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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.


What's On:

Of Woods And Words: On A Morel Mission

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I suppose it all started when I heard that morel mushrooms are known to pop up in recently burned areas. For whatever reason, a couple years back, Andy and I got it into our heads that each spring, morel mushrooms lurk in the woods, just waiting to be found and eaten. Despite having absolutely no evidence that this conviction is, in any way, true, each spring we set out on a couple ill-fated mushroom scavenging hunts.

I suppose our lack of success shouldn’t come as a surprise. I know next to nothing about mushrooming and I’ve found serious mushroomers are a tight-lipped breed who are forthcoming only about the fact that morels “are out there” when you ask for some advice. For all my Googling and reference book reading, I can’t pin down what sort of habitat I should be poking through when searching for morels.

I’ve read that morels like spruce trees and poplar trees and sandy soil and burnt areas. Those parameters just really don’t narrow it down too much and I don’t have time to wander the entire Gunflint Trail forest in search of a mushroom that may or may not be there. The other day, I read that soil temperatures might be the best indicator for when morels come out in the spring, and for a moment I was poised to buy a soil thermometer, but it didn’t seem quite right.

Despite my frustration at never finding morels, I have to admit the mushrooms’ elusive nature is part of their mystique. While going about our morel hunting business in a more scientific, systematic way might boost success, I feel that getting so anal-retentive as to check the soil temperature before heading out into the woods might take some of the fun and suspense out of the whole ordeal.

I’ve heard tales of old-timers filling garbage bags with morels, but I remain unconvinced, even when I hear trustworthy sources tell of their morel finds along the Gunflint Trail. When out mushrooming, we never fail to stumble upon plenty of false morel mushrooms, which look like shrunken, amber-colored brains, but these faux morels are apparently no indicator of the real deal. As I stumble through the woods, my eyes downcast, I have to wonder: Is this all a futile waste of time?

After all, I don’t even know what morel mushrooms taste like. The only time I’ve seen morel mushrooms “in the flesh,” so to speak, was in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and at something to the tune of $40 a pound, I wasn’t willing to shell out the necessary cash to give these supposedly delicious mushrooms a try.

But the thing about heading out in the woods with a specific purpose in mind is that you can’t help but stumble upon all sorts of other fascinating finds. Every spring, under the pretext of mushrooming, I find bright red wintergreen berries poking up through the undergrowth, spruce trees putting on their summer pinecones and the first violets of the year. Usually, our morel missions are little more than blueberry reconnaissance, scoping out this summer’s picking hot spots.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t mind finding a morel or two this spring and I know I’m not alone. Last fall I commiserated with a family friend about our equally fruitless morel mushrooming.

“I’ll be sure to tell you if I find some this spring,” I promised.

“Yeah right,” he laughed.

If I find the elusive morel mushroom out in these here woods, I’ll let you know. But don’t bother asking for specifics. A true mushroomer never tells all.

Airdate: May 11, 2011

Photo courtesy of dano272 via Flickr.



Of Woods And Words: Smelling Like Dirt

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Margaret Atwood once said, “In spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Around here, it seems nearly impossible not to end spring days smelling a bit earthy. Each step I take down the mucky gravel road out to the mailbox sends mud splashing so high it hits my jacket hem. When I head inside, the mud comes too. The muck dries into pebbly footsteps that lead from the front door to the woodbox and get ground into the rugs by the kitchen sink and the living room couch. Vacuuming, once a when-I-feel-like-it chore, is now done twice a day.

The grime could be tedious, but after the static winter season when the world’s only change was to grow even snowier and icier, the mud’s a welcome indicator of a finally melting world. I wonder if each spring the earth feels like those people giving testimonials for weight loss programs: after all that time trapped in a larger than life snowy self, the earth gets to literally melt off the pounds and get down to its slim, trim self, revealing flower gardens and long forgotten yard tools.

