Exploring Tree Personalities

The Grandkid said just yesterday that it appeared every maple tree seemed to have a personality of some sort. I had noticed that as he went around and gathered the buckets, he would, almost out of habit, sip the last few drops from the containers. Sometimes the weak sap would slosh over him much like I remembered having beer slosh over me while attempting to chug a pitcher. While my effort was out of juvenile misbehavior, or was it stupidity, his seemed to be more for a culinary, maybe scholarly, experience. He would pause, savor the fresh liquid, reflect as if sampling a merlot and then make a statement. “You know, every one of these trees is different. Those three red maples down in the hole at Wayne and Patti’s taste like watermelon–seriously. That one on the hill hints of walnuts. Man, Tom’s are really sweet and just pour out.”  “That one at Merlyn’s tastes weird.”

I don’t think these observations of tree personalities is confined to just him, nor just to maple trees. Interestingly though, after all the years of studying plants at school, I don’t recall any of those professors talk of tree personalities, or for that matter tree personality disorders. But who’s to say?

Now, I have had at least one individual tell me she talks to trees, in part to get their permission to, say, tap them for maple sugar sap. I have even caught myself talking to them saying things like, “If you could speak, I bet there are some stories here.” as I looked at a long horizontally extended branch that seemed to comply with myths about hanging trees. Or, “Look at you all spread out there in the thick forest of younger taller trees. What’s with that?” Then remembering the botanical teachings pontificating on open-grown burr oaks that had no competition so they simply spread out wide. They were the trademark of ancient oak openings or long-gone Wisconsin prairies. I suppose it is possible to still envision drifting buffalo under those same majestic oaks. Central Wisconsin forests are full of these huge spread out oaks left over from a time before white man.

In our casual conversations about tree personalities, I asked the kid about the one maple close to the road in front of the neighbor’s house, the one that never ran. He looked at me with slightly lifted eyes “I hate to tell you man, but you tapped a white oak. I thought you were some sort of botanist?” I had to remind him to keep a lid on that. It was then I recalled the heavy producing boxelder I tapped in Colorado only to later learn, under the stench of the boiling sap, that it was right smack over a septic tank. Mistakes are made but that is just part of rich texture of life in the sugar bush—and tree personality disorders. 

Speaking of mistakes, a week ago I was invited to sample Tom and Cindy’s grand maples in front of their home. It was a generous offer as the trees were stately, well-formed and showed no sign of mistrust. Plus, visiting them came with an opportunity to chat and even see a picture of Tom’s youthful ability to dunk a basketball. It was as if each tree or set of trees does offer more than just beauty and sweet offerings.

I rambled over in the morning, plopped out of the car, shuffled across the lawn and proceeded to punch a hole in both to find the nectar flowing in spectacular form. Tom walked up and I said, “Wow look at this thing go. “ He smiled and said, “You do know this is not my yard.” In a morning haze, I looked up and damn, it wasn’t. It was Rick and Maureen’s. Tom just smiled at my senile effort and calmly noted, “Ah, don’t worry. They left for Mexico an hour ago.” Tom’s were even better and the six taps combined boiled out seven pints of the finest light syrup of the year.

While this has not been a treatises on the nature of trees, it is an observation about our friendly, leaved friends that would indicate there may be a need at some point to seek an education, maybe a PHD on tree personalities. I can see it now, Norwegian Maple found to have multiple personalities, one featuring dark, almost purple year-long leaves and yet not self-conscious, but confident in its ability to produce a refined, almost nutty, sweet sap.  Not talkative, subtle, not invasive but forthright and suitable for front yard presentation. The grandkid may have found a calling.

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Warmth

This entire episode was a bit of a surprise. We had been led astray by all those days of relative warmth. Sure, there were a couple of months when clouds and sunless gloom prevailed on the walk to the woodshed but the weather was not biting, cruel, nor inhibiting. This arctic attack was an affront, not unprecedented by anyone of my age but still, a slap in the face.

It used to be this riffraff-removing weather simply was to be confronted with a fond embrace. Yes, I was told we must embrace this, stand tall, put one foot in front of the other, face to the wind and go out as if this was acceptable. It is life in the north and we are great warriors. To not take this tact was to be weak, to be soft, unfit and undeserving. The “bar full of elbows” down at the local watering hole have always said, “How can we know warmth if we have not known the cold?” I am now crying, but not publicly.

