Tag: nature

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

This picture barely captures how cool the evening light was through these clouds at my local strip mall:

Remnants of winter:

Black Play-Doh + white Play-Doh = accidentally awesome marbled design:

“Aphyllous trees beneath cirrocumulus clouds” sounds like a line from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” but is really just what I caught here at our park:

Just doing domino runs with Jenga blocks with the 2 year old:

On the move in Pure Michigan:

Liked the colors and lines here:

Shout-out to the kids playing pickup baseball at the park who probably have never seen The Sandlot but nevertheless showed why it’s such a timeless classic:

Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters

A friend of mine recently moved to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He said he’d been looking online for information about the region when he stumbled upon mention of an obscure book that was supposed to really capture the area well. It was the short story collection Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters by Lynn Maria Laitala, and having now finished it I can say it’s one of my favorite reads in a long time.

I’ve never been to the Boundary Waters. I had a chance in high school to take a canoe/portaging trip with other kids in my youth group, but I didn’t go and regret it. I do, however, have lots of memories in northern Wisconsin, where I’ve spent time fishing, hunting, and exploring. That experience, combined with my interest in the stories of people from the Northwoods and my family history (more on this later), made this book a big, bright green light.

If not for my friend’s strong recommendation, I probably would have never heard of this book or given it much of a chance if I had. This is mostly for superficial reasons: it has an amateur, self-published look (excepting the beautiful chapter-heading illustrations by Carl Gawboy, as sampled in this post) and contains far too many basic and frankly egregious editing errors.

I’m glad I pushed past my pedantry and focused on the storytelling, because it’s exceptional.

About the book

Spanning several generations, from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, each of the 27 relatively short and standalone stories are told from a different person’s perspective around the northern Minnesota town of Winton. (The Genealogy of Characters was very helpful for orienting myself throughout the book.) Each story intertwines and overlaps with the others, both explicitly—through shared characters and setting—and implicitly, through common themes of people struggling against nature, their kin, and themselves.

Laitala’s brief preface is worth quoting in full because it sets the stage well for the rest of the book:

The Minnesota Historical Society hired me to collect oral histories in northern Minnesota after I went home to Winton in 1974. I designed a questionnaire to elicit information for scholarly use. My first aged informant patiently answered the formula questions; then he said, “That isn’t how it was, Lynn.” When I learned to listen, people told me intimate stories of love and loss, failure and grief.

In 1978 federal legislation made the Boundary Waters—including Basswood Lake—a legal wilderness, a place without history. Inspired by the oral histories and wanting to memorialize the old spirit of the border country, I began to write these stories.

Down from Basswood is told in many voices, the way I learned the history of the place.

Laitala movingly memorializes “the old spirit” of this region by exploring two of its people groups—the Chippewa natives and the Finnish immigrants—and how they struggled to cobble together an existence in a hardscrabble time and place.

A family connection

Being one-third Finn myself, I take a vicarious pride in Finlanders both past and present. My grandpa Cliff was even more Finnish than I am: he spoke the language and, as an FBI agent, was eventually stationed in Superior, Wisconsin, largely due to his heritage. (According to his memoir, it was his supervisor who thought “because I was of Finnish extraction that I should go where the Finns were.”) He was there for 24 out of his 25 years in the FBI—an unusual feat given how most agents were in multiple offices. He would have had lots of experience with the Finnish community and specifically the Finnish communists, given how virulently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at the time.

Also part of his job was investigating crimes in the region’s Native American reservations, which at the time were under federal (rather than state) jurisdiction. Undoubtedly this would have influenced his views of the indigenous tribes he encountered, but how exactly I’ll never know.

A master class of insight

I do wonder what he would have thought of this book, because it doesn’t succumb to the worn tropes of Native Americans in fiction. Quite the opposite: Laitala’s ability to empathize with all her characters while maintaining an observer’s distance turns the book into a master class of keen insight, both at the sentence level and through the overarching narrative.

Like this sentence from chapter 4 (“Burntside Spring”):

Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.

This is from the perspective of Kaija Lahti, a grieving and pregnant widow who took in Matt, a stranger and fellow Finnish immigrant, as a farm worker. He’d returned wearily from a long day. By pausing to take note of the frogs and other sensory cues from her surroundings, Kaija could get present, step outside her own skin, and see another person’s struggles as just as important as hers.

Another thing that was so invigorating about the book was how much I learned. Knowing it’s based on real people’s testimonies and the author’s own experience helped illuminate a whole world and collective of people that are too often kept in the dark.

