Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Encounter with a Bobcat

We threw our backpacks into the trunk of the car, fully packed with gear, clothes, and food, and headed west toward the Dakota border. We’d booked a walk-in site at Lac Qui Parle State Park and were on our way to see if there were any interesting birds in the vicinity.

What did we see along the way? Perhaps I ought to begin with the family of sandhill cranes we saw standing in a row, in a field, at the crest of a hill, just off the highway west of Waverly. Though they all looked roughly the same from the window of a speeding car, the children were half the size of the adults. For cute.   

Next, I might mention the burritos at Rosita’s Hole-in-the Wall restaurant on 4th Street in downtown  Willmar. Fantastic! We ordered them to go, but there was still a considerable wait, during which I saw Columbia score two goals against El Salvador in a World Cup qualifier on the TV against the far wall. Extraordinary.

Our campsite on the hill above Lac Qui Parle was amazing. Though it’s a “walk-in” site, it’s only thirty feet down the hill from the parking lot—you could probably roll all your stuff down to it. But it’s a hundred yards or more from the main campground, looking off down the hill, where you can see the lake in several places through the trees.

Pelicans flew overhead in twos or twenties all afternoon. (More than a thousand are nesting a mile or two upstream.) We hiked across fields and hills toward the lake, heading off into the woods eventually. There were yellow warblers and warbling vireos in the woods, and when we got to the road again we saw a sign on the other side that said Cottonwood Tree.

Well, we’ve seen plenty of cottonwood trees in our day. But something told us this would be different. So across the deserted highway we went, and up the hill into the woods, then down another hill, where we soon came upon a very big cottonwood tree. It wasn’t all that tall, but its girth was remarkable. I suspect this is the tree on state land near Watson that’s recorded on the DNR list as the biggest cottonwood tree in Minnesota.

The afternoon lighting was superb and the grasses around the campsite were a deep, rich green, due to the heavy rains. We’d set up the tent before our cross-country jaunt, but it was a very windy afternoon I was happy to see that it was still standing when we got back. The wind died down with the waning sunlight and we made bold to put up the rain fly, which would probably have been a serious mistake earlier in the afternoon.  

We ate a cold dinner of cheese, crackers, grapes, almonds, and salami, and sat reading in the lovely evening light.

As I was sitting in my little camp-chair, I saw two robust sparrows in silhouette fly repeatedly into the grass nearby. Suspecting a nesting site, I got up to examine the spot more closely, only to see an orchard oriole fly off. There were several, in fact, and later Hilary got a good look at one of them, too.

As twilight descended we got a fire going  The fireflies also began to emerge and we spent a half-hour waiting for them to appear in greater force—dazzling us with fields of bobbing pin-pricks of light—rather than a single burst here, another one there, then nothing. They did. 

Meanwhile Venus has appeared in the west, and I made a lucky guess that the reddish star in the south was Antares, with the rest of Scorpio soon to appear. (It did.)

Though the wind had died down it was still blowing.  Nevertheless, pleasing child-like squeals occasionally made themselves our way from the campground up on the crest of the hill. Two young Asian men who (I suspect) had been fishing down by the dam hiked in to another site across the field, set up their tent, and then drove off again—either back to the dam or down into Montevideo to have a few beers.

The night air began to grow cool. Hilary decided to hit the hay, and I poured a little water on the fire, though our jug was getting low and I decided to wait a bit to see a few more stars come out as the glowing embers spent themselves.

It was then that I saw a creature coming silently and swiftly down the path in the dark. It looked like a robust cat in shape (which is all I could see) but it didn’t have a tail. Other species flashed through my mind, but I’ve seen lots of coyotes, fox, raccoons, ground squirrels, skunks, and even martins and fishers in my day. No. It was like something I’d never seen before. When it got right in front of me it suddenly realized I was standing there in the dark and darted off into the thick grasses at the edge of the campsite. It didn't have a tail.

In fact, I have seen bobcats several times before…in California. And I once saw a lynx up at Agassiz Wildlife Refuge. This was much smaller. Totally silent.  Bulky, and no more than 18 inches high. 

Later in the night, I climbed out of the tent to take a leak—the air had grown cold, morning was nigh (as the poets used to say) and the breeze was now mellow. Looking off to the north I noticed some Northern Lights low to the horizon, with a few tall streaks leaping from the solid band. Wow!

In the morning we wandered the backroads between Odessa and Ortonville. In some places the grassy countryside had an ethereal, almost African beauty. The north shores of Big Stone Wildlife Refuge was lined with rocky exposures covered with oaks, larkspur, poison ivy, and even a few clumps of cactus. Among the birds we saw were yellow-headed blackbirds, green-back herons, and a pair of western grebes.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Four Walnut Trees

An arborist stopped by this afternoon to give me an estimate on a few clean-up jobs on our suburban plot. I’d noticed that one of the volunteers in the corner of the house we seldom visit was dying. Yellow leaves were peeking over the rooftop. Russell took one glance over the shingles and said, “Looks like Dutch elm disease to me.”

We wandered around to that side of the house to discover that there were two elms, side by side, in distress. That was news to me.

“These will have to go,” he said. “When the city sees them they’ll give you thirty days to remove them.” That was an easy decision to make.

On our way back to the front yard I pointed out four trees that have sprouted along the side of the house and now reach above twenty feet in height.

