Sunday, October 22, 2017

In Love of Walnuts

In Love of Walnuts:

I was once young, an eight-year old, and by any explanation that was some time ago, in this case embarrassingly close to sixty-five years. This time span is not child’s play and for reasons, not totally apparent, I can’t account for the speed which has consumed that span. Fortunately, there is still a certain lucidity in my mind so that it is possible to recall some things from that time, not only recall them but, most interestingly, to have sensations and vivid memories pertaining to smell. The sensation, I suspect, is only part of it because with the odor of certain items or situations comes images that, while somewhat ethereal, are still, to this old mind meaningful and rich. 

We returned here to our home ground 12 years ago. That first fall on our return to Wisconsin, and really, every year since, we have almost without effort, managed to round up at least some walnuts. Initially, I recall simply finding one in glorious repose under a tree. It was unmolested by the resident squirrels as it sat their half buried in the duff like a lost golf ball. Almost instinctually, I lifted the light green orb to my nose. I knew hidden there was a crisp pungent odor of the earth. I knew there were memories, maybe ones lost from living in the west all those years. Like every person, there are childhood experiences associated with distant odors, be it faint hint of a mother’s perfume, or secret smell associated with Port Orford Cedar, the wood used to make our own arrows or the smell of fall as the western Chamisa and sunflowers bloomed on the August prairie of Colorado.

  In this case, it was the Black Walnut. Like flying birds rattling through my brain, I was taken back in Sauk County there on the Wisconsin River. In the distant haze of magical memory, I recalled, almost seeing our band of foragers flopping from the car in disarray, gunny bag in hand, heading for some known Walnut tree where waited the green nuts ready for grabbing.

In early October, we would get packed in the old ’36 Chevrolet, in a fashion probably not much different than the family dog, who in glee would hang from the window, jowls flopping in the breeze with spittle running wild, and head for the Baraboo Hills.  While we two kids might have been slugging it out in the back just out of the reach of the old man, I would not be surprised if we two ratty-assed kids were also face to the wind, head out the window yelling and drooling. It was adventure time.

Duward’s Glenn rings a bell as does Parfrey’s Glenn and from there our disheveled troupe would scrounge around looking for all sorts of things including walnuts---but I still recall distant stories  of watching for Timber Rattlers—and hearing the old man excitedly carry on about how he almost put his hand on one---to that we paid attention.

The trip was a family thing and a chance to touch and smell all things wild. I didn’t know then my father was born in New York and raised in Chicago, so in looking back I’m not sure how he managed to become so engaged in this country life. Maybe it was the quiet presence of my mother who had been raised in a more rural setting in northern Illinois. What is now very clear is they had a genuine love for the countryside, the uninhabited, the quiet settings of the forest and fields.

I know at the age of maybe eight, I was already fascinated by the newts, frogs, butterflies and wild growing food my parents were showing us. The smell of the walnut was impossible to miss. Just the slightest scratch of the hull and from it came this rich, earthy odor only found in that one species.
I don’t doubt, knowing our families later history, that it was there we learned to throw things at each other---like fat walnuts. It wouldn’t even surprise me if the my father started it. Later in life there were many childish, rowdy fights with acorns, walnut and apples accompanied by pock-mark wounds, and a few tears all of which that were met with little sympathy. It was the old man, I’m sure.

So therein lies the memory that still drifts around in my head. Scratch the newly fallen walnut and there in front of me is a soft spot, a vision of a family picnic and a sack of walnuts---maybe the burn of being hit by a 65 mph fast (ball) nut from my lousy brother. It is all just good.

Of course, this is not the only wafting odor that sets off the winds of memory, but it is a pleasant one, and one I could wish on any one.

In the last few years I have taken it farther than just momentarily dwelling on the gift of smell but also harvesting local walnuts, hulling them, slowly picking the meats out and then in the great glee of an easily impressed child, introducing them into pancakes and cookies. When the first cookies were made, I noticed the taste of the nuts also rang one of those tiny bells in my brain, not the ones damaged by a few too many concussions, but silver bells of a warm kitchen and still-steaming cookies.   
The walnut holds a dear place in my life and due to their abundance around here, we are now able to enjoy every aspect of them almost every year---and that is, without throwing them at aging, still-mouthy brothers---not that we wouldn’t try.  

