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Down In The Lazaretto: Matt Geiger

The Journal from the Heartland has opened up our page to our known writers to present short pieces of work that in one way or another relates to the present lock down, and shall we say isolation and solitude. They have been asked to wonder/wander about making whatever observation they might stumble on.

    

Down In The Lazaretto:

There is an old Russian adage that people who are destined for the firing squad need not fear drowning. 

In the end, only one thing will get us, and all the thousands of other perceived threats we worried about during our rich and varied lives will ultimately fail to triumph over us. All these wolves that give pursuit will pull up short. All but one. 

     There is also a famous parable about a poor beggar covered in oozing sores, probably a leper, who grovels for scraps that fall from a rich man’s table. His name is Lazarus, and from his name comes the term “lazaretto” or “lazaret.” A lazaretto was a quarantine station for maritime travelers, an island or ship where people at the end of a long journey would be locked up in isolation for a period before rejoining the general population. The crumbling ruins of old lazarettos still stand on islands off the coasts of the many countries that had bustling ports during the Age of Exploration. 

     These days, it feels as if our homes have all been transformed into little lazarettos, into tiny islands from which we can see society but not quite walk its busy streets. In fact, these columns are starting to feel like dispatches from a weary sailor; journal entries about a voyage spent eating salted cod and swilling grog while the neck of my cabled blue sweater becomes threadbare and my beard sends out thick black tendrils as if a sea creature in search of light or land.

      I keep this in mind as I and my tiny crew make our way through each day; that this is an adventure we are on, and when we arrive at our destination, it won’t be long before we look back on this and yearn for more excitement, more voyages and lazarettos and times that defy normality. 

      I’m sure it was the same for those old explorers of the past. I’m sure they spent their voyages and their quarantines longing to return home. And I’m sure when they returned home, they longed for the adventures from which they had returned. 

     Journeys are strange things, in that way. Always terrifying in the moment, but after it is all said and done they are the thing we look back on most fondly. One time, many years ago, my future wife and I were riding with a friend who was driving to a restaurant in Boston. I knew the location, while the driver did not. It was a 40-minute ride, and it seemed like every time we approached a side street, no matter how small or how dead its end clearly was, the driver would take her foot off the gas and position her hands on the wheel as if getting ready to turn. 

“Here?” she said each time. “Do I turn here?”

“No, you can keep going straight,” I’d say. 

“How about here?” she’d quickly counter. “Right here?”

“Not yet. It’s still about 20 minutes away.”

“Left here?”

“No…”

“What about Lakeman’s Lane?” 

“You can actually go straight until otherwise directed,” I said. “That might be easier than this.”

“So, turn right here?”

“You can just assume we aren’t turning until you hear something new…”

But if you don’t know where you are going, it can be hard to stay on course. 

If you are lucky enough to have read The Lord Of The Rings, you know there is only one truly sad part of the story. It is not when the hobbits and people and elves and dwarves are scared by beasts or haunted by ghosts. It is not when they are thrown into violent battle. The sad part comes at the end, when the little hobbit whose story it all is tries to return home and finds he can no longer find normality, and he must leave again. Because once you have been on adventure, you are forever changed. 

In our middle age, many of us find ourselves worrying about the various ways we change. We are not the same as we once were, and we wonder if that’s bad. But to have changed is often merely a sign you have been on an adventure, just as coming home is a sign you once left. 

As we sit here in our own little lazarettos, modern versions of old things named after a character in an even older book, we do sometimes feel the hot breath of wolves at our heals, even in our seclusion. But again, that’s just part of any good adventure, running away from things, and to them, even when you are sitting still, waiting to return to normal life. 

http://www.geigerbooks.com/

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Solitude, not Isolation

Solitude, not Isolation

Phil wrote a note the other day saying, “….there is a difference between isolation and solitude.” This set me to thinking because there were things about this shutdown adventure that were getting on my nerves. Maybe as a way of dealing with it, I needed to address some self-introspection, look around and see just how this is supposed to work, this being alone for most of the time.

Isolation has a sinister connotation, as if to say I am unclean, maybe evil, possibly diseased, or just plain undesirable. This social distancing leaves me cold, as if it is imposed by an outside force, which in the case of the Covid, I suspect it is, and that makes it very un-fun. We are being told to isolate. Without compliance, my reputation would be marred almost from a historical standpoint. A higher authority has told me what to do—but my own logic and training is also confirming this is a necessity.

