Wednesday, March 23, 2011

River Idyll

With a degree of comfort I listened to the weather people predict big amounts of snow to fall north of us. Since we've been in the heavy snow bands all winter long I felt justified if our locale, this one time, sat on the sidelines for this most recent storm.

The snow maybe did accumulate elsewhere as was forecast. The snow zone, however, wound up including us. The amount of snow that came, and the water content determined from it, adds to this year's impressive totals.

Last week, fortunately, gave us lovely spring weather to hang our hopes on. Given today's residential streets, a mess of drifts, tire tracks and compacted snow, we're glad we fit in a Saturday drive.

We went down the Mississippi River looking for eagles. You can spot eagles easily along the river in late February and into March. Eagles are most visible at this leafless time. They're around in large numbers in part because northward migration has started. Some eagles are breeding pairs who hang around all year, liking the open water.

I've written about Highway 61 before. The beautiful summer route between Red Wing and points downriver has been described. We use this same stretch when we go in search of eagles. The road is equally scenic with trees bare and the river ice gray and ready to go.

The National Eagle Center at Wabasha is an interesting stop. It puts you in contact with eagles both up close (it's home to rehabilitated birds) and through educational and eagle viewing opportunities.

The beautiful building, rather new to town, seems eagle-poised. It soars above the river on the river's west bank. Its glass facade faces the river where the spring torrent madly flows.

Inside, the sun streaming in, it's all warm and cozy. It can make you disbelieve that March in Minnesota can be blustery and cold.

We eventually joined the huddle of visitors on the outdoor platform. One of the center's bald eagles was brought out. It was tethered to its handler's wrist. It screeched as its big pale eye fastened on a bald eagle, wild and free, circling above the river.

"Get out of my territory!" it railed at the eagle. It was a speedy first lesson. The American bald eagle is notoriously territorial.

The tethered eagle was at least four or five years old. Its white head and tail feathers indicate it has reached maturity. Bald used to be a word that meant white, which may explain why these feathery denizens of the wilderness have their name.

The birds are big as seen in the air or in trees at a distance. Squaring off eyeball to eyeball they're huge. The distinct coloration, hooked yellow bills and yellow feet with sharp black talons all call attention to their fierce magnificence. As was said of General George Washington, the American bald eagle has a commanding presence.

Typically the birds weigh 7 to 10 pounds. The bones are hollow which is an odd concept to me. Females can weigh a few pounds more. They can also have wider wing spans - up to eight feet across - than male eagles.

We headed to the parked car discussing eagles and enjoying the sun on us. It wasn't warm near the river and our jackets felt good. It was also good to be going back to the car. We knew we would find it warm, something the sun does free of charge as it climbs higher in the sky approaching the vernal equinox.

A shadow swooped down as the car doors closed. A bald eagle had left a nearby tree.

It went out to the middle of the river, not a great distance away. It landed on a floating block of ice. As the ice breaks off upriver it comes down in all sizes and shapes. The eagle had singled out one of the smaller ice chunks.

The current continued to carry the ice and its passenger downriver. I expected the eagle to fly but it stayed where it was.

Suddenly I pictured the eagle as Huckleberry Finn. I could just see the eagle pretending to be Huck, floating his raft down this same Mississippi River (though several loops and bends and a couple states south).

The brilliant imagination of writer Mark Twain might possibly have created a fictional hero of greater stature than Huck if he had considered putting a bald eagle at the helm of his raft.This bald eagle, emulating Huck and Jim's plucky path to freedom, far from where they started, might have been dreamily navigating those dangerous waters for himself.

If not Huck Finn, perhaps my eagle friend was Sinbad the Sailor. The seventh voyage of Sinbad would be a most appropriate reenactment for this seemingly literature-loving bird. Like Sinbad constructing a raft to float down the river, the eagle was constructing its own flight of fancy as it drifted further away from its land base.

Possibly Eagle Friend, as I already thought of it, was assuming the persona of tyrannical Captain Ahab. It hunches its shoulders to portray the driven captain of the Pequod in the Herman Melville novel Moby-Dick.

With harpoon to the ready, it scans the ocean washing high waves across the prow of the ship. It stands on constant lookout, inward-focused, giving thought to nothing except exacting revenge on its nemesis, the great mythical whale.

Al broke into my reverie. Images of Huck Finn, Sinbad the Sailor and Captain Ahab swam away, leaving only the reality of the steadily diminishing form of the eagle atop his floating ice cube.

