Month: March 2014

From the library of…

LibraryOfThe picture here is of a sticky-back label in one of my books. Several decades ago I bought boxes of those custom-made stickers from the Lillian Vernon catalog. I had gotten old enough to earn a little money by mowing lawns and was able to make the occasional book purchase and those stickers provided proof that I was building my own library.

I don’t know where my love of books and reading originated. Neither of my parents were readers. But as far back as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in books. I’ve liked the way they look, smell and feel. I’ve wanted to read them and write them. They’ve always been a part of my life.

After my last move, to Utah, I came across the last box of From the Library of stickers. They were brown and curled up and no longer sticky. In fact, they’ve fallen out of most my remaining books. I took pause over keeping them as a memento. My final decision was to send them to the trash. But I still have some books that are marked with my name, reminders of a time when I wondered what my grownup life would be like.

I grew up in rural Michigan, between two towns: very tiny Gobles and not much larger, Paw Paw. Gobles had a library that wasn’t much more than a closet. Most of the collection was of children’s books. Paw Paw had a more serious library. My small country school had an okay library, but its content was for school work, not for pleasure reading. At least that was my take at the time.

The Gobles Library. In my day, only the area to the left of the door was the library.

The Gobles Library. In my day, only the area to the left of the door was the library.

My mom and I decided that if we were to use a library it would be the one in Paw Paw, though using it would be a minor inconvenience. The Paw Paw library was in a beautiful century-old structure of stone and wood. Each trip to the library combined my love of books and wood into more than just a search for words.

The Carnegie Library in Paw Paw.

The Carnegie Library in Paw Paw.

My first few visits to the library were frustrating. My mom took me and wasn’t all that interested in the mission so she went shopping at the Ben Franklin discount store next door. But mom not being much of a shopper, I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to find a book.

I felt the time crunch to find something, but also enjoyed the process. I listened in on the dialog taking place at the librarian’s desk, central to the building. People would come in and ask for help answering all kinds of questions. I was fascinated and energized.


One of the first books that I checked out of the library was All Creatures Great and Small which was extremely popular at the time. Everyone seemed to be reading it. I absolutely devoured that book while swallowed by my blue beanbag chair.

As I got older I imagined a grownup life where I had a house with a library. I envisioned a traditional library with paneled walls, cozy leather chairs and a fire. So far I haven’t gotten that library and maybe I never will. Today I’d still like to have that room, but it’s more important to have interesting and compelling words to read.

Today we have many easy options for reading material. Sadly we’ve lost Borders and Waldenbooks not to mention many local shops. But when I was a kid, the first proper bookstore I experienced was a Waldenbooks at the new Maple Hill Mall in Kalamazoo.

My Waldenbooks wasn’t very big but it was an oasis to me. The mall was practically a destination for us, we likely went once a week. More convenient than the library, I looked forward to getting my browsing fix on a regular basis at Waldenbooks.

It was at the Waldenbooks store where I started to buy books. It felt good to build a collection and have the books to look at. They were badges of accomplishment: I had purchased and read them and I was proud.

At the same time even a paperback was a big percentage of my earnings, so each purchase had to pay off with a good story. If I got a book that wasn’t enjoyable I would be so sad. This rarely happened, but it was my constant fear while shopping.

When my college years came I gained a different appreciation for my love of reading. I worked full time and went to school part time so I was busy. For the eight years it took to earn my degree, all of my reading effort was academic. Occasionally I’d try to read something for me but my mind would constantly interrupt to tell me I should be reading my Soviet political systems text. I lusted for the day when college would be behind me and I could read whatever, whenever.

After several moves I’ve thinned out my library of physical books. Considerably. I simply didn’t have the space and lost the energy to pack them. And since I am not a re-reader there is no logical reason to hold onto them.

It’s been more than a year now since I’ve read a non-digital book. It was a hard transition to digital, but one that I felt I needed to make. I still love the physical book and enjoy a long browse at Barnes & Noble. But the reality of what comprises a library has changed.

