The Slough

The Slough

By Gene Wilburn

Behind our small ten-acre farm, just outside Lyndon, Illinois, ran a railway line, and beyond that, another farmer’s field, and beyond that, “the Slough.”

The word slough often denotes a muddy swamp but in this case it was a river inlet off the Rock River, which starts in Wisconsin, winds through Illinois past towns like Rockford and Rock Falls and empties into the Mississippi at Rock Island. And while slough carries a lot of negative baggage — “a state of moral degradation or spiritual dejection” according to Merriam-Webster, and in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “the Slough of Despond,” meaning a “swamp of despair,” this slough, whose formal name was Hamilton’s Slough, was a delight and wonder.

To get there you had to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence at the back of our farm, cross the railroad tracks, then squeeze through another barbed-wire fence at the start of the next farmer’s field. You could climb over the fence, but squeezing through was faster and easier, especially since repeated squeezings had left one section of the aged fence wire with a deep sag. If there were two or more of you, one person would hold up the top barbed wire while the next person squeezed through while pressing down the bottom wire. If you were on your own, you squeezed through carefully, limbo style, so a barb wouldn’t rip the back of your shirt.

Next came “the crossing of the field.” This part always made me nervous because the field’s owner often ran his dairy herd into this particular spot, and if the cows saw you they’d start running your way. I had no fear of cows, but the farmer also had a bad-tempered bull, and the grownups had once or twice warned us to watch out for that bull. I don’t know if they were serious or just teasing us — there was much teasing of kids in the 1950s — but that was all it took to plant the terror firmly in my mind that one of these days the bull himself would come charging.

Because of this we always crossed close to yet another farmer’s field so we could jump the fence if necessary. We never tarried while crossing, but covered the 150 yards or so at the fastest clip we could while trying to appear nonchalant.

The barbed wire on the far side of the farmer’s field was relatively new and unpliable, forcing us to climb over. Once over that final hurdle, you emerged at what we called “the top of the slough.” The slough, which meandered about three miles in from the river, passed alongside a steep hill on one side. I believe, in hindsight, that the hill was some kind of small escarpment, and “the top of the slough” was, in fact, simply the top of the escarpment. From the top to the bottom the height was maybe twenty feet or so.

Once at the top, the real adventure began. Just to the left and sloping down into a small ravine awaited a thicket of thorn trees — honey locust trees with long, hard, sharp barbs. It was easy to accidentally slide down into the ravine and meet a honey locust waiting with outstretched barbed limbs to help you break your fall.

But on the right was one of the prettiest sights of my childhood. A grove of shag-bark hickory trees extending all the way to the edge of the escarpment, and a view of distant farmlands beyond. You could see almost all the way to Prophetstown, three miles away. It was dead flat and most of what you could see was corn fields, with a bit of building showing here and there in the distance. Farmers’ barns, silos, and houses.

Where you have shag-bark hickory, you have squirrels that harvest the delicious nuts. Most of us are accustomed to urban squirrels that have learned to live among humans and thrive, not to mention boldly charging right up to you to beg for food. No. These were the wild variety. They got hunted from time to time and at the sight of any of us they bounded for the hickory trees and kept on the opposite side we were on. They were extremely skittish at the sight of humans.

The walk from the top to the bottom of the hill was a choice of the steep way or the easy way. The easy way, with its gentle incline, lay maybe fifty yards to the right and was one of the best approaches to the water. It was our usual route to the water’s edge.

The slough itself teemed with life. It provided a home to hundreds of carp that would occasionally jump out of the water and re-enter with a splash that rippled outward in waves of concentric circles. Crayfish lurked under water near the shore.

The air trilled with the sound of insects and frogs. Here and there among the cattails were muskrat huts, looking like tatty beaver-hut knockoffs. If you kept still you would soon see a muskrat or two plying through the still water, their vertical tails acting as rudders. We were too far north to have any poisonous water moccasins lurking in the waters, but I’d read about them and that was enough to keep me on the alert in case one of them hadn’t consulted the guidebook.

My biggest fear of the slough was not drowning — the water was maybe three or four feet at its deepest. It was the mud — oozy, black, slimy mud that seemed bottomless when you poked a stick in it. Even if you stepped into it near the shore, it was hard to lift your feet out of it. It inspired me to coin the word quickmud — an analogy to quicksand. It was pretty tame stuff compared to real quicksand, but being raised on TV adventures that featured miscreants and innocent folks alike being sucked down over their heads in a quicksand mire, I supplied similar attributes to the slough’s bottom.

I was also leery of stepping on one of the many turtles that liked to sun themselves on logs and rocks and then bury themselves in the mud to cool down. I never saw anything other than painted turtles but, unlike water moccasins, snapping turtles were common in the Rock River and I didn’t want to meet one by accidentally stepping on it.

