What Grandpa Said

Grandpa liked to talk. He was not one to blather on about himself; he did not talk to hear himself talk. But he enjoyed a good conversation, and you could be sure he would do his part to keep that conversation lively. Grandpa’s language was usually colorful and plenty salty but never vulgar. Listening to Grandpa talk was fun because of the things he said.

Grandpa Ray was a master of metaphors and aphorisms, even if he didn’t know what those were. His eighth-grade education did not provide him with much sophistication, but his hardscrabble farmboy upbringing gave him a unique perspective on life and living.

Just as he enjoyed good conversation, he loved eating, and talking about eating.  Coming in from a long day in the fields or woods Grandpa usually had built up a good appetite, often saying “I’m so hungry my stomach thinks my throat is cut.” After enjoying a big meal or an especially good piece of cake or pie, he would say “I wish I was bigger so I could eat more.”

Grandpa always had a colorful way of describing certain events, people or things.  An icy sidewalk was “slicker than snot on a doorknob.” Something moving very fast through or past an obstacle was “like s**t through a long-necked goose.” A guy who told tall tales or talked a lot about himself was “so full of s**t his eyes were turning brown.” Such a man may also qualify for the application of another of Grandpa’s sayings: “he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” He did tend toward the scatological.  When he needed a beer it was because he was “drier than a fart in a windstorm.”

Another phrase he borrowed from Grandma. Whenever she talked about something she didn’t like or didn’t understand she would use the term “ferluvnermunny”.  For example, when talking about traveling to or in the Twin Cities she would say, “why, the traffic down there is just crazy. Cars coming at you from all directions. I wouldn’t live down there ferluvnermunny.” Translation: for love nor money. It kind sounds like she considers these equivalent, but I don’t think that’s what she means. Even today Grandma often evokes Grandpa: “I know Raymond always used to say…”

A lifelong Democrat, Grandpa was not above talking politics.  A favorite saying he borrowed from his dad, a farmer, went as follows: “Never trust a man in a suit. He may be a banker or a lawyer or a revenuer. But you can be damn sure he’s a Republican.” I never thought of Grandpa as a racist, but he would occasionally say things that made me wince. Southern Minnesota farm country in the 1920s and 30s was not a place you where you would learn about racial justice. Grandpa was a product of his time.

One of the funniest things I ever heard Grandpa say happened on a fishing trip in Canada. This story requires a little background, but I’ll write more about our Canadian adventures in a future post.  On my third trip there, when I was about 15, I was lucky enough to hook what was probably the biggest pike I’ve ever seen.  I fought it for about 20 minutes, trying to get it close to the boat so Dan, the guy sitting in the bow, could net it.  Finally, I got it within three feet of the gunwale and Dan reached out with the net. He got the fish just out of the water; I remember it barely folding up in the net. Then the big pike straightened out and the next thing we heard was a big SPLASH! The fish was gone. The double-hooked smelt rig I had on was mangled, the hooks almost straightened back into wire. The pike had torn a gaping hole in the net. (It turns out Grandpa packed an old, rotting landing net instead of a new one he’d bought for the trip.) I turned to Grandpa who was manning the motor and said, “I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.”

When we got back to our fish camp that afternoon, the story was told and retold to the guys in the other boat, who had gone a different direction that day.  As the beer flowed and the whisky bottle made its way around the campfire, the one that got away got bigger and bigger.  Apparently, it was the biggest fish Dan had ever seen too.  He couldn’t stop talking about it. Finally, Grandpa got tired of hearing him talk about it and said so. Then he said:

“Your mouth is flapping like a whippoorwill’s ass during chokecherry season.”

The little fish camp erupted with laughter. We were literally rolling on the ground with tears in our eyes. They could probably hear us in Winnipeg that night.

Grandpa was never a rich man, but he knew how fortunate he was. When he was relaxing in a boat or a lawn chair or driving through the countryside just enjoying the day, he would say “I wonder what the poor (or rich) people are doing today.” He wasn’t a snob, but he felt rich.

