Chickens—Backyard Entertainment

In thinking back, it would seem in our past life in the Wild West we had hardly ever been without chickens. They brought us eggs, some meat (I am not very fond of terminating what are almost pets), and most importantly entertainment.

As a side note and a cynical comment, I will also acknowledge that chickens are the single most abundant bird in the world and have effectively replaced much of the natural flocks of wild birds both in number and certainly in mass. There are environmentalists that scowl at this piece of knowledge realizing this continuing pattern does not speak well for future of wildlife. But, chickens in all their varieties do feed the masses. It appears somewhere along the line, humans decided we are essentially the only species that deserves most of the space on earth—along with our livestock. So goes it.

Chickens, like most birds, operate mostly by instinct and not from a schooling of learned behavior—some would say this is the result of having a brain the size of a match head. Take a chick (young chicken and not a young lady) and turn them loose and they instantly start scratching, stepping back and pecking, They dust, they roost, some crow relentlessly and they will eat almost anything including each other.

A chicken is almost impossible to train other than by the simplest of Pavlovian efforts. Sure, they might peck some switch to get a little grain, but even a human can do that after a week of practice.  

In my book, clearly the best part of chickens is in entertainment value. While my previous comments have been slightly critical of this fowl, we recently heard a story implying a possible greater mental capacity of this feathered miniature pterodactyl. This is, in a macabre sense, and in my rural mind, an example of the entertainment value of chickens.

Wayne and Patti once had a flock of fine feathered friends and each day they would let them out to scrounge in a protected run where they would have great freedom and do chicken things. I’m sure this included huge clouds of dust and endless hours of scratching and pecking. In the evening, they, out of instinct, would retreat to the rather nice hen house where they could hide from the usual toothed predators.

The new ‘chicken farmers’ having moved up from Chicago, found rural life comfortable but slightly different than city life, but never the less they were also easily entertained and loved the poultry. As they tell it, the flock of hens were delightful and offered a pastoral touch to the their expanding farmette.

They, like Ann and I, saw them as being just chickens, not very emotional in a loving sense, highly reactionary when a hawk skimmed over, dim witted, no real sense of humor, but beautiful and full of antics that offered the beauty part.

It seems that returning after dark from an outing, Wayne and Patti went to the hen house to find the hens all roosting but noticed the entrance, a drop down affair, had slammed shut at some point while the chickens were coming in for the evening on the roost. This obviously occurred because one of the chickens, probably in haste. had hit the stick that propped up the door. On closing downward by its own weight, the door had managed to catch the last chicken coming in, and it caught it right across its extended neck much as a guillotine got the head of Antoinette. There hung the chicken, body outside and the head on the inside—and yes, it was deceased, gone to the last roost in the sky.

Instantly, they looked around trying to solve the mystery as to how this happened. Knowing chickens as they did, they knew there would not get a peep out of them. However, what they saw was even more interesting. As they stared at the roosting hens, they instantly realized that most of them would not look at them straight in the face but turned away as if to say, “Don’t look at me.” Others put their heads down almost in shame, maybe with one eyelid lifted, “We couldn’t help it.” If I recall the story, one heavy hen on the end perch was looking skyward, “You talkin’ to me.” The farmers, Wayne and Patti, took note but no punitive action, stepped back and lodged the story into their minds. “Good God, let’s get to bed.”

Yes, this is a sad ending, but I have to say this is entertainment at its best. After one glass of a nice white wine, we about fell out of our chairs. Damn, this country living is full of surprises. and those chickens still give us eggs.

 And that is why we now have five new Olive Eggers, that is right, Olive Eggers. That is why we also still have our grand champion ribbon from the Elbert County Fair where we won the prize for the best pen of three pullets—all of which turned out to be roosters.

Strawberries, A Lesson of Simplicity.

I have decided to have a deep philosophical discussion on strawberries. The reason for doing this is primarily due to the intense pleasure I achieve when eating them. This simple consumption is a lip-smacking culinary adventure, an Epicurean delight, if you will. This act is an end in itself, almost a spiritual, life-centering experience that deserves my reflection.

To fully make my case, it is important to start from the beginning. From my self-appointed, authoritative point of view, the strawberry is the queen of berries. They are gloriously succulent, naturally sweetened, have miniscule seeds, and have no real need for augmentation, However, a modest dollop of honey, maybe a kiss of this spring’s maple syrup can be added for variety. The glistening berry can be held aloft, maybe judiciously inspected for the perfect ripeness, then in great fanfare plopped ever-so ceremoniously in my waiting, cavernous mouth.

To add to the richness of this experience I suspect one must live close to the growing, spring-time creation of the berry. One must become one with the efforts of nature. (I know I am saying this as if a sage and not a botanical buffoon, but bear with me.)

