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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Day 34 Outdoors: Young Pines

Monday, December 3, 2012, 4:15-5 p.m.

Earlier today Canada geese in ragged Vs were flying northwest instead of south, and now in late afternoon the breeze is still from the south. Light is muted, colors dull, edges soft. The wind sets a brisk pace, but remains gentle and almost warm. Up on Claudia’s hill, the lilac buds are swelling green, as if they think spring has arrived. Winter is off to a strange beginning.

In an uncultivated edge of field between the old chicken house and the new orchard, trees begin to emerge from the grasses and weeds, amid brambles and small, wild shrubs also proliferating. For the past several years, a chance-sown pine has been growing on the property line. Its pointed tip was lost to a March blizzard, but the rest of the tree—that which remains--is dark, full, and healthy. Closer to the chicken house, a second pine has more recently emerged. It is the same species as the first--red pine--but so much younger that it looks like a different kind of tree altogether. The pines are undeterred by spotted knapweed and don’t mind competing with red twig dogwood and wild blackberries.

Except for the wind, the countryside is quiet and still this afternoon until a shot rings out. It's muzzle-loader season.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Day 33 Outdoors: Next Door to the Happy Hour

 Monday, November 19, 2012, 4-5 p.m.

The farmhouse that once stood on this land vanished years ago, and of the large dairy barn only silos and magnificent stone foundation remain, but other buildings, in various states of disrepair, stand precariously among the trees that have crowded in on them during the many untenanted years that have passed here, reclaiming the land. The air is warm and still, full of the clean smell of freshly fallen leaves. A squirrel darts nervously and disappears into a collapsing barn. Chickadees flit among the shrubs of the tavern parking lot.

One small building looks like a cabin. Oddly, mysteriously, the more open face of the cabin, with windows and doors, looks north, while the longer, more deeply sloping roof minimizes what would once have been sunshine (before the trees recaptured the land) from the south. One door is completely gone, frame askew, sill missing. Wide boards form the cabin walls (no doubt uninsulated), narrower wood siding nailed over them. The siding on the front wall still holds much of its dark red paint; on the east no paint remains, and much of the siding has rotted away, exposing boards beneath.

The cabin was originally roofed with more wide boards and then covered with rows of overlapping wood shingles. On the western end the shingles themselves are covered over by corrugated metal roofing, but the entire roof, rusting metal and rotting wood, is weighed down with dead leaves and vines. Vines also hang and twist about the eastern end of the cabin and form a wild tangle on the ground with odd bits of human refuse.

The building in best repair is the old granary, standing straight and true on its solid stone foundation built into a slope of ground. The granary’s exterior walls are covered with pressed tin, and this metal siding still holds tight to the boards it covers.

Although the ground is deep in leaf litter all around, several trees have been recently cut and logs stacked and brush neatly raked and piled by a new owner. As the delicate crescent of a waxing moon grows brighter in the sky behind the granary, a crow flaps by, flying north. High over the old farmyard treetops stir gently in the breeze. There is something melancholy about an abandoned farm, its buildings falling into ruin, and the scene is most poignant in autumn, but signs here point to some kind of new life taking shape.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Day 32 Outdoors: Old Garage at Centennial Farm

Friday, November 9, 2012, 9-10 a.m.

It is a still morning, fairly warm, without a breath of breeze. A crow flaps overhead. Crows work hard to stay aloft, beating their wings steadily, never coasting.

On Kolarik Road, just down the hill from St. Wenceslaus Church, what would otherwise be silence is broken by the sounds of men’s voices. Up in the orchard corner closer to the church, a tractor or some other piece of heavy machinery is idling.

At the Centennial Farm on the north side of the road stands a weatherbeaten garage, sided with wood planks like a barn and roofed with rusting but no doubt serviceable corrugated metal, the car that never quite fit into the building sticking out the open door as it has for decades. This old garage with its long-immobile car, like the church just up the hill, is a kind of neighborhood landmark.

In front of the building a maple, mature but still young, raises bare branches to the grey November sky, a few dark, shriveled leaves clinging to the tops of its branches looking like motionless birds. A smaller tree nearby holds an untenanted nest, its summer family gone before snowfall.

