Thursday, October 12, 2023


Thank you, leaf.

Thank you for your one thread in the tapestry of a hundred greens that forms the backdrop of my every summer glance;

For being my breath’s inverse, exhaling exactly what I need, inhaling what I don’t;

For your microcosmic demonstration of how watersheds feed rivers...though in reverse;

For helping cleanse the mess we make of air and soil;

For your voice in the whispered chorus stirred by wind…and for dancing to the music;


For laying one tile in a living roof that shelters a community, from bacteria to bugs, to bears, to beings;

For thriving on the very rays that would hurt me, for shade that cools whole forests and neighborhoods;

For nourishing my hungry eyes with works of color, form, texture and pattern;

For your showy translucence that begged me to make lampshades of you;

For your gracious surrender to winter, your spent crisps falling to blanket yards and delight young hearts;

For your elegant testament to the inevitable cycle of life, fed by, then feeding the soil beneath your feet;

For teaching me that this promise of renewal is more real than many folks’ futile hope for permanence;

For all these gifts—and those of your earthly kin—three-hundred quadrillion* thank yous, leaf!

* Three-hundred quadrillion (300,000,000,000,000,000): the approximate number of leaves on all our planet's trees—based on the journal Science's estimate of three trillion trees, and using half of Quora's estimate of 200,000 leaves per mature tree.

Monday, September 11, 2023

WATER MUSIC – The Complex Song of a Cascade

If you follow me here at OMW or on Facebook, you know I’ve been volunteering to visit a delightful 108-year-old woman twice a week at her nursing home. She loves it when we head outdoors to the gardens and sit in front of the largest of three cascading waterfalls there.

She’s often characterized the sound of that tumbling water as musical, as having a voice. And that’s got me thinking.

How would you describe the sound of this kind of rushing water? Not a waterfall, where it does a free-fall and kind of explodes when it hits bottom; not a flume, where it’s fast, but more soft-spoken; but more of a steep, rocky rapids. That, my aquaphile friend and I have observed, is where this quicksilver element’s at its musical best.

       What we heard is not a homogeneous sound,
       not a solo, but a chorus of many voices.

What is it about that sound that we find so calming, so enchanting? So much so that nearly every “white noise machine” on the market features it as one of its tracks.

At this morning’s visit I did with the cascade’s voice what I so often suggest we all do with Nature’s small wonders: I experienced it as if for the very first time.

What we heard this morning is not a homogeneous sound, not a solo, but a chorus of many voices. I tried to separate those parts and appreciate each for its unique contribution to the harmony.

There aren’t even words—not in English anyway—for some of the sounds. But those our language can approximate with single words include:

Rush, gurgle, swish, splash, titter, slap—they’re all there. And when you think about those verbs you realize each connotes a very distinct sound. (In fact, most of these words are onomatopoeic; they sound like what they describe.)

What do you think? Have I missed some intonations of water that you’ve discerned? Do you have a favorite type and scale of water music? We’d love
to hear from you.  



     They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not
     just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, the voice of
     perpetual Becoming.

Friday, September 8, 2023

SCARS OF SUMMER – The Perfect Beauty of Decay

We’re so accustomed, aren’t we, to equating beauty with symmetry, with youth…with perfection. I’m as guilty as anyone, I guess. But isn’t autumn the most persuasive invitation to revisit that bias?

Couldn’t we learn to see the fallen petals, the droops, curls, crimps and ragged seed heads not as flaws, but words in a poem about the patina of character?  

I want to see those blemishes as emblems of the joy each bloom has lent the eye, the food and nectar they’ve served up, the progeny borne, the artists inspired.

And, after all, as a lesson offered us older, equally-imperfect human beings on the meaning, the true value, of a life well lived?

"Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light." ~ THEODORE ROETHKE

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

MY WORD! – False Cognates and Other Slips of the Second-Language Tongue

Some 20 years ago, back when I was still trying to boost my Spanish from beginner’s level to intermediate, I got a priceless lesson on what are called false cognates—words that sound like they’d mean the same thing in different languages…but, sometimes tragically, don’t.

I was attending a big wedding reception in La Trinidad, a tiny village just outside of Puebla, Mexico. Sitting at the dining room table in the home of the bride’s parents, along with other members of the family, I needed a break and asked where to find the baño. Following the directions upstairs, I found myself in a small foyer surrounded by several rooms, each separated from the hall by a thick curtain.

For no particular reason I picked door number two and swept open the curtain. The young woman sitting on the toilet five feet in front of me scrambled to cover herself with a handful of toilet paper, but the damage was done. Backing gingerly away, I blurted some form of “Oops!” and waited nervously across the hall.

When she emerged, I clasped both hands to my heart and said earnestly: ¡Estoy tan embarasado! She seemed to accept my apology graciously, which must have been hard for her, since—as I later found out—I'd just managed to forget about one of the most notorious English-to-Spanish false cognates, and exclaimed “I’m so very pregnant!”