Not wanting to be outcast, Phil’s mention of seeking solitude rather than isolation took on a higher meaning. For it seems solitude is almost revered as being religious, or at least spiritual as in the case of say a Gregorian Monk who chooses a life of introspection and solitude. My pursuit of being a monk disappeared years ago, actually it never occurred to me, but maybe by addressing this most recent, and present dilemma with a different mindset would be the way to get rid of all the connotations of isolation—I am not diseased, or unwashed. I do very much enjoy Gregorian chants.

With a drifting mind, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Thoreau’s Walden Pond came to mind. I wondered if this slowed-down time could not be used in a positive way to enrich my disrupted life in the what was the fast lane of central Wisconsin. So, rather than calling it isolation, I would now, in grand style, embrace this biological disruption seeking insight and enrichment through solitude. This would be a self-imposed choice, not a mandatory obligation brought on by some government.

First off, there is nothing wrong with being alone, and when I say that I mean with my partner of over fifty years, but generally not with others typically found in my daily life of flitting around, but as a backyard solitaire. Leisurely, I can step outside with no particular intent, whatever goes down, goes down. I can choose to do a list of things, none of which I took time to do before. Oddly, in just standing there I’ve noticed at least four different tree frogs bleeping high up in a couple of maples, patiently hoping to attract another of their kind. The cardinals are running their pumping calls louder now because in part, other folks are not making the usual noises, but mostly because I am now taking time to really listen as if this might be the high point of the day.

In the late morning, I half-buried a half dozen fungi impregnated oak logs with great anticipation of having a summer supply of shitake mushrooms. There was no need to run off to the hair-stylist to deal with the mess on top of my head and while a Troy burger called, I simply addressed a peanut butter sandwich while sitting in the afternoon sunlight.

Because I cannot drift among friends, I am forced to take note of what is around me. I have wood to split but what’s the rush. Then, a cardinal landed on the feeder, looked me over and aggressively grabbed sunflower seeds. Minutes later, a robin, the one who eats suet, took to the feeder. The damn monstrous crow then tried to take the entire block of seed infused fat.  I yelled nevermore! This now is a feature of my life of solitude, but still I am not a mystic.

The chives are now up and looking for success. I’ve shuffled perennial flowers around and planted many annuals to accompany the birds and that family of rabbits, the ones betting on my vegetables during their days of solitude.

Little of this intimate observation, and appreciation, would I have done in the past, some, but it seems more available now, like there is new time. Maybe I am good at being a monk. There is a solitude about it. I am able to relax, and reflect on the moment. There is no rush in my solitude, and there is a limit to what I can do. I can’t just drive off to Madison for the symphony—there is no symphony. What there is right here, is now most important. I can canoe because the day is warm. I can read. Listen to bird music as if I was a backyard solitaire.  Maybe I can become a mystic.

Solitude in the arctic

I will admit it is still good that I know, as I am sure Thoreau and Abbey knew, that out there in the community are still friends and activities that will come back, or will be available once this time of solitude is over. But, if I should find that real solitude is needed, maybe I can visit my son, who in his arctic travels just sent down this photo claiming he was self-isolating—while hunting caribou.

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My Mind in the Time of the Plague

      My Mind in the Time of the Plague

      You can hardly imagine the profound excitement I experienced today. It was just one of those things where, in a moment, maybe more in a prolonged tick of time, where the sheer joy of a much needed discovery showed itself like a Black Swan.

      We have been struggling through the plague, fearful of venturing out to make any contact with the unwashed masses. Each evening, we have been settling for a smaller and smaller portion of gruel fashioned from the last of the chicken scratch. It seemed the stove never cooled from the endless struggle to work the crushed, maybe bug-filled, grain in to a palatable mixture. Still, it was enough, and coupled with a few remnants of wild rice, and the last of the shriveled carrots we have maintained. But, because of our struggle for survival, this was a godsend of some measure.

     Only yesterday, I had suffered through Love in the time of Cholera and last week it was McCarthy’s The Road. Watching Road Warrior one more time may not have been a good idea but I had, in all honesty, felt I needed to prepare myself for this impending plague and the dystopian future that was sure to follow, and as near as I could tell, here in my sequestration, was already well advanced.

