Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Miraculous Summer

When it begins, summertime is always a long stretch of haze with perhaps a few peaks barely discernible in the distance, but otherwise undefined. It is the catch-all of the year, where I toss all of the catch-ups, check-offs, check-ins, send-offs. I estimate to read a lifetime of books, write innumerable stories, and finish all of the projects. How does reality hash out, with expectations like these?

It is nothing short of the miraculous, but it is rarely what I planned to happen. Like most real-life miracles, it does not come about when and how I anticipate. There was the week pinpointed in advance by friends for mutual cabin days, for example, when we would come together under the banner of friendship and food a few hours north of the Twin Cities. But instead-

Instead, I spend a week of mornings running around with children in woods closer to home. We stain our tongue with wild black raspberries and try nibbling on sticky milkweed. Yes, you can bring your pocketknife tomorrow. Did you really just put that toad in a bird's nest? Have you ever read My Side of the Mountain? Let's imagine what it would be like to take on a bear with nothing more than your ingenuity and a hatchet. Let's try building a fire on a windy day. Let's try to remember a world before your Xbox and my iPhone. In that world, I am struck by how the lives of all the creatures intertwine in our magnificent universe, and I am one of those threads.

A boy stands in a village in the deserted plains of Gaoua City. His life of survival is no game, no summer camp activity. Today, an airplane flies right over him. He pauses on his way to an errand for his grandmother to admire the huge body of the MD-83, its shining wings. He wants to be a pilot someday. That's what he wrote to his American "godparents" last time. The boy does not know it (no one on the plane does yet), but on July 23, 2014, that mighty machine will crash less than an hour later in neighboring Mali to the north. It will be the third major plane disaster in a week, the second in an area of civil unrest. The boy will continue on his way to the market, wondering if the Americans ever have the luck to go aboard an airplane, whether they will return his letter from February, and if they'll remember his birthday gift.

In a post office somewhere in the United States sits a package with numbers and letters scrawled on the outside that will eventually carry its contents to the eager hands of that same little boy halfway across the world. An airplane will fly it to Ouagadougou - where the failed passenger plane had departed from - and then by truck over bumpy roads to a remote, dusty area with little agricultural promise. And yes, there is a letter inside. It is in French, which means that he'll understand it without the need of translation. And yes, the Americans are going to climb into a magnificent flying contraption very soon. It will take them to a different desert, in Nevada and California - to celebrate ten years of marriage. (Speaking of miracles.)

After the cabin days that I missed came to a close, the entire party moved south en masse to settle upon our little homestead for an afternoon. I counted seven children who chased seven chickens around our overgrown backyard. Their parents just might need a glass of wine. The yard's a bit ragged, but if you look across it, the yellow primroses are lovely. We also have a goldenrod on its way toward the sky. Primroses close so quickly at nightfall, you can almost watch it happen, like those time-lapse photos strung together on public television. Otherwise, the ground is blanketed thick with broadleaf plantain, creeping charlie, wood sorrel and white clover - so-called "weeds." We shrug. Good food for the chickens. Our table is strewn haphazard with good food for humans, too - beans from the garden, huge cherries, cold cuts, wine, local cider. Babies roll on the floor while cabin plans are hotly contested for the next year. I plan to be there.

The run to Cub Foods for ham and turkey was unusual; we actually haven't been to the supermarket much recently. There was over 80 pounds of fruits and vegetables crammed into my refrigerator by the end of last week, with more pouring out of the garden each day. These are the green days, when we must either devour with juice-dripping chins or frantically freeze, can, and save for colder days ahead. Abundance, spontaneity, and always more tomorrow. That should strike me as strange. When it starts seeming commonplace and take-for-granted easy, would you please slap me across the face? Thanks. I might need the wake up call. Something like a fellow traveler in this wonder-filled world describes in the experience of driving a car home through rush hour.

"There are times when it is easy to go numb, when it is easy to forget that you sit in a box of metal, dug from the earth and alloyed, shaped by the men and robots of Detroit. I don't care that I sit three feet above the ground in a machine with the soul and strength of (muffled) explosions. Horses are for recreation; my harnesses are hitched to pounding bursts of fire, and they pull me (gently, please) without complaint, while I collect invisible waves from the air with a magic metal wand and turn them into orchestras, pop stars, and indignant voices complaining about the war...It is easy to be numb to the world's marvels when you've missed lunch and the light is still red." (92, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson).

Thing #46 that makes me less numb: when my summer doesn't turn out the way I plan.

Thing #47: Well-arranged words that make things strange again (e.g., aforementioned Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl).

Thing #47: Statistics. But only when effectively linked to real people's faces.

