Restored by Nature

I spent the afternoon climbing the hills and walking the fields near home amid softly falling snow yesterday. I went out to clear my head from a very long week, to look for deer antler sheds, and because I felt the groggy headache of an impending cold coming on.

The fresh air does wonders. Like the alcohol laced tonic sold a century ago, it takes off the edge that is caused by living in a modern world. To be the only person on hundreds of acres of bluff and farmland has a quieting power upon the madness that exists in over stressed minds. Snow floats in the air like the ivory down of heaven’s eiders creating a blanket to hide the barren ground and casts a hush upon the earth, upon the soul.

Stands of goldenrod bend in the wind. Their stems holding orbs once pregnant with a single larvae laying dormant over winter only to chew its way from a woody womb and become something new entirely in spring. Gilded blades of grass bend beneath the weight of slowly falling snow. Snow that is nothing more than an icy mask to cover the ugliness of winter’s death. The earth is transformed into an alien landscape and the feet of lone creatures mar the surface like man’s first walk upon the moon.

One can never get lost following the tracks of nature’s greatest survivalists. Not man with his GPS and fire starters, but animals whose very bodies have the power to transform and adapt to every extreme in terrain and weather. Dens on sides of hills where bears slumber through the months, oblivious to the world outside their earthen cocoon. Leaves bunched in branches that provide shelter for squirrels who never seem to stop for rest. The very trees themselves, such as the oak, aid in the survival of others by clinging to their leaves far into the winter just in case some creature of the forest needs forage for its frost bit bed.

The hills offer views of the river below. Frozen and still, a misleading field of ice appears barren yet teams with unseen life just below the surface. Currents flow strongly beneath the crystal sheets and back water sloughs fill quickly with species of fish that provide feasts for those who will brave the bite in the cold. Along the main channel areas of water remain unfrozen and attract bald eagles in groups who stand sentinel on the icy edges in wait for a feast of their own.

The view from the cliffs is hypnotic, humbling, and for me a place where I choose to worship in a cathedral built by God not man. From heights that force me to see beyond what is in front of me, to gaze past the horizon and witness all that was created by a hand strong enough to carve stone yet gentle enough to love even the lowliest among us.

My trips to the forest and hills are more of a sabbatical than just a mere walk in nature. They are an escape from the din of a demanding world. They are what I need to get back to myself, to get back to who I am when I take off the mask of necessity and shrug off the cloak of responsibility. A time where I can silently enjoy the company of someone who understands me more than anyone; myself.

To Move or not to Move

Have you ever been faced with a decision that involves turning your entire life upsidedown?

My 83 year old father needs me and my family has asked me to move back up to the area where I grew up so Dad could live with me on a hobby farm.

Suddenly all I have been working towards may be right at my fingertips but at the wrong location on the map. My life along the Mississipi may be far from ideal but everything I love is here. Hunting, fishing, the river and bluffs which I lose myself in when I need a moment to myself. Can I find that kind of peace back home?

I have been one who is able to adapt to whatever surroundings I find myself in and some how find something to love about that place. I know I could do the same if I moved but is a move what I need?

I see in my minds eye the farm I always dreamed of owing with a barn, chicken coop, granary, and charming farm house. I see myself holding classes on cheese making using milk from my goats, canning, quilting, making hay with my own equipment, giving Dad the quality of life he deserves and a place for him to putter around.

Then I think about my life here. The backwater marsh where I duck hunt and disappear into when I need a break from the world. Russet sunrises over the water, whistling wings overhead, frost on cat tails, and feathers floating on mirror-like ponds. The deep forests of the bluffs which I climb to hunt deer, turkey, antler sheds, and morel mushrooms. Those moments of awe when oak give way to cedar groves carpeted in rubicund needles and velvety moss the color of emeralds. The view from the cliffs when you can see the sweep of the Mississippi; a seemingly slow, lazy giant whose personality is as attuned to the weather as the tide is to the moon. Long days spent on frozen backwaters pulling dinner from beneath the ice with just the cry of a bald eagle on ice kissed air to let you know you are not entirely alone.

