I once planted poems throughout my town (Duluth, MN) when I contributed to a Local Free Poetry project. Our poet laureate at the time scattered hard copies of poems by local poets in area businesses. I submitted four poems. One of them was entitled, “Perfunctory Kisses.” The short (8-line) poem detailed how I dislike kisses that don’t mean anything. I might want to publish it somewhere in the future, so I won’t share the whole thing here, but just let me say that the first line is: Perfunctory kisses suck.
I know, not exactly subtle, but I like my poetry to be accessible. 😊
Last summer, I received an email through my author website from a woman who lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. She said my poem captivated her when she found it. She used it as a reading at her recent wedding – her groom read it to her before they exchanged vows.
“Your short poem offered a sharp and punchy contrast to some of the more traditional readings of the ceremony,” she said. “We heard gasps of delight as the first line was read aloud. Let’s say, it was well received, as we knew it would be.” She ended with, “Thanks for your contribution to making our ceremony unique and memorable.”
Receiving her note made my day, my year! I’m tickled and honored that my poem landed on fertile ground and was used in such a personal way.
After my book launch this winter for “Meander North,” I heard from our friend, Sailor Dave, who connected with one of the stories I read about bunnies. Unlike with my poem, you can read this one because the book is made up from posts from this blog. (Seeing Rabbits) It explores the thought that rabbits might be guardians of our sleep.
Dave lives in a tiny house at a local marina. He said, “I wanted to tell you that I had a “pandemic bunny” living under my house last winter, too. When listening to Marie read the story, I was anticipating a dark turn, with Russ finding a great “New York Times” rabbit stew recipe that he was dying to try. Of course, it took a more spiritual turn and I found myself wondering if my rabbit would return. I did leave veggies out now and then. And there were baby bunnies in the spring. After our last snow, I spotted fresh bunny tracks around the house. My guardian bunny has returned! Probably under the house right now, waiting for me to go to sleep.”
Then there was a note I received through my website right after Christmas. A reader from Marshall, Minnesota, thanked me for writing my first novel, “Eye of the Wolf,” which deals with the wolves on Isle Royale National Park. He said it was, “An enjoyable foray into their lives and possibilities.”
Since my novel is rather old now (12 years), I asked him where he found it and he said it was in the library there. I let him know that there’s a sequel (“Plover Landing”), which he also ended up reading, and appreciated. I planted those copies in the town when I participated in a local arts board event years ago. So nice to learn they also found fertile ground!
I love these connections and I love it when readers take the time to send me their comments.
Russ and I were just listening to the latest episode of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” show. Author George Saunders (“Lincoln in the Bardo”) was on it. During his interview he offered this thought on how to define a literary work: “Anything that connects people in a way that’s deeper than the usual way – habitual way we connect. That can be seen as literature.”
I’d also posit that literature connects through space and time. The good books will resonate into the future and across geography. I’m not really saying that my writing is great literature, but I’m always trying and am heartened by these little successes.
I recently attended a Zoom meeting for work where the presenter was wearing a bow tie. His tie was full of bright colors in contrast to his dark shirt. The speaker was a professed bow tie-aficionado. His tie was fun to look at, but it was crooked. I kept mentally straightening it during his whole presentation. It was distracting.
This reminded me that every bow tie I have ever seen someone wear has been crooked, which reminded me of an idea I had in 2010 when I worked for Mayo Clinic Public Affairs (where many of the doctors are also bow tie-aficionados) for an addition to a tip sheet for television interviews. This was a one-pager that we had on hand to advise doctors who weren’t familiar with being interviewed. It contained tips like women not wearing long, dangly earrings because they are distracting. (Although I suppose this could also apply to men!)
If I had continued working at Mayo Clinic longer and gained more “street cred” in the organization, I would have advocated for adding to the tip sheet: “Don’t wear a bow tie.”
Before I list the reasons why, I want to say that I think bow ties are fine for everyday life. I realize they are a way for the wearer to express their individuality and quirkiness, and I’m all for that. They are also convenient in many professions, allowing for a fashion statement that doesn’t drag in your soup bowl like a long necktie would. Also, according to a story on the WHYY public television station, for doctors, bow ties are more hygienic, collecting less bacteria than neckties. But I just don’t think they work for television interviews.