The little card about the boy from Burkina Faso that we received when we first agreed to sponsor him tells us that it is one of the poorest countries in the world and that most adults are unemployed. The children are largely malnourished. Literacy rate: 22%. But Bienvenu is learning how to read. I wonder. Will this mean he'll have a better diet? Will his children have jobs? He told us that besides being a pilot, he'd like to raise animals. I picture what it will be like for him to open his package, with photos tumbling out - images of a couple of Americans and a flock of chickens from halfway around the world. I hope that it is the beginning of something marvelous for him and for us. Miraculous, even.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Inconveniences...I mean, Adventures!

This week was so jam-packed with adventures 
that I am going to have to simply post a few pictures. 
By adventure, I'm thinking along the lines of G.K. Chesterton's wise words: 
"An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.
An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."
There will be more words next week, as usual.

Toad in Bird's Nest.

Lighting a Fire.

Wild Black Raspberries.

Rosé and Willie Meet at the Wine Bar. 

Jazz in a Café.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Leave the Edges Wild

There is a band whose songs and open-hearted life have consistently sustained me with good soul-food: Over the Rhine. I may have mentioned them before. They have faithfully described and inscribed reality onto my mind and heart for some time now. Their song "Lifelong Fling," for example, has flown over this little writing space like a banner from the beginning. Now, another thought from their creative universe comes to fruition in my life, that of "leaving the edges wild." The idea surfaces in their most recent album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World. Linford Detweiler, who heads up the group with his wife Karin Bergquist, explains the significance of this phrase in a delightful conversation with the good people at Image Journal. He explains that when they first bought their farm in rural Ohio, his father heard birdsongs and saw flora and fauna he hadn't seen in years, and so urged them to "leave the edges wild." The image is a fruitful one and they return to it multiple times on the record.

As do I when I spin the vinyl and hear it again making deep grooves in me, in the quiet summer night, accompanied by ice clinking in my glass. Let go. You don't need to hem in every minute of every day. Leave the edges wild. Or, to use an Old Testament metaphor, don't gather every last bit of grain behind you when you harvest - leave some for the widows and orphans. This is good news to my harried heart, as I tend to the exacting. I sigh deeply, wish I were different, and then hope to learn a new approach to my brief hours and weeks.

Put another way, I am being schooled in spontaneity. A late-night hankering for scotch and live music leads us to gathering around the T Collective. The musicians (usually a grouping of different artists every time) throw out sounds and craft them on the fly. "Did you plan any of this?" I inquire during the set break, gesturing toward the stage. No, she answers, it is improvisation tonight. There are wild edges to the creations - screams and drones and pops streaming out continually, making something new out of nothing. When I try to describe the listening experience, it comes out again in terms of food. It is like eating a good meal made out of raw art: nutritive, homegrown, and satisfying. Like snipping greens out of the garden for breakfast.

Speaking of our little "urban farm," it is "loosely-tended" this year. Plant, uproot, let it go crazy. Wild edibles are a new favorite- purslane, dandelion, wild sorrel, and the like - and my man slyly suggested that maybe it would be better that he not mow the backyard. You know, just in case he destroyed something important. Sure, our chickens decimate everything with their tearing little beaks anyway. Like the hosta. (Oh well. I guess our hens are widows and orphans in their own way.) Plus, after a steady diet of healthy greens, they give back, prodigiously turning out eggs with yolks the color of Valencia orange peel.

Maybe a balance can be struck between the planned and unplanned, the structured and the spontaneous. For me, summer is a lesson in letting things grow outside the boxes in our calendar days and measuring them otherwise. Not in minutes or hours, nor even in coffee spoons. Rather, in thanks for surprise feasts of all kinds found in the margins of need and in the present moment unmeasurable that swells to satisfied fulness. Lord, remind me to leave the edges wild.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

How to Hold a Bird. A Tribute.

Kathlyn Heidel, 1938-2014
I came to Lowry Nature Center in Carver Park Reserve for the first time on a class field trip at age eleven. The outdoors had always been a very natural habitat for me. Do you know that first conscious breath from your cosy sleeping bag on a chilly, fresh morning while camping? Some of us would prefer to stay snuggled up and wait for the coffee to arrive. Myself, I happen to belong to that class of people whose eyes pop open to that situation and get right to zipping the door open to see what the morning sun looks like. I love that thrill of exiting the close quarters of a tent (or house) to let me out to the bright, green-glowing world. That is so often where the adventure always begins - in books and in real life - and that is probably why I love it so much. (Even wardrobes open to a snowy wood.) Plus, somebody has to get out to the fire to make the coffee for the snugglers.

Me, circa 1991, with the Saw-whet Owl
My mother, who is a snuggler, made the remarkable decision to rouse herself blue-morning-light-early a couple of mornings a week and drive me along the winding country roads out to Victoria. I knew that when we turned at the lone Dairy Queen standing in the fields, we were close. A few more miles down the road, I'd get out, binoculars in hand, and head into the center, looking for Kathy in her office. Of course, she was never there. She was almost always outside, hands on her hips, looking at her surroundings. Always looking. And seeing.

