To understand a man…

“To understand a man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” That saying is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the most famous military and political leader in the history of France.

In point of fact, the quotation was taken from the text of an address by George Malcolm Young (1882-1959), an obscure English historian. But whether its perceptive insight was first spoken in the early 19th century or the mid-20th century, that statement is an astute observation of the profound influence that world events during a person’s early adult years can have on perceptions, instinctive reactions, emotional responses, reasoning aptitude, outlook, and character.

Psychologists may contend that our behavior patterns and values are established in the first five or six years of our lives, but we are shaped even more by our experiences from about age eighteen through twenty-one when we have reached that mature stage of mental development which allows us to utilize greater cognitive abilities of logic, evaluation, comparison, calculation, judgement, and sensibility. If you want to know why a person thinks and acts as they do, you must know what their world was like when they were twenty years old.

Gloria Steinem (photo from

When I was twenty, when my Baby Boomer generation was twenty, America and the greater world little resembled the America and world that today’s twenty-year-olds are experiencing. Social, cultural, and political values were vastly different; not necessarily better, but different. The 1964-73 decade was a riot in a madhouse: the Cold War, Mutual Assured Destruction, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, political assassinations, the Freedom Rides, China’s Cultural Revolution, peace-love-drugs-sex-rock’n’roll, Black Power, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, the Kent State shootings, the birth control pill, the War on Poverty, White Flight, George Wallace, Gloria Steinem, miniskirts, bellbottoms, the Detroit Riots, the Tet Offensive and Hue, marijuana and LSD, food stamps, The Beatles, the personal computer, My Lai, the American Indian Movement, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Attica, the OPEC Oil Crisis, tax cuts for the rich, the Designated Hitter Rule.

The lessons my generation learned in that ’60-’70s decade were harshly and starkly clear. We learned to distrust authority figures, question irrational regulations, disobey nonsense rules, reject materialistic values, revolt and demonstrate against social injustices. We came to realize that America has “the best government money can buy,” and comprehend that the ultimate goal of the international corporation is creating billionaire plutocrats. We learned that racism is the greatest evil that has been perpetrated upon the people of the United States, historically, socially, and politically.

Former President Bill Clinton said in 2004, “If you look back on the Sixties and think there was more good than bad, you’re probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.” My take is much simpler: If you came to adulthood in the decade from 1964-73, you’re probably a bitter cynic.

My generation’s bitter cynicism will be resolved “one funeral at a time,” as one of my aging cohorts has often said. Until the last of our bulge in the population passes, it is unlikely there will be the slightest change in our admittedly biased and jaundiced perceptions, instinctive reactions, emotional responses, reasoning, outlook, and character. To know us (if knowing us has any purpose in today’s world) you would have to know what was happening in the world when we were twenty.

The late 1960s and early 1970s era was an acrimonious and discordant time, and although we gained much during that decade of cultural and social madness, we also lost much that we once valued. The greatest loss may have been our childhood belief that things will work out okay. We do not truly believe that anymore. We’ll leave that naïve hope to later generations.


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Rooster pheasant’s death attributed to leucism

A white-headed rooster pheasant!

That was the thought that flashed through my brain when the bird took wing ahead of the “point-track-and-creep, point-track-and-creep” stalking work of my French spaniel Abbey through thick native grasses and marsh grass groundcover of a public hunting area about 50 miles from our farm. I do not truly remember the shot, but there was a “bang!” and the bird tumbled.

My second flash of thought was “Oh, no! I’ve shot a hen!” Fortunately, the disguised male of the phasianus colchicus species was not a hen, but it was the strangest coloration of any rooster I have held in my hand in more than 60 years of pheasant hunting.

The hard-hit bird was stone dead at its crash site. Abbey found it and retrieved it without hesitation, motivated by Scout, Dale’s Brittany, who was eager to show his stuff by making the retrieve himself.

At my feet, they engaged in a brief tug-o-war to establish right of possession. Scout, ever the gentleman, conceded to Abbey, not always a lady, when she warned him with a throaty growl that somehow made it past her feather-stuffed mouth.

Abbey handed me this most peculiar rooster, and I opened the gun and investigated a birddog-mussed but not badly mutilated cockbird. From the white ring around its neck, that characteristic mark for which the ring-necked pheasant is named, to the crown of its feathery topknot the head of this rooster was almost entirely white.

