. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been relying on my personal library for all of my reading, and this includes rereading some of my favorites for the second, third, sometimes fourth time.
Thirty pages into The Razor’s Edge I was reminded why Ed kept putting the book aside. The language is wordy, and most of the characters are pretentious socialites. It left me wondering how I’d managed to stay with the book the first time around. The Razor’s Edge is exactly the kind of book I usually put aside and replace with a crime novel. The answer to this question came when I set the book down to get something to drink. I happened to place it face down, and I noticed a sticker on the back cover. The sticker was mostly Chinese characters, but in English were the words “Caves Books.”
When I lived in Taiwan during the early 1990s, I was desperate for reading material. Amazon did not exist, and I knew of only two bookstores in Taipei that carried English language fiction. Caves Books was one of them. It was on the opposite side of the city from my housing complex near National Taiwan University, and it took me an hour by bus to get there. It was known extensively as a publisher of textbooks for Westerners studying Mandarin, but it also carried a limited number of imported novels. Because my choices were limited (and slanted toward late 19th/early 20th Century British writers), I sometimes brought home books I might otherwise have ignored. Also, because English language books were so hard to come by, I read everything I purchased cover to cover. I am sure I stayed with The Razor’s Edge because I had nothing else to read.
After I saw the sticker on the back cover, I realized the bookmark I was using, which had been in the book when I pulled it off the shelf, was the original cash register receipt. I purchased the book April 14, Year 82 for NT$ 83. Year 1 in Taiwan is 1912, the year the Republic of China was established. Year 82 is 1993. Eighty-three New Taiwan dollars is about US$ 2.80. I bought The Razor’s Edge twenty-seven years ago for less than $3. The remarkable thing is that the book made it back to the United States with me. When I packed to leave Taiwan, I reduced my belongings to almost nothing. The book must have been important to me for it to have made the trip.
Under the Robin's Nest (June 22, 2020)
A month ago I wrote about a brood of robins on the porch light outside my front door. Two days ago the last of the porch light babies left the nest. The way it happened was unusual. The nest originally had three young birds. Two left over a week ago, and I have not seen them since. One stayed in the nest for an additional seven days, and one parent (although I am not 100% sure it was only one) stayed behind to care for it.
I think young birds usually leave the nest within a day of each other, so what happened here? Soon after the babies hatched, one of them fell out of the nest, and I put it back. Now I wonder whether the fall somehow delayed its development. Maybe it lagged behind the other two young birds just enough to not get its fair share of food from the parents. When watching the babies with binoculars, I did notice that two birds always had their mouths open squawking for more food, whereas one was more subdued, quietly sitting there until one of the parents returned.
Now mom, dad, and all the babies are gone, and I have moved my writing table outside directly under the empty nest. From the porch, I can reach out and almost touch a maple tree I planted as a six-inch seedling a couple soon after my daughter was born. That seedling popped up on its own in the crotch of a three-pronged birch tree that once grew in the spot where the maple now stands. When the birch had to come down, I carefully dug the maple seedling out of the crotch and stuck it in the ground to see if it would take. It did. At the time, my street was half maples. Over the past twenty years the ash trees have died, so the street is now almost all maples. Had I purchased a tree from a nursery, I might have got a basswood or hackberry (I live on Hackberry Lane, but there is not a hackberry within three blocks of my house). Still if a maple helicopter* was so persistent as to sprout in the crud that had accumulated in the crook of another tree, I figured it deserved a chance. Now I am a man sitting next to a thirty-foot tree recalling the tree that came before it. I have been in this house a long time.
* For this blog, I googled the name of maple tree seeds. The scientific word for a seed with wings is samara, but even the online definition observed they are better known as helicopters or whirligigs.
I Got the Ducks (June 15, 2020)
Last month Clare put a birthday message to me on her Facebook page. She thanked me for always supporting her in whatever she wanted to do and for being her rock. I don’t use Facebook, so I only found out about the message through a third party. Of course, I was happy to find out about the kind words, but they weren’t anything I did not already know. Clare has always been comfortable expressing her feelings, and I feel her love in ways more meaningful than Facebook.
Clare’s message, however, reminded me of the one and only letter I ever wrote my parents. It came after a night of drinking with a group of Harvard Law School students more than forty years ago. The conversation with the law students had centered on how much they did not like their parents. I was the husband of one the law students, soon to be the ex-husband. Spouses never were really part the group, but that night I felt especially out of place. I not only liked my parents, but all of my close friends, as far as I knew, also liked their folks. With too much alcohol in our systems, people probably were saying things they didn’t really mean, but the animosity some expressed toward their parents came with a venom I’d never felt toward anyone.
The next day I wrote a letter to my mom and dad telling them they were good parents. I’d seen the sacrifices they both made while I was growing up, but even at the age of twenty-two, assumed that that was what most parents did. When I realized I was luckier than many when it came to parentage, I wanted to let my mom and dad know. My mom later thanked me for the letter. My dad never said a word, and I never brought it up.
After my dad died, it fell to me to go through his desk to see if there was any business I needed to take care of. In one of the desk’s half dozen pigeon holes, I found the letter. I was not surprised. It is exactly the way he would have handled a sentimental correspondence – kept it for himself, but never telling a soul. The desk is in my house now. It went to one of my sisters when Dad’s last wish was for each kid to take something belonging to him. She has no place in her house to put it, so I have it on permanent loan. When it was my turn to take something of Dad’s, I told my mom I didn’t want anything. She said I had no choice, because it was what he wanted. One of my dad’s hobbies was to carve and paint replicas of antique duck decoys, so I got the ducks.
Cucumber Mysteries (June 8, 2020)
Cucumbers used to be one of the few sure things in my garden. Eggplants wither, tomatoes get blossom-end rot, and carrots produce short stubby taproots. Radishes are full-proof, but I don’t like eating them. The same with zucchinis. For the past two years, however, even my cucumbers have failed.
This spring I read up on growing cucumbers and learned of two common problems. One, cucumbers grown from seed indoors do not always transplant well. That does not explain why young cucumber plants purchased at garden centers seem to do fine, but several websites stated that starting cucumbers in the house is difficult. Secondly, every garden website reminds readers that cucumber seeds need warm weather to germinate. Seeds planted outdoors too early in the spring do not have a chance.
So I waited, waited until the temperature warmed, and the long-term forecast showed no daytime temperatures cooler than 70ºF. I then planted an elevated ring of eight cucumber seeds and hoped for a 50% success rate. I watered every other day and felt the soil with my hand to confirm it was warm. Cucumbers get planted relatively deep, so I knew seedlings would take a while to appear. Ten days in, nothing had happened.
