nature

on being tender

Most days, these days, I count to 5 before I read the news. While I’m counting, I ask myself if my time would be better spent reaching out to someone or engaging in joyful pursuit. Or both. Not that I’ve put my head in the sand. Far from it. But I’m interested these days in boundaries that also allow for light. There’s a long, troubling haul ahead culturally, and sustenance for the fight, for me, is going to come from remembering both my impermanence and the importance of celebrating tiny, fierce, joyful things.

I’ve been thinking all week, since my book group meeting, about Brian Doyle.

I first met writer Brian Doyle through the pages of Orion magazine, where his pieces made me giggle and want to read them aloud or memorize them or lean into my husband and whisper them. Delicious series of words that tongue-twist and whirl and leap. “21 Laws of Nature as Interpreted by My Children” reminds we humans not to get too big for our britches: “If you can’t make a new ant, don’t kill an old one,” reads #20. “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” pokes fun at the preachy earnestness of environmental writing, which so often bludgeons readers with stridency and dire prognostication.

Here’s his last paragraph from that essay:

“And finally the last paragraph. It turns out that the perfect nature essay is quite short, it’s a lean taut thing, an arrow and not a cannon, and here at the end there’s a flash of humor, and a hint or tone or subtext of sadness, a touch of rue, you can’t quite put your finger on it but it’s there, a dark thread in the fabric, and there’s also a shot of espresso hope, hope against all odds and sense, but rivetingly there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed, no hint that you, yes you, should be ashamed of how much water you use or the car you drive or the fact that you just turned the thermostat up to seventy, or that you actually have not voted in the past two elections despite what you told the kids and the goat.”

Doyle’s writing’s often silly, unwieldy as Faulkner, and this side-door play with language works like a water mark you can see when you hold the artifact up to the light, or a flavor you can taste hours later. That kind of fun with words piques curiosity, keeps you reading.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of his novel Mink River, a book I read faster than I wanted to and stayed up late to do it a few nights running, aware that such fast tour through the pages was a disrespect to the writer’s deft ability to make prose read like poetry. Mostly, when I consider Doyle’s work, I think of the word wonder. I don’t know how he does it, but he manages to infuse his characters and their perspectives with an awe about living most of us seem to miss, busy as we are with the big problems, the minutiae, the plans and goals and hiccups.

Time with Doyle always makes me realize that in this short stint of living, I’d be better served to use wonder as my lens. There’s a choice about perspective, after all, and sometimes choice takes both purpose and a bit of work.

I recommended Martin Marten as my book group’s February read. The same friend who sent me Mink River gifted me Martin Marten in early summer as my son was about to leave home for college. It was the perfect gift, and I read it in the hammock in the week before we delivered Owen to his new chapter. Doyle’s story was a reminder that sending a kid out into the world is a new chapter for parents, too; when anyone you love peels off on his own path, he’s both inextricably bound to the place from where he’s come and forever separate in a new way. Both joy and sadness can set up shop next to each other in one’s heart, and that’s the vital rub of living.

Martin Marten, about a boy called Dave, his family, and the colorful collection of characters in their small Mt. Hood town of Zig Zag, Oregon (a town below where I’ve spent some time skulking about in the woods, a magical place), is another testament to Doyle’s wondrous outlook, to his fine ear and artful craft, to his bedrock sense that the world is a brief, glorious journey, and that the people along for the ride with us are full of wonder, too, even if they are also simultaneously curmudgeonly, or afraid, or confused. The novel unspools the twin coming-of-age of Dave, the boy, and Martin, the pine marten, and their stories weave and flirt together and apart as they’re both tossed and turned in life and love.

Dave’s younger sister is as precocious as any child you’ll meet in fiction. But I didn’t mind her ability to so candidly talk about feelings or her spatially gifted genius. Her words to her brother – the same words that ring long after the story is over – are to “be tender.”

Could there be any better words to adopt as your theme song? Especially now, when most days it feels like tenderness is a fleeting impulse, with so much hateful rage and fear on the wind.

