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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Paying Homage to a Lowly Native Tree


A tree is a place, not an object, it’s an island in the air

where our sight may live awhile, unburdened

and free from this heavy, earthen body.


-      Joseph Stroud, “Homage to the Black Walnut in Downtown Santa Cruz,” in the collection titled Below Cold Mountain


Fall is a good time to pay tribute to trees in general, particularly here in the northern Midwest as tree foliage loses its chlorophyll and blazes with bright colors for a few short weeks. 

When I look back over the years, I see that many different tree species have obsessed me in different seasons of my life. One year (while reading Swann’s Way) it was hawthorns, in the field and in books. I could think of almost nothing but hawthorns for months on end. Another year it was old apple trees – and everywhere I looked, I saw them. Many autumns have seen me swooning over the varied colors of ash trees, from butterscotch yellow to deep plummy purple, while during many winters in the woods I’ve been entranced by paper-thin, almost transparent beech foliage hanging on against winter’s wind and snow. I love the catalpa that appeared out of nowhere one year as a mere stripling in our backyard, now a stately tall tree that flowers for us each spring, and I also love its modest Arizona cousin, the desert willow, which is not a true willow at all but another member of the small genus Catalpa.

Catalpa in Michigan

Catalpa flower

Desert willow in Arizona

Beginning to flower

Speaking of true willows, the family Salicaceae encompasses the genus Populus, those species I call (after their name) the “people trees,” and this is how Burton V. Barnes and Warren H. Wagner, Jr., introduce them in Michigan Trees: A Guide to the Trees of Michigan and the Great Lakes Region.

The genus Populus belongs to the willow family, and the aspens, cottonwoods, and poplars resemble the willows, especially in flower and fruit characters.


Flowers on pendulous catkins (delicious little word!) are pollinated by the wind, and leaves flutter in the breeze like whispers of a conversation just far enough away that the words cannot be distinguished. Aspens, balsam poplars, and cottonwoods inhabit very different ecosystems, but it is the lowly aspen, known locally in northern Michigan as popple, that occupies my mind this fall. Populus tremuloides, our popple, is Colorado’s aspen. Westerners (without our beautiful maples) rhapsodize over their aspens, while we here pretty much take our popples for granted, but this year I can’t stop thinking about them and combing the Leelanau roadsides with my eyes, hungry for popples.


As 2021 has been a record mushroom year, it seems only fitting to note here that Michigan’s largest living organism is a fungus growing in the Upper Peninsula that covers over 30 acres, but another reason I mention the U.P. fungus is that it has something common with our popple trees. You may think you are looking at a grove of individuals, but it’s far more likely that the trees you see all arise from a common underground, nearly indestructible root system (try to get rid of popples sometime!), which makes the trees genetically identical clones of one another and all physically interconnected. See the explanation and some fabulous photographs of aspen out west here. Within their genus, Barnes and Wagner tell us this about popples: 

…The aspens are boreal and northern species, adapted to a cold climate and either moist or dry soils. They reproduce abundantly by seeds under the right site conditions. Aspens are also adapted to fire and sprout profusely from roots when their trunks are scorched and killed.

Is Utah’s Pando aspen grove the largest popple clone in the world? Colorado has challenged the Utah clone, but these things are difficult to measure. 


My late Uncle Jim, a veteran of the Civilian Conservation Corps, had my undying admiration for his ability to identify trees in winter, when there were no leaves to match against field guide illustrations. Overall shapes of trees helps (the few remaining elm trees in the landscape stand out easily with their vase shape), and bark is another big help. The bark of Populus tremuloides is 

Thin, creamy white to yellowish green [when young], smooth, becoming fissured and gray [with age] with long, flat-topped ridges at the base of old trees or trees in deep shade.

Popples don’t care much for shade (the old ones you'll find there have no doubt been overtaken by other encroaching species), so you’ll often see them at the outer edges of woods and forests, clustered together like a herd of shy young deer, nervous about venturing too far out into the open. My advice today, though, is to take note of them before the wind has completely unclothed them for the winter. Individually they may not look like much, but in groups they are graceful and lovely, especially when the sun catches their dancing leaves, and these sweet little native trees are worthy of our Michigan attention.

