Thursday, November 25, 2010


From us riverbank denizens to you…

I hope your turkey turns out perfect, that the dressing isn't too dry or the gravy lumpy, and that the whole feast is enjoyed amid a spirit of love, laughter, and thankful celebration.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


The latest weather report is rain starting soon after noon, turning into heavy rain—storm warnings have been issued—more rain throughout the night, and 100% chance of rain all day tomorrow. No doubt the river will muddy and rise, and any chance of a post-Thanksgiving-feast amble to walk-off a bit of the turkey and dressing, green beans, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, roasted mixed vegetables, fruit salad, breads, pumpkin pie, cookies, and so on and on and on, will be impossible. So will outdoor photography. 

But this morning's sunrise more than made up for a bit of rain. The top shot was the view looking east as Myladylove and I sat down to breakfast—though before eating, Moon and I made a quick detour outside for photos. The tree is the huge patriarch sycamore which I mentioned in the foggy morning post a few days ago. 

The second shot is from the exact opposite direction, looking west—with the pink sunrise light bathing the tops of the sycamores lining the bank opposite the cottage, reflecting down onto the nearly white rocks in the riffle, turning the water a sort of purple-rose, and overlaying everything else with a magenta cast. This intense color didn't lasted more than a minute or so after I stepped outside. Just long enough for a couple of quick snaps.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I've been working at my desk since about 8:30 a.m. Between today's stint and an even longer session Saturday, I'm glad to say everything got finished and fired off to the various editors. I also included a cheery missive outlining my plans—in lurid and succulent detail—for the 23-pound turkey now resting on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator come Thanksgiving. The idea was to have them drooling on their iPads and suffering from hunger pains as punishment for not giving me an earlier heads-up when they decided to shorten my deadlines. I covered side dishes as well as the main course. Plus desserts. Editors tend to live on junk food, are perpetually hungry, and drool like Rottweilers at the mere mention of anything edible.  

During one of today's few breaks, Moon the dog and I stepped outside for perhaps five minutes. I made one photo…which was of the afternoon sun shining through clusters of box elder seeds in a bankside tree about fifty feet from the cottage. 

Actually, what you're seeing is not the true seed but the paired samaras, or "keys," each a couple of inches long, with the half-inch seed located at the base where the samara connects to the raceme's stem. These little winged seed packages were spinning and flying every which way on today's gusty winds—planting themselves, no doubt, by the tens of thousands. Which still leaves hundreds of thousands of box elder keys for the squirrels to nibble.

You know, I'll bet several of those editors I emailed are about now to the point where they'd gladly munch box elder seeds. What a pity I couldn't email them a bag… 


Sunday, November 21, 2010


On the porch beneath a clabbered sky
I watch the day turn gold and slip away,
while gray squirrels rustle through leaves 
browning beneath the big hackberry, and 
chilled air carries a hint of woodsmoke.
Somewhere well upstream, geese are 
honking on the wing, sharp yelps 
marking their homeward passage 
through twilight's steady gathering.

Another unveiled autumn plays out
as we rest in mild circadian confusion,
aware—though circumspect 
in our affected silence—that November 
will run its course and winter waits ahead.

Doesn't winter always wait ahead?
Isn't the still season of ice and cold and 
keening wind always where years take us?
Is that why we make the time during
autumn's summation to gather 'round 
a familiar table, bow our heads, and
declare our thanks before having our feast?
Do we celebrate in gratitude or prudence,
mindful that our lot is good, yet uneasy 
we might have claimed too much credit
for the cornucopia we're about to enjoy?

The river is the color of old pewter in 
the waning light, divided into many 
small channels—a shredded ribbon, 
whispering as it finds it way between stones.
Such beauty. And there, in the quiet eventide, 
with a full moon rising to light the night, 
I recount my blessings before the holy stars—
and pray I might always keep a thankful heart.   


Saturday, November 20, 2010


It's a foggy morning here along the riverbank. The treeline along the opposite side of the channel between the cottage and the island is all but invisible. Sycamores and box elders rise like ghosts from the pale mist. Mallards thirty yards downstream, doubtless paddling about their favorite pool, quack unseen, their voices loud in the cloistered silence of the enveloping fog.