A large piece of heavy machinery has begun serious work in the orchard here on the south side of the road. One man guides this machine to push down trees, while another works with a chainsaw. One farmer walks over to the edge of the road and speaks across the ditch between orchard and road.

“Good morning. Yes, it’s a nice day. Too still to burn, though. Need a breeze to fan a fire.” Are they taking out a block? “Part of it, yeah. One variety turned out disappointing, so we’re taking those trees out sooner than we’d planned. Oh, yeah, we’ll replant.” 

Somehow the men’s voices and the sounds of farm machinery add to the morning’s peacefulness. Things are well in the neighborhood.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Day 31 Outdoors: Among the Pioneers

Thursday, October 25, 2012, 8-9 a.m.

Came the wind in the night and blew the leaves off maple trees and lindens. (Ash and walnut were already bare; catalpa yet in leaf.) Wind continued as the sky grew light, glowing rose in both east and west. Ribbons of cloud over the eastern woods now turn from pink to pewter grey.

A band of hardy little popples venture out from the bank above the stream, seeking to colonize the meadow, along with a few small cottonwoods and two or three autumn olives that escaped the spring purge. Among the grasses, purple asters, milkweed, and Queen Anne’s-lace are also the much-less-welcome spotted knapweed. This is how it is with any invasion of pioneers: all sorts pour in.

The wind arrives in a series of gusty, irregular waves. Each wave begins first as a far-off drone, rising to a dull roar, and then becoming at last a whispering and rattling and clattering in the closest leaves and grasses. The air feels as soft and fresh as early summer, but its perfume is that of fall, dense with mould and rich with decay. Milkweed seeds escape their pods and chase about, catching on other weeds like bits of wool at the edge of a sheep pasture, fluttering incessantly.

Is that a bird in the willows? A quarrelsome squirrel? The sound goes on and on. Perhaps it is the rubbing of wind-tossed branches. The willows, their heights gradually lighted by the rising sun, toss heavy-leafed branches about like wild horses nodding and shaking heavy-maned heads.

Somewhere out of sight a flock of Canada geese passes overhead. The old farmhouse and barns watch over the meadow with stoic calm. They have seen many autumns.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Day 30 Outdoors: Edge of Cornfield

Wednesday, October 3, 1:30-2:40 p.m.

Field corn harvest has begun around the township, but many fields still hold standing corn, since the drier it is when harvested, the less energy will be required to dry it later. It’s a lovely sight, these tall plants of domestic gargantuan grass with giant, graceful leaves that turn from deep green to bright gold and then gradually become more and more pale as their moisture evaporates in autumn wind and sun. This field is bordered on the south and west by woods, on the east by newly tilled ground, and it faces cherry orchard rows to the south across the road. On a clear, blue-sky day with no farm machinery at work in the fields nearby and no RVs interrupting the stillness, a day with the barest breeze stirring the paper-dry leaves, the cornfield is a peaceful place. A few flies, a distant crow....

Many ears of corn along the outer edges of the field are missing kernels. The work of deer? Raccoons? Crows? Bright yellow kernels contrast sharply with their dark, dry red cradle, colorful botanical teeth in a richly painted but dessicated jaw.

Two uprooted stalks lie akimbo in the dust of the road, golden teeth spilled onto dirt. How long will it take for scavengers to find and devour these easy pickings?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Day 29 Outdoors: Another Sunrise Over the Meadow

Tuesday, September 25, 7:30-8:45 a.m.

After several chilly days of rain, yesterday was clear and sunny with gale-force winds. At last, this morning, both clear sky and calm stillness came together. Before sunrise there was hardly a breeze stirring and only a few fleecy, small clouds near the horizon.

This time of year the meadow is a dessicated miniature jungle, a tangle of drying stalks and leaves and seeds. Queen-Anne’s lace has curled up to shape itself into brittle bird’s-nest cages, and the little grey-headed coneflowers have dropped their petals, leaving heavy, dark seedheads that bow the tall stems. Grasses rustle, their heads also heavy with seed, leaves beginning to curl.

