Cross country skiing at Harris Nature Center

Snow falls from the sky,
Clings to pine needles and sycamore limbs
That canopy Red Cedar River.
Snow falls again.
Into water almost frozen.
It is cold, so cold.

Breathlets nestled deep in our lungs
Rise warm and swift, 
Like birds startled from our mouths,
Whirl to the treetops,
Warm a bottom branch to the nth degree.
Enough to trigger release, 
A silent descent, 
Soft splash, 
Frozen water into flowing water, 
Sisters meet again.
Easily, as if they had known
All along.
At last.
This is the sound of unexpected understanding. 
Of grief. 
Water into water.
This is the tender sigh of crystal edge into liquid embrace.
Of forgiveness.
Water into water.
This is the audible moment of transformation, a subtle shift of flow.
Of bloom.
Water into water.
This is the symphony of comet tails brushed across the sky, at speed, Melting into the river of space.
Of whales gliding through oceans and rain saturating 
The soil, quenching its filamentous thirst.
Water into water.

It’s not the Pacific

This is what I learned about the Great Lakes when I was in primary school.


They meant as much to me as Mary’s Violet Eyes Make Johnny Sit Up Nights (Period). They were just as far away, distant, and unfamiliar.

The lakes I knew were usually small and too warm and slimy on the bottom with lots of salamanders and newts. Or inaccessible. Think Crater Lake.

Then we moved to Michigan. People who lived here said being at Lake Michigan was like being at the ocean. I was skeptical. Perhaps a tad more. Scoff-tical. A bit of salty pride mixed in there with a dash of defensive homesickness and a sprinkling of beloved memories of frozen legs and Dad’s big hands holding mine fast against enormous waves trying to knock me backward and pull me forward and loving every alive second of it, perhaps?

A lake is not an ocean.

My family used to go to the Oregon Coast for vacation, driving down the Columbia River Gorge, through the mountainous Coast Range of Oregon and at last arriving at the Pacific, rimmed with rocks and tide pools. It was so cold. The waves were enormous and loud, but once my entire body went numb, they were exciting. The wind whipped sand into my hair and eyes, my wind breaker’s sleeves flapping like an untrimmed sail.

My Dad bought kites for my brother and me one year when I was about 12. Some days were actually too windy to fly them, the days I could stand at a 30-degree angle into the wind without falling over.

If I pulled on one of the two strings of my rainbow kite it would tumble and flip to the left or right, swooping like a giant bird. Dad bought them from one of my favorite Seaside stores. It was filled with kites and windsocks, whirligigs and anything that would dance and turn in the wind. My brother got a blue and gray striped one that matched the sea and sky.

At the ocean, we ate too much taffy, played Dark Tower and card games, listened to the waves crash all night, spend hours carving sand into castles and dragons or digging holes big enough to climb into. No sunscreen needed. The ocean was so big and the sand so broad, I could look out into the ocean and my mind couldn’t hold it, had to clear.

This was the coast. This was an ocean. The    Ocean.

There were whales out there, Humpbacks and Grays, rolling onto their sides, singing to each other. There were Puffins flapping in circles above Haystack rock, otherworldly anemones the palest red that sucked every tentacle in faster than I could blink an eye when gently poked, my finger dissolving into their squishy/sticky belly? Mouth? Buried clams squirting water up through perfectly round holes in the sand. Crabs and their crabby parts. Enormous ropes of stranded bull kelp made of some alien material impossible to break but so fun to play with.

Washington life was filled with riffs of the Pacific. Long Beach, cold but beautiful. Puget Sound, calmer, with mountains on the rim, ferries, and the two sea otters I’ve seen visiting the shore with their favorite rocks. The strait of Juan de Fuca and the Salish Sea, the San Juans, more open, stronger tides, Orca, sharper rocks, sea lions, and seals. San Francisco’s coast, urban and littered, but brighter somehow. El Salvador, hot, with palm trees and pelicans flying back and forth and shells in shapes I’ve never seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.   

And now this lake. Lake Michigan.


A year after moving to Michigan, we got in the car and drove north to Sleeping Bear Dunes. It was October, and the dunes were so much colder and bigger than I’d imagined. I carried our 2-year-old daughter to the top and looked out over the lake, the lake so big that it had no shore on the other side.