The Goodreads website has played a role in making the transition work. My childhood vision of having an impressive physical library may never be reality, but I can see the books that I’ve read by looking at my Goodreads shelves. And I can also research future reads and learn about reading options from my Goodreads associates (

Today the my interest in reading is not having a shelf to point to or a history of titles to remember, it’s excitement around what the next read may be. Will the next book be another one that sucks me in so deeply I don’t want to go to sleep? Will a new thought or idea or perspective be seeded because of a phrase or concept never-before considered? Will I be transported to a place that is rare and special and can only be experienced in my imagination?

The potential, the escape, the adventure, healing and recoup that comes from reading, those are the important things now.

From the library of Aaron Kuehn is a thing of the future, not of the past.

In Camp

InCampI arrived in camp at around two in the afternoon.

I suppose calling it a camp might give you the wrong idea. Fifty years ago it may have been a camp. In fact it probably was a really nice one. But on that day it was remnants and shadows. Ideas of a camp long gone. Ghosts. Even though I was miles into the forest and had not seen another person for weeks, I could hear the conversations and stories of people. People doing camp work; cooking; telling lies around the fire.

At that moment it was an oasis. I had been lugging my come-along, overloaded with gear, for several weeks. The physical labor was a challenge, but the mental demands were even more onerous.

An old man had confided to me at a small-town gas station that this old cabin lie forgotten out here. But was he telling the truth? Or were his facts confused? And even if he had it all straight, who knew if it was still standing?

So while I was tired and sore and hungry from my journey, the sight of that rough structure restored me.

One might think my first impulse would have been to explore the cabin and camp remnants. Rather I sat myself down on a large tree that had been felled and dragged alongside the cabin decades before. I sat and surveyed my destination. The mountains and the trees and the sounds: in they soaked. The sun went between bright and soft, interrupted by puffy clouds. I closed my eyes and dreamt of being nowhere else.

The logical part of my mind told me that even though it was early in the day, I needed to get to work. There was no door on the cabin but the rest of it appeared sound. Perhaps it had been occasionally used by hikers and hunters and received some level of maintenance and repair over the years. I wanted to be able to rest under cover that night.

My next thought was of food. Water was flowing steadily in the nearby stream. I thought there may be fish to be caught and that would be easier and faster than having to hunt for meat. But my first action was to examine the cabin.

Even with the brightness of the day the cabin’s interior was dark. There was the opening that would be the doorway and next to that a large window opening. The window had no glass but a pair of hinged shutters that opened outward. Once I managed to get them open I found that the cabin was quite sound. It was dirty and filled with leaves and debris. But the wood stove, apart from being rusty, was in good order. And the galvanized chimney looked in very good condition, confirmation of my earlier thought that people had been periodically using the place. Cooking and heat would not be a problem.

The only other furnishing was an over-engineered and rugged sleeping platform. Fashioned from four large stumps of wood with hefty rough-hewn boards placed between them, covered with pine straw it would make for a plenty cozy place to drift off at night.

I decided that getting the cabin cleaned out was going to be my next activity. I figured that even if I did get a door fashioned by night, it would be makeshift at best. Shelter over my head, a fire, and a soft bed at that point were the luxuries I sought.

The cabin was situated on the edge of a large clearing or meadow, adjacent to the stream. The stream may be classified as a river, I’ve never been clear on the difference. It was probably a couple of feet deep, if not four, with sandy edges and plenty of rocks to provide cover for fish.

Behind the cabin just a few feet the forest resumed and closed in densely into the unknown. I had to only walk a few feet, with axe in hand, to cut a few fresh pine branches from which to make a sweeping tool. Calling it a broom would be an overstatement, but dense with green needles, it would do.

Before I put the broom to work I made several trips to remove the large piece of trash. Leaves, pine cones, twigs and branches were strewn everywhere. I suspect most were blown in by the wind, but surely some had been transported by creatures trying to take advantage of the shelter that the cabin provided.

Next up was the sweeping. The wind was stirring and I didn’t want to kick up a lot of dust, so I swept carefully. I started in the corner farthest from the door. Before I knew it the bare wood floor was looking back from every corner and I was hot, sweaty, covered in dust and sneezing with regularity.