A little bird throws its voice like a ventriloquist, sounding first here, then there, but always just out of sight. There are crows in the middle distance, calling to each other on crow business. Canada geese wing by overhead. One unbalanced V flies south, its left leg longer than its right, and half an hour later a ragged line of more geese crosses the sky from east to west, their voices audible long before they come into sight.

As the sun comes up over the dark trees of the eastern woods, it creates a band of light on the meadow, leaving the intermediate orchard trees in shade. Higher and higher climbs the sun, and as it climbs a breeze starts up and keeps pace, stirring the leaves of maple, popple, and catalpa more vigorously as the light increases. Finally the sun is blazing through the weeds. It lights up strands of spiderweb that tremble and gleam and dance. Morning has broken.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Day 28 Outdoors: Away from Home--Old Birch on Lake Superior Shore

Tuesday midday, Grand Marais, Michigan

At home on Lake Michigan, sunrise comes from behind a walker on the beach, and sunset streams from over the opposite shore, far from sight, at day’s end. On Lake Superior’s southern shore, the sun comes up on the right hand of a walker facing the water and sets on the left. Only midday light is at all comparable.

On Lake Superior beaches one finds different stones, too—notably, at Grand Marais, agates rather than the Petoskey stones sought by vacationers at home—but trees along the shores of these two Great Lakes are not very different: pines and firs, birch, maple, beech, and the ubiquitous quaking aspen (‘popple’), Populus tremuloides, always edging out beyond the older, larger species, a shy but determined pioneer, finding courage in numbers as it ventures nervously past each battle-scarred veteran, say an old birch, that stands firm and stoical until its life’s last great storm shall at last bring it down.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Day 27 Outdoors: A Wealth of Late Summer Weeds

Sunday evening, 6:40-8:00 p.m.

The air is densely humid, weighing heavily on the warm, fading, late summer world of green, and filling the heaviness is the constant, high-pitched humming of insects, most of it at the far upper range of human hearing, like a ringing in the ears. A steady buzz at the highest pitch is underlaid by a slightly lower trill, and beneath that comes, at intervals, a chirping. Besides the insect songs and an occasional crow’s call, distant “guns” break the stillness from time to time as an overcast day slips toward its end. It is too late in the season for the loud reports to be aimed at frightening deer out of the orchards, so they must be intended to keep deer, raccoons, and crows out of the still-ripening field corn south of Kovarik Road.

One stalk of milkweed is almost an entire world. Like the air—and like the season itself--milkweed pods, still green but with their green fading to grey and a soft, subtle lavender appearing along their veined bellies, are swelled full with ripening seed. The pods are soft and supple at this stage. They are all business, preparing for another season’s life, but the angles of their connection to the plant stalks is whimsical to the human eye. The leaves are another matter. Taken as an individual, each single leaf is a marvelous instance of nature’s complexity. Rather like the shell of a turtle shell in shape and veining, it displays irregular rows of tiny cells between veins, and along the veins daylight comes through the leaf wondrously.

Goldenrod is equally complicated. A single clump of tiny flowers at the end of one branching plant is rich with dusty yellow pollen, and the branch and then the plant must be multiplied many times to get an idea of only one stand among the other late summer weeds—spotted knapweed going all stiff and prickly, Queen Anne’s lace drying to brittle birds’ nests, wild grapevine still green and lush and luxurious as it spreads through the rest.

Gradually the grey clouds move off to the east, leaving blue sky and smaller, softer white clouds at day’s end. A tiny breeze rises to stir the mulberry leaves, and the grasses and goldenrod sway. Like a benediction, the last light of day pours over the west end of the barn and the bank of willows along the stream.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Day 26 Outdoors: Beside the Blackberries

Monday morning, 11-11:40 a.m.

In the late morning a(lmost midday), sun-drenched hayfield, the air is filled with the buzz and drone of insects and the short, undecided flights of white cabbage butterflies, yellow sulphurs, checkerspots, and grasshoppers. Overhead lazy clouds cross the blue sky in crowds, but only traffic out on the highway, audible above the more immediate and peaceful fields and orchards, hurries forward on a fast trajectory.