“For a few years I thought these were sumac,” I said. “Then I noticed they weren’t suckering. Then it dawned on me—they’re walnut trees! Do you think they’re too close to the house?”

“I’d remove that one by the window well,” Russell said. “Otherwise they look fine to me.”

Back in the front yard, I did my best to point out a few dead branches concealed within the now-verdant foliage of a forty-foot basswood tree. Then it was around to the back, where we examined the drooping branches of a large silver maple that were blocking garden sunlight and flirting with the power-lines running to the house.

“I would recommend cutting that entire branch off back to the trunk,” Russell suggested. “We’ll have to arrange with the power company to shut off the electricity. You might be out for the whole day.”

“We lose power here three or four times a year anyway,” I replied with a grin.

“It’s because of all the trees.”

“Often the other side of the street is fine. You see these thick cables running in and out of windows and across the street…”

“Same thing in our neighborhood,” he said.

Russell had an easy-going manner and an obvious enthusiasm for trees; I felt like  was talking to Gary Snyder's little brother. We had long since entered a comfortable chatting zone, and having come to the end of my arboreal to-do list, I said, “See any other tree issues crying out for attention?”

“Things look good. You have a lot of nice trees. But this oak…” he said, pointing to a pin oak fifteen feet from the deck. “You see that dark vein in the leaf?”

“I know, it’s an iron deficiency. It used to be worse.”

“Iron and manganese. You probably have clay soil, which tends to be more acidic. We could inject the tree with an active agent that would be effective for three years. But it costs $250.”

“I don’t know… I sort of like that dark vein in the leaf,” I said. “Ten years ago lots of the leaves were entirely yellow. And a tree just grows until it dies, anyway.”

“That’s true,” Russell agreed. “Ninety percent of all trees die. They get out-competed.”

I think he meant to say that ninety percent of all trees die before reaching maturity. (All trees die eventually.)

“What about these?” I asked, turning in the opposite direction toward five tall spruce trees standing in a row, bare trunks rising to considerable height before the tufts of needles commence. “In 1948 our former neighbor planted them as $1 seedlings. I suppose they might have to go eventually…”

“That wouldn’t be cheap. Difficult access, power lines right there. I would guess $6,000. But they’re doing fine for now.”

“They used to have needles down to the ground. But I’ve read that Colorado spruce can live to 600 years.”

“That seems like a stretch. Certainly not in this environment. Sitka spruce on the west coast might live that long,” he said. Then he added, as if to cheer me up, “White pine can go to three hundred years or more.”

“I’ve seen some old ones in the Boundary Waters. And the Lost Forty. But you know, they’re not that much bigger than a hundred-year-old pine. And they’re widely scattered. It’s not like you’re walking through MuirWoods or anything.”

Turns out Russell had just gotten back from Muir Woods (a redwood grove on the California coast north of San Francisco.) “That’s my first time out that way,” he said. “Awesome.”

At that point our conversation turned to how little people know about trees. I mentioned that I once spent a week in Yosemite without meeting a single person who knew how to differentiate the Jeffries pine from the Ponderosa--even the rangers. (I don’t know either.) Then in was on to old growth forests, pockets of virgin timber up near Lac La Croix that we’d both visited on Oyster and Gebeoniquet Lakes.

Trees, trees, trees.

“When I was in high school I considered becoming a forester,” I mentioned at one point. “I even attended a forestry camp called Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin. I’m not sure how I ended up in European history.”

Eventually I went back inside and  Russell wandered the yard with his clipboard, then sat in his car for half an hour writing up a proposal, drawing a map and numbering all the trees in the yard backward from 99.

The final proposal didn’t look too bad to me. Two thirds of it—removing the elms—was required by law.

“Should I sign this?” I asked.

“If you feel it’s necessary.”

“Doesn’t matter to me.”  

So we set up a tentative date-range, dependent on getting the power company out to cut off the electricity. 

And then he was telling me about the Midway-Frogtown Arborators Band, for which he plays the saxophone. They’re doing a gig at the Turf Club on June 27. 

Alas, I’m going to miss it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Paper Darts

T’was one of those dry, clear, cloudless evenings when you know you have to get out. I had ALREADY made some curried carrot soup and had eaten some, too, so I headed downtown and beyond. It occurred to me at the last minute, poised at the light at Highway 55 near the Farmers Market, to duck up onto the freeway entrance rather than following Lyndale through colorful but endless traffic. Brilliant!

I was headed to a seminar of sorts at Paper Darts, an institution of vague dimensions but considerable renown among the younger set, currently housed in a “pop-up” location at 35th and Nicollet.  The evening’s theme was The Secret Sauce of Book Marketing. A panel of poets, writers, and publicists from local publishing firms would discuss the merits of book trailers, Twitter, radio, word-of-mouth, and other, presumably more novel, means of getting the word out about a tremendous book that no one had heard of. (It’s become a lot easier to get a book into print these days, but far more difficult to get anyone to notice.)

The event had been advertised to begin at 6:30, but in fact it started at 7. This gave me an opportunity to chat with a young author named Taylor who’s self-published a book about how gender works in various languages. He was sitting at a table outside the store-front, biding his time. He might even have been writing on  a Big Chief pad with a pencil. Though he didn’t go into specifics, I got the impression the illustrations in his book were a little risqué.

