Sunday, June 15, 2008

From the Land of Sky Blue Waters

"We have no chance of being here when the sun burns out. There must be something heroic about our time, something that lifts it above all those other times. Plague? Funny weather? Dire things are happening. People have made great strides at obliterating other people, but that has been the human effort all along, and our cohort has only enlarged the means, as have people in every century. Why are we watching the news, reading the news, keeping up with the news? Only to enforce our fancy-- probably a necessary lie-- that these are crucial times and we are in on them. Newly revealed, and we are in the know: crazy people, bunches of them. New diseases, shifts in power, floods! Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?"

-Annie Dillard, "For the Time Being," first published in Notre Dame Magazine (1998), reprinted by permission of the author in "The Best American Essays 1999," Robert Atwan, Editor (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), p. 76. Reprinted here by permission.

"Born a poor young country boy--Mother Nature's son
All day long I'm sitting singing songs for everyone.

"Sit beside a mountain stream--see her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies.

"Find me in my field of grass--Mother Nature's son
Swaying daises sing a lazy song beneath the sun.

"Mother Nature's son."

-Lennon, John and Paul McCartney. "Mother Nature's Son." The Beatles (The White Album). Parlophone, Capitol, EMI, 1968.


May 12 an earthquake in China killed 10-thousand people.

According to
Voice of America News, “Thousands of Chinese troops and medical teams have been dispatched to areas of Sichuan province, where the country's worst earthquake in decades struck Monday.

“Authorities say the quake killed at least 10,000 people in western China and that thousands are still buried under collapsed buildings,” the report said.

On the India news Web site, a 27 May report says, "China plans to evacuate 100,000 people threatened by rising waters of lakes and rivers blocked by the Sichuan earthquake.

"Officials say 35 'quake lakes' in China which were formed in the wake of Sichuan earthquake and can cause enormous damage if they burst [sic].

"The earthquake has left a new mountain of debris, big enough to dam a river and create a new lake, already 70 meters deep."

Rising waters in the Kuhzu dam submerge a power station.
Photo: Reuters, from "The Age," online.

A Wall Street Journal article, datelined, “BANGKOK, Thailand,” by James Hookway and Roger Thurow (May 7, 2008, Page A1) said, “The cyclone that swept through Myanmar last weekend left more than 22,000 people dead. Tens of thousands more remain missing. Now the disaster threatens to set in motion a second crisis: one of deepening hunger in Myanmar and across South Asia.

“With food shortages and rising prices already triggering riots in poor countries world-wide, Cyclone Nargis disrupted the harvest in one of Asia's richest rice-growing areas. Myanmar, which until last weekend expected to export rice this year, could be left lacking. Shortfalls could also hit Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other regional neighbors that counted on importing Myanmar's rice. Traders suggest that in the cyclone's wake, world rice prices, already soaring, could be sent higher,” they reported.

June 5th,
NPR reported in a story headlined, "Rejected by Myanmar, U.S. Aid Ships Turn Back," that "four American Navy ships filled with relief equipment and supplies for the victims of Cyclone Nargis turned around and left the country."

International Herald Tribune reported that Paul Risley, a spokesman for the U.N. World Food Program, said, "For political reasons, the Myanmar government was reluctant to approve their use."

The article reported, "Risley said the need to charter large civilian helicopters was making his agency's relief program very expensive," and "In previous large scale disasters-- such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Pakistan's 2005 earthquake-- helicopters on loan from friendly nations' militaries were used to meet the immediate emergency requirements... Nearby Thailand and Singapore have many helicopters on hand, he said."

In the same anthology as the Annie Dillard quotation above is an essay by Joan Didion about Ernest Hemingway, the 20th-century American writer. Hemingway was a novelist, short-story writer and journalist whose contributions to English writing, while currently somewhat discounted in critical circles, were nonetheless profound and long-lasting. His life was a chiaroscuro of adventures, somewhat decried, nowadays, as masculine posturing. Hemingway killed himself with a shotgun in 1962.

The essay was about Hemingway's heirs, and how they not only packaged, sold and published his uncompleted manuscripts and private letters-- against the detailed instructions he left for them-- but also, "according to the House & Home section of the New York Times," licensed his name to "Thomasville Furniture Industries," which then "introduced an '
Ernest Hemingway Collection,' at the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, North Carolina, offering '96 pieces of living, dining and bedroom furniture and accessories' in four themes, 'Kenya,' 'Key West,' 'Havana,' and 'Ketchum.' 'We don't have many heroes today,' Marla A. Metzner, the president of Fashion Licensing of America, told the Times. 'We're going back to the great icons of the century, as heroic brands.' Ms. Metzner, according to the Times, not only 'created the Ernest Hemingway brand with Hemingway's three sons, Jack, Gregory and Patrick,' but 'also represents F. Scott Fitzgerald's grandchildren, who have asked for a Fitzgerald brand.'"

