I was complimented some time back by a reader saying they liked when I wrote local things. They were sincere, but I also sensed an expression of disapproval at having to face an occasional topic they thought not so nice. I agree. Even an old sourpuss knows when he’s tedious or turned to unpleasant. I won’t argue in favor of sporadic obnoxious turns other than to say they always make sense to me at the time and are written to at-a-distance examine a tiny bit of some topic we’d all sooner see gone away. Realistically, things are quite often not as we’d wish. Because Al Capone visited the house and gave a box of candy to my Grandmother does not make him any less a mobster than Herr Hitler dandling a baby for the press became a family man devoted to simple values. Both loved power most of all and while a little local color detail about my Busha might be nice it does not stand as symbol for an otherwise corrupt and violent life.
But as spring-number-whatever-it-will-turn-out-to- be came and went I was reminded of footlockers and simpler times in my life that are not without some merit in review even though they are so far removed from me in time they fall faint as a snowflake brushing a verge of grass at midnight. Brought back to it I can recreate the feel of a sudden summer squall whipping a lake to froth white with spearing rain while the group I led sheltered under a hastily put up tarp. Boots and lower pants were sure to get wet, and a stab of real chill was bound to get through when the squall line passed and you went in uncountable time from warm humidity to bracing cold as the moving air masses collided to fight it out. How many times did I watch as green vegetable litter was torn from trees to Oriental Carpet the sodden earth? The destruction was greatest when a front carried hail of pea size pellets of white to rain down with shreds of aspen leaf and pine needle. I would like to say I could tell how long a storm would last by the violence of its arrival, but I was not that perceptive. Or maybe it was just the case I was too occupied observing for the first real pause to signal it was safe to begin the fire needed by well chilled paddlers.
I had campers who lived hoping to put in practice their dream of rising early to greet the dawn while seated awaiting it on a wilderness shore. They often overslept and often were frustrated the sun would be well up before it topped the valleying hills that kept the water captive. In any case, the effort to teach that moment was probably important as the incident itself. I was not a greeter of the dawn and would be happier to salute the crack of ten AM, so it is not surprising my colored recollections favor evenings taking a canoe out into the growing fingers of shadow stretching slow as dramatic death across the water. Early evening and pre-dark are wonderful times to be in nature. The afternoon breeze would have fallen to a sigh so soft you could hear the bubble of a rising fish a quarter mile off or follow the echo of a sound from shore until it reached the end of hearing. I liked, as well, those times in nature if I was paddling for a camper dreaming of freshest fish at breakfast. There was little talk. I’d have suggested beforehand what I thought best for that lake. The rest was in their hands to try popper, Mepps , jig, or spoon to fulfill their dream, but it was always extra nice when they picked a popper and figured out how (maybe with coaching) how to use it. The popper’s “ploop” was followed by the sound of slack line slowly retrieved to the point where another tip flick would bring a “ploop” that repeated the process. Green campers ran afoul (how else does one learn) of lily pad or brushy snag while others were already grasping the finer tactic of directing the rod tip left-right or high-low to avoid obstruction rather than hook it. Those are fine memories. When a person tells me to thank the named god of their choice for those moments I am all but obliged to disappoint them. My gratitude belongs where I must put it.
Night sounds are often remembered best because to urban raised campers the quiet of night was a true unfamiliar fraught with frights of the unknown. In my case the terror of what lurked under my ten year old’s bed in Chicago was far worse than the stillness I prized from the first times it sheltered me. I loved the wilds at night and felt firm in knowing the most awful thing that might rush out of the dark would be a zealous Quaker urging nonviolence or a Vegan there to take away our meat and leather products with a lecture far more punishing than the lash. When you sleep on the ground (and like it, as I did) there’s not much escapes knowing. You’ll recall the adage “always sleep up-hill” when a fellow camper is out to water bushes at 1 AM. Recalled, this allows sleep to return without worry. Another no-worry of the wee hours is the ka-thump-ka-thump of Bigfoot in the outer darkness. It might sound large and menacing as an angered moose intent on mindless damage, but it will only be a hapless mouse or witless toad discovering some force has dropped a huge obstacle blocking its usual part. The bumping will continue around until the critter again picks up the trail at the opposite side and is off.
The heart and the connections it makes are reliable first teachers. I turn to that guidance often as I can, and reject I anything insisting I must find my truth in dogma.