Wednesday, September 30, 2015

ART OF THE AGES – Lichen Painting on the St. Croix

The canvas: eons-old basalt. The medium: lichen, some of whose individual organisms may well have been here when the first European laid eyes on these cliffs. The artist: well…the Artist was here before there was a “here.”

It takes a moment of reflection to grasp the age of these rocks. They date from the Precambrian Eon, somewhere between 500 million and a billion years ago.

         The brushwork...looks wild and free 
         for work rendered so patiently.

This bluish-gray, Keweenawan altered basalt is the hardest basalt-type rock in America—so hard that boulders of it were used by NASA to test the drills employed on the moon probe. Since this type of basalt is found almost entirely on ocean floors, these terrestrial outcroppings in the Upper and Lower Dalles of the St. Croix River (which forms 169 miles of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin), are considered quite rare, if not unique.

Some lichen species*, incredibly, are nearly as old as these rocks. First appearing on earth some 400 million years ago, they are here represented in at least five colors—including jet black. (Since there are hundreds of varieties documented along the St. Croix Valley, I won’t pretend to identify them.)

The brushwork—ranging from broad splashes, to wispy dry-brush, to seemingly random spots and drips—looks wild and free for work rendered so patiently. For that trick of time, for the composition of form and color and texture, the technique is breathtaking.

I am in awe.

* There are more than 10,000 species of lichen. They are composite, symbiotic organisms often comprising both a fungus and an alga. The former provides structure; the latter, sustenance, through photosynthesis. Most species grow less than a millimeter per year, and, given a durable substrate like this primordial basalt, can easily live for centuries.

Monday, September 21, 2015

COMPOUND INTEREST – Seduced by Hydrangea

Tiny closed-fist buds festoon hydrangea’s translucent, pale-green stems. From bottom up they pop open in precious, fertile, ivory florets. 
Their stamens outstretch expectantly. Here, here, look at me!

But someone else has stolen the show. The much larger, neuter flowers, like crisp, white-linen butterflies, flutter 'round, perhaps overselling to the thirsty those scant nectar sips below.

(I spotted this spectacular compound flower of the “pee gee” hydrangea – hydrangea paniculata grandiflora – on my neighborhood walk this morning.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

CHASED BY ROOTS – A Snapshot of Survival

Maples usually don’t mind wet feet, but the roots of this twin-trunk beauty—spotted along the Wisconsin bank of the St. Croix River—tell a different story. Like an elderly couple, one’s frail arm wrapped tenderly around the other, they seem to have turned their backs to the water, struggling to escape up the bank.

Decades of repeated flood and drought, freeze and thaw, waves and current have clawed at the tree’s footing. Storm gusts, funneled up the valley along open water, seize its leafy crown, twisting, levering at the old couple’s tenuous grip on wet, sandy ground.

       Like twisted arms and legs, they reach 
       and strain. Among them, anguished faces 
       peer out of the shadows.

To the generous eye, those gnarly roots reveal the extent of the torment. Like twisted arms and legs, they reach and strain. Among them, anguished faces peer out of the shadows.

How many more storms and floods will this denizen of forest's edge abide? Will it be these battle-worn roots that first give way…or will they hold while aging trunks snap?

I'm struck by the parallel to the human condition, to how we of warmer flesh and blood bear life's torments and burdens, and persevere. How those who best survive are those able to put down more roots, deeper roots. For, tormenting as those challenges may be, they are the very legs we stand on.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

DANCES WITH WATER – How to Paddle a Canoe

I feel sorry for those who want or need a motor to propel their boats. Sure, it’s fast and easy, but it’s so remote, so…well…soulless. Not to mention loud, smelly and rushed.


I don’t remember who taught me how to paddle a canoe—very likely it was my dad. During his late teens and early twenties, he’d spent months canoeing in the magical lakeland wilderness now comprising northeastern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and southwestern Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park.

I’m sure my counselor at YMCA Camp St. Croix must have helped. At age ten I was part of an ambitious canoe trip that was—and likely still is—the longest ever launched from the camp: 360 miles down the St. Croix and Mississippi to East Dubuque, Illinois.

       I want my five- and nine-year-old grand-
       children to know and love canoeing—
       Minnesota style—too.

After that, I canoed for many years in the BWCAW and Quetico myself, first at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, and then on expeditions I and my friends organized and outfitted ourselves. I still paddle—in my precious little 13-foot wood-and-fiberglass Mansfield Osprey—as often as I can.

Now this is by no means competitive—nor even especially athletic—canoeing; it’s just basic mobility for traveling, exploring and getting to my favorite fishing and photography locales. At least for now I’ll leave the racing, the tricks, to others more fit and able than I.

