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Of Woods and Words

Ada Igoe

Ada Igoe is proud to be homegrown on homegrown radio. Her radio career at WTIP began at an early age. As a child she tagged along to many of the meetings and fundraisers that lead to WTIP's formation. From 1999-2003, during her teenage years, she co-produced WTIP's Ragamuffin Radio, a weekly children's program. After graduating from the College of St. Scholastica in 2007 with a B.A. in English and Communication, she punted about the globe, temping in both London, England and the Twin Cities before realizing the woods and community of Cook County would always be home. She lives on the Gunflint Trail. Her commentary, "Of Woods and Words" can be heard on WTIP's A.M. Calendar program and on North Shore Weekend Saturday mornings. You can also subscribe to a podcast.

Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.


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Of Woods and Words: The Joy of Jam

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Recently, whenever a friend calls to check in, it always seems I’m in the middle of canning something. I was given a water bath canner for Christmas last year and since the blueberries ripened back in July, the canner’s been getting a weekly, if not more frequent, workout. “Can I put you down for a minute?” I ask my friends when they call. “I need to go turn down the canner.” Through the long distance phone line, I can almost hear them rolling their eyes, although I suspect that if they saw my pantry with its shelves neatly lined with an assortment of jams, salsas, sauces, and sauerkraut, they might give this latest hobby of mine a little more credence.

While home canning sounds terribly old-fashioned, in truth, it’s a practice that’s not nearly as old as the hills. The process was first introduced in the early 19th century, then really took off half a century later with the pioneers out on the prairie. After heightened popularity during the Great Depression, home canning faced a sharp decline in popularity in the post-World War II days, when women headed off to work and convenience food became the norm. Now, in the midst of the “Great Recession,” it’s no wonder home canning is making a comeback. It’s a way to save some money, if not time, and it helps us reclaim a true connection to the food we eat at a time when many Americans feel a little muddled about their priorities.

Besides, homemade jam has magical qualities. An acquaintance says her children consider themselves abused if they don’t have her homemade jam on their shelves. As another northwoods child who always had a wide selection of homemade preserves to choose from, I too turn my nose up at store-bought jam. It’s snobby, I know.

In college, when I studied abroad, I had a housemate who only liked strawberry jam. For months, my other housemates and I obliged her by only buying strawberry jam. We were in Ireland, the land of really bad peanut butter, and our PB & J sandwiches were sad affairs until my mom sent over a jar of raspberry jam. Suddenly our jam sandwiches tasted of comfort and home. The jam was practically inhaled.

Now that I make my own jam, I’ve noticed that when you home can, you’re inducted into a special cult of people, the kind who exclaim over berries’ plumpness and who have something close to rapture in their voices when they describe the jam flavor combinations they’ve concocted. “Peach/nectarine/banana,” they gush, “Now that you must try.” At its essence, jam is just fruit and sugar with a little bit of pectin stirred in, but it seems you get a lot more than ingredients under the seal when you can a batch of jam. Stirred in with all that sugar is the taste of summer sunshine along with a healthy dose of love.

When you consider the relative simplicity of jam, it seems like perhaps it’s given a disproportionate amount of reverence. But jam’s an investment in time. Both gathering the fruit and preparing the jam can be lengthy endeavors. Each batch of jam speaks of a willingness to stand in front of at least three steaming pots on the range during some of the summer’s warmest weather. We value homemade jam because we ourselves give it value. And besides, no matter what the time of day, homemade jam slathered across a piece of toast is comfort food at its finest; one that’s worth setting the phone down for, if only for a minute.

Airdate: October 5, 2011

Photo courtesy of Pinot & Dita via Flickr.



Of Woods and Words: Wedding Wear

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When a close friend got engaged last autumn, I knew that meant a wedding to attend this September. No big deal, I figured: just slap on a smile, a dress and bring a small home appliance as a present.

But the wedding’s been one of those social engagements carried around in the back of my mind because I’ve had suspicions that it’s not going to be as straightforward as originally thought. The event meant adjusting my and my “plus one’s” work schedule and just a couple weeks back I was asked to read in the ceremony. As for finding appropriate wedding wear? Oh, the horror.

