Bluebirds (and Flying Squirrels)

Originally posted on April 25, 2018

According to my friend, John, former President of NJ Audubon, bluebirds are in our neighborhood all year long. I’ve never seen them in the winter, but I would never mistrust John. Today, after weathering four Nor’easters in three weeks (the one on the first day of spring deposited 12 inches of snow in the woodlot) it was time to prepare out bluebird houses for a new season.

Bluebirds are fastidious, and they will not tolerate a dirty or untidy home, so I work on each house with a putty knife to scrape away last year’s debris. New Pup, Dingo, assisted by keeping marauding juncos at bay.

P1000904 (2)

If only bluebirds occupied the house last year, there is a two-inch high nest at the bottom of the house usually constructed of pine needles and soft, downy material, with a few feathers. If house wrens took over the nest, it will be filled to the top with twigs cut to fit the interior dimensions of the house perfectly. Sometimes the wrens build their nest over a bluebird nest and smother a fledgling or two. I dislike that cleanup job.

Today, however, I had a novel experience. Opening bluebird nest number three, I saw the remains of a bluebird nest at the bottom covered by five or six inches of soft moss, light as a feather. I pried it all out with my putty knife and, as the stuff fell to the ground, discovered that I had a flying squirrel setting on my hand. As a nocturnal animal, it had large black eyes, which fixed me with a look of surprise and irritation. I was a mortified homewrecker; the pile of moss was beyond repair.

So, we looked at each other for a few moments, as I hoped for forgiveness and the squirrel, I guess, woke up fully and decided on its next move. Which was to hop onto an adjoining branch and look at me accusingly. Then its large eyes softened, and he crawled unhurriedly up the branch, watching me finish cleaning.

Fly Squirrel Siberian flying squirrel 4

I moved on to the next nest, relieved that a nuthatch rested on the opening and flew away as I arrived. I guess I’m only good for wrecking one home a day.



5Copyright 2018 Rolf C. Margenau - Sahara Desert- CamelsFor the past two weeks I’ve been recuperating from surgery that fused three vertebrae in my neck. The results were positive—numbing pain in my right arm disappeared, and more improvements are expected as time passes. However, this process is not for the faint-hearted. The surgeon approaches the spine through the front of the neck, causing great difficulty swallowing for about a week. But, I lost nine pounds in less than a week.

With a decreased activity level, I’ve been reflecting on a trip to Morocco my wife and I completed a few days before the surgery. Aside from the pleasure of visiting a new and exotic place, I also wanted to get a sense of a North African locale. I am currently outlining a new book that has a character who is a German soldier fighting in North Africa in 1942 who is captured and sent to an American POW camp

Morocco is a fascinating Arab country, one of few we’ve visited, with an abundant supply of camels, gregarious and ubiquitous beasts I had never thought much about, considering their rarity in New Jersey. I was immediately attracted to the camels suddenly in our midst. Their luminous eyes, friendly curiosity, and willingness to serve impressed me. It took a while to learn to ride one, but I finally settled in to the swaying gait.

Moroccan camels, like 96% of all camels, are dromedaries with a single hump. The two-humped camel, the Bactrian, lives in central Asia, far from North Africa. The dromedaries can reach seven feet high at the hump, weigh up to more than half a ton, can drink 53 gallons of water in three minutes, run 40 miles an hour, and provide transportation, milk, and meat—all in one package perfectly designed to survive in the hottest desert. In the 1850’s, the United States Army established the U.S. Camel Corps. Although the Corps was considered a success and the Secretary of War intended to order a thousand more camels, the outbreak of the American Civil War saw the end of the Camel Corps: Camels were used as war machines as early as 12000 BC.

So, here are some pictures of my new friends. In the Sahara Desert, On the beach in Essaquira. At work and hanging out.8Copyright 2018 Rolf C. Margenau - Sahara Desert- Camels

24Copyright 2018 Rolf C. Margenau - Sahara Desert- Camels07Copyright 2018 Rolf C. Margenau -Essaquira Waterfront with camels + horses693Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau786Copyright 2017 Rolf MargenauAs a bonus, I can’t resist the goats who eat tree leaves,690Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau



April Fools

I imagine the April Fools Gods were snickering at us residents of northern New Jersey over the weekend. They lulled us into a false sense of security by allowing a twitter storm to bypass to the Midwest where it settled in, destroying the livelihood of pig farmers in Iowa because China will boycott their pork exports, and worrying grain farmers because tinkering with NAFTA is prompting Mexico to rethink where to buy its corn and wheat.