      It is difficult being so alone without the comforts of our lives here in the Midwest. Only yesterday, it rained with such intensity the fear of another thousand-year flood gripped us in our hovel. Where were the tornados we heard were now supposed to be crashing through in endless progressions? The thought of losing weight and having to consume down my accumulated personal storage, frightened me. The obscene idea of being thin and truly starving again was nerve rattling. I knew that squirrel from two days ago would not provide the protein we needed for long, even if there were still a few wary ones around. I had missed that dead one the dog killed the other day. My stomach was now withdrawn and grumbling in pain but I knew we still had some reserves but at this age, it all hurts. If only we could find more food.

      I had seen the neighbor’s cat creep by two days ago but the fifty caliber mussel loader was so damned noisy I didn’t want to alarm the folks across the way again. It was then I slipped into the garage to garner a little warmth when I dragged my hand through a dirt-filled, large pail, the one used to store some dahlias, just hopping I’d find a hidden carrot, anything. To my mind-boggling delight there, covered in dry soil was, what turned out to be, eight large rutabagas. Our troubles were over. One giant weighed a good two pounds and was solid as a rock—and filled with nutrition.

      I stumbled inside as best I could in my weakened state to share the news. “Look, look. Can you believe this? Rutabagas. I forgot they were there.” My head was shaking in disbelief as I held out the biggest one.

      Ann stood there, then reached for the wine bottle, a nice merlot if I recall. “I am not eating any more of your damn famine food, and Jesus, quit reading all the doom and gloom stuff.” “This is not the thirteenth century.” “And, by the way, put away the wooden wheeled cart and doing that Monty Python skit. For the love of God.”

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Keep Your Distance

                          

                This morning, I suspect late morning as time is now being shuffled, the first fragrant hint of maple nectar wafted through the kitchen. The windows steamed over as the humidity rose. The room was becoming a sauna. The wood burning stove added a touch of radiant heat and a hint of oaken smoke. It was overly warm in the room but so what. Finishing off the amber liquid, the first run, was the magical time.

                   While being outside among the trees and the returning birds has its welcomed spring-driven charm, this moment, this first scent of maturing syrup is to me is the reason we embrace this task.

                   On the first day the sap ran, a couple of sandhill cranes flew over, and a number of geese headed to the pond for a social. I also know in there somewhere I heard a robin. Walking through the uneven snow to retrieve the sap was slightly less than pleasant because of those failing ankles, but finding an overflowing bucket took away some of the pain.

                    Still, the warmth of the kitchen, and warm tea, the now sweet hint of nature’s close-to-home treasurers were the real gifts. It is easy just to sit there and breathe it in, but it is almost made better by stepping outside, filling the lungs with outside air, then, after the nasal sensors have been cleansed, walk back in to be hit with that intensity.

                    I know it is a childhood thing going back to Sauk City when I was six. The old man took us to a sugar bush, unbeknownst to us, and there covered in steam, was an engine with fire. But in that engine was this fragrant liquid and when poured on the snow it became candy. Strange, I suppose for a kid who hardly knew what a maple tree was, much less what lay hidden in its veins. It was there that this ‘edible’ fragrance was embedded in my growing brain. Do you suppose my parents deliberately did that knowing it would stay? I now wish I had the opportunity to ask them. But, I do suspect I know.

                   As the syrup bubbles and the steam lifts away the water, the intensity of this batch revealed itself much like each rendering does. This one is stronger than some because in one of my distractions outside, I failed to notice a back corner of the pan had been exposed and damn if it didn’t burn. Sure, the scent was in the air, and it almost hinted of candy, but slightly burned. The minute unheated sap was added, the batch sizzled but the developing syrup was now darker. Just the trials and tribulations, I thought, and moved on, embarrassed and defiant.

                    In a mind-drifting moment, I heard in the other room a song playing, not the classical incantation of a morning choice, or a tragic country song, but a light, melodic, upbeat tune called Keep Your Distance.  In a moment of awakening, I remembered we are now in a time of ‘social distancing’.  While I commonly work my meager eight-tree sugar bush alone, it dawned on me that my yearly visitation to the Sapp Brother’s sugar shack was probably not to be. This trio of comrades, the one bound by blood to harvest the maple’s bounty in spring’s awaking, may well be off limits. There was no room for six feet of separation. 

          It registered that while this act of touching nature close was also a time to be humans and celebrate this time as friends.

       After listening to the song about keeping my distance, meaning not going to the grocery either, it wasn’t difficult to imagine a couple of months down the line. Would I be grinding hen scratch for gruel, hunting wild spring greens, finding the beer gone! Then, there was the whisky that had arrived in a velvet cozy looking ever so regal but when examined proved to be in a plastic bottle and just reeked of dump grade.

