I’m Being Bugged!

Why is this bugging me?

Maybe I am wrong on this but maybe I am not. Apples have always gotten my attention and I don’t think it is just the Johnny Appleseed story.  I learned from Michael Pollan that in the past apples were of great value not to just up and eat but rather to gather, hopefully the sweetest ones a person could find, and then ferment the juice. They were after apple wine and if clever, once fermented to completion, they would allow it to freeze. The accumulated ice was tossed and the remaining liquid was the beloved apple jack, a liquor of higher alcohol concentration. Whoopee!

We all know that apples are and always have been subjected to the onslaught of insects, who like humans, loved the sweetness and thus punched holes in every apple found. The bugs, knowing them, probably even ate the ones slightly fermented for extra fun.

As a result of this competition with mankind, we very clever humans, made poisons to eliminate the bugs, and we were real good at it. However, there are yahoos like me who, while having been once employed to kill insects, prefer to not eat sprayed fruit. This invariably meant we had to cut away the enemy while making apple sauce, more work but no poisons.

Well, it would seem we have had a change in events because now the Wolf River apples on the kid’s tree next door are, all by themselves, bug free. They are flawless, round, robust and delicious and not a hole to be found other than that one where some enterprising squirrel thought he, probably a she, would have that one big bite. Confounding situation, I thought. Last year there were a few holes, this year none.

Interestingly, the apples I gather from a secret spot, the fruit with the red meat and ample sugar just right for sauce of the highest grade, are also bug free, I mean bug free. Even the ones laying on the ground are unviolated after a week of relaxation. What?

It is absolutely staggering after all these years, nature has found a way to poison out the insects so we can have this wonderful fruit just for the taking. Think of the money saved, not to mention the kitchen time cutting away those ugly little worms.

As I processed the apple sauce, yes, the beautiful pink applesauce with just the right sugar content, there was a distant murmuring in my head. “Was this really a good thing?” Are there other implications to this profound lack of apple-eating larva?

I have also noticed the robins are now using the bird feeder and appear to be eating suet. To top it off we have had three, and I say three, pileated woodpeckers on the feeder at one time—and that is right here in town. In the past the only pileateds seen, those pterodactyls, were skirting stealthfully around in dark forest. What is with these birds—robins on a feeder!

That suet is the closest thing to a worm those insect eaters can find, that is my guess. Just this year I saw grosbeaks eating potato bugs and don’t remember seeing that before. Potato bugs? The ones feeding on the leaves of a nightshade. While I have personally not eaten a potato bug, the very sight of them tells me this is not top fare, but maybe, like a turnip, it’s famine food.

It doesn’t take an entomologist to conclude that these, and other noticeable insect disappearances are becoming rather profound. I could, rather quietly, even mention the absence of mosquitos in my back yard. Oh, I will get push back on that statement but—-.

On the other hand there are other observations that, while delightful and intriguing, also got my attention. This year I, and a number of rural friends, saw giant swallowtails, not the fairly common tiger swallow tails but the darker, more dynamic giants. These beauties, in my book are rare and I was beside myself trying to photograph these majestic visitors. Turns out they favor the citrus family and are found mostly in the south but with the climate changing, they are now being see cruising zinnias, and eating prickly ash.

We are all aware that the count on monarchs has plummeted and as a result I find myself dodging them while driving, and speaking of driving, I can’t remember the last time I had to clean bug splat off my windshield.

Only a couple of years ago the swarm of delicate mayflies that followed the canoe ride left us breathless. This year we were quietly alone out there. No insect companions. But I did note leaf minors on the velvet leaf, and the pasture thistle I let grow in the garden did attract numerus insects including the radiant tiger swallowtails. I didn’t miss the June bugs bouncing off my head as we sat by the evening fire, or did I?

Remember how the swallows used to dive and swoop around intersections picking the bugs off the paused vehicles, hundreds of them. I must say, this is all bugging me. Something is up!

Simpification

Like every yahoo around, I have been noticing that there are some changes taking place out there in our natural world. The most obvious being the climate, but, of course, there are plenty of other disruptions that are new to me in my now almost eighth decade. Clearly every little or not so little blip that occurs in the normal scheme of things causes another proverbial head-on collision for humanity.