Before the day was out, however, the fifth major winter storm in the past four weeks arrived. We woke up to this view.



Since it is April, our snow quickly melted, leaving only a white slushy residue by the next day. The remains of the twitter storm, however, continue to threaten. I worry about the sturdy folk in the farm belt who chose to be led by someone who denies climate change, believes in the trickle down fairy, only likes immigrants who will marry him, and thinks a trade war is easy to win. I can dismiss his peckerdillos, but fear that ignorant meddling with the fabric of our economy will have devastating consequences for those who placed the most hope in his ascendancy.

Let’s hope that the April Fools Gods will be disappointed, that so many will  not have voted against their self interests. May is coming, when the April Fools Gods disappear for another year. May it be a good one.

Too Many Nor’easters

5Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau (2)I’ve concluded that, as much as the falling snow adds beauty and charm to our two-acre woodlot, the second Nor’easter in five days (the equivalent of two lions charging in the first of March) is a bit too much. We are looking forward to a foot or more of snow, with the saving grace of temperatures above freezing the next few days. It’s no fun shoveling slush!

Most photographers know that foul weather can make fair photos. So I took our two little dogs (Luci-fur and her therapy dog, Dingo) up to the woods this morning and looked around. Here’s what I saw.

9Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau (2)

17Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau (2)

Murder and cars

I’m writing the final chapters of my latest novel and am trying to devise unusual ways to kill off some of its less desirable characters. It’s taking a toll on me; never thought killing people would become tiresome. So, I am taking a break and reflecting on one of life’s small victories.

In earlier days, other parents and I observed that, when we loaned our cars to newly minted teen age drivers masquerading as our children, the car usually came back empty of gas, the driver’s seat reconfigured, the rearview mirror misadjusted, and, most irritating, all the radio buttons playing something like “My Sharona.” Those were the days.

I take comfort in the fact that those children now have children who most likely are equally discourteous to their parents’ cars. And when my kids bitch about theirs, I am justified in smiling and suggesting what goes around comes around. Sometimes they don’t talk to me for days.

During the winter I find it necessary to bring my car to a commercial car wash because it’s too cold to do it myself. The people there do an excellent job, with one exception. The four-foot three-inch man assigned to drive the car the thirty feet from the car wash exit to the spot where it’s dried always cranks the driver’s seat to within inches of the accelerator. It may be days before I am able to return it to my sweet spot. It makes me cranky.

Last year Nancy bought a new Subaru sedan replete with more gadgets, levers, and toggle switches than I can count. Neither of us knows how they all work. We thought “blue tooth” referred to smutty dental work. The one thing I mastered this year, however, was adjusting the driver’s seat to suit each of us and setting buttons one and two accordingly. I’m button two.

Today I had to run errands and took Nancy’s car to have it washed. As expected, Shorty adjusted the driver’s seat to his liking for the thirty-foot journey from the wash. He had a kind of malignant, smirky look when he signaled for me to drive the car away. I triumphantly pushed button number two and watched the driver’s seat obediently conform itself to MY desired position. One button. One push. Victory.

I’ve been feeling good about that all afternoon. Now I must decide whether to kill someone with a cross bow.

Costa Rica — Pura Vida

With unaccustomed wisdom, Nancy and I planned our fifth visit to Costa Rica last November. We wanted a warm and pleasant place  where we could escape Northern New Jersey’s customary drismal January weather. The week before we left, temperatures hovered unpleasantly near zero. We almost didn’t mind arising at 4 am to catch the early flight to San Jose.

Costa Rica (“the rich coast” Columbus is supposed to have named it) is close to the equator in Central America. It has numerous ecosystems–dry forest, cloud forest, rain forest, arid forest…you get the idea. It also has some active volcanoes that occasionally wipe out entire villages, but also create wonderfully fertile soil. Cut a pole off a tree, stick it in the ground for a fence post, and it sprouts leaves in a few weeks. Hence, the living fences surrounding coffee, banana, pineapple, coconut, sugar cane, and other plantations. Costa Rican coffee is exceptional. Its high octane caffeine provides a promising beginning to every day there.

Costa Rica is bordered on the north by Nicaragua, on the south by Panama,. and the “Ticos,” as in many neighborhoods, have mixed feelings about their neighbors. They have very friendly relations with Panama, but are not crazy about the “Nicos” to the north. The country’s population is five million, of which one million (according to local friends) are immigrants from Nicaragua who provide much of the hard labor needed to bring in lush harvests. Fortunately, political leaders recognize the need for these helpful laborers, and do not follow northern bad examples of trying to keep them out.