The next feature that grabbed my attention was its legs. Instead of the sturdy dark gray, hard, scaly appendages that account for the run-like-the-devil sprinting speed of all other pheasants, the legs of this bird were bright yellow, soft, pliable, and obviously weak. No wonder he had regarded a burst into fight as his only chance for escape.

Dale and I looked over the patches of white body feathers, the almost pure white underside of the wings, and the pair of white-slashed tail feathers. Of course I wanted to blame the bird’s genetic mutations on the millions of gallons of agricultural chemicals we dump onto the soil of our Midwest farms, without any proof that was the actual cause.

Turns out this genetic aberration is not so rare as we first thought.

Back home, my beautiful blonde wife, who is much more skilled than I at conducting online research, found an article on the Pheasant Forever website, accompanied by a few photos that displayed a rooster with almost exactly the same white-patch color patterns as the one I had shot that morning.

Both pheasants had most of the usual characteristics of a ring-necked rooster, but the splotches of white on the head, back, wings, and tail were caused by a genetic condition called leucism (pronounced LUKE-ism). “Leukos” is the Greek word for white. The PF article provided more explanation:

The degree of leucism varies with a bird’s genetic makeup. The reduction of color in the bird’s plumage is due to an inadequate deposition of pigments (melanin) only in the bird’s feathers. Skin and eye tone remain their normal pigment and color.

Leucism is distinctly different than albinism – birds that feature a total lack of melanin, appear to be pure white or opaque, and exhibit pink eyes and skin. (Yes, you heard that correctly, pink skin.) Although leucism is rare, hunters are much more likely to harvest a rooster displaying traits of leucism, rather than an albino rooster.

I am attributing the cause of death for this rooster to leucism. At least three times this season, my futile shot at a wildly flushing pheasant has been too late and too far behind. Fixated on the prominent white head of this rooster, I swung the barrels of the old Lefever double gun far enough ahead of his flight path to intersect with the shot pattern. Death by leucism. And a one-ounce charge of No. 5 copper plated shot.

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Wild, wild (opening) weekend

Michael bags the final rooster.

Opening weekend of pheasant season was wild in northwest Iowa. Of the hundred-some ringnecks we put to wing Saturday and Sunday, all but two were wild, wild flushers. The two that held to Abbey’s points were, of course, hens.

We attributed this first-day-of-season wildness to coyote predation. Whenever in doubt, blame the coyotes. We saw only one coyote in two days of hunting, but that’s our story and we’re stickin’ with it.

Our hunt was on ground that is a pheasant paradise. A quarter section of high hills, vertical terraces, steep sided waterways, deep roadside ditches, and the occasional rut that sent me sprawling. The ground cover includes thick plantings of native grasses, switchgrass, brome, bluegrass, marsh grass, about two dozen species of native forbs, clover, and various invasive weeds. Three food plots of sunflowers and soybeans keep the birds well fed, and they are protected from weather and predation by stands of scattered trees and brush, and in wet years a few thickets of sedge.

After a long search, Abbey found a rooster I had knocked down with less-than-stellar shooting.

This was not a wet year.

This was a dry year. A year of exceptional drought. I thought these months of drought might wipe out pheasant populations. That was not the case. There were lots of birds.

The weather was hot and dry both days, windy the first day. Scenting conditions were not good. Abbey had to work slowly, but that was good for both of us. At our age, both bird hunter and dog are wise to work slowly on hot days.

Maybe it was the heat that made the roosters so wild. Maybe it was the wind. Maybe it was our pace. Whatever the cause, we were fortunate when a rooster flushed closer than 30 or 40 yards.

I do not often shoot at pheasants that flush at that range. I can’t be confident of hitting them, and I hate to see that puff of feathers when a bird is wounded but manages to fly away and cannot be found.

Thanks to Abbey, we found two of our crips. But our less-than- stellar shooting lost us two others. We finished the hunt with five roosters in the cooler.

Not bad for a wild, wild weekend.