As I reflected under the pall of keeping my distance, it occurred to me that while sitting tight and working on my memoirs for the third time was an opportunity to ‘find’ myself, but being without friends was going to be a real hardship, maybe the hardest I have ever faced. How about those long distant kids?   

     About the time, these desperate thoughts were rattling through my head, our son sent down a short piece written only a few days ago by a writer friend Seth Kantner, who had grown up in a sod hut close to the Beauport Sea above the Arctic Circle. Seth’s existence was the life of an Eskimo, frequently alone in a frozen land. While recently thinking of today’s plight, he wrote, “And any visitor was extremely valuable, and exciting. Animals like moose and wolves and stuff were normal, but people were extremely valuable because there weren’t very many. Down through the years I never have had much luck explaining that lack to anyone. I think some old people, lonely and alone, understand completely. Mostly I just gave up trying to explain what it’s been like for me to spend extended periods not able to or just not interacting with other humans–for one reason or another. Often it’s not been easy. Sometimes it’s been illuminating, and I have felt nature, all so busy around me. Sometimes it’s been very tough. Tough doesn’t mean bad, though. That’s a confusion nowadays. Tough means tough. Now, I’m kind of wondering how it’s going out there in America for “normal” people, most who have always had quite a lot of humans in their days”.   

Seth Kantner wrote Ordinary Wolves and Shopping for Porcupines.

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Thanksgiving from Wisconsin

 There we were on the traditional Thanksgiving, a day when I’m not totally sure I’ve always been appreciative. Maybe because I was disgusted with the politics of the day, or because we are making such a mess of the planet, or because I was going through manapause, or I didn’t even see a deer while I hunted/slept in the woods. It just seems that at times, the world slips by and some important aspects of our daily lives go unnoticed or I take things for granite. We are Americans, and we, at times think what we have, has always been and always will be. So why get all sappy about giving thanks?

It’s true the meaning of this holiday is historically probably up for grabs because when researchers get to pushing and shoving there well may be some discrepancy as to the veracity of it all. Certainly, the Native Americans have another take and even if we could get a direct interview of the first invaders/settlers the details might look very different.

All that aside (which is our modern tendency), I figured I’d pause, really pause with the basic question of, “Just what do we have?” Because most of this material wealth is just embraced with little thought, hardly with even a whisper of appreciation, I thought I’d go beyond the manifestations of industrial society, the contraptions, the devices of pleasure, the massive recreational toys, the huge warm houses and pets, some of whom have their own insurance policy and savings accounts, and get serious.

I paused while marveling these material gifts, realizing the vast majority of the people living on this planet don’t have any of those things. When I say that, I don’t mean just the poor people of the earth, the unwashed masses, I mean almost all people. In Europe, we noticed homes were much smaller, there were no SUVs, no four-wheelers, no pickup trucks and on and on. Even the refrigerators and wash machines were much smaller and people simply walked everywhere.

But, I want to take it farther than those things, and mind you they are to be marveled, but there is in my country bumpkin mind, something else I’ve noted and while it’s not material, it’s a local wealth found almost nowhere else on the world—and not even commonly in this country.

When I say these things, it’s not that I want every reader to immediately tell others for what we have is ours because, unlike much of the world, there are few of us here.

So, as I paused this Thanksgiving in quiet appreciation, and here is what I realized.

On any quiet evening, my wife and I can walk three blocks and slip our canoe silently into the local pond gliding over peaceful water while watching the bald eagle grab a hapless fish of the surface. To the west, see a kingfisher make his noisy flight while a muskrat dips into his mounded rush home. There are graceful insects swooping and mayflies skipping, turning. To the north, a fish of some size jumps and the smell of the river, cool and comforting, roles over the canoe. We are alone on most evenings and the sound of the our small village disappear as the geese take over. This is a gift—and only part of that river’s gift.

Within a few minutes from our home, we can be on the shore of a pristine lake where a family of loons is trying out the new wings of the young, where huge frogs croak the calls of reptilian love, where the stately white pines lean away from the winter winds and leave perches for the green herons. Our friends laugh and, to a person, know the gift.

The roads about the countryside are less travelled and make pathways for cycling and the trails of the ice age paths are surrounded by hidden potholes left by glaciers, and even the uninitiated can count a dozen bird species with little effort. Along the water’s edge are the cardinal flowers, the Joe Pye weed, and native iris. 

