July 1, 2018
Our trilogy begins shortly after 4 a.m. on Monday morning, 5/28/18. Sleeping has been fitful the last hour or so for Anne and me, with the distant rumbling of thunder and an occasional lightening flash prolonging our wakeful periods. A sudden deafening crack and simultaneous white light has me levitating and Anne leaping from our bed. “That was close,” I exclaim as Anne peers from our bedroom window. Nothing to be seen, but she later says a slighting burning smell lingered in the wet air. She climbs back in and sleep returns. As I am arising at 6:15, the phone rings. I do not get to the kitchen in time to answer, but a message soon appears from our next door neighbor. She tells us that part of a tree has punctured her roof and it is now raining in her living room. Anne and I step out onto our back deck to take a look. Awe and wonder hit us like the suddenness of the lightning strike. One of the three massive white pines between our houses has been transformed into a 30-40 foot totem, split into three skyward thrusting spires with what once was the top of the tree jammed into the space between the spires pushing them away from the vertical. Awesome is a woefully overused word today, but what we were gazing at is exactly what the word was intended to describe.
The feeling of power, mystery, and wonder was unmistakable to anyone looking at this instantaneous natural creation. I felt a sudden oneness with all those indigenous people who have long recognized the spirits that reside in and move through the natural world. This struck me as a spiritual release. One worthy of worship. The science behind how it happened was not nearly as important to me as the happening itself. That tree, one of three, barely distinguishable from the others for perhaps a hundred years, suddenly took on a unique beauty that only nature can create. Today you get a glimpse of what we saw. By now I suspect you have figured out that this glorious piece of wood beside me is the top of one of those spires. Imagine it still attached and 30 to 40 feet in the air with its two other sister spires, all pointing upward to father sky. I would argue that it rivals any man made cathedral spire for inspiring power and glory.
There is meaning somewhere here. Like our faith we can all decide what it is for ourselves. When that much energy is released 20 feet from the sanctuary of your bedroom, you cannot help but wonder how thin that thread is that attaches us to this life. For Anne and me, we also see this as an opportunity to honor that natural world that speaks to us in so many ways. The unfortunate civilized concerns with safety and property means we now have a tri-split stump still stretching about 20 feet in the air between our houses – still awe worthy. We intend to worshipfully use as many of the cut sections as we can. A birdbath will rest on one that contains the perfectly carved evidence of the young tree, and clearly shows each new year of growth circling out from that young tree. At least one of the spires will resume its upward thrust behind our back flower garden, a natural sculpture. And many of the sections will be laid end to end at the edge of our yard just as it begins its descent to the river – holding soil, and over time becoming home to flora and fauna, mimicking the processes that take place when majestic trees fall in the forest primeval.
There is something out there. And we are one with it.
This recognition does not always come in lightning strikes. Sometimes it is much more subtle, and easily missed. The day after nature created cathedral spires next to our house, I began a four day/three night solo sojourn in the Sylvania Wilderness. The first two days were wet ones. After setting up camp following paddling and carrying in the first day, I realized I left my link to civilization in my car in the parking lot at the canoe launch. That’s important because my bargain with Anne is I can solo wilderness camp, but I need to cell phone call her to tell her I am in, and check in each morning to assure her sleep apnea has not claimed me during the night. No calls might mean the initiation of a U.S. Forest Service search. I had to get that phone. I decided to hike. I was head down and all business during the eight mile, three hour foot sodden trek following the winding trail along the shore of Clark Lake to the car and back. I maintained a similar determined attitude during much of the next day as well. Not how I like to spend my time in the woods, but the combination of camping/fishing and rain can do that to you.
I think it was on my final trip back that second day from the tree where I dutifully hung my pack to minimize the odds of bear encounters that I let my eyes wander. I have long been intrigued by mushrooms and fungi. What caught my eye was a fungus projecting from a tree trunk that I had passed a number of times on the way to and from the lake or my anti-bear tree. This was not just a ho-hum bracket fungus. It was strikingly bi-colored, with a brilliant shiny green stalk and subtle cream-colored smooth rounded cap. There was actually a whole fungi family on this tree that had been trying for several days to get my attention. Not easy for a fungus. Once they’d succeeded, I was captivated. The color was what first drew me to them. Then I noticed the variety of shapes. I was especially taken by one that had a whimsical appearance. The cap was long and narrow, proboscis-like with two indentations near the stalk that were perfectly placed eyes.
Here I was, taken by another creation of nature. This one growing as intended – part of the tree version of green burial, actually. Waiting patiently for notice. Pay attention. A wonder. Maybe not initially as awe inspiring as a lightning strike, but on inspection, maybe it should be. Certainly proof enough for me that something is out there, and I am fortunate to be part of it.
Part three of the trilogy. Short backstory. My dad was born on a farm on the Alberta prairie 50 miles from Edmonton. For reasons that were never clear to me, when he was eight he became an immigrant, moving with his parents and five siblings to Chicago. My dad was a child of the Great Depression. Blue collar, he learned the auto mechanic trade when diagnosing an engine’s problem was a keenly honed human skill. Independent minded, he started his own business. Hard work and long days, dedication to providing for his family was his ethic, but Canada always flowed in his veins. When I was only slightly younger than he was when his family made that move, my parents, two older brothers and I began an annual ritual that I would observe until my 21st year, a two week fishing trip to northwest Ontario. For those two weeks when we’d steal him away from Jefferson Auto Service, my dad was a willing captive in a crammed boat, first teaching us how to fish, then taking great joy in our excitement at applying the skill he taught us. It was on these trips, breathing in, as my dad often said,
“Ah, fresh Canadian air,” that my love affair with lakes and woods and loons and bass began.
June 1, 2018 marked one hundred years since my dad was born on that Alberta prairie. I knew where I had to be on that day. I sang “Happy Birthday” to my dad on my campsite after arising that morning. The rains of the previous two days had stopped, and the winds had shifted during the night. They were gently blowing cool air from the north. Blowing from Canada. Fog covered the lake as I dead reckoning paddled to the portage that would take me to my day’s destination. Upon reaching the other side of the portage the fog greeted me in big billows. It was then that I recognized there was something different about this morning’s fog. As I pushed off into it, I was enveloped, enfolded, comforted. The previous day’s fishing was all casting. No catching. My wondering about what plying the skill my dad taught me would bring on this special new day was short lived. Several casts from the portage a strong strike was followed by the unmistakable darting and leaping of a smallmouth bass. As I easily removed the barbless hook and returned it to its home, I marveled at the size and beauty of the specimen I was fortunate to land. Further down the shore at a favorite spot on the lake, two more similarly sized smallies found my spinner bait to their liking. I also noticed something strange was happening with the fog. The climbing sun did not burn it off. It was as if it was choosing to stay with me. A presence that I sensed wanted to be with me just as I wanted its comforting billows to continue to swirl about me. It was several hours before the evergreen and maple laden far shore clearly came into view. At three other locations around the lake, smallmouth whose size made me audibly exclaim “Wow” were caught and released. Any one of the prize bass who responded to my casts that day would have been considered the catch of the season in a typical Sylvania year.
As I let that sixth memorable beauty go, with the sun showing there were hours yet available for casting, my heart told me it was time to lay down my rod and reel for this day. I had been given more than what I came for – this was a mystical encounter. My spirit was full. I had been overtaken with wonder. As has become my ritual of gratitude and to acknowledge what is out there, before I left the water, I voiced my thanks to the fishing gods. And on this day, with a bow to the other side, I added, “Thank you dad. Good to be with you.”