Poetic Injustice

The intrigue behind Santa’s reindeer

Being born and raised in the inner city, I was disappointed to learn that chipmunks were not monkeys at all. They are, in fact, mice with racing stripes.

Funny how our perceptions of wildlife evolve.

Take reindeer, for instance. As children growing up in the Lower Forty-eight, we first learned about reindeer through Christmas lore. I suspect that many of us never gave them a second thought. At least not until we watched film footage of actual reindeer on nature shows or saw them in a zoo.

For our first impressions of reindeer, we have one of two men to thank: Clement Clark Moore or Henry Livingston Jr. Both claimed to have written the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” You might know it as “The Night before Christmas.” It was first published in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, a newspaper in eastern New York State.

This iconic poem introduced the notion of Santa’s flying sleigh towed by “eight tiny reindeer.” The addition of Rudolph in 1939 made it nine. Robert Lewis May gets credit for that; Rudolph was his creation. As far as I know, no one has ever challenged May’s claim that he wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Although there’s been some speculation that May based his story on an old joke about a Russian couple arguing over the weather — the one with the punch line “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.”

However, the controversy over the authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” drags on. The Moore and Livingston families are locked in a literary feud to this day. (In a previous column, my parody of “The Night before Christmas,” I mentioned both men with apologies — lest I find myself dragged into the fray.)

Moore, a poet and professor, was the first to take credit for “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” That was 13 years after it appeared in the Sentinel. Then, in 1844, he included it in a book of his poetry.

It probably didn’t help Moore’s case that — before claiming authorship in 1836 — he had contacted the newspaper asking whether anyone had taken credit for writing the poem.

Livingston was a judge and poet. His progeny — and at least one academic — pointed out that Moore wasn’t known for being a light-hearted chap, not the sort of guy who would write a whimsical children’s poem. They also claimed the reindeer’s names were of Dutch lineage — like Livingston himself.

Furthermore, Livingston’s children claimed that he had recited the poem to them in the early 1800s.

Legions of scholars — or a handful, at least — have been enlisted in the fight. In their arguments for or against Moore and Livingston, they have delved into the minutiae of each man’s writing style. Which poet preferred the anapestic meter used in “A Visit from St. Nick?” Which author tended to use “all” as an adverb? Which one dotted his “i’s” with tiny circles?

The whole affair conjures up images of a Mafia-style family feud. I can picture drive-by poetry slams on urban street corners in which members of the Moore or Livingston camp crumple to the pavement in a hail of iambic pentameters.

To avoid being dragged into the feud, in my parody I opted to go with carp pulling the sleigh. I, for one, don’t want to wake up some night to find a reindeer head in my bed.

This was originally written as one of my weekly outdoors columns for GateHouse Media.

A Visit from St. Nicholas Revisited

(With apologies to Clement Clark Moore, Major Henry Livingston Jr., or anyone who happens to read this.)


’Twas the night before Christmas when all through the camp

Not a creature was stirring, not even an ant;

Our stockings were hung from the clothesline to air,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;


Joe in his hammock, and Curt in his sack,

Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap;

Then out on the stream there arose such a splatter,

I sprang from my tent to see what was the matter;


The moon lit the river a mile upstream,

And revealed a glimpse of an unlikely scene;

What I saw then, gave me a start —

’Twas a miniature sleigh pulled by eight thrashing carp!


With a gaunt little driver who looked kind of sick,

Was this just a nightmare, or was it St. Nick?

I dove into my tent and crouched low to the ground,

Past Joe’s hammock St. Nicholas came with a bound;


He looked down in the dumps, a right haggard old elf,

And I gasped when I saw him, in spite of myself;

With a wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

He said, “Don’t call me Nick, because my name is Fred!”


He went on to explain as I cowered in shock,

That St. Nick got the kids from preteens to tots,

But the Yule gods had kicked Fred right under the bus,

And condemned him to working with riffraff like us;


He hoisted his sack and went straight to his work,

And he filled all our stockings, then called me a jerk,

And laying a finger aside of his nose,

He let fly with a booger that just missed my toes;


He sprang to his sleigh, to his carp gave a whistle,

And away they all swam, like a shot from a pistol.

But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight,

“You asked for some Foster’s, I gave you Bud Light!”

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Illustration by Joe Hughes


Next week — Poetic Injustice – The Intrigue behind Santa’s Reindeer


‘Big Fin’ – Honey Creek monster predated bigfoot


Illustration by Joe Hughes

Long before Big Foot reached out with his big hairy mitt and grabbed headlines, speculation of a Loch Ness type Monster in Honey Creek made local newspapers.

