I’ve written essays for Belt Magazine, The Flyfish Journal, On The Water, Great Lakes Review, Center for Humans and Nature, Hawkmoth and more. Find writing samples, links and corresponding images below.
All art by David Wilson, all photos by Matt Stansberry.
BURBOT, Belt Magazine
In an undisclosed parking lot somewhere on the southern shore of Lake Erie, the weak December sun fizzled out like a match dropped in the snow. I watched Cleveland Metroparks fisheries biologist Mike Durkalec assemble his fishing wagon. The modified Radio Flyer held bait, food, chairs, a lantern, rods, and tackle – everything we might need for a night on the lake. As we towed the wagon down the breakwall, I noticed what looked like a crowd of anglers in the dying light. Durkalec couldn’t believe his eyes. Fishing addiction is a strange thing to behold. Two dozen men, most of them woefully ill-equipped with tiny rods and light jackets but standing against the cold lake nonetheless, had convened on this spot with the half-baked idea that they might catch one of Lake Erie’s strangest gamefish – the burbot. (more)
WHITETAIL DEER, Belt Magazine
My mother walked down into her basement where she glimpsed us wrestling the last chunks of meat off of bloody ribcage and spine, and swore she would have nightmares for weeks afterward. But I felt great — inspired even — as we piled the packages of venison into my parents’ chest freezer. Part of that satisfaction came from the fact that all three of my boys will eat this deer, saving money this winter and avoiding factory-raised protein stuffed with antibiotics. But the main reason I felt so good about the kill was because I’d done something objectively good for the environment. White-tailed deer were nearly extirpated in Ohio 100 years ago, but with the systemic killing of predators and new hunting regulations the deer have bounced back. Today there are thirty million deer in the American forests and suburbs, 100 times more animals than a century ago. The deer are responsible for widespread declines in songbirds, moths, wildflowers, and uncounted other species. I’ve seen the damage firsthand, in springtime forests where diverse native plants grow only in isolated pens, fenced off from the ravenous herd.
PARENTING, Belt Magazine
On a sunny afternoon in June, my wife and I shepherd our two young boys down 263 timber steps on a dramatic descent into a steep valley. The Hell Hollow Wilderness area, managed by Lake Metroparks, sits on a cliff overlooking 600 acres of woods. Those woods are divided by a gorge formed by Paine Creek, a tributary of the Grand River. Hemlock trees tower over the gorge and the stream flickers through the bottom of the hollow, knee-deep and glassily transparent. On the valley floor, we hold the boys’ hands and wade into the cool water. I flip a small flat rock and dislodge a dragonfly nymph, a large predatory insect with a terrifying alien appearance. The mottled, creeping form is all sharp angles, bulging eyes, and it moves with a slithering serpentine grace in the water. “Does it bite?” my five-year old asks. Unsure but unconcerned, I smile and shake my head no, placing the nymph in his cupped palms. It clambers up the soft skin, tickling. (more)
INSECTS, Belt Magazine
Most people don’t like bugs. They are so disconcertingly unlike us – we can’t find ourselves in all those legs, wings and alien faces. Also, our sense of scale prevents us from seeing the vibrant and complex world of insects. And yet, a growing number of hobbyists are coming together to study insect populations and document their findings. Ohio is at the forefront of this new wave of amateur entomology, with a host of authors and naturalists providing nonscientists a way to observe and interact with insects beyond anything occurring in other regions. This close study of insects also provides incredibly granular and specific information about our region’s biggest environmental challenges. (more)
HATCHERY FISH, The Flyfish Journal
The McKenzie River seeps out of a lava field on top of the Cascade Mountains, spilling through a boulder-strewn valley carpeted with moss and ferns, into the town of Eugene, Oregon. The only way to fish the upper 25 miles of river is to hire one of the half-dozen people who can actually row it without getting you killed. The water is too fast, the river too steep to wade. On the upper-most section of river in September, we rumble out of another bowel-clenching rapid, a short-wing stonefly the size of a cigarette lighter clinging to my face. My oarsman yells over the roar to stand up and start casting. Where? I flick a foam dry fly with rubber legs and deer hair wing the size of a ping-pong ball over the side of a boat. A fish eats it, and we plunge down into another chute.
