Stick Forts and Survival Stories, Part 1

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery


Outdoor work in October is one of life’s great joys. The leaves are changing green to bronze, gold and rust red. The air smells better than ever. What is it about October air that smells so good, that feels so good on my arms? The sun is warm, the air is crisp. I’m not disturbed by the knowledge of the impending winter, because I love these days with my whole being. The plants and animals grow quieter, though more urgent. I pause in my yanking out thistles to watch the bustle of the squirrels as they hunt and gather and hide acorns. The tomato plants die back. The black walnut tree loses its leaves and a million slender twigs litter the ground creating a zone where the grass stops growing because of the toxic juglone from the fallen leaves leaching into the ground. In the spring the grass will return.

Yesterday two young deer galloped into my yard. These suburban deer looked alarmed but only trotted past my house when I backed my car out of the driveway. They’ve learned they don’t need to bolt back into the woods across the street. These could be the same two deer that wandered up between houses further down my street while I chatted with a neighbor, each of us with our leashed dogs. We paused in our conversation to watch the slender animals with their tall, pricked ears who saw us, rightly perceived no threat and returned to nibbling the grass. I know the deer munch in veggie gardens and devour plantings, but I love having them here. Their presence, their grace, their adapting to this suburbia of roads and leaf blowers we’ve built around them.

I stroll my yard with loppers to prune dead branches, insistent buckthorn, and leafy burdock that has spread. My daughter gathers the slew of dog toys strewn across the yard and sprays the mud off them with the hose. My son picks up the boards and bricks and ramps of his obstacle course. My husband mows and returns garden tools and pots to the garage. We carry armfuls of branches and vines to the stick fort under the pine tree. We share our discoveries of slugs and centipedes and the prettiest red leaf ever. For two hours, we work together outside and it’s these memories I hope settle deep in the souls of my children, for I think it’s necessary for their survival.


Due to summer frenzy (much of it spent outside), there will be no posts for August. Two posts per month will resume in September after the kids return to school.

On Roads

We ride in the car, one that won’t break
Over these roads. Four of us: three from my life now
And me, then and now.
Over roads I traveled as a teenager uncountable times,
Swigging pop to stay awake in the early morning
After work on summer nights
Driving back to my home in a rusty Jeep Wagoneer.
Down the dirt road, past the corn field
to my splintered home.
But that was years ago, not now.
“It’s beautiful here,” they say.
I shrug and am blind to it.
It’s too littered with words and scenes.
In each brown shriveled leaf and curve of road
I see a sharp, searing moment.

A Compost Bin in Winter

One Minnesota winter, the snow and ice settled thick on our deck steps making it a hazardous trip to the compost bin near our garden. Not wanting to toss perfectly compostable veggie peels into the garbage, but not eager to spend thirty minutes in the freezing cold to shovel and chisel the steps clear, we stuck a tall garbage bin on the deck and called it good enough.

We opened the deck door a crack and tossed into the bucket our potato skins, banana peels, and lettuce lost to the back of the crisper finally found. No shoes, hats, or mittens needed. I wondered why more people didn’t have their compost bucket right outside their door for the winter.

“Mama! What’s dat?” said Alex, our 4-year-old asked. I turned to see Alex and Amy, our 2-year-old, standing near the deck door. Just on the other side of the deck door balanced atop the compost bin sat a large, pink-snouted, rat-tailed creature. The furry hulk disappeared into the bin.

“It’s a possum! Mike, come look!” I called to my husband, who joined us gawking out the door. I picked up Amy to help her see into the bin. She smushed her nose against the glass. I hauled Alex up on my other hip and the four of us stared, silent and still, as the opossum dined on squash peels and apple cores. After a time, Mike and I returned to making dinner, but Alex and Amy stayed to watch until the possum climbed out and ambled away.

Over the next month, the possum returned several evenings to feast in our compost bin. Each time, Alex and Amy delighted in the big snout and the white furry face that would turn to look at them. They chattered softly about the long hairless tail and the big black eyes.

Eventually, the snow melted and it seemed wise to redirect the compost to its usual bin, so the opossum stopping visiting our deck. We didn’t see possums before our winter compost bin and we haven’t seen them since. I’m tempted to put the scrap bin on the deck this winter to see their long faces peering into my house again. The kids are almost teenagers now, but I bet their possum joy is still there.



There and Here

Two summers ago, upon my return from the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, I sat outside a coffee shop in my suburb and cried. Once I finished crying, I set to realigning my daily life and haven’t yet stopped.

