Life on the Rocks

If I had a blog, today I would share an image of my favorite fall flower: The Aster.

September 27 - Life on the Rocks

September 27 – Life on the Rocks

My creative flow has been a trickle the last day or so. Our border collie, Owain, and his buddy, Hank, the labrador, have come to the last days of their journey with us and hard decisions are in the offing. I want to keep my spirits up and enjoy the bright fall days, but for now, I can only manage quiet reflection on autumns past. Fourteen years goes by in an eye-blink doesn’t it?

One More Thing

If I had a blog, today I would write about the challenges of putting bliss before obligation.

Day 5 - September 26 The Golden Hickory

September 27
The Golden Hickory

It is happening already. Just days into my 90-Day Photo Project and I find myself squeezing in my daily photo shoot so I can get on with the items on my perpetual “to do” list. This morning, I was hurrying up the stairs after morning chores when the radiant glow of hickory leaves caught my attention. The tree, growing along the lane, was perfectly framed by one of the windows in the Great Room; a living portrait of autumn’s grandest days. My arms were full of a hodge-podge of mail, books, my tablet, not to mention the cup of coffee I had clutched in my “free” hand. My camera,of course,  was downstairs on the kitchen counter. For a moment, the thought of setting my burdens down and retracing my steps just to get one photograph seemed overwhelming. I was tempted to forge on and come back for the picture later in the day, but then I caught myself uttering the catch-phrase I use all too often: “Just one more thing, then I can do what I want.”

On the surface, it seems quite benign to delay gratification for just a few more minutes in an effort to get more “productive” things done, but this is an insidious downward spiral from which there is no escape. Once I’ve done that “one more thing,” another arises, then another and another, until the day is gone and my time for bliss has been pushed back another day, another week, another month.

One of the things I like about my 90-day project is the way it moves my bliss from an option to an imperative. If I am true to my goal of taking one really good photograph each day, then publishing it with a meaningful blog, I can’t delay this gratification. The Ego can’t push it back indefinitely by leaving a trail of minutiae with which I must deal before I spend time doing what I enjoy. There is comfort in knowing I have a solid resource with which to fend off the Ego, but there is also a bit of tension when I have to make choices about what to cut from my day to make room for my bliss. This is unfamiliar territory and I worry what will happen when “want to” and “need to” collide.

Sitting here on the patio this afternoon, listening to the last of the migrating hummingbirds chattering at the feeders, I wonder if  I have my priorities backwards. What if I changed my my work ethic, to allow soul-nurturing work to take precedence over more practical tasks? While bills have to be paid and groceries purchased, perhaps I could squeeze those in after I’ve enjoyed a day full of photography and writing. There is some precedence for this line of thought, penned by Henry David Thoreau in 1837: “The order of things should be somewhat reversed; the seventh day should be man’s day of toil and the other six his Sabbath of the affections and the soul – in which to range this widespread garden and drink in the soft influences and sublime revelations of nature.”

I will use the rest of my Project to experiment with this new way of life; to see what happens if I put the needs of my soul before those of the world. I don’t know what I will find, but I have hope I will gain freedom from the tyranny of “One more thing.” More reports to follow….

A Lesson in Hope

If I had a blog, today I would write about the lesson of the monarchs.

September 26 - Visiting Royalty

September 26 – Visiting Royalty

It isn’t easy being a tree-hugging dirt worshipper these days. Every new report seems to carry another prediction of gloom and doom for the natural world. Songbirds, sea turtles, polar bears, and countless other species teeter on the brink of extinction every day. Even here, in the quiet valleys of the Ozarks, we’ve noticed disturbing changes: Each fall there are fewer spiders spinning webs on fence rows to catch the morning dew; fewer flocks of geese soar overhead on grey November afternoons, and fewer monarch butterflies visit our wildflower garden on their long journey south.

