New Skills Born of Necessity During The Great Isolation

Joe writes . . . 

All of us have learned new skills during The Great Isolation. Out of necessity. My wife, for example, cut my hair and trimmed my Old Man Eyebrows and I look three thousand times better as a result. I bought a toilet snake and accomplished what toilet snakes are designed to accomplish without calling Doug the Plumber and we once again enjoy the full complement of residential sanitary services.

How about everyone who has learned to make a mask, or attend a Zoom meeting? And what about skills we always had but of which we were not aware? (Intelligent readers will note how I skillfully twisted the previous sentence so that it both sounds pompous and does not end in a preposition.) I’m thinking here of my innate beard-growing ability. All my life I assumed that I could not grow a beard, only to discover that in five or six weeks I have grown a fine beard. Hemingway-esque. Judge for yourself; there’s a photo of me in all my bearded glory in a recent post.

The biggest stretch for me has been changing the oil on my old lawn tractor. In the past I

joe changing oil

My wife was so surprised at me changing the oil that she took this photo and sent it to all her kids.

would often tell women I was trying to impress that “I can’t change your oil, but I can write a poem about it.” My wife thought it was funny many years ago, and we’ve now been married for 15 years. Fifteen wonderful years, I should add, as she always reads these posts. But I did change the oil in the trusty old Craftsman with its 17.5 horsepower Briggs & Stratton. Immediately after draining the dirty oil and filling the crankcase with new I was troubled by a nagging notion that I might have added too much oil . . . but what harm could result? If there’s too much oil the excess will burn off or unobtrusively leak away and contaminate the ground water; right?

So I’m cutting the grass for the first time of the year and every two or three minutes am completely enveloped in an cloud of thick bluish-white smoke, an impenetrable fog. As I continue mowing I anxiously run through various scenarios as to how I might come up with a thousand dollars to buy a new lawn tractor. With that vague notion of too much oil prodding me on, however, I did some research and discovered through YouTube that the consequence of overfilling a crankcase can be impenetrable bluish-white smoke and financial anxiety. I drained the excess oil and everything is hunky-dory. No more impenetrable fog, and if I find a thousand dollars I can spend it on grading and re-seeding the lawn.

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While searching for a different poem by Wm. Butler Yeats I became reacquainted with his poem The Stolen Child, first published when Yeats was a lad at university. The Stolen Child includes the following lines:

There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;

We have seen such places along the Grand, my brother and I.



We are glad you found our blog. If you like it, please tell a friend and share it on your social media. We would be delighted if you would leave a comment here, and will respond promptly. Tom has been scouting the final – but substantial – leg of our journey down the Grand and is anxious to share his plans with me. I will visit with him and learn what he has in mind and as soon as it is acceptable and safe to do so. I often end my posts by writing “Please take the river’s side; Industry and Big Ag already have plenty of friends in high places.” During The Great Isolation I will add, “. . . and wear a damn mask!” Be well.

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Many Robins So Far, but no Bugs

Tom Writes . . . 


Photo Credit: stolen from the internet

Today, I met my friend Kelly, and we walked along the Grand. The fat brown part of the Grand, above the dams, just north of downtown Grand Rapids. Lovely morning, pale sunshine, not-a-cloud blue heavens, bird sounds, red buds and a few tiny new green leaves.

In the next few days, I will try to scout our remaining route on the Grand from Ada – where left off – through Grand Rapids and then on to Lake Michigan. The doctors finally have cut me loose. I have a wound/incision on my ankle. It caused a major infection, a few months ago. But now, it is just a scab. (Wanna see a picture of it? No.) I officially am allowed to get it wet now, after five months! So, I can canoe. (And can take a normal shower.) Hallelujah!

My Cynthia and I have seen many robins for the past few weeks, more than usual. April is the time of year when robins always return to West Michigan. But the weather has been cold, and I believe they all should have stayed in the South until May at least. What will they eat? It is much too cold for bugs here, now. Probably too cold even for worms.

