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Feminist Justice League Year in Review

Feminist Justice League Year in Review

H. Bradford

1/16/18

2017 was a big year for feminism.  The election of Donald Trump mobilized feminists towards activism, which was expressed through events such as the Women’s March, International Women’s Day Strike, protests and social media campaigns regarding sexual harassment and assault, forming new groups, and more.  It is an exciting time to be a feminist, to be sure.  Locally, there has been a flourishing of feminist activities this past year.  The Feminist Action Collective emerged in November 2016 as a large, active, vibrate group which has sponsored a variety of successful events over the past year.  Locally, we have also seen the re-emergence of the HOTDISH Militia, which began in 2002 but had become inactive over the years.  Our group, the Feminist Justice League, was established several years ago during a much less active time in feminist organizing.  The renewed interest in feminism creates new challenges and opportunities for our group.  The following is an overview of our activism in 2017 as well as our outlook for 2018.


 

January 2017 Women’s March, Duluth MN:

2017 started off big with several January events.  The first was the January 2017 Women’s March.  The Feminist Action Collective organized buses to Washington DC, but there was also a local march in Duluth.  One of our members, A. attended the march in Washington DC and later reported her experience back to the group at an event we hosted as a local coffee shop.  It was an inspiring experience for her, despite some mechanical mishaps experienced by the bus.  Several members of the Feminist Justice League participated in the local march in Duluth, which was attended by several thousand people.  This year, Feminist Action Collective is organizing an anniversary march.  Feminist Justice League is supporting their efforts in a number of ways.  Firstly, we have endorsed the event.  Secondly, we are going to make some posters for the event on Friday.  Thirdly, I have tried to promote their event by obtaining sponsors for them, such as Occupy Duluth, Socialist Action, and Safe Haven.  A. and I will also serve as Peace Marshalls at the event.

an image from the Duluth News Tribune- Duluth Women’s March

 

Glow for Roe:

Feminist Justice League organized Glow for Roe last year, which happened to fall on the SAME day as the Women’s March and Dough for Utero.  Although it was an extremely busy day, about two dozen people showed up to hold glow sticks for our glow in the dark protest in support of reproductive rights.  We have done this event twice before and this was the most successful year for that particular protest.  However, in 2018, we are not hosting a Glow for Roe event.  This is because there is already a Women’s March, Dough for Utero, and Party on the Plaza.  Glow for Roe was developed when there was far less feminist activism, so moving towards the future, it may not be as necessary as it was in the past.  Still, a glow in the dark protest is a fun idea, so perhaps it will return in 2019! Image may contain: 4 people, night and outdoor

Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza:

January 2017 also saw Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza, which were both organized by Hotdish Militia and the Women’s Health Center.  Dough for Utero featured $19.73 pizza and beer, raising more money than any previous fundraiser.  Party in the Plaza was a vibrant event in which several Feminist Justice League members attended.  We contributed to the event by promoting it and providing picket signs.  Certainly, 2017 saw more activism related to reproductive rights than there has been in Duluth for a long time! Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, dog and outdoor

Valentine Letters to Prisoners

In February, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a Valentine Letters to Prisoners event with Superior Save the Kids.  The goal of the event was to send solidarity cards to prisoners near Valentine’s Day.  In Christian traditions, Valentine cards were first exchanged by St. Valentine while he was in a Roman prison, so the theme seemed suiting.  The event was attended by several people and was a way for our group to be more intersectional as we tried to connect feminism with issues in the criminal justice system.

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A photo of A.C.’s letters last year

Homeless Bill of Rights Letter Writing:

Feminist Justice League hosted a small letter writing event, wherein members gathered at a coffee shop and wrote letters to the editor to various news outlets regarding the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  Feminist Justice League is one of the endorsing organizations of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  A year later, the homeless bill has not yet passed, protracting this already long struggle to pass a bill ensuring that homeless individuals are treated with dignity.


International Women’s Day Strike:

In March, Feminist Justice League organized a symbolic strike for International Women’s Day.  The strike was a protest that lasted for 78 minutes to highlight the pay gap between men and women.  At various intervals, we banged on pots to highlight the pay gap between Hispanic women, African American women, Native American women, Pacific Islander women, and women over the age of 55 and men.  This event was followed by a panel, wherein several speakers discussed labor issues and gender.  The event was successful in that it was covered by several news outlets and was even mentioned in a British Socialist newspaper! Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, hat, child and outdoor

HOTDISH Militia Bowl-a-Thon:

The biggest event that Feminist Justice League participated in April was HOTDISH Militia’s bowl-a-thon.  We had a team of about seven people and though I don’t remember the exact number, I believe we raised over $600.  Our team dressed as superheroes at the event and won a prize for best costumes.  It was a fun event and HOTDISH Militia’s best fundraising event yet!  They reached their fundraising goal and were able to obtain matched funds to help low income women access reproductive health care locally. Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

Graham Garfield Petition:

In May, members of the Feminist Justice League participated in several events related to the Graham Garfield domestic violence case.  We were able to develop a successful petition which contributed to his resignation as a Superior City Councilor.  However, interest in the case waned over time and although his trial is ongoing, there is little activism around it at this time. Still, I think that the group was able to effectively work towards his resignation and can be proud that we sought to educate the community about myths regarding domestic violence.


 

Mother’s Day Letters to Prisoners/Film Showing:

During the month of May, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a film showing about incarcerated mothers with Superior Save the Kids.  The group also co-sponsored a mother’s day themed Letters to Prisoners event.  By helping to host and support these events, Feminist Justice League hopes to connect feminism with other issues.


 

Chalk for Choice:

During the summer and fall, Feminist Justice League sponsored Chalk for Choice events on the evening before clinic days at the Women’s Health Center.  While these events are often only attended by a few people, our group receives a lot of positive feedback from workers at the WHC.  During these events, we draw or write supportive images and messages for the patients and workers who utilize the Women’s Health Center.  The events provides us with a creative niche for our activism.  Looking at 2018, it should certainly continue these events as they are easy to organize, do not require large numbers of participants, and are a unique way to promote reproductive rights. No automatic alt text available.

40 Days of Choice:

For the past several years, Feminist Justice League has organized events for 40 Days of Choice, which happens each year in September and October in response to the 40 Days of Life.  The 40 Days of Life is an international campaign wherein pro-life activists gather outside of abortion clinics and reproductive health centers to pray and protest to end abortion.  The Feminist Justice League was actually founded in response to this annual pro-life campaign.  This year, as in year’s past, we participated in the event by hosting Friday pro-choice pickets.  Some of the pickets were smaller than in year’s past owing to FJL’s dwindling numbers.  On the other hand, some were larger owing to the participating of the HOTDISH milia this year.  HOTDISH sponsored its own Thursday pickets.  Our goal next year should be to increase the numbers at these events by bolstering our own membership, continued collaboration with Hotdish, and improved collaboration with Feminist Action Collective.  This year, we also hosted a successful launching party for the 40 Days of Choice, but the success of the event would not have been possible without HOTDISH Milia’s collaboration and WHC’s support. Image may contain: 1 person, child and outdoor

Feminist Frolics:

Once a month throughout the year, Feminist Justice League hosted events called Feminist Frolics.  These events usually do not attract more than four or five people, but are high quality educational opportunities and community building events.  This year’s highlights include a citizen science project wherein were learned about women in science and learned how to test the health of a river by examining small fauna such as snails, worms, and insect larvae.  We also learned how to geocache and did this while collecting garbage.  I researched women and waste management and did a short presentation on that topic for our event.  We also learned more about fungi and one of our members, Ar., told us about her experiences gathering and selling mushrooms to local businesses.   A few of us also attended a Halloween themed event wherein we hiked to an abandoned cemetery at night and learned about the history of witches and capitalism, based upon my readings on that topic.  We have not done a frolic in a few months due to cold weather, but we can consider planning more at our next meeting.  My suggestion is that we continued them, but on a more irregular basis in 2018.  Personally, I put a great deal of effort into researching these topics and lack the time I once had.  However, I think that these events remain viable if we can find others who are willing to research and present the topics.  These events remain important because they are an opportunity for learning, connecting to nature, and bonding. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting, child, shoes and outdoor

Spark in the Dark:

Following the swarm of sexual harassment and assault cases involving celebrities and politicians, FJL organized a small protest against assault and harassment.  The goal was to believe victims, hold public figures accountable, and make ourselves visible.  The evening event was attended by about a dozen activists, despite chilly weather.  In the end, we lit sparklers to symbolize the spark of social movement organizing around these issues but also light in darkness. Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and crowd

Christmas Cards to Prisoners:

The same day as the Spark in the Dark event, we once again collaborated with Letters to Prisoners/Save the Kids to send Christmas Cards to Prisoners.  The event was the best attended Letters to Prisoners event yet.  It was hosted at Amazing Grace Cafe and activists at the event were interviewed by a newspaper. Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people sitting, table and indoor

 

Looking at 2018

 

Our Challenges and Assets:

As we move into 2018, our biggest challenge by far is that we have a small, active membership.  Over the years, we have lost a few people who used to be more active in the group.  One of our active members, A., has recently had a child so she will not be as active for a while.  Two of our members, C. and An., have young children so they will not be able to participate as much as they would like.  Children should not be a barrier to participation and this also shows our weakness in providing child care.  Since we are small, it is hard to provide this service.  At the same time, perhaps we can think of alternative roles for these members, such as posting online content to our Facebook page.  Small membership limits what we can do as an organization but also has a demoralizing effect.  I often wonder if I have personally failed as an activist when our numbers are low.  Thus, we should brainstorm ways in which we can attract new members.  Ideas towards this end might include collaborating with other organizations, tabling at events, putting up fliers more often, and advertising ourselves more on community calendars.  I think it is also important to reframe what success looks like and better work with what we have.  If interest in feminism is generally increased and other organizations have seen new members, then we should celebrate the overall victory of feminism, even if our organization is small.  Further, even a small organization can maximize its impact in the community through collaboration with others.


