Wilderness Love

As Mom came around the corner and saw it, she gasped, stumbled against me and started to cry.  “There are no words,” she said. “No words.” Touching that beauty, knowing it was real made her weep. It was the Taj Mahal. We had pushed our way through Agra’s appalling tourist bazaars, paid rupees for our tickets and stepped around the corner to see this. My eighty-year-old mother’s tears made it a holy moment. 

The wilderness where I live is like the Taj Mahal. It’s so magical, so enchanting that when people here describe a campfire or a misty dawn, they often choke up. When I first moved to the north woods, this surprised me, but now I expect it. People’s eyes change. Their voices get husky. “It’s the place where I see God,” a big man tells me. “It’s my church.”

Ten years after we visited the Taj Mahal, Mom died. Dad had died just a few months before, and she went from diagnosis to death in about 20 days. And then, a few weeks later, my ex-husband’s body was found. For me even meditation and church couldn’t touch the edges of this grief. It seemed hundreds of miles across with no roads through. I couldn’t grasp where the pain started and stopped.

We decided to paddle out into the wilderness. There were long days of paddling on rivers and lakes with only the sky for company. The lakes led one into another, day after day, and we camped on rocky islands with only red squirrels and grey jays to talk to. It felt like the rivers, lakes and trees had no beginning or ending. The trees rose high around us and the water shone. 

The sky never faltered. As I paddled, the sky wrapped itself over me, over all of it. Finally I felt I could almost breathe. It’s not that the deaths were okay. It’s that awe and silence became common for me. Every day the massive presence of shining water and kind trees held me with a power so huge that even a grief as terrible as mine could soak into the earth like rain.

We live next to that wilderness in a house in the woods on a hill. At night, it’s mostly silent. The  lake across the road opens into a million acres of lakes, islands and forest without roads or people. Right now, it’s -26 F here, but every day in the summer, campers paddle by on their way into the silence.

Now, in February when it’s often -20 or -30 F at night, all we hear is one car spinning its wheels on the icy hill. Our neighborhood follows a one-lane dirt road through the woods, and only two other houses have fires going and lights on. Sometimes packs of coyotes wake us, yipping as they run by. Every now and then we hear wolves. But living here we see how wrong the fairy tales are. The wolves melt in and out of the woods like ghosts, avoiding people. To see one trotting down the road feels like a blessing because they vanish like a dream.

Sometimes we hear a logging truck on the highway a mile away. There is no traffic at all. Sirens are so rare that everyone stops talking and looks around because it can only be for a neighbor or for someone lost in the wilderness.

I moved here from a big university town. I needed to rest and leave behind the scandals and the competition. Mostly I needed to see if I could ever have a happy relationship. So I came here with a man to try it out.

Only a few people move here to stay. After all, there’s a massive filter. In the city, people come to get training, degrees and great jobs. The pay is so good that they ignore the traffic and cement. But Ely is a small town far from everything. No one moves here for ambition. People move here to get close to the wilderness—which pays little.

There are locals here who have stayed, but they stay for tradition and family. There used to be mines here that paid well, and there are still a few. But iron mining has changed, and without that security, families struggle.

People here know how to stay warm. They form book groups, go fishing together, ski on the lakes, practice yoga, play music, paint, quilt and write. They meet for breakfasts and dinners. The place is crowded with brilliant, gifted people. Among the people who came here from outside, I know a music therapist who sells canoes, a psychologist who preaches every few weeks and a veteran union organizer who can catch walleyes while he’s sleeping. Among the locals, I know a quiet stay-at-home mom who writes brilliant blogs, a crack mechanic who can resurrect a truck with 200,000 miles on it and a nurse who can sweetly change the mind of the most arrogant doctor.

People here have the time to be friends. My church is small but warm. When I walk in the door, people smile and call my name. The young Presbyterian pastor guides by listening and encouraging. In city churches, there are semi-pro musicians who sing and play. Here we have a few, but mostly in the choir we have the fun of just singing together, joining together. We can’t be ambitious, but we can sing together, week after week, for fun and beauty.

I came to the woods to become. I’ve learned how to trust and how to have fun. Of course I miss the city, especially the thrilling array of people, cultures and food. But maybe I’ve unlearned the worst of my city lessons. There is no race to be won.