What is one to make of this? True enough, dead men have no standing in law: Hemingway's legal request that after his death words he did not think fit for publication not be published he could not enforce, nor in its breach, remedy. Mary Hemingway, his wife, finally gave ground to the first biographers who convinced her of her obligation to history and the study of literature, and after the fall of that single crystal onto the snowy slope, the avalanche accumulated, until in 2000 and beyond we have the novelist authoring a line of sofas, ottomans, and easy-chairs. From the essay it is unknown whether before his death in 1940 Fitzgerald made a similar appeal. Googling "F. Scott Fitzgerald," reveals only books, no bedroom sets. One wonders what consumer products would best fit the "F. Scott Fitzgerald," brand?
Shirts, possibly?

From the
Taboo Monkey Blue Blog, ("Writing on writing") I find this Hemingway gem, culled from his selected letters (plundered no doubt from the correspondence the publication of which Didion decries):

"The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know."

Natural disasters, according to
Natural News, have increased by a factor of four in the last twenty years, but trivial political considerations still dominate the means and timing of humanitarian assistance. Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's heirs, the sturdiness of their bloodlines, apparently, sadly vitiated by the intervening generations, spines like rubber-bands, slack-jawed and avaricious, conspire to ream the last vestiges of honor from their forebears. My tolerance and affability suffering even at second- or third-hand these transgressions are sore strained.

When I consider these random facts, connected as they are with both the external reality of our world, and the internal life of my mind, frustration sets in, like a pail of wet Portland cement ignored too long in the sun. The notion that the world is a cesspool of iniquity sets and hardens.

As for the individuals in it, the idea concretizes that loyalty to principle and the duty to maintain some personal character in the face of temptation and under duress is a rare flower. Recently cracks appeared in my sanity and composure (already on volatile foundations), and I am afraid that like one of those old Tex Avery animations, after being shocked one too many times by certain recurrent and petty particulars, my eyes bug out, and the rest of me is about to, simply, explode.


During one of these near-disintegrative moments my wife arranged a camping trip to a cabin in the woods near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. Although the jingle, "From the land of sky-blue waters," refers to Minnesota, not Wisconsin, and certainly not Illinois, I thought a little poetic license might be forgiven. The waters were sky-blue, and although beer-- or any form of alcoholic beverage-- is strictly forbidden in Chain O' Lakes State Park, as shall be seen later this did not quarantine us against its effects, and justifies the choice to include this
happy lyric, originally used by the Hamm's Brewery of St. Paul, to title this post.

The land now included in the Chain O'Lakes Park was once under a glacier.

According to the Web page, "
Geology & Environmental Geosciences," put online by faculty and students in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences at Northern Illinois University:

"During the ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch, ice sheets up to 8000 feet thick advanced and retreated several times in North America and Eurasia. With the exception of Alaska, only 20 cubic miles of glacial ice remain in the continental United States, the majority of which can be found in the Rocky Mountains. The evidence for glacial and interglacial stages can be found in till deposits and in soils formed during interglacial stages. Deep-sea core samples show that there were eight or nine recognizable changes in climate over the last 850,000 years, and twenty-six oscillations between cold and warm climates. In North America, there were at least four major glaciations separated by warm interglacial periods during the Great Ice Age beginning 1.6 m.y.a. Glaciers spread from two centers of ice accumulation in Canada into northern sections of the United States. These advances include the Nebraskan, the Kansan, the Illinoian, and the Wisconsinan glacial cycles and the Aftonian, Yarmouth, the Sangamon and the present interglacial. Newer studies reveal that there may have been at least seven continental glaciations before the Illinoian, collectively called pre-Illinoian. No one is certain on the number because more recent glaciations destroyed many of the remnants left by older ones."

Here is an illustration of Illinois glaciations:

According to the Resource Rich Area Inventory of the "
Illinois Natural History Survey," "the guardian and recorder of the biological resources of Illinois:"

"The Chain O' Lakes-Fox River RRA encompasses the area of most recent glaciation in Illinois. Significant natural features in this poorly drained area include glacial landforms, natural lakes, and wetlands. Many wetland types are found in this RRA, such as bogs, fens, seeps, and shallow and deep marshes. Some rare species and community types are limited in their distribution to this area of the state. Urban expansion from the Chicago metropolitan region continues to put severe pressure on the natural resources in this region."

In "Reveries of a Solitary Walker (Les reveries du promeneur solitaire)," Roussau wrote, "Secluded meditation, the study of nature, and contemplation of the universe force a solitary person to search with tender concern for the purpose in everything he sees and the cause of everything he feels."

Although we were two, and not solitary, so it was with us.

"To urge you toward responsible citizenship is to say that I do not accept either the technological determinism or the conventional greed or the thoughtless individualism of that world. Nor do I accept the global corporate empire and its economic totalitarianism as an irresistible force. I am here to say that if you love your family, your neighbors, your community, and your place, you are going to have to resist. Or I should say instead that you are going to have to join the many others, all over our country and the world, who already are resisting – those who believe, in spite of the obstacles and the odds, that a reasonable measure of self-determination, for persons and communities, is both desirable and necessary. Of the possibility of effective resistance there is a large, ever-growing catalogue of proofs: of projects undertaken by local people, without official permission or instruction that work to reduce the toxicity, the violence, and the self-destructiveness of our present civilization."

