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Tuesday, April 30, 2024

At Home in Michigan, Nonfiction, and Arizona

Spectacular forsythia this year

On Saturday, we had a soft rain in the Leelanau, mostly just sprinkles. Monday morning, after a dog walk in real rain (my grandmother used to say, “I’m not sugar; I won’t melt”), I planted collard and arugula seeds in the garden, having gotten peas and spinach in two days earlier, and the timing worked out well, because half an hour later a downpour commenced. Meanwhile, in the house, lettuce has come up in Jiffy pots (the pots are in trays), and the first tiny, brave tomato seedlings have appeared. My only “greenhouse” is a window, so we’ll see how those things do.

Nothing to see yet

Small, hopeful signs here

Outdoors, spring is popping, and you can follow this link to see a blossoming black cherry, along with the lovely spring ephemerals blooming in the woods last Sunday morning. I want to add “finally,” but the truth is that we are way ahead of the normal spring season. The little plum tree in my yard will be blossoming any minute now. 

Plum blossoms coming soon

It’s funny, but no matter how impatient I am for spring to get underway, when it all does start to happen I am almost sorry, afraid it will be too soon over! There is a certain moment, the soft, fresh, pointillist impressionism of a few brief days when the first leaves are appearing – a moment when I want to hit a pause button and just sit quietly and gaze for hours, but instead the projectionist speeds up the film and rushes into summer. For a moment, though, the soft green is almost like a haze….

Do you see what I see?


Here's another question for you: When you see a section in a bookstore labeled “Essays,” do you move toward it or away? 

I have more people than I can count in recent years who ask me if I have a “Nonfiction” section, and I’m always baffled by the question. I have many nonfiction sections! History, travel, philosophy, religion, economics, biography, memoir, sports, hunting & fishing, health, business, cookbooks, natural science, physical science, building, visual arts, performing arts, etc. None of that is fiction; therefore, it is all nonfiction. So when asked the question, I usually ask a question of my own in return, trying to determine what subject area the person hopes to find. 


But now, I think maybe they might be looking for what is nowadays called “creative nonfiction,” books I would generally consider kind of memoir essays. I think of them as memoir because they are usually personal stories from someone’s life, but they can and do overlap into travel and/or nature, sometimes psychology, religion, regional Americana, or the arts. If you hear or see the word essays, though, does it put you off? Answer honestly! Does it remind you of your school days and having to write about “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”? or (worse yet) a compare-and-contrast piece on two writers, neither of whom set your soul on fire?

My obsession: hawthorn!

Me, I love essays. I love the form. Tony Judt, Adam Gopnik, nonfiction by our own Leelanau writers Jim Harrison, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Kathleen Stocking – essays range far and wide. They can be humorous or serious but are generally explorations, the writer trying out thoughts and connections. The French verb ‘essayer’ means just that: to try, to attempt, to examine. I think of them as explorations above all, whether of place or thought.


A sermon is a sort of essay, usually built on a bit of scripture, and any essay, like a sermon, usually begins with some small kernel. It can be a quotation, a word, something glimpsed or overheard, a nugget of wonder. Then from that initial seed, the writer grows a world, a forest of trees and ferns and flowers, all spun from that small, simple beginning, and in the most satisfying of essays (as is true only in baseball among team sports), we end by coming home, the writer having taken us far away and then having closed a circle. Poet Fleda Brown is a genius at this: thinking and writing about essays led me to pick up again her collection titled Mortality with Friends. An earlier collection, Driving with Dvorak, is another that wins my highest recommendation. 


But the book I want to hold out to you today is Mountain Time: A Field Guide to Astonishment, by Renata Golden. When an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) was offered to me by Columbus State University Press, and I realized that the author had lived and written from, in part, the Chiricahua Mountains of Cochise County, Arizona, I could hardly wait for the book to arrive in my mail. 


I climb to the top of the mounds behind the house in Sulphur Canyon where I once lived, more than a decade ago, on and off for three years. … When I return, I hear the mountains speaking to me in a tone I can’t ignore, a voice humming with suggestion.


-      Renata Golden, Mountain Time


Full disclosure (for those arriving at this post without having followed the blog for years): My husband (the Artist) and I lived several winters in a rental cabin in the ghost town of Dos Cabezas, just down the road from the Chiricahua National Monument. Renata Golden lived on the other side of the Chiricahuas, the New Mexico side. I found Sulphur Canyon on my Arizona atlas. It is in the San Simon Valley, east of the Chiricahua range, while our side of the mountains (west) was the Sulphur Springs Valley, but Sulphur Valley and Sulphur Springs Valley, though separated by mountains, are both Cochise County, and it’s all Apacheria, so there was no way I would be able to resist this book. And look: right on the cover is the word ESSAYS in a red-outlined rectangle.