Al offered an observation. It was laced with practicality as usual. "The eagle is using the ice like a tool" he pointed out in his calm, scientific manner.

I could see this was true, when put this way. The bird didn't have to be high in a tree being alert. It didn't have to swoop down. It was where the fish are. The ice, like a boat, did all the work.

Chalk one up for science I said to myself. I commended my husband on his astuteness. "A tool - yes. That's good," I said.

No doubt "eagle using tool" will be entered as a note with Al's photo collection. Let it be so. I have my own thought to record.

I'm thrilled that the bald eagle, our noble emblem, selected as the American icon over a wild turkey in 1782, feels secure enough in all it represents to take a day off.

An American bald eagle playfully floating down a river - there has to be an element of native wisdom in this. Take it on trust from the eagle. Construct your raft and let it carry you away. You do the important stuff. You also have to dream and play.

Ro Giencke - March 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Goose Bump

It's the first day of Spring. It arrives right about now although it wasn't my intention to catch the first euphoric moments of the new season. The ushering in of official spring has a right to its euphoric overtones whether recorded or not. We're ecstatic after the endless winter put to bed.

When you have nothing to measure your winter against you don't think much about it. But if you happen to catch the Weather Channel and your eyes pop at the readings in Texas or Florida - or even Rapid City for goodness sakes - you start to grow alarmed. Spring is everywhere. Is it forgetting us?

It came to a head last week watching video from out of our neighboring state of Wisconsin. When the green Capitol lawns at Madison were shown I realized I was about that same shade in envy. And this was before St. Patrick's Day when at least I could say I was doing my version of green for my Irish friends.

When even our sister state sports about without its winter mantle and preens in the green of the new season I say this is unfair, this is for us way too long.

Our immediate neighborhood must be the last holdout for snow. We alone seem to be left with snow cover. Our area got hit early (November 13), hard (a foot of snow in that first snowfall) and often. It didn't go anywhere but up, as in ever higher piles of white, and down, as in deeper drifts with every step.

The recent run of mild temperatures has mostly erased the snow pack in other parts of the city. Freeway embankments are bare and frankly unbeautiful. Last year's grasses are scraggly and beaten down from the previous weight of the snow.

Residential yards are free of snow too. The bare lots reveal all sorts of things. They're like the open pits at archeological digs. Rubbish and lost items are scattered as left - mittens, toys, sections of newspapers blown by the wind, covered up all these months.

Hard snow ridges persist at the curbs, particularly on shady streets where the sun can't penetrate. These were deposited by the city plows as they open the streets (our winter warriors - "we can get out, we can get through!") or made into roadside piles by our own driveway-clearing efforts. The dirty unlovely snow hillocks are vestiges of their staggering former intersection-view-blocking powers.

The houses on our block sit in a sea of white. There's not a thought that, below the snow, the cold soil we're anxious to reach with rake and trowel will any day soon bring forth crocus or daffodil.

The surface snow - the snow on top which warms in the sun's rays - is crusty and soft. I'm a pushover it suggests. I'll be gone soon. But underneath is another story. That snow layer is like glacial ice. It has no thought of evaporating away.

This is okay, perhaps. It may result in slower seepage into the ground and eventually into the local streams and rivers forecast to flood. Maybe we should regard our yards as having a role in the prevention of the rising waters. They are, so to speak, our thumb in the dike.

A pair of cardinals perched in the front yard tree, welcome notes of color to the gray Sunday start. They're our harbingers of spring along with other consistent signs. They give hope and reason to look around with interest and delight.

A car in front of us today stopped abruptly on the road. Fortunately we and the car ahead were able to brake in time. The reason for the sudden stop was soon apparent. A Canadian goose was being given the right of way as it zigzagged a course to the other side.

One hears of a speed bump. Al says this was a goose bump. Would have been - I counter. It'd have been a bumped goose - except for the alertness of the first driver.

Spring is here - cardinals, geese and yes, even the leftover piles of snow. It is good to move ahead into the season. Spring is stretch time. This year we'll throw in a sprint or two.

Ro Giencke - March 2011

Friday, March 18, 2011

It started with floor plans

You know how it is when some snatch of memory from the far past comes out of nowhere and sets you musing? This is how it was for me recently. From nowhere a remembrance of my mom and her interest in collecting house floor plans came to me.

I thought of how much she enjoyed studying floor plans. She kept a file. They were clipped from newspapers and magazines.

