Yesterday Tree Guy lost his mouth. I noticed his missing smile last night when I let the dogs outside. I leaned over the deck, Tree Guy’s mouth lay on the ground in pieces, most likely KO’d by a squirrel.
Squirrels have been scurrying up and down Tree Guy’s trunk, busying themselves for winter. The Farmer’s Almanac has predicted a harsh winter for our area, designating it a “Hibernation Zone.” Sounds quaint, doesn’t it? Just eat a lot of food, then curl up for a long nap in a cozy place.
Tree Guy’s mouth won’t be repaired again. It’s in pieces and the back hanger is gone. I could probably find the metal loop, and my husband could fix the mouth—again, but it wouldn’t last because the interior substance is dry rotted. The shiny paint job on Tree Guy’s mouth is like an iridescent-paint job on an old car, covering copious amounts of Bondo—pretty to look at but not a long-term solution.
Losing his mouth has changed Tree Guy’s expression. While trying to determine if he looks contemplative or stern or forlorn, I’ve decided he looks mostly confused.
My husband and I agreed that while Tree Guy’s mouth won’t be fixed, we’ll leave him with his eyes and nose. He’ll still watch over the deck and smell his flower-basket earrings, but he won’t talk. Anyone wanting to know what he thinks will have to look into his eyes, windows to his inner sap. Tree Guy’s been part of our lives for over a decade, we’d rather lose him in bits than all at once.
I’ve pulled the nail from the tree where Tree Guy’s mouth hung and tossed his broken lips into the trash.
After the Fourth of July, I had promises to keep. So, Tree Guy got a pair of earrings on Wednesday, and I went paddle boarding on Saturday.
Tree Guy’s looking good, but Friday morning I discovered a squirrel had messed with one of his earrings. Every summer I forget about the hooligan squirrels until I find dirt and a section of flowers on the ground. Searching for an easy place to bury seeds for the next winter, squirrels dig in the flower baskets hanging from Tree Guy’s earlobes. Joke’s on the squirrels because I empty the baskets in the fall and return them to the farmers market so they can be reused. I stuck bamboo kabob skewers in the baskets and made plans to replace the damaged flowers. Yesterday morning I discovered one of the skewers on the ground, no doubt used as a javelin by one of the wayward squirrels.
After fortifying the hanging baskets, I went paddle boarding for the first time this summer. Last year I started paddling in June. But this year a long, cold spring latched onto the heels of a long, cold winter.
I needed a reminder about how to attach my seat and ankle strap because once I connected them to my board last summer, they stayed put until I deflated the board in the fall. Heather, part owner of the paddle board shop, helped me. She talked about mayflies, and how late they hatched this year. I, too, had wondered where they had been. Heather described a recent moonlight paddle-boarding session where a flock of birds burst into the air, zooming and darting, feasting on newly hatched mayflies. She was excited to share her story, and I was happy she did.
Getting on my board and paddling away from the dock was like riding a bicycle after winter recedes—muscle memory kicked in. The water was smooth, the breeze a whisper, and the air hot. Even though I saw other paddle boarders, small fishing boats, and large pleasure craft gliding through the water, it was quiet. Perhaps because the heat and still air created a meditative atmosphere that compels people to lower their voices and move silently.
As I paddled around the northwest tip of the island, I watched billowing cloud formations compete for space to present shifting images. A pair of clouds became two bear cubs standing on their hind legs, playfully boxing with each other. A moment later one cub morphed into a zaftig fertility goddess, and the other cub became a roaring lion with a flowing mane. Scanning the sky, I found a wolf, its snout tilted toward the heavens in a silent howl at a still sleeping moon. I spotted a laughing puppy and a resting dragon along the way.
A pair of paddle boarders put in from their home along the island, and on one of the boards, a yellow lab sat with its back toward their destination. Its owner said the dog was learning to stay on the board. Me too. On days when the water is rough or when a wake created by a motor boat rolls past me, I sit on my board and paddle kayak style.
I rounded the southeastern tip of the island and noticed tiny dead creatures floating on the water’s surface. I used my paddle to lift one of them out of the water for a closer look. They were exoskeletons. I wondered if they belonged to mayflies that shed their nymph skins then rest on the water’s surface to dry their wings before they can take flight. Later, I googled a picture of a mayfly’s nymph skin, and it seemed to match. Given Heather’s description of the recent mayfly hatch, it made sense.