While the evening was revving up, I also got a chance to chat with one of the co-founders of Paper Darts itself, Mehgan Murphy. She explained what the firm was all about and went to great lengths to show me a lovely book Paper Darts had published recently, Get In If You Want to Live, by John Jodzio, with quirky, lavish graphics from all over the world.

“Where did you have it printed?” I asked.

“Shapco,” she replied.

“Oh, sure, down by the stadium.”

 I didn’t want to bore Mehgan with the news that I’ve been publishing a quarterly, hand-made Zine for the last twenty years, sans graphics, though she was so good-natured I’m sure she would have taken an interest. I was impressed with the boundless energy to be seen in the publications on display and the ubiquitous computer screens emitting a steady stream of cartoon graphic designs, many of them done by Mehgan herself, in all likelihood.

Before the discussion got going, Courtney Algeo, editorial director of the Paper Darts enterprise, announced with glee that a new issue of the magazine was now available—each copy lovingly tied by hand.

The discussion itself was a  little less upbeat. It tended to underscore the fact, inadvertently, that a great divide separates those who are with a publisher from those who are not. Well, how could it be otherwise, when the panelists involved work for or are represented by major publishers, while most, if not all, of the folks in the audience (I suspect) are not with a publisher—at least not one with a marketing budget.

Throughout the talk I was longing to get my hands on a copy of the new print issue of Paper Darts. I could see it sitting on the counter just behind the panelists.

My one quibble with the panelists came early. I believe it’s high time to desist, once and for all, from saying that “the book is dying.” There is no need even to say, “The printed book is in decline.” It’s market share is in decline, without question. But the very appearance of that term, “market share,” jangles oddly in a room of book-loving women and men.

Film didn’t kill theater, and TV didn’t kill film. Radio didn’t kill live music, and the H-bomb didn’t kill the standing army. Books will always be around. And the Paper Darts crowd is showing us how they can be made more beautiful, and more fun.

Half-way through the program, I headed out into the night—but it wasn’t night! The summer solstice is right around the corner, and the terrace of Pat’s Tap (right next door) was jammed with hipsters. Everybody drinking beer, gabbing as if there were no tomorrow.

I had been reading some poems by one of the panelists, Matt Rasmussen, as I waited for the event to start. Perhaps I should say “skimming” some poems. Suicides, deer hunting, North Woods stuff. A shallow overview of a powerful collection, to be sure. 

But as I returned to the freeway heading north, I was wondering who will describe for me the glitter on a cityscape just before sunset, bristling with intelligence and urban energy and a clear blue sky overhead?

Who is the Jorge Guillén of our day?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Summer Reading 2013

Me and Kaminski
a novel by Daniel Kehlmann

A short, crisp narrative along the lines of Patrick Suskind’s The PigeonMe and Kaminski tells the story of a crass young art critic named Sollner who hopes to make his mark by writing a biography of a famous but reclusive painter named Kaminski. The Master is living in the mountains under the care of his exceedingly protective daughter, and Sollner has arranged to conduct an interview. He alienates everyone he meets along the way from the porter to the bar maid, and he doesn’t fare much better with Kaminski’s daughter.

Sollner’s arrogant exuberance soon grows tiresome, though the author makes it obvious there’s an abject loser simpering just beneath the man’s self-confident facade. (Sollner’s career is going nowhere and his girlfriend informs him over the phone that she’s kicking him out.) But Kehlmann’s depiction of the heartlessness and vanity of the fine art world is spot on, and some clever twists in the plot also keep our interest up.

In the course of his researches Sollner has discovered the original inspiration for Kaminski’s art—a former girlfriend long thought to be dead—is alive and well and living on the Baltic Coast. He deviously arranges to be in the chalet alone with the Master, and when he tells the decrepit painter, who can hardly walk or talk, the news, Kaminski replies enthusiastically, “Let’s go visit her!”

Thus begins a long series of highway adventures involving hitchhikers, cheap hotels, prostitutes, and art openings, culminating in a bitter-sweet rendezvous with the great painter’s former muse, who is now a contented grandmother. As Sollner’s expense account vanishes, we begin to realize that it’s Kaminski who’s been taking him on a ride, rather than the other way around, and not merely to escape the clutches of his own possessive daughter, but to teach the young critic a lesson or two about art and life.  

Of Me and Kaminski the Frankfurter Rundschau wrote,“I haven’t laughed so hard reading a new German novel for a long time….” I didn’t laugh much at all. But although the tone of Me and Kaminski is brittle, it’s not entirely heartless, and the story ends so well (I’m not saying happily) that we might look forward to Kehlmann’s next book with something resembling anticipation.

[Editor’s note. Kaminski and Me appeared in 2003. The author’s next book, Measuring the World, became the best-selling novel in Germany since Patrick Suskind’s Perfume in 1985.] 

Under the Glacier
a novel by Halldór Laxness

Under the Glacier is a strange and beautiful book that captures the Nordic spirit as well as anything I’ve read recently. Better than Pen Pettersen? It’s too early to delve into comparisons, but this charming and bizarre piece of fiction, which came out in 1968, binds together New Age cosmology, Boreal nature-writing, and Celtic myth within a narrative style that’s utterly droll and more than a touch mysterious.

Here’s the premise: the Bishop of Iceland has sent out a young assistant to investigate the health of a parish at Snæfell Glacier, where it’s been rumored that the priest has boarded up the church, given up religion altogether, and hauling the dead out onto the glacier rather than burying them in the traditional manner. The body of the book consists of the report this young emissary sends back. He appears in the manuscript as “the undersigned” though in recording dialog he also refers to himself as Embi (Emissary of the Bishop).