A couple robins have visited our back porch. They have been landing on top of ourhanging porch light fixtures. One of them has tried twice to make a nest on top of one of the lights, has brought long strings of dry grass and weeds. But, the top of the light seems too slippery for a nest. The breezes blow all the nesting material off, and it falls to our porch floor. I have considered picking it up and trying to smoke it, because I am trying to quit tobacco, but I am not that desperate yet.

They seem to have given up on the nest, today. Good. I am sure they can find a better place. And I hope they find something to eat. Welcome, spring robins!

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Thank you for visiting our blog. If you enjoyed it, please share it on social media or with a friend. If you leave a comment we will respond. We Neely brothers look forward to getting back on the Grand River in 2020. Don’t be a dummy . . . stay in and stay safe. This, too, shall pass.

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A Northern Michigan Walk in the Woods

Joe Writes . . . 

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

lines 1 – 4 from the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer


April’s showers have indeed pierced the dreary drought of March, and Spring is arriving even here in northern Michigan. Ramps carpet the forest floor, to be replaced in a few weeks by trillium. The ramp is a wild leek found in the woods here in the early Spring. They are easy to find right now; Linda has been sautéing the green leaves with spinach for breakfast and in other dishes where she might normally use garlic and/or onion. I can tell when she brings them into the house, as they have a pungent but not unpleasant garlicky aroma. This is our first year of identifying and using ramps, and we leave them largely unmolested by merely snipping off a few leaves. We only occasionally harvest the bulb, which looks like a scallion and can be used as such  or any time a mild leek flavor is desired.

from Birches by Robert Frost

I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.

birches 1

The bare white birches provide nearly the only contrast to the monotonous grey of every other tree’s trunk at this time of year. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

A Drinking Song by Wm. Butler Yeats

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

joe and linda april 25

And how could I not look at her and sigh? My companion on this walk and my walk through life.

from Lift High the Cross, a 19th-century English hymn by George Kitchin

Lift high the cross
the love of Christ proclaim
’til all the world adore
His sacred name

the cross st ignatius

There must be a new cross on the steeple at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Middle Village/Goodhart, on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Harbor Springs. It shone in the sun and I immediately thought of this hymn, which I suppose I’ve sung a hundred times in church without realizing how much I liked it until I saw this cross gleaming in the sun.

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Thank you for visiting our blog. If you enjoyed it, please share it on social media or with a friend. If you leave a comment we will respond. We Neely brothers look forward to getting back on the Grand River in 2020. Don’t be a dummy . . . stay in and stay safe. This, too, shall pass.

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Pandemic Paddling and Protests

Joe Writes . . . 

Paddling: My understanding of the current stay-at-home order is that paddling is allowed, while powerboating is not. The problem for us would be that we would not be able to maintain proper social distancing; i.e., we would inevitably find ourselves unable to maintain 6′ spacing. Since we don’t live in the same household, that would be violating the order’s requirements and subject us to (a.) prosecution and a possible $1,000 fine; and, (b.) an increased likelihood of contracting the virus. Neither of those prospects is appealing but I am optimistic that the situation will have eased enough at some point this summer so that we are able to complete our quest. To review, we have paddled from the Grand’s source, south of Jackson, to Ada, just shy of Grand Rapids.

Protests: Yesterday a fairly large protest against the provisions of the stay-at-home order took place in Lansing. Here’s the quickest way to lose my support for your cause: (a.) work the Confederate flag into your agenda; (b.) strap on a semi-automatic rifle for no apparent reason; and, (c.) compare the governor to a Nazi.

I feel bad for those protestors who have legitimate grievances that deserve consideration. A protest  sign reading “Let My People Mow” was clever and could lead to serious discussion of whether it is necessary to prohibit lawn mowing services from operating, but it is difficult to look past the foolishness of Confederate flags, semi-automatic rifles on public property and Nazi name-calling. Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.

And please, just stop with the Nazi comparisons.  Such references convincingly demonstrate a lack of historical knowledge/understanding and are disrespectful to the memory of the 6,000,000 souls murdered by real Nazis during the Holocaust. Please stop.

