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 –
** World Wildlife Federation –
*** Big Picture –
**** World Economic Forum –

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.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

I may be at least partially taking leave of cyberspace for a few days, so I want to wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—84 countries so far—the very best of this season. For us Christians, that means MERRY CHRISTMAS! (para mis hispanohablantes amigos, ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!) For my Jewish friends, it's HAPPY HANUKKAH! (starting, for the first time in nearly 40 years, on Christmas Eve). For all of us here in the northern hemisphere, it's HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE! 

Whatever your celebration, may these days be kind to you, your families and your loved ones! 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

DRIBS & DRABS – The Flavors of Falsehood

Every day I'm seeing more signs of a troubling trend: in more aspects of our lives than folks want to admit, it seems we either want, or are being conned into, a blurring of the lines between reality and …well…something else.

I see it in our culture’s pervasive reliance on little glowing screens—instead of our own senses and experience—to tell us what’s true, what’s real, what’s happening.

I see it in our growing inability to distinguish news from entertainment. And in our ready belief that Facebook friends make us popular or that insipid tweets or mercurial Snapchat posts constitute communication.

I suppose it’s far too easy to blame this epidemic self-deception on this generation’s inundation in technology, but I can think of no other cultural factor since I was a child that can begin to explain such a profound transfiguration of reality.

The signs that we’ve lost our way are everywhere. Our addiction to “reality” TV—which, in many cases, is about as far from my reality as it can be. The belief of many parents—based in part on the “if it bleeds, it leads” editorial MO and 24/7 repetitiveness of today’s mainstream media—that letting their kids play outdoors by themselves is any more dangerous than it was when we were kids.

And don’t get me going about the recent presidential campaign and the fewer-than-half of voters who sullied that solemn office with the election of a vapid TV “reality” star. This pretender and millions of his supporters, marching in lock-step, simply declare, and apparently are convinced, that their feelings and beliefs—not science, not what they can see with their own eyes—are the only reality they trust.

     If you don’t like brie—or wine…or the office 
     of the Presidency—why accept any one of 
     them masquerading as something else?

There are countless other, smaller indications of this “illusion is the new truth” juggernaut, which, if they weren’t seen in that broader context, might seem trivial. Here’s one:

Just this afternoon, at my local Cub Foods store, I found that the bulk foods area—you know, the aisle where you buy grains, nuts, dried fruits, etc. by the pound—is gone. In its place, a few islands featuring pre-packaged quantities of a fraction of the items they offered last week.

Fortunately, I found one of my staples, dried cranberries. But the first plastic container I pulled out was labeled, “naturally-flavored CHERRY dried cranberries." The next said STRAWBERRY. Then there was MANGO and a couple of others.

Alas, there were no CRANBERRY-flavored cranberries to be found!

So what’s next in this Trump, post-truth era? Jerky-flavored brie? Beer-flavored wine? Bling-flavored sleaze? Honesty-flavored corruption?

In my righteous indignation I ask, if you don’t like brie—or wine…or the office of the Presidency—why accept any one of them masquerading as something else?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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——and tell me about the organization and whom to contact. Many thanks, and may you always walk in ways of wonder!