This is what I take away from my experiences with Grandpa Ray. Anyone who enjoys life as he did is rich indeed.

Grandfather Oak

You stand erect, unbent by the wind, challenging the clouds.

Burly limbs, dark and sinewy, like a wrestler’s arms, reach to possess the sun.


You do not put on airs like your neighbors the maple and the linden.

They are graceful, lyrical; you are stolid, silent.


They dress in gay colors, dancing through the fall, ignoring winter’s threat.

You fade to tans and grays, the colors of a workman’s clothes, and await the ice and snow.


You hold the power of the sun inside you, locked in against the cold.

You stand dark and silent against the snow-filled sky and wait to bring green again.


You stand as a silent witness, a keeper of stories.

You listened to the hunters and the berry pickers as they camped under your leaves.


You knew the noble pines who once ruled the land.

You survived the onslaught, but will not tell the tale.


You witnessed the dawn of machines. You watched the lights cross the sky.

You stand in this forgotten corner and will never feel the sting of the saw.


You do not stand against time. You are time.


The War on Shrubs

Shortly after Mel and I bought our 11.78 acres of brush and swamp nine years ago, I cut a loop trail through the woods.  Other than having to clear a few downed trees, all I had to do was cut some brush to clear a path.  This brush was actually shrubs and young trees vying for limited sunshine under the old basswoods that dominate our woods. At one point along the trail, I encountered some chest-high woody plants with nasty quarter-inch thorns.  I assumed these were hawthorn or some such thorny shrub, cut my way through them and moved on down the trail.

We used the trail in winter to cross-country ski and in spring to find emerging wildflowers. It only took about ten  minutes to make the loop on skis, but three such loops made for a decent morning workout.  I had to do a little maintenance every year, but I saw it as a good excuse to spend some time in the woods.

After we bought the defunct Emmaville Store six years ago, we found that getting time at the cabin was getting harder and harder to come by. Our little loop trail fell into disuse.

Last summer, after selling Emmaville as a going business, we came home to the cabin and a backlog of maintenance items. After working my way down the honey-do list, I finally made it back out to the woods.  Our trail had grown over again in many places. As I walked it and contemplated clearing it again, I came across a tall jungle of the same thorny bush I encountered eight years before. What was then a bathroom-sized patch was now an impenetrable tangle occupying nearly half an acre.  Some of the plants were approaching tree size. 

Upon further inspection, I found that this mystery shrub was growing so densely that other shrubs and tree saplings were being excluded.  Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t good for our woods. I suspected it was buckthorn, an invasive plant that is becoming widespread in Minnesota.  But this plant did not match the description for buckthorn. 

Eventually I identified the beast as prickly ash, a native species. I read that the plant is useful for herbal remedies (another name for it is “toothache tree”) and the larvae of some butterfly species favor it.  But, according to the Minnesota Wildflowers website, “the spreading, shallow root system will send up new suckers when not inhibited by competing vegetation, creating dense thickets of nearly impenetrable brush that tears at the hands, face and clothing.” Yep, that’s the one.


We have every intention of letting nature take its course in our woods.  But we want to make sure we have healthy trees coming up to replace the mature and over-mature trees.  The prickly ash is out-competing more desirable species such as maples, oaks, alders and dogwoods.  Also, we would like to walk in our woods without getting bloodied. I decided the prickly ash needs to be controlled.  I found out the hard way that just cutting it does no good, but probably encourages its spread. Also, losing the old basswoods and other trees to blowdown is creating new openings for prickly ash to occupy.

Late last summer I sprayed a 2,4-D based herbicide on the plants around the perimeter of the thicket to see if that would slow down its spread.  I’ll find out this spring if that worked. Everything I have read on-line suggests the best control is to cut the stems and immediately spray the stump. I might try starting some aspen cuttings to fill in where the prickly ash was. I am hoping I can whittle away at this problem over time to keep it under control.  Oh well, I guess I will have to spend more time in the woods…..

