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The Bullhead Queen

The Bullhead Queen: A Year on Pioneer Lake

Sue Leaf
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Bullhead Queen
    Book Description:

    Sue Leaf exemplifies the moral aspect of humans to nature through a collection of engaging meditations on the places she sees every day on Pioneer Lake in east-central Minnesota. Reflecting on the birds she peers at through binoculars and the Lutheran church that anchors the lake’s southern shore, Leaf contemplates how her relationship to nature has been colored by the Christian theology of her childhood.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7061-1
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Waiting at Advent
    (pp. 1-5)

    At the start of a new church year, we wait. The first season of the new year, Advent, means “to enter.” We wait for Christmas, for the coming of the Child. A series of blue candles marks the progression of our patience: four candles, four Sundays until Christmas. But on the shores of Pioneer Lake, our household is waiting for something more tangible: ice. We anticipate the day when the lake will solidify and assume the dull sheen of polished metal.

    Our family loves winter. My husband and I were introduced as children to winter sports that we thoroughly enjoy....

  6. Counting at Christmas
    (pp. 6-17)

    The snow is blinding, a white curtain veiling the world, as we make our way into the church narthex on a Saturday morning in mid-December. Singly and in pairs, members of Wild River Audubon arrive, stomping the snow off their boots, shaking scarves, and pounding their gloves. The night has delivered five inches of heavy snow, and it is not letting up. We are filled with delight.

    People have gathered for the annual Christmas Bird Count, an event I eagerly anticipate. Our chapter always holds its count in the week before Christmas, which means that I will snatch time from...

  7. Wild Ice
    (pp. 18-24)

    Christmas Eve. The phrase evokes images of glowing candlelight and glinting tree ornaments. In our household, the morning of Christmas Eve is marked by a storm of activity. Kids bustle about, bellowing for scissors and Scotch tape, and wondering who used up the reindeer wrapping paper. The house is filled with the scent of fresh balsam—the tree came into the house only days earlier.

    In the kitchen, I preside over the beginnings of our Christmas Eve dinner. The fruity scent of ruby-red lingonberries melds with the yeasty fragrance of stollen, baking in the oven. I aim for the right...

  8. Christmas Hockey
    (pp. 25-27)

    Santa had delivered only two hockey sticks to our house the night before, and there are six of us. This is a dilemma, but trifling, really, in the broader scheme of things. Hockey is a rough sport, and if players have to resort to crude equipment, it will be even rougher. The important thing is that we all have skates and we know how to use them. The rink on the lake beckons. Christmas Day is luminous, with hoarfrost glittering on the trees. A weak solstice sun lights the landscape and snow crystals stairstepping down from heaven glint in midair....

  9. Morning Star
    (pp. 28-34)

    The mornings following Christmas are some of the darkest of the year. Although the days begin lengthening immediately after the winter solstice, the added daylight comes at the end of the day. The sun continues to rise later and later for almost three weeks. Not even the faintest trace of pink rims the eastern sky as I peer out the kitchen window at six thirty each morning. We eat a subdued breakfast, each of us thinking it would be better to be in bed. I light a single candle at the table, hoping to kindle a bit of life into...

  10. Geese on the Ice
    (pp. 35-42)

    We first saw the geese shortly before Christmas. In the gray light of a Sunday afternoon, our family went down to the lake to skate half an hour before supper. The north end of Pioneer had been frozen for several weeks, but a persistent patch of water had remained open until a few days before. Subzero temperatures had finally capped it, and we felt confident to head out over its glossy surface.

    As the girls and I dallied over our skate laces, using the disassembled dock as a warming bench, the boys raced away, the anxious Sheltie at their heels....

  11. Passing the Salt
    (pp. 43-51)

    When the phone rang on a snowy afternoon two years ago, the voice on the other end said, “Mrs. Leaf? This is Officer Anderson from the Chisago County Sheriff’s Department calling. There’s been an accident on Highway 8, but I want you to know that your son is okay.”

    Highway 8 is known as a treacherous road. It averages about one fatal accident a year. A phone call from the county sheriff is what every local parent most fears. I could barely hear above the throbbing of my heart as the officer proceeded to tell me that John had spun...

  12. Winter Geography
    (pp. 52-56)

    I am always a little sad the day after the deadline for removing fish houses from the lakes. In the Chisago Lakes area, we get accustomed to the geography of the temporary villages that bloom on the ice in December. We keep an eye on the activity of ice village life throughout the long weeks of winter. The demise of the ice villages signals the end of winter’s worst. It is a punctuation mark in the year, sharing kinship with the last day of school and Labor Day, two other endings with which the door clangs shut on a familiar...

  13. Lengthening
    (pp. 57-60)

    When does winter turn into spring?