My love for this place is palpable, undeniable, and unending but so too is my love of family. So I asked my dad today during my break what he wanted from me. He said he is overwhelmed by everything but he was thinking of selling his house and getting an apartment by Mom’s nursing home. He didn’t sound convincing, I could hear him giving up by the tone of his voice. For all our differences we are alike in the color of our eyes and the fact that we cannot be confined or contained to a vanilla apartment with no yard to care for, no view to contemplate over morning coffee, and no use for hands that itch for work.

I nervously brought up the subject of moving and he instantly started jabbering away about a Ford 8N he saw for sale and a hay rake and baler. The excitement in his voice was something akin to that of a child discussing a trip to Disney. So now, I am torn. Tomorrow he may change his mind and stubbornly refuse to leave the house he has lived in for 50 years, I never know what to expect from him.

As for me, I will do what I always do and play it by ear. And if there is one thing I have learned since Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is that the disease is more of a rollercoaster for the family than it is for the person with the illness. Mom is happy and content in her new home and she knows she is sick but makes due. As for the rest of us, the fear, uncertainty, expense, loneliness of missing mom as she used to be, and all of the sudden changes are paying a toll. I wish I could just buy a farm, move everyone in and go back to the good old days but life doesn’t work that way. So I guess you can just count the blessings, enjoy that which you do have, and adapt to whatever comes next. Never think that things can’t change because they can and they will whether you are ready or not. As in control as you think you are there are bigger hands that hold your life in their palms and you just have to trust that everything, good or bad, happens for a reason.

A Few of my Favorite Things

After watching segments of one of my most beloved classic movies, The Sound of Music, the song about favorite things got me to thinking.

The holiday season is a distant memory, we are struggling to keep resolutions, we are in that lull before spring strikes bringing with it renewed hope, fair weather, and new life. So many things to be thankful for yet not many can envision hope through frosted windows.

Winter has a way of dampening the spirits of some,making them grumble about the cold, and struggle to find any positives amid the barren late January landscape. For me, winter is my favorite season next to Autumn because it pushes me to be creative in finding ways to keep occupied. The crisp air is invigorating and I have all of my outdoor activities such as ice fishing which I so enjoy. Winter is also a good time to curl up with a good cup of coffee and go over my list of favorite things.

With that being said, here is my list of “Favorite Things” and I hope it inspires you to create and write down your own as a reminder of what is truly important and worth making time for!

-Church early in the morning when sunlight filters through age old glass lending prismatic color to ancient ritual.

– Family. Not just blood but friends near and far who bring joy, love, and unconditional support.

-Pets and their ability to love without question making us better as humans.

– Conversations. Not just awkward small talk about work and the weather but long conversations full of ideas, thoughts, hunting and fishing stories and laughter with people who make me want to stay up all night chatting.

– People who make me laugh so hard that I get the hiccups.

-Nightly calls to Dad. Just to hear his stories.

– My mother’s hands that once cradled my peach fuzz infant head, cooked meals, sewed quilts, brought down and cleaned wild game, and worked until they were raw and bleeding.

-Road trips. Getting in my truck with no destination in mind and just letting my internal compass guide me.

-Small town diners where old men gather to gossip over strong coffee and good food.

-Bakeries that are more long johns and Danish and less cupcakes and boutique.

-Books. The feel of a brand new copy yet to be devoured or the smell of a musty old tome filled with the ghosts of past readers tucked within its leaves in the form of discarded book marks, scribbled notations, and dogeared snapshots.

– People who are so unapoligetically themselves that they make you feel comfortable in being yourself.

-Sunrises and sunsets in my duck hunting marsh.

-Shed antler hunting when the last vestiges of snow provide enough nourishment to paint brown grass green in late winter sunlight.

-Watching old couples, who are still as in love as the day they got martied, blowing drinking straw wrappers at each other in restaurants.

-Being held at night by someone who doesn’t make me question how they feel about me. Safe, warm, loved.

-Wearing a fancy dress for no reason other than to go out to dinner.

– Cooking and sharing a meal with someone over lighthearted conversation.