"Hi! What are we doin' today, Kathy?"

"Oh, you'll see."She meant it. I would see - really see, my eyes be made to open even wider. Once she taught me that the retina was thicker on the peripheral, so if I could exercise that part of my eye to spot birds and critters, I'd see them more readily and clearly. But before anything magical like this could happen, I knew I had to hold my nose and do the chores.

"Should I go feed-"

"Yes, do that first. Then we'll go for a walk."

The "Wetlands", Carver Park Reserve
Almost the first thing I was taught was to pull dead mice out of the freezer, put them in warm water to soften, give them a couple of snips, and bring them over to the two birds of prey kept on site for educating the visitors. One was a small owl; I think the other was a kestrel, and both were rescued but unable to enter the wild since they were permanently handicapped. I had watched the naturalists hold these dignified little birds on their hands with a leather glove which seemed very akin to the falconry that I had read about in tales of King Arthur. I wanted more than anything to learn how the handlers so deftly wove and tucked the leather strappings through their fingers; they did it perfectly every time so that the birds would be constrained to stay on your hand but still be comfortable. Before I could give that thrilling experience a try, however, I had to learn how to care for them in a daily way, which meant thawing dead mice. That was one way to hold a bird; to take on a regular, messy task for the sake of something greater. In a word, humility.

Certificate for "Developing Sensory Awareness" Course
When Kathy would take us on walks, it was not only the visual senses that were encouraged to open and sharpen. Sounds, smells, tastes, tactile experiences - these were all part of what she called "sensory awareness" which needed constant care for the sake of accurate observation. How many different ways could you hold a bird in your mind so that the next time one came along, you'd be able to identify it? The sound - whether drum or whistle - was essential. You could not quite smell a bird, but you could certainly touch them, especially if you hung out with Kathy long enough. Bird-banding was a favorite activity, and we'd come out early some Saturday mornings to help her. If you hold a bird upside-down, they calm and (sometimes) even fall asleep, giving the bander ample time to disentangle their delicate feet from the threads of the mist nets that caught them, encase their tiny legs with a small, light, metal band, and flip them over to let them fly free. Kathy was so well-choreographed in her movements that she could nonchalantly pick up a bird mid-conversation, apply the band, and release the creature before it even knew what had happened, tossing the number off to the person designated to keep the notebook. That was another way you held a bird - in your memory, faithfully recording sightings year after after, building an understanding of their web of movements over the region. In short, she taught me patient observation.

"Kathy's Prairie", Dedication 2014
About two weeks ago, I drove myself along those same rural highways that wend through the prairies and marveled at the beauty of this country still untouched by the developers. They do slink around the reserve, draining wetlands and putting up cookie-cutter houses where they can, but the protected land still keeps them mostly at bay. An email had arrived from my sister-in-law a few days previous: "did you know about the memorial for Kathy?" No, I hadn't heard. I knew she had been very sick - heard that through the grapevine somehow. Now, we were invited to come together at the nature center, celebrate her life, and dedicate her prairie.

Wild Lupine in the Prairie, 2014 
The prairie. Kathy's dream when I first worked at the park had been to restore this small section of the reserve to native prairielands. Here she had shown me yet another way to hold a bird. If you could bring back the homeland of the bobolinks, orioles, meadowlarks, falcons - they too would return. And it worked. When I was a junior naturalist, I remember squinting up one day at a bright goldfinch who had caught a tall stalk of big bluestem and was swaying back and forth over my head, a brilliant yellow dot moving in the blazing white-blue sky. Sitting back on my heels, I admired him for a moment, and then went to the task at hand, which had been to weed the prairie. Yes, weed the prairie. I spent many hours taking out the non-native sweet clover that tended to crowd out the native grasses and wildflowers.

It had been slow, hot, bee-stinging work, but here I stood -  almost 25 years later -  at the commemoration of "Kathy's Prairie." There were a few words spoken in her remembrance, but soon the crowd was squatting in the grass, comparing diverse leaves, exchanging excited finds. "Did you see this orchid? There's a new book about that!" "Did you guys know there's wild lupine over there?" I stepped back for a moment with a sigh - somewhat sad, fully joyful. At her memorial, here was Kathy's legacy. A whole community touched by her lessons, among them: humility in work, delight in the outdoors, meticulous observation and recording, and the importance of securing a future for the natural world. And in all of these things, how to hold a bird.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Preview: A Person of Influence

In preparation for this week's post on Thursday, I'm thinking about a person of great influence in my life. What sort of qualities have your best mentors possessed? Was your relationship formalized or did it grow organically out of another kind of friendship? Did you choose a different path because of them?

What was so very magical about that person?