This is a ditty we put together while in lock down from the dreaded virus. It is about isolation, of a sort Americans are not really accustomed to. Just having some fun writing, playing a tune, and viewing some photos from our trip to the magical little island of Inisheer out in Galway Bay. . Ann played her flute and Piano, and David fiddled.
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 My stomach was now withdrawn and grumbling in pain but I knew we still had some reserves but at this age, it all hurts.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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Snows Came Last Night
The snows came today, not just the flood of simple flakes dropping delicately from the shadowless sky, but with the hard push of windblown pellets fired by February’s fury. In the morning, it was thirty degrees and seemingly non-threatening but the wind, yes the wind, was hell bent on ripping snow-loaded branches from every tree, especially the mature White Pines on the back side of the garden. We never heard them crash this early morning because it seemed more reasonable to lay low in the down-covered bed reveling in profound comfort, the land of no guilt.
Without paying much serious attention to what was really going on in the backyard, or anywhere for that matter, we quietly marveled at the howling wind as if it was a musical interlude or at least just a passing expression of the newly minted climate situation now passing over the globe. Usually, we listen for the morning freight trains and never fail to note how they sound like approaching tornadoes but then, in their passing, fade Doppler-like into distant farmland. This morning the howl of the western wind over-rode all other sounds as it surged and scattered through the winter trees leaving the heavy trains undetected.
While glancing out the window on the way to a cup of Russian Tea, we noticed in the garden the startling view of newly fallen branches, a couple of considerable mass obviously the victims of weighted snow and that west wind. The scattering branches attested to the velocity at which the broken mass plunged to the frozen ground—thankfully not targeting the cars for playing their role in creating such weather. But, then it was us that drove the cars.
Out the backside window, the bird feeder stood covered with three inches of new wet snow. Four doves worked the edges trying with determination to break through to where they knew sunflower seeds hid. The doves seemed frantic, frustrated, maybe desperate we thought, after all, where else could they find food other than from the hand of man. They were not meant to over-winter in this now seedless landscape. Interestingly, they had found what has become generally warmer weather good reason to linger this far north. I could not help to think again of those emission-spewing cars.
One could say, the fallen tree was just novel, maybe a curiosity in that it represented potential damage, but the Morning Doves in their efforts put a certain rush into my at-the-moment minimal ambition. They looked our way as they detected movement in the house. There was no plaintive call of springtime, no cooing in contentment just a glance from a side eye, no derision, no visible pleading but we still felt the tea could wait.
In order to make the morning right, and the tea heart-felt, I armored-up, put on the boots and stepped into the ten-o’clock backyard to clear the covered feeder and pour forth a full measure of the finest of oily seeds wanting to make sure my morning beverage was in good conscience and the feathered friends could wait-out the western wind, warm and unthreatened in the shrouded pines.
Never has there been a day when I have done so little.
Sitting here writing may be the high point of the day for in reflection it seems little has been accomplished today, to the point of getting my attention. This morning I did retrieve enough wood to just get through the day but three arm-loads carried through the new snow was far from a day’s work. I then read a number of items but nothing that rattled my cage, not Melville to take me off to sea, no Kafka to make me insane, no Ayn Rand to make me shrug, just drivel on the supposed downfall of our civilization due to leadership failures and the perils of global warming. There was nothing to get my attention today because I already knew all of that. I suppose I was looking for something important, something earth-shattering.
After feeding the disgruntled chickens around eleven and piling up the sunflower seeds for the local birds, it was back inside to fret over the hearing aid I managed to lose right in the house—I just couldn’t hear it. It is like losing my glasses and not being able to see them right next to me.
The doves did swarm in making for excellent bird watching but even they were rather routine, if not pedestrian, in their bouncing and flopping. These weather conditions have made them less high-falluting, so it just ends up all business and none of the usual squabbling. The busy-body chickadees grabbed seeds and flew off to embrace their task, single seed consumption. The cardinals grabbed a few sunflower seeds, while looking through the fallen snow seemingly happy with the day.
One other high point consisted of preparing a noodle kit for lunch. It is not common for us to revert to packaged food but being of such sloth, it was easy to boil water, and watch that, then add the ingredients in great fanfare. Watching that process as the seasoning dispersed itself into the now boiling concoction proved unrewarding similar to watching paint dry or a stink bug walk across the floor—which one was. Fortunately, the kit of unknown content but similar to noodles, did not end up as some glutinous mass resembling mucilage. After downing the last of the pickled herring, the uneventful noodle kit was served up in a most graceless manner not unlike what I would do if homeless.
Still unable to hear, and tight up against the wood burning stove, a nap came easily and brought with it a comfort not to be found in the finest spas of Rosholt, the one’s visited by the one-percenters. Unlike many such naps, I did not slump forward like a local drunk but leaned mostly backward with my mouth agape. I do not recall once waking due to excessive drooling or obnoxious noises commonly referred to in my family as a death rattle. The thoughts of half sleep were innocuous and not filled with heroic deeds, nor erotic adventures just the pleasure found with extreme comfort. I recall slightly adjusting my body angle to absorb an even more tactile advantage. It was a beautiful thing—but of no real value in a capitalistic sense. I was one with pleasure as the evening closed off the few rays of defuse light.
In a small flush of guilt, I remembered that only yesterday I was challenged to a snow angel contest and while I had performed well in the past, I was not able to rise today frightened by the snow depth and the sad realization I probably would not be able to exit from the eighteen inches of powder—and if left unfound would become this year’s first angel fatality. I simply sat emotionless inside not even slightly interested in being a celestial deity nor deceased.
Into the troughs of nighttime, I turned to the poetry of Yeats only to learn,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Before turning to this writing, I sauntered to the refrigerator to secure a handful of chocolates. That was when I realized being idle, while rattling my Protestant work ethic, for one day does not have to be a travesty nor action packed. I turned up the music, stuffed the friendly stove with more wood, listened to the wind howl outside.
There is a time to hold close to the fire,
when the world slows to a simple comfort,
when the wild birds are face to the wind,
and the predators only dream of prey.
Words simply rattle the drowsy mind
Into believing all thoughts are kind.