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.”

Keep Your Distance

                          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seth Kantner wrote Ordinary Wolves and Shopping for Porcupines.

Thanksgiving from Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hold in our hands earth’s gifts.

It is not as if they can be truly held.

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

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

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

The Meager Apple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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