Monday, October 22, 2012

Home is Where the Heart Is...


This is the path through autumnal woods leading to Dan's Cabin, which is the sturdy quarters built mostly by hand, nestled amidst stately Hemlock & now maintained by the Friends of the Porcupine Mountains for their Artist-in-Residence Program.


What's also true is that my path to Dan's Cabin began nearly 50 years ago, when my family traveled to Bessemer while on vacation, to visit my great grandfather in my mother's ancestral home.

Once there, it was from the 2nd story porch outside Martin Shefka's bedroom that I first stood in awe beneath a great expanse of wild sky brimming with Northern Lights.

Then I saw my first wild bear, a cub come down to the edge of the Black River for a drink. Uncle John said I'd best mind my P's & Q's, as momma surely watched from the cover of nearby forest.

That same day during a picnic near the mouth of the Black, I grew bored watching my bobber float static on sun-dappled water so jerked my pole to see if anything was there. With a flash, a magnificent Rainbow Trout leapt into the air, shards of water flying off glistening colored flanks. Then she was gone, unseen by anyone save me.

I wondered then as now -- had I been a bit more patient, would she have bit the worm I'd dangled just for her? Fish have since help teach me patience, but when I close my eyes I can summon this one up as if yesterday and will be able until the end of days, as she became my proverbial 'one that got away'.

Barely old enough to take my first adult vacation, a few years later with Heather I headed straight back. We were little more than kids then and in those bewitching black woods so near the great sea shining water, we began the bond that unites us still.

After that, not a year's gone by that I've not returned. This last year more often than ever and with overriding, often haunting purpose...

The Wolverine Mohawk Mill, October 2012 -- taken from a 120mm transparency

*

During my residency at Dan's Cabin, I poured myself into the place through my work, which is fast coming to an end.

I learned from a fellow river rat on the Presque Isle that Dick from Wakefield died last year. He greeted Death with the same stoic determination he'd led life.

Snowbirds (Slate-Colored Dark-eyed Junco) arrived early, down from their boreal forest haunts. Displeased by my presence in the woods, great flocks scattered whenever I went walking, only to reform behind.

I lived the season from high autumn straight through to impending winter, a first for me.

One morning well before dawn, I eavesdropped on a lengthy & robust conversation between Barred Owls spread wide throughout the forest and taken on the wing, which lent new meaning to the word "stereophonic".

When I arrived the weather was warm and bright, the fancy dress of the forest full. Then came a blow and after a couple days of gale force winds followed by eight days of persistent chill & intermittent rain broken only by the first bits of fleeting snow & skim ice, brittle yellow death blanketed the woods.

Pool on the Union River, October 2012 -- taken from a 120mm transparency

During that time, the Little Union River that runs past the cabin gained strength in voice. It went from a parched whisper to something more resembling the proper song of a stream running downhill over hard rock. It sang softly all day and proved especially beguiling after dark.

At night when the air was finally still and with no moon for guidance, I heard individual leaves drop to invisible ground.

If I learned anything about myself during the stay it was only confirmation of what I'd always half expected: in me there is a 'woodsy', the guy who townsfolk see only a couple times a year, come into town for supplies. I'd have happily stayed, even through the winter.

Late the night of my public presentation at the visitor's center, when all was quiet and I was again alone, I stepped out to look over and above the cabin for a peek at a clear glittering sky. That's the only place amidst the towering Hemlock to present an unobstructed view.

Just then, a shooting star blazed right there. I could only whisper thanks.

When I left Dan's Cabin to drive the South Boundary Road back towards Bessemer, the woods spoke plainly of coming winter, with long light casting dim shafts through mostly skeletal woods. And if there'd been any doubt, any pining hope remaining that a rush to the heart of seasonal darkness could somehow be delayed, Superior disabused that notion. By the time I reached the Presque Isle a wind howling straight out of the north hurled horizontal rain from over the farthest reaches of the big lake.

That stripped the last of autumn from the forest nearest its shore and the detritus of a most splendid season was scattered to the winds.

*

I'll come back 'round later, to extol the virtues of the people I met and the program I was honored to serve, as well as the Porcupine Mountains, which is likely the crown jewel of Michigan State Parks.

In the meantime, two days before my presentation, an article in a local newspaper reminded me that I was to give a reading, which in the interim since being accepted into the program in May I'd inconveniently forgotten.

So I spent a sunny afternoon sitting at the table in Dan's Cabin, writing this:


A Landscape of Perspective

I’m told that in most native languages there’s no word for Wilderness. That what we please to call “Aboriginal Peoples” never got around to shearing their cultures off from the landscape they live on and to them, wilderness is simply the world.

Somewhere along the line, encouraged by our increasingly inventive construct, emboldened by a destiny we held as manifest and driven by a compulsion to define everything in strictly human terms, our culture decided different.

I think that’s because as we banished the cold and the wind and even the night from our lives, we beheld these monuments to human ingenuity and basking in our achievement couldn't tolerate the fact that the world remains utterly indifferent to all human ambition, even to human life itself.

So we invented the concept of wilderness -- a beast to be subjugated or failing that destroyed and as our greatness grew so too did our separation from the world, which is -- after all -- everything in creation that sustains us.

As it turns out, for all our ingenuity, we've chosen an unsustainable path and in that choice have been proved most unwise.

So emblematic of wildness, the Superior Basin is littered with evidence of that lack of wisdom.

A difficult place to live, mostly we've come here to take. When we could take no more, we left. And as each resource played out, hard times replaced good.

Trappers took pelts until there were too few beasts left to skin, then they moved on. Out of the northeast lumbermen of story and song swept down and the great forest once thought inexhaustible fell like in a slow motion nuclear blast. Now the massive pine and sturdy Hemlock remain mostly only in sanctuaries, like this one.

And because this landscape is ancient and of surpassing geologic significance, we came to mine. Which interests have come sniffing around once again, hoping to claim the last of the region’s mineral riches.

With each passing wave of taking, this magnificent landscape altered the spirit of some who came and those who stayed put down roots in the rocky earth to raise families of their own so that their children and their children’s children might also live life with a spirit made large by being one with the world.

This place leaves no other choice -- you can accommodate it or die trying to bend it to your will -- there’s no third way.

Once again we live in hard times. And shrill voices ring in our ears that we must do this that or the other thing lest our culture is doomed and the Republic fall.

Well, no one can predict the future and anyone who pretends they can isn't to be trusted because it’s not your best interests they serve with the pretense.

What’s true is that the future is ours to make and what we make of it begins with what we believe. If you believe that darkness and despair fast encroach upon us, then you've chosen to help make it so.

I believe that in my lifetime we've turned a critical corner. That as a culture we've begun the long, slow journey away from the unwise view of the world we once clung to so fiercely.

Now, belief without evidence is merely faith and no good proof of anything.

I’m here to tell you that while traveling this Superior land over the last year, I've found it’s chock full of good folk who've stopped trying to bend the landscape to their will and are instead learning to live and to prosper having made their peace with this difficult place.

From artisan bakers in small towns to the new outfitters in Grand Marais whose owners spent three years and everything they had to convert a forlorn structure into the first ‘green’ building in Alger County. To artists and craftspeople and industrious folk of all stripe, I say there’s ample evidence that our ingenuity is at long last being balanced with overdue wisdom.

So I choose to believe that our future will be brighter than our past.

And you, you Friends of the Porkies, with your Dan’s cabin built not just from wood but from a profound generosity of spirit fueled by devotion to a wild place -- I hold you as evidence that what I believe is true.

And I’m proud to have made your acquaintance.

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