Monthly Archives: May 2011

when worlds collide

to the south lies the concrete and halogen, amid endless ribbons of traffic.  the fuss and commotion creates a constant buzzing in the ears, like a black fly hatch that never ends.  seldom is a solo venture truly solo.  often, there is an interminable wait for someone to move or the light to turn green.  when movement comes, it is fleeting.  the light turns red and the wait is renewed.

it is a place where goodness and badness intermingle and a million agendas co-exist and clash and confuse.  

me?  i live here, where the wilderness begins out my front door and only one stop light can impede your movements between silver bay and the canadian border.  there is a sense of comfort; there is no sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.   

granted, the city has culture.  me?  i have new picture windows.

the other day i was out on my bike, trying to fend off old age and morbid obesity when a part of the city came to tofte.  it was a tightly wrapped blue bag, positioned in the grass, right off the onion river road.  my initial hunch should have sufficed, but the biologist in me needed empirical proof, so i inspected it.  it was a tightly wrapped blue bag of dog poop.  here, on the cusp of the boreal forest where the earth reclaims all that pass through or stumble.   

dog poop in a plastic bag. 

of course, i immediately sought the logic of that move.  the pooch has to go and as is the canids wont, does so and then scratches his feet with joyful pride.  somewhere in his recesses, he thinks he should get a treat.  his owners, out of habit or a poor sense of reality, bag the bundle, look around, don’t see a waste basket, so leave it there. 

“someone will pick this up, won’t they honey?”

“i’m pretty sure they will.”

“good, let’s go get some scones.”

for some reason, that just kind of grinds my lower colon.  the owners (the square pegs) have thrust their sense of civility onto the boreal forest (the round hole).  it is a bad fit…just like the smell of perfume or cologne on the cross-country ski trail (you might smell good, but you still suck as a skier), or being passed on a gravel road by someone who absolutely has to get into the wilderness so they can relax for 3 days, prior to returning to the concrete and halogen.

the fools.

of course, maybe my story isn’t based on reality and instead, is a misdirected interpretative retelling. the real story is that the owners picked up the bag and tucked it into a pocket, but the pocket was full of scones and so, the bag fell out.  they didn’t realize they didn’t have the bag until they got back to their condo and by then, they had eaten so many scones they had to take a nap and once the ambien kicked in, they forget they left the bag, or that they even had a dog, and so when they woke up, the dog had shit on the carpet and they were back at square one.

except this time, they took the tightly wrapped blue bag with them when they returned to the concrete and halogen and endless ribbons of traffic.


a shoulder to ride on

today was national bike to work day, and i did just that.  sort of.

 i parked my car at the cascade river wayside rest, extracted the form-fitting lycra from areas where discrete extraction was necessary, then rode the 10.5 miles into grand marais.  i heard birds sing.  i smelled road kill. i wasn”t late for work. 

commuting is something that once coursed through my veins.  i did so through two stints at the university of minnesota and used to thrive on moving through traffic when the traffic wasn’t moving.  in an urban setting, it is the only way to go. 

up here though, commuting is dictated by a road with shoulders.  between lutsen and grand marais, that eliminates about half the distance.  my aversion to shoulderless roads was probably formed during my 1981 bicycle trip from l.a. to st. paul.  during that journey, i was nearly doored by an rv into the grand canyon, was repeatedly pushed into any number of ditches by blasts of wind from passing trucks, and even challenged a group of phlegm-spewing thugs to a bout of fisticuffs in nebraska, after they challenged my right to ride on a road that obviously wasn’t made for bicycles.  

when their vehicle turned around in response to my heartfelt gesture of friendship (in some countries) they came straight at me.  but i held my position, imploring them t0 “bring it on, you little fuckers.” 

being tired and hungry, with 600 miles to go, spoke on my behalf that day.  his presentation was very effective. 

“that guy was crazy,” the driver said as the tires of teen-aged confusion squealed towards the safety of kearney. 

riding on shoulderless roads these days comes mindful of the distractions presented to drivers.  in the 80’s, there were no cell phones or texting.  now there are and any time i ride on a public road, i am mindful that the next car that creeps up on me, might be the last car  that creeps up on me. 

if the driver is texting, the narrative of my demise would go something like this.   