Tom writes (supporting Joe)…

Who are these fools who fly Confederate flags in our state of Michigan, for cryin’ out loud?! Michigan is as far north as you can get. We have a proud history of fighting Confederates. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

Much less seriously: Joe and I have the same last name, because we are brothers. So… Maybe, if we go canoeing together, and some police person questions us, we could pretend we are married, with the implication that we live together, to avoid the fines? (Joe adds: Tom, if the cops notice we have different addresses we can say we separated for awhile but we’re trying to work it out now.)

Stay healthy and happy!






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I Hope John Prine Was Right About Old Rivers

Joe Writes . . . 

John Prine died from the COVID-19 virus. I not an expert on his music, but I hope he’s right that “old rivers grow wilder every day.” Imagine the river my grandchildren would see if we left the Grand alone for 50 years.

The writing in this song is extraordinary, with excerpts below. I would say “enjoy,” but it’s probably more appropriate to say “prepare to shed a tear.”

. . .

We lost Davey in the Korean War,
and I still don’t know what for
don’t matter anymore.

You know that old trees just grow stronger
and old rivers grow wilder every day
old people just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say
hello in there, hello
. . .
me and Loretta we don’t talk much more
she sits and stares through the back door screen
and all the news just repeats itself
like some forgotten dream
that we’ve both seen
. . .
so if you’re walking down the street sometime
and spot some hollow, ancient eyes
please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare
as if you didn’t care
say hello in there, hello



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Official Grand River Expedition Cancelled; Neely Brothers Still Hope to Complete Their Quest This Year

Joe Reports . . . 

Every ten years since 1990 an organized expedition to paddle the length of the Grand River has taken place, most recently under the auspices of Middle Grand River Organization of Watersheds.  That organization has announced that the Grand River Expedition planned for the summer of 2020 has been cancelled due to concerns occasioned by the COVID-19 virus pandemic. The expedition has been tentatively rescheduled for the summer of 2021.

My brother and I still hope to complete our quest this year, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise too much more. Tom is still recovering from surgery and I am without a job, but we’ll try our best. God Bless us all.

From left: Joe Neely, Tom Neely, December 2018 view from the Billie V’s bow.


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Jenny Kiss’d Me and Natalie Cried

Joe Writes . . . 

It has been suggested that more poetry might be helpful during The Great Isolation, and what could it possibly hurt? With a nod to the poets of older days and an explanation that follows . . . 


Natalie cried as I drove away,
tho’ I would be gone just a day
and she had much to do,
tasks to fill a whole day through.
Still, Natalie cried.

At the end of my days,
my life tallied and weighed,
don’t rank the things I’ve done,
riches gained nor battles won.
Instead recall that I drove away,
and Natalie cried.

                              – Joseph Neely, 2019

leigh hunt

Leigh Hunt

When we were young our mother was fond of reciting a poem called ‘Jenny Kiss’d Me’ by the English poet Leigh Hunt (1785 – 1859). The gist of the poem is that although the speaker – in this case, the poet himself – may be weary and sad, although he may have missed out on riches and fame and be nearing the end of his life, nonetheless his life is not without merit because – and don’t you ever forget it! – Jenny kissed him, and Jenny’s kiss was more rewarding than any temporal triumph could be.

Fast-forward some 200 years and I was reminded of my mother and the poem when one of my granddaughters, Natalie, cried as her father drove away on a short business trip. I couldn’t help but recast the poem to fit the occasion, doing the best I could with the old-fashioned poetic structure (mine is a modified Rondeau of sorts, if you’re keeping score).

Jane Welsh CarlyleThe story behind the poem is especially poignant during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Recovering from the flu following a not-uncommon 19th century epidemic, Hunt visited his friends Thomas Carlysle and Jane Welsh Carlysle, Jane being the ‘Jenny’ of the poem (pictured at left). Delighted to see her friend, Jane rose from her chair and kissed the poet, much to his everlasting – and now immortal – delight.

