Friday, December 2, 2016

Panning for Gold -- Year after Year

Ontonagon County MI, 2015

For most of my adult life I've enjoyed two autumns every year. The first in the Northwoods, then later on the prairie. That's a gift I've always appreciated. Never more so than this year, when it didn't happen.

I panned the October prairie for gold but it proved an unusual season. Uncommonly warm and wet, this year autumn on the grasslands slowly fell fallow brown.

On the other hand, we picked our last cucumber just prior to Thanksgiving, cut the final rosebuds after and our first really hard freeze is yet to arrive, so there's that. A trio of Dark-eyed Juncos down from the great northern forest has worked the stubble of our garden for the better part of three weeks. Most years, it's more like three days.

The world changes and it's only we who don't change with it.

Reviewing that slender stack of brown prairie images had me longing for better times spent in other places during richer years. That sent me back in my catalog to September of 2015, where I found a cache of uncollected work captured primarily on and around the Gogebic Range, about my favorite place in the world.

Rarely has the disparate character of the two landscapes seemed plainer to me, maybe because I didn't see them back to back as always and yearn for what I cannot have. At any rate, the contrast between these two places I call home – captured beneath similarly long light in the same (relative) season - is particularly stunning as this winter sets in. An awful lot's happened, in the course of that year.

What's called meteorological winter is now upon us. Though it promises to be long and cold, the countdown to solstice is set. Time counts and keeps counting. So before the world turns yet again, I thought to take a look back.

After all, that's what photography's for, right? To capture a moment of light and then hold to it as if suspended in amber for all time, or at least to the end of our days.

September, 2015

Keweenaw County, MI

Ontonagon County, MI

Iron County, WI

Iron County, WI

This next image is of a geologically significant place. Hidden in short woods just off Gile, WI. That's an actual split in the world:

Iron County, MI


October, 2016 McHenry County, IL


My boyhood creek runs through this prairie that rolls over rubble hills left by the last great glacier. Once a channelized, agricultural drainage ditch, it's since been restored to a natural meander by good people who care for the Earth. The overall benefits of that caring are rarely more evident than amidst these oak savanna islands once again afloat on a sea of grass…







Thursday, November 10, 2016

In Remembrance

First published on November 10th, 2011

Some years ago when I was sitting on the beach at Whitefish Point just north of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, a couple of old men ambled past and stood close together on the sand hard by the shore. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but couldn’t help overhearing what passed between them, which was far more than mere words.

These men spent their lives as mariners on Superior. They spoke of the big lake as a woman, spoke of her with reverence, awe and regret. In old age these men still both loved and feared the lake. Even though the day was bright and calm, with the surface of Superior as placid and blue as ever it gets, their conversation turned mostly upon hard times spent trying to escape their love’s final embrace.

I recall those old men sometimes, when sitting beside Superior in her many moods. But I think of them always on November 10th, which was the date in 1975 when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands.


No one knows for certain why the Fitzgerald sank, though the question continues to be asked because that’s what we do -- we try to impose a sense of certainty upon an uncertain world. We do that so we might fool ourselves into believing that our constructs provide some final measure of control over a world utterly indifferent to human concern. That’s bald conceit. What’s true is that Lake Superior is big and men are small and sometimes we can’t survive its embrace no matter how mighty our lifeboat.

Superior serves as grave to untold thousands of human souls, from native peoples plucked out of canoes to Voyageurs caught between safe harbors, from pleasure seekers run afoul of sudden weather to seasoned crews serving aboard the mightiest ships men can construct. So please take a moment out of your busy day to remember those souls lost and to consider, however briefly, that no matter the might of human industry, it’s never greater than a speck of dust in the eye of a storm…


“If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her…”

Whitefish Bay, from a vintage 35mm transparency


Friday, November 4, 2016

I digress...


                                                                                    Credit: In Your Face Radio

An estimated 57.5% of eligible voters chose to exercise their franchise during the 2012 Presidential election. That means "some 93 million eligible citizens did not vote".