WOOD FROGS, Belt Magazine
Each spring they rear up from the dead and drag their pale soft bellies to the pools to mate. The males will arrive in droves and start calling. The call sounds like ducks farting, like a drunken conversation, a bunch of little bullies trying to yell over each other, an overlapping quacking chorus. They lay in wait for a female to enter. There is no apparent mate selection, just dumb luck. The female slips into the water and the nearest male wraps his arms around her, locking thumbs together under her neck, and rides her down into the depths of the pool. He will not let go until she releases her eggs.(more)
GULLS, Belt Magazine
We stumbled out of the warm car and into a cutting north wind coming off the lake. I wore a knee-length coat, half as thick as a mattress, and still froze. “This isn’t for some wimpy warbler watcher!” Slusarczyk yelled into the wind. “It’s something to do in the winter. What the hell else are you going to do?” Just to our right, we watched a floating river of Bonaparte’s flying over the Cuyahoga an arm’s length away. Every few seconds, a gull would dip down and pick a flickering emerald shiner minnow out of the water. They seemed to be flying in place, like running on a treadmill of wind. That’s how they hunt, flying into the breeze to slow down and scan the surface. We watched the huge flock for half an hour, searching for any rare birds. “You’ve got to get your gull vision. Un-focus your eyes, and don’t look at a specific bird, but try to catch any differences,” Slusarczyk said. “A black streak on a wing, a different color on the bill or legs. These are the signs of the rarities. You have to get your eyes in tune, so you’ll notice when something odd shows up.” (more)
There is no redemption here. Soon the coy-wolves will be loping on this frozen lake, following the trail of dead seabirds and I will slump into another winter. Why do we do these things to ourselves? It is better to be out here chasing the improbable than to “die inwardly of that unlived life,” writes the Alaskan poet John Haines. Some other version of me, a man content and sensible, is home sweeping crumbs off the kitchen floor. He’s locking the doors, and washing the dishes. Going to bed early. My sons would not love that man as much, I hope, as I cast out again into the dark.
CICADAS, Belt Magazine
Seventeen years feels like a strangely satisfying period to divide up phases of a life. This was my third emergence of the Brood V Periodical cicada. The first emergence happened when I was four, but I must have been too young to retain a memory. The second happened when I was 21 – and I was almost certainly too drunk and foolish to have been paying any attention. Now 38, I watched this emergence closely. The next two are somewhat ominous – 55 and 72. It somehow makes those future versions of myself more real. Twenty-one doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. Fifty-five will be here sooner than I hope. (more)
RENEWAL, City Creatures
Early last winter on a sunny day before the lake iced up, I stood on the hardened perimeter seawall of the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve and watched a group of Bufflehead Ducks, one male and three females hunting in the shallows. The male was glossy black and white, shot through with the winter sun, gleaming on the calm blue lake. Just three miles east of downtown, the preserve juts out into Lake Erie, a patch of forest in the city’s urban core that supports some of the region’s most diverse and fragile wildlife. Once a dumping ground, this 88-acre peninsula is now an important stopover point for migratory birds in every season — from warblers to gulls to raptors. On this day, the group of buffleheads porpoised up and down the shoreline, diving and then resurfacing several feet away. I followed them, peeking through the dried stems of goldenrod. I watched them plunge underwater, the lake so clear I could see their feet paddling away as they dove. (more)
TREES, Belt Magazine
About twenty miles east of downtown Cleveland, there is a stand of forest with trees older than the U.S. government. Elephantine, 400-year old American beeches tower over a healthy mix of understory plants and younger trees. “This is about as virgin as we get,” said Dr. Constance Hausman, Plant and Restoration Ecologist at Cleveland Metroparks. Trees cover nearly 8 million acres in Ohio, 30% of the state. Cleveland Metroparks holds over 23,000 acres, almost one third of which are beech-maple forest. But there aren’t many beech-maple forests like this anywhere. Less than 1% of old growth forests are left east of the Mississippi. (more)
I thought about steelhead on the toilet and at dinner. I couldn’t fish enough to feel satisfied. I tried not to fall asleep thinking about feathers and hooks, long casts at the bottom of desert canyons, the smell of sage on the hills, and the play of light and shadow on water. I dreamt about the drunken sunny days drifting down the Deschutes River, making a camp with a pavilion tent, eating elk hash for breakfast while watching bighorn sheep climb the canyon walls. I thought about blue lines on a map, little creeks deep in the rainforest where huge and ancient trees grew. I thought about piles of bear shit full of salmonberry seeds and dippers flitting across the moss-covered rocks. I worked part time at a fly shop, and wrote about steelhead when I wasn’t fishing for them. I realized I was in the grip of a cult. I didn’t know any normal people. My friends lived out of their cars on the banks of their favorite rivers. (more)
WARBLERS, Belt Magazine
Very few of us have an opportunity—given the demands of work, families and our iPhone overlords—to experience Nature’s extravagance. To purposefully press our faces to wild creatures’ living flesh. Though I’ve lived most of my life just a short drive from the “warbler capital of the world,” I had never seen one. (more)
RED LOCK, Great Lakes Review