One morning I went into the garden to check on the progress of all of my plants. One bed over from the cucumbers were the bok choy and cauliflower. One of my bok choy plants was gone, and in its place, all crammed into a circle about an inch in diameter, were eight other plants just breaking the surface. They did not look anything like my usual assortment of garden weeds, so I carefully dug them up. The young plants looked exactly like cucumbers, even though the seed coats seemed a little too big. I thought they might have swollen after two weeks in moist ground. I concluded a blue jay, maybe a squirrel, had relocated my cucumber seeds, so I separated the tangled seedlings and replanted them in the cucumber plot.
Two days later, six of the eight original cucumber seeds popped up exactly where I’d planted them. The transplanted volunteers weren’t cucumbers at all; at least they weren’t the cucumber seeds I’d planted. Now I had fourteen seedlings in a space that might comfortably accommodate four or five fully grown cucumber vines. The reasonable thing to do would have been to pull the eight unidentified plants, but now I was curious as to their identity. Could an animal have dug up cucumber seeds from a neighbor’s garden and buried them in mine? Could the guts of last year’s jack-o’-lantern, casually tossed into the compost pile last October, somehow migrated ten feet to sprout two beds over? Had the garden fairies decided I was going to get zucchinis whether I wanted them or not?
The weird part is that nothing I’ve mentioned so far is the weird part. This morning, about ten days after I’d decided to keep all fourteen plants, I made my daily check of the garden. Every one of the volunteers was dead, and all of the intentionally planted cucumbers were fine. It looked to me as if all of the volunteers had been pulled out of the ground and carefully set down in place. Most were beyond saving, but two looked like they might come back if I rerooted them and watered. I left them where they laid. Mother Nature (maybe it was garden fairies) was only doing what I should have done in the first place, so I let nature take its course.
I Was Attacked by a Fish on My Bicycle (June 1, 2020)
I really like it when quirky little things happen to me when I am playing outdoors. A good example is the time I was fishing and hooked a river monster (flathead catfish?) on the Mississippi River. It dragged me and my canoe across a small bay, swam into a downed tree, and snapped my line before I got to see what it was. In another instance, I was cross-country skiing a frozen lake in the Boundary Waters, when a Canada jay flew toward me from a distant shoreline. It landed on the crossbar of my backpack, perched there for about 30 seconds, then headed back to where it came from. I assumed it hadn’t seen a human being for several weeks and just came by to say, “Hi.”
This afternoon I was attacked by a fish on my bicycle. How he got on my bicycle, I’ll never know. (When I wrote the first line of this paragraph, the old Groucho Marx joke jumped out at me.)
Let me try again. This afternoon I was attacked on my bicycle by a fish. Since the COVID-19 pandemic closed my gym, I’ve been bicycling for exercise. It started with a sixty-minute loop, but now I have the same distance down to forty-five minutes. About a third of the route is through the La Crosse River Marsh. Last night it rained hard enough for the La Crosse River to reach over its banks. When I biked through the marsh today, I found a hundred-foot stretch of paved trail underwater. I didn’t think the water depth on the flooded section was more than six inches deep at its lowest point, so I decided to slowly bike through the long narrow puddle. My shoes got wet on the downstrokes, but it wasn’t too bad.
Halfway through the submerged section of trail, I noticed something swimming toward me. My first thought was a snake, but then I saw the humped back and dorsal fin of a large carp. It moved left, as did I, and we passed each other by a good foot and a half. The wake created by my bicycle tires must have stirred something in the fish. I didn’t look back, but heard it splashing frantically as it reversed direction. Seconds later it smashed into the side of my rear tire. It hit me from the side three times, then whacked my tire directly from behind with enough force that I felt the impact.
I assumed the fish was an out-of-control male mistaking me for a female heavy with eggs. Spawning carp don’t have nests, but nudge each other in the shallows while expelling eggs and milt. The amorous carp stayed with me until I pedaled into three other fish bent on the same pursuit. My attacker found them more interesting than me and finally left me alone.
When I taught outdoor recreation at the university, I often told my students that interesting things would happen if they spent enough time in nature. This is a case in point.
I Can't Explain It (May 25, 2020)
Two weeks ago two minor inexplicable events occurred. The two are totally unrelated, and both probably will interest no one other than me – but as will become apparent in a moment, I needed to replace my original blog entry with something new, so here I go.
- I have been writing a weekly blog for exactly two years. Because the pandemic has left me largely homebound, I have fewer interesting things happening in my life. As a result, about half of my recent blogs have not been about current events, but are recollections of the past. This morning I was about to post a thirty-year old story about Taipei’s Palace Museum, when it occurred to me that I might have told the same story in a previous blog. I quickly scrolled through my archived entries and discovered, on August 13, 2018, I’d recounted the same fond memory. This was bound to happen someday, although I did not expect it quite so soon. The surprise was not that I told the same story twice, but how closely I used the same words in the retelling. Even though I wrote two accounts almost two years apart, I unknowingly plagiarized myself a half dozen times. For example, I doubt I’ve ever used the term “convergent evolution” in any other of my writings, but I used it in both versions of the Palace Museum essay. Now I wonder whether there are certain phrases stored away in my brain just waiting for one specific moment to be used. If I accidentally deleted an entire book chapter from my computer and had to write it over from scratch, would it come out basically the same?
- When a recent cold snap ended, I went outside to lift the tarps off the plants I was trying to safeguard from frost. Some were starter plants in my garden. La Crosse is in Zone 4, and any gardener reading this will immediately feel the urge to tell me that it was too early in the season to be planting. Yes, I know, but I try to put a few things in early every year, and every year it does not work. My poor gardening practices are not the point. The point is that I had two tomato plants side by side under the exact same protective covering. When I took the tarp off, one of the plants looked as healthy as can be, whereas the other was pretty much a bare greenish stick with withered dead leaves. Maybe the healthy plant will die in a day or two, or maybe the sickly one will recover, but how could two identical plants growing side by side react so differently to the exact same conditions?
I have long known that there are things not meant to be understood. I add these two to the list.
Robins (May 18, 2020)
Every year for nearly a decade, robins built a nest atop the porch light at my back door. There is a permanent stain on the clapboards where successive nests touched the house, and every May my family avoided the back door and only entered and exited through the front. This spring, for no reason that I could discern, the nest moved from the porch light in the back of the house to the one in the front. From a bird perspective (although I cannot really speak for the birds), this seems a better place. The roof overhang is larger in the front, and the door is actually in a sheltered alcove. As a result, the front porch light provides greater protection from wind, rain, and late spring snow. There is the street noise to contend with, but I live on a quiet dead end street.
