Sunday, September 20, 2020

Fall Equinox Birdbath

It was one of those almost somnambulant fall days. A few days before the equinox, in fact.

Friends were coming over for an afternoon visit on the deck. Sad to say, such events will soon be less frequent, shorter, harder to arrange. One couple we know  has purchased outdoor propane heaters to keep their social alive through the coming season. We've done a little research along those lines ourselves.

I had made an early morning run to Trader Joe's, taking advantage of their Sunday morning "old folks" hour. I was impressed to discover that they had the Musak tuned to the "old folks" station, too. I was greeted at the door by a song from the seminal Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album Deja Vu. "Carry On," I think. Then it was "Green Eyed Lady" by Sugarloaf.

I was home by 8:30 with two bags full of produce: peppers for the salsa, fruit that would be easy to serve without touching, blue corn chips full of mystical desert power. The cashier was—by Trader Joe's standards—unusually reserved. He got out two brown bags immediately, making it clear he wanted to bag the items himself, and stayed hunched behind the plexiglass shield the whole time. I don't blame him.  While I waited for him to finish the job I studied the huge map of Lake Minnetonka on the far wall, trying to memorize the municipalities and bays—Lower Lake, Chubbs Bay, Tonka Bay, Minnetrista, Deephaven, Shorewood—while I grooved to "Who'll Stop the Rain."

By noon Hilary had cleaned the bathroom, swept the deck, and chopped the various ingredients for the salsa.  I had watered the compost pile and turned the leaves with a pitchfork; we're going to need more room in there soon. I also got out a ladder from the garage and repaired two holes in the gutter—created by me with an ice pick years ago—using duct tape and silicon sealer. I've done it several times before. Nothing seems to work for long.

While I was out in the garden I stopped to admire the white turtleheads that, modest though they may be, are currently its chief glory. They look feeble all summer, crowded out by the expansive bleeding hearts. Now the bleeding-hearts are mostly dead, and they shine above the violets and hostas that have been eaten down dramatically by the rabbits.

Most gardeners would not be impressed.

I was relaxing with a game or two of free cell on the computer when I heard a call from the other room: "John, there's a redstart in the birdbath!" A few warblers pass through the woods behind our house every fall, but they rarely come anywhere near the deck.

It was a female, less dramatic but more attractive than the male. She had an unusual way of dealing with the water in the bath. She would fly over it, moving from one lip of the basin to the other, dipping in very slightly or not at all. It was hard to tell.

Eventually she took a plunge directly into the pool. She didn't splash much, but she lingered at various points around the birdbath for at least five minutes.

This has been one of the great discoveries of this very odd summer: how much more popular a bird bath is when located on the deck rather than out in the yard. I suppose the protection provided by the nearby shrubs far outweighs the longer sightlines available out in the yard, where a cooper's hawk can swoop in out of nowhere.

We made this discovery entirely by accident when we brought the birdbath up from the basement last spring. I don't remember why we set it on the deck. Maybe we hadn't uncovered the garden yet. In any case, we put some water in it and the birds seemed to like it. Four or five cardinals sometimes jostle for position, and when a blue jay or a robin hops in to rustle his or her wings, it's quite a show.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Labor Day Fire

 Labor Day, a drizzly afternoon. First fire of the season in the fireplace. A spot of wine in the glass.

A fire sometimes doesn't roar. It purrs. It murmurs like a brook, irregular but always keeping within the same range, punctuated by an occasional sharp report, as a reminder that it's not something to be trifled with.

As the fire muttered and stuttered I sat on the couch thumbing diligently through the latest L.L. Bean catalog. I wouldn't normally do such a thing, but a $10 coupon was burning a hole in my pocket. Flannel shirts, bathrobes, sheepskin slippers, sturdy duffle bags, faux Amish quilts. Nothing jumped out at me. "So much more than just a sweatshirt," the copy reads. Really? How so?

This morning we left the house at 7:45, headed for Sherburne National Wildlife Reserve, an hour away to the northwest. I didn't expect to see much in the way of bird life, though the open fields there are peppered with sandhill cranes in family groups, and there are quite a few pelicans and trumpeter swans milling around in the bigger sloughs.

Among my favorite sightings was a female harrier—rich dark brown with a white rump patch—moving low across a field. Also a red-breasted nuthatch, which I associate with wintertime. We saw one exquisite pied-billed grebe, fresh and fuzzy, comical and proud.

But my favorite bird sighting was a flock of blue-winged teal dashing across the sky above a pond. This duck nests more commonly in Minnesota than any other, I think, but I rarely get a chance to see a whole flock, their pale blue wing-panels flashing.

