Outdoors: Beech books

Feb 24, 2021

During summer, it is easy to overlook beech trees.

But this time of year, when leaves are gone from mature beech and almost all other deciduous trees, the tan leaves of young beech trees give us some much-appreciated winter color.

Interlochen campers tell me that the trunks of beech trees remind them of elephant legs.

The smooth grey bark is thin, but not particularly insulating.

Beech trees grow in the eastern United States but they peter out just west of Lake Michigan.

Outdoors: Footprints in the snow

Feb 17, 2021

In his first book of Preludes, Claude Debussy wrote a melancholy piece, which in English is called "Footprints in the Snow."

Clearly, he intended to express desolation, for in the manuscript, he wrote, "This rhythm should have the sonorous value of a sad and frozen landscape."

Outdoors: Birds' courtship performances

Feb 10, 2021

It seems early, but on one of our rare sunny days, I heard a chickadee sing his two-note mating call.

The courtship season for birds will soon be here.

Because Valentines’ Day coming soon, I would point out that bird courtship is an artistic endeavor.

To attract a mate, a male bird must sing, dance, behave dramatically or create a visual presentation.

In the dance department, some species dance, and others perform acrobatic courtship flights.

Ritual dancing is, for many birds, a critical part of pair bonding.


Join IPR's music director Amanda Sewell on Friday, February 26 at 10 a.m. for a virtual lecture on the relationship between classical music and climate change.

Outdoors: Moving forests

Feb 3, 2021

In one of Shakespeare's tragedies, the one set in Scotland, an apparition of a child predicted that the king would never be vanquished until a forest walked up the hill to his castle.

Outdoors: Pine tree tales

Jan 27, 2021

When Sir Arnold Bax wrote his symphonic poem, “Tales the Pine Trees Knew,” he was thinking of Norway and Scotland.

He explained, “This work is concerned solely with the abstract mood of these places, and the pine trees' tale must be taken purely as a generic one. Certainly I had no specific coniferous story to relate.”

But the pine trees at Interlochen do know a number of tales.

Outdoors: Unconsidered trifles

Jan 20, 2021
The Urban Nature Enthusiast

In Shakespeare’s "A Winter’s Tale," Autolycus is a rogue, "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles."

Autolycus was a thief.

Noticing that some birds often snap up unconsidered trifles, British ornithologists, remembering their Shakespeare, called the behavior "autolycism."

Outdoors: Monocular vision

Jan 13, 2021

In the European sculpture wing of most art museums, one is confronted with a bewildering assortment of mythological gods and goddesses.

I can usually recognize the Roman god of doors and transitions, Janus, because he has two heads, one looking forward and one looking back.

To see both forward and backward, a double face would be necessary.

Human eyes, located on the very front of face, produce what is known as binocular vision.

Outdoors: The star of Bethlehem?

Jan 11, 2021

Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, composer Gian Carlo Menotti viewed the Bosch painting "The Adoration of the Magi."

It reminded him of his childhood in Italy, where, on January 6, children received gifts, not from Santa Claus, but rather, from the Three Kings.

This memory inspired him to write an opera for television, "Ahmal and the Night Visitors," which my family watched every year.

Outdoors: The bleak midwinter

Dec 23, 2020

Earth was hard as iron
Water like a stone

I love the Rossetti lyrics to Holst’s carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

While I have doubts about the Biblical accuracy of this description, it is certainly is true in the Great Lakes region.

Outdoors: The moon of wintertime

Dec 16, 2020

Twas in the Moon of Wintertime
When all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead.

The charming Huron Carol uses a French tune, but the lyrics were written during the 1640s by a Jesuit missionary in the Great Lakes region.

In trying to explain the miracle of Christmas to First Nation People, the black-robed father used images from nature.

I rather like his idea that God used birds and angels interchangeably.

Outdoors: Visions of sugar plums

Dec 9, 2020

The Interlochen production of The Nutcracker will be virtual this year, and, already, I have visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy dancing in my head.

So what is a sugar plum?

The ingredients for sugar plums have changed over the centuries, but in Tchaikovsky’s day, sugar plums were confections, most likely nuts covered with a hard candy shells, not unlike our Jordan almonds.

Outdoors: Holly and ivy

Dec 2, 2020

Of all the trees that are in wood, 
The holly bears the crown.

It’s hard to imagine the holiday season without "The Holly and the Ivy," but how did these plants become associated with Christmas?

In the pagan cultures of Northern Europe, people were quite taken with evergreens. If a plant could stay green during the cold days of winter, they believed it must possess mystical powers, many of which had to do with fertility.

Outdoors: Thanksgiving smells

Nov 25, 2020

"Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme."