My favourite slough denizens were the herons — great blues and great whites. Watching them fly in on broad wings to take up stalking positions was thrilling. They were well-fed herons, feasting on fish, frogs, and crayfish. Multicoloured sulphur butterflies flitted over the flowering plants that grew at the edge of the water, and often gathered in large groups to sun themselves on bare muddy sections of the shore.

I must confess I pinged one or two of the butterflies with my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. Every boy in my class at school carried a BB gun when he ventured out into the countryside — there weren’t many naturalists around in the 50s. Nearly all the farmers did a little hunting, mostly for rabbit and squirrel, which they ate. It was a rite of passage for boys to graduate from shooting a BB gun, to acquiring a .22 calibre rifle, and, when you got old enough, a .410 gauge shotgun. Soon after that you got a driver’s license.

I read in a science book at school that if you collected some pond water and looked at it through a microscope you’d see it brimming with microscopic life. I borrowed one of my mom’s pint canning jars and let it sit in the slough water for about half an hour, then took it to school next day. Sure enough, through the microscope in the science lab, I saw my first paramecia, amoebae, and hydras — a sight that sealed my lifetime interest in natural history.

In winter the slough froze over solid and if there wasn’t too much snow on the surface, you could slide across its surface and peer through the ice to see what was below. There wasn’t that much to see, but if you were above a muskrat channel under the ice, you would sometimes spot a muskrat swim through on its way to or from its hut.

If I’d been Canadian then, I probably would have learned how to ice skate, but I didn’t own any skates and ice-skating and hockey weren’t particularly popular with my classmates. Our winter sport was basketball. Illinois was, and still is, as far as I know, basketball mad. We are shaped not only by our experiences, but our culture.

However, someone once gave me a pair of old barrel-stave skis. They were optimistically crafted with a small groove at the bottom back of the stave, presumably for stability, plus a single leather strap loop for your boots. But barrel stave skis, as you can imagine, are curved and they’re curved exactly the wrong way for skiing.

Occasionally a friend or some of my younger siblings — Jim, Howard, or Lori — and I would carry the odd little skis to the slough and try to ski down its steeper side. Not one person ever made it to the bottom while remaining upright. The curve of the skis caused them shoot up in the front and down you’d go. It was fun anyway and one day we tried sitting on one ski per person and tobogganing down the slope that way. With a bit of luck you could make it all the way down, though usually you spilled off part way. I once slid off the ski into a particularly deep snow drift head first and backward, forcing snow down the back of my neck. It was a waker-upper.

Although it was fun to share the slough with some of my town friends from school – a couple of us even camped out overnight on the top once, and cooked meals over a Boy Scout fire — my favourite visits were the ones I took on my own. There was a harmony and serenity to the place that seeped into my boyhood spirit and prepared me for that most extraordinary book I encountered later in high school: Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

There was a natural beauty about the slough, and a Bradburyesque dandelion-wine magic, that helped sustain me through my ensuing dry years in Arizona. Slough of Despond? Not at all. The slough of innocent adventure and the beginning of a lifelong love of nature. Despite the ever-present quickmud.

Spending a Year Dead

Spending a Year Dead

By Gene Wilburn

I exaggerate, of course, but my past year has had echoes of Hotblack Desiado, intergalactic rock star, who spent a year dead for tax purposes (Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams). Obviously “I Aten’t Dead” as Granny Weatherwax says (Discworld Series, Terry Pratchett) — but I feel I’m back from the dead. Talk about a strange trip. At times there’s a thin line between physical and metaphorical death.

It wasn’t a dark, stormy night kind of sudden event that brought me down. It was more of a gradual seaside erosion — the type where you begin to notice that your living room is now hanging over the edge of the cliff. The view is amazing, but when the pounding of the surf underfoot causes more rumbling in the room than your Bose subwoofer does, it bids one pause. The word precarious comes to mind. So does the word terminal. It was the kind of event for which Siri provides no reliable assistance.

In retrospect, it all started twelve years ago, with a heart attack. It must have been one of the milder varieties because, although I had rather nasty chest pains, I went to a Friday night ROM Song Circle to jam and sing with good friends. I brought along my Taylor twelve-string and had a remarkably fine time. The pain, which I attributed to indigestion, disappeared during the singing, but I noticed as I was lugging the Taylor home via the GO Train, that the guitar in its hardshell case seemed uncommonly heavy.

By the time I reached home I was exhausted and I remember thinking “I’m getting old.” Later that night things got serious and I was rushed to hospital where my triage doc, looking at the portable ECG machine strapped to me said, “Mr. Wilburn, the reason you’re not feeling very well is because you’re having a heart attack.” A subsequent angiogram showed my left arterial descending artery (also called “the widow maker”) was severely blocked.

