Chris Fink

The Willow Had To Go

Oct 2, 2018
Photo used with permission from the Aldo Leopold Foundation / aldoleopold.org

Poets love willow trees. Johnny Cash “taught the weeping willow how to cry,” and Lorine Niedecker wrote, “I’m not young, and I’m not free, but I’ve a house of my own, by a willow tree.” I love the poetry, but sadly I cannot love a willow tree. 

 

   

Writing Spiders

Aug 28, 2018

 

You know how, when you see a thing you haven’t seen for a long time, suddenly you see it everywhere?  

  

Vampire Fairies Of The North

Jul 24, 2018

My wife Breja and I were walking our black dog Shady down a gravel road near Low Lake, north of Ely, Minnesota. Deer flies swarmed our heads in their hundreds, and mosquitoes and black flies battled for any remaining bare flesh.

I wonder what I’ll write about for my next perspective, I told Breja.

How about mosquitoes? she said.

Mosquitoes? I said. I was thinking of writing about a bog. Something pretty. Lady slippers.

A Dream Instilled By Memories

Jun 20, 2018

I suffer from an affliction I call Cabin Dreams.

The roots of my disorder are traceable to childhood. I grew up on the shores of the Kishwaukee River near Kirkland. In the summers, once school was out, my family packed up the Buick and headed north to Wisconsin, to our knotty pine cabin on Blue Spring Lake.

Oh, time at the cabin was exquisite: pancakes for breakfast each morning, one pine drawer for all my belongings, and the lake itself, which seemed to bend summer days to its own shape, with shallow bays and windy points and a middle part deep and fathomless.

Rock River Ride Day 2: Watertown to Beloit

Jun 12, 2018
Carl Nelson / WNIJ

We started the day in Watertown, where Carl Nelson and I were pleased to discover the weather had improved considerably.  Instead of cold, it was pleasant and, instead of rain, it was no rain. We had breakfast at a cafe and were met by Chris Fink, Professor of Literature and Wisconsin Awesomeness at Beloit College.

The Best Reason To Love May

May 15, 2018

Of course you know the dozen reasons why May is the sweetest month.

But put aside for now May’s eye candy—the orioles and buntings and tulips. And May’s nosegays—hyacinths and lilacs and lilies of the valley. You must put aside even crappie fishing, for now, to focus on May’s rarest gift: morel mushrooms.

You’ve waited 50 weeks for their arrival. But now, somewhere on the edge of a forest, it’s beginning; morels are pushing themselves through the duff. You’d rather hunt for mushrooms than anything else, admit it.

Nature Sets Her Own Rules

Feb 27, 2018

If you had just 90 seconds to say something to the world, what would you say?

As I sit pondering, a cooper’s hawk lands on the porch outside my window, rescuing me. He hangs around, hunting the feeder. More it snows, more I see him.

The snow has been remarkable, hasn’t it? Everything that’s not flocked is frosted. Just what we needed, I think, fresh whitewashing of the old cow barn. If the only thing the snow did was make the cardinal stand out, well, that would be enough.

Monumental Memories ...

Jan 23, 2018

One of my favorite things that presidents do, or used to do, is create national monuments.

In 2000 Bill Clinton created the Ironwood Forest National Monument north of Tucson, Arizona. My sister Melanie and her husband Lee run a small store, the Valley Mart, just across the road from this monument. Every winter, if we’re lucky, my family pays a visit over Christmas. My wife Breja and I love to hike this protected landscape.

How Could This Have Happened?

Dec 19, 2017

When they say they love animals, most people mean they love domestic pets. In other words, they love animals they can own.  

I’ve always put myself on a higher plane than these pseudo animal lovers. I’ve never wanted to own a watered down, domestic lap warmer. My idea of animal loving is catching a glimpse of a wild creature in its habitat. I like to imagine that if I had a pet it would be a wild one: a fox maybe, or falcon.