How long must we survive in a place before we can say we belong there? How much time passes after we leave a land before it forgets us?


Golden begins her examinations of mountain time by remembering Irish great-grandparents she never knew, a generation that managed to survive the Great Famine but were not allowed to own land in County Kerry, so the next generation, Renata’s grandparents, left Ireland and came to Chicago to make a new life in urban America. The author explores in detail the 19th-century history of the Chiricahua Apaches, an all-too-typical American tale of broken promises and eviction, the latter called “relocation” when applied to Native Americans. (No land in Cochise County has ever been returned to the Apaches, although a tiny reservation in New Mexico was designated “Apache Homelands” in 2011.) She also gives the history of her parents’ purchase of land in New Mexico that they fondly imagined would be their retirement home, a home that was never built, the land so worthless her parents were unable even to sell it.


The book, however, is about more than mountains and the people who live and have lived in them. There is an essay on rodents, one on snakes, one on prairie dogs, and (I’m not listing them all) a personal story of panic in a wild cave, where the writer’s reluctance to ask for help is at odds with her fear.


The passage of time like the passage of water reforms what was once undeniably solid. The river that carved this cave exploited the vulnerability of its limestone walls. The empty places are oblivious to the rock’s former resistance; the water leaves behind only the memory of what has been diminished.


Certain lines brought tears to my eyes – not for the packrat or the rattlesnakes or even the cute little prairie dogs, but for what Golden writes about aging and loss and home. Here is an entry from her “Chiricahua Glossary” –


Home. Where the heart is. Where you hang your hat. Where your family lives. Your natal place. A place you leave. A place I’m still looking for.

My heart is here in Leelanau County, Michigan, but it was also in Cochise County, Arizona, and part of it remains there. I have hung my hats and caps in both places. My family lives elsewhere, though no one related to me lives any longer in South Dakota, where I was born. South Dakota, Illinois, Arizona were all places I left. Must home be singular? 

Mi cabeza

I have to admit that I missed the high desert ghost town of Dos Cabezas this past winter and early spring: morning hikes with a younger neighbor and our dogs, get-togethers with other dear neighbors (people look out for each other in Dos Cabezas, as they do in Northport), the mountains and birds out my back door, the vast spaces, and Chiricahua only a short drive down the road. I left the ashes of two beloved dogs buried in the wash behind the cabin, and the cabin – so small and so cozy with all our books and other treasures collected over the years – is the last place the Artist and I were at home together on this earth.

Cabin seen from wash in winter

But when our grandson asked if I could imagine myself ever living fulltime in Arizona, I had to answer in the negative. Give up my Michigan home? How could I? And now that trees are beginning to leaf out and blossom, as I drive the familiar roads of my township I slow down to stop at favorite spots and say aloud but with quiet astonishment, “I love it! I love it!” 

The wild nearby

Indoor refuge

I don’t need to look for home. I’m here. Still, that other place felt like home, too. The land forgetting us? Mountains are indifferent to our presence, as are lakes and rivers: the love for them is in us. 

Do we deserve them? I wonder.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

(My) Earth Day 2024 in Northern Michigan

How green is the woods, at last!

Out in the Woods, Foraging


Earth Day breakfast salad

Sunny and I are out earlier and earlier these days. I find my treasures, and Sunny finds hers. Mine on Earth Day were leaves of the toothwort plant for my breakfast salad. Sunny didn’t turn up any “new” skeletal remains on Monday, but she’s already done pretty well for herself this year in that regard.

Her latest score


In the Bookstore, with Bags


The first people in the bookstore door on Earth Day came for book bags, and I was happy to accommodate, quite pleased with the look of the new bags, glad I went that route instead of t-shirts. After all, plenty of other businesses in town have t-shirts (very attractive ones), but mine is Northport’s only bookstore, so…. 

Also, with book bags, one size fits all -- unless, that is, a customer buys too many books for a single bag, but then the fix is as simple as a second bag.



Earth Day Reading


If I want to be righteous and largely ineffective [my emphasis added], I can hold onto my rage and resentments. You have the same choice. You can target me and others for our blind spots. Or you can get about the process of transforming yourself and one another. 