All over the world there are water shortages, and that includes in our own southwest, while some other river basin is flooding with a once-in-a-thousand year event. To top that off, some areas are being toasted with temperatures in excess of 125 Fahrenheit. These events are enough to make anybody take pause—even for an individual like me who appears to be full of pauses.

As a biologist with a hankering for insects, it is not hard to notice that nighttime streetlights are no longer surrounded by swarms of confused bugs, like we used to see as kids. I haven’t even cleaned my windshield all summer where not long ago it was a daily job to remove bug splat from our windshield. On and on, we hear of habitat loss (how many Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited pleas can I possible get?) along with diminishing biodiversity reports.

To top it off, there are groups of folks almost intuitively realizing these same issues, and go bonkers trying to blame somebody else or some other group for all of these disruptive changes. They are fighting mad and in some cases latching on to authoritarian politicians who claims they have all the answers (they don’t) which on occasions means getting rid of the science that made us who we are, or in some extreme cases, loading weapons of war. It just becoming a mess.

During the heat, it’s harder to go outside, so I did a little research and found a word that possibly represents an idea that might prevent me from adding to the many issues banging relentlessly at us. The word most commonly found, and the one Nate Hagans from the University of Minnesota uses is ‘simplification’. By this he means, I need to just take it down a notch and not consume so many things because, as he points out, all the ‘stuff’ I use from nature is finite and the more of it that’s used, the less is left for future generations, AND many bits of consumption are becoming disruptive to the natural world.

I kicked it around and had a hard time envisioning something different than what we have been doing for so long. It seems I, and maybe many of us humans, might want to look at a new form of development, not necessarily associated with material growth.

Having recently been in Europe (I know, burning jet fuel), it was very visible there to notice a number of glaring differences in their lifestyles, and this is a life style that I was informed consumed one half the amount of energy and materials per-capita we do. They don’t have a lot of ‘stuff’ but rather have events and social outings where folks get together and just hang while sipping wine and nibbling cheese.  One glorious evening we WALKED to a sixteenth century cathedral to get drenched in a wondrous choral performance.

In Ireland we did walks-about and marveled at the scenery, the colorful people, maybe the fishing fleets along with some legendary dolphin who fancied entertaining tourists, and then in the evening drifting to a pub to play music and tip a beer.  Life was slower there for the old men sitting under a street side stoop, gesturing wildly and telling stories about the little people.

Going be tough I suppose, but I thought I would start by not driving 200 miles to go fishing, maybe trying to ride my bike to the bakery, attending the children’s musical tonight (where I exhausted my smile muscles), and admittedly talking to the rutabagas in the garden. Still, it is not hard to notice how so many of us have consumed so much that all of the mentioned problems are being caused by too many of us using too much stuff. So, if some local were to be seen around town being real simple, let it be known I have taken notice of the growing situations and what you are seeing is a legitimate effort at simplification—and it ain’t easy. Talking to rutabagas should no longer be seen as antisocial or a sign of mental collapse.

Natural Solutions

It seems almost every year, but possibly more recently, the robins somehow spotted the big strawberries in the garden. Initially, they pursued the garden for the worms and bugs, which in my recollection is their normal food. But for some reason, maybe lack of their favorite bugs, they drifted toward the patch of just-ripening berries where they would extract a large single slice out of our spring-time desserts. Never did they eat the entire berry but rather just went from one to another and taking one large beak full as if exploring for strawberry worms. It had gotten to the point where fifty percent of the berries were scarred and violated.

Truth is, we still ate them but not happy about sharing them with the wildlife that seemed really uninterested in actually consuming them. Initially, I tried putting net over the entire patch but discovered it was no fun trying to free the damn birds form the netting, much less having to move it every time we needed berries, which was every day. I even found myself tangle in the stinking netting looking like a giant carp trying to extract one more dough ball from the bottom of the river.

