Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa

Outdoors: Here comes the sun

Apr 21, 2021

Of the many musical compositions written about April, perhaps the most universally known is “Here Comes the Sun” by George Harrison of the Beatles.

Apparently, things were not going so well for George back in 1969.

Outdoors: Spring peepers

Apr 14, 2021

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect

The total Sky almost without defect,

And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,

Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone.

Outdoors: Spring awakenings

Apr 7, 2021

I love the sound of an orchestra warming up.

The cacophony is hardly musical, but if you listen, you can hear what’s coming.

Fragments of melody float from the din, with hints of the beauty that will soon begin.

Isn’t early spring much like pre-concert magic?

Fragments of birdsong float from the treetops; swelling buds and pastel twigs hint of the beauty that is to come.

A concert begins when the conductor mounts the podium, raises a baton and, with a downbeat, indicates that the musicians should begin.

Outdoors: Owl romance

Mar 24, 2021

In countless musicals, romance seems to develop when the male and female leads join in a duet, which often evolves into a dance.

And the pair bond is formed.

That’s how it is for great horned and barred owls. too.

We tend to think of these avian "love duets" occurring in spring and early summer.

But for owls, the duets begin in February or March.

Those who spend time outside in winter may have heard the eerie hoots of male owls in the early evening or pre-dawn hours.

Outdoors: Snakes and frogs

Mar 17, 2021

In my grade school music classes, we spent the month of March singing folk songs about St. Patrick.

I still remember most of the lyrics and the legends.

In one, St. Patrick "preached a sarmin that drove the frogs out of the bogs and banished all the varmin."

That legend is dubious.

Snakes and frogs did not live in Ireland even before the good saint launched his preaching career.

If reptiles and amphibians were ever in Ireland, and based on the lack of fossil evidence, most scientists believe they were not, they were wiped out during the Ice Ages. 

Outdoors: Unkind cuts

Mar 10, 2021

If a soothsayer bids you, "Beware the Ides of March," perhaps you should heed the warning.

In the Roman calendar, the "ides" was the middle day.

Remember your Shakespeare? On the Ides of March, a band of co-conspirators fell upon Julius Caesar, but he felt most betrayed by his friend Brutus, who made the "unkindest cut of all."

For a young trees, the unkindest cut - often an assassination - usually is perpetrated by hungry wildlife in winter.

Outdoors: Aldo Leopold

Mar 3, 2021

When this radio station was in its infancy, it aired a program called, if memory serves, "Eco-logue."

Jack Hood, who then was the ecology teacher at Interlochen Arts Academy, presented this folksy nature program.

I met Mr. Hood back when I was a counselor at the camp, and due to his influence, I was seriously contemplating going into environmental education.

To test my resolve, Mr. Hood arranged for me to help chaperone the academy ecology students on their winter camping trip.

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.

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: Halcyon days

Dec 30, 2020

Well, they’re over.

Halcyon days, that is.

The phrase, I discover, refers to a period of calm, peacefulness and prosperity.

The term shows up in poetry, once or twice in Shakespeare, and even in modern articles and essays.

I used to be a bit startled when I encountered it.

Having once dutifully memorized the scientific names of bird subfamilies, I connected the name Halcyon with kingfishers. And what do kingfishers have to do with tranquility?

According to mythology, quite a bit.

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
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

"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).

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.

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