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The whole ball game

Front row, left to right – Brian Buzby, Larry Kerschner, Gene Ruoff, Dan Frick;
Back row – Jerry Johnson, Mike Carr, Mike Parrett, Dick Lyday, Bill Backburn.
Photo taken at Grove City High School Class of 1967 Reunion in October 2022.

Nine of us hang onto the memories. In that fleeting span of years of our youth, it was the whole ballgame. Quite literally, it was the whole ballgame. Growing up in a small Ohio town in the 1950s and ’60s, baseball was everything. Then one day, it abruptly ended. Most of us never played another game of organized baseball after our 18th year. But for the previous 10 years, the game was our all-consuming passion. We were Little League All-Stars, Babe Ruth League All-Stars, high school conference champions… Teammates. Our 15 minutes of fame. Then we were scattered by the winds of life. We do not hold too tightly to nostalgic and maudlin memories; honestly, we moved on to more important accomplishments and achievements. But separately. This was the decade we were all bound together with common purpose, shared values. Although we are now in our 70s, we can remember when baseball was joy and sadness, triumph and defeat, pride and fulfillment, friendship and camaraderie. The game was our singular bond, and 50-plus years later, when the sparks of memories flash, we still treasure it. I am so glad, so very glad, that I shared those days of baseball with you guys.


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Autumn woodlands

If the purpose of religion is renewal of the spirit and healing of the soul, then my place of worship is an autumn woodland the morning after October’s first hard frost.

And nobody can hear me sing. That’s another plus.

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Portent of rural Midwest’s future?

Portent of the rural Midwest’s future? This scaffolding was erected to perform repair and maintenance on the clocktower and dome of the local county courthouse. Recently, the turkey vultures found it to be a comfortable roosting place. Forty of them. Sometimes more. This could be symbolic and leaves me with an uneasy feeling that some unpleasantness is looming over the rural Midwest. Are world and national affairs soon to provide a human feast for these buzzards? Each fall, the Midwest’s breeding population of turkey vultures migrates to southern states, Mexico, and Central America. Maybe this courthouse flock of birds is gathering only for their annual migration. Maybe.


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Death Song

A three-mile walk north of a two-lane road through the Nebraska Sandhills transports me to another plant. Or perhaps the planet Earth as it was three hundred years ago. Pausing at the top of a high dune, I can view the sweep of this semi-arid landscape for miles, its ridges of wind-formed hills, its swaying clumps and patches of little bluestem, cordgrass, sideoats grama, wheatgrass, yucca, cheatgrass, wild rose. buffalo brush, and a dozen native species of cacti of which I can name only one: prickly pear.

A mile or so to the northeast in a flatland between two soaring ranges of dunes lies a long narrow lake, groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer that has risen from its subterranean reservoir to pool in a small lake and revive a bordering fringe of cattails and bullrushes. A passing cloud is mirrored in the pond, a reflection distorted by the wind-ruffled chop of the water’s surface.

Far down the valley, a half mile at least, eleven dark-hided buffalo are grazing. A movement catches my eye to the east, downwind of the buffalo, and a Sioux hunting party of eight mounted warriors appears from a dip between two pyramidal dunes. They spy the buffalo, then me, halt their horses, and huddle for a quick rendezvous. I realize that either a buffalo or I, or both will soon become the morning’s conquest and the evening’s campfire story of this band of Dakota Sioux. The time has come for my Death Song.

Reality returns, and the buffalo revert to a loose herd of Angus cows and calves. The Sioux hunting party is entirely imaginary. But the echo of the Death Song keeps bouncing around in my head, discordant notes and free verse chants that refuse to blow away with the ever-present Sandhills wind. The Sioux may have been ephemeral, but not the lingering power of their spiritual presence in this open country.

The Death Song was an honored and sacred Native American ritual practiced by many, if not most, of the tribes of the Great Plains at the height of that horse-warrior culture from the early 18th to the late 19th century. My ignorance of Native American traditions and ceremonies is vast; I know little about the history and practice of the Death Song ritual of the Sioux, or any other tribe. Few credible anthropologists do, judging by the dearth of authoritative literature on the topic.

But then, Native Americans in their wisdom and reverence never intended us to know.