As a fashion conscious, if not fashion forward, individual, you can imagine my shock when I leafed through my closet and discovered exactly two dresses. One, an all-white number, reeked of “raining on the bride’s day.” The other, all-black, dress was too casual and too dark to wear to a couple’s proclamation of undying love. Luckily, a spring trip to Chicago allowed me to hit up the shops along the Magnificent Mile. As I swished and twisted in a strapless gray and pink floral print dress in front of the fitting room mirror in H&M, I was sure I’d found the perfect dress. It was modern, fun and not one bit country bumpkin.

But you should never buy a dress months in advance, especially not when, at the time of purchase, your body is still rocking the extra five pounds of butterfat I gain every winter. In the warm summer sunshine, on long paddles and brisk walks, the butterfat melted away and the perfect strapless dress began to slip sadly down into my armpits.

The sunshine was responsible for other crimes against my vanity too. I started developing odd tan lines: a sunburned swoop at my neckline, a decided farmer’s tan on my arms and lovely tan strips across the tops of my feet, compliments of my sandals. Then in the pursuit of this year’s 7 gallons of blueberries, I stumbled down granite boulders face first and got tangled in the pokey branches of fallen burnt trees. By mid-August my shins and forearms were a canvas of scraps, gashes, and mysterious bruises. And one day as I stood in front of the mirror, wondering if some of those nastier gashes were ever going to heal, I realized those two fuzzy chinchillas who have been hanging out over my eyes in the spot where my eyebrows used to be are going to have to be plucked down before the wedding as well.

But my real mistake was worrying way too much about my own appearance and not paying any mind to what my date might be wearing until we were within two weeks from the couple’s big day. While Andy has a wide selection of clothing perfectly suited to daily life on the Gunflint Trail, the fact is, his regular get-up of Carhartt pants in varying degrees of wear, Polarfleece pullovers with burn holes and t-shirts splattered with motor oil just aren’t wedding wear. In a frantic bout of online shopping, I found myself staring down what seemed like the impossible goal: finding something vaguely wedding-appropriate that Andy’d actually be comfortable in.

The gashes I accumulated this summer won’t have all completely healed by the time we head down to this wedding. My dress may be held up by safety pins and Andy’s outfit may smack slightly of country bumpkin. We might not exactly give out the aura of Northwoods power couple I’d originally imagined when we received the invitation, but at least we’ll be wearing garments free of motor oil and burn holes.

After all, they say truth is beauty and if that’s so, well, the truth of my glorious summer is splattered across my body. As for beauty? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder.

Airdate: September 20, 2011

Photo courtesy of Tiffany Yelitza via Flickr.



Of Woods and Words: A Malady Called "August"

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When I called a vendor last week to reorder some merchandise, he asked how I was doing.

“Oh, I’m okay,” I said with a sigh. “I’m just suffering a little case of ‘August.’”

He laughed. “I’ve never heard of that,” he said. “But I bet there are a lot of people out there who suffer from that.”

Call it what you will – a case of ‘August’, August-itis, or maybe just the blahs -- the truth is, by the time the state fair fires up down south, most people up north have developed a dull, harried look in the back of their eyes. Just as answering various nature questions and giving directions are inevitable side effects of living and working in a tourist town, so is the blahness that settles in around mid-August with an oppressive heaviness that doesn’t let up until we’re well into the new school year.

Even if you never heard of this horrible malady before, chances are either you or someone close to you has suffered its effects. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, short temper, bad jokes, liberal to excessive doses of sarcasm and a general sense that everything is too much work. In fact the perpetual sigh hovering overhead in all public buildings right about now is perhaps the biggest indicator that the end of August is nigh.

Granted, August-itis is just something that happens if you choose to set up shop in this county. I’ve yet to find a way to avoid it. As summer winds to an end, I’ve never met anyone not feeling a bit of exasperated burnout.

