Friday, January 24, 2014


In 1998, Steve Hartman, a young CBS reporter, undertook a fascinating experiment with his On The Road* series. He would go to a map of the United States, close his eyes and point blindly to a spot somewhere in the country. Then he’d go to that place, or, more precisely, to the nearest burg big enough to have a telephone directory.

Once he arrived in AnyTown, USA, he’d go to the first telephone booth he found, open up the White Pages to a random page, and once again covered his eyes and pointed. Whichever name his finger settled on would be the subject of his story. Then he went and interviewed that person.

Whether it was Bill, the ebullient banker from Boise, Patti, the paraplegic paramedic from Peoria or Ulysses, the unemployed utility worker from Utica, it turned out each person had a fascinating, compelling story to tell.

I don’t recall feeling that Hartman’s concept was anything much more than entertaining, but its return to mind many times since then suggests otherwise. It reminds me of something it turns out I’ve been learning on my own all along: that everyone—and everything—has a story. Every one of us has faced challenges, celebrated triumphs, loved and lost, created something unique and coped, in one way or another, with whatever life has thrown at us.

This is why those random, average-Jane-or-Joe interviews were so significant. Their lesson reminds me, every time a make a judgement about something solely in the context of my own experience and values, that I just might be missing something. Like when I lambasted the woman driver who cut me off this morning as I was trying to exit the crosstown.

          I realize now is that all that negativity 
          was based not on her story, but mine.

Believe me, I had no trouble characterizing that woman as aggressive, thoughtless, greedy and just about any other negative judgement you can think of. But what I realize now is that all that negativity was based not on her story, but mine.

I'd been running late myself. I imagined myself to be nicely in control of my life and, truth be told, was probably thinking of nothing more than the lovely, sweet, frothy cappuccino I was about to pick up at Espresso Royale. To me at that moment the woman had no story—other than that single-minded self-indulgence I’d so conveniently ghostwritten for her.

I don’t know what that woman’s story was. But I do know she had one. Maybe it was that she’d just found out her child was injured at daycare. Maybe she’d just lost her job and pondered a future with no income and no savings. Or maybe she was off soaring in the rarefied air of new love. Whatever.

Wouldn’t the world be a kinder, gentler place if we all understood that everything—every person, every creature, every growing thing, indeed every stream and grain of sand—has a story? Not just the story we may have written for it—one so often about what it can do for us—but its own story about how it got there, why it belongs there and, if not, where it needs to go.

     What happens to one organism or one thing 
     has an effect on…well, everything.

Each of these people, each of these things, is significant, not just to the other people and things closest to it, but to the universe. Okay, maybe that’s over-
reaching a bit…or is it? Indeed, there is a growing body of research, not to mention a groundswell of people around the world who know it but perhaps can’t prove it, suggesting that what happens to one organism or one thing has an effect on…
well, everything.

This so-called “butterfly effect”—the fact that a small change at one place in a system can result in immense differences in a different place or a subsequent state—can occur in many ways, perhaps most notably, ways we don't notice and can never fathom. That's why I so often say that wonder is at least partly an act
of faith.

Children and Nature author and visionary Richard Louv reminds us that people won’t love what they don’t know, and that in order for folks to care enough to protect and preserve our dwindling supply of Natural wonder we need to help kids learn about Nature and their place in it.

For by learning the stories of animals, plants, water and the land—and of the places each inhabits—they begin to write their own.

* Hartman did On the Road for seven years, until 2005, and then, in 2010, reprised the series on a global scale. 

Monday, January 20, 2014


 TIP #51
Smell your dog.

You know how dogs smell us with their whole being? Though we can only hope to smell a thousandth as well, we can return the favor. 

Have you noticed that some dogs have a particular warm, nutty smell when they've been sleeping? 
It comes from their feet. (Some people call this Frito feet.) Ears and other parts have different smells. Each is unique to your pet.

Let smells be part of your bond with your dog.

"If only you knew how much I smell you."
Book title, ROY BLOUNT JR.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Heading up to Bemidji, in north central Minnesota near the headwaters of the Mississippi, is always a nice drive. Up there, it’s a mix of pine, birch and aspen forest, the occasional open field and, of course, our state’s ubiquitous lakes.

Winter applies its own kind of beauty, stripping most trees of foliage and blanketing both land and lake in snow. It’s a challenge to find any color but shades of gray and white.

        It is a weightless, translucent white 
        not dumped from above as much as  
        breathed onto the landscape.

To the thirsty eye, though, there are, indeed, sips of colors to be found. Raw umber and burnt sienna oak leaves unable to let go their attachment to summer. The vividly lacquered bark of dogwood and other small, bare shrub stems striating snowy fields in airy patches of gold, burgundy, crimson, rust and even chartreuse. The quick, crimson check mark of a flitting cardinal.

But this time the drive home is different. Not for a coming out of those grudging colors, but for their further retreat. Today they are even more muted, everywhere veiled in white. And not the solid, hefty kind laid on by snow, but the weightless, translucent white of hoarfrost—a coating not dumped from above as much as breathed onto the landscape.

