This week’s ponderings: owls, a movie, whether we should keep working

This column originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 2016, issue of the Portage County Gazette. Owl update: the regal creatures have continued to appear annually in Wisconsin since the original publication. Photo below by Tim Krause. Photo of owl in field by Christina Streiff.

Being a column about recreation, this is also where we consider important questions of life. The word “recreate” is, after all, literally about reviving and remaking ourselves.

Here we ruminate on issues related to play and work, meaning and meaninglessness, our use of time, and whether a colonoscopy is more fun than hiking the Appalachian Trail.

We have both little questions and big questions.  The little ones:  Why do the snowy owls keep coming back, and is the movie “A Walk in the Woods” worth seeing?  We’ll get to those.

The big one, which only readers can answer for themselves, is this.

As just about everybody knows, an epic battle is brewing to see if the president can name our next U.S. Supreme Court justice.  As I understand it, that’s his job, and the job of our Senate to approve the president’s choice unless the nominee is completely unfit.  It seems that some of our so-called leaders are saying that this is just not going to happen.

So, the big question: because our so-called leaders promise that they’re basically not going to do their job for approximately the next year, does this mean that the rest of us get a long vacation, too?

This has important implications for recreation.  I’ll leave it to readers to contemplate while I get to the owls and the movie.

Snowy owls continue finding Freedom to their liking

My birding friends Tim Krause and Christina Streiff, who introduced me to whooping cranes in November, invited me out this past Sunday to view some snowy owls in the Freedom area, north of Kaukana in Outagamie County.

The massive, mostly white raptors cannot always be found easily in Wisconsin, but climate change may have sparked a population boom in the arctic and new migratory habits.  Tim says he and Christina have been able to see the birds for three consecutive years.

Various online newspaper accounts confirm the idea that snowies have visited in large migratory numbers, or irruptions, over the past three winters.  The majestic birds can weigh up to 6 pounds and are the largest owls in North America.

There has been at least one year within the last decade in which none of the owls have been spotted, but that’s definitely not the case this season, when the first confirmed sightings began in mid-October, confounding many scientists.

Snowy migrations have been tracked by scientists since the late 1800s and have helped determine that irruptions generally occurred every four or five years, so the last decade indicates a surprising and still-puzzling change.

Christina has an amazing ability to distinguish a bird from the background even while observing on the move from the back seat of the car. That’s where she was keeping the company of Mollie BigDawg Krause, a lovable St. Bernard.

Christina spotted one owl from about a football field’s distance, sitting up on top of a snowy hillock in a pasture and looking for all the world like the first stage of a snowman’s abdomen – just a lump of white in a field of white.

It was only after she pointed it out, and we all agreed that it might indeed be a snowy, that we noticed the nearby cars lined up on a different road not far from the hillock.

That happened to us more than once; Christina could spot a snowy high on a telephone pole at distances of a couple of hundred yards or more, even against a pale, faded gray sky. Then we’d see a bunch of cars.

We saw either four or five of the owls within an area of several square miles, all of it relatively flat dairy country with large expanses of snow-covered pastures.

It was another fine outing with Tim and Christina, and I’m grateful for the opportunity and that they shared some snowy pictures for this column.

Bryson book translates well to movie

For those not wanting to brave what apparently will be slushy snowmelt this weekend, renting the video “A Walk in the Woods” might be a suitable replacement for outdoor activity.

Being a relative ignoramus when it comes to movies, I was not even aware that Bill Bryson’s book of the same name had been loosely translated into a movie, released in theaters in September.  I found out about it while conducting online research about Lord Huron, a Los Angeles-based band with Michigan roots whose music features prominently in the soundtrack of this film.

Bryson, a sardonic humorist and historian known primarily for his travel books, was never a favorite of mine because, many years ago, I found him too cynical and negative when I read his first book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America.

Those who know me may be astounded by that last sentence. Either Bryson has mellowed or I simply have aged into a new appreciation for his approach, which can be acerbic at times.

His Australian travelogue, In a Sunburned Country, was invaluable in helping me understand that continent on my recent trip there, and I found his style much more palatable.

Bryson’s biting humor comes through in the movie, in which Bryson (played by Robert Redford) regularly makes cutting but funny remarks about virtually everything and everyone – especially his travel partner, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte).

Katz, an overweight alcoholic, and Bryson, who has become a best-selling author, had traveled through Europe as young men but fallen out of touch after parting on tenuous terms. Katz hears from a mutual friend that Bryson is seeking someone to walk the Appalachian Trail, an idea that comes to the aging writer shortly after attending a funeral.

Nobody else is willing to go. One friend leaves a message for Bryson stating that he’d rather endure a colonoscopy. Bryson’s wife (who leaves on his desk copies of every news article she can find about trail tragedies) won’t let him go alone, but reacts negatively to the idea of Katz going along.

That, predictably, seals the deal, and before long, the two are on their way.

Much of the plot is equally easy to foretell, but that doesn’t mean this movie should be ignored.

For starters, the mountain scenery is fantastic, and a jolt of greenery, even if it’s digital, is often just what we need to make winter more bearable.

But it’s also a fine story about friendship, redemption, aging and whether to give up or move onward.

Critical reviews were mixed, including a mere 46 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, perhaps because fans were expecting more of the Redford-Nolte pairing.  I had a hard time accepting the dashing Redford as Bryson simply because he didn’t fit the image I had of the writer (read some Bryson and see photos of him, and you may agree).

But movies often are about suspension of disbelief and tolerance for the liberties that screenplays take, even with the truth (at least as Bryson presents it). That attitude helped me enjoy the movie thoroughly, and the two primary actors pull off their roles convincingly in this comedy-drama.

Our usual video store had only the DVD version of this film (released at the end of December) because of a production glitch on literally all of the Blu-Rays, according to an employee. I decided to rent the high-definition version on Amazon Prime instead, spending $4.99 for the 48-hour rental.

I’m glad I did. The detail of nature – mists in the air, the contrasting rough textures of bark next to rock, the shimmering translucence of leaves in front of sunlight, and even the stringy inner bark of a broken branch – are sharply rendered. Mountain vistas are mesmerizing.

Viewers who don’t feel a chill during the playing of Lord Huron’s “To the Ends of the Earth” as the two friends stand on Virginia’s McAfee Knob, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, may need to check whether their souls are still in place.

Parental warning: there is a full range of profanity, mostly from Katz, and the language and sexual references give this an R rating. It’s mostly a film about two older guys reminiscing about youthful adventures and speaking with the bluntness of age.  It’s not violent, although there are bears. 

Mostly, it’s a movie that will transport folks who love the outdoors onto the trails of one of our national treasures.  The soundtrack alone is a beauty. 

All in all, a couple of hours with the still-studly Redford and the foul-mouthed Nolte is vastly preferable to even the slightest hint of politicians or proctologists.

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