Monday, February 25, 2013


 TIP #21
Appreciate Nature's patterns.

Nature can seem so random. Yet her elegant alignments, rhythms, unisons, and repetitions suggest the hand of a deliberate intelligence.

Hear its wisdom in cricket song and echo; see it in wood grain and feather; know it in fingerprint and heartbeat.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FROZEN IN TIME – Death By Degrees

My hearty fellow winter wonderers: I know you must marvel, as do I, at the hard truth of a frozen lake—this once lively, liquid pool, now captive, groaning, its huddled molecules tired of such close quarters. Where, just four months past or hence, you're in it, one with it, now you're shut out, settling for but a skin-deep appreciation with boot or blade.

Unless you're an ice fisher, chances are that's where your attention ends, your curious juices freezing the instant they hit the surface. But, as with all surfaces, there's more to see if you can look deeper.

Occasionally, a surreal image will catch your eye: a fish frozen into the ice. Sometimes they've died before freezing, floating horizontal to the bottom of the top, there but for ice's shield against beak and talon.

Sometimes they've died before freezing, floating horizontal to the bottom of the top

But, once in a great while, you find one caught alive, vertical, flash-frozen in mid tail stroke. You stop and ponder how it could possibly have not been able to swim away as the water, passing from 33 to 32 degrees, started to set around it.

What went through its little mind as heart kept beating, blood kept flowing awhile, till that too eventually thickened and set.

And I wonder, is there memory in death by degrees?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

NOT QUITE BLACK & WHITE – The Subtle Art of Winter

One recent morning I took our miniature schnauzer, Abby, outside for her morning toilette in the back yard. The sparkling blanket of fresh snow was pristine, but for the occasional trail of tiny paw prints. I could tell the squirrel path by its much bigger prints and the broad indentations the animal had made as it alternately hopped and sank into the snow.

The delicate impressions led across an unspoiled patch of snow and then simply stopped.

One very delicate set of prints caught my eye—likely those of a field mouse or vole. The impressions led across an unspoiled patch of snow and then simply stopped. No obstacle, no escape tunnel…just stopped.

Looking more closely, I noticed that the last few tracks were flanked symmetrically by two subtle, fan-shaped depressions in the snow. Then—this is when the chill went up my spine—I discovered that each of the marks had quite a distinct leading edge; the trailing edge, more delicately drawn, as if by a series of very soft brushes…or feathers!

It was then I knew for sure that the last thing the poor little devil had seen in this life was the swooping shadow of an owl!

It’s for this ability to record such comings and goings that snow is such an asset to hunters, detectives, anyone who needs to track another creature. Besides the obvious information like the number, size and direction of your quarry, snow tracks can reveal to the trained eye things like the animal’s weight, age, or even if it walked with a limp.

These accounts might seem a snapshot of just a carefree moment in a tiny being’s day, or...

To the curious empath, these accounts might seem a snapshot of just a carefree moment in a tiny being’s day, or they might document why there is no such thing for one so low on the food chain.

My wife, Sally, and I were cross-country skiing in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness when we came across a set of fresh wolf tracks crossing the ski trail at right angles. When I stopped to look around, I noticed there was another set of tracks about ten yards ahead of me. I edged along and came across five more equally spaced, parallel sets of wolf tracks.

ILLUSTRATION: Wolf Pack in Moonlight – Robert Bateman

I’d heard that these skilled hunters often spread out like this when tracking their prey—an effective way to comb a large area for sights and scents. I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad when I discovered, between the last two “teeth” of the “comb,” the tracks of a medium-sized deer. I was tempted to follow them to see if I could find signs of either prey’s or predators’ success. Sally nipped that idea in the bud.

Esthetically, it might seem that winters here in Minnesota are to those in warmer places as oatmeal is to a rich, spicy paella. For someone like me who draws nourishment from color, that can prove a pretty bland diet. It seems that, when all our buildings were designed, there must have been a shortage of materials—even paint—in any colors but shades of white, brown and gray.

Compound this dreary palette with our low winter sun’s feeble output and daylight that’s snuffed by 4:30, and you have a recipe for what we call “cabin fever.” As Garrison Keeler captures so hilariously in his reports from Lake Wobegon, we stoically accept what is and make the best of it.

Isn’t it the pigment we bring to the mix that ultimately determines the color we see?

But is winter really so drab, or is the gray just a reflection of our constrained spirits? To be fair, when you put your mind to it, there is, indeed, color to be found in a Minnesota winter. You catch it in drops of vivid nylon running down a ski slope. It rises in the roaring flamboyance of a hot air balloon.