I was telling this story to Carmen just last week as the berries for this year began to ripen and I was seeing numerous robins eye-balling the red fruit. “Listen, all you do is find some round stones and paint them red, put them on the edge of the patch right where they can see them. Couple of whacks at the rocks and you’ll see those suckers head to the dentist with a chipped beaks,” She offered.

It’s been a week of eating unmolested strawberries. Interestingly, as a biologist and gardener, this got me thinking about other possible non-lethal ways of solving similar problems.

I recalled another individual who, like Carmen, had a great imagination by the name of Edward Abby. He lived in a rather broken down abode off in some distant Arizona desert (the same guy wrote Desert Solitaire) who on a non-stop basis, had a mouse and pack rat problem. He puzzled over the issue for some time and didn’t like the “nuclear option” of killing them with traps, or more particularly poisoning them only to kill every predator around who managed to get ahold of a sick rodent. Like many of us who have had to run a substantial trap line to control the rural pests, he began looking for a more natural solution. As a naturalist, rather like me, he found by placing a large bull snake in his house, the problem of rodents quickly disappeared and the snake, it was rumored, went from 4.5 ft. to 6 ft. in a single year, and was free to come and go, but was always welcomed.

In a fit entrepreneurial spirit, it occurred to me that I might be able to generate income by employing natural solutions to other ever-present problems. How about taking a serious dent out of the fly, or even mosquito population by selling and propagating insect eating Venus fly traps and pitcher plants. Each, if I recall, exude a subtle stench, not unlike rotting meat, or maybe a stinking human, that attract pests that target humans. Plant these fascinating botanical wonders all over the yard and problem solved.

Norwegian Deterrent

In a bit of historical contemplation, it also occurred to me that some groups of people have used similar rather natural methods to hinder human movement into their communities. It has been rumored that a group of people referred to as Norwegians developed a process of ‘preserving’ fish, I believe mostly codfish, to make it such that their neighbors would never intrude on their sovereign space. The legend has it, they were targeting Swedes, my people, by soaking the aforementioned fish in lye and then encouraging microbes to do their work. This created “a product” (lutefisk) of such objectionable nature the peoples of this Norwegian persuasion were seldom bothered. Through time those same folks actually learned to like “the product” as a consumable food. This is one of the reasons why when one finds one Norwegian, we find more. History has found this to be most clever and really a win-win for that ethnic group.

30 pounder read for work.

I no sooner was reviewing this historical tidbit, when Glenn of Colorado called and went to great length to describe how his daughter had parked her hybrid auto for a tiny two hours only to find on her return, the catalytic converter had been cut off and stolen. Now there is a tough one but maybe there was a natural solution. Initially, it occurred to me that it might be possible to make a cage, under a car, very close to the converter that contained either a 30 pound snapping turtle, or a poorly fed badger (a great Wisconsin solution). If the converter was violated, a trip wire would drop the beast on the thief. Well, a car owner would have to maintain the animals and that might require staff and special feeding, so while it is innovative, I opted for a small hornet swarm that would be easier to maintain. I realized that the vibration of the auto would keep the insects in a high alert state all the time and once the trip wire was dropped the outcome would be spectacular.

The most important aspect of the suggestion by Carmen, is that the robins have been held at bay and we can fully enjoy the shortcakes. The other ideas, be they historical, or just brilliantly innovative, are just mind exercises and may not represent total reality, still, it is hot outside and the mind has to be activated.

Side note: I have not been bitten by a wasp, bee or hornet in years, but leaving the post office I go nailed. Message?

Entropy

Entropy, 2nd law of thermos dynamics.

Just today I was working on a column to be titled Entropy or the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. I chose this topic because I have been finding that everything around me has a way of deteriorating the minute I don’t stay on top of it. The garden without constant attention just morphs into weeds and disorganized rubble. If I don’t feed the chickens or give them water they become obnoxious and ill-behaved. If I don’t exercise my muscles, the ones I have left, just go to sagging and looking foolish. Even my mind if not infused with activity and a flood of information, begins to wander off in space and nonsense. The asphalt driveway will crumble under the push of weeds and ants.

I am not alone it turns out with entropy. The financial markets are subject to it as is our energy supply, our water. Most alarming, entropy also affects this column and that was becoming the issue as I tried to write. I was about to quit and take a month off. But, wait, why should I let entropy get me down? I thought and looked for answers.

