Wednesday, December 23, 2015

NWA 12/25/15

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/25/15 – 1/7/16  

Around Christmas and into the New Year, we are asked to think more deeply about what really matters to us, what it is we wish to honor, and then to commit ourselves to actions. I wrote the following essay while thinking about how blessed we are to live in this area, and what our obligations are to reciprocate that blessing.


Scottish, Welsh, English, German, French, Dutch – McPherson, Montgomery, Baetz, Suydam, Dugdale, Holcombe, Michaux, and a blizzard of other names – that’s me. Basically, I’m a mutt. To be sure, such thorough blending in America isn’t unusual, but it can leave one feeling not without a country, but like someone without a culture. I’m continually envious of those who can trace their lineage back along a relatively clear path (though there’s always a rogue uncle or aunt who went “off course”). I’ve no clear ancestral celebrations or festivals that I can attend every year, no cultural songs to sing, dances to dance, art to make, architecture to visit, recipes to repeat. All in all, I have little to reconnect to and no real cultural values to embrace. Unless, of course, I wish to follow them all, in which case I would be a multi-house-divided and not home much.

To add further sand to my cultural desert, I have no particularly strong religious lines – I’m not Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or even Christian – so I can’t honor Ramadan, have a bar mitzvah, revel in Buddha Day, or even truly appreciate Easter with a sense of “those are my people.” We went to four different churches when I was young, and by the time I left for college, we ended up in the fifth – agnostic. I now define myself as “spiritual,” which offers, like my ancestry, traditions galore, but no binding path.

I fell into the American melting pot, or at least all of my ancestors did. I’m diced into so many pieces that I’m like a conglomerate rock, a bunch of cultural debris loosely cemented together. The choice from there is whether I wish to continue to be randomly stuck together with other cultural bits in a disharmony, a jumble of fractured pieces, or if I want to find a way to become a fusion, an integration of those pieces.

For that integration to happen, however, we mutts need a touchstone, a way to connect to a personal lineage.

I think I’ve found a way. In a conversation, Tim Fox, an archaeological technician in the Oregon Cascades, called himself a “landescendant” of the area in which the Kalapuya Indians lived near his home in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. I was struck powerfully by the term. Tim felt the way I did as a European mutt – he described himself as a culturally lost soul. But he believed there was another way to be personally connected to the past which didn’t require a bloodline linkage to the people who had lived there. His love of his home ground, his fascination with the historic use of the land, gave him what he called the sense of being a “landescendant.” He was linked to the past, and all the ancestral people who had lived there, via his reverence for the land itself. They all shared a common home and an honoring of the land.

Tim said this while we were standing at the junction of two creeks on an ancient campsite of the Kalapuya, a fact he discerned by the evidence on the ground – shards of jet black obsidian. The chips came from someone who had made tools from the obsidian, a volcanic glass that can be fractured into exceptionally sharp blades, a material so valued that the various tribes traded for it up and down the West Coast and even into the Midwest. Why the flakes were there and not somewhere else was historical speculation, but by reading topographical maps, Tim knew that an obsidian cliff-face was twenty miles away. The easiest way for the Indians to get there from their home in the Willamette Valley would have been to follow these creeks up to the ridgelines where the trees would be thinner and walking more effortless. He held the chips out to us and said, “Hold an artifact in your hand, you have a short story. Leave it on the ground, you have an epic novel – you have the interaction of people and place.”

He then went on to explain many of those interactions – what the Kalapuya ate, how they hunted, what they wore, how they collected plants.

We all want to be part of such an epic novel. We want connections to a line of people, as well as to the contours of land and water. As a mutt, my blended past may have its own epic qualities, but my story lacks a binding thread, an overall weave. Giving yourself to a place, marrying it, pledging your life to it, brings one into a long line of people who enacted their love for the same land. One joins a circling tradition of storytellers and explorers, seekers and seers, believers and doers.

Tim’s work in the archaeology of the McKenzie River area places him in that circle, as I hope does my work as a naturalist in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I try to live as closely as I can to the traditions of knowing the plants and animals, their habits, life histories, interconnections, interdependencies, and future possibilities. While Tim and I don’t directly depend on these species for sustaining our lives’ physical needs as our landcestors did, we still feel a powerful connection to the land and a profound desire to be a part of the natural community of life.

I belong here, tied to Wisconsin’s Northwoods, because of the relationships I have tried to create with the land and the water, the plants and the animals. Though an Ojibwe or Sioux may still have very mixed emotions about my European presence on what was their ancestral land and water, I hope they can see me instead as a “landescendant,” by dint of my love for this place, too. I work every day to honor this place and all those who came before me on this land, a fact I don’t think is lost on the ancestors of this site.