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Talking to Mr. Yeats

Mr. William Yeats in Ireland

Travelling to other lands is always a lesson of sorts, not just to see the scenery but to experience the lives, history and way of life of others outside of our own personal space. While some of these characteristics may be known to us, being up close and personal with the very land from which sprang their culture and their view of the world, is not so easily perceived until one is almost standing in their shoes, if only momentary. 

In those lands totally outside our western world, it is, of course, almost impossible to grasp much of anything in depth.  But in a place like Ireland, a land from which many of us have ancestors, and a land that has a common language, the task has more prospect.

Being in Ireland presents many new opportunities to experience, however briefly, the outcomes of their life patterns. Here is a land that has faced multiple starvations, internal revolutionary struggles, and the confrontations of living in a tired land, one overrun by swarming people trying to gain sustenance from a thin soil. There is a certain sadness in that.

Still, from all the struggles came a culture rich in so many ways, maybe not as obviously material as our own, but still an endowment rich and enlightening.

So, it was during a recent visit, that I ran into Mr. William Yeats. Like many of us, I had known him before, but not while standing on his home ground, among his people, looking over the “terrible beauty” of Ireland.  William Yeats is celebrated as a hero, as an intellectual giant, and currently, an economic attraction. As a result of the latter most interesting aspect, his work is ever present as we explored Ireland.  

While Mr. Yeats has not been around sicse 1939, his words have endured.  While jumping from pub to pub, from Cork to Sligo, it was almost impossible not to be confronted by his musings. The delightful quotes were even on pub walls, the marquees of banks and written on sidewalks.  I could not help reading the words, some scattered and out of true context, others complete, many causing me to pause and maybe reconsider my own worldview---which I suspect is the intention of poetry.

On one page, I found the following line taken from a poem titled The Cloths of Heaven, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”  I found myself wanting to make a change to that because at the age of 73, my dreams for just myself are waning as I am facing limitations. But then, I would suppose my dreams are now very much including those that will follow me, my children’s children. Tread softly. Does that mean the activities of humanity, the relentless hammering of the earth for financial gain? Is it a warning, an insight by a gifted mind? Damn poets.

Alternatively, does it imply a request to a lover---but is that not the same? I suspect that in the poem “The Cloths of Heaven” it can mean many things - maybe moderation, sensitivity, almost the Golden Rule. It is but a simple request.

So “afoot and light hearted I took to the open road” and had a few conversations with Mr. Yeats, wanting to discover the land on which I was now standing. I bought a book of poems to learn of the Emerald Isle through his eyes. I found a poem the following day after listening to the sound of the Uilleann pipes at Crane’s Pub in Galway. It was a musing on the sighting of swans right in Galway County just a few miles from last evening’s frolic.

He wrote:

But now they drift on still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Like many great poems, this required me to think and wonder why the question mark after the last statement. He marveled the sight of swans but implied one day they might be gone. Was he discouraged by what he saw, thinking the presence of swans was fleeting? I had seen a swan during the time we were there, so his concern may have been unfounded even though Ireland has long ago lost its natural environment to sheep and cattle, there are still swans. Was the statement an insight? Was the swan a symbol of a lover?

For the days we were there, Yeats was always about, and I’d like to think offering me a glimpse into a great mind from a distant land.  Along with the visual delights of emerald green fields enclosed in ancient stone walls and music trickling through the evening streets, the words of Mr. Yeats accentuated the place called Ireland. While the tendency may, in these times, be to only see those things pleasant, the history has other stories and as Yeats said in a poem called Host of the Air, “Never was piping so sad and never was piping so gay”----insightful words assembled to prod the brain into reflection and introspection.

Travelling is that way it would seem, a chance to live outside our own shoes. To see the world through another’s eyes. For that, I am grateful.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Skippy, the Troublesome Chihuahua,

In relating this true story, shall we say anecdote, it must be said that this has no tie-in to anyone in our immediate community. The names have been changed to protect the innocent (except the offending dog) even though those innocent and the guilty live many hundreds of miles away.

On the occasion of the unusual event, a local yoga teacher was plying her trade giving lessons in her home studio. The participants were spread out on the floor, comfortable on their mats, and fully engaged in becoming one with their minds and bodies. Somewhat expectantly, the family’s aging Chihuahua, Skippy, drifted into the room clearly not acting its normal ankle-biting self. It was staggering and noticeably not in control of its normal physical skills.