Wendell Berry, “Commencement Address” (
speech, Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY, May 12, 2007).

In the woods, the encroachment of civilization borders us on all sides. We wish to be arboreal, we wish to be close to nature, we all wish and hope to mesh and meld with the transcendent spheres, but we are merely human, neither fully crow nor fully cougar as wild animals are fully themselves.

We over packed, of course, like every other tenderfoot. I wore a brushed-steel Gerber multi-tool on my belt, given to me by our city neighbor, a recon Marine and Chicago cop; we had become friends. We packed extra socks, boots, moccasins, boonie-hats, kerchiefs, and cell phones, cash and credit cards. I packed my iPod, I packed my Blackberry (but not the charger-- some limits, I thought, some limits, please). We took sleeping bags, blankets, fishing rods, my tackle box, and rain ponchos, and a camera. We packed a cooler, Ramen noodles by the case, cooked chicken, frozen hamburger patties, frozen pork chops, oatmeal, skillets and saucepans, maple syrup, cans of beans, chips, coffee, bottled water. Even after this litany too much remains to continue to list, here, without being tiresome. Imagine the labor packing it all with us! But we were afraid of not having everything we needed, we were afraid of not having enough.

The notion of "enough," as a form of actual, not imagined, sufficiency, reminded me of my early schooling in woodland ways, fishing with my father at about six on Lost Lake, the stationary iridescent dragonflies, the lap of water, and us wading into the shallows to cast.

We ate cold grilled-cheese sandwiches with tomatoes and bacon, and sometimes we cooked eggs on the reflector stove, but only after we had brought in a few fish: silvery white bass, lake perch, or a mess of crappies. We were a Spartan and efficient team, and by mid-afternoon were on our way back, through the woods, and rowing across the big lake to our cottage, the soft thump of the oars in the locks muffled with the oil-soaked tongues of my late grand-dad's old brogans, doing a final posthumous duty of which the old man would have approved.


If we live our lives right, like "Buck," the hero-dog of Jack London's "The Call of the Wild," we may find again our aboriginal selves, and be true to our nature. But is that what we want?

"... Buck was wildly glad. He knew he was at last answering the call, running by the side of his wood brother toward the place from where the call surely came. Old memories were coming upon him fast, and he was stirring to them as of old he stirred to the realities of which they were the shadows. He had done this thing before, somewhere in that other and dimly remembered world, and he was doing it again, now, running free in the open, the unpacked earth underfoot, the wide sky overhead."

-from Chapter VII, "The Sounding of the Call."


Later, when I grew up a little, I was in the Boy Scouts of America. In trying out for "The Order of the Arrow," I underwent the Ordeal, the first step toward full membership. The Ordeal was meant to be a model of how, under the duress of the wilderness, the competent woodsman may make do with less. The rules were to eat little, not speak, improve the campsite, and sleep in a remote spot, away from everybody else.

Before sleep the night before my ordeal, at the 1968 Scout Jamboree at Lake Tamarack, at Wood Lake Scout Reservation, between Jones Michigan and US 12, Meeks, Jordan, Claeys and I (we all called each other by our last names) sat on the rocks and logs around the campfire, polished by the pants-seats of generations of boys, and talked in the offhand, easy way of boys who take each other's company for granted, as permanent, deathless, reliable and unchanging. In the intervening years, after grade-school, I never saw them again, but their faces come back to me, unchanging in their youth, the sparse beginnings of beard, the sunburn, the sharp, sweet smell of sweaty boys dried before a wood-fire.

We were concerned about skill at mumblety-peg, the difference between the square knot and the granny, rock-scissors-paper, riflery, archery, the Bears (Dick Butkus) the Packers (Ray Nitschke), the disabled boy winning Scout of the Year (again), and getting caught smoking grape vine by Mr. Bruggner, the Scoutmaster, an enormously heavy man with thinning hair who chain-smoked Newports and swigged constantly from a bottle of Maalox. Mr. Bruggner was by profession a haberdasher in South Bend, but an expert fisherman, skilled in building camps and fires, and cunning in all the ways of boys, of the fox, kingfisher, spider-monkey, coyote and hedgehog varieties.

"That's not a square knot," Meeks said.

"Yeah it is," I said.

"No it ain't," said Meeks. His dad was a refined and well-spoken attorney. The Meekses were from New York, and had moved to the Midwest when the company for which Mr. Meeks lawyered, Bendix Brake, acquired a new facility in South Bend. Mr. Meeks always wore a waistcoat and necktie, even at the dinner-table in his own house. I think Bill (that was Meeks's first name) liked to sound more rustic because of it. I think he felt like it put native Midwestern people at ease, more, if he mangled his English, although in story-telling and debate Meeks was nearly as good as me. At his house one night for dinner, I asked for the spaghetti sauce, and Mr. Meeks said, "You mean the gravy?" and I said, "no, the sauce." Before I could bite my tongue, I said gravy went on turkey, but sauce went on spaghetti.