The soil’s still too cold to do anything with the reclaimed gardens, but apart from my mud-splattered pants, I find plenty of other ways to smell like dirt. The pine marten, my almost daily winter companion after he opted for our all-you-can-eat sunflower seed bird feeder buffet instead of bothering to chase his supposed favorite food of red squirrels, is none too pleased that the buffet’s closed for the season.

To prove his displeasure, the pine marten, who we nicknamed Al, headed over to our compost pile the other day to inconsolably gnaw on some used tea bags and coffee filters before throwing heaps of kitchen scraps to the ground surrounding the pile in protest. Thanks to Al, some spring days find me dealing with not-yet-dirt, scooping up onion skins and citrus peels and heaping them back into the compost bin.

The compost isn’t the only mess Al’s responsible for at the cabin this spring. Al, along with a gang of red squirrels and songbirds, spent the winter spilling the remains of 200 pounds of sunflower seeds beneath the cabin deck and all over the bird feeding area. Every week or so, after another layer of ice and snow melts, I head out with my rake and wheelbarrow to scoop up mounds of sunflower seed hulls. The squirrels nag me constantly during this chore, but I can’t leave the sunflower seeds to wash into the lake with the first rainstorm, no matter how much the squirrels enjoy binging on these surely fermented seeds. Instead, the mass of black seed hulls gets wheeled off into the woods where I spread it thinly, hoping it will soon be another layer of topsoil.

Inside the cabin, the vegetable garden is in its infancy. A couple times a day, I gently lift the plastic domes of the seed-starting greenhouse to see if anything new has wriggled its way free of its seed to peek its first leaves up through the dirt. I’m always poking around in the tray, getting soil trapped under my fingernails.

Soon these first shy spring flirtings with dirt will seem frivolous when I plunge my hands into the gardens to pull out the rocks that like to plant themselves in the flowerbeds over the winter. Soon I’ll need to tear apart perennial roots and run a finger through the dirt to make a trench for carrot seeds. But while I wait for the gardens to shake off their last chilly memories of winter, there’s always a dusty tickle in my nose, a musty moist aroma that rolls through the front door with the heady scent of promise: the smell of dirt.

Airdate: April 27, 2011



Of Woods And Words: Travel - A Structured Escape

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When people realize I still live in my hometown, they often tell me it’s a lovely place to live. While I agree, I don’t think I could survive without leaving on a regular basis. Even when your home and hometown become synonymous, leaving your hometown remains a requirement – one on which sanity and happiness hang.

Finding a way to leave my hometown for somewhere else has become an important piece of my adult life, something that helps give my life structure and meaning. Not that my travels need more structure.

The first time I traveled abroad was with a retired high school teacher who, in her travels over the years, earned herself the nickname of “The Camel.” At our pre-travel meeting, she informed the ragtag group of would-be world travelers and/or overly confident high school seniors that we needed to keep water and snacks on our person at all time. When we saw a bathroom, we better use it. There was an itinerary to keep and if you couldn’t keep up, you’d be left in the desert wasteland of London, England to fend for yourself.

On that first trip with the Camel, we learned to barter our granola bars with another classmate’s Nutty Goodies, to grab a muffin from a station side stand before we caught the train, to eat standing up and to always, always pay attention. Not only were my eyes opened to the amazingly big world out there, I also learned to travel like a maniac. If you carefully planned every minute detail of a travel day, I discovered, you could cram in an absurd amount of sightseeing.

My independent travels since that trip have always included a detailed itinerary I sometimes spend month laboring over. Each day’s schedule often has a theme or is specifically tailored to cover a certain section of a city. I like to pencil in transportation options and the approximate time I think we’ll spend at each destination.

“Seriously Ada,” my brother told me just last month while he was preparing to leave for Ireland and I was doling out unsolicited travel advice. “Even Mom can’t keep up with your itineraries.”

And this, this from the women who taught me to make weekly dinner menus!

My friend Sarah and I have been trying to plan a brief spring getaway this year. I peered out my window at a frozen, snow blanketed world and hit upon the idea of a cruise. After a bit of online research, I bounced the idea off the friend. “Um, just so you know,” she said slowly. “You don’t really do anything on a cruise. You just kind of hang out at the pool all day. I’m just not sure you’ll really like it.”