While ordering iced coffee, I felt the indoor air heavy and stale on my arms. I retreated to the front porch to be with the breeze. I had staggered into my usual routine on this first full day back, but I longed to be paddling on the water, hiking the portages and stepping over and on rocks and logs and mud and munching on the occasional tiny, juicy raspberry on the side of the trail. I needed the heavy pack on my shoulders keeping me grounded.

There in the woods, I felt strong and beautiful and I knew what my purpose was. Here next to the shop’s well-manicured lawn, I felt more lost than I ever did searching for the next portage or campsite. I felt weak and ugly. At our campsites, I did not miss mirrors or screens or windows. Out there, I remembered parts of myself I had forgotten, like shoulder muscles, strong ankles and the nature, solitude and silence I loved.

There, I stepped firmly and confidently through mud while carrying a canoe on my shoulders. I wore bruises as badges of honor. Sweat from physical exhaustion produced much less odor than stress sweat. Permanent ponytails were acceptable and bras were optional in our small group of four women. We enjoyed a lunch of turkey and cheese rolled in a tortilla while drifting across Ada Lake. We agreed that mac and cheese never tasted better with its liquid butter and powdered milk than after miles of paddling and several wretched portages. For evening awe and entertainment, we watched a moose standing in the lake flinging his massive head out of the water, shaking his floppy ears and chewing on whatever tasty plants he was eating off the lake bottom. Bull frog croaks, loon calls and white-throated sparrow songs provided our trip’s soundtrack.

At the coffee shop, the traffic sounds were abrasive, like sandpaper on my eardrums. And so many people here, so clean, so pretty. Where are their paddles, their packs, their hats and hiking shoes? On the muddy trail, I saw the footprints of many who had passed before me. On the rocks I saw their wet steps. Here, the sidewalks remain flat and unmarked. The roads show no trace of its travelers except for the litter and potholes. Where does my attention go when I don’t have to watch my every step because the way is so paved? In watching my every step, I saw not-yet-ripe blueberries, crushed and scattered pinecone seeds, tadpoles, snakes and snails. I breathed small orange flowers, red bunchberries, and the dozens of shades of green.

I knew who I was out there. I knew what was expected of me, when to cook, when to clean, approximately where I was going, what I was to carry, when I could rest and wander on my own, when I could read and write. My shoulders ached and I felt alive. My lower back throbbed and I held a downward-facing dog pose for relief. I could meet my needs and the needs of my fellow travelers. All my senses were open and engaged. They still were that afternoon at the coffee shop, but in a few days I was dulled again. Dulled to the onslaught of this civil, social, loud, fast-paced world, so I could survive it.

There is nothing like the Boundary Waters here. Too many cellphone towers, big buildings, and asphalt roads. But I longed for it, that wildness, the fresh air, the getting up with the sun. I wanted to run back there, stay there, and be open to the sights and sounds unbounded by tall buildings and leaf blowers. Dashing off to the Boundary Waters isn’t a viable option; I need to be here, but I needed to do something to hold on to the feeling of being connected to my natural surroundings, to hang on to the attention of how my body moves in this world, to hold on to the delight of a hard day’s paddle, the call of the loon, the path through the woods.

I needed more of there, here.

Round Lake Sept 2014_small

Baby Snappers

“Baby snapping turtles!” Mike shouted. There they were: in the grass, on the street, along the curb, eight spiky-backed, sharp-beaked, no-bigger-than-a-quarter critters risking their lives to reach the pond.

On that afternoon in early September, we were on our daily after-supper family walk with my sister’s family. The four kids came running back because they had dashed ahead of us sauntering adults. They slowed and crouched, peering into the grass to see the dirt-encrusted, newly-hatched snapping turtles. The turtles looked like fierce gargoyles, but being so tiny they were undeniably adorable. The kids cooed and smiled.

Each child carefully picked up turtles by the rounded edge of their shells and gently carried them in their hands across the street in my neighborhood. Over the years we’ve seen many flattened turtles on the road. We don’t live on a busy street, but there’s no way anyone driving a car would spot these little creatures. The kids set the turtles down in the grass facing the pond, their ultimate destination until it was their turn to trundle up the hill, across the road and dig a nest less than five feet from my neighbor’s front door.

Have you seen a turtle digging in the soil, preparing to lay her eggs? Approach quietly, don’t get too close and shhhh. She’s working. Her back feet alternate pushing the soil out and away. Slowly, steadily she clears the cool dirt. She’s in no hurry, she has nowhere else to be at this moment. When the hole is deep enough, she lays her eggs in the nest. This can take some time. If you’re still there, if you haven’t had to take a phone call or make dinner, you’ll see the mother turtle push the dirt over the eggs, covering and protecting them. She leaves and so should you. Grass will grow over the area and no one will know about the little incubating eggs. Except you because you stayed and paid attention.

baby snapper cropped