Pura vida (“pure life”) describes a happy and relaxed outlook on life. Just saying the words in response to “how are you?” is satisfying. Rather than expanding on this thought, here’s a photo of of a Capuchin monkey demonstrating pura vida–totally relaxed but ready for mischief.

006Copyright 2018 Rolf C. Margenau-Capuchin Monky

The country’s most important import is tourists– 1.7 million each year. They come mostly from the US and Canada for eco-tourism and are the Costa Rica’s primary income producer. Like us, they tour in well-appointed new buses, stay in hotels ranging from posh to pleasant, eat too well, and are delighted by natural beauty and wildlife. We saw many exotic animals, principally at a wildlife rescue center, one of which is below. I’ve seen many pheasants display, but they have been shy about showing their backsides. That mystery is now revealed.

220Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau

225Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau

The country’s oldest city, Cartago, was founded in 1563, and the country is dotted with charming old villages and small cities. Catholic churches anchor the central squares of those places. Here’s a view of the one in Zarcero.

Rolf Margenau Photo

Up close, the gray tiles that cover the church are discovered to be vinyl . So much for ancient masonry!

We swam at turtle beaches, took a cable car ride through lush tropical forest, bathed in volcano heated hot bathes, cruised jungle rivers, and visited all the forest areas. The warmth of the climate and the people was appreciated. And the weather was much warmer in New Jersey when we returned. We didn’t see a volcanic eruption, but the sunsets made up for that.

039Copyright 2018 Rolf C. Margenau-CR Sunsets

Pura Vida!

Hawk – A Dilemma

I almost had to make a difficult decision today. It involved an immature red-tailed hawk sitting on the lower limb of the magnolia in our back yard.

Some background first: Our house bear, whom we’ve named Clyde, has been visiting our bird feeders for four years. He’s close to 400 pounds, but remains intimidated by Luci-fur, our cairn terrier, who occasionally escorts him off the property. When Clyde first visited, he snapped off one limb of my carefully pruned “V” shaped Asian pear tree and ate it like an ear of corn. Then he came up the hill to the feeders behind the house and picnicked on them.

Understanding that, if I can reach the feeder so can the bear, I raised the feeders to a height of 14 feet. They are raised and lowered by loosening and tightening the clothes line supporting them—every morning and evening because there is always the chance Bonnie might show up.

We are not sure whether she is related to Clyde, but she is also very large. The first time she was here, she had two yearling cubs and two babies with her. The cubs scrambled up the posts supporting the feeders and trashed them all. The next time she showed up, Luci-fur and I exchanged words with her, and she chose to depart, though slowly.

So, the 14-foot-high bird feeders are fifteen feet from the kitchen window, and the magnolia is fifteen feet north of that. Nature has graced up with a blizzard today, so I made sure the feeders were full this morning and dumped little piles of seed around for the ground feeders. The birds were appreciative and looked especially attractive with their feathers fluffed up against the cold and wind. The cardinals really stood out in the snow.

Later, I saw that all the birds had disappeared. The reason was obvious. The young hawk sat on the magnolia branch that suffered deer rub this fall. He was close to the feeders and his sharp eyes surveyed the yard for little birds—his prey. We know that hawks have been there before from the dandelion-like blossoms of gray, red, or blue feathers on the ground from time to time. Hawks eat little birds. That’s how they make their living.

I surmised two things. The hawk probably would kill a little bird this wintry day, and, if I banged on the window, he would leave. I stood there for at least five minutes watching the hawk and trying to decide. Maybe I am becoming indecisive at my age. Then the hawk left. Decision averted.

So, what would you have done?

Where have I been?

Good question. Nancy and I have been on the go since early September. We checked off an item on our bucket list by visiting Bruges, Belgium the first week of the month. It is a splendid medieval town with buildings from the fourteenth century still used in every day life. Then we cruised Belgian canals for a week before returning home. Here’s a nighttime view of a canal in Bruges.

153Copyright 2017 Rolf Margenau

That’s when I began an essay about images that give us ease and comfort. Things like crackling fires, foggy mornings, sparkling meadows, fluffy clouds, and sunsets. I believe such things are wired into our unconscious cerebral cortex and that they are  essential to our well-being. So, here’s one of my sunset images, taken from a promontory overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Mexico. Comforting?

