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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Searching for joy in the smallest of things

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 3/1/23

It’d been a long winter already when I was hit with a flu bug that sent me into quarantine for two weeks. After a few days, determined not to let the isolation drive me crazy, I came across a …

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Searching for joy in the smallest of things


It’d been a long winter already when I was hit with a flu bug that sent me into quarantine for two weeks. After a few days, determined not to let the isolation drive me crazy, I came across a magazine article that threw out an unexpected challenge. “Search for the smallest things in your immediate environment, then go exploring!” In my restless state of “monkey mind,” I followed the lead. Looking up, I rose from my chair and strolled toward a messy area across the room — the floor right in front of the wood box.
That’s where my broom hangs on a nail with the dustpan, handy for sweeping up and disposing of what I like to call the “cosmic debris” that collects there. Previously, I would have swept it up and pitched it into the nearby garbage pail without a second thought. But instead, I followed instructions, grabbed my headlamp and magnifying glass and took a second look.
At first glance, as familiarity would have it, I saw nothing of interest — just wood chips of varying sizes. Then I noticed some shreds of old straw and dried grasses with tiny leaves! I also spied a few body parts from some dead, dismembered creatures that I assumed had once taken residence in my woodpile. These flakey chips, separated from the neatly stacked firewood to which they’d clung for nigh onto a year, were now fascinating “foo-foos” in line for my ad hoc analysis. As instructed, I scribbled a note about what I had observed. “Random remains and pieces of ash and birch bark separated from cambium cell layers”. But wait. Was this cambium? No worry. I went for my smart phone.
Google provided a detailed explanation. I was probably looking at tiny specks of “outer bark, or possibly inner bark (the phloem) detached from the cambium layer.” Not likely anything from sapwood or heartwood, both more dense with components like sap that provide greater integrity. Google had done its job well. My little pile of floor sweepings had just turned into a refresher course on tree anatomy. I hadn’t thought about these terms since 10th grade biology class! What a nice way to have idled away the past hour.
On a mission now, I moseyed over to the dining room table. I seldom have guests, so little dining takes place there. Instead, situated as it is, in front of twin south-facing windows with the best lighting in the house, this has become my makeshift art space.
Honestly, I’m not much of an artist, although I have always wished to be. One of my main handicaps has been my fear of color. Although I’ve made some strides to overcome this obstacle to my artistic abandon, “chromatic engagement” still does not come easy. Lately, I discovered the joy of indulging in a beautiful tin box of “water colour pencils made by British craftsmen in Keswick since 1830” — a gift from my mother when she was no longer able to use them. They have truly inspired my creativity while fostering some very fond memories of my mom.
As I scanned the table and its array of scattered art supplies, I spotted a classy little double-barreled, red plastic sharpener that came with the pencils. I gently twisted the cap, carefully opened it, then spilled the contents into a small white porcelain dish. Once again, I turned to my headlamp and magnifier. Oh my goodness! There, in the bowl was a stunning bouquet of color mixed among tan wood shavings — the tiny, sharpened tips of colored pencils.
Azure, emerald, ruby, lime, burnt sienna, and gold. My eyes twinkled with delight! This is what I’d been dumping in the trash without ever giving it a moment of thought. Proof that I really was having fun playing with color!
At this point, I had to sit down with a cup of coffee and take a deep breath. Hmm. Where should I look next? There, across the room was the wall with books. One shelf was devoted to things I’d scavenged from travels near and far. Seashores, the North Shore, dunes, and deserts, even the trail to our beaver pond had gifted me with mementoes from the natural world. I have some buffalo (or are they mastodon) bones, uncovered by wind in the sand hills of North Dakota. A set of nice deer antlers found under some dead brush on the banks of a nearby creek. A pint jar of sand from Lanakai Beach in Hawaii. And a chunk of dried water lily root, six inches long and two inches in diameter, found in the pond I’d paddled over in my inner tube as a young child. I’m shocked at how long I’ve hung onto this stuff! Next, I reached for a sand dollar — three inches across, rough to the touch, but such a lovely ivory hue. I picked it up in 1980 while walking the beach near Sanibel Island on the coast of Florida…. Headlamp and magnifier, please.
There, on its gently domed surface, was etched a faint perfect star. Points emanated from a tiny hole at the center, an intricate pattern that captured my imagination. I knew little about this shell or the creature that once lived inside. Again, I turned to Google. The bisque-like object was home to a sea urchin with “five jaw sections, fifty skeletal bone parts and at least sixty muscles” — all squeezed into this three inch circle! When alive, the velvety bottom was “covered with short spines that helped the urchin travel across its ocean floor and shore habitat”. Its age is counted much like trees, by “rings” visible on the underside of the shell. If undisturbed “the urchin’s lifespan is six to ten years”.
After carefully studying my specimen, I could find no sign of rings. Perhaps they’d been scrubbed away by years of wave action before I found it. In place of rings, I found a dozen symmetrical branches that looked like tiny balsam trees! Folk lore has it that she who finds a sand dollar will surely have good luck. I think it’s true.
Never would I have expected that this silly “challenge”, supposed to be an antidote to boredom, would produce such positive results! I guess there’s truth in that old adage, “We never stop learning.” And yes, “it’s ‘the little things’ that count.