Saturday, December 10, 2011

The gift that flutters but never fades

It took the eponymous song of a black-capped chickadee (chick-a-dee-dee-dee, if you didn't know) to make me go anywhere near a store on a Saturday afternoon in December. But there he was, in a cold drizzle, anxiously aflutter around our empty bird feeder. OK, then, compadre. For you I'll break my vow of retail abstinence and stand in line for 10 minutes to buy some bird feed and suet cakes.

Once home, I poured black oil sunflower seed into the feeder that my friend, Thea, gave to me as a wedding present 16 years ago. It's nothing fancy: a clear acrylic tower with a pitched roof and landing board made of Michigan cedar. But in a season when we often buy pointless gifts for people who really don't need them, the bird feeder stands out as a worthy exception.

We put it out from early December to late March and probably run 100 pounds of seed through it. And you can't help but feel good about yourself after you've filled a bird feeder. Sometimes I think about the birds as I doze in my reading chair by the fireplace. It's a comfort to imagine them nestled under a snowy spruce bough, the furnace of their tiny heart fueled by the good seed that will keep them warm and alive till morning.

That's the altruistic magic of a birdfeeder. You can buy one for yourself, or buy one for a friend as Thea did for me. Either way, the feeder can only be used in the service of another creature. Selfishness doesn't become it.

For the first nine years that we fed the birds, I didn't think much about why. They had a ferocious appetite, which seemed reason and reward enough. (Whoever coined the phrase "eats like a bird" never watched famished birds swarm a feeder.) It gave me a proprietary sense of satisfaction, much as my mother must've felt when she watched her six-foot sons wolf down mountains of homemade mashed potatoes and Midwestern meat loaf.

Then came the year when the birds decided to take care of me for a while.

It was February, ruthlessly cold. For reasons that in hindsight seem blatantly obvious, I'd worked myself into a state of exhaustion -- mental, physical, spiritual you name it. Work had become a fixation that left me too tired to rest or recuperate. So my body, and my doctor, both demanded that I take two months of sick leave.

Part of my recovery required that I practice something called The Relaxation Response. Basically, you're supposed to sit in a quiet room and think peaceful thoughts. Which is fine, provided that you have thoughts that you'd like to spend time with. I did not, so I'd open my eyes and focus on something less disturbing ... like the bird feeder.

Sometimes, after I zoned out there for an hour or so, I'd glimpse an alternate reality. I'd begin to see the feeder as more than a humble food dispenser. It was a nexus of fluid energy and calculated motion. The birds would ascend and descend, angelic in form and manner, earthly seraphs around a lesser throne. Like waves at the beach, they'd come and go with a pattern that you could almost discern. Too bad they sent me back to work before I could figure it all out.

I'd love to hear what Thea would think of my metaphysical musings. Because there was nothing bird-like about her: big heart, big voice, big physique, a tireless newspaper reporter and an overall nonstop force of nature. Unstoppable, at least, until the end. She died of uterine cancer two years ago at age 53.

The last time I saw Thea she talked nonstop about her big plans to write a book titled "I Don't Have Time for This." Those were the first words out of her mouth when she learned of her diagnosis. Being a respectable journalist, she never had to retract them.

This year, for the first time in 16 years, I cleaned Thea's feeder and gave the cedar trim a coat of Tung oil to prolong its life. It's a hopeful gesture, and "Hope," wrote Emily Dickinson, "is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul."

Neither Thea nor I, ink-stained wretches that we are, would ever dare to write something that grand. But given the cheerful company of wild birds, I can understand why a fellow shut-in like Miss Dickinson would want to.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Monsters We Can't Do Without

Under an ivory slice of autumn moon, a congress of coyotes and a lone screech owl have found their voice. Both sound larger than life. The owl's eerie tremolo fills the little woods across the road with a dark foreboding. And tonight, the coyotes seems unusually bent on mayhem; they yip and yammer like a gang of slathering jackals. I can picture their bony snouts thrust skyward, white throats aglow in the pure country moonlight.

