In defense of dirt: Keep river bottom trails unpaved

Perched by a megamall, light rail station and airport, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge lives up to its name, a refuge from the made world of cars, trains, planes and buildings.

On a slow Sunday afternoon, I meandered for hours on natural trails along the refuge’s river bottomlands,. Gravel crunched underfoot. My sneakers landed softly on the padding of dirt and mud. Beyond expanses of wetlands and tall grass, I spied gleaming high rises and heard planes thrumming overhead. On the dirt trails, I felt at home in the world of nature.

For now, at least.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources plans to add paved trails, constructing a 10-foot-wide swath of concrete that will eventually snake from the refuge visitor center to the Bloomington Ferry Bridge. Other parts of the refuge, from Shakopee to Chaska, are already paved.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-YNot every place in the world should be paved. Take, for example, river bottoms. They’re naturally absorbent, soaking up excess water from high rivers and heavy rains. Paving river bottom trails is akin to paving a sponge. It’s June, and the DNR website notes that several sections of the trail –paved and unpaved– are still closed due to spring flooding. The unpaved sections can dry out, naturally. The paved sections, after repeated flooding, will need repaving.

I went to the river bottoms to walk in nature, on natural trail. The wide dirt and gravel trail accommodated walkers, bikers and runners. I passed a signs for a disabled hunter area. Just ahead of me, I saw a young boy, jumping across the trail in muddy boots. On this sunny day, he didn’t need those boots back home on paved sidewalks. Here in the refuge, those boots outfitted him for adventure.

In seven-plus miles of walking, my sneakers barely got muddy. Instead of jumping in puddles, I enjoyed the puddles while staying dry, appreciating their mirror-like sheen, and the splash of a robin, taking a dip mid-trail.  

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-YAs I walked, I noticed animal tracks on the trail — deer, frog, turkey and, hmm, are those raccoon prints? Along unpaved trail, it’s easy to see signs of nature. A hoof print caught my eye, and only then did I notice that a few inches away, a frog hunched, camouflaged, in a shallow divot in the dirt. The brown and gray of the trail blended with the frog, just as the dirt trail complements the murky Minnesota River flowing alongside. Wildlife, trail and river fit together, naturally.

Walking on, I spot a deer in the glade just north of the trail, eying me, just as I had observed the frog. The deer and I stand and watch one another, then I meander on, moving easily, stepping on dirt, pebbles, twigs and leaves. I feel nature underfoot. Every step I take connects to nature; my sneaker landing on and pushing off of dirt.

This refuge in Bloomington offers a retreat from the developed world. While some Minnesotans head north, fleeing the city for cabins, many others, including me, find respite from sidewalks and the paved world at this refuge. We seek out natural places because they are natural, not paved. The dirt underfoot is as essential as air, as necessary as rain.

We need a place to walk and run, bike and play, away from the paved world. The river is a refuge. Natural trails are a refuge.

Please, please, don’t pave this refuge.

The DNR is hosting two open houses for the public to hear and talk about the paved trail plans on:

Thursday, June 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Bloomington Public Works Building , 1700 W. 98th St., Bloomington;

Wednesday, July 18, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Bloomington Civic Plaza , City Council Chambers, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington.

 

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Japanese Style, An A to Z Guide of Attention to Detail

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YArrows on painted on sidewalks or floors of tourist attractions or crowded train stations steer walkers in the right direction, and prevent unnecessary jostling on stairs or other crowded areas. 

 

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Baskets tucked under chairs in coffee shops and restaurants provide a tidy spot for patrons to stow bags, purses, and coats. Belongings don’t spill sloppily over chairs or touch the floor.

 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YColor Hunting, the Japanese expression for leaf peeping, is a national sport. Judging from the many shrines and temples with trees arrayed so their leaves compose an autumn rainbow of reds, oranges, and yellows, Japan earns the gold medal in color hunting.

 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YDust doesn’t stand a chance in germaphobe Japan. Each night at closing time, store clerks at little shops and big department stores drape cloth over merchandise to guard against dust. 