A few years ago Brian and I both had stories published in the same journal, and I ginned up the courage to email him and tell him what a fan I was. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he emailed me back within a few hours with genuine enthusiasm and his signature silly swirl of language. Neither too important nor too busy to respond, despite his much more impressive publications. His swift, embracing tone of collegiality is something I’ll remember always and work to pay forward, too.

Our book group meetings always involve a writer review, and a friend came this week prepared to share Doyle’s accomplishments in fiction and essays, his background and family story, and his working life as editor of Portland Magazine. This story isn’t all about joy: I didn’t know until this week that Doyle was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November. He had surgery a few weeks ago and is recovering in the hospital after a complicated procedure that’s made post-surgery complicated, too, not to mention survival.

In Martin Marten, Dave spends a good bit of time exploring the “Daveness” of being Dave. In a note to his readers in the days before surgery, The “Doyleness” of Doyle sounds an awful lot like the character he built for us, so full of light:

“stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives; stories save lives. … They crack open hearts, they open minds…It’s more important than ever before to hold hands and catch and share stories of substance and grace and defiant courage and irrepressible humor…The alternative is to ‘allow nothing in our lives but sales pitches and lies.’”

“We could change the world if we told the right story,” Doyle said. 

Indeed.

I hope, Brian, that you can feel me hugging you from here with defiant tenderness. That you can hear my stories rising up with the stories of so many others.

Doyle Family Support Fund.

 

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Categories: book review, books, community, family, fiction, nature, publishing, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

resurrection

As she often does, in her latest story “The Resurrections” published at Terrain, Heather E. Goodman writes about complicated relationships that are real, gritty, honest.  Her characters muck around in each other’s hearts and on the land, aiming for grace, yearning to be understood, seeking forgiveness and sometimes getting it.  There’s palpable tenderness rising up out of this hardscrabble life etched by a series of deaths.

The narrator grieves the death of his wife Elna, of his father, of the business he and his father built together, of his youth and the loss of a young man’s full life.  “The Resurrections” isn’t a long story, but it’s stitching is both intricate and simple, giving the impression that Goodman knows exactly what it’s like to be a grieving widower, an older man on a threshold between a past he can’t do anything about and the awakening knowledge that he’s got enough life left in him to hope for the future.

Goodman’s prose is spare, always, and prismed here with the flinty winter landscape and a friendship that resolves to thaw itself nonetheless.  Even the animals have agency and longing, evident in the hound dog Beagle who can’t seem to help digging up his dead friend Smokey, a cat.

Delicious fiction.  Read it.  It’s the sort of story you’ll carry with you.

 

 

Categories: book review, fiction, nature, publishing, short story, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

billy and the band

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 515

This summer John and I gave in to the siren call of buying a log built home on an acre.  A project house, a blank slate of a place, it’s too small, has poorly insulated doors and windows, and lacks reasonable cooling (which is to say, it has none) and heating (which is to say, it has a tiny woodstove and electric baseboard heaters we’re not sure work).  We nonetheless fell in love with its possibility.

For Riley, the cabin fulfills a few wishes.  She’ll get to raise animals, have her pick of climbing trees, eat fruit she picks herself, go wading in the small irrigation stream in the back.

The first time we showed the place to Owen, he stood next to the car shaking his head.  “I mean, all that looking around and this is what you chose?  I’m confused.”   Our choice was further evidence that his parents are nutjobs, that he was switched somehow at birth and got taken home with what he calls “hygienic hippies” instead.  Owen wanted a pool, a media room, a hot tub, a house that said “Wow” from the street.

Early summer was long and lovely and mild, the perfect conditions in which to move ourselves just the few miles with hundred of trips in our pickup truck and some help from a band of teenage boys.  Owen’s friends are much more willing helpers than he is, for which we’re grateful.  In addition to a growing curiosity about his real birth parents, Owen is newly in love, and therefore anything we ask him to do is half completed in a hot rush, one eye on the clock, while he counts the minutes and seconds until he can be reunited with his gal pal.  When they cannot be together, there is furious love-struck texting, and also more than a little staring off into the middle distance, deep in thought.  He wants to be fully independent and stay out at night as late as he likes.  He wants to bring five friends home for dinner with five minute’s notice.  He wants to go camping with a pack of boys and girls and no chaperones, burn huge bonfires in the desert, wear a LOT of cologne.