Mom had comments on whether a plan had practicality and good flow. Sometimes she showed us one of the house plans. They weren’t my interest but I politely looked.

I was never into dimensions. Give me a house to walk into and I can tell you right away if it’ll work. A blueprint or floor plan, an artistic concept mathematically set down on paper, is something else.

Sometimes she wrote her comments on the margins of the plans. She saved the plans she liked. Reluctantly, after time, she got rid of others.

I didn't say anything but in my mind I had a question: Why are you saving them? She wasn't going to build a house. No renovation was going to happen either. She wasn’t going to knock out a dividing wall and say to her builder, "Refer to this plan which I just happen to have."

Now I realize the floor plans were for her a wonderful escape. They were her hobby even if it wasn’t thought of as such. Personal pastimes are our interest and our interest alone, another dimension of our life which is often lived out in the mind - where maybe some of the best living is really done.

In a subsequent email to my sister I mentioned being reminded of mom’s liking for floor plans. She was glad I shared this. It caused her also to think back on them. She noted they were such a part of her life.

"Makes you wonder what our kids, years later, will think back on and say - this is where mom curled up in her head and had her own separate life," ended my next email to her.

My sister wrote back. She'd given thought to what her kids might say of her interests and, in the email, listed the interests which they might single out.

The self-summary, as might be supplied by her children, prompted me to want to make a similar inspection of my interests.

A personal assessment turned outward, as if the work of others, can make you look at yourself differently. Visualizing what others see of us can make each one of us consider the picture we give out.

We're in the act of describing ourselves at every moment whether we know it or not. Actions and interests very accurately communicate to others. They suggest what commands our time and what we, by choice, lend ourselves to.

Somewhat like scanning the mental impression I have of myself, here’s what I came up with that might be said by those who know me best:

“She loves sunshine. She gravitates to sunshine at all times. She has her favorite places in the sun and sits in the full strength of its light. She avoids the shade if she can. Sun nourishes her. She needs hot weather and has never liked the cold.

She loves to walk and read and write. She’s good at writing letters. She can talk and philosophize at length, and just as easily curl up with a magazine or book and be so quiet you have to go look for her.

She loves going anywhere in the car. Being in a car, like the action of walking for her, helps her think. Decisions fall into place with wheels under you she says. Decisions, ideas and the simple enjoyment of all there is to see from a moving car make her appreciate the open road very much.

She loves to travel. She has a lifelong curiosity about geography. Place names fascinate her. She studies maps and atlases and pores over street maps as if they're clues to treasure, which for her they are.

She marvels at local gems tucked away in the neighborhoods. These places of interest, revealed by maps or – more adventurously found by car or hiking through – make her an urban explorer. She’ll take any new street. Any place that leads off the main track has her attention.

She notes the parks, trails, creeks, churches, retail centers and pockets of historic homes or beautiful residential gardens which many entirely miss. She assesses each visited spot for its good points. When she especially likes an area she adopts it enthusiastically as an extension of her own neighborhood.

She’s animated by quirky place names. She is amused by the quaint place names common to Appalachia, the Ozarks, New England and the West. The sparkling names of coastal Florida and the heritage-rich Spanish names of California quicken her pulse. She ponders and searches out the background of all place names new to her, digging out their provenance like an excavator for gold.

She loves her coffee. Breakfast is her favorite time of day. Breakfast out is her spin on a fun shared meal. She is at her happiest making spaghetti sauce. She is partial to her daily glass of wine. She likes to sip it and know life is good.

She likes steak, hamburgers and salads with her own homemade Italian dressing, heavy on the olive oil and seasoned with the sunny herbs of oregano and basil.

She’s enthusiastic about many things or the idea of them. She likes the New York Times daily crossword puzzles in the local paper, and the local paper for its news, comics, general information and local perspective. She’s an avid daily newspaper reader. Life is interesting to her.”

My file turns out to be different from mom's. No doubt, however, the same conversation will ensure. Out of the blue the kids will recall facets of who I am. They'll trade comments and laugh as they review. "Funny how it came to me" they'll say. "Those things are such a part of her."

Ro Giencke - 2011

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The day it never warmed up

In this story the laugh is on me. Which is, I think, a great way to tell a story. It happened like this. There was a chance to accompany my husband when he had some work to do out of town. This was a few years ago. It required staying in that city a few days.

