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IMG_5463Do you ever feel that your core, your inner reserves, your oomph needs a charge?  I just needed an hour or two to reboot; to be in nature.

 Already halfway there, with a pocket of daylight before me, I steered the car westward to one of my places of renewal – the Morton Arboretum. The volunteer attendant cheerfully checked my membership card and we chatted ever-so-briefly; just enough to put a smile on both of our faces, before I rounded the bend into the grounds and veered toward the east side of the grounds.

I was looking for, and I found, strength.

I have written about this bench before. It has become somewhat a totem to me that I reach for in every season. I’m glad I don’t need to wear it around my neck, for the bench is really quite large. There is something about it that makes me smile and fills me with joy.

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Catching the bench at its best through my open car window, something caught my eye, high above, casting a shadow, dancing the dance of nature.

I turned the car off, crossed over the lane and stepped onto the frosty grass. I stopped and stared as this hawk overlooked his kingdom. What did he see? How far did his powerful vision telescope? What unsuspecting rabbit or vole was his prey? He was stolid and still, master of his dominion. Then, suddenly, he swooped and circled again and again before he drifted away on the waves of air until I could see him no more.

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These moments are such rewarding gifts.They remind me of how small I am and how much I have yet to learn. 

I did not stay long in this outdoor stadium of strength. Back in the car, I finished the loop, then I stopped at the Visitor Center where I checked out some displays. As I walked out the door, I looked, as I always do, for my favorite tree, the Copper Beech, and remembered one of you asked to see in it winter.

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I drove around the west side, then headed home, my oomph once more charged.

How do you regain your core, your strength, your groove?

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“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

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 It is a often a chore to embrace beauty in winter, especially when it is bitterly cold with a shameless wind that bites through layers of fleece and wool and even  our mere determination to get where we must go.

I remind myself, on these outings, that this winter is nowhere near the challenge of our past two winters. The mud, the patches of snow, the ice – all are mild compared to three feet of  snow to push through or the days upon days of freezing temperatures that the last two winters brought.

On Wednesday, I went out in the early morn to 1 degrees (F) temperatures. On Friday, my day started at 40 degrees.

Here on the Cutoff, we get “lake effect” snow as well as “snow fog”, magnificent sunsets and white-out conditions – sometimes all in the same day. It is what it is, for we ARE in a cold climate, near a large and deep lake, but, there IS beauty to find.

Salt Creek is flowing right now, although there are many sheets of ice. It was frozen the other day. Have you ever seen water frozen on its descent over a dam? It is pretty magnificent. It was from this creek that ice was harvested years upon years past. I’ve always found this an intriguing concept; harvesting ice. We take our ice for granted. Open the door, push a lever, tada! Ice cubes. Open the door, pull out eggs, milk, produce, anything and everything whenever we want. Refrigeration keeps products cold and safe for us to eat. We do not need to go out to the ice/spring house, to the frozen creek, to find get our food, we just have to open the refrigerator, where a magic light goes on.

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I was thinking about his as I drove past Fullersburg Woods. It was too cold and I wasn’t properly dressed for a trek in the woods, but, with no cars behind me, I opened the window and took a few cell phone shots of the old footbridge, which is pictured above. Two hawks were soaring overhead, dancing their primal dance, and a gaggle of the ever-present geese goggled about who knows what?

Later, finally able to navigate the muck and the mud of our own worn acreage, I slogged the distance with a bowl of kitchen peelings, eggs shells and coffee grounds to the haphazard compost pile. There were eyes (and not potato eyes) watching me. This doe was a few yards away. I did not zoom in with the camera. The rest of the clan was rummaging for nourishment in the ravaged lot next door.

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Bowl in hand (I guess I thought it would give me leverage) I made my way further back.

We have a “kill zone” on our property; a spot where we sometimes come upon nature’s leavings. Feathers and bones and remnants of lost life appear. Birds, smaller animals, feathers and such things that were once life here on the Cutoff.