A further connection – just now discovered, while preparing this entry – is that Jane Welsh Carlysle was, according to Virginia Woolf, one of the “great letter writers,” and so was my mother. Jane’s writing was further described as a private writing career, which also describes my mother’s extensive body of work. If the world were fair, my mother’s writing would have been widely celebrated. She might have become a famous old lady, beloved by most and vaguely annoying to some (Mom had strong opinions).  Instead, my mother wrote copiously for herself, her family and a handful of people about whom she cared enough to share her writing.


Our mother, Catherine Verschoor Neely McNabb

Without further ado, the original poem by Leigh Hunt follows.


Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
     Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
     Sweets into you list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
     Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
     Jenny kiss’d me.

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River Art at U of M Cancer Center

Note: all photographs of artwork herein are copyrighted and used with the knowledge of and permission from the artist, Martina Celerin. It is prohibited to duplicate or otherwise make use of these photographs without the express written permission of the artist.

Joe Writes . . . 

My wife has been very open about her treatment for cancer: first for breast cancer, then for melanoma. I’m happy – nay, thrilled – to report that she is doing very well.

We were at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center a few weeks ago, waiting for an appointment, at the same time that a new art exhibit was being installed. The new exhibit replaced an exhibit which had included an extremely realistic painting of former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer standing with a few Buckeye players on the sidelines of the Horseshoe in Columbus.  I always thought that an odd choice of art to display at the U of M, even if the painting was superbly-rendered.

The new display featured fiber art with what I perceived as a river theme from artist Martina Celerin, who has an interesting life story. Celerin was born in Prague before immigrating to Canada as a child. After earning a doctoral degree in plant sciences from the University of Western Ontario, she accepted a postdoctoral position  as a molecular geneticist in the Biology Department at Indiana University. The following is excerpted from the Artist Statement which accompanies her exhibit at the Rogel Cancer Center.

“The essence of art is a balance between contrast and harmony. I’m creating beauty – scenes of pristine places and idyllic impressions – using discarded and unwanted things. My art studio is filled with a plethora of odds and ends, new and old. I have jars of fossils, shells and weathered rocks, as well as yarns of all weights, colors and descriptions, much of it recovered as scrap from local weavers and knitters. They sit beside dozens of containers of beads and discarded jewelry from all over the world. There are strips of leather, undone hemp baskets, disentangled wires, and pieces of lace – all bits and pieces of everyday life, waiting to create a specific effect in a weaving.

My inspiration is drawn from both nature and my imagination. Some pieces are scenes taken from memories of family walks or places I have visited. Others are much more abstract, capturing an idea, personality, or simply reflecting the feelings evoked by an event or geographical area. All of the pieces, though, are true weavings, integrating the materials, landscapes or emotions I’ve drawn from my travels and experiences.”

Until my brother Tom and I can get out on the river again – until you can get out on your river again, real or metaphorical – we can draw inspiration and enjoyment from Martina Celerin’s work.

art 9 blog

God Bless us all during The Great Isolation. Stay healthy and stay in touch with those you love. As always . . . take the river’s side.

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What Happened to the Perch?

Joe writes . . . 

We have written about perch fishing and invasive species here on lengthofthegrand, both of which are addressed in an excellent blog post I read recently while following  ThumbWind, which reports on and celebrates life in Michigan’s Upper Thumb region.

ThumbWind’s most recent post – by blog creator Michael Hardy – features an interview with Tom Goniea, a Senior Fish Biologist within the Fisheries division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. If you are interested in the health of the Great Lakes, I think you will find the interview with Goniea to be of great interest.

In the ThumbWind interview Goniea is quoted as saying, “Commercial and recreational harvesting is not the cause of the decline in the perch population. First, there is plenty of perch hatched in the (Saginaw) Bay each year. It’s a problem with recruitment. Juvenile perch are not surviving their first winter. The problem is that Zebra and Quaggra mussels are filtering out the zooplankton that the young fish need to survive. Young perch are not getting to the right size and fat content to survive the first winter.”

There is more on the health of yellow perch in the Great Lakes in the interview, and lots of good content to peruse at Enjoy!


Yellow Perch survey on Saginaw Bay. Photo taken from post and courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

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Now more than ever, take the river’s side. Every day the news from Washington and Lansing reminds us that Industry and Big Ag already have plenty of powerful friends.