Upon his arrival at the remote glacier outpost Embi finds a priest, Pastor Jon, who makes his living fixing Primus stoves and shoeing horses, and a cast of oddball subsidiary characters that includes a parish clerk, three mystics from Ojai, California, some construction workers, and an Australian millionaire. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the nearby Snaefellsjökull volcano has appeared in literature before—it’s the place where the explorer Dr. Otto Lidenbrock descended into the underworld in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.   

The bishop has instructed his emissary not to judge or evaluate, but mere record what he finds. “Don’t be personal,” he instructs, “be dry!”

 Embi conducts a series of interviews with the locals, during which their laissez faire attitude toward conventional religion immediately becomes evident. Each evening he’s served a vast assortment of cakes and coffee, though what he’d really like to eat is a little fish. Eventually a coffin is brought down from the glacier. It contains a frozen salmon, which, when thawed, is transformed into Pastor Jon’s long lost wife Úa, who seems to be an immortal Celtic-Spanish pagan-Catholic sex goddess.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that Under the Glacier is a minor masterpiece sui generis. And I’m not sure what’s so “minor” about it. The minute I’d finished reading it I said to myself, “I wonder if I should read that again? I think I may have missed something.”

Esther’s Inheritance
a novel by Sándor Márai

Although it was first published in Budapest in 1939, the atmosphere of Ester’s Inheritance takes us even further into the past, into a world of rural estates and shabby aristocrats on the order of a Chekov play or Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Ester herself, who tells the tale, isn’t shabby herself—just poor. Due to family debts and deaths, and her shaky social status as an aging spinster, she has found it nearly impossible to keep up appearances with the passage of time, though her quiet personal charm continues to inspire the devotion of several local men who were once active suitors. It’s well-known that Ester never married because she was in love with Lajos, who also loved her…though he married her sister.

On the very first page we learn what the book is all about: after many years away, Lajos is returning “home” the rob Ester of her inheritance, accompanied by an odd caravan of characters including Ester’s nephew and niece. And she will allow him to do so—we don’t know why or how. Though she describes the man as a fantasist and a pathological liar, one aspect of his character makes up for all the rest: he makes Ester feel alive.

The action of the novel takes up a single day, though there are plenty of local characters to become acquainted with before the great Lajos and his entourage show up in their shiny automobile. There are nostalgic reminiscences and overheard conversations, and one revelation that throws the period when Ester and Lajos were both young and unattached into an entirely new perspective.

Márai weaves these layers of time and shifting perspective well, but one thing never quite becomes clear, and it’s an important one. The reader never comes to feel the dazzling attractiveness of such a repellent character as Lajos with anywhere near the strength that Ester does herself. It’s lost in the folds of this otherwise subtle narrative, so that when Ester observes, as she does several times, that Lajos will win because he is “the stronger,” we have a hard time believing it, and wish she would just stand up for herself and give her conniving brother-in-law a swift kick in the rear end.

a novel by Charles Frazier

Looking for a little North Carolina flavor, I picked up a used copy of Charles Frazier’s novel Nightwoods, set in the Appalachian mountains thereabouts during the Sputnik era. It’s a potboiler of sorts, in which a young woman named Luce, the caretaker of a deserted lodge, tries to raise her sister’s two mean-spirited children. It’s rough sledding; they’ve hardly said a word since witnessing their father, Bud, murder their mother. Early on in the tale, Bud is released on bail, and he’s eager to reconnect with these two little witnesses to his crime. It’s likely they also know what happened to a wad of money that’s disappeared from the family shack.

Under such circumstances we might imagine that Luce would benefit from the protection of her father Lit, who’s also the county sheriff, but when Bud arrives in town and immediately takes over the local moonshine business, he and Lit strike up an unusual friendship, based on the fact that Lit is addicted to some aerosol product that Bud can easily supply. (The two have never met and Lit has no idea he’s getting chummy with the man who murdered his daughter.)

Yet another strand enters the weave of the narrative, more romantic and genteel, when the owner of the lodge Luce is tending dies and his jaded grandson arrives to check out the property he’s inherited.
The critics have been hard on Frazier ever since Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997, lampooning his purple prose and imputing commercial motives to his romantic, film-friendly plotlines. One even suggested, absurdly, that he ought to introduce the Civil Rights Movement into the backwoods mountain plot of Nightwoods if he really wanted to evoke the era properly.

It’s true, Frazier’s prose less challenging than Faulkner’s and far more full-blown than your average New Yorker short story. This is what we call a “style,” and there are quite a few that work just fine. For myself, I enjoyed Frazier’s rhapsodic descriptions of sunset up at the lodge; I was impressed by his depiction of how a young, childless woman would deal with two ornery toddlers who never say a word. The scene during which Bud and Lit first meet and shoot off some handguns was expertly realized, in my view, as was the night scene of deer hunters drinking booze around a bonfire way up in the mountains. In fact, quite a few scenes are etched in my memory from that allegedly wordy and over-wrought tale.

No doubt Frazier’s books will someday be easy to find at the local Goodwill, just as the works of Louis Bromfield and Pearl Buck once were. For now, let’s just relax and enjoy them.      