Despite our low numbers, we do have some assets.  I am proud of the many events that our group sponsored and organized last year.  We also have some great members with some useful knowledge and skills.  Both J. and I work in the field of domestic violence, which I think puts us in a good position to do activism related to this. I also work part time at the WHC, so I think this will help us continue our reproductive rights activism. We have a new member named C, who is smart, knowledgeable of science, and very active in criminal justice activism.  A. is a male member and close friend who is an asset to the group because of his long history of local activism, especially his labor activism.  We have several members who sometimes attend, but perhaps get spread thin by their own activist schedules.  Overall, we often attract low-income and working class activists to our group.  We also often attract members who have experienced homelessness, trauma, mental health issues, poverty, violence, etc.  I think that we can be proud of ourselves if we continue to be an organization that creates space for those who experience multiple oppressions.  While these things can be barriers to activism, it can inform the sorts of issues we work on and perspectives we promote.  At the same time, our organization mostly attracts white people.  There is no immediate solution to making our group more diverse, but, we should always be mindful of the pitfalls of “White feminism” and seriously consider how the group can tackle racism along with sexism.   Sponsoring, promoting, attending, and collaborating with anti-racism activism is one step in that direction.


Finally, several of our key members and most of those who attend our events are anti-capitalist.  This can help us create a niche in the feminist movement.  Although we are a small group, we can act as a complimentary group to FAC.  FAC is a larger group that appeals to a broader group of people.  However, based upon their focus on candidate events, female identity, representation in politics and the business community, etc. the group leans towards liberal feminist ideology.  Our niche in comparison is that we should try to attract anarchist and socialist feminists or provide space to promote those ideologies.  While this ideological focus is less popular, promoting anti-capitalist feminism is a way to differentiate ourselves and what we do.  This should not be rigid nor a requirement for participation/membership- but a useful framework for focusing the organization’s tactics and issues.  The goal is not to compete with other feminist groups, but to broaden the overall feminist movement through theoretical diversity while collaborating on common causes.


Our Goals:

Based upon the following summary, I suggest the following goals for 2018.

 

  1. Co-sponsor a Letters to Prisoners Valentine, Mother’s Day, and Christmas events in 2018 to continue criminal justice related work.
  2. Continue Feminist Frolics on a more limited basis in 2018.  For instance, create feminist history geocaches in the area for Women’s History Month in March.
  3. Host an event for International Women’s Day in March (depending upon other local events)
  4. Consider collaborating with other organizations to create a community Take Back the Night this summer as the major undertaking of the year.
  5. Continue to Chalk for Choice in the warmer months.
  6. Continue the 40 Days of Choice events.
  7. Work more closely with Feminist Action Collective
  8. Continue to work with HOTDISH Militia
  9. Consider other projects such as a Stitch and Bitch Group
  10. Plan an action related to Crisis Pregnancy Centers
  11. Participate in the Bowl-a-Thon
  12. Host a socialist feminist educational event
  13. Increase our membership by at least one or two core members
  14. Collaborate with and support other organizations and events in areas such as labor, anti-racism, environment, indigenous rights, anti-war, sex workers rights, LGBT issues, reproductive rights, mass incarceration, US imperialism, etc.
  15. Table, put up fliers, make better use of the media
  16. Continue to consider our purpose and niche so that we remain relevant
  17. Try to promote ourselves more!  We could make buttons…

 

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Spark In the Dark-Activist Report

Spark in the Dark-Activist Report

H. Bradford

12/17/17

On December 16th, over a dozen feminists gathered in Duluth to protest sexual misconduct in an event called “Spark in the Dark.”  The event was organized by the Feminist Justice League in response to the growing number of public figures that have been accused of sexual harassment and assault.  The goal of the action was to draw attention to the ongoing issue, show solidarity with survivors, and embolden victims who remain silent.  Those who attended were asked to wear black, as this was symbolic of the silencing, blaming, and disbelief of victims.  At the end of the event, protesters lit sparklers, which was representative of the spark needed ignite a social movement.


The chilly December weather may have deterred some activists from participating, but the issue remains important as both major political parties have been mired in sexual scandals.  Some political figures, such as Al Franken and John Conyers, have stepped down from their positions.  Others, such as Ruben Kihuen and Blake Farenthold, have decided not to seek re-election.  Roy Moore, who victimized several underaged women, was narrowly defeated in Alabama’s senate race on account of a higher turn out of Black voters.  Despite resignations and losses, it is important to continue to demand accountability for all offenders accused of sexual misconduct, while continuing to support victims.  As exemplified by the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment and sexual assault are part of the everyday lives of all women in society and are the result of the unequal position and worth of women within patriarchy.  It is critical that the media attention these extensive and high profile sexual misconduct cases has garnered does not fade into apathy or indifference.  Instead, feminists should treat this as an opportunity for building a mass movement that seeks to end sexual harassment and assault through accountability of victimizers, as well as mass education, awareness, and changes in the discourse surrounding these issues.  Feminists should demand dignity, safety, and corrective actions in all arenas where these behaviors occur.  This is why the event was organized.  While the event was small, it was organized with the hope that this kind of action might spark future protests, marches, and actions around this issue.  In the 1970s, feminists mobilized to take back the night.  Today, it is time for feminists to organize to take back their workplaces, schools, streets, households, and all other places where power based harassment, violence, assault, and threats occur.

Image may contain: 1 person, night and outdoor

Beating the Winter Blues

Beating the Winter Blues

H. Bradford

11/30/17

It seems that winter came early this year.  Although I have lived my whole life in either Wisconsin or Minnesota, winter still arrives with shock and disappointment.  This year, it seemed to begin on October 27th with our first snow storm of the season.  The following weeks remained fairly cold and that initial snow didn’t melt until mid-November.  Daylight Savings Time, which sets the sunset back an hour, only seems to worsen the onset of winter, since suddenly it is dark at 4:30 pm.  I escaped for two and a half weeks to warmer climates, so this only added to my “season shock” this year.  (I have coined my experience season shock- which is like culture shock- but about seasonal adjustment).  Yes, upon returning home after visiting my brother in Texas- I felt demoralized by the cold and darkness.  He will be moving back to Minnesota next year.  I wanted to warn him not to.  It is miserable here.  This place is a cold, dark hell.  In some mythologies, it might be akin to the imagined land of death- white, sterile, and quiet- where bones crack in the cold, snapping like icicles off ledges.  My work schedule of night shifts makes things worse- since I live in the the long dark space between sunsets and sunrises.  I felt crabby, lethargic, and disappointed.  Well, I really don’t want to be that way!  So, here are some things I have done to make the most of winter and try to changed that attitude.


Bentleyville:

Each year, Duluth features a free light show- with free cookies, hot cocoa, popcorn, marshmallows, costumed characters, bonfires, and more!  I have gone twice already this year.  Perhaps, this will even be the year that I finally try to volunteer there.  While winter isn’t awesome, I will say that the darkness creates the canvass for stunning light displays.   I can relate this to the concept of Metaxu (from Simone Weil and Plato), which roughly describes things that separate us in some ways but connects us in others.  Darkness separates us from the visual world.  Night is bothersome since it makes it harder to enjoy the outdoors or do activities that we might enjoy during the day.  In this case, while darkness connects us to the beauty of light displays.  These displays would not be a pretty in daylight.  So, in this way, the darkness connects us to beauty and light.   Plus, there is so little that is free in capitalism!  You can’t complain about free cookies, hot cocoa, popcorn, and wholesome fun!  I think that Bentleyville is wonderful.

Image may contain: tree, plant, sky, outdoor and nature

The Night Sky:

Following the same logic as the last point, the darkness of winter and the long nights make it an optimal time of year for stargazing.   While I have not gone star gazing yet this month, I do plan on rescheduling a Feminist frolic for the planetarium and trying to catch the Northern lights (which are predicted to make an appearance early next week).  So, one great thing about winter is that it is a nice time of year for enjoying the night sky.


Birding:

I was a little sad to see all of the birds migrate.  While I was on my trip, I was reminded of all of the birds that were gone for the winter.  I even saw some of the species of birds which had migrated south!  However, on Sunday I drove to Two Harbors to hike around and do some geocaching.  I actually saw quite a few birds.  There were a few Common Goldeneye ducks, diving and bobbing in Agate Bay.  I watched them, getting a closer view than I’ve had of that species.  I also saw a NEW species of duck- a female Harlequin duck.  I was surprised, since I didn’t expect to see many new birds this winter-if any at all.  I think that it was a good reminder that there are still plenty of birds around.  On December 9th, the Sax Zim Bog will open to winter visitors and host a few birding/nature hikes.  I hope to attend.

Image may contain: outdoor and water

Geocaching:

I tried geocaching for the first time in March.  While it isn’t the most educational hobby, it is fun to search around for these hidden treasures.  I am not great at it, but it does bring a sense of accomplishment to me each time I manage to find a hidden container.  While I don’t do it all of the time, I decided to go geocaching on Sunday in Two Harbors and Monday at Pattison State Park.   Today, I found my 100th cache.  I think that winter is a great time to geocache since there is less foliage and vegetation to thwart my view of the caches.  Also, there aren’t any wood ticks.   It is also a nice hobby for winter since it doesn’t compete with birding as much (since there are fewer birds out and about).

Image may contain: tree, plant, outdoor and nature  Just a photo from Pattison State Park, where I geocached earlier in the week

Winter’s Solitude:

On Monday, I went to Pattison State Park for hiking/geocaching.  I was the only at the park.  The park office was closed and the parking lot was desolate.  It was wonderful to haunt the park, wandering the trails as the only soul on the premise (there were park service people somewhere, but I didn’t see anyone at the park office and there were no other park visitors).  In the summer, parks tend to be busier.  The beach would be full of swimmers and the tables occupied by picnic-ers.   On Monday, it was only me.  It was wonderful.  I enjoyed it too much and kept reminding myself of the moral lessons of the Twilight Zone (don’t wish for people to go away.  You might lose your contact lenses).  It was a really enjoyable time.  This is something to really be thankful for- a whole park to myself!  I found a few caches and enjoyed the waterfall (the tallest in Wisconsin- though that doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment for a waterfall).

Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, outdoor, nature and water    Image may contain: tree, plant, sky, outdoor, nature and water

Embracing the Indoors:

During the summer, I sometimes feel guilty for sleeping during the day after a night shift.  I feel like I am missing out on a beautiful, sunny day.   In winter, while I still feel like I am missing out on sunlight, this is unavoidable.  So, I guess that if nothing else I can embrace the season because the cold and darkness give me a good excuse to stay indoors.   In my ideal world, I would use this wonderful indoor time to write, read, study, create art, try to practice violin, do fitness DVDs, or any number of other hobbies that I could explore.  But, this is not my ideal world and I am not my ideal self.  I haven’t done many if any productive indoor hobbies lately.  However, I have embraced the indoors by taking advantage of indoor fitness classes.  While I am not a member at any gyms, I have gone to a few fitness classes with my coworkers Kaila and Katie at CSS.   I have attended a dance cardio class and a barre class.  I also try to do a ballet class through Sterling Silver Studio in Superior.   Since it is cold outside, I may as well embrace the indoors by attending indoor fitness classes.  Walking on a track or treadmill is no substitute for a walk outdoors, but it helps to combat the cooped up/inactive feeling that I dislike about winter.