Moon the dog and I amble about—she busily snuffling through the piles of wet brown leaves, while I try to find things to photograph. In the treetops overhead, a squirrel pauses to balance on a twig and check us out.

Over by the board fence which marks the southern boundary of my streamside acre, the patriarch sycamore, a huge, towering specimen that is easily old enough to have been around when the Founding Fathers drew up the U.S. Constitution in 1787, loomed mysteriously, its topmost branches fading, spectral, almost vaporous, as if they were simply merging into and becoming one with the fog.

If I had more time, this would be a great morning to grab the camera gear, jump into the truck, and go driving around making fog shots. But…I have to work. All my editors suddenly decided yesterday that with Thanksgiving coming on Thursday, they'd like to have my columns in no later than Tuesday—in case they decide to take off from Wednesday through Sunday for the holiday. Seeing as how I have almost all of Tuesday filled with appointments, and things to do on Sunday, that leaves today and Monday to get a week's worth of work completed. 

Alas, I suppose I'd better get to work…

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The past few days have been rather perilous to the local gray squirrel population. 

It began last week when I glanced out the window and saw a neighbor's cat proudly parading across the yard with a limp squirrel dangling from its jaws. Various cats are regular visitors here, attracted by birds coming to the feeders I have stationed about. For the most part, they're laughably unsuccessful. The birds keep a sharp lookout, plus there's not a lot of handy cover for concealment in the final critically-close range, and thus the long-distance rush-to-dinner usually ends with all birds making their escape well before the gonzo cats closes in. A bit of frustrated tail-swishing by the empty-clawed cat typically follows, which I find quite amusing.   

Not the squirrel catcher…just catching a catnap in the wheelbarrow.

 Yes, now and then a cat does manage to pull it off. Not often, however; I'd say the ratio is maybe fifty rushes to one caught bird. 

Squirrels seemed practically bulletproof—way too quick of reflexes, too speedy afoot, and too good at sudden direction changes. This is the very first time I've seen a cat catch a squirrel here at the cottage—and to be fair, I didn't actually witness the cat make the kill. For all I know, the squirrel could have met it's demise up on the road by bouncing off the bumper of a Buick.

Of course, the cat was just being a predator. Mouse, bird, squirrel…eats are eats. Everyone has to eat.

I hold the same attitude towards birds of prey. So when I looked out the same window a few days later and saw a redtail hawk land in the yard next to the river, maybe a dozen feet from the cottage door—a gray squirrel clutched in it talons, the only thing that upset me was that I'd left my camera in the pickup. I knew there wasn't a glimmer of hope that I'd be able to sneak out the back door and retrieve it, get back to the window, and make a photo without spooking the big hawk. 

The redtail, a juvenile, sat on its kill for nearly fifteen minutes. At first it held its wings out, not fully extended, but sort of wrapped around its prey as if hiding it from view. Later it folded its wings back into place. I didn't see any struggles coming from the squirrel, so possibly the hawk was just being cautious. Every so often the hawk looked down, though it never tried to reposition its grip on the squirrel. But most of the time the bird kept a constant watch all around in every direction, head swiveling this way and that, scrutinizing everything. 

A different redtail (I think) taken a few days later.
About midways through this fifteen minute sit, a gray squirrel—one of several which had hunkered in the tree from which the hawk had snatched the hapless squirrel, and under which the bird now sat holding the unfortunate victim—came down the trunk, shaking it bushy tail and squacking loudly at the hawk. The irate squirrel approached to within four or five feet of the hawk. All the redtail could do was glare at the squirrel and take what I'm sure was a good cussing. I thought that was a pretty fearless act on the part of the gray squirrel.

Finally, the redtail flew off, the squirrel hanging like a fuzzy banner below its legs. 

