Hope Springs…Somewhere

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Happy New Year. 

Yes, period. Sorry, but exclamation points don’t seem in order. This turning of the year is a bit too much like déjà vu to celebrate. I think you know what I’m talking about.  

“2021 can only be better,” we said. “2020 was the worst!” We claimed the same for other years in recent memory, for reasons I can’t recall now. 

No doubt the residual effects of this pandemic are wearing on us all. Whether you’re the type who wants to act like nothing’s wrong, or the type who’s had it up to here with the nothing’s-wrong folks, your blood pressure is probably prone to spiking. If not, I’d wonder about you a little. 

As for me, I’ve had a tough time carrying on with “normal” lately. That comes and goes, of course, pandemic notwithstanding. For a time, the world has lost its luster. It kinda sucks. 

The irony is that this last year has been pretty good to me, at least as a writer. I feel like my career is really building up some steam. 

I began writing for my local newspaper in June, and a friend of mine helped me snag a regular column with the Mankato Free Press (my hometown!) in September. It’s been refreshing to have regular outlets, rather than having to scrape to find a home for every single thing I want to write. Meanwhile, magazine pieces keep going out the door. And it seems like fewer people are treating me like a nobody, which is perhaps one of the best signs. 

The latest issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer came out about a week ago, with the first big feature I’ve written for them. It was in the works for most of the year. I stacked up countless hours and hundreds of miles on the road in bringing that project to fruition. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done (read it to find out why), and the payday was my best ever— even eclipsing every singing gig I’ve ever done. 

From the beginning and all along the way, I expected to be on cloud nine when that issue came out. I imagined dancing at the mailbox with fireworks exploding overhead. 

When it arrived, however, I felt nothing. I opened the issue and paged through, as if only to verify it was true, and set it down. No cheering, no champagne, no warm fuzzies. 

That void hit me really hard. 

I began to take stock of the year, to try and understand why it felt so empty. Long story short, I don’t know why. 

To this date, my family has largely been spared major impacts from the COVID-19 virus itself. My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last month. My kids are doing well in school, and my wife and I had a pretty spectacular summer with them this year. It’s not like I don’t have things in my life that should energize me or inspire gratitude. All the same, it feels like my gas tank is stuck on “E.” 

So, I rang in the New Year more or less out of obligation, with no particular sense of optimism. 

On January 2nd I received a Facebook message from an old friend. He began with “I want to share with you an experience from last week that you unknowingly influenced.” That sure got my attention.

He relayed his experience one evening when he went out alone to hunt coyotes. It sounds like he’d been frustrated by a lack of coyote sightings in the past (I can relate), and after about an hour that frustration bubbled to the surface. He said, “I muttered to myself ‘what a goose chase,’ which is when I thought of you.” 

He explained how he began to absorb his surroundings and thought about what he got from his time out that day. “It quickly turned from a frustrating evening into an enjoyable experience.” 

I’m glad I was sitting down when I read that. 

To put it bluntly, I was blindsided. My ideas and words—unbeknownst to me—had been quietly working to change his outdoor experience. Somewhere in all my ramblings here, something resonated and he took it to heart. Incredibly, I was responsible for transforming the way he interacts with the natural world. 

That realization was powerfully rewarding. I mean, I operate under the assumption that my words could have that kind of influence, but never know one way or the other. Like the time I discovered that a walnut I planted had grown into a tree that was producing nuts of its own, it’s undeniable proof that I’m not wasting my time. It’s certainly enough to feel like I can carry on. Like what I’m doing matters, even when and where I can’t see that.

Now, I never expected that a note from a guy I’ve known since Kindergarten would give me the jolt I needed to face 2022. But if that’s what it takes, I accept. 

So, Happy New Year. I hope that when you most need it, you’ll find where your hope springs. 

How My Alma Mater Prepared Me To Sleep On The Ground

Read More Gustavus Adolphus College

Waking up somewhere cold and hard is not an occasional occurrence for me. Just a few weeks ago, I took my first solo trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as the snow and ice receded from the landscape. Earlier this year, I slept a night on the ice of Lake Mille Lacs while I explored a lake that is still big and new to me. A couple months before that, I endured one late-October night (in a slightly leaky tent) while I tried my hand at netting whitefish in far northern Minnesota. I was fortunate enough to catch a modest number of fish each time, for which I was grateful, but everyone knows there are easier ways to bring food home for the table. So what makes me embrace physical exertion and discomfort doing these or any such things? 