Manzanillo Sunset

Later that month, we visited the National Parks in North and South Dakota. The Badlands are wildly beautiful and we were up close and personal with big herds of buffalo. The golden glow of cottonwoods and aspen enhanced some of the pictures. I took over 700 photos, which are still being edited, but here are some that made the cut.

235Copyright 2017 Rolf MargenauA


Finally, we volunteered through my college alumni program to work with the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe in Nevada . It was an intense and valuable experience, and I hope our Indian friends found it as worthwhile as Nancy and I did.

Back to sunsets! Here’s one on a tributary to the Amazon River in Peru.
Amazon jungle - Sunset on the river


Yosemite Fog cushion (1)

I fell in love with our national parks when I was twelve after visiting the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest. Over the years, my family and I made repeat visits to many of the parks at different seasons of the year. All three of my daughters worked at the parks during their college years. Our youngest, Cory, returned from Glacier vowing never to buy clothes she couldn’t hike in a for a few miles. She has changed her position on that, though.

John Muir emigrated from Scotland to New England in the late nineteenth century. He had a religious upbringing, began his working life as a mechanic where he lost an eye, and went to California where he explored many of the country’s most beautiful areas, wrote about them, originated the Sierra Club, and was a prime mover in establishing out national parks. A renowned author, he attracted the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt and encouraged him to add more parks for the nation’s enjoyment. Yellowstone was the first, Yosemite the second.

Two years ago, I began working on National Parks. It was a dystopian satire about what happens when an inept Congress tries to bail out a bankrupt country by selling our national parks to the highest bidders.

I wanted to include a couple of chapters about John Muir—to establish context for development of our national treasure. One was a carefully researched retelling of a three-day trip to Yosemite where Muir guided Roosevelt through the heights and valley and talked about his vision for the country’s use of its natural splendors.

Alas, my editor thought the chapter detracted from the rest of the novel—and it was cut.

Now I have my blog, where I can recycle that chapter. It is, after all, one of my favorites. I hope the three and a half people who read this will agree. I copied the writing style of the period, gleaned from reading newspaper reports of the visit. It’s a bit ornate, but it seems that’s the way people talked back then. Here it is.

Yosemite Fog cushion (2)

Rough Rider

Forest ranger Leonard unstrapped the waxed canvas tarp covering the wool blankets secured to the pack mule’s back and shouldered the pile, carrying it across the campground to the place designated as the President’s sleeping area. Roosevelt rejected any notion of sleeping in a tent.

“It promises to be a fine clear night,” the President said. “I do not want to deny myself the pleasure of sleeping in the darkening aisles of this great Sequoia grove, surrounded by these majestic trunks, beautiful in color and symmetry, rising round us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages.”

The two rangers, more accustomed to John Muir’s simple but rhapsodic, sometimes biblical, descriptions of his mountain surroundings, were overwhelmed by the President’s well-honed oratorical style. They had read in the newspapers that the President was renowned for talking – and finding it very difficult to stop. They exchanged smiles in the dusk, a silent comment on Roosevelt’s “high falutin’” language, and continued their work. They were honored that Muir selected them to guide President Roosevelt on his first visit to Yosemite by the Merced River but, now that they were in the presence of the hero of San Juan Hill, they became somewhat cowed.

Ranger Leonard prepared the President’s sleeping arrangements: forty thicknesses of wool heaped on boughs of sequoia redolent of pitch. A thick Indian blanket, reminiscent of the tribes that formerly inhabited the splendid valley, covered the top of his bed and a roll of cotton covered wool was his pillow. The rangers hitched the riding mules thirty yards away, downwind of the sleeping area. A jug of cold water and a basin stood nearby. The President, like the other three in the campground, used the great outdoors as his bathroom.

They arrived at the grove, located at the southernmost leg of the park, in late afternoon, and the President and Muir walked among the giant trees, unsullied by the commercial interests seen in the valley. Leonard and Ranger Leidig, who was a cook as well as guide, set up the first night’s site to accommodate the different tastes of the two famous guests. Muir could be happy sleeping under a single blanket on a glacier, pillowing his head in the crook of his arm. Roosevelt was accustomed to the privileges of an Army officer, with orderlies available to tend to his needs. He enjoyed roughing it, but savored some of the comforts of home.

Muir asked Leidig to accompany them because of his reputation as an excellent wilderness chef. He specialized in creating fine meals using food items found in their surroundings — mushrooms, roots, herbs, and wild vegetables, along with numerous small furry creatures and fish that inhabited the coursing waters of the valley. On this excursion, however, that skill would not be needed. Leidig and Leonard managed two pack mules weighed down with all manner of supplies and provisions to avoid any discomforts on their three-day trip.