Embracing Winter Hobbies:

Snow does allow for winter hobbies.  We don’t have any snow at the moment, but maybe later this winter I can go cross country skiing and snow shoeing again.  There are other winter hobbies I could try as well.  One of my goals is to try out a fat tire bicycle this winter.  We’ll see if I finally try one out this winter…


Embracing Warm Things:

One positive thing about winter is that it makes warm things far more enjoyable.  I can definitely say that soup, hot tea, hot cocoa, or generally any hot food or drink is much more pleasant in the winter.   Even if I don’t have a cold, Throat Coat is my favorite and most soothing hot tea by far.

Image result for throat coat tea

Embrace Seasonal Sweaters:

I like being warm.  A fun way to stay warm is with seasonal sweaters.  The other day, I went to Goodwill and bought a few seasonal sweaters.  By seasonal, I mean the sort of sweaters that an elderly woman might wear- with snowmen, mittens, cats, or cardinals on them- some are embellished with sequins, tiny rhinestones, and puff paint textures.  Having an arsenal of winter themed sweaters/sweatshirts helps me get into the mood of winter.  It is hard to be grumpy when you are wearing a sweatshirt of three snowmen sharing hot cocoa.

Image result for sweatshirt with snowmen

I don’t own this sweater, but it represents the spirit of winter whimsy.

 

Season Shock:

The reason that I feel that I experience “season shock” rather than seasonal affect disorder is because my experience is more of an adjustment issue.    I feel that the transition to winter is disappointing because it means a loss of freedom, outdoors, health, light, and warmth.  It means that life is harder- since the weather is harsh, the day is short, the roads are icy, cars need to be warmed up, and illness spreads more easily.  Adjusting to the “new normal” of winter isn’t an easy process.  But, I don’t feel that for me, it is a form of depression.  To me, the difference is that when winter hits, I want to be active, I WANT to be outdoors, I WANT all of the fun of fall and summer.   Winter is an insult to my drive to live and experience.   When I am actually depressed, I don’t want to do anything….and don’t even want to want to do anything.   I think that by being intentional, setting goals, and taking advantage of the 40 degree weather we’ve had lately has helped me escape my winter funk.   But…we’ll see how it goes when the temperature continues to decline next week- and we see highs in the teens….

Fall Camping! Camping Fail.

Fall Camping! Camping Fail.

H. Bradford

10/15/17

I like camping since it offers me a mini- adventure and time alone.   I like this new ritual of leaving for a day or two and unplugging from Facebook, activism, my phone, and people in general.  So, I was looking forward to camping at Savannah Portage State Park.   I visited the park back in August and March, but had not camped there.  It has become one of my favorite state parks due to the fact that it is not very busy, has great bog walk, and some nice trails.   Thus, I made it a goal that I would camp there this fall.   Here is how it went:

Image may contain: tree, plant, outdoor and nature

Firstly, the forecast called for clear, sunny weather when I made my reservation at the campsite.   However, as it grew closer to the date, the weather looked like rain, more rain, light rain, clouds, and thunderstorms.  I am not a huge fan of being wet, but the days are getting shorter and my opportunities for camping will come to an end by the end of this month.   So…I looked up tips of how to comfortably camp in the rain.   I decided that it would not be a big deal and made plans to go birding and hiking- rain or no rain.


Like always, I stopped at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the way to Savannah Portage.  I immediately felt chilled by the rain and wind.   Nevertheless, I spent almost the entire day birding and hiking.  I was wet, but not not drenched.   Despite the inclement weather, I saw many birds.   One highlight was a flock of Pied billed grebes.  These grebes are adorable.  They have cute little fluffy white bird butts, big eyes, and a compact shape.  Another highlight was dozens of Trumpeter swans, even though they were pretty far away- near an island on Rice Lake.   I took a stroll down a service road and came upon two Sandhill cranes.  At first, I thought they were gray stumps or poles.  I guess I wasn’t expecting to see the cranes.   There were many other birds as well, including more ducks than I could hope to count- or identify.  The ducks were some distance away and I am not knowledgeable enough about birding to identify ducks by their flight pattern or shape.   While walking along the service road, I spotted a Lapland longspur.  This isn’t an uncommon bird, but the first time I have identified one.   I thought it was a fun and productive day of birding, but traipsing through wet grass, soggy trails, and drizzling rain left me feeling chilled.

Image may contain: bird, outdoor and nature

After leaving the refuge, I headed towards Savannah Portage State Park, picking up some campfire wood along the way.   I spent most of my day birding and I arrived a bit later than I had planned.  The park is remote enough that it is not well staffed and the park office closed at 2pm.  However, there was a notice on the door of what to do if I needed anything.  There are over 50 campsites, but only two were in use that night.  So…I pretty much had the whole state park  AND campground to myself!  There wasn’t even any staff.  Since it was drizzling rain when I arrived, I decided not to set up my tent.  The wind was also picking up.  I concluded that I was already soggy and wasn’t going to enjoy setting up and taking down a wet tent.   Instead, I would save time and effort and sleep in my car.   With nothing to set up, I set off for another hike (as I wanted to make sure that I visited the Bog Walk and did the loop trail around Lake Shumway).   I quickly did both short hikes, beating sunset.   After sunset, I decided to take advantage of my solitude and hike in the dark.   I haunted part of the Continental Divide Trail before the wind picked up again and I decided that hiking in the dark…alone….makes me feel a little uneasy.

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Back at my campsite, I pulled out my firewood and did my best to make a fire.  For whatever reason, this didn’t work out.  The wood that I had purchased was a little damp from being outside.  But, I had purchased some eco-friendly firestarting chips.  These did little to help the flame sustain itself on the wet wood.  I tried burning notebook paper and furiously fanned the flames.  Sometimes the fire lasted as long as five minutes, but after an hour of trying, it never really took off.   This was disappointing because I was going to make myself some hot tea, s’mores, and instant soup.  Instead, I ate cold snacks and drank cold water- which didn’t really do much to dispel the chilled feeling from being outside in the rain all day.   It hadn’t been a particularly cold day and I didn’t get drenched- but there is a certain, demoralizing chilled feeling that rain can bring.


Since the fire wasn’t going to work out, I decided to change clothes, read a book, do some journaling- and snuggle into my sleeping bag- in the backseat of my car.   It wasn’t exactly comfortable- but it was warm and dry.  Also, it was nice to be out of the wind.  Even though it wasn’t that late, I started to feel drowsy.  The wind rustled the leaves outside and droplets of water fell from the foliage onto the roof of my car.  I decided that I would head to bed early- feeling like my camping adventure was a bit of a fail (in terms of setting up the tent or making a fire anyway).  I had strange dreams.  I even had a frightening dream wherein I awoke to the sound of a male voice shouting my name.  It was an auditory hallucination- the sort a person has when they are half dreaming and half awake.  This is not a usual sleep occurrence, so I pondered it for a moment (maybe I had felt anxious being alone?).   I curled up into my sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep.  The rain and wind increased during the night, which again made me feel okay with the decision to sleep in my car- even if I was a bit bunched up.


The next morning, the sky was overcast, but the rain had stopped.  I got ready for the day and set out on a hike.   My goal was to do the Continental Divide Hike (which was perhaps 3.75 to 4 miles round trip from my campsite).  This was a nice hike.   The forest was yellow and the park was entirely empty (spare one other camper).  It was odd to be the only human on the trail.  The trail itself followed…well, a continental divide…or a ridge.  On one side of the ridge, water flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.  On the other side of the ridge, water flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  The trails were wet so it was interesting to think about the long journey the water could take- on either side of me.  Although the hike was often up hill and along a ridge, it was pleasant and not particularly challenging.  I hate hills- but none of them were that steep.   Towards the end of the trail, there was an overlook deck- where a person could admire the lowland Tamarack forests and Wolf Lake.   I spent some time there reading the interpretive sign, then finished the rest of the trail before turning back.

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With the trail done and little to pack up, I left the camp site.  I headed back to Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge to see if I could catch a few more birds.  The sky cleared a little and I did see several birds, such as a Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue heron, Trumpeter Swan, Pied Billed Grebes, and what I believe was a pair of Blackducks.   I didn’t spend as long as I had the day before, but managed to devote a few hours to it.  I turned my phone back on.  I left the wildlife refuge and I started listening to radio news.  The first story that I heard about was the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  I was only gone Sunday into Monday, but it seemed that I had been gone much longer.  There is so much “world” to digest on a daily basis.   I like to escape it all.  I am not sure how others remain so engaged and yet sane or even happy from day to day.   Maybe I am weak for always wanting to run away.   On the drive home, I listened to the news coverage.  I saw a hawk perched over a swamp.  I turned the car around and watched it until it flew away (harassed by another bird).   I then headed home to change clothes and go to a feminist meeting.

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It wasn’t much of an adventure and I pretty much failed at some of the most basic elements of camping (setting up a tent or making a fire).   I was also somewhat miserable, but encouraged by my hardiness to at least TRY to be outside.  Yeah, I am not much of an adventurer.  I think about my co-worker who just spent two and a half weeks hiking the Superior Hiking Trail.  She was probably wet and muddy most of the entire time…without a place to warm up.   I wish I was more like that.   Maybe someday.  Who knows.  For now, it was nice to relish an opportunity to be outdoors- as winter is just around the corner.  With colder and shorter days, I won’t be as enthused to be outside.  We’ll see if I can squeeze one more camping trip in this fall.  Hopefully it won’t be as wet next time!