Continue reading “How My Alma Mater Prepared Me To Sleep On The Ground”

The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On

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My dad’s friend Larry was a staple of my formative years, a regular presence in our hunting endeavors in the late 80s and early 90s. His light, contagious demeanor was always welcome, and I won’t soon forget how his jokes and wise cracks punctuated the many car rides, duck blinds, and nights in the camper, not to mention his deft incitement of near-inappropriate moments at home and in the narthex of the church. I can still hear his crazy, half-wheezed, unfettered laugh, and I know I always will. 

He passed away last week, after a years-long tussle with cancer; this news was not unexpected, certainly, but its inevitability did not serve to mitigate its impact. His loss comes as yet another blow to constancy, a cold chipping away at my sense of youth and connection to the past. So it goes whenever a part of us seems gone forever and can only be kept alive in memory and stories. For me, it would be hard in this moment not to pause and remember the others that have gone on ahead.  Continue reading “The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On”

Beauty: Birch, Mozart, and Human Nature

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On an early spring morning this year, I was attending a dress rehearsal for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem mass, one of his most recognizable and beloved works, and a perennial favorite (Ironically, Mozart left it unfinished when he died at the young age of 35, and much of the music wasn’t actually written by him). There I was, sitting in a church pew and watching the fast-passing altostratus clouds through a window high overhead, when the orchestra and choir started the Lacrimosa movement. I was utterly blindsided. The sight of cottony clouds streaking across the blue set to the soundtrack of a true master was profoundly and inexplicably moving. It was the kind of moment that makes a person gasp, and its abrupt arrival magnified its effects on me at least threefold. It was an unexpected moment of beauty that would change the whole week to come. Continue reading “Beauty: Birch, Mozart, and Human Nature”

The Sun Is Going To Win

The sun is going to win. I keep telling myself that lately. Our source for heat and light has never failed us, and deep down we all know it. Actual spring will come, followed by hot sweaty summer. We know this. But right now, smack in the middle of April, as most of Minnesota is in the grip of a full-blown blizzard and I’ve already cleared 7 inches of snow from the driveway, it’s almost impossible to believe. 

The last few days I spent outside, I couldn’t help but notice how powerfully the sun warmed my skin and clothing compared to the way it didn’t a few weeks ago. Earlier this week, as I sat atop the ten inches of crusted snow that sat atop almost three feet of solid lake ice, the sun played peek-a-boo with the help of passing clouds. When the shadows came over me, the wind picked up and I put another layer on. When the sun came back out, my black jacket became unbearably warm and it came off again. That never happens in January. I reflected on how much more intense the sun’s rays have become, and how the ice I was fishing through will ultimately have to yield. Cognitively, I knew spring will eventually win out despite this seemingly endless winter we are having. What I did not know was that the sun’s ever-stronger rays were bouncing off the snow and giving me an atomic-grade sunburn. It’s the worst one I’ve had in almost twenty years, maybe longer. The only consolation has been the moment of levity I seem to bring to everyone I’ve seen in the last 3 days. 

Now, I have never been a lover of the sun. I have never in my life sought to be in the sun just for the sake of it. My pasty skin needs extra protection, not extra exposure. In the summer (and from now on, in April too) I try to have a hat with a lot of brim available for sunny days, and I try never to go anywhere without sunscreen. I try really hard not to let the sun come near enough to hurt me. I mostly hope for cloudy days and shade trees everywhere I go. But I have never wanted so badly as I do now for the sun to give us some quality time. And I will be ready for it… as soon as I’m done clearing the next 7 inches of snow off the driveway in the morning. 

 

 

A Lifetime of Firsts

What makes the most memorable moments in our lives, the landmarks that will never be forgotten? The scrapbook in my mind naturally opens itself to the pages where the highlights are, to the stories that are told most often, and to the mental snapshots that were forever burned into place. Sometimes those are the big things, sometimes they are the traumatic things, but quite often, they are the “firsts:” first date, first week away at camp, first job, first apartment.

As hunters, we are known to celebrate all the big firsts: first hunt, first deer, and so on. One such memory for me is the day I killed my first duck. Continue reading “A Lifetime of Firsts”