Saturday, December 3, 2016

DONE TO A TURN – The World’s Smallest Barbecue

When I was a boy, my family had a summer home on the lovely St. Croix River, about an hour north of the St. Paul. My brother and I spent many abundant summers there with Mom, while Dad came and went, commuting most days to work in the city.

Franconia, in its heyday an active logging town complete with school, post office, livery, saloon and jail, had found rebirth in the 40s and 50s as a mostly-summer retreat for well-to-do St. Paul families. With its deep-wooded hills, seething meadows, foot-numbing trout stream and, of course, the river, it was an idyllic place. I spent nearly every waking hour outdoors.


Besides the many other city kids our age who shared the adventure with us, Franconia had its share of home-grown characters. There was old Gus Munch, who lived in the old, never painted home right on Lawrence Creek—and whom, strangely, no one ever seemed to see. There were Spuddy and Ike Vitalis. She had dark, leathery skin and a gravelly, baritone, chain-smoker’s voice. And the twinkle in her eye and warm embrace of all us kids all but compensated for Ike's crusty detachment.

One of Spuddy and Ike’s sons was Jackie, a strapping young man in his mid-twenties—a bricklayer. Personality-wise, he took after his mother; he loved kids…and life. With his well-tanned weightlifter’s physique, spirited blue eyes and naturally curly hair, he was the embodiment of Swedish perfection. And he was the idol of all us little river rats.

     By the time he poked his head out into the 
     gap between boughs, Jackie already had him 
     in his sights.

THE HUNTING PARTY
Every July, my family would host all our Franconia neighbors for a pig roast. Dad would buy a whole pig and rent a commercial motorized rotisserie. Early the morning of the event, while he set up the roaster in the back yard, my brother and I would dig a large pit, fill it with bags and bags of charcoal briquettes, and then, with Dad’s close supervision, light it.


One year, after everyone had gotten their fill of that succulent pork and its many accompaniments, Jackie, like an inspired camp counselor, gathered a few of us boys, and enlisted us as co-conspirators in his vision: our own, kid-sized barbecue. Then, with us in tow, he headed home to pick up his .22. 

We set out up the steep, wooded flank of Monument Hill, eyes peeled for our quarry: red squirrel. At the top, we heard it before we saw it. Fifty yards away, hidden somewhere in the impenetrable needleage of a big old pine tree, the little critter had already spotted us and let loose with his scolding chatter.

I'm afraid that squirrel didn’t know who he was up against. Jackie, giving us all a lesson in woodsman’s wiles, motioned us stealthily forward, and there we just waited the little bugger out. As we all held our breaths, the squirrel must have thought we’d left. And by the time he poked his head out into the gap between boughs, Jackie already had him in his sights.


With the rifle’s sharp clap still echoing through the forest, our kill tumbled to the ground, bouncing twice off the thick, tawny bed of needles. Feeling like heroes, we toted our prize back to the barbecue. The only difference between us and those storied safari hunters like Hemingway or Teddy Roosevelt was that no one even noticed our trophy; Jackie's big hand pretty much enveloped it.

A THREE-BRIQUETTE FIRE PIT  
Now came the fun part. We watched, spellbound, as Jackie skinned and gutted the pitiful six-inch carcass. Someone got a coat hanger from the house while I spaded out a little three-by-six-inch pit in the lawn right next to the big pig-roasting pit.

We filled our version of the pit with three briquettes, sprinkled on some lighter fluid and lit it. As the charcoal caught, Jackie helped us fashion our wire spit, complete with a handle for turning. Then, with the squirrel skewered, we mounted the spit between two forked-stick supports and started turning.

In about ten minutes, our little roast was nicely browned and sizzling. There was barely enough meat for all the kids to have a taste, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that we’d had an amazing, creative, once-in-a-lifetime adventure, one that taught us well—albeit on a Lilliputian scale—the timeless ways of hunting and woodsmanship. I wish all kids could have a Jackie Vitalis to inspire and guide them.

And roast red squirrel? Well, I must say it tasted a lot like…squirrel.

Monday, November 28, 2016

NOT YET A TED TALK – How Small Wonders Miss the Big-Time

After a few of years simply admiring it from afar, I finally got to attend the Children and Nature Network’s annual international conference, held this past spring in my home town of St. Paul. The event proved rewarding in many ways, among them simply rubbing shoulders with folks—from all corners of the U.S. as well as 18 other countries—who, I believe, hold the future of mankind’s shaky relationship with Nature in their hands.