What's true is that fascism didn't rise in 1930's Germany because fascism was strong. Fascism is a coward's way, it's never strong. Fascism infected Germany then near laid waste to the world because a critical number of German people surrendered to fear, anger and resentment. That made their democracy weak.

Think on that, whether you intend this year to vote in anger or with a pox on both their houses shrug, don't plan to vote at all. Or worse, figure to waste your franchise to vote for a candidate that cannot win and thus serve the needs of your own moral vanity at the expense of your neighbors and country.

Think hard on 1930's Germany. It  echoes resurgent cross the American landscape these days, disguised as patriotism promising greatness and growing fat off terminal discontent. The stench of fear turns the air rancid. And with that, moral equivalence is made to seem like reason.



Think on these things then vote like your life, your liberty and the pursuit of your happiness depend on you simply showing up and choosing to do the right thing. Truth is, they do. They always do.

We've come too far to turn back. The time to sow the wretched ground of fear, exclusion and misogyny with salt so to purge those poisons from the greater American landscape e'en unto the last generation is now. The opportunity is at hand. History demands it. Woe be the world if we don't take it.

Get off your ass and vote, damn it.

And in the event you can't be bothered, at the very least never again dare let anyone hear you whine about the state of things in America.

Because you'll have surrendered the right, no matter how inalienable.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Connections



For pretty much the entirety of my adult life I've reaped the benefit of two autumns every year – first in the Northwoods, later a second on the prairie. That won't happen this year. Here's hoping absence really does make the heart grow fonder, eh?

Regardless, it's high time I take care of some long overdue business.

When politicians prattle about "small business owners", it never sounds like they're talking about real people and when reduced to public policy abstraction, mostly they aren't. Well, the two rural enterprises featured below aren't just operated by genuine American folk. They're run so well and by such good people that over the years, the owners have become my friends.

I'm here today to honor the bravery, resilience and most of all the sheer American heart of these most enterprising citizens and to recommend that you give them your business, should the opportunity arise.

A place to stay…

When young, the whole point of our annual treks from the prairie to the Ottawa National Forest and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness was always to revel in the great woods, which one does best by living in them. So we disdained motels. I've pictures from 1978 of Heather and me bathing in Bobcat Lake, using more or less biodegradable camp soap, as it was then called. Sorry, you don't get to see those images but geez Louise we were once young and fit.

In time and especially during those trips that stayed cold and wet, when the need for a shower turned desperate we'd emerge bedraggled from the wilderness and take a room at the nearest motel. Sometimes we'd not even bother to sleep in the room and instead returned to camp refreshed. We were that resolute.

Later, when the point of my trips was to fish, I stayed in an oddly built place more hotel than motel but central to everywhere I wanted to be. Though he locked the lobby door at ten and didn't reopen it until eight the next morning, the old man who owned it lent me a key so I could chase fish as I pleased. That relationship lasted until he died.

Eventually, large format gear made it essential to have somewhere secure and dry to stow it. For maybe thirty years now, in Bessemer that place is the Traveler's Motel, owned & operated by Donna and Mike Maslanka.


Of my many happy memories made there, maybe my favorite is the day during the Odyssey when, following a brutal stretch of travel and after having borne terrible witness to the biggest, ugliest-assed iron hole in the whole world, I drastically changed course in northern Minnesota. Reliant only on sheer will and my Gazetteer to get me the hell out of there, I raced south through the 'North Star State', headed east to Duluth and held on tight across the length of northernmost Wisconsin, until finally making it to Michigan.

When at last I got to Bessemer and Traveler's, Donna and Mike were on their porch taking the evening sun with a glass of wine. I shared the story of my troubled day and the long, long drive. They welcomed me like I'd just returned safely home. Which of course, in a very real sense I had.

By sheer coincidence, Traveler's Motel is just down the bluff from what once was my Uncle John's farm and only a short distance from the final resting place of my UP ancestors. But what matters to you is that Traveler's other sign reads "Squeaky clean rooms". That's no idle boast and I've seen how hard Donna works to keep it true.