You can bet I learned the real word for “embarrassed,” (It’s avergonzado) and it has stayed learned. There are quite a few other potential slip-ups in Spanish; let’s hope I’ve learned them the easy way.


I recently asked my dear friend and one-time Spanish teacher, Silverio, who moved from Mexico City to Minneapolis about 25 years ago speaking very little English, what some of his most memorable gaffes have been. He recalled many, but these two stand out:

Having dinner with some co-workers, Silverio noticed that the guy across from him had a bit of French fry stuck just above his right eyebrow. Since the Spanish word for that part of one’s face—frente—wasn’t going to work with these all-American boys, he wracked his brain for the right term in English.

Let’s see…fore-…something or other. Oh yeah, got it. Pointing at the spot on his own face, Silverio shouted across the table, “Hey Larry, you’ve got something on your foreskin.”

Silverio, like me with my “pregnancy,” learned that vocabulary word the hard way. (And he’s still avergonzado to this day.)

One day at work he was on the phone with an important prospective customer. When the woman asked him how many people would be assigned to her account, Silverio knew he’d have to discuss the matter with his boss. But his nascent grasp of English word order turned his intended promise into a threat:
“I’ll get you back.”

I can’t address false cognates without thinking of their cousins, malapropisms.* Malapropisms are words—in your own, first language—that don’t quite sound the same as the word you’re grasping for, but are close enough to be funny—and might even slip by unnoticed. Unlike false cognates, there’s no translation involved; you just blurt out the wrong word. Like this classic, from Mrs Malaprop herself: “He is the very pineapple of politeness!” Or this one from Aunt Sally in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “I was most putrified with astonishment.”

What are some of your—or others’—funniest or most mortifying slips of the tongue? We’d love to hear from you!

* The term “malapropism” comes from a character called Mrs. Malaprop, from The Rivals, a 1775 five-act comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Malaprop did, in fact, use words incorrectly as a funny quirk of her character. Her name became the default term for misusing a word. Her name, in turn, comes from the French mal à propos, or “inappropriate.”

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

BENCHED – Taking a Walk Sitting Down

Every summer, it seems, opens Sally’s and my hearts to a few new discoveries, new experiences. This waning summer has been no exception. Some of these new finds are things most folks wouldn’t find the slightest bit stirring. Yet for us they’ve become treasured parts of our daily routine.

A block and a half down East River Parkway one of our neighbors has installed a bench in their front yard, at the edge of the public sidewalk. Quite unlike the occasional bench the city built along the walking/biking path across the street—some of them dilapidated and facing neither passersby nor any view but the thick stands of invasive buckthorn right in front of them—our neighbors' seating is placed very thoughtfully.

             It’s under the leafy umbrella
             of a mature horse chestnut tree.

They could have put it on the ample boulevard, between the sidewalk and the street. That would have set sitters a bit closer to the steep, wooded slope down to the Mississippi flowing below. But it would have given priority to views of soulless sedans and SUVs passing by.

They could have placed the bench ten or twelve yards further west, in more or less the center of their stretch of sidewalk. But that would have put it in full sun during some parts of the day.

No, these thoughtful folks put their gift to pedestrians right next to the sidewalk, where one can interact with neighbors—and their social-lubricant dogs—walking past. And it’s way over in one corner of the yard, under the leafy umbrella of a mature horse chestnut tree. (Amazing, isn’t it, how cozy and sheltered a tree can render the space it overspreads.) The bench is also right next to a flower bed.

     If it takes being an old man to value such
     languor, I must be aging faster than I thought!

“Our” bench has become kind of a focal point of our daily walk. Even though its location falls far short of what should be the terminus for a healthy, two- or three-mile walk, what it affords our souls outweighs what a longer walk might do for our hearts.

We love stopping there. (Sylvia’s now learned the word “bench,” and automatically stops and lies down next to it.) We sit, she jumps up in Sally’s lap, and we just chill and observe the usually lazy pace of life as it flows past us. And, since we’re both fairly busy most days, it’s also one of the few occasions where we get to enjoy each other’s full attention.

“Benching it” has become another of what seems like an ever-greater number of our activities that stand out for their sheer simplicity. Hey, if it takes being an old man to value such languor, I must be aging faster than I thought!

Nearly as pleasant as the well-placed bench and Sally’s and my conversation is meeting our “hosts,” Lynn and Rahul, who’ve happened out to visit with us a couple of times. They’re very nice, and are among the few people we ever meet these days who actually seem to care who we are as much as they expect us to care who they are.

We’re trying to think of an appropriate gift we could leave for Rahul and Lynn to say thanks for their putting out “our” bench. What do you think? A small coffee table? Maybe a footrest?

Do you have a special place or activity, one that might seem ridiculously simple, where you can pass a little time just quietly observing, allowing Nature and neighbors—and perhaps a dear friend or partner—to nourish your spirit?

Friday, August 25, 2023

HOWLIN’ HARMONY – Sylvia Sings With Coyotes

So Sally and I are just down the block, sitting on our favorite bench along East River Parkway. Our mini-schnauzer, Sylvia, is sitting in Sally’s lap, her keen senses piqued by every movement, sound and smell within a hundred yards. Walkers, bikers, squirrels, a few cars.