Another benefit of the show for me was being able to talk with attendees about my own modest efforts to promote the Children and Nature Movement—indeed, the People and Nature Movement—through my writing and blogging. I was allotted a table to display my first book, Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder.

The response—albeit from a decidedly like-minded audience—was amazing; I’d made my best guess as to how many copies of UWG to bring, and then, just to be on the safe side, tripled that number. I sold them all. Even more gratifying were the kudos I got from people who’d already read my book and said they’d been hoping to meet me in person.

       For some reason, I wondered what was 
       going on under that green, leafy roof.

ON MY KNEES FOR NATURE
Among my customers was a young man from China. Before buying a copy of UWG, he asked me two of the more thoughtful questions folks have asked about my book: Why did you write it? And what is the meaning of the title?

By answering his second question, I answered the first.

One spring evening years ago, I was walking around my neighborhood. Along the edge of one my neighbor’s yards was a patch of wild ginger, a handsome ground-cover plant whose broad, roughly heart-shaped leaves formed a solid canopy about six inches above the ground. For some reason, I wondered what was going on under that green, leafy roof.

So I knelt on the sidewalk, bent over and carefully spread the leaves. There in the cool dark bower below, nestled at the base of each cluster of stems, lay a voluptuous little three-lobed, burgundy, orchid-like flower, as beguiling as something imagined in a fairy tale.


I stood up, brushed off my knees and resumed my walk, my head now pulsing with just one idea: I’ll bet I have at least a hundred experiences just like this one where, simply by changing the way I looked at something, I discovered another of Nature’s countless small wonders. In fact, I’d already written about some of them.

I shared a couple of those jottings with my friend Charlie. He said that if I had enough of them it might make a good book. And with that began a series of serendipitous events which ultimately led to my book getting written, noticed and published by a small New Hampshire publisher.

      I have neither the skills, the tools nor the 
      contacts to get the book into the hands of 
      the people who need it most.

BEYOND THE CHOIR
Though UWG has enjoyed only modest commercial success, I’ve been deeply moved by the ways people have told me they’ve embraced and used it: as part of their daily spiritual devotion; as a guide to experiencing Nature with children; as a book club read; as a theme for church leadership retreats and even sermons.

Getting back to my new Chinese friend’s questions, though I’d never been asked why I wrote my book, I have been asked for whom I wrote it. The answer has changed. At first, I thought it was going to be for children. Then, as all the pieces started coming together, I realized it sounded more like a book for adults—perhaps adults with children.

Among my dilemmas was the fact that, no matter my intended audience, the kind of folks who were showing up at my launch events and readings, the kind commenting at my blog, the kind following me on Facebook and Twitter, were pretty much all the same. I was preaching to the choir.


At the urging of one of my writing coaches—my dear wife, Sally—I’ve continued wrestling with how to broaden my audience, eventually realizing that, to be perfectly honest, I have neither the skills, the tools nor the contacts to get the book into the hands of the people who need it most.

So that’s why I’m offering Under the Wild Ginger, free of charge, to any non-profit organization that can use it more effectively than I can to help bring new blood into the Rediscovering Nature movement. They can use it in programming to instruct and inspire, as an ice-breaker with new audiences, or as a thank-you gift to new members, donors or staff.

If you represent such an organization—or know someone who does—please e-mail me—jeff@willius.com—and tell me about the organization and whom to contact. Many thanks, and may you always walk in ways of wonder!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

MOON AT MY FINGERTIPS – The Rise of Lunulae

Those of you who follow my musings here know how I love to contrast, compare and interpolate between the opposite ends of scales—time, size, distance...

The universe is immense beyond our comprehension. Yet this vastness is reflected figuratively at our fingertips. For there, in a single skin cell, exists another  “universe”—one of ever-smaller and smaller particles.

Also at our fingertips, an anatomical detail so ubiquitous that we human beings seldom, if ever, even notice it—our lunulae. (I can hardly believe I’ve been writing and blogging about the wisdom of wonder for decades, and this is the first time I’ve thought to post about them.)

PHOTO: Kommissar via Wikipedia
Lunulae are those funny little “half-moons” of lighter color that rise from cuticle’s horizon at the base of our fingernails. In fact, their name actually means “little moons” in Latin.