We’ve spent days on end answering the exact same questions over and over again. For the most part, they’re not bad questions; they’re good, sensible questions that deserve good, sensible answers. But anything done over and over again grows a little tedious. And by this point in the summer, we assume the worst when we see a visitor approaching with an open mouth and a raised hand. Oh geez, they’re going to ask about where to find moose, we gulp. A little muscle behind my eyeball now spasms whenever someone asks about the bears.

But the least we can do is suffer through this annual bout of August-itis. If we don’t smile upon area visitors and give their questions our best shot, why would the visitors ever want to return? And when so many livelihoods in this county are tied up in the tourist industry, making a favorable impression is the least we can do. As much as we may roll our eyes when in the company of friends over some of the most ‘out of left field’ questions we answer on a daily basis, it’s the presence of questions, both bizarre and rational, that keeps us all gainfully employed. Besides, I’ve never found a cure for August-itis other than change.

And thankfully, that change comes right when we need it: in the form of September and back to school. When the calendar flips to September, the perpetual sigh in the air changes to a sigh of relief. Weekend leaf lookers: Now there’s a demographic we do have the energy to interact with.

Of course, human nature is fickle. By the time April rolls around, we’ll be begging for some social interaction. But for now, we’ll savor back to school and the reprieve it offers us from identifying common roadside plants, stating how much acreage burned in the Ham Lake wildfire, or relating the current woes of northeastern Minnesota’s moose herd.

Airdate: September 7, 2011

Photo courtesy of myprontopup via Flickr.



Of Woods and Words: The Central Campfires

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Back in the days of Greek mythology when the Titan Prometheus gave fire to the mortals, Zeus tied him to a rock for the eagles to eat his liver out. Because Zeus was Zeus and all mighty and stuff, he arranged it so that Prometheus’ liver grew back every day so the punishment could be repeated over and over and over again. Seems like kind of harsh punishment for merely showing us lowly humans what a little spark was capable of.

On the other hand, maybe Zeus knew what he was doing.

In the past week, firefighting personnel in these parts have put out at least three out-of-control campfires. Although evidence of fire’s powerful and, at times, uncontrollable nature surrounds us here at the end of Gunflint Trail in the Ham Lake wildfire area, it seems that the human race’s relationship with fire is destined to be troubled.

For one thing, we approach fire with a certain sense of entitlement. In a prior job, the question I got asked almost as often as “Where are the moose?” was “Any campfire restrictions on?” For many people, nothing puts the kibosh on Northwoods outdoor fun faster than the inability to have a campfire. “It’s just not camping then,” people say of evenings in the woods sans campfire.

While Smokey Bear’s message of “Only you can prevent wildfires” seems like old news by now, our favorite black bear’s words often go unheeded. Although there’s a sense that everyone should know better, every day campfires are built outside of fire rings and left to smolder after half-hearted attempts to extinguish them. No wonder Prometheus was hung out to dry. We just can’t handle this fire stuff.

Maybe because we teeter so much between controlling fire and fire controlling us, things can really escalate quickly with fire. One minute it’s all roasting marshmallows and gooey s’mores. The next minute someone’s got a can of gasoline in their hand and threatening to pour it on the fires to “see how big the flames’ll get.” It’s only a matter of time before the brandishing of flaming logs begins and a small portion of the forest burns down.

We need to view fire as the gift the Greeks claim it was, rather than something we’re entitled to. If we gave fire the true respect it deserves, we’d probably have some pretty bored wildland firefighters every August.

There’s a reason fire rings, campfire restrictions and all sorts of other “no fun” fire principles like “don’t play with matches” are in place. We have to be vigilant when our fires are burning and we must ensure we put our fires out dead. Before you call it a night, throw on one more bucket of water than you think the fire needs to be out and give those ashes a good stir.

As summer makes its final stand, there’s no reason why we can’t celebrate the fleeting golden days sharing the stories and roasting wienies in the glow of a campfire. But in these August days, usually one of the driest times of the summer, it’s also time for common sense and small campfires. Let’s make sure this summer doesn’t go out in a true “blaze” of glory.

Airdate: August 24, 2011

Photo courtesy of Dawn Huczek via Flickr.