As Roosevelt and Muir sat on logs facing a huge fire, Leidig added mysterious ingredients to a stew pot suspended from a chain over burning timbers. At last light, the travelers feasted on venison stew, sourdough bread, boiled okra, and red wine from one of the new vineyards in the Russian River valley.

“Delicious, “said the President. “Just delicious! This is camp food at its best.”

President Roosevelt removed his spectacles and polished them with the bandana he customarily wore around his neck. Muir noticed the indentations on the bridge of his nose where the pince-nez fitted. Polishing and speaking as though to himself, the President said,

“Cursed eyesight! Without my spectacles, I can’t even make out my own children. Now, you, Muir are simply a blur and the arboreal cathedral in which we sit is a dark green expanse.”

He replaced his glasses and smiled, toothy grin caught in the firelight. Ranger Leidig poured a bit more wine into the tin cups Muir and the President held, and the men sat quietly, absorbing the silky stillness of the giant trees, full and content. When the moment passed, Muir began a poetic inventory of their surroundings, rolling out the words in a soft scotch burr that made them lovelier and engaging.

Muir had promised himself to seize the opportunity of the President’s visit to do some forest good in talking around the campfire. However, it seemed too soon to remind his guest of his concerns about the future of Yosemite. He had a few more days to assess the President’s mood, interests, and inclinations. Meanwhile, he would share with Roosevelt his joy of the mountains and the valley stretching out to the north, sprinkled with some of the facts he had already learned fascinated the man smiling at him as he finished the wine in his cup.

The founder of the Sierra Club stretched his slender frame and rubbed a hand across his chin, combing his scraggly foot long white beard. The lower hairs of his untrimmed mustache moved as he spoke.

“The monster just behind us to your right is the Grizzly Giant, and the rangers say it is the largest tree in the park. Leonard here would have us believe it is the largest tree in the country but there are men in Oregon who challenge that notion. However, we are sure the sequoia is two hundred and ten feet tall, a true skyscraper, with a circumference of ninety-two feet. Professor Savage studied many of these trees and calculates the Grizzly Giant to be at least nineteen hundred and probably twenty-four hundred years old.”

The President whistled.

“Just think of it—a tree that was here when the son of our dear Lord was born. A Methuselah tree. We must examine it more closely in the morning, Muir.”

It was close to ten—time to end a long day. They found their blankets and rustic pillows and quickly fell into the arms of Morpheus.

Looking refreshed, the President woke before seven to the smell of coffee prepared by ranger Leidig. Muir soon joined him and suggested the day’s itinerary.

“I propose we ride north up the Wawona Road and follow the road toward Glacier Point to Sentinel Dome. At about eight thousand feet, it lies on the south wall of the Yosemite Valley and offers a complete view of the valley and all surrounding countryside. I understand there are some patches of snow along the way. Do you think that would impede us, Leonard?”

The ranger gave the question grave consideration.

“A week ago, there were patches of eight-foot deep snow along the way—nothing one couldn’t get around. There have been snow squalls since then, but our mules can manage.”

“I see only blue skies and cumulus clouds,’ said the President. “Let me first partake of this excellent meal that Leidig is preparing and I will be eager to ride to the crest of the valley.”

He moved toward the campfire where Leidig was pouring batter onto an iron skillet.

“Flapjacks! My morning is complete. Delightful!”


They rode along the southern crest of the valley, Roosevelt now completely attuned to his riding mule, but Muir still sitting stiffly. It occurred to Roosevelt that this man of the mountains favored shanks mare, preferring the security of his own legs and the ability to wander where horses and mules could not go. Muir looked frail, he thought, but he was all sinew and muscle, propelled by inner fires fed by the glories of nature and belief in his God.

Like many in the nation, the President had read The National Parks, in which Muir made the case for the establishment and preservation of the glorious places found in his adopted country. He wrote “Everybody needs beauty…places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” That sentiment struck a responsive chord in Roosevelt and prompted him to seek out this passionate naturalist.

Together they rode close to the rim of the valley’s crest, rising gradually from Mariposa Grove, past creeks, and meadows, following the trail selected by the rangers. The President asked Muir many questions that engendered careful answers and many stops along the way. Muir pointed out the numerous peaks that rose to the north and east, naming each one and telling little stories about his personal experiences in their vicinity. Roosevelt was a good listener and seemed to absorb Muir’s information eagerly. Whereas the day before he had seemed tired and worried, today he was refreshed, cheered by the solitude, happy to be riding toward a new adventure. Leonard through he heard the President humming a little tune as he turned his mule’s head eastward and spurred him to a canter up the trail.