Donna and Mike are native to the region, young sweethearts that got married and raised a fine daughter in the midst of a hard land, on the strength of a successful local enterprise. That's a notable life, especially considering the catastrophic failure rate of small, tourist dependent businesses on the Range. They come, they go. But thankfully for visitors to the western UP, Traveler's stays on.



…enough to eat.

Used to be, the Range was dotted with great diners. From Red's in Wakefield to the legendary Scotty's on the road to Ironwood, we took advantage of them all.

Those days are gone. The spot once occupied by the creaky old Bessemer Café's been an empty lot for…I dunno, has to be near forty years. Still, I'd my first fresh walleye dinner in a rural café and relished the best perch fish fry of my life in a hewn log restaurant out at Black River Harbor, a business burnt down so long ago now that few even remember it was there. It's tough, making a living selling good food at prices locals can afford.

Out of Bessemer toward Black River Harbor is the Black River Valley Pub. A few years ago it failed too but now due to the indomitable nature of its present owner and the way she honors her family's heritage, today the place positively thrives.


Like my own family they may have started as miners on the Gogebic, but Kris Rigoni comes from a strong family tradition of good food. Her father's a baker; he makes the great dinner rolls served at the Pub. Two sisters, a brother and her nephew are chefs/cooks. Kris' robust, Wednesday night all-you-can eat spaghetti is based on her grandmother's recipe and Heather tells me her Hungarian mushroom soup is about as good as that gets.

Kris' day starts at the gym or with a run, then she gets down to business. Preparation begins at 11:30 for a 4:00 open and her typical work day stretches anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours. I've marveled as Kris works the grill for Friday night whitefish fry, when the parking lot's full to overflowing from beginning to end. Once a widespread local tradition, hers is the only fresh fish fry I know of that today remains on the Range.

Not to mention that as a teen Kris waitressed at Scotty's. That'd be about when Johnny, Heather and I frequented the place. For all I know it was she who served us that night, when after my trip to the emergency room we took refuge at Scotty's to discuss our limited options during the night of the bear.

Kris Rigoni purchased the failed Black River Pub during a time of national economic crisis. I'm in awe of the bravery that took. I once asked her why she'd do that and her answer was at once both simple and complex. She couldn't find work as a scratch baker because local bakeries are often under such economic pressure that they're compelled to buy and sell commercial product instead of hiring local labor.

Black River Valley Pub's given Kris the opportunity to labor mightily so that at the end of their day, others who work hard or play hard choose to come and see her, both for comfort and community. More than just a place to eat good food at a fair price, the warmth and hospitality Kris brings to her job simply can't be faked. That too sounds a lot like family, to me.


Because I camped and fished, I always believed the peak travel season on the Range ran spring through fall. I was wrong. From color season to snow melt is when most local businesses make their nut for the year. First come the hunters, followed by leaf peepers and late in fall, steelhead fishermen. Then winter sets in, when snowmobilers and skiers hold the fort until spring when the seasons of life begin again.

No politician will keep these good folk going. That kind of thing's on us. It's always on us, small business owners being our neighbors no matter where we live and finally, our friends.

So if you're thinking of a trip up north this year, by all means stay at Donna's, eat at Kris'. And if you weren't thinking of heading north, then think again. You could do a whole lot worse in the Superior wilderness and would be hard pressed to do much better anywhere, anytime.

And for all you digital imagers out there, the long light that typically bathes the Northwoods starting in October and lasting through November is simply the most perfect light I've ever seen…



*

Notes From the (very small) Field…

Or, in honor of my favorite season, this month we're offering two for the price of one.

Perhaps I should've better engaged any number of important tasks this past summer. Instead I spent much of it in close observation of life on our little patch of prairie. In any year featuring more regular business I'd have been on the Superior Basin multiple times. This is no ordinary year. Still, when not in direct touch with the real world I wither.

Absence from the landscape I love best encouraged me to look closer at my native prairie than I have in a long time. There was a lot to see and no small share of good news. Like life in general, one only has to look.