During all of my years in Wisconsin, robins have been one of the constants. They were here when I was a kid, and they were here when I left at the age of twenty-one. They again welcomed me when I moved back at the age of thirty-nine and, with the possible exception of house sparrows, remain the most common bird in my neighborhood. They are the state bird of Wisconsin, and I have never lived anywhere in the state where I didn’t see robins almost every day from late March until October. As I kid, I believed robins were the first sign of spring, although I now realize some stay around all winter. In the years between my two long Wisconsin stints, I remember living in states where the official state bird was not as ubiquitous (e.g., loons in Minnesota, California quail in California) and thinking it a little bit odd.
Each year some small robin incident adds a little color to my life. A fledgling somehow gets over the chicken wire that surrounds my garden, but then gets trapped inside. A wind storm takes out a nest, but early enough in the season that the parents start over from scratch. I wake up one morning, and inexplicably there is an undamaged robin’s egg on the hard glass surface of my patio furniture. My favorite is the year a robin grabbed one end of the spool of kite string I was using to mark the rows in my garden. It flew over the peak of my house and left a trail of string from my roof, through my birch tree, to a big maple across the street and three doors down. Rather than retrieve the string, I left it dangling over the road until one of the neighbors complained.
The point is that my personal experience with this particular species has depth to it because I observe it year after year. It is not that I study robins; I’ve probably read more about California condors than I have robins, and I’ve never seen a condor. Robins are a part of daily life.
Too Many People (May 11, 2020)
Many who are living through the pandemic in relative comfort feel guilty about their gripes over the crisis. The big one for me was Clare being called home from her New Zealand study abroad program. She was crushed, having had the best experience in her life pulled out from under her. The sadness was deep and genuine. I, of course, felt as bad as she did. Still, through all of the pain was the realization that having a study abroad experience was from a position of privilege, and others have it much worse.
After several weeks back in boring Wisconsin, Clare is coming out of her funk. This gives me the opportunity to find new things to whine about. My latest is all of the people descending on natural areas. Under normal conditions, my favorite parks and trails are not busy on weekdays. So long as I avoided these places on weekends, I had them largely to myself. During the pandemic, natural areas open to the public are popular every day of the week.
This relegates me to the one place that remains quiet – the water. Last week I put my kayak in at Goose Island, a county park just south of town. I am sure I’ve never seen a non-holiday weekday more crowded. All of the popular places to fish from shore were lined with anglers, people foregoing social distancing for a chance to cast into some of the better holes.
I, on the other hand, went into the shallows and put my kayak in the water. After only a hundred yards of paddling, I was away from everyone. Almost immediately I scared a beaver that, at least temporarily, abandoned the fresh branch it was hauling and disappeared beneath the surface. Within the first hour, I saw herons, pelicans, and eagles, which are common there, and a sandhill crane, which is not. I saw only three other boats, all from at least a fifty yards away. One was a solo fisherman anchored near shore, and the other two were men slowly trolling the backwaters for large-mouthed bass and northerns.
Unlike the previous week, when I flipped my canoe and put myself in the river, I barely got my feet wet entering and exiting my kayak. It was a good day.
The Crow (May 4, 2020)
When I was in graduate school, I occasionally volunteered as an assistant leader for Wilderness Inquiry. Wilderness Inquiry is an organization that specializes in inclusive wilderness trips. People with and without disabilities canoe and raft together. Most trips are water-based, because many of the participants are in wheelchairs and not able to hike rough terrain. Water is the equalizer.
On these trips, people with severe physical disabilities are required to bring caretakers. Leaders have too many logistical concerns to constantly help with the basic needs of every individual (eating, going to the bathroom, etc…), so another person must come along on the trips to handle those duties. In my limited experience, caretakers tend to fall into two groups. They either are caring people with hearts as big as the Grand Canyon or less caring people who need a job. On one canoe trip to Ontario, we had two caretakers who fell into this second category. Both were well intentioned, but sometimes needed as much supervision as the people they’d been hired to assist.
These two guys had decided that a wilderness trip would be a good time to stop smoking, so they left their cigarettes behind. By the third day, their nicotine withdrawals made them hard to be around. Our main leader carried a pouch of tobacco with him. He did not smoke himself, but followed a First Nations tradition of leaving a small amount of tobacco at a campsite to thank the spirits for use of the area. He threw his tobacco pouch at one of the caretakers and said, “Smoke it.”
In order to smoke the loose tobacco, one of the two men carved a small wooden bowl. I gave him a hollow two-foot pole from my tent fly to use as a stem, and he augered out a small hole in the side to insert the pole and make a makeshift pipe. Over the next two days, other participants on the trip gave him things they’d found to decorate the pipe. One of the objects was a black feather, and the pipe was dubbed “the Crow.” One evening around the campfire, our leader asked the caretakers to pull out the Crow. They stuffed it with tobacco, lit it, and we passed it around as everyone took a quick puff. The idea stuck and became a nightly ritual.
Driving back to Minnesota, our van stopped at a train crossing in the border town of Pigeon River. As we waited for the train to pass, I turned to one of the caretakers and asked, “Where’s the Crow?”
He replied, “It’s in my pack.”
“What are gonna do with it?”
“I don’t know. Throw it away, I guess.”
Just as the words left the caretaker’s mouth, a boxcar passed by in front of us. On its side, someone had graffitied in large letters, “Save the Crow.”
My skin tingled, and the caretaker definitely took notice. “Damn,” he said, “I’ll take that as a sign.”
I Blame the Pandemic (April 27, 2020)
Last week Tom and Jack, two of my Canada fishing trip buddies, called me to go fishing on the Mississippi. My family is taking social distancing seriously, so I told them I could not climb into a small boat with them. However, the blue gills should be hitting at Black Deer – and if they go to Black Deer, I could join them in my canoe. Black Deer is a small channel north of town that runs parallel to the main river. By summer, it is too weedy to let fishing boats in, but April is sufficiently open. I gave them directions to the boat landing, we met there, and then I showed them one of my favorite secret spots.
Fishing in my spot was excellent. The other half dozen places we tried were not. At the end of the day, we returned to the boat landing. I pulled my canoe along the outside edge of one of the docks. I got out. I’d intended to pull my canoe along the dock all the way to shore and pull my boat onto dry land. I immediately saw, however, people fishing the entire shoreline near the dock, and there was no place to pull my boat out without disturbing them. I was going to have to climb back into my canoe and paddle to a landing area away from people.
I sometimes sit atop an ice chest in the middle of my canoe when I fish solo. Sitting in the middle keeps the boat trim front to back. Unfortunately sitting atop an ice chest puts my center of balance too high, and the canoe can be tippy. When I sat on the ice chest, it shifted slightly, and the boat started to flip. Rather than lose all of my fishing gear in a capsize, I threw myself overboard in hopes the canoe would right itself. It did. I was over my head in icy cold water, but I had my gear – or so I thought.