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My First Hawk’s Ridge Weekend Festival

My First Hawk’s Ridge Weekend

H. Bradford

10/15/17

Although I have lived in this area of Minnesota/Wisconsin for most of my life,  I have never actually gone to Hawk’s Ridge in Duluth until this fall.  For those who don’t know, Hawk’s Ridge is a bird observatory and nature area that is one of the best places in Minnesota (and North America in general!) to watch migrating birds of prey.  Each year, over 90,000 pass over the ridge during the fall migration.  This is pretty amazing!  And yet, I never bothered to pay a visit to the observatory.   This year, I was finally drawn there my interest in birding and had hiked several times in August and September.  However, the thing that I was really looking forward to was their Hawk’s Ridge Weekend Festival event, a three day event of birding field trips, hikes, presentations, and bird watching.  The event happens each year, but I had never attended as my interest in birds is fairly new.  Hawk’s Ridge is a great place to watch hawks and other birds migrate, because the sun warms the basalt rocks that form the ridge creating thermals that the birds can use to ascend into an easier glide (i.e. flap less or expend less energy in moving).   The ridge also serves as a natural highway that the birds can follow along Lake Superior, rather than crossing the cold, expansive lake as they head south.  Well, I signed up for a weekend pass on their website as well as a membership.  This is how the event went:

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The view of Lake Superior and fall colors from Hawk’s Ridge

 


The event started on a Friday, but I did not attend the first day of hikes and presentations since I was tired and stressed from work/activism and the weather was gray and windy.  Saturday also turned out to be a gray day, but I went on a guided hike.  The bird activity was not too intense, but we did see many Sharp Shinned Hawks.  Now, I am really terrible at identifying birds of prey.   That was the appeal of attending the festival: to learn how to identify hawks.  With that said, the birds fly pretty high.  Somehow I imagined that the hawk migration was going to be something more like a scene from The Birds.  I imagined that there would be dozens of birds flying all around me at close range.  After all, if there are thousands of birds migrating, it must be like a swarm!  Not really.  While there were various falcons and Sharp shinned hawks that came closer to us, it really wasn’t how I imagined it.  Most of the birds are watched from a distance.  This meant that even with binoculars, I couldn’t always see them very clearly.  Yet, everyone else seemed able to easily identify the hawks.  This is pretty amazing, but at that distance, other cues are used to identify the birds.  Attending the event taught me to pay attention to details like flight pattern and shape.  Sharp Shinned Hawks, which I saw a lot of that weekend, are long with short heads- making a t-shape silhouette as they pass through the sky.   Their flight pattern is flap, flap, glide.  I heard a naturalist repeat this dozens of time, until it was drilled in my head to think “flap, flap, glide” as the birds moved across the sky.   In another area of the observatory, some naturalists were banding hawks.  A Sharp Shinned Hawk was brought to the crowd for closer inspection.  I was surprised by how small it was, since it seemed larger from a distance or in the sky.  I also learned to start thinking of hawks in terms of genus.  Sharp Shinned Hawks are Accipiters, or forest dwelling hawks that can easily navigate around trees.  Cooper’s Hawks are another Accipiter, which is slightly larger and said to look more like a crucifix in flight.  We saw at least one of them, but I was not be able to identify it at close range or in flight in the sky.  Goshawks are a larger Accipiter, but none were observed while I was there.  They migrate later in the season and I have seen a few on my visits now that it is October.  Despite the slow activity at Hawk’s Ridge, I went away feeling satisfied that I am slowly building my knowledge about birds.

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Clint, a naturalist with Hawk’s Ridge, holding a Sharp shinned hawk.


On Sunday, the sky cleared, making for a gorgeous sunny day.  In the morning I did the Color Run, then I zipped over to Hawk’s Ridge for more presentations and birding.  The warm, clear weather created a massive migration.  I quickly learned a new word as birders kept saying, “Check out that kettle of Broad Winged Hawks.”  That was the theme of the day, as 20,000 Broad Winged Hawks passed over Hawk’s Ridge on Sunday.  The Broad Winged Hawks were very high in the sky, flocking together or “kettling.”  They were so high up, I could not see them with my naked eye.  With binoculars, they looked like black specks or Amazing Sea Monkeys.   My binoculars are not very powerful, but it was pretty amazing to have dozens and dozens of birds come into view as they peppered the sky.  Again, they were high enough in the sky that it would be impossible for me to learn to identify them through markings.  As the name suggests, they have broad wings.  They also have short-ish tails.  Sunday was the biggest migration day that Hawk’s Ridge has had (at least that is what I overheard).  When it comes to identifying Broad Winged Hawks, I would have much more trouble.  I learned that they are in the genus, Buteo.  They have a thicker profile in the sky and a much shorter tail.  However, from a distance, I found that their shape looked pretty similar to Red tailed hawks and other buteos, or raptors built for soaring.   I did learn that Broad winged hawks are often seen migrating together, if that offers a clue.

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Some of the birds that were seen that day.


There were other birds viewed that day as well.  One highlight was a flock of Sandhill cranes which honked loudly overhead.  Some Osprey passed over on Saturday, undeterred by the overcast sky.   They look like the letter M in the sky.   There were also turkey vultures and bald eagles.   Peregrine falcons, American kestrels, and Merlins also passed by.  They flew low enough that we could catch a closer glimpse of them.  Still, I would be hard pressed to identify them at a distance or as they are speeding by.   Their profile looks pretty similar to me.   As they season progresses, the species of migrating birds changes.  Since visiting that weekend, I have returned several other times, including twice yesterday!  I really, really, want to see a golden eagle, a goshawk, and a rough legged hawk (since I have not seen any these birds before).  All of these are late season migratory birds, so they may appear more often later in October.  (The first two golden eagles of the season passed over the ridge yesterday…15 minutes after I left for the day!!).    Despite missing out on the golden eagles yesterday, I did see an American pipit, which is a new bird for my bird list.  I doubt I would have noticed it without birders around, since it looks like a drab, brown bird (easily overlooked).

DSCF7649Not the best photo, but here are the migrating sandhill cranes.

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The more I try birding, the more overwhelmed I am by the amount of detail that a person must learn.  Thus far I have mostly tried to become familiar with birds by memorizing their appearance- though this relies on a close up view of a stationary bird.  Of course, a person does get better at recognizing birds by sight and there are field markings which aid with a quick identification.  I have seen a lot of white outer tail feathers lately.  I don’t need to see the whole bird to identify the flocks of Dark eyed juncos as they dart for the ditch.   Or, when I see a waging, white tipped tail, I think…Eastern Kingbird.   I have since tried to learn some bird songs or calls, but this is daunting as it is like learning another language.   Attending Hawk Ridge Weekend taught me to pay attention to flight pattern and body shape from a distance.  This adds yet another layer to the detail that a person must learn to become proficient at identifying birds.   I am not a natural when it comes to this.  It is a concerted effort to pay attention to the birds around me.  Though, the hope is that someday I can look at some distant bird and know exactly what it is.   This has brought me back several times this season- quietly watching the birds- and trying to learn from the other birders.   The benefit of building my birding skills is that it reshapes my relationship to nature.  Nature is often the background- the repeating, bland landscape of green.  (Sort of like a video game wherein all the trees and rocks look like they are the same- or some variation on a limited template).   By paying attention to the details, nature announces itself- its variety, its sounds, its hidden life forms- that we have taken the time to study and name.   There is something really amazing and overwhelming (soooo much information!) about becoming acquainted with the planet.

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Another Mini Camping Trip

Another Mini Camping Trip

H. Bradford

8/22/17

I can’t believe that summer is nearly coming to an end!  (Well, technically it ends September 21st, but…it feels like it ends once September starts).  I feel that there is so much that I didn’t do this summer.  It never lasts long enough.  I suppose that is why I felt that I needed to take another mini camping trip.  It won’t be long before it is too cold (though I suppose I could someday try winter camping…).   In any event, I once again checked online to see what programs were being offered by state parks.  I saw that Temperance River State Park was offering a plant identification hike.  So…I decided that I would head there for a little camping and lesson on plants.

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Temperance River is about an hour and a half northeast of Duluth.  I set out early Friday morning to make certain I arrived there on time for the ten A.M. plant identification hike.  It was a pretty drive.  The road was not yet crowded with vehicles and the accompanying scenery of Lake Superior made me feel happy to be alive.  I have been many places but there really is something special about Lake Superior, especially the north shore with its dramatic cliffs and craggy shores.

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The plant identification hike was pretty cool.  Those sorts of programs don’t tend to attract huge crowds, so it was a naturalist, a family, and myself.  I knew many of the plants already, but I did not know that Jewel Weed can be used topically to treat stinging nettle.  I also saw Wild Beebalm, which I had never noticed growing around here before.  I also learned that Victorians used to back Tansy into cakes.  The smell is pretty…strong and not very enticing…so I am not certain why it was added to cakes.  But, it is mildly toxic, which ended tansy’s career as a cake flavoring.  Hmm.  The hike lasted about an hour and a half.   When it was done, I decided to purchase two guidebooks from the park office and set off on another hike.   I purchased a guide on fungi (as I have been more interested in fungi recently as a result of the Feminist Frolic earlier this month) and another on berries (as many berries are appearing now).

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I set off for Carlton Peak, which is the second highest point in Minnesota.  Because it is the second highest point, I figured it might actually be a bit of a challenge.  It really wasn’t, which I guess goes to show that Minnesota really isn’t a dramatically tall state.  But, it was still a fun time.  I stopped along the way, taking note of interesting fungi and doing my best to sort of identify them.  There were also many warblers hidden in the woods, chipmunks scurrying about, and the early touches of yellow on some of the leaves.  The hike took me to the top of the peak, where there was a nice view of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests.  Like usual, most of the hikers were couples, families, and friends.  I didn’t meet anyone else on a solo adventure that day.   After taking some photos of the top, I went to nearby Tofte Peak for another view.

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Oh, I also ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  This is a challenge when I go on these mini trips.  I never know what to pack.  I need to bring things that are easy to make and which don’t spoil without refrigeration.  I have yet to come up with a satisfying menu of camping foods- so I tend to eat snacks.  In this case, I brought peanut butter, jelly, and bread.  Only…my bread was kind of old.  It tasted gross and stale.  I ate the sandwich anyway, but my stomach felt uneasy for the rest of the day.  I also lost my taste for PBJ sandwiches after that one bad one…even after buying some better bread.  Despite an upset stomach, I went on several other hikes that day.  I wandered around Lake Superior and went on a hike along Temperance River.  In all, I was up and moving around from 10 am to almost 8pm (though it wasn’t strenuous non-stop movement as I sat down, did identification work, took photos, etc.).

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At 8pm,  I made a fire and rested for a while.  I made myself a grilled cheese and avocado sandwich, but my taste for food was non-existent due to my nasty PBJ earlier.  I mostly stared at the fire and journaled in the dim light.  Also, I came to the realization that my tent…which I had not used since my rainy camp adventure in July…smelled really, really musty.   I aired it out through the day, but it still smelled.  I think it will be better next time, but it could really use some airfreshener.  My stomach was not a happy camper  and the smell of the tent was not going to do my digestive system any favors.  I ended up sleeping in my car to avoid the smell.  Yep.  But, not before wandering to Lake Superior in the darkness and sitting on some rocks.  I observed the stars and enjoyed the darkness.  There is something wonderful about the blackness of night.  It is mysterious and frightening in a fun way.   I listened to the water on the rocks and the sound of leaves.  All of the other campers were already sleeping, so it was nice to stay up and out there alone.