"Well, now," he said, "we'll just have to define terms. Little did I know when Billy invited his friend ovah for suppah, that friend would argue like a Philadelphia lawyer," and he smiled kindly at me. Still, I was embarrassed and ducked my head, so Mr. Meeks put his hand on my crown and said, "a little moah sauce for the gandah, here, Mrs. Meeks, because we know what's sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gandah," and I was relieved. I had heard that one, before.

"Gosh darn it," I said, and Meeks and Jordan laughed. I could do two half-hitches, and a taut-line hitch, but I kept messing up the down and under and under and over of the square knot. I had already moved on, to the sheetbend and fisherman's knot, so it was especially galling that the perfect symmetry of the square knot eluded me, in the execution.

Claeys was playing with his two GI Joe dolls. "Fucking playing with dolls," Jordan said, and Claeys flushed red and said, "they're action figures, Jordan, you moron, not dolls." He was putting them together, one on the back of the other. We watched, fascinated.

"It went the other way," Meeks said.

"No, it didn't," said Claeys. "The left arm pulls back the chin, and the right hand draws the blade." Claeys was serious, and carefully positioning the dolls. Each doll looked identical, with an identical saber-scar on the right cheek, like the scars that I read about in which Prussian officers prided themselves, sometimes rubbing salt into them to raise their welt and profile.

Claeys's brow was furrowed as he manipulated his miniature soldiers. His close-cropped reddish head replicated the hairline on the plastic-resin dolls, although his face was freckled and smooth. We watched him, rapt. Claeys's older brother, Rudy, was in Viet Nam, and I think we all remembered this fact at odd intervals, and our regard for him alternated between awe and pity. The calls and laughter of other boys echoed through the background of trees.

The news reports on TV trickled down to us. We heard about the massacre at My Lai in Viet Nam that winter, and my uncles and my dad argued about it. "War is war," was repeated over and over, and accounts of German atrocities in Belgium, and Japanese atrocities in Nanking. The deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were in the spring, and my father had bought a small TV for the kitchen. Quite often he and my mother and I would stop eating, and the food would get cold on our plates as yet another outrageous report came on the screen. My mom and dad finally moved the little black-and-white TV to the garage, on a shelf in the workshop.

The nightly TV news reported on the battle of Khe San, the Battle of Saigon, the demonstrations at UW Madison, President Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act, his refusal to seek another term as President, the student take-over of Columbia University in New York, the seizing of the Pueblo by the North Koreans and the accidental death of the ninety-nine crewman of the submarine Scorpion. All the world, it seemed, was fighting. Hearing and seeing these events, we were unhappily locked in childhood, anxious to be out of it, and wished to learn to fight. Fight for what, we were unsure.

The increasing stridence of the pop music we heard on our transistor radios ("Born to be Wild," "Revolution," "All Along the Watchtower"), James Brown appearing on TV after Reverend Dr. King's death, and the generally-heard advice to "not trust anyone over thirty," made us suspicious and worldly before our time, although we were, still, callow and provincial Midwestern boys, and did not know who, really, we trusted. Our parents were survivors of the Depression and the Second World War, and we lionized them. We knew about the Dust Bowl and breadlines, Pearl Harbor and The Bulge, rationing and Victory Gardens, but our pop-culture heroes belied all that, with their long hair, defiant poses, shout-outs to personal freedom, and encouragement to revolt, all, in an oddly synchronous way, perfectly attuned to breaking out of the reality of, yet in deep sympathy with, the hardships our parents had endured, which we endured hearing about, at suppertime.

At Boy Scout camp, a dozen or more tents were pitched in the middle of a clearing. The grass in the clearing was long and dark green. The height of the grass was about as tall as a man's hand is wide, but with deeper spots where water pooled in little kettles and the grass grew deeper and wilder. A raised circular area of packed, raked sand was at one end of the field, its diameter as wide as a fence-rail is long, surrounding a charred inner circle, for the making of bonfires. Native American-like ceremonies were performed for the boys around the fire, there, and the scoutmasters and boys told stories in front of it.

Most of the afternoon I had lay on a cot in a tent. As the sun fell, I began to feel more like myself, again. During the day I had been sick with some kind of malady, which resulted in nausea and a headache, but I had recovered by dinner-time, and before the light of the day had fully left the sky I tied on my sneakers, and adjusting my BSA 'kerchief, stretched out of the tent and walked away to find the stray members of my troop, in time for the visit of two Army Green Berets.

The troop were sitting cross-legged, Indian-style, in a circle a few yards away from the bonfire mound, their backs to it, equidistant between it and the shadowed trees, facing the dark woods. In the center of the circle two tall, rawboned, uniformed soldiers performed a kind of dance, in the fading light.