Incident three came this morning. Again, I witnessed it—the final milliseconds, anyway—through my deskside window. I was watching several squirrels chasing one another through the tops of the big sycamores along the river. Suddenly a blur caught my eye, which I realized was a falling squirrel. I didn't see the point from which the fall began, or know the reason it occurred…but I saw the final fifty-foot plunge, and heard the whap when the squirrel hit the ground—barely missing the upturned wheelbarrow—thirty feet from where I sat.

It isn't the first falling squirrel I've witnessed by a long shot. I've watched plenty of squirrels fall from power lines, treetops, off building, and bridges, and poles. Once I saw a squirrel attempt to jump from the top of a hundred-foot-tall cottonwood to a rocky cliff outcrop twenty feet away—only to miss completing the leap by several feet. What I've seldom seen, however, including the cottonwood-to-cliff attempt, was such a fall proving fatal. And this morning's plummet was no exception. After a minute or two of stunned immobility, the squirrel hopped over to the box elder near the front door, scampered up to a comfortable limb, and sat for awhile—considering, assessing, recovering? Whatever it is a squirrel does after such a plunge.

After the fall…

Life for a squirrel can truly be…squirrelly.

Monday, November 15, 2010


This was one of those frost-on-your-pumpkin sort of mornings—although the only pumpkin hereabouts is a huge discard considerably larger than a basketball, someone apparently threw into the river a week after Halloween. 

The poor jettisoned pumpkin made it as far as the riffle in front of the cottage, where it then got stuck in the shallows between the stones—doomed to mutely await the breakdown of the flesh that eventually comes to us all…or alternately, being set free by a providential rise in the water level, thus enabled to continue on its downstream adventure.
But while pumpkins may be in short supply, brown fallen leaves, and a few green ones such as those on violets, are not. I liked the way the the frost added a delicate filagreed border around many leaf edges, dusted others like sprinkled sugar, and made the ribs on the big sycamore leaves stand out like crystalized bone. 

Somewhere in the dark tangle of cedars along the fence, a Carolina wren sang ebulliently. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches were busy working the feeders. The dapper chickadees seemed especially energized by the brisk-but-sunny morning. 

Of course, a bit of sunshine and a handy supply of sunflower seeds to pilfer are all any chickadee ever needs to be sent into spasms of noisy delight. I expect there's a lesson in there for all of us with our long lists of conditions that must be met before we deign to greet a new morning with even half so much honest cheer.


Friday, November 12, 2010


I have a succinct word of advice to anyone who's at risk of succumbing to the notion of attempting to identify a particular grasshopper down to species level…don't! Not unless you're at least a master's level entomologist, and know your way around the Caelifera suborder like the rest of us know the shelves of our refrigerator. 

Officially, there are about 8,000 species of grasshoppers worldwide—though many more are waiting to be named and catalogued. Upwards of 660 species, in four families, are scattered throughout North America. As best I can determine, a bunch of them are found in Ohio—of which, the grasshopper in the photo is one

No, "bunch" is not a scientific term. It is a noun born of frustration, irritation, exasperation, vexation, and possibly other words ending in "ation," which I employ in lieu of an imprecation. I have just spent a, uh, bunch of time paging through BugGuide's 300-plus pages, each with multiple photos, trying to put a name to the critter in question.

I found this fine fellow sitting in a bush enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun. I wouldn't bet the farm on it, but I believe it is a Melanoplus punctulatus, otherwise known as a Pine Tree Spur-Throat Grasshopper. There is also every chance in the world that my tentative I.D. isn't anywhere close.

You might recall from Aesop's Fables the tale of the hard-working ant who labored to get his home and stores of food ready for winter, while the lazy grasshopper spent his time idling in the summer sun. When the chill hit, the shivering grasshopper begged the ant to take him in and share—only to have the insensitive creature slam the door in his face. I've never really liked the ant for this, in spite of his proletarian efficiency. My sympathies are with the grasshopper. The snobbish ant may have been effective at seeing to his own needs, but he shows a decided lack of neighborly charity.