I had big ambitions for the following day.  I planned on doing more hiking and visiting some other state parks on the way back to Duluth.  But, after hiking so long the day before, I wasn’t that energetic.  I did a little geocaching around the park and stopped for some photos at nearby rivers and the abandoned town of Taconite Harbor.  However, I wanted something more substantial than what I had packed to eat.  My stomach felt normal but wasn’t hungry for what I had packed.  So, I made my way back towards Duluth in search of food.  I stopped in Silver Bay and did a little more geocaching, but began to feel drawn home by some activist obligations.  Originally, I had set off with the intention of staying out late at Gooseberry Falls State Park so that I could catch a presentation on ravens.  However, this would mean missing out on a prisoner solidarity protest and a benefit dinner for a UMD student from Syria.  My roommate Adam texted me asking where the signs I had made were.  I didn’t actually make any signs for the protest.

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Visions of eating Mexican food and attending these political events drew me home earlier that I had intended.   I didn’t catch the presentation on ravens, but I did have a fun time eating Mexican food and going for a walk with Adam.  I was also glad to attend the political events later in the evening.   I am not much of a camper, but I enjoyed the hiking and genuinely felt glad to live in this part of the world.  There is a lot of beauty to partake in here.  Each time I camp, I learn something new.  This time I learned to really, really think about what I want to eat and not to pack expired bread- even if it isn’t moldy yet.  I also learned that I should be more careful with my tent and not assume that it was “dry enough” when I packed it up.  This can lead to a musty misadventure.   In all, it is fair to say that I am not the most adventurous person…but I enjoy my little mini adventures.  It removes me, even for a short time, from people, work, activism and the demands of everyday life.  It is an important part of my self-care and I always learn something new.

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My International Bog Day Bonanza

My International Bog Day Bonanza

H. Bradford

7/25/17

Last week at work I had a several stressful situations arise.  When I am stressed, I like to fantasize about my time off.  So, I determined that I was going to really enjoy my time off by celebrating International Bog Day.   International Bog Day was first celebrated in Scotland in 1991 in honor of a pretty unique ecosystem.  In the United States, it was first celebrated in 2008 at the Volo Bog State Nature Area in IL.  There are not a lot of bog related celebrations in Minnesota, even though Minnesota actually has more bogs (10% of the state or 6 million acres) than any other continental state.  The biggest celebration for International Bog Day in Minnesota appears to be at Big Bog State Park.  However, I didn’t feel like driving three hours to attend festivities such as the “bog jog.”  Maybe next year.  In any  event, I can’t say that I know a lot about bogs, but they are dear to my heart.  I grew up near a bog and have many great bog memories.   I can confidently say that bogs are my favorite ecosystem.  Thus, I relished the idea of celebrating International Bog Day!

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I like to invent holidays or holiday celebrations.  Some take off, such as Marxmas (which I did not invent, but have passionately planned a well-attended party for each year).  Others, such as Radon Awareness Month- don’t really pan out.   I felt that International Bog Day had a lot of potential.  I began to dream about visiting bogs.  Where would I go?  What would I do?  Oh, then there are the other details such as…what should I wear?  Each holiday needs special apparel.  So yes, I bought myself a “bog shirt.”  Yes, yes, shame on me for consumerism, but details matter.  And, it was hard to find a bog shirt!  I found a pretty cool shirt with a woman wearing a pitcher plant on her head.  Aside from this, I wanted a “bog cake” but this turned out to be too much work.  Then, there were the activities!  I decided that I would visit three bogs.  My first adventure would be a visit to the Sax Zim Bog in Minnesota to do some birding.  This would happen on “International Bog’s Day Eve” or Saturday.  Then, the following day I would drag my comrades Adam and Lucas on an adventure to Cable WI, to visit the Forest Lodge Trail.  I read online that the trail was the best interpretive bog trail in Wisconsin.   Then, on the day after International Bog Day, I would revisit Savanna Portage State Park for some camping…and you guessed it…a visit to a bog.   Three days.  Three bogs.  No one can com”peat” with this bog day bonanza. DSCF6115 (2)


Day One: Bog’s Day Eve

Located about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Duluth, the Sax Zim Bog is one of the best birding spots in Minnesota.  It happened that the Sax Zim Bog was hosting a Bio-blitz this past Saturday.  The goal of the event was to take visitors on various field trips to count the biodiversity of the wetland.  Field trips throughout the day logged such things as dragonflies, butterflies, spiders, wildflowers, birds, fish, etc.   I decided that attending the birding field trip would be a great kick off for Bog Day and a way to add more birds to my birding list.  So, I awoke very early.  In fact, I hardly slept at all.  I dragged myself out of bed at 3:30 am and headed out the door at 4:15 am.  The morning was foggy and cool.  I wanted to stop for coffee or a snack, but waited until I was out of Duluth to make a stop.  Unfortunately, I waited too long to stop and the gas stations near Cotton, MN were still closed.   I was the first to arrive for the 6 am birding field trip and felt a little groggy and thirsty.   I nibbled on graham crackers from a previous camping trip and found a single lime La Croix in my backseat.  Still, I felt that I was graduating into a more serious birder, as no normal person would wake up at 3:30 am for something they weren’t passionate about.

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The early bird catches….the bird.  (gray jay)


Our field trip began with a journey to where a Great gray owl was thought to be nesting.  The Great gray owl is the world’s largest owl by length, though it is mostly a mass of fluffy gray feathers.  Sure enough, we saw a family of Great gray owls.  The mother took flight, moving a little deeper into the woods.  It was astonishing to see an owl that looked to be the size of an eagle.  It was my first time seeing a Great gray owl.  We stayed there a while, also spotting a Black backed woodpecker.  That was also a first for me.  After observing two woodpeckers dart from tree to tree, we moved on to watch birds elsewhere.  Three hours of birding yielded quite a few birds, including Sandhill cranes, a sedge wren, a swamp sparrow, a group of curious gray jays,  a few alder flycatchers, black billed magpie, and others.  I learned that the Sax Zim Bog is the eastern most range of the black billed magpie.  I added seven birds to my life list.  Also, I was again amazed at the other birders.  They can easily spot and identify birds.  I feel pretty dumb sometimes, but hope that with effort and time I will someday be as proficient.

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Sedge wren

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Black backed woodpecker–can you tell?  Nope.  I couldn’t.  But the other birders could…


Aside from the birds, I saw some pretty neat wildflowers.  These included purple fringed orchids and a purple fringed +ragged fringed orchid hybrid.  Another unusual flower was called Marsh grass of Parnassus.  It is not actually a grass but a fen dwelling flower that is threatened in WI and declining in MN.  I also learned that a lily that I had been calling Turk’s cap lily is actually called Michigan Lily (the former is found further south).  We saw some Michigan lilies as well as a black-eyed susan with a goldenrod crab spider perched on a petal.  I would have liked to have gone on the wild flower walk, but after birding for three hours on two hours of sleep (I could not sleep!) I decided to head home.  I had some other social obligations on Saturday as well.  Nevertheless, I hope that next year I can participate in the Bio blitz again- hopefully partaking in other field trips.

Marsh grass of Parnassus

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Purple fringed orchid

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Day Two: Forest Lodge Trail

On International Bog Day itself I set off with Lucas and Adam for Cable WI.  I had read online that there is a bog north of Cable, WI that is supposed to be the best interpretative bog trail in Wisconsin.  This is a tall order, but I had high hopes for an exciting bog adventure with my comrades.  Unfortunately, I started the day off in a crabby mood.  It was another early morning and I felt stressed out.  My cellphone does not get very good reception in rural WI or rural anywhere.  I had some printed maps, but I was the driver and no one was keen on navigating.  I could have forced the issue, but ended up doing 98% of the navigating myself.  Oh well, I should be proud of usurping gender roles as both the driver AND navigator.  AND photographer.  AND planner.  Okay, so I became a bit of a Swamp Diva as the day progressed, as in the moment I could not find the joy in being so empowered.  Sorry guys.

A comrade

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There were some snags in our adventure.  For one, we hiked the trail, but did not see a bog board walk…as I had seen online.  The bog itself seemed pretty ho-hum.  It was a long drive for a bog and board walk that didn’t seem to exist and certainly not to the degree that I would call it the best in Wisconsin.   However, the trail itself was nice.  There was a variety of terrain and only one other pack of hikers.  As we tried to find the trail, we stopped by the Gormusch Resort- a bizarre German themed petite-bourgeoisie lake resort.  But, for all of our trials finding the trail and traveling the trail itself, we saw little more than a blanket of moss punctuated with swampy puddles.  (I later learned that there is an extended trail…and the bog walk must be off of that.  I also learned that the Natural History museum has trail booklets as the trail does not have posted information on signs).

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Despite a disappointing bog, our spirits were lifted by a visit to Cable.  Adam bought us brownies, which he called “bog cake” (even though he never knew I had wanted to bake a bog themed cake!).  I found two geocaches and endured some teasing for my dorky, pointless hobby.  Lucas went as far as to call it a petite bourgeois past time.   The Natural History museum was closed, but we vowed to return and see it.  Otherwise, we also paid a short visit to a community farm, where we were impressed by the resources that the community had put into developing a farm wherein the produce was donated to local food shelves.   We decided to return to Cable again and set off to find the legendary Delta Diner.  This is where my Swamp Diva nature climaxed.  I was not paying close enough attention and had to back track twice.  I cursed and grumbled about my inability to find the Delta Diner, which seemed to be the Brigadoon of restaurants.  We eventually found it.  Had I been more patient and attentive this would not have been an issue.  As for the diner, it was a hipster oasis on rural WI.   Interestingly, the diner has a no-tip policy as the prices are inflated 20% to make certain that the staff make a living wage.  Despite my tantrum about getting turned around, I did enjoy the experience of eating there AND I did see a family of trumpeter swans along the way. Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


Finally, we set off back towards Superior.  I was in better spirits.  We stopped by the old King’s? school and a marsh off of HWY 13.  We went for another short hike.  I did some more birding while Adam and Lucas hid in the bushes, pretending to ambush me or something.  I think they were planning military strategies.  In order to get Lucas more engaged in the birding I told him it would be useful for “the revolution.”  After all, it would improve his skills as spotting something unusual in the landscape, such as a bomb, mine, or sniper.  I have zero sense of what is a useful “revolutionary skill”, but it seemed to work.  Finally, we stopped by the Davidson windmill where I finally found my geocache (that I could not find before).  Adam and Lucas wearily rested in the grass while I searched around the windmill.   I also tried to convince Lucas that geocaching is a useful revolutionary skill, as it can help us become better at hiding and finding messages or packages.  However, it seems there is a limit to how well I can pitch my hobbies as “useful to the revolution” before my manipulations become obvious.   All and all, I had a fun day.  I exhausted my poor comrades though.