Walking face-on toward one another, one of the soldiers held a K-bar knife up against the inside of the forearm that would pass the other soldier as they crossed parallel to each other, making the blade invisible from the front. As they closed with one another, the two soldiers slowed, and the soldier carrying the K-bar turned his forearm out, and with two slow but deliberate strokes brought the flashing blade up against the other soldier's solar plexus, and as he passed him, thrust two equally deliberate, exacting strokes backwards, past the other soldier's hips, into the space just above his waist, between the other soldier's arm and torso. He then dropped the knife, which fell with a whispered thump into the grass, and walked on, without looking back, as the other soldier kneeled. Then both soldiers turned and glanced toward the scoutmaster, Mr. Bruggner, sitting in a lawn chair in the circle, smoking, and began speaking to the whole circle of boys.

"Two thrusts into the chest cavity, approaching. Two thrusts into the kidney-area passing, then drop the knife and continue walking. You just walk away, dropping the weapon as your arm naturally swings. The target will fall, and whatever interest this causes will be directed toward the target, on the ground," said the tall soldier who had used the knife.

"You just leave that knife behind," he said, walking back to where it lay, invisible, in the grass.

"Taking out a sentry is different," said the second soldier. The soldier who had held the knife retrieved it from the grass and slid it into a scabbard in his boot. Then he stood to attention, his back to the other soldier, who slid his knife from a scabbard hidden in the small of his back.

"Walk with your knees bent, silently, walking on the outside of the soles of your shoes, and folding them to the ground as the ball of your foot rolls under your weight." He hefted the knife in his right hand. As he approached the first, taller soldier, he reached high up and around his head at the neck, and cupped his left hand around the taller soldier's chin.

"In one move, cover the target's mouth and nose with your left hand and with the right, draw the blade deeply across the base of the throat in an arc-ing action," he said, pulling back the taller soldier's head, exposing his thick, veined neck, the knife turned edge-out as it drew past the veins. The taller soldier turned with the action and knelt, and then stood tall again as the knife disappeared from the shorter soldier's hand, into its backside scabbard.

"In both these exercises, the walking-kill and the sentry take-down, it's important that you not bury the blade of the weapon," said the taller soldier. He crouched slightly, and when he stood up again, his knife was in his hand. He hefted it in front of him, and pivoted it so the blade was, once again, against his inside forearm.

At my side, I saw Meeks staring up at the soldier, his mouth open. He was playing with the lanyard attached to his compass and his belt. Jordan was back on his elbows, an expression on his face like consternation, as if there were a problem, here, but he could not quite define its terms. Claeys watched intently, still and expressionless.

"In both the chest area and the throat, there is a lot of cartilage," said the taller soldier, who spoke with the elongated vowels of the South, "and for any of you boys who may have any hunting and dressing experience, you know even the sharpest blade can get jammed up in the cartilage. This is complicated by muscle-reaction in live targets, so it's important to always keep a smooth radial motion in the blade during the cut, and to slightly torque the weapon during the thrust and withdrawal," and here he turned the knife on its longitudinal axis, and twisted his wrist slightly.

"That's why it's also important to keep your muscles and tendons toned up," said the smaller soldier, as the taller soldier slipped the knife back into its boot-scabbard. "Wrist-strength is very important. Physical and mental conditioning go hand-in-hand," he said, and the taller soldier crossed his arms, glanced at the ground, and then up at us all.

Mr. Bruggner stood up, brushing the cigarette ashes from his shirt front.

"Well, boys, that's about it. Sergeant Hines and Sergeant VanderLeun are going to have a Coke and a smoke over by me, so if any of you want to stop by with questions, well, I'm sure they'd be more than happy to talk to you boys, isn't that right, boys?"

Yes sir, both soldiers answered in chorus. Yessir.

"And let's say a big Troop 532 thanks to these servicemen and to their home base, Fort Bragg, home of the 18th Airborne Division, and their outfit, the Special Operations Command."

"Thank-you," we all called out in unison. Both the soldiers ducked their heads and smiled boyishly, glancing at each other, all their warrior ferocity gone in an instant. They could not have been over twenty-five years old.

It was full night, now, and three or four scouts were up on the mound, using bows and sticks to strike up a spark for the bonfire to come.

"They call themselves, 'the Quiet Professionals,'" Jordan said, as we walked back through the chill grass to our tents.

"That's so cool," I said.

Claeys said, "De oppresso liber."

"De oppresso liber? What the fuck does that mean?" said Meeks.

"'We free the oppressed,'" Claeys said. "It's the motto of the Special Forces." He increased his pace and walked on ahead of us.

"You gonna go play with your dolls?" called Meeks, after him.

Sometime before dawn, I was zipped into and swept up in my sleeping bag, and carried into the woods, in darkness. All I could hear was the heavy respiration of boys, and once, the voice of Todd Needham, the assistant scoutmaster, saying something like, "North, see, sight along your bearing," and then more hours of silence, but for the puffing and breathing of those who carried me, and the sometime thrash of their tread through the underbrush. Through the green rayon of the bag I knew when the sun came up, and when we passed from the deep woods into a clearing. Then it became cooler, and I heard thunder and the pat-pat-pat of raindrops on tree leaves. Finally, the motion stopped, and I was slowly lowered to the ground.