Of Woods and Words: Leaving a Mark

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I don’t remember noticing them when I was younger. Now, on each visit to Artist’s Point and the Grand Marais Harbor, I’m amazed at the plethora of rock cairns I find. Those tippy rock towers dot Lake Superior’s shoreline. No doubt constructed by both tourists and residents alike who find a spare minute by the lake, the cairns are monuments to those stolen moments and are often simple engineering feats.

Used for centuries for ceremonial purposes and to mark paths and graves around the world, rock cairns, at least those placed by Lake Superior, have little purpose other than decoration these days. But farther from the shore and deeper into the woods, the cairns’ purpose expands. Especially on portages in areas affected by recent wildfires, rock cairns help keep wilderness travelers on the rarely straight, but always narrow paths.

But should the rock cairns be out there at all? While the cairns are certainly not hurting anything, the other day, I spoke with an area visitor who compared the construction of a rock cairn to slashing an “X” into a tree trunk. The rock cairn and slashed tree trunk comparison is obviously a little heavy handed: a simple nudge destroys most rock cairns found in these parts; the X in the tree may never completely disappear. Perhaps a more fitting comparison for rock cairns is the rather innocuous sand castle, but the majority of sand castles live only until the tide comes in, while rock cairns are usually around until they receive one of those aforementioned nudges.

My reaction to the cairns isn’t violently negative like some people, but when I paddled up to a Boundary Waters campsite a couple weeks back and discovered that the big blobs I’d been spying on the site’s shoreline were massive rock cairns, I couldn’t help but feel that they had to go. In this federally designated wilderness, it’s been drilled into our heads to leave no trace in order to create a small corner of a great big country that appears, relatively, untouched by humans. Maybe I’m too cynical for my own good, but I suspect that big old rock cairn I stumbled upon wasn’t placed there by prehistoric people. Methinks someone did some boulder rearrangement during their camp downtime.

As harmless as rock cairns are, as they’ve grown more ubiquitous, my attitude toward them has grown notably less tolerant and welcoming. I can’t put my finger on what bugs me about them. I fully acknowledge there’s a simple joy that comes from playing in the rocks. And if you want to do some rock stacking on the shoreline, go for it. I don’t think we should have to tiptoe through nature like it’s a sanctuary. We can’t truly value the natural world with a hands-off approach. People need the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature and experience it in a personal manner. But they don’t necessarily need to share their specific experience with others. By gently dismantling the rock cairn you construct during your time at the shore, you leave the shore in its natural state for the next person to experience.

Rock cairns seem bound up in that very human need to leave a mark wherever we go. While more anonymous than scratching initials into a rock or tree, the cairns have always been a subtle graffiti. When I see a landscape sprinkled liberally with rock cairns, I’m reminded of that wilderness etiquette mantra: Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Maybe we need to relearn the art of slipping through an area without leaving a mark of our own and letting the experience itself leave a mark on us.

Airdate: August 3, 2011



Of Woods and Words: Plenty

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Anyone who’s done the two-, or three-, or four-job shuffle in Cook County knows this isn’t exactly the land of milk and honey. Career prospects are few. Prices are high. It’s easy to feel stretched thin when going through the many hurdles of making ends meet.

Granted, throughout history, Cook County has always been where dreams and hard work collide. Back in the day, when hopes of striking it rich by mining or farming the land didn’t pan out, the people stayed anyway. In fits and starts, an economy that still centers on logging, fishing and tourism was established. It’s not easy or glamorous work, but it’s there if you want or need it, often in the form of part-time or seasonal jobs. Perhaps Cook County is a glorious place to retire, but it can be one exhausting place to eke out a living.

We spend a lot of time worrying that there won’t be enough to go around. Just like the ants in the fable “The Ants and the Grasshopper,” we spend the summer months, when cash flow is usually high, squirreling away funds to get us through the lean winter months. Scribbling calculations on a Post-It note to figure out income as opposed to bills is a monthly, if not weekly, ritual.

Yet during the “full steam ahead” mentality that dominates so much of our summer, I’m always surprised that we aren’t constantly the ants of the old fable. Somehow, through it all, we manage to take turns at being grasshoppers, singing and playing our way through these most beautiful of days. Sometimes we get full grasshopper days, sometimes just grasshopper moments.