The Budding Tree
six stories of Edo Japan by Aiko Kitahara

Japanese writers have never put much stock in the popular Western notion that the author must “show, not tell.” Their books tend to be overflowing with analysis, both social and psychological. Often at issue is where people stand with regard to one another, how the things they say are taken, whether some other tack might have been more polite (or effective)  in a given situation. 

In The Budding Tree Aiko Kitahara gives us six such situations united only by the fact that they’re all set during the Edo period (1600-1868) and they all focus on young, unattached, artistic women. One is a teacher, another a print-maker, another a vaudeville singer, another a jewelry designer. Along the way we learn a good deal about the Edo-era publishing industry, how restaurants succeed and fail, and how a small-town school operates. That’s half the fun. But the stories themselves are well constructed and complicated.

For example, in one story a young woman named Okaji faces two crises simultaneously. She’s trying to make ends meet at the restaurant she established after leaving her philandering husband. She hires on a woman named Ogen, a distant cousin of one of her waitresses, against her better judgment,  only because rice prices have skyrocketed and the girl’s family is starving. Ogen turns out to be a lousy worker, asks for loans repeatedly, and then starts criticizing Okaji for serving fancy meals to rich guests while the masses are starving.

Meanwhile, Okaji’s estranged husband wants her to return to his family restaurant—a much more prestigious establishment than her little start-up. She left not long after he arrived home from one of his benders with a mistress and infant in tow. Okaji’s mother-in-law, who also lives at the restaurant, likes her new grandson, though she never liked Okaji much. Only now that Okaji has left is the family beginning to realize how important her management skills have been to the restaurant’s success.

Things come to a boil when Ogen starts stealing money from the cashbox and Okaji’s husband secures a loan from some local gangsters on a promise that Okaji will, indeed, be returning to manage his restaurant. A rice riot and some enforcement goons add a threatening element to the tale…but all the while I was reading it, I was dying to have a bowl of miso soup and a plate of sushi..or at leas a can of sardines.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Polka Chicks

 Some folk ensembles are so steeped in tradition that their performances become a tiresome ethnographic slog. Other groups, in their eagerness to embrace a “fusion” of one kind or another, leave behind the elements—often it’s the odd and intricate rhythms—that made the music interesting in the first place. 

The Polka Chicks, in their sparkling debut performance at the Cedar Cultural Center, charted a middle course, turbo-charging their fiddle-and-accordion material with lightning technique while suffusing it with a sense of fun that was further enhanced by sweet vocal harmonies and droll, self-depreciating on-stage patter.

I first heard the duo a few years ago at the Nisswa-Stämman and was immediately taken by their approach. Their talent and technique put many of the other festival performers in the shade, yet their happy-go-lucky melancholy on stage was perhaps more appealing yet. It seemed as if the duo (Kukka Lehto on the fiddle and Teija Niku on the accordion) were confidently engaged in an unending struggle to overcome their stage fright—and more broadly speaking, to establish their place in the world of music as two young female performers who had the talent, but also the Moxie, to thrive in that often unforgiving environment. Their music was sprightly and lovely and strange (and they were, too), but I began to wonder if I was in the presence of that famous and elusive Finnish quality of sisu.

Back when the Finns were battling the Russians during WWII, Time magazine defined sisu as “a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity, of the ability to keep fighting after most people would have quit, and to fight with the will to win.” I think, though I know nothing of the Finnish language, that sisu also entails a degree of devil-may-care acceptance—a warm embrace of the wreck of human life, often accompanied by the warmth of aquavit. I would put sisu on the same spice rack as the Spanish duende, the French ennui, and the Italian sprezzatura, in the same way that cumin, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and thyme sit side by side on the shelf, though they have nothing to do with one another.

In any case, the Polka Chicks are far more charming than World War II. Yet there’s a hard-edged sadness to their music, too. They’ve been performing together since 2004. Among the traditional lyrics they chose to offer us are these:

When I was just a child,
My mother used to foretell, “A rambler and boys’ cheater you will be.”
I’ve shown her I need no one—my heart is buried in the forest,
and I’m happy as long as I’ve got my fiddle and a drop of liquor.

The evening was made more interesting by the addition of the talented local duo Kaivama. Fiddler Sara Pajunen told the audience, “I came from classical; Jonathan came from rock.” And that pretty much tells the story. The duo possesses almost none of the rooted Old World feeling of the Polka Chicks. In particular, Rundman’s exaggerated prancing and facial grimaces on guitar seem less suited to a Finnish folk performance than to a display of American air-guitar.

But that’s merely cosmetic. Song by song, Kaivama’s set was engaging. The opening ballad was haunting, and other tunes, if they seemed more “by-the-note,” were nevertheless entirely pleasant to soak up.

All the same, I was happy when the Polka Chicks returned for a second act.

“I feel stronger,” Kukka had said, seemingly ad lib, when Kaivama first joined them on stage. Perhaps she meant, “I feel LOUDER.” The expanded sound gave “legs” to the evening, though I’m sure many in the audience left the Cedar enthralled by the peculiarly haunting and energetic sound of the Polka Chicks themselves.

And By the Way, they’ll be performing next week at the Swedish Institute’s Midsommar Fest.       

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Smokies Themselves

Since the Smoky Mountains drifted in from Africa 250 million years ago, erosion has taken its toll. The peaks look cool, shrouded in mist, receding layer after layer toward the horizon, but they don’t look very tall.