The Native tribes and I may not share a bloodline, but we share a landline, a riverline, a birdline, a treeline, a deerline.

I joyfully jump into this melting pot of landescendants, and bid all others who live in a place they love, too, to make their leap. To love a place deeply, peacefully, consciously, as intertwined and integrated as we can be whatever our genetics, can be a tradition that we begin now and can carry on. While our bloodlines may appear to separate us, there are other lines by which we can live in unity, lines by which we can find common ground as humans tossed together in a time and place.

As a mutt, the landescendant line avails itself to me if I invest the time and love to earn it. Then, perhaps, I may be someone who becomes a worthy ancestor to generations of landescendants to come.

NWA 12/11/15

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/11 – 24, 2015

Winter Solstice – 12/21
          Eight hours and 39 minutes. That’s it for sunlight on 12/21. A pittance. This is as far south as the sun ever gets, and thus it’s your longest noontime shadow of the year. Today, all locations south of the equator have day lengths greater than 12 hours while all locations north of the equator have day lengths less than 12 hours.
          It’s all because Earth is tilted on its axis by 23-and-a-half degrees. The tilt of the Earth – not our distance from the sun – is what causes winter and summer. On the solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is leaning the farthest away from the sun for the year.
          The good news, of course, is that on 12/22, the days begin to get incrementally longer, and the nights shorter. But just to confuse the matter a bit, the latest sunrise doesn’t come on the solstice. For mid-northern latitudes, the latest sunrise won’t come until early January. And perhaps you noticed that the earliest sunset time is already occurring – the latest sunset times remain the same from 12/5 – 12/14. On 12/14, then, our sunsets will start getting later.
          One way or another – hooray!
          Hal Borland, Twelve Moons of the Year: “Now we are on the last steep slope of autumn with the winter solstice just ahead. The span of daylight is almost six hours less than it was six months ago . . . The lesser voices are stilled, but the throb of time and change beats beneath the sighing of the wind in the hemlocks and the rush of the wind in the naked maples, the cold and wintry wind. Restless, surging life has retreated to the root, the bulb, the seed and the bud. Life sleeps in the egg, awaiting another spring . . . The wind may howl and roar, but the earth and its insistencies of life whisper of time and eternities.”

Christmas Thoughts
            Oh, what to buy, what to buy. It’s ironic, if not utterly silly, that while I’m never sure what to give to Mary and our two daughters for Christmas, I feel free to offer you advice on what to buy for your loved ones. Such is the power of being the one behind the keyboard.
            Wooden snowshoes (Iverson’s from the U.P.) – I still believe in the wood shoes over the metal shoes. They’re far quieter, and I think, give better flotation in deep snow.

            Subscriptions to magazines that inspire: Orion magazine, Northern Woodlands magazine (from Vermont), and Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine
Books to help you appreciate, and yes, enjoy, winter: Life in the Cold: An Introduction to Winter Ecology by Peter Marchand (now in its 4th Edition) and Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival by Bernd Heinrich.
Binoculars – good ones. Not hand-me-downs from 1953 that are scratched and weigh a ton. Check Eagle Optics in Middleton, WI, for highest quality, best prices, and best advice.

Spotting Scope – get carried away with seeing things up close! Eagle Optics is your best bet again.
Clothing – all things wool. Try Smart Wool, Ibex, or Ice Breaker clothing. We wear wool every day in the winter - it’s soft, non-scratchy, warm, and looks great.

Old Birds
          The world's oldest known seabird, a female Laysan Albatross, was spotted at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge on 11/19. She was first banded in 1956 by Chan Robbins, but has since worn multiple bands as each wore away over time. She is estimated to be at least 64 years old, but could actually be older.
            She hasn’t led an easy live either. She has raised as many as 26 chicks over her lifetime. Breeding albatrosses also typically spend about half the year rearing and feeding their young, foraging hundreds of miles out at sea for prey, so that’s a lot of ocean to have explored over 64 years. Midway Atoll NWR is about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu and part of the Papahanaumokuakea (say this fast five times) Marine National Monument.
            The albatross isn’t the only one living a long life. Chan Robbins, the ornithologist who first banded it, is now 97 years of age.
            Speaking of old birds, a trumpeter swan first brought to Wisconsin as an egg gathered from a nest in Alaska in 1988, is still with us. Now 27 years old, she is the oldest known trumpeter swan.