-Old cookbooks; pages yellowed with age or burnt on the edges from getting too close to the stove. Chapters full of recipes that may not be good for the body but nourish the soul with their simple nostalgia.

– Old houses and barns that tell stories of times and people long gone.

– The sound of duck wings on opening day.

– The smell of REM oil after a day out hunting.

– The smell of horses and leather. The feel of a trusty steed’s heavy head resting on my shoulder as I gaze into his liquid eyes alive with love and understanding.

-Ice fishing in a worn out old portable shack that my dad bought for me at a yard sale.

-Panfish fried in butter because that’show Dad did it.

-Mason jars lining shelves like a colorful timeline of the year’s harvest.

-Fog lifting off the surface of the water, revealing the still beauty of the world as on the very first morning.

-Teaching someone something and then having them teach you even more about yourself.

-Old quilts on clotheslines that represent the subdued artwork of hard working women.

-Classic cars on modern highways. Candy painted steel time capsules on white wall tires.

– Snow falling in the light of a street lamp.

-Leaves that fall in autumn like scattered shards of cathedral glass.

-Black and white photos that force your mind to paint in the colors from distant memories.

-Gifts that are from the heart and not from a store. Time, love, a homemade treasure.

– The laughter and innocent trust of a child with wide eyes as you speak of impossibilities like Santa and the Easter bunny while you wish secretly your faith in legends was half as strong simply for the joy they bring.

– Old farmers, tractors, sunlight on wheatfields, the sound of a steam whistle on a Case Steam engine, the smell of logs burning in winter, holding hands while ice skating, watching movies for hours snowball fights in city parks, living, just living….

I could go on and on with my list of favorite things that involve simply the memories and experiences they evoke. For me, the list of things for which I am grateful is seemingly endless because each and every day presents new blessings to add to that record of my life. So, what is on your list?

Too Late or Just in Time

I was born in the wrong time period.

How many of you say that to yourselves daily as you make your 5 mile 3 hour commute to go sit in a cubicle and stare at a computer screen until it feels like there is an ice pick prodding at your brain while the phone shrills incessantly?

I tell myself daily that someone who is as unhappy as I am with the modern world had to have been meant for a different era in history. By some cosmic fluke, my birth was delayed until the late 20th century and here I am clinging to the old ways while cursing the slowness of my internet connection.

I often pour over images on the web of one room cabins, fires ablaze in the hearth, rag rugs on the floor, a wide front porch with golden domed fruit pies cooling on the rail, a root cellar lined with glass jars filled with delicously colorful contents, a barn with a scattering of animals, and the peace and slight fear that comes with knowing that you are the only person around for miles. The idealized Laura Ingalls Wilder lifestyle complete with calico and maple sugarings calls out to me more and more the older I get.

I wonder about that kind of life, long for it sometimes and wish I could just walk away from everything to lose myself in a deep forest cabin.

I am not the only one, I am certain of that. Many of us want noting more than the serenity of solitude. To have time unspoiled by electronic devices, to be left to our own devices. We want this freedom yet remained chained to the very things that hold us back.

Hours that could be spent acting on our dreams are spent living vicariously through the posts of others. Heads down, fingers flying over a stylized keyboard, we fail to look up and around us to see the world in its entirety because it is easier to view it through a 6 inch screen.

Our concepts of the beauty of the earth and of people has been distorted by built in filters. An instant face lift in the palm of our hands allows us to alter our appearance so as to get more likes on social media. We erase lines, change eye color, add length to our lashes to the point where we are disappointed when we dont see that exact avatar in the mirror looking back at us.

Everything is contrived we feign concern for others, give a crying emoji and keep on scrolling. We get people to fall in love with us through messenger with daily messages, flirtatious, canned compliments at just the right time and then ignore the person for days. We toy with emotions because there are no consequences. We post our stories only to have Keyboard warriors attack like pit bulls in a ring when in real life they are de-nutted poodles in their mom’s basement.

This is why I cling so firmly to the old ways. The practice of going visiting on a Saturday, baking pies for elderly friends, helping out those in need, canning enough each year to share, quilting, raising livestock, hunting, fishing, surviving alone.