A more realistic view of finances transformed the cruise into a train ride to and a couple nights in Chicago anyway. Although I’ve visited Chicagoland many times as an out of town family member, I’ve never gone as a tourist before. “And we can go to a Cubs game and shop on the Magnificient Mile and go to the Art Institute and the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium and the Planterium and, and, and,” I told Sarah over the phone. I swear I could hear her rolling her eyes.

Someday, maybe, I’ll go on a vacation. For now, I feel too young to spend my time away from home lounging on a beach towel. Truthfully, nothing thrills me more than stuffing my bag so full of snacks, guidebooks, timetables, and my trusty handwritten itinerary that it pulls heavily on my shoulder all day. We’re not stopping until we see everything!

Airdate: April 13, 2011



Of Woods And Words: Cultural Identity, Northeastern Minnesota Style

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Once upon a time, back in my short-lived Girl Scout days, the topic of our weekly meeting centered around cultural identity. The scout leader thought one way to demonstrate what a blend of cultures Minnesota has was to have each of 15 8-year-old girls tell about their ancestry. We moved around the table and each girl quickly offered a percentage about her ethnic identity, more often than not something like 50 percent Norwegian, 40 percent Swedish and 10 percent German. I was the last girl to speak. “Um, I’m from Minnesota?” I proclaimed uncertainly.

We’d never spoken about cultural identity in my house. Later on in life, when I delved into my genealogy, I discovered part of why we were so silent on the subject. Several ancestors came across the Atlantic just a few years after the Pilgrims. With that much time spent stateside, my family had shed any Old World ties for an all-American identity long ago.

I am one of the few un-Lutheran, un-Scandinavian residents of northern Minnesota. I am not genetically conditioned to take kindly to lutefisk and lefse, and Garrison Keillor might as well be speaking gibberish for all I know. Hotdish, what?

Turns out my ancestors came, almost solely, from the British Isles. A mixture of Cornish, English, and Irish blood runs through my American veins. And when you’re more likely to utter a “cheerio old chap,” than an “uffda,” there are a lot of traditions in northern Minnesota you find yourself excluded from. As if my non-blonde hair didn’t set me apart from my classmates enough, my long-suffering Scandinavian peers had to explain to me what rosemaling and krumkake were too. About all I knew was that St. Lucia walked around with a wreath of candles on her head on some day in December, and that just sounded like a fire hazard.

Even today, after more than 25 years of immersion in Scandinavian culture northern Minnesota style, I still look at those Swedish carved dala horses and think “huh?” All those signs on the side of buildings that read “Parking for Norwegians Only” leave me wondering where exactly I should put my car.

364 days of the year, I feel like a mild misfit around here, but the 365th, I totally get to own. On St. Patrick’s Day, I pull out my “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirt and whip up a batch of Irish soda bread. As the sweet, savory smell of the baking bread fills the cabin, I drape the Irish flag I bought in the Dublin airport over a door. I tell the story of “Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato” to anyone who’s willing to listen, while “Danny Boy” pipes mournfully in the background.

A semester abroad in Ireland during college strengthened my cultural identity more than a lifetime in northern Minnesota ever could, but at only 25 percent Irish, I don’t hold too tightly to my Irish ancestry on a day-to-day basis. Still, it feels good to deck myself out in green for a day filled with my family’s traditions. Granted, everyone’s Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Here’s wishing you a bit o’ Irish luck this St. Paddy’s Day, whether you hail from County Mayo, Dublintown, Oslo or Stockholm.

Airdate: March 16, 2011

Photo courtesy of Ralf Peter Reimann via Flickr.



Of Woods And Words: Hestia

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If you were asked to name a few of the ancient Greek gods, chances are you’d throw out names like Zeus, Athena, and Apollo. You might think of Aphrodite and Hera. But if the name Hestia isn’t on the tip of your tongue, don’t feel too badly. This oft-forgotten goddess of the hearth didn’t even have her own throne on Mount Olympus. She gave up her seat with the Olympians to playboy Dionysus, the god of wine and good times. Instead, Hestia, known as Vesta in the Roman tradition, opted to sit on a small stool in front of the Olympic thrones, tending the fire.