Christmas Bird Counts
            The Minocqua Audubon Christmas Bird Count takes place on 12/17, while the Manitowish Waters count takes place on 12/19. The Minocqua CBC has been conducted sporadically in the past, the first time in 1962! The North Lakeland Discovery Center Bird Club began to sponsor the Minocqua CBC in 2006, so this will be the tenth consecutive year for the bird club and eighteenth year over the history of the count. The Manitowish Waters count is now in its 23rd consecutive year.
            The center for the Minocqua CBC is the intersection of Hwy 51 and 70 West and encompasses all of the area within a 7.5 mile radius of the count center. The center for the Manitowish Waters count is the intersection of Highways 51 and County W and also encompasses an area within a 7.5 mile radius. Birds may only be reported that are observed within the count areas.
            Contact Donna Roche ( if you’re interested in participating in the Minocqua count, and give me a holler ( if you’d like to help out on the Manitowish Waters count.
           Donna and I are both looking in particular for people to count the birds visiting their bird feeders on the count days. We’ve found – surprise, surprise – that many birds prefer the good life near people’s feeders in towns or backyards compared to eking out a winter living in the surrounding forests where food is less reliable.
           You don’t need to be an expert on bird identification to participate. It’s really quite easy and warm – counting is done from inside your homes.
            Other counts are taking place around the area. For folks counting in Rhinelander, contact Vanessa Haese-Lehman at 715-369-3708 or In the Park Falls area, contact Tom Nicholls at 762-3076 or In the Phelps area, contact Bill Reardon at 479-8055 or

Update on Snowy Owls
            Ryan Brady, avian research scientist for the WDNR, reports that “There has been an incredible drop-off in reports since the atypically large October influx. Roughly 87 Snowies had been tallied across 40 counties in Wisconsin by Nov. 30, but 65 of those came during the Oct. 15-31 period alone. Only a handful of new birds have been reported over the last few weeks. Moreover, repeat sightings of those early-arriving owls have been few.”
           This doesn’t bode well. Ryan notes that “an uptick in reports of rehabbed and dead owls suggests that a high proportion of these birds, mostly juveniles hatched this summer, probably did not survive the journey and died of dehydration or starvation.”

Tundra Swans Still on the Mississippi River
            If you’re looking for a wildlife-inspired road trip, consider going to see tundra swans by the thousands. Some 15,000 or so tundras have been reported off Brownsville, MN's, viewing area along the Mississippi with some spilling over into the DeSoto area in WI. The birds typically remain until the river begins to freeze up, which given our warm December so far, may not be for several weeks.

Loons Still Migrating
           Kathy and John Wilke in Phillips wrote to me on 12/2, “We had some excitement on Dardis Lake (east of Phillips) late last Saturday afternoon. The lake had frozen over the night before and a loon either landed or was dropped on the ice by an eagle and could not take off again. Our son-in-law, Peter Maslowski, ran out of the house and chased the eagle off the loon. Our daughter Katie took these pictures. The eagle came back and attempted to land on the loon but the loon held its beak up to protect itself and the eagle left. The loon continued to call for help but we did not want to go out on the thin ice to rescue it. Our grand daughter, Grace, just kept saying, ‘Papa, that loon has to go home and be with it's family.’ We walked back in the house (by this time it was dark) hearing the loon cry for help-very sad. The loon was gone in the morning.”
            Given our very warm November and December with some lakes still open, juvenile loons have hung around in Wisconsin and are still migrating. On 12/7, a birder reported seeing 83 loons on Lake Kegonsa just south of Madison.

           Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk shared a photo of a lone evening grosbeak visiting her feeders on 11/27. Cherie noted how she had seen flocks of evening grosbeaks when she was a kid, but now we’re lucky to see one or two a winter.

evening grosbeak range map

           We have a female cardinal visiting our feeders. She’s skittish, but we see her nearly every day. We also consistently have Bohemian waxwings eating crabapple right out the window from my office – I’m watching them as I write!

Celestial Events
            Pre-dawn is the time now to see planets. Look for Venus and Mars in the Southeast, and Jupiter high in the south. Saturn will join the crew in the last week of December.
            The peak Geminid meteor shower occurs in the late evening of 12/13 into the early morning of 12/14. The Geminids can produce 50 or more meteors per hour, in an often multi-colored display with most being white, but some yellow, blue, red, and/or green. So, they’re worth a look! They radiate out from the constellation Gemini, near the stars Castor and Pollux.

Please share your outdoor sightings and thoughts: call me at 715-476-2828, drop me an e-mail at, or snail-mail me at 4245N Hwy. 47, Mercer, WI.