It's enough to give me the willies. But why? I'm safe in the bedroom of a sturdy brick farmhouse. My black lab probably weighs more than any two neighborhood coyotes put together. And just last weekend, I saw a screech owl during a raptor demonstration at a local orchard. Its body was the size and shape of a beer can, with fluffy grey feathers and a Disney-cute swivel head. Why should its harmless night music evoke such a primal shiver?

Maybe it's because we want and even need the wild places around us to harbor a resident monster or two. Yes, we can invent vampire love stories and Bigfoot sightings to serve the same psychological purpose. But breathless teen fiction and blurred photos (how come Bigfoot only appears to people with lousy cameras?) can't substitute for the musk-in-the-nostril kick of the genuine article.

And for good reason. For most of the 120,000 years of human history, people have lived in places where, on any given day, a carnivorous creature could and would eat them for dinner. Such perils improved our game considerably. They drove us to create the first tools -- spears, bows, axes -- and to unite as clans and communities.

As white settlers tamed North America, one of the first things they did was extirpate predators: wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears. True, these creatures posed a threat to livestock, and to a far lesser degree, people. Yet to track and kill toothsome beasts also became the legendary measure of a pioneer's courage and prowess. Then, curiously, as soon as they were gone we began to lament their demise. As early as 1872 (four years before the death of Custer at Little Bighorn) Buffalo Bill created his first Wild West show, complete with cowboys, Indian warriors and captive widlife from the just-vanquished frontier.

But as if to spite civilization, the monsters have staged a comeback. There's now nearly 700 wolves in the Upper Peninsula (up from 80 in 1995). Black bears have moved down in the Lower Peninsula as far south as Grand Rapids and Jackson. Still, the age-old ambivalence remains. Ask a U.P. hunter who didn't bag a buck last year if he thinks the estimated 25,000 deer killed by wolves hurt his chances for success. It's not likely he'll wax poetic about the feral beauty of a wolf pack's howl. Or imagine if the first bruin in 150 years should raid a dumpster in the parking lot of an elementary school in Kalamazoo. Will new age eco-tolerance or SWAT team histrionics rule the day?

Whatever your take on these encounters, they offer a valid, hopeful measure of nature's health and resilience. They bestow an imprimatur of wildness returned, a sense that the center still holds. And as the screech owl suggests, they don't have to be big and bad-breathed furry. I include in their number a fearsome pike that I hooked and lost twice (!) last May in the dark waters under a bridge near my home. Then there's the peregrine falcon outside my office in downtown Battle Creek. It hunts from concrete cliffs and adorns the sidewalks below with the heads and carcasses of hapless starlings and pigeons. Good for you, my brother. It's a comfort to know that noble monsters still lurk where we need them the most.

Friday, September 23, 2011

To be or to do? How to reply when the wind speaks your name

The September breeze has decorated our backyard fire pit with a garland of yellow leaves from a nearby walnut tree. That’s a walnut tree for you. They’re always the first to call it quits and drop the curtain on summer.

With our fishing poles and canoe now stowed in the barn, I’ve reluctantly done the same thing. All that remains of summer is a plastic pail of dull stones that someone left on the patio. Could these really be the same red and green jewels that we plucked wet and sparkling from the cold rush of the Lake Superior surf?

Eventually, they’ll end up in the flower bed – just like the others did last year. No matter. I’ve already got plenty of Up North tchotchkes to clutter my fire place mantle. Besides, for this year’s souvenir, I’ve brought home something better: a keepsake memory that I’d do well to ponder for the 45 weeks until my next vacation.

The setting was Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising in the Upper Peninsula. It was Friday afternoon, the last day of vacation. And while I’d enjoyed the week, a part of me had never let go. I’d yet to feel deeply relaxed, that moment of blissful detachment when recreation becomes true re-creation.

While the family swam and combed the beach for agates, I wandered down a hiking trail near the Miner’s River. It led through a dark stand of hemlock, but it wasn’t wilderness. It was too close to the beach and parking lot for that. The river, too, was pleasant but unremarkable; like dozens of other knee-deep, tea-colored streams in the U.P.