 Earlier, before Christmas, there was a massacre. Tom came across what ended up being two doe. He suggested I not go back there. I could see the amount of blood on the then white snow from the windows, and I heeded his suggestion. Since then, nature has taken its course, and so I wandered back. It was not a pretty sight. It must have been coyote who took these two resting deer and along with other scavenging prey, they pretty much picked the bones clean.

I thought a little prayer and trudged back to the house, retracing my steps in the snow and the mud. As I walked, I silently counted the resident herd, all doe and yearlings, enjoying their late afternoon snacks. I counted. 17. A buck had been strutting about. This fellow is most often seen, the crowned head of the kingdom, though there are at least two more boys who wander these woods. They really are magnificent to watch.

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The trees, the creek, the carnage and the beauty; the endurance of Rachel Carson’s words. Something to contemplate here on the Cutoff.

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IMG_5315 - Version 2The rain was relentless, casting a fine, gray mist over everything. As I drove to the supermarket, the mist turned to rain, slowing down traffic and rendering the parking lot a hazard as shoppers pushed carts against the pelting rain, neither looking left or right to see if cars were approaching. It is the kind of weather situation I try to avoid, but, a sack of potatoes, some bacon for flavoring, and gallon of milk were needed for the promised pot of potato soup for our evening supper.

I located a parking spot and pulled into it, turned the ignition off and stilled the windshield wipers. It was there and then; one brief moment of magical transformation. The raindrops became splats and splotches and then, as if a wand from Hogwarts brushed the the air, giant snowflakes landed, one by one by one, upon the windshield.

Have you ever experienced that moment when a droplet of rain becomes a snowflake, then two and four and eight and more, like a row of kindergartener holding on, grabbing the first grade and second and so forth until a whole school of flakes take hold?

I hurried inside to make my purchases and then out again, into the elements, and home. My potato soup is simmering, waiting the addition of milk and egg dumplings. The snow has painted the Cutoff white; a pristine portrait for now, until the deer and squirrels and other creatures scrawl their signatures like footprints in the sand.

There was something about the snowflakes that brought to mind a story about a man who gained the reputation of being Snowflake Bentley. Do you know about him?

Wilson Bentley was born in 1865 and lived his entire life on the family farm in Jericho, Vermont. He was educated at home by his mother, reading her set of encyclopedias, in between working the farm with his family. Experimenting with his mother’s telescope, he became fascinated with snow crystals (snowflakes), observing that each one was different. Wilson talked his father into buying a camera that would enable him to take photos of the snow crystals through the lens of the microscope, and eventually catalogued some 5,000 snowflakes, discovering that no two are ever alike.

A shy man, different from most, with a good sense of humor, he became known as the Snowflake Man, or Snowflake Bentley.

Some years back, while on a leaf-peeping trip to Vermont, we stopped at the Old Red Mill in Jericho, and saw an exhibit of Snowflake Bentley’s photographs. I bought a snowflake ornament and this charming children’s book.

http://snowflakebentley.com/bio.htm

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I tried to capture some snowflakes as they tumbled upon my windshield. All I got were droplets of water, which are pictured above, though the reverse image of corners of our house and The Barn can be seen in many of the droplets, reminding me, in an odd sort of way, that Bentley also photographed and measured raindrops.

Funny, is it not, how transformative a trip to the supermarket can be on a snowy winter day?

If you click onto the picture of rain, it will enlarge. Scroll around and see if you can find corners of our house.

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There is a special magic that envelopes us among the trees and bushes, sky and water, and clings to the night  air when all is dark and still. It comes when one walks upon solid ground that suddenly becomes a mystical path alive with unexpected glimmers of flickering lights and shafts of dancing beams of color; an imaginative adventure in the living museum that the Morton Arboretum is.

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 The approaching eve’s cloud cover afforded a dramatic prelude to the illumination about to start.

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We had the pleasure of attending a reception with tasty tidbits and the best hot chocolate ever, laced with Irish Creme, just as nightfall drifted over the Arboretum grounds. Fueled by our refreshments, we donned our coats and scarves and gloves, and embarked upon the path of light and sound and imagination.

Meadow Lake mirrored the artful art of skipping stones and the illusion of roots upon the water.

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The vast collection of trees danced the night away in a perfectly choreographed Nutcracker.