Chapter 5, for instance (“When Darkness Reigns”), serves as a mini seminar on Finnish communists, logging camps, the IWW, and how abuses of power by corrupt governments and bosses can perpetuate socioeconomic hardship. Other stories shine a light on the gritty work of mining, conflicts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, true outdoorsmanship as a way of life, and the immigrant’s struggle between expectations and reality.

The book also follows people finding grace even in defeat, as is the case with Aina in chapter 7 (“Children of God”):

I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.

Updating my priors

Another unexpected development was the appearance of Sigurd Olson, the late wilderness guide, nature writer, and author of The Singing Wilderness, one of my favorite nature books. He’s portrayed in a few of the stories as a well-meaning but patronizing buffoon—and worse, as an opportunistic interloper who exploited the lands and indigenous people he romanticized for his own financial gain.

Specifically, chapter 10 (“Jackfish Pete”) has Olson waxing rhapsodic about the supposed uncivilized wilderness his indigenous guides know actually to be long settled and familiar land to the locals. On the contrary, they claim:

There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.

How closely Laitala’s portrayal of Olson hews to reality is hard to discern, but given her source material and Olson’s documented role in promoting the Boundary Waters, it’s not hard to imagine it being uncomfortably incisive.

Making wilderness

But that’s just what she does in Down from Basswood, chapter after chapter. At just over 200 pages it has the concise, spartan writing style of a journalist not wanting to waste words, yet beneath those words are an evocative depth befitting the multi-generational epic it truly is. In that way it felt like Wendell Berry’s Port William stories and Joel & Ethan Coen’s 2018 anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs condensed into a single volume you’d be able to read in a day but actually couldn’t for its sheer richness.

I’ll conclude with a passage I consider to be one of the defining metaphors of the whole book. It’s from chapter 21 (“Clearances”), which finds Emily—a second-generation Finnish American teen who’d endured a traumatic childhood like most of her peers—walking with her date alongside a work zone demolished in preparation for the coming freeway:

I got off the wall, walked up the front walk that ended in a pile of rubble and picked a tulip. I peered into its dark center.

“On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future,” I said, “but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.”

Eric didn’t answer. He was already moving on.


Favorite quotes

  • Charlie called Ira “bourgeois”, or big shot, because he sat between them in the middle of the canoe. In the fur trade days, the bourgeois were the men who didn’t want to work. The Indians laughed at them because paddling is the joy of traveling.
  • When Aunt lay dying she said to me, “Don’t harden yourself to death, Mary, because if you do, you will harden yourself to life.”
  • Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.
  • I was wounded in the Battle of Mukden. Over 8000 men were killed, more than 50,000 wounded. It’s hard to imagine, when you hear those numbers, that each was a man who once delighted in the freshness of spring.
  • As I carried gear into the tents, Magie jerked his head in my direction. “Finlander,” he said. One of the officials laughed. “Weak minds but strong backs.”
  • Spring peepers trilled their shrill evening song and I heard them with my heart.
  • I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.
  • There’s nothing I like better than a meal of fresh fish—but fight fish for sport? If you look at it one way, it’s torturing creatures for fun. Look at it another, you’re playing with your food.
  • There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.
  • In school, the teachers talked about a great America beyond the woods and lakes, beyond men in ragged overalls who worked on rock farms and in lumber camps, beyond women who spoke Finnish and danced to accordion music on Saturday nights. America, the land of opportunity, was somewhere else.
  • My cheek pressed into the rough wool shirt. I smelled spruce and woodsmoke, heard the thumping of Jake’s heart. “Do you have to go home today?” he asked. “No,” I said. I was home.
  • Legend has it that a Finnish man once loved his wife so much that he almost told her.
  • Only sometimes, when I sit near the shore at my cabin watching the waves ebb in the waning light of the midsummer sun, does my heart fill with old yearnings.
  • My parents say the immigrants were fools who expected to find streets paved with gold. They got hardship and misery. But if you go out walking in the early spring when the marsh marigolds run riot, you will find the woods carpeted with gold.
  • On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future, but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.
  • It’s easier to find two sides in history than in life.
  • The sounds that break the silence of the north are haunting sounds—the crying of the wolves, the loons, the wind.
  • Things seldom turn out the way we expect them to.
  • You know what I liked about the culture? Tolerance, frugality, humor, generosity. How do you restore that with funding? Those are the things that money destroys.

Meditations on Hunting

Can’t remember how I came upon it, but I recently read Meditations on Hunting by philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, published in 1972 and apparently considered a classic in hunting literature. It isn’t really about hunting itself, but the philosophies that undergird it and the meaning it can provide.