So I read this, “Entropy is simply a measure of disorder and affects all aspects of our daily lives. In fact, you can think of it as nature’s tax. Left unchecked, disorder increases over time. Energy disperses, and systems dissolve into chaos. The more disordered something is, the more entropic we consider it.”

Oh great! “Albert Einstein referred to entropy and the second law of thermodynamics as the only insights into the workings of the world that would never be overthrown.” 

Even Yeats had it figured out as he wrote, and this is before all those fancy physicists began pontificating.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
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;

Here is a simple illustration to what entropy does and I don’t necessarily like it. 

Entropy Explained

Then it occurred to me that this entropy also might apply to human relations.  And, believe it or not, the damn covid thing has played a role in this. It has made it so, in our fear of getting the plague, we have been denied many of our usual human get-togethers. That is, we have not been allowed to gather as groups around our tables and in our homes to blather and raise a glass to the usual friendships. These relationships take energy and effort and if not constantly applied, like the diagram above, things dissipate. ‘The centre cannot hold.’

After all, in thermodynamics it is a LAW. It is like the speed of light at 186,000 miles per sec. That is a damn scientific LAW. It can’t be changed. No court can overturn these laws, so I tell myself to get over it.

Then there is this: “the second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases with time.” That is just great. In truth, I ended up writing this column when I had just thought my ambition and creative energy might have dissipated. It may be true entropy is tugging at me, and I really was noticing it today. Tomorrow I believe it is time to pull those dissipating little imaginary balls of the illustration back to a closer, tighter organization and weed the garden, buy beer and invite some folks over to defy entropy—- and even defy Einstein if we have to.

Forest Bathing

Forest Bathing?

There has recently been community chatter, now referred to as ‘trending’ behavior, for the common delight of walking in the forest as a way of ‘cleansing’ one’s soul. In the very recent past humans could indulge in simple bathing in water by taking a shower or possibly a bath in a tub. I suppose one could take a sand bath like chickens do where we would flop on the ground, usually in the sun, then literally thrash our wings’ in such a  way as to throw sand all over our fully clothed bodies, but this has never proven successful to my knowledge and might lead to a loony-bin visitation.

Certainly, it is possible to bathe in one’s own self-importance much like some chest thumping, incessantly babbling politicians or a self-proclaimed big shot. That hasn’t always worked well for me but every once in a while it can be ego boosting, that is until a few years ago when the grandkid pronounced I had an inflated eagle.

Recently, but unannounced to me, sociologist, anthropologist, behaviorist, maybe a bespectacled psychologist or two and no doubt cosmic sky pilots have decided a walk in the woods can have huge therapeutic advantages. This now is “forest bathing”.

French Impressionist Forest Bathing–have to look closely

Some years ago, a walk in the woods with your girlfriend was called a woodsy and I don’t recall it ever involving bathing even if it did include a skinny dip in the local pond. In Wisconsin deer hunting might be an obvious form, but in my case there would be derogatory comments about my inattentive forest napping. With eighty percent of American citizens now living in urban and suburban settings it would seem, from my clinical point of view, that this suggested activity might be aimed at that demographic—rural types forest bathe like this all the time.

So as a botanist by training, it seems fitting I should be able to pontificate on this topic, possibly with great introspection. Forest bathing might consist of just a simple walk on a path for a starter session. Once accomplished, a person might move to having discussions with favorite trees—surely to be followed by tree hugging. While this may seem a left handed poke at liberals, this doesn’t have to be the case.

Anyone can talk with a tree for advice. “Hey, Mr. Tree (Locally, a Norwegian maple is preferred because they are not very intrusive, and a touch shy), I have been having trouble with my focus group—like I am out of focus.”

 The tree could respond (hypothetically but remember I am a botanist), “I don’t want to bark at you, but we can try to get to the root of the problem. If you listen carefully, possibly something can flower. Maybe from this tender encounter you might take your hominid brain and branch out. You can’t be a sap, and certainly, you will need a stout trunk. Buck up you blithering idiot and maybe we can plant a few seeds in your feeble mind so you don’t screw up the entire environment.”  (I couldn’t resist that.)