The most arresting sight on the morning, however, was a grassy field strewn with pale yellow goldenrod and pale purple asters, with a border of poison ivy—already turning red—in the foreground. There were patches of wild sage, pale green, here and there, too. The field was a delight to the eye, mesmerizing in a quiet way. It has texture, color, balance, but no discernible pattern. Nature at its best.

There are many such fields at Sherburne. Some have asters but no goldenrod. Others are dominated by baby bluestem or sunflowers. And there are also a few open woods full of gnarly oaks, widely spaced.

Most of the summer birds are gone, or lying low, but we spent two hours traversing the Six-Mile Drive, wondering why some asters are big while others are small, and probing the muddy reeds with our binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elusive wren or rail.

The drive home placed us in the midst of monstrous pickup trucks and families returning down Highway 169 from Labor Day weekend at the lake, but little matter. The fire is burning here in the fireplace, and I smell the sweet aroma of a French tomato pie with basil and gruyere cheese that Hilary just pulled out of the oven.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Where has the summer gone?

The pandemic summer theme has been "do things outdoors," which many people hereabouts take to mean "go north." The campgrounds on the North Shore have been overcrowded, as usual, and also (so I'm told) graced with newcomers who know nothing about how to treat the woods or their neighbors with respect.

Hilary and I avoided that scene entirely, though we've gone on several overnights closer to home, where the campgrounds are half-vacant and the landscapes offer fewer lakes and pines but more wildflowers, grasses, and open horizons. I've already described our visits to Sibley, Glacial Lakes, and Lake Louise state parks in previous blogs. Here are some impressions of four other state parks we visited recently: Savanna Portage, St. Croix, Minneopa, and Myre-Big Island.

Savanna Portage is a few miles north of McGregor, tucked into some folds of the St. Louis Moraine, I think, just beyond the vast boggy stretches that make this one of the least-known parts of the state.

The park boasts a number of lakes, and we hiked around several of them.  It has some history, especially if you think it's worth commemorating where the voyageurs portaged their furs and trade goods from the watershed of the St. Louis River to that of the Mississippi back in the eighteenth century. It has a lovely spring-fed lake for swimming. And it has some marvelous white pine woods.

We have camped at site #45 quite a few times over the years. We snagged it again this summer.  It opens out to a grassy sward extending downhill to the fishing dock. The crumbling towns of the Iron Range are forty miles away to the north, and when the sun goes down it gets very dark. Standing on that dock at midnight, we saw the best and brightest stars of the summer. They had that shimmering intensity against the ultra-black backdrop of nothingness that one always looks for but seldom meet up with these days.

We chatted with a ranger the next morning. He told us the staff at the park is down from twelve to five. When the pandemic hit parks were closed, of course, and later it because difficult to find people who wanted to come back for a few months of seasonal work. That explains why roughly half the campsites in the park were closed. Still, plenty of others were open and still available.

The Kettle River

St. Croix State Park is Minnesota's biggest, and among its least well known. This may simply be because people like lakes better than rivers.  Rivers tend to be narrow rather than expansive, and they always move in the same direction.  Boring. Inconvenient. Also, the countryside in the vicinity of Nemadji State Forest has a reputation for being buggy, scrubby, and flat.   

It doesn't help that St. Croix State Park in 2011 suffered one of those derechos that flattened large sections of the park.

All the same, we camped there recently on a Monday night and found it to be quiet, pleasant, open, and woodsy. We drove nine miles through the park on gravel roads (slow going) to the Kettle River, Minnesota's premier kayaking river. There's a beautiful overlook from the bluff (see photo above) and a one-mile hike along the ridge to a rocky beach. Highly recommended.

The next morning I came upon a red-shouldered hawk keening under a tree near the toilet building. Other hawks soon responded. We located four of them in all, perched in nearby trees. No doubt a family getting trained in the hunt. It was quite an experience.

We drove home the next morning by way of Danbury, Wisconsin, and Crex Meadows NWR. It's interesting country but it isn't glamorous country. Oak savanna? Pine barrens? These are not the terms that inspire family vacations.

Crex Meadows, north of Grantsburg, WI

A week or two later we headed south to Minneapa State Park, a few miles west of Mankato. The overnight was worthwhile, but this park has a problem with traffic.

The park's most famous feature is a waterfall, and it's a nice one. Too bad it's separated from the rest of the park by a couple of busy highways. Also of interest is the buffalo herd they've introduced. But here, too, the interest is fleeting. The animals have been brought in from Blue Mound State Park, out near the South Dakota border, and they're being managed by personnel from the Minnesota Zoo. The theory is that they'll browse the three-mile stretch of native prairie in the center of the park and keep it in shape.