That they’re still rugged can be affirmed by the fact that loggers have been kept at bay to some extent. The guidebooks tell us that “only” 20 percent of the Smokey’s old grown timber remains. It sounds like a remarkable preservation rate to me, considering how long folks have been living in the vicinity. (Less than one percent of Minnesota’s old growth is still standing.)

For every tourist who makes the trek to the Grand Canyon, two visit the Smokies. They’re a lot closer and probably more manageable for many, though they’re a lot more difficult to encompass in a glance—and also, I think, less “grand.”

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg have become legendary in their sprawling tackiness. Smog and acid rain run rampant. And the crowds are so thick in the height of the summer and fall seasons, you can walk the eight-mile Cades Cove loop faster than you can drive it.

In April, however, the air is clear and crowds aren’t much of a problem. We booked a mountain cabin for the night by phone while driving east from Nashville in a steady drizzle, downloaded the entry code from a McDonald’s parking lot an hour later down the freeway, and were comfortably ensconced on a rustic porch outside of Townsend, Tennessee, looking out over the mountains, well before dinner-time.

The Smokies have been inhabited by Anglos since before the Revolutionary War, and viewing them from a rocking chair seemed entirely fitting. When the full moon rose, big and orange, it appeared to be coming from just the other side of the hill.

The morning broke clear and bright, and before long we were winding our way up Laurel Creek toward Cades Cove. The Cove is really a vast, open valley surrounded by hills and dotted with log and frame structures from the nineteenth century. Wild turkeys and diminutive deer abound, and three or four photographers with tripods were wandering around out in the valley looking for the perfect angle to catch the fast-vanishing mist—or for a bear sleeping in a tree.

The cabins along the one-way driving tour are lovely—rugged yet newly chinked. The first one we visited was built in 1810, though its antique atmosphere was undermined to some degree by the park service worker with a leaf blower who was cleaning up the site.

A half-mile down the road we entered a white frame Baptist church to find a woman banging out a hymn on an out-of-tune piano near the altar. She was just a tourist passing through, I’m sure, but it added a nice touch to the hallowed atmosphere of the long-since-deconsecrated building. We wandered the graveyard on the hill above the church and followed a path a little further up into the hills.

At the far end of the Cove an ensemble of buildings are clustered around a flour mill at the edge of a stream. It can still grind corn to this day, and there’s a sorghum threshing tub sitting under a tree out in the yard, too. A sturdy cantilevered barn and a couple of frame houses complete the scene.

To tell you the truth, I find it difficult generating enthusiasm for such pioneer stuff.  Though the construction techniques are interesting, things haven’t really changed that much in two hundred years. Four walls and a roof. A chimney, some windows….. For me, the vegetation in the Cove, moist and fresh after the rains of the previous day, was the star attraction. The dogwoods were in bloom; streams were rushing down from the hillsides; rhododendrons grew wild to fifteen feet in height; the pine forests were fragrant and  rich with moss; dwarf iris, phlox, and other less familiar wildflowers were blooming underfoot; and birds twittered and darted through the scrub willows at the forest margins.

At one point along the loop we stopped to have a picnic before retracing our route along the northern edge of the park, continuing on to the Elkhorn region, where we spent the afternoon touring some early-twentieth-century vacation cabins and resort buildings, most of them abandoned, many of them overgrown and falling into disrepair.

But how to you really get to know the Smokies? The answer we arrived at, back on our comfortable porch looking out across the hills (making the most of our “pioneer” sojourn), was a simple one—on foot. The hot tub, too, was nice. But the answer remained the same—on foot.

Yes, but hiking takes time. And we knew that a serious sheet of bad weather was moving northeast toward us from the Gulf. In the single day of sunshine remaining, we did what many first-time visitors to the Smokies do—we took the short, 1.5-mile hike to Laurel Falls and then drove up to Clingman’s Dome. 

Nice, nice, nice. All the way around, nice. Hiking trail in shadow, morning cold, bright sun on the opposite hillside stretching off into the distance. A scarlet tanager in the treetops, but down the face of the mountain, putting it not much above eye level.

I pointed it out to a volunteer who was picking up trash in the underbrush and Hilary offered him her binoculars. After taking a brief look, he returned them and shook his head. “I wouldn’t have seen that in a million years…You really gotta be into it.”

The drive up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, was gorgeous. From Cove Hardwood forests we rose into alpine woods that look a lot like northern Minnesota. At one point we even passed a “bog walk,” though we didn’t stop. The air was unusually clear, and from the peak—a quarter-mile climb up a broad asphalt trail—we could see Mt. Mitchell, seventy-three miles away. We could also see the outline of Fontana Reservoir, like a long and alluring turquoise gash in the forest carpet, and nearer at hand, the bleached trunks of countless Fraser firs sticking up through the greenery—uniformly striken by an infestation of stray European insects.

The trail to the dome crosses the Appalachian Trail, and we hiked a stretch of it—maybe a hundred feet, there and back. Not a cloud in the sky. Then we made our winding way back to the natural history museum in the visitor center just outside Gatlinburg to get a better handle on the local flora. 