The teacher, in a brief sideways glance, noticed the dog had dropped down into what looked like a Downward Dog position except its head was carelessly off to the side, its tongue lazily flopped out, and its front legs unnaturally splayed out in opposite directions. On a couple of occasions the miniature canine tried to rise but immediately slipped slowly back into this distorted, eyes-glazed-over, face sideward position. Clearly, the Chihuahua had a problem and the owner became concerned.

On the completion of the class, she ran the breathing, but somewhat despondent dog to the local veterinarian. Skippy was dropped off followed by a brief description of the dog’s unanticipated yoga participation, and she headed home to take care of her family. In the commotion, she called her husband, who was a local school principal, to ask him, on his return, stop by the vet’s office to discuss the prognosis of the family’s aging dog.

On his arrival, he learned the small dog had vomited only minutes after being dropped off, plopping a gooey plastic bag out on the floor. Bill was told the dog had apparently managed to swallow a plastic bag containing about a quarter ounce of marijuana buds. The bag, it turned out, had been punctured by the dog’s aggressive and excited chewing, so even though the entire plastic container had also been swallowed, the active chemicals of the weed had in time, seeped out, leaving the canine visibly impaired, to say the least. The glassy-eyed dog was simply stoned to the nines. The school principal initially was relieved knowing the dog, a favorite of his wife, was going to be OK after it had cleansed itself of the exotic chemicals.

The principal, in his mid-forties, had maintained a ponytail for all of his adult life, not so much as a statement of his affiliation, but rather it was just his choice. The local parents he served were simply oblivious to it because his performance had always been exemplary--- he was not some tipped-over hippy of ill repute. On his initial entry into the vet clinic, he had noticed the mother of one of his students was a receptionist at the front desk. So, with the still-visible plastic bag sitting on the table, thoughts began running through his head how this was going to be explained, knowing full well that in this small town the story of the stoned Chihuahua was going to be travelling about with considerable velocity.

In his mind, he realized it almost did not matter what excuse he might find, nothing was going to be believed because, that is just the way things go and people love colorful gossip.

He left the clinic after being told the dog should remain in house until it recovered, reasoning there may be lasting effects----such as the dog just staring at the wall and drooling for the rest of its life. It was reasoned that instead of running around biting peoples ankles and senselessly snarling,  it would lay about looking for handouts, barking in low tones, constantly eating all the snacks it could find, maybe even learning to look at the family with half-closed eyes and implying it just wanted to say things like, “That is really cool, dude. Like, just chill”.

On his return home, numerous things ran through his mind but mostly he wanted to know where the Marijuana came from because, in truth, it was not his, his wife’s, his kid’s, or anybody that had come to the house.

Being a Chihuahua, maybe it had been a trafficker from Mexico---no, they had had the dog for years and it wasn’t much for long travel. The dog did like to get loose and wander about the neighborhood, so that must have been the issue, and source. It was then he realized that next door there was a house full of Rastafarians who had been known to revel in the pleasures of the weed. Obviously, the dog had drifted over there and managed to score, by scrounging, the quarter-ounce, and then, glutton that it was, ate the entire thing in one session. 

Satisfied he was off the hook, and had a reasonable response to any inquires, two days later he returned to the clinic to retrieve the now cleansed canine. He was not sure the dog would ever again be normal, and he also was not sure he would be able to walk into the vet’s office with a straight face but he felt vindicated due to his analysis of the neighbor’s collusion in the episode. The minute he confidently walked into the clinic on the appointed hour, he noticed every employee was, in fact, positioned in the waiting room, all smiling. “Hey, Bill. Have any heroin laying around?” came out of the vet’s mouth.

So what is the moral of the story?

Post Script:  Skippy is a real dog, a beloved family dog but two days after writing this piece Skippy was hit by a vehicle and killed. He was old and not under the influence of any known drug. 