We even walked the extra mile and explored the Red Jacket Bike Trail south of Mankato, which is famous for its trestle. It's a nice trestle. But you have to negotiate several highways to get to the trailhead, and once you've worked your way up the bike trail through the cool river-valley woods to flat, open country, you've got many miles of monotonous cornfields ahead. The nearby town of Rapidan was reputed to have an outstanding pie shop, but we didn't make it that far. We drove by later and were not surprised to find that it was closed for the season.

The Minnesota River

Even the rivers near the park are a little perverse. You may think you're crossing the Blue Earth, but it turns out to be the Le Sueur. And let's not forget Minneopa Creek itself, which produces the magnificent waterfall and is far more robust than a "creek" in its lower reaches. One watercourse flows into the other, and they all flow into the "mighty" Minnesota River eventually. But the Minnesota River has always been a scaggy, dismal affair, wide but sandy, riddled with deadheads, shifting, unattractive, and unreliable. (Thoreau didn't think much of it either.)

The park is situated on a bluff alongside the river, but you seldom see the river from the park. All the same, there's a nice trail through the woods from the group camp down to the river that follows along the banks of Minneopa Creek. And the trail that runs along the fence just outside the buffalo compound is heavenly on a cool summer morning.

Driving down the gravel road through the buffalo pen on a hot, dusty afternoon isn't much fun, but we got lucky and came upon the herd feeding just inside the fence near the campground in evening light. Buffalo are generally sluggish and unattractive, but they are also impressive in their own strange way.

Note: Individuals of a certain temper like to point out that the animal we sometimes refer to as a buffalo is actually a bison. This is sheer pedantry. The American bison has been commonly referred to as a buffalo since the eighteenth century. No one would mistake it for a water buffalo, a different animal entirely with a very different name. The water buffalo is indigenous to India, where it's called  जल भैंस.

The water buffalo has been introduced to many other parts of the world, of course. When we eat buffalo milk mozzarella from Italy, we're probably eating water buffalo cheese.   

 During our exploration of the countryside, I thought from time to time of Pierre-Charles Le Sueur. The first European known to have explored the Minnesota River, Le Sueur excavated some bluish clay in the vicinity in 1683 and sent it to Paris, where it was determined to contain copper ore. After trading some furs and spending a few years in prison, he was finally granted permission from Louis XIV to return, almost twenty years later, and in 1700 he built a fort at the juncture of the Le Sueur and the Blue Earth Rivers, ostensibly  determined to mine the ore. Le Sueur soon left the fort with additional samples, heading downstream for New Orleans, and he never came back.

 No one knows precisely where the fort was located, nor what happened to the thirty-odd men Le Sueur abandoned there. The plot to a low-budget wilderness disaster film is lurking in the interstices between those facts, I think, along the lines of Cabeza de Vaca (Mexico 1991) or Zama (Argentina 2017). For a post-modern, time-travel twist, the film-maker might consider including the two young women in bikinis whom we met just as they were finishing their kayak run down the Le Sueur River.

Myre-Big Island State Park lies south and east of Albert Lea, right on the Iowa border. It's a park of several moods and habitats. The Big Island referred to in the title is heavily wooded with mature oaks and other species. The lowlands to the southwest, which jut out into Albert Lea Lake, are marshy. The rest of the park consists of grassy rolling hills interspersed with aspen, sumac, and hardwood species.

 There are hiking trails everywhere, and in late summer the landscape is rich with wildflowers and fruiting shrubs and trees. 

We snagged the best campsite, #99, which is private, has plenty of shade, but also opens out toward the nearby fields.

It's a perfect setting from which to read the daily newspaper or jot a few notes in your journal.
Birdlife is scarse, other than the scores of pelicans out on the lake. A few redstarts. Goldfinches. An indigo bunting or two. Unidentifiable swallows passing overhead. Catbird. Great-crested flycatcher. I believe I saw a mama wren feeding her babies. Lots of chattering in the underbrush. And just now a solitary field sparrow. Singing.
A young couple strolled by a few minutes ago, dangling their waterbottles, holding hands. Then they turned around and headed back the other way, giggling. Looking for kindling, maybe? 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Burden (and promise) of Pesto

It isn't a ritual. I wouldn't even call it a tradition. But at a certain point in the progress of summer the thought rises as ineluctably as the water temperature in the nearby lakes: we've got to make some pesto.

I'm referring here not to a small summery daub fed from the herb garden that runs alongside the driveway. No. This is the supply that we make in large batches and freeze in small quantities, to be thawed and consumed on those cold evenings when the sky is gray, the sun sets at five, and snowdrifts block the glass doors leading out onto the deck.

And so, on yet another cool and beautiful mid-summer morning, I make my way downtown to the farmers market. Seven-thirty. It's quiet enough that I can park right next to the stalls. My mission: to pick up a bunch of basil sufficient for the task at hand.

