Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: Prairie, Lake, Forest by Chris Niskanen

Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota's State Parks
Chris Niskanen (author) and Doug Ohman (photographer)
Minnesota Historical Society Press
ISBN 978-0873517713
Hardcover, 11 x 8.8 x 0.9
224 pages; $29.95

It’s that teetering time between spring and summer and I have the mind for planning roadtrips and getaways. Recently, I’ve been thinking about county and state parks, both locally and away, as I consider what travel options we have this season. I don’t know that we’ll venture to Minnesota this summer but, in my brainstorming activities, I was reminded of a gorgeous book I discovered a few years ago, when it was first released in 2010.

Prairie, Lake, Forest: Minnesota's State Parks has the beauty of a coffee table book but the details of an elaborate guidebook. The preface invites, “the words state park are an invitation to hit the open road,” and author Chris Niskanen has ensured travelers will be well prepared by including a detailed map of Minnesota’s state park system. This map acts as a quick reference to Minnesota’s 66 state parks and is a resourceful accompaniment to the breathtaking photography of Doug Ohman.

More than 200 photographs accompany the 16 essays that offer a balance of the author’s experiences and tales from long-time visitors, rangers, and naturalists. They present a reminiscent portrayal about the joys of visiting state parks as a youngster, while also reveling in the beauty as an adventurous adult.

Road enthusiasts will appreciate the historical details offered throughout. Niskanen shares how the eight parks lined along Lake Superior’s North Shore weren’t “seriously considered for state parks until the construction of U.S. Highway 61 in the 1920s.” Readers will also enjoy the story of how Robert Barnwell Roosevelt—uncle of a future President—enjoyed fly fishing trips to Minnesota’s North Shore in the 1860s.

Niskanen and Ohman readily declare they were not interested in creating a guidebook. Rather, they set out to capture the beauty of Minnesota’s natural resources and history by sharing intimate experiences. Still, for those who are visiting Minnesota’s parks for the first time – and, indeed, for the repeat visitor – this book will inspire weekend getaways and offer incentive to explore the gems of Minnesota’s natural landscape.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Just the fax: What do you need to write?

I’ve been catching up on spring cleaning. As a writer, I don’t usually feel bad about being a paper junkie; I have a nice stash of stationery collected from various quaint shops visited during our road trips, a few shelves of media clippings spanning the years, and a small selection of files printed out for reference. Yet, when I was sorting through some dusty file folders, I discovered a displaced expense spreadsheet from 2002 and had to stop the binge/sort process to assess the situation.

In 2002, I was not yet working with my agent who helped steer my first book to publication, but the manuscript was in progress and nearing completion. In 2002, I was doing a great deal of freelance writing—reviews, cultural and event news, and the like—to supplement my more creative ventures. And, apparently in 2002, I earned myself a new computer to get all of the above accomplished.

In examining my expense sheet from more than a decade ago, it’s not the cost of the desktop that stopped me in my tracks. It’s the tiny little line item that shows my purchase of a basic fax machine—for $350.

During a holiday sale last year, I picked up a new fax machine for ten bucks after rebate. The ‘Brother 575’ isn’t fancy, but it does the job, particularly when there are so few demands for its use. It’s rare an editor sends a document over the landlines anymore. I have used this machine perhaps two or three times since its purchase, and mostly for cross-border business.

That original machine from 2002? I somehow felt I needed that on account of the contracts that were coming through by fax transmission way back then. Back then? Heck, that’s a mere decade ago. Yet it’s amazing how fast technology changes and how what was once a prime (and pricey) piece of communication now seems so archaic.

We all have artifacts collected during our writing and personal lives. We all have items we once considered necessities for our respective paths. Just last week, during a community writing workshop I offered, a student asked me what kind of computer she should buy. She had a pen and notepad ready to document what software, what brand of computer, what size of memory and capabilities would serve her best as she set out to write her first novel. I told her she had all she needed to complete the task, right there in her hands.

Paper. Pen. Write.

Yet sometimes we busy ourselves with ‘needs’ to distract from the real task. We wait for the perfect idea, the right time, when our schedule is clear, when our office is clean, when we have a better computer, or a more comfortable chair. Yes, environment is somewhat necessary to write in comfort. But we don’t need gadgets. We don’t need what will inevitably become artifacts on a shelf. We need only a pen and a stack of paper to get started.

Whenever I commit to the task of cleaning my office, I inevitably come across a piece of my own personal history that reminds me that no matter the gadgets or the fancy pens and cute stationery, regardless of software and hardware or even the style of font used, the one thing that is consistent, the one thing that remains the same over the years is my joy of writing. The writing continues with or without the ‘right’ utensils. Everything else is clutter on the shelf.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Baking Break: cheese scones for editing

After a long stretch of 90 degree days, it seems a cold front has returned to the Midwest. Goodbye, flip flops. So long, tank tops. See ya later, swimsuit. It’s time for hoodies and comfort food once again.

With an editing marathon planned for the weekend, I’m already craving carbs. And cheese. Savory, salty, comfort food is what I need to fuel through the to-dos this weekend.

If you’re in a similar boat and want to join me in a baking/editing marathon, here’s a simple and satisfying recipe I recommend:

Cheese Scones

12 ounces self raising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 ounces butter
11 ounces strong grated cheese
6 ounces milk
1 dash pepper
2 teaspoons mustard powder

1 Sieve the flour and dry ingredients.
2 Mix in the butter.
3 Add grated cheese, mix well, then add milk in slowly.
4 Mix into a dough; pat with hand and then cut into shapes.
5 Bake in the oven at 450 degrees F until you see those lightly golden tops.


Monday, May 20, 2013

a long weekend at home: Victoria Day-dreaming

As my friends and neighbors (my own household, included) prepare for the forthcoming Memorial Day weekend, my dual-country ties had me celebrating a weekend earlier thanks to Victoria Day, a Canadian public holiday.

Growing up, I was slightly more familiar with the term “May 2-4.” The reasons are twofold: Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819 and her birthday was celebrated in Canada long before the country formed its independence; and, yes, a bit more casually, the holiday also refers to the semi-official start of summer—wherein cases of beer are consumed in quantity. Or, at least I have heard.

I won’t be on ‘the other side’ of the border this year where my fellow Canucks are celebrating for all of the above reasons, in addition to the current reigning sovereign’s birthday, but I had my fair share of summer fun closer to home.

Over this long weekend, I’ve enjoyed what I’ll call my “slow motion triathlon.” I have cycled more than 30 miles in my ongoing preparation for my excursion to the Mackinac Island trail. I’ve gone for a refreshing swim in a community pool down the road. And, the spouse and I covered several miles on foot, enjoying the arrival of sunny days and warmer temps. 

We’ve been exploring outside our immediate neighborhood, particularly along the perimeter of the golf club course down the block where we don’t usually venture. I’ve been spying on the gorgeous outdoor pool there and daydreaming about becoming a member. Considering the private club fees, this writer will have to sock away a few more pennies to make that happen. So, for now, it’s back to the community pool today.

Mostly, though, I have used this weekend to brainstorm summer activities. We’re itching to go for a camping getaway and I want to explore some of our state parks this year, too. I’ve had fun plotting canoe routes, bike paths, and general beach-bum days. For a weekend bound by deadlines, I feel like I’ve celebrated the start of summer—and Victoria Day—in my own little way.

To my friends and neighbors (ahem, neighbours) across the border, Happy Victoria Day!