I am not ashamed to be politically incorrect by having pride in doing “women’s work” nor am I afraid to show pride in doing things that were formerly called “men’s work.” Yet the before mentioned keyboard warriors are quick to pounce with their verbal warfare and mindless threats.

What have we become? We laugh at how archaic things were in the past while the past laughs at how backwards we have become. We are now fully connected yet people are more isolated than ever, we get through horrific events by blaming things and not people, we have manipulated the system so that everyone is a victim and not at fault for their actions, we lost our funny bone and, as a result our backbone, in that people are offended by everything, we turn our backs on neighbors and open the gates for strangers, our children starve while others feast but no one bats an eye, we just don’t care because we believe that there just is nothing to care about, we have given up, we just want to be left alone.

Yet, as they say, a flower can grow in the tiniest of cracks in a filthy sidewalk. So too can we flourish amid all the bad news, good news, fake news, what have you. How? By being old fashioned, for lack of a better term. Roll up your sleeves. Bake a pie and take it over to that old lady next door who spies on you through her blinds. While you are busy commenting on your Facebook friends dinner in Australia your neighbors Social Security check might not have covered groceries this month.

Go out and teach a kid something that doesn’t involve a smart phone or video game. Engage in real life conversations with people face to face rather than sending them a text from the next room. Take a class, learn to sew or make butter or to make something with your own two hands and your imagination. Build a shelter in the woods and camp out for a week with your phone turned off and your senses turned up to high. Eat food you grew yourself or harvested from the forest and waters. Survive and you will thrive and I am not talking about that patch people wear and shakes they drink. I’m talking the real deal, feeling like you are alive because you did something, created something, gave to others, pushed your limits, burned that box you felt safe in, lived.

So next time you say that you were born 100 years too late ask yourself why you can’t recreate all that was good about the past in your own life. Work hard for your dream as though your life depends on it (because it does), be a good person, simplify, be grateful for the little things, be a good neighbor, slow down, look up, look around, create, build, make memories, establish traditions, and just live. Don’t watch life through a 6 inch screen, go out and live it in real time!

Blood Knots and Swedish Pimples

As many of my blog followers know, I do not like to let grass grow under my feet. My year is divided into a plethora of outdoor activities that run the gamut from ice fishing to antler shed hunting to duck hunting. Every season is full of reasons to be in the woods, stomping around the marsh, or on the water.

Ice fishing is in full swing right now and I have been getting out every weekend since before Christmas to enjoy some quiet time in my portable ice shack and catch fish. My shack is of the old Fish Trap variety with a myriad of holes in it from a combination of much use and critters who have a taste for old canvas. The fact that it probably belongs in a fishing museum does not take away from its usefulness in keeping me cozy, with the aid of a propane heater, even on days when the temps dip well below zero.

So, what is the draw to pulling a 50lb shack out across a stretch of frozen sloughs with the sting of negative degree wind-chills freezing my face worse than a Hollywood Botox clinic? For one, I am a sucker for braving the elements. The feel of icy air in my lungs is invigorating and to be out on a frozen sheet of ice at a time when everyone else would rather be tucked in at home makes me feel like I am truly living. Also, ice fishing holds a certain nostalgia for me in that it was something I did with my dad when I was a child.

As I mentioned before, my dad taught me about life. He was all about showing me how to fend for myself and that included hunting and fishing lessons which I absorbed with great gusto. I was no girly girl. In the summer I would dig worms to fill rusty coffee cans and fish the creeks for chubs that we kept in a dented milk can full of spring water. In the winter we would load up our rickety ice shack with thick summer sausage sandwiches on homemade bread, thermoses of hot chocolate and coffee, a few rods, our bait and we would be on our way. I remember the anticipation I felt riding in that 1970 Chevy pickup. I can still smell the vinyl of the seats and feel the cold of the window nip my fingertips as I drew pictures in the frost.

When one is a child, everything is magical because the imagination has not yet been tamed by the reality of adulthood. Even mundane events have the potential to be an adventure and for me, arriving at the frozen lake we were to fish was akin to landing upon a newly discovered planet. The wind whipped across the barren landscape like a scene straight out of Star Wars and old ice holes became indentations left by ancient meteors in my 7 year old mind. We were on a great quest to find life below the crust of this whole new world and I was ready to begin.