That "bunch" will have to be a fairly large bunch, of course, and I'm pleased to see, after looking at a few modest bouquets of basil on the tables of the Hmong truck farmers here and there, that Dehn's Garden Herbs is occupying its usual place halfway down the central aisle. Let's get it over with. A bag of fresh basil about the size and weight of a coast guard cushion for five dollars. I'll take it.

The fridge back home is bulging with produce, but I find it impossible to resist a few other vegetables sitting on the table of the elderly Hmong couple in the next stall: some potatoes, and a cardboard tray containing three fairly large eggplants. Why eggplant, of all things? Maybe as a nod to the Bastille Day celebration we never quite got going this year. Or maybe, to borrow a phrase from the mountain climber Sir Edmund Hilary, "Because it was there."

The ad hoc nature of the enterprise may be suggested by the fact that year after year, we find ourselves wondering which pesto recipe to use. The proportions vary quite a bit from one to the next. I have a dim recollection of someone's advice not to put the cheese in if you're going to freeze it. And a friend insists it's best to omit the pine nuts; they taste much better when you heat them in a dry pan and sprinkle them over the pasta just before you eat it. That's certainly true. But it often happens that you don't have any pine nuts on hand in the middle of winter, so we always put them into the pesto before freezing. (There's nothing to stop you from adding more later, too.)

The aromas of anise, basil, and garlic soon fill the kitchen. Plucking the leaves from the stems is a pleasant task, but transferring the pesto from the food processor to the zip-lock bags is a fine art. There's a lot of olive oil involved, and things can get messy.

Four scoops per bag, or five? Well, they don't have to be identical. Finally those beautiful green envelopes of summer stuff have been tucked away in the freezer.

Now, what are we going to do with that eggplant?

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Escape to Lake Louise

We had hoped to take a little trip to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies this summer, but the challenges of getting across the border proved to be so great that we headed south instead, to Lake Louise, Minnesota.

This small lake is actually a reservoir created by a concrete dam that was built across the Iowa River to power a grist mill before Minnesota became a state. The area later became a municipal park for the nearby town of LeRoy, current population 933. And in 1962 seventy acres of the park were given to the state to form the nucleus of a state park that is now many times that size. But still not all that big.

To be honest, we chose Lake Louise because we'd never been there, it was only two hours away, and it was one of the few parks I checked that seemed to be largely empty on Sunday night: sixteen of its twenty campsites were open.  

The fact that it was out in the wide open corn-growing spaces of Mower County also gave it a certain appeal. We might spot a few prairie birds, and we'd certainly be able to find a dark locale open to the northern horizon from which to view the Neowise Comet.

And to top it all off, the Shooting Star State Bike Trail runs right through the park.

We headed south on Interstate 35 across rolling hills past Faribault, veering southeast along highway 218 to Austin. Yes, we drove by the Louis Sullivan bank in Owatonna, just to make sure it was still there. And we also took a spin through downtown Austin, past the Spam Museum (which was open; never been there) and the Hormel plant on the east side of town. On our way out of town we picked up some sandwiches at the Subway on Main Street. Workers wear masks in this part of the state, but for the most part, customers don't. (We did.)

A half-hour later we were having a picnic at the beach at Lake Louise.

We set up camp and spent the rest of the afternoon biking the Shooting Star Trail, which was more attractive than I'd anticipated. Not merely an asphalt path along a highway, it runs for a long ways through the park, and has been planted with a generous buffer zone of native species once it heads out across the fields for an additional ten or fifteen miles. 

Oswego Tea was blooming everywhere, along with various coneflowers and black-eyes susans. The wooded margins were often thick with tall American bellflowers displaying a subtle shade of color somewhere between bright blue and periwinkle. More exotic were the white culver's root and the rattlesnake-master, a white, mace-like globe as weird as its name suggests.

The clouds were dramatic, the sky an almost unbelievable deep blue.

Early on, in the woods just north of LeRoy, we spotted a red-headed woodpecker and watched him for several minutes as he made his way through the trees. That was a thrill.

A few minutes later we encountered a man heading down one of the park's many foot trails. He was wearing binoculars so I mentioned the woodpecker.

"They're around," he said. "I see them sometimes in the trees west of the horse camp."

"How about cuckoos?" I asked.

"I haven't seen any, but I hear them—the yellow-billed cuckoos."

"I don't know that call. How does it go?"

"Well, the black-billed just keep saying cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo, but the yellow-billed sort of ..." He made a couple of sounds somewhere between a gurgle and a groan.

"Ah, I can't do it," he said.

"No. That sounded great."

He told us he'd recently retired and was looking forward to having a good birding year, but he suffered a heart attack in January, and was three months recovering. By the time he got outside again, some of the ducks and shorebirds had already passed through.