-      Chuck Collins, Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bring Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good


Born on Third Base might not be an obvious choice for Earth Day reading, but it certainly worked for me. As Collins points out in his foreword, earth’s natural ecosystems are the basis for all wealth, so even the richest people alive (and those to come) are dependent on the health of the planet. Collins wants the 1% to realize that their self-interest is at stake in narrowing the wealth gap. He also wants the 99% to realize that, in order to protect our home communities, we need to forge alliances with the wealthy, and he has suggestions for how to do that.


…I urge us all to proceed with empathy, adopting powerful tactics of active love and nonviolent direct action to make this happen. Instead of a class war of shame, I advocate an appeal to common humanity and empathy.


I want to add here that partisan antagonism is no more likely to reform our troubled world than is class antagonism. Collins points out that no one responds well to being targeted, blamed, shamed, ridiculed, and treated as an enemy. It’s a stark choice: stand apart and feel superior and watch the world go to hell while blaming others -- or recognize the fears of, as well as contributions made by, those on “the other side.” I say we need to acknowledge our common humanity and reach out, because no one is right about everything, and no one is wrong about everything. 


It was, after all, President Richard Nixon who declared the first Earth Day in 1970, spurred to it by the massive Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. It was also Nixon who first proposed the Environmental Protection Agency realizing that regulation was necessary to protect natural resources. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if today’s Republican Party were to rediscover their stake in the common good? How might that come about? Will demonizing help? Something to think about, because Earth Day isn’t something to put behind us until next year. Every day needs to be Earth Day.

Our beautiful home

Looking Ahead

Meanwhile, on the nearer horizon, this Friday, April 26, is Arbor Day, and in Northport a new tree will be planted in Marina Park, down at the south end near the little sailing school building, with the Tree Committee, Northport students, and community members all on hand for the 10 a.m. planting. 


The following day, Saturday, April 27, is not only Independent Bookstore Day all across the United States but also, here in Leelanau Township, the kickoff day for Northport Omena Restaurant Week. As there are five participating food purveyors within easy walking distance of Dog Ears Books, I figure Saturday should be a double-header day in Northport, eh?

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Explaining Myself

Will be open on Monday, 4/22, for Earth Day!

Bookstore Notes


Maybe I got some ‘splainin’ to do. “Disproving skeptics for over 200 dog years”? What does it mean?


Well, when I opened Dog Ears Books in 1993, many people told me, shaking their heads sadly, “No one reads books any more.” The people uttering the gloomy words had voluntarily entered a bookstore and were happy to be there, but each one believed he or she was the last of a dying breed, the earth’s last living reader. 

Original Dog Ears, Waukazoo Street, 1993

Fast forward three decades, and I don’t hear that particular line as much. Many people still say, however, “Bookstores are going the way of the dinosaur” (or words to that effect), because while it’s become obvious that reading has not died out, doesn’t everyone order their books online or read on their electronic devices? 


No, not everyone. 


My bookstore would not be the self-supporting business it needs to be if the skeptics were right. So now here we are, coming up on 31 years later, and I am so confident going into the 2024 season that I have gone out on a limb and ordered canvas book bags emblazoned with my business name, logo, and that line about the mistaken skeptics, confident that yet another year will continue to prove them wrong and keep me here on Waukazoo Street, just up the block from where I started in 1993.

Back on Waukazoo Street since -- 2006?

Committing to a bookstore in a small village at the end of a peninsula means life in the slow lane for all but a few summer weeks. Nevertheless, it’s a life I chose with my eyes open, telling a new Northport landlord in 1997 that I was “in it for the long haul.” And almost 31 years later I have no regrets, because besides making a modest living, I meet interesting people all the time, and many have become my friends over the years. It’s a rich life.


Reminder: If you come to the bookstore for a book bag on Monday, 4/22, and bring a copy of our ad in this week’s Leelanau Enterprise, your bag will be $11 instead of $12. In-person, Earth Day special!


Outdoor Notes


First leeks
First spring beauties spotted, their petals furled, on April 12th, by the next day opening their faces to the sun. Before that, wild leeks were already turning the woodland floor green. On the 14th I saw my first trillium – again, flower bud closed tight. It won’t be long, I thought, until they are blooming madly, and in the meantime the first Dutchman’s breeches began coming shyly onstage. 

Spring beauties

I’d been thinking this Sunday would see a riot of spring ephemerals in bloom, but then our yo-yo temperatures took another plunge, snow threatened, and the little buds pulled their heads back underneath the covers for the chilly weekend. But soon!