 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YEggs, hard-boiled, come pre-seasoned and seemingly, almost buttered through the shell.  This Japanese recipe involves soaking boiled eggs in a salty brine for 24 hours or more. It takes loads more salt to flavors eggs this way, but taste a Japanese egg, and you may find it’s worth the sodium. Eggs-cellent idea!

 

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Fortune, good luck talismans dangle from purses and backpacks and adorn doorways and corners. Smiling Buddhas, waving cats, owls and frogs are some of the many engimono, lucky charms, marshalled to herald good fortune. Superstitions pop up often: Odd numbers are good; even numbers are unlucky because they can be divided. Not much is left to chance.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YGardens are as precisely designed as every other treasured art form. Trees, grasses, moss, sand, and stone are arranged to create harmonious landscapes. Japan’s respect for nature shows in its many descriptive words which English lacks: Kogarashi, leaf-wilting wind; shinrinyoku, forest bath komorebi, sunlight filtering through trees; ; and mono no aware, the fleeting nature of beauty. 

95686-201505.zoom.aHello Kitty looms larger than Godzilla in Japan. Sanrio’s cute cartoons should nibble on caviar cat-chow, considering that the franchise nabs nearly a billion dollars in worldwide sales each year. Need a toaster to imprint Hello Kitty on your morning toast? How about individually wrapped Hello Kitty prunes? Flip pancakes with a heart-shaped Hello Kitty spatula!

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YInemuri, to be asleep while present, is socially acceptable  napping in trains, classrooms and other public places. A Japanese friend insists that people never sleep on trains. Instead, she says, they’re simply closing their eyes to meditate and seek solitude in crowded spaces. Ohmm.

japan, a lowercase word meaning lacquerware. What other country can boast its name is also an artform? japanning, a 17th century term first used in Europe, describes the art of varnishing metal, wood and other surfaces in the renowned Japanese way.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YKawaii, the Japanese word for cuteness and the appetite for that cuteness, sums up a national obsession that’s gone global. In Japan, kawaii is ubiquitous, from adorable baked goods shaped like bears, cotton-candy soft sweaters with fuzzy pockets and 12th century Scrolls of Frolicking Animals featuring manga-like rabbits, frogs and monkeys. A museum exhibit in Tokyo, the Untamed Mind, explains kawaii as Japan’s love of things natural, spiritual, and playful.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YLeaf cleaning doesn’t require a rake in Japan. A young guy at a Tokyo car-wash used a pair of tongs, the kind Americans use to BBQ, to patiently remove one leaf at a time from a narrow channel along the sidewalk where water from the car wash would flow. At public gardens, workers rhythmically swept leaves with rustic twig brooms, as if they were doing tai chi. A custodian outside a popular shrine ignored the set of twig brooms in his cart in favor of a loud leaf blower. Piles of ways to remove leaves so gardens, doorways, and even car wash sidewalks look meticulous.

20171101_173126Manners matter, at the table, on the street, really, every part of Japanese life. At restaurants, the first items servers offer are hot towels for guests to clean their hands. Before the first bite, even at a snack stand, it’s polite to give thanks for the food by quietly saying, “Itadakimasu,” “I humbly receive.” After eating, it’s custom to say “Gochisousama” — thank you for the delicious meal. One more etiquette tidbit: It’s rude to offer tips to a server, bellhop, or taxi driver. 

“No tattoos” Don’t try to go to a public hot bath if you’ve got tattoos. Inked skin is considered a sign of the Yakuza, Japanese mafia, so tattoos convey an unsavory reputation. Hot spas’ websites and walls include numerous “No tattoo” warnings.

Onsen, Google onson, Japan’s hot spa baths,  and you may see this prompt, “How do you take a bath in Japan?” Japanese people rinse their bodies before they enter baths. Immerse yourself in the Official Tokyo Travel Guide’s pool of facts about the correct way to bathe

20171030_074208Punctuality appears to be a national past-time. Omnipresent clocks in parks, malls, and other public places help people stay fashionably on schedule. Even young kids wear watches. Note, punctuality does not mean being early. When a Tokyo train left 20 seconds ahead of schedule, it made national news. The company apologized for “the tremendous nuisance.” 