It all started in 1915, more than 40 years before the first known newspaper account of a Big Foot sighting. The Loudonville papers reported that Shannon Simms found a mastodon tusk in Honey Creek on his farm about five miles north of town. From there, the story grew flippers and took on a life of its own.


Loudonville resident and local historian Sarah England recently shared some newspaper clippings from 1915 and 1927 chronicling the evolution of the Honey Creek Monster.

According to the 1915 articles, Simms’ discovery caused quite a stir. He put the eight-foot long tusk on display in the window of Covert’s Drug Store in Loudonville (now Danner Pharmacy). The spectacle drew a big crowd — and perhaps a windfall for the drug store.

However, mastodon remains were pretty common and the excitement died off just as mastodons had 5,000 years earlier.

Twelve years later, a West Butler chiropractor resurrected the story. While excavating mastodon bones on Simms’ farm, Dr. W.A. Moore claimed to have found evidence that at least one of the giant beasts lurking in the waters of Honey Creek had flippers!

In June 1927, P.J. Bailey reported in the Loudonville Times that Moore’s discovery drew people to the excavation site from as far away as Chicago. Sightseers’ vehicles lined both sides of what is now County Road 2654 for a quarter mile.

In an article dated June 30, 1927, Bailey waxed eloquent, dancing a frantic jig along the fine line between reporting and editorializing.

“It is conjecture that it may have been some sort of creature that formerly inhabited the prehistoric swamps of the Honey Creek region, and which had flippers instead of feet to aid its locomotion through the water and ooze of the vast swamp,” Bailey wrote.

Bailey went on to suggest that Dr. Moore’s discovery of this “prehistoric monster” would likely create a sensation in the scientific world and put Loudonville on the map.

“It is especially fortunate for the people of Ohio that the remains were found conveniently close to the famous Three C Highway, which makes it easy to reach the excavations by automobile after a pleasant drive over splendid roads through the finest scenery in the Middle West.” Bailey wrote.

In spite of the hype, the Honey Creek Monster never lived up to expectations. The story — like the mastodons and whatever it was Dr. Moore claimed to have found — were doomed to extinction.

However, Bailey’s words proved prophetic. It was Dick Frye who put Loudonville on the map in 1961 by founding Ohio’s first canoe livery. Loudonville became the canoe capital of Ohio and Frye’s vision led millions to discover — as Bailey said — that this area boasts the finest scenery in the Middle West.

That’s why folks around here call it, “God’s country.”

You’ve got to admit it has a better ring to it than “Godzilla’s country.”

Paddling into obsolescence at a leisurely pace

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Reflection on the water of billowing smokestacks at the Conesville Power Plant on the Muskingum River — like everything and everyone, destined for obsolescence.

We hadn’t yet paddled out of Coshocton when the Conesville Power Plant smokestacks came into sight. From there they look so close, but veteran Muskingum River paddlers know better; Conesville is more than five miles downstream of Coshocton.

That’s about an 80-minute paddle if you’re in a hurry. I never am. To me, that defeats the purpose of canoeing. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

My canoe partner for this trip, Ken Arthur, was OK with that. He’s all about exploring and discovery.

It was Ken’s first ever glimpse of the Conesville stacks — at least from the river. But, for both of us, it might have been the last time seeing them belching smoke. American Electric Power plans to close the 62-year-old coal-burning power plant at the end of May 2020.

According to a Coshocton Tribune article written by Leonard Hayhurst, the Conesville plant has become obsolete — another casualty of the flagging domestic coal market. It has been a slow painful death.

“In October 2017, the plant was devalued by the Ohio Department of Taxation, going from $72.2 million to $34.7 million due to coal-fired plants being not as valuable in the energy market as natural gas facilities,” Hayhurst wrote in October 2018. “This resulted in close to $2 million in revenue lost to local entities. The hardest hit dollars wise was River View Local Schools at $1.18 million annually and the biggest percentage drop was to Franklin Township which lost more than half of its annual budget at $87,193.”

Paddle upstream — physically and in time — and a similar scenario played out about 100 years ago.

Railroads had rendered canals obsolete. That included the Walhonding Canal, which I mentioned in previous columns. (Earlier in this trip, Ken and I portaged Six Mile Dam on the Walhonding River, where Lock 5 of the canal had been.) Six Mile Dam, which is between the town of Warsaw and Coshocton, was repurposed. The canal was reengineered to channel water down to the Village of Roscoe to power a hydroelectric plant. That also became obsolete; no doubt a casualty of coal-burning power plants.