Yet during the long Minnesota winter, I find myself thinking of Hestia more than any other Greek god. After all, it’s certainly not Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who comes to mind when I’m tromping out to the woodpile for a load or three of firewood every afternoon.

I grew up reading the Greek myths but, as a child and teenager, I never identified much with Hestia. Her life just seemed too, dare I say, boring. But with the passing years, I’ve grown better able to discern between boring and simple. Sure Hestia wasn’t out gadding about on misadventures with the rest of her Olympic counterparts. Instead, Hestia must have rolled her eyes from her perch by fire when the rest of the gods came home with stories of their latest antics. Hestia didn’t marry; in fact she rarely, if ever, left her post by the eternal flame. This was a lady with commitment.

And she was extremely important to the Greeks and Romans. Every hearth was considered Hestia’s temple and the fire was not permitted to go out. When I visited Rome, I could hardly wait to get to the Forum to see the remains of House of the Vestals. Sworn to 30 years of celibacy and service, the Vestal Virgins were charged with maintaining the temple’s fire. It was fascinating to think of fire being so important to the ancients that they would incorporate its safekeeping into some of their most extreme ceremonial roles.

No matter how many thousands of years pass, whether we’re wearing togas or Smartwool, there’s always seems to be a fire to tend. We heat with wood at the cabin and as I dump each armload of firewood into the rack beside the stove, I’m reminded of that familiar saying: wood is the heat source that heats us many times, as we chop it, stack it, bring it to the house, and finally, burn it. Bringing in firewood ranked up there with my least favorite chores as a teenager, but now it’s part of the rhythm of my own winter life.

I keep our temple to Hestia blazing brightly by raking the bed of coals, stuffing the stove with birch and watching a fire roar into life. When I turn my back on the starting of the evening’s fire, perhaps to punch down a batch of rising bread dough or to start in on the last night’s dishes which I usually neglect until the daylight starts seeping away the following day, I can almost feel Hestia nodding her approval.

Hestia knew all along: Life doesn’t demand constant fireworks, but it does call for a steady fire.

Airdate: February 16, 2011

Photo courtesy of Yair Haklai via wikimedia.



Of Woods And Words: Dream In Seeds

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Just a few short months ago, I was bracing myself for the long, cold winter ahead. In those golden, fading evenings of October, it just seemed too cruel to think about the world turning all cold and frozen. Frankly, it made me a little nervous.

Luckily, November dumped snow all over everything, effectively squelching my dithering about impending winter. With that first sprinkling of, oh, a foot or so of snow, I was forced to buck up and deal with the beast that is winter. It really is amazing just how quickly those winter driving skills come back to you. . . .

Now, in January, I’ve fully accepted the snowy state of the world. Still, we’re far enough from the spring thaw that I don’t truly believe I’m ever going to see open water and green leaves again. Yet every afternoon I relish the extra minute or two of daylight that’s managed to wriggle noticeably into the day. In that extra minute of sunshine, I find the promise of spring that sends me poring over seed catalogs and poking through WTIP’s Northern Gardening website, searching for just the right variety of carrots to plant this spring.

This Christmas, we got a bag of seed starting mix and trays for seedlings. An aunt gave us two bags of black soil her bed of composting worms. These tokens of springtime seem like peace offerings for the silent war so many of us wage against Old Man Winter. And they give me all sorts of ideas.

In the late winter months when our summer’s gardens are just germinating in the corners of our minds, it’s easy to have really, really big garden dreams. More nights than not, I reach for a small notebook where I make lists of vegetables to plant and plot out what will get planted where. I know these lists and graphs will bear little resemblance to what and how things will actually get planted, but I find quiet comfort in garden planning process. I wonder if I should try planting purple beans. I search for the perfect salsa recipe for the bumper crop of tomatoes we’re sure to have come August.