Books Read Since Last Listed


148. Rashid, Mark. Lessons From a Ranch Horse (nonfiction)

149. Mosley, Walter. Walkin’ the Dog (fiction)

150. Mowat, Farley. The Dog Who Wouldn't Be (nonfiction)


Currently reading: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe



Peasy News


Next week, the first week of my annual seasonal retirement (Saturday, October 30, is the last bookstore day of the 2021 season), we are taking Peasy to begin some special professional training (training for all three of us), and I’ll let you know how that develops. Pursuing social skills with our special needs dog, as well as addressing long-postponed household projects and issues, means we won’t be leaving for Arizona much before early December, but what needs doing needs doing, and we must needs get at it.

As always, thanks for supporting Dog Ears Books,  thanks for reading, and please feel welcome to share Books in Northport with your friends and neighbors.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

As the Days Dwindle Down....

Flowers in the rain

Here is a list of the books I’ve read since last posting titles on October 6, a little over two weeks ago. A lot of this reading was done between midnight and 5 a.m. 


140. Nerburn, Kent. NEITHER WOLF NOR DOG (nonfiction)

141. Parsons, Emma. CLICK TO CALM: HEALING THE AGGRESSIVE DOG (nonfiction)

142. Bromfield, Louis. NIGHT IN BOMBAY (fiction)

143. Forman, James. PEOPLE OF THE DREAM 


145. Airgood, Ellen. THE EDUCATION OF IVY BLAKE (fiction – juv.)

146. Brown, Fleda. MORTALITY, WITH FRIENDS: ESSAYS (nonfiction)

147. Stegner, Wallace. ALL THE LITTLE LIVE THINGS (fiction)


The Nerburn book was recommended by a friend and very much worth reading. Parsons has a training method I love, although it only works in predictable situations. I’ve always loved Bromfield’s nonfiction books on farming so thought I’d try a novel: in a word, dated. Forman’s book was a fictionalized biography of Chief Joseph, written specifically for young people, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. I’m not even sure how to feel about the many books written by white people about Chief Joseph. Any ideas?


Mary Trump offered nothing hugely new, in terms of how I see her uncle, but the details of family history and insights into family dynamics could only come from a family member also trained in psychology, and it was a blessedly quick read.


The Education of Ivy Blake was a re-read. I often re-read Ellen Airgood’s books for comfort, and she never disappoints me.


Fleda Brown – wow! I already knew, from Driving with Dvořák, that she is as brilliant an essayist as she is a poet, and sure enough, she hit another one out of the park with Mortality, with Friends. Don't miss it!


Finally, years ago when a friend was completely bowled over by Stegner’s Angle of Repose, I tried but never managed to get into that book. I did, years later, fall in love with Stegner’s memoir, Wolf Willow, so it seemed time to give one of his novels a chance. All the Little Live Things is set in California, with a lot of description of that particular natural world, so I persevered, though the narrator was hard to like. His life had reason for us to be sympathetic to him – and yet. But then came the last sentence: “I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow.” Well, okay then. Yes.


It’s a rainy day today. It’s a good day for books and a good bookstore day. Remember, October 30 is the last day in my 2021 season, so please make time for book shopping in Northport this week or next. Thanks!

On a sunnier day

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

My life has changed a lot. (Our lives are always changing.)

School is back in session. The number of boats is thinning in the marina. Playground equipment stands empty in the rain, and leaves are beginning to turn and fall. Autumn is a season of change more obvious than the gradual changes of summer.

The rest of the United States, when it recognizes the name Bruce Catton, thinks “Civil War historian.” Here in Michigan (especially northern Michigan, where Catton spent his boyhood and youth), we know him as one of our own, not only the writer of books about the Civil War but also author of an engaging and moving history of Michigan, as well as his beautiful and much-loved memoir, Waiting for the Morning Train


Catton had a tragic sense of history. His thesis in Michigan: A Centennial History can be stated simply, if metaphorically: “We are all Indians.” With this phrase, the author was not taking on the colors of a wannabe and dressing up in literary pow-wow regalia, pretending to be something he was not. This is not cultural appropriation. What Catton meant is clear to readers of the book: the relentless march of American history, the tide of white Europeans invading and claiming ancestral tribal homelands, which meant cultural destruction to Native American tribes, bringing change faster that the native peoples could adapt to it (had the Europeans even allowed them to adapt, which is another story) – that kind of rapid, destructive cultural change is the fate of us all, whether we realize it or not. One example from Michigan history is the destruction of old-growth white pine forests: in the short term, the timber industry provided jobs locally and lumber to rebuild Chicago after the fire, but the resulting fields of stumps provided nothing for the many young lumber towns that rapidly fell into decay.

