Reading the essays of Craig Nagel is like enjoying a good, unhurried visit with a good friend, one who is thoughtful, insightful and articulate—the welcome companion who’s good to have around and to be around. He’s fun. Nagel simply exudes charm and common sense—and he writes so well. (He’s a gentle philosopher of the commonplace.) He’s also organized. His brief sketches flow so nicely together. Just perusing his preface—well, there’s none like it!—will convince all thinking readers they’re in for a real treat. And they are: he’s that good. Dr. Art Lee Prof. of History (ret.) Bemidji State University
Sand Roads For nearly half a century we’ve lived at the end of a sand road. Not the same road, but a sand road—and all sand roads have much in common. We’ve sometimes hated it in the spring. That week or two or three between when the snow melts and the frost goes out, that’s the worst time. Puddles grow into ponds. Ruts become canyons. All vehicles take on the same sandy hue. Back when our kids were still in school, the Spirit-in-charge-of-watching-over-roads would hear two sets of contradictory requests: the youngsters hoping the school bus would get stuck, and my wife praying it would not. Each year, by the time the frost is gone, we’ve made plans to haul in more fill. Some nice Class 5. Many yards of nice Class 5. Hang the expense—we’ll fight those ruts no longer. Someday maybe we’ll even have it blacktopped. Yes, by tar—a road so smooth and firm and water-shedding as to make the pickup ride like a Rolls Royce. Then the hieroglyphics start appearing. Fresh grouse tracks by the power line cut. The straight dot-to-dot of fox prints. The meandering lines left by a doe and two yearlings. Hoof prints from a neighbor’s horse. And on it goes through spring and summer into fall. Each day’s walk reveals new scribbles in the sand; mute messages from birds and snakes and furbearers (ranging in size from shrew to raccoon to coyote to black bear), delicate notations from insects, the scribed arcs of wind-swung plants, even the skid marks of fallen leaves. A momentary shower leaves its dotted inscription pockmarked over the squiggles left by a turtle’s tail. We watch, enthralled, as birds take dust baths in the old sand road. We note where larger birds seek gizzard grit. We stop to study the mysterious industry of ants, and let our eyes wander along the twisty lines of beetle tracks. And when it rains enough to wash the dust away, we find the road transformed into a treasure chest, speckled with shiny agates aglow like drops of fallen sunset. It’s then that we have a change of heart, and find ourselves forsaking the earlier resolutions of spring. Now the true value of our sand road stands revealed. Will we pave such a precious place of riches? Not on your life! What’s convenience compared to this living notebook, this half-mile-long recorder of natural drama? No thanks, Mr. Progress. We’ll keep to the old ways, washboard and all.
For over thirty years readers of the Lake Country Echo in north-central Minnesota have enjoyed the biweekly column by Craig Nagel called “The Cracker Barrel.” A sampling of his work was published in book form some years ago in A Place Called Home. In response to requests from hundreds of loyal readers, this companion volume contains additional essays written over the past three decades. Join Nagel as he extols the intricacies of tracks found on sand roads, reflects on the loss of serenity after felling a large red oak, delights in mouth-watering food picked from the family garden, and recalls the childhood joy of sitting at a country railroad station with his beloved Uncle Henry watching a steam locomotive roll into view. Craig Nagel lives in the woods near Pequot Lakes, Minnesota, with his wife, Claire. He divides his time between writing, reading, traveling, sailing, taking naps, and having fun with his grandkids.