Tag Archives: the woods

Non-Fiction Friday

Well, I didn’t get a lot of time to write this week, and then I forgot the little bit I did get written at home… So, no “Fiction Friday” today. But, I thought I might just throw out a couple paragraphs I wrote this fall about our cabin and land where I spent that surreal long weekend back in November.

It sits on 40 acres. It is one room, maybe 24′ x 12′. There are bunks and a hide-a-bed couch at one end, a woodstove for heat in the middle, and a quasi-kitchen and table at the other end. The ceilings are not seven feet high to conserve heat from the stove. There are cobwebs and dustballs everywhere. When I arrive, a woodrack by the stove is full of big chunks of birch. The main standing tree on the land is birch and for years a couple trees have been occasionally harvested to burn in the stove. It is heavy wood that will burn long once you get it going.The land is low and brushy and wet and it seemed to absorb all movement and all sound. And it served as a barrier. You can’t walk far into it without getting wet, lost or trapped in the alders.The Blue Hills are an old mountain range. Very old. Today they are defined by a couple ridges of hills a couple hundred feet high which appear blue when seen from the distance from which they can be seen in this otherwise low and flat country. They are mostly wooded, and much of it is public land, state forest and the such. They have been logged and relogged and rutted roads and trails dive into the trees from the main gravel roads frequently.

Imalone Road

“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.” ~ Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler

On the subject of hermits, some people say that it is not talking to yourself that marks you as crazy, it’s answering your own questions. I don’t think that’s a very good standard. What I think is the true line of demarcation is when you start telling yourself jokes. And laughing at them.

Call me crazy.

It was a very quiet four days alone at our family’s hunting cabin in the Blue Hills of northern Wisconsin. Although I went seeking quiet, I found that to so abruptly drop myself into such stillness was a shock to the system that left me paralyzed and nervous. It got a little intense. The days were short and night came quickly and then there was little to do but sit in front of the stove and read.

There was a strange sensation I would get after reading for a while. I would feel like I’d been reading for too long so I’d stand up and do something: take a leak, put a log on the fire, have a snack, pace around the cabin. I’d get done doing whatever I was doing and think, “Okay, now what should I do?” And then I’d realize that the only thing to do was what I had been doing. I would sit down, pick up the book, and dive back in. It was realizing that whatever I had interrupted myself with was incredibly brief, that the number of such diversions and tasks was extremely limited, and that if I didn’t start reading, I’d probably start talking to myself. Again.

Not only that, when you have no communication with the outside world, and no one is expecting to see or hear from you for a few days, it’s hard not to worry about hurting yourself or getting lost and bleeding to death or a rainstorm coming up and getting hypothermia or starving in the woods with a broken leg for days until your absence is noticed and your relatives are forced to scour the woods with dogs and helicopters to find your frozen, lifeless body under some fir tree with a note you scrawled on a matchbook cover saying final goodbyes and musing on the brevity and fragility of life and how some dreams must always remain dreams even if you live into old age and that you had a good run and life is truly beautiful — even moreso because of the immediacy of death every moment — and you wish for your family to not mourn too long or too hard but to live their lives fully and you only wish you could be there to see all the good things that are sure to come.

Since I obviously can’t quite figure out how to otherwise express this feeling in words, perhaps an example will help.

Yes, Appearances Can Be Deceiving

We were enjoying some bruschetta tonight on the flower-filled deck at my in-laws. Suddenly, a fearless hummingbird appeared. At first, we thought it was a very large bumblebee, but soon we realized it had to be a crazy little hummingbird. Had to be.

I took a bunch of photos as it visited every flower on the deck, oblivious to our presence. When we got home I looked around the web trying to identify this critter, but it wasn’t listed on any hummingbird sites.

Could this be a hummingbird species new to science?

A few links and a few clicks later, I had my answer. The creature was not a hummingbird. But it wasn’t a bumblebee either. It’s a Clearwing Hummingbird Moth, emphasis on moth. It’s actually very cool. Of course, its most distinctive characteristic is that it is frequently mistaken for a weird little hummingbird. It flits around flowers in broad daylight, wings a blur, it feeds on nectar like a hummingbird, but through a crazy-lookin’ thing called a proboscis, which it coils up when it’s flying around.

But this little guy, though living under the shadow of the coveted hummingbird, deserves a little respect I think. The most respect I can show it now (don’t ask me why I’m blogging about moths at 2:15 a.m. on a Saturday night) is proper identification. It’s in the Sphingidae family, the Sphinx moths. If I had known its Latin name I would have greeted it with Hemaris thysbe.

Without further ado, my blurry “hummingbird” photos.

You can see the proboscis in this picture. You can see it much better in this picture.

Is There Room for Awe?

What didn’t survive the cut in the Expectations post was a digression about how my generation has a jaded seen-it-all attitude that is very disturbing. We have largely been driven from the primitive, from the real laws of nature, of the wild, the principles of being human. I felt it working very strongly in me during our recent canoe trip, especially during the first few days.

It is an alarmingly disengaged sensation, a feeling of being distant from where you are, what you are seeing, hearing, feeling. It is frustrating, like a glass wall between yourself and reality.