Perhaps being overcome and left behind is the fate of the older generations everywhere in the world where change is rapid. In this Western “civilized” world, certainly, we are (and have been for generations) overdriving our headlights – and we are also, simultaneously, the deer in the headlights, those bringing change no more in control of the future than those overwhelmed by changes wrought.

In my own life, for a long time, there were certain things I did every year and naively thought I would always do, and now I find myself falling away from many of what used to be annual personal traditions, while at the same time unforeseen developments have come into my life, complicating and changing it irrevocably. One recent development is the dog we call Peasy.  I knew I was adopting a shy dog, a dog with “issues,” but I had no idea what it meant to live with a “reactive” dog until, as we got to know him better, I began reading more about the special needs this little guy has, which is why I now say that he is “my comfort and my challenge, companion and burden, solution (to some of life’s problems) and problem (on his own, in many ways).” Fortunately, I am not alone in dealing with the challenges Peasy presents, however, because the little dickens has managed somehow to worm his way into the Artist’s heart, as well. How amazing! 

“He’s so full of life! And he’s so grateful to us! It would be churlish not to love him,” says the Artist (who adds that the last thing he wants to be is a churl). When Peasy trots proudly into the bedroom carrying one of his toys to show us, we dissolve in laughter. He plays joyfully and brings his joy to us, another of his treasures and one he shares happily. If only he could spread his joy and love around to other people, as Sarah did! But that, sadly, is not his nature.

Nikki was a shy little plain Jane, “pure mutt,” as I used to say when people asked. Sarah was a beautiful, calm, very sociable Aussie-border collie mix. The world was a scary place for Nikki, but with us she had a good, long life. Sarah was the easiest puppy and dog in the world to live with and loved just about everyone and everything in the world. Neither of those dogs prepared us for Peasy. But although the accommodations necessary for dealing with him and friends and family at the same time are sometimes a real pain in the neck, he loves us so much that we can’t help loving him back.


So that is one big change in our life. Another, creeping on us gradually, but more speedily with each passing year, is that we are getting oldUs! Whoever thought that would happen? It doesn’t mean a thing that it happens to “everyone,” because what has “everyone” to do with us? 


I began this post with Michigan history, zoomed in on my personal life, and now want to pull back again for a wider, longer view. Northport. Leelanau County. Traverse City. Northern Michigan. In Traverse City, change has been bigger and faster than out here in the county, such that if we don’t go to town for a couple of weeks, we hardly recognize the place. Okay, slight exaggeration. But really! High-rise hotels and motels have taken the place of old mom-and-pop tourist cabins, and enormous condominium buildings sprout like giant mushrooms from outer space along the Boardman River and Grand Traverse Bay. We look at what we see there now and recall to each other how the same place used to look forty, fifty, sixty years ago, when Traverse City really was still a small town. 


Well, Northport is still a small town. We have our dog parade in August and homecoming parade in the fall. In the summer, there is the farmers market and, on Friday evenings, Music in the Park. There is a blinking traffic light at the south end of the village, and there are parking lots but no parking meters. Yet change is inevitable everywhere, and Northport is no exception. Will our little village be able to accommodate change and retain its friendly small-town atmosphere, or will the atmosphere itself be changed? No one, I think, wants the latter possibility to be realized. Those of us already here like our town the way it is, and new people come because they like it, too.


When I posted on Facebook that I had a couple copies of the book Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, two village council members put dibs on those copies (so I should probably order more). Is it possible to limit growth? How do we do it?


It’s bow season right now for deer, to be followed by firearm deer season, and slowing down on county roads is a good idea. Maybe slowing down in other ways is a good idea, too. Easy for me to recommend slowing down, though: I’m getting old. How do you feel about change and speed?


P.S. Please see here my pitch for the kind of support that counts with booksellers, whether you like life fast or slow. Thanks!

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Local Color and Stubborn Onions


Northport Harbor is so beautiful! 

If anyone ever asks me….


Someone did ask me, a few years ago, to what I attributed my success in a world of bookselling dominated by the online behemoth, and my answer was to tell him I am very stubborn. Too stubborn to give up, that is. So last night as I was sauteing onions and musing on how often I am slicing or dicing or sauteing onions, it occurred to me that if I live to be 100 (my mother was just shy of 96 when she died) and am asked the secret of my longevity, I can say, “I’m very stubborn and I've always eaten lots of onions.” 


Onions were not part of my bookstore’s success, but Dog Ears Books had its 28th birthday this past July, putting us now into our 29th year. Longevity! In a challenging world!