    That is the question of the moment. I returned recently from a vacation in southern France. Flying home, from the plane I could see my native land cloaked entirely in snow. All the lakes frozen, big white pennies scattered across Minnesota’s face, all the farm fields bright and featureless. The landscape looked more wintry than when we had left, ten days previous. At home, I was disheartened, looking out over the snowy lumps and knobs that were my garden boxes. I had returned with thoughts of pansies and primroses and early leaf lettuce.


  14. Owl Invasion
    (pp. 61-69)

    In the winter of 2004–2005, Minnesota became the stage for the largest northern owl irruption in recorded history. An irruption is a biological term denoting a rapid, irregular increase in number, and that is what happened in the state. Tens of thousands of owls migrated from Canada southward and continued moving south as the winter progressed. They peaked in number in the vicinity of Pioneer Lake in the midst of Lent, but their story began many months prior.

    The first report of owls came in November, at the onset of winter. My e-mail messages informed me that there was...

  15. What Are Animals For?
    (pp. 70-79)

    It was one of those transition days. On a gray September morning, a slight mist hung on the air, as if a gauzy curtain had been dropped over the stage, signaling the end of Act One and hiding from view the preparations for Act Two. Pioneer takes on a mysterious aspect on days like this. It ceases to present itself as a straightforward little lake and assumes instead a cloak of inscrutability. Anything becomes possible.

    I was out on the lake in the canoe, taking some exercise and checking out the migrating ducks that had dropped in to Pioneer for...

  16. Ever Living Fire
    (pp. 80-87)

    The moon waxed full the second week in April. The night was illuminated with such brilliance that at times I could not sleep and, instead, wandered the half-lit house, looking out over a yard drenched in moonlight. This was the first full moon after the vernal equinox, the celestial event that signaled the start of a new year for the ancient Hebrews. I like the idea of beginning a new year with the coming of spring. Beginnings are abundant in March and April, much more so than in January. After a natural pause at the end of winter, leaves begin...

  17. Winged Wonder
    (pp. 88-94)

    One chilly April morning, I glanced out the window to see a brownish butterfly clinging to one of the fuzzy flowers of our red maple. A spring wind tossed the branches, and the butterfly, intent on extracting whatever it could from such a spare flower, rode the undulating perch like a small boat in high seas. It seemed incredible to me that an adult butterfly would be on the wing so early in the season, that its heart would beat, that its muscles contract on so cool a day. The spring was still quite young. Our woods were naked, only...

  18. The Rites of Spring
    (pp. 95-102)

    The Lutherans worshiping in the yellow brick church at the southern end of Pioneer Lake don’t distinguish between low and high worship. It is true that some services are fancier than others, but we have lost the language that distinguishes the festive from the more mundane. Through transfer from Europe to the New World, through neglect, through downright hostility to our origins in the Roman Catholic Church, we have lost the words that helped us articulate what we’re about each Sunday.

    Perhaps if we had retained them, we could better characterize the nature of spring. Just as a quiet, subdued...

  19. The Nest Box War
    (pp. 103-110)

    At the edge of our meadow rising up from Pioneer Lake, we have placed bluebird boxes, designed to attract the cheery sapphire birds to our yard. There is nothing lovelier on a summer day than to be in the presence of these beauties. “Bluebirds carry the sky on their backs,” Thoreau writes, and I think of this every time a male bluebird flies by.

    Bluebirds are cavity nesters, a group of birds whose populations have been declining for decades, for want of nest sites. Artificial boxes are intended to substitute for natural nest sites. In the past, cavity-nesting birds sought...

  20. Conspiracy
    (pp. 111-117)

    Last week was the festival of Pentecost, an event taking place fifty days after Easter. According to the story, the apostles were gathered in one place when there was a rush of wind and small flickers of flame rested over their heads. Marked by fire, they went out and discovered they had the ability to communicate in many languages. It’s a strange tale and one the Lutherans have been squeamish acknowledging, not wanting to be lumped with the charismatic Christians and their odd and disconcerting penchant to speak in tongues, a babble of nonsense syllables. But celebrate, we did. The...

  21. Illumined Courtship
    (pp. 118-122)

    The heat is on. Humidity saturates the air, making it work to breathe. At night, I seek any waft of a breeze, my skin finely tuned to cooling drafts. Thunderstorms punctuate these high summer days, releasing torrents of rain with a tropical flourish.

    I awoke to an approaching storm last week. Lightning flashed on the far western horizon, illuminating the sky at 2:00 A.M. Rising from bed, I stumbled out to the living room to gauge the storm’s approach. How soon would it be here? Was it time to close windows? The night was particularly dark. Clouds had already moved...