When it’s the middle of January, so far removed from the actual process of getting dirt under my fingernails and dealing with the often heartbreaking realities of gardening, I can convince myself that this summer, we’ll experience only gardening utopia. This year, I think, this year, we’ll conquer the lackluster topsoil at the cabin. This year those awful west winds won’t rush down the length of Seagull Lake with the sole intent of wreaking havoc with my onion tops. This year, the chipmunks will be content with their own woodland bounty and stop taking a single bite out of each one of my ripening tomatoes.

Whatever this summer’s garden brings, I can already taste those sharp, pungent first bites of spring -- rhubarb relish, arugula salad – on the tip of my tongue, just out of reach.

They tell me the day’s coming, but it still feels like a hazy fantasy. The day when the winter garlic I planted in the upper garden this October shakes off its snowy blanket. The day when the air stops smelling of falling snow and wood smoke and instead adopts the musty, wet smell of thawing ground. The day when evening brings lazy moments on the porch among the flowering pepper plants in the setting sun. In just a few short months, they say, we’ll kiss the snow and ice good-bye.

Until then, I’m dreaming in seeds.

Airdate: February 7, 2011

Photo courtesy of Fir0002 via wikimedia.



Of Woods And Words: The Septic Talk

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Sewage is one of the most fundamental elements of human existence and yet it remains largely taboo as dinner table conversation . . . unless you’re at my house. Gathered around a family dinner, information about the latest septic system so-and-so installed comes up more often than “Pass the potatoes, please.” We cut to the quick and talk about what’s really near our hearts. Why bother acknowledging weather that we all know is blustery, cold and snowy? Why inquire about the others’ well-being, when what we really want to know is how that holding tank really works?

I prefer to think of the toilet flush as an ending. Unfortunately, if you live in Cook County and aren’t willing to talk openly and honestly about your sewage, you’re viewed as a little prissy. Around here, sewage isn’t someone else’s problem: it’s your problem.

In these parts, septic alarms can send you running outside in sub-zero temperatures clad only in your pajamas. Frozen pipes and frozen bathroom vents are persistent everyday worries. Shallow wells dug on the county’s older properties go dry. New property owners bite their nails as their well is dug deeper and deeper without striking water. If you need some drama in your life, just have a septic system inspection. A myriad of problems come with what comes out of and what goes down your pipes.

I learned very quickly on childhood play dates that it always behooved you to check out the bathroom facilities with your host before using them. While some families thought you were crazy when you asked if it was all right to use the bathroom, others responded with: “Oh yeah sure, but no, not the upstairs one.” Toilets, it seems, are sometimes just decorative fonts homeowners put in certain rooms of their home to keep the real estate value up.

While living 55 miles out of town sounds awfully backwoodsy, in truth, our little home is fully outfitted with electricity and a mound septic system. There’s nothing off the grid at the cabin. Other than the normal worries that come from a septic system, we have a pretty carefree sewage set-up. I have to admit, I’m kind of glad midnight bathroom breaks don’t involve throwing on a coat and an untied pair of boots and tromping through the snow to a frosty outhouse. I do realize I’m missing out on some prime stargazing this way.

But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of people listening to this who are going: “Pipes? I don’t need no stinkin’ pipes.”

Outhouses remain a viable answer to the sewage problem for many northern Minnesotans. It just takes a tour of a couple outhouses in the winter to realize just how posh Styrofoam seat covers are. For those who don’t want an outhouse or indoor plumbing, Incinolets, which incinerate waste with each flush, are the new wave of the future. Forget the American Dream. Here we believe if you work hard and put in your time, eventually you’ll get a toilet that flushes.

It seems septic systems and other sewage issues are never far from our minds. It still may not qualify as great dinner conversation, but it makes us a little more aware that each flush really is a small miracle.

Airdate: February 2, 2011

Photo courtesy of Eric Hart on Flickr



Of Woods And Words: The Art Of Gathering

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In the cabin, we have a framed comic strip which features a woodsman talking to a tree.
The cartoon man stands knee-deep in snow, confiding to the tree that, “People say ‘Don’t you get lonely, living all by yourself in the woods.’ And I say people! You know what I think about people . . .”

