When I turned 30-years-old last May, I took the day off work and went for a long hike with my dog at Wild River State Park. It was quiet in the park that day, the trees starting to get green and only the two of us on the trail to breathe it all in.
Having recently gone morel hunting for the first time, my eyes were often glued to the forest floor, looking for mushrooms. I didn’t find any. But I did see all the delicate early-spring flowers; they seemed to be the first natural color I’d seen in months and months.
I was just flipping through photos and experienced an almost unbearable sensation in these cold, snowy, gray winter days. It’s overwhelming to feel the longing of life in the landscape, still a good two months off, but also the joy of that annual deep breath the forest takes as the sun comes back to us. I thought I would share the pain and the ecstasy with you, readers.
Click the images below to see larger versions. Click the larger image to see a very large version that might make an appropriate computer desktop this time of year.
Any help identifying the flowers would be much appreciated.
We were lulled by a mid-February thaw last week, but winter exerted itself once more this past couple days. The temperature brushed 50 degrees early Wednesday and one began looking for buds on the trees, and then ominous forecasts began and increased as the weekend drew near.
About noon on Sunday, tiny flakes started falling as if one at a time from the clouds. It quickly became thick, and has been waxing and waning ever since. I think we got 15″ at our house; it didn’t stop coming down until after 6 p.m. today.
Late Friday afternoon, on the precipice between thaw and blizzard, still making pretend it was spring, I was driving back toward home from St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. I took a scenic route on Wisconsin Highway 35 down the St. Croix River valley. I spotted a road sign between Osceola and Somerset, pointing west for both a Wisconsin “Rustic Road” and a river landing. I turned right.
The road went through upland fields for a while, some cultivated or used for pasture, some prairie and scrubby woods. Occasionally, I saw small homesteads set back from the road.
Just as the road dropped over the crest of the bluffs, it narrowed and became rougher. Soon it started to twist down toward the river, though thick hardwood forests, the almost-down sun beaming through the leafless trees.
I drove through the woods along the base of the bluffs for another mile, forks occasionally branching off, me always choosing the westerly branch. I came around a bend and there was a parking lot and an outhouse and there was the river. I had never been to this landing before. After a few minutes, I figured out that I was directly across from Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota. I had once eaten lunch after canoeing on the deck of the restaurant right across the channel.
Down by the river, the sun was already just over the trees to the west, silhouetting white pine trees against a yellow and orange glow. The river ice, laid bare and warped by a week of thaw and wind and freeze, shone purple and blue.
It was 20 degrees and there was a steady breeze from the north. I didn’t stay long at the landing, but retraced my path to the top of the bluffs and then wandered downstream via more back roads.
As I followed roads that zig-zagged between upland and river bottom, I got pretty turned around. I was fine as long as I kept the river close to my right. The daylight was fading, but when I reached high points on the landscape, the sun was still in this hemisphere.
At the peak of winter, when all memories of warm green days are no more real than a dream about flying on the space shuttle, when summer’s return seems as remote as the moon, you should seek rock and roll music.
On my way home this evening, a mark of the season worth discussing with a shop clerk was that you can now see your car when you go out to it at the end of the workday. February is a relief, but the night is still plenty long.
Last night, I sought solace at the Cedar Cultural Center. The show featured one of my favorite bands, Retribution Gospel Choir, and an aspirational new Twin Cities duo called Peter Wolf Crier. Both bands performed inspired sets and with technical mastery. Just the kind of music for such a winter’s night.
I drove across St. Paul and Minneapolis in fading rush hour, the light just gone from the sky. Riding shotgun was Wade, who I have spent many an evening listening to records with on his hi-fi stereo and have also seen Retribution with previously. And who has ridden shotgun in my car on similar ventures for going on 12 years.
We went to St. Louis Park to pick up Erik, who happens to be a music critic for the City Pages alternative newspaper. Erik was reviewing the show; he was also at the last Retribution Gospel Choir show Wade and I attended six months or so ago.
One wall of Erik’s living room is essentially crates of records. Hundreds of LPs. It took some looking, but he found Low’s album “The Great Destroyer” and we listened to it with a couple Summit EPAs.
When we dropped Erik off after the show, he mentioned that while Wade and I got to return to our beds and get a good night’s sleep, he had an 8:30 a.m. deadline to meet. This is some of what he wrote in his review:
Alan Sparhawk sets the frenetic, fiery pace that band and fan alike simply must follow, and on this night at the Cedar, the show started like an experimental sonic whirlwind, with Sparhawk’s voice at first seeming a bit ragged from the road, causing him to simply focus more on his incendiary guitar work. The show started with an a cappella intro that featured Sparhawk only on vocals, before bassist Steve Garrington and drummer Eric Pollard kicked in behind him, effortlessly bridging that new track into a lengthy intro to “Your Bird,” which absolutely soared. Without missing a beat, RGC rolled right into a volatile version of “Breaker” that simply slayed, representing the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone play in the Cedar’s intimate confines. Continue reading…
Alan Sparhawk of Retribution Gospel Choir (Photo by Sharyn Marrow)
Much of Sparhawk’s music seems to be about bringing order out of chaos. On stage at the Cedar, he reminded us that for such work, we must accept some chaos. The band seemed to lose control of the music at a few points in the second half of the set, but always just when it was most needed the hooks came back and Sparhawk lunged back to the microphone to rip out the song’s refrain, a memory distant like a dream.