HIDE AND SEEK

The lunula is the only visible part of the nail matrix, or the living part of the fingernail. It looks white because it veils the network of red capillaries underneath, and is visible only because the kind of keratin that makes up human nails is translucent.


There are seldom ten visible lunulae on the hands. Their size decreases from thumb to little finger, and for many of us there is none on the pinky fingers. Toenail half-moons are even more elusive, with most people’s visible only on their big toes. Often, lunulae disappear as one ages.

Information about the lunulae of other primates is extremely hard to come by, but what little I’ve found suggests that all animals with flat finger and toe nails do have them. However, in most cases they’re obscured either by the cuticle or by pigmentation rendering the nails opaque.

CLAIM YOUR TRUTH

Lunulae are yet another example of the myriad small wonders hiding in plain sight on, in and around us all the time. Reserve a little time every day from busy-ness to notice and celebrate them. For, despite what may seem a human race losing touch with reality, this is one small yet increasingly vital way we claim our truth.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

LIFE AND LIMB – A Tree Hugger Turns the Tables


In our neighborhood there’s a stately old cottonwood tree. At first glance, you wouldn’t say there’s anything exceptional about it. But I noticed one day that, as cottonwoods often do, this tree actually has more than one trunk. In fact, there are five distinct trunks, each about the same size—probably ten or twelve feet in circumference—evenly spaced in a circle.


The massive columns, just a few inches apart at the ground, lean slightly outward, leaving just enough room for me to step into their midst. I like to stand in that living enclosure and touch the coarse bark. Then I lean back against one of the trunks and focus my awareness on just that place, that moment. When I do that, I feel something extraordinary.

      I imagine its five trunks as fingers, gently 
      holding me in their knowing grasp.

Maybe it’s just a sense of peace, of being in the moment, but I believe there’s something more. I think what I feel is the spirit of that tree, its acknowledgment, its welcome. It’s as if, through my touch, by my deep awareness of its venerable “being,” it too can sense my presence, my spirit. I imagine its five trunks as gnarly, wrinkled fingers, gently holding me in their knowing grasp.

Does the idea of communicating by touch with an inanimate object seem illogical? I certainly can’t prove that my overtures to that cottonwood were reciprocated. But don’t let that stop you from trying. The trick is, first of all, to be open to the dialog. You have to believe that a tree just might have something to say to you.

Second—and this is even harder for most people—you have to believe it is saying something to you. Now let’s be reasonable; a tree can’t talk. But it does have life and thus, my pantheist persuasion tells me, a spirit. And spirits have no trouble at all communicating. I know this.

Friday, November 4, 2016

THE EBB OF GREEN


The turn of hydrangea preziosa’s leaves seems more a blush of spring than fall, the bloom’s exuberant confetti toss exciting their fandango pink tips.

It is an arousal as much of light as color, its tip-to-base progression reminding me that this is not the sensual surge of May, but October's melancholy ebb of green.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

TEN-FOOT STRIDES


It's one of those precious late-October-in-Minnesota evenings. I've walked tall this past half-hour, body thriving, spirit nourished by all I see and feel. And then, in one captured moment, as sun nestles into thinning treetops across the river, my stature positively soars. Now I walk in ten-foot strides o'er this patchwork quilt of spent, mauve-tinged cottonwood leaves.

And today somehow the contrast between my cool front and warm back feels especially satisfying. Soon I'll have to get here by 3:30 instead of 6:00 to grow like this. Oh, I'll stand tall, but the reach of these sublime colors will be stunted. And both sides of me will be cold.

Friday, October 28, 2016

SHADES OF SHADE

 
A fascinating array of color and life forms inhabit this old windfall. Gnarly white bracket fungus oozes out of dark bark recesses...then doesn’t quite know what to do without a vertical surface on which to cantilever.

Emerald moss seeks out a bit more light on surfaces in brighter shade. And blue-green and gold lichen—a composite, symbiotic organism comprising both a fungus and moss’s more primitive cousin, an alga—likely took up residence here before either of its neighbors.

It is a study, too, of endurance. Fungi and mosses, surviving deep Minnesota winters, can live for years. Lichen, given a more durable substrate than this bark—which is being devoured by the fungus—can easily grow for centuries.