A half-hour further down the trail, looking out across a flooded field, we saw a solitary sandpiper knee-deep in water, poking around in the mud. As we passed the same "pond" on the way back an hour later a lesser-yellowlegs landed right in front of us, maybe a hundred feet away. Or was it a greater yellowlegs? Hard to tell when there's only one.

Then Hilary said: "Look. There are some sandhill cranes on the far side of the water."

We got back to camp, sat in our chairs for a while looking off into the woods, then set off on foot to explore the south side of the river. The air was getting cooler, the colors richer. 

At one point a dramatic hawk passed directly overhead with very dark flight feathers and a light brown head. I had to look it up later. A Swainson's hawk.

It isn't often you see a bird that's very easy to identify that you haven't seen before. Swainson's hawks are common out west. Many are sighted in Alberta, maybe even above Lake Louise. In Minnesota, not so often.

Our final thrill of the day took place at nightfall, when we walked out to the trailer dumping station, which has an unimpeded view of the sky. The fields to the north were twinkling with fireflies. And with the help of binoculars, we soon spotted Comet Neowise just below the cup of the Big Dipper. At first it looked like a pale smudge. As the minutes passed and the sky grew darker the tail emerged. Twenty minutes after we got there, we could see it with the naked eye.

The pictures you see make it look more spectacular than it is. But when you actually see it in the context of the earth, the fields, and the night sky overhead, it looks "real," which is much more awesome than any photo.

We stood there for quite a while, and another couple who were camping down the way came out to join us. By way of conversation, I pointed out Jupiter, just east of Sagittarius in the opposite direction. It's "in opposition" right now, and it was VERY bright and also enormous, though it was no match for the comet. The comet was getting brighter, the tail longer, and if we'd stayed out another twenty minutes I'm sure it would have been more dramatic still.

On the other hand, it had been a long day, and there were others paths to explore in the morning.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Philosopher of the Heart

Looking back, it seems that I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life NOT reading the works of Søren Kierkegaard. As I combed the shelves today, I found paperback editions of The Present Age, Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, along with hardcover copies of The Sickness Unto Death, an abridgement of Either/Or, and a collection of reminiscences by his relatives, friends, and neighbors called Encounters with Kierkegaard.

Have I read any of these books? No. Well, I’ve dipped into one or two of them. Here and there ...

Kierkegaard is considered easy reading in comparison with predecessors such as Hegel, say, or Kant. One historian of the period, Terry Pinkard, notes that even to call Kierkegaard a philoso­pher would be to “break with his own self-understanding and to classify him in a way that is not only controversial, but, so many would ar­gue, downright misleading. Kierkegaard is more of a literary figure than what is recognizable nowadays as an academic philosopher (a character­ization that would not bother him in the slightest).”

I ought to mention here that academic philosophy was a relatively new thing in Kierkegaard’s time. No one thinks of Hume, or Spinoza, or Gassendi as academics. Many of Kierkegaard’s contemporaries and immediate predecessors were the sons of Protestant ministers or otherwise seriously devout individuals.

But if we grant that Kierkegaard made an effort to express himself in ordinary language, rather than working to construct a grand and convoluted “system,” the fact remains that he was seldom content to flesh out his “position,” whatever it happened to be, simply or directly. No sooner does he make a point than he considers the opposite position, brings up qualifications and counter-examples, and generally “muddies the waters” to the point where the reader could be forgiven who gives up in despair, convinced that he’ll never figure out precisely what Kierkegaard is trying to say. To further compound the mess, Kierkegaard often published his works under pseudonyms (sometimes “edited by S. Kierkegaard”) and concocted imaginary conversations, a la Plato’s dialogues. At other times he described his works as “thought experiments,” not to be taken entirely seriously. In short, it isn’t easy determining whether Kierkegaard is being serious, ironic, or dialectical at any given point.

Such literary “strategies” may seem evasive, but they have been described by scholars as attempts by Kierkegaard to move the minds of his readers into a new place beyond concepts and theories, in the same way that Socrates engaged his interlocutors in seemingly simple chains of reasoning in order to help them to see, and admit to themselves, that the values and attitudes they took for granted were in need of revision.

To the average reader like me, it all soon grows a little tiresome.

One of the pleasures of Philosopher of the Heart, Clare Carlisle’s new biography of Kierkegaard, is that it moves forward calmly, pleasantly, with none of the feverish adumbrations, elaborations, dithering, counter-thoughts, and clever (but irrelevant and often slightly jejune) asides that make Kierkegaard’s own works so difficult to stick with. Carlisle gives every sign of being confident that she knows what Kierkegaard was thinking at every point in his career, even to the point of asserting things for which there is no evidence whatsoever. For example:

Yet in all his writings, published and unpublished, Kierkegaard has never mentioned his mother. This is not because he had forgotten her; it is the silence owed to something sacred, which held him long before he knew how to speak.