We hiked to Sleeping Bear Point and there she was below us, Lake Michigan. So blue she was almost teal. Two islands in the distance, the bear cubs. I was moved by the depth of the water, by the legend of mother bear, by the enormity that was as mind clearing as the Pacific, but less loud, slightly less intimidating.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never underestimate her or any of the Great Lakes.

Six thousand shipwrecks in the last two centuries, 1,500 in Lake Michigan. The winds can whip up across the water in no time and the largest ship to ever sink, the Edmund Fitzgerald, wasn’t 100 years ago. No, it was 1975.

This was unsalted water. This was a lake. The       Lake.

The next year we drove a state’s worth of miles to get to the Upper Peninsula for the first time. And for the first time in a long time I breathed in the sweet, spicy smell of stands of pine trees and saw the familiar purple swaths of lupine. We were on our way to Marquette, and little did I know that while my husband spent his hours at a conference giving speeches, the girls and I would spend hours on the rocky beaches giving chances to the lake to befriend us. And she did.

At Eagle Harbor’s beach I watched five ladies in low beach chairs and swimsuits lay under the intense, but disappointingly cold, rays of spring sun, soaking up every thermal unit it provided. They all held books in one hand, fly swatters in the other, hovering over their bare skin, which I found odd, until the flies found me. Ah.

This was Lake Superior.


We had driven far enough north to reach the end of the acronym. Gichi-gami was blue and bright and the coldest water that had ever embraced my body. There was a dock out there in Eagle Harbor, one that seemed easy enough to swim to, so I launched myself into the water, swam two strokes, and launched right back out. I hadn’t expected a polar plunge in the middle of May! My husband put our oldest daughter on his back, determined to swim there, but I warned him he would cramp up before he hit five strokes, and he quickly turned back. We were all breathless and laughing and swatting flies. An eagle flew overhead.

Copper Harbor, as far as you can get, and full of beautiful, smooth, speckled red rocks. It was a shoreline like nothing I’d ever seen. There were no tidepools, but there were rocky outcroppings everywhere to climb and explore. I traced my fingers and toes along the contours of the lake, almost intimately, in a way the Pacific does not allow.

And almost every summer since we moved to Michigan, we have been lucky enough to know someone who has one of those “cabins” or “cottages” every Michigander steals away to. On a fire lane in a stand of old growth woods it perches on metal poles, yes poles that reach down into the sandy dune and, I hope, meet some kind of sturdier substrate.

Each year the sand is washed away even further as the slow rise of the Lake marches towards these cabins, beating away the grasses and trees that hold houses in place. There is some debate as to how to save these cabins from the fingers of the lake. Some have built enormous retaining walls, a fast and almost adrenaline induced response to the loss of dune and home. But some research points to the lake’s long wisdom of reappropriating the sand in ways that save the dunes in the long term. Cutting off access to more sand could exacerbate the problem in the long term.

The lakes have been here for 20,000 years, left over from the sea, the ancient sea, the ocean of coral and fish. They hold 20% of earth’s freshwater, these lakes, lapping at the shore.

Does it have waves? Yes. Tides? Not really. Salt? No. Sea otters? No. Seals or sea lions? No and no.

But there are loons and sailboats. Plover and whitefish. And once, while camping at Wilderness Park, I caught sight of a wiigwaas jiimaan early in the morning out on Big Stone Bay.


Way to Compost 3: The 3 Bin System

As an intern on an organic farm, I used to compost a lot of raw farm material. The farm was certified biodynamic, which meant that as much as possible, we strived to be a closed system—a farm “organism.” Very few inputs came in (coffee and chocolate were the much needed and celebrated exceptions), and no outputs went “out.” We had to take care of our own outputs, if you catch my meaning.

Imagine the farm as an organism. Humans and animals eat plants and grasses, burn energy, and leave behind various forms of waste. Trees take in carbon dioxide, burn sugars, and give off oxygen. Worms eat decaying material, pass it through their marvelous guts, and leave humus as waste. On the farm, weeds, grass clippings, used water, sheep wool, chickens that did not run for cover from the hawk, leftover milk, garbage, manure, and yes, even our own “humanure” were all waste streams that needed to be transformed into usable energy once again. Constant compost!

In order to keep all of these outputs organized for the composting process, we used the 3-bin system. This could be anything divided into three separate sections, often by moveable pieces of lumber such as pallets or boards. Strawbales are also a good material for building the bins. Once strawbales start to decay, you can just add them to the compost.