To shorten the big-bang portion of this narrative, fast forward over the next three ensuing years, and I had two stent procedures followed by an open-heart surgery double bypass to get things under control. That’s when the erosion started.

People made well-meant, cheerful remarks about how the heart surgery would make make me “better than before” and it is my understanding that this blissful state descends like a blessing from an otherwise indifferent universe on many of those who have survived what the poet Alan Ginsberg once referred to as a “cardiovascular freakout.” For me, no such luck.

Although the heart surgery gave me a new lease on life, it had limitations. I noticed that I never regained full stamina and that I tired more easily. Not enough to complain about, but it was there.

But gradually, especially in the past two years, my stamina lessened and I began to get out of breath when doing even mundane things like showering or tying my shoes. Doing something like vacuuming would put me into a nearly comatose condition. I had to sell my heavier camera gear, a lovely Nikon collection, because the weight of carrying it bothered me too much. I opted instead for lighter, more compact Olympus and Panasonic M4/3 gear. That helped for awhile, but even that got to be too heavy.

The worst part was that my walks became more and more curtailed. I couldn’t walk as far and then during the past year I reached the point where nearly any walking at all had me breathing heavily and becoming exhausted.

My family doc, who is an excellent doctor, started scheduling me for tests, starting with a nuclear cardio stress test and an echocardiogram. That was followed by a visit to a lung specialist, breathing tests, and a lung x-ray. I gave lots of blood samples for analysis. The tests all came back negative, meaning that I appeared to be a healthy human being, aside from my mystery ailment. My cardiologist thought it could possibly be pulmonary edema — a built-up of fluid in the lungs due to a less efficient heart and suggested I be put on a diuretic. I tried this but aside from peeing a lot it didn’t help.

The condition worsened. I went to a Friday ROM Song Circle, which is one of my favourite treats in life, but after it was over I became so exhausted I wondered if I would make it home. It knocked me out of commission for two days while I recovered. About the most I could do was help Marion prepare dinners, but even standing in the kitchen left me exhausted for the rest of the night. I no longer went for walks at all. They tired me too much.

None of this helped with my mood. I’m bipolar and my circumscribed condition was making me increasingly depressed — clinically depressed. I began to blame myself and worried that this was all in my head. I’d try to rally. I went grocery shopping and felt exhausted about halfway through the store. By the time I got home and helped put away the groceries, I was knocked out for another two days recovering from the grocery trip.

I was spiralling inward on myself and began to think I was on my way toward some kind of early death. I literally felt as if I were on death row. The only thing keeping my spirits up were my family and my Facebook friends. I spent most of my day online, reading and kibitzing with friends.

Oddly, I didn’t feel anger or despair. I just figured my time was up and I’d go out as cheerfully as I could. I’ve had a good life and there’s very little I would do differently so I figured that if it was about over, I had lived about as well as a human being could expect to. The thing I was most grateful for, aside from my dear wife, was that I could still read and think. I’m a thinking person by nature, and I started reading a lot of philosophy while I still had the time to do so.

Then, just one month ago when I visited my doc for another round at my mystery illness, he went over the cardiologist’s report who suggested that if the diuretics didn’t work, try putting the patient on Monocor, a beta blocker for my cardio system.

The first day I tried Monocor, it was like flipping a switch from near-dead to very-alive. Just like that. Suddenly I felt good again. The feeling continued, and for the past month I’ve started to recover my life.

One of the things I discovered was that forced inactivity had left my body weak. I’m now in self-rehab, exercising and taking gentle walks as my muscles and joints begin to recover their spring and elasticity. Walking, which I’ve always loved, feels wonderful. I can’t go far yet, but I’m improving. I’m much more active in the house, relieving Marion of some of the housework she had to take on during my absence. And my mood has improved drastically. I don’t know if I’m totally out of the woods yet, but I’m hopeful.

The bottom line, as the Terminator implied, is that “I’m back.” And, fates willing, I’m going to the next ROM Song Circle. I’ve even written a new song to introduce to the group.

Deep thanks to the few friends and family who knew about my condition and provided encouragement and support, and extended thanks to all my Facebook friends who laughed at my corny puns and commented on my more philosophical posts. It meant, and still means, a lot. I hope to see as many of you in person as possible now that I’m able to get into the city again.

Life is precious. Let’s all live it to the full!

Peanut Time at the Critter Ranch

Peanut Time at the Critter Ranch

By Gene Wilburn

It’s early August here in Port Credit and the summer heat is setting in, along with thunderstorms and threats thereof. All in all it’s not the scorcher we usually get, at least not yet. At this time of year I notice a distinct seasonal change in the critters that inhabit, or visit, our back yard.