“lol…omg omg OMG…..WTF?” as the texter’s right front fender sends me into low earth orbit. 

now, i wear a neon yellow vest and if there is even a hint of driver confusion, i make eye contact…which makes me a social freak on the north shore.  

in a couple of weeks, i will ride the inaugaral “lutsen 39er”, although if i make it into the “lutsen 19er”, i’ll be okay with that.  as long as there’s a shoulder, i’ll be okay.

so long harry truman, part 31

i was there when the mountain blew. i felt it rattle the core of the planet and then send a plume of ash skyward that within an hour, turned day into night; turned a robin’s egg blue sky into a roiling mash of powdered earth.  all i could think of was:  so long harry truman.

when mount st. helens blew in 1980, i was on the unhappy side of a wedding reception that i will never remember.  i was awake, but an unwilling participant in what life had to offer.  that sunday was my third day back in washington and third day in a row with a hangover that i could not seem to shake. 

the only cure?  another hangover.

i had taken the empire builder from st. paul to wenatchee washington a couple of days earlier, to attend the wedding of friends and to renengage a chapter of my life that was salacious at best, and ill-advised at worst.  the train trip was spent primarily in the bar car and all with an ilk for partying were there, even after floyd the porter said “you guys are on your own.”  

two days later, my equilibrium had yet to return and even on concrete, my body swayed to the back-and-forth of rail travel.  

several years before that, i had worked for the gifford pinchot national forest, on the st. helen’s ranger district.  within that district was the mountain and spirit lake.  adjacent to both, was harry truman.  harry served as a field trip destination for new district employees.  he was always welcoming and always willing to engage in a story.  i shook his hand. i petted his cats. somewhere, i have a picture of him. 

in the end, he defied authority and said, “i ain’t leaving”.  this after repeated warnings from geologists that the mountain was about to feel its oats.  

my work buddies and i climbed st. helens one august day in 1976.   from the summit, spirtit lake glowed an azure blue.  harry was down there somewhere, probably bitching about something, we said.  we stood at the apex of the mountain and watched as glaciers sloughed-off giant shelves of ice. 

on the morning of may 18, 1980, my buddy pat and i were uncertain what the commotion was, deep inside the earth.  paddy laughed it off, as he was (and still is) wont to do.  when we found out the mountain was gone, we were disbelievers.  i could only think of harry and his cats. 

it had to be quick.  no time to move or see what had occurred.  the 50 feet of ash and mud that entombed him changed the lake and the landscape in an instant.  i could only imagine him sitting there, a cat purring in his lap, saying, “i’m okay with this.”   

now, every may 18, i take a few moments to remember harry and a period of my life that made me what i am today, for better or worse.  i have reacquainted with paddy and stayed with him in 2008, when nikky and i took the empire builder to washington…without the hangovers or floyd the porter. 

my son was with me the first time i viewed the mountain since it had experienced its tectonic reconfiguration. he could tell the mountain meant something to me.  i also think he understood why i said “so long harry truman,” when we returned to our car.

male hummingbirds: big pricks, little birds

i would like to set the record straight, once and for all:  i am not a birder.  in fact, i couldn’t tell the difference between a mourning warbler and nashville warbler if my life depended on it, save for the dark patch on the male mourning warbler’s upper sternum and its ground-level hopping in boreal forest wetland patches.

what i do know is that male hummingbirds are pricks. 

no i.d. necessary. it’s all about behavior, baby.

the first hummer arrived at my house on friday.  in response, i hurriedly boiled some water and sugar and let cool, while cleaning and sterilizing the feeders.  i thought about a plate of cocktail wieners, but opted for pure sugar-water, knowing how it’s provided so much energy (and several root canals)  for me over the years. 

the first hummer was a male ruby-throat  and once the “nectar” appeared, he has taken it upon himself to defend the prize with dizzying u-shaped flights of disdain.  i thought disdain only applied to my take on tourists, but this guy has even my disdain beat by several kilometers. 

one would think that a female hummer, sauntering up for a bit of energy, would be welcomed by the male in search of a little tryst, but that is not the case.  instead, he chases her away because she (conceivably) could down the whole quart of sugar-water and where would that leave him? 

with nothing but an empty feeder to defend.

a couple of summers ago, i had 14 hummers jousting over 2 feeders.  it was my summer of hummers.  it was dangereous to step out on the deck, for fear of being impaled by a hummer beak.  nikky thought i was a big pussy but to me, a hummer beak is no different than a shank in prison. ..sooner or later, you are going to feel its sting.

the first male is still hanging out and you can tell he is full of himself…sitting in the ash, preening and rousing his feathers, feeding on a whim, then it’s back to his “i’m so important” preening.  occassionally, he shits on my deck.

when a new hummer moves through and sees the feeder, he no doubt says to himself  “this is the weirdest fucking flower i’ve ever seen, but dammit, it’s full of nectar.”  whereupon, the resident hummer takes umbrage to the new arrival, flies after him, then throws in a couple of territorial flights to tell him “that’s what i’m talking about, bitch.”

i guess i’ll just have to get more feeders.  of course, i could take the one down, but then my back yard entertainment value is reduced by about 90%.  so yes, there will be “nectar a-plenty,”  my hummer friends. 

you little pricks.

two parts business, one part pleasure

i don’t know what the group of flickers were up to this morning, but considering the overt solicitation and squawking,  it bordered on pornographic.   i had to avert my eyes.

nature once again is mocking me.