The bins were at least 3 cubic feet, and needed enough space in the front for a person to use a shovel or front loader to turn the pile form one bin to another. Placing bins in the shade is a good idea, and making sure there is good drainage is also important. If it rains, compost piles tend to leach nutrients. Building the bins right onto the soil is a good solution to this problem, as long as your soil drains well. Covering the pile with straw, a tarp, or leaves also helps to keep the pile from becoming too saturated.

When compost day came, (usually every two weeks or so) all of the manure, kitchen scraps, and brown material I had stored in the first of the three bins was made into a compost pile in the middle. Here’s how I made it:

The first layer was about an inch of chopped sticks and twigs from my pile of “brown” stuff in the first bay. These provided an air pocket on the bottom of the pile for good air circulation. When the pile built heat over the next day or two, convection currents would draw air from the bottom of the pile up through the top. This provided hard working microorganisms with oxygen and kept the pile smelling pretty fresh.

After this first layer, (the crust, if you will) I filled it with a compost cake. First, brown stuff, then greens from the kitchen can or the manure piles. Next, water it if it seemed too dry. Compost piles should have the moisture content of a wrung out sponge. Then brown, green, water and so on, until I had layered all of the stored up piles of “waste” into a fabulous monster of a seven layer compost cake. I would frost the pile with leaves, strawbale flakes, or sometimes a tarp if it was going to rain a lot. This top layer shed moisture and kept off flies. It also looked very neat and tidy.

Then I let the pile sit for a couple of weeks to bake. The temperature of the pile peaked the first week at around 150 F, then it slowly declined. At the end of the second week, I peeled off the outer layer, prepared a bottom layer of twigs and sticks in the 3rd bin, and turned the pile into it. To make sure that material that may have been left on the outside of the first pile had time in the middle, I shoveled vertical “slices” of the compost cake, from right to left, into horizontal layers from bottom to top. Farmers with front loaders have their own methods for making sure all the material gets a chance to be in the hot seat. This was my from scratch, by hand method.

By the time I turned the pile from the 2nd to the 3rd bin, the first bin was already filling up with more brown stuff, the cows and chickens were piling up more manure, we had eaten and left behind plenty of kitchen scraps to use again, and the middle bay was waiting to be filled. Waste streams do not take vacations.

The 3rd bay got two more weeks to be worked on by bacteria, fungus, and other microorganisms in the pile. It fermented while the new compost cake in the second bay cooked. When it smelled done, earthy and mushroomy and energizing, I moved it into the garden beds or under some trees until we are ready to use it. During the winter, the bays can store browns and greens until the earth warms up and compost organisms are in abundance and active again.

This 3 bin system works beautifully if you have a front loader to turn the compost–or if you want to skip your gym membership and do lots of shoveling instead. It works well for those who have a lot of material they need compost fairly quickly on a regular basis (community gardens) and have time to make, turn, and use several piles a year—or for those who have a very willing and enthusiastic intern. 

Stay tuned for more ways to compost as the winter turns a celestial corner to spring.

Compost where?

There are two important places where compost happens in nature: the forest floor and inside stomachs.

The forest floor is a slow, sweet smelling compost pile we call duff.  Duff even sounds muted and mysterious, a substance with tiny secrets and tantalizingly familiar smells. Leaves created through the miraculous process of photosynthesis—a process made possible by a bacteria containing chlorophyll that can capture light to make energy and food—fall back to the earth and are broken down by earthy critters into smaller and smaller pieces until they become food for soil microorganisms.  This transformation has sustained forests for thousands of years.

The first shredders.

could you hear them if you paused,

ear to the ground, like the popping sound

of fish munching on coral underwater?

All of Mother Earth is being savored,

tasted, taken in, from forest to ocean to farm,

teeth and jaws gnawing away on our giant earthcicle,

passing particles through guts, working them deeper

and deeper into the ground until what once was leaf or twig

or even beetle or bone has become so small that soil microbes,

bacteria and fungus and slime mold, are able at last to access energy,

metabolize fallen sunspots, release stardust

back into soil where tree roots are waiting like open hands

to carry nutrients up and up to the canopy to be

knitted into next year’s leaves.

Slime mold: it appeared in the garden out of nowhere and has never been seen again!

These microscopic bodies live, transform, and die without being seen in order to move the wheel of life forward. To take what is dead and transform it into a spark of life. A wonder. This is bodily, physical, and it can make us uncomfortable. It can turn our stomachs.