We have only the briefest of historical mentions of the Death Song, a few incidents and storied anecdotes barely mentioned in the narratives of the conquerors superimposed over the accounts of conquered. About 560 tribes survived the ravages of European civilization over the previous six centuries. Hundreds more tribes may have been exterminated, and it is likely that the Death Song may have been widespread among many of them. It is also likely that the sacred ritual continues to this day outside the scope of our civilization’s notice.

The Death Song is antithetical to our concept of passing through the transition from life to death. More accepted is the rant of the poet Dylan Thomas who beseeches us to “…not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” To me, rage is a useless and unworthy emotion to express when confronted with an ending that is so obviously inevitable.

The warriors of the Apache, Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapahoe, Aracari, Navaho, Pawnee, and more than a dozen other tribes sang or chanted a Death Song at the time of their impending death, or potential death due to combat or other great danger. We know little about the ritual as practiced by tribal women because of our cultural blindness, but the poet Jim Harrison wrote about a seven-year-old Hopi girl who composed and recited her death chant “…in a slightly quivering voice…” as she neared the end of her short life.

A glimpse of the ritual through Western eyes is provided by the paintings of the artists Charles M. Russell (“The Death Song of Lone Wolf”) and Frederick Remington (“His Death Song”), but I find these representations to be trite, cliched, and more than a little demeaning. The most engaging and representative of Native American portraits that depict a man accepting his end-of-life passage is George Catlin’s painting “Ah-Yaw-Ne-Tak-Oar-Ron, a Warrior,” although Caitlin did not state that this was the theme or intent of his painting.

I also find the portraits of Native Americans produced by the Swiss-French artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) to be more authentic than the illustrations and paintings of American artists who engaged Native Americans only after the glory of their civilization was past its pinnacle and had begun its rapid decline. Bodmer (formal name Johann Carl Bodmer or Jean-Charles Bodmer) was a printmaker, etcher, lithographer, engraver, draughtsman, painter, and illustrator who toured the American West as the hired artist of German adventurer Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied from 1832 through 1834 on his Missouri River expedition. He is best known in the United States as the artist who created detailed and accurate depictions of Native Americans and Western landscapes during the first half of the19th century

Sadly, one of the few written records of a Native American’s Death Song is from the history of the Dakota War of 1862, a rebellion of four Dakota Sioux tribes in southwest Minnesota that had been coerced to sign treaties ceding their lands for white settlement. After the bloody Dakota Uprising had been put down, 38 Mdewakanton and other tribal leaders were hanged, the largest one-day mass execution in United States history.

Sioux chief Chaska’s song (in English translation) was the same chant of defiance as that of 37 of his tribesmen before their execution in Mankato, Minnesota.

I, Chaska, do sing;
I care not where my body lies,
My soul goes marching on.
I care not where my body lies,
My soul goes marching on.

Would that I will do as well on my final day of life.

If my passing could be honored by the recitation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s poem “The Ballad of William Sycamore,” the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, or the tune “Here Comes the Sun” by George Harrison, I would consider myself to be suitably remembered, but those would be someone else’s choice of memorial tributes, not mine. A Death Song, to have any validity, must be self-composed. If you venture to create one, I recommend you follow the pattern established by Native American tradition.

A Death Song should be brief, uncomplicated, and easy to memorize. It should give voice to what you most value. Find the words or phrases that express your sustaining hope, your abiding truth. Make it personal, simplify it, write it down, and recite it to yourself from time to time.

As with the prayerful wish that one makes on the first star seen on a secluded night, it is best if you do not share your Death Song. It is not a performance; you are the only one who needs to hear it and believe it at the end of your time.

Having gone through a near death experience, I have composed my own. My song may make my passage easier. Or not. At the very least, it will comfort me at the end.


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Prairie grouse extinction

First the bison, now the sharptail grouse and prairie chickens.

Abbey with one of the last sharptail grouse in the McKelvie grassland.

Animal species that have disappeared from the Nebraska Sandhills are legion. I hoped that remnant populations of prairie grouse, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs, badgers, jackrabbits, western meadowlarks, and several dozen other species would hold out during my lifetime, but it was not to be.

Gophers, coyotes, and crows seem to be hanging on to a meager existence in the wild of the McKelvie National Forest (actually a 180,000-acre grassland with a scattering of trees around prairie potholes and waterways), and a flock of wild turkeys paraded each afternoon through our trailer campsite at the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, but the animals that made this part of the Great Plains great have disappeared, almost without a trace.