The forests are inviting, and unlike most places in the world, and I mean world, I can take my old Wingmaster shotgun and hunt for wild game as it were a right and not a privilege. In France, I asked if a person could harvest a wild hog that was tearing up the town. I was looked on as a naive American because only the privileged could “hunt” the swine. At the same location it was not difficult to notice that the native vegetation was gone, consumed centuries ago by goats, wars and the trampling of human feet. No songbirds, no insects, probably no fungus. Here, we still have this flow of rich natural wealth.

Not to go unmentioned, is the community where I can purchase all of our needs, an artesian loaf of bread, a hot tea, or virtually any piece of hardware I might need. A medical clinic is within walking, as is a grocery where the folks are friendly and the prices right. Why, the mortuary is only two blocks away and while waiting to go there, I can hoist one of the finest brews in the land. I ask, How many places in this world can a person have all of that? And, this is just a very partial list. Where else? So I lift a glass and give thanks while listening to the graceful, but simply powerful  tune, called the “Heart of the Heartland”.

We hold in our hands earth’s gifts.

It is not as if they can be truly held.

They can be seen, felt, touched, shown to others.

But in the end, they are cast unto the stars,

then to other times, hopefully unaltered by those same hands that held.

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The Meager Apple.

I occasionally find myself noticing apples laying or hanging about untouched, the ones on roadside trees or others plopped on the ground unmolested by human desire. And yes, they may be in the backyard of some home owner who for reasons unknown have lost interest or was simply overwhelmed by the pure tonnage of the fruit. My interest in this food source is peaked because many of these untouched apples have real and genuine value, other than, say, feeding the local wildlife.

It’s as if they are going to waste when in them dwells apple pies, apple bread, apple sauce and maybe Apfelkuchen. Admittedly, some of these feral apples are not totally desirable because a dozen squirming, but content, worms have tunneled through them having their own thanksgiving. In addition, the lively larva’s mining operation have introduced microbes with ill intent causing oozing decay. Other fallen apples have been feasted upon by meandering deer, who for reasons not understood, prefer but one bite of each apple, apparently dreaming of finding that one perfect “golden” apple but in the process leave deer drool over the fruit.

Some apple trees are in the odd locations because they were unintendedly put there as a result of a core being tossed from a car, or by some workmen who just chucked the last remnant back to the soil not thinking of planting anything. These wildings, while apple trees by birth, aren’t necessarily of any real value because their fruit may be the result of some radical cross breeding. Thus, the fruit may be tiny, misshapen, and taste more like a dried up mealy rose hip than a Granny Smith. The point being, one has to be selective while foraging for feral apples. Still opportunities arise, and that’s the object of my eye.

So, back to the adventure of apple salvaging as a way of providing culinary excitement and nutritional opportunity. All apples I’ve seen lying about have sugar in them but some more than others, meaning, from my point of view, test them, sink a tooth, lay a lip on them. If your plan is a hard cider, chose the ones with the most sugar because sugar equals alcohol. However, for those baked goods, it’s a matter of balance between tartness, sugar and general flavor.

Most of the found apples are organic and never sprayed with anything, are gluten free and the act of gathering can be fun even if a person has to make a clandestine run into a neighbor’s yard in the deep night—or just go ask if the pilfering is ok. A big bag of robust fruit is a job well done, a rewarding adventure by any standard and a chance to stay close to the ground—tree if they’re still hanging.

For me, the antique peeler is a trip to nostalgia land because the hundred and twenty-five year old device is a marvel. Its existence shows how at one time apples were more important than today, at least in the rural setting. Running my grandparent’s hand-cranked device at full bore throws the peels about providing the reward of seeing man’s ingenuity first hand. Old Lonnie and Thyra had an orchard. I remember fetching fruit and running the various apples, worms and all, through this contraption just to see the peels fly and dismembered bugs writhing on the remains. I was easily entertained. The simple apples are made naked in seconds. Once rendered skinless, the apples can be cored with a simple contraption that only needs a little pressure and the slices just drop to the sides ready for use.

From there, the sections can be distributed into baked goods like pies, bread and whatever that Apfelkuchen is, or just cooked to applesauce.

Simply said, a good apple should not go unturned. Allowing it to just lay on the ground or hang despondently from a lonely tree is possibly a sin, a travesty. With my full sack in hand, I feel vindicated of all guilt.  