And our stomachs are the other place compost happens in nature. Stomachs and intestines combine to make an oxygen deprived compost tank inhabited by millions of microorganisms. The most efficient stomachs belong to ruminant (“room-in-it”) animals. They include sheep, goats, giraffes, deer, and llamas. Ordinary as they are, the inside of a ruminant’s stomach holds another one of life’s great mysteries. Ruminants can miraculously turn plant nitrogen into protein with the help of bacteria that scientists believe to be over 3.6 billion years old (archaebacteria), fungi, and protozoa.

Cows are the most widely known and underappreciated ruminants I know.  With a four part stomach—the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum—cow manure is the best example of barrel turned compost on four legs. The first compartment of a cow’s stomach, the rumen, is the size of a barrel.  It can hold up to 40 gallons of material and 25-30 gallons of salt-filled saliva are sent down there every day to balance the rumen’s pH.  Just as in a compost pile, the smaller the fiber the more completely and efficiently it composts.  So, what goes into the rumen is often sent back up for further chewing, for rumination.

Perhaps the bovines ruminate on their bacterial partners, how their partnership came to be.

Cows eat raw grass but, ultimately, they are feeding the microbes that live just down the tracheal street. Those toothless wonders need the grass to be chewed for them before they can get to work. On the forest floor, beetles and worms do the work. In a stomach, the organic material arrives pre-chewed, opening the way for them to extract all kinds of nutrients from it. Some they give to the cow, but a lot of it they keep for themselves, to give them energy and to make protein for their bodies. The microbes living inside the cow turn nitrogen stored in plants into protein, not the cow.


If you were looking for them, look no further, they reside in the rumen of ruminants. Ruminating on plant-filled sunshine. They will double in number every hour, and after a long life of a few weeks, the spent microbes are washed away into the cow’s intestines to be food for the cow. Seventy five percent of all of a cow’s protein content comes from the bodies of ancient microbes.

McDonald’s (the hamburger patty and the cheese), that charcuterie board at the winery (the cheese and the wine), the Greek yogurt for breakfast, all of them made possible by ancient microbes living out their lives inside cows.

Human stomachs don’t have the ability to turn nitrogen into protein, but we rely on a similar microbial partnership.  Just a thimble-full of large intestine fluids contains up to ten trillion microbes.  Without them, we would be unable to make K and B vitamins.  And even our own humanure is a precious resource[1].  When handled properly and with care, we can compost our own waste to use on trees, shrubs, lawns, and even agricultural crops, closing our nutrient cycle and saving millions of gallons of water by not flushing this resource down the toilet.

Our bodies have grown from the soil as much as our food has, and the microbes that make nutrients and proteins available to plants and cows and us are also waiting for us to give them our leftovers in a relationship of reciprocity. They do not care if what we give them is moldy or halfway chewed. They have no preference for a month-old piece of dried macaroni or a week old, uneaten scrap of a tostada. They only need the right conditions to break it down—the conditions found in a cow’s rumen, our own digestive tract, and the forest floor. Compost piles are a kind of external, symbiotic, second stomach in teh backyard. The same conditions that we create in our compost piles—a warm, moist, aerated mass of carbohydrates and proteins large enough to house bacteria and fungus, undisturbed for a while so they can do their alchemist’s work–breaking down our leftover food into exactly what the soil needs to grow more food. Humus.

When we add compost back to the soil, its pulse quickens. What were once food scraps have transformed into a plant root buffet, the positive and negative charges that electrify the ground, begin to stir, poised, then grow, organize, coalesce, take form, take root, reach for the sunshine to be plucked by teeth or fingers or the header of a combine, harvested and reformed into food again.

We make soil food. Soils make we food.  We feed each other.

[1] Jenkins, Joseph.  Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure.  1999.  Joseph Jenkins, Inc.: Grove City, PA.

The world tilts

There is more than one way to mark darkest of night.
Newgrange in Ireland flooded with light.
A stone shed in sand filled with starlight and strangers,
holds oxen and donkey, a child-filled manger.
In Ohio the serpent mound coils away.
The Mayans in Tikal are still marking the days.
In Montana a stick thrust deep into the snow,
and for twelve days Yule fires will grow and will grow.
So the birth of the sun and the Son are the same,
crossing thresholds from darkness to light with one name.
Before glittering things that imprison our eyes,
all the paper and plastic and stuff money buys,
was silence and stillness, coldness and bleak,
the slow march of winter on two frost bitten feet.
Before the vice grip of new, fast electronics,
were birds tweeting carols, celestial phonics.
Owls in the twilight, frogs in brumation,
soft fur of hare, the bear’s hibernation.
Do not forget what this slow time is for,
a Light in the darkness, a knock at the door.
Welcome! Welcome! Invite illumination
to come in, to rush in!
Holy perturbation.