"Count to five-hundred," said Needham, his voice whispered through the sleeping-bag, and I felt him step back, saw his shadow withdraw, and felt three small thumps on the surface of the bag, and then a fourth, lighter thump, that seemed to jingle. I heard a step or two, retreating, and then only the whine of mosquitoes and once the scamper of small feet in the leaves. I began counting.

Even muffled in the bag, I could hear the woods around me creaking to life. The weeds and leaves rebounded around me from where my troop's feet had crushed them. The call of a mourning dove sounded softly, and then was replaced by the keening of blue-jays, the click-click-click of grackles, and the buzzing of flies and the humming transport of a bumblebee coasting past. Reaching five-hundred, I looked at my watch. The radium dial glowed and the arms pointed to 9:30. I quietly unzipped the bag and crept out.

On it were three Hershey chocolate bars, and a whistle on a lanyard. The topographic map from my pocket, where I had put it the night before, did not offer any immediate notion of where I was, and I did not know how long before dawn my journey started, but I had no doubt I would figure it out. I felt my pocket for my pocketknife, and took it out. Sitting on a fallen tree, I pushed the clip blade of my pocketknife into the soft wood and took a deep breath.

My solitude was absolute. I knew that somewhere within the five-hundred acres that made up the camp woods were Mr. Bruggner, Claeys, Meeks, Jordan, and the others, but the present thrill of self-reliance left me light-headed. I had to sleep tonight in the woods, and find my way back to our troop's campsite by night of the following day. Anything could happen, and I was cautious, centered, excited and already dreading the night, almost twelve more hours ahead. In the cargo pocket of my pants I had a fishing line and a book of hooks, and I plotted to find Little Wood Lake and make a catch. I plotted to find cattail, clover, blackberries, and dandelion to eat, and when I returned to the troop campfire the following night, to nonchalantly hand off the Hershey bars, untouched.

The canopy of trees was high above me, a huge fallen hemlock to the left, and a stand of slim ash to the right. I was in a small valley full of yellow birch, basswood, and white ash. Deep blue sky was above the ridge, opposite, and sunlight glinted over the ridge in front of me.

"East," I said, softly, and the sound of my voice was strange to me, and oddly frightening. I decided I would not say anything else out loud, while I was alone. I knelt to bundle up the sleeping bag.


We are not, as Conrad's character Stein said, in "Lord Jim," "masterpieces."
"I respected the intense, almost passionate, absorption with which he looked at a butterfly, as though on the bronze sheen of these frail wings, in the white tracings, in the gorgeous markings, he could see other things, an image of something as perishable and defying destruction as these delicate and lifeless tissues displaying a splendour unmarred by death.

"'"Marvellous!" he repeated, looking up at me. "Look! The beauty-- but that is nothing-- look at the accuracy, the harmony. And so fragile! And so strong! And so exact! This is Nature-- the balance of colossal forces. Every star is so-- and every blade of grass stands so-- and the mighty Kosmos in perfect equilibrium produces-- this. This wonder; this masterpiece of Nature-- the great artist."

"'"Never heard an entomologist go on like this," I observed cheerfully. "Masterpiece! And what of man?"

"'"Man is amazing, but he is not a masterpiece," he said, keeping his eyes fixed on the glass case. "Perhaps the artist was a little mad. Eh? What do you think? Sometimes it seems to me that man is come where he is not wanted, where there is no place for him; for if not, why should he want all the place? Why should he run about here and there making a great noise about himself, talking about the stars, disturbing the blades of grass?..."'"

When we got to the cabin we hauled out and inventoried all this junk and I drove down to the commissary to get some more drinking water. A Blackberry, we had, but I had shorted us on drinking water. When I got back, my wife was sitting at the table, smiling at me.

"Well," I asked. I set down the gallon jugs of water.

"Would you mind going back for marshmallows?" she asked.

"You didn't bring the marshmallows?" I asked her. We had talked for days about marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars for the fire.

"He got' em," she said, and pointed to a spot across the road, next to a big red maple tree just behind the latrine. Under the shimmer of a spider-web, in the late afternoon shade, I could barely discern a plump shape, with pointy ears, and the defining black mask of a raccoon.

She laughed delightedly.

"I was inside laying out the sleeping bags and I heard a rustle and when I came out he didn't even run away! Shoo! I said, and he zipped across the roadway and took our marshmallows with him," she said, laughing.

"You!" she yelled. The raccoon stayed where he was, mumbling through the plastic to get at the fluffy white stuff inside. "I hope you get sick!"

When I got back from the commissary the second time, it was nearly sunset. I had bought a Styrofoam container of night-crawlers for the next morning's fishing, and Lisa laid out the materials for a fire. In the cabin south of us, a compact little woman with brown hair in a pony-tail got out of a beat-up Pontiac two-door, with a little boy. They steadily unloaded their car. Soon we had a nice fire going. I was going to make some coffee, and recalled the Hemingway story, "The Big Two-Hearted River," about Two Hearted River, four-hundred miles away, north by north-east, above the eastward arc of Lake Michigan, in northern Michigan's Upper Peninsula, near Lake Superior.
"He dipped the coffee pot half full, put some more chips under the grill onto the fire and put the pot on. He could not remember which way he made coffee. He could remember an argument about it with Hopkins, but not which side he had taken. He decided to bring it to a boil. He remembered now that was Hopkins's way. He had once argued about everything with Hopkins."
Like woodland creatures, themselves, the boy and his mom approached us cautiously. Sam, the boy, was first. I had (with the help of the Blackberry), recalled how to bend a bobber, sinkers, and a snap hook swivel onto a fishing line, finally remembering the double-loop, six-hitch method my dad had taught me, and was practicing side-casts and drop-casts into the grass just this side of the roadway.