I just hope one of robins which have been scratching around the yard all day doesn't spot my long-legged friend while he's sunning and nab him for a tasty snack. But if I see it about to happen, I'll try and get the photo.
* * *
*POSTSCRIPT! I've just read that one of the common names for the Pine Tree Spur-Throat Grasshopper is the "Grizzled Grasshopper." Ha! Is that not an addendum of cosmic verification, or what?  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitchigumi
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.
                                                         —Gorden Lightfoot, "The Wreck Of The Edmond Fitzgerald"

Today looks to be shaping into another of those magnificent November gifts—sparkling skies clear and azure blue, filled with brilliant sunshine. It's quite likely temperatures will again make it into the low-70s by mid-afternoon. You simply couldn't ask for nicer late-autumn weather.

An hour ago I abandoned my desk work, poured a fresh cup of coffee, and went outside to sit in the rocker and enjoy a break on the deck. The rich scent of new-fallen leaves filled the warm air. Downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, goldfinches, and titmice were busily working the nearby feeder. Gray squirrels chased about among the upper branches of the big box elder. A few yards away, the river slipped steadily along. 

In such a tranquil spot, on such a balmy morning, it's almost impossible to reconcile this day with the same date thirty-five years ago when I stood on the rocky beach of Whitefish Point, on the southeastern shore of Lake Superior. I always make an obligatory stop here after spending time camping and rambling the beautiful wild country of the Upper Peninsula. It's my way of saying good-bye to a land I dearly love. The weather that afternoon was bad and deteriorating in a hurry. Freezing temperatures. Powerful winds. Lashing rain that pelted my face, stinging my cheeks and making it difficult to keep the waterproof parka's hood in place. 

The big lake was roaring and tossing like caldron as the fierce storm continued to build. Waves were a frightening height—approaching twenty feet. On a clear day, from this location where the lake narrows as it reaches Sault Ste. Marie, you can easily see the Canadian shoreline. But the dark sky, thick overcast, and moisture-filled air rendered the other side invisible. I stayed only a few minutes before stumbling back to the pickup and readying myself for the twelve-hour drive home. 

What I didn't know then, standing on that beach, was that I stood on the brink of history—only a few hours and seventeen miles away from a maritime tragedy that would become legend. At 7:10 p.m. that evening, November 10, 1975—about the time I stopped in Grayling, Michigan for a snack and to gas up the truck—the 729 foot long Great Lakes ore freighter Edmund Fitzgerald sank in 530 feet of water as it struggled in vain to gain shelter on the lee side of Whitefish Point. All twenty-nine men aboard perished.

To this day, no one knows for sure what actually happened to the Big Fitz on that fateful night. Structural failure? Faulty deck hatches? A rogue wave? Bottoming out on Caribou Shoals? The mystery endures—and perhaps always will. But tonight, at the Great Lakes Shipwreck & Historical Society's museum on Whitefish Point, friends and family, various maritime officials, and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, will gather to remember. And at precisely 7:00 p.m. the big brass bell recovered from the Fitzgerald's wreck the year after she went down will be struck twenty-nine times…a lonesome, poignant pealing that echoes across time and miles and down into the darkness of several hundred feet of icy water.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I can't remember what the latest scientific thinking is regarding the presence of water on  Mars…but I'm pretty sure no scientist claims rivers as one of the Red Planet's geographic features. If that were the case, however, what you see in these photos might be a pretty fair representation. 

For some time, I've been trying to make a good photo of the great blue heron which regularly comes sailing downstream as twilight deepens. The big bird is always moving fast and generally flying low—twenty feet or so above the water. As I said, it is usually all but dark, and the distance is too great for flash. Sometimes, though, the heron comes along a bit earlier, when there's just enough remaining light for the shot. Alternately, there are evenings when the bird flies closer to the deck—making the use of flash a possibility—or higher than the twenty-foot norm, giving me the opportunity for a neat silhouette against a sunset-colored western sky.

So far, the bird wily has either passed too late, or else I've failed to get the flash-lit or high-silhouette shot. But persistence and blind luck can often make up for lack of equipment and photographic talent…so I keep at it, waiting patiently on the deck for that cosmic moment when everything goes right, I make the shot, and afterwards stick it up on this blog and claim it was "nothing special, just an ol' blue heron in the twilight."