In past years, Heather's Blazing Star carried only a couple of blooms. This year it threw more than a dozen and little Blazing Star babies are already in place for next spring. It's finally happy and that made us happy too. No less so because that meant Heather let me harvest one for work…


Despite their ongoing troubles, we hosted more Monarchs than any season since we've been here. By the time those reach us in late summer and early fall, some are already near a thousand miles into the perilous journey to their winter home in Mexico. Starting in August we saw bright, healthy Monarchs most every day through September and even a few stragglers this week including no fewer than three earlier today. I get that's basically meaningless in the great Monarch scheme of things, but still.

There were numerous Swallowtails, both Black and Tiger. Dozens of tiny Skippers danced daily in the sun, including the only Spotted Skipper I've ever seen. Commas, Red Admirals and Painted Ladies regularly visited. Whites and Sulphurs as well, more of the latter than I've seen since my youth.

We allowed one of our garden boxes to go wild and were gobsmacked by the richness that brought. Maybe a dozen varieties of bees and wasps, including a Great Golden Wasp and a host of active spiders working deep cover beneath all. The highlight was a Great Black Wasp, the first of those I've seen since I was a kid. It started with a single massive male and in time his family grew to five. Who knew that oregano left to flower was such an attraction?


Great Black Wasps are non-aggressive because they don't colonize so haven't any turf to protect. That's some wisdom to live by, eh? I miss the Great Blacks, now that the season's turned.

And because we grow sunflowers for Goldfinches, we've a clutch of mighty happy field mice too, which hardly goes unnoticed. This young Cooper's Hawk spent a full forty minutes on the prowl and never seemed to mind us watching:


But the very best news? It was a bad year for Culex mosquitoes, around these parts a prime distributor of West Nile virus. That meant for the first time in more than a decade, Blue Jays and Crows were again a living presence upon the prairie. Those are ancestral voices I've since come to associate primarily with the Northwoods and happily, they brought a bit of that joy down here to me. Long may our new residents live.

Anyway summer's over, whether up north or here. Most of our visitors are gone, with residents preparing to lay low. During my exceptionally purple adolescence, autumn was a season for richly indulgent melancholy. Annual visits to the great northern wilderness fixed that in me. Now I'll get to see if that took.

Over the last two weeks, hummingbirds down from the north have daily visited our feeder. The Monarchs continue to come then go, intermittently now. I expect the first overhead skeins of raucous Sandhill Cranes any day.

What's sure is that up north, autumn is already ablaze. That means soon, the prairie will turn golden. There're already hints of that in the trees. Indian grass will wave beneath ever lengthening light cast from soft blue skies. Willows will weep yellow tears. Cattails and milkweed will throw their seed to the wind while Woolly Bear caterpillars take desperate chances along blacktop roads. Even now the field mice cache sunflower seed like they know there's no tomorrow.


Then once all that seasonal glory is well spent and perched just at the edge of fleeting memory -- when the more mindful among us have done all we can to prepare -- winter will come roaring down from the north, sure as hell.

And so long as I needn't spend it weeping for my country, that'll be all right by me...


Friday, August 26, 2016

Revolution, 2016

The Superior Basin is loaded with field-to-table farmers, hunters and fisher folk. For the majority of those, that's just what comes of being born to multigenerational poverty in rural isolation. Like most people everywhere always, of necessity they play life's hand as dealt the best they can.

The same punishing remoteness that makes so many young locals desperate to escape nonetheless draws a steady stream of refugees to it. For them this modern approximation of an old way of life is a choice. These include all manner of people from neo-hippies to alt-right malcontents who for their own reasons reject the too often mutually exclusive demands of everyday American life.