This year, the monarchs have been unusually scarce. From the earliest days of spring, sightings of these magnificent lepidoptera have been few and far between. Throughout the summer we diligently searched the leaves of the milkweed plants for caterpillars, but our search was in vain. We should have seen three generations of monarchs come and go over the course of the summer, if they followed their normal pattern, but this year, their numbers were too few to tell. This global change, it seems, is real and hits much too close to home.

This year, my joy at the arrival of autumn is tempered with melancholy. Fields of asters, goldenrod, and thistles that should be teeming with butterflies are almost vacant, their usual inhabitants gone, as if they have vanished into thin air. I want to believe that, given a chance, species at risk can adapt and overcome the ignorance of humanity, but some days I can’t access that kind of hope. Sometimes I despair that the food plots, bird houses, and wildflower gardens we tend year-round are doing any good at all, but then there are days like today.

This afternoon, walking back to the house after chores, I noticed flashes of copper dancing among the asters. As I drew closer, I saw the performers were monarchs – dozens of them! They drank from the chalice of the flowers, renewing their strength for the long flight south. I stood in the pale sunlight for a long time, letting the butterflies swirl around me. In their dance I felt courage, determination, and hope – hope for the future and hope for ourselves. After all, if the monarchs believe in the future of our planet, then I can do no less.

Look Underfoot

If I had a blog, today I would write about the gift of seeing.


September 24 – The Buckeye


Most of us are blessed with the gift of sight, the ability to process our environment visually, but far fewer have the gift of seeing. To see, one must be able to look beyond the bold and flashy and take note of the beauty found in simple, less eye-catching scenes. To truly “see” the world around us, we must follow the advice of naturalist John Burroughs who wrote: The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot.’ You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think.

This quote takes me back to an October afternoon in Ely, Minnesota. Mom, Kindra, and I were hiking the Angleworm Trail, some twenty miles from our cabin. The trees were at the peak of their fall color and stepping into the forest was, for us, like crossing over into another reality. I immediately fell behind my hiking companions, mesmerized by the photo-ops that presented themselves on that perfect autumn day. I’d spent about two hours walking, crawling on my knees, and laying flat on the ground taking pictures of scarlet and gold moose-maple leaves, blooming club moss, towering birches, and old logs adorned with tiny mushrooms. I’d lain on my back in the spongy sphagnum moss, watching a whisky-jack going about his day in the balsam and fir trees and had even shared a granola bar with my gregarious avian friend.

As I set off down the trail again, I met a fellow hiker-photographer on his return to the trailhead. We said a polite, “Hello,” to one another and I asked, “Did you find anything good to photograph?”

“Nothing,” the man said, “No moose, no wolves, no bears. Nothing.”

“Too bad,” I replied, “Some days just don’t pan out.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he said as he trudged dejectedly towards the parking lot.

I was stunned. Nothing to photograph? I’d just checked my camera and had taken well over 300 photos since I started my hike. What a lesson in “look underfoot!” My experience on The Angleworm has become a touchstone in my outdoor life and it colors every outing I take. “Look underfoot” keeps me focused on everything around me: the intimate goings-on in the natural world as well as the big “calendar shots,” and that philosophy has given me some of my favorite pieces of work.

Today was certainly a “look underfoot” kind of day. As Mom and I hiked along the old logging road to Big Valley, the day did not cry out, “Amazing!” The trees are just beginning to blush, their fruits just starting to ripen, and even down at the river, the world was caught in limbo between summer’s bounty and autumn’s blaze of color. It was not a day for landscapes or wildlife, so it was time to think small.. Coming up from the river, we saw a pile of  large seed hulls, soft and yellow with sharp spines on the casing. The delicacy it protected had been stolen away by squirrels and it took some hunting to find an unopened shell. Deep in a tangled mass of vines and spent flowers was our quarry. I gently broke it open and inside was one of my favorite fall gifts: A buckeye.I set the mahogany seed and it’s shell in a spot of sun and took my photo. I knew this would be the shot of the day.