Indoors, it might wrap you in a bright, cozy throw or beguile you with the sizzling yellow and orange dance of a fire. It’s in a ruddy cheek, a warm smile and the resilient spirits of the folks you get to know so well when you’re housebound together for a while.

And, for those of us unsatisfied with man-made color, even Nature teases us with her reluctant hues. Unlike those of summer that nearly accost you, these shades tend to lay low, obscure to all but the most determined, most appreciative eye.

They’re the raw umber and burnt sienna cloaks the oak trees refused to give up last autumn; the golden, burgundy, crimson, even chartreuse stems of dogwood and other shrubs; the gilded glow of sun setting over virgin snow; the arresting, pure red check mark of a cardinal alighting for just an instant.

The color of winter is, at its best, a collaboration. Nature does her part, albeit begrudgingly. The rest is up to us. After all, isn’t it the pigment we bring to the mix—in our openness, our creativity, our zest for life, our rejection of cynicism —that ultimately determines the color we see?

Yes, you may have to look a little harder, perhaps open your heart and soul a bit further, but, as with anything in short supply, you learn to appreciate winter’s little wonders all the more for their subtlety. The alternative? Well, believe me, it can be an awfully long time between October and March.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

BETCHA CAN’T LICK THAT FENCE POST! – Acquiring a Taste for Winter

It’s been said that the Inuit language has scores of different words for snow. While most linguists dispute this, wouldn’t it make sense for a culture in which snow is such a constant, intimate presence? I suppose we’d have lots of words too if snow were more than an inconvenience to us—or if we paid more attention to its sublime beauty.


No matter how well equipped you are to describe snow, the stuff has many amazing qualities. Its sheer whiteness; its power and beauty as a reflector of the sun, from enchanting sparkle to blinding glare; the incredible designs of its flakes, shards and pellets; the range of textures those particles create en masse—from powder to “corn,” to snowball-able, to slush; the graceful shapes it assumes when sculpted by the wind; and its ability to record everything from the passing of a vole to the progression of climate change over millennia.

An airplane, sounding so close it must be coming 
in for a landing, is really a speck, still three or 
four miles up.

One of the silver linings of those crystal clear 20-below-zero nights we have up here is the sounds. When it gets that cold, the air’s usually so dry that the snow sounds like Styrofoam when you walk or drive on it. As a January evening’s concert lets out, the hall’s yet-unplowed parking lot becomes its own musical postlude, a chorus of squeaks, crunches and groans from scores of tires compressing tiny crystals.

Extreme winter temperatures also do amazing things to the atmosphere. You can almost feel the molecules of subzero air huddling closer together. The world seems to compress around you. Sound carries differently too, as if you were inside a big box.

Music, kids’ laughter and the clatter of hockey sticks, carrying from a rink three blocks away, sound like they’re right next-door. An airplane flies over, sounding so close it must be coming in for a landing. You look up and see that it’s a speck, still three or four miles up.


There’s a whole library of winter folklore up here on what we call the frozen tundra. One example: when it’s minus 25 or more, you take a pan of boiling water outside and throw the water up into the air. The droplets freeze so fast that they explode into a fine, frozen mist with a loud hiss.

Extreme cold like this exerts a strange attraction on some folks. One night a few years ago, the temperature in Tower MN reached minus 60. (That’s the thermometer temperature, not the wind-chill index.) When the forecast came out, people flocked up there from all over the state to camp out that night. All survived, though many of their cars required defibrillation.

I noticed something on one of the metal posts. I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I discovered the distinct taste buds.

When I was in grade school, I was walking home one January afternoon and came to a chain-link fence I passed nearly every day. This time I noticed something on one of the metal posts. I shuddered when, on closer inspection, I discovered the distinct taste buds. It was a quarter-inch-square piece of some poor kid’s tongue.

Everyone around here knows that story; it’s part of the mythology. But I know—and, more poignantly, that poor, gullible kid knows—it’s true.

Playing hockey outdoors before indoor rinks were common was a lesson in physics. Steel on ice, both of them rock-hard solids, one gliding effortlessly, not on the other, but on a thin film of water. Rubber pucks, their molecular structure transformed by the cold, shattering like glass when they hit the goalpost just right.

Flesh, exposed to minus 50 wind-chill, turning in blotches from red to frostbite white. Capillaries in toes, feeling like a thousand needle stabs, flowing again as they warmed from their pre-frostbite numbness.

All right, I know everyone who lives anywhere has his or her own  war stories about their weather. But I say you can have your hurricanes and heat waves, your supercells and sand storms. I’ll take the winter weather wonders of Minnesota any day. C’mon, I know you’re envious!