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The record keepers (06/29/2008)
By Janet Lewis Burns
"In the top inch of soil, biologists found an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various numbers of 12 other forms." -Annie Dillard, from "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"

As explorers like Lewis and Clark made their way into uncharted areas of the American West, they had the chore of naming what they surveyed - rivers, mountains, trees, and plants. Later scientists named wildflowers in their honor.

"I wonder what it would be like to go into a forest where nothing had a name," inquires Kathleen Dean Moore, Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State. In her charming and powerful book "Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water," c 1995, Moore questions that if there were no word for what one surveys in a forest, what would we focus on and what name would it be given? In her meditative style, Moore writes, ""¦would we label only the gloss of light on leaves and the shapes of shadows on the bark?"

"All along the McKenzie River trail, there must be things we do not see, because they have no names," Moore speculates. " If we knew a word for the dark spaces between pebbles on the river bottom, if we had a name for the nests of dried grass deposited by floods high in riverside trees, if there were a word apiece for the smell of pines in the sunshine and in the shadows, we would walk a different trail." How mystifying!

On our return to our camper in the forests and lakes area of Chetek, Wisconsin, in early May, shades of green filled the pickup windows all along our way. The winter had been unpleasantly long and uninviting. However, nature's infinite promise had aroused hope to withstand its bitter, unsociable wrath - the perceived promise that picture albums and remembrances uphold, of past spring times and playful summers that ordain winter seasonally temporary.

Today naturalists, scientists, and environmentalists continue to update records of species of flora and fauna. As Roethe once said, "Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries."

Dillard's frog story haunted me for weeks. A regular murder mystery down by the creek, she writes, ""¦he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped. " "The frog bag started to sink." This was her first sighting of a "giant water bug" (its real name) as it devoured its prey alive. No one can tell it like Dillard!

My nature writer friend and her husband recently moved from their rustic home in the big woods near Canton, Minnesota, to live in town. Nancy Overcott is a dedicated, self- informed environmentalist. Besides the three books she has had published, she catalogued and transcribed the 57 notebooks of the late Dr. John C. Hvoslef. He studied flowers, grasses, trees, fish, snakes, insects, mammals, birds, and sky. His recording of daily activities and observations gives an idea of life in Fillmore County in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The world needs record keepers like Nancy!

Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) has long since passed nature's torch! Perhaps not widely known, Thoreau once bemoaned the abuse of juniper berries to flavor gin, noting that "several hundred tons of them are imported annually from the Continent" into England for this purpose.

His presentiment was, "What a rich book might be made about buds, including perhaps sprouts!" Since his death, Thoreau's rediscovered, 150-year-old last manuscript "Wild Fruits" has been transcribed by Bradley Dean. It's a superb, illustrated field guide to countless species of plants of the American countryside. How much I've appreciated it!

Nature writer Ann Haymond Zinger poetically muses in her book of reflections, "Shaped by Wind & Water," "Very simply, I believe a sun-warmed beach pebble, held tightly enough in my hand to feel its pulse, tells me about its geological underpinnings, tells me what it is like to be shaped by water, tells me all I need to know in its elegant beauty of form."

Hold that thought nature lovers! Tune in next week! Happy Trails!

Janet Burns has been roaming the back roads of Winona County for years! She can be reached at



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