Quiet.That’s the sound you’ll hear in Japan’s airports, trains, busy streets and cafes. People talk softly and are far less likely to gab on cell phones in public. TVs and radios don’t blare at every airport terminal, restaurant and mall. Intentional sounds of silence. 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YRules, tacit and written, structure life in Japan.Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:Y A cute sign at a local Tokyo playground warns children about ten potential hazards of the swings and slide. “Never play with your jacket flapping.” “Don’t play on equipment wearing a backpack. Never use the play structure when it is wet. Never tie any rope or string to the play structure….” Remember to play by the rules!

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Synchronized cleaning, epitomized by Japanese Railway crews whose coordinated cleaning routines keeps bullet trains rolling on schedule. The crews perform in team colors, women in peach, men in light blue, wrist watches pinned to their smocks. Once passengers step off a JR train, crews sweep in, each worker intent on his or her task: remove fabric headrest covers, flip seats forward, smooth fresh headrest covers in place, sweep and bag debris. When the train car passes inspection, the crew gathers and bows. As they leave, each worker methodically touches the right, then left, then right, frame of the train’s door. Once the synchronized show ends, the next set of passengers, in an orderly queue on the platform, quickly boards and the train departs, spruced up and on time.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YToilets, Japanese style, include more buttons and settings than some microwaves I’ve used. Most toilets feature at least three options: a gush of warm water, with choices for temperature and flow, to rinse the front and back of a person’s seat; air, again with controls for temperature and flow, to blow-dry wetness; and chimes, burbling water or gentle melodies, to muffle any unpleasant noises that might occur while going to the bathroom. The water and air wash and dry bodies better than toilet paper, but it’s another element of Japanese toilets that wowed me. Heated seats. As I write this, clenched in a sub-zero Minnesota winter, I long for the warmth of those seats. I need to go back to Japan. Soon.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YUniforms  So many matching outfits! Students, starting in kindergarten, are easy to spot in identical shirts, shorts, pants or skirts, sweaters, coats, hats, and backpacks. School kids aren’t the only whose clothes signal their role. Trains full of ordinary workers dress almost in unison: Men in white shirts and dark trousers, often with jackets and ties; even cab drivers wear suits. Women dress in dark skirts with muted tops. Casual Fridays are a foreign concept. On Saturdays, many students don school uniforms headed to cram schools. In three weeks, I saw just one Japanese woman in a revealing outfit. Modesty is the uniform for all.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YVending machines dispense cold and hot coffee, soft drinks, cigarettes, candy and even batteries in Japan. Yet despite the convenience of 5.5 million sidewalk vending machines, few Japanese eat or drink as they walk. Noshing or sipping on the go is considered poor manners. Japanese people bring their tasty and cheap can of vending machine coffee where they can sit and drink properly then bring the empty can home. Trash cans are rare on Japanese streets. People are expected to be responsible for their own trash, instead of ditching it in public.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YWashi, the craft of Japan’s handmade paper traces back at least 1,300 years and makes UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This ultra thin paper has been used for ledgers and stationery, lanterns, umbrellas, window panels and paper mache dolls. Washi is resistant to bugs, water and rips. Crafting handmade paper one sheet at a time is a painstaking process, truly. Papermakers’ hands are plunged in chilly water for hours. No wonder one craftsman says it’s hard to find young people who want to make washi. They’d rather work with computers than have chronically cold, wet hands.

X doesn’t exist in any of Japan’s three alphabets: Kanji, pictographs of characters, originally from Chinese; Romaji, the Romanized version of Japanese; and Kana, the combination of two phonetic alphabets, Hiragana, for Japanese words, and Katakana, mostly words borrowed from other languages. X-tra credit if you can keep that straight. 

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YYellow sidewalk strips snake along entire blocks of Japanese city sidewalks and through train stations, offering a tactile guide for people who are blind or have vision problems. The bright bumpy paths are another harbinger of Japan’s intentional efforts to shepherd all who live or visit here.  