With one hand on the dock and one hand on my canoe, I dragged it to shore. I plowed right into the people fishing from shore. If I could entertain them by falling in the river, the least they could do was crank in their lines for three or four minutes while I came ashore. Most of the people looked away, and I assumed they couldn’t keep smiles off their faces. Those who did look at me had big smiles on their faces; they just didn’t care whether I saw.
As I loaded my gear in my car, I realized I was short one pole. It must have fallen out of the boat when I bailed. I knew exactly where it had to be, and I was already wet. I hit bottom when I went in, so I knew the water was just over my head. The reel had some problems and was hardly worth retrieving, but my favorite panfish rod was at the bottom of Black Deer Channel. Was it worth diving back into the cold water for? As I stood on the dock, weighing my options, Jack showed up with a pole with a heavy daredevle on the line. He casted out over the area where I’d dumped, and on his fourth cast, he hooked my pole and brought it up. Good thing. I was starting to shiver a little bit, and jumping back into the river might not have been an option.
Had I not been social distancing, I would have been in a relatively large, very stable, and very comfortable Lund fishing boat. Instead I was alone in my canoe. By doing the right thing, albeit clumsily, I fell In the river.
A Fallen Tree (April 20, 2020)
Yves is Manyu’s French brother-in-law. He is married to Manyu’s younger sister, Niensheng. They live in Thailand. The last time we visited, Yves took the two of us hiking in the country’s Khao Yai National Park. There were four hikers total – me, Yves, Manyu, and Simon, a friend of Yves I’d only met the day before. The trail was grown over, and I don’t think a trail crew had been through in years. We came upon a large fallen tree blocking the trail. At the point where the trunk crossed the trail, the obstacle was eight feet above the level of the trail. Yves and Simon immediately went in opposite directions off-trail to find the easiest way around the tree. I held my ground, intrigued by the challenge of going up and over. The bark itself was smooth, but there seemed to be vertical indentations in the trunk (now running horizontally because the tree was on its side) that would work as handholds and footholds. I started climbing, and three quarters of the way up, fell backwards and landed in an entanglement of vines. The vines broke my fall, but also drove spines the size of cucumber seeds into my back and thighs. Simon saw me fall and rushed to my aid, but then didn’t know what to do once he reached me. Manyu hadn’t moved. Instead she said,“Don’t worry. He does this all of the time.”
Backs Against the Wall (April 13, 2020)
When Manyu asked how much money we should give the Salvation Army and the local food pantry during the pandemic, I thought about temporarily shifting funds by not renewing my memberships to environmental organizations. Disregard for a moment the right thing to do would have been to increase my overall charitable contributions. This blog is about me rethinking my priorities in terms of people and nature.
I realized how much I’d become increasingly anthropocentric over the years. As a young adult, I was someone who thought the world might be better off if humans did not exist at all and nature was free to flourish on its own. At the very least, the life of a black bear or platypus was as important as the life of a human being. From my mid-twenties on, that perspective gradually changed. It withered and died on the vine the day my daughter was born. Now, as all of us are experiencing a genuine threat to human life, I realize that (other than the wellbeing of my immediate family) I care about the basic needs of humanity above all else.
Maybe I would have felt the same had a pandemic or similar crisis happened in my youth. I do not think so. My environmentalism back then was fairly black and white. Ardent preservationists sometimes are referred to as little old ladies in tennis shoes. That may be a misnomer. I’m not so sure that a lot of us ‘old ladies’ haven’t mellowed over time. I remain a tree hugger at heart, but something gets revealed when our backs are against the wall.
My Dog Doesn't Like Me (April 5, 2020)
My dog doesn’t like me. I blame the coronavirus. Clare just had her heart broken because she was called home from her study abroad in New Zealand. We were supposed to pick her up at O’Hare a week and a half ago. Instead she was dumped off in Houston, Texas and told to figure it out from there. She rented a car and drove back to La Crosse by herself.
Now she is quarantined for two weeks. She gets the tv room, one bathroom, and the basement. Manyu and I have the rest of the house. Jack, our dog, hasn’t figured out that we are a house divided. He wants to be with everyone – and because he has a bit of a herding instinct in him, he wants everyone to be together. Manyu worries that if Clare contracted the virus during her flight, Jack might pick it up on his fur. At first, she wanted to ban him from Clare’s side of the house. I insisted that Jack be available to comfort Clare even if we could not. The compromise was that I spray Jack with some watered down disinfectant every time he leaves Clare’s domain. He hates it. It might even be a reminder of when I spritzed him with water as a much younger dog. Jack was two years old when we got him from the Humane Society, and he came with a few habits that needed to be unlearned (e.g., scratching Manyu’s expensive Turkish rug, peeing on Manyu’s expensive Turkish rug; my recollection is that a lot of it had to do with that rug).
Lately Jack’s been resigned to the ritual. He scratches on the door to be let out from the tv room, then stands there with his tail between his legs while I mist him down. Clare’s quarantine ends tomorrow. As with everyone else, this bizarre way of living is far from over for us, but at least I will get my daughter back. And Jack can relax.
Summer of '69 (March 30, 2020)
As part of my self-imposed house arrest during the pandemic, I’ve been binge watching some of my favorite PI television shows from the past. I breezed through three seasons of Spenser for Hire, then switched over to the Rockford Files. Since I lived in both Boston (Spenser) and Southern California (Rockford) at different times in my life, I was just as interested in the location shots as in the outdated story lines. Manyu is watching these shows for the first time, and she quickly observed that Spenser was tougher than everybody and Rockford wasn’t tougher than anyone.
Watching the Rockford Files transported me back to the summer of 1969. My dad’s company had sent him to school for almost two years in Southern California, and our entire family joined him for one summer. Three recollections stick out in my mind.
- We went to Disneyland three times. For every Midwestern kid I knew, Disneyland was an unachievable fantasy, yet there we were. My recollection is that we were at Disneyland on the first day of the Haunted Mansion, but I could be wrong about that.
- We lived across the street from Palisades Park in Santa Monica. Four or five times a week I walked the switchbacked pedestrian trail down to the ocean. I’d just turned fifteen and was painfully aware that I was at exactly the wrong age for Southern California beaches – too old to build sand castles and body surf, too young to chase eighteen year old girls and spike volleyballs. Still this was the first time in my life I’d even seen an ocean, so I couldn’t help but go down almost every day.
- I made my first mistake with women. Very few kids lived in our apartment complex, but I became friends with Annie and Gail, two cousins up on the third floor. They lived a few doors down from Stan Laurel’s widow, but we never saw anyone ever come out of that apartment. Annie had a crush on me, and I was attracted to her. We hadn’t so much as held hands, but we spent plenty of time checking each other out. Unfortunately I ended up walking through the park one night with Gail, and we kissed. By the next morning, both cousins were mad at me and I lost them as friends for most of the summer. I understand my screw up, but even now (50 years later) I can’t say I learned anything from it.