Camping in the subzero of Alaska

My itinerant son, the one living only miles from the arctic, for reasons unknown, and his charming wife have taken to the way of the Athabaskan and live, hunt and dream of nights of camping in the land frozen—- but they might say, wild and alive lands of Alaska. They send pictures to me of whiskey frozen, of tents engulfed in tundra cold. “Here old man, here is vitality, here is place to live and taste the world of a thousand years travelled by hardier men than you.” I cringed.

Damn, the whiskey froze.

I listened but try as will, what at the moment is of interest is WARMTH, the comfort of warmth, the delightful sensation of being genuinely comfortable, unhindered in any way by the bite of a winter’s day too cold for a soul like me. Yes, I do enjoy just a reminder of the fact it can be cold and uncomfortable but at this frozen moment, it is warmth I seek.

Just today, in pursuit of wood, I paused and thought of those that came before and strained to wonder if the warmth I have known ever really crept into their lives. What about the early settlers, the Native Americans, the Vikings, the cave dwellers of Europe?  Is this easily-to-obtain warmth the invention of modern man?

Because of my creeping age, it is easy to remember the days when in my grandparent’s farmhouse in Grayslake Illinois, the only room being aggressively heated was the kitchen. There are stories from Honey Creek in Sauk County of Ann’s ancestry having to put the potatoes under the bed hoping to prevent freezing in the wintertime. Ray talks of Native settlements on Sunset Lake right here in Portage County and lives they must have led. Warmth? Possibly in the summer with face to the sun on some spring morning, but winter? I just stood there for a moment in the evening asking how, how could they have known warmth? I suppose it is perspective. Maybe it was there but fleeting.

I remember leaning against our teepee at Fort Bridger in Wyoming during a fall gathering feeling the sun, hearing the sound of others chatting and dreaming. I was warm but I also remember being in the same teepee at Bents Fort in Southern Colorado for New Year’s celebration.  It was cold at six below. Still, our two thinly-clad children ran around the fire and dove into the Hudson Bay blankets. If asked, and I believe they were, they said they were indeed warm, plenty warm. Perspective I suspect.

In my return to the kitchen, the old wood-burning stove was in full heat as the grandkid had fired it up. He remarked how warm it was and sat close to it absorbing every aspect of that radiant heat. He, like me, will always remember that warmth.

In these cold winter times, this glorious warmth comes from the burning of oak, our once-regal maple and black locust. Recently in a moment of youthful reflection, the kid asked how people in eighteen-eighty living on the great plains of Kansas could stay warm when there was hardly a tree, nothing to burn. We talked of buffalo chips and corn stalks, maybe some cottonwood, sagebrush but realized reveling in warmth may not have been an option. Then came coal, then natural gas and oil, fossil fuel, the onetime endowment of solar power from those millions of years ago.

I turned my back to the kitchen stove under the smell of warm cinnamon rolls and took in the warmth knowing not everyone has had the continual access to the heat I enjoyed. We have had it all. I was thankful. If I could give any wish to a person through all of time, it would be warmth in these times of cold.

Axel the dog after a walk with our son Ian. Warmth?

A Nap with Music

Just today, I was doing research for this column titled Naps with Music. The contemplation/research (done during a light sleeping episode) was intense but a touch foggy, as I tended to drift off to grandiose images of myself actually being somebody. Prior to shifting into dreamtime, it had been my intention to mentally make a note of the pleasures that exist during a tidy nap in front of the old warm stove while in the company of soothing music. My research on this afternoon proved fleeting. I did not write anything down nor commit anything to memory—at least that I can repeat here.

Still, on my return to reality (whatever that is in these days of plagues and insurgencies) the topic was very fresh in my log-term thinking. It was there because I have always enjoyed these respites even though nothing really comes of them other than waking refreshed and sparkling with joy.

The day was perfect, overcast even more heavily than most days in the last fifty with no threat of the intruding sun. Some would say there was a gloom, maybe a pall of sorts, and no breeze. The chickadees and juncos were spending an inordinate amount of their free time casually flitting in and out of the brush pile. Many were taking a lead from me wanting to nap peacefully. 

The music choices for my anticipated naps seem to vary depending on my mood and hopes for the remaining part of the day. Seldom would I approach some eastern European concoction in D minor for fear of finding myself lost in frozen steppes of Russia or even skating across Lake Baikal in subzero weather. The music has to be inspiring and image producing. This leaves most vocal performance off limits. James Brown doing I Feel Good is appropriate for a nap wakeup but not for the power down.  