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E:YZoto, Japanese gift giving, isn’t just for holidays, birthdays, and weddings. Presents are also given in mid-July, in mid-December (to co-workers or bosses); after New Year’s (to children). Japanese people are expected to bring back souvenirs, omiyage, anytime they take even a short trip. Those who receive gifts are expected to reciprocate, giving a smaller gift, okaeshi, to show their thanks. All gifts should be nicely wrapped, except for money, which is folded three times and placed in special envelopes, noshibukuro. Decorum requires specific kinds of envelopes for different gift-giving occasions, just as there are different kinds of wrapping, and different numbers and colors of wrapping strings for presents based on the various kinds of gifts one is giving. Did I mention there are different kinds of knots for the strings around presents, also based on what kind of gift? Just remember, if you’re going to Japan, bring gifts. And expect to get gifts in return. You’re welcome! 

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Renting happiness by the hour

Through this sultry September, a steady chantey lulls me.

Once more to the lake.

The words propel me to finish tasks so I can once more settle into a kayak and paddle toward peace.

It’s been a summer of rented happiness. I don’t own a kayak or any kind of vessel. But I’ve found my pleasure craft: rental single and tandem kayaks at lakes in the Twin Cities and Madison, as well as along the Mississippi River. I pay by the hour for my cheap and legal delight. I thought about calling this piece The Joy of Paddling, but figured that title could disappoint readers looking for something more salacious than a damp kayak.

Every outing on the water has been salvation. Before I started paddling, I’d been in the doldrums, adrift, a longtime runner no longer able to run. In a kayak, my balky knee relaxes while I skim through water and air, once more savoring the bliss of moving.

Once more to the lake.

Yesterday, I shoved off the sandy beach just half an hour before rentals closed. I paddled hard through the channel, intent on getting to my heron.

IMG_20170910_164842She stood, placid, in her usual island spot at Lake of the Isles, by a Wildlife Refuge sign. Less than two feet away, a young couple in a canoe fished by the island’s edge. I silently begged them to give her space, to let her be. They looked at me but didn’t budge. The heron spread her wings and glided to a nearby tree on the refuge. From a respectful distance, I contemplated her, soaking in every chance to see another slender gray-blue wading bird or a stylish white egret.

This summer of rented happiness has given me new vantage points to see the world. Not far from the heron’s island, I gaze up at a graceful curving sculpture in a hilltop yard overlooking the lake. The lofty artwork isn’t visible from Isle’s well-trod paths.

IMG_20170910_170020On Nokomis, I stop paddling to watch a gull dip into the murky lake and pop up with a fish, then take flight, winging by me, with silvery fish squirming in its beak. None of my many runs around Nokomis included that vision of lunch-to-go.

Balanced in my kayak, I coast mid-lake and observe the afternoon sun glistening on calm water, a sudden splash nearby as a fish jumps, and in a blink of my eye, slips underwater. Along the willow-lined shore, turtles bask on logs. I spot two, no, there’s three, or is it four, hard-shelled sun-worshippers.

I’m learning to see life on the water. A flock of geese squawk overhead, seeming to bicker over which way to head, until one settles the argument, taking a sharp turn north, then another follows and another and in a flash, all are in formation, flying in the familiar V, soon out of sight, their squawks lingering. Walking or running, I seldom stopped to see what was up. In a kayak, it’s natural to survey the scene, going with the flow of the current and the scattered thoughts and songs in my head.

I spy sailboats bobbing, stand-up paddle boarders chatting, laughing, striking a yoga pose.

IMG_20170829_182506 (1)I’ve study clouds, grabbing my phone to snap a multitude of airy scenes: puffs, billows, wisps, contrails, fluffy whites and menacing grays, skies blue, white, pink, peach, and violet.

Of course, kayaks offer more than reverie. My arms, shoulders and core are stronger from hours of dipping and pulling a paddle, making leeway through smooth or squally waters. By the time I navigate back to shore, I’ve had a workout as well as an escape.

Soon, though, my summer of buoyant happiness will cease. Rentals close for the season next month. Until then, I think of E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” His 1941 essay, a melancholy reflection on returning with his young son to the camp where he had summered as a child. White sees his son and imagines himself as a both the child and the father, years and roles overlapping, I was a teenager when I first read White’s elegy. Now, four decades older, I recall his pensive prose on time and memory, the lulling title a siren’s song lapping over me.

Once more to the lake.