First Dutchman's breeches


Dog Notes

Giving me a look!

Here’s a question: Do dogs understand the cycle of the seasons? Wild animals appear to do so, but dogs have been companions of humans for so long that maybe their seasonal sense has atrophied. Does Sunny remember last summer? Does she realize that another summer is on the way? Sometimes, when she has that “Oh, mom, you’re so boring!” look on her face, I would love to remind her of the fun she had the evening before and the fun that awaits her in the morning. If only I could explain! There’s a downside to living in the moment.


But co-evolving with self-centered humans, dogs have had to learn patience. No wonder we love them so! And isn’t it a joy when we can make them happy?

Meeting with friends!

Monday, April 15, 2024

Where Shall I Go Now?

This is not how it looked. This was an unintended fancy setting.

The past is no longer there.


When I learned that my friend Hélène had died – and although she was my mother’s age, it came as a shock -- I knew that Paris would never be the same for me. It was in her apartment on the rue de Vaugirard that I rented a room for the month of May 1987, and one of my fondest memories from the long-deferred dream journey David and I made together in September 2020 was an evening in an Auvergnat restaurant in Hélène’s neighborhood, David’s young English friend, Justin, completing our international quartet. “We’re making beautiful memories,” Helene said to me, leaning her head on my shoulder for a moment. 

From album of that trip in 2000

Was that really 24 years ago? We always thought we would go back

After the expected yet deep pain of losing our old Sarah to old age, followed by the more tragic loss of poor little Peasy, the Artist and I had a few weeks (all too brief) in which we thought about making a much longer, more roundabout trip back to Michigan in May, going north into South Dakota (a state David had never seen but where I was born) and then to the Twin Cities in Minnesota, home of children and grandchildren we hadn’t visited on their own home grounds for too long. But that trip was not to be….


One of my sisters spends a couple weeks in early spring down in San Miguel de Allende and says I’d love it there. People I’ve known for years here in Leelanau have bought a house in the south of France and tell me the guest room is waiting for me. “But I have a dog,” I tell them. I’ve crossed the U.S. between southeast Arizona and northern Michigan three times with Sunny Juliet, so domestic travel presents no problems (even Canada would be doable, except for big cities), but how could I leave my little partner to go out of the country?



The foregoing I set aside without posting and eventually put up something else instead. Travel? Not in my cards at present.


Then along came Sunday morning, as it does reliably every week, and the sky was a cloudless blue, sun bright, barely a breeze stirring -- features of the morning that may or may not come together on any given Sunday, so hallelujah! -- and I realized that I had not been any farther from home than Grand Traverse County for almost a year. Several errand trips to Traverse City and one drive to Interlochen were the extent of my “travel” since return from Arizona in May 2023. Also, this year April 15 marked 32 years since the Artist and I exchanged vows for the second time (Kalamazoo, MI, the first time; Paris, Illinois, second). 

Paris, Illinois, April 14, 1992

My gypsy feet itched for the road, and I thought about Benzie County. Specifically, there was allure in the idea of following M-22 south of Empire. But there was a loose button on my shirt….



Surprise trip back


So I got out my sewing basket, and found when I opened it a little red notebook, a diary from April and May of 2015, that began with our last days in Dos Cabezas – that is, the last days of our first time there, a mid-January to mid-April stay. We were eleven days on the road home that year, stopping often and doing a lot of sight-seeing, and every day’s sights and every evening’s stop were recorded in this book. I began reading and couldn’t stop, mesmerized by the memories brought back by my own handwritten lines. 

The little red travel diary

When I reached the last page and closed the book, I looked out my window at robins on still-bare branches and felt as if I had just crossed the continent again and had aged nine years in half an hour. That is the power of written words.

April 2015


The road to Benzie


Most of the day remained after my half-hour in the past, however, so dog and I, with camera, binoculars, water bottle, and water dish, piled into the car and headed south. Without going into all the details and every road we traveled, here are a few highlights from our Sunday on the road:


These were the true colors of Benzie County's Platte River.

Old work by beaver artist

Best views of Long Lake were from the road,

where there was no room to pull over,

so a tiny boat launching area was the best I could do.

In Frankfort, Sunny Juliet and I lunched at the A&W drive-in. 

A real drive-in! Shades of my childhood!

From there we drove around Crystal Lake to rejoin M-22, and then it was back home again and dog play for Sunny and Griffin, followed by bedtime with book and dog for me, finishing up my reading of William Kent Krueger's Windigo Island. Sunny and I slept well. We had had a big day.