Watergate and the First Man on the Moon (March 23, 2020)
Many years ago (sometime in the late 1990s) one cohort of my recreation management graduate program had an unusual number of students who were not traditional twenty-two year old white kids straight out of their undergraduate programs. Out of fifteen first-year graduate students, there was a military veteran, an African American, a slightly older single mom, and five people from countries other than the United States. Because of this make up of students, I applied for and received a small grant to hire someone to teach one of my undergraduate courses, so I could be freed up to offer a one-time graduate class in comparative leisure. Comparative leisure is a fancy term for studying leisure habits and leisure attitudes across cultures and nations.
On the first day of class, I wanted to demonstrate the different backgrounds within the group, so I asked each student to list the most significant events in their lives. The items on the list could not be personal family matters, but had to be events of national or international significance. Since I was considerably older than all of the students, I gave them my Top Five list as an example and felt certain that their events would not overlap with mine. I wrote on the chalk board (pre-white board) 1) JFK assassination, 2) Robert Kennedy assassination, 3) Vietnam 4) first man on the moon, and 5) Watergate.
When we went through the students’ lists, two things stood out. First of all, it became obvious to everyone that the twenty-two year old American students had lived through a very quiet time. September 11 had not yet occurred. Every student had “Jessica in the well” on their lists, and I had to be reminded what “Jessica in the well” was. The second thing was that the life of the woman from the Eastern Adriatic stunned everyone. She’d lived through the fall of her country (Yugoslavia), the total devaluation of her country’s currency, and a couple of other things that dropped everyone else’s jaw. While not even on her list, she told us that her penniless family had snuck out of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the dead of night.
Memories of this class came to mind as I reflect on the impacts of the coronavirus. The pandemic will be on the Top Five list of my daughter Clare and on the Top Five list of all of her friends. However, unless something significant changes, it won’t be on mine. At this point in my life, I don’t know if any piece of national or international news could touch me in the ways I was touched by events when I was ten, fifteen, twenty years old. Those events made me who I am, and now I’m pretty much a finished product. Election night 2008 gave me goosebumps, but even Barack Obama in the White House has not left an impression as strong as Watergate or the first man on the moon. How will the coronavirus shape my daughter?
The Sojourn (March 16, 2020)
Last week an email from the public library let me know that it had tracked down a copy of Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn. There is nothing unusual about this, except that I don’t remember ever requesting that specific book. I was sick in bed with the flu at the time, so Manyu picked up the book for me, and after reading the jacket cover, it did not seem like a book that I would normally ask the library to find. Still I’ve learned from experience that readings that show up serendipitously are meant to be read. Let me give you two examples.
1) When I was in graduate school, the teaching assistants in my department went out for beers every Friday afternoon, and it was my turn to go early to secure a good table. As I walked past the main office on my way out, I noticed something in the pigeonhole that was my mailbox. I took two steps to retrieve it, then decided that it could wait until Monday. After my friends joined me at the bar, the Police song Synchronicity came on the jukebox. When I asked everyone at the table what ‘synchronicity’ meant, one person gave a lame answer about two things being synchronized, but it was obvious that no one knew the answer to my question. When I returned to work Monday morning, the paper in my mailbox was an article that defined synchronicity – which is the uncanny relationship between two seemingly unrelated events. I had learned what synchronicity was by encountering it firsthand. I never found out who put the article in my mailbox.
2) I was reading a crime novel in Jules Coffeehouse here in La Crosse. I’ve long forgotten the name of the book or its author, but the protagonist suffered from anxiety and read The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius whenever he felt an attack coming on. The novel never went into any detail about The Meditations. It only stated that the main character read from it as if it was a holy book. Jules Coffeehouse adjoins Pearl Street Books, so I slipped into the bookshop to see if I could quickly leaf through a copy to give a little context to my novel. In the philosophy section of the store I looked under A for Aurelius, M for either Meditations or Marcus, even R for Roman, but it was not there. Pearl Street is a used bookstore, so its collection is a bit random. I was not surprised that the book was not there. I turned to go back to the coffeeshop, and my foot kicked a book that was lying on the floor. I must have caught it just right with my toe, because I sent the small volume skittering a third of the way across the store. I went to pick it up and, of course, it was The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I don’t know how I didn’t see the book on the floor when I first walked in – or, at the very least, did not kick it walking in – but I now knew that I was meant to buy a book I’d only intended to skim right there in the store. Back in the coffeeshop I put the murder mystery aside and started to read my new purchase. In a nutshell, the philosopher king said to buck up because life does not give us anything that we cannot handle. It’s good advice, although I don’t remember needing it that particular morning. I still own the book, and it is one of two books (Emerson’s Essays is the other) with a permanent place on my beside table.
Which brings me back to The Sojourn, of which I am half way through. It’s about a Slav sharpshooter during World War I. I still can’t figure out what I’m supposed to learn from the novel, but maybe I’ll know by the end of the week. Or maybe I’ll find out years from now during a completely unrelated moment.
Can It Still be a Ghost Story If There Isn't Any Ghost? (March 9, 2020)
In December 1976, I went to register for classes for what I thought would be my last semester at the University of Wisconsin. Through a series of odd events, my record showed up on the desk of my college dean. He concluded that there was no good reason to keep me around, so instead of approving my proposed schedule for the spring semester, he graduated me even though I had two required courses yet to take. It was like early release from prison, and with the money that was supposed to go to my tuition, Lisa and I bought a used AMC Gremlin and hit the road. Lisa was my wife when I was twenty-one years old. Our marriage was not to last much longer, but this was still a time when all was wonderful between us.
Our plan was to drive out of winter as quickly as possible, spend a month visiting national parks in the Southwest, then eventually end up in Berkeley, California. When we reached the San Francisco Bay Area, however, we realized that Berkeley was too expensive a place to live if we had no good reason to be there, so we looked at an atlas of the United States and decided that Eugene, Oregon might be a good second option. In retrospect, that was the last time in my life when I just looked at a map and asked, “Huh, where should we go live now?”
Driving up the long lonely stretch of Highway 101 north of Eureka, the road map showed a campground just off of the highway, and we decided to stop for the night. What looked like only a few miles on the map turned out to be almost twenty and what looked like a normal road turned out to be a narrow stretch of rough gravel. In fact, as we drove toward the coast, the only oncoming car we saw barreled straight at us and nearly ran us into the ditch.
