Tuesday, February 21, 2017

EPHEMERAL ETCHING - The Joyous Geometry of Ice

Sunday morning I found this lovely sheet of etched ice on the driveway just outside our back door. That unseasonably warm winter day, water already flowed under it, and by ten it was gone.

Both the impermanence and the impact of this art stun me…make me wonder. Why do the major vertices radiate from an imaginary point on the adjacent asphalt, while others are scored as fields of parallels?

Why are some lines fringed with still-finer, feathery details? Why is just that one gap clear of all but the ghostliest whisper of texture?

And the geometry…I suppose it’s no wonder that the four main axes fan at 15 degrees, while those hatched parallels stem from them at 30—both exact divisors of the 60-degrees between branches of a snowflake.

Monday, February 20, 2017


          Silence is not the absence of sound as much as the presence 
          of understanding.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

STRUNG AND STUNG – How My Big Brother Subjected Me To, Then Saved Me From, Death by Wasps

I’ve written often here about my idyllic boyhood summers in the precious little village of Franconia on the St. Croix River in east central Minnesota.

Those were days so perfect, so bathed in sun and warm, fragrant summer air, so full of adventure and learning, that sometimes it seems they couldn’t have been real. In more ways than one I was the proverbial golden boy.

There were also—though I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it at the time—dues to pay. At various ages all the girls and boys in Franconia were expected to honor certain rites of passage that signaled new chapters in the story of growing up on the river.

         I would have done just about anything 
         to prove my mettle and join.

For example, we were only allowed to take a boat or canoe out on the river by ourselves after proving, in a surprisingly formal, often well-attended event, that we could swim solo across the river and back. There were other milestones, like cairns along a foggy mountain trail, to let us know we were growing up the way other good kids of previous generations had. First fish caught; first time up on water skis; first time shooting a .22; first time driving Dad’s car down to the landing and back.

One such ritual—the creation, I suspect, not of those older, wiser generations, but simply of a sadistic power-crazed cabal of older boys—was the Initiation. Supposedly, those older boys—including my brother, Dan—had this amazing “secret hideout,” where they often convened as a “club” to plot their mischief. And I was just a little brother yearning to grow up and belong; I would have done just about anything to prove my mettle and join.

So, when it came time for my induction—we told our parents we were hiking down to the landing—Dan and I walked over to the foot of Monument Hill where we met four or five more older boys. I stood there nervously in the soggy, still evening air while the bigger kids blindfolded me with a bandana and tied my hands behind my back. Then it was off up the very rugged, very steep path to the—oo-oo-ooh!— secret hideout.

I must have fallen a dozen times, and with no free hands to catch myself I was getting pretty beat up. Then we came to “The Ledge,” a section of the trail that levels off and skirts the shoulder of the hill. There the slope steepened, the path narrowing to what seemed like little more than the width of one sneaker. I turned my feet toes-out and, leaning into the hill, sidestepped along the crumbly sandstone shelf. Feeling supportive hands on my back proved scant encouragement, as I could hear the burble of Lawrence Creek fifty or sixty feet below.

          Just as I was beginning to appreciate 
          that at least I hadn’t skinned or bruised 
          myself…that’s when the pain started.

YES-S-S!, I hissed to myself as I stepped out at last onto the widening path. I’d passed the worst of it. But just as I let down my guard my left foot landed on a round stone. In an instant, I was off the path, sliding a ways down the slope. Well, at least the ground’s pretty soft here, I thought. Without the use of my hands, I struggled to regain my feet.

Just as I was beginning to appreciate that at least I hadn’t skinned or bruised myself…that’s when the pain started. Deep, burning stabs of it—first one, then a couple more…then a lot of them… everywhere. I shrieked, as much out of fear
as hurt.

At first the other boys laughed at my predicament. But then they too started yelling—something about hornets. And then I heard the cowards all run for their selfish little lives.

Except my brother. God bless him, he pulled me up, quickly stripped off my blindfold and ties, and dragged me, stunned, back down the hill.

I found out later I’d fallen into a nest of what, under different circumstances, I would have appreciated as the perhaps the most beautiful and exotic of southern Minnesota’s wasps, the blue mud dauber (Chalybion californium).


When we got home—those other (former) friends were nowhere to be seen—we peeled my sticky shirt off and assessed the damage: 18 one-inch-wide red welts. Dan had quite a few too. Some still had the wasps’ stingers in them. Mom was able to pull most of them out with a tweezers, and then broke out the time-honored, multi-purpose remedy, baking soda.