No one, I think, would call Philosopher of the Heart a “critical” biography. Rather, it reads like a narrative that Kierkegaard’s mother might have written, had she been deeply familiar with her son’s work. (She wasn’t.) At no point that I can recall does Carlisle make an effort to identify a concept that Kierkegaard added to the repertoire of modern thought that might justify our sustained attention. She seems confident that her subject’s confused and mercurial personality, his vanity, his anguish, his delusions of grandeur, his spats with the bishop and the local press, and other dimensions of his life make a story worth telling. And it’s hard to doubt the sincerity of Kierkegaard’s desire to bring solitary depth and inwardness to his practice of Christianity. Even considered along these lines, however, several questions remain to be answered: Is such an emphasis on inwardness fully warranted by Scripture? Did Kierkegaard succeed in this solitary quest for personal depth? Can we learn anything worthwhile from his writings, or his example?

Carlisle does a good job of extracting short passages from Kierkegaard’s voluminous journals and publications, thus saving us the trouble of wading through it all ourselves, and her quotations, renderings, and paraphrases have the virtue of being simple and direct. Of equal interest, however, are the comments she includes from Kierkegaard’s friends, relatives, neighbors, professors, and professional rivals, because these views reinforce impressions we may be developing about some of the less attractive elements of Kierkegaard’s character. For example, Kierkegaard wrote a 330-page thesis on irony as part of his advanced degree program, which “made a generally unpleasant impression” on one of the examiners because of its “verbosity and affectation.”

This same criticism could probably be leveled against any one of Kierkegaard’s later works.

In the course of describing the trauma that accompanied Kierkegaard’s decision to break off his long-standing engagement to Regine Olsen, Carlisle mentions the philosopher Frederik Sibbern, who knew both parties well. She writes:

“After the break-up, when [Regine] confided her ‘deep indignation’ at how Kierkegaard had ‘mistreated her soul!’ Sibbern told her that it would be worse if they were married, ‘for [Kierkegaard’s] spirit was continually preoccupied with itself.’”

Such introspection was facilitated by the fact that Kierkegaard’s father had made a fortune in the wool trade and bequeathed his son a legacy sufficient both to sustain him throughout his life and also to finance the publication of his numerous books and pamphlets. Kierkegaard spent his days walking the streets of Copenhagen like a later-day Socrates, engaging passers-by in conversation, and then returning home to write and read, untroubled by the need to earn a living, but also un-enriched by the social contacts and challenges that any workplace provides. P. L. Møller, the editor of a local journal called The Corsair, made note of this fact in the course of a critical appraisal of one of Kierkegaard’s later works:

Despite all his intelligence, reflection for [Kierkegaard] has become a severe sickness; his religiousness, which renounces the whole world in order to be occupied with itself, appears to me to be a pusillanimity at which our Lord and his angels must laugh ... If he had lived under conditions that forced him to concern himself with something other than his own whims, he no doubt would have developed his talents to a high degree.

I suppose it would be underscoring the obvious to add that the works of P. L. Møller have long since vanished from sight while Kierkegaard’s works, almost 200 years later, continue to appear in new translations, supporting the academic research of countless scholars and also attracting the attention of graduate students and  curious readers like me.

Kierkegaard himself was deeply stung by  Møller’s review and by a spate of similarly unflattering comic jibes that followed in subsequent issues of the Corsair. Though he was tormented throughout his adult life by anguish, anxiety, dread, and other “existential” feelings avant la lettre, it appears that they arose in response not only to a Christian God that seemed cruelly remote and evasive, but also to a Danish society that didn’t understand his work and increasing took him to be a laughingstock.

Alongside Carlisle’s narrative of Kierkegaard’s life and habits, she frequently adds brief, even-tempered spurts of Kierkegaardian philosophy, as in this passage, which appears near the start of the book:

“A true human life, [Kierkegaard] suggests, is ‘the apotheosis of finitude.’ This fulfillment is a spiritual elevation, but it does not mean steal out of finitude to become volatilized and evaporated on the way to heaven, but rather that the divine inhabits the finite and finds its way in it.”

That’s a point well taken, I think, but readers might easily find themselves asking: How is this concept different from Hegel’s notion of the Concrete Universal? And what does Kierkegaard mean, specifically, by “finds it way”?

Isn’t this the crucial question, even within the framework of Christianity? How do we find our way? How do we “participate” in the divine? Hegel (who, like Kierkegaard, considered himself a Christian) offers an elaborate analysis of dialectical development, in the course of which “spirit” spurs purposeful action, after which a reevaluation takes place, which leads to a new and improved idea of what action is required to elevate a situation and enliven it with further spirit—thus making it more “real.”