Little spider with eight long legs, so delicate, so skilled, and unsnappable. What are you made of? Sticks and stones and used up cell phones? Sugar and spice and leftover rice? Or some other brambular molecule that sticks to surfaces as if gravity were an after breath and my skin the surface of a planet.

She is gone, silently. I cannot find her now. But here is my tent, settled close to the beach on Drummond Island. Dromainn. “High ground” in Gaelic. Drummond. A Scottish name for “ridge.”

At the end of the summer, just after our girls went back to school, something drew me here, back to the land of islands, of watery channels of every kind, big and small, rushing through dunes overgrown with grasses. The northeastern most tip of Michigan, and the very beginning of more islands. Pretty soon, if I kept island hopping, the North Channel would greet me, then Georgian Bay. My eyes rest over the water of Pigeon Cove, just west of Rabbit Bay and south of Sturgeon Bay.

In front of me are several dots of tiny, treed islands. Like the back of a punch needled rug, multilayered textures of variegated green travel all the way to the edge of the water.

I long for a paddle board! To set out then set foot on them. Someday.

I am silent as a wish, but the lake is not.

The lake is rarely quiet. It rolls and rolls and rolls onto the shore. Sometimes, in the evening, I try to will it to slow down and rest, but it never stops moving, never stops coming. Water is like that. A power. A force. Wind is like that, too, and when you are sailing (I’m learning), both have a say, both are part of the equation. Only a sailor never asks the water or wind to be different. She trims her sails and guides the tiller accordingly, using what she is given to go where she needs, or wants, to go. Or choosing to wait until a better day. Fighting wind and water is rarely a good idea. I suppose burning oil overcomes their authority eventually, but only with great effort, and only for so long, not forever.

So, what am I waiting for here, silently, on the shore?

I am waiting for wild.

Where is the wild in me, and can I give her permission to come home, to set sail, to make her way across the water from the island I have banished her to? My teenage diaries are crammed with words about succeeding, overcoming obstacles with fierce singularty, lines and lines of disciplined hours with only one destination in mind, and she? She was left on the other side of the island, that undisciplined, carefree, irresponsible, in tune, wild and wonderful girl. Sometimes she would emerge in my moments, but with rules attached like ropes, so she turned to anger and screamed at me, and so I starved us both in fear. She waited. She is what I am made of. I knew we would need to meet again one day.

The winds are up my dear. Hold on. Do not fear. I am just learning to set sail.

Backyard Tributary

Take a deep breath.

And another.

Now imagine this united moment: home kitchens, cafés, bistros, all-you-can-eat buffets, school cafeterias, churches, mosques, temples, food trucks, convention centers, the white house, hospitals, fast food restaurants, and food courts at the mall gather all of the leftover food…and dump it.

Flump, crsshh, trasshh!

The headwaters of Food River. Every person in the United States contributes to this monumental feature of our landscape, but not many do what we are about to do next: follow it.

The first droplets quickly become rivulets that condense into larger white and black plastic bags temporarily held in cans in kitchens and behind buildings. As the food eddies begin to swirl, rise, and gain momentum, the surface tension increases, threatening, and occasionally succeeding, to spill over its banks. To avoid a food flood, the swelling leftovers are gathered and dumped into garbage truck basins. Their motors rumble, mechanical arms lift, dump, compact and intensify the food flow.

Now imagine these fleets of garbage trucks passing by your house, 300 every hour, on their way to the transfer station, like they do in the south Bronx. Imagine the sound. The smell. In a matter of days, Food River swiftly roils into mighty rapids, rushing down a cascading ladder of larger and larger containers until it crashes against its final destination, a massive, rotting food wave mixed with other trash, engulfed forever by a landfill where it will finally lay still, stagnant, and belch 15% of the nation’s annual methane emissions into the air.

Unlike other rivers, Food River is under no threat of running dry. It courses through restaurants, houses, and neighborhoods, carrying 38 million tons of food waste to landfills every year. If we convert those 38 million tons into gallons, it would replace all of the water going over Niagara Falls for an entire month. We could survive a trip over the massive food-fall in a dumpster.