"We're going out tomorrow," Sam said, in that forthright way of boys.

"So are we," I said.

"Well, seeya," Sam said. My wife came out and when the other woman saw her they waved at each other. Young Sam stacked firewood near the steel fire-pit, and got out two fishing rods and snapped them together. Soon night was upon us, and Lisa ritualistically covered us both with Deet, for the mosquitoes. Just as this process was completing, with Lisa's back turned toward me as I sprayed her, we saw Sam's mom come across the grassy sward between our cabins in a fast walk.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she said, "but could you help us? I'm afraid we have a little problem, sorry to impose."

"Sure," Lisa said, and extended her hand. "Hi, I'm Lisa, and this is my husband."

"Oh, hi, hi," the woman said, "I'm Dorothy, and look. Look!"

She turned toward the gun-blue Pontiac, and in the dim glow of the dome light, we could see a raccoon diligently using the steering-wheel to steady himself as he nosed across the dashboard, along the sill of the driver's-side window, his striped tail flashing as he rolled over into the back seat.

"Holy cow," I said, and got the big D-battery MagLite flashlight and a pot and a lid.

"Hey-hey-hey!" I called, flashing the light and banging the cooking gear, and the raccoon crept, slowly, unhurriedly, out of the car's open passenger-side door, coming around the driver's side to pause and watch me approach him. When he hadn't moved as I continued toward him, I began to get a little nervous, and then he trundled off into the brush and the woods beyond, glancing back occasionally, his eyes reflecting the light of the torch like silver coins.

"Oh, thank-you so much," she said.

"Yeah, thanks," Sam said. "Holy cow." Clicking off the torch, I walked over toward the little car, and Sam followed, while the two women watched us, arms crossed. I slammed the car-door closed and we walked back to our fire.

"They're bold, huh?" Sam asked me.

"They sure are."

"Where're you guys from," I asked.

"Madison," Sam said. "How about you?"

"Chicago," I said.

“Wow,” Sam said.

"Well, there you go," I said.

We sat together as our fire built, and after a few minutes watching me Sam went back to their fire pit and built a fire for the two of them. Lisa and I made some beans and chops in the old blackened stainless-steel boy-scout skillet I had brought along, drank bottled water, and talked.

After a while the conservation officer drove past us, south, along the road, in a flatbed truck with a white cab, with the DNR logo on the door. Then the same ranger drove back north, past us, again. Then the same truck came back, and just before passing us a third time, stopped just north of our cabin and got out. Hip-hop music had been playing at the campsite across from ours and a little to the north, across the roadway. Now we began to hear snatches of conversation.

"Who the hell do you think you are," said a strident, angry woman, somewhere off in the darkness.

Cups halfway to our lips, Lisa and I looked at each other. The music abruptly stopped, and we heard a metallic clanging, like cups clattering.

We clearly heard a man’s voice, saying, "Ma'am, ma'am..."

And then:

"Fuck you, get the fuck away from us!"


"Baby, take it easy."

"Fuck you, Jeremy, you've never been on my side, you gonna let them get away with this?"

"Ma'am, it doesn't have to be like this."

"You can kiss my ass."

"OK, I’m citing you." Then, the crackle of a radio, the flat, official request for additional officers, more resources. Doors slammed, and then:

Wham! Wham! WHAM!

"Ma'am, ma'am, that's state property! Now you're just going to have to settle down, just take it easy, you're just making a bad situation worse."

"You can kiss my ass, you fucking bastard, I can have you fucking killed, you fat prick, and your whole goddamn family, you don't know me, you have no idea how fucked you are, you sonofabitch."

"Now baby--"

"Shut up, Jeremy, shut the fuck up! I fucking hate you!"

By this time Dorothy and Sam had come back to our fire. Dorothy had wrapped herself up in a shawl, and Sam's eyes were huge in the firelight.

"Wow," he said.

"Well," I said.

"I'm going over there to check it out," Lisa said, her voice full of mischief and amusement, and she pulled her sweatshirt on over her shirt.

I would not even turn and look. It was all so tawdry and disgusting. We had left our neighborhood in the city to get away from this stuff.

"Aw, jeez, honey, just stay put," I said.

"Hell, no," she said, and crept stealthily up behind our Jeep Cherokee to watch, from behind the hatch-back, the events across the road. By this time another conservation vehicle had cruised into the area, and the crackle of radio transmissions was everywhere. The Department of Natural Resources truck had turned on an amber Mars light, which flashed orange light across the road and into the deep woods beyond.