Gateway Mushrooms May Column Spirit

Gateway Mushroom

With some trepidation, I am exposing a situation here that possibly should be left alone as it is controversial. However, after serious consideration, and the fact the morel season is over, I feel I can wade in to this quagmire without having my life threatened, or hopefully not having my fingers cut off by desperados. This impending situation involves amateur, sometimes illusive, often clandestine, secretive mycologists that are now inhabiting the forests under dead and dying apple trees and diseased elms.

While these camo-upped individuals of both male and female persuasions, and clearly every race known to the hominid species, and that includes Norwegians, are marauding the secretive forests of Wisconsin, they have now taken to the streets of some of our larger metropolitan cities, including the greater Amherst area.

It wasn’t that long ago when a person could walk the streets with a fresh-found, tie-dyed tote bag full of morels and not be noticed or even suspected. Now, however, these, these disruptive and aggressive mycologists are lurking in every corner of our Wisconsin society.

 Recently while in Madison, I was approached by an individual asking if we would care to have a full pound of fresh morels, in this case the larger brown morsels. As I slid next to  the individual, he motioned with the slight sideways nod of his head to take a look at his possession. It could have been on the streets of Casablanca as under his hat he looked about with suspicion not wanting to be noticed by just any passerby.  I was immediately drawn over to peer into a partial opened tote. The separation of the opening was a subtle move with the hand hesitating and eyes of the purveyor busily scanning the surrounds for fear of being spotted and reported. The tote was slowly opened.  I drew inward and there, there in their glory were a full two pounds of the brown wonders, the morels. The bag was quickly closed as the eyes of the holder lifted as if to say, “ What’d ya think?”

It was like a drug deal and I knew I had to act because if I refused to take the offer, others morel affectionadoes posing as their friends, or the restaurants would be the next target. Thus, my possible score would be over for the year. I looked at our friends in a state of glee. With a small grin, a grin of confidence and impending pleasure, I took their offer and headed off to Dennis and Gayle’s for steaks and morels.

As of late, this secrecy, this knowledge has been held close to the chest, has worked itself into the general public and the pursuit of mushrooms by these amateur mycologists has exposed a real issue. Mushrooms are an addiction and May is the beginning of the troubles. There was a day when a family could simply wander aimlessly among old dead apple trees leisurely gathering the early grays and the later browns, but those days are gone with mushrooms taking on the romance and intrigue of a trip on the African Queen.

Recently, there under one of my favorite dead elms, the grass was trampled by the sheer traffic of these murderous foragers seeking my morels. It seems as if some covert toadstool mongers are even operating at night right in the yards of occupied homes. They are junkies, wide-eyed, shaking, wet-mouthed junkies, high on my mushrooms. They must be from the cities.

In my fevered mind (not from s‘rooms) it occurred to me that thievery of my fungi committed by city dwellers was one thing,  but in reality, the bigger problem is morels are a gateway mushroom and are only the beginning of the trouble, that’s right, the troubles.

I’m going to have to lay it on the line, or expose the mycelium for what it is. Once morels are really introduced broadly to the public, it will lead to other fungal discoveries. The new scroungers, like Jeremy, will be off on an addiction of a grander scale. What I am saying loud and clear, is morels are a gateway. It is not a mycological secret the desperate foragers will quickly move on to the more hidden oyster shells fungi, then to Hen of the Forests hidden under my favorite oaks. The  Chanterelles will be next. There will be pushers all over the place on every corner, scandalously charging for nature’s natural harvest. The forest and fields will be trampled only because we, we country bumpkins have not established a security system and identified the war on fungi.
Ultimately, this addiction will lead to psilocybins or peyote, and then mistakenly to Death Caps, the beautiful Anamita phalloides.  The foragers might even be found scraping penicillin off tree bark. (Oh rats, that has already been done!)

It is becoming clear there is a need for Mushroom police, maybe a wall built around my favorite spots, even if it is on someone else’s property. The pushers and junkies are everywhere and they are a threat to our fungus supply. As the first member of the MYCOPS (Mycological Cops), I am saying it is time to stop the intruders, clean up the woods and save the fungi for those that deserve it most. Me---and a few friends.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Electric Yard Tractor

The Yard Tractor
            For someone who depends on solar power to provide electricity, the last couple of months have been real losers (excluding the last week or so). It has to be admitted none of this poor performance is my doing so the “loser” term cannot be dumped on me for this one. First off, somebody made the earth tilt so the angle of the sun, when the sun does come out, is notably on a lower pitch; as a result, little sun power makes its way through the thicker, extended atmosphere. That is the “angle of the dangle”, axiom which says the more molecules the rays hit the fewer get to me and my panels.