We sneak in paddles down the lake. The freezer fills with plump blueberries. We practice our marshmallow roasting techniques over campfires. Photos document fishing success.

It reminds me of the words food writer Diana Henry said in the introduction to her newest cookbook entitled Plenty. “When people bemoaned how little we had, all I could think was how very much we had,” she wrote.

For all our grousing about our pitifully short growing season, I’m already wracking my brain for creative uses for my little garden’s bounty of broccoli and zucchini. We act as though there’s no time for fun, but sunburned arms and faces prove otherwise. Although gatherings with friends are few and far between -- and always preceded by worries about food prices, gas prices and how to juggle other obligations -- somehow the gatherings always happen. And when they do, the kitchen counters soon buckle under the mountain of food everyone has brought, anxious to make these moments together worry-free feasts of friendship. We have an awful lot when you get right down to it; more than enough, really.

We could spend our days focusing on the hard work. But if we did that, we’d only see half of the picture. We’d be overlooking the abundance of good times, good friends and good food that surrounds us every day. When you look closely enough, it becomes apparent: There’s plenty.

Airdate: July 20, 2011

Photo courtesy of Downing Street via Flickr.


Shake it off! by Travis Novitsky

Of Woods and Words: All Things Bright and Beautiful

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When James Herriot, the now infamous British veterinarian, chose titles for his memoirs of veterinary life in Yorkshire, he used lines from a familiar hymn: "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful: the Lord God made them all." The themes of that 17th-century hymn have been repeated often throughout the years. Just a few years ago, Bill Staines was singing about how "all God's critters have a place in the choir."

But for all our songs proclaiming the supposed inclusivity of the animal kingdom, we seem prone to choosing favorites. On any given summer day, I hear the question "Ever see any moose around here?" so many times that it tries my patience and starts to produce snarky answers. The focus and determination so many people devote to seeing a moose often means they look through other, more plentiful critters that surround them. I mean, when's the last time you heard anyone say something nice about mosquitoes . . . or ticks . . . or black flies. And those buggers are all over the place!

Cook County is not exactly farm country, although a few brave, determined souls farm the rocky, clay soil and keep livestock. Despite our lack of farm animals, we have a veritable menagerie of wild animals in our backyards whose lives intertwine with our own. Each drive down Hwy. 61 demands that we keep our heads on a swivel to avoid bumping into an ever capricious deer. Our compost piles are careful barricaded to prevent black bear destruction. We construct high tech fences to keep the produce in and the woodchucks out of the garden.

For those who live here, our interactions with wildlife often smack of inconvenience. It can be easy to forget that we're the ones intruding on the wildlife's homes, not the other way around. And maybe because our run-ins with wildlife can be so undesirable, sometimes we forget to practice what we preach.

We might believe in all things bright and beautiful, we might want all critters to have a place in the choir, but when you've just shoved your hand into a pile of poo the pine marten left in the shed's recycling bin, it can be hard to feel very tolerant. Tourists rarely believe me when I tell them I never really enjoy my moose sightings, but it’s true: Watching a moose teeter out in front of the car on the icy road at dusk on a winter’s day just isn’t prime moose viewing to me.

We’ve woven a tangled web with wildlife around these parts. We either have a singular obsession with certain beasts of the forest or we’ve grown to dismiss wildlife as a slight annoyance. Yet long after we’ve ceased to marvel over every wildlife sighting, there’s still joy in watching a beaver swim laps in a roadside pond or a Mama moose and her calves feed. Despite the pine marten’s less than sanitary habits, I loved watching him and the songbirds gather on our porch this winter to share birdseed. A dragonfly perched on a thick blade of grass, drying its lacy wings, is as exquisite as any orchid.

Whether great or small, each critter has a special role to play. While no other animal can knock the moose from its “king of the forest” throne, we have to remember that even the irritating mosquitoes feed the bats and dragonflies, who in turn feed the birds and so on. And, our role, more often than not, is to observe, to watch the theater of nature play out before us and to enjoy all that is bright and beautiful.