Another paddler I met waved and said, “Summer’s finally here.”
“Yes,” I answered. And while I was out on the water, I forgot about the squirrels in my backyard preparing for winter.
[For more information about mayflies read my blog “Mayflies.”]
For those of you who may have missed the other Tree Guy posts, let me summarize: Tree Guy had a bit of a rough winter. In January he lost an eye during a snowstorm. When I found his eye and rehung it, I noticed his nose was gone. Through the rest of January, February, and March, I looked for Tree Guy’s nose, hoping to find it as the snow retreated, but fresh snow kept falling. Finally, at the end of March, my husband spotted the nose frozen in the snow. I tried to pick it up, but it was stuck in the snow’s frozen mantle. A few days later, with the precision of an archeologist, I dug it out. Good thing because it snowed the next day.
When I rescued Tree Guy’s nose, it needed a paint job. My husband took it to work, painted it gray, and rehung it in May. But the shade of gray blended in with the tree trunk. This bothered Tree Guy because he’s proud of his schnoz—he might lose it, but he never hides it. Of course, my husband understands Tree Guy because he’s the one who purchased Tree Guy and installed him on our maple tree. He has always watched over him. I’m the relative newcomer to the game of “How Is Tree Guy Doing Today?”
I mentioned the too-dark-gray color to my husband, and he agreed. He already had plans to take the nose back to work and repaint it a lighter shade of gray. The second paint job is perfect, so there will be no fifty shades of gray noses.
It was a long, cold, snowy winter for Tree Guy. He worried about his eye then his nose. But he’s come through, and this spring he sported a new hairdo. He looks sassy with his asymmetrical patch of green, leafy hair. A tree expert told me that small shoots along a tree trunk, such as Tree Guy’s new hairdo, should be cut off. But I don’t have the heart. Tree Guy had a jittery winter. I get it. This winter I read about plagues, like tuberculosis, the Black Death, and syphilis. And I read Russian short stories, which are mostly bleak and fine companions to winter and stories about plagues. After reading the “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol, I concocted a crazy theory that Kovalyov lost his nose because he had syphilis and that Gogol’s story was really about the syphilis epidemic before antibiotics, a time when some sufferers had their noses rot away. With each passing day of winter my crazy theory became more conceivable. I reread “The Nose” to see if I could make my theory work—I couldn’t. But I enjoyed the story even more the second time. I thought about researching my “The Nose”—syphilis theory online, but I didn’t want to get caught up in crazy nose-conspiracy theories.
Yes, Tree Guy has it all together again, and he’s sporting a new hairdo. And me, I ditched my theory about Gogol’s story “The Nose,” then I had two inches trimmed off my hair.
We’re enjoying summer while it’s here. After the Fourth, Tree Guy will get two flower-basket earrings, and I will go paddle boarding for the first time this season. (It was a cold, windy spring on the shores of Lake Superior.) Next winter Tree Guy will hope to keep his face intact, and I will read more Russian short stories.
In March 1971, I turned twelve. That spring and summer I spent a lot of time singing the Coca-Cola jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” a song about love and harmony. And in May of that same year, while I sat in a chorus of dandelions on a sunny day, I was in harmony with hundreds of them growing on the hillside in front of our weathered barn. Warmed by sunshine, surrounded by velvety yellow, and sitting with my best friend, I was in love with the world. As a child, dandelions were my favorite flower.
ButI didn’t know their name was derived from the French phrase dent de lion meaning tooth of the lion, most likely because their serrated leaves look like teeth. I thought dandelions were named after lions because their round, shaggy, golden flowers resembled a lion’s head with a fluffy mane.
On that May afternoon, with my strawberry blonde hair topped by a crown of braided dandelions and a face freckled by the kisses of sunbeams, I watched butterflies and bees flit from golden bloom to golden bloom. I was fairy princess meets flower child.