But as I veered off the main trail to visit the river, something stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t a really breeze; it was more like a fragrant exhalation from the woods itself. The air was deliciously hot, dry and sun-cured; sweet with the turpentine aroma of pine sap. Above the water, the unnamed wisp had swept two yellow butterflies into a thermal updraft. They rose in a delicate spiral, a DNA helix come to life. It was an aerial ballet, I tell you. The butterflies mirrored each other’s moves as if choreographed. It was so startlingly human that it almost seemed creepy.

And that did it. The world at hand, the one I’d driven 500 miles to explore and enjoy, finally had my full attention. For the first time that week, I noticed how supremely comfortable I was in my summer vestments: baggy shorts, old t-shirt and fishing cap, good walking sandals. How could I ever stand to wear anything else?

Everything that meant vacation was suddenly right there. The lakeshore, the woods, the U.P., the whole blessed summer had gathered itself into this singular moment and place. Here, in a one-seat shrine edged by living steeples of white spruce.

You could still hear the rumble of cars on the washboard road to the beach. But the sudden quiet I’d found here was of a different sort – more within than without. It was the stillness that I once tried to find through meditation but never could. I must’ve spent 20 minutes there, partly to savor it, but also to ask why all of this had found me here.

Like most of us, I’d gone on vacation to do things. To fish and hike and canoe; to rent a cottage on a lake in the woods; to eat pasties and ride the tourist boats out of Munising Bay. I’d taken a long to-do list Up North, but what I really needed was a to-be list. And you know it’s bad when they have to dispatch two yellow butterflies to tell you that.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Young Girl's Guide to Power Tools

At age 12, our daughter has discovered that a front yard’s more than a soft, green place to turn cartwheels. It’s also a renewable source of income. I hate to mow, and I’ll gladly pay her since it leaves me free to garden, fish, pick berries and generally indulge the fleeting pleasures of summer.

There’s just one problem: she can’t the start mower without me. It’s a second-hand push model that takes three or four Dad-sized yanks before the engine smokes and sputters to life.

“Dad,” she says, with a girlish, pony tailed sincerity that will soon enough break hearts other than my own. “What’s up with this thing?”

I suppose it could be a rusty spark plug, clogged fuel filter or fractured electron transducer shield for all I know. But there’s another answer that I won’t burden her with just yet. The mower won’t start because it’s a machine – a soulless, unreliable, infuriating and deceptively time-consuming piece of mechanical enslavement.

Own a house, especially in the country, and you’ll feel obligated to own plenty of labor-saving devices. Chainsaws, snow blowers, rototillers, weed-whackers and leaf blowers are the usual suspects. All useful in their own right, yet all encumbered with hidden costs of maintenance, storage and repair. You can quickly end up as a small-engine wet nurse to a fleet of internal combustion ingrates. Here’s three of the biggest offenders:

The Chainsaw: I’ve got a small one that won’t run for any longer than 90 seconds. It cost $120 new, and last week, a mechanic said he’d charge me $100 to fix it. Yet here’s the subversive truth: if all you need is a few cords of wood to burn in a fireplace, then you don’t need a chainsaw. You need to know somebody with a chainsaw and volunteer to help them. That’s because guys who love to cut wood are far less eager to lug and load it onto a truck or trailer. It’s unglamorous work and if you pitch in, they’ll give you some. Especially the crooked pieces.

The Rototiller: The deluxe hydraulic model that I like cost $5,000. So every year, I rent one for $40 to till my garden. And every year, something breaks. This spring, the pull cord snapped off on the first try. It took a 40-minute round trip to the rental store to get a new one. All that aggravation for a single day: can you imagine the headaches if I owned it for the other 364?

The Leaf Blower
: I’ve never had a leaf blower, but God does so I use his. He fires it up in late October, when an exuberant, 30 mile an hour gale blows in from the Great Plains. It sweeps the yard clean and deposits 90 percent of our leaves into the vacant field next door. Best of all, the Big Guy handles all the oil changes.

I’ve always assumed that my daughter would share my aversion toward steel creatures with a crank case heart. This summer, I even begged her to try my beloved hand clippers – the ones that make a musical snip-snip when I trim grass from around a tree. But she just asked why we don’t own a weed whacker.