Here’s my reasoning, as if speaking to the interviewee:
No matter how hard you try, your bow tie will be crooked, which is distracting and dilutes the verbal message you’re trying to convey.
Yes, bow ties make the wearer look smart, but they also alienate you from the viewing audience. Historically, bow ties have been a marker of privilege and conservatism. Think of who you are trying to reach with your television interview message. For most health information, I would wager you want the widest possible audience.
During media interviews, you are representing your organization. This is not a time to get all individualist and fancy. You can put your bowtie back on afterward.
Despite straightening beforehand, your bowtie WILL become crooked during the interview.
Your bowtie will run askew. (I cannot stress this enough.) 😊
There, I’ve been carrying that inside for a long time. I feel better now! Feel free to comment with dissenting opinions or agreements below.
On a lark one day, I meandered around on the internet, searching for one of my great-grandfathers on my mother’s side. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he has his own Wikipedia entry, plus a YouTube video done by a stranger. Not bad for a man with humble beginnings who lived most of his life in the 1800s.
Why does he merit such acclaim in 2022? One reason is that he was a Minnesota state senator. Another is that he was a regent for the University of Minnesota. The final reason has to do with bricks. Yes, bricks. I’ll explain near the end of this post.
A cousin recently sent me recollections that Laforest, also known as “L. E.” (for Laforest Edgar), wrote later in life about his younger days. I’d like to share some of the highlights.
Laforest Potter was born in the same year that Minnesota became a state — 1858. But he was not born in the state where he spent most of his life. He was born in Ripon, Wisconsin. Both of his parents (John Potter and Olive Weymouth Potter) had moved there from Maine. His father was an orphan who farmed rented land and worked in the woods and on the water.
When Laforest was six, his father “rigged up a covered wagon and loaded in his belongings, which were mostly kids,” (he had ten!) “and started with others for Minnesota.” Laforest remembers crossing the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. It was on the Mississippi where he saw his first steamboat.
The family lived on the banks of the Watonwan River near Madelia, Minnesota, in the upper story of a log house owned by another family, who lived on the first floor. That family ended up spreading typhoid fever to Laforest and one of his brothers, who both survived.
Laforest remembers when he fell ill: “Father was working on a threshing machine to earn a living for us kids and one day in late fall, us boys were going to the woods to find wild grapes that had dried on the vines (and there were plenty). We got a short distance from the house when I became so sick, I had to turn back, and that was the last I remember until I was getting well.”
The next spring, they rented a log home across the river. That winter they were hard up for clothing and food. “At one time all we had was some small potatoes and not many of them. Father was away most of the time working at whatever he could get to do. Work was scarce, wages, low, and prices high.”
The family survived a deadly snowstorm that blocked roads and drifted through the cracks between the logs in their home until “our beds and the floor were covered when we got up in the morning . . . Father, knowing the condition we were in, started for home on foot with food. He made the trip where a less robust, determined man would have perished.”
When spring arrived, the family moved again to a farm near Mankato. They lived there for two years and Laforest got his first taste of farm work, made especially challenging after his father fell ill with appendicitis. “Us three boys, the oldest thirteen years old, did the fall work and husked the corn. We had no husking gloves then, and I remember the row I husked could be told by the blood on the husks where my fingers bled, but we stuck to the finish!”
It was near Mankato where Laforest first began to attend school when he was ten. In 1869 the family settled a land claim (I apologize to any Native Americans who may be reading this) fifty-five miles away near Springfield, Minnesota, the area where he was to live for the rest of his life.
He describes the area as “Fifty miles from a railroad, thirty miles from a doctor, and a day’s journey from a schoolhouse. This part of the state was one vast prairie with lakes and sloughs abounding with muskrats, mink, skunks, badgers, foxes, and some wolves, lots of buffalo bones, some Indian relics, all kinds of ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, prairie chickens, and jack rabbits.”
When they weren’t farming, the boys trapped. The family’s crops were destroyed for three years by grasshoppers. Laforest was able to receive about fifteen more months of schooling and survived more snowstorms.
Laforest writes about livestock and how he prized “the company and friendship of good animals more than that of some people I have met.”