For still others, the choice of life lived in accommodation with a difficult place represents a profound personal commitment to blaze trail toward a more sustainable future, so that the rest of us might follow. Which happy thought brings me to Claire Hintz, smiling in Mexican mud…

Spring, 2013

Elsewhere Farm is on the far reaches of the Bayfield Peninsula, down a piece from Cornucopia. My visit there in 2013 was intended as the first stop for a suite of essays on the cultural, economic, intellectual and artisanal progress of the greater region, with Ashland and Northland College serving as nexus for the narrative.

The Lake Superior Binational Forum at Northland had been kind to me along my way. I wanted to return the favor. And whether in Canada or the States, I knew no other Superior community in so vigorous pursuit of a sustainable future as is this post-industrial patch of northernmost WI.

That brilliant spring afternoon at aptly named Elsewhere Farm, Claire Hintz fairly dazzled me with her combination of academic knowledge, applied intellect, insight, industry and courage.

It wasn't simply the efficient, 'low tech' greenhouse. Or that with a wave of her hand Farmer Claire purged from this prairie kid vestigial sodbuster notions about working wet land. It wasn't just the warm, inviting home filled with books and specialized paraphernalia, an environment that particularly suits me. Or the staggering amount of wealth Claire noted the locals ship from the region each and every year in trade for food made somewhere else, most often by person or persons unknown.

Not even the Icelandic chickens that make such good sense on so many levels I'm still gobsmacked they aren't more commonplace made my day. Normally, those alone would've sufficed.


As it happened I spent only that single afternoon in the field, officially the last of the Odyssey. Too ill to continue, the next morning I raced back to the prairie and so much for the remainder of 2013. Later, the Lake Superior Binational Forum got stripped of funding, as indicative of our times. I've not returned to the area since and wouldn't know what to write about it, today.

Because of all that and more, the application of high level learning mixed with pancultural common sense then with altogether rigorous determination sown upon the wilds of the Bayfield Peninsula for right reasons made Elsewhere Farm emblematic of the finest, most enduring aspects of our American character. In other words, exactly the sort of thing we collectively like to brag on as indicative of us, but too rarely do we engage the sustained hard work to fully realize. Except there Elsewhere Farms is, just the same.

So fresh and full of promise in spring of 2013, I trust Claire Hintz's orchard has since gone on to bear fruit accordingly. It's important work.

*

The Industrial Revolution that carried us to here took full flight on the notion of Earth as inexhaustible, thus unassailable in any meaningful way by our puny selves. That's the operative concept from which modern America and its attendant liberties sprang. Earth provides, we harvest then build and call it progress. By virtue of geology and an accident of timing the Superior Basin features a rich array of evidence that it's so.


Most everything we rely on for our lives and good fortune remains dependent on this idea that perpetual harvest makes for inevitable progress.  Even though we know better about nearly all things than we did in the 19th Century, when perpetual maintenance of an industrialized civilization was made our prime directive. And with the greater part of what we knew then since proven silly in light of what we know now, not the least being that human knowledge must be taken for provisional.

What's demonstrably true is we aren't nearly as smart as we like think and what's more, never were.

Algerian Desert Art, Wikipedia Commons

This spring introduced me to the phrase Slow Food. It's generations since most folk in the States had to run down their food at any speed and at first, the term confounded me. Turns out Slow Food's a fresh label slapped on an old idea in the hope overwhelmed consumers pause to reconsider its ancient wisdom anew.

It's strange to me that a concept so fundamental as the first seed sown or the first beast nurtured by humans to make for slower food requires rebranding to maintain relevance, especially in these our hard times. Whatever plant or critter those might've been, today through this transaction of longstanding one is unlikely to know the other at a glance, for what they've each become. Not plant or beast or human too and never again, I suppose.

On faith I'd like to take the essential idea of food and its production as at least second nature to the species by now but apparently, alas. Real food gets renamed Slow Food as cultural Kryptonite to Fast Food and the plainly unsustainable era of human life that label represents. It's a strange world we've made, with Kryptonite aplenty but no Superman in sight. And so it goes.

Back when we were just apprentice Masters of the World, Thomas Jefferson believed mastodons still roamed the American West, though he'd mistakenly thought them mammoths. 