Advanced sessions of forest bathing could include climbing trees, even living in one for a weekend.  Then once a certain expertise is achieved a person could go to nude bathing in, say, a pine forest but this too probably should be confined to the young. While the inhabitants, other than human, might not mind folks in the youth category, the sight of an elder nudist forest bathing might cause alarm because the genetic package of most living things is not programed to deal with deteriorating human forms. As a reminder of this issue, this example might be given as a warning to the aging crowd—and it involves wild scavengers. In my later stages of riding my road bike, ( I was not nude cycling this time) I had the unpleasant experience of stopping to rest while on County T only to look up and realize some underfed vultures were following me—just longing for that one last face-plant of a fall and easy pickin’s for those stinking buzzards.

Advanced Forrest Bathing with cycle.

I can’t imagine the reaction of the wolves, coyotes, crows, and meat eating shrews once I was spotted forest bathing in the nude. The saliva drooling wolf on his smart-ass phone would be calling the pack, “Come on down. Lookin’ a lot like a party in a few hours. Kinda sinewy and maybe a bit into decomposition already, but still, a hot meal. ”

Alright, alright, so things can go off the rails. Forest bathing? I get it and sounds like a fantastic idea for a few of us but come November, might want to stay away from my deer stand, even if I am sleeping again. Still, all things wrapped in a package, with no real cost in dollars, and no chance of doing any damage to the forest, it is possible to see why this is trending both for individual and group therapy. For once, here is a beautifully simplified human activity that may benefit all species involved and make us into tree huggers and nature lovers. And, we would be cleaner for it.

Fire good!

Fire Good!

In a cave in France, two early men, Cro-Magnons if you will, were sitting by a fire. Lothar, who has a small spattering of grease dripping down his massive face, looks over at Gumbas and says profoundly, “Fire good”. Gumbas slowly lifts his heavy brow ridge and with a knowing sly, partially toothless grin, confirms, “Fire good”. Even then some seventy thousand years ago, the early hominids had it figured out. “Dis buffalo rump tender and fun to chew. Fire cook good.”

Lothar nodding while nibbling a dandelion root, “Yup, yup even nasty root soft and yummmmy. Better dan hard raw wild carrot,” Fire make tasty.

Other members of the tribe gathered around the fire, moving more closely. “Fire warm. Sleep better, No freeze toes off again”. Mauba the patriarch of the tribe sidled up to Lothar, “Tell story about mammoth almost take you for lunch.”

“I like stories around fire even if fake news.” Said a snot-nosed teenager as he fiddled with his small ivory carving and at the same time took notice of Gumbas’s twelve year old daughter. This midlife activity for Yaysha, the teen, was comforting and he, like the others, knew the communal value of the fire there in their luxurious cave. Unknowingly, like the Neanderthals of the same region, they were imbedding in their developing genetic package the incredibly important instinctive attraction to fire. “Fire even keeps those damn saber-toothed cats away from my girlfriend. Just hate it when tiger got Dansolla.” “Fire good, human eaters hate fire”.

So there you go, tucked away in our DNA there seems, from my amateur evolutionary biologist point of view, the theory that fire (and that includes bonfires in the winter wind out behind the Jensen Center) has a natural attraction that goes all the way back to Lothar and Gumbas the Cro-Magnons—-and no doubt way before that.

For years we have watched the grandkid, and other children build fires at every opportunity, even in the middle of snow storms.  No sooner is there an open fire when every passing individual will gather around seeming to warm themselves, or possibly push some food, be it a marshmallow or a fat steak into, or over an open fire. The open fire simply has a magic and it’s not just in youth but in everyone it would seem.

It can be a small fire or a roaring bonfire as we recently experienced behind the Jensen Center, the one sponsored and advertised as a way of driving away the winter and bringing the community together. Various groups arrived and almost to the person, individuals slowly rotated themselves like vertical rotisseries around the fire all the while marveling at the radiant heat. There was even a brave individual, who obviously in his best paleo throwback effort, attempted to inflame a marshmallow, then dash back to chocolate and gram crackers.