He also recounted an incident that happened when he was a teenaged fur trapper one winter:
The ground and ice were covered with a clean layer of snow. There was a fox in one of my traps. He had lost a part of his tail and appeared as though he had been unfortunate at least. He was jumping and whirling around. I watched my chance and struck him on the head with my hatchet with sufficient force to kill him. As he lay there on the white snow with blood running from his mouth and nose, he sobbed and cried like a baby. I will never forget the effect this had on me, out there in the still morning, everything frozen and white, with death at my feet. I believe I have been more careful since in causing pain or death to animals unless necessary.
Wow – what an image! I can just see that fox. Perhaps this is where I get some of my interest and empathy for animals from.
Laforest worked his father’s farm until his father died in 1885. Less than two months later, Laforest married Ada May Redford and then purchased a farm not far from his father’s. His “Shady Lane Stock Farm” outside of Springfield was highly successful. He raised Hereford cattle, pigs, and sheep. His Herefords won numerous awards and are what probably got him an “in” with the University of Minnesota, leading to his appointment by the Minnesota governor as a regent (1920-22).
He was also involved in many agricultural groups and became a sought-after speaker. My guess is that this is what led to his election to the state legislature.
According to the YouTube video I mentioned earlier, Laforest was also a proponent of home improvement, believing that farmers should improve their homes with conveniences “for the comfort of their wives.” He said that farm wives had “as much right to the benefits of labor-saving conveniences and a pleasant home in which to work, as the husband has to improved machinery and fine farm buildings.” Quite a progressive thought for the time, I’m sure. Or perhaps his wife Ada was the one who wrote his speeches?!
Laforest’s Shady Lane Farm was one of the first in the county to have electricity. His home still stands today, and I had a chance to see it a few years ago.
In 1911, Laforest built a silo on his farm from curved hollow clay blocks (rusty orange in color) purchased from the Ochs Brickyard across the road. This is what piqued the curiosity of Vince from Minnesota Bricks. He wondered about the silo’s history, since he has an abiding interest in bricks.
He did some research and discovered Laforest. He shared his knowledge in this impressive YouTube video. Laforest’s silo is no longer standing.
Laforest survived poverty, typhoid, killer snowstorms, child labor, grasshopper plagues, and a lack of formal education. He succeeded through grit and determination. He summed up his philosophy with these words:
First, believe you can do a thing, and then do it or bust a hame strap!
(A hame strap is one of the straps on a harness for horses. It sometimes broke when the horse pulled extra-heavy loads.)
In mid-April of this year, the Tunnel Fire engulfed more than 16,000 acres northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, prompting the evacuation of more than 700 homes. One of those homes was that of Jim Phillips, a long-time member of the speculative fiction writers’ group of which I’ve been a part about fifteen years. Jim joined the group when he used to live in Duluth, Minnesota, and was a member of Lake Superior Writers. After he retired, he moved to Arizona, where he lived alone with two cats for at least half a dozen years. His nearest relatives lived several states away.
After the evacuation ended, a neighbor noticed that Jim’s Jeep was in the same spot it had been before the evacuation. Concerned, the neighbor apparently called the police to do a welfare check on Jim. They found him dead of “natural causes.” He had been dead for several days.
It was during this time we were supposed to have our monthly Zoom meeting to discuss our writing. We hadn’t heard from Jim about his availability for the meeting, so we delayed it until we learned more about his status. It just seemed weird to have a meeting without him.
We were aware of the evacuation and thought maybe he left his home so fast, he forgot to take his phone charger or something. That would be like him. My emails and texts to him remained unanswered, which was unlike him.
There are two other women in our group besides me, Linda and Lacey. Linda is retired and had a bit more time on her hands to investigate what was going on with Jim. Lacey has her own blog (Lacey’s Late-night Editing) and wrote a post that goes into detail about the events, should you be curious.
Linda doggedly tracked down information about Jim and called me when Russ and I were on vacation in Yosemite National Park to deliver the sad news. I was shocked, to say the least. We knew Jim had some health issues, but he had seemed fine the month before when we met via Zoom.
Like I told an acquaintance recently, Jim just “up and died on us with no warning.” It was disconcerting, and it took me several days to get out of my funk, even though I was surrounded by the unsurpassed natural beauty of the park. I found comfort in that beauty.
I’ve become a fan of Spotify and its various music mixes. A song called, “Resist the Urge” by Matt Sweeney popped up in my Daily Mix during vacation. Although I don’t agree with the song’s encouragement not to grieve someone’s death (you need to feel all the feels!), I do like the lyrics that say, “If you need reminders, look around at what is huge and wild and there you’ll see the way . . . I may not be there bodily, but in the wind, I’m here.”