 The first part of June arrives very quickly and for us the strawberry patch is a barometer of sorts, partially because it is watched very closely and fluctuates with all the moods of the early growing season. The new leaves of spring want sun and rain. Sometime they struggle from too much cold, but seemingly still thrive in cooler weather. The arrival of early leaves brings out a growing desire. We wait in anticipation all the while being spiritually lifted. The first bloom is the beginning of spring’s rebirth.

Admittedly, in addition to the thrill of eating a single robust berry, I also relish other strawberry offerings, moments of great pleasure involving, say, oven-fresh shortcakes and festoons of whipped cream. For my snooty moods, there are simple ceremonies featuring a white, thin-lipped china bowl filled with the finest of red berries. To the side, a fine cognac rests in an exquisite crystal tumbler like the one I got at Goodwill. The light is best warm and maybe dimming in the evening after the left-over tuna casserole. A good book might be standing by, one filled with joy and comfort, of simplicity, say Travels with Epicurus.  If there is an evening chill, a small but warming fire can be lit in the kitchen stove.

As I sit with my Epicurean delight held comfortably in my hand, I enjoy a pause and enter into deep thought. My station in life is one of modest comfort, for the berries are plentiful and the refrigerator is well filled with many day’s supply. Whipped cream is cooled and fresh, short cakes are still warm.

It is in this moment of divine appreciation a story comes to mind, and while I know its source, I will tell it as a parable. It involves a man of great wealth, of which the world now has many, some of such unimaginable accumulations they are preparing their own spacecrafts and have boats of such opulence they need to have a tender boat to provide a helicopter pad to service the bigger boat. The story has it that one of these man of wealth was talking to a creative artist whose skill were profound, so profound that great wealth was a possibility for him as well. In the discussion, it was brought up by the wealthy man that with only a little more effort he too could move into the next level of worldly existence. He could have it all. After all, he was known to be well-educated, well-connected and capable in every aspect, even handsome and intellectually most capable.

“Listen, Kurt, with the slightest effort you could move to the next step. You could live as I do, a better home, boats, cars, be welcomed in the finest circles.” There was a pause, Kurt looked about from his modest, but well-appointed home there in the canyon and without a single flinch said, “Yes, that might be true. There are possibilities out in this world for sure. But I have something that you will never have.” Perplexed, the wealthy man pressed the artist. “And what could that be?” Kurt smiled, held up his modest wine, looked about and said, “I have enough. I have enough.”

I looked down at my berries and smiled thinking of that story. Hum, maybe this is enough. All of the ingredients contained in this bowl came from the local soil. Is it enough?

“It is not what we have, but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.” (Epicurus some years) ago.

Yard sales to flea-markets.

I don’t know many people that can pass up a yard sale or a flea market. There is always a deal out there. Last weekend the village had profound collections all over the place and it included a wild assortment from dump-bound debris to treasures. I found the best sales tactic was to make much of it free and just move on with my life—time to clean up and purge the one-time important items. I didn’t get rid of my slightly bent racing bike due to its 45 years and no provenance due to my less than heroic history of racing. Looks cool and would nicely decorate a bar with all those Campanella parts—but no.

Still it felt good and all grinning participants had fun and met with friends to jabber and find out what life was like post covid.

For reasons still not clear, I along with three others didn’t quite have enough action with the local yard sailing/yard-sale-ing. We were forced to attend a ‘real’ flea market in Baraboo where the Wisconsin Steam and Gas hold the spring blowout market for individuals who need things made of iron, not modern steel but old iron, sometimes referred to as rusty junk. Such profusion of magnetos, worn-out farm implements left-overs from the dust  bowl, colorful painted metal signs festooned with thinly clad, and exaggerated ladies from the forties, complete tractors worn-out from plowing some rock-strewn sand lot in Adams county right next to Ed Gein’s old place, and wild assortment single-cylinder gas and diesel engines used for grinding depression era corn with the hopes of making it through another winter—or I suppose making corn meal mash for a backwood’s stills.

We were easily entertained by the flea-market auction where gawking individuals (and I will add most were persons of the male persuasion) bid on assorted relics from the last iron age. But, we never really took part using seldom-exercised judgment as our guide knowing we all arrived there in Priuses (Priuri). These autos, in their modern charm, were not particularly suitable for hauling much of anything. A nice three horse Fuller-Johnson weighing in at 640 pounds was simply out of the question even if it was suspected of having run at least once in the last 50 years. All four of us marveled at the good price (except Martin who thought we were all nuts right from the get-go), still we smiled and dreamed of another home-bound project.

This flea market is always the mother of sales for all old-stuff made of iron (Martin again noted that much of the collections were like brother Jeff and I—old and in the way)  but we prevailed and drifted through the rows and rows of things we found to be of so little value they would not even have been melted down during the most horrible of foreign wars.