It was early February and bitterly cold. Being a good Midwestern city it had enclosed skyways for walking in comfort high above the blustery streets of downtown. The skyways linked our hotel with shopping. I couldn't wait to get started.

It was great fun rambling the the sky walks. There were shops in every building linked one to another. It was blissful to be snug inside moving smartly along. The big glass windows of the walkways let me look down and observe how bundled up everyone was. They looked miserable huddled in their small groups at the intersections waiting for the lights to turn green.

A temperature sign was visible from one of the glassed-in corridors crossing to another building. It read -012.

"That's about what they said it was going to be," I nodded, thinking of the TV meteorologist who with such glee forecasts the expected brutal weather conditions.

I shivered deliciously, aware of how unwrapped I felt in my light layers. The heavy parka was out of sight and mind, cast aside back at the hotel as if it would never be needed again.

Around noon I happened to pass the temperature sign again. I made a point of seeing how much it had warmed up.You call that warming up? I said to it. It had gone up to a miserable -06.

Product of a small town, it's my nature to believe that a conversation opportunity awaits with every next person you see.

"Can that be the temperature?" I asked a woman approaching from the opposite direction. Arctic blast or not, it seemed that by the lunch hour the sun should be warming things better than that. The number seemed like a very poor effort on someone's part.

She turned and looked at the sign with me. A businessman, striding by, heard the question and wheeled around. With a smile on his face he said, "That's not the temperature, that's the Dow Jones."

The purpose of the sign made clear, a small detail previously missed registered on me. The marquee for the investment banking firm connected with the sign might as well have jumped across the street and joined us, so clearly did it show up now.

The woman and I looked at each other and laughed.We figured our helpful friend had a pretty funny story to bring back to his office.

And for the record, if anyone asks if I know anything about the Dow Jones I can modestly answer, "I've had my experience with it."

Ro Giencke - March 2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Scene from a Summer Porch

I was nine when my grandma died. I didn't know her very well.

We lived in different states. This is part of the reason she's not recalled as a grandma of cuddles and bedtime stories.

She and grandpa came every summer to spend a month with us in the country.
Being part of our family for several weeks each year, and the annual trip to see them, were our only times together. We weren't together at Christmas or Easter or birthdays.
Grandma was busy summers at our place. She helped mom with things around the house. I preferred to tag after my older boys. They did fun stuff outside. I wanted to be with them and not inside.
Mom and Grandma were companions for each other in the daily tasks. Grandpa was generally fishing when dad was at work. My grandparents were helpful easy company. But as a grandchild I seldom entered their world.
There's little I remember of my grandmother. My picture of her is formed from what others tell. The one vivid memory is a reprimand received from her. It was said sharply or that's how I interpreted her tone of voice.
It caught me off guard. It happened like this. My grandparents were in chairs on the porch. They sat side by side on that side of the house in the cool of the evening.
Grandpa was content to enjoy the quiet that settled wherever we kids were not. Grandma, more accustomed to having her hands occupied, kept the fly swatter handy. Flies could be pesky and most vexing as the season moved toward late summer.
I hurried past them that evening. I was either coming in or going out the door, trying to do so without letting in flies as we'd been instructed. I noticed that grandma had killed a number of flies.
“It looks like World War III” I said of the flies that lay where swatted. This was the cold war era of the 1960s. We and Russia were watching each other closely. Tensions were high. Kids don't miss much. We knew the buzz words, the worries and the threats.
It was intended as a commendation of grandma's accurate aim. It did look like a battlefield to me but it wasn't of real lives sacrificed that my comment pertained.
"Don’t say that,” grandma reproved me. “Don’t ever say that.”
I went away as if verbally swatted. I smarted from the sharpness of her retort. I didn't feel the harmless remark merited a rebuke.
Later I must have taken my hurt feelings to mom. She told me that grandma hated the word war. She lived through the first world war as an American caught in Europe by circumstances which kept her and her family there the duration of those hostilities. The experience had a lasting effect which I for the first time had come upon.
I believe this is where I started to understand that what we say to another is important. No matter how much we believe our words are without malice or injurious intent we don't know how they can register on someone else.
Watch what you say. Think before you say it. I learned that from grandma's response that summer evening. She died before the next summer's visit. I’ve never forgotten that moment on the porch with her.
Her reaction to my comment startled me but it taught me. Words you use even in joking can provoke pain in someone else.
Slow down and think before you speak, while not hilarious as a philosophy, may make us more attuned and aware. And overall that's a very good thing.
Ro Giencke - 2011