Airdate: July 6, 2011



Of Woods and Words: Where's The Wonder?

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Growing up, my brother and I thought nothing of trekking down to Lake Superior by ourselves to clamber over the huge shore rocks or skip stones across the lake’s surface. The acres of forest behind the house were our playground. We crashed through the undergrowth, constructing forts, creating secret shortcuts and pulling wood ticks off ourselves without a second thought. When a black bear crashed a backyard badminton game one morning, we went inside for a snack and resumed our game after the bear had moved on.

When it comes to leading groups of children in outdoor activities, it turns out Cook County kids are among the hardest to manage. It’s not that they’re bad kids; not in the least. It’s just that they have no fear. They scramble up rock faces just like I used to, they’re by no means scared of what lurks in the big bad woods, and they’re extremely adept at transforming fallen sticks into weapons. And when you’re standing in front of them, trying to lead a field trip and very quickly realizing you made the right choice by not going into elementary ed, oh, what you wouldn’t give for a little more reverence.

These little woodland children, and I was one, probably get the most charmed childhoods possible. But when your backyard’s a lake, you just might get a slightly skewed outlook on reality. We lose the wonder so many people experience when they escape into nature, and we start taking things for granted.

When I spent a summer working for a canoe outfitter, I was shocked at what happened when a family with young children spent a week at a nearby cabin. The small children spent the entire week screaming. “Jiminy,” I thought to myself. “What a ruckus.” But when I asked if anyone had any ideas why the kids were shrieking constantly, I was surprised by the answer. “Imagine spending your entire childhood in a teeny backyard where you have to be quiet all the time,” they told me. “If that was you, would you scream when you came up to the cabin and got to spend all day on an inner tube?”

Well gosh, I thought. Your entire childhood spent in a backyard the size of a postage stamp? Imagine that!

As a child, it was easy to laugh at my big-city cousins when they asked if there were sharks lurking in the Grand Marais Harbor. It was easy to scoff when they cautiously dipped their toes into Lake Superior’s edge instead of running pell-mell into the chilly depths. I mean, what did they think was going to happen? That lamprey might bite off their big toe? That a giant herring would swallow them whole? But looking back on things, I understand their apprehension and suspect my brother and I must have seemed like wild animals to them.

Every now and then, especially in the summer when I’m even more prone to feeling exhausted and cynical, I try to remind myself to look at the world around me with my tourist eyes. I try to marvel at the towering white pines, exclaim over a moose sighting, truly soak up the pleasures of spending an afternoon lounging on the deck. Because there’s a lot of wonder surrounding us and we lucky Cook County kids sometimes need a little help remembering that.



Of Woods and Words: Summertime and the Eating is Easy

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If you know where to look, it’s easy to tell when the summer season is upon us at the cabin. You could check in the bay to see if the neighbors’ seaplane is parked at its summer dock. You could note whether the cabin’s yard and gardens are looking rather tidy while the cleanliness of the cabin’s interior slowly deteriorated. Or you could just look in the fridge.

Summer’s officially arrived when the potatoes and carrots in the bottom of the fridge’s crisper drawer get smothered under an avalanche of green beans, Brussels sprouts, spinach, zucchini. Although our little garden is a long way off from providing food for the table, I get so excited this time of year when the grocery store produce sections grow lush and green. The items on the shelves stop looking like they’ve just survived a bumpy ride from somewhere very far away. I find myself throwing armloads of produce into the cart during my weekly shopping trip, only to spend the rest of the week frantically trying to use everything before it goes bad. Granted, you can also tell it’s summer when you can consistently find a couple containers of fuzzy, molding leftovers in the fridge’s deep, dark corners.

That frantic sense that everything must be done right now before summer is going, going, gone infuses everyday existence this time of year. I watch the wildflowers start to cycle through their season of blooms so rapidly I can hardly keep up, flashing from violets to marsh marigolds to columbine, moccasin flowers, and wild roses. As the days grow longer and longer and longer, I want to yell “stop.”

