What You Will Not Find Here

You will find no advertising, no pop-ups, no tweets. Not even photographs, let alone a slide show. Nothing here will be moving fast. It will hardly be moving at all. Visit when you want a break from frenzy.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Day 13 Outdoors: St. Wenceslaus Cemetery

Saturday, March 31, 4-5 p.m.

Sunshine and blue skies have returned after a couple of gloomy, cold days. Yesterday was spitting a mix of rain and snow, leaving lingering snow in the woods among the spring-new, bright green wild leeks, and this morning looked like more of the same, but the weak sun struggled and struggled until it finally won the day. Wind still blows, and the air is still cold, but certain sunny, sheltered spots out of the wind are almost warm.

At the highest point of Kolarik Road, St. Wenceslaus church and adjacent cemetery are still surrounded by working farms. Unlike the diversified agriculture of a hundred years ago, most of the farms these days are now in fruit trees. From the front door of the church, one can look west past orchards onto north Lake Leelanau below and, behind it, Lake Michigan.

It is peaceful in the cemetery. A few patches of bare ground have fresh grass seed scattered neatly on the dirt, and underneath an old cedar back by the parish hall bright blue vinca flowers have opened wide.

Markers for graves vary from the simplest imaginable to the very elaborate. Among the simple ones are bare crosses formed of a pair of pipes that look to have come from a plumbing supply store. There is also at least one cross fashioned of nothing more than two flat, unpainted boards. Then come the monuments of carved stone, from the very old to the new, polished and even illustrated, many of the oldest stones host to lichens in various subtle shades. The markers most distinctive to St. Wenceslaus are ornate filigree iron crosses made by the early Bohemian iron workers who settled here to work in Leland and Gill’s Pier. Many families have placed plastic flowers on relatives’ graves. Some of these are new and bright, others very faded by a long winter outdoors.

From the north comes the cry of a distant gull. Fields have been freshly tilled today, and the gulls are attracted to the resulting buffet. In a tall, still-leafless tree a red squirrel scolds angrily. Everyone else here is very quiet.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 12 Outdoors: Civilization and Its Discontents

Tuesday, March 20, 5:00-6:15 p.m.

The spring equinox arrived in the night, and today will be as long as that night, but the temperature is more that of a summer day, almost that of the summer solstice. Out in the relatively open ground of yard, meadow and orchard the birds vocalize and flit and feed and preen: robins, bluebirds, woodpeckers, sparrows, red-wing blackbirds and crows. The gurgling melody of the song sparrow rises above the crows’ rusty calls, but inside the edge of the Eastern Woods, where the descending afternoon light reaches in through leafless branches, a quiet calm prevails, disturbed only by the buzzing of large summery flies. The flies heard the call of a small, freshly broken branch, oozing fresh sap, and first came one, crawling quickly and greedily about the sapling’s trunk, shortly joined by two more. From how far away did they sense the banquet, and how?

Below the tree with the flies spreads a perfect jumble of human refuse, the smallest corner a confusion of broken lines and rust, objects half buried and parts of other objects thrown on top of the heap. It is an unofficial farm dump, a tradition of country living. The pile includes wood of all kinds—broken crates, pallets, boards, an old wooden soft drink crate and discarded chairs, with one large fallen tree and many branches mixed in. There are also sheets of metal, sections of old furnace ducting, a kettle, an old charcoal grill or two, rusty appliances and more than one old sugaring pail. There are concrete blocks and wheels, bits of screen and old doors. It’s hard to find anything that is whole and unblemished. Maybe impossible. One old wooden trunk has so rotted out that the old leather handles hang in black, twisted scraps, and light penetrates into the formerly secret interior.

Man is part of nature, too. There is no separation between the branches and the boards, all tumbled together, and the wild leeks and spring beauties are undeterred by the presence of manufactured refuse. An old alarm clock, missing its hands, crawls with tiny ants. This place is as peaceful as a cemetery. Through the trees, in the west, Lake Michigan is bright blue.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Day 11 Outdoors: Between Woods and Orchard

Wednesday, March 14, 9:10-10:00 a.m.

The sun rises considerably farther to the north this time of year. As it clears the canopy of the Eastern Woods, the east-facing edge of Claudia’s Woods is drenched in light, while to the north, bordering the youngest block of cherries and the old hayfield, popples on the south bank of the stream show sharp contrast on their trunks, one side sunlit, the other shaded.

Edges are productive places to spot birds, and songbirds began returning this past Sunday. The east-facing edge of Claudia’s Woods is open to cherry orchard, orchard blocks bounded on the opposite side by the Eastern Woods. Here at the edge, woodland, orchard, meadow, two-track and utility lines provide a variety of bird habitat. On Tuesday morning two bluebirds flitted about in this vicinity, and young trees at the woods-edge were full of robins. This morning was quieter. Birds were audible and nearby but not right at hand.

Many pine trees suffered heavy damage after the recent storm, boughs breaking under wet snow. Large branches from a young red pine lay at the edge of the old farm lane, needles (in bundles of two) soft green still and fragrant with sap. The cones are attached at the ends of branches, tight to the tips.

Four Canada geese fly high overhead, and one honks at regular intervals. They are winging north. Besides this robust quartet, an occasional smaller bird crosses the open space of the meadow or orchard. A single robin flying across the otherwise empty immensity of blue sky looks tiny and brave.