The pines seem to wear the sheer medium most elegantly. Each tuft of needles is rendered rounder, fuller, by frost’s airbrushed highlights. Pure dazzling white on one side wraps to light pastel green on the other. The clumps huddle as boughs, set off against the deep recesses between, places beyond reach of white.

                Birches, without the weight 
                of dark trunks to hold them 
                down, seem to hover...

While the pines seem sculpted, other bare, willowy trees are sketched in fine line. The crowns are consumed in luminous white; the trunks still black but for the frosted windward edges.

And the birches; without the weight of dark trunks to hold them down they seem
to hover, from base to branch a subtle fusion of white on white.


All the while, occasional leaks of sunlight pierce the mottled gray sky, their pools of light slowly sweeping like spotlights across this magical treescape. They turn up what already seems pure white to a brilliance one would think impossible if not lit from within.

Just as we’re thinking it couldn’t get any more glorious, specks of white seem to lift out of the treetops into the gray clouds. First there are a few; then dozens, rising, coming toward us. As they get closer we realize they are trumpeter swans, perhaps just taking off from nearby Itasca State Park.

The birds are huge and, as if intended to be the finale of our wintery wonders show, pure white except for black eyes, bills and feet. We watch the tandem of graceful, paired wingbeats pulse from each bird’s body to its wingtips in perfect mirror-image waves. The swans keep coming, right over us, in groups of five to fifty, for ten minutes.

We are left in awe, speechless.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

HUNKERED DOWN – Bringing Wonder Home

It's already the depth of winter here in Minnesota. Not to worry; we're hearty souls. Generally, we don't let that stop us from enjoying life, even life outdoors—which, by the way, even at minus twenty is still full of great beauty and life.

       A person's need for discovery and wonder 
       doesn't get left at the door like the parka 
       and boots.

Nonetheless, below-zero wind chills conspire with the sun's quitting at 4:30 to make us spend far more time cooped up inside than we do in the summer. Sometimes we have no choice but to hunker down for a couple of days and wait out a blizzard and the arctic deep freeze that so often follows.

But a person's need for discovery and wonder doesn't get left at the door like the parka and boots. Even indoors we're curious; our child side still needs to play, learn and experience delight.

Of course, there's always TV, a good book or the Internet to help pass the long, dark hours. But these, I submit, are remote, second-hand experiences. They may entertain or inform us, but do they really nourish a curious soul in the here and now?

Even indoors I'm always surprised and delighted at how many real-life, present-moment natural wonders await discovery when I'm willing to look with care. Here are just a few examples:

    Study the strokes and patterns; marvel at the 
    feathered crystalline brushwork; imagine how 
    the artist determined where each element in 
    the composition would go.

Could there be a more elegant artistic expression than the crystalline masterpieces Nature renders with water? Outdoors, of course, it’s snow; whether seen as flake
or drift, it's the most sublime of sculptures. Indoors, though, relegated to the two-dimensional “canvas” of frozen glass, she once again outdoes herself.

Look closely at frost; study the strokes and patterns; marvel at the feathered crystalline brushwork; imagine how the artist determined where each element in the composition would go. Touch it; see how ephemeral it is. See if you can melt
it without quite touching it.

Perhaps the one thing that changes most when our world moves indoors is our appreciation of things that live and grow. Instead of marveling at trees, shrubs or flowers in their natural, wild setting, we devise ways to shrink, capture and confine them in pots that clamber close to windows. Try not to take them for granted. These plants, for their staunch, surrogate duty, are all the more worthy of our notice.

For our indoor animal fix, we turn from summer's chancy thrill of spotting critters in their own realms and on their own terms to the certainty of specimens we've shaped to our convenience, bred to need no more than our care and attention. Take advantage of these most opportune occasions to relish your closeness to these dear creatures.

 The subtle white, comet-tail  streaks that suggest 
 the seeds have streaked out from center. And there 
 they’ve landed, on the vivid, glossy surface of the 
 fruit, each cupped in its own tiny crater. 

Instead of discovering a strange new fruit or nut on a wild plant somewhere in the woods, we learn in winter to explore things closer at hand, perhaps things so common we never thought to look at them with wonder. For example, have you stopped to appreciate the elegance of line, color, form and texture in a freshly sliced strawberry?

See how the flesh morphs from furry, white, womb-like core into sweet, solid crimson. Note the subtle white, comet-tail streaks that suggest the seeds have streaked out from center. And there they’ve landed, on the vivid, glossy surface of the fruit, each cupped in its own tiny crater.

Would you agree that discovery and wonder need not be lost on the homebound? See if you can find "wild" living critters like meal worms, spiders or perhaps the occasional holdover ladybug. See what you can discover about another person.

Play with soap bubbles or static electricity. Explore the attic. Cook something. Try to...ah-h-h...wait a second...whoa-a-a!...I'm sorry, I have a fire going in the fireplace, and there's this...amazing bright blue...tongue of flame…