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Day Three: Savanna Portage and Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge-

Although my first two days of International Bog Day celebrations were rather exhausting, I didn’t feel that I had my fill of bogs.  After all, I had yet to see a carnivorous plant and the Cable bog was a little lackluster.  I mustered my strength for one final bog slog.  However, I decided that camping was too much effort.  So, I went on a day trip to Savanna Portage State park and the Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge.  I nixed the camping, since packing, setting up a tent, and sleeping outside seemed overly ambitious.

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I visited Savanna Portage State Park back in March, so I knew it had a decent bog walk.  I was eager to see it in the summer, so I set off for a hiking and birding adventure.  This turned out to be worth the drive, as once again, the park was pretty empty.  It is nice to go somewhere and feel alone.  I only met one other person on the trails, though a few people were there for canoeing and fishing.  The first order of business was checking out the bog walk.  This time, it was alive with vegetation.  I saw what I thought was an unusual orchid, but it turned out that it was actually the flower of the pitcher plant.  I never new that pitcher plants had flowers!  I always thought that the pitcher plant was simply a pitcher shaped trap for insects.  I was enamored with the elegant, nodding green and purple flower on a slender stem.   The usual suspects, like cotton sedge, sphagnum moss, and Labrador tea also blanketed the bog in green. Image may contain: flower, plant, nature and outdoor

Pitcher perfect!


After enjoying the bog, I walked around Lake Shumway.  It seemed daunting to walk the perimeter of the lake, but it turned out to be a relatively short hike.  Along the way, I saw what I thought was a hairy woodpecker.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was actually a yellow bellied sapsucker.   I think it was worth taking a second look simply because it will help me to pay closer attention to details and become a better birder.  After finishing the trek around the lake, I went on another short hike alone the Continental Divide Trail.  Water to the west of the trail flows into the Mississippi River, whereas water to the east flows into Lake Superior.  Again, it was nice to have the trail to myself.  I definitely want to return to this state park in the fall and do some camping as it is quickly becoming one of my favorite state parks.  It has nice trails, a quiet atmosphere, an awesome bog, and patchwork of lakes.

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As a grand finale of the day, I went birding at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  I had planned on visiting my mother in the evening, but ended up staying at the refuge until sunset.  The refuge contains lakes, forests…and bogs.  It also is also a historically and culturally important area to Native Americans, who have inhabited the area since at least 1000 BC.  Rice Lake, as the name suggests, is a source of wild rice, which is still harvested from the lake by local Ojibwe.  On a previous visit last spring, there were Native Americans harvesting maple syrup at the refuge.   I saw quite a few birds on my visit, including common loons, Great blue herons, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, unidentified fly catchers, eastern kingbird, belted kingfishers, common yellow throats, etc.  Once again, I was the only person in the entire nature area.  It was liberating to explore the refuge in the joy and solitude of my own company.   The park closes at sunset, so I reluctantly left it behind and began the drive home. Image may contain: bird, sky, outdoor and nature

Eastern kingbird

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I had a fun, if not exhausting, three days.  Oddly enough, I spent today birding and hiking as well.  Tomorrow, I will return to work (though, I won’t get bogged down by the stress should it arise).  But, I feel that I have spent almost all of my time off in the outdoors.  Summer is precious and short, so I don’t regret this marathon of bogs and hikes.  As for bogs, I think they are worth celebrating.  For one, bogs have really unique plants!  As a child, I wanted to become a botanist- so bogs naturally interested me because they were home to carnivorous plants and orchids.  Tamarack trees are also common in bogs!  What’s not to love about a  deciduous conifer tree or a tree that sheds its needles and grows them back! Heather is a type of bog plant, so, even my name has a bog connection.  Although bogs are rich in peat, or layers upon layers of dead, slowly decomposed vegetation, they are acidic and oxygen poor-resulting in interesting adaptations for the plants that live there (such as carnivorous plants or stunted growth).   Bogs are important carbon sinks (though as frozen bogs thaw or peat is burned, the carbon is released) and soak up water, thereby preventing floods.  Culturally, bogs have been important as a source of fuel (peat) but also used to store food and a treasure trove of archaeological information (i.e. bog bodies).  While I certainly have a lot more to learn about bogs, I think that they are a fragile and unique ecosystem that deserve appreciation.

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Not a Happy Camper

Not a Happy Camper

H. Bradford

7/15/17

Back in May, I went on a short camping trip at Wild River State Park to enjoy International Migratory Bird Day.  I enjoyed this little adventure, as it gave me the opportunity to do some birding and hiking.  Well, I thought that it would be a good idea to do another little camping trip.  I have some post-travel blahs and this would be a way to enjoy nature.  To combat these blahs and take advantage of my time off, decided that I would head to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park for a little camping adventure.  As it turns out, it was a miserable time!

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The Plague of Traffic:

Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is about two hours from Duluth and located in an area steeped with Native American history.   The earliest signs of human settlement in Minnesota are found in the Mille Lacs area.  As for the lake itself, it is the second largest inland lake in Minnesota.   Like many state parks, I haven’t visited it, so it was another incentive to visit the area.  Thus, I set off for a short adventure.  It was raining when I left Superior, but the forecast indicated that the rain would stop.  It didn’t.  Most of my drive involved driving in the rain.  I took my time since there was no point arriving in the rain.  The rain did eventually stop, but I did not predict the enormous traffic jam by Mille Lacs Lake (which seems odd to say Lacs Lake, since it is “lake lake”).  It has probably been over a decade and a half since I was out by Mille Lacs and even then, it was never for anything tourist related.  The towns dotting the giant lake only have a few hundred people, yet, I was stuck in traffic for an hour as trucks with boats tried to merge into one lane.  I watched time pass by.  I watched the lake.  I felt annoyed by the mass of fishermen and women who were scrambling to return to the Twin Cities.  I also felt annoyed with myself for choosing to camp on a Sunday (when everyone else is returning home from the weekend).  Considering the throngs of traffic, it is no surprise that the lake is empty of walleye (well, that and climate change warming the lakes). DSCF7140DSCF7152DSCF7183DSCF7186


The Plague of Flies:

After suffering through the traffic, I set up my tent.  Despite the crowded herd of slow moving trucks, the park itself was nearly deserted.  There were very few campers in the park that night.  This was encouraging.  I decided that I would spend several hours hiking, so I went to the trail center and picked a trail that looped around one of the lakes in the park.  I immediately found that the trail was rather muddy and infested with swarms of flies.  The flies surrounded my head, buzzing loudly and getting tangled in my hair.  I picked out pieces of dead flies from my hair, swatting the others who seemed equally determined to meet their death in the snarls of my black and blue tresses.  It occured to me that perhaps I could use my super duper DEET 100 to deter them.  So, I doused myself in DEET.  The DEET was so concentrated that it took the nail polish off my nails.  I suppose this provides makeshift beauty advice.  While camping, DEET can be used to take the varnish off your nails.  While it removed my nail polish, it did not remove the flies.  The flies seemed completely indifferent to the chemical stench wafting from my body.  I even sprayed a handkerchief with DEET and wore it on my head.  The flies did not care in the least.  This cut my hike short.

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Not pictured: a plague of flies.

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(What could possibly go wrong?)

 


Instead of hiking, I made a detour to climb a fire tower.  I figured that if I couldn’t hike, I could at least climb up the tower.  This was a good challenge for me, since I really hate heights.  And, I actually had to tell myself out loud to keep going up after I was above the tree tops.  I focused on looking up and made it to the top without incident.  Though, on the way up I imagined getting stuck up there…too afraid to go back down.  Since I was all alone, it would begin my new life.  My new life on top of the fire tower.  It was completely fine.  The view from the top allowed me to see Mille Lacs Lake and several of the lakes in the park.   I felt a little accomplished. DSCF7119 DSCF7115 DSCF7122


After clambering down the fire tower, I thought I would take a short hike on the Interpretive Trail.  The flies continued to harass me, but at least I was distracted by the various signs about the history of the park.  It was interesting to learn that many of the campsites in the state park were places were Native American villages or camping sites were also located.  The park also contains burial or ceremonial mounds that date back to 3000 BC.  The park is filled with archeological sites, including the remnants of settler homesteads.   It was also interesting to learn about the ecological history of the park.  From about 300 BC to the late 1800s, the area was dominated by white pine.   The white pine forests were ended in less than 50 years with the arrival of white settlers and logging companies.  Deeper in history, the park was Oak Savanna, Aspen, and other variations of forests.   The park was at the edge of the glaciers of the last ice age, which carved out the lakes of the area.   Another highlight of the trail was seeing a catbird.  I heard a strange, crying noise from the bushes and spotted the catbird tucked into the foliage.

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  The Rain:

Since my hikes were thwarted by flies, I decided that I would venture out of the park back to the town of Garrison.  It would offer me the opportunity to take some photos of Mille Lacs Lake and explore some landmarks.  This went wonderfully.  I enjoyed the evening taking photos of the lake and watching some purple martins catch insects by a boat landing.  I even saw an immature eagle in a dead tree.  I watched the birds and lake until near sunset. Little did I know, that back in the park, it had rained.  The glossy pavement as I approached the park was a sign of the isolated shower.  I wasn’t worried, as my tent…should be water proof.  This would have been the case but part of the flysheet on the backside of the tent was not pulled down far enough.  Somehow this tiny slit had let a deluge of water into my tent.  I was astonished by the lake that had formed in my tent, soaking my sleeping bag and forming puddles on one side.  Thankfully, I had two emergency blankets in my car.  I was also thankful that I had a spare towel in my car as well.  I sopped up the soggy mess, but was not happy. DSCF7189DSCF7188DSCF7179


I went on to make a fire, where I sat and journaled.  I also spent some time reading various articles on a Marxist critique of Intersectionality.  I will try to write up my thoughts on these articles on a future blog.  Writing and reading restored by sense of peace.  I decided that I would devote several hours to hiking the next day and studied the map to see which trail I would chose.  There was something peaceful and restorative about taking time to delve into those articles.  I stayed up late, took a shower, admired the nearly full moon, then headed into my moist tent.  Yes, it wasn’t perfectly dry.  Sopping up the water had made it moist at best.