Retribution Gospel Choir and Peter Wolf Crier had been on tour together for about a month, playing many back-to-back nights. It had been my understanding that they were playing split bills, taking turns playing first and second, and both bands playing full sets. When I saw RGC was playing first, I assumed we’d see a full set. Sadly, they only played about 40 minutes before leaving the stage for Peter Wolf Crier.
We went outside on the patio for one of our party to smoke a cigarette between bands. Another fellow who bummed a smoke struck up conversation. He was a Low fan (Sparhawk’s original and legendarily-slow and quiet band) and had not seen RGC before, but was impressed by the performance. The others on the patio were there to see Peter Wolf Crier, which has gotten a lot of play recently on The Current radio station. They were a little dismissive of the performance they had just seen.
Two other fellows came out then and they too had not much to say about the music they had just listened to, and one said, “I think most people are here to see Peter Wolf Crier,” which I took to mean he certainly was.
Peter Wolf Crier (Photo by Sharyn Marrow)
I don’t begrudge Peter Wolf Crier their fans, though, and they put on a searing performance. Singer-guitarist Peter Pisano did haunting things by employing a sampler to loop his howls, singing over layers of his own voice.
I saw them play for the first time in November when they opened for Dawes at First Avenue. I didn’t really “get it.” This time I saw it all because it was all right in front of me. I agree with Erik: “Peter Wolf Crier certainly must have felt that RGC really threw down the gauntlet during their set, because they came out on fire right from the start, not wanting the intense atmosphere of the evening to waver at all.”
They showed unrestrained respect for what their opener had done, talking at numerous times about how much they had learned watching Retribution play night after night on the tour.
Retribution Gospel Choir’s drummer Eric Pollard and bassist Steve Garrington came back on stage for one song, and then later in the set, all three members of RGC came out to play a cover of Nick Drake’s song “Place to Be.”
We stuck around after the show for a while. The band stood by the stage, chatting with friends and fans, the people left in the room only those who aren’t ready for the night to be over quite yet. They were selling a nice lithograph for a mere $5 and I got a copy and all three band members signed it.
Alan Sparhawk was absent for the first several minutes; when he returned he not only signed the poster but chatted a bit. He said a couple times that he felt like the set was “indulgent” for the guys in the band. Indulgent, perhaps, but it’s how they wanted to play, and it’s what I wanted to hear.
“Retribution Gospel Choir took the stage at the Cedar quietly, dressed in classic black. Alan Sparhawk (Low, Black Eyed Snakes), a man whose features barely deign to belie the old-timey battle between god and the devil within him…” Continue reading.
She seems to be referring to what I wrote about above: order vs. chaos, creation vs. destruction. Fighting such a battle night after night should exhaust Sparhawk and the band. They seemed to only be feeling alive. It was exhilarating to watch.
We just took a little sojourn out onto Lake Phalen with Lola. It was bright and sunny but only a couple degrees above zero — and temperatures are supposed to keep falling pretty drastically. Surprisingly, there wasn’t anybody out fishing.
Scott Brown, a skier and cyclist from Minneapolis, shot this first-person point-of-view video last January on the Birkebeiner cross-county ski trail in northern Wisconsin.
Brown was participating in the annual “Birkie Tour,” a casual event held a month before the big race, which is the largest ski marathon in North America. He called it one of his “five best skis ever” on the Birkie trail. I’ve never skied it but the views of the trail through deep woods with big, long hills has me dreaming. The area was the scene of my one and only mountain bike race, when I did the 16-mile race as part of the famous Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival as a teenager.
This year, the Birkie Tour will be held January 22 and the race is on February 26. More information is available on the American Birkebeiner website.
An interesting footnote is another recent video, this one from the “Climate Wisconsin” project, which has produced several videos describing how climate change is affecting traditional Wisconsin activities, from trout fishing to farming to forestry. And the Birkie:
Since the first race in 1973, the Birkie has been shortened six times and cancelled once due to weather related conditions; with four of these adaptations and one cancellation happening since 1990. The weather plays a major role in determining the success of the event…
…for Ashland, WI, northeast of Hayward, researchers projected a decrease in the probability of frozen precipitation (e.g. snow, sleet), especially early and late in the winter. Since Ashland is slightly buffered from climate change by Lake Superior we can expect an even greater reduction in the probability of frozen precipitation for the Hayward area, which is further inland. Furthermore, a group of researchers from the Universities of Wisconsin and Iowa project that by the mid 21st century there will be a 25 to 40 cm reduction in snowfall and a 5 to 20 cm reduction in mean snow depth (on March 15th) for Sawyer County.