This territory is new for all of us and seemed to come all at once.  He can hardly have a conversation, changes clothes three times a day, and takes a lot of showers.  We like his gal pal quite a bit; she’s genuine, helpful, a good friend to him.  John and I do remember how all-consuming teen desires of any kind are, which helps us dread the brain-damaged condition we’re all going to have to suffer through for the next few years.  We remember enough to be a anxious about Owen’s choices in his Technicolor love haze.

“Give me a break,” Owen tells us when we talk about not getting carried away in love. “You’re in love too, you know.  With LAND.”  As if it’s a bad thing.

Many days, the new house is too small for Owen and me, so I spend a lot of time outside on the LAND, which I do, I must confess, love.

Anyway, by day three in the cabin I realized the back pasture’s thigh-high grass needed attention.  On Craigslist I found a goat wrangling schoolteacher with a hobby farm a few towns over, so I called him and asked him to bring me some professional eaters, which he did.  The next day our new Nubian friends pulled up to the house in the bed a tiny pick-up truck .  A mother goat and twin kids, a boy and a girl about four months old.  They’d been on the freeway and caused quite a ruckus among drivers, but when they arrived the goats eyed us from the back of the truck, chewing rhythmically on some hay, and didn’t seem too worse for the wear.

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The wrangler stepped out of the cab.  He wore workout clothes, a pair of Nikes, a baseball cap.  I’d expected him to show up wearing, um, goat wrangling clothes, and then realized I had no idea what that attire would be.

“That’s Cooper, the mom,” the wrangler said, “and Coeur d’Alene, the girl; and Preston, the boy. We name all our goats after places.”

Riley and I sat on the tailgate.  The goats nuzzled our hands from the truck’s bed and leaned their foreheads into our chests.

“I just banded Preston,” the wrangler said, “so he might not feel too well for a few days.”  He took some leashes from his cab and reached to clip one to each goat’s dog collar.

I had no idea what he was talking about.  “You did what?”

“See that rubber band back there?”  I maneuvered to look at Preston’s backside and spied a green rubber band wrapped around the top of his testicles.  “It takes the Billy out of his Billy, if you know what I mean.  Last thing you want is a Billy around.  Doesn’t really hurt, just tingles a little.  Should dry up and fall off in a few days.”

Though I had just met the wrangler, I said something about how great it would be if it was that easy to take the Billy out of some human males, remembering John’s post-Billy-surgery-drama-queenness.  The frozen bags of corn and peas. I thought of Owen’s burgeoning Billy, and also wondered how anyone could possibly know that for a goat, having a rubber band cutting off the blood to its Billy did nothing more than tingle.

We stood quietly a moment.  “Wait,” I said.  “Which thing falls off?  The Billy or the rubber band?”

“You’ll see,” he said.  “You can call me if there’s a problem.”

We put the three goats on leashes and took them into the pasture and let them go.

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Preston licked at his backside and then laid down by the gate while Cooper and Cordy wandered off.

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We watched them browsing in their new salad bar, and by the time the wrangler was ready to leave, Riley and I were decidedly smitten.

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It’s been two months, long enough for us to train the goats to come when we call.  They follow us around in the pasture, nudging our hands for kitchen scraps, putting their front feet onto our chests to make sure we’re not concealing anything.  When it’s hot, they lie together under a big spruce at the corner of the property, just opposite the fence from our neighbor’s chickens, who lean against the fence from their own side, close enough to touch their goat pals.  They’re fast friends, which has given life to a habit of breaking property lines to be together.  Once, my neighbor found the goats inside his chicken run, where they ate all the chicken feed and then laid down with the chickens.  A few days later, the hens were in our back pasture, trailing the goats and chortling to one another in chicken speak about what good fun a day visiting friends was.  They put themselves to bed later in the evening.