Now the dam has become obsolete. It’s become a liability due to an undermined wing wall. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has slated it for removal around this time next year.

Traveling upstream even further in time — more than 2,500 years ago — Greek philosopher Hiraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Clearly, this stretch of the Walhonding and Muskingum rivers will not be the same. It will be much different without the dam and Conesville’s belching smokestacks.

Time will have changed us as well. This canoe trip served as a reminder that all of us are destined for obsolescence. As I said earlier, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

This was one of a series of five columns on my September 2019 canoe trip from Mohawk Dam to Dresden, Ohio on the Walhondong and Muskingum rivers.



Oriental Bittersweet – Strangling Our Landscape

I’m posting this with the hope that park managers and other government officials will start taking this invasive plant seriously and do something about it NOW. (Originally written for the Greater Mohican Audubon Newsletter.)

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Oriental bittersweet berries. Pretty — devastating.

There’s nothing sweet about Oriental bittersweet. Unless it’s watching the leaves wither up after cutting the vines or treating it with herbicide.

But don’t be lulled by temporary successes in controlling Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). This aggressive invasive is tenacious. And it seems to have more friends than enemies.

In a 2018 article on Buckeye Yard & Garden onLine, Amy Stone refers to Oriental bittersweet as the “kudzu of the north.”

“Oriental bittersweet is invasive vine that is native to China, Japan and Korea,” Stone wrote in her article. “It was introduced to the United States as an ornamental plant around 1860. This deciduous, woody, twining vine can climb on trees, shrubs and anything else in its way.”

It was also introduced for erosion control, similar that notorious invasive Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica).

Yes, like so many other invasive plants, careless or clueless entrepreneurs introduced Oriental bittersweet to the U.S. To make matters worse, Oriental bittersweet is still sold here and prized for its colorful berries, which are used as decorations.

It’s easy to see where that could go awry. It’s bad enough that birds are spreading the seeds far and wide. Add to that well-meaning consumers spreading a little holiday joy — along with a nasty invasive vegetation.

Oriental bittersweet should not be confused with native American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). But it can be. There are subtle differences between them. However, Stone advises that, “To add to the possible confusion, the two different species in the same genus (Celastrus) are crossing and producing plants that sometimes have characteristics of both the native and non-native species.”

What does it look like?

The University of Maryland Extension provides this description:

Growth habit: climbing, deciduous vine; leaves rounded to obovate, alternate, simple with bluntly toothed margins.

Reproduction: seed; flowers are inconspicuous followed by green to yellow fruits that burst open to display orange-red seeds persisting into fall after leaf drop.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it prefers upland meadows, thickets, young forests, and beaches.

What’s the harm?

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Bittersweet vines strangling trees at Charles Mill Lake Park – Mifflin, Ohio.

Oriental bittersweet quickly takes over the landscape. Its deciduous woody vines create thickets, encircling tree trunks like boa constrictors, climbing upwards and choking the life out of them. The weight of the vines can pull down large trees. For that reason, those working to control this horrible invasive are warned never to tug at vines to remove them from trees or branches. It also shades out understory plants.

How could things possibly get worse? Oriental bittersweet also spreads underground; it reproduces by putting out root suckers.

To see the devastation up close, visit Charles Mill Lake Park on the Ashland and Richland county border. Oriental bittersweet is everywhere, even on the islands. In some places, the infestation is so bad that bittersweet vines are actually choking themselves.

What can be done?

In Ohio, public officials in general have yet to demonstrate any sense of urgency when it comes to controlling Oriental bittersweet and other invasive plants. On your own property, you can control it by constant cutting or mowing, pulling small vines or cutting large ones and treating the stumps with strong herbicide such as Triclopyr. (Glyphosate just won’t cut it.)

Treatment can be done any time of year, but stump treating is best done in late summer.

For a good video on Oriental bittersweet control log on to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wmZ1Zuho1c.

This video also serves as a great resource for identifying Oriental bittersweet.

Here’s a less-widely accepted method to control Oriental bittersweet. Save lengths of vines as you cut them. Keep them handy in case you find someone selling Oriental bittersweet — and strangle them.













I Canoe Because ‘Amish’ the Good Ol’ Days


Ken Arthur updates his journal by candlelight – while our Mennonite neighbors luxuriate in their modern RV.

On this leg of our canoe trip, I mistook a Mennonite family for Amish and Ken, in turn, was mistaken for Amish.