The buildup to the actual event was more dramatic than what gernerally followed but, once we were settled, my dad and I would spend hours chatting about anything and everything in the warm glow of a sunflower heater. I heard every one of his childhood stories, advice on how to tie the perfect blood knot, how to properly thread a wax worm on a freshly sharpened hook, and how the Swedish Pimple was the ONLY lure to use for picky pan fish.

My dad was a gruff man who never showed much emotion except anger but when we were alone in that ice shack he was a different person altogether. If I got bored with fishing he would pull out my ice skates and tell me to go for a spin but to not fall in any spear holes. He wanted me to have fun and to learn. For me, however, the icing on the cake was to have my dad actually want to spend time with me.

I have not been fishing with my dad in years. He is 83 years old now and entering a new stage in his life that involves relocating my mom into a permanent nursing home for her Alzheimer’s care. His lungs can no longer take the cold and he just doesn’t have the energy anymore. So, I go out and in my mind he is right there with me making me laugh with his stories, telling me what I need to do next time to catch more fish, and just being there enjoying each other’s company.

Life goes by very quickly, as we all know, however, things slow down a bit when you go out on the ice or into the woods. I can flip the top closed on my ice shack and shut out the entire world for hours. Basking in old memories, making new ones, continuously learning lessons that will help me when I go out again. Then, when it is time to go home, I open up my shack and blink against the sudden brightness of light on new fallen snow. Everything is the same as it was but somehow it is different. Or perhaps it is me that has changed in those hours on the ice and my eyes are more focused on what is important because I allowed myself a moment to slow down, to stop time and just live.

In Solitude But Not Alone

The topic of this post was inspired by questions I get concerning my penchant for being alone. Do you really go hunting and fishing alone? Don’t you get scared? Don’t you get lonely? The questions go on and on so I feel it is time to address them.

I grew up in a very strict German household. I had few friends growing up and my nearest sibling was 20 years older than me. I was an imaginative child surrounded by adults and was expected to behave as one myself. I was taught to read and write long before I entered school so books became my escape. My kindergarten teacher signaled me out each day as a classroom nuisance because I could read at a level far beyond my age therefore I was bored with school and acted out. I was forced to spend my recesses alone in the classroom because I was too “disruptive.” Solitude became the best friend of a strange lonely child.

At my uncle’s farm I would spend hours alone in the hay loft or calf pen making up elaborate adventures in my head so vivid that the real world faded before my eyes and the world of my stories became reality. I never felt alone, in fact I sought solitude as a way to escape from my parent’s constant arguing over my father’s infidelity. I hid under the walnut table in the dining room pretending I was in a vast cave full of jewels and gold.

By the time I entered college, writing my stories down in journals became a passion. I had, again, few friends and spent most of my time holed up in my dorm room studying, writing, and drawing as art was another one of my outlets. 

Academia aside, I also discovered hunting and fishing at a young age. Long summer days would be spent sitting on sun bleached docks catching fat bluegills. Fall brought hunting and I would again spend hours alone in a deer stand or duck blind conversing with my God and truly feeling at peace.

The problem with solitude is it becomes an addiction, a need, one which must be fed or the consequences are devastating. I have hunted in groups and fished with others but the older I get the stronger the need to do it on my own becomes. Perhaps that makes me a hermit of sorts, so be it. 

When I am alone in the swamp during duck season the sunrise does not have to compete with senseless conversation. The whisper of duck wings is not missed because someone next to me coughed. The beauty of nature is absorbed through every pore, I am at peace, I am happy.

The same can be said of deer hunting and fishing. The joy in solitude comes from the absence of endless prattle. The pure quite broken only by nature itself and not man. 

The enjoyment of nature is not the only benefit of solitude, the enjoyment of life is another. All too often we define our lives by how many people we can befriend while at the same time being a horrible friend to ourselves. We enter relationships out of desperation in fear of being alone. We love people who don’t love us in return and we break our own hearts over and over. 