All signs of prairie grouse have vanished. When my bird dog Abbey flash-pointed about 20 minutes into the first day’s hunt, I checked the ground and found a set of grouse tracks and some droppings. I began to pay more attention as I walked the hills, checked likely looking dune-side habitats, and found no other grouse tracks, droppings, dusting area marks, feathers in loafing or roosting spots, or stems of wild roses stripped bare of the red berries known as rose hips. The berries themselves were abundant, even super-abundant for a year of average rainfall. Good grass growth, plenty of water, good food sources (except insects) – all bespeaking excellent habitat for grouse. But no grouse.

The disappearance of both sharptail grouse and prairie chickens was evident three or four years ago when I hunted this country after torrential rains had flooded hundreds of square miles of the Sandhills. Reason enough for poor nesting conditions in the spring. Prior to that Noah’s Ark year, six or seven summers of drought and torrid heat had burned the grasslands, probably reducing bird populations. But prairie grouse numbers have rebounded quickly through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years of history, and I find it difficult to understand why a decade of weather extremes would have driven them to extinction. I suspect something else is at play. Avian disease? Diminished reproductive capacity? Some aspect of climate change? A subtle alteration of the mega-habitat?

It is not only the grouse that have disappeared. Unbelievably, I did not see a single coyote during three days of bird hunting in the McKelvie and the nearby Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. I did find a few sets of coyote tracks and droppings, and heard snatches of their evening song lamenting the looming end of the natural bounty of the Sandhills. In 45 years of hunting the McKelvie, I have never failed to see a herd of pronghorns. During a three-day hunt this year, I did not see a single one. Or a mule deer, whitetail deer, porcupine, skunk, badger, jackrabbit, western meadowlark, or other once familiar species. There were many dickcissels. Abbey was so bored she occasionally pointed one.

Many of the former prairie potholes and marshes had become ponds or even lakes, evidence of the recharged Ogallala Aquifer rising above valley floors, so there were several species of waterfowl, although their numbers were not as high as I expected. Crows, northern harriers, redtail hawks, and turkey vultures were plentiful, but I wondered how they survived with so few animals to prey upon. There were few grasshoppers, which are a primary food source for fledgling grouse. Glaringly evident was the absence of the locusts we call “dinosaur hoppers,” which could make a good meal for some predator. Other insects also appeared scarce, a crumbling foundation under the pyramid of Sandhills wildlife.

A fellow camper told me there are lots of grouse on privately owned ranches across northcentral Nebraska. When had he last hunted grouse on private land, I asked? Fifteen or 20 years ago, he told me. Even if his supposition of high prairie grouse numbers on privately owned ranches was true, it seems odd that populations would not have spread to public lands where hunting pressure is light and habitat is good. Token populations of prairie grouse, like token populations of bison, might possibly exist on the groomed habitat of billionaire ranch owners, but that does not mean these gamebirds (or any other of the formerly common denizens the Sandhills) are any longer an indigenous species.

The final morning of a three-day hunt I killed a sharptail grouse. I first saw a trio of them scudding on a southeast wind, and I made my best guess where they might alight a mile downwind on one of the long, rippling rows of dunes. After a half hour walk, one sharptail flushed wild from a ridgetop, and I figured my last chance had passed. Violating all the rules of Sandhills grouse hunting, I trudged up the face of that dune with the wind in my face (you hunt these birds with the breeze at your back, surprising them as you top a ridge where they have been sheltering from Nebraska’s ever-blowing wind). A second grouse flushed ahead of Abbey. I shot and missed. A third flushed, and I knocked it down.

I felt some guilt over having killed one of the last three prairie grouse in the McKelvie, but only for a few moments. I am 72 years of age, I hunted more than 10 hours over the course of three days, and I walked more than 15 miles of remote country according to my odometer. Abbey and I were needled by cactus, yucca, and sandburs. We ran out of water and got leg cramps. In short, I felt that we had earned this bird. It may very well be the final prairie grouse I put in my worn-out hunting vest.

We sat on the ridgetop for several minutes and contemplated this fascinating gamebird, this fascinating country, this fascinating avocation of bird hunting. All of this is fading away, and I will miss it so much.


