Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Sentient Landscape and the Pterodactyl

There’s a sacred place just up from the big lake, well hidden by a strong stretch of forest. Though fairly near a good road, if you don’t already know it’s there, you won’t when driving by.

It’s one of many such sites around Lake Superior. A few are world famous, like Agawa. In deference to Homeland Security I’ve secured the necessary papers so we’re free to travel the north shore this summer, when brilliant afternoons are best spent in idle contemplation near the cool waters of any shallow bay while waiting for long light to whisper that it’s again time to get off my contemplative ass and back to work.

Even when not world famous, some of these sacred sites are marked for the convenience of tourists. Many remain obscure. Most are near special waters. Almost all are infused with a mysterious but palpable blend of landscape and culture, which recognition is beyond the capacity of words to adequately convey. You have to be there. I suppose plenty of these sacred places remain unknown to most white men and rightly so.

This place I know used to have a sign. It used to have a trail. It used to be abused by tourists who’d take pieces of it home, little living pieces precisely positioned with profound purpose by others, but pocket sized and way better than cheap dream catchers or moccasins all the same. Though once I witnessed a young man who in accordance with Jewish custom left an object of respect in this place, so sometimes signs and trails serve noble intent, depending on who’s using ‘em and for what.


The trail to this sacred place led up from the road along a deep cut of small, winding creek. On one side of the path stood thick forest. To the other, trees fell steeply away with the ravine. Through those you could see over and down to the streambed, where bristling brush and decades of debris still obscures a slow tumble of dark water that over time washes everything it touches into tiny pieces down to the Great Lake.

It was misty, cool and still the day that Johnny, Heather and I first went in.

I don’t recall how we found the place. Probably the wooden sign, which was cut in the rough profile of an Indian’s head with great beak for a nose & complete with full feathered headdress of the sort not worn by Indians from anywhere around there. Why we went in was the same reason we did most everything in the northwoods, which was simply to see, perchance to know. With that purpose and our awareness on high alert, we crept into the mist shrouded forest.

Maybe 50 yards in, a great winged shadow rose silently to our left and over the creek. It loomed large enough and close enough that the three of us flushed with adrenaline and stopped suddenly to turn in unison. The creature glided just above the unnavigable tangle. Its giant wings barely moved. Eyes wide with primordial vision, we followed its track in the air upstream ‘til it’d ridden the rough map of the creek to disappear around a bend.

“Did you see that?!?” one of us cried.

It was a Great Blue Heron, back in the day when those were almost impossibly rare and what few there were signified a lasting wildness of place. But we instantly agreed that when first we turned and all the while we watched it fly, the silhouette of an impossibly large body carried aloft on massive wings appeared to us as nothing less than a pterodactyl on the hunt and we three in sudden thrall of ancient custom, cowering in thick cover as it flew by.

In an instant, for a minute and across millennia, we were all the same.

Properly primed, we headed on in to the sacred place and neither did it disappoint. We’d received everything we’d asked for and quite a bit more besides.


During the last day in the field this past November, I found myself on that winding road along the lake. The sun shone bright and warm. Whatever snow had fallen near shore the day before was already melted. I very much needed to head well inland to capture the first of winter before the short day and exquisite light was done and the opportunity wasted.

All the same, I’d not visited this sacred place in many years so I left the cameras in the car to take a walk in the woods and pay my respects. Though there’s no longer a sign, I knew the way. I’d not gone but a few paces in when a startling sight greeted me.

Where once there was clear trail, now there’s maybe dozens of trees felled directly upon it, sheared off near the ground in a row and stacked like cordwood across the way. It’s impassable and so neatly accomplished it looks very much like cold purpose to keep the tourists, their sticky fingers and indiscriminate curiosity from ever again finding the place. I later learned that during a great storm, Superior overwhelmed the road to claim the sign and with gale winds had snapped the trees.

I could’ve picked my way around the carnage. I might’ve cut fresh trail through the woods or even followed the streambed up, along the ancient trail of great herons and visions of pterodactyls on the wing. But on this day at that sacred place, what signage remained plainly read “Closed for Business”.

Content with that, I returned to the car and chased down what remained of the first snow of winter, to great effect.

A fine day, all around.

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