I found great wisdom in these quotes, and not only as someone who has hunted a fair amount of duck and a little bit of deer in my life. Hunting is at once an ancient activity that fulfilled basic needs and an altogether modern one that demands one’s full attention and respect for the nature beyond ourselves.

Ortega y Gasset incisively captures this dichotomy and everything in between. Here are some quotes from the book that stood out to me.

On diversion:

“‘Diversion’ usually indicates only comfortable situations, to the extent that, used carelessly, it connotes ways of life completely free of hardship, free of risk, not requiring great physical effort nor a great deal of concentration. But the occupation of hunting, as carried on by a good hunter, involves precisely all of those things.”

On life’s occupations:

“The life that we are given has its minutes numbered, and in addition it is given to us empty. Whether we like it or not we have to fill it on our own; that is, we have to occupy it one way or another. Thus the essence of each life lies in its occupations.”

“The fact is that for almost all men the major part of life consists of obligatory occupations, chores which they would never do out of choice. Since this fate is so ancient and so constant, it would seem that man should have learned to adapt himself to it and consequently to find it charming. But he does not seem to have done so.”

“All this indicates that man, painfully submerged in his work or obligatory occupations, projects beyond them, imagines another kind of life consisting of very different occupations, in the execution of which he would not feel as if he were losing time, but, on the contrary, gaining it, filling it satisfactorily and as it should be filled. Opposite a life which annihilates itself and fails—a life of work—he erects the plan of a life successful in itself—a life of delight and happiness.”

On happiness:

“All men, in fact, feel called on to be happy, but in each individual that general call becomes concrete in the more or less singular profile in which happiness appears to him. Happiness is a life dedicated to occupations for which that individual feels a singular vocation. Immersed in them, he misses nothing; the whole present fills him completely, free from desire and nostalgia. Laborious activities are performed, not out of any esteem for them, but rather for the result that follows them, but we give ourselves to vocational occupations for the pleasure of them, without concern for the subsequent profit. For that reason we want them never to end. We would like to eternalize, to perennialize them. And, really, once absorbed in a pleasurable occupation, we catch a starry glimpse of eternity.”

On hunting’s code of ethics:

“Hunting, like all human occupations, has its different levels, and how little of the real work of hunting is suggested in words like diversion, relaxation, entertainment! … It involves a complete code of ethics of the most distinguished design; the hunter who accepts the sporting code of ethics keeps his commandments in the greatest solitude, with no witnesses or audience other than the sharp peaks of the mountain, the roaming cloud, the stern oak, the trembling juniper, and the passing animal. In this way hunting resembles the monastic rule or military order.”

On looking at past problems with today’s solutions:

“Every time man looks at a past life from his perspective of the present, he sees, alongside the problems that weighed upon it, the solutions which, for better or for worse, these problems received. And so it naturally seems that every past life was easier, less full of anguish, then the present life; it is a charade whose solution we possess beforehand.”

On the pleasure of ‘being Paleolithic’:

“This is the reason men hunt. When you are fed up with the troublesome present, with being ‘very twentieth century,’ you take your gun, whistle for your dog, go out to the mountain, and, without further ado, give yourself the pleasure during a few hours or a few days of being ‘Paleolithic.'”

“When we leave the city and go up on the mountains it is astounding how naturally and rapidly we free ourselves from the worries, temper, and ways of the real person we were, and the savage man springs anew in us. Our life seems to lose weight and the fresh and fragrant atmosphere of an adolescence circulates through it.”

On returning to nature:

“Man is a fugitive from Nature. He escaped from it and began to make history, which is trying to realize the imaginary, the improbable, perhaps the impossible. History is always made against the grain of Nature. The human being tries to rest from the enormous discomfort and all-embracing disquiet of history by “returning” transitorily, artificially, to Nature in the sport of hunting.”

On the physical senses of hunting (quoting Eduardo de Figueroa, 8th Count of Yebes):

“There is one of the hunter’s senses which must work indefatigably at all times. That is the sense of sight. Look, look, and look again; at all times, in all directions, and in all circumstances. Look as you go along; look while you are resting; look while you are eating or lighting a cigar; up, down, back over the ground you have just covered, at the hill crests, at the ledges and dells, with binoculars and the naked eye, and always be aware that if you know how to look, the beast that you have not found in eight hours of backbreaking work can appear within a hundred meters, when just at sunset, worn out and cursing your interest, you are taking off your shoes and caring for your aching feet in the door of a shelter or a tent. It’s good advice.”

On the need for attention and alertness:

“The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen, and this is one of the greatest attractions of his occupation. Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style—an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a “universal” attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all its zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man.”