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Biking with Cumberra

Cumberra and I will keep working on my sense of balance and stability until we get it right. Note: I did NOT collide with this cedar tree. (Photo by Patti Johnson)

Maintain speed.

That is the most important lesson I have learned in my first few days experience riding a recumbent bicycle. To slow down is to wobble, then weave, then wreck.

Fortunately, the wrecks are much less dangerous for body and bike with a recumbent than would be the case if I were riding an upright bicycle. Grip the brake levers, put my feet down, and I am safely anchored to the ground.

Usually. If I wobble-weave-wreck going uphill, I can execute a slow-motion topple onto my right shoulder. Embarrassing, but not painful.

This “maintain speed” axiom is based on the recumbent bicycle’s longer wheelbase, I think: 53 inches, compared to my old upright bike’s 40 inches. But maybe my instability is due to inexperience with the unfamiliar reclining body position: pedals at seat level, feet higher than hips, a more horizontal backward-leaning posture rather than a more vertical forward-leaning posture, more weight to the rear.

With enough riding time I will eventually learn how to sway, tip, lean, steer, counterbalance, and adjust with head, shoulders, hips, and legs to keep myself on the straight and level. I hope. In the meantime, an obvious necessity is a mirror on my handlebar so that I can espy other riders overtaking me on the bike trail. Slowing and looking over my shoulder invariably results in my meandering across the width of the trail, hazardous for other bikers, runners, walkers, electric scooter riders, and the occasional skateboarder.

The new recumbent bicycle has a longer wheelbase and overall length than my old upright bike. Cumberra is less maneuverable than an upright, but my back country trail riding days are over, and a recumbent bike is much more comfortable for lower back, arms, shoulders, and neck.

This instability while riding Cumberra (the nickname I have bestowed on my newest fitness-and-folly machine) has been disconcerting, but to be honest my stability while riding my upright bicycle is sometimes not much better. During a trailside conversation with another recumbent biker in his seventies, he conceded that his sense of balance was not what it had been thirty years ago, especially riding the sharp cures of the switchbacks on the steep downhill run on one of the local bike trails. He said that he still rides his upright occasionally, but he rides his recumbent, a three-wheeler, on the more challenging trails.

Unwilling to admit my diminishing physical abilities in my own seventies, I have opted for a two-wheel recumbent. I may reconsider that decision after my next trip to the emergency room.

My switch to Cumberra has already proved to have several benefits. After a couple hours of riding, my shoulders, neck and hips do not ache, there is little discomfort in my lower back, my arthritic hands do not throb from continual hard shifting of derailleur gears, and a sensitive part of my anatomy is not in torment. As a friend has said, “Sitting on a bicycle seat is like sitting on a wooden fence post.” True enough, for the standard upright. The seat of a recumbent bicycle is designed for older, less padded butts.

And those were my objectives in acquiring Cumberra. Bicycle rides should be fun, not punishment. If I have to suffer too many aches and pains while exercising for health and fitness, I will not stay with it.  

Recumbent bicycles are much heavier. I try to regard lifting it onto the bike carrier as a part of my daily fitness routine.

Although I am not yet completely infatuated with Cumberra, my intent to continue our relationship has been made evident by my first tinkering with accessories for her. I drilled a hole in the back support of her seat to attach a whip-like pole and flag (the low profile of a recumbent bicycle can make it difficult for other vehicles to see), and today I am designing and building a rear platform/basket for Cumberra to tote my gear on longer rides.

I also inflated her tires to a higher psi because, you know, speed. My new recumbent bike can zoom along paved trails at a considerably higher rate of speed with considerably less effort than my upright bike, maybe because my legs have greater thrust in the horizontal rather than vertical posture. Or maybe because Cumberra is a 21-speed rather than an 18-speed.

The engineers who designed this bike did not add the three gearings because they wanted it to go slower, did they? No, to the contrary, at slower speeds the bike has a tendency to wobble and weave. The faster I go, it seems to me, the more balanced and stable the bike becomes.

This is may prove to be an unwise discovery on my part. I might change my opinion after my next trip to the emergency room. Until then: maintain speed.