Pause your imagination for just a couple more Food River facts. It carries enough uneaten food to feed 190 million people—every day. And even though it consists primarily of food, that food carries water. Twenty-five percent of the freshwater in the United States is used to grow food that never gets eaten.

Ugh, numbers! They tell one kind of story, they quantify ‘how much,’ they get baked into pies and charts, but they do not scrape food into a compost bucket instead of a garbage can. Statistics do not build worm bins. Numbers do not dig a hole in the compost pile, dump leftovers in, and cover it up again. Numbers weigh on us, numb us, are quickly forgotten, like food waste.

But the more we throw away, the less chance we have to begin again. Food River’s current course forfeits the potential life locked up in all that organic matter. A massive amount of useful nutrients that can transform the future of food and soil and bugs and butterflies and humans.

So let’s begin with the end, with what is left, and break down into our elemental parts, our elemental selves, into the dirt and the dust, down and down until our cheeks touch the soil and our noses smell the earth and we can no longer bear to waste it. So far to the end that it becomes the beginning. Soil is food, food is soil. Let’s jumpstart into numberless, new cycles.

The water cycle: evaporation, condensation, precipitation, sublimation.

The soil cycle: food waste collection, decomposition, application, invigoration.

Compost piles are the clouds of the soil cycle.

Leftovers, one of the country’s greatest wastes, is ripe to be one of our greatest natural resources. There is an inexplicable beauty and harmony here. A beautiful equation that simply needs balancing. We need to take these leftovers and deposit them not into the landfill, but back into the soil. We need compost. And to do that, we have to divert the great Food River into our own backyards.

Take a deep breath.

And another.

Imagine this:

Dinner: made, served, shared, savored, coaxed into a few picky eaters’ mouths, cleared and stacked into plate cairns on the counter. The last thing anyone wants to do now is add more chores. It is done. Scraped. Rinsed. Let the garbage truck take it away and out of reach and sight and smell. Take it away. Take it away and never think of that last bite of bagel with cream cheese, the pickle juice in the empty jar, the crunchy rice or coconut curry beginning to split. Especially not the mildewed dinner roll or long forgotten yogurt with flecks of gray-green mold from the depths of the fridge. These are the leftovers that cannot be fluffed into something new. Leftovers destined for a plastic lined and lidded future. For the great and ever flowing Food River.

Not this time.

This time, dump them, place them, scrape them, scoop them all into a compost bin kept under your sink (or in my case, often on the counter) with glee, curiosity, thankfulness, and maybe a little bit of rebellious flair. Those smelly leftovers have a future now, a mysteriously quiet and captivating journey to new life in your yard or garage or, dare I say it, custom made coffee table that doubles as a worm bin.

Yes! Your leftovers have potential, a purpose, somewhere left to go, something left to do, and it has the power to transform the earth and us at the same time.

This blog explores many ways to divert food’s fluvial course from the headwaters of your plate to the rich compost delta in your backyard.

Let’s make clouds of compost.

Tuesday Afternoon

My corner eye thought they were birds,

but leaves, just detached from limb,

flickered and flipped a brief migration,

landed at wind’s discretion.

Soon dappled light will be replaced

by straight shadows clacking in birches,

those be-jangled enthusiasts of fall

and its golden, breezy air.

Then they were leaves,

but no, peep-piping birds fluttered,

re-leafing trees, dropping tenderly

onto bare branches, nestling softly

into needled pines.

Sun is softer now, air sharp,

a languid, restless token.

My paddle board caught the wind, too,

a leaf on the water,

detached from shore,

rippling down the cold lake.

I turned to go back.

What leaf would ever do that?

Is that a cat?

It sits on our deck, huge and dare I say looming, eyeing our two actual cats through the sliding glass door, its little paws resting contentedly on its light brown belly, perfectly balanced on its back legs and long, gloriously flowing tail, waiting very insistently for something….for food.

It is the biggest squirrel I have ever seen.

It is not at all like the ground squirrels, or gray diggers as we call them, ubiquitous in Eastern Washington. Those squirrels do not live in trees, but in rocky outcrops and underground tunnels dug entirely too close to the septic tank’s main line. My Mom once hired a high schooler to eradicate said gray digger from our garden by “local means.”

Oh yes, he came, with his hunting license, his hunter’s orange, his rifle, and a lawn chair, sat quiet as a cat for at least two hours on our deck, his back to the house, watching the stone garden wall where the gray diggers were known to idle on warm rocks after stuffing their bellies with strawberries, and when the gun went off, “BAM!!” it scared us all ****less. Mom paid him. He packed up.