As perhaps the prime intellectual architect of the American Experiment and for his time a mighty bright man all around, Jefferson knew there'd been mammoths/mastodons. But until late in his own life, he didn't know near enough to ever imagine them gone.

Thomas Jefferson, extinction denier so necessarily a believer in mastodon inexhaustibility, died on July 4th 1826. A mere fourteen years later Douglas Houghton marked the birth of the nation by blowing La Roche Verde to smithereens. Steeped in raw opportunity and driven by abject ignorance, America's rush to her industrialized future was officially on.


Knowledge is power unanswerable to wealth or political influence. It bows before no elite, not populist or intellectual or oligarch. No matter that once we took errant self-evidence as proper foundation upon which to build a great land of the free, home to the brave. Since 1776 and until the day we see fit to surrender our hard-earned liberty, what we do or don't do with this bounty of constantly refreshed knowledge rests squarely on each one of us.

By whatever label, the operative concept behind the global local food movement is that when you personally know where your food comes from, how it was made and who made it, you're vastly more likely to live better, longer. All the while contributing to a locally sustainable economy, a notion proven to float most folk's boats along their way. And you'll help stanch the critical bleeding of Earth's now demonstrably finite natural wealth in the bargain.

Because what Thomas Jefferson and the lineage of Nation builders who followed him along the trail of Manifest Destiny didn't know turned out to be a lot. Today, it's common knowledge that the Eden we depend on for our lives and the future of god's supposedly chosen children isn't inexhaustible after all.




Elsewhere Farms demonstrates yet again that the people of the Superior basin possess a generosity of spirit and individual industry that perpetually renews the power of the People. It reveals the politics of division pimped by demagogues of despair as a self-destructive indulgence. This spirit and willingness to work hard for no good money against daunting odds on a landscape that doesn't forgive and for a larger culture that doesn't much care gives lie to the raw cynicism these days driving entirely too much of the national conversation about the state of our American character.

Of course the real world's a scary place. It's why we've spent thousands of years building a civilization of increasingly complex walls, literal and figurative. How is that news to anyone?

Possessed of the talent and blessed with the means to incrementally insulate and provisionally secure ourselves from the vagaries of both nature and our neighbors, we do. But never kid yourself about who pays accrued interest on what and to whom for the pretense of keeping real world consequences at bay, or that the bill's not about to come due in full regardless.

Planet of the Apes

Every dollar not spent today will tomorrow save no one from the fast rising cost of our collective past. Not rich or poor, left or right, agitated, complacent or confused will be spared but that our massive accumulation of strictly theoretical wealth is now devoted to the real life pursuit of critical knowledge and its immediate, practical application.

Consider that, the next time some pandering yahoo grasping for political power whines about intellectual elites. Or scientific bias. Or when some pipsqueak politician in order to justify further reducing the People's share of the People's wealth claims that mere national debt is the most dire threat to the future of America's children.

The Mastodon is dead. So too, is Thomas Jefferson. And that is the news.

Yet critical lessons remain to be learned from the living legacy of each before the American Experiment can ever be fairly claimed a failure by anyone also interested in truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Or reasonable, contemporary facsimile.


Any revolution that can't feed itself over the long haul is doomed to fail, food security being essential to the effort. A far flung and still obscure but not inconsiderable number of your fellow Americans are currently working hard to help remedy that. They come from all corners and cut across every demographic, even if you neither know nor care that they exist.

The change many of you think you desire is already here, though probably not exactly as you'd like it. Tough beans. Evidence abounds. There is but to look, listen, learn and move forward as best we can, united in common cause and finally unbound from obsolete verities drawn of profound ignorance then purposefully evolved over time to best serve a wide variety of vested interests that mostly don't include you.

The facts of extinction proved so radically at odds with his notion of self that Thomas Jefferson could only reject self-evident truth. Evidence strongly suggests a lack of dark imagining is no longer at issue in the American body politic.

Among other things, the Boy Scouts of America taught me to Be Prepared.