Bach Sonatas or partitas are pleasant but can be a touch nervous, maybe too many notes. Still something in D major can be refreshing, up lifting, a touch pushy, but mostly glorious. Recently, the magical tunes played on a Swedish nyckelharpa and accompanied with a Hardanger fiddle are found to be sublime, possibly because of my Swedish ancestry coming back, or is it a Viking thing. Because of my successful well-behaved sleep, I doubt the latter.

In addition to the well-chosen music, the actual initiation of nappy time has to be perfect. I like to have the woodstove warmed by oak, moderate but not hot. Importantly, the stove must be set up in such a way as to last unaltered for forty-five minutes, not rising in temperature, not cooling. Consistency in the name of the game. 

Not critical, but of value for optimal dozing, lights can be off. Now even at mid-day, this means it will almost be dark because of the aforementioned Wisconsin’s dreary clime. My personal choice for napping posture is to sprawl out on the sofa, feet extended away from davenport maybe a full three feet. This is all done while slouched in a sitting position so that as I nap my mouth gaps open but I can’t drool uncontrollably. While I find this comfortable, some tell me I look like a wounded civil war soldier taking my last ’nap’ against a fallen log. Others in the family also seem to think my breathing is affected by this position in that it seems I emit a ‘death rattle’ while flopped out in repose. Of course, this is nonsense because, in truth, I am only in metaphorical heaven.

There does have to be a little clarity here because while I am only describing my own pleasures; this activity is not for everyone. I don’t have to work. I am age challenged and have already spent 60 years working. It is also true this desire possibly might be set off by day-drinking, say a nice port at 2:00. My point being, don’t look at this as advice but simply as an anecdotal experience by someone who now has idle time, and maybe an idle mind. However, from my position of being a life coach, it can be said that an afternoon nap is a beautiful thing.

At the moment, the Midwinter Waltz is starting to play, and I’m slouching after the oak has been added to the fire. My eyes are struggling to stay open. There is no guilt.

Once awake, there will be tea, Constant Comment if I recall, a new snap in my giddy-up and just maybe the sun will return.

Rutabagas, A delightful culinary reality or famine food, or worse?

With Thanksgiving just around the corner and our larder filled with a significant poundage of rather robust rutabagas, and that means some pushing ten pounds, it seems an appropriate time to consider the fate of this root crop. For reasons unknown, this turnip variant had a year like no other, one where a Russian peasant farmer in 1910 would’ve seen himself as the savior of the continent. A few as twelve of my rutabagas could have fed his family of five, his three cows and one hog for a month. I don’t know what got into them, that would be the rutabagas, not the Russians, but they must have thought there was a famine coming.

But not one to look to ‘bagas for premonitions, but because I think of myself as a thoughtful individual, this windfall, or rootfall if you will, has to have some sort of a happy ending, or at least a genuine attempt to capitalize on this good fortune. The question is, could they be put to good use?

My wife of these many years, has for some time, viewed the act of growing “the damn” things as a waste of garden space and only useful for life styles similar to the one mentioned above or for the folks Karl Marx may have referred to as the ‘unwashed masses’. But, I have always been fascinated with them, not only for their taste in a nice beef stew, but for their willingness to grow under almost any condition. Plus, they do seem to have some nutritional value—I think.

This year the rutabagas were planted in left over places in the garden, or where other items had failed. Global climate change be damned, they took off like an Atlas missile, looking more like a redwood tree than a humble root crop. If I want to give thanks for them there has to be a justification. I don’t have pigs, nor a cow, not even a goat so just how do they stack up as a consumable crop.

It is easy to note that no one seems to grow them as they would in a giant potato field even though they would develop in great tonnage. They’re not bland like the pomme de terre (spud locally) but more dynamic, almost like a big radish. Maybe they need to be more of a platform for featuring a tasteful topping.

Ann just says, “I’ll eat a little bit of them but frankly, but I don’t need no stinking thirty pounds of famine food.” I usually remark, “Ya, they have that reputation, but could we just save them for the revolution. You know, ‘come the revolution’.” I am usually reminded to get a life, or maybe go fishing.

“Listen, we could live on this pile for weeks.” She might then reply, “Sure could—you and those three goats at Bill’s place.”

I deep-fried some, pan-fried others, stewed a small pile and even mashed them as if they were potatoes but while they did get eaten, it never got to the point where anyone will be praising them during our Thanksgiving feast.

