In a vast expanse of green

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Sep 20, 2002 12:00 AM
Hummer has an ad rather less ridiculous than its vehicle for gear weenies and urban bumpkins. It reads: "Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. And sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself." We have a log cabin where every year we go not so much to find ourselves but to revisit. It's not unlike Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods": "The great dark trees of the Big Woods stood all round the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no roads." First arrival requires a swim across the river to fetch the canoe, which acts as a ferry while we're there. The nearest neighbor is about 10 miles away. We have neither electricity nor running water, but I do float propane tanks across the river and winch them up the bank for the lights, stove, refrigerators and toilette (yes, a propane toilet). Settling in, hauling and getting out stuff, and picking up after the bears and porcupines takes a couple of days - just as closing up the place does, and ferrying things back across the river to the car, and re-stashing the canoe. But during the time between, in what Alexander Pope called "the majesty of simplicity," the magic of the place works its wonders. We set to cherishing the solitude of forests and the presence of each other. The woods are a vast expanse of green topped by limitless blue - with here and there clumps of frolicking clouds, those children of the skies. Never have we seen the bear that annually - for 25 years - has left his claw and incisor marks on the cabin logs. North America boasts about 650,000 black bears, essentially large noses attached to large stomachs they fill with bees and berries and acorns and sometimes the leftovers of flabby Americans. One has decided our cabin is his, and when he shuffles out of his slumbers every March he chomps it and scratches it and rubs his oily self up against it and leaves a noseprint or two on the windows - all in joyous proclamation of his ownership. We have encountered numerous porcupines and dispatched many to Allah - to romp with virgins and suicide bombers in a better paradise. This year we did not confront the one that had eaten a large dinner-plate of a hole in the plywood floor of our porch, probably the same one that left a quill in the Lab's shoulder for subsequent surgical removal. When asked for a product impervious to porkies, the lady at the lumberyard just laughed. We'll plank over the plywood with treated decking, and see. A forester there says the area is becoming a refuge for bears, wolves and bald eagles. Occasionally we'll see one wheeling in lazy gyres on the updrafts or doing touch-and-goes along the river. Martens, fishers and bobcats live there, too. Some nights we'll hear yippy coyotes haunting the deer yards in the swamps. In high water I put in upriver and did a daylong kayak float down to the cabin. My guide was a great blue heron, who would fly ahead, his wings sounding like flapping canvas, to await my arrival around each bend. Great Blue and I did many miles together before he whap-whapped back to the wife and kids. We had one of those all-day dousing rains most of us get about four of in life. We rode this one out on the porch - with showers all 'round as though behind a cascade, not getting wet yet bathed and cleansed. This, like all there but so rare anywhere else, a day totally perfect from beginning to end. While people here were cooking in the August soufflé, we were there experiencing, in Thoreau's words, "summer's swift decline." One day it was almost chilly enough for a morning fire to warm the edge of night. Next day it was October damp and wet. Next day we saw the first flock, and the next the first leaves on the water. And the next day it was too cold for her to swim, though not, of course, too cold for the Lab. Suddenly, the bright colors of life were stitched in the dull tapestry of a dying season - with just two weeks to go until the autumnal equinox. And the people there? People who, in the middle of nowhere, know very well who they are. People who never allow their lives to be controlled by the desk-bound. People who bear gladly the feather weight of local government - and expect the state and feds to keep their distance. People who, in that timbered realm, display bumper stickers declaring, "If you object to logging, try using plastic toilet paper." People who cannot seem to live without wilderness around them. People who feel a linkage to nature, who feel the interplay between nature and man, who feel that they belong. People content to be obscurely good. People well-schooled in the neglected art of thinking. People with a clear view of the grand scale. The caribou shaman Igjugarjuk is supposed to have said: "To learn to see, to learn to hear, you must do this - go into the wilderness. It is not I who can teach you the ways of the gods. Such things are learned only in solitude." The great novelist Wallace Stegner put it this way: "Just as surely as progress has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us. One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals. ... We simply need wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity." Having violated the American creed by being quiet and alone in a raucous and groupy hour, we lash on our watches again and gird for the schlep across the river to the car. The trek back is long, 22 hours of rolling time - though sometimes, as C.S. Lewis said, "the longest way 'round is the shortest way home." We return from a realm rivaling Crusoe's before he saw the footprint to one of new impatiences, perpetual turmoil and standardized belief. But through it all we'll be sustained by memories of our revisit, and Great Blue and his buddies, and that vast expanse of green and the cabin surrounded by trees with the river rolling by. Stegner was right. This is the life. This is (begin ital) life
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