By midafternoon striated clouds began to obscure the crystalline skies above the southern crest of the valley. Ranger Leonard watched the movement of the clouds and sniffed the air.

“Be snowin’ before nightfall,” he offered, and the President released a happy grunt.

Muir was beginning to understand this complicated man, realizing he thrived on challenges. The prospect of braving a spring snowfall in the Yosemite was like offering antelope meat to a lion. Roosevelt jammed his faded campaign hat tightly on his head and searched the horizon, staring across the valley below at Yosemite Point and North Dome. Ominous clouds were now apparent in the northwest, gray half-mile wide boulders rolling across the darkening sky toward the valley. The President and Muir guided their mounts around five-foot-deep patches of snow from the last storm, prevalent mostly in the lee of south facing slopes. The President reached down to collect a handful of crusty snow, squeezed it into a ball and threw it at a nearby evergreen, dislodging a western grey squirrel that scolded its tormentor. Moments later large fluffy snowflakes began to float over the travelers, swiftly turning into wind driven pellets that found their way into openings in their clothes. Muir’s beard attracted the flakes like bees to nectar; it was soon whiter than the brim of the President’s hat.

They plodded through the snow for two hours until Leonard announced they had reached their camp for the night—a spot near Sentinel Dome, a mile or so from Glacier Point, that offered a view of the entire valley and its surrounding points and domes. As they arrived, the storm abated, revealing five inches of virgin snow covering not only their vantage point, but the valley below as well. In the dimming light, the Merced River flowed between goose down banks, echoing the darkness of the surrounding forests.

The President and Muir dismounted and ranger Leonard led their mules to a sheltered area and fed them grain and hay collected from their packs. The two rangers proceeded to build a bonfire from seasoned wood collected and delivered to the campsite earlier. Soon flames from the fire cut through the dusky gloom and lit the cooking area and the fallen log where the two leaders sat. Sporadic snow showers filled the evening air, as the first aroma of the camp meal began to fill the illuminated circle.

Roosevelt noticed that ranger Leonard was beginning to remove their tents from the pack mules.

“Hold on, Leonard! I read that Mr. Muir cured an illness sleeping on a glacier in Alaska, and I intend to follow his example tonight. Put up a simple tarp in those trees and I will sleep in the open, in the fresh air, blankets on the snow. I intend to be refreshed by the wonder of the mountains. What do you say, Muir? Will you join me?”

Muir stretched his lanky body and nodded agreement. He seemed indifferent to his sleeping arrangements. Perhaps he was assessing whether the right time had come to discuss the future of this park with the President. Apparently, not. Roosevelt turned to rummage in his pack and extracted a razor, soap and brush, and a polished steel mirror, which he propped up on a tree limb. By the golden, flickering light of the bonfire, he shaved away his two-day beard, carefully trimming around the walrus moustache he cultivated. Finished, he rubbed his cheeks pink with handfuls of snow to remove the remnants of soap. He grinned as Leidig announced that supper was ready and strode to the cook table. Leidig held out a tin plate heaped with food.

“Ambrosia!” he exclaimed. “There is nothing on earth better that a meal by the campfire to share with good fellows.”

He pointed his fork at ranger Leidig.

“Mark me, Leidig. You are better than the chef at the Palace Hotel.”

Leidig joined the others to eat their evening meal as Leonard added more wood to the bonfire. The flames burnished their faces, erasing lines of care in flattering light. Even dour Muir looked almost youthful as he quizzed the President about the Palace Hotel, thinking he might visit it on his next trip to San Francisco. Roosevelt must have read Johnson’s account of his first meeting with Muir in a similar hotel.

“Johnson says that the twists and turns of hotel corridors confuse you, that you had to call out to him to locate yourself when you first met.”

Muir smiled at the recollection.

“That is so. But you should not be surprised that I am more at home among mountains divinely designed that in manmade warrens festooned with garish decoration. I think you understand me, happy to plow through snowfall and enjoy battle with the elements, at play in nature. You are a sensible man, Mr. President.”

Roosevelt patted his new friend on the shoulder.

“I have read and reread The National Parks, and agree with most of your arguments there, of which we will talk more tomorrow. But now, I plan to enjoy a blissful night’s sleep, here, in Yosemite, under the stars.”