The gray skies had arrived in earnest by the time we got to the relatively remote campground south of Cosby, on the east side of the park, and set up camp. Perhaps the low clouds added to the richness of the atmosphere along the one-mile nature trail that winds its way through the verdant valley of Cosby Creek. Rhododendrons were everywhere, the rocks in the creek bed were covered with moss, vines twisted down like broken power lines from the treetops, and wildflowers of several hues peppered the woods. Once we’d traversed this enchanted jungle circuit we drove into the town of Cosby, a vaguely defined settlement that stretches for a mile or more along Tennessee Highway 321.

We were headed for the Front Porch, a Mexican restaurant featured in our guide book, said to have live bluegrass on the weekends. There were plenty of cars in the lot by the time we arrived—but no musicians or Mexican food in sight.

“I thought there was music here on Friday nights,” I said to the friendly waitress who took our order. 
She shook her head. “No. At this time of year we only have music on Saturday nights.”
“Who’s playing tomorrow?” (I thought maybe we’d stick around.)
“She’s a local gal. Does a little blues, a little folk...”
The restaurant didn’t serve beer, either. Too close to the local church, we were told. Nevertheless it was a warm, friendly place, bustling with good cheer, and the food was somewhat better than average. My shrimp-and-grits was a little on the salty side and Hilary’s chicken-and-dumplings was a gooey mess, but the fried green tomatoes were topnotch. The bourbon pie was also tempting.

A faint drizzle had set in by the next morning, and we broke camp at dawn, removing ourselves to the picnic area to make our morning coffee. As the day warmed the drizzle became a mist, and we headed off into the woods toward Mount Cammerer. We had trouble finding the trailhead, however—it was located a few hundred yards up the road past the group camp—and hiked most of the nature trail a second time before we finally came upon it. It was nice climbing up into the mountains at last, on a dirt (rather than asphalt) trail, with no one else within earshot. Mist shrouded the valleys, and tulip trees rose to great heights all around us.

We took a spur up to an overlook and came upon a couple about our age who had backpacked in the previous day and spent the night at a campsite a few miles further up the trail. They were from Indiana, but often made the exhausting all-day drive down to the Smokies. In fact, they loved the area so much they’d bought a house in Cosby.

“You’re in the best part of the park,” the man told us. “And Cosby is the best campground. Have you gone to Snake Den Ridge yet? And you’ve got to take the hike up to Ramsey Cascade!”
Indeed, that would have been the best way to get to know the park: on foot, with a pack on your back. But it was not in the cards. We had other fish to fry. The weather was turning sour, and Cherokee, Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Parkway still lay ahead.

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs from Cherokee, N.C. northeast for 470-odd miles through the mountains and hills to Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia. It’s a well-groomed route largely devoid of signage, commercial development, or cross-traffic. In fact, it can get a little lonely up there on the Blue Ridge on a foggy day in April. The route also tends to generate anxiety. It’s loaded with pullouts from which you can look down across the landscape below, but they’re frequent and it’s hard to tell one from the next. It would take forever to stop at them all, but there are times when the one you decide to skip suddenly looks spectacular in the rear view mirror.

The most beautiful thing I saw on our entire two-week trip was the forest passing by us along the parkway between Cherokee and Asheville. It was foggy and the forest was wet. The serviceberry trees were flowering and their leaves, which were hardly out, were still a rusty red. The silver bell trees were also flowering, and the blue-green lichen on the tree trunks was luminescent. The intricacy of the crossing branches receding down the hillsides in the largely leafless forest, with touches of white and red here and there, was nothing short of sublime.  

All the same, we were happy to arrive in Ashville, where a cozy eighth-floor room downtown overlooking the city awaited us. The lobby of the hotel was full of twenty-somethings in glamorous attire.

“We’ve had weddings here all week,” the receptionist informed us excitedly.

 After scrutinizing a few restaurant websites we headed out, wandering the streets of the city in the drizzle, and ended up at an Irish Restaurant called Jack-o-the-Wood where a “session” was underway. The music was nothing special, but it was free. The atmosphere was casual, the beer was fine (brewed on-site), the kale chips were marvelous, and the rabbit ragout was the best meal I had on the trip. Yes, city life is good.

The air had grown lighter by the time we emerge again into the evening, and we were tempted by a wine bar we passed on our way back to the hotel where a piano-trumpet duo was playing. The crowd was a little too hip, or maybe we were a little too tired. We returning to the hotel past Thomas Wolfe’s childhood home (another writer I’ve never read) and settled ourselves in front of the huge TV, where we lucked upon the perfect film for the evening: The Rare Breed, a Western starring Jimmy Stewart and Maureen O’Hara. 
We’d been looking at the countryside of Kentucky and Tennessee  for quite a while, and now we got to take a good look at a recreation of early Texas shot on location in the Coachella Valley of California.

We continued north on the parkway the next day, at one point following a spur to Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi. An hour further up the parkway we took a twenty-minute hike out to Linville Falls. The falls was lovely but I was more impressed with what we saw along the way: first, two Carolina wrens chattering away on the railing of a footbridge; then a worm-eating warbler scrounging in the underbrush at the base of a mountain laurel bush; and flinally, on our way back from the falls, three black-throated-blue warblers singing in the middle story of the forest.

We’d never seen any of those species before.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Minneapolis Walkabout

What a day!

Cool and clear, after the thunderstorm in the night that got me up to unplug the computer.

Household projects ditched, we oil our chains, inflate our tires, and are off around the lakes. Orioles chirp from the cottonwoods, with vireos warbling from the lower story. Cool wind off the lakes, I veer left toward the muddy paths along Dean Parkway, forgetting the normal route along the Greenway. It’s been a long winter.