There's a phrase that comes up when discussing Southern literature. You might've heard it:

The South is a place; East, North and West are merely directions.

This will make sense to anyone who has read To Kill A Mockingbird or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Authors like Harper Lee and John Berendt take you to places with distinct voices, characters and surroundings. You can hear the accents, feel the prejudice, and picture the unique landscape and architecture.

Unique Nocturnal Wanderings

Nov 14, 2017

Pooh Bear, it’s widely known, is a bear of very little brain. What he lacks in cognition, however, he makes up for in appetite.

In the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh’s appetite is legendary. Remember the time he went to Rabbit’s house and ate so much of Rabbit’s honey that he couldn’t fit out the door? Even that humiliation didn’t curb Pooh’s appetite. At a certain point, a strong appetite counts for you. Later on, it’s a point against.

The Wonders Of A Mast Year

Oct 10, 2017

Among the many strange events 2017 hath wrought, it hath wrought a mast year for nut trees of the forest. Mast years are years that nut trees like oaks and hickories bear an abundance of fruit -- or mast, as it’s called by scientists and people who know Old English.

Time Changes View Of Camp Scavenger

Sep 5, 2017

Every campsite in the Boundary Waters Wilderness between Minnesota and Canada comes equipped with a fire grate, a pit toilet, a tent site … and a snapping turtle.

These ancient creatures, some a hundred years old weighing 75 pounds, haunt the campsites, waiting for a stringer of fish to float in.

As a fisherman myself, I feel a kinship. Many times I’ve crouched on the greenstone shore, fileting my catch, listening to the nasal breath of a hungry snapper mere feet away.

 

I’m spending my summer in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, thinking and teaching about the difference between wildness and wilderness.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 allows Congress to designate “wilderness areas.” In 1978, the boundary waters canoe area wilderness was created here. At a million acres, it’s the largest wilderness in the Midwest. There are now nearly 110 million acres of wilderness in the U.S.

History Repeats Itself

Jun 27, 2017

When I was in middle school, I climbed 30 feet up into weeping willow by the banks of the Kishwaukee River. A branch broke, and I plummeted head first to the ground.

I broke both my arms, enjoyed whiplash, compression fractures in my spine, and a concussion. I also carved all the gums off my bottom teeth. It was a gory sight. When he came to see me in the hospital, my wiseacre grandpa said, “What were you doing climbing a willow tree? Don’t you know willow trees have soft wood?”

A Summer Dream Disappears

May 23, 2017

I know something is wrong with my bluebird. He sits on the edge of the bowl picking at his mealworms. Puffy and lethargic, he ignores his brood -- five nestlings waiting open-beaked in the nearby nestbox.

Scientists warn against anthropomorphism -- ascribing human characteristics to animals -- but I know a sad bluebird when I see one. I’ve been feeding this bluebird and his mate since mid-January, and today is Mother’s Day.

Seasonal Firsts Bring Joy

Apr 18, 2017

In a completely unscientific way, I’m fascinated by the science of phenology.

Phenology -- with a ph -- is the study of cyclical and seasonal phenomena. I think of it as the science of first arrivals.

The end of winter is the time to watch for such arrivals. For instance, on or about March first every year, I see my first bluebird. Except for this year, when I saw my first bluebird on January 17.

Who's The Giant In Your Back Yard?

Mar 21, 2017

I love to go to the Beloit Public Library and pick out books with my daughter Iris. It’s especially fun to find books that I had read as a child. One book I remembered loving, but couldn’t find in the library, is called Backyard Giant.

I recently ordered a used copy on the Internet. Backyard Giant, as I recalled it over the space of 40 years, was a book from the perspective of wild animals like a rabbit, a squirrel and a blue jay. Each page revealed just the shadow of a menacing giant and yet another animal fleeing in fear.

The Magic Of Making Maple Syrup

Feb 21, 2017

My sap is running. And, oh, it feels glorious.