I am not exempt from this. I fell, more than once for men who quickly grew bored with me, cheated me, lied, used me and completely knocked me down to a sniveling mess. I blamed myself, staring into mirrors cursing my lack of beauty, my lack of money, my redneckness, my unladylike penchant for hunting and fishing, the fact that I wasn’t a woman a man could love, the list went on and on of reasons why I was alone. Then I realized how much better I always was in life when it was just me. I was more alone when I was in love than when I was by myself in the past. 

So, I embraced solitude once again as a balm for my broken heart. My art flourished, my writing came back, hunting and fishing became once again the things that I poured myself into. I got my happiness back. I quit basing the value of my life on the estimation of others and as a result I am once again moving forward. 

Now I am not saying that you should all be like me. Even I know that human interaction is necessary and something I do seek out in moderation but, again, I have very few friends. They are few but of high quality because that is what I deserve. I tried loving and failed miserably, so, I shall continue to focus on what I am good at and that is living. 

If you get anything out of this I hope it is the understanding that there is a huge difference between solitude and being alone. With solitude you have yourself and the ability to silently enjoy everything around and within you. With being alone you fail to realize that you have yourself and that you should love that person with all your heart before you let anyone else in. 

Icing on the Cake

With winter fast approaching I always laugh at people who bundle up like they are headed out on a trans Siberian adventure when they are merely going to the mailbox at the end of their drive.

Living in Wisconsin the number of complaints filed to the weather gods rivals that of the daily postage arriving at the North Pole this time of year. People curse the cold, stomp their feet, and proclaim loudly about how much they hate winter. What is the reason for so much animosity? The cold temps, messy roads, snow to shovel? With all the energy that goes into hating winter isn’t there at least one positive? Oh yes my friends, there are many.

Ice fishing! The best tasting fish of the entire year are the ones caught through the ice from December through March. Every winter I drag out my Fish Trap ice shack and treck across frozen backwater sloughs to my favorite spots. The crisp air stings in my nostrils and through watery eyes I survey the bays for the perfect local to drop a line. It is either feast or famine out there and while nothing beats sunfish fried in butter, just a few hours out in the peaceful quite of my shack melts away the stress of a long work week.

Hiking! I absolutely love going hiking in the winter through snow frosted forests. Like a sparkling wedding cake, the landscape is perfectly iced without a single flaw save for the tracks of woodland creatures going about their winter routines. The clear sharp air clears my lungs and the most minute of sounds is amplified and carried to my cold nipped ears. Squirrels rustling, deer foraging, and birds of prey swooping almost silently down into the snow to catch a meal while the sun reflects off of crystalline surfaces painting rainbows on pure white templates. Every sense is heightened in winter. Unable to succumb to the sluggishness that warm weather fosters, the cold has a way of heightening and sharpening awareness of ones self and ones surroundings.

I could go on and on extolling the joys of the season and I am a firm believer that people who partake of the outdoors regularly, no matter the weather, are happier and, as a result, healthier people. I am living proof of this in the fact that I can feel a change in me when I have not had enough time in the wilderness. Headaches become frequent, irritability takes over, and my mood becomes generally glum until I get outside for a few hours. Yet there are those who think I’m crazy for feeling this way. The outdoors is my therapy, my spa, my place of renewal despite the weather because there is so much to experience when you head out into the woods, fields, and valleys.

Tell me how one cannot find beauty and peace while standing amid falling snowflakes. Angel feathers dropping from the sky to gently kiss upturned faces. Or the watercolor glow of a January sunset melting across sky and frozen land like a overturned painters pot spilling warm color before darkness falls. How can one complain about the cold when bearing witness to mornings following a fresh snowfall when every twig and surface is flocked in lacy white sweaters knitted by unseen hands?

There is beauty in the death that signals winter. Life yet to be discovered and savored with each icy breath, each crunching step. The cold months are a time of inner renewal, a time to explore and push ones limits and find splendor where others see only despair. Perhaps the sole purpose of winter is to serve as a test, a test of endurance, a test of appreciation, a test of imagination. Or maybe it is what I have called it all along; a gift.