I’ve written about canoeing here before—how quiet, beautiful and spiritual it is; how efficient it is; how I feel more comfortable paddling my little Osprey than I do walking on dry land. But recently I’ve been thinking about another aspect of this elegant, ancient mode of travel: how paddling a canoe actually works, and how to teach that.

My motivation? My nine-year-old granddaughter is getting immersed by her closer-by fraternal grandparents in all the fun New-Englandy conveyances they grew up with—sailing, skiing…even surfing, for God’s sake. While I celebrate those opportunities, I also want her and my five-year-old grandson to know and love canoeing—Minnesota style—too.

PHOTO: Rockbrook Camp

So how does one begin? I’m sure there are many wonderful, effective approaches, but here’s a teaching idea I’ve been thinking of for years—and have yet to actually use. I can’t wait to put it to the test with my grandchildren next time they come to Minnesota.

Think of the student sitting in the canoe’s stern seat with a paddle. (Typically, the bow paddler provides power while the one in the stern provides both power and steering.) Now imagine the very tip of that curve in the canoe’s bow attached to a dock (or simply held in place by someone), allowing just the stern to swing freely back and forth.

The essential trick in steering a canoe is to think of the stern paddler’s moving the stern back and forth, not the bow. Kind of like driving a car whose steering wheel turns the rear wheels, not the front ones. All the basic canoe steering strokes operate on that principle; when you move the stern to your left, the canoe turns to the right—and vice versa.

With this pivot point setup, I’d have the student practice moving the stern left and right—first simply experimenting on their own, and then using proper strokes. Then I'd untether them and let them practice integrating those strokes with forward motion, perhaps even following a simple slalom course.

    An expert can rotate a canoe on a dime and 
    even make it sidle to one side or the other 
    while moving neither forward nor back.

Given that background, the kid’s ready to learn the actual strokes. There are dozens of them—for basic leisure canoeing, cruising, racing, whitewater, freestyle exhibition and more. You can learn about them here: Wikipedia   /   Knights of Dionysis    /   YouTube

ILLUSTRATION: Knights of Dionysis

Many folks think a canoe has to be moving in order to steer it. While movement does facilitate the stern paddler’s basic steering strokes, an expert can rotate a canoe on a dime and even make it sidle to one side or the other while moving neither forward nor back. (The latter involves either the draw stroke, the push stroke or, more elegantly, sculling—what I like to call the figure-eight stroke.)

A word about rhythm or stroke rate. This is generally up to the bow paddler, as is when to switch sides. But even if the stern paddler is an expert, steering takes a bit of extra time out of each stroke. And since a proper balance of both power and weight depends on the two paddlers paddling continually, in unison, a good bowman will allow a second or two of rest between strokes for the stern man to execute the steering strokes.

This is also a very efficient way to paddle, taking advantage of a certain amount of coasting after each stroke and enabling experienced paddlers to cover great distances over the course of days or weeks with a minimum of fatigue.

Speaking of efficiency, one of many fine points few leisure paddlers seem to understand is feathering the paddle between strokes. This means, after each stroke, rotating the paddle so the blade is horizontal while swinging it forward for the next stroke. This minimizes the amount of air resistance, which, especially on long trips and/or windy days, is no small consideration.

Of course, there are other important chapters to any canoeing primer, like getting in and out and moving around the craft safely, loading, etiquette, bow paddling—including steering from the bow, flipping and portaging, maintenance, paddle selection, safety and others. While too involved to undertake in one post, perhaps I’ll dip my paddle into those waters in a future post or two…or when I write the book.

Monday, September 7, 2015

PARTING SHOTS – Images of Late Summer

It's been a spectacular summer here in Minnesota. Blessed with warm days, yet very few 95-degree steam-bath stinkers we usually sweat our way through. Blessed with both ample sunshine and sufficient rain to keep most everything lush long after it usually wilts and turns brown—and to keep river levels high enough so I could navigate my favorite backwaters without my having to drag my canoe over mud flats and sand bars.

PHOTO: Phil Champion - 

Hard to believe, isn't it, that just four months ago we were watching anxiously for the arrival of some sign, any sign, that another long, cold, grey winter was releasing its grip on the ground—and our spirits.

Eventually, though, summer did manage to take hold as it always does, and the profusion of rich, saturated color sprouted and spread over the grateful landscape. How I love all those shades of breathing green, the blankets of true, dense blue from early-blooming Siberian squill, the piercing reds of geranium and canna, the ravishing yellow-orange of goldenrod!