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Musky Fishing: The Struggle of Life Itself

In Wisconsin, and I suppose other northern localities, fishing for the monstrous, and intimidating, heavily toothed, rather prehistoric musky has always held a certain fascination. I’m not sure there is a Moby Dick symbolic message about it, but maybe. They are the ultimate conquest here in the North Country. Can I compare this adventure to Hemingway’s struggles in The Old Man and The Sea, or to Herman Melville’s epic?

In order to get myself in the literary position to make such judgement, like both Ernie and Hermie, it was necessary to seek adventure and to go ‘down to the sea in ships’. This I did in great fanfare and in the company of three other river travelers that I shall call shipmates, not the match of Jackie Tar, nor Ishmael, but indeed, weathered souls of some age possibly referable to as old men, for not a hair among us was of a color other than white.


The day was little different than many others where clouds hung low over the river and cast a certain confinement on the moving water and enclosing forest. The moisture took away the details of the landscape and only allowed a few colors of the changing fall to creep through. There was an impressive foreboding in the darkness of the water as we slipped the drift boat into the Chippewa.

If ever there was a moment to confront the masters of this water, today was that day. The muted light, the mist of morning and the unlit, clear river made pursuit of the monsters more a reality, it seemed. My shipmates and I could, in our determined way, be stealthier, more secretive knowing we could hide under the softened light. In quiet tones, we mumbled little thoughts on how the muskies might also view this day in a similar manner for they too could hide crocodile-like among the fallen branches and foamed-covered eddies waiting for the lazy bullfrog or juvenile muskrat to blunder into sight and instant death.

It would be a game like always, where we, with our giant flies glistening like leftover Christmas tree ornaments, hoped to overcome the mysteries of these monsters, some four feet in length, and feed our self-impressions of worth as providers. With all the clarities of a sun-filled day absent, we set forth to capture one of the last remaining obstacles in a freshwater fisherman’s life.

While my shipmates had their own struggles with the day, I will relate but my own, for that is what I will have to live with from day to day. As we floated down the river, sometimes through the raging rapids and other times through softened waters, our huge flies flopped on edges of forest litter, against abandoned beaver dams and under overhanging trees. Occasionally, there would be a tug or a giant swirl letting us know the denizens of the deep were there and willing to test our aging medal. We struck, we cursed the failures but stayed the course as if it was a test of life itself. We had failed before only catching water-logged branches, hidden rocks, and an occasional fish of lesser fight.

 “There has to be one there. My God, look at that structure.” I would mumble in frustration as I cast my six inch fly, my tinseled, bug-eyed, pinky-dink, to a hole where muskies have been living since the last ice age.

 The sparkling lure sank for a brief moment. I stripped the line hard to imitate a wounded fish. Then, in a violent flash, the lure literally disappeared. The ferocious tug almost loosened my grip. The rip of line burned my left hand. “Fish on!”  I yelped, as if Moby Dick had been struck. The huge musky did a powerful roll on the surface, probably seeing the boat and the Ahab-like fisherman standing proud. Seeking the push of the current, the leviathan headed down stream. The anchor dropped and on board the shipmates yelled advice. “Hold him over here. Watch out for that damn log. Look at the size of that thing.”

Due to my injuries from other battles in youth, my legs began to shake. After ten minutes of struggle, with a flyrod bent half over in agony, I wanted to sit down, or somehow be helped, but it was my struggle. To have given in would have been a sign weakness, failure, and left my ego crippled, flaccid in embarrassment. I pulled hard to bring the massive fish close to the boat to be netted by the now floundering crew who had already failed on numerous attempts. Each time the musky detected the net, it bolted to fast water.

“Ya gotta get him over here. He’s damn close to four feet. Pull, you old coot.” Then in an exhausted moment, the fish disappeared into the giant net and held. A great yell went out as the captain of the ship who thought the Pequod would be finally heading home all loaded in glory, celebrated.

I fell into the chair. “Look at the size of that monster.” Came rolling out my stalwart shipmate.

“I can’t believe I did that. Christ, my legs are still quivering and my shoulder’s pounding.“  I thought. The others had great smiles and offered fists of victory.

Quickly, as the fish was lifted from the water, pictures were taken in a rather unceremonious manner and the monster, the ultimate goal of a fisherman’s life, was quietly returned to the Chippewa. The fish was one of those monsters in life that require a fight. But, once tackled there is a certain satisfaction in just letting it go realizing maybe it will be a struggle for someone else, when it is bigger, stronger. Maybe that person will fall overboard, break his equipment and fail, but maybe also win, or survive to fight another day.