I slipped the buckeye in my pocket and brought it home to grace my bookshelf along with a selection of acorns, milkweed pods, and an older buckeye, given to me by my grandmother. After cautioning me that buckeyes are poison to eat, Gran told me that buckeyes are good luck charms. Carried in one’s pocket or worn about the neck as a talisman, these beautiful seeds will protect their owner from harm and alleviate aches and pains. In the past, I’ve hesitated to mar the finish of my buckeye with a clasp and worried it would get lost if I carried it in my pocket, but this year I need luck and healing more than ever, so I will carry my new treasure as Gran instructed and see what happens. Regardless of whether it has magical properties, my buckeye is certainly a reminder to slow down, to appreciate the simple beauty of nature, and to seek The Divine where I expect to find it least: In the tangled, weedy, fecundity of my own, familiar bit of Earth.



If I had a blog, today I would write about my reflections on the Purple Thistle.

September 23 - Reflections

September 23 – Reflections

It is fitting that my Photo-of-the-Day should be a thistle because today is my Scottish sister-in-law’s birthday. Sine (pronounced Sheena) is the quintessential Scot: Ginger-haired, strong-willed, and passionate about the creatures and humans she calls family. I was thinking about Sine on my walk this afternoon, when I noticed a Great-Spangled Fritillary dining on the sweet nectar of this Scottish emblem. As I studied the tableau, I saw something quite extraordinary: Although the spots on a fritillary are white, this lovely lady wore flashes of thistle-purple where the color of the flower reflected on her delicate wings. Given the weekend past, I desperately hoped this synchronicity might hold a message for me during a difficult time.

As I face the passing years and see the ones I love grow towards the ends of their lives, I have days when the future seems quite foreboding. This past weekend was particularly hard and on several occasions the tears came and I had no power to hold them in check. I tried to rally my fledgling faith in the goodness of The Universe, in the hope that when I need the strength to face the end of all things, I will find the resources I need to carry on, but this time it eluded me and I ached with sadness. Sine and her family were here to celebrate several of our September birthdays over the weekend, but my emotional pain became physical and I was in bed for two days with a migraine headache. Everyone in the family expressed their concern, and their love for me, but it wasn’t until today that I saw the second layer of meaning in their kindness and support.

Watching the purple glow shine through the wings of a humble butterfly, I realized that is what family can do for us: When we cannot generate the light of hope within ourselves, we can bask in the glow cast by those who are able to carry on. If we can ignore our foolish pride and reach out in times of distress, we will find what we need radiating from the spirits of those who love us best.

Happy Birthday Sine! Thank you for letting me share your light.


The Journey Begins

If I had a blog, today I would write about the beginning of my annual “90-Day Project.”

September 22 - The Web of Purpose

September 22 – The Web of Purpose

Every year, beginning on the Autumnal Equinox I set a goal of taking at least one publishable photograph per day until December 21st, the Winter Solstice. The idea is not entirely my own. My project is actually a homage to the work of one of my photographer heroes, Jim Brandenburg. In the late 1990’s, Brandenburg challenged himself with a similar task: Taking one great photo per day for 90 days during the fall and early winter in and around his home near Ely, Minnesota. However, since Jim is a world-renown photographer who made his mark working for National Geographic magazine, his quest was more demanding. Rather than take an unlimited number of shots and choose one favorite (as I do), Jim limited himself to taking one photo per day for 90 days. No do-overs, no second chances. His work was published as the book Chased By the Light, a copy of which sits on my desk for inspiration.

As it happens, today was a wonderful day to start taking autumnal pictures. It is sunny, in the mid-60s with a glorious breeze that carries the promise of the golden days to come. After morning chores, Mom and I set off on our morning walk through the High Field and into the woods behind our house. The dogwood trees are beginning to blush red and the big bluestem and Indian grass are heavy with seeds, awaiting the migrant birds who will arrive in our part of the world in the next few weeks. This early in the season, finding a “wow-shot” is less certain than in October when the woods are ablaze with color. In September, one must be more observant, more focused on the details of the fields and forests, to find Nature’s gems.