Kierkegaard offers no such theory, but it seems pretty clear that “doing good” isn’t really his concern. Though Carlisle offers an adequate two-page synopsis of Hegel’s views midway through the book, she doesn’t feel the need to compare them to those of her chosen subject, or in any other way place Kierkegaard’s views within the wider context of European thought.

Near the end of his life Kierkegaard published an article in a local journal in which he spelled out the essentially quietistic character of his “philosophy”:

“I have from the beginning understood Christianity to be inwardness and my task to be the inward deepening of Christianity. I have scrupulously seen to it that not a passage, not a sentence, not a line, not a word, not a letter has slipped in suggesting a proposal for external change.”

In short, though he had plenty of friends and acquaintances, and was a favorite of some of his nieces and nephews, social life meant relatively little to Kierkegaard. It was his relationship with God that obsessed him. And his motto was: The closer to God, the more suffering.

*  *  *

But if other people didn’t mean much to Kierkegaard, in the course of time his work has come to mean a lot to other people. A hundred years after his death, one scholar of the era put it like this:

“As the nineteenth century recedes, the foothills that, close up, had seemed to tower, fall into proper perspective and the true heights rise more starkly. More and more, for us today, Kierkegaard begins to be visible above his century, a solitary peak but central to the whole chain.” That assessment would strike many today as somewhat exaggerated, but few would deny that Kierkegaard has earned a place somewhere in the pantheon of modernist intellectual figures.

Why? Carlisle never poses that question directly, because her work is a sympathetic portrait rather than a critical analysis. But it’s reasonable to suppose that the source of his appeal for modern readers lies in the fact I just mentioned: that Kierkegaard eschewed social issues for the most part, probing instead the individual psyche that struggles in solitude to find some sort of transcendental significance or connection, beyond the world of social norms and historical forces alike. A potted “philosophical history” of his era might include reference to Shaftesbury’s concept of the moral sense, Kant’s emphasis on duty and the categorical imperative, and Hegel’s identification of spirit with dialectical development and the formation of the bourgeois state. But all of these notions are social, interpersonal, and “of the world.” The concepts for which Kierkegaard is best known—anxiety, despair, dread—refer to states of mind which follow upon the antisocial and alienated situation out of which they arose.

 But they also imply the reality of a god through which one might shake off the “existential blues” and become reconciled to the vagaries and contingencies of human life.

And the notion with which Kierkegaard suggests we might bring about such a reorientation of personality, faith, has a different ring altogether.

Carlisle discusses Kierkegaard’s conception of faith at many points in the book, but it’s an elusive topic, and it immediately raises the question, “faith in WHAT?” In one especially felicitous passage in her treatment of Fear and Trembling, Carlisle writes:

Kierkegaard imagines the movements of this faith as the light, graceful leaps of a ballet dancer—repeated again and again, each time a little different, and as arduous to perform as they are delightful to watch. The soul’s dance expresses its longing for God, for eternity, for an unknown infinity. Most people are ‘wallflowers’ who do not take part in this dance; the knights of resignation ‘are dancers, and possess elevation’ —but when they land, they falter, showing that they cannot be at home in the world.

This kind of prose elevates Carlisle well above the level of academic philosophy per se. It's clear she’s trying to put the best face on Kierkegaard’s macaronic theorizing, but why not? She goes on the paraphrase how the knight of true faith differs from the “knights of resignation”: 

  A knight of faith, however, lands as easily as he leapt, ‘transforming the leap of life into a walk.’ He makes existence look so easy that there is nothing to tell him apart from the most unreflective, spiritless person who, immersed in everyday concerns, sees no significance in life beyond its immediate satisfactions and disappointments. The knight of faith’s relationship to God is entirely inward, hidden from public view. A divine grace sustains each step of his journey through the world, but he receives this gift secretly, in silence.

What Carlisle fails to note is that a relationship that’s “entirely inward” is not much worth talking, or writing, about. No one will believe it, or learn anything from it, unless it manifests itself in some way.

In the last chapter of her biography, Carlisle wanders through the halls of the Kierkegaard Research Centre in Copenhagen, which has a dozen scholars on its full-time staff. After a morning spent–her “heart racing”—reading the letters exchanged between Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen during their engagement, Carlisle takes a break for lunch at the library’s modernist cafe, The Glance of an Eye, named after one of Kierkegaard’s last publishing efforts.

She admits a few pages later that Kierkegaard “remains endlessly interesting to me.” Why? “Because he spoke of, and to, a deep need for God within the human heart—a need for love, for wisdom, for peace—and he did so with a rare and passionate urgency.”