So during this radical political season dominated by angry voices arguing over nettlesome choices while otherwise mainlining an apparently inexhaustible supply of toxic trivia, here's a suggestion for everyone thinking of voting for what's been labeled as righteous change but realistically promises only further division leading to deepening chaos:

If like most of us you're unable to feed yourself and your family, or to help feed your immediate neighborhood for the duration as needed, don't.

Truth is, you're woeful unprepared for what you think you want. As are the majority of your neighbors. All the good work now engaged by other citizens to better prepare our postindustrial grassroots for a healthier, more sustainable revolution notwithstanding.

Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it good and hard. And as HL Mencken suggested, you'd deserve it...


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Shades of (mostly) Blue


I've been worried about my pollinators.

Bearded Iris (Iris Hybrida)

February was mild and March proved downright warm, at least for March. Hope scented the prairie air. The first queen bumblebees took the bait.

Two of the last three years we've hosted a bumblebee nest beneath our back porch. They can be imprecise navigators and fun to watch as they try to make the tiny access hole on the fly. They sometimes bump into the wall, fall to the ground and with the coolness of a cat, parade on through the portal to deliver up their golden booty to dark sanctuary.

Bumblers are curious sorts too, especially when young. I've had them fly by, stomp on the brakes then pull a u-turn in mid-air, all to come back and take a hovering look at my face. That's quite the thing and for a host of reasons, we're glad to have them. Typically, bumblebees don't return to the same nesting spot the next season, so I expect this is our year off. But the old woodpile remains and institutional memory is strong. By the end of March there the Queens were, trying to scrounge a living off of hard times.

April began as about what you'd want out of spring on the prairie – a warming sun, the fresh blush of green everywhere and of course, dandelions. The first Red Admiral butterflies appeared then. I left most of the dandelions alone and saw bumblers on them early. Then spring took a sudden, nasty turn and everyone was just gone. March weather set in to eat the rest of April and a big chunk of May in the bargain.

Weeks on end of cold and wet laid life on the prairie low. Daffodils came and went, as did the tulips. Up north, in unseasonable weather Alberta burnt. Smoke from that fire bled sunsets red over the prairie, where on my little patch nothing further blossomed and no pollinators came. Though it renders them useless for the table, I left my spring chives to bloom.

Chive (Allium scoenoprasum)

Then as happens, things changed. The heat that held Alberta's feet to the fire broke and a more 'normal' spring pattern set in, mid-continent. As also happens, by then it was creeping toward June and late winter turned to full on summer in a trice. Tomorrow in Fort McMurray Alberta, for the first time since the spring burn began, residents will be allowed back in to see what's left. It's not much.

Meanwhile, the Bearded Iris's got enthusiastic.


I've long wanted to give macro photography a go. The Linhof provided the ideal tool for that, but I was too busy mucking around in the ruined architecture of faded cultures to ever spare the considerable effort for a flower. Now that I'm a digital imagist I'll unlikely ever again enjoy the depth of field Zeiss glass on the Linhof would've provided for botanicals, but neither will I again risk life, limb and 4x5 gear over the side of a canoe to shoot water lilies at Bobcat Lake, so there's that. And I'm happy as a clam to finally possess complete control of the experiment.

Exquisite geometry flows through the heart of my finest architectural work. Turns out, the same basic principles transfer to my basement and dead things. Hot damn.


During unseasonable warmth predicted to fail day after tomorrow, a week or so ago spiderwort blossomed on my patch of prairie. I watched for bees and saw none. This morning after a Cooper's Hawk took a sparrow with dawn and the spiderwort later awoke, when harvesting a bloom that so early in life has yet to reveal the true devil's face of the plant, a bumblebee, a honey bee and a busy little something so tiny I could just barely guess it actually was a bee, all worked the same stand of spiderwort.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia – likely – virginiana)

Some years ago I took a lupine transplant from my dear friend Will's yard up near the Big Lake and planted it in mine. Forced too far outside its natural borders, lupine typically doesn't make a good refugee. Over the course of five years the transplant traveled of its own accord. The thing threw decent stems and leaves as it wandered but refused to bloom and thus represent the wilderness I miss so, when on the prairie.