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We had fun with light beams and we magically colored outside the lines along the Conifer Path.

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It was a walk in the wonder, wonderland arboretum, filled with colorful lights and sounds, and a reminder that sometimes, maybe more often, it is good for the soul to color outside the lines.

Illumination:Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum

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IMG_4525A small but sturdy contingency of garden club women who don’t mind getting “down and dirty” ventured out on a blustery mid-week morn.

We met at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which hugs the Lincoln Park Zoo and the magnificent Chicago lakefront. It was my first time there, and, as I often do, I wondered “why?”, especially as I wandered the enclosed butterfly haven. Butterflies, moths and birds flitted about and I found myself slowing down, changing my own rhythm.

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We continued to explore this innovative museum as classes of youngsters darted in and out, trying hard to stay in their Madeleine lines when tunnels and manipulatives and all sorts of wonders called to them, especially in the exhibit rooms which illustrate where waste goes. Children love this “stuff”. It is fun to see nature from the eyes of children. I think we all enjoyed the Peanuts exhibit, which coupled Charlie Brown and his gang with nature facts. This photo is from the Peggy Notebaert website and information on the Peanuts/Charles Schultz connection with nature here.

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After lunch, we donned our rain gear and walked a few blocks, chatting all the way, to the historic Lincoln Park Conservatory. Our engaging docent gave a brief history of the conservatory, which was erected in the 1880’s, we admired the formal outdoor garden, which is framed masterfully by the Chicago skyline.

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Once undercover, we inhaled the warmth and peace of the Lincoln Park Conservatory. I’ll stop writing now, and let you see for yourself.

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The Conservatory is also getting ready for their Christmas display. The poinsettia are ready and glorious.

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The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all.
Laura Ingalls Wilder *

Today is Foursday. Our Ezra attends preschool on “Tuesdays and Foursdays”.

Since today IS Foursday, and since I’ve been rather absent from these pages lately, I wanted to tell you about a few adventures we have had after the terror of Tula 2. Our little adventure started last Foursday as we headed up North to visit with our northern family and help Katy while our son-in-law, Tom, was away for a few days, but, let me begin in at the beginning.

My Tom, whom I will refer to as I often do as Antler Man, and I decided to take a little extra time driving on up, in part to soak up what we hoped would be a colorful landscape of colors throughout Wisconsin. The further north we went, the more vivid nature’s palette became.

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We finally arrived at our destination in time to meet Kezzie’s school bus. For those of you close to grandchildren, this is likely routine, but, for those of us with some distance between our grands and ourselves, it is a treasured treat.

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Katy, Tom and crew have been observing what is bound to become a family ritual, and one I highly recommend to all of you, wherever you live and whatever you climate. For them, way up north, they have dubbed their activities Parktober, in which they visit a state park every weekend in October.

On Saturday, last, before Tom left, we all piled into the car, layered with warm clothes and provisions. We drove past sweet little towns along the Minnesota side ledge of the Mighty Mississippi. Some lunch, some ooh’s and ah’s at the famous river town of Red Wing, and we headed to Frontenac State Park for a hike.

This is one of the first views we saw, overlooking Lake Pepin. By-the-way, the photo was taken by our Kezzie.

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This is from the Minnesota side and it is Lake Pepin. THE Lake Pepin that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about as she told of the Ingalls family’s westward migration from the Big Woods of Wisconsin, crossing the lake, which is a very wide spot of the Mississippi. They crossed in winter, over ice, as it was the most expeditious way to cross at that time.

For those of you who often read my words here on the Cutoff, you know from my ramblings how fond I am of Laura’s books and her story. It was so thoughtful of Tom and Katy to include us in their weekend’s Parktober, and sweet of them to pick this particular state forest.

The wind was brisk, so off we went, following a trail into the woods.

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We started to descend down dirt steps and I realized that what goes down, must come up. Hesitant, with a bum knee, I opted not to take the trail. Katy took pity on me, and we ventured in a different direction – through the prairie. It was warmer than on the bluff, with sun beating down on us, grasses surrounding us, and the colors of Autumn at their peak. Laura and Ma, er, Katy and Mom, walked close to two miles, snapping photos, talking, not talking, the sorts of discussions one has when on the prairie. It was one of those times where life grows sweeter by the moment.