But I didn’t know that dandelions were flowers—like asters, daisies, and sunflowers, all belonging to the same family, Asteraceae. That by the 1800s people could buy different varieties of dandelion seeds from catalogs to plant in their gardens. That Emily Dickenson wrote a poem about them and made mention of them in three other poems. I’d been told they were weeds.
My friend, wearing her own crown of dandelions, had brown hair, hazel eyes, and just a sprinkle of freckles across her nose. We plucked the flowers from the ground, choosing tall ones, and braided their thick, flexible stems, making necklaces to match our crowns. She, too, was fairy princess meets flower child.
But I didn’t know that a dandelion’s thick, hollow, supple stem had evolved to withstand strong winds. That our plucking the tall flowers would cause the next dandelions to grow shorter, hoping to avoid being picked. That when a lawn mower lopped off their flowers before they could seed, dandelions countered by sending new blooms to squat closer to the ground, hoping to keep their heads below a mower’s blades. I didn’t know dandelions had the survival skills of a toothy lion on an African plain.
As I plaited dandelion stems, a white, milky sap stained my fingers, making them sticky. I knew it wasn’t poisonous, and that it would wash away with soap and water.
But I didn’t know the substance was latex, a bitter tasting compound that protects dandelion roots from insects. I didn’t know dandelions were edible. That their leaves could be eaten in a salad and had more nutrients and vitamins than the spinach that gave Popeye the strength to defeat Brutus. That their roots could be dried, roasted, and made into a coffee-like drink. That their flowers could be made into tea or wine. That dandelions had been used for medicine, alleviating diseases caused by deficiencies in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.
I’m not sure what my friend and I chatted about that day. But I was crazy about the boy next door, and she was crazy about a boy she would eventually marry. We probably gossiped about those boys, our friends, and summer plans. And talked about the latest fashions and hairstyles because each of us wanted to fit in at the middle school.
But I didn’t know dandelions were considered a blight upon lawns because my parents never treated our yard with herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. I didn’t know that in the 1800s wealthy Americans would admire the expansive green manicured lawns of wealthy Europeans and would copy their style. That with the invention of the first mowers in the 1830s, middle-class Americans would soon covet green manicured lawns, a nod to status and belonging. The dandelion slid from grace and became a weed.
My friend and I rubbed dandelions under each other’s chins to see who liked butter, a childish game for a pair of twelve-year-old girls who talked of boys and love.
But I didn’t know twelve was the cusp between youth and young adulthood. That the buttery-colored powder was pollen, a delicacy for bees, butterflies, and insects. That dandelion blooms were masses of tubular florets, an early spring smorgasbord for hungry pollinators while they waited for other flowers to open for business.
Dandelions didn’t grow in our next-door neighbor’s yard. They treated their lawn every year with a powdered chemical. If someone had asked my twelve-year-old self to explain why my parents didn’t do the same, I would’ve chalked it up to money and time. The neighbors had more income, so they could afford weed killer. They had less than an acre of land, and my parents had two point two acres. It would’ve taken more money and time to kill the dandelions in our yard.
But I didn’t know my parents weren’t conforming to a neighborhood standard of weed-free lawns. That the neighbors had to keep treating their lawn every year. That dead shriveled leaves of poisoned dandelions left small barren spaces where new dandelion seeds, blowing in on a wind like Mary Poppins, could settle and thrive. That dandelions could regenerate from parts of their surviving roots. That if the neighbors stopped treating their yard, dandelions would once again crowd their lawn.
On the day I sat in the dandelions, I knew my great-grandfather had immigrated to America from Sweden in 1869. That other relatives had emigrated from Ireland, England, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Hungary.
But I didn’t know that dandelions were immigrants too. That the first wave of dandelion ancestors came over the Bering land bridge and settled as far east as the Great Plains. That the second wave arrived in the 1600s, carried across the Atlantic by European settlers as an herb used for medicine and food.
Later in the spring the dandelions would go to seed, and I would fill my lungs with air, hold the seed head in front of my mouth, and blow as hard as I could. If I dispersed every seed, I would earn a wish, and I always wished the boy next door would be my beau.
But I didn’t know the feathery seeds I blew into the air in the service of love would fall to earth at an angle, and the barbs along their edges would hook into the soil. The seeds, like me, would wait to see if their wishes would come true.