 

 


Then I sat there, tossing and turning, bumping elbows with something wet.  I pushed my soggy sleeping bag into the corner.  I stared up at the ceiling of the tent.  It rained again.  Even when it didn’t rain, the forest sounded like 1,000 leaky faucets.  I felt that somehow the moisture outside had penetrated by bones, making me feel chilled and uneasy.  The raindrops continued to pound the tent, drop by slow, torturous drop.  When it became clear that I wasn’t going to sleep, I took a Tylenol PM.  I hate taking these because they have been connected to dementia.  But, they work very well.  I dozed off and slept.  The next morning I continued sleeping.  I slept and slept…and slept some more…missing the opportunity to hike.


When I finally forced myself to get motivated, I decided the adventure was done.  My tent was still wet on the outside.  I packed it up, picking off a few slugs.  I felt wet and dirty putting everything away.  I had a feminist meeting later in the day anyway, so I was okay just leaving the park.  I was disappointed, but there were some highlights.  I enjoyed the fire and my time reading and writing.  I enjoyed my encounters with birds.  I can add purple martin to my life list, as I have not seen one since I started birding about two years ago.  I enjoyed climbing the tower.  So, even though I wasn’t a happy camper, I didn’t regret my mini-adventure.

 

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

H. Bradford

7-13-17

I was excited to travel to Turkmenistan.  I had read that there are only 9,000 tourists who visit the country each year.  By comparison, over 100,000 tourists travel to North Korea annually.   Of course, comparisons to North Korea are abundant on travel websites.  The idea of traveling to such a mysterious place filled me with fear and excitement.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Some travel websites warned that tourists had been denied visas upon arrival or faced harassment from the police.  Documentaries about Turkmenistan (from Niyazev’s rule) made it seem like a bizarre country where in women could not wear makeup on television, video games, opera, and the circus were banned, everyone had to get off the streets by 11 pm, and government officials were made to go on grueling marches once a week to ensure their health.  These kinds of stories made me worried that something might go wrong.  I began to feel real anxiety as my trip approached, as I would be spending a few days in Ashgabat alone before joining the group I would be traveling with.   If Ashgabat was truly like Pyongyang, as some websites suggested, it was a worrisome thought.  I was afraid that I might accidentally break a law.  The fear was unfounded.  The visit to Turkmenistan went beautifully.  Still, during my time there, I reflected on my privilege and my desire to see strange places.  Thus, this post is about both my experience in Turkmenistan but also the dark urges and privileges of a tourist.


The unusual nature of Turkmenistan began with my flight.  The flight from Frankfurt to Ashgabat made a stop in Baku.  I had never been on a flight that stopped to let off passengers before.  The plane landed and to my surprise, let off almost all of the passengers on the plane.  When we continued from Baku to Ashgabat, there were probably less than six people on the flight.  All of these six people were foreign tourists.  It was bizarre to be among the few remaining passengers and that all of us were foreign.   Foreign travel is somewhat restricted in Turkmenistan, as in order to travel the country a tourist must have a local guide and a letter of invitation.   However, tourists are able to travel to Ashgabat on their own without a guide.  As for locals, the economy of Turkmenistan is built upon oil and gas.  There is a wide gap between the very few rich and poor, with an unemployment rate of about 60%.   Poverty is almost certainly one of the reasons there was no one from Turkmenistan on my flight.  As for myself, I had a letter of invitation and a local guide accompanied our tour through Turkmenistan.  Thus, I breezed through customs without incident.  However, I arrived late (at midnight) and was one of very few people at the airport.  This meant that my bag was inspected for a long time.  After it was put through the x-ray machine, several workers sifted through my belongings.  They studied each medication, opened them, looked at the contents of each bottle.  They also took special interest in my snacks, making commentary to each other about my belongings.   I suppose they might have been bored.  I think my snacks were probably disappointing.  As for the thorough inspection of my medicine, opiate drugs are banned in the country, even with a prescription so I can only assume they were looking for banned medication.


Once I passed through customs and the baggage inspection, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I’d worked myself up watching too many documentaries or reading travel horror stories.  I was met by the local tour guide and driven back to the Ak Altyn Hotel.  By then, I was sleepy from my 20+ hours of airports and flights.  So, I barely paid attention to the city.  I dreamily looked back at the airport, a giant white structure shaped like a bird.  I also took note that there were other cars on the road, despite the 11 pm curfew.  I was informed that shops close by 11pm and also warned not to smoke outdoors (as it was illegal…though I don’t smoke anyway), but there were no other immediate signs of dictatorship.


The following day, I decided I would set out by myself and explore the city.  A few other tourists from the group arrived, but I gave them a cold welcome.  I was more interested in my own agenda of seeing the city than getting to know my future travel companions.  So, with a guidebook, map, and to do list, I set out walking.  I decided to walk because the buses seemed confusing (as there was no central map of routes).  It was hot.  I was disoriented at first and spent some time walking the wrong direction.  When I found my bearings, I turned around and set off for the statue of Lenin.  It was located about an hour or so walk from my hotel, provided one does not get turned around.  My walking brought me to a random amusement park with rides, a Japanese garden, and dinosaur statues.  People seemed to be having fun, though each few blocks seemed punctuated by a police officer.   Some meandered through the parks as well.  It seemed that despite the 60% unemployment rate, there was no shortage of police jobs or jobs sweeping or cleaning the many monuments.   Still, the city did not really feel like Pyongyang at all.  The fact that I could travel freely and solo, made it seem very different.  And, after wandering the streets alone for two days, I was only approached once by a police officer.  When it happened, my heart began to race, but…it was only to check the time.


Once I found Lenin, I spent several hours exploring other monuments and parks.  Lenin was only important because of my politics…but also because Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself from its Communist past.  Although Niyazov was a communist leader during the Soviet Union and his party was the reincarnation of the communist party after the Soviet Union collapsed, the iconography of communism as well as remnants of Russian colonization have been dismantled.   The Turkmen script was changed from Cyrillic and statues and images of Marx and Lenin were replaced with the images of Niyazov.  The guiding ideology of the nation was set forth in the Ruknama, a book by Niyazov on the history of the Turkmen people and himself.   Gas revenues were invested into creating a showpiece capital.  Thus, almost all of the buildings in Ashgabat are new and made of Russian and Italian marble.  The city is full of well kept parks and monuments.  It really is unique.  Still, despite the changes, a statue of Lenin remains…not far from the American embassy, in a less visited park.

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I spent the day visiting parks and viewing buildings.  Towards the end of the day, I visited the National Museum of Fine Art.  I was the only tourist in the three story building.  The staff seemed surprised to see me.  This was a common occurrence in Ashgabat.  The museum was filled with interesting Turkmen and Soviet art, such as giant carpets.  There were images of rivers, workers, giant melons, tractors, and happy people with musical instruments.  On the way back to my hotel, I wandered through Inspiration Alley, a park of various statues of Muslim scholars.  They were unfamiliar men, owing to my lack of knowledge of Muslim history.  The history is so foreign to me, it is hard to imagine that Al-Zamakhshari or Abu-Biruni might be household names and that not knowing them would be the same as ignorance of Einstein, Shakespeare, or Newton. Image may contain: sky and outdoor


The following day, I set off to visit the Botanical Garden, as I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to watch birds.  The Botanical Garden was closed.  This is a theme of my life.  When I went to Minsk the garden was closed.  When I went to Bishkek, I also found that the botanical garden was closed.  I feel that I somehow have very bad luck with botanical gardens.  Anyway, I instead visited the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral.  It was a very hidden and modest orthodox cathedral.  I didn’t stay long as it was hosting a service.  Later I visited a bazaar and did some more walking, revisiting some sites I had seen the other day.   I was approached by two Russian speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I was actually curious to talk to them (for the first time ever), but our conversation was cut short by two police officers and I was quick to walk away.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in Turkmenistan.  In all, the city is quite large and spread out, so I found it impossible to see some of the major sites by foot.  These had to wait until my tour actually began, as we were promised a sight seeing tour by bus and a night time tour to see the city lights.


The bus tours offered a wide array of strange sights.  We saw the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world, the Arch of Neutrality, and the largest fountain in the world.  Once again, it is unsettling that the largest fountain in the world is in a country that is 80% desert!  The Ashgabat fountain is guarded by stern statues of the ancestors of the Turks: Orguz Khan and his sons.  We even passed by the Walk of Health, where government workers were expected to trek the 23 mile path through the Kopet Dag mountains once a year.  Perhaps the grand finale of the eccentric was a visit to the Turkmenbashi Mosque.  The mosque holds the remains of Niyazev and his family (his mother and brothers died in the 1948 earthquake that struck the city).  It also features quotes from the Ruhnama on the walls of the mosque and the eight pointed star.  The eight points represent the eight pillars of Islam.  Niyazev added three more pillars to Islam, including reading his book and visiting local holy sites in Turkmenistan.  These revisions were not welcomed by Saudi Arabia and consequently, Wahhabism is also banned in Turkmenistan.  We revisited the city later in the evening, when every building was lit up and the city looked like Las Vegas. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


All of this probably sounds pretty astonishing.  I thought it was astonishing.   Although Niyazev is dead and some of his monuments have been shuffled around, the country is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world (by Human Rights Watch for instance).   Yet, as a tourist, it was…well, fascinating.  My detached position from it all and speaks to my privilege.   I believe that when we travel, we consume the exotic.   In Turkmenistan, it was the experience of dictatorship and the legacy of Niyazev.  If we consume the odd food or threat of danger, we can take on the qualities of the fearless or the bizarre.  Just as the flamingo becomes pink from eating crustaceans and algae, the traveler consumes experiences to become something more colorful.  As travelers, our privilege allows us to migrant from experiences.  We are not mired in the same realities of oppression.  When a tourist goes to jail or becomes very ill, the reality of the world returns.  This painful reality is framed as shocking.  It is framed as a bad travel experience.  Anything that is too real or too inescapable is not travel…it is a crisis or tragedy!  Hence, the case of Otto Warmbier in North Korea or Bakari Henderson, who was recently killed in Greece after taking a selfie…are not viewed as part of the travel spectrum.  Travel should be cushioned from the world’s harshest realities.