Then, when I returned from a business trip in July, my daughter dropped this bomb: “Dad, guess what? I started the mower without you!”

Like last year’s MP-3 player, my services had been rendered obsolete. Yet isn’t that the whole point of parenthood? We give kids the tools and let them make of the world what they will. They can hardly do worse than we did. Still, I hope that my daughter will always rely more on her own muscle, and the occasional divine wind, than on the over-hyped promises - and treacherous pull cords -- of mechanical salvation.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Turtle Savers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose (Except Maybe a Few Fingers)

Along the highways of Michigan, even an animal lover can get jaded by the sight of road-killed wildlife. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rigor-mortised deer, rancid raccoon or dead opossum that’s no longer just playing possum. Unless you’re the one who hit them, you rarely give their sad, gory remains a second thought.

Not so the noble turtle. Their demise always seems especially tragic and deeply unfair. While road traffic can endanger all wildlife, a hapless turtle can’t dash, hop or reverse direction with point-guard agility the way that a squirrel or even agile deer can. No, once a turtle begins its deliberate slog across hard pavement the trip almost always ends in disaster. There’s either a sickening crunch or a carom shot that makes them spin off the road like a jettisoned hubcap.

Some drivers, as a form of sadistic motor sport, even try to hit turtles rather than avoid them. For literary proof, listen to what John Steinbeck wrote in “The Grapes of Wrath" of all places. In this, the 20th Century’s most epic social commentary, he took most of chapter 3 to describe the following encounter:

“… And now a light truck appeared, and as it came near, the driver saw the turtle and swerved to hit it (emphasis mine). His front wheel struck the edge of the shell, flipped the turtle like a tiddly-wink, spun it like a coin, and rolled it off the highway ...”

In Steinbeck's story -- an otherwise unflinching portrayal of the Okie diaspora -- he lets the turtle survive the collision unharmed. Perhaps there's some reptilian symbolism at work here that only a tenured English professor could understand. But from what I've seen, once a turtle gets thus whacked it’s done for. The turtle’s wonderfully adapted shell, a lifelong home and fortress that’s impervious to all natural predators, has not evolved to withstand the 3,000-pound footprint of an automobile.

On three occasions I've damaged or wrecked my car in deer accidents, but it’s just not the same. Nothing wrenches my heart like the sight of a turtle, stoic and suicidal in its quixotic quest to cross a two or even four-lane gauntlet of asphalt.

So in a response that may be equally quixotic, I’ve started an unofficial club to help them. It’s called the Free and Self-Appointed Protectorate of Esteemed Michigan Turtle Savers. Anyone can join. There’s no dues, no newsletter, no meetings, no administrative balderdash of any kind. All members should operate as individual cells, autonomous and self-supporting. From me, their enlightened and enigmatic founder (praise be to His Most Illustrious Name) they can expect some vague ideological guidance, but not much else.

In fact, here’s all that any Turtle Saver in good-standing needs to do: stop, and pick up a turtle whenever they see one about do something fatally boneheaded like cross a busy road.

Then, carefully and safely (no need to make yourself road kill) carry the turtle to the other side. Just be sure to move them in the direction that they were headed. Most likely, they’re driven by a strong biological urge to mate, build a nest or find a critical food source. They follow their own star and you won't convince a stubborn turtle to change its course. For good measure, I usually set them down 20 feet or so beyond the road shoulder, so that they’re concealed by natural habitat.

I’m always extra careful when I move snapping turtles. Pick one up and you’ll see why. With its long neck extended, a snapper’s frightful jaws can reach about anywhere on its body. And fast. So I grab them by the base of their tail, although lightly as to not damage any vertebra. Does this method give them a backache? Possibly, but it sure helps me keep all 10 fingers intact.

And it’s not just big turtles that need to be saved.

This June, my daughter found a baby snapper in a roadside mud puddle. She named him Leonard, and for two weeks he lived in a tub on our front porch where he ate worms and lettuce. But a turtle deserves more from life than a Tupperware holding cell. So we carried Leonard to a pleasantly weedy and buggy irrigation pond about a ½ mile away. With a little luck, he'll revel there in the green scum and black muck for a good 75 years or so.