It has not been a good season for stone fruits, but brambles have produced abundantly—first raspberries, now blackberries, soon thimbleberries and, on small, weedy trees, mulberries. On the hillside next to Claudia’s road grow the blackberries. Large, luxuriantly green, toothed leaves hide a multiplicity of thorns, borne along sturdy canes as well as on the smaller, fruit-bearing branches. Flowering long ago finished, each former blossom’s sepals bend gracefully downward under a corolla of delicate, dry stamens. Heavy clusters at cane ends hold mall green berries, large ripe fruit, and tiny white stubs where ripe berries and cores have dropped or been pulled away—many stages of life together on each stem.

Blackberries and grasses form a dense, almost impenetrable tangle on the hillside, intermixed with wildflowers and small trees, the advance guard of the woods. The fruit is a lure, and those feeding on it will spread the seeds abroad.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Day 25 Outdoors: Sunrise Over Meadow

Saturday morning, July 28, 6:40-7:30 a.m.

Even before sunrise there is a hum of insects in the white clover. Air and sky are clear, with a few tatter-ended clouds low in the eastern sky. There is no breeze to speak of, so only occasionally does a stalk of clover twitch, a Queen Anne’s-lace stem sway, or a few popple leaves give a palsied shake to show that, beneath the stillness, life quietly continues.

To the east, the view separates itself into five distinct bands. Sky with clouds forms the highest layer. Beneath that comes the dark band of the eastern woods, light only coming through at the tops of a few trees, taller and standing above the mass. Orchard forms the third band, not as individual trees but mostly undifferentiated texture, with hints of rows given in darker tones.

Between orchard and foreground grasses is a narrow band of white, the compressed space of meadow dominated at present by white clover and Queen Anne’s-lace. Meadow plants, besides those two, include many grasses, red clover and alfalfa, wild grape, dogwood, evening primrose, goatsbeard, star thistle, St. Johnswort (blossoms going from gold to brown), goldenrod (its blossoming weeks in the future), and common milkweed. All these draw bees, flies, butterflies, and birds, as well as the less obvious mice and voles. Some of the Queen Anne’s-lace plants are over five feet tall. They hold their heads at tipsy angles, like spinning plates of lace balanced on poles by invisible circus performers.

Predrawn clarity disappears in what seems only a moment as mist rises from the meadow, obscuring the orchard behind. Then, in another moment, the sun has risen above the woods, and the mist evaporates, leaving behind an expanse of light and color, glistening, sparkling with heavy dew. From all directions come sounds of birds and insects—not disturbing the peace of the morning but accentuating it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Day 24 Outdoors: Starry Night

Tuesday morning, July 10, 3:40-4:40 a.m.

A waning moon, still over half-full, rises over the meadow, giving a cinematic “day-for-night” effect to the landscape. The eastern woods form a dark mass beyond the meadow, but moonlit willows bordering the no-name creek to the north show complicated depths, with light branches reaching out beyond featureless background expanse. There is even the slightest grey-green color to the willows, the moon is that bright.

Overhead are stars—not as many visible as on a moonless night, but still too many to count—and between constellations stream slight, gauzy scarves of the Milky Way. The limitless sky seems a star-pricked, domed vault, fading to a light glow at the rim of the bowl that is the horizon.

A very light breeze drifts gently from the east, as if it blows from the moon itself, cool and sweet. Once the wings of a bird beat by, close, no more than 12 feet from the ground. A single cricket chirps and then falls silent, while from very, very far off, from time to time, a dog barks. More as a feeling than a sound comes some low, mysterious, distant rumbling, like thunder many miles away, but the sky is clear and cloudless and remains so.

When the moon is finally above the farmhouse, the metal roof of the house and barns glow white against the dark of everything else, tilted planes of white seeming to detach and lift up like spaceships into the cool air. With the moon’s ascendancy, the stars fade, those nearer the horizon disappearing entirely.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Day 23 Outdoors: Old Chicken House

Friday morning, June 29, 2012, 6-7 a.m.