When we reached the campground, it turned out to be a large piece of sand just off the beach. There were toilets and not much else. No information signs, no place to pay, and no other people on site. The campground was shaped like the ecology symbol, a large circular road with a second straight road bisecting the circle. We drove halfway down the bisecting road and parked on a patch of hard sand. The clouds were too thick to actually see the sun, but we knew that we had less than an hour before nightfall. Lisa started dinner, while I was to pitch the tent and then walk the beach for driftwood that could be used for a campfire.
The first oddity was a lump in the sand at the spot where I wanted to pitch the tent. As I tried to level out the area with my hand, I realized that something was buried there. It turned out to be a violin case, and inside was a violin. I showed Lisa my prize and put up the tent. Then I headed toward the beach that was a hundred yards away. Not far from our campsite I encountered a hole in the sand measuring three feet by six feet and probably three feet deep. At one end, two pieces of wood were set up to look like a cross. I should have been a little freaked, but I just grabbed the makeshift headstone as something I thought would burn. I then continued on toward the beach and discovered something that I was surprised I hadn’t seen before. Forty, maybe fifty yards from our campsite was a stack of firewood and the glowing embers of an abandoned campfire. By then, we’d been at the campground for at least a half hour, but we’d not seen any other people during the time we’d been there. Someone obviously had started a fire, then left. I grabbed the stack of firewood in my arms and returned to our campsite.
Twenty minutes later dinner was ready, and I had a warm fire going. It was now dark. The sound of the surf was loud, but pleasing to the ear. While Lisa and I ate, a car entered the campground and slowly drove the outer circle twice. It then entered the bisecting road and came to a stop directly in front of us. I stood up and walked to the car. The driver, a woman I thought to be in her thirties, rolled down her window and asked whether we’d seen her brother. She was supposed to meet her brother here. I told her about the abandoned campfire, but said no one else had been here for at least an hour. She said, “That’s strange,” and drove away.
I felt fine sitting at the campfire, but developed the willies as soon as Lisa and I crawled into our sleeping bags. I felt a very strong sense that we were not supposed to be there. I put up with the feeling for about fifteen minutes and then told Lisa that this was not going to work. My recollection is that she felt fine about the place, but did not hesitate for a moment when I said that I wanted to leave. She said, “Let’s pack up then.” We threw our sleeping bags in the back of the car, rolled up the tent, and drove away. I didn’t feel right until we reached the main highway. We drove north and spent the night at the first motel we found.
That is the whole story. I have no explanation for the abandoned campfire, the mock gravesite, the woman in the car, or the missing brother. I kept the violin for two years, then gave it to a friend of my dad’s who lived in the Twin Cities. He had a music room for his grand piano and decorated its walls with various musical instruments. I’ve long lost touch with the guy, but have no reason not to assume that the violin still hangs there.
New Spot (March 2, 2020)
I have to remind myself that my Wisconsin fishing license expires next month. It makes sense that the expiration date each year is in March, that precarious no-fishing time between solid winter ice and the totally open water of late spring, but that does not make it any easier to remember that I need to renew my permit. As hard as I try to not be in violation, I’ve fished in April a time or two without a valid license.
Right now, however, I have a week or two of warm weather ice fishing ahead of me. The ice gets wet and slippery with temperatures in the 40s, but I can fish with my coat wide open and my mittens on the ice. This is the time of year when at least one careless fisherman puts his ATV through the ice, but on the Mississippi River, I always enter the ice on foot and keep to backwaters where the ice is thickest. There is still plenty of safe fishing left this winter.
That doesn’t mean I am catching many fish. With almost a full season of winter fishing behind me, I’ve brought home a total of two meals of bluegills, crappies, and perch. Last weekend a friend introduced me to a new spot. The fishing was no better than anywhere else, but it was secluded and we had a little chunk of backwater all to ourselves.
The highlight of the fishing trip, however, was neither the occasional fish nor the solitude. It was my friend’s dog Skye. The huge Rhodesian ridgeback joined us out on the ice. Near sunset two barred owls called to each other, and Skye called back with an owl imitation much better than anything I’ve ever been able to make. In his deep hound dog voice, he repeatedly pointed his snout to the sky and howled at the owls with the classic “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all.” Who would have thought that the wonderful sound of barred owls could be enhanced by a dog?
Ripstop and Balaclavas (Feb 24, 2020)
February 18 was Manyu’s and my 27th wedding anniversary. To celebrate, we drove to REI in Madison to buy Manyu a pair of light hiking boots. Anyone who does not think that the trip was romantic does not appreciate how excited Manyu gets when she finds shoes that fit her tiny Size 5 feet. Afterwards we stopped at her favorite Asian grocery store on University Avenue. Short of getting on a plane and flying back to Taiwan, I could not have planned a better day.
As long as I was at REI, I wanted to replace a tarp that had more or less disintegrated after years of use. I asked a 20-year kid whether REI carried any tarps made of ripstop nylon, and she did not know what ripstop was. She asked me to give her a minute to find an employee who actually knew something about equipment from the previous century. When a weathered woman with long gray hair came to help me, she wondered aloud when the last time was that I’d purchased a tarp. She knew that it was at least ten years since they’d carried ripstop tarps.
About a year ago I lost my favorite balaclava. When I tried to replace it, I learned that it no longer was being made. Ragg wool and a sturdy brim, it molded exactly to my head after only a few days of wear. It was a piece of sartorial perfection, but still has been replaced by synthetics. I am more than willing to accept that the world is passing me by, but I did not think my Luddite ways would extend to my outdoor gear.
What Looks Like Uphill from Inside is Downhill from Out. (Feb 17, 2020)
This afternoon I finished reading Bad Axe County by John Galligan.* In terms of plot, I thought it was just better than average. As a book that captured the sense of place about my own neck of the woods, I don’t remember ever reading anything better.
Maybe because atmosphere is so important in crime fiction, detective novels often do a good job of returning me to the different places I’ve lived. Spenser novels take me back to Boston, Lucas Davenport novels to the Twin Cities. The place I know best is the Upper Mississippi River Valley, and Bad Axe County made me feel like I was paddling through the Seven Rivers Region in my canoe. In the middle of winter, anything that puts me back on the water is a welcome distraction.
The first strong sense of place happened early in the book when the protagonist visits a suspect in the Blackhawk region along the Mississippi River. Adjacent the Blackhawk campground, there is a row of houses in the river bottoms, all of them on stilts. Acting Sheriff Heidi Kick wonders exactly the same thing that I did the first time I saw these houses. Who would think it was a good idea to build a house where the most powerful river in North America flows directly under it during high water?
My favorite line in the book is, “What looks like uphill from inside the coulees is downhill from out.” I am not sure that anyone from outside the Upper Mississippi River Valley even understands what the sentence means, but everyone who lives here does.