My friend and I watched my orange-and-white cat, Napoleon, hopelessly swat at butterflies as he lazed nearby in a layer of gold. At best he was an indifferent hunter, preferring to take his meals from a can and to leave nature’s creatures unharmed.
But I didn’t know that Napoleon had the good fortune to lie on an untreated lawn. That people, pets, birds, and insects could be harmed by chemicals. That a woman named Rachel Carson had written a book called Silent Spring. That as an adult I would be pressured into treating my lawn. That I would use my children and pets as excuses to avoid having herbicides and pesticides sprayed on my lawn. That I would dig hundreds of dandelions by hand to avoid chemical treatments. That after decades, I would learn that dandelions are early pollinators and that I would stop digging them.
The sea of dandelions that flooded the sunniest part of our lawn every spring, made my young heart zing. From that sea I picked buckets of bouquets, braided countless crowns and necklaces, buttered scads of chins with pollen, and blew thousands of fuzzy seeds into the air. But I remember best that day in May 1971 when I was twelve, and my friend and I sat among the waves of gold and talked of love while plaiting crowns and necklaces. While the butterflies and bees gathered pollen in harmony. And I wanted to teach the world to sing.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of No Mow May, the idea is to let your grass grow in May so early-blooming plants—like dandelions, common violets, buttercups, and wild strawberries—can flower and provide appetizers for bees, butterflies, and other insects until the main-course flowers bloom in June. My husband agreed to keep his lawn mower idled for May.
We live in northern Wisconsin at the western tip of Lake Superior, and we’ve had a cold May, so it’s taken a while for the flowers to spring from the ground. But last Tuesday small wild violets bloomed on the hill in our front yard. I used one of those nature apps where I snap a picture of a plant that I want to identify then submit the picture. A second or two later the app usually tells me that it doesn’t have enough information to make a conclusive identification, but it offers me a likely suggestion. The app suggested the violets in our yard were “most likely common violets.”
Some humans label the sweet, beautiful, delicate violet—that looks like it could be worn as a hat by fairies—a weed when it grows in lawns. But bees, butterflies, and other insects consider violets a food source and collect pollen and nectar from them. And dandelions weren’t always considered weeds: They were once prized for their beauty and medicinal benefits.
I wonder what the bees, butterflies, and insects would call the herbicides and pesticides humans spray on their food. I bet they’d liken it to the tale about the Romans sowing salt in the fields of Carthage after the Third Punic War so nothing would grow. Bees are dying off and while it’s not certain, it’s most likely connected to the use of pesticides. Unfortunately, studies have also found wild birds are profoundly impacted by the use of pesticides.
When the weather is cloudy or rainy most violets close their flowers and tilt them toward the ground to protect their pollen and nectar from being washed away, saving it for the pollinators that need its nourishment. Nature has designed an amazing ecosystem. Humans need to understand how it works, so we can appreciate and preserve it. Because while the violet can defend itself against rain that wants to wash its pollen and nectar away, it has no defense against being assaulted by pesticides.
Today I found wild strawberry flowers and two small, brave dandelions blooming in our front yard. Impressive because it was a cold weekend. I didn’t get down on my hands and knees to look for butterfly larvae on the leaves of the flowers, and I haven’t seen any bees yet. It’s probably too cold for them. I can’t do anything about the frigid winds blowing off Lake Superior, but when the pollinators wake up hungry, their food is growing in our No Mow May lawn.
On March 29, I dug Three Guy’s nose out of the icy snow. It took me awhile because I worked like an archaeologist on a dinosaur dig, gently, slowly, never getting too close to the nose with my excavating tool. I’ve never wanted to be an archaeologist because it’s hot, dusty work, at least according to all the pictures and documentaries I’ve seen that depict archaeologists laboring in the field. I don’t even want to take a vacation and sit on a beach, in the sun, in the heat.
In high school, I read a book on zodiac signs. After reading that a Pisces was more likely to be found perusing a book on a park bench rather than at the beach tanning in the sun–which totally described me–I embraced astrology as science and read my horoscope daily.
