My dad and I were tramping around the area of Dungeness Spit some years ago now, back when he could still tramp around. Dungeness Spit is a 5.5 mile-long comma of sand and driftwood on the top end of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, a spit that curls out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Dad loved this kind of excursion – he always found something interesting, something that few others would take notice of. Along our walk, we encountered some oddly misshapen fir trees, terrifically gnarled and bent over, their branches brushed not haphazardly but in a single direction, as though they had been styled with a brush and half a can of Dapper Dan. Donald Trump had nothing on these comb-overs.
“Ah,” my father said. “Look at that!” He pointed at the contorted conifers. “Great example of the Krummholz Effect!” I had seen such trees before – especially in undeveloped, deserted coastal areas with harsh weather and constant, often howling winds – but I had not previously heard there was a technical term for them, beyond maybe “windblown.” Always the scientist, my dad went on to explain that trees exposed to harsh weather and prevailing winds become severely stunted, with growth only possible on the leeward side. They are typically seen at sub-alpine locations at high altitude, so it was especially interesting for my father to see them at sea level. “It must blow like this here all the time,” he conjectured, our jackets luffing in the gale. I simply nodded. Of course it did.
After a typical lecture on the subject of the Krummholz Effect – how it occurred and under what conditions – my father paused, gazing over the spit and the strait. It was a cold, clear, windy day, and we had great views to the north over the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Vancouver Island clearly visible in the distance. Dad finally said, “You know, Dr. Moyle used to call me Krummholz.” I was slightly stunned. To my knowledge, my dad had never had a nickname in his life. People either called him John or Mr. Idstrom. To me, he was only Dad – never Pops, or Papa, or Pa-Paw. Not even Father. I didn’t dare call him my old man, even out of earshot. So a nickname? Breaking news to me. He was a not a nickname kinda guy.
Being a tad curious, I inquired as to why Dr. Moyle – a man I had heard him refer to many times as his mentor – called him Krummholz. My dad simply held up his left hand.
I got it.
Two digits of that hand were bulbous and bent, twisted not by a prevailing wind but by alarming encounters with 1) a house fan (middle finger knuckle knocked off) and 2) a pistol (ring finger accidentally shot straight through while grouse hunting). I nodded in understanding and he added nothing further to the conversation. Collars popped and fists jammed in our pockets, we humped it back to the car.
Of course I knew Dr. Moyle, or rather, knew of him. As a newly minted biology major from St. Olaf College with an abiding interest in hunting and fishing, my father’s first real adult job was in Dr. Moyle’s lab. In the mid-1950s, young men who liked to hunt and fish did what they could to sign on with the Department of Conservation’s Division of Fish and Game (as it was called at the time). My dad was lucky: he had a relative in the department who helped him get his foot in the door, banding ducks and performing other grunt work during summer breaks. Degree in hand, he managed to snag a seat at the bench in the lab of one of Minnesota’s first great wildlife biologists, Dr. John B. Moyle.
Dr. Moyle is legendary in Minnesota’s conservation biology circles, but I didn’t need to conduct a Google search to know that. Throughout my young life, my dad would periodically mention him when passing on a lesson about frogs, wildflowers, snakes, bats, or the various sub-aquatic plants one finds in a healthy freshwater marsh, in the way one might footnote a research citation. I never met Dr. Moyle, but he clearly impressed my father and those impressions were passed along, almost genetically, to me.
Although both injuries maimed my father more or less equally, it was the shooting accident that most impressed me as a kid. When he was 19, my father was hunting grouse outside of Remer, MN, where his mother’s cousin Irene and her husband Walt owned a cabin (“The Shack,” as Walt called it) on the shore of Little Thunder Lake. How Dad accomplished the feat of almost blowing off his finger is a complicated story that involves a shotgun, a pistol, and a wing-shot ruffed grouse. The grouse ultimately fared even worse than Dad’s knuckle, which, as I said, was blown pretty much to smithereens but not completely off. The bagged bird was plucked, roasted at high heat, and eaten, rather than preserved for posterity via taxidermy. In hindsight, it would have been cooler to be able to point out to my buddies the bird specifically responsible for my dad’s mangled finger, but c’est la vie. Impressively, after shooting himself, young Krummholz wrapped his mutilated hand in a bandanna and drove to Brainerd, the location of the nearest hospital emergency room. (Those familiar with the movie Fargo, by Minnesota brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, will appreciate the irony of a bloody accidental shooting in the general vicinity of Brainerd.)
