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.

Max Johnston / IPR News


Grand Traverse Bay and inland lakes across Michigan, like Lake Leelanau and Torch Lake, will be ice-free by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue at current levels. 



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.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Arctic grayling were wiped out of Michigan nearly a century ago. Since then, researchers have been trying to restore the iconic fish to the state, without success. 



Now, more than 50 collaborators across the state think they have a shot. 


Read the full feature here.


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: 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).

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.

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...

Mainville and Craymer (2005)


Normally, the waters of Lake Michigan sit around 580 feet

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.

Outdoors: Black swans

Sep 23, 2020
Orange County Register

When economists talk about "black swans," they're referring to an unpredictable event, often one with a severe impact.

The year 2020 has certainly had some black swans.

Even during migration, I can't imagine seeing black swans on Green Lake or Duck Lake.