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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fire Season

"I was expected to sit still and watch mountains and long for company and something to do, like playing cribbage, I suppose. I was going to have to watch mountains for sure that was my job, but I would not be without company. I already knew that mountains live and move." -Norman Maclean, "USFS 1919

Many other famous American writers and poets, going back to Henry David Thoreau, Leopold, Dillard & my favorite Sigurd Olson have spent time in fire watch towers or others wilderness venues. Thus I was anxious to read Fire Season Field Notes From A Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors.

Combination memoir, essay & history, written from the experience of eight summers in the Gila wilderness of New Mexico, it draws us into a place of solitude, fire & nature. Connors left an office cubical job with The Wall Street Journal to spend a summer in the wild. How fortunate very for us that he did. I think this book could well be considered a classic someday. As regular readers of my Troutbirder nature blog might suspect, while basically not an antisocial person, I often have an innate impulse toward solitary moments on the trout stream, in my dreams and hiking forest trails with my GSD Baron. Books about these kinds of experiences naturally appeal to me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Shortage Of Good Days

I think I’ve read all of author John Gierach’s previous books including among other Trout Bum, At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman and Standing in a River Waving a Stick. They make me laugh. They remind me of my own idiosyncracies. I couldn’t pass up his latest which appeared last week at out public library. It’s titled No Shortage of Good Days.
With a title taken from an Annie Dillard quote ("There is no shortage of good days; it’s good lives that are hard to come by"), the book is a collection of fondly remembered fishing trips and random fishing-related topics, along with miscellaneous other narrative odds and ends thrown in the mix. Gierach has for years set the standard for down home wit and wisdom in the genre of fly fishing "literature."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Last Full Measure by Richard Moe

The Last Full Measure - The Life and Death Of The first Minnesota Volunteers

"As the first troops offered to President Abraham Lincoln after the fall of Fort Sumter, the brave men of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment fought in virtually every major battle of the eastern theater during the first three years of the Civil War. From Bull Run to Antietam to Fredericksburg to their famed suicide charge at Gettysburg, these stalwart soldiers defended the Union and helped change the course of the war and their country's history." (from the book jacket)
The brand new state of Minnesota sent 11 regiments into the firestorm to defend the nation against the insurrectionists and traitors. The First Minnesota was the only one to travel east and fight with the Army of the Potomac. The other ten fought and made their mark in the West.
My state had grown twenty fold from ten thousand to two hundred thousand in the 50's. It was then on the far end of what was called the Northwest Frontier. The rallying point for the regiment was at Fort Snelling, situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. From here they traveled by steamboat down the Mississippi, picking up more volunteer militia companies at towns like Red Wing, Lake City, Wabasha and Winona. They disembarked at the rail terminuses of LaCrosse and Prairie Du Chen Wisconsin. Here at the end of the line (there were no bridges yet across the Great River) they embarked for Washington D.C. The route east was filled with thousands of people, all along the way, who cheered them on and provided treats.
They were young, naive and no doubt filled with the thought of a great adventure as well as of duty.
Their story drawn from personal letters, diaries and recollections is told by author Richard Moe.It is the real Civil War told from the ground up. That’s what makes this book very special. And brings it to life. We meet the men up close and personal. They fit into the grand pattern of events and circumstance but the focus always remains on who they were, what they did from day to day and most important what they were thinking. It all makes for wonderful reading.
The lasting fame of this particular group of heroes came at the tide turning Battle of Gettysburg.
Arriving on the battlefield after the first days battle, on July 1st, the Minnesotans were placed on Cemetery Ridge as part of the strong defensive alignment set by General Winfield Scott Hancock. Unfortunately, the adjacent III Corps was then ineptly moved forward by political General Dan Sickles, leaving a large gap in the Union lines. It was through this gap that Confederate general Longstreets forces attacked, threatening the whole position. General Hancock seeing disaster in the making quickly ordered some of his II Corps to move a quarter of a mile to the left but they were some minutes away. The first to arrive on the scene, overlooking the valley and the Peach Orchard below were 262 Minnesotans. They could see Longstreets forces overwhelming Sickles III Corps and pour thru the gap. Should they reach the ridge, the Union army would be split in half and the balance of the war would be at issue. Hancock, who was on the scene needed but a few minutes for the reserves to fill the gap. To gain those minutes he ordered the First Minnesota to charge the two brigades, over a thousand men strong, of Confederate Generals Wilcox and Barksdale. They did and at the cost of their lives stopped the attack long enough to save the day.