When I say sage, I suppose most Americans think of sagebrush—the pungent plant of the West.

That sage is in the sunflower family, while, like rosemary and thyme, true sage is a mint.

Mints have been cherished for centuries because these plants give off volatile oils—which, after evaporating, have a pleasant odor.

In nature, this scent helps mints attract insect pollinators.

The same volatile oils can make food more palatable.

Outdoors: Chickadee contact call

Nov 18, 2020

Just like humans, chickadees are social.

They split up into pairs during the breeding season, but this time of year, they  form flocks with other chickadees and often with other birds such as nuthatches and small woodpeckers, and they move through the forest in a group.

By definition, a forest is full of trees, and sight lines are limited.

Occasionally, a little chickadee suddenly realizes that it cannot see its flockmates (if that's a word).

A black bear wanders through the campus of Interlochen Center for the Arts, just south of Kresge Auditorium on November 6, 2020.
Interlochen Center for the Arts

The number of black bear sightings in northern Michigan is on the rise, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

Outdoors: The gales of November

Nov 11, 2020
Shipwreck Coast Museum

This year, "the gales of November came early."   

In his haunting ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot sang of a very real phenomenon:  40% of all Great Lakes shipwrecks have occurred during the month of November.

The Great Lakes hold vast volumes of water, and well into autumn, that water retains some of the heat it absorbed last summer. 

In November, when lakes are still relatively warm, the air is light as it rises above the water surface, creating what meteorologists call "stationary low pressure.”

Outdoors: Shakespeare's starlings

Nov 4, 2020

Eugene Schieffelin loved the plays of William Shakespeare, and he also loved birds.

I get that. But I just watch them - the plays and the birds.

Schieffelin had a grand plan to pay tribute to the Bard by bringing every bird mentioned in the Shakespearean plays to the Americas.

In just one line, in just one play - "Henry IV" - Shakespeare mentioned starlings.

Outdoors: Into the Woods

Oct 28, 2020

Halloween is the perfect time to listen to a recording of the musical "Into the Woods."

"You go into the woods / where nothing is clear / where witches, ghosts and wolves appear / into the woods and through the fear / you have to take the journey."

When his fairytale characters go "into the woods," Stephen Sondheim is using the lyrics as a metaphor for a dangerous quest required to make wishes come true.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore unveiled its new mobile visitor center recently.
U.S. National Park Service

Sleeping Bear Dunes is hitting the road. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the national lakeshore is rolling out a 'mobile visitor center.' The idea is to bring a little bit of northern Michigan to those who haven’t had a chance to experience it.

Outdoors: Art in pandemics

Oct 21, 2020

I recently re-read "Station Eleven." This post-apocalyptic novel was the selection for the 2015 Great Michigan Read, so I read it then.

The book, set during and following a catastrophic pandemic, draws comparisons between a group of actors and musicians who travel and perform along the familiar shore of Lake Michigan and the troupes of itinerant performers who traveled through Shakespeare's England.

Outdoors: Goldfinches

Oct 14, 2020

Antonio Vivaldi wrote the Concerto for Flute in D in 1729. This work, known as "the Goldfinch," includes a birdlike cadenza and is filled with twittering passages.

I've heard recordings of European goldfinches. Vivaldi did a bit of embellishing of the bird's trills and warbles. 

In my opinion, the name "goldfinch" for the European species is a stretch. The bird is sort of brown, with yellow and black wings.

Outdoors: Taming shrews

Oct 7, 2020

Why is it that when men speak derogatorily of women, they refer to them as animals?

This beastly name-calling dates back at least to Shakespeare's time. The Bard referred to Kate as a shrew in the play "The Taming of the Shrew."

Admittedly, to describe a vicious, aggressive individual, the type who, whenever she opens her mouth, poison seems to flow out, that name might have been apt.

If the shrew fits...

Outdoors: Seeing red

Sep 30, 2020

How many actors and dancers are bugged when they have to wear rouge?

What if they knew that, in many cases, they were smearing crushed insects on their faces? Would they see red?

Any makeup listing "carmine" as an ingredient is made from crushed insects called cochineal. 

The actual cochineal insect is puny, similar to a mealy bug. They live on the juices from prickly pear cactus.

In areas of Mexico, Bolivia and Peru, the insects are raised and harvested.

An Enbridge boat circles the bulk carrier Maumee to check that it's not dragging something that could damage the pipeline company's Line 5.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Energy has been eager to show news media its new Enbridge Straits Maritime Operations Center in Mackinaw City. Its purpose is to try to prevent another anchor strike or other damage to Line 5, the dual pipelines carrying oil and natural gas liquids.