———————————————————————–

Reminds me of an old saying from an outhouse in Jasper National Park that said, “I used to struggle to find out where it was at, but now I realize the struggle is where it is at.

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The Perils of Gardening

A fine selection from our garden. Think Scorpion!

The Perils of Gardening

     It seems that one evening we were invited to a friend’s home, ya, it was my brother Crow’s place, for an evening of banter, fellowship and delicate cuisine served there among love-struck song birds and screaming flush of summer flowers. I went deep into a spiritual discussion on the merits of gardening noting the many fine features of their farming efforts and, of course, criticizing the weaknesses such as the puny, poorly committed pepper plants and the less-than-spectacular browned-out tomato foliage, too limp to have serious production status.

     It is well known in our family, it is good to be critical of an individual’s efforts as a way of raising one’s own ego or self-esteem whichever comes first. In other words, it has value to lambaste any little thing out of order, or that which is not a picture of agrarian success. In truth, by my careful observation, some of his vegetables showed little promise or lacked much redeeming value even to the glutinous, over zealous, tooth-heavy, woodchuck, but admittedly, other vegetables, like the onions and carrots were rather spectacular (painful to admit that) and the flower selection along with the corn was awe-inspiring.
     In my world, it is also fair game to pilfer some of their efforts by simply grabbing the produce and consuming it on the spot while doing a critique of that particular vegetable, because, after all, some items simply look good but have no character (just like people). Again, the purpose is to find fault and then belittle failed efforts—–and yet compliment, if ever so lightly, the successes.
     There in the miserable area of his garden was this despondent, stunted pepper plant that oddly had on it some rather colorful red peppers of a smaller persuasion. They were not recognizable as being of a hot sort but one probably of a sweeter demeanor and therefore worth testing in a gentlemanly, and heart-felt manner.

     Prior to the pepper consumption and with my belly tight to the the finely set table, I commented, somewhat in jest, on the throngs of biting insects and diving fruit bats all festooned and infested with various parasites—even-though the truth was quite the opposite. This simply was a way of implying my urban setting was more pleasant, even if we do have more Norwegians. Again, there is this need to make one look superior, and noting the vermin in another’s holdings, is a good place to go—I believe.
     While I had in hand a nice brew of my own making, I took a small nip on the end of the selected pepper and found it to be most pleasant, sweet, flavorful, reminiscent of our years on the Mediterranean while in the company of Ernest Hemingway. “I’m impressed with this fine looking pepper even if it came from that half-rotted plant,” I noted. Crow nodded, basking at an actual compliment.   

     “Why thank you. I believe I selected well on the plant choice.”

Lifting the red jewel in a half salute as if a fine cognac, and in great aristocratic confidence, I took a great bite consisting of most of the four inch beauty thinking to follow it with a gulp of my excellent brew.

     Sweet jumping lizards skipping across the tundra on a rubber crutch, I made a mistake! I have never been wrong before, but I have made mistakes and this was one of them.
     My head fell back and my eyes rolled into their sockets, my tongue swelled and burned much like it had when tortured in the war (the Big War when I served in a British Thermal Unit)–it was the hot iron on the tongue gambit. My breath was short and my pulse increased to 2000 beats. The only solution was the beer and I had no choice but to use it as a coolant much like ethylene glycol is used to cool a motor. I couldn’t swallow the beer and it began to boil. My eyes were half closed and while I was unable to speak, numerous profane thoughts passed through my now inflamed mind.

     My fist hit the table and my knees quivered as I started to go into a frothing catatonic fit of some sort. I wanted to cut my tongue out even with a dull spoon. A sweat broke out as I faced a near death experience. My glorious, maybe delusional, life, flashed in front of me.
    I tried crackers and cheese and vegetables (no more peppers) and was about to start eating grass when it finally began to dissipate. Through blurred, with still steaming eyes, I looked around thinking someone had run for help, cream cheese, the garden hose, maybe a moist cold cloth with ice cubes. The others, including my wife, sat there covering their collective mouths fighting laughter, emitting not one ounce of sympathy, had made no motion for help. No, not one. Only laughter and derision, and accusations of theft, and disrespect, of weakness and even of stupidity.
     I was deemed a loser, a man of weak character. Personally, I think it was a trick, a way to make me explore compassion, an appreciative individual who will never say another critical thing about anybody’s garden.