Jim enjoyed hiking and getting out in nature. He often regaled us with tales of his hikes around Arizona. I felt he would approve my turning to nature to grieve. There wasn’t even a funeral for him that we could attend to share our grief. Not even an obituary we could find online. However, Jim started a speculative fiction group in Arizona and a member wrote a post about him (with Linda and Jim’s sister’s assistance). It’s fitting and such a good remembrance of him.
I especially appreciated this comment in the post: “The writing communities of Duluth and Flagstaff will fondly remember Jim for his scientific curiosity, love of all things science fiction and horror, his wicked sense of humor, his keen editorial eye, and his promotion of the Oxford comma.”
Since we couldn’t attend a public funeral, my writer’s group decided to hold a ceremony of our own. Last weekend, we gathered in Willmar, Minnesota, (the halfway point between all of us geographically). We had lunch together and then made our way to a state park north of town, where we hiked a short way on a trail (“Trail J,” for Jim). We found a small grove of oak trees and ventured off the trail to sit among them. I’m sure Jim would have approved of the location.
We shared our collective memories and feelings about Jim. We all were grateful for the visit we paid him a few years ago in Flagstaff, where we all gathered for several days. We visited the Grand Canyon and met with the writer’s group he had organized there.
As Lacey so aptly said in her blog post, losing a writing friend is different from losing a “regular” friend:
There is a part of me, a deep and essential part of me, that these three — now only two — people know more intimately than anyone else in my life. To share your writing with another, especially in its formative stages, requires a great deal of vulnerability. And from that vulnerability comes a trust that rivals the trust I have in my husband, my best friend, or my mom. Because time and again, they have proved themselves worthy to be allowed into my inner landscape, the world of my mind that is shared only sporadically with those I share my “real life” with.
Losing one of the few people who I consistently trusted with that part of myself is no small thing. And grieving it is no small task, especially when it is tied up so closely with the very thing I have turned to throughout my life to process everything else. But it’s the only way forward.
Jim provided a unique viewpoint on our writing that no one else will be able to match. Besides that, he was just an all-around good person. Even though he died alone with his cats, the ripples from his death reverberate through our lives, and it’s going to take some time to recover.
I couldn’t write any fiction for about six weeks after his death. When I did try, my output was only half of normal.
I’m okay with that. It’s going to take time to get over this.
When we met in Willmar, we didn’t bring any writing to critique. We’re saving that for our next meeting in August, when Lacey will be in Duluth (from her home in South Dakota). I suspect this meeting will be difficult without Jim, but we know he would want us to continue forward. He’d want us to keep writing. The WORST thing we could do is stop writing.
So, we will keep moving forward, keep putting words to paper. Keep hoping they are worthy.
Every two years during the second Sunday in June, members related to my father’s side of the family gather south of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and celebrate our relatedness. The Pramann Family Picnic began in central Minnesota in 1957, one hundred years after the original family farmstead was founded. (1857, which was one year before Minnesota gained statehood. The picnic was begun on the centennial on purpose.)
The “founding couple” (my great-great-grandparents Johan and Johanna Pramann) immigrated from Othfresen Germany. It’s speculated that they left, even though Johan’s family were the major landholders in the area, because Johan would not inherit the land because he was not the oldest son. Apparently, there was a tradition that the oldest son inherited the land and the younger sons were given money to build a house in town. Maybe that wasn’t good enough for Johan, so he came to the United States to seek his own land, with his wife and a foster daughter (Augusta, age six) in tow.
They spent seven weeks on the ocean and finally arrived in New Orleans, taking a boat up the Mississippi River. They disembarked in St. Paul, loaded their meager belongings on an ox cart, and walked beside the cart (the cart was small and there was no room to sit!) 77 miles to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where they stayed with some friends. That must have been a long trip.
Eventually, they settled in Fair Haven and had one son named Henry, who was my great-grandfather. Johan and Johanna were fairly successful farmers in spite of bad times, such as blizzards, fires, and grasshopper plagues.
Henry met his wife Margaret after she immigrated from Switzerland. They had seven boys and three girls. My grandfather John was their second son and was born in the family’s log cabin.