I don’t get that kind of feeling from Kierkegaard’s writing. I hear the voice of a man deeply concerned about HIS OWN ultimate fate, and endlessly fascinated by the feverish turns of his own mind, but not terribly appreciative of his neighbors’ lives, ideas, or affections.

That may explain why I found Carlisle’s generous and even-tempered portrait of Kierkegaard more interesting, and more fun to read, than anything by Kierkegaard himself that I’ve attempted. And the bits and pieces of his thought that she brings to the surface of her flowing narrative make it easier to gauge the range and depth of his focus.

I'm now better prepared to give the sage (or the Diogenes) of Copenhagen another shot. And if I don’t quite see the point of a given line of reasoning or a frivolous aside, it won’t bother me so much. Kierkegaard is probably only joking.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Bassett Creek Chronicle


Bassett Creek meanders for roughly twelve miles  from Medicine Lake, in the suburb of Plymouth, through mostly residential sections of Crystal and Golden Valley, before entering Minneapolis, where it trickles through Theodore Wirth Park and along the edge of the Bryn Mar neighborhood, through a wooded valley past the derelict Glenwood Springs Water Company and Utepil's Brewery and Tap Room. 

For the last two miles it ceases to be a creek, the flow being carried by an underground tunnel that enters into the Mississippi River downstream from the St. Anthony Locks. Evidently the large tunnel you see issuing into the Mississippi just south of Plymouth Avenue, which I had always presumed was the  mouth of Bassett Creek, is no longer connected to it. I discovered my error just the other day while reading a profile of Bassett Creek in the Mill City Times .

Inglewood Spring on Bassett Creek (1894)

The historical information in the article was interesting and the vintage photos were fascinating, but I couldn't help noticing that the data was out-of-date and the conclusion wildly inaccurate. The author, Michael Rainville, Jr.,  writes: "The story of Bassett’s Creek should be seen as an example of how destructive and disruptive humans can be to nature. We are fortunate to not have many stories with sad endings."

Rainville doesn't seem to be aware that the Bassett Creek Water Management Commission has been cleaning up the creek for half a century and more.

One of three lagoons in Wirth Park on Bassett Creek

I happen to live not far from the creek, and I've watched them move boulders, lay underground tunnels, install long rolls of straw with willow saplings embedding in them along the banks, and in other ways improve the integrity of the creek bed and cut down on erosion.

A look at the commission's website reveals that at the moment there are twenty-five capital improvement projects in the works within the Bassett Creek Watershed. One that excites me in particular is a proposal to dredge the sediment that has accumulated in the lagoons along the creek in Theodore Wirth Park between Golden Valley Road and Trunk Highway 55. I was not aware until I read the proposal that the lagoons were created in the mid-1930s by CCC crews; I presume they used shovels.

A recent study found that large amounts of sediment didn't start to accumulate until the early 1990s. I wonder why? Nowadays what used to be a lovely body of water is usually a big mudflat, often covered with weeds, though further upstream, in what I like to call the Bassett Creek Gorge, a gurgling brook rushes down across the stones at all times of the year.

I've been measuring the water quality of the creek for the DNR for seven or eight years now as part of their Citizen Stream Monitoring Program. This is not a big deal. I drive down maybe twenty times during the summer, throw my yellow plastic bucket over the railing of the stone bridge—also probably the work of the CCC—and jiggle the rope until the bucket starts taking in water. Then I haul up the bucket and pour the water into a long, clear plastic tube, which allows me to determine how dirty or clean the water is.

It was only this summer, after years spent hoisting several gallons of water, time and again, up from the creek, that I discovered, by chance, what should have occurred to me all along: I do not need a full bucket of water to fill the tube. Two inches in the bottom of the bucket will be plenty.

Though passers-by seldom take an interest in what I'm doing, I occasionally meet someone interesting at the bridge. One early morning, with the dew still on the grass, it was a man photographing dragon-flies. One sultry evening it was a man who'd moved here from India with his wife. He was pondering the meaning of the word "chitta."

"What is chitta?" I asked. "Is it like "chi"?

"No, it's a division of the mind. Hard to explain."

 Hilary was with me that evening, and the three of us got in to a lively discussion of "chitta," consciousness, perception, and other concepts. I don't recall that we arrived at any conclusions, but I do remember how golden the light was that evening.

Just the other day I was taking a reading when a group of school kids came by. "What are you doing?" one of them asked. So I told her. Then I pointed out the big carp that was moving slowly upstream. That got them excited. The counselors finally arrived and one of them said, "Oh, you've got a turbidity tube. I used one of those in environmental class." She didn't sound too excited about it.

Then she said, "Come on, kids."

As they were leaving one little girl said, "That looks like a koi to me."

"Same thing," I said. "It's the same fish .... though koi are prettier."   

The view from the bridge