There is an island in the river, smothered in a thicket of Japanese Knotweed. The woody stems stick up like wiry red hair. Nothing eats it. It spreads like cancer. Cut it down, and two bushes grow back. Dig it up, and the slivers will root downstream. (more)
WINGFOOT LAKE, Great Lakes Review
I cut through mottled, leathery skin and found something that looked like meat attached to the limbs, to the tail. With grim determination, I carved those pieces off the carcass, and placed them in the bowl my brother held out away from his body. (more)
RATTLESNAKES, Belt Magazine
Despite considering myself a naturalist, I have an irrational fear of snakes. The technical term is “ophidiophobia” – and I would place myself on the milder side of the continuum. Despite my fear, I’m drawn to them for the danger and beauty they represent. Many of us feel an attraction toward something dangerous. And there are so few things left in Northeast Ohio that can kill us: seasonal depression, drunk driving, fried food. The snakes represent something more elegant, a gorgeous symbol of death’s detached, lurking presence. The venom of a Massasauga is more toxic than that of most other rattlesnakes, but the amount it injects can be relatively small compared to other rattlers. Fatalities from an Eastern Massasauga bite are extremely rare. (more)
The Lake Erie walleye population might predate the lake itself – evolved from a riverine ancestor that existed in ancient waterways, even older than the glaciers that formed the Great Lakes. There are few places in the industrialized world where a species is so meaningfully connected to its unmade environment, where a species can bring so many people of diverse backgrounds together. Fish swim up to our doorstep. Food springs out of the water. (more)
SAW-WHET OWLS, Belt Magazine
The owl looms large in my personal mythology. I identify with the contrarian streak of any nocturnal animal, living outside of the normative influence of the sun. But there’s something human about these birds – the way they stand upright, the round face with its human proportions. The owl is encountered on the road to the next world. Its song or presence presages a death. The direct gaze of the owl suggests it has the will to do what needs done. You can get lost, trapped in those eyes, pupils as black as the night sky on a new moon.(more)
LAKE ERIE, Belt Magazine
Shore anglers embody a strange combination of hope and despair. One evening at Gordon Park, I watched a line of men casting out as far as they could, trying to reach a huge school of white bass, gorging on emerald shiners maybe 200 yards offshore. The gulls diving, fish pushing bait to the surface, a feeding frenzy just out of reach. The men cast out poppers, foam noisemakers anglers use to try to get the fish’s attention. But to no avail. The school stayed tantalizingly visible. The men kept casting, hurling their baits toward the horizon as if their lives depended on it, as if driven mad. It felt like watching a parable.
FIREFLIES, Belt Magazine
The primary purpose of an adult firefly’s life is mating. They mate and then die. In biological terms, this is called semelparity: a propagation strategy that puts all available resources into maximizing reproduction, at the expense of future life. After six years of fatherhood, I feel as if I’ve begun some irreversible transformation. It’s all downhill from here, as they say. A recent study links early fatherhood with premature death in humans. There is a biological cost to sleepless nights, finishing half-eaten plates of chicken nuggets, and fighting with your spouse.
BATS, Belt Magazine
It’s not just that the bats are dying. They are dying horribly. The fungus, recently renamed Pseudogymnoascus destructans, is believed to be a European invasive species, introduced to North America by globe-hopping cave enthusiasts at Howe Caverns, a tourist destination near Albany, New York. Magnified photos of bat skin affected by the fungus look like something out of a horror movie. A hooked spore spreads the fungus, which digests, erodes, and irritates the skin of hibernating bats. It disrupts the flow of fluids in the bats wings and other parts of its body. An infected bat’s wings feel like dried out paper. They are dehydrated. The irritation causes the bats to wake up for grooming in the middle of their winter hibernation. It’s like having athlete’s foot – hot, itchy, and uncomfortable. Halfway through the winter the bats’ fat reserves are gone. They can stay in the cave and die, or leave the cave and die. (more)
SALAMANDERS, Belt Magazine
The biological term for returning to where were you were born to breed is philopatry, and the behavior occurs all over the animal kingdom, from birds, to amphibians and fish. One reason for philopatry might be the very specific, narrow requirements for breeding success. Vernal pools where the salamanders and other amphibians breed are complex, fragile habitats. In northeast Ohio the vernal pools might have been created by something as dramatic as a gouging by the Wisconsinan glacier, or mundane as a big tree tipping over and a pool forming in the hole where the root wad had once been. Typically these small concave depressions are lined with clay or some other impermeable substrate and hold surface water for most of the year, drying up in late summer. It is this impermanence that suits the amphibians – as larger permanent bodies of water would support fish, which would wipe out the larvae. (more)
PREDATORS, Belt Magazine
The earliest documented coyote in Ohio was reported in 1919, and today they are everywhere, all 88 counties. “There was a time when there were no coyotes east of the Mississippi River,” said Suzi Prange, the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s furbearer biologist. “We did two things – we extirpated the wolves and opened the forests. That’s why they were able to colonize the entire United States. They are the most persecuted animal in the country, and yet they still expand their range. You knock their populations down and they just have more pups. They are incredibly adaptable and will eat anything. You can’t stop them.”