It is a breezy, clear morning of what promises to be another warm, sunny day. The birdsong chorus is not as riotous as it was a month ago. Birds are still singing, but not as many of them and not as insistently. Mornings are calmer by the end of June.

The old chicken house sits to the south of the popple grove (popples, not kept in check, edging farther and farther out into the meadow), largely in shade most of the day. On the first farms in this part of Michigan, in the old days all the buildings were sided with cedar shakes. Houses, barns, granaries. Fish shanties and boathouses, too. White pine timber was cut and shipped to cities for building purposes; cedar, strong and plentiful, splitting easily into shingles and with oils that repelled insects, as well, was the local building material. There are many 100-year-old cedar shakes still at work in Leelanau County.

Unpainted shingles weather from light, bright brown to warm, deep tones and then to dark or grey over the years, depending on the direction of exposure to the sun and amount of roof overhang and shade. On the west face of this old chicken house, the shingles are darker the lower down their position on the wall. Many are streaked from weathering or dotted with holes from predations of birds and insects. The doors, one on the east end and another on the west, are made of plain boards, and there is a square-framed, boarded-over opening up high in the west wall with a screened triangular opening in its center, doubtless for ventilation. The door is fastened with simple hinges and simple lock. At the peak of the eaves are remnants of the old electric line and exterior light fixture. Alongside the end of the building is an old aluminum boat on a rack.

Cooing of mourning doves sounds from deep in the big barn. As the sun rises higher over the eastern woods, light falls through the popples onto the north wall of the chicken house, and individual popple leaves in the grove are backlit, their margins edged with gold. These leaves rustle ceaselessly in the morning breeze.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Day 22 Ourdoors: Clouds and Wind

Monday morning, June 18, 2010, 5:50-6:45 a.m.

Dawn comes in the east, but light wells from all directions, incipient sunrise tinting clouds to the west as well as the east. A feel of coming thunder is in the air. Clouds are now rippled silk, now shredded gauze, until finally a uniform, featureless screen prevails over meadow, woods, and orchards as clouds from the west merge with those in the east, and all homogenize.

Wind is from the west, bringing weather from over Lake Michigan. The wind brings some sounds closer and blows others away. Rustling leaves, calling birds—the soundscape forms layers, both vertical and horizontal, like the compressed visual layers through binoculars or an old-fashioned stereopticon. Sound layers up from the ground and away toward the horizons. There is a perfume in the air, too. What is it? Black locust are finished blooming, basswood not yet in blossom.

Popple trees, like their human counterparts, with nothing to say, whisper ceaselessly. Clouds remain silent. Clouds are in their world, popples in theirs.

To the southwest, a brief coyote commotion breaks out. Willow leaves seem to turn inside out in the wind.


Day 21 Outdoors: A Long, New View and More Horses

Friday morning, June 15, 2010

When an old orchard is wrenched out by the roots, new views break wide open. From Novotny Road this summer, where a damaging early spring storm made replacing large blocks of trees a priority, suddenly the prospect to the west and north encompasses a series of hills, North Lake Leelanau, more hills, wide, cool Lake Michigan, and North Manitou Island. Tractors are busy this morning on the old orchard land, filling the brisk wind with sweet-smelling dust. Old trees bulldozed into bonfire-sized piles await better burning weather, while for now the tractors work to cultivate the open land around the giant brush piles, and, with front-end loaders, remove boulders brought up by the old tree roots, piling them at land and road corners. Gulls come eagerly to forage in the freshly turned earth. Beep-beep-beep goes the tractor, backing up.

A couple of Friesian horses graze contentedly in a nearby pasture, their burnished coats warm in color, sheen of light gleaming on their haunches. Ears flick, tails swish. Between orchard and pasture a row of mature cottonwoods rustles continuously. Everything is in calm motion, some but not all of it purposeful. A monarch, for example, half-flutters by, tumbled in the wind. 

Leaves rustle, gulls cry.

