Heading east….

On the yellowing prairie south of Pelican Rapids, the sunflowers are bowing their heads in resignation.   Last week when I drove past the fields of sad soldiers I felt like stopping the car to shout, “Wait!  It is still summertime! Fight! Don’t give up!”  August road trips across the prairie are bittersweet for sunflower lovers.

Between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids there are fields with rows of corn stalks taller than men. The stand of decades-old white pine that serves as a wind break near the road will be gone when I pass by there later today.  I know this because last week I watched a mechanical beast with a portly passenger in a hard hat grab one in its jaws of death and snap it like a toothpick before backing up to drop it on the pile of tree carcasses. The scent of pine death was everywhere. As I passed by I thought about how long it took the trees to grow and how quickly they were destroyed for a new lane of highway. We are a short-sighted species. The travelers along that stretch of road probably won’t miss the trees until the first real blizzard hits in January.

Outside of Walker, I watched a surfer paddling out into Leech Lake to catch the four foot waves that rose and crashed into the shore on a cloudy, blustery August afternoon.  The sheer enormity of that lake is impressive even on a calm day, but last Thursday it looked more like the Atlantic ocean, gray-green and menacing. The surfer dude in a full wetsuit looked half frozen as he bobbed in the water, waiting for the perfect wave to bring him back to shore. As I drove past, I wondered what compels human beings to believe they can triumph over something like a wave.

The north wind howled and rain pelted the windshield intermittently for the entire three hours of my trip.  Near Remer, I noticed that a large birch tree had fallen, cracking into large pieces as it hit the ground.  Birch trees die from the inside so I’m guessing that the wind just finished the job that old age or beetles or disease started years ago.  This is somehow less sad than the fate endured by her tree cousins farther west.

August is a schizophrenic month, weather-wise. Ninety degrees one day and fifty the next. For the next three months, I will make the twice-weekly three hour drive between the forests I’ve always loved and the prairie I learned to for another semester.  And even when my butt falls asleep from sitting in one position too long or I silently admonish myself for having chosen a car without cruise control (which in hindsight was really dumb) I’m still grateful for the silent, solitary trip. It gives me time to think.

Even when the most profound thought I have in three hours is why sunflowers don’t have it in them to fight the good fight, why men surf in make-believe oceans,  or what, ultimately, takes down a tree.

Bearing fruit….

One perfect wild blueberry surrounded by green foliage.

My friend Chris, who loves chickens more than berry picking, posted a picture of that blueberry on Facebook several weeks ago. She was with her BFF, Terri, who just might be the only person as fanatical about finding blueberries as I am.  I knew better than to ask where they were. Her cryptic caption about being “somewhere” in the woods meant that she was sworn to the sacred BFF/Blueberry Patch oath of secrecy. Any serious blueberry picker worth their ice cream pail knows that you don’t mess around when it comes to disclosing the location of someone’s blueberry patch.  Who needs a picking partner who squirms or caves when someone asks them, “so….where exactly did you find the berries?”

It has been another summer of a lot of back and forth to the cabin. To cut grass, mostly. I am suntanned and sore.  Each week, as I headed up to the lake with groceries and a weed whacker in the trunk,  I told myself I should stop to see if the berries were ready in the Chippewa.  I did not know until a week ago that a late frost had taken most of the blossoming power out of the plants.

Another school year starts for me this week.  I will meet a whole new crop of college freshmen with cell phones they “forget” to mute and fresh haircuts and hope.  For the eighteenth fall semester, I will teach them to write passable essays with topic sentences and strong supporting details.  We will talk about plagiarism a lot and they will, the good Lord willing, learn the difference between MLA and APA source citation.  I will explain comma splices and sentence fragments more times than I care to think about in August or any month, for that matter.

Inevitably, when I assign a narrative essay, they will ask me how long it needs to be. College freshmen do that.  I will tell them what I often do. That their essays need to be as long as it takes to tell the story and that the story is in the details.  When I say this, they will give me the look.  The one that tells me that they are used to people like me giving them a word count, a page count, a rubric that tells them that what they’ve written is acceptable and worthy of the A’s they crave, like oxygen. They want rules and parameters and no red marks on their papers.  They want to be fabulous or at the very least, not disappointing.

Mostly, they want it to be easy. Don’t we all?

I will tell them to breathe-for-heaven’s-sake and to just. tell. the. story. To paint a picture with their words. To remember the scent of pine pitch on a sultry August afternoon or their girlfriend’s perfume or the cigar smoke wafting through the air at a rock concert.  To feel the sun on their shoulders as they skimmed across the lake on water skis behind a gleaming red speed boat.  To see, again, the pastel pink sunset, the inky blackness of a night full of stars, the diamonds in the waves.  To savor the memory of the taste of one perfect wild blueberry, the rack of ribs, or the needle-sharp coldness of a beer after mowing.

That the rest will come. It is only then that they will write. Really write.  And it will be messy and scary.

But it will be fabulous.  I just know it.

Bird brained….

There is a battle for territory being waged in my backyard this summer.

It begins before the sun is up.  One bird is nearly as wide as he is tall, with a paunch and an air of entitlement. He obviously thinks that I fill the feeder just for him since he spends most of the day there.  His nemesis, by comparison, is a waif of a bird. She is tall (for a hummingbird) with a really long neck and tufts of fluff where her tail feathers should be.  When she gets the chance (which isn’t often) she drinks furtively, trying to fill up before the next air raid commences.  I’ve watched this pair most of the summer. He wins most of the battles through intimidation and brute force.

I was watching the feeder this morning, contemplating how it is possible for a bird so small to be able to terrorize much of anything when the chubby one showed up for breakfast, perching on the circular wire in front of one of the four red plastic flowers attached to the base of the feeder.  Suddenly, the skinny one arrived, sitting down in front of the flower to the left of the other bird.  Well, THIS isn’t going to last long, I thought. I figured that the chubby one would stop gorging himself on syrup long enough to realize that he had company and send her packing for the millionth time since May.

But then, the most amazing thing happened.

The skinny one glanced at her piggy partner out of the corner of her tiny hummingbird eye and then very slowly began hopping around to the other side of the feeder until she was seated directly across from him.  The only way that Chubby could see her was to look through the clear glass cylinder.  At one point he seemed to get an inkling that he had company, but kept eating anyway.  Maybe he thought he was seeing his reflection instead of the skinny bird who was contentedly feeding away only inches away…drinking HIS syrup! At HIS feeder!

He might be bigger, but she is smarter.

It is always August too soon for me. The month of wild blueberries in the woods and back to school sales in the stores.  Too soon, I will move back indoors from the porch where I sleep with all the windows open to the night air and night sounds from June until whenever. Too soon, my hummingbirds will feel the chill in the air and start making their own travel plans for places where flowers bloom year ’round.

But for now, it is August. Sweet August.

And while I still can, I’ll  keep watching the drama that unfolds on the other side of the screen at dawn, rooting for the one with the higher IQ.