At a safe distance from the inferno, the toils of winter, the insidious plague, and lack of social involvement was bantered about as would be expected around any open fire. There were others, like children, just stared at the flames looking for imagined dancers, maybe answers, maybe just wanting to feel heat in a way they hope will linger. I’m sure there were others sent dreaming of a medium-rare steak much like Lothar back a few generations. There was a sense of security, and of community associated with the open fire.

Were any of us more comfortable because we knew none of those sneaking saber-toothed tigers were being kept at bay, maybe.  No boogie men out here, but there was one politician, mostly it was just a gathering of the tribes exercising the call of our DNA, the same as the call of the open fire and all that it offered all those thousands of years ago. It was a good call then and it is still a good call today.

I found myself contemplating fire, maybe while feeling all that heat and realizing, wondering if it was a setting like this that set off humans on their great adventure of really using fire. The intense energy possibly triggered innovations that have travelled with us in these more modern times. Did we confine the fire in a structure for greater warmth? Did we imagine that one day by burning a barrel of oil, we could accomplish the labor of one person working for almost five years?  

Almost seems strange that we could go from seeking simple comfort and community, making foods more available and palatable, and warding off predators with the innovation and application of the simple open flame, to, in just a few thousand years take over the world with all that energy of the flames from oil. So, Lothar, fire good?

Keeping it Simple—Sugaring

Here we are on a mild, almost abnormal spring day with the temperature touching sixty. The maples have been bumped around so far with disrupted temperature throwing confusion on the sap flow. However, here and there the nectar has flowed, not on all trees, but some lucky ones in unsuspecting places. Jake and I have our taps out but it is true we may have jumped the gun, or is it the drill bit. Until today most maples, silvers, reds, and Norwegian have pretty much told us to buzz off, but today, after a nice night frost, normality returned and the buckets were filled. We also chose today to do our first meager boil not wanting to have the sap linger too long stored in barrels where there might be tendency for the local yeast and bacteria to decide on a little picnic in what shall become out precious syrup. So, for one more year, it starts and we are off to the races.

The chickens also were let free today and like any good hen, they all found themselves in a mound of feathers dusting and taking in the noonday sun.  

Splitting Wood

Splitting Wood

I suspect we all know that firewood heats us many times. There is the cutting, the hauling, the splitting, the stacking, the trucking of armloads to the house, and finally cleaning up the mess, the chips, the bugs and the ashes. None of this is any secret and none is unanticipated. It is all just part of the deal, and that deal is the unbelievable comfort of sitting next to the old stove warmed by the radiant push of nature’s captured sun.

While my lust for warmth, of comfort, now seems paramount to my daily life, and it may have to do with age, those other activities also have their merits, from exercise, to pursuing a worthy cause, maybe the drive to organize, or possibly even to fulfill an ancient drive to survive in a long gone Paleolithic past.

While, like Ronald Reagan, I not only can’t resist spitting wood but genuinely relish the total experience. For Ronnie, his handlers would absolutely go into fits when he was found in the backyard banging away at the woodpile instead of communists. He could have been injured but he would continue, stating it was part of his well-being. I suspect they took his woodpile and axe away.

Seeing as how I am not needed to fight commies, and always have a woodpile, the game goes on. So what is it with this splitting—or all the rest that goes with it. Tony loaned me a book because he, like me, relishes the very touching of wild wood. The book is titled Norwegian Wood—Chopping and Stacking—The Scandinavian Way. It was not written by the Beatles but by an actual Norwegian, Lars Mytting. I would have preferred it was written by a Swede because it would have been better yet, still I settled for the ancestral neighbor.

The book got me thinking, mulling if you will, about this affliction, maybe even wondering if this desire was, like many behavioral patterns (say fire watching), buried in my genetics. Are there certain patterns of behavior in folks of northern European ancestry, the same peoples who for thousands of years had to fight the cold of the north? Is this innate, ingrained? Did we evolve to seek out a source of warmth and energy that kept us alive? The draw appears strong, maybe subtle, but after all, one hundred thousand years of struggle in the wintery north certainly must have favored the rough beasts known as Homo sapiens who sought out the best wood. Why would Ronnie do that? And me, and now the grandkid?