Along the pasture fence blooms bladder campion, petals and stamens reaching out from each open-ended, balloon-like, almost translucent, veined calyx. It is only a weed, but its numbers are legion, and each individual plant is as much a miracle of intricacy as the bodies of the horses in the pasture.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Day 20 Outdoors: Back in the Popple Grove

Wednesday, June 6, 7:40-8:20 a.m.

The difference from February to June is breath-taking, even in this tiny, insignificant bit of semi-wild ground. Four months ago silence blanketed the grove. This morning all manner of sounds ring under the bell of the sky, as if a glass globe encompassed the earth. Foremost and most immediate are the morning birdsongs, almost "noisy" but in the loveliest of ways, with the steady sound of an orchard sprayer in the background and intermittent, distant sounds of traffic. 

A soft breeze plays through the grove, rustling the popple leaves and making them dance. Sunlight filters in, first very low and gradually moving up the grey-green trunks. Grasses sway gently. 

"Morning has broken/like the first morning."

Friday, June 1, 2012

Day 19 Outdoors: Visiting Horses on Jelinek Road

Thursday, May 31, 7:30-8:30 a.m.

The morning air is autumn-cool after an overnight temperature drop, but the grass sports dew, not frost. Gentle grey clouds in the east echo multiple curved horizons, layered like time in rock, advancing from east to west—thickly clustered trees, then a field, a row of wild shrubs, another field, a fence, and finally, closest to the road, the horse pasture. Metal posts stand out clearly, but thin wire’s near-invisibility creates the illusion that the horses remain where they are by choice. Their pasture is large and green, however, and they are free to return to the corral (gate open) as they please for long draughts of water.

Sounds come from gulls, crows, mourning doves, sparrows and songbirds, as well as from a tractor somewhere nearby but out of sight, no doubt spraying orchard trees. The three horses move continuously but at a leisurely pace, heads down to graze most of the time. The sound of their constantly working teeth and jaws does not carry to the road. Perhaps the breeze carries it away. The air eddies in small currents, undecided on a firm direction. The horses’ heads are large and sweet, hindquarters muscular and patient, bilateral symmetry familiar and endearing, contour lines like ancient antelope. The heady smell of them is deep in memory. 

The old barn was probably built one section at a time, beginning with the old two-story part on its solid stone foundation. Additions abound, roof slopes complicate, and weathered boards are in good shape. With big barn doors closed, the horses can still take shelter under a shed roof. There the sun will still reach in from the south, and the stone foundation will reflect the sun’s warmth.

These horses have a good life. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Day 18 Outdoors: Meadow at Daybreak

Wednesday, May 23, 5:50 - 7:00 a.m.

Before daylight the bird chorus began. There is a bank of cloud on the horizon to the east, dark, but low enough that the sun will clear it only slightly later than its light would otherwise reach the meadow. Near the ground cool air stirs gently. It is a morning for looking, watching, seeing; for listening and hearing; for feeling the air in all its subtle movement. For being here.

The meadow was a hayfield for a long time. One summer a decade or more ago it was a cornfield, but since then it has simply been a meadow. It is uncultivated but somewhat managed. One corner seeded with native wildflowers, a strip seeded with native grasses, it is bordered on two sides by young orchard, on one side by wooded bank above the no-name creek, and the fourth side by old farmyard and popple grove. The autumn olive is kept at bay by persistent effort. The meadow was mowed last year, in early summer, but nature wants it to be woods again. Deep-rooted alfalfa, dark green and healthy, persists in spotty clumps through the grass, as do last year’s dry goldenrod, milkweed, and Queen Anne’s lace, but there are also, far out from the more recently seeded areas, wild grapevine, clumps of red osier, and seedlings of maple, black walnut, and box elder. Once in a while a pine seedling appears.

Sounds sort themselves out spatially: rooster to southwest, woodpecker to the east, crows off in the distant south, traffic to the west. Nearer, in the silver maples of the farmyard, robins sing. After a while, though, all other sounds become background to one nearby chik-chik-chik. A very plain sound. The sparrow uttering the dry note perches on a brittle stalk of last year’s milkweed and balances with continual small adjustments, so that any still photograph or drawing of this little bird would be false. Its tail and wings flick constantly, and the bird itself looks about and changes position incessantly, never still for two consecutive moments. Streaky chest, black breast patch. A song sparrow but only giving its repetitive call note. Too early for singing?