Next, I read about Cancer, the sign of the boy I’d fell in love with when I was twelve. In high school I wrote his name, surrounded with hearts, all over the inside of my folders. We were supposed to be highly compatible water signs, but our upbringings gave us different views of the world, and neither of us budged. After high school I fell in love with a Scorpion, also a highly compatible match for a Pisces, but that romance failed because he fell in love with every pretty girl he saw. I kicked astrology to the curb.
Scraping ice pellets, layer by layer, away from Tree Guy’s nose, gave me time to think about random stuff, free-floating thoughts cobbled together by tenuous threads. I stopped periodically to check if I could lift the nose from its icy clutch. Nope, nope, nope. I kept scraping because a storm was coming and because small bits from the top of Tree Guy’s nose had already crumbled into the snow.
After I freed the nose, I placed it on my husband’s workbench, so it could dry out. It would need the coat of paint he’d suggested. Later that night the winds carried in rain, which morphed into ice, then converted to snow, enough for some area schools to cancel classes on Wednesday. After work my husband asked if I’d picked up the nose before the storm came. I gave him the update.
I don’t need to check for Tree Guy’s nose anymore—it’s safe. But every night before I go to bed and every morning after I wake up, I’ve been checking my phone for news about Ukraine. I want to read that Putin has called off his war. I imagine him waking up and finding his nose is missing. He’s dashing around the streets, looking for it, eager to repair his visage. I imagine he promises to be a good despot, if only someone will return his nose.
But life isn’t a story. Dictators don’t change or learn their lessons. Because sociopaths brood and lie and plot, then seek vengeance for perceived slights. Winning and power are their only divinities.
And in case you’re wondering, Putin is a Libra and Volodymyr Zelenskyy is an Aquarius, making them highly compatible air signs. But life ignores astrology.
This morning I went outside to retrieve Tree Guy’s schnoz. I tried to pick it up but discovered it was frozen into the icy snow. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I got out of bed at 6:30 this morning, it was 9° with a 9-mph wind. And if that were a mathematical story problem, the answer would be a windchill of -4°. (Don’t ask how this would change if one train was leaving Grand Central Station at 9:00 a.m., traveling at 60 mph, and another train was leaving Union Station at 10 a.m., traveling at 55 mph. I didn’t care when I was in school, and I still don’t care.)
I didn’t try to muscle the nose out of the snow. Increased force is usually the wrong answer to most problems. I found a stick and scrapped snow away from the sides of the nose. I tried to lift it again, but it wouldn’t budge. The nose appeared to be intact, so I decided against digging underneath it because it might break. Impatience is usually the wrong option for most situations.
I hoped the space I created along the sides of the nose would allow the sun’s warm rays to melt the snow from under it. On Tuesday the temperature is supposed to reach 41°. If the icy snow hasn’t released the nose by that evening, I’ll cover it with a bucket because it’s supposed to snow on Wednesday and Thursday.
Tree Guy doesn’t want his nose to be buried again. At this point in his life, he doesn’t appreciate history repeating itself.
For the past week, the snow has been disappearing fast. So, for the past week, I’ve been looking for Tree Guy’s nose. Each day I look over the side of the deck, hoping that enough snow has melted to reveal his schnoz, but it’s still missing.
He doesn’t look bad without his nose, but he’d like it back. If I don’t find it, I’ve promised to buy him two hanging baskets of flowers, one for each ear. With colorful blooms gracing the sides of his face, no one will notice his nose is gone. It’s amazing what people will overlook if something glitzy captures their eye.
After work, I looked for his nose again. No luck. It was too cold today for snow to melt. The wind whipped at 38 mph—and that was the sustained number. The gusts were over 40 mph. The air temp was 35° and the windchill was 19°. Freezing rain, snow with blizzard-like conditions, power outages, and hazardous travel are predicted over the next couple days. Or what I like to call, Springtime in the Northland. March is fickle with an attitude, and I’ve lived here long enough to know that the springs of northern Wisconsin are not the springs of Milwaukee.
I’m beginning to think Tree Guy’s nose is a goner, but there is still snow around him, so maybe his nose is buried deeper than I thought. The mystery of it all makes me want to reread “The Nose” by Gogol. I keep imagining Kovalyov’s and Tree Guy’s noses calling an Uber and gallivanting around the city. The frigid air will make the noses run; hopefully, they have hankies.