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Well, dear reader, it is still Foursday and I have a few evening chores to attend to. Before I close, here are two stores we stopped at in Red Wing on our way home. Who can pass up chocolate and books?

I took a photo of Kezzie – and she took a photo of me.

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One last photo, in the prairie. I couldn’t see the camera’s screen for the glare of the sun. Sometimes, you just have to click and hope for the best.

I think I will call it my Foursday tree. Thanks, Ezra, for a brand new word.

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*Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/laura_ingalls_wilder.html#mSCuTTI5s8UyO0Cy.99

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Chances are, if you live in the United States, or have visited here, and do any hiking, walking, running, or canoeing in local, state, or national forests, you have probably passed by or sought protection from the elements in structures similar to these.

IMG_3699Built during the Depression years, shelters and bridges were erected from stone and wood, perhaps made of adobe or other locally harvested and hauled materials. The structures pictured here are found in Fullersburg Woods. The stones were hauled in the ’30s from Waterfall Glen. The structures were built during the tenure of one of the most successful programs ever instituted by the government between 1933 and 1941 – the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC.

It is also likely that your outdoor adventures take place under the canopy of trees; trees planted by the men of the CCC. These crews were often referred to as the tree army. For the men who enlisted in the CCC, it was a meaningful, useful way to work in a time where no work was to be found. They learned a marketable skill or trade, regained a sense of pride in putting in a good day’s work – and sent much-needed money home to their families. They were fed, clothed, sheltered and paid $30, 25 dollars of which was sent home to family.

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The CCC was also a massive conservation initiative. The nation’s farmland was devastated by over-cropping and unsustainable farming practices. Much of the country was a “dust bowl”, with land ravaged by soil that nature never intended for farming. Farms were devastated, as were the people on them. With no trees to hold soil in place and no trees to buffer the wind, dust storms turned the skies, then homes and lungs dark with dust, President Franklin Roosevelt led the charge to put men to work building bridges, roads and shelters – as well as planting trees.

On Tuesday morning a small group of us walked through a popular forest preserve in the area, Fullersburg Woods. While I knew that the CCC had a presence in Fullersburg during the 1930’s, I thought of it in terms of what is now the Nature Center. I did not realize, nor, if truth-be-told, even think of trees, assuming they were always part of the landscape. It was a revelation to discover that this forest had been primarily prairie. The trees were planted by the CCC, as they likely were in most of the preserves in Du Page and in Cook County.

Our guide was Chris Gingrich of the Forest Preserve District of Du Page County. He was also the speaker at our garden club meeting last week. He was as engaging and informative a guide as he was a speaker and walked us up hill and down dale through these amazing woods, showing us quite a number of shelters and sites that I had no idea existed here – or just failed to notice.

It is amazing, is it not, what we see in our lives and what we miss?

This is a sitting shelter. Salt Creek wanders behind it. It is open on all sides, with benches on two and a series of logs in between. A sturdy structure, it is well placed and made for resting during a long hike.

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IMG_3718We walked up slight inclines, down others, one of which seems vaguely familiar to me. AHA! I think it might have been where I landed in a cup of tomato soup while trying to cross-country ski one winter. We passed a reclaimed prairie where once stood the CCC camp, where men slept and ate, read books, and played Monopoly, a popular board game of the time. Did you ever play Monopoly?

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It was a brisk morning; one of the first of true fall-like weather. It warmed a bit as we walked and talked and listened and learned. As we came to the end of the trail, we finished our tour at what it now known as the Nature Center. Chris talked about the stones that were used to build the shelter, originally a boat house. It wasn’t hard to imagine the river frozen in winter with ice skaters gliding across, coming to the boat house to warm up at the massive outdoor fireplace. It is just as easy to admire the building now with windows and doors, for, it still stands and is used, a testament to a corp of civilians who built it – and thousands of other shelters, roads, fought forest fires and helped heal the land.IMG_3388

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