 In a fit of desperation, I dropped a note to Eleonore, the local purveyor of tasteful exotic food, thinking she might be able to offer an intellectual discourse on the merits of this fine root crop. With a touch of history, mostly blaming Scandinavians (my people) for their introduction, her comment went like this. “Rutabaga, affectionately referred to as Swede and Snagger in the English Commonwealth, is the unfortunate lovechild between the cabbage and the turnip. Many believe this almost inedible tuber originated in Scandinavia or Russia. A Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin offered the first printed reference in 1620, where he notes that it was growing wild in Sweden.

 She then added,”Since childhood, rutabaga roots have brought a grimace to my face, however, in later years I have realized the leaves are quite palatable when paired with extreme hunger or a nice bottle of Scotch. These days my favorite use of the rutabaga is carving ghastly faces into them to scare away hoodlums on All Hallows Eve.”

Oh boy, It’s beginning to look like, try as I may to give them away to vegetarians, or to introduce them in to our personal diet, we will have to buy a goat, maybe a brace of odiferous Berkshire hogs, or dry them for firewood as proposed by our grandson, they will not be offered much praise at this Thanksgiving.

The Loon, Two Stories

I will ask the reader, the observer to go where you will as we relate the story of two loons. In our northern climes, these magnificent birds hold a magic of a sort. Their lonesome calls are the makings of distant stories, maybe myths not just of our times but for those that came before us in bark canoes. One can assume their wild intense beauty coupled with their strength and skills have always been a thing of legends. Are they a wishful role model, or even a metaphor? Clearly, they are our brothers and sisters in a world where we are all connected.

My story happened some years ago as we slowly passed over still water while moving through a lake on our adventure in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. Unlike the previous day, the wind was still as we moved silently across the lake in our laden canoe. In a place like this, there was no reason to move with any urgency because the day was full, and the watery surrounds and fall-kissed landscape was teaming with life preparing for the next season. The local wild inhabitants all seemed to be moving, some storing food, others looking south, those deep in the water were hunting to fill fishy bellies with nutrition to sit out many days locked in a half torpor under the winter’s ice. Even the insects fluttered in a certain desperation needing to lay eggs to over-winter. The last swallows jetted about like small harriers snatching those same desperate insects in midflight. The sun, still warm and welcomed, had moved to the south pulling those destined to leave. We marveled at the drama of it all coasting through the fall-colored water. It was the passing of a season.

During a pause, a loon lifted quietly out of the water thirty feet to our left. Initially, I did a double take because seeing a loon so close was out of place. They are a wary bird, not one to approach a traveler’s canoe. I can remember myself saying, “What the hell are you doing here?” The elegant, possibly confused bird was unnaturally close. Almost in an instant I realized it was a young bird, maybe three quarter grown, not fully colored, but well-feathered and looking strong. It just hung there treading water, quiet. There was no frightened attempt to dive into the water. I am sure it watched us, even moving with us, not anxious to slip away.

“What’s up?” I thought, “Why are you still here? Its gonna freeze in no more than week, maybe two if you’re lucky.” I recall moving quickly, possibly raising my paddle as a way of startling the large bird. It still did not show alarm but glided through the water much as we were doing. It was then I recalled being a twelve-year-old explorer on White Sand Lake and seeing young loons in the company of their parents, spending endless hours flopping across the surface, half running, half-flying building young muscles to follow the other birds south.

Could this bird fly? Its feathers were not really fully developed, but it surely could dive and feed, but fly? I remember looking around for the adults, the ones who spent those long hours pushing and shoving these youngsters to flight. I saw none. Why was it following us? Looking, maybe asking a not-to-be answered question. My mind ran through situations and conditions wondering where this was all going. We pulled away with a few strong strokes maybe looking back thinking, “You got maybe two weeks my friend. You’re on your own. May the ice come late.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 An acquaintance at the Necedah Wildlife Refuge had passed along a series of photos of a single loon preparing for the coming summer season. What mysteries did it have to tell as it reveled in open water still surrounded by late spring ice? Inspired by the natural dynamics of it all, my wife Ann the painter, in her way told another story.   

Staying Grounded

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.