  I made up my see all these wonders 
  as if I'd never seen anything like them before.

But no sooner had this glorious season started than I could hear it ticking away. I made up my mind—as my posts here on One Man's Wonder and in the social media implore—to soak it all in, to see all these wonders of color, texture and pattern as if I'd never seen anything like them before. And I think I've done a pretty good job of it; I must have stopped a thousand times, as it were, to smell the roses.

But suddenly here we are; another Labor Day. The State Fair ends today, and ragweed's got me stuffing my pockets with Kleenex. At least symbolically, summer is over. Our window box plantings sense the cooler, drier air and, seeing right through our best efforts to fool them into thinking it's still June, have started to thin and shrivel. Everything else too—with the exception of those good old late-season standbys, like zinnia and chrysanthemum—seems on its last legs.

So, as I set out on my walk along the Mississippi yesterday, I was feeling kind of melancholy, almost anticipating an experience of loss. I was already mourning all the shrinking, browning plants and spent flowers I knew I'd come across. What made me even more blue was the looming prospect of five or six months devoid of all that fresh, living, breathing color.

      At least I'd have these poor excuses for the 
      real thing to comfort my color-starved soul 
      till tiny buds pop once again.

Of course, this wasn't at all what I found. Summer is indeed still alive here in growing zone four. But, as if to convince myself of this, I brought my camera. At the very least, I figured, that would help me notice and appreciate even more these resolute colors of late summer.

What's more, even if the dead of winter were somehow to slam down on us tomorrow, at least I'd have these poor excuses for the real thing to document the fleeting summer of 2015 and comfort my color-starved soul till tiny buds pop once again.

I hope you'll forgive the indulgence.

PHOTOS THIS GROUP: Jeffrey D. Willius

Saturday, August 29, 2015

NOT A CHANCE – The Inevitable Reward of Expecting Wonder

This afternoon I had a clarity rush, one of those rare flashes of awareness and understanding you experience when you suddenly see—and just totally get—everything.

This time I was driving, sitting at a stop light. I glanced around at the far-from-remarkable surroundings: the Quarry shopping center with its Target and Home Depot; the McDonald’s and Taco Bell across the street; the other cars and drivers.

Somehow, on the median next to me, a narrow strip of waist-high weeds caught my eye. Again, quite unremarkable, right? But as I watched them sway gently in the breeze, a flood of wonder and joy washed over me. And gratitude, that such a fine little community of herbal drifters had managed to put down roots here—even those pariahs, goldenrod and ragweed—and that I was here to behold it.

           In that one extraordinary moment, 
           I knew everything there was to know 
           about those weeds.

I understood completely what a gift from God those living wonders are—and how much I would miss, if no longer able to receive such simple gifts in my daily comings and goings, merely setting eyes on them once again.

In that one extraordinary moment, I knew everything there was to know about those weeds. I mouthed words of thanks for their colors and textures and smells and movement. For the sweet, life-giving oxygen they produce. For the tiny biosphere they form, and all the bugs that dwell in, on and under them. And even the family of bunnies I knew, somehow, must live in there.

At the very instant my lips pursed for the “b” in “bunnies,” a young cottontail hopped out of the underbrush onto the adjacent patch of grass, turned and looked up at me.

Coincidence? Not a chance! Not today!

And then the light turned green.

PHOTO: Pixabay

Thursday, August 27, 2015

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY – The Distance of a Grandfather’s Love

The 9:10 commuter train heading back to Boston squealed to a stop. I bent down to hug her, her wiry wisps of arms reaching up ‘round my waist, that perfect pixie face pressed against my side. I told her I loved her, turned and dared not look back.

I stepped aboard and took a seat. Clambering over my carry-on, I put a hand on the window and looked out.

There she was on the platform, scanning the dark-tinted windows—all but opaque to her—like a sailor craning to make out a speck on the distant horizon. For an instant, I thought our eyes might have met, but she looked right through me.

A deep desolation pulled me down, the kind a dear, departed spirit must feel when fully present with, yet unnoticed by, a loved one revisited.

The train jerked into motion. Still delving the dark, blank windows, she walked along just beside me, barely keeping up. Now I pressed both hands and my whole face against the glass, grinning, waving, weeping.

And then she saw me. Our eyes locked, the gulf between us suddenly narrowed nearly to arms’ length. Beside me she ran, faster and faster, her limbs a spritely fusion of flailing and grace…and she beamed.

I turned, looked back, and those few seconds swept her from my view. But that image, that sense of being at once so far and so close to that sweet girl, will stay with me until I am once again on that magic train…and I am the one looking through that dark window for a glimpse of her.