So the bigger question might be, just how far does this wood lusting, this innate fascination, this possibly hoarding desire go? It is not simply the grabbing of any wood, throwing it on a pile, then waiting for the cold or for roasting a mammoth steak. It appears more fine-tuned, more engulfed in nuance.

For instance, and this may just be me, there is a tendency to evaluate each piece of wood. “Nah, I’m not gonna mess with that damn white cedar.” I might think, but then the grandkid says, “I’ll take it because it is great in the early fall when I want a low fire, and it is easy to split.” Really! The white oak can be difficult and requires a little extra push of the maul. Still, it is easy to feel the heft of it and know the energy that is within, just like the black locust. It seems my mind is doing a subtle but necessary evaluation of energy invested to energy returned. I move toward the red oaks because it splits easily and stacks well. The maple is lighter, but adequate, not like the willow which has less energy than a fresh buffalo chip.

The working of the mind does not end just in the practicality of each species but there is also a strange draw to the nature of each type of wood. Our grandson favors those woods that allow him to just swing away wildly with his three-quarter weight Hudson Bay axe, almost as if he is playing golf. Is he seeking out the easy pieces, maybe the ones that could have been split with ease by his Cro-Magnon ancestors? He wants a lot, he wants it now and he knows that while it is wet at the moment, in two weeks it will be dry and useable. There is an evaluation of all wood it seems. Ignore the difficult, the nasty joints. I have been ‘ordered’ to cut out the knots and leave the straight grained pieces of the red pine or polar so kindling can be made, I noticed, with great pleasure.

While this discussion could go on and on, one more notable aspect of wood has to be mentioned. This also may have to do with the knowledge of wood and what each species can do. It is the scent. It seems that each species has its own odor and many are interestingly enjoyable, pleasant if you will. Possibly, this developed as a way to identify different woods for different uses, maybe just for aesthetics for all I know. In any case, this is an allure that draws memories and possibly rattles the Paleolithic mind. 

A couple years ago, while pounding away at some cantankerous white oak, I noticed a very distinct odor lifting from the cut pieces. On lifting it to my nose I realized it was the faint but tantalizing scent of fine whiskey. I can’t talk to Ron Reagan, so we’ll have to leave it there.

Hans Borli may settle it here;

 

 The Slow Lane.

Berry picking, and I don’t really care if there are stink bugs on them, always drew my attention, even when I was a snot-nosed kid of 10. If a berry showed up, even a tomato-like ground cherry (an elegant nightshade} or a prickly dew berry on the sandy open fields of Marquette County here in Wisconsin, I ate ‘em. Just plopped them in my waiting mouth as if I were a hunter/gatherer back in the day, you know twenty thousand years ago when my people were drifters.

I suppose it was my Old Man, though born in New York City and raised in Chicago, was always doing it as if he too was just out Africa following his Cro-Magnon genes. Hell, he’d even chew on wheat grass grains. As a result my parents foraging habits, if it was a thimbleberry up north and a half, a wild raspberry, a cantankerous blackcap, into my young mouth they’d go. “Hey kid, look at these huckleberries.” We’d scarf ‘em. It’s never changed.

I’ve got the grandkid doing it now, just like our kids did, and he hunts them down like a Neanderthal looking for a noon meal of grubs and berries (an old favorite I am told). “Hey gramps there’s a bunch of gooseberries in Merlyn’s front yard. What should I do?” He looked at me as to imply the neighbor didn’t know about it and he had a hankerin’. “Better ask.” I said with lifted and twisted brow.

A person can only hunt and gather so much in these modern times, so this last summer, our raggedy troupe hit the commercial berry patches and secured one hell-o-a-lotta berries, big puppies and froze those suckers up. That is why today, in a cold-adverse state, I made a pie. To top it off, part of the sweetener I used was some freshly made maple sugar. Sweet Jesus skipping across the tundra on a rubber crutch, that pie was good.