Onions are not good for dogs, we are told – toxic, in fact -- but not giving up is essential when working with a challenging rescue dog. More on this in a minute….



Since the end of September, 


I have read these books to add to my 2021 list: 


134. Thomas, Dylan. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (fiction). Largely autobiographical fiction, that is, and for some reason I never really entered into it deeply enough to lose myself in the stories. “How was it?” the Artist asked. “Okay.” “Only okay.” Shrug. “Okay.”


135. McKenzie, C.B. Burn What Will Burn (fiction). This crime novel set in backwoods Arkansas opens with a body in Piney Creek and gathers complications from then on. The characters and dialogue are vivid, along with touches of local realism (for instance, “snake pit” is not metaphor but simple fact), and yet the story faded from my mind quickly after I finished reading the book. It was, I’d say, very plot-driven, with not a lot of the kind of description that makes a place I don’t know come alive for me. The contrast I’d make is with Damnation Creek, by Ash Davidson. But then, McKenzie’s is more of genre fiction, Davidson’s more literary, as I read them.


136. Bragg, Rick. The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People(nonfiction). This story of a “bad” dog who finds a family unwilling to give up on him had me laughing with tears in my eyes. Will he bite? Under certain circumstances, he’ll even bite Rick. But he’s a handsome dog. Rick says, “Looks ain’t his problem.” Oh, my gosh! These are not only real people – they come across the page as real people, and the place as a real place. I could see it all as if I were there.


137. Cogan, Priscilla. Winona’s Web (fiction). Most chapters in this “novel of discovery” (as it’s called on the cover) recount sessions the protagonist, a psychotherapist, has with an elderly Native American woman who expects to die soon, although she is not ill and is not planning suicide. The client quickly becomes the therapist, and the therapist of record allows it to happen, for her own sake and the sake of the old woman. Despite the obvious setup, the story is never boring, and I quite enjoyed it, both for the cross-cultural learning and the opening up of the main character’s heart. I suppose, however, that I must add that this is very much a white woman's book, and that cross-cultural learning could also be seen as cultural appropriation -- which is why it has taken me so many years to get around to reading Winona's Web in the first place.


138. Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War (fiction). Somehow this book had slipped under my radar completely since it was first published in 1974, although now I find it created quite a stir. The protagonist, an only child and a freshman in a Catholic boys’ high school, has recently lost his mother and does not seem to have a close relationship with his father, although there is no real friction between them, either. My take on this novel is that it’s Lord of the Flies without the isolation of an island or the absence of putative adults: human greed and cruelty and desire for power and status infect some of the teachers as well as the boys in school, which allows a small group of boys to terrify the rest into submission – until Jerry takes it in his head not to go along … and pays the price.


139. Zadoorian, Michael. The Narcissism of Small Differences(fiction). Reading this novel for the second or third time, I entered more fully into the lives of a just-turned-40 couple still trying to find themselves before they age out of being cool and “weird.” I need to think more about the title, which comes from an idea of Sigmund Freud’s, that “the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.” Some of the scenes in Zadoorian’s short story collection, Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, come into this longer work with more detail, and there is plenty of ambivalence to go around, both toward the abandoned inner city and toward capitalism in general, but the characters take center stage.


And now, about Peasy –


-- Because I know that’s really why many of you tune in to Books in Northport in the first place. Recently I posted on Facebook that Peasy is my comfort and my challenge, companion and burden, solution (to some of life’s problems) and problem (on his own, in many ways). All in all, it’s fair to say he is in some ways my salvation and in other ways my nemesis! How can one dog be so many things? Rick Bragg (see book list above) would understand, I know.


The first time I saw Peasy in the Graham County, AZ, pound (thinking he was a she, but that’s another story), it was clear that this dog was very skittish. That was the mild way of putting it. He was afraid of people, to put it more bluntly. And once I had him home, it was clear that he knew no commands, had no manners, and had almost zero impulse control. So he has come a very long way in ten months, to become an affectionate, devoted, fun-loving companion to the Artist and me. The trouble comes when other people come onto “our” territory, which he seems to feel responsible for guarding.


Will Peasy ever be able to have a normal social life? And will we, given that he is such a part of our life? Such challenges! I yo-yo back and forth between hope and despair. But we are not giving up on this little guy – and I say “we” because the Artist is now squarely on Peasy’s side, the two of them quite bonded at last – and my stubbornly hopeful (or hopefully stubborn) nature got a big shot in the arm reading about clicker training for to curb reactivity by getting the dog to stop and think.