He walked to the place ranger Leonard prepared—thick layers of wool on a bed of snow laid close under a yellow tarp. Roosevelt crawled under blankets, bade the others goodnight, and began to produce muffled snores within minutes. Muir stood for a while by the embers of the bonfire, looking at the mountains and stars, thinking about the morrow.

Yosemite Falls

Leonard had promised an early start the following morning, and awakened Roosevelt and Muir with cups of hot coffee at five thirty in the morning. Alpen glow showed crimson on some western peaks, disclosing a cloudless sky and the assurance of a fine morning. The two leaders stood holding their warm cups near the southern ridge of the valley, turning to observe the unobstructed view. Roosevelt expressed surprise that they were looking down at Glacier Point, and Muir reminded him that the top of the point was almost a thousand feet lower than Sentinel Dome. Chill breaths of wind from the valley turned them to the cook table where Leidig offered another spectacular breakfast that caused the President to brush crumbs from his mustache.

They broke camp a few minutes after six as the first rays of sun began to penetrate mists rising from the Merced River in the valley below. From their vantage points on mule back, as they descended to the valley, the degradation caused by grazing, logging, and commercial activities was clearly apparent. The President stopped his mount to look at the muddy tributaries to the Merced, runoff from overgrazed and unstable slopes, and the patchwork of bare ground amid forest groves, calling attention to the practice of clear cutting. The hotel, surrounded by gimcrack cabins and unattractive outbuildings, seemed out of place among the classic monoliths guarding the valley. They could see that guests were already hanging over the porch rails, hoping to catch a glimpse of the President.

Leonard rode up next to the President.

“Leidig and I plan to skirt the hotel on the way to our next camp at Bridalveil Meadow. You don’t mind riding through a bit of the river do you, sir?”

He certainly did not! Roosevelt prodded his mule to follow the rangers into a cut that ran behind the hotel and through the river. The watchers at the hotel were looking in the other direction. The two leaders rode side by side through the icy waters of the Merced and directed their mounts eastward to the great meadow.

Late that afternoon they settled at the edge of the meadow, listening to the sounds of field and forest. Roosevelt, with Leonard’s help, was delighted to decipher bird songs and asked Muir which birds he favored. Muir confessed he cared little about birds or birdsongs, noticing only some that were very conspicuous, like water ouzels. Roosevelt hid his surprise that the man of the mountains, this naturalist, was blind to that species of God’s creations. He smiled at Muir and said,

“Ah, water ouzels—they are a particular favorite of mine too. “

Leidig punctuated the day’s delights of sights in the valley floor by opening a bottle of wine for the two guests. They sat on canvas chairs, Muir with his legs stretched out toward the western peaks, the President cross-legged, leaning forward, signaling his eagerness to begin the conversation Muir longed for.

“In The National Parks, you object to the fact that the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove remain under the control of the State of California, not subject to federal control like the rest of this great wilderness that surrounds the valley. Please tell me more about your concerns.”

Muir placed his hands on his knees and gazed across the great meadow in front of them before he answered.

“It is now more than thirty years since I walked to this place for the first time, and it is by far the grandest of all the special temples of nature I was ever permitted to enter. Through the years, I have revered this valley, but have watched commercial interests, misguided worldlings, abuse and debase it. Ignorance of the outcome of their greedy endeavors does not excuse the harm they have done to these mountains, this valley.”

He turned toward Roosevelt, his beard burnished by the sun’s low angle, passion raising the pitch of his voice.

“Although the Cavalry stationed here to manage the federal areas of the park has managed to eliminate the problem of sheep grazing, they cannot intervene to ease the worsening condition of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. You saw for yourself today the results of overgrazing by the hoofed locusts permitted to forage the valley, and the ugliness of rampant deforestation. California has not, and will not, protect this valley. No sensible person, with a God given appreciation of the gifts of nature, can permit this to continue.”

Muir warmed to his sermon, describing not only the specific acts and areas of abuse, but also how the people who derived emotional and physical sustenance from the mountains and valleys felt about their treatment at the hands of thoughtless debasers. While he was at it, he offered other places of natural wonder for the President’s consideration.

Roosevelt, who by now was convinced of the verity of Muir’s vision, listened carefully, produced a leather-bound journal from a breast pocket, and took notes. The men talked for more than two hours, and the rangers waited patiently. They shared Muir’s dream, but were nonetheless mesmerized by his passion and his arguments. Long shadows blued the heather tones of the meadow when Muir decided he could make no better case to his robust companion. He stood to face the last glow of a setting sun, and Roosevelt joined him, grasping Muir’s arm, muttering words that made it seem that his vision would be validated. The President enjoyed another blissful night of rest in the beautiful valley.