To Galligan’s credit, he does not explain the sentence. That doesn’t mean that I can’t. For me, it describes a slightly uneasy feeling that I try to keep in the back recesses of my mind. I live in La Crosse, Wisconsin. La Crosse is a great little city, but it is in a hole. No one wants to live in a hole,so the residents of La Crosse pretend we don’t.** We imagine the river valley as the natural base and the surrounding bluffs as an uplifted landscape. The bluffs, however, are not uplifted. Their tops are pretty much at the same elevation as the rest of the state, and it is La Crosse that does not conform. I live at the bottom of a huge wash that was created when the melted waters of the Ice Age rushed down the valley and carried away 600 feet of soil, sand, and rock.
As a result (and as Galligan points out), I look up while everyone else looks down.
*Galligan, John. 2019. Bad Axe County. New York: Atria Books.
** Ecopsychology even suggests that a dislike of low places is part of human evolution, that high spots are perceived as more appealing because they offer a better view of potential predators and enemies.
Dead of Winter (February 10, 2020)
If one aspect of a long winter doesn’t get to me, another will. That’s just the way it is. Right now my problem is the eighth, ninth, maybe the tenth consecutive day without blue sky.* For those who don’t experience real winter year after year, there is an assumption that it is the cold that wears people out. Cold may actually be the least of our problems. It is the one aspect of winter that can be countered. Most winter inhabitants, after years of trial and error, have found the right combination of coat, boots, hat, and mittens to make all but the coldest days tolerable.
There are two elements of winter more draining than subzero temperatures. The first is darkness by 5pm. The second is slate gray skies during the few hours of daylight we do have. I would not use the word ‘cloudy’ to describe these dreary days, because cloudiness suggests clouds, clouds with billows and wisps and variations in color. As I look out the window of a coffee shop right now, all is see is a monochromatic off-white ceiling. This has been the condition for more than a week. Most days a little snow falls out of this grayness. At first everyone shoveled their walks and driveways after every dusting, but lately half of the neighborhood doesn’t bother until there’s two or three inches of fresh snow on the ground. These doldrums remind me of a lament that I sometimes heard when I lived in San Francisco during its celebrated winters: “If the sun would only come out for one day. It’s not for me; I’ve seen the sun. It’s for my children.” That is the way it feels – like we might never see clear skies again.
Still the Upper Midwest has turned the corner on winter. There will be a couple more cold snaps, but the average daily temperature is creeping up. The days are noticeably longer than they were just a month ago. They remain too short, but everyone sees that the worst is over. Even if people are not motivated to shovel small accumulations of snow, they are rousting themselves out of hibernation and making plans for warmer days. My fishing buddies feel the itch and are talking about a Canada trip right after ice out. Manyu is booking our plane tickets to join Clare in New Zealand after she finishes her semester studying abroad. That trip will be in mid-June, which means I will be on the opposite side of the equator for what ought to be my first day of summer. Instead I will get to experience winter twice.
* I wrote the first draft of this blog on January 30 and posted it February 10. Looking back at the weather for January, there was blue sky on January 21 and again January 31. When I wrote the first draft of this blog, I was in the midst of nine consecutive days of gray sky.
What If She Left and Never Came Back? (February 3, 2020)
The most upset my dad ever got with me was when I dropped out of college after my sophomore year. I knew that I would return to school in a semester or two, but he was sure that I was destined for a lousy job and a life of could-have-beens. The second most mad my dad got with me was nine years later when I told him, with a master’s degree already in hand, that I was returning to school for a Ph.D. In his opinion, I was wasting three or four good earning years and educating myself out of most entry-level jobs.
My dad died at the age of 51. The spring he died I was a 30-year old graduate student going through a divorce. I hitchhiked from Minneapolis to Green Bay to visit him in the hospital. Other than worrying about my dad’s health, I was fairly happy – but from his perspective, I was a perpetual student in a failed marriage who couldn’t afford a car. He never lived to see me with a normal job after years of blissful meandering.
I thought about my dad as I saw my daughter off for a semester studying abroad. Mostly I thought about how differently we saw our children and their futures. My dad was of a generation when most parents wanted to see their children with normal, even if mundane, middle class lives. I am of a generation, or at least a segment of a generation, who hopes our kids put off that life for as long as they can, possibly forever.
Also (and this is the key to everything) I am among a huge number of older adults who do not worry about the talents and the personal drive of their children, but about the messed up world their baby boomer parents are leaving for them. My dad believed that the United States was the best place in the world to live. He was neither an isolationist nor a nationalist, but America was on the upswing, and his kids had a chance to thrive here. I, on the other hand, am relieved that my half American/half Taiwanese daughter is already a world traveler. Maybe she will find her better life somewhere else. Other than the United States, Clare is most comfortable in Taiwan and China, but those places have their own serious problems. She, however, is studying abroad in New Zealand. How would I feel if she left and never came back?
Dunedin Has Penguins (January 27, 2020)
I am sitting in a coffee shop feeling both queasy and sad. The queasiness is because I pulled an all-nighter for the first time in thirty years. I drove Clare to Madison at 2am to catch a 6am plane to Taiwan. Taipei is the first leg of her adventure that will culminate with a semester in New Zealand. I did not get home until nearly 8 in the morning, and I can add staying up all night to the list of things that used to be fun, but no longer are.
The sadness is that I won’t see my daughter for at least five months. I always feel a little bit empty each time she leaves for a month or more, but all previous departures have been, in comparison to her semester abroad, just a jaunt down the road to her college in Iowa. This one already feels like a killer.
That does not mean that I am not excited for her. One way or another this will be life altering. I think about my dozen or so moves before settling down in La Crosse, and each of them redirected my life. A couple of the moves could be described as misdirection, but the majority were wholly positive. The little I know about New Zealand suggests that it will be wonderful. The Lonely Planet book on the country says that Dunedin, the city where she will live, has penguins. How can that not be great?
It is now mid-afternoon, and I feel lousy. Even caffeine can’t jumpstart my brain, and I am a little surprised that I’m able to write at all. I am tempted to upload the first draft of this blog as is. It might capture in print my current mental incoherence. I also know that I am too proud to ever let anyone see my first drafts, so mostly likely you are reading something that has been heavily edited.* Didn’t the authors I most admire get drunk, stay up all night, then pen masterpieces? If that is what it takes, then I’ve missed my window of opportunity.
* I did edit this blog a week after it was first written.
Kinmen Part Six: Epilogue (January 20, 2020)
I’d planned for the previous blog to be my last about Kinmen, but I then felt that I had not brought the story to a satisfying close. The anecdotes that I described in the previous five entries were all from a trip taken over twenty-five years ago. I returned to Kinmen in 2009. My life by then, with the addition of a Taiwanese wife and a ten-year old daughter, was very different. Kinmen was different, too.