Wheel Fun Rentals

http://paddleshare.org/

http://www.brittinghamboats.com/

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A car-free year

Some people trade in their old cars for the latest model. Last year, I donated my 1993 Honda, swapping it for a new car-free way of life.

Fourteen months later, I’m happy to report that stepping out of the driver’s seat suits me.

The best part of being car-free? I see the Twin Cities as bigger and more diverse. Outside the metal and glass bubble of an automobile, I’m less insulated and more connected. I talk and ride with people from more races, ages and classes.

This summer, as I stopped at a red light on my bike, a young African-American skateboarder rode up and started chatting. We commiserated about the lack of a bike path, and the pros and cons of riding on sidewalk. That pleasant commuter conversation between a 20-something black man and a 56-year-old white woman wouldn’t happen if I was driving solo.

Sitting on an East Side bus bench, the woman next to me drinking a midday malt beverage chatted me up. “Baby Girl,” she said, “I like your hat.” We talked a bit and she patted my hand, then leaned in closer, to exchange an air kiss. When her friend arrived, she invited me to join them for a drink. I demurred, and they wandered off.

For years, I’ve dreamed of living in New York. I crave the big city. This year of car-less commuting shows me that the Twin Cities are more urban than I had appreciated.

I’ve ridden crosstown busses packed with people speaking Spanish, Somali, and languages I don’t recognize. I hear what’s on the minds of more Minnesotans, not just what’s on MPR.

Walt Whitman exalted, “I Hear America singing… the strong, melodious sounds.” I hear America on the bus: Other people’s music, singing, chatting, laughing, muttering and fighting. I hear an irate man yell at a young mother to get her stroller out of the bus aisle or he’ll report her. I hear small civilities—the chorus of riders calling in unison alerting the bus driver to stop so some frantic latecomer can board, the passenger who digs for change to pay another rider’s fare. I hear– and am part of– city life.
Continue reading “A car-free year”

Hearing the sirens

Talking about the weather, and race

Next Wednesday, July 5th, at noon, sirens will blare, piercing Minnesota skies with sharp warnings of impending danger, severe storms and all manner of natural and unnatural disasters, from toxic leaks to power plant failures.

Minnesotans know the drill, literally, about extreme weather. We can handle droughts, floods, straight-line winds, sub-zero and triple-digit temps. We’ve got basements for shelter from tornadoes, cold weather rules blocking utilities from shutting off heat and community cooling centers so people won’t overheat. Our phones beep updates about volatile storms.

We know what to do about weather.

We don’t know what to do about race.

Philando shrineNext Thursday, July 6th, marks one year since Philando Castile was killed. To many white people like me, the killing seemed shockingly out of the blue, a sudden squall that couldn’t be predicted. The jury’s verdict almost two weeks ago seemed nearly as stunning. The dash cam video shows Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez shooting seven shots into a parked car with a 4-year-old in the backseat. Diamond Reynolds’ livestreamed Facebook video shows her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bleeding out. We watched a man dying in his car, and the man who shot him walked free.

Philando’s killing and the jury’s verdict weren’t fluke eruptions that came out of nowhere. Police killings and police not-guilty findings are as commonplace as summer rains. A day before Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando, two cops in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling while they were holding him down. The day after a Minnesota jury found Officer Yanez not guilty in Philando’s killing, a Wisconsin jury found an ex-cop not guilty of killing Sylville Smith, a black man who was seen on video throwing his gun away, with his hands near his head.

How can we ignore the torrents of racism that have drenched our country? We knew about Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and so many others. The casualties mount, still many people—white people– refuse to hear the alarms. People of color can’t ignore the warnings. They live buffeted by sometimes deadly cyclones of racism while whites carry on comfortably in our bubble, shielded by invisible umbrellas, an unacknowledged wall of whiteness between us and reality.

The fact is, we own racism just as surely as we own climate change. Humans have spread greenhouse gasses along with far more toxic waves of hate and fear. Yet many of us just duck our heads, ignoring the inconvenient truth of racism. Continue reading “Hearing the sirens”

Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere

A belated thank-you to teachers

In the shadow of downtown, as I walked toward an urban park, a Great Blue Heron flew past me. I stopped on the sidewalk overpass, mesmerized. Once again, I had seen a big gray bird, the talisman I’ve looked up to for most of my life.