Among the reasons I look forward to my annual seasonal retirement in southeast Arizona, this year being able to concentrate on Peasy and work intensively on his social skills is high on the list. It will be good to rejoin the neighborhood pack (my friend Therese and her dogs), which was the groundwork of Peasy’s social life last winter and will be our starting point again in 2021-22. Thank heaven he didn’t exhibit dog-dog aggression! Molly is more than a match for him, anyway! No, it’s people he needs to stop fearing, but I have, once again, hope. So stay tuned, because I fully expect to have happy news to share. I am determined to have happy news to share.

Our beautiful boy!

P.S. The beautiful art adorning the marina in Northport, Michigan, was created by Kat Dakota

Saturday, October 2, 2021

What Constitutes 'Simplicity'?

Misleading minimalist photograph from our front porch

Recently I read an article in the New Yorker magazine about minimalism as it relates to living spaces ["Simple Plans," by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker, February 3, 2020], in which the author describes a video featuring a $60M mansion as "a stark, blank, monochromatic palace...." Readers are not informed of the square footage of the mansion, but I'm guessing the effect was as much in its size as in its minimal furnishings. I would be more impressed by a "minimalist" lifestyle if the homeowners had built themselves a one-room cabin by hand.


The Artist and I don’t live with bare walls and have no desire to do so. Walls, in our life, are for displaying art and for accommodating bookshelves. Besides paintings, prints, and books, we have our other little béguins matériels, if I may use that phrase to indicate things we fall for and impulsively must have but don’t need at all. For me, it’s bed linens, kitchen linens, specialty cookware, and what the Artist calls “kitten dishes.” For him, it’s boats (all kinds), leather bags, shoes and boots. And both of us have a thing for attractive boxes of all kinds. So no, we are not minimalists.


(Try this – or don’t: do an online search for ‘declutter’ and tell me how many times it took for the word to become a cluttering brain worm. Declutter, declutter, declutter….)


But although our life is not minimal, I would argue (mildly, gently) that it can be called simple. Not jet-setters or high-rollers, we don’t buy what we can’t afford, buy very sparingly of the new, and don’t gamble more than a couple dollars (literally) a year (scratch-off lottery tickets). We are possessed of nothing like a wine cellar, and the tiny little Paris kitchen in our old farmhouse does not even boast a dishwasher. Central air conditioning? Are you kidding? An old oscillating fan on the front porch and a tiny one in our bedroom window are all we ever need to get through a Michigan summer. 


Minimalism does not necessarily equal simplicity. And there are ways in which a so-called minimalist lifestyle may not even be as simple as it looks on the surface. 


One recent morning a man walked into my bookstore looking for a specific title – which is always a long shot, but as it happened that day I had in stock the book he had read years ago as a boy and wanted to read again. It was an out-of-print Michigan title, signed by the author, and while he had no reluctance to pay my $22 price, he surprised me by asking if I wanted him to mail the book back to me after he’d read it so I could “sell it again.” That was a new one! “I don’t like stuff,” he explained. And then he told me (this takes my breath away!) that if he wanted to “keep” a book, rather than pass it along to a friend when he finished reading it, he would take a saw, cut off the binding, and scan the pages! I begged him not to saw up the book he had just bought, and he said he wouldn’t, so it may come back to me, or he may pass it along to a friend. 


…He doesn’t like stuff


While not denying that they are material objects (and I love that about them), I’ve never considered books to be stuff. What I was mulling over in his wake, however, was not books as beloved or even sacred objects but the issue of human-readable vs. machine-readable text. In my simple home life, all I have to do to read one of my books, regardless of its age, is to take it in my hands and open it. At night I may need a lamp (or a couple candles if the power is out), but my daytime reading is completely grid-independent. And my book-reading requires no special digital storage or retrieval technology. I don’t need to worry that the “technology” of my printed books will be outdated during my lifetime, the content become inaccessible. Keeping my books comfortable and healthy adds no layer of complexity, either: if we are comfortable, they are comfortable.

The Artist once made a memorable statement about the way we live. “We can’t be trusted with horizontal surfaces,” he observed. True enough! Tables, counters, chairs, and couches all make themselves readily available as temporary storage for (among other things) slippy-sliding stacks of books, magazines, and mail. The minimalist mind would quail at the sight! And yet the solution, employed whenever one of us gets the urge, requires no cords or batteries.


What does ‘the simple life’ mean to you? Do you admire it? Are you living it? Is ‘clutter’ your nemesis or your comfort? Do I protest too much?

A bowl of apples: the simple life!