At Harriet we wander the rock garden, admiring the wildflowers. The blooms in the perennial garden across the road are more colorful and robust…but far less interesting. Swinging north past the band shell, we come upon a mass of school children surrounding the stage. (We’d seen them earlier in smaller groups, walking along the footpath with teachers and chaperones, happy to be out of the classroom.) It seems they’re handing out awards for Clara Barton School. One young man broke his own school record for pull-ups. Last year 21, this year 23. (I’d mention his name but I didn’t catch it.)

We cut across some parking lots at the north end of Lake Calhoun and find ourselves in front of Rustica Bakery. Naturally, we stop in for a baguette (and a couple of cookies). Riding back through the woods along the rail-lines to the car, I check my shadow from time to time to make sure the bread’s still back there. We're stopped by a train—it picks up steam as it heads into the city.

Lunch across town at Gandhi Mahal on Minnehaha and Lake. This is an interesting intersection, what with Mosaic (Great Bánh mì meatloaf sandwich), Midori’s Floating World (Japanese), Patrick’s Caberet, a flamenco workshop (or is that gone?), El Nuevo Rodeo, and the Harriet Brewery all in close proximity. I never met an Indian restaurant I didn’t like—Delights of India, Star of Indian, Taste of India, Dancing Ganesha--but maybe the buffet at Gandhi Mahal is a cut above. The mango lassi is also good. And a genuine atmosphere of “peace” prevails.

Overstuffed,  we head south along leafy Minnehaha Avenue in search of Moon Palace Books. There it is! Nestled behind Trylon Microtheater and Peace Coffee. A young man is sitting on the pavement outside the shop wrestling with an inky-looking bale of hay encased in an airy crate. He explains that they’ve been grooming the hay to support the flowers they’re going plant to brighten up the bouvelard.

Inside, we chat with the friendly, self-confident proprietress about Halldór Laxness and Edith Perlman as we peruse the shop’s small but well-culled selection. She looks vaguely familiar; I don’t know why.

“Are you from the neighborhood?” she asks at one point.

“Pretty close…Golden Valley.”

Yes, a good selection of books. In the end, I actually buy one! Notes of the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence: Selected Poems of Anselm Hollo.

I couldn’t resist telling Angela about another book I was excited about called By the Way. “Here it is,” she says, having looked it up. “Essays on books and life, music, birds, gardening, food, firewood, and the great outdoors.”

“That’s the one.”

Back in the car with Hilary and Hollo, puttering across South Minneapolis, I say, “Read one. Just read a short one."
The one 
long hair in my beard
 makes me smile: 
 It's yours.
 "How about one more?" I plead.
The laundary basket lid is still there though badly chewed up by the cat but time has devoured the cat entirely.
On our way to the Institute of Arts we stop at ‘Lectric Fetus. Not only a record store but a beautiful institution. No, I’m not going to buy a poster or some incense or a hipster cap any time soon. But the Fetus is still the head shop and music mecca par excellence that it was back in the 1970s, when we biked over from the University, asking ourselves, “Why did they put it here?”

Nor has the neighborhood been gentrified much in the course of the decades. Franklin Avenue has a few more bakeries and galleries and clinics than it used to, but it’s as gritty as ever.

Of course, music downloading has taken its toll on the Fetus. I had heard that the jazz section was sorely depleted but find that it isn’t as bad as I’d feared. There are many more anthology CDs at very low prices of things I purchased on vinyl as a kid. I clutch a compilation of three early Ornette Coleman LPs ($11.99) for quite a while as I wander the aisles, but in the end decide to take the plunge on new and local material: Excelsior, Bill Caruthers, solo piano (recorded in Paris).

Our visit to the Art Institute, which is just around the corner from the Fetus, is further delayed by a detour up to 27th Street to see if our friends Dana and Mary are home. As we drive by I honk at a woman with hair blowing wild in the wind. She's wandering down the sidewalk. It’s Mary!

“Hi!” she says. “I was just going next door to see when the new clinic is going to open. This used to be an Ethiopian coffee shop. The sign on the door says it will open tomorrow. Huh? Written with a ball-point pen. Not very professional, do you think?”

Mary gives us a tour of their gardens—they hacked down the clematis this spring. Dana emerges from the “office” upstairs and we sit on the porch watching the world go by.

The show at the Institute, Art in an Age of Truthiness, sounded a little odd, but it proved to be well worth a visit. We entered via the “old” doorway, up the long flight of steps facing the park. I love going in that way. You're already on the second floor, only a few steps from the exhibit. Lots to think about inside. They were getting ready for a gala dinner, setting places and taping heavy wires to the floor between the tables.

The show itself? It was cool, diverse, trivial, mesmerizing. The premise itself is flawed, in so far as art is never “true,” strictly speaking, but quite a few of the installations were fascinating. I liked the Freudian Coney Island artifacts, whether real or fake; the photos of passing outer-space objects; the digital collage nature canvases of Joel Lederer, which are no different from any other landscape in conception; and the branding doll anime avatar (I don’t remember her name) who was given her freedom and vanished, leaving behind a three-minute farewell note. The best, however, was a luscious big-screen reenactment of what the characters who appear in Velázquez's “Las Meninas” were doing immediately before and after the scene we see on the canvas.