On our walk back, a farmer drove up in his four-wheeler to investigate. We were, after all, trespassers on his property. These days, along with droughts and insect pests, farmers have to worry about thieves who strip electric cable from their irrigation systems. Or, steal their ammonia fertilizer to make the accursed steet drug, meth.

“How you doin’?” he asked, in a tone that was Midwestern neighborly, yet hinted at caution.

Once we explained our turtle rescue and release mission, his lined, dusty face relaxed a bit. That, and the fact that one of the trespassers was 4 feet 5 inches tall, with blond pony tail and a Snoopy t-shirt.

“Oh yeah, they’re really on the move now,” he said. “This morning we found a big ole snapper in the corn field so we put her back in the pond, too. She must've weighed 25pounds.”

Here he was, a haggard farmer with a 1,000 acres worth of reasons to do something else. True, he seemed to face no hardships of the apocalyptic variety, the way that Steinbeck's Tom Joad did. But I don't doubt that he has chronic hypertension and a pile of six-figure debt riding on this year’s corn harvest. Yet somehow, he’d just added the title of Turtle Saver to his already endless job description.

Why? Well, we modern humans already spend most of our days in shells of our own making. They keep us clean and dry, but their climate control and tinted windows (standard equipment, even on most tractors), can insulate us from the plight of our brother creatures. Maybe that’s why it feels so good to commit a random, if quixotic act of turtle rescue. It helps us protect something within ourselves that’s wild, valuable and equally worth saving.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Michigan Cougars: Fact, Fiction and Future

For at least a decade, there’s been an ongoing argument about whether or not wild cougars exist in southwest Michigan. Personally, I haven’t decided either way. But from both sides, I will say there’s been no shortage of “mountain lyin’” if you get my drift.

From the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, we’ve heard dismissive denials and a “we-know-best” attitude about wildlife. The message here has been that only a DNR biologist has enough brain power to identify a cougar when they see one.

As for the public, their cougar credibility has often ranked right up there (or down there) with sightings of Elvis or Sasquatch. We’ve heard reports of black cougars, although in the U.S. not a single black cougar has ever been killed or photographed. We’ve heard claims about deer carcasses hung from trees, which is something an African leopard would do, but not a North American cougar.

But the controversy may soon be settled by an unlikely judge: the cougars themselves. As DNR biologist Steve Chadwick said at a recent public meeting in Three Rivers, “It’s only a matter of time before a wild cougar turns up in southwest Michigan.”

True, the DNR has yet to confirm a cougar sighting in the Lower Peninsula. That would require either a clear paw print, scat pile, DNA sample or legitimate photograph. However, solitary males have already migrated more than 700 miles east from the Black Hills. Last year, a cougar was killed near Chicago and another was verified in Greene County, Indiana, a mere 300 miles south of Kalamazoo.

The DNR, once tone-deaf to public opinion on cougars, has changed its tune. To investigate serious sightings, they’ve formed an official cougar team that trained at a ranch in New Mexico. When they do verify a cougar, as they have in the western U.P., they’re quick to inform the news media.

“When we have the goods, we tell people,” Chadwick said. “We’re not trying to hide anything.”

My question is how the people of southern Michigan will react once the big cats officially return. For me, to see such a majestic eminence pad through an oak-hickory forest at dusk would be a peak life experience. For others, the thought of a six-foot long, 150-pound killing machine afoot in the landscape would be due cause to keep a.30-30 rifle handy.

Given these extremes, here’s what will likely be the cougar’s biggest human obstacles.

The first is personal safety. DNR officials say there’s already an unwarranted fear of cougars, a solitary animal that wants little to do with people. Yes, there’s been rare cases of attack on humans. But in the mountain west, millions of people live safely in cougar country without incident. Around here, shouldn’t we worry more about the amped-up maniacs who run rural meth labs?