I don’t know what time it was when I finished cleaning, but I was tired and while I did have some pangs of hunger, they were not strong. Rather than think of food, I turned my attention to the stove. A comfortable night’s sleep was quickly becoming a higher priority than a meal.

Once I opened the large cast-iron door of the stove I realized that my cleaning efforts should have started there. The fire box was as full as it could be with ashes. Just opening the door caused a big pile of ash to tumble out, cover my face and fill the air. The ashes would need to be shoveled out before any fire could be made or before I could ensure the chimney was clear.

I unpacked my shovel from the come-along and as carefully as possible, carried one scoop of ashes after another out of the building. I suppose it took about 20 minutes to get the ashes cleared out and learn that the chimney was in fine shape. But then I probably spent another 20 minutes re-sweeping the floor for the ash dust I had stirred.

It wasn’t yet cold, but I knew from the experiences of the past several days that it would cool sharply once the sun went into hiding behind the mountains. Around the old camp there was plenty of dry wood for the picking. Fortunately I wouldn’t have to chop or fell any fresh wood for several days. So I set about getting a fire going and stacking next to the cabin door a supply of wood.

With the fire going and plumes of grey smoke spilling up into the sky, I was ready to prepare the bed. I could feel the night moving in.

Several dozen big armfuls of pine straw carried from the forest floor were enough to give me inches of padding between my sleeping bag and the boards of the bed. I tested the cushion with my hands, afraid to lie down for fear I’d fall instantly to sleep.

Before I could sleep, I wanted to clean up. I headed to the river to wash up. It had been several days since my last splash off. After my hiking and cleaning the cabin I don’t know what a sight I must have been, but I felt like I’d shed another man by the time I had finished in the river.

Yes, having submerged myself in its cool, fast-moving water, I declared it a river.

I also learned while washing away the dirt and grime that the river was well-supplied with fish. I even had the boyish belief that, if fast enough, I could simply grab my dinner with my bare hands. I tried a few times and laughed at myself. I’m sure the creatures camouflaged in the forest were amused by the upright animal thrashing about and making strange noises in the water!

The better plan was to fashion a spear from a branch and in fact that successfully secured my dinner after about a dozen attempts. I cleaned the fish and, draped over a green limb, cooked it through the open door of the stove. Simple though it was, the fat flaky meat was a delicacy.

Fed and clean I regained my earlier position on the log outside the cabin. The stars were beginning to win their battle to light the sky. The moon, though not full, was bright and a few wispy clouds gave the sky a face.

I was tired, bone tired. But it was the good tired that comes from satisfying work. As I made my way into the doorless cabin I no longer heard the imagined voices of people from long forgotten camps. Now the only voices were those of the forest.

The camp had sent away the ghosts of the past and was making room for me, tomorrow’s ghost to a future traveler.


Grandma’s House

My grandparents’ house wasn’t just walls and floors and windows. It was a container of experiences, feelings, odors and memories.

And blankets, lots and lots of blankets.

To this day there’s something very cozy about sleeping in a cold room with the weight of many blankets lying on top of me.

My grandparent’s house was an old farm house in rural Michigan. I’m told the original part of the house was put up in the late 1800s with later additions including a hand-dug “Michigan basement” (a dirt-floor basement with walls made of stones collected on the property).

Until a fire destroyed all but the exterior walls in the mid-1970s, the only heat came from a basement wood stove and its single large vent in the floor between the kitchen and dining room. This gravity heating system made for a toasty dining experience, but the bedrooms that were placed on the outer edges of the house and upstairs, were quite frosty in the cold seasons.

On the main floor there were two bedrooms referred to as the South Bedroom (grandma and grandpa’s) and the North Bedroom where I would sometimes sleep.

All of the beds had several layers of blankets and they were quite effective. I’ve always been a more hot than cold person. I suffer in the summer and relish fall and winter when my body finally feels like it has reached equilibrium.

In the chilled North Bedroom, with my cold nose poking out from under a pile of blankets and quilts, I had the best dreams of my life. Most of those boyhood dreams involved some far-north adventure complete with a blizzard, a husky and a cabin.