I'm embarrassed to say in my haste to grab my camera and dash to the deck on the evening I made these exposures, I didn't even look out the window beforehand on my way to the door. But when I stepped on the deck, the impact of the orange-red light stopped me in my tracks. I don't think I've ever seen natural light so intensely colored. Everything was simply bathed in the same hue—water, trees, rocks. The images you see are exactly how it looked—though there was an overall radiance that no digital image can capture. It was so unworldly looking that my first thought was—this could be an evening on Mars.    

The reason for the coloration was simply a precisely positioned cloud which was apparently acting as a sort of prism, filtering out all the blue-green wavelengths. The intense reddish color lasted only a few moments. The sun sank lower in the west, the angle of light streaming into the cloud changed…and the effect quickly faded. But the moment was awesome. 

When Bonnie, over at Original Art Studio, asked as part of the interview she did with me, about my relationship with light, I immediately thought about this and other such crepuscular moments—when light becomes magic, the familiar turns extraordinary, and once again you're delightfully and unexpectedly spellbound by beauty. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010


A few mornings ago, I pulled the pickup off the shoulder of a nearby rural road and looked at what a passing autumn had left of a big patch of staghorn sumac. Not long ago the sumac clump was a glorious sight—it's multitudes of long leaflets a flaming scarlet, like head-feathers on a Lakota war bonnet. Now the leaves were mostly down, the patch in tatters, and only a hint or two of red could still be found in the drying clutter beneath the twisted branches.

I'd stopped because of what lay behind the sumac thicket—the start of a narrow path, invisible from the road, which leads into the old field. If you follow it long enough, this track—really not much more than a game trail—will lead you across the weedy meadow, over a low hillock, and beyond to the banks of the same river on which my cottage sits a couple of miles downstream. Alas, my time was limited, stolen between errands, and I knew I couldn't make it to the water—but I also needed to get outside for a bit, stretch my legs, breathe the crisp November air and feel the sun on my face. 

A hundred yards in I paused to photograph a milkweed seed pod which had split open, the bright morning sunlight sparkling off its exposed seeds and silks. The larvae of monarch butterfly feed solely on milkweed. Milkweeds belong to the genus Asciepias, named after the Greek god of healing because of the plant's long history in folk medicine. My grandfather taught me to rub milkweed sap on a poison ivy rash—and it does seem to work, at least about as well as any store-bought remedy.

Suddenly a gusty autumn wind blew across the open field, bending the dried stems of Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod, and purple coneflower. Milkweed seeds began streaming up and away, caught on the stiff currents, carried to a hundred distant corners of the meadow and who knows how far beyond. In less time than it takes to tell, the seed pod I'd been photographing was an empty husk.

On the way back to the truck it struck me that what I'd just witnessed was something I wish I'd learned far earlier in line—that sometimes it's simply best to let go and be carried by the wind. As a hard-core perfectionist and control-freak, it took me way too long the realize how often I stood in my own way. Goals and plans and a sense of direction are good things; don't get me wrong. But so are providence and serendipity. Sometimes it's best to forget strategy and intent and embrace the whimsical, the unexpected, the moment of adventure which can lead you to worlds beyond your wildest dreams. 

This is the milkweed's philosophy—be ready, and when the right wind comes along…just turn loose and go. 

NOTE:  Bonnie, at Original Art Studio, recently asked if I'd be part of her ongoing series of blog interviews. I was both honored and humbled, and more than a bit anxious because I don't think I'm all that interesting—especially considering the quality of the interview subjects who preceded me. Nevertheless, I hope you follow the link above and see what you think—and then, read a few more of Bonnie's always interesting posts. If you've not made Original Art Studio's acquaintance already, you'll be glad to have found her blog. 

And…I thank you, Bonnie, for making this whole process fun (really!) in spite of my initial fears.         


Saturday, November 6, 2010


There's an old country saying that "autumn goes floating down-river." The adage is often used metaphorically to reflect on the swift and steady passage from the bright patchwork of colorful leaves to a landscape stark and skeletal. And it regularly proves true—time does seem to speed up once the leaves have taken on their carnival hues. Early-October rushes past and suddenly it's already mid-November, the leaves are down, Thanksgiving is just around the corner…with winter and Christmas soon to follow. 