At our family reunion, those gathered usually identify themselves by which of the second-generation American children of Henry and Margaret they are related to. All I need to say is that I’m “John’s granddaughter” and the relative I’m speaking with can visualize where I fit in the family tree.
According to a biography that my Aunt Marguerite wrote, John was a good student. He went to the country school nearby and “remained in the top eighth grade for three years, he said, ‘until I learned all the teacher could teach me.’” With his older brother set to inherit the land, he realized the farm did not hold much of a future, so he went into town to get business training. That’s why my family aren’t farmers.
John moved to Minneapolis and worked for a hardware wholesale company (Janney, Semple, Hill and Co.) for two years and attended an evangelical church there (as did his two sisters) where he met his future bride Louise, “a blue-eyed young woman whose family attended the church and who was employed as secretary to the president of Metropolitan National Bank.”
They moved to St. Cloud, which is about fifteen miles north of Fair Haven, where my grandfather eventually worked as a banker and insurance agent. He built their house with his own hands, but alas, it is not standing anymore. The neighborhood was demolished for a parking lot. Somewhere along the line, they switched religions from evangelical to Methodist, although I guess they are closely related.
One thing perhaps a bit unusual about this side of the family is that they had their own cemetery and church. In 1873, the Pramanns donated some farmland to the Evangelical Association so they could build the church and cemetery. A church was built in 1880 and was known as Gethsemane. The church was officially incorporated in 1887. Services were held there regularly every three or four weeks in the afternoon until 1920. The church is no longer standing. Henry and Margaret are buried in the cemetery, as are Johan and Johanna.
The Pramann Family Picnic was delayed by the pandemic. We hadn’t gathered since 2018, so I was keen to continue the tradition when it returned this year. About one hundred of us gathered in the city park picnic shelter in Fairhaven, Minnesota, last weekend. Everyone brought a dish to share and their own silverware and plates. I brought potato salad made from my mother’s recipe (with black olives, mustard, hard-boiled eggs, vinegar and dill). She often used to make it for these occasions. Families tend to sit together, but also mill around and talk to other relatives they haven’t seen in a while. Most live locally or elsewhere in Minnesota, but sometimes relatives from out-of-state attend. (Pramanns live in New York, Louisiana, and the West Coast.)
After dessert (ice cream is a family tradition and must be served!), a family meeting ensues, conducted according to Robert’s Rule of Order, where minutes from the previous family meeting are read and approved. There’s a treasurer’s report, new family picnic organizers are elected, and various family members are recognized for their youth or age. In the past, people have verbally noted new deaths and births, but this time, everyone was encouraged to write those down on a special form so the family tree could be updated later.
The picnics originally were held at the homestead farm. Then they moved to the city park in Annandale, Minnesota, and then to Fair Haven. In the past, the group sung hymns and pledged allegiance to the flag, but now we just eat, talk and meet.
The weather can be unsettled in this part of the country in June. As a child, I remember my family packing up and leaving one picnic early when the sky turned a sickly green from an oncoming tornado. For last week’s picnic, Russ and I drove through an unexpected rainstorm on the way.
I had never seen the cemetery and church site, or the original homestead before (that I can remember), so, when the chance came to visit them during the picnic, I was eager. A cousin led us on the car ride north of town and down a gravel road to the sites.
The trees were the first thing I noticed about the small cemetery. Several pines tower over it, one with graceful twisting limbs. These trees feed on the bones of my ancestors.
Headstones bearing the name Pramann and other surnames from Gethsemane churchgoers dot the ground. Some markers are written in German. Some are so old the writing had eroded away. Some are so modern their occupants haven’t died yet. Farmland surrounds the cemetery and the Pramann homestead is visible a short way down the road.
Several other relatives arrived at the cemetery after us and regaled us with old family stories. One, that I recall hearing before, involved “how Johanna fed the Indians.” The story was written by my grandfather John (in “Some Facts on the Genealogy of the American Branch of the Pramann Family” – Jan. 1964), but basically, Johanna was home alone one day, cooking. A group of Native Americans – probably Dakota (Sioux) – arrived and asked for something to eat. According to my grandfather’s account, “She placed the large kettle on the floor, where the group sat and ate potatoes and even unbaked dough. After finishing their eating, they left, but a few days later, a whole venison was left on their doorstep.” The couple thought it might have been left in thanks for the food Johanna had provided.