  22. The Bullhead Queen
    (pp. 123-127)

    Buried somewhere in the weeds at the far edges of our yard lies the Bullhead Queen. A remnant of our family’s past, it has been neglected so long that I cannot even find it in the lush growth of summer. Rather, I wait for it to reappear each fall when the tall grasses, struck by frost, die back and reveal the Queen, faded and aging fast. Despite her grand name, the Queen was little more than a wooden raft, something Huck Finn might have recognized. I’m not certain she was even seaworthy or if her builders ever took her out...

  23. Skiing at Flamin’ Feet
    (pp. 128-136)

    When the little plastic buoys appeared on our lake a few years ago, I was both startled and curious. Pioneer Lake had sported just one buoy the past summer. I assumed it marked a spot where lake clarity was being monitored. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) organizes volunteers to observe lakes through the open water season. I’d been surprised that humble Pioneer had a monitor, but when the MPCA released the compiled data on Minnesota lakes, Pioneer’s records were in the ranks. They showed what anyone could see with the naked eye: clarity in Pioneer was never any greater...

  24. The Green Season
    (pp. 137-144)

    When I look out over the meadow this August morning, the landscape is washed almost entirely in green. The variety of hues is dazzling. There’s the lawn, which can only be described as “grass green,” and the two maples with their three-pointed, hand-like leaves that are still in sprightly summer verdure. The many herbaceous plants of the meadow are beginning to add some golden tones to the palette, and what once was bright and true is more faded and mature, jaundiced, olive and ochre. All too soon the vibrant scene will be colored by the warm yellows of autumn, but...

  25. Rowing the Mutant Canoe
    (pp. 145-150)

    Waiting for us at the edge of Pioneer Lake, at the foot of our dock, is an odd sort of watercraft, perhaps unique in the entire Chisago Lakes area. As a biologist, I might term it achimera— that is, a misfit organism of two genetically distinct parents. It is a creature that doesn’t occur naturally. Chimeras are usually forced into being through the active imagination of a human being, say, through laboratory manipulation.

    Our Pioneer chimera is a canoe that can be rowed as a scull. My husband has taken out the middle thwart of our seventeen-foot Old Town...

  26. Ordinary Time
    (pp. 151-160)

    I remember learning to tell time. Our square red-and-white kitchen clock with the art deco numerals was my model. It sat on the kitchen counter next to the stove for decades, a testimony to a marriage made in 1950 and to my parents’ parsimony in preserving household goods. I was five, on the cusp of kindergarten, ready to leave the timeless days of family life behind and enter the real world of school schedules and dismissal bells. My mother must have considered the ability to tell time a survival skill.

    The hour hand was thick and sluggish, like a dumpy...

  27. Nighthawk Day
    (pp. 161-166)

    The great vortex undulated above my head, alive with the forms and flutter of birds. In the rosy light of a setting sun, I could make out the irregular wing beat of chimney swifts, their dark silhouettes as compact as little bullets, but there was a second bird in the whirlwind, swirling with the swifts. Penetrating the rapid chitter of the swift could be heard the nasal “peent” of common nighthawks, and in the dimming light I detected their angular wings, each marked with a single white bar.

    I encountered this spectacular spiral of birds while on an early September...

  28. Via Dolorosa
    (pp. 167-173)

    On the first day of summer vacation this year, as we approached the driveway into our cabin, we came upon the porcupine that lived under our front steps, dead on the highway. Its quills were raised, the brown fur glossy and stiff beneath them, and I could see its rounded nose and perfect paws. Porcupines are slow, bumbling creatures and take a long time to cross a road. Though the speed limit is fifty-five miles per hour on our highway, people go seventy.

    If I ever go certifiably around the bend, it will be because of roadkill.

    This is a...

  29. Saints at Work, Saints at Rest
    (pp. 174-182)

    Great horned owls disturbed my sleep on Halloween night. Their sonorous hoots, just outside my bedroom window, pulled me out of the deep tangled dreams of midnight. As I rose to the surface, slowly coming into consciousness, I mistook them for ghosts, and I wondered why unearthly spirits would want to visit me.

    The alto section of the choir had been telling ghost stories that morning. We sat in the choir room after warm-up, dressed in our billowing green robes, and awaited the beginning of the festive Reformation Day service, commemorating Martin Luther’s nailing of the ninety-five theses to the...

  30. Everyone a King
    (pp. 183-192)

    One last paddle in the canoe on Pioneer before iceover. As I pick my way past yellowing vegetation lining the path to the lake, I can see that the color has drained from the land in the past fortnight. The brilliant maples in our side yard have dropped their leaves. The ruby oaks have browned. Farmers have been at work in the fields surrounding the marshy basin. They’ve shorn the apricotcolored soybeans and reduced the corn to stubble. The contours of the earth stand revealed, like the subtle topography of a skull.

    The growing season, which began in April, has...

  31. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-193)