How could this have happened so quickly? In part because the old expression is not only metaphoric truth, but a quite literal description of natural fact—as anyone who lives alongside a river or creek quickly learns.  
Every morning, I start my day off with a look upstream and down. Once autumn hits its peak, every first look finds a bit less color, a tad fewer leaves still clinging to the trees, with a more open view through the thickets and canopy of the bankside woodlands. Then, if I look at the surface of the river, I'll see an endless stream of leaves being carried along with the current.  

Autumn floating down-river.


Monday, November 1, 2010


We've arrived at another Monday, the first day of a brand new week. It's also the first day of a brand new month, November. And finally, today is All Saint's Day, a festival or feast day of commemoration in the Catholic Church. I can further report that it's a chilly day here on the riverbank. The official reading is 28˚F, with the day's predicted high being 54 degrees. That's the coldest it's been here since sometime back in the early spring. In fact, it's only during the past week that daytime high temperatures have slipped below the 70s.

Not that I'm complaining. I like cool weather. The invigorating days of the latter half of autumn are lovely, among my favorites of the entire year. Though temperatures this low do mean I'll have to dig my canna lilies up if want to save the root stock for replanting next spring. Besides, it's bright and sunny, with a crisp blue sky that looks fresh washed. 

There's frost glittering on the carpet of sycamore leaves in the yard—leaves which I'll need to rake up and move to the top of my compost heap. I don't mind the raking, and I certainly treasure the compost for my flowers and plantings, but I loath the wheelbarrow loading and hauling. On the sorta plus side, last week a windy morning took care of part of the job for me—blowing most of the leaves then on the ground into the river. Of course those leaves are lost to my composting plans, but with well over a hundred large trees on the property, and the fact that not even half the leaves were then down, the loss is relatively minor. I'll still have plenty of leaves to grumble at while moving them about. 

By the way, that same windstorm—which lasted less than an hour—was severe enough to prompt the National Weather Service to issue a "wind advisory." Its sustained winds reached 50 miles per hour, with gusts measuring 81 mph. However, here along the river, tucked safely below the surrounding lands, the passing winds were, at most, a bit breezy. The surface of the cottage pool was only occasionally ruffled, and the mallards sat tight throughout. A few twigs and dead limbs came down, though nothing significant. And my leaves—along with lots from trees on the island across from the house—blew into the stream, and were soon carried from view by the current.

Neighbors on higher ground, or situated in a more direct path of the wind, were not so lucky. A few had large trees in their yards come crashing down, sometimes onto houses, outbuildings, and vehicles. Others lost roof shingles, gutters, barn doors, or bits of siding improperly installed. Under the category of "good loss" to my way of thinking, were the small front-yard forests of staked political posters touting issues and candidates for tomorrow's mid-term elections. Some folks display these things by the dozens along the roadway—often by sticking out twenty-five copies of the same poster. Such advertising is, of course, their right, and one I'd defend if necessary. But they're also a sort of temporary eyesore, and I have to wonder if they truly do all that much to sway votes one way or the other. 

So to those bemoaning the loss of their yard-art collection of posters, I say consider your lost signs an inadvertant "wiping the slate clean," with several positive possibilities. First off, it not only gives you time to reconsider your obvious public support and leanings, but your neighbors might even come to believe you're a person of unexpectedly deep thought. Hey, they have no idea whether you've changed your mind because you've listened closer to the speeches and delved deeper into the issues, or gotten to know the candidate better and now wouldn't vote for them unless held at gunpoint. Or maybe you've simply realized your man or woman is about to tank, and you no longer wish to be seen backing a loser. This give you an opportunity to save face. Finally, with any luck, the wind that blew down your signs also blew them out of the immediate neighborhood. Who knows where they ended up? But unless you can track them down, you're relieved of clean-up duty and a trip to the dumpster.

See…it wasn't an ill wind after all!