“Ass Over Teakettle”

Grandpa was an avid duck hunter. He experienced duck hunting in its heyday, at least in this part of Minnesota. Back in the 1940s and 1950s Minnesota’s countless potholes supported millions of ducks, much to the delight of duck hunters. I remember looking at pictures of a garage floor full of ducks with Grandpa and Grandma posing behind them on one knee.

But as time went on government-sponsored “conservation” programs and the development of bigger and faster farm equipment resulted in the draining and plowing of thousands of wetland acres in northwest Minnesota and elsewhere. When I rode along with him when he was checking on his crop insurance customers Grandpa would look at the latest drainage and tiling projects and shake his head.

By the time I was old enough to hold a shotgun, duck hunting had become as much about finding a place to hunt as it was finding the ducks. Fortunately, Grandpa and Grandma’s neighbors and good friends the Gandruds had huntable wetlands on their farm. Gandrud’s Slough (actually a small lake) was a favorite spot for Grandpa to set up his duck blind. This was the place where I first experienced duck hunting.

Grandpa had his blind set up on the north side of Gandrud’s Slough with decoys arrayed in front of us on the water. Grandpa’s wooden duck boat was behind us in the reeds. We had the radio on, listening to the Twins play the Orioles for the American League pennant. I seem to remember not liking the Orioles much, probably because they’d beat us the year before, so that would make it 1970 when I was 9. It was a fairly warm and dry day, by duck hunting standards. My role was to sit quietly and watch for ducks. I was learning about patience.

Suddenly we heard some shots; Uncle Harold was in another blind a few hundred yards away. Out of nowhere, two ducks came zooming across our field of vision, about four feet off the water. Grandpa took a couple of passing shots and knocked them both out of the air. But one of the ducks was only wounded and was thrashing about a few yards out on the water. Grandpa loaded a 20-gauge, single-shot shotgun, handed it to me and told me to dispatch the wounded duck. I was excited, because I was no longer just along for the ride, but actually hunting! I pulled the gun up, took aim and squeezed the trigger. The next thing I knew I was lying in the duck boat with a bloody nose. Apparently, I had put the gun’s butt under my arm instead of on my shoulder and the recoil caught me square between the eyes.

Grandpa helped me up, laughing and saying something about going “ass over teakettle” while he checked me over. I don’t remember crying, but I probably did. As was his way, Grandpa continued to chuckle about this for the remainder of the hunt.

I wasn’t really embarrassed by this – after all, I was brave enough to squeeze the trigger. I remember rejoining the others in our hunting party back at Grandpa and Grandma’s for coffee. Grandpa let me tell the story. By then I thought it was funny, too. After swapping stories with the other hunters I felt like I belonged. I was a hunter.

Miracle in Green


Winter here in northern Minnesota can be almost devoid of color, like the face of a dead man. The ground and the water are covered in a white pall. The hardwood trees, their nakedness showing in greys and blacks, stand shivering like mourners around a cold grave. Even the greens worn by the conifers are muted, dulled by the feeble light from an iron grey sky. The colors of winter here speak of death. How can this cold stillness be broken? How is it possible that life emerges again?

But emerge it does in springtime. We celebrate this even before the first green shows. As the snow and ice recede, we look for signs of life, reveling in the breaking of tiny buds in the trees. We walk on the earth, noting when the frost has given way and we can feel the earth’s soft warmth returning beneath our feet. Although we still only see greys and browns, we know we will see the colors of life again soon.

The signs are subtle. A faint hint of green appears in the trees and in the grass. We note the sun staying just a bit longer everyday. We begin to notice movement again in the air and on the land as great flocks arrow north and animals cautiously emerge on the road sides, blinking at the newly bright sun. The trees begin to model their spring apparel, each with a slightly different interpretation of the color green.

And before we know it, we are surrounded by lush foliage as the trees and shrubs, grasses and forbs, sedges and rushes, mosses and ferns all compete to occupy every square inch of space, to grab every bit of available sunlight. Where does all this energy come from? How can all this life emerge from winter’s deathscape?

Perhaps that is why we endure our winters, if only to witness year after year this miracle in green.