Also, I am being picked on because my trees and Merlyn’s have been growing and adding increased shade over my array of PV cells. I know Bob wants to cut my big maple down to keep the roots out of my sewer pipes, but a trimming is all he will get due to my love of Maples. Still, the trees continue to grow much like my midsection. The beautiful tree is going to stay until some revolution or revelation.
            To top that off, in the last 2 months, word has it, the sun only showed her face for a total of 30 hours. While I have complained endlessly, almost going into deep meaningful prayer, but knowing the same Almighty I was talking to was responsible for the problem, I figured anything short of a small lawsuit was futile.  I do not recall the good Reverend Funk in Montello’s Methodist Church telling me threats and celestial intimidation would pay off, so here I sat disgruntled. It was simply cloudy and no quarter was given to my plight.

            During this solar malaise, my brother Jeff announced that he had a solar powered yard tractor and it was the alternative answer to all of his environmental concerns. It seems he purchased a 1971 Elec-Trak, GE yard tractor powered by six, twelve-volt batteries. Full of himself like a free ranging Holstein Bull, he said, “Can you imagine this thing was made 45 years ago and never really took off. It is the answer. I now have that answer.”  Being the motorhead he is, within minutes of his purchase it was apart and being restored, even though his entire life was filled with internal combustion engines, and by his own admission, the electrical contraption left him a touch speechless.
I got his call, “Wait until you see this baby. It’s fixed, charged and running. All I do is plug it into the wall, wait a few hours, then is off to the races.  Your gonna cry your heart out watching this.” He said almost patting himself on the back until his miserable arm broke.
            Not one to display jealousy, particularly over the phone, I was a touch green with envy so I was forced to do some analytical analysis, like strategizing bigly.
           So, drawing from years of pontificating, ruminating and pilfering, it dawned on me that it took a certain amount of energy, say five barrels of oil to produce his garden tractor and that includes the lead acid batteries. Once it was in the field, it had to extract power from the electric grid, which was all produced from coal, natural gas and uranium. In my conniving mind, while he thought it was “green”, it was subject to some suspicion. On me saying, “I think you, my friend, are doing some serious green-washing because the tractor I was eyeing-up, the gas puppy at the local hardware store, takes the same amount to produce and burns real clean gasoline and not dirty coal and natural gas.”
It was then he reminded me that his tractor was, in fact, simpler (Like me he said), easier to repair due to fewer parts, and the real kicker was, he was going to get a couple of now-inexpensive solar panels to charge it. “The total energy cost of my panels and tractor is less than the one you want”. Then in a superior voice, I heard, “What do you think of that, apocalyptic boy”?
              “Free energy from the sun and I can, plow snow, dig the garden, haul wood and just run around real stupid----all for no cost and no pollution. While your choking on fumes, I will be using the batteries to power portable tools like my electric chain saw, drill holes, and play my Blue Tooth till the sun don’t shine. ” He had the audacity to remind me it would only take the lousy 30 hours of sun to power that forty-five year-old tractor for all his needs. He had to rub it in.
                I did remind him I had a solar powered lawn mower but, it looks like for the time being he might have the high card. They do have electric golf carts and even electric cars, now if I could only come up with a nice trust fund---maybe some crowd funding to pay for them.  