We’ve spent a lot of time shoring up fencing, hoping each time we’ve succeeded in preventing their next houdinied adventure.

All summer we waited for Preston to lose whatever it was he was going to lose in only a few days.  We called the wrangler once to ask why it was taking so long and got another cryptic answer:  “Sometimes it does,” he said.  In the background I could hear a chicken laying an egg, a lawnmower, some kids yelling.  Riley and I decided to resist asking Uncle Google what to do, and instead, we just waited.

Preston, his Billy perpetually shriveling but not falling off, spent the summer trying to work out what it all meant.  At dusk, he’d run up to his mother and nurse furiously for a minute, then canter spastically toward his sister Cordy and mount her until Cooper bleated at him to stop, at which point he’d run in zig-zags, until they were all sprinting back and forth along the fence line, tossing their ears.

Summer’s pretty much over as far as the kids are concerned.  Owen’s still with his gal pal.  Though John and I are bold in our conversations about how it’s possible to be in love and also make smart choices, we’re terrified of Owen’s Billy being in the driver’s seat of decision making.

Last week Owen and I were in the way back diverting water into the pasture.  He’s been much more willing to help than I imagined, and I’m tickled.  The goats were with us, using one of the fence posts to stretch up into the leafy branches of a locust and eat.  Their appetite is like nothing I’ve seen; it beats even a band of teenaged boys after swim practice.  Owen and I stood in the knee-high stream in our rubber boots, watching the water find its way through the grass in the pasture.

“Isn’t water games so much better than a media room?” I asked.

He shook his head, smiled, offered a clutch of mint to Preston, who nibbled on it, jerking his head to keep it away from Cordy.

I leaned down to check out the status of Preston’s rubber band, finding nothing at all.  All of it had fallen off, both the Billy and the band.  I patted his head and asked him if he felt better, if he’d even noticed that he was newly unencumbered.

“Poor guy,” Owen said.  He stepped out of the water, and Preston sniffed his pockets and put his front legs up on Owen’s chest.  “Wasn’t really a fair fight, was it, Bud?”

I opened my mouth to seize the opportunity to have another TALK about inhabiting the world of love while also making good choices.  But my boy was in galoshes, mucking around with me in the pursuit to divert water, and he was pretty good humored about it, for once.  And already, I was seriously at risk of being the dog whistle he couldn’t hear, so I let it lie.

Owen patted his pocket for the appendage of his phone, then looked toward the house.  “So.  We’re done here?” he asked.  “I’m going to do that thing in a while?”

“Sure.  Thanks for the help.”

I bit my tongue against all the cautionary words to live by, the pearls of wisdom gleaned from my own near-misses and hard lessons, the ever-present feed of news informing new pitfalls for youth.  He wouldn’t have heard me anyway.  Already gone, Owen walked back to the house, sloshing through the water-soaked pasture, his head bent into texting while the goats trotted along behind him.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 608

 

 

Categories: family, goats, kids, nature, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

screech

For the last few months, I’ve been watching a pair of small owls hunting at dusk in the neighborhood.

While they’ve spent the bulk of their early evening hunts flying into and out of the horse chestnut tree across the street, the pair seems especially to hanker for mice in the backyard next door.  That house is empty, the yard a brown tangle of beds gone fallow and some iron monkey bar-looking structures.  From the back deck, while I’ve watched the owls’ tandem swoops in the gloaming, I’ve come to know their calls to each other.  The lilting tremolo, the barking chuck, the soft hoots.

Early last week I was in the backyard watering when I heard a low, bouncing whinny.  It was mid-day.  I looked up into the maple and spied a grayish mass on one branch, roughly the size of a housecat, and thought maybe Arturo, bigger than ever, had reasserted himself as the squirrel yard boss.  But it was no rodent squatting on the branch of the maple. It was three screech owlets who sat huddled together, their feathers still a tufted, downy gray.  They sat blinking sleepily, leaning against one another while I had a proper look at them and while their parents stood guard not too far away, chirping at them, no doubt, not to engage with the human.