Last Friday, we were at the bar with some friends. Katie and I were talking with a friend, N. Katie said that one of our other friends had said she was “shocked and awed” by something a few days before. N and I paused for a second. I was thinking that it’s sad that such a descriptive — if hyperbolic — statement has been co-opted by the warmongers. N said that she was never awed by anything anymore, though shocked quite often.

In the discarded section of Expectations, I had considered that not only are we not awed by anything, but we have been taught to admire our jadedness and our cynicism. I don’t know if N was exactly bragging about it, but she was certainly conscious, and accepting, of it.

At a different bar, a few nights ago, I went into the bathroom. This bathroom is memorable for the ironically-worded, penciled graffiti above the urinals. I saw that someone had written, “Brian Shelly is Aweful.” The misspelling of the word awful caught my eye. The true spelling of the word really, something that speaks to its real meaning. Being associated with awe doesn’t always have to be a good thing. Hyperbole might be necessary to describe the awesome and the awful.

There was a story in Sunday’s St. Paul Pioneer Press about the writer John Hildebrand (registration required, you can use email: tmogardo@mailinator.com, password: juvie211 to log in). He says he writes about “how people fit into the landscape and their conflicts, which are usually rooted in the land.” He is not a nature writer.

“Nature writing is often pious and boring, in a constant state of awe.”

I’m not sure what school of nature writing he is talking about here, but there is much great writing out there about the drama of the wild, connecting with the world on very real bases, being a participant on Earth, not a god. It’s anything but condescending or pious and I’ve never found it the least bit boring. Of course, personal taste must be accounted for. He got me thinking.

Isn’t there awe to be felt and described? Some years ago, Katie and I concluded that God must hand the skies over to the great artists, Monet, Van Gogh. They are art. So is the lake we paddled around Sunday afternoon, a lake with torquoise water carved deep into the hills, a lake I know better than any other. Perhaps the work of Leonardo da Vinci?

I don’t want to write about stumbling around the woods in a starry-eyed daze, staring up at the highest branches or the blue sky beyond. Hildebrand offers a good caution against that. I want to focus on the whole by concentrating on the specific. But, neither do I want to write an academic paper or something so dry and esoteric that some people might not get anything out of it whatsoever. The best way to preach to the choir is to read Scripture.

Awe is still possible, though many people don’t know what it feels like, how to understand it, how to make use of it. So it’s fallen by the wayside.


“The days that followed were full of wonderment. The spell that was upon us continued, and all we saw was colored by its mood.” – Sigurd Olson, The Explorers

Most people, myself included, read a quote from Olson, Snyder, Leopold, Muir, or some other famous champion of the wild and are motivated to go forth and receive inspiration. We expect jaw-dropping enlightenment. Purple mountain majesties and all that.

I guess it’s not quite that simple.

Halfway through our recent trip to the Boundary Waters I became frustrated because I hadn’t achieved this preconceived sense of awe. I had been looking at water, rock, forest, and sky, and I had been expecting to see more than water, rock, forest, and sky.

I’d been expecting — demanding — to see something supernatural.

It’d almost be funny if it wasn’ t so sad.

I had been waiting to be knocked out by the grandeur of the place. Because I was waiting for it, rather than adding to it, seeking it out, celebrating it, I had no reason to hope to be awed by anything. And therefore, I wasn’t feeling awe, which only motivated me to keep waiting, to keep trying to take a longer view, to see a wider vista. And so on.

On Day 7, I wrote in my journal

…[Katie] told me maybe I should not try to be impressed by the vistas, the large scale beauty, but that I needed to get microscopic, admire the rippling of the waves, the little rocks, the flowering plum tree by the toilet. That’s my usual approach, so usual that I feel like I’ve neglected it on this trip, assumed that it and the power it holds were second nature…

We were already on our way out when I wrote this. I was kind of pissed at myself. I’d been overwhelmed by something, but it wasn’t the vistas, it was the minutiae. There were so many trees and birds and rocks and clouds that my eyes had glazed over, you might say. It’s not that I didn’t experience any moments of clarity, times when I was wowed by some small beauty. The chaotic laughter of the loons in the spring, the purple mirror of the waves at sunset, many things had resonated deeply in me. But there had been no epiphanies.

It was very frustrating to see so much that was real and not to be able to connect with it. Feeling this frustration, acknowledging it, understanding it, was a step in the process toward something else, but it wasn’t a step I wanted to deal with. I wanted to move on quickly, because what came next was surely some sort of beautiful. Hence, it wasn’t until toward the end of the trip when I felt like I rubbed my eyes and the world wasn’t quite as blurry.

When it did come, that clarity was almost as painful as the confusion I had been feeling. As we paddled out on the last morning, we saw several loons. A couple of them appeared very close to our canoe and watched us for a moment before diving back under the water. It seemed as if they were asking me, “Why are you leaving now?”

I left the wilderness with much unaccomplished, I came home incomplete. We’ve been back a week and the questions and the answers have been working on me in mysterious, sometimes painful, ways since we walked in the door. My head has felt cluttered, my stomach empty, my shoulders idle. Maybe the only significant answer I’ve found is that all these things down here felt as unneccesary when we were in the wilderness as the wilderness used to feel when we were down here. I’m beginning to grasp something new about the true importance of the wild. And I’m afraid it’s way too far away.