As for the nickname, it did not stick. I knew and hunted with many of my father’s coworkers and never heard any of them call him Krummholz, or any other name but John. Perhaps it was because Dr. Moyle’s reference was scientifically half-baked, an observation that did not stand up to scrutiny. Sure, the hand looked like a tree whose gnarly limbs were shaped by relentless, unremitting stress. But even cursory research would have revealed that the contortion was the result of a catastrophic event, not an ongoing experience. I guess the lesson is that if you want a nickname (or a metaphor, for that matter) to stick, a surface observation alone is insufficient. As we know, even a leap of faith requires some modicum of physical evidence, a platform from whence one might make the jump.
The whole story of my dad’s nickname and his gnarled hand came to me the other day when I was driving along California’s Highway 1, hugging the Pacific coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, where there are several excellent examples of cypress trees that are Krummholzed all to heck by our persistent and stiff westerlies. The boughs and limbs of the trees up and down that section of highway, particularly just south of Pescadero, are combed over like Donald Trump after a visit to the beauty salon. After being reminded of my dad, I got thinking about Krummholzing – not necessarily as natural effect, but as (surprise!) a psychic metaphor. Eureka! We all live with various injuries, some of them visibly apparent and, like my father’s fingers, the result of accident or incident. More often, we suffer from an invisible disfigurement of the soul, caused by something parallel to the prevailing winds: the constant drip-drip of the bad voices within us. The nearly imperceptible whispers of these voices make us emotionally misshapen; their subsonic, howling mental gales mold us into who we are. They are the unseen Krummholz Effects that somehow manage to twist and bend our lives. Stupid, lazy, incompetent, unworthy, undesired, worthless – stop me any time. It’s these flatulent interior winds that screw us sideways. The problem, of course, is that their effects are never visible to the naked eye until it’s too late – if you’re like me (and I know I am), it takes the equivalent of a psychic colonoscopy to even see we have a problem here, much less to get Houston working on a solution.
Thankfully, I have come to recognize a reliable symptom that tells me I am Krummholzed there and back, and it should come as no surprise to my gentle readers that it involves food. Roasting a whole chicken the same way, with the same side dishes, every Sunday night for months on end? Sure, you may have perfected the crispy skin and the gravy that goes with the mashed potatoes and creamed haricots verts – but talk about boring. One day you look up and find yourself Krummholzed! Don’t get me wrong: I love myself a perfectly roasted whole chicken, and although it requires few real culinary skills, it does take practice and some attentiveness. But if you ask me, sticking with one “signature dish” for too long is a surefire way to ruin the fun of eating.
Sometimes it only takes a small adjustment to cure the Krummholz Blues. The other day, after walking my ancient, creaky Labrador (yes, we have our similarities) on his regular 1.5-mile loop, I realized that I hadn’t really noticed my surroundings for several weeks. Any practitioner of Zen Buddhism – or even the newly popular, religion-stripped practice of California Mindfulness – will tell you that walking a half hour with no notice of your surroundings does not contribute much to your psychic well-being. The next day, I walked the same loop but on the opposite side of the street. Holy cow, did that do the trick! I may as well have been strolling in a foreign country. One house needed a new paint job; another had torn out the front grass and planted a gorgeous flower garden…stuff like that. To call it a revelation would be overstating, but it was nonetheless startling to realize how different things looked from the other side of the street.
So my advice, to you and to myself: Walk on the other side of the street once in a while. Take a different route to work. Forego the blueberry muffin and try the one with kale. And for goodness sake, spatchcock that chicken! Recognize the signs that your psychic limbs are being twisted and that the prevailing breeze is of your own making. Straighten that spine.
If you haven’t spatchcocked a fowl before, now is the time to learn. A spatchcocked bird retains all its bones and ligament (the stuff that keeps it moist and juicy), but makes for quicker cooking and a nice, uniformly crisp skin.
Really, it’s quite easy. Flip a whole chicken on its breast, spine up. Using stout kitchen shears and beginning at the Pope’s nose, make a cut just to one side of the backbone, all the way to the neck. Then do the other side, removing the spine from the bird. Now crack the breastbone with a butcher knife so that the bird lies flat. Voila, you have spatchcocked your first bird!
Next comes the fun, creative part that keeps you thinking. A spatchcocked bird is perfect for the grill, and any one of a zillion preparations will do once you have that bird flattened out. You can certainly slather it with BBQ sauce, preferably something made at home. Or whip up a marinade with garlic, lemon, olive oil, and fresh rosemary. One of my favorites is to mix up a nice sludge of Moroccan spices like ground cumin, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, clove, salt, and pepper. Add a splash of olive oil and some mashed-up preserved lemon (Thomas Keller’s recipe for preserved lemon in his seminal Ad Hoc at Home book is recommended reading). The mixture should resemble a thick paste. Rub this paste all over both sides of your spatchcocked chicken and put it on a medium-hot grill. I like to start skin-side up to render off a bit of fat first, then finish skin-side down to prevent scorching.
This dish would go nicely with some Israeli couscous, a simple arugula salad, and perhaps a glass or two of California zinfandel.