Over the course of last week the babies filled out.  Their feathered ear tufts darkened a little and their yellow eyes remained open much of the day.  I stood below their roost and made conversation while they stared unblinking, occasionally responding by swaying and bobble-heading, trying to get a bead on what sort of threat I was.

In the scheme of their life span, the owlets are pre-pubescent.  After they hatch, they learn everything they need to know in five weeks.  This week they are awake much of the day, begging to get off their branch and go do something even though the sun is high.  The adults admonish, hush them by cleaning their feathers, let them shuffle to another branch, maybe chirp at the squirrels who roughhouse nearby.  Sometimes the owlets split up and sit alone.  From where I stand on the ground, I can’t tell the adults from their young now.  They blink down at me, unfazed.  They’ve got my number.

Aware that I’m at risk of sentimental anthropomorphizing, I know their presence in town is just nature adapting. Still, I feel lucky they’ve chosen our tree in which to spend their days, and even luckier that I can witness them leave this perch to go hunting.  Well before dusk the owlets register their discontent, flap their wings, peck at each other.  In the loud correction of the adults there is exasperation, as if to say, “We are sit-and-wait predators.  When you can perfect that, we’ll see about driving.”

A half hour or so after the sun goes down, one of the adults leaves first and flies to the fence and then calls for the owlets to stay behind.  There’s a lot of thrashing and tomfoolery in the branches.  The babies fight, fidget, bark out into the night for the adults. They want to fly, and they can – they navigate within the branches of the big maple just fine.  But it’s not yet time for them to hunt solo.

Their impatience is raucous.

At our own house we are teaching Owen, 15, how to drive.  Being a passenger with him is alternately terrifying and rewarding.  He insists that he’s an excellent driver already, that we’ve got nothing to worry about, but he has trouble with road awareness.  He hugs the white line and argues that he IS in the middle of the lane when I suggest that’s the best place for success.  I’m white noise, a goathead pricker in his sock, a dog whistle he cannot hear.  He’s impatient to take the reigns of his life, raucous and flapping like those owlets, who, each night, get less and less obedient about following directions.

Last night, a full moon, the owlets flitted out of the tree as soon as their parents left and took their squabbling to the roof of our house, to the top of the neighbor’s van.  I could hear one of the adults talking to them a few yards over.  After short consultation, the babies decided they had better get home.  Breakfast was on the way.

The moon rose higher, illuminating the show in the backyard.  Three mice in an hour, a good haul.  Food in the belly quieted the owlets in the maple.  The adults flew off into the night.  I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be in our yard.

Soon, the babies will be off in the world, hunting in the backyards of other streets, finding mates of their own, and these will be monogamous and long-term relationships.  Owen, too.  I try to remind myself that he IS doing it right.  He’ll learn best by trying, by possibly failing, by sometimes succeeding.  His flight is about to be out of his parents’ hands.

I wonder if the owl adults have an impending sense that their work of the season will soon be over.  If, after dawn, when they’ve been up all night hunting, they wonder whether their efforts will build self-sustaining offspring who are smart enough to avoid death by hawks, by cars, by razed habitats.  If they fret that their teachings, even now, are falling away and growing smaller in the rearview mirror.

 

 

Categories: family, nature, outdoors, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

bragging post

birdweb.org

birdweb.org

In the foothills I saw my first meadowlark this week.  It was the perfectly orchestrated sighting.  That gorgeous canary yellow breast, embellished with a black chevron, heaving with song from a perch on a stem of sagebrush.  Backlit by the blaze of rising sun, it was crooning its heart out.  There could’ve easily been music, something by Bach or Handel, or maybe Beethoven.

It was pretty thrilling to finally spot one and feel the song was aimed at me, for I was thrilled, too, at witnessing the paling sky surrendering to the bold lines of day.  The half moon was just disappearing across the valley.  I stopped to soak in the privilege of being present at that moment in that place and hoped it wouldn’t startle and fly away.  What with the tilting sky on the threshold between night and day, the full-bodied song, the solitude of the place, I understood the impulse to yawp over the rooftops of the world.