Instead of camping at Six Mile Dam on the Walhonding River the first night of our trip, we pressed on to Coshocton. On the gravel bar in front of the Lake Park Campground, several Mennonite children frolicked in the river. A middle-aged woman played with the children while an older woman sat in a folding chair reading a newspaper.

It was quite a bucolic scene — the women and girls in their long dresses and white bonnets and the boys in their plain dark clothing. I thought to photograph them but decided to respect their privacy.

As our canoe ground to a halt on the gravel landing we became aware that some of them were staring at us — much as we “English” sometimes hazard uncomfortably long glances at the Amish or Mennonites. The sight of two old guys in a canoe laden with camping gear might have been something of a novelty to them.

“Are you on a camping trip?” the middle-aged woman asked.

We told her we were.

At first I had thought they were Amish. Then I realized, when I noticed their multicolored clothing, that they were Mennonites. Unlike the Amish, they don’t shun technology. This would become abundantly clear.

As Ken and I pitched our tents, the middle-aged woman walked by.

“Have you heard whether it’s supposed to rain tonight?” Ken asked her.

She pulled out a smartphone, checked her weather app and said, “There’s a slight chance of rain around midnight.”

Then she sauntered on down the lane to her campsite — and climbed into a big fancy RV.

This experience reminded me that primitive camping is just another form of shunning the trappings of modernity.

After supper, Ken recorded the day’s events in his journal by candlelight while I wandered down to the gravel bar try to catch a glimpse of the full moon.

After a leisurely breakfast we broke camp, loaded the canoe, and headed downstream. We stopped to stretch our legs at the public river access south of Coshocton.

Ken wandered along the bank, looking for objects to incorporate into his artwork. Meanwhile, I picked up litter left behind by careless fishermen.

An older model car rolled into the parking lot and stopped near the riverbank. It was occupied by two men, who I guessed to be around 50. They had fishing rods in the back seat.

I approached the car and noticed the man in the passenger seat had an open bottle of Budweiser on the seat between his legs. The driver asked if the river was shallow and I told him it was. They indicated that shallow water wasn’t conducive to good fishing. Although they seemed more interested in drinking.

The driver noticed Ken walking along the bank.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“Oh, he’s with me,” I responded.

“Is he Amish?” he asked.

I laughed and told him he wasn’t.

They left, apparently to do their drinking elsewhere.

As Ken approached, he asked about the men in the car.

“They asked me if you were Amish,” I said.

He was not amused.

Personally, I don’t mind being mistaken for Amish. I have been on at least one occasion. After all, isn’t that what canoe tripping is all about — shunning the trappings of modernity?

In their book “Canoeing and Kayaking Ohio’s Streams,” Rick Combs and Steve Gillen aptly observed, “Paddling … can take you back to a time when travel was more deliberately accomplished.”

(This was written for my outdoors column, which runs in GateHouse Media publications.)


Define ‘Morning’


The Joys of a Leisurely Morning in Camp


Here I am camping with my favorite canoe partner. (Photo courtesy Steve McKee.)

There are two ways to break camp — the leisurely morning and what I call “bugging out.”

As the name implies, bugging out means getting up, packing hastily and hitting the river, lake or trail. (Or, if you’re car camping, the road.) The reasons for bugging out typically involve a long day of travel, a scheduled rendezvous, or sleeping in until it’s nearly time to set up camp again — somewhere miles away.

The worst part of bugging out is there’s no time for breakfast. A friend of mine would prepare for this eventuality by packing caffeine pills in lieu of coffee and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. That’s not camping; it’s cruel and unusual punishment.

All camping trips should be planned and executed to allow for leisurely mornings — the more leisurely, the better. Ideally, it will be a two coffee pot morning.

The question is, when camping with others, how do you orchestrate this?

It helps to camp with people who have a common definition of “morning.” This can be difficult when some of your friends work night shift or spend a lot of time in bars. Old habits are hard to break no matter how much noise you make banging on a cast iron skillet with a spatula.

If the smell of coffee isn’t enough to get them crawling out of their tents, subtle hints might be in order. You could try standing close to the offending party’s tent and saying in a loud clear voice, “Gee, I wonder if this tent really is waterproof!”

The best way to find people who have a common definition of morning is to look in a mirror. It’s also the best way to find someone who appreciates the true definition of leisurely.

To camp alone is to set your own pace. There’s much to be said for that. The down side is, when it comes time to tell jokes around the campfire, you’ve heard them all.

This story ran as a column in the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times.