While I live a life in the woods filled with what Joni Mitchell called “picture-postcard charm,” I sometimes worry that my friends from the outside world, assume I am slowly turning into the cartoon man. In their eyes, one day I’m moving 55 miles out of town. Next I’m making friends with birds and other feeder visitors. Probably only a matter of time until I start talking to trees.

Yet we woods residents aren’t nearly as crusty as we seem. While we supposedly approach life with a bah-humbug sensibility, in actuality we need people just as much as the next bloke. We may be more content with solitude than those submerged in metropolitan ways, but we still enjoy the company of others.

When you live 55 miles up a dead-end road, people don’t pop in to see you very often. Paths cross infrequently. Catching up with friends loses its spontaneity and instead adopts an air of deliberation. Anymore, there’s an art to gathering and spending time with friends.

Yet, no matter how far I live in woods, the weeks of late December and early January always seem to bring an inordinate amount of pounding around on the highways of Minnesota. The holiday season marks the only time of year when all far-flung friends are in the same state. We try to capitalize upon our general proximity and planning starts months in advance because these holiday gatherings strive to get anywhere from two to eight people with conflicting schedule in the same place at the same time. Even with our forward thinking, finding a date that works for all involved parties is often delayed until the last minute as one conflict after another presents itself.

Because these gatherings are planned for the dead of winter, weather poses a significant threat to festivities even once a date has finally been decided. Inevitably some awful storm coincides with whatever plans we’ve made and we watch winter weather advisories stack up for the state. The ice and snow storm of this past new year’s weekend saw all but one of the guests showing up at the hostess’s home the night before the planned event in order to dodge the dodgy weather. Better to gather early than not gather at all.

Once everyone’s assembled in the same room, these gatherings are pretty Midwestern affairs. Each person brings enough food to feed everyone attending the event. We talk and talk and talk. We go to bed too late. For a few hours, it feels like we’ve never been apart and the miles separating us through the rest of the year are forgotten, at least until it’s time to say good-bye.

Still, one of my favorite parts of all this gathering is waking up in my own bed in the cabin on the morning after I’ve returned from the latest round of festivities. I hold memories of the good times of the days before close to my heart as I start my day safe in a world that includes just me and the birds and maybe a midday conversation with the trees.

Airdate: January 5, 2011



Of Woods And Words: Life Is Better With Butter

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 When the north wind howls, I flee to the kitchen. I grab a cup of butter from the fridge or from the countertop where it’s softening and before long, the cabin fills with the oven’s warmth and the smell of baked goods. I know the holiday season goes hand-in-hand with overindulgence on special holiday recipes and that for many people, each delicious morsel swallowed brings a guilty pang. Yet I have come to believe that life is better with butter and that the sooner we dispel any guilt associated with its consumption, the happier we’ll all be.

Paula Poundstone once said that she sees bread as nothing more than a vehicle to get butter into her mouth. While I can’t deny that bread and butter is delicious, I don’t share her passionate love of butter in its rawest form. I prefer my butter creamed with sugar, mixed with a few eggs, some flour, and made into cookies, cakes, sweet bread and everything else with sweet, ‘melt in your mouth’ qualities.

When Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame resolved to make all 524 recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year, one of the questions people most wanted her to answer was how much butter weight she’d gained in the process. Not only is this a rude question, but I’m inclined to think that a little butter weight does us Northerners good. If black bears can spend all summer stuffing their faces with berries and foraging for grubs to put on a cozy layer of fat for winter, I see no reason why humans can’t engage similar behaviors . . . albeit, sans grub foraging.

When we belly up to the holiday smorgasbord, we’re simply winterizing our bodies. There’s no telling when we might become stranded in a snowbank for a night or two and be forced to live off of last year’s Christmas cookies, which we’ve handily stored on our hips and in that odd little roll just below our waists.

