Month: October 2006
Driving from north to south or south to north has the unique characteristic of allowing you to move through time as well as space. In my case, I went from over a foot of snow in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the burnished red and gold of oaks and maples in southern Minnesota. It was like traveling from deep November to early, tawny October.
One of the unique aspects of that experience is the change in vigilance that takes place in you. Rich autumn days fill you with their presence; grey, leaden skies fill you with awareness of something impending. At least a certain part of your consciousness takes on an awareness of potential, and your mind and heart are cast to unseen distances.
I love them both. They produce different types of mindfulness. But driving through heavy snows on a trackless road through deep forests has a unique capacity to focus your attention while still drawing your mind to places unknown and unseen. It is an experience I forget, at least viscerally, until I experience it anew each winter.
It reminds me of why I live in this northern land, and why I often long to get away. There is something authentic in the immediacy of winter, but something oppressive in its enclosure. You live close to your skin, aware of the significance of each moment, but find yourself looking at the skies for avenues of escape.
No one who has not experienced winter can know the power and majesty of a hawk circling above a sea of whiteness in azure blue skies. Without winter you cannot know the holy purity of a landscape covered in a fresh mantle of snow.
But when these leaden skies descend and hold you in and down for day after day, it is as if some great god has pressed his thumb upon your chest. You long for distance, light, and breath.
All of that is coming to me now. I have seen it, if only for a moment. And I have basked in the fiery brilliance of hillsides as rich and variegated as a Persian carpet in their autumn splendor; that is leaving me now. I am suspended in time, watching all of nature retreat to a defensive mode, preparing for what is to come while giving up the memory of the summer past. It is a delicious, bittersweet time.
There will be more writing now. More reflection. More inner work. The mind will change its focus and the heart will move to a minor key. Movements will get harder; moments will take on more significance.
But with this, the yearning for freedom will increase.
The hawk in the sky will cease to be just one small element in nature’s rich symphony. In his lonely and singular presence, he will become a metaphor for freedom and a harbinger of hope.
I’m sitting in my hotel room in Houghton, Michigan, after a wonderful day speaking to classes and sharing the podium with Ojibwe elder, Eddie Benton Benai, in an evening session on the need to listen to the quieter voices of the indigenous peoples of this land.
I had never been to the U.P., as the upper Michigan peninsula is known, except to drive through it years ago on the way to Sault Saint Marie and eastern Canada. It has stunned me with its isolated and lonely beauty. Now, don’t misunderstand me: it is a rich and magical land, but the essential feel of it is isolation in the best sense of the word, and lonely as a hawk circling in the sky forms a lonely presence. The U.P. itself is an arrow of land that exists between lakes Superior and Michigan. And the Keweenaw peninsula, where Houghton is located, is on a finger of land that juts out from the U.P. into the cold waters of Superior.
For those of you who don’t know Superior, it is one of the most truly brooding presences you will ever confront. Even on warm days, there is a sense of something impending, untameable, and unknowable about it. Usually, to associate something with a song is to trivialize it, but Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” captures the feel of Superior almost perfectly.
Anyway, Houghton sits, nestled in forested hills covering an earth of ancient, iron and copper-laden stone, far out on this lonely, isolated peninsula. You can’t see Superior from here, but you can feel its unseen presence in the air, the light, and the stony heartbeat of the land. Somewhere, just out of sight and earshot, you are surrounded by one of the deepest, most secret, most unknowable bodies of water on the face of the continent. Its presence attunes the senses and creates a spiritual alertness that comes anytime one is near great natural forces, whether of land or weather.
I am quite intoxicated by this place. It has a character unlike any other locale I know. The people I have met here love the town, the peninsula, and the power of the land on which they live. I envy them their private knowledge.
The first snowfall came last night, and I am facing a hundred miles of driving through deep forest on snow-covered two lanes. It is my first encounter of the season with winter driving and all that it entails. To have it take place on unfamiliar, unpopulated forest roads creates a feeling of exhilaration and apprehension. My vigilance is up.
I need to get moving so I can make it to Winona, Minnesota, far in the south of the state, in order to speak to students and the public about Neither Wolf nor Dog. NWND has been chosen as the common book for all the freshmen at Winona State University, and I am giving a public reading on Tuesday evening. Since I am constantly taken to task for not announcing my various readings and speakings on this website, I’m taking this opportunity to inform any of you in the southern Minnesota, northern Iowa, eastern Wisconsin area that I will be reading and speaking at Somsen Auditorium on the Winona State campus on the evening of Tuesday, October 17th. Please come by if it is convenient and of interest.
This should be a fun drive for me. Thanks to a large weather front and the cold waters of Superior, I am sitting under the heavy gunmetal skies of winter. As I drive south I will be moving back in time toward the bright colors of early autumn. I’ve mentioned this before, but driving from north to south or vice-versa has the wonderful effect of moving you through time as well as space. Assuming that the road is kind to me, by tonight I will have driven from the wintry chill of a November-like day into the warmer light and color of early October. By Monday night I will be in country where the leaves are still reaching their peak, and autumn is only beginning reach full flower.
The light is filling the sky outside, and my day must begin. For the first time this year, I will don heavy gloves and scrape ice and snow off my windshield. I was not ready for this, but it is ready for me. I hope to see a few of you in Winona in several days.