If nothing else, the cool, white paste took my mind off of the pain, and within half an hour I was feeling much better.

Next day, figuring I’d more than paid my dues, I decided to go back up Monument Hill and claim that admission to the hallowed “secret hideout” for myself. I looked for signs of the mud daubers, but they, like my erstwhile friends, had gone into hiding.

A few hundred yards further down the path I came to a broad clearing in the trees. There in a circle on the tawny pine-needle carpet were a few mossy chunks of deadfall trees around a pretty amateurish stone fire pit. And an old jerky wrapper. That’s it.

So this was the Magical, Mystical Inner Sanctum? All that angst, all that pain…for this? I wondered if those turkeys ever even had a meeting up there. Maybe for rituals, like the rest of life, it was more about the journey than the destination.

And what about after that? Let’s just say word gets around in a community of ten or twelve families. I never heard mention of the place—nor returned there—again.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Make snowballs of it

Have a snowball fight

Use it to dam melt water in the street gutter

Pile it

Sculpt it

Tunnel in it

Eat it

Catch flakes of it on your tongue

Make blocks of it and build an igloo

Stomp huge  “crop circles” in it

Write in it

Study a single flake of it

Make a flavored snow cone

Build a fort of it

Follow animal tracks in it

Breath on it and watch it melt

Make a ball and some pins of it and then bowl

Bury each other in it (with supervision)

Ski on it

Sled on it

Sculpt a jump of it

Build it into a snow slide or luge run

Roll in it

Use sticks, stones and leaves with it to make fairy houses

Shovel a maze in it

Make snow angels on it

Photograph it

Count its subtle colors

Listen to the different sounds it makes when you step on it at different temperatures

Find a big stick and play snow baseball

Get a spray bottle and some food coloring, and color it

On days too cold to play outdoors, bring a bin of it indoors

Bury colorful objects and/or candy in it and have a treasure hunt

Make candled luminaries of it

Play tic-tac-SNOW on it

Play step-in-my-tracks follow-the-leader across it

Play low-impact tackle football (on soft snow only)

Create a slippery slope (a big cardboard box will do) and simulate an avalanche of it

Have a three-legged race in it

Stage a snowball-rolling
competition with it

Have a tug-of-war on it

50  Have a snowball pyramid-building contest

Use earth-moving toys (dump truck, backhoe, steam shovel, etc.) in it.

Make circles of it on a tree or rock and have snowball target practice

Build an obstacle course on it (for kids and/or dogs)

Stage a winter-olympics-style series of running, lifting, throwing games with it

Play mini-golf in it

Build a creative snow man of it

Build a fire on top of a tamped-down pile of it and watch it turn into a huge luminary

Set up shop for a snow hamburger and snow hot dog stand

Have a picnic in it

If you have access to a sauna, cook yourself till you can’t stand it anymore and then run out and roll in it

Make silly hats out of it

Before the next snowfall, make a big stencil of a graphic or message, and let the new snow be your medium

Juggle it

Create shadow art using it as a “screen”

Help shovel it off of someone’s sidewalks or car who can’t do it themselves

Have an “Oh, that’s cold!” contest: everyone buries one bare foot in the snow, and the last one to pull out gets a prize

Make a fancily decorated “birthday cake” of it (and maybe hide a real birthday cake inside)

Decorate a tree trunk with it

Kayak on it

Make a statement in it

Sunday, January 8, 2017

SHADOW OF A DROUGHT – The Price We Pay for Ecological Short-sightedness

Does anyone really think the future will be about how many jobs the earth’s raw materials can generate for human beings? How much of the forest we can clear-cut for grazing and pave over for development?

Can't we do better than selling off our nation's precious wild places—set aside by visionary leaders for all Americans to enjoy in perpetuity—to the highest bidder?

Is the true measure of our prosperity how fast, cheap and easy we can get from one place to another in unsustainable conveyances? Is it how many of the resources lying on or under the ground we can extract for our comfort and convenience?

I’ll tell you what comfort and convenience are. Comfort is not being among the
150 to 200 million people living on land that will end up awash in rising seas or recurring floods by the end of the century, assuming our emissions of heat-trapping gases continue on their current trend.*

Comfort is not being one of the countless species of life whose habitat is being destroyed by human beings at the rate of six square miles PER HOUR. ** Convenience is not having to walk miles to find water that doesn’t make your family sick.