The next day, two more gray diggers sprouted from that same rock.

No, this “cat” is the eastern fox squirrel—brash, bold, beautiful, and as big as a cat. It’s as if an artist took a brush and blended the deepest shades of brown, tan, and rusted orange into one. Sometimes they drape themselves over our deck railing and sleep, waiting for someone to paint them. I’ve recently learned there is a name for this. It’s called “splooting.”

There are other squirrels in Michigan. Red and eastern gray squirrels (which include the black ones, somehow), and Michigan’s northern and southern flying squirrels (though I have never seen one) flitting in the treetops of our backyard and flirting with my newly bloomed tulips. I fire-walled those bulbs in the fall with black netting hidden under fallen leaves, fed them with bone meal and brought them through the last frosts of spring with burlap blankets, only to discover their superb, rich, red blooms decapitated one morning by hungry squirrels.

There are plenty of “local means” in Michigan that I could call.

A Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist had this to say in January, “It is not like anything you can get in the store, and it just has a very unique, light taste but kind of a nutty flavor in it.” (Detroit Free Press)

One day, longing for freedom from mothering and hoping to fill that hollow spot that needed my mother nature, I went to a patch of woods near our house. A rhythmic gnawing snatched my ear, and in the crook of a maple branch sat a fox squirrel. She held a pine cone in her clever, furry fingers, and chewed the seeds and spit the chaff out the side of her mouth, which was turned up in a kind of sideways crescent. Eye level with me, happy to let me watch the bright brown fur that outlined her eyes, the perfectly shaped tail that exactly mirrored the curve of her back, her thin lips, moving so nimbly and fast that the pine cone came apart in a blur of precision, leaving shreds behind like leaves on the trail until just a cone-cob remained.

She chattered at me, loudly. I had watched long enough.

Watching squirrels, the Iroquois story goes, taught people how to tap trees. Robin Kimmerer, a mother, plant ecologist and writer, tells the story in her book, “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Squirrels were hungry, and so were people. It was the hungry time—the end of winter and the beginning of spring—so squirrels gnawed at tree branches with their spile-like teeth and licked the sap that seeped out while it flowed up the outer and inner bark from the tree’s underground “root” cellar. Last year’s sunshine for this year’s life.

The squirrel-tapped sap froze on the surface and then—sublimation. It was so cold that water in the sap transformed directly into a gas, leaving a bead of sweeter sap the squirrels returned to for food.

Kimmerer describes how Native Americans around the Great Lakes used long, hollowed out logs to sublimate sap on a large scale. They poured sap into the shallow channel so it would freeze. Then, they would chip out water that was now ice, distilling sap with cold instead of heat to save precious fuel.


This is the second year that we have tapped a tree in our backyard. Can’t get much more Michigan than the simple fact that we even thought about doing it. And a Silver Maple, no less, not even a sugar one.

As the smoke from our fire curled into our neighbor’s backyard, he did not miss a beat. “Boiling sap?” It does smell delicious. Our arch was rudimentary. The sap, smoky. Ten gallons of sap, 5 hours of solid burning, and 1 pint of syrup. We were as excited as kids when we poured it on pancakes and used it in cocktails. We live in a city of 50,000 people, and our neighborhood is full of maple trees and squirrels.

An urban sugar bush.

Everything is flowing, the tree sap, the blood in my heart, the Red Cedar River, the stories about people and squirrels who lived here for thousands of years before we did, and my gradual understanding of where my family lives, eats, and watches squirrels.

Nothing is still.

Especially not the over-sized squirrel sitting on my deck that destroyed my tulips and taught people how to tap trees.

The Marvelous Buffer of Time…

I notice, has worked to absorb and redistribute the last two years of pandemic shock waves.

​Ebb and flow

In the fall of 2021, we dropped our girls off at their first day of school after a harried summer, but I swear I had just picked them up from their last day of school, which was a hair’s breadth away from their first day back at school after nearly a year of virtual school. The student’s excited voices and first-day-of-school smiles muffled by masks.

Low tide of loss

It feels like so much time has passed since my Dad passed, but it is the same two years layered on top of the girls’ interrupted school routine. Three summers, two winters, already, without him. The grief no longer crashes down on me. I pick up memories of Dad as I walk through a day like we used to pick up the sand dollars he loved on the Oregon and Washington coasts. Sand dollars are slime-fuzzy purple when alive, white as bone when they are not. They are easier to find than petoskey stones, but no less wonderful.