As is often the case, Mom (who I call my “location scout”) found my diamond in the rough: The delicate web of a woodland spider. The home of this tiny arachnid was not one of the flashy orbs that line the fence-rows this time of year. This web was messy, a seemingly random assemblage of spider-silk strung between saplings, right at eye-level in the woods. Neither of us would have seen the web but for a beam of sunlight streaming through the canopy of leaves above. The sun reflected on the web and set it aglow with rainbow color. In the center of the prism sat the wee spider, her delicate legs aglow as if lit from within.

After I took my photographs, I stood and watched the tableau for a long time. I couldn’t fault the spider for the condition of her web. Most days my life feels every bit as untidy. My emotions careen about from joy to grief and back again; I wonder where my life is going and how I can be a better architect of my future. I worry about money, my health, losing my loved ones, and what I can do to save our ailing planet. Up and down, round and round I go until I feel trapped in utter disarray, but my encounter with small Ariadne has given me hope. Maybe my “web of purpose” is supposed to be messy. Maybe its ok that I am working without a neat-and-tidy plan. Maybe the tangle of my life is really a thing of beauty, reflecting the light of truth, hope, and love.

This afternoon I will relax in the midst of my crazy life and find the center, the balance point where I can find rest and safety. My inner life may be somewhat disorganized, but it is the life I have built, the existence for which The Divine has given me instruction. Thank you dear spider for giving me peace. Thank you for giving me a good first day on my journey home.


Ely IV: Dancing With the Chippewa

If I had a blog, today I would write about the night I became part of The North Country.

October 2, 2006

The Green World

The Green World

After we got home from the Wolf Center, we made our evening coffee and settled in to watch Northern Exposure on DVD. After the second episode, Mom suggested we walk to the lake and see if there was any sign of the Aurora Borealis – The Northern Lights. Mom has a strong sixth sense about these things, so Kindra and I willingly donned our coats and followed along. We used our head lamps to see the path through the woods, but when we got to the dock, the half-moon gave us enough light to see without artificial light. It took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, but as they did, we saw an unmistakable green glow to the north.

The Vault of Heaven

The Vault of Heaven

I flipped my head lamp back on and set up my camera. Even a few shots of the green glow would be a remarkable souvenir and I wanted to be ready if anything more was in the offing. It was a good instinct. Within a few moments, the glow intensified and ribbons of green fire began to dance above the lake, flowing as if blown by a gentle cosmic breeze. The ribbons morphed into great shifting curtains that sent beams tinged with pink soaring towards the vault of Heaven. Now I understood why the Chippewa believed the aurora was the ghost dance of warriors who had gone before. In the shifting streamers they saw shadows of the great headdresses the dancers wore as they danced before the spirit-fire in the sky and I felt the presence of many spirits reaching out to me as they honored me with a glimpse of their mystical realm. Then the wolves began to sing. Far away at first, then close enough that I was sure, I heard wild wolves singing to the aurora. I laughed and wept and sang my own song of thanks to the Great North for the gift of this night.

In time, the aurora faded once more to a jade green glow and the wolves moved on in their nightly journeys. My toes were numb and my hands cold as ice, so I packed up my gear and went back to the cabin. Mom and Kindra has returned home earlier than I, but Mom was waiting up for me. We sat up until midnight talking about this magnificent experience, then, warm and sleepy, we went to bed.

Curtains of Light

Curtains of Light

Two hours later, Mom woke me. The aurora had returned! Mom could see the emerald fire in the skylight and it looked as though the display was more intense than the one we had seen before. Camera in hand, I hurried to the dock. This time the entire sky was wreathed in green flame. Pink and green curtains flickered high above the lake while rolling clouds of light reached down towards the water. The wolves sang to us again and we laughed and cried and hugged one another, over-awed at the gift we had been given.