I thank Mrs. Judy Larzelere for that. Every heron I see carries me back to junior high.

IMG_20170607_101249During a unit of regional New England writers, Mrs. Larzelere assigned our eighth grade American Studies class The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. We read bigger names, including Thoreau, yet it’s Jewett’s modest characters that have stayed with me for decades. In “The White Heron,” a 10-page story, I met Sylvia, a shy girl who safeguards a heron’s nest, forgoing a bounty that would have benefited her poor family. Every heron reminds me of that lonely country child and the teacher who introduced us.

In this season of high school graduations, with Pomp and Circumstance wafting through the air, I figure it’s time to say a proper thank you to Mrs. Larzelere and the many the teachers whose lessons I carry.

Teachers teach and sometimes, students learn, yet neither teachers nor students can know which lessons will take hold, shaping lives. Sometimes, the lessons sink in long after the final grades are entered, the graduation robes returned.

It’s been forty-three years since I sat in Mrs. Larzelere’s Haverford Junior High class, reading regional New England writers, stories that seemed a world apart from my suburban Philadelphia life. Yet Mrs. Larzelere and Sylvia made me want to see the herons in this world. Continue reading “Thank you, Mrs. Larzelere”

Fireside story time, the secrets of the trees

Winter’s here, time to curl up by the fire and listen to a guy who spent his life looking up at trees.

tree-book-coverRobert Penn’s quirky and personal book, The Man Who Made Things out of Trees, tells the story of one ash tree, felled and turned into arrows, bowls, spoons, tent pegs, canoe paddles, catapults, dominoes, axe handles, a desk, and paneling. This isn’t a quaint catalogue of wooden goods. It’s a crackerjack story of the world, as seen through one kind of tree.

Penn’s life-long love affair with trees animates his stories, which are chockful of deft details, such as:

  • “Ash is pinkish white and disturbingly like human skin when freshly sawn.”
  • Irish mythology includes ash in a trilogy of sacred trees believed to have healing powers. During the Potato Famine, before setting sail for America, emigrants whittled chips from an ash tree in County Cork as protection against drowning.
  • Ash was known as the ‘sportsmen’s wood,’ and used for everything from cricket stumps, hockey and lacrosse sticks, tennis racquets, croquet mallets, baseball bats, skis, snowshoe frames and gymnastic parallel bars.

Penn introduces readers to craftspeople, broadening his saga, like the rings of a tree. Starting from his home in South Wales, he visits various English woods and woodshops, an Austrian Alps toboggan maker, then onward to Ireland to see an epic hurling game and a $2500 bicycle frame made of ash, and eventually to a Pennsylvania sawmill that’s produced more than 100 million baseball bats.

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Tom Mareschall checks one of his handcrafted arrows

Each chapter frames a new woodworker, from the lumberjack who fells Penn’s ash to a fourth-generation wheelwright, making wooden wheel rims just as his mother, father, grandfather and great grandfather did, to an eccentric fletcher, the traditional term for an arrow maker. Arrows, Penn writes, were known as the Devil’s Finger. Reading his crackling chronicles of medieval longbowmen and archery battles, I can hear arrows zinging.

Along the way, Penn sprinkles little asides, seeds that may take root in a reader’s imagination, like the mention of shinrin-yoku, what Japanese people call forest-bathing, going for a walk in ancient woods

Penn’s engaging anecdotes got me thinking about trees I’ve loved. From a neighbor’s walnut tree that Uncle John transformed into a wall of rich dark paneling in my childhood bedroom, to a pretty fringed paper birch that caught my eye the first time I saw my house in Saint Paul. Copper birch borers killed that tree, just as emerald ash borers are decimating tens of millions of ashes, like the weakened specimens shedding branches and limbs on my block.

img_20161129_130442Soon, my street, Ashland Avenue, will be ash free. In time, all the ash trees may be history. Seeds of new trees will spring up, spreading canopies that some child will gaze up at in wonder, daydreaming about the secrets of nature and our world.

Robert Penn grew up playing under an ash tree that he remembers as “the gatekeeper to my dreams.” His book has spurred me to look at trees and see more.

Find out more about Rob Penn