Wave swells

The cats aged, and the kids, and the chicken. I thought she was going to lay her last egg, so to speak, but she must have heard me say that out loud ’cause she perked (pecked?) back up and is still going strong. The garden has another two years of wild iterations. At the end of August, tall and stemmy, reaching out to bumble bees, smelling of anise hyssop. Now in 2022, two new apple trees cushoined in snow.

Soothing lake waves

The pandemic left our calendar hatch wide open, inviting friends from Ohio back into our lives. We met at Shavehead Lake. The startling name fails to keep ethereal swans away, or the people at the campground who brought our meals to the cabin each day and stocked our fire pits with gasoline-soaked wood chips. Kids tangled arms and blankets. We jumped into Shavehead Lake in late summer (warm), fall (still warm), and early spring (shockingly cold). 

Then camping in Wilderness Park in June. Drive north until you get to the bridge, but just before crossing it, turn left like a troll and end up at Stone Bay. I took naps on the beach, grasses rustling, with beach spiders of every shape and size scuttling across endless games of tic-tac-toe in the sand.

And later that year, many trips to Lake Lansing, more to Lake Michigan, Grand Traverse Bay…as the pandemic waves came and receded, Michigan’s water bodies soothed the blows, provided days where I didn’t think about a virus or a mask because

I was on the water,

buffered by waves and time,

and by this last marvelous thing.

There were moments, days, I got angry with people who, during a pandemic in which hundreds of thousands have died, did not wear a mask in the simplest of public situations: a rest stop along Hwy 127, going north for solo camping on Drummond Island. I cursed at them under my mask. Glared holes into their maskless faces. Blamed them for the never ending worry of sending my kids to school without a vaccine, for stressing health care workers to the breaking point, for not considering the larger picture, the human landscape.

I fumed all the way to Detour where a ferry would take me across St. Marys River to an island, an island away from people. I got out of the car, stretched, tried to shake off my anger. Checked the ferry fare on a large board at the dock, decided not to buy food from a small food truck parked nearby, and was flooded with memories of all those ferries I took to Lopez Island, Washington, so many ferry lines like this and so many mis-remembered ferry schedules. I said goodbye to a boyfriend from Seattle that I had just broken up with on his way to miss the only ferry off of the island that day…A long night. A long time before this pandemic.

Detour Ferry

“Have you been on a ferry before?” he startled me from his Dodge pickup. Carharts, no mask, the kind of person I was recently furious with but also genuinely devastated by. My grief for people dying each day of Covid I absolutely laid at the feet of people who drove a pickup and wore boots like those.

“Um, yes, but not this one.” 

“$20 round trip, and you can pay on the ferry.”

“Thanks. Do you live on the island or…?” Being nice on the outside, gritting teeth under my mask.

“Yes ma’am. I commute from Drummond almost every day for work.”

“That’s a nice commute though. I’ve never been on the island, but I’m thinking of camping there tonight and tomorrow. Do you recommend any good camping sites?”

“If it were me, I’d just drive into the woods and find a spot, but Yacht Haven marina has showers and a nice lawn you can pitch your tent on by the water.”

A little wary, I decided to stick to my original plan, the township campground on the northwest shore.

“Okay, I’ll check it out. Thanks.”

The ferry chugged in from its short jaunt across the river. It unloaded cars and trucks and even a semitruck carrying enormous tree trunks. The last ferry I’d been on was with my Dad–the last time I was with him before we knew about his pancreatic cancer. Then came the familiar routine: car doors shut, engines ignite, the line slowly pulls forward, this car left, this truck right, me straight behind a pickup towing a fishing boat. Engines off. Ferry pulls away, and we are on the water. I got out to peer over the tall rim of the boat and waited to pay my fare. The ferry worker never came. Annoyed, I went to find him.

“He’s got you covered.” Points to Mr. Carhart’s pickup.

Immediately my body went slack under this wave of unexpected kindness. All of my silent judgment washed away like jagged flotsam. The warm surprise of gratitude quickly rushed in behind.

I spent two nights on Drummond Island, a long, langorious weeekend of walks, exploring new geology (more on that later), solitude, loons calling in the morning, the most glorious sunset I’ve seen in a long time, wishing for a paddle board.

I had just enough cash to pay for my camping spot, $30, thanks to my ferry godfather.