Light increases, reaches higher, the dark cloudbank giving way to diffuse, trailing scarves. As at dusk, the cool air rises from the ground, and the breeze gains momentum with the rising sun, as if eager to be in motion after the stillness of night.

Another small bird on another dry milkweed, this one surprisingly more musical than the song sparrow, keeps its head tucked down between choruses but stretches its head, beak upward, to trill its song. These birds have no idea how tiny they are and how big the world is, but the world of this small meadow is all-sufficient to the break of day--the cool morning air, a clump of young black walnut, a nervously twitching sparrow, another bird’s throaty, trilling song, and the clouds evaporating by degrees as the sun clears the tops of the trees.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Day 17 Outdoors: Old Dairy Barn

Saturday, May 12, 7:30-8:35 p.m.

(The title of this post has been changed.)

When farmhouse and barn were new, the house sat high on the hill, and the barn was in the backyard, but since the house was moved downhill, their respective positions have been reversed. This view of the barn is from the west, as the farmer would have approached it in the old days to milk cows morning and evening. The barn would not, however, have been as dilapidated then as it is today, no longer housing livestock. The tall and massive section was originally roofed with wood shingles. Later, sections of metal roofing were laid on over the shingles, but on half of the western slope of the roof the metal is gone, and the shingles have been deteriorating rapidly. Old boards curve and sag inward. Gaping holes appear. Framing and side walls (of vertical boards) are in better condition.

Cows were kept in the shed on the north end of the barn. Inside, troughs in the concrete floor of this section received their body waste. There was a door between the two sections so that old Joe could transfer bales of hay and straw—the latter their bedding, former their winter food when pasture was snow covered—to their stalls. At either end of the tall section of barn are doors high in the walls where the last bales would have been delivered to the tops of the mountains inside by elevator.

The cowshed walls were simple boards laid horizontally, but at some point in the barn’s history these had been overlaid with sheets of stamped metal. Now, all these years later, much of the stamped metal has been peeled back and torn off by wind rushing down the hill, so that sections of old board are exposed. One small window is boarded shut, as is the small door on this side, while the other window is opaque silver-grey with the grime of decades.

The east side of the barn is kept mowed, but the west face
has been ungroomed for many years. Weeds and large shrubs grow up against the large old doors (not seen here) where machinery and wagons could once go in this side and out the other. This barn was built by a Bohemian farmer and shows his saving ways. Its decay shows the history of farming in Leelanau County: as livestock declined and orchards came to predominate, the old hay barns were no longer needed and not kept in repair. This one was also built without a foundation, its old twisted cedar uprights, seemingly as strong as iron, set directly on the ground, so over the years the barn has settled more and more, wanting to lie down and return to earth.

Late evening sun, soon to set behind the hill, warms the wood. The light changes almost by the moment. The lower its angle, the more detail appears: wood grain, knotholes, the subtle shading that weathering has brought about.

Sparrows flit in the shrubs. Mourning doves call. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Day 16 Outdoors: Kovarik Road Again

Friday, May 4, 4:25-5:20 p.m.

Sand and clay, unpaved, this section of road is rain-braided after yesterday’s downpour. Warm sunshine has brought out birds and insects, all busy about making their respective livings here where a tributary of Houdek Creek is crossed by the lowest point of the road. This tributary creek, very small and easily overlooked at this point, takes a winding and circuitous path, not directly to nearby Lake Michigan but joining Houdek Creek to debouche at the north end of Lake Leelanau, the nearest inland lake.

This small scene resists simplification. Every tree limb has its complicated branching, every branch its complex leafings and buddings, and the ground beneath is thick and rich with last year’s dead grasses and weeds, in the midst of which this year’s green shoots spring. At the edge of the road are horsetails, in their small, ferny stage. Sapless stalks of old cattails, brittle and sun-bleached, stand, lean, and lie all about. A small willow clump leafs out in the streambed. Red osiers mix with cattails, and tamaracks sprout this year’s fresh, young green. On slightly higher ground are birch and cedar. Up the hill, maple and beech.