I want the world to hold still for a moment, to let the columbine bloom a day or two more before some other even more fantastic bloom comes out. I want to savor each green bean I find on my plate, but the sheer quantity of veggies in the fridge dictates that I must grill up heaps of veggies each night. The lowly green bean or broccoli, or what have you, gets lost in the shuffle. I can’t make summer slow down, so I chop, chop, chop vegetables, trying to cook up as much summer goodness as possible while simultaneously creating meals that are often consumed while standing up.

In summer, things get sloppy. There’s always some other task to move onto and meals are rarely leisurely. As winter slogs by in its slow stately way, I think nothing of spending the dark evening hours standing in the kitchen, chopping and dicing vegetables, sautéing onions, and stirring a gently simmering pot, waiting for dinner to slowly cook to perfection. In the summertime, I try to find meals I can make in 15 minutes. I feel growing exasperation over the fact that every meal creates dirty dishes, which are just about the last thing I want to spend my already thinly stretched minutes on.

They say summertime’s when the living’s easy. I’m not sure about that, but I do know summertime’s when the eating grows easy, when meals turn into somewhat thoughtless collections of calories. Yet, as I try to savor everything this crazy season called summer has to offer, I know sometimes I’m the one who really needs the reminder to slow down.

After all, technically it’s still spring, and while we have many hasty meals ahead of us before the leaves start to turn, I know this summer will also contain many meals meant to be consumed on the deck or at picnic bench with family and friends. During those meals, the food is just a precursor to gathering as the conversation burbles happily and often bursts into laughter. But every once in a while, the crowd grows quiet, and we pause to stare out across the lake and let the world hold still for a moment.



Of Woods and Words: Woodpile Status Symbols

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We started worrying about our woodpile long before winter came. It was the first winter the cabin has been used all season and no one was quite sure how the little house would hold its heat. To make sure the winter wouldn’t end with us breaking down furniture and shoving table legs and the backs of chairs into the woodstove’s inferno, in September we bought a swanky new woodstove that promised to burn more efficiently and effectively. But despite the new, gleaming black woodstove perched in the middle of the cabin’s living room, in late October we headed out back to look at the three cords of birch we’d carefully stacked in the summer, and panicked. We ordered another two cords of mixed firewood.

It was a very long winter indeed at the cabin. But despite what seemed like endless trips out to the woodpile and many a 30-below night, the new stove lived up to its hype and we used just a fraction of the wood we feared we might go through. Last month we rearranged the woodpile, which had grown somewhat sprawling and scattered, and were pleased to discover we probably had enough wood to get us through another chilly North Woods winter.

But that doesn’t mean we get this summer off from woodpile work and worry. All winter, we estimated how much wood we were burning, attempting to predict how many cords we’d go through before the winter was through. When February rolled around, Andy started worrying about where we were getting our next load of firewood from. This next batch of firewood will have over a year to dry and “season” before it gets burned during winter 2012-2013.

The other day, our neighbor complimented us how tidy our woodpile was looking. And that’s when I realized our woodpiles are much more than just stacks of renewable energy in our backyards. They’re status symbols which project our personalities.

The big spenders shell out the big bucks for pre-split and dry. The practical buy cord wood which they cut and split themselves. The frugal harvest their own firewood.

Forget shiny cars in the driveway. Around here we judge you not by your conspicuous consumption but by your conspicuous combustibles. You could park a shiny new red sports car in the driveway and the neighbors would just roll their eyes. Throw up a couple cords of split, dry firewood and the neighbors will flock over to inspect your latest acquisition. “Oh my gosh, is that ash?” they’ll whisper, a hint of reverence in their voices as they reach out to gently touch the end of a log.

After all, using cars as status symbols or conversation starters just isn’t very interesting when every other person has some type of Subaru parked in their driveway. But where you get your wood from, how long you should dry your wood before burning it, what’s considered a good price for a cord, or how much wood you go through in a winter are always bound to spark lively banter.

In a land where wafts of wood smoke can be found in the air 12 months a year, it’s no wonder we spend so much time consumed with what our fires will be consuming. Our woodpiles are security blankets that guarantee the cold won’t seep in, but most of all, these woodpiles are status symbols that tell the rest of the world we’ve got our act together.

Airdate: June 1, 2011