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An Amtrak Travelogue: Chicago and Back Home (Part 2 of 2)

Joe Writes . . . 

The stop after Albion is Battle Creek. The land adjoining the tracks is largely devoid of buildings except for the occasional strip bar or motorcycle club. As in any good detective novel, life is hard lucky charmsfor those living on the wrong side of the tracks. Evidence of the railways’ importance to the cereal industry abounds. Grain cars sit empty waiting for the next assignment and I envision an entire car filled with tiny marshmallows to mix into Lucky Charms. We have been playing peek-a-boo with the Kalamazoo River for a while and just after departing Battle Creek I notice a sorry tributary of the Kalamazoo running through a concrete sluiceway. I am reminded of the Grand River in downtown Jackson; there’s not much that is sadder than a river encased in concrete.

Next stop: Kalamazoo itself. It’s increasingly grey and rainy, making it difficult to see more than a short distance into the passing landscape. On the return trip I will be surprised by the evidence of homelessness visible from the train in Kalamazoo – tents and tarps rigged as shelter behind abandoned buildings, a lone disheveled man squatting down behind a garage – but on this leg of the trip I can’t see much. Shortly after leaving Kalamazoo Linda comments that the train is traveling at 81 miles-per-hour. She knows this because the Waze app on her phone thinks we are in a car and is warning us to slow down. Waze ain’t seen nothin’ yet; we charge through the Village of Mattawan at 110 miles-per-hour. Don’t blink.

I fall asleep and am only vaguely aware of the short patch of Indiana we traverse, steel mills contrasting with lakeside condos and views of Lake Michigan. When I am once again fully-awake the train is slowing as we approach Chicago from the south. This part of the city goes on forever. Like most tourists who visit Chicago’s more-glamorous areas, I’ve never visited Chicago’s South Side. I know there are rough areas and I’m sure there are nice areas, but I’ve never been there. Lou Rawls singing Dead End Street comes to mind. “As soon as I was big enough to get a job and save enough money to get a ticket – to catch anything – I split. But I said one day I’m going to return, and I’m gonna straighten it all out.”

We arrive at Union Station at 10:40 am Chicago Time, four hours and 15 minutes after departing Ann Arbor. Had we driven the journey would have taken about 5 hours. We are rested and ready for the 20-minute walk to our hotel; had we driven we would likely be tired and cranky.

Chicago seldom disappoints. We ate in some wonderful restaurants, including a Peruvian-inspired meal at Tanta Chicago where we were the only people over 35 in the whole damn place. When I was a partner at Metzger’s German Restaurant in Ann Arbor I often heard about Chicago’s legendary Berghoff Restaurant, a place I also remember my berghoff joe photoparents speaking of fondly. It turns out the Berghoff was only a block from our hotel so we ate there our first night in town. My expectations were not high – there are only so many ways to cook schnitzel – but we were blown away by the seafood dinners we both ordered. Linda had spinach-stuffed sole and I had scallops. On our final night in Chicago we ate at a place Linda loves, Eataly. I had never been there and this, too, proved a great choice. There is a fun shop at street level – we bought a big jar of capers in salt, loving capers as we do and never having seen them in salt – and a very good restaurant on the second floor. We both chose pasta dishes – what else? – and were served by a  knowledgeable and engaging young woman. Downstairs again for gelato and then back to our hotel where I fell asleep and missed the Kansas City Chief’s comeback victory in the Super Bowl.

The return leg of our trip on Amtrak was largely uneventful. This time we sat in coach but the seats were still roomy and comfortable. There were a couple of characters in our car, both of whom at different times occupied a seat directly in front of us. One woman had done everything she could to look exactly like Michael Jackson – including, I think, plastic surgery – while the other complained of bed bugs in the car a bit forward of us. Oddballs both but largely harmless assuming the bedbugs were a figment of the second woman’s imagination. I decided that was, indeed, the case after eavesdropping on her end of a bizarre phone call.

So ends our trip to Chicago on Amtrak. For now it’s back to the grindstone, but I can see us traveling by train again soon. Catch you on the river or catch you on the rails.

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