The wilderness surrounds us. The silence holds us all.

Mom came here once just before she died, and she loved it. It was right after Dad’s death. She didn’t know yet how sick she was. Mom could always sense enchantment. She often lost herself in the moment. The Taj Mahal made her cry because it holds the same untouchable essence as a thunderstorm.

When she visited that summer, every day she lay for hours on our sun porch. When she came in, her eyes had changed. “Did you sleep, Mom?” I’d ask. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I couldn’t really tell if I was asleep or awake.” She shook her head in wonder. “The sky here…The trees….There’s just something about these woods.”  

by Jean Gendreau

 

Deep Winter

As I drive, snow stretches from the road across an open space to dense balsams. Beyond the road’s grey crust, strong white spreads across bogs, hillocks, rocks and little frozen creeks to the black-green woods. Nothing moves.

The shadows in the dark balsam boughs look deep enough to lose a family. From tree to tree, branches make a cruel thicket that scratches your face and cuts your arms, and the rocks under the snow trip you.

This isn’t an easy forest where Hansel and Gretel could wander. Evergreens and bushes push back hard. Everyone here knows stories of veteran hikers who got lost a few feet off the trail. People have to know what they’re doing. There are men and women here who know how to live far off the electric grid, who hike miles alone with no GPS and paddle canoes miles into the wilderness.

Even close to town, the road is empty. Northerners have been driving in snow since they were young, and there’s often snow six months of the year. In the city when a snowstorm hits, you wonder if the car next to you will be able to stop. Here you wonder if there’s hidden ice on a curve and how long it would take a tow truck to arrive.

Ahead on the right, big black birds bend and hop by a carcass at the side of the road. It’s a fresh kill, a young deer’s body next to tire tracks that run off the road where the car hit him. As I draw close, a bald eagle tugs the deer’s flesh while the ravens stand in a circle, coming as close as they dare. Further ahead, a snowmobile’s headlight shines as it crosses an open spot.

In deep winter we wake up to darkness in a cold house. I smell coffee while I build a morning fire. The forecasters were off by quite a bit—It’s -20 F and windy. The huge moon feels low enough to bend the trees. At night, pine martens often steal suet from the feeders, but the chickadees, woodpeckers, snowshoe hares and deer won’t come looking for food until it’s light.

All night long we heard the wind. This morning the house is at 52 degrees. The fire’s hot, and by the time I finish meditating, the sky is a light lavender blue.

This morning I have cookies and bread to bake. The butter’s been on the countertop all night but the house is so chilly that I have to warm the butter to cream it. The bread can rise on the warm stovetop while the cookies bake.

I smell the brown sugar, butter and vanilla. Around me there’s the breath of magic. This moment in this kitchen holds my whole life, hundreds of times in many places but always this silence and joy. I’m making noodles and white sauce as a young girl in the fifties, holding my little girl while she learns to stir a pan on the stove, watching my grandmother separate eggs for angel food cake, making pie crust with my grandson, rolling out the dough for naan while my Indian husband smokes as he watches.

Time pauses. A holy moment. God draws in a breath and never lets go. I touch home, and God breathes out forever.

I found charms in these woods. Enchantment. A raven bigger than a cat watches me from the maple next to the house. It’s so cold that the snow is crunchy. My partner comes in with a big basket of kindling he split. He laughs that the wood’s so cold that it just pops apart when he taps it with the axe. He put hay on the snow this morning. A buck bends to eat and then lifts his head. Behind him are two does and some yearlings, their faces and backs white with frost. The buck watches the house, his elaborate antlers brown against the black-green woods, like the old drawings of stags in medieval England. I think of enchantment, of men and women dancing by a fire in the greenwood, of the wild hunt.  

There’s a presence here. When the wind is high, snow beats the windows like a quick drum and the aspens’ high bare boughs bend like wild hips. But usually nothing moves. The silence stands immense and solemn, offering peace and power so huge and ancient that I smile like a child.

Late in the afternoon I stand by the window playing the violin. Three deer lift their heads and look toward me. In the wood stove, a big log flares up, and I start another scale. The room smells of wood fire and fish. My partner is cooking dinner. Darkness falls and the cold closes in. For me, the enchantments in these woods are real, and this night is kind and deep.