Early on, we, Jeff, son Ian, and I had been attracted to a hodgepodge of metal piled on a flatbed truck. We had examined it, fondled the International M, 1.5 horse single-cylinder construct of rust that had obviously spent the better part of last century buried in mud. It had an inspirational draw, a calling if you will, asking us to bring it back to life even though it may have been better suited for an anchor for a steamship. We chatted up the owner from Iowa but initially made no indication we were actually willing to put out folding money for such a piece of Great Plains rubble. I suspect he could see the inner lusting.

We wandered off but on our swing back to our cars dropped by the flatbed from Iowa. It seemed I had brought down from my home two old water pumps from my collection and had intended on just leaving them with someone for their entertainment. It was then I realized I might be able to trade those two extremely valuable items for a reduced position on the International M. After some discourse, mostly intellectual, the owner said he could let the M go for the two pumps and $50. Martin mumbled something to the effect of, “For the love of God, man.” The rest of us, in a muted sense, felt redeemed, if not satisfied, to have instantly justified the time spent looking at incredible deals being offered up in this backyard of America—and it was only 350 pounds! What a day yard-sailing. No wonder everybody loves these outings. Sale on, or is it sail on?

“Plowing time again”

“Plowing time again.”

I was listening to Neil Young belt out “In the field of opportunity it’s plowing time again” and realized it was that time. Yah, winter was over and while there still was a remnant of snow in the parking lot pile, it was that time. It was then Tom Waits came on singing ‘Ya gotta get behind the mule in the mornin’ and plow”.

Okay, Okay I know that in this our modern times, these songs of my past life are metaphors not suggestions that I really have to get out in the fields behind some belligerent mule and prepare the land for crops. But, they are encouragements of a sort to do something, after all, life has opportunities and some drudgery—like being pushed and pulled by a stinking draft animal—or could it just be ‘the system’ that we all have to face.

So, I pondered the situation while reclining in my “self-upholstered chair’, the wing back if I recall, wanting to know just what to do with my life. Youthful spring was reaching out her warm hand calling. How would I respond?

At first light around 10:45 on an early April morn, work boots on hand, gloves fitted, worn and tucked in my pockets, I, the noble and well-meaning farmer embraced the advice to get behind the iron mule, the waiting roto-tiller.  I knew it had been well fed, so on the first pull of the ether-stimulated engine, life sprang anew and with the motion of a younger man, I stepped behind the rig and with the simple motion of the right hand nudged the whip to the beast. There was a hesitation, a hiccup, a snort of defiance as the gas-fueled, not oat-fueled, power plant spitted and chugged, then quit. After additional flogging, along with some colorful mule-skinner terminology most of it decorated with various words involving excrement and acts both socially unacceptable and physically impossible, the initiation of getting behind the plow came to a halt.

The iron monster just stood there, motionless, seeming to look back at me in disdain. Stepping back, my mind raced, or at least walked, maybe crawled, working through the pattern of behavior of this technological, but somewhat antiquated, tiller of the soil, this metal mule. Spark? Yes (it was metaphorically alive) because I could see the cute little flame come off the plug. Fuel? Seemed okay and the ether did give it a nice burst but the gasoline, the elixir of all life American, had been in the tank since last year where it could have rotted like good hay.

There was a flash of light, which is like a flash of insight, when it became apparent that a little food enhancement might be in order. I went inside next to a warm stove and poured a late morning tea to build my resolve and think like a mule. Sea Foam? Ya man, Sea Foam. It says right on the bottle that it will improve any fuel, making any engine come to life with minimal kicking and screaming. I took a huge gulp (just kidding) by essentially dumping a fine portion into the old stinking, water-filled gasoline.  

Turns out, you have to have good hay to get a mule to move. One pull on the harness and off we went looking for opportunities in our vast field of some twenty-five hundred square feet. It was plowing time again and I was behind the mule.

But, like all fields of opportunity (other than Bitcoin), that mule would take some additional handling to achieve a harvest of plenty. For the next hour or so the hooves of that jackass kicked up soil, last year’s buried chicken, remnants of sunflowers and squash vines and most interestingly some Virginia Creeper vines that managed to get entangles in the legs of the iron monster. This required some more of the aforementioned farmer talk, spiked with sailor terminology, which I learned some years ago while serving before the mast with Captain Ahab—don’t call me Ishmael.

Making agriculture life even more interesting, a few days later I developed a nasty rash. It now appears that among the Creeper vines was the vegetative remains of what is called, in the forester trade, poison ivy. The damn mule kicked it all over the place making sure some of the oil, the plague of woodland farmer, scattered ever so delicately on my person, and that would be, in the end, on places we do not want to mention in polite company.

Still, “You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow.” because “In the field of opportunity it’s plowing time again. That garden better be damn good.  

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.”

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 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.