Alan Haney

            An observation the other morning as I looked out my breakfast window, amid continuing radio reports of the ravages and turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic, eased my anxiety and steadied the ground on which I stand. There, on the top of the leatherwood bush beside the feeder, in brilliant sunlight, was an orchard oriole in all his splendor.  The virus, in spite of the unimaginable power and technology captured in human society, has emasculated the global economy, and caused us to cower in our homes.  Out our windows, however, nature appears unperturbed, a needed reminder that the global ecosystem operates with a wisdom beyond our understanding, but provides the steady assurance that life-sustaining rhythms  continue.

            While I am cautious about simply going to the local grocery store, the orchard oriole had arrived back in central Wisconsin, having spent nine months in his tropical home, somewhere between southern Mexico and northern Columbia, or northwest Venezuela.  There, in the humid tropics, he dined on fruit, nectar, and pollen, sometimes supplemented with insects and seeds. But how did he know when to begin his trip back to Wisconsin, where he will attempt to attract a mate and raise a family in a few brief weeks during the peak of summer. 

            Clearly, it is important that he arrive here at about the same time as others of his species who will be competing for mates and breeding habitat.  But he doesn’t want to be so early that cold weather, even late snow, prevents access to insects and flowers of maple and other early blooming trees on which he will feed until early fruits become available.

            For many species, including us, that live in temperate or polar regions, lengthening days stimulate their pituitary gland that, in turn, alters endocrine responses, including sexual activity. Anticipating spring, however, also probably involves warming temperatures, melting snow, and availability of food for species, such as birds, that do not rely on the grocery store. 

            Meanwhile, in the tropics, the orchard oriole is dining on orchid pollen, or an apricot, or maybe a hibiscus flower, only subtly affected, if at all, by the very subtle change in day length or temperature.  Moreover, why should he commit to the rigor and hazards of a thousand mile migration to a less predictable, even inhospitable climate? Orioles, as well as many other true migrants, originated in the tropics and evolved migratory behavior. Why?  The decisions about when to go,  why to do it, and how to find their way  are three profound questions underlying bird migration that have puzzled scientists for decades.  As with so much among the wonders of nature, the short answer is no one knows. Indeed, it is the mysterious in nature that provides the wonder and solace for our troubled minds 

            Research on these questions has not been completely fruitless, however.  Many species that live year-round in the higher latitudes are clearly triggered in their movements and reproductive behavior by photoperiod, temperature, and food availability.  For true migrants, such as the orchard oriole, evidence suggests that they are less affected by photoperiod, as one might expect, and, of course, we can rule out warming temperature as a trigger.  They appear to have an internal clock, an incipient rhythm, that informs them. German scientists have given the increasing restlessness preceding migration a name, zugunruhe.  This restlessness is contagious, triggering parallel behavior in other birds, at least of the same species. It is also possible that some true migrants may be triggered by star-gazing. I’ll come back to this, but first let’s consider why they migrate.

            The changing seasons at higher latitudes result in two things that are related to the reasons tropical species might migrate.  We need not remind ourselves that winters can be brutal in the north.  Living things in nature have to shut down tighter than a shopping mall during a pandemic.  Food becomes scarce.  As a result, many animals move south, and none can sustain a population level greater than that limited by winter’s extremes.  However, come spring, growing conditions permit an abundance of food, with flowering, fruiting, and insect populations rebounding all within a few weeks.  The surplus of resources, vastly exceeding what the overwintering survivors can use, has, over eons, attracted tropical species to take advantage of the surplus.  In their tropical homes, competition, and perhaps predation and disease, has limited their reproduction, but for a few weeks in the north, if they can find their way and time it right, they can bask in the surfeit, and feed their young.

            Perhaps even more of a mystery is how true migrants find their way.  Even young of some species, hatched in a northern habitat, can find their way alone to over-wintering habitat in the subtropics or tropics. Many of those young, if they survive the migration and over-winter successfully, can find their way back to their natal habitat the following year.  That’s where star-gazing fits in.  Some true migrants have been proven to orient themselves by stars.  Perhaps that’s why many migrate at night, when there is also less heat and less predation risk.  Birds also orient with the sun, and with magnetic fields. Less surprising, they also follow geographic features such as coastlines, major rivers, or mountain ranges.  Many true migrants can travel a thousand miles or more, some many thousands of miles, and find their way to the same back yard, or even the same tree where they nested six or nine months previously! 

            Seeing that orchard oriole, who probably had just arrived from Guatemala or Panama, was a wonderful reminder that the natural forces that shaped this wonderful planet are still alive and fully functioning. Our fragile, inept economy is nothing compared to the magnificence of nature. Stay safe, orchard oriole.

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/

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.

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.”