   Comfort is not being displaced...only to find  
   backward-looking reactionaries campaigning to 
   lock you out of the very “nation of immigrants” 
   which once welcomed their own ancestors.

Convenience is not losing your home or your life to one of the steadily escalating number of climate-change-induced extreme weather events worldwide—floods, droughts, tsunamis, heat-waves and other disasters. ***

Comfort is not being displaced, as hundreds of thousands of families are,**** with nothing but the shirt on your back, by a combination of economic, political and environmental conditions around the world—only to find backward-looking reactionaries in the U.S. campaigning to lock you out of the very “nation of immigrants” which once welcomed their own ancestors.

Tell everyone you know—friends, family, colleagues and fellow church members —to think not just about a short-term vision of economic development, law and order and national security, but about the long-term health and sustainability of this precious planet’s natural and human resources. Implore them to consider not just their own well-being, but that of their children and grandchildren.

Urge them to defend their ownership—as guardians, not consumers—of federally protected special places. And to speak up about it in their social circles, in the media and to their congressional representatives.

* Climate Central – www.climatecentral.org
** World Wildlife Federation – www.worldwildlife.org
*** Big Picture – https://bigpictureeducation.com
**** World Economic Forum – https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/12/10-migration-trends-to-look-out-for-in-2016/

Monday, January 2, 2017


The jutting edge of ice, undercut by last week’s melt water, is once more frozen brittle-hard. And ah, the silly joy of wrecking it.

I step, as on a tightrope, along the frozen filigree, and the sonorous, crackling notes, distilled in cold, dense air, belie its delicacy.

Is it just the challenge of finding winter’s upside, or are these fancies of foot not more satisfying than other seasons’ softer sounds of puddle splash or rustling leaves?

I thank Creation for the objects of such pure, simple play…and for such innocence of soul to be moved by them.

Friday, December 30, 2016

HAND PAN MAN – How a Little Music and Kindness Made My Day

When’s the last time you had one of those sublime little moments—a helping hand, a natural wonder, a stranger’s smile—that made you feel Wow, that made my day!?

I’ve been making a concerted effort lately to keep the door of my self-absorbed busy-ness open just a crack so occurrences like that can get in and find room in my soul.

Just this morning I was blessed with such a moment.

I’d stopped—part of my usually mindless morning routine—at my favorite coffee shop for my extra-strong latte. As I chatted with the barista, I noticed they were playing some of the most exquisite music I’ve heard in a long while. And, I thought, what a fine, life-like audio system they must have.

I asked the barista if she knew what was playing or if it was just part of a stream from Pandora or Spotify. She pointed over my left shoulder to a young man sitting and holding what looked like a two-and-a-half-foot UFO in his lap.

As he tapped his hands deftly around the top of the lens-shaped instrument, the sounds he produced had an airy, crystalline brilliance somewhat like those of Caribbean steel drums. It might have been the improvised tone sequences he played, but I also sensed something of the otherworldly mystery of Indonesian gamelan music.

        Often Travis seemed to be more stroking 
        than striking the hand pan.

As I listened, I marveled at not just the elegance of the instrument’s shape, but the deep, metallic colors on both sides, a gradient from a voluptuous aubergine (eggplant) purple to the deepest midnight blue—all with subtle fuchsia highlights. Punctuating the rounded top surface were eight round flattened areas, with deep dents of various sizes in their centers.

The affable musician introduced himself and we talked as he continued playing effortlessly. Travis Wright was eager to talk about his instrument—he called it a hand pan—it’s origin and crafting, and the music. He said the incredible colors were a product of the annealing of the steel during the piece’s crafting.

Surprisingly, the hand pan—or hang—is one of the new kids on the idiophone block. (An idiophone is an instrument that produces sound by its own vibrations rather than those of strings, reeds or membranes.) It was developed in 2000 in, of all places, Switzerland.

Travis explained the unique, exotic tonal qualities of the hand pan, demonstrating how sound vibrations a tap of his fingertips creates on one part of the top move around within the instrument and draw out complementary tones from other parts. He can even create the same kind of etherial “harmonic” notes a guitarist achieves by lightly tapping a string with one finger just as she plucks it with another.

I was surprised at how light a touch it took to generate sound. Often Travis seemed to be more stroking than striking the hand pan.

I asked him if he has a CD or performs formally anywhere. Alas, he said he didn’t—yet—but steered me to some wonderful YouTube examples of other musicians’ fine hand pan playing. Here’s ONE.

There’s more information on the development and use of the hand pan HERE.