Later I learned male meadowlarks like to squat on “bragging posts” to tell the world all about their fabulous selves, much like roosters, and this certainly seemed to be the case that morning.  The lark was busy with the job of wooing, to be sure, but also, it would seem, saying to any fellas within range, Robert de Niro-style, “You wanna piece of me?”

His serenade must’ve trumped the undersong of pugnacity.  Along came two females – these fellows travel in the world with two mates—and off they flew together.

allaboutbirds.org

allaboutbirds.org

Categories: nature, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

winter’s fist

2013 December 009

It’s been in the single digits for days now.  Minnesota cold, John keeps saying.

On the phone with family and friends, I try to describe the frigidity.  Waking up to temperatures below zero and the way it stings your face, lungs, and teeth.  Sheets of  ice crystals on the original windows of our old house.  Remembering youth, when this sort of cold required us to coddle our car batteries, keep them warm enough to start the next morning.  Though we’ve seen some cars in the neighborhood plugged into heaters, our cars get no such attention.  They’re starting right up but registering their complaint through intermittent dash display lights asking to be serviced.

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We finally stacked a pile of firewood, a job we did quickly, a race against too numb fingers.  It’s the best sort of riches, the delicious possibility of all those fires.  Even better, coming inside from this kind of cold to sit next to that warmth.

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Since the weather turned, I’ve carried in my head a poem by Joe Green, one he and Marquita sent to us as a holiday card, hot off their own printing press, a few years ago.

The Longest Night
 
Ice on the sidewalk.  The first dusting
of snow lasting a week on your deck.
Perhaps tonight you’ve even left
 
 
the faucet dripping in your kitchen sink
to keep the pipes from seizing.
Think of this weather as winter’s fist
 
 
adjusting its grip around the hours.
Then go outside and try to collect all the lost
particles of light around your sleeping house.

2013 December 001

Categories: nature, outdoors, writing | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

gluttony, thy name is arturo

On Thanksgiving day, Arturo decided to make his move and get to the nougaty center of seeds inside the acorn squash.  He tolerated a few pictures through the glass, so they’re a bit hazy.

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Although a gallery of his henchmen, four of them, sat on the fence, drooling in anticipation of finishing what he did not eat, none dared interrupt the Godfather’s meal.  Zora couldn’t photobomb the event because she was out on a walk. He sat for almost a half hour and ate more than his body weight.

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I still can’t figure out how he crammed that much into his being.  He only stopped once to shake his fist and beat his chest at those fellas on the fence.  Or maybe they were ladies.  It’s hard to say.  But there was for sure some kind of exchange that involved threats and cussing, after which the gallery on the fence sat skulking, perhaps plotting their revenge.

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Unfortunately, his girth, jewels, and gold chain are mostly hidden.

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We were getting along so well, I tried to open the door and join him on the deck.  His mouth is closed here, but he had just told me to step the (*&^%$ off.  The next step, I’m pretty sure, was to pick up that blue broom handle and beat me.  So much for all that nonsense about the hand that feeds.

2013 November 049

Arturo seems to have a good handle on what Thanksgiving is all about.  After he ate, he waddled off the deck and managed to climb the big oak in the backyard.  I can’t imagine he could do anything else but sleep off his binge.  This is what he left for the fence-squatters, who gave themselves several minutes before coming down to brave the leftovers without getting their asses kicked.

By the time we finished our own Thanksgiving feast and went out to see what was left, the whole thing was gone.  There wasn’t so much as a seed left.

Arturo’s bar is officially closed for this year.  He’s going to have to go back to foraging for nuts as nature intended.  But it makes me wonder, if he can make such quick work of a little squash, what could he do with something much bigger, like a butternut or turban? Maybe next year I’ll go for broke, leave out a pumpkin the size of Arkansas, and see what kind of tomfoolery will come of that.

Categories: gardening, nature, outdoors | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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