with owl surveys completed, the arduous task of checking nest boxes has begun.  as a change of pace, this morning i rode my bike to check my favorite box trail which will soon be denuded of much of its vegetation, given that it lays within what the forest service calls an “opportunity area”.  thankfully, the paradigm of health, sunshine, and fitness i attained during my 1000 + km of skiing this winter served me well, and riding the 30 miles was a pleasant diversion.

and we all know how important diversion is to me, the owlman.

the trail consists of 12 boxes, spaced about 1/4 mile apart on a portion of the old sawbill trail.  it is rife with diversity…old jack pine, old white pine, rich bottomland spruce, babbling brooks.  it will soon be homogenized in the name of opportunity.  two of the box trees were painted, meaning they will not be cut, but i have already decided i will remove the boxes because leaving a box on a tree surrounded by stumps is not what i am about. 

watching flickers copulate is what i’m about. 

going back to 1987, some of my most profound owling moments have occurred on the old sawbill trail.  several years ago (warning: anecdote alert) i broke down on a box check, realizing i was grieving for a species that defined everything i have ever accomplished as a biologist and even, as a person.  i have been to the boreal owl mountaintop and no one in minnesota will ever go there again.  

despite the pedaling and the sense i would be afforded some owl karma, none of the boxes were occupied. 

it’s like that sometimes.

familiarity breeds…ahh…greater familiarity?

 on the days when i am not skiing or biking or owling or gardening, i spend many of my idle hours in a well-worn chair whose olfactory signature is remarkably similar to that of my ass.

 yet, it is a comfortable chair and its odiferous patina is nothing that a big jar of febreeze can’t temper.  

i love that chair at the apex of the picture windows.  

the nice thing is that watching what occurs in my back yard is now a compelling activity.  when i put the new windows in 2 summers ago, i had no idea that i could spend so much time watching nothing occur.  then again, i am an owler and a hermitic bachelor male and so, i am a seasoned pro in the fine art of nothingness.

my house sits on the edge of aspen and a small open water wetland whose water component is gone by june.  there are blue flag in it and if my green thumb is viable, there will soon be cardinal flowers.  beyond the wetland is the aspen, my prized landscape feature.  below the aspen, the vigor of fir and spruce.

the interface where conifer meets wetlands is giving itself up as a line of transit for many land-based travelers that move through my land.  i have seen deer bedding beneath the boughs and wolf skulking like ball players in the corn of an imagined iowa baseball field

“is this heaven?”

” no, it’s tofte.”

“shit.  i thought it was heaven. how do i get to heaven?”

“take 61 north into canada…it’s somewhere in canada.  it’s gotta be.”

two of the animals that use the line of conifers are both named stumpy.  stumpy the squirrel and stumpy the pine marten.  both move without tails.  both have been familiar to me for more than a year.  i feel good when i see them.  in fact, stumpy the squirrel has been granted immunity from the sting of slingshot wrath.  he is my sciurid friend.

of course, stumpy the marten has no endearing traits other than its nose-searing streams of musk.  he is a predator and the fact that stumpy the marten has yet to dine on stumpy the squirrel is nothing but good fortune and timing for stumpy the squirrel.

i have no idea what happened to eithers’ tail, but the lack thereof, makes them uniquely identifiable.  stumpy marten has tan, calico colored throat patches and a sleek pelage.  i would love to rub his belly and see if he purrs, but he would shred my flesh.

stumpy squirrel is a rodent that daily, eats his weight in seeds beneath my feeders.  when i appear on the deck with my slingshot of horror, all squirrels run away.  stumpy continues eating.  he has grown fearless.  conditioned. 

i am pretty sure all those seeds will make stumpy marten happy when he finally dines on stumpy squirrel.

i just hope i get to see that.

from my chair.

with the febreeze.

in search of: piss and vinegar

it’s around here somewhere…maybe in the food pantry or in the dirty laundry basket, or under the clothes that should be in the dirty laundry basket.  regardless, it’s been misplaced…all that get up and go and vim and vigor…gone…and dammit, i miss it.

but then, i know it will return as soon as the acrid taste of 600 (+) km of surveys and 500 (+) stops leaves my system. 

as i’ve mentioned numerous times, what i am experiencing is wholly cyclic and something i’ve dealt with for the last 25 owl springs.  it’ll go away.

i hope. 

it’s the owler’s version of seasonal affective disorder.

plus, i have to develop my innate sense of disdain before the tourist season begins and in order to be completely disdainful, one must not be sad.    

lupine are poking through last year’s vegetative detritus and it won’t be long before all the things that i fogot to pick up before the first snowfall will be hidden by new growth and subsequently, run over by my lawnmower.  last year, i mowed my lawn twice.  

garlic is green and growing and several pieces of kale i overwintered under straw are pushing out new growth. 

if it can’t be winter, i guess it’s okay that it’s spring. 

i don’t sound very convincing, do i?