I know this was not done as if we were still hunter-gatherers, but it was still by our own hands gathered from the land. That is my thought for the day on keeping it simple. Just remembered we had ground up northern pike a few days ago, and the squash Jake grew. Life is good in the slow lane.

It’s not too late to go back to the river.

Dropping into the hardware store to grab some suet for the waiting woodpeckers or get a paint brush, is a common experience. This is usually accompanied with some chatter, maybe gossip, very possibly advice and a chance for me to offer some under-appreciated life coaching.

In a small town this exchange is important, invariably because there will be someone there I know or someone who needs to be relieved of some fishing information. Standing by the minnow tank it’s possible to hear an angler mumble a few leading words, “Ya, been getting some nice bluegills over on Mykl—b—s.” Pointing an ear, I like to sidle-up, maybe looking at the fan belts up high. “Where you been gettin’ those gills?” “I been getting a few on Brek—, but a little slim picken’.” A subtle inquiry.

I might add that don’t think I’ll be getting out again but just trying to get a feel where they’re at. He might say he’s been getting some good ones on the river. “Ya just out from Plover.”

Well, I heard a ‘mi’ sound in the first exchange and after he leaves, I’ll go to the next source. “Mark, d’you here what Elmer said?”

It just goes like that, unless of course, Elmer just flat offers it up.

So, the other day I went in there for two paint brushes and furniture oil. If I recall it was too cold to fish, I was too lazy, and my mind was generally afuzz. At the back register, and not far from the minnow supply there was a younger gentleman unknown to me who was making an enquiry about percussion caps. “You a black powder shooter?” I questioned, not that it was any of my business. He had a twinkle in his eye and after a short discussion, he told a story about having two very old flintlock black powder pistols he recently purchased. Of course I was all ears, and probably starting to drool over such an exciting find. He was clearly looking to put them back in shooting condition, but not for dueling.

The talk went on and I admitted that our family had been involved in mountain man reenactments and had once upon a time enjoyed blasting away with ancient muzzleloaders. As I was about to leave he asked if we had ever been to the encampment over west next to old man river. “No,” I said we still have all our gear but just can’t seem to get to it.”

As he was about to slip out the back and I out the front, I motioned to him, “Have fun with those pistols.” He paused and said, “It’s never too late to go down to the river.” I walked out the door almost rattled, “It’s not too late to go down to the river.”

I wasn’t sure where that came from but yes, it could mean the Mississippi rendezvous but my suspicions, all tangled in this age of mine, was running too many algorithms through my hard drive.  I knew there were religious connotations there but there was also some history wrapped in my younger years.

I could see Springsteen soulfully singing The River.

“That night we went down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh, down to the river we did ride……”

This is not a pleasant song about small town living to say the least, but the river still was a place of some sort of salvation, a place to hide, maybe a place to cleanse.

There was another country song out there that went,

“I’m going out to the country, gonna bury my head in the creek
I’m gonna jump in that water, baptize both my feet
‘Cause everywhere I’ve been walking, I’ve been getting in trouble deep
I’m going down to the river, gonna wash my soul again”

I tried to discard the songs because I, for one, didn’t think I was a sinful man needing a cold bath. I had to shy away from the tunes. There was just too many of them and I found myself singing that religious number from Oh Brother, “ As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way…” I was going religious right then and there and I could almost see myself back in the church choir, loving to sing—- and snapping the bra strap of the cutie in front of me—was that a sin?

That’s when Huck Finn came to mind, Ya, Huck Finn floating down the river—and this shopper was talking about the Mighty Mississip. Right? There it was the river of life, the flow line to adventure, and the stream of wonder for an aging man just like as it was for a young ratty kid full of what was to come.

The guy was a messenger from Huck Finn telling me it ain’t over yet. Forget about cleansing anything, get a boat in the water, don’t sit around procrastinating and complaining, get on with life, start a motor, you don’t even need to be clean. Maybe I’ll even rewrite the sad song from Bruce.

“This morning we went down to the river,                                                                  and to the river we did hike, went down to the river,                                                         down to the river for pike.”

That sure felt better and my mind now, not rattled, has settled and will ramble and flow on forever.

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