Tourism on Kinmen had taken off since my first visit. The central government had awarded grants to private landholders who agreed to renovate historic buildings using traditional construction methods. A few of the buildings had been converted into museums or shops, but most were residences or wonderful bed and breakfasts. Over half of the visitors to the islands were from a client base I hadn’t even considered back in 1993. It turned out that thousands of Taiwanese men who had been stationed on Kinmen during their years of mandatory military service* wanted to return to the islands to show their families where they had served. Overall I thought tourism development had been done well, and the place was evolving into an appealing tourist destination.
The best story from my second visit to Kinmen was the day my family and I were wandering through a small village where every building was at least a hundred fifty years old. Some structures were twice that age. Half had been refurbished, many were still in ruins. I was drawn to one renovated building in particular. It was U-shaped with an enticing central courtyard. Even though I was basically invading someone’s front yard, I walked into the courtyard and felt like I’d stepped onto the set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Immediately a man came out of the building and started shouting at me. I apologized in Mandarin and moved to leave. I, however, understood enough Mandarin to realize that the man wanted me to wait, so I just stood there until my two interpreters (my wife and daughter) walked up to join me. They both immediately knew that the man was not angry at me; he just wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing there. After I explained that I was an American professor living in Taiwan, he told Manyu and Clare that the building was not a house, but an English language school. It did, however, have a small apartment in the back. The man said that if I wanted to live on Kinmen, he’d let my family have the apartment for the cost of utilities. All I had to do in return was to walk my Caucasion face around the courtyard each morning when parents dropped their kids off and again in the afternoon when they picked the kids up.
It was at that moment that I stopped being critical of celebrities who made commercials. For an instant, I realized that I too might be willing to sell my image for the right price. Although I was in no position to drop everything and move to Kinmen, I was intrigued by the offer.
After I retired from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2017, I joked with Tsai Huei-min that I was now ready to take the courtyard guy up on the offer to live behind his school. Huei-min was the friend and colleague who’d brought me to Kinmen in the first place. She replied that I wouldn’t want to live there now. Tourism had completely taken over. All of the villages now had more visitors than residents, and it was impossible for the locals to get any time to themselves. If I moved to Kinmen now, I would not be the lone mysterious Westerner on a remote semitropical island. I’d be just another rich American touring a trendy international vacation spot.
I should not have been surprised. Some of the best places I’ve ever visited no longer have the qualities that would make me want to visit them again. In the case of Kinmen, however, I was part of the team to evaluate the islands’ tourism potential. Even though my contribution to development plans had been negligible, I can’t help but feel that the change on Kinmen was partly my fault.
*Since the early 2000s, the length of mandatory military service in Taiwan keeps getting shorter and shorter. For decades, it was two years. Currently it is four months of basic training without any actual service.
Kinmen Part Five: "They are a local delicacy." (January 13, 2020)
One of the most memorable anecdotes from my 1993 trip to Kinmen was lunch of our second day. Members of our party were the guests of the chief administrator of Lesser Kinmen, the smaller of the two inhabited islands of the Kinmen group. Even though it is only a five-minute ferry ride from Great Kinmen to its little sister, the smaller island rarely received visitors. The administrator was transparent in his joy at having anyone from Taipei seek his advice. The man graciously hosted us at a quaint seafood restaurant right in the harbor. As is the custom at most Chinese restaurants, our group of ten sat at a large round table with a lazy Susan in the center. Dishes came one at a time, always set directly before a designated guest of honor. Usually this special person is the oldest man or woman in the group, but sometimes when I was the only foreigner at the table, the distinction fell to me. Such was the case that afternoon. Etiquette is that I serve the new dish to the people on either side of me, serve myself, and then gently give the lazy Susan a small turn in either direction so the fresh dish comes to rest before a diner two chairs away.
I thought that I was handling my duties well, when midway through the meal, a dish arrived that looked exactly like a plate of boiled night crawlers. Our host immediately exclaimed, “Excellent! Sea worms. They are a local delicacy. Please, enjoy.”
I grabbed three sea worms with the serving chopsticks. The woman to my immediate left had not stopped staring at the newest offering, and the look in her eyes (either fear or disgust) told me not to serve her any worms. As I turned to the man on my right, he casually waved his hand under the table where only I could see it, letting me know that he didn’t want worms either. I had no choice but to put the worms on my own plate and then give the lazy Susan a turn.
As the lunch proceeded, I noticed that no one, not even our host, ever helped themselves to the worms. The only person to eat the ugly ropes of rubber was the uninformed Westerner. After thirty years, I still remember being relieved that the predominant taste was no taste at all. My Asian friends frequently feed me bizarre foods (e.g., ant eggs, baby octopi, whole frogs, sea cucumbers, durian-flavored popsicles) to see how I react, but this might be only time that a complete stranger (although unintentionally, I think) tricked me into eating “a local delicacy.”
Kinmen Part 4: Candy, Kaoliang, and Knives (January 6, 2020)
The planned withdrawal of army personnel from Kinmen carried both positive and negative implications. On the plus side, martial law was
being lifted. The local civilian population would have personal freedoms that they hadn’t experienced since the Communists expelled the Nationalists from mainland China. On the minus side, the money train for decades had been a large military presence. Similar to a military base closing in the United States, the bottom was about to drop out of the local economy. This is why tourism was about to become so important.
In 1993, Kinmen’s non-military economy was largely agricultural. Unfortunately, because of shipping costs, anything grown on Taiwan could be brought to market in Taiwan less expensively than the same crop grown on Kinmen. Therefore produce from Kinmen had to be processed into something unique before being put on a boat. The two most convertible crops were peanuts and sorghum. Peanuts could be made into peanut candy, and sorghum
could be distilled into a hard liquor called Kaoliang. Kaoliang is an acquired taste. It bites like cheap tequila. Still sharing shots of the sorghum-based spirit and occasionally exclaiming “Hǎo hē” (trans. “tastes delicious”) was standard practice during evening meals at Taiwanese conferences and professional meetings. In my experience, Taiwanese people rarely, if ever, go to a bar just to drink, but they can put away several bottles of hard liquor over a meal.
The most interesting Kinmen product, however, did not come from farms, but as a byproduct of war. For over thirty years, China dropped bombs on Kinmen. By the time I first visited the islands, the shelling had stopped, but there still were large open areas strewn with bomb fragments. The bombs had been made from Russian steel which, at the time, was the best in the world. Kinmenese entrepreneurs salvaged the fragments and reshaped them into high end knives. I didn’t buy a knife while I was in Kinmen, but now wish I had.