Thankfully, their interactions with the natives were peaceful, or I might not be here to write this blog.
My grandfather John was interested in genealogy and was instrumental is beginning the Pramann Family reunion. My aunt found this prayer in his papers, which he must have recited for one of the reunions. Although dated and patriarchal, I think it sums up the thankfulness that many immigrant families must feel on coming to the United States.
We thank thee, our heavenly father, for the foresight of our forefathers in migrating to this free county where we can worship as we wish. In thy sight we are all equal regardless of nationality, color, creed, or church affiliation.
Lord Jesus, as thou “didst break the bread and bless the loaves by Galilee” bless our food and pour thy heavenly benediction upon us, receive our thanks and keep us all in perfect unity with each other and with thee.
In my childhood home, my father would sit in front of his ham radio microphone, sending out his call sign to the world. His call letters were W0RXL, which in amateur-radio-speak equate to Whisky, Zero, Romeo, Xray, Lima. (I use the version of “whisky” without the e to honor my Scottish heritage.)
Those of you who have been following my blog for years may remember that my father’s ham radio hobby meant so much to him, we even buried his cremains inside one piece of his radio equipment.
When his call sign made it into some other ham radio operator’s ears in some far-flung place, they would tell each other a bit about themselves and where they lived. My ears would prick up whenever I heard him mention that he had a daughter named Marie. Sometimes he would tell jokes.
I’m not sure how this worked, but apparently, they would even exchange addresses and send each other postcards with their call signs on them. Since my father was also a stamp collector, this transaction did double duty, serving that hobby as well as documenting his contacts across the world.
I swear, he talked more to these strangers than he did to his friends. By eavesdropping on his radio conversations, I learned more about him than I did from our dinner table conversations, which were mainly led by my mother.
Some ham radio operators he contacted regularly. Some he became friends with. I remember we even met a few of them during our road trips across America and Canada when I was young.
The other day, it struck me how much blogging is like amateur radio. We blog authors post our words for anyone in the world to read much like ham radio operators send out their call signs. I’m always amazed how many people from other countries access “Marie’s Meanderings.”
Several bloggers I consider friends and would love to meet with them if I was ever in their necks of the world.
Word Press offers a way to look at what countries have accessed blogs over different time periods. Just for fun, I looked at the stats for countries since I began my blog. Readers from everywhere but a few places in central Africa and islands north of Norway, plus Tajikistan have clicked on my blog at least once. Maybe those places are without internet access.
Not surprisingly, English-speaking countries have the most hits (the U.S., the U.K., Canada, India, and Australia). The country with a foreign language that has the most hits is Singapore, but even so, I guess about half of its citizens speak English at home.
I suppose the comments people leave on my blog (which I appreciate, by the way!) are similar to the postcards my father used to receive. And I suppose if my sons read my blog, they would learn things about introverted me they didn’t know before. I honestly don’t know if they read it. I’m afraid to ask. If they said no, I’d have a hard time with that. Then again, they each have busy lives. Besides, I’m just their mom! What interesting things could I possibly have to say? 😊
Recently, I learned of a new hobby that’s gaining in popularity. It’s called Postcrossing. One of my coworkers participates in it. It’s a project that allows people to send and receive postcards from random people across the world. It reminds me of my father’s hobby, and I bet he would have loved this service.
Through thinking about the similarities in amateur radio and blogging, I’ve come to realize I might be more like my father than I ever suspected. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
My office sits on a manmade island in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Its windows overlook a stretch of water that leads to the mainland. In addition to water, sky and ice, the view sometimes includes animals like coyotes, bears, groundhogs, birds (lots of waterbirds!), otters, rabbits, and foxes.
This winter, a fox has been frequenting the island. I don’t think it lives here – I don’t see its tracks that often, but maybe the island is one of its winter getaways.
The other day as I was transcribing an interview, I saw the fox pass my office window. It was headed toward the slope along ice and snow-covered water. I leapt out of my chair and grabbed my phone to take pictures. It was cold that day, in the single digits, so I remembered to take my jacket but not my gloves (can’t take pictures with gloves on).
I trotted out the office door and carefully looked around the corner toward the harbor. The fox was far out on the ice by now, but as I stepped away from my office building, it must have noticed my movements and it stopped, looking at me intently.