A song sparrow sounds almost like a mechanical bird, as does the nearby rooster over the hill. A call note sounds: Cheet. Cheet. Cheet. Another bird has a song of two notes, Tee-oh! followed by a chirpy trill. A honeybee lands on a blossomless, leafy branch--clambers, tumbles, rests, and moves on. An ant makes its laborious way across the white page of sketchbook, then runs nervously, helter-skelter, toward more familiar footing. On the surface of the creek, water striders jerk and drift, jerk and drift. Sun flashes blindingly on the water.

Green blades, flat and narrow, stream like long hair in the flow, and shadows of air bubbles and small pieces of debris race along the sandy bottom. When the surface trembles in the breeze, even ripples cast shadows. The creek’s quiet song, small and near, is easily lost in the louder sounds of birds and even background noise of a jet overhead or a distant tractor, but the creek goes its own way, uncaring of the rest of the world. More narrow, green blades along its bank lean in graceful curves, striped with sun and shadow.

The sun is warm, the breeze slight, cool, and refreshing. A redwing blackbird calls.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Day 15 Outdoors: Orchard, Kovarik Road

Wednesday, April 25, 3:40-4:45 p.m.

It is an overcast and windless afternoon, after a sunny, cool morning. The still air is filled with the lightest of insect clicking and chirping, a thin blanket of sound so pervasive it is difficult to distinguish from silence. The air itself feels moist—not heavily or oppressively so—rather, it feels protective, sheltering life.

Here by the side of an old dirt road at orchard’s edge, cherry trees full of bloom, grass beneath them studded with dandelions and other, smaller flowering weeds, there should be a steady hum of bees, but clouds and cold have clearly discouraged the large work parties. Tiny flies flit among the higher branches, doing what they can in the way of pollination, and a few larger flies punctuate the quiet stillness from time to time with loud buzzing.

Blossoming trees do not form the undulating expanses of popcorn or clouds of snow usually seen across the hills when bloom comes later in the spring, as it should. The trees flowered too early this year and have been punished by subsequent cold. From a distance—say, from a speeding car—one might wonder if full bloom were yet to come, but close observation banishes uncertainty. Each five-petaled flower, not much larger than a thumbnail, bristles with eager stamens, but many white petals are creased or folded in on themselves at the edges, those edges browning, too. Weary, they look, tired of trying.

One flower form is repeated along a branch, that branch repeated throughout the tree, and rows of trees full of blossoming branches stand side by side, one after another. Genetically, the trees are clones, but each tree and branch and blossom has met the world in circumstances slightly different, in its own space of air and light and shadow, and has been marked by those differences, resulting in intricacy endlessly repeated in endless variation.

Sounds compose themselves into a simple map: distant traffic far to the north, distant tractor to the south; rooster to the west, woodpecker to the east. The map’s center, for a moment, is one large, buzzing fly. On the south side of the road, someone has made two passes with tractor and tiller over the edge of the field and then stopped. Visible at the western horizon, Lake Michigan lies motionless and patient, cradling its islands in its arms.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Day 14 Outdoors: Far From Home

Thursday, April 12, 2012, 9:20-10:12 a.m.
(Carefree, Arizona)

To Easterners and Midwesterners, accustomed to a verdant, intimate, embracing landscape, the desert can seem alien and forbidding—completely “other.” Cacti and succulents of necessity hoard their moisture, and nature offers little in the way of shelter, other than welcome cottonwoods along courses of water. Hot sun, dry wind, rattlesnakes, scorpions--.

But a desert garden, inside cool walls for shade and enlivened by a quiet fountain, can be welcoming indeed. Finches come to drink at the softly burbling fountain, and other birds sing in brilliantly flowering trees outside the wall. Clay tiles collect and give off warmth on a cool morning. Even the forbidding, thorny cactus plants offer bright flowers, and a soothing oasis atmosphere fills the civilized, bounded space. Here there is no hurry at all. 

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.