Out my window I see my Norway Maples dressed in blue synthetic skirts. Those blue skirts hang from half-inch spiles, and these spiles drill into the sapwood of the maples, delivering the goodness drip by drip into the blue receptacles.

A Cold Assessment Of Winter Sport

Jan 24, 2017

Ask me why I ice fish, and I’ll tell you it’s because I’m deranged and masochistic.

Ice fishing is definitely a poor choice for you. You would certainly not enjoy it, and it would be a grave mistake for you to try. You would hate pulling your sled out over the early winter lake and finding you had the whole water body to yourself. You would miss the summer lake cacophony of leaf blower, jet ski, outboard motor and house music.

Picture What Might Have Been

Dec 27, 2016

The other day I looked out my living room window and saw a most unexpected sight: A pileated woodpecker was working up the trunk of a Norway maple, not twenty feet away.

I’ve only seen pileateds before in the north woods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. They’re crow-sized creatures with bright red mohawks and thin, almost dainty necks. Imagine the marriage of a downy woodpecker and a pterodactyl.

This Chore Yields Many Rewards

Nov 29, 2016

I started heating with wood half a dozen years ago as a way to forestall the propane truck. I keep doing it because it’s in my blood. I grew up helping my dad cut firewood, and I feel destined to inherit his wrecked back.

A Sad Note To Northwoods Lore

Nov 1, 2016

This summer my family stayed in a plywood cabin on Low Lake, near Ely, Minn., just outside the boundary waters canoe area.

Every decade or so, a significant weather event helps shape the landscape and lore of this remote wilderness. The big blowdown of 1999 laid down millions of mature trees across half the boundary waters, and the Pagami Creek fire of 2011 turned much of that tinder to ash.

On July 21, another big storm hit the Ely area, with 80 mph winds that blew down hundreds of thousands of big trees. Two boundary waters campers lost their lives in the storm.

Same Haircut, Different Experience

Aug 4, 2016

I get my hair cut at the same place every time: Austin’s Barbershop in downtown Beloit. I love that barbershop, and Rod, the barber, gives me a good haircut every time.

I’m not a very regular customer, and sometimes I’ll go two months without a haircut, and sometimes I’ll go four months. I like coming into the barbershop and telling Rod, “I’ve got a big job for you,” and hearing Rod chuckle and not complain.

Train Revives Childhood Memories

Jun 10, 2016

A train track runs through the Rock River Valley below my house, and a couple of times a day a short train rolls through. Sometimes, just the engine, a red one, chugs by.

When I hear the train coming I yell, “Chooch!” and my four-year-old daughter Iris puts down her book and comes running. Then I scoop her up, and we run out to the edge of the yard, where we can look down through the trees at the red engine.

We wave at the engineer, and yell, “Hi Chooch,” but the engineer never sees us.  He does give a little toot when he crosses Bass Creek Road.

A Tiny Bird And A Metaphor

Oct 28, 2015

Last week, a hummingbird flew into my house through the front door, which someone had left ajar. It hummed about for a moment, and then it tried to fly through a skylight. I ran to get a ladder.

The Link Between Nature And Neverland

Sep 23, 2015

  This summer, my wife and I and our four-year-old daughter Iris visited Ely, Minn., near one of my favorite places, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

One day we explored a tiny trout lake nestled in a red pine forest where granite outcrops—what Iris calls mountains—expose themselves graciously, and ochre pine needles carpet the forest floor. Clambering around the shore, Iris could barely contain her glee. “It’s like that Neverland place,” our Peter Pan fan exclaimed.

Chris Fink

Sep 23, 2015

Chris Fink is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Beloit College. He is the author of Farmer's Almanac, A Work of Fiction. A new book of his stories is forthcoming in September 2019 from the University of Wisconsin.

He was a founding faculty member of the Master of Fine Arts program at San Jose State University, where he taught for five years. He received the 2003 Silicon Valley Artist’s Grant and founded the John Steinbeck Award for the Short Story.