Notes from Up North
In the past five days and nights Up North—in northernmost Minnesota, in Superior National Forest and Finland State Forest, next to the Boundary Waters, not far from Ontario—having experienced multiple encounters with loons singing day and night, ravens by the roadside, hearing wolves howling not too far away in the deep night, and wandering the land, I awake this morning knowing that the Northwoods has gotten lodged in my heart as one of my home places. It's in me for good. I will always need to spend some time up there.
I'm glad I was able to get away, however briefly, for a short camping vacation Up North, after a summer full of concerts, travel, stress (not all for bad reasons either), and mounting exhaustion. I had a few days on the land where I did nothing but read, play my flutes, chat with friends, and prepare satisfying meals. After five days and nights, I was ready to return home. But the return is also the re-entry to so-called civilization, crowded as it is with people and Things To Do, the re-entry itself can prove impossibly hard. So I find myself with my body back home, and my heart still Up North in the wildwood.
On the drive home, a bald eagle resplendent on the median of the highway, just pausing a moment before flying back over the water. Life is all around us, if only we would be open to seeing it. Passing by within feet of the Great Spirit, unafraid and still wild at heart.
Blessing the remains of coyotes and deer killed by traffic, their carcasses on the road shoulders, a common sight Up North, where the wildwoods are not separated from the villages and roads. Always a reminder of mortality, and of spirits moving on. Blessing as we pass seems the least we can do.
Since I'm a global nomad, without a real sense of hometown anywhere in the world, having grown up all over the world, having moved so many times when I was still a boy, I am often comfortable wherever I go. But I also have a small collection of places that have become special to me, home places, places where I feel connected to the Earth, where I feel at home, where I go to be reminded of those connections. Up there on Minnesota's North Shore, and inland, in the great Superior National Forest, and Kawashaway, has become one of those home places. This morning, back home in southern Wisconsin, I look at paintings and photos of Up North, images of ravens and the northern lights, and feel like my heart is still back up there. At least part of it always will be. Just as other parts of my heart reside in the Southwest, and elsewhere.
When you're a global nomad, a wanderer, certainly you take you sense of "home" with you wherever you go, as it resides inwardly. Yet it's also good to have actual physical places on this spinning ball of life-covered rock that you can also feel at home in. Good to travel. Good to be home again.
It grew into an evening ritual: As the sun was setting over our small beaver-pond lake, which curves around the north of the land and to the west, I stand on an exposed boulder to the west of the cookhouse, and play my shakuhachi for awhile. I play for the pine and cedar trees; for the light on the water; for the day's ending; for the sunlight that haloes all the finest pine needles with white fire.
One afternoon I played for a long time, and felt the silence move in around me. The silence that is deepened by the rustle of wind in the trees, by the pauses between the last note played on the flute and its echo from the low hills across the lake. The silence that deepens because it surrounds the few sounds remaining. The afternoon becomes completely still, and the pauses in between breeze sounds deepens until you can hear the Void behind the least sound.
But the Void no longer induces terror or fear, no longer threatens. It just is. It's just what you sense, that grounded emptiness beneath The Ten Thousand Things, when the illusions of consensus reality have all dropped away. This is the familiar Void, the comforting stillness of Nothing. I set out on this vacation to Do Nothing, and there it was.
After listening to the silence—which is worth at least a month of any other form of therapy—after hearing the Void behind the Silence, linger for awhile, the afternoon late afternoon sunlight bright and hot on bare skin, warming my fingers as they still hold the bamboo of my flute, linger and absorb this peace, this serenity, to bear with you as you re-enter the fray of what most call consensus life. Itself the culture that believes in its own necessity, neglecting to know its own lack of substance. In the silence, the world is vapor, and the walls between worlds so thin that all you have to do is step forward in your heart to meet the Great God Pan, god of panic, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
I awake in the late deep night, chilly and clear, the waning gibbous moon and the circumpolar stars all bright. I go out to the wall to drink some cold, cold water, and to the outhouse.
In the far distance, six or seven wolves howl. They are answered by a single wolf voice much nearer to me. The pack sounds about two miles away, on the land between two of the smaller lakes to the south and west. The wolves have been heard howling in our camping region for the past two or three summers, and tonight I get to hear them. Long low voices, singing in complex harmony.
These are not coyote howls. I know coyotes well, I've had many encounters with them, some very up close and personal. I know what coyote packs sounds like. These are true northern wolves.
After awhile, the loon resident on our little lake begins singing, motivations unknown.
The sounds blend together under the bright silver moon. Eerie, atavistic, beautiful, transcendent. Cold silver blue moonlight and wolves howling: the perfect night Up North.
I go back to my sleeping place and have intense vivid dreams all night long.