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The river as weaver

Sweltering winds are gusting on this cloudy day in late August, trying their best to dissuade me from my walk around the perimeter of our hay field with my French spaniel Abbey. Humid and heavy, the mid-morning air wraps me in a damp wool blanket, and each time the sun emerges from behind the scattered stratocumulus layer of clouds its heat lamp glare reminds me that I foolishly forget to put a hat on my balding head before our hike.

Some August days can be a test for man and dog.

With the heat index soaring up over 100, we both appreciate the shade of a leaning oak tree on the blufftop that borders the west side of the field. We sit beneath the oak while we watch the Trout River wind its way through the broad valley, its waters surprising clear even though we have had rainfalls the previous two days. Upstream, a farmer neighbor has created a riparian filter strip of prairie grasses along both sides of the river which keeps the soil of his row crop fields from washing into the channel. Good man.

Geologists say this wide valley could not possibly have been scoured from its limestone base by the present-day river, even during its most flood-swollen flow. The steep bluffs on each side of the coulee were probably carved by torrential floods of melt water from glacial lakes adjacent to this unglaciated region of the North Country. Winds roaring at 200 miles-per-hour across the face of the glaciers may have given the valley its final form: raw stretches of exposed limestone layers.

I try to imagine the raging flood waters that filled this valley from its western rim to where Abbey and I sit on its eastern ledge. I cannot.

Over the past 150 years, the industrious hand of civilized man has transformed the appearance of this place. Parcels of bottom land along the river have been intensely grazed by cattle and sheep and planted to row crops, and in years of floods the course of the river has often changed, ripping away a field edge here, a plot of pasture there. The steep bluffs lining the riverbed have become even more steep in the 37 years we have lived here, it seems to me, but that perception may have more to do with the erosion of my leg muscles than the erosion of soil and rock.

I should have taken “Before” photographs during our first year on the farm and “After” photographs during this final year. But I didn’t, so now I have to rely on the mental images stored in my memory which allow me to embellish or diminish the valley’s transformation, depending on my mood. Today I’m saying, “It hasn’t changed all that much.”

During my half-hour river watch with binoculars, there are several soggy clumps of flotsam and jetsam carried along in the river’s brisk current. I tend to categorize this debris as “natural” and “unnatural.”

Natural includes the trunks and limbs of dead trees, a drowned and bedraggled raccoon or opossum, clots of mud entangled in the tendrils of brambles that still cling to slim hope of life if they can wash ashore and re-root. One time I spied the tattered remains of a bald eagle – or more likely a turkey vulture. Another sighting, I am convinced, was the exhumed body of the last runty mastodon in the North Country; it may have been a bloated Brown Swiss cow, but the long matted hair convinced me otherwise. Mastodons were forest dwellers in the Driftless Plains region about 10,000 years ago, and it was always my hope that a herd of them would make a comeback with the aid of CRISPR gene-splicing technology, and I would be lucky enough to take one of the over-populated surplus with a bow.

The unnatural river-born junk is mostly farm equipment and supplies, battered wagon boxes, sprayer tanks, rotten tractor and truck tires, discarded hoses and wiring, lots of seed bags, tangles of barbed wire fencing and waterlogged wooden posts – that sort of thing. Rarely, I may catch a glimpse of a partly submerged car fender, a bent-up tree stand or ground blind, tarps, gas cans, doors with broken windows – artifacts of an industrial-consumer civilization that some curious anthropologist may unearth in five or six thousand years and wonder, “What the hell is this thing?”

Maybe that will be a trace of my time here. “Look! An ancient carbon arrow shaft that must have been used by a hunter from some long-forgotten civilization.” More likely, the relics of my passing-through will be one of the many pliers I have lost while fixing fences.

Time. It seems to pass swiftly, like the hurried flow of this river. But the character of a homeplace, like the character of a man, is something that develops slowly, glacially, with the patience of a weaver at her loom steadily bringing the pattern and the colorful image into being. There are uncountable fascinating places in this world, but I have learned it is best to cherish one of these, to meld with it and forego this futile chase of realms I cannot truly know or understand.

A hot and humid August day is something I understand. This sort of late summer day is a part of our longtime homeplace, and my character. Uncomfortable and grumpy as it may be.


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