A mourning dove alights on the power line along the lane, constantly adjusting its weight for precarious balance. With its small delicate head, long tapering tail, and gracefully swollen body, its shape is reminiscent of an old carved fertility goddess. Its colors, too, recall the Madonna, all soft cream and taupe.

The sun warms as it mounts. A soft southern breeze feels semitropical. The wooded hill blocks traffic noise from M-22, but a single car way over east on Jelinek Road delivers a long drawn-out dull roar long before it appears in binocular sight between stacked layers of tilled field strips. Here at the edge of the woods a few patches of snow remain. The last of the season? Maybe, maybe not. Où sont les neiges d’antan?

Back home in the front yard, an oriole flashes in the high branches of the silver maple.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Day 10 Outdoors: An Old Fence Corner

Sunday, March 11, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

At the bottom of Claudia’s wooded hill (what I call "Claudia’s Woods" is behind this hill, farther south) is an old fence line corner. One old row of fence posts staggers uphill to the west. (Another, newer row of metal posts parallel to it marks the easement for a driveway that was never put in.) Running north-south is another old line of fence that runs north between hayfield and cherry orchard and south along and into the edge of the wooded hill: land east of the line belonged to the farm on this side of the road; land west was part of a farm on the other side of M-22. There is an echoing of this north-south line in another row of fence posts higher on the bare hill to the west.

This corner presents a complicated view, as a bare 90-degree sliver indicates. The old wild apple tree alone takes a hundred major turns and curves before branching into smaller complications. There are several large balsam firs near the corner. And off to the west, beyond the horizon of the hills, rise the wooded dunes that moderate winds off Lake Michigan. A wider view would take in the youngest cherry orchard, old barns, a line of willows marking the stream to the north, and more.

The ground is still frozen hard, but most of the two feet of snow that fell last Friday is gone, remaining only in patches on open ground. It is on the north-facing slope of the hill behind the fence corner and out into the ground shaded by that hill that deep pockets remain. The oldest wooden fence posts and barbed wire lie partially exposed, the snow around them full of sun-melted dips and pockets like the wind-tossed surface of a pond. At what was once the base of an upright post, a wild rose flourishes, bearing clusters of rose hips held through the winter. These wooden posts seem always to belong in the landscape. Undoubtedly they were cut from trees that once grew right here.

It is a warm day, the warmest so far this season, but the wind moans constantly in the trees. The highway is close by, between the old fenced hills and the wooded dunes, and adds its sounds. For a few minutes coyotes to the south sing and yip. Now and then a chickadee announces itself, but there are at this edge of woods none of the countless robins happily flying about the eastern woods, up the orchard hills and back in the sunlight. A pounding, too regular and mechanical to be a woodpecker, sounds: it is a neighbor in the distance, putting up a bluebird nesting box along the fence line.

Bare ground gains on snow cover, and last year’s dead plants are revealed. They are very brittle, and their tawny color is turning a rusty black. Behind, in the woods, a giant beech lies, felled years ago by rot. Its trunk bears the same rusty black where the bark has fallen away, and the wood is full of tiny holes, the size of holes made by small nails, where insects have found shelter. That one log is an entire world. This corner where old fence lines came together is an entire world.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Day 9 Outdoors: In the Lee of the Farmhouse

Saturday, March 3, 1:15-2:00 p.m.

There is no marking the driveway today, except for a line of widely spaced and frail orange flags set out to guide the plow that hasn’t come. No plow today. Roads are not even plowed, owing to downed trees and power lines in the area. Power is out all over northwest Michigan.

It was, however, a relatively warm night and is, as yet, a relatively warm winter day. The snow is heavy and wet. While this is perfect for snowmen and snow forts, it’s dangerous in the load it creates on lines and many roofs. A metal roof, however, sheds snowload without a second thought. There is a low rumble as the load begins to move, then a whoosh as it slides to the edge, and finally a ground-shaking thud as it falls to earth, shaking old windows. On the ground today, then, along the east and west (back and front) sides of the house, an outdoor wall of extra insulation rises, a wall that only needed to be broken through in front of the doorway.

Everything outdoors is white today. Trees are all but engulfed in wind-driven snow, wet and clinging. Large objects such as the brush pile and a garden wagon full of gathered branches appear as mysterious, featureless mounds of white. With  foot to a foot and a half of heavy snow fallen overnight, weeds and grasses are almost completely buried, and a glistening, empty expanse stretches over the meadow behind the house until broken in the distance by the first, youngest cherry trees and, beyond them, the edge of the eastern woods.

Sounds (except when roof snowload is in motion) are few and subtle: a background moaning of wind in high branches, a closer percussive crackling as icy branches shift their weight in the light wind, and close up the sound counterpart of the visual glistening, a pervasive, bright, shimmering, tiny glass-shattering whisper, a brittle susurrus, as new snow crystals touch and blow across the tops of deep drifts.

Very little surface is not covered by snow, from the now-white popples in the grove to the sturdy black walnut and basswood trees between grove and house. Where the bark is exposed, as it is on sections of the basswood trunk, that surface appears darker than usual, by contrast with the adjacent snow-covered bark and because it, the exposed bark, is wet with snowmelt. 

From the north, perhaps somewhere in the creekside willows, a lone crow calls repeatedly and insistently before falling silent. A smaller bird nearby gives a single forlorn chirp. It is still snowing, and little creatures are mostly lying low today.