Then the relative quiet is pierced by the wail of sirens, and Sylvia’s ears perk up. The emergency vehicles are headed our way, and sure enough we spot a couple of fire trucks tearing down the street right toward us.

Sylvie’s getting agitated now, and when they’re about a block away, she points her nose toward the sky, purses her lips and starts belting out her demure version of a full-throated, primal wolf howl.  

I cover my ears as the trucks scream past and Sylvie keeps howling for another
ten seconds.

As the sirens fade into the distance, Silvia catches her breath, and a new sound emerges from the din. Right across the parkway, somewhere on the steep, wooded slope down to the Mississippi—and no more than 50 yards away—a pack of coyotes is still performing their unique, siren-provoked medley of howls and high-pitched barking. And it’s not just one or two; it sounds like the whole, extended family.

       It is a profound reminder of the timeless
       connection between all creatures.

Coyotes may be the most populous, yet reclusive, wild animal in the U.S. It’s hard to believe how many there are, even right here in the city.* And when you run into one face to face—as I have occasionally—blocking your way on the foot path, or hear them sounding off en masse as we just did, it touches a nerve.

That’s because few people, especially those of us who live in the city, ever come face to face with a wild, free carnivore. The rare privilege of doing so is essential to our understanding that the natural world does not—or at least should not—revolve entirely around homo sapiens.

Our arresting encounter today is a profound reminder of the timeless connection between all creatures— in fact, the oneness of…everything.

One is seldom moved to contemplate the scope of such awareness. But this communing between our little dog and those coyotes, the stirring consonance of their common ancestry, brings it home for me as few experiences have.

* There are significant populations of coyotes (canis latrans) in every U.S. state except Hawaii. The U.S. total has been estimated at between 3,000,000 and 5,000,000.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023


This morning I visited my 108-year-old friend at her nursing home. (To guard her privacy, I’ll call her Fran). I think it’s safe to say that, during each of my twice-weekly visits over the past year—as we’ve chatted, as I’ve read the newspaper to her or played her favorite music—she’s never once remained awake for more than ten minutes at a time.

Today was very different. She likes going outdoors, but between days too cool or hot and those with air quality alerts, we haven’t had many chances to do so. Today’s nearly perfect, so I wheeled her down five floors and out into the residence’s beautiful inner garden courtyard.

Her favorite place to stop and sit is right in front of the first of the gardens’ three waterfalls. That spot was in full, early-July sun, so I was concerned she might get too warm, but she said it felt good.

Fran’s hearing relies on one temperamental hearing aid, and she has trouble speaking clearly, but today she could hear both the waterfall and me, and we fell into an easy conversation.

We started talking about water, about seeing it as if for the very first time. Its stunning clarity, the way it feels on one’s skin, and, as Fran put it, the music it makes as it trips and tottles its way over rocks.

         "I’m so glad you brought me out here!”
           Her eyes welled up with tears.

She noticed some purple liatris whose spikes of sunlit color managed to penetrate the veil of her failing eyesight. A monarch butterfly kept circling us, fluttering ever-closer. It declined my invitation to alight on Fran’s hand, but just kept flying back and forth right in front of her…until she saw it.

At one point, after a brief silence. Fran turned to me and said haltingly, “I just love this; I’m so glad you brought me out here!” Her eyes welled up with tears as she said it, and I realized what a gift this little outing must have been for one whose day-in, day-out confinement starves her of Nature’s wonders.

In the U.S and many other cultures of the developed world, childhood brings us as close to Nature as we’ll ever get. Then we grow up, tie ourselves to our education, careers and homes, and many of us forget what it was like to be one with the natural world.

I’ve always felt that the end of a human being’s life should be more like a mirror image of its beginning. Specifically, wouldn’t it make sense that Nature play as big a role in our health and happiness when we’re old as when we were young?

This is one of the reasons I originally signed up for visiting Fran and other old folks in nursing homes. I imagined myself in those well-worn shoes and how diminished mobility and the realities of institutional living can lead to one’s estrangement from Nature. I thought I could change that.

This morning Fran more than affirmed that hope.

         The most important implement I can
         bring is the turning of a door handle.

I always bring with me to my visits with Fran my “tool kit” of things to read, pictures to look at, music to listen to, perhaps a few games to play. So, whatever diversion she’s in the mood for, I’ll have what we need.

But the most important activity I can bring, as Fran has reminded me, is the turning of a door handle. For it is only outdoors where all of one’s senses are brought to life at the same time, where a person whose horizon draws near is assured of not just an escape from their four walls with bad art, but a sense of essential belonging—today, tomorrow, forever.

I hope with all my heart that this will be the case for me. That when I’ve lost my precious abilities to walk and climb and paddle…and see, someone will be kind enough to lend me those capacities. Take me outdoors with the animals and plants, the moving air and singing water, and let Nature replenish my soul with her perfect, timeless beauty and wisdom.