Sure the mail-order catalogs that show up in January and February would lead you to believe that swimsuit season is right around the corner, but unless you’re planning a mid-winter getaway to Cancun or the Bahamas, this is a lie. Some of those frozen lakes in our backyards won’t open until mid-May and even after that, there’s still a couple months before we’re actually going to be swimming. The Christmas cookie you eat today can rest on your hips for months before you have to worry about shifting it around for the fabled swimsuit body.

Of course, overindulgence should be avoided – mostly because butter-induced nausea is a nasty, nasty thing – but the winter is no time to worry about weight. If the camera adds 10 pounds, then the down jacket, snow pants, Arctic explorer boots, hat, mittens, scarf, five layers of sweaters and long underwear add at least 20, if not 30, pounds. This is the time of year when the only thing people will notice about you is your eyes because that is the only thing they can see of you, peeping out from between where your scarf ends and your hat begins.

This holiday season, I say, have some more butter, whipped cream, eggnog, soy lattes, or whatever your creamy vice may be. Butter shouldn’t be seen as a bother. After all, any guilty feelings about seasonal eating can be channeled into New Year’s resolutions all too soon anyway. Instead, I suggest we view butter a delicious luxury, something with the ability to make our lives a little tastier.

Airdate: December 22, 2010



Of Woods And Words: King Of The Feeders

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 We set up the bird feeders outside the cabin windows in early November when I noticed three pine grosbeaks hanging out in the trees. We participate in a winter-long civilian scientist program called Project Feeder Watch. The program asks participants to monitor their feeders every few weeks and submit a summary of the bird species seen during those times to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This year I had high hopes for active feeders. I’d had visions of chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers and grosbeaks instantly flocking to the feeders when I filled them with sunflower seeds. 

Instead the first critter to belly up was small, brown, and furry. It had a big bushy tail. It was Mr. Squirrel.
Squirrels are coincidental beneficiaries of the feeders, yet they don’t see things this way. They take the feeders for granted. I think I deserve a little respect as the all-powerful provider of sunflower seeds. But the squirrels don’t give me the time of day. They just look mildly irritated when I step outside and disturb their grazing. I’m just their little minion who will continue to fill the feeders until springtime.
Squirrels’ attendance at the bird feeders is anything but unexpected. Where there is bird seed there will be squirrels and here at the cabin we don’t bother with trick feeders or other tactics to dissuade squirrels from clamoring up to the feeders. It just seems too inevitable that the squirrels will figure out a way to get the seeds no matter what sort of tricks we try to pull on them.
Still, I find myself hoping for better behavior out of the squirrels. Sometimes it feels like my backyard has been overrun by some small hybrid creatures whose mentalities are a curious mix of toddler and old married couple. The squirrels don’t share well and they bicker endlessly, chasing each other up and down trees while sending bits of bark flying beneath their little feet.
The first squirrel who found the feeders assumed they were his and only his. He chased every other squirrel that even looked at the feeders off into the trees. He liked to start each morning by staring into the cabin’s kitchen window and letting out a loud yodel. I thought it was rather nervy of him to demand his breakfast, but he’s since lost his battle for ultimate feeder dominance. Now there are at least five squirrels running around the backyard every day, alternating between fighting and gorging themselves.
While chickadees politely flit about, selecting a single seed from the feeder and flying back to their perch, the squirrels like to sit smack-dab in the feeder, stuffing their checks until all the seeds are gone. I don’t want to encourage poor body images, but the squirrels’ butts are getting really big.
The birds are well accustomed to the squirrels’ piggy ways. They worked their ways to the feeders during those brief moments in the day when the squirrels aren’t fighting over sunflower seeds. I suppose if the birds can’t be bothered by the squirrels than I shouldn’t be either. But I’m still struck with the squirrels’ nonchalance.
Just today I caught a squirrel sitting on the cabin’s deck railing staring at me through the window. It seemed the beady stare the squirrel had fixed on me said: “Look lady, the seed are getting a little low out here. Do you mind?”
It’s good to be king.
Airdate: December 8, 2010