The next day, the two leaders returned to business, with a ceremonial gathering at the hotel, and some of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds high office. Roosevelt confirmed to a group of reporters gathered to interview him that

“This is one day of my life I will always remember with pleasure. Just think of where I was—up there amid the pines and silver firs, in the Sierran solitude, in a snowstorm, too, and without a tent. I passed one of the most pleasant nights of my life. It was so reviving to be so close to nature in this magnificent forest.”

Muir, standing close to the President, was encouraged by Roosevelt’s obvious appreciation for the beauty and solitude he found during the past three days. Soon the reporters asked the naturalist for his comments about their adventure. Muir praised the President’s endurance and good nature, and then used the opportunity to lecture the reporters about the importance of conservation and preservation. They soon turned back to the President, who was preparing to ride to the coach that would carry him to his official railway car west of Yosemite.

Muir walked over the bridge across the Merced River, meaning to bid the President farewell as he passed on horseback. Instead, Roosevelt alighted, strode over to Muir, and clasped his hand, a huge smile on his face.

“Muir,” he said, “of all the people in the world, you are the one with whom it was best worthwhile thus to see the Yosemite. We will continue this business together.”

Still holding Muir’s hand, he paused for a long moment, saluted his new friend, and remounted. The crowd of visitors cheered their popular leader as he passed by them on his way to the coach.


In 1906, Roosevelt signed a bill that took control of the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove away from California and returned it to the federal government. The development of America’s National parks was on sound footing.

Great Falls of the Yellowstone

Yellowstone Falls









213Copyright 2016 Rolf Margenau - CopyThe first time I visited Jackson Hole, Wyoming I was just thirty years old, green in judgment and what my friends who worked coal in Tennessee called “too city.” It was late summer, the snow on the Teton range was blinding, and there was a sense of relaxed purpose from passersby. I walked to the center square and saw the high corner arches created from elk horns.

In my ignorance, I did not know that elk shed their horns each spring. I thought elk were like elephants or rhinos, keeping one set of tusks lifelong. So, I stood in the center of that sunny square suddenly overwhelmed by a vision of a great elk slaughter to harvest their horns. But the people of the town didn’t look like elk slaughterers. I asked a friendly woman in a clothing store about the horns.

She explained that elk historically came down from the high grazing ranges each fall and migrated south to lower altitudes. Unfortunately, as Jackson Hole grew, it blocked their migration route, bottling thousands of them up in the long valley north of town. So, the people of Jackson Hole sledded hay and fodder to the elk each winter. And harvested their horns in March and April.

During that first visit, I decided that, one day, I would return to help feed the elk. And, chastened by my ignorance, learn more about them. Elk are the largest of the deer family, which also includes caribou and moose. Maybe it’s coincidence, but their names are both singular and plural. I guess nobody could figure out the plural of “moose.” Mooses? Meese? Leave well enough alone.

Through conservation and relocation, significant populations of elk are now found in the western U.S. and Rocky Mountain regions. Smaller pockets of elk can be found in various Midwestern states, such as South Dakota and Minnesota, and small populations have been established in eastern states including Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Over the years, our family has enjoyed seeing these massive creatures in our national parks. Olympic, Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone are favorites. We also found Tule elk in Point Reyes, California. A bull’s antlers can weigh as much as twenty pounds, but they can’t be taken as souvenirs without permission. Other creatures of the forest chew on the antlers for needed micronutrients. Nothing goes to waste in nature.

One of the most eerie sounds I’ve heard is a bull elk bugling. It’s a high-pitched song that echoes through the mountains. It’s even more impressive when one can see clouds of cold air coming from his mouth as he sings. There’s a picture of a bull bugling above.

Though I’ve visited Jackson Hole often since the first time, Nancy and I were in our seventies before we came to feed the elk. We discovered the government had designated the area as a national elk refuge and taken over the feeding program. No romantic sleigh ride onto snowy fields to pitch hay to the gathered animals. Now, a big sled loaded with food pellets is dragged out to the meadows. The deer like it and thrive. However, we could take a sled ride into the refuge to be among the elk. It was a memorable visit.

So, as with elk and many other things, it is important to remember carpe diem. Seize the day, don’t delay. You might miss the chance to feed the elk.

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