I suppose every house has an odor, pleasant or not. I’ve heard from countless people about their memories of the way their grandparent’s houses smelled. That’s not unique. My memories are unique in that my grandparents were hoarders, before that diagnosis existed. So the fragrance I remember is of cardboard. Various kinds and thicknesses of cardboard. Old cardboard. Wet and dry cardboard. It created quite the aroma. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was one that I’ve haven’t since encountered.

Before the fire I was fascinated by a dimmer switch that controlled the overhead light in the dining room. It was one of those round knobs that you first pushed in and then rotated to adjust the intensity of the light. To a little boy that was like a rocket ship control! I would walk by and turn it just a little bit, trying to change the lighting without getting the adults upset. I’d usually get a stern look from my mom or worse. I got many hours of play out of that simple dimmer control.

My mom was one of the last of a class to be educated in a rural one-room schoolhouse. As the old schoolhouses closed my grandfather would get the slate chalk boards. One of those slate boards hung in the dining room and kept my cousins and I occupied while the adults discussed their troubles. Grandpa had given my parents one of the boards as well and it hung in our basement and was by and large in my own play area. I still have our slate board, but the one at grandma’s house was different because it was so in the open and in the adults’ space.

I would draw terrible pictures and enjoy inhaling the chalk dust. In fact I loved chalk dust so much I drew with much more intensity than necessary just to get a heavy coating on the board. Then I would load up the eraser and take it outside to beat it against the side of the barn and enjoy the chalk dust cloud. I’m sure that has done something evil to my health, but at the time nobody gave it a thought.

I also remember the large claw-foot dining room table. It was enormous and very ornate. For some years I was able to walk around under it. In fact during the fire the entire roof of the house collapsed on top of that table and the table did not break nor burn.

Even when I was too tall to take walks under that table I would spend considerable time studying the claw feet. I didn’t realize it at the time but the large knuckles and nails and feathers on those claw feet probably were my earliest study of woodworking.

The old house also had a root cellar. While the house had electricity all comers were instilled with a mortal fear should they use or waste it. Heaven help you if you did something to cause the “light bill” to be increased by even a penny! So even in modern days, with a refrigerator and a couple of large freezers to keep the products of their large gardens, the root cellar was an important part of their life.

I was terrified of the root cellar. It was cold and damp and dark. The potatoes had eyes growing out like the tentacles of some evil underground devil ready to wrap around the devour me. No, grandma, you can go get the potatoes yourself, I’ll stand back here and scream for help if you are attacked by a rogue spud.

Many people think of their grandmother as being the best cook in the world. I don’t have any such illusions. My grandmother was of southern heritage and as such cooked with large amounts of animal fats and had a relatively small repertoire of kitchen creations.

To be sure I had a strong appreciation for some of her work, though. Tops was her banana or pumpkin bread. I don’t know what made it so special to me but I loved it and she knew it. Even as an adult she would make me my own loaf and wrap it within an inch of its life with aluminum foil and recycled bread bags.

Oh, and the bread bags. And plastic containers. A stranger surveying the kitchen may have imagined that grandma was a frugal recycler. And while my grandparents were tight with a buck, the collection of used plastic material was piled so thick on the counters you couldn’t tell from what material the counters were made. It used to irritate me to no end when grandma would wash and dry bread bags, cottage cheese and butter tubs. Sure, have three to five copies of each to store your leftovers, but 11,485 old bread bags was perhaps to the side of excess. Any person who worked up the nerve to suggest to grandma that maybe some of the bags from the 1930s were superfluous got a “Well….” and a stern look that insinuated logic would not prevail.

I also remember the sound of the wood furnace being stoked in the basement. The house was normally very quiet but when the furnace was being tended, the noise telegraphed to nearly every corner. For some reason the sound of ashes being cleared and logs being adjusted was different during the day than at night. I would be dozing nicely in the North Bedroom when someone would be working the furnace and I would feel minor pangs of guilt for not helping out. But I was getting no benefit from the heat so why bother?

Besides, the basement was next to that root cellar, and who knew what those potatoes did in the night!