Finally, last year and apparently happy in the corner of the garden it chose just behind Mr. Lincoln's rose, the lupine bloomed. This year my northwoods refugee is positively at home in its own little patch of the greater world.

Lupine (Lupinus perennis)

If only we could all claim the same, eh?

Sadly, I didn't make it up to Lake Superior this spring. I mightn't make it this summer, either. Hope holds out for autumn, when the Gogebic Range is cloaked in cold, wet fog and colorful ghosts dance on a grey breeze. Last autumn we spread northwoods lupine seeds on the prairie garden in time for the freeze and no few of those took. They probably won't bloom this year but the little buggers give me something to look forward to near the end of next winter, god willing and the creek don't rise.

A few minutes ago, while watching a squall line bear down on the prairie, I spotted my first Red Admiral butterfly in a month. Sure, it fought the wind to gain shelter and hold on through the storm. I lost track of it in a gust, but trust that it did.

Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological summer, while today spring passes through a storm. It's gonna be a hot one. Maybe soon the hyssop will bloom and the bumblebees will again feel at home...

Monday, March 28, 2016

Jim Harrison, 1937 – 2016


         The legal provenance of this image is obscure. Should the owner desire its removal, speak & consider that done.
To the photographer, well done indeed.


How does one wish Rest in Peace to one of the most relentlessly restive spirits of American letters?

James Harrison was a poet, a gourmand of note, an essayist, cranky literary critic and pal of Jack Nicholson. Along with John Voelker, Harrison is one of two great American authors to explore the wilds of the Upper Peninsula in prose, in depth and consistently nail it. Each man did that with rare insight, singularly American humor and a profound humanism that they applied with great craft to story.

Voelker was born in the U.P. and Harrison wasn't, so my native sympathies must lean to the Judge. But Jim Harrison is nobody's second. He was a man who lived on the U.P. better than most folk not born there ever can and he revisited the place in life and in penetrating prose over and over and over again. No matter that the old man died in Arizona. Snowbirds do that.

During the Odyssey, with a handful of other tourists I went to the overlook at Summit Peak in the Porkies, duty called. Near the end of a long day on the road the climb up the hill then up the stinkin' tower just to see more woods was arduous. Still, from the top of the tower there's more wilderness than the eye can readily wrap around, all of it rolling into the south shore of a magnificently indifferent freshwater sea. The sun was bright, a light breeze cleansed the sweat from us and as tourists do, we talked.

I walked down that hill with a married couple a few years older than my peers. It was fun. They were smart. Witty. Well traveled. Flush when most everyone else wasn't and enjoying the hell out of that, you could just tell. Yeah, I know. But you could. And it bears mentioning.

Near the parking lot somehow the conversation turned to Jim Harrison, whom the woman wished dead.

It went approximately like this:

Harrison blames what happened to the Indians on us. He's decrepit and on death's door out in the desert, good riddance.

It was a hard turn to an otherwise pleasant conversation between passing strangers. I bid the couple travel safely, thinking: Any writer that hated has done one helluva job.

It would've been sometime in 2012.

I've thought about that woman often, since then. Especially with each new Jim Harrison book that came after, which by rough count includes two new collections, two novels, a book of poetry and the Brown Dog collection, complete with an entirely appropriate and satisfactory ending to the long winding story of Harrison's most fully realized and sympathetic character. Good Lord, the man's river flowed at the end.

We should all be so decrepit, eh lady?

Jim Harrison left us a particularly rich and robust body of work. His spirit will remain restive so long as the words we live on live on. That'd be about how he wanted it, I figure.

In any case, tonight glasses are lifted in his honor in Grand Marais and other places all over the world. Harrison liked the good life and make no mistake. I don't know if his was a life well lived or not, that's not for me to say. What's true is that the man lived it large and came bearing gifts.

Godspeed, Jim Harrison. Thank-you.