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Perhaps the exotic should be made normal.  In Turkmenistan, it may seem exotic that drivers are fined for having dirty cars.  But, are our own laws any more rational?  The fundamental assumption behind both is that laws exist and breaking them results in state administered punishment.  An alien might find little difference between the marbled fantasy land of Ashgabat and the red carpet of Hollywood or neon glow of Las Vegas.  One was built as a dictator’s legacy, the others built upon a similar fantasy of wealth and beauty.   The weird mosque of Turkmenbashi is only unusual because “legitimate” religion must be at least a few hundred years old.  But, these too were created by individuals and interpreted by other individuals until they were made normal by legitimizing power structures.  The excess seen in Ashgabat…with giant fountains and white marble statue are no more heinous than the same excess that is commonplace in advanced capitalist countries.  What about our giant malls, thousands of Walmarts and McDonald’s, and mountains of garbage?  Turkmenistan is a country smaller than Spain with a GDP that is smaller than Croatia’s, Lithuania’s, Kenya’s, and well….87 other countries and a population of less than five million.  Surely, even with its excess…the country has an ecological foot print far less than much of the world. Image may contain: sky


At the same time, differences do exist.  We are not all perfectly the same.  To glaze over difference by normalizing the strange, fails to recognize the social conditions which brought about a particular set of traits.  It is terrible that so much gas wealth was put into building the show case capital than building schools, hospitals, or housing.  It is also unfortunate that wealth and power in the country is concentrated into the hands of so few.  As for the social conditions that brought about Niyazev’s dictatorship, that is a long complicated story that I don’t have the time or knowledge to answer.   The political/economic development of the country…and the very existence of the country itself as a unique entity with a unified identity is a Soviet construction.  But, even this construction is a dialectical process as it was constructed in a world at odds with the Soviet Union.  Prior to this, its development was shaped by Russian imperialism- and that itself was shaped in reaction to British imperialism.  There are always bigger forces at play.  No dictatorship exists in a vacuum.

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Returning to privilege, to some degree, all travelers must exist in the fantasy land of their own ego.  My ego is hungry for experiences.  This is in part so I can patch together an identity that is not a disappointment to myself.  An identity that siphons as much living out of the world as possible.  The truth is, I am not wealthy and free.  I am oppressed.  I am a worker.  I will live and die like a billion humans whose stories will fade into the blurry memories of a few close friends or family members- before disappearing entirely.  In the grand scheme of things, I am not even here.  I never existed.  My importance is so minuscule, that for all practical purposes I am already dead.  Isn’t this the epitome of privilege?  Exerting what little power and freedom I have for the purpose of living selfishly?  The rest of the world be damned.  This is something all travelers do.  Many loath to return to work.  The most privileged don’t have to.  So, while we are privileged enough to enjoy some ego driven escapism, what are we escaping from?  For me, the gravity of wage slavery will always draw me back home.  Thus, I think my travels are fueled by escapism, ego, and existential crisis.  It is a combination that makes it hard for me to be perfectly mindful of my impact on the world and in this case, the wanton consumption of dictatorship.


So here I am.  Chronos eats its children.  Every human eats its reality when it becomes aware of its existential crisis.  Yet, we don’t all have the power and privilege to be titans.  Every titanic consumer is a blight on the environment, the lives of others, and the world around them.  There are moments when I am a titan.  But, usually I am just a proletarian.  I don’t know how to remedy this contradiction.  I love to travel.  I love a chance to get away.  When I am at home, I work very hard as an activist, worker, and human being.  I try to be engaged and mindful.  Then, when opportunity permits, I escape for a bit and consume piece of the world in the form of leisure and a particular form of selfish living.  I am hungry for the darkest, strangest bits.  Dictatorships, nuclear accidents, and spectacular tragedies.  Maybe there is a little cult of personality in each of us.

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A Little Solo Camping

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A Little Solo Camping

H. Bradford

5/21/17

I was feeling a little stressed out last week, so I decided that I was going to go camping.  The stress stemmed from the fact that I felt that my plate was a little full.  I sometimes put in a little too much effort into some activist activities.  For instance, I devoted more time than I should have to researching pollinators and Frida Kahlo for recent presentations.  While these papers were for informal settings with friends, it made my week feel a little like finals week!  I needed a little break, so I set off on a solo camping adventure.  Honestly, I have never gone camping alone before.  Really, until just last year, I had never even gone camping before.  My first real camping experience was my trip to Africa last summer.  I will be camping again this June in Central Asia.  Go big or go home, I guess?  Local adventures are also fun (and cheaper).  For a small dose of adventure, I checked the Minnesota State Park’s website and decided to go camping at Wild River State Park because the park was hosting two birding hikes in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day.


Wild River State Park is located about fourteen miles east of North Branch, MN on the St. Croix River.  I don’t recall visiting the park before, but I may have visited it while I lived in Cambridge, MN as a teen.  It was about a two and a half hour drive from Duluth.  I left on Friday at around noon and arrived by the late afternoon.  I stopped for lunch along the way and also picked up some DNR approved firewood outside of the park.  I had reserved a campsite that was several sites away from other reservations, as I wanted to be alone.  Upon arrival, I checked in, set-up my tent, and read a little from the Frida Kahlo biography.  The campsite was fairly busy, with many of the sites reserved.  I was a little surprised to see so many massive RVs, complete with trucks, bicycles, grills, and scampering hordes children.  From six to nine pm, each of the campsites seemed to be a Thanksgiving feast of grilled foods.  The campground itself was a little too chaotic to be relaxing.  I walked around a little to orient myself, then hiked for the next three to four hours along the various trails near the campsite.   Thankfully, the trails were quiet.  I only saw a handful of hikers once I was away from the campground.  I was immediately struck by the bountiful birdlife.  The forest was alive with the sounds of numerous birds, which flitted by with frustrating speed.  I noticed several bluebirds and a rose-breasted grosbeak during my hike.  I also heard an owl later on, but could not identify it.  Another highlight was a pair of noisy ravens.  Beyond the birds, the forest was teeming with trilliums and other wildflowers.  Since it was warmer than in Duluth, the season was further along, with more flowers and foliage than in the north. DSCF6175 I wore myself out with walking and settled back down at my campsite.  I build a fire, but didn’t actually pack any foods for cooking as I was only going to be gone for less than 24 hours.  Instead, I nibbled on the snacks that I had packed while watching the fire and listening to the sounds of the forest.  It was very calming and empowering, since it provided me mental space from the daily demands of work and activism.  It was empowering in that I felt proud of myself for hiking alone, driving there myself, setting up the tent and fire, and entertaining myself with my own company.  The only downside was that it would have been nice to pack a lamp or candle so that I could have written in my journal after sunset.  I also forgot to pack extra batteries.  I also managed to forget to pack my glasses and a pair of flipflops.  My headlamp went dead and it made using the restroom difficult.  Despite these shortfalls in my planning, I enjoyed staring at the fire and remained with it until it died.  I then retreated to my tent for sleep.  Even after using the bathroom twice before bedtime, I inevitably awoke in the middle of the night to contemplate answering nature’s call or trying to wait until morning. DSCF6192 DSCF6208 My sleep was uneasy.  I certainly felt worn out, but I tossed and turned.  My mind was full of thoughts and ideas.  I was also excited about my mini adventure.   I am not sure how many hours of sleep I managed to obtain.  By five in the morning, the birds were singing in full force, so I abandoned my efforts at sleeping.  I woke up early, packed up all of my things, and nibbled on granola while studying bird books.  I found a used book on warblers of the Midwest from the Superior Public Library book sale.  At about seven in the morning, I left the campsite for the boat landing on the St. Croix river, where a bird walk was scheduled.  I was the first birder to arrive.  Two seasoned birders began their work listening for songs and scanning the treetops.  They adeptly identified birds by their songs and picked them out even as they zipped through the sky.  I was not very skilled at identification, but at least saw some familiar birds and took notes on what the others saw and heard.  I am not sure how every birder I meet is so skilled.  There must be beginners like me.  It takes years of studying to identify birds.  Where are all of the novices?

(Some of the photos are blurry, but it should depict a Scarlet tanager, black and white warbler, American red start, yellow rumped warbler, and Eastern bluebird) Once more birders arrived, we hiked around for two hours.  The goal was to record all of the species of birds we saw that morning so that the data could be compared to other International Birding Day counts at the park.  There were bluebirds and Baltimore orioles.  We saw tree swallows living in bluebird houses.  A female wood duck flew overhead.  An Eastern kingbird showed off the white markings on its tail feathers.  A few house wrens had taken up residence in some ramshackle abandoned bird houses.  We also saw many warblers, including a blue winged warbler, yellow warbler, golden winged warbler, palm warbler, black and white warbler, and American redstart.  The warblers were quick and kept to the top of the trees.  A flash of yellow would sail by overhead and everyone immediately knew what it was.  Faint chirps were also readily identified.  I stood there, stupefied by the variety of quick moving, similar looking, yellow birds.  Since this hike, I have gone out birding around Duluth and Superior and managed to identify some more warblers.  Maybe someday I will know them as well as the other birders.  In all, I wrote down over twenty birds that were new to my life list.  The group counted over fifty birds for the total species count.


Following the count, I decided to go on a final hike.  I drove to the visitor’s center, where a scarlet tanager was hanging out in a treetop.  An ovenbird sang in the distance.  The visitor’s center was soon visited by a young black bear.  I wandered along a trail for a short final hike.  Along the hike, I saw several more scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles.  I also saw a yellow bellied sapsucker and a group of cowbirds.  With the final hike out of the way, I set off for the two hour drive home.  But, the birding adventures had helped me with my bird identification skills.  For the past several evenings since then, I have tried to memorize bird songs.  Auditory bird identification is not a skill that I have spent any time developing and I can see how useful it is.

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Learning to identify birds is challenging.  There is a lot of information that one has to gather in a short amount of time.  Birds are very quick, so size, color, beak shape, flight pattern, song, behaviors, etc. are some of the data that one must collect within a few seconds.  The reward is a better understanding of the inhabitants of the natural world and a keener eye for the hidden details around us (at least in regard to birds).  Another bonus is the ability to add a bird to a life list.  I like lists.  They make me feel accomplished, since it allows me to quantify and organize some aspect of my reality.     Even camping adds to my lists, as it added to my list of state parks I have visited.  More than an odd obsession with quantifying my life, camping offered quietude and self-efficacy.    It also offered a relatively low cost sample of adventure.

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