On seeing the “least foreseeable” solutions:

“The only man who truly thinks is the one who, when faced with a problem, instead of looking only straight ahead, toward what habit, tradition, the commonplace, and mental inertia would make one assume, keeps himself alert, ready to accept the fact that the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.”

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

As much of a selfie I’m willing to muster:

From back in coat-wearing weather, the cover art for our future family band’s debut album:

Backyard greenery:

Exploring the tiny patch of wildness in our suburban backyard:

A fence post in the local park that’s seen better days:

Our backyard spruce tree showing signs of life:

The boy behind the curtain:

In the countryside, silos are the skyscrapers (that tiny white dot in the lower right corner is the moon):

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

From our go-to park last fall:

Little man enjoying the ball pit at his cousin’s birthday party:

The inside view of Madison’s capitol dome:

Turns out kids love swings:

A few shots from probably the last snowfall of an extremely mild winter:

Quotes from the Underland

I’ve only made it through the preface of Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane—an “epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself”—yet rich quotes abound:

“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful. Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives). Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions). Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets). Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”

“Force yourself to see more deeply.”

“The underland is vital to the material structures of contemporary existence, as well as our memories, myths and metaphors.”

“Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving.”

“‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years.”

“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

Silence Is Beholden

2013-09-17 12.42.28

I was on a solo hike a few weeks ago on a beautiful northern Californian day in Shasta Trinity National Park. It was a weekday morning, so I had the place to myself. I followed the Waters Gulch trail for about a mile or two as I trekked the path toward Packers Bay. The river (pictured above) was low, exposing the golden sediment beneath the thick green trees. It wasn’t long into the trail when the bustling world outside the Park faded and the world hushed. Though I knew I was walking through a vibrant and wild ecosystem of life in many forms, I was awed by its absolute silence.

Not a car. Not a plane droning above. Just my boots on the gravel. It was divine.

I wanted to capture that moment to take with me back into civilization, but I knew that some moments are better left uncaptured, free to roam on in time for the next eager seeker in need of some bliss. But I think some ought to be documented, if only because places like that — where noise doesn’t intrude on the soothing symphony of nature — are an endangered species.

And that’s why I suspect Gordon Hempton has the best job in the world. He’s an “acoustic ecologist” who records rare nature sounds and the few places on earth where silence still rules. He’s also the founder of One Square Inch of Silence, a research and advocacy project to protect the naturally silent habitats of the Olympic National Park in Washington.

I learned about Hempton through On Being, a podcast hosted by Krista Tippett I recently started listening to. It’s a great interview series featuring makers and doers of many stripes. Some recent guests include a Zen master and poet, a mathematician, a physicist, a pastor, and an oceanographer. Each has their own area of expertise and interest, but what I like about the series so far is how each show, despite the varying subject matter, still lives within the same sphere held together by the centripetal forces of truth, discovery, beauty, and meaning.

Tippett’s conversation with Hempton was so serene and poetic and enlivening. He defines silence not as merely the absence of sound but instead as “silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system.” He sees the world as a “solar-powered jukebox” and links our modern world’s lack of silence to our inability to listen.

I don’t need an excuse to seek out quiet. My introversion calls for a degree of separation from the world in order to recharge, and often that separation leads me to a quiet place, where I can only hear waves overtaking shoreline rocks, or rain falling on leaves. It’s so hard in an urban setting to escape the noisiness of the world, but it’s important to do so. Quiet, as Gordon Hempton says, is a “think tank of the soul.” We don’t have natural ear-lids for a reason.

Trees Of Life

When was the last time you touched a tree? I see them often, I walk past them, I benefit from their biology every day, but I rarely touch them. They are no longer an inescapable element of our daily mechanized, plastic lives. Perhaps we wanted it that way: the inception of brick and steel and drywall and kerosene and electricity allowed us to downgrade trees from tool and fuel to mere ornamentation. We protect trees now, in reservations and city blocks and forest preserves, but we’ve stopped touching them.

To touch a tree is to touch history. It’s to touch an impossibly, intricately beautiful creation that doesn’t need a plug in a wall for power. It’s to touch the wisdom of years we were born long after and will die soon before. The tree has seen the world and has seen you. The world will continue on without us, but not without the tree.

The tree doesn’t need our touch for validation or survival. It doesn’t need us at all. And that’s why you should touch a tree. Touch them soon and touch them often. Touch them before they figure out everything they do for us and decide they’ve given enough. Soak in by osmosis their total lack of regard for our lives and thank God everyday they think that way, because no one else is telling us how our mountains are really molehills and how we get our daily air.

Give them this day their daily breath, God tells the trees, but let’s see if they ever figure it out.

What is the meaning of life? Touch a tree and see.