I also found the attitude of these men on the issue of slavery most interesting. Duty, honor and country seemed to be their concern. They were more curious than anything else about blacks. It was not a defining issue for them. As the "contrabands" poured into their lines they clearly were appaled at the condition of these "niggers". They had never seen anyone looking this miserable back in Minnesota. Battles too were hardening their attitudes toward the "seccesh" and opening them to the notion that these "slaves" had a humanity which did not deserve the treatment the had been living under.

It has been somewhat fashionable in certain circles of late to deny that the practice of human bondage was the root cause of this tragic war. That other factors were equally or even more important. That the slave owning class were really early Reaganites defending human liberty in the cause of "less government is better for everyone and everything." This is delusionary at best and a deliberate lie in fact. I rate it on the same level with the "holocaust deniers" who like to portray WWII as a well meaning effort to defend against Godless communism.

Gettysburg was the last battle for the First Minnesota as only a handful returned unscathed. They knew what they were doing. Why they did it makes this book well worth reading. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Spring Visitors

It's always great when friends and family show up to visit as spring makes an appearance in Bluff Country. I was reminded of that this morning over pancakes covered in homemade maple syrup.

Don and Sandy K had stayed over for a few days visit and left some fond memories of the many good times we've spent together. Included was some of their maple syrup, produced at their home Kerkwood, along the Maple River. I did a previous post on that abode a few years back. It's quite the homestead. Take a look at

For Easter, Mrs T's brother and spouse Candy came to visit. Easter dinner was followed by Bill and I hiking the dogs through Forestville State Park. Working off a few calories is always a good idea.

Bill doesn't seem too intimidated by the large size and fierce demeanor of Baron the GSD.
The parks famous 1898 "general store" is closed due to it being Easter.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dark Hood

I was never much of a fan of cowboy stories as a young boy. Now Robin Hood, that was another matter. The neighborhood gang played it often as this picture demonstrates. That's Robin (aka Troutbirder) lower right on picture, Little John behind him, Mary Anne (aka Maid Marion) front row left, etc.

So when I picked up Outlaw, by Angus Donald, I was surprised to see a new version of my hero. This was not the happy go lucky band of sweet misfits, clad in green, who made robbing the greedy rich and giving to the needy poor their thrilling lifestyle. It the earlier 12th century version.... it was all down and dirty. Later eras, like the Victorians and Disney spiffered up Robin's image. Perhaps Donals version was really Robin as a druid, playing a Mafia boss, Godfather style . Here the violence is very graphic. R rated actually. The darkness of this tale is present in descriptions of limbs sliced, tongues diced and eyes put out with gimlets. The narrator is Alan A Dale and most of the other familiar characters show up as well.

I think it might have been the good Robin, who fought for the little people against the evil oppressors, in a highly class structured society that first set me on the path to a liberal/socialist view of the world. Where a honest democratic system preserves the golden goose of capitalism while controlling its excesses and tendencies toward monopolistic oligarchy.

Now we see Robin, in this story, as a complicated hero. Who does or orders terrible things. Not to help the poor but to use them for his goal of regaining his upper class position. Of course, this is all done by touting the notion of justice for all. Good plan. Questionable movtives.
What to make of all this? Well it's a fun story, whose interesting characters, familiar, yet different, keep moving the story along in surprising ways. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to see a newer, shall we say more historically realistic version , of a very old tale. Which gets me to what I didn’t like about it. I like my childhood heroes to be good and heroic. Not good and bad. I’ll leave the conflicted ones to the psychiatrists .