I took a few photos, but (as you can see) the fox was too distant for anything good. My hands were getting cold, so I put them into my jacket pockets along with my phone. I waited to see what the fox would do. It just stood, watching me.
I wished the fox would come closer. Inspired, I crouched down so that the fox couldn’t see me because of the small hill of snow that lined the slope leading down to the ice. Soon, the fox’s head popped up above the snow hill, his/her eyes still trained on me. Appealing to the fox’s curiosity worked!
I took a few more photos from that vantage. The fox was still too far away. I knew that food was the only thing that might lure it closer. I didn’t have any and don’t really like the idea of feeding wild animals, so I just stayed in my crouch, enjoying the fox’s undivided attention. Its fur was fluffy and full, its color a rich red – quite a handsome animal.
Putting my phone and hands back into my pockets was awkward at this angle so, my icy hands soon told me it was time to go back inside. Besides, I also realized the fox probably thought I was going to give it a handout. I’m sure other people must have. I didn’t want to tease it any longer, so I stood and went into the office.
When I looked out my window again, the fox had moved back onto the ice, but it was still staring intently at the office door. Maybe it thought I was going to come back out with some food. Maybe it missed me, ha ha. It waited a few minutes, walked further, stopped and stared again. This went on several more times before the fox gave up and trotted back to the mainland shore.
Despite the interruption in my work for pay, I felt like I accomplished a lot that day during a few minutes spent communing with a fox.
One summer, not long ago, I was walking down my home street in Duluth when a pigeon came streaking above it, like the proverbial bat out of hell. A flock of pigeons lived in an old school building on the end of my street. Seeing pigeons around was not unusual, but I’d never seen one fly so fast. In another few seconds, a peregrine falcon zoomed by in pursuit.
This minidrama was a first for my quiet neighborhood, as far as I know. The birds were too far away for me to see if the pigeon was doomed, but witnessing the chase was definitely exciting.
Not long ago, peregrines were classified as an endangered species in Minnesota and the rest of the country. They were delisted federally in 1999 and in Minnesota in 2013, although they are still considered a species of special concern.
I’ve had the privilege of documenting and even helping a bit with their recovery, so seeing one fly down my street did my heart good. It all began in the spring of 1985 when I was the environmental reporter for the University of Minnesota college newspaper, “The Minnesota Daily.” A photographer and I were invited to the top of the IDS Tower (also known as the Multifoods Tower, the tallest structure in the city at that time) for a peregrine falcon media event. Staff from the university’s raptor center and biology department were going to install chicks that had hatched in a hack box that had been newly established atop the tower.
Hack boxes are large wooden boxes with a nest inside them. Young birds of prey grown from eggs that were either captive bred or taken from wild nests are placed inside the boxes a couple of weeks before they fledge (start trying to fly). In the meantime, the birds are closely looked after and provided food without too much human contact. In a few days, the box is opened, and the birds can start stretching their wings, so to speak. They are still fed until they are self-sufficient.
Why was it a good idea to introduce falcons into the middle of the city? Well, Minneapolis contained plenty of food for the falcons (pigeons), the skyscraper mimicked their preferred habitat (steep cliffs), natural enemies were scarce, and it was an easy place for researchers to access.
I remember the excitement when one of the researchers (Pat Redig) took a squawking, fluffy baby falcon out of a carrier to put into the box. As he did, he described the plight of the birds and the concept behind hacking. Photographers clicked away and reporters scribbled in their notebooks. We were able to wander around atop the building and look over the impressive edge, 51 stories high – a memorable experience in itself.
A pre-event story I wrote about that news conference ended up being 40 newspaper column inches long. This was longer than usual. My editor (Doug Iverson) asked me to justify why he should give me such a large space. I don’t remember what I said (probably something like, “because peregrine falcons are cool!”), but it must have worked because he didn’t cut its length. The post-event story I wrote made page 1 of the newspaper, which was a big deal to this cub reporter.
The next time peregrines came into my life was a couple years later when I was a summer volunteer for the Forest Service on the LaCroix Ranger District in Cook, Minnesota. My boss (Steve Hoecker), was a falconer and he was involved in the recovery effort. A hack box was being constructed on one of the iron ore mine pits nearby in Virginia, MN. Like the IDS Tower, the mine featured steep cliffs that peregrines prefer.