It was another hour before the aurora made her last curtain call and left the sky to the dominion of the moon and stars. We lingered on the dock, our minds whirling with all that we had seen. We watched a beaver swimming down a path of moonbeams, the slap of his tail in the water finally bringing us back to terra firma. We walked to the cabin in silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We made a pot of tea and unwound by the fire before making our final attempt at sleep.

Trailing Clouds of Glory

Trailing Clouds of Glory

Each of us will take something different from tonight’s experience. Some thoughts will be shared, others treasured in silence as a personal gift from The Gods. For me, this was Yuwakan, the Lakota “day of naming,” when a child receives his or her spiritual name and takes their place in the tribe. Tonight I was told who I am. I expected this trip to be a pilgrimage to my sacred place, but instead of an empty sanctuary, I found my family gathered to welcome me with open arms. “Welcome Daughter,” says the North Wind. “Welcome Sister,” say the wolf and the raven. “Welcome Child,” say the Grandmothers, “Take up your place among the fir and spruce, beside the wild creatures, in harmony with the spirit of The North. Dear One, you have, at last, found your people, your place in the world, a place to call home. This is where you belong.”

Ely Part III: In the Presence of The Gods

If I had a blog, today I would write about my life with wolves.



Wolves have been part of my life as long as I can remember. As with many children, thanks to the work of the Brothers Grimm and other authors, I first experienced wolves as villains: Snarling, wicked, green-eyed monsters whose greatest delight was dining on unwary children. Wolves haunted my nightmares and lurked in the shadows of my imagination on camping trips and evening walks in the woods. Fortunately, I had wise parents who saw my distress and quickly intervened. Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs were boxed up for good and out came National Wildlife magazine. In those glossy pages, Mom and Dad read to me stories of an animal that mates for life, loves its children, and fears humans far more than we fear its undeserved reputation. I also learned that humans, not wolves, were the murderous, nightmare beings that nearly wiped the species off the map. I wept for the needless loss of life, the brutal destruction of a breathtaking creature. Within a few weeks, I went from frightened child to junior wolf-activist and my dedication to assuring the survival of the wolf has never waned.

In college, I discovered my version of Mecca: The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. It was then that I set my sights on visiting Ely and seeing a landscape where wolves had been allowed to flourish. I knew the experience would be one to remember, but I had no idea what lay in store.

October 2, 2006

This evening we attended a program at the Wolf Center. They feed the wolves once a week, to mimic their natural eating patterns, and to give visitors a chance to see the wolves interact at close range.



We arrived early and spent almost half-an-hour alone watching the wolves before the other visitors arrived. I have been around many types of animals in my life, but none humble me like the wolf. In their presence, I am compelled to kneel in reverence and awe. Sitting in the viewing window, Maya, one of the Great Plains Grey Wolves, came up close to see what was going on. Her face was inches from mine and she held my gaze for a long time. My heart was racing, but this time, not from fear. In the quiet of that autumn evening, I found myself in the presence of The Gods; beings far older and wiser in spirit than any human has ever been. I was being weighed and measured by this beautiful creature and I prayed I would not be found wanting.

I felt a catch in my throat as I thought of the litany of sins my species has committed against the wolf and I said a silent confession, reciting a poem written by O. Fred Donaldson:

Grey Wolf,
We are sending you to that Great God.
Tell Him that we who invented forgiveness do not forgive;
That we, who speak of trust cannot trust;
That we, who invoke faith would not believe.

I write as though you could read.
But I know you understand.
When you have left the forests and tundras
and no longer leave your sinewy trails within the snows,
Tell Him that you were made on a different day.

Your howls of bewilderment will echo
with the mountain winds.
And your songs will join those of the whales.
Tell Him for me,
“Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” 

Shadow - Arctic Wolf

Shadow – Arctic Wolf

I do not know what conclusions the wolves came to in our brief encounter. Perhaps I was no more than a shadow on the other side of the glass, a likeness of those who haunt their nightmares and lurk in the shadows of the forest as a spectre of doom. If so, I would not blame them. My only hope lies in knowing their spirit is unfettered by the ego-driven concerns of humanity and perhaps that gives them the wisdom to know not all humans are alike. I hope they can sense the spirit of those, like me, who see them as the miraculous creatures they are, who know that in their company, we stand in the presence of The Gods.