The other potential cougar concern will likely involve what the animals eat – which is mainly deer. Some hunters may argue that an influx of cougars will put a major dent in the whitetail population. But consider this: in my own St. Joseph County, hunters bagged 5,300 deer in 2009 and vehicle accidents claimed another 700. By comparison, an average cougar kills about one deer per week. Given the cougar’s wandering ways, we’re unlikely to see more than one resident cougar per county. So if a cougar took 50 deer annually, that’s less than 1 percent of my county’s yearly harvest.

Finally, for all their wily ways, cougars don’t fare well on highways. In south Florida, about 100 cougars still haunt the Everglades – and eight to 10 are killed each year in vehicle accidents. With nearly 1,000 miles of paved roads in St. Joseph County alone, there’s bound to be some big flat cats for local taxidermists to work with.

Despite the odds, there’s seems to an unstoppable force at play here. Since I moved to the country in 1995, I’ve seen several near-extinct species -- sand hill cranes, beavers, coyotes, and wild turkeys -- make a remarkable comeback. Now, after a 100-year exile, our reigning feline predator stands poised to reclaim its ancestral hunting grounds. I think we’re lucky, indeed blessed, to get such a second chance. And I hope we’ll find room in the countryside, and in our hearts, to welcome the cougar home.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Country dogs: born to be wild -- and smell that way

When it comes to chew toys for dogs, some last for years but others … well, they’re much easier to swallow. Consider the coyote – we dubbed him Crunchy Calvin -- that showed up at our farmhouse recently.

“Calvin” had obviously had a rough winter. By the time our black lab dragged him home, he was little more than a scruffy pelt with a few crunchy parts attached. During their first dog/coyote play date, Calvin literally lost his head. Within three days, his feet, tail and other bits of anonymous fluff were likewise detached and most likely eaten.

So: would you let your dog eat a dead coyote? Or browse on the spoils of a compost pile? Or eat a baby rabbit that it just dug – still squeaking -- from a grassy burrow?

If you answered “yes” to at least two of these questions then chances are you’ve got a country dog – or at least, a city dog that lives by country dog rules. By that, I mean a dog that’s left as free as possible to pursue its own doggish nature. Country dogs enjoy plenty of freedom, with all the adventure and hardship that a life lived out-of-doors entails. Country dogs are loved, but never smothered; they’re cared for, but rarely pampered; they’re well-trained, but not expected to act like a miniature human being.

When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, dogs occupied a much lower rung on the social ladder. Even in town, they lived in backyard dog houses where they chewed real bones and survived on table scraps or cheap pet food. They had dog names like Sport, Dixie, Buddy and Sarge. They were friendly enough, but your hand always smelled a little funky after you petted one. Except for the occasional rabies or distemper shot, they rarely saw the inside of a vet’s office.

Nowadays, millions of Americans have elevated their dogs to the status of life partner or surrogate child. In his book “One Nation Under Dog,” author Michael Schaffer writes that eighty-five percent of pet owners now refer to themselves as the Mommy or Daddy of their companion animals. Forty-seven percent of dog owners say their pet sleeps in bed with them at night.

Across the United States, spending on pets mushroomed from $15 billion in 1995 to $45 billion in 2009. There are now pet-food nutritionists, veterinary dermatologists, dog kennels with TVs, and – inevitably -- lawyers who specialize in pet custody cases.

The sad paradox, animal experts say, is that dogs get confused and misbehave when we treat them too much like people. They still expect us to be leaders of the pack. Consequently, thousands of “pet parents” now medicate their animals for doggie A.D.D, anxiety, depression and other suspiciously human-like disorders. But what if we’re trying to make a simple, fur-bearing mammal serve a social purpose that it’s biologically unsuited to fill? Furthermore, what if it’s not the dog that needs therapy? As Edward Abbey once said, "When a dog is a man's best friend, then that dog has a problem."

With a country dog, you try to balance reasonable safety with the canine need for self-directed exploration. This means that sometimes they’ll kill little live things that you wish they hadn’t. And that other times they’ll roll in something dead, flat and stinky that you wish they’d left on the road. Yet these are dogs after all … must we micromanage their every instinct and pleasure?

It’s been about 10,000 years since dogs first consented to live with humans. So in truth, they’re no longer born to be wild. But every so often, it doesn’t hurt to unhook the leash, cry havoc and let them live that way