Several of the avian species are done nesting and some of them are priming for their migratory trip south. For the past week or so the grackles and redwings have begun flocking together, combing the ground for the birdseed I scatter along the back fence. These two species frequently intermingle at the bird bath where they indulge in group drinking and bathing.

The house sparrows, always cheeky and chirpy, like group bathing as well, and are responsible for splashing out most of the bird bath water by the end of day. A pair of catbirds sneak in for drinks occasionally, and the year-round residents, the blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and goldfinches put in regular appearances. The squirrels drink from it and even the chipmunks manage to jump high enough to reach the top and sip a drink.

Perhaps it’s the critters’ inner timing and they know the summer is coming to an end. They’re all voracious, and go into an eating frenzy when I toss out peanuts. As the peanuts cascade onto the ground sounding like miniature maracas, the squirrels come down from the higher branches and the chippies come from all directions, guided by the sound.

The squirrels and chippies are always eager peanut eaters but I was surprised that the grackles and redwings are too. The cardinal pair is more dainty. They take a single peanut and fly somewhere where they can break it into small pieces and dine on those, Timbit style. The blue jays fly into the branches over my head and squawk a bit if I’m going too slow. They then swoop in to take two or three, sometimes four, peanuts. They prefer to take them off the back deck and delight in taking them out of the planter baskets where I always stash a few for the squirrels and chippies to find. But they leave behind a lot of easy pickins. They’re not as greedy as the grackles.

The squirrels get their share, though they are at a partial disadvantage in the ensuing free-for-all. They stop to eat theirs until they’re sated, then they carry off a few to bury and hide. But they have to contend with the chipmunks who hoover their way through the melee, stuffing three peanuts at a time into their cheek pouches. They whiz off to their burrows, stash them, then come back for more, in a flash. Chippies are A-type personalities when it comes to their favourite foods.

Algonquin Park this ain’t, but for an old codger living in the suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area, this daily feeding and watering of the critters, many of whom have become very friendly toward me, puts a smile on my face. There are few things more terminally cute than a chipmunk eager for a peanut fix.

Where Have All the Emails Gone?

Where Have All the Emails Gone?

By Gene Wilburn

Things come and go in the computer world. Recently I’ve heard the term “post-browser era” to describe the way we use the internet, accessing the net via apps on our phones, tablets, and media players, rather than from Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or whatever Microsoft is offering at the moment. I don’t mind this at all. I use apps on my iPad for Facebook, Google News, Flickr, and Gmail, switching over to a browser when needed. I watch Netflix and YouTube via apps on my Apple TV. Even so, I never thought we’d drift into a “post-email era.”

Email, one of the earliest services developed for the internet, has been my primary communications medium with friends for years. Getting an email address on the internet was once a rite of passage — if you had one, you were part of something big, worldwide big. If you were in early you used character-based email programs like mutt, elm, or pine, or, if you were really geeky, emacs. If you were on a communications system you might use the email programs from AOL or Compuserve. From early days these “apps” provided ways to organize emails into folders so you could move things from your inbox and store them for later reference.

Later, as graphical interfaces became popular, there were email client options like the lovely Eudora, the workaday Thunderbird, the unexciting Mac Mail, and the deplorable Microsoft Outlook.

As the web grew, browser-side email clients like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo Mail became popular. I still use Gmail to this day, and access it either through a browser or through the Gmail app on my iPad. And local email clients such as Mac Mail, Outlook, and Thunderbird can be configured as front ends to the webmail services.

The thing is, I have conversations going back to the early 90s in my email archives. Decades worth of correspondence. It provides me with a kind of conversation diary of what we were doing when and where, and what we all thought of it. In the mid-90s there were a lot of conversations about setting up the Maplepost and Cdnfolk listservers and how to deal with Novell network issues. I was helping people set up web sites, and I was corresponding with musicians and promoters as I was putting together the book Northern Journey: A Guide to Canadian Folk Music on CD. I was in contact with various computer magazine editors about writing articles for them. My email archive contains an enormous amount of personal history.

Is there such a thing as personal history in things like Apple’s Messages or Facebook’s Messenger? Kind of, sort of, maybe, but not really. And do you have any way to organize discussions? Will it even be there in ten years?

Don’t get me wrong. Messaging is great for quick messages to someone waiting for you — “The train is running late” sort of thing. But I suspect we’ve lost a valuable methodology by switching from email to messaging. The irony is that email is still there, as good as ever, and the world is largely ignoring it for personal communications.

It makes me pine for the days of pine.