Ely Part II: Holy Ground

If I had a blog, today I would continue my stories about my journey to Ely.

September 30, 2006

Our Breakfast Table

Our Breakfast Table

By all accounts, this should have been a lesser day on our vacation: Rainy, in the 40’s with, a howling north wind, but for us it was perfect. We let our morning start slowly – with coffee and scones, shared beside the fire. Our cabin is paneled with knotty-pine and on a blustery morning like this, it seems to generate its own golden light. As we basked in its glow, Mom, Kindra, and I talked and laughed and reveled in the luxury of free time.

Jim Brandenburg's "Brother Wolf"

Jim Brandenburg’s “Brother Wolf”

Around noon, we braved the gale and made a trip to town for groceries and a little shopping. We’ve been to Ely so many times, visiting the stores that line Sheridan Street is like catching up with old friends. My favorite haunt is the Brandenburg Gallery – the storefront for nature photographer Jim Brandenburg. Jim made his mark on the photography world through his twenty-year tenure with National Geographic, but when he retired, he came home to Ely to indulge his real passion: Photographing the elusive timber wolf. I could spend hours sitting in rapt silence, contemplating the extraordinary work displayed at the Brandenburg Gallery. It is work like Jim’s that inspired me to become a nature photographer and an afternoon in the Gallery refreshes me more than week in the finest spa and I leave with my creative energy renewed.

Christmas Eve on Lark Lake

Christmas Eve on Lark Lake

The rain slowed late in the afternoon and we drove north of town on Highway 169, “The Fernberg” as it is called by locals, to reconnect with another old friend: Ojibway Lake. When we first visited Ely, in 1997, we rented a cabin for Christmas and Ojibway Lake was our “jumping off point.” Our host, Steve Lampman, took our gear to the cabin by snowmobile, but we made the 4-mile trek on foot. Dressed in down coats and Steger Mukluks, we walked across the frozen waters of Ojibway and Triangle lakes to Lark Lake, where our cabin was nestled among the balsam and spruce trees. It was a trip to remember and the beginning of our love affair with The North, so it was fitting that we pay homage to the place where all our adventures began.

The Uncommon Common Loon

The Uncommon Common Loon

Ojibway Lake is about twenty miles from Ely and The Fernberg winds along like a chain, connecting the jewels of lakes and forests. As we drove along, we recited the names of lakes and side-roads – a rosary of sorts to honor the places we hold dear: We passed Fall Lake, Otter Road, Tofte and Garden Lake, Black Wolf Road, and, at last, Ojibway. The gravel road to the lake was exactly the same as it was the first time we came; even the two dead birch trees I photographed so long ago still stand like sentinels watching over the lake. We parked the car and walked to the end of the long dock and gazed down the waterway towards Triangle and Lark Lake. The wind still blew a gale and our rain jackets weren’t enough protection from the cold. We had just turned to leave when we heard another sound, a tremolo, high and clear as a bell: The call of a solitary loon. He was here past his time, the others of his kind had already gone south to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter, and his clarion call brought tears to my eyes. It was as if he waited for us, to give us welcome before he too took flight to warmer climes. We thanked our intrepid friend and said good night to Ojibway. Warmth was calling us home too.

Holy Ground

Holy Ground

Sitting on my bed tonight, listening to the rain pattering on the fallen leaves, I wonder if I’ve ever been so much at peace. The cares of the world seem a thousand miles away and I am grateful for the release. I want to hold this feeling in my heart as long as I can and perhaps take it back with me when I return to outer world with its burdens and cares. There is magic at work in these primeval forests, a mythic force that comes from the Earth Herself. This is one of the “Thin Places” where the veil between the mortal and spiritual worlds can be transcended. This is Holy Ground.