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Loss of a Fishing Buddy


I recently received a brief note from a distant relative in northern Louisiana noting that my third cousin Elmer Ray Boljack had passed away while fishing. I was informed because as Aunt Emma said, “We was two jackasses both too stupid to come out of the rain.” He was the only relative I had in the south whose company I enjoyed, and while he had certain cracker tendencies, a bit foreign to my sensitivities, we both had a fond appreciation of fishing, hunting, and tossing down a couple of cold ones---and telling enhanced stories commonly referred to as BS.
While he was no spring chickadee, being taken out at fifty-four was way too early. The loss was taking everyone down there with alarm and disbelief. It didn’t help that it happened while he was noodling for catfish. It wasn’t like he fell out of the boat, shot himself while practicing his quick draw or had his ticker just quit. He actually died violently while in the water noodling.
For those who don’t know, noodling is a form of recreational fishing practiced by a handful of hardy individuals who have the audacity, and nerve not found in the average person. The fisherman uses his fingers as bait for the rather ferocious, and in some cases, giant catfish. One’s hand is inserted into the den of a hiding, and usually resting flathead. The fish, either out of hunger, or anger, latches on to the hand and won’t let go. The noodler, with the help of sidekicks, then pulls the fish out of hiding and flops it in the boat.
Elmer and I have caught a few but no big ones, nothing over 36 pounds. Admittedly, I didn’t much appreciate getting all scratched up and particularly didn’t take to getting fin spiked that one time. We’d sit around, suck a few beers, argue over global warming and farm fertilizer ending up in the water, which he thought was real good because it just made the fish get bigger. Hard to argue the point as it seemed to be true as hell, besides he said all my scientific training was fuzzy. Everybody was getting bigger cats, and more of them.
We’d eat some of them but to me it was like eating turnips. They were OK if you didn’t have anything else, and by making them blackened and sprinkled with PBR, they were fine.
After a phone call, I found the story worked out about like this. It was a normal day, sticky hot, and the noodlers were looking for a little water time. They chose to work an area where a number of larger cats were found to hang out in the logs and brush along the water’s edge. I have been in the same area and I remember being told, the big Flathead and maybe Blue cats, and we are talking up to one hundred pounds, were probably waiting for something to fall in the water, even though they generally feed on the garbage of the river, dead things.
Most of the serious hunters knew that a fish over 75lbs would take pretty good-sized animals swimming in the river---small dogs, cats, foxes, beavers, muskrats, anything that falls in dead or alive.
Elmer once said, “These here fish been getting’ bigger in the last twenty years ‘cause of fertilizer in the river and raising temperatures. Just more food. Noodlers love it. I ain’t never gonna bitch about it gettin’ warmer cause it makes ‘em  more ferocious and fat as a Missouri hog and that is the way we like ’em.” Interestingly, I now catch catfish on the Wisconsin River fly-fishing with a wooly bugger. They have become attack machines.

I asked at one time, maybe trying to see if there was a bad side to all this warming, which he generally waved off, “Elmer you suppose other things are moving in here, like maybe snakes”?
“Well, I ain’t seen none, but that sidewise-of-a-poacher up the river said he saw a Moccasin but we ain’t taken no stock of that. It’s still too cold and he’s dumber than a bucket of bolts”.
The way it’s told, Elmer Ray had found a hole along the bank that he could tell was extending back into the cut making a perfect place to hold a big cat. Like usual, he got in the eighteen inches of water, belly-first, and started feelin’, which is what you do.
“It is all about touch,” he would say. “gotta be slow and gentle at first. Eventually, you find the head and put your hand in front of the fish and it will latch on and won’t let go no matter what. Then your buddies, and I know they don’t look like much, will pull your ass outa there with the fish hanging on to your arm.”
On Tuesday, and it was a Tuesday, they were at this great spot with Elmer Ray, belly to the water and doing his reaching thing. This went on for a bit and it was clear Elmer Ray had made contact as he was twitching pretty good.
One of his buddies apparently said, “It was looking like he had a real serious piece of fish ‘cause of all the thrashing.” The two guys each grabbed a leg and began to pull, but damn, they couldn’t break him loose. They said they pulled so hard that one of them slipped off with a shoe and by the time he got back up amid all the mud and sticks, the other guy had let go from being over-powered. Try as hard as they could, and they were not softy city wimps, Elmer Ray just disappeared. There may have been a couple little ripples but they didn’t like what was going on.  
Totally beaten and terrified, they headed back for help. When they returned with eight guys, there was nothing to be found in the hole except some torn clothing. Elmer Ray’s favorite Toby Keith tee shirt, all shredded, showed up floating just outside the fallen logs. The spot was completely empty of anything.
By the time the sheriff’s people arrived, they were all speechless. Once back in town the deputy was heard to say, “I don’t know what them boys got into but it ain’t lookin’ real good. Something bad must be going down. ”
Somebody said a few days later, the paper out of Baton Rouge had a headline. University Graduate Students determine Caimans are Moving North due to Global Climate Change.

I wondered if they knew what caimans were?