    Well, my mouth is better but my mind is not very apologetic. Imbedded in me is a standing desire that one day that brother Crow casually harvests one of my Scorpion Peppers and then in a thoughtless moment touches his naughty bits.  

Featured

Comfort

Comfort.

The cook stove and reclining cup of tea

     At the moment, I am sitting on a leather sofa right up tight against a one-hundred year-old wood burning stove. My feet are covered with some hand-knit socks made by my charming wife. My toes are so comfortable, they are smiling and occasionally dozing off. The radiant warmth is like sunshine, on a spring morning, flooding on my face. The Earl Gray tea is especially delightful with the carefully chosen amount of fragrant, locally-produced honey. I am in a position of comfort and I am aware of it, not just accepting it, but actually reveling in the glory of it all. That is to say, I am profoundly thankful.

     In this position of extreme comfort, it is possible to look outside and see the wind howling, snow whipping over huge piles of frozen winter. One can sense the ten-degree temperature that the local Chickadees sitting on the feeder are having to endure, their little feathers lifting with each gust as they cower behind the bouncing wooden feeder. There is no sign of comfort there. I watch from my privileged position and reflect.

    One might say, “Oh, birds don’t even care about comfort. They always live out there and like it. It is what they do.” But I remember an obese chicken we had, one called, Heavy Hen, who when given the opportunity, would sneak into the shop, actually, I let her in, because she would beg, would strut across the room and plop herself on the arm of the old raggedy stuffed chair right next to the wood burning stove. She would do this even if Brown, our hound dog was in the chair lounging. Like that lush-of-a-dog, that bird knew comfort and sought it out.

     So in a fit of thinking and reflecting from my privileged position, it seemed appropriate to visit comfort, say the comfort of mankind, or better yet the history of comfort. I wondered how long has this more-than-pleasant situation been around? Do we have more comfort than any generation gone before?

     The bigger question becomes, how much comfort have people, and I mean average people, known through history? Sixty years ago in my childhood home, we heated with coal and I remember being comfortable even though if it was below zero, the house was not always toasty and I can recall lying on the floor heat register as a way, like Heavy Hen, of absorbing comfort. It has to be assumed that elsewhere in the house, it was not exactly comfortable, at least not like today where every room is climate controlled to accommodate our changing moods.

     This last year, we clamored through an unoccupied “apartment” of a castle in Italy and noticed that each small room had a rude fireplace. This particular residence had not been occupied since prior to World War II and many artifacts were still laying about. This picturesque castle village had been there and occupied for 400 to 500 years—and was still largely occupied. It was not hard to imagine living there, cramped, totally cold as the place was clearly impossible to heat, unless using modern equipment and fuels. To top it off, the landscape obviously had been stripped of most wood hundreds of years ago. They must have used lumps of coal, sheep dung, maybe twigs right up until the war. Little imagination also indicated the place had to be filled with vermin of all sorts. It simply seemed improbable there had been much comfort in this life style.

     In reading bits and pieces on early Wisconsin settlement, fascinating tidbits of information show up that make me ponder even more. They talk of mattresses filled with straw, and coarse wool blankets spun at home, and again the open fireplace. Iron stoves, of the type that bring me such pleasure, didn’t show up until the mid-eighteen hundreds. Prior to that, all folks needing warmth, possibly with the exception of the Scandinavians and their masonry stoves, had to huddle around an open fire during the big freeze.

     I have read of potatoes stored under the beds to prevent them from freezing, and it was implied they still froze—what does that say about the temperature of the place? There were no over-stuffed sofas, no down jackets. Insulation was unknown even in the 1910 house we live in now. No stove could have kept that structure warm at 30 below. Comfort must have been like candy. A person could just get it once in a while sitting, face to the summer sun. 

I recall being at my wife’s family farm in the mid-sixties and realizing that in the winter only one room was being heated, the kitchen. Yes, there was comfort next to the cook stove and next to the small glass of schnapps that grandpa Otto seemed intent in finding as we huddled about in the warmth of fire and friendship.

In going back in time even farther, people lived in bark-covered huts with nothing but a pit fire and a mound of skins—filled with how many bugs? At twenty-five below, I am not sure comfort was even a word that crossed the lips of a single soul. I suspect that is why on this day, as I sit here with unbounded comfort, without a hunger pain in my stomach, not a single bug bite, I have not a miniscule of doubt on the nature of my good fortune, and that is why I am marveling at this tick of time, here in this western world, when every day, we live in total comfort.