My memory of this experience is hazier than the IDS Tower event, but I think I helped Steve scramble box construction materials down the steep banks of the mine. I took photos and covered the story for the local newspaper.
The next time I saw a falcon, it was in the wild. I was hiking on Isle Royale, a national park island in Lake Superior in the early 1990s with a group from an Audubon Society camp, when a peregrine shot across and above the trail in front of us, like a kamikaze jet. The island features some steep cliffs as does the Canadian shore not far away where the falcons could nest. I remember thinking that maybe all the work being done to restore the falcons was beginning to pay off.
After that, my last experience with a falcon (before seeing the one on my street) was in downtown Rochester, Minnesota. It happened during the winter of 2009 when I was working at Mayo Clinic in public affairs. I lived within walking distance of my office. As I trudged along on cold winter days and evenings, a strange call of a bird echoed loudly against the clinic building walls. The call was familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. And what kind of bird would still be in Minnesota in February, for goodness sakes?
It took me a few months, but I finally figured out that the obnoxious bird call that accompanied my walking commutes was a falcon. They had been hacked atop one of the clinic buildings. I think I was even able to attend some sort of celebration event about the project at Mayo that year.
If you’d like more information about the history of peregrine recovery in Minnesota, a good article can be found here.
So, it seems like peregrines have been following me around ever since my first encounter with them in downtown Minneapolis. Or have I been following them around? Maybe we’ve been following each other. In any event, their recovery is a good news story in a world beset by so many environmental problems.
Thank you, dear readers, for meandering around with me again this past year. Although our travels and musings were not as far-flung as in the past, we tried to make the best of things despite Covid. We narrowly escaped being infected just recently and hope you have remained healthy.
Here are the five top posts from this year, along with news about an exciting project I have in the works.
But first – a couple more numbers: views almost doubled again this year, with 47,600. My blog has about 700 followers.
The #1 new post this year was “A Keen Grasp of the Obvious.” I wrote it in homage to the Progressive Insurance commercials that feature Dr. Rick,” a pseudo-therapist who tries to ensure his customers (patients) don’t turn into their parents once they become homeowners (a.k.a. parentomorphosis). The commercials earlier this year reminded me of a saying one of my high school friends used to espouse. Several more commercials in the series have aired since then, and I still like them all! Other people must like them too, if they are finding my blog. If I had a second chance at a career, I’d like to work at whatever agency produced these ads.
#2: “A Review of the Lungplus Device.” This gadget is distributed by a Duluth-area woman. It’s a mouth-worn humidity and heat exchanger you can use while cross-country skiing to make your lungs happier. Yes, it works, and yes, it makes you look like a dork. But it’s worth it to have happy lungs.
#3: “Letting go of the Past.” The elevatorized Baby Butler was a combination highchair, play table, and bed for young children that was manufactured in the 1950s and 60s. I survived being placed in the contraption as a baby and in this post, describe the process of letting go of it.
#4: “A Time for Photography: Madeline Island.” This was about a life-changing photography class I took at the Madeline Island School for the Arts on a small island in Lake Superior. It features some of my favorite photos from the trip. Because I took the class for work, and I work for a public university funded by taxpayers, the photos are available for reuse. BUT, just a reminder that photos appearing in my blog that have my signature on them are ones I took on my own time with my own equipment and are not for reuse without permission.
#5: “The Path of Totality.” One of my short stories based on the 2017 eclipse was printed in a local literary journal. This post is about how I developed the story idea and what I hope to do with the collection of which it is a part. I’m still looking for an agent for this collection, hint, hint. Although I’m not having much luck with that.
Since you’ve read down this far, I have news to impart. During a bout of insomnia in the wee hours of the morning about a month ago, I got the idea to create a northern Minnesota memoir collection of the “best” stories from my blog over these past eight years. I thought “Meander North” would make a good title. I’d arrange the stories by season, plus add a couple of other miscellaneous chapters.
I developed a book proposal and sent it out to a couple of well-known Minnesota publishing houses. I heard back from one, and they want to publish it! EEEEEeeeee!
In 2022, I’ll be polishing up a bunch of these posts and they’ll be coming out in a book. I must say, I’m pretty darn excited for the new year. It’s about time one of those crazy insomnia ideas paid off.