"Hey! HEY! That's enough!" a male voice demanded, followed by a peal of high, raucous, female laughter.

"You're in big trouble, now, lady," said the voice. "You're-- you're going to jail."

"The fuck I AM," said the woman, followed by a man exclaiming, "HEY! God-DAMN it!" Then we heard the sound of feet shuffling on the asphalt roadway, and, finally, something banging against a car body.

"Now, NOW! That's it. You are under arrest. Tommy, get the goshdarned sheriff, I'll be darned, this is unbelievable," said the voice, and another, younger male voice, spoke a series of letters and numbers into the radio.

Before long, we heard the wail of a siren in the distance, and within minutes a black-and-yellow Lake County Sheriff's car cautiously drove up the roadway. The siren was off within the park, but the red-and-white emergency lights flashed, reflecting off Turner Lake, and the green fiberglass light-wells of the latrine. Lisa and Dorothy had their heads together, watching the goings-on from around back of the Cherokee.

"So, just you and your mom out camping, huh, Sam," I said.

"Yep," he said. "Mom's great. She baits a hook, and rows, and everything."

"Where's your dad?"

Sam paused, slightly, hardly perceptible.

"He left, we never see him anymore."

"I see," I said. "Well sometimes having a great mom is better."

"I think so, too," he said. "I have an Uncle Dave who stays with us and we throw the football around."

"You play football," I asked.

"Yep. I am a center and an end," Sam said.

"Sounds like that girl's going to jail," I said. "That's the local jurisdiction, she's going to jail."

Lisa came back to us from the darkness behind the Cherokee.

"They've got the cuffs on her, she's in the car, and she tried to kick out the car window. Then she got in the front seat and broke the computer," she said happily, and then went back to her post, where Dorothy was still watching and listening.

"I've never ridden in a police car," Sam said.

"I have," I said.

"For fun?" Sam asked me.

"Nope," I said. "For real.”

“What’d you do,” Sam asked me.

“Me and some friends broke in, somewhere, when we were sixteen years old, and I got caught," I said, and it seemed like I had gone too far, because Sam's eyes got big, with a flicker of fear back of them.

Then, I laughed. "Hey, it was thirty-six years ago," I said, and smiled at him. His face relaxed. “That’s a long time ago, I’m a way different person.”

"Still," Sam said.

"Yeah, it was a big mistake."

One by one the official cars left. Soon, the only vehicles left were the flatbed truck with a white cab and the DNR logo on the door, and a bulky white GMC four-by-four that belonged to the unknown couple, now gone, I had every reason to believe, to the jail, the hoosegow, the pokey, stir, ol’ stony lonesome, the lockup. The headlights of the conservation truck illuminated the abandoned campsite, with its picnic table still laden with food and condiments, the fire-pit smoking with the dregs of their campfire, an expensive six-man dome tent, and a Bean Bag Toss game still set up.

The other campers that had gathered to observe this whole altercation stepped away, shaking their heads, and soon the conservation officer, in the cab of his truck, was the only person left. Covering the lens of my torch with my fingers, I approached the cab.

"Hey," I said.

The officer looked up from his paper-work.

"Hey," he said. Hurt registered in his eyes. He was an enormous man, at least two-hundred and seventy-five pounds, probably six-feet five inches tall. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a nearly bald head, with a bristly crew cut. The truck had a diesel engine, and as it idled it clanked like diesels will do, but with that reliable solidity, like a tractor or an earth-mover: steady, uncomplicated, firm, collected.

"Probably a bad time, but spare a minute for a question," I asked him.

"Sure," he said, sucking in a little air through his teeth, in a "now what?" kind of way.

"Any chance of these folks coming back and raising hell again, tonight," I asked, "because I'm kind of hoping it's over."

"No, it's over," he said. "It's way over. They won't be coming back here, and I don't think they'll be getting to go anywhere, anytime soon."

"Ok," I said, "I'm just concerned because my wife and neighbor were over here watching the whole thing, and you know, people like that, if they see you were watching ‘em, maybe they get an idea."

"No," the ranger said. "They’re done. They’ll be in jail for several days I would imagine. Now I got to pack up all this and inventory it all, and the tow-truck's coming for their vehicle. It's over."

Then he looked at me, purposefully, right in the eyes.

"You ever swear?" he asked me.

"Well, sure," I said.

"OK," he said, "because I don't mean to offend." Then he drew a big breath, his big chest expanding all the way out to the steering-wheel. He leaned his forearm, the size of small log, on the truck's door frame.

"Why'n't they just take the fucking seventy-five dollar ticket? All this goddamn waste, and for what? I saw open beer on the table, and I came up to 'em and told them it was against the rules, and the next thing I know the park service is gonna get sued, and the Mafia's coming to kill me and my family."

He paused and drew in another big breath through his nose. He pushed his glasses up and glanced at the clip-board in his huge hands, preparatory to getting back to his work. Then he looked back at my face.

"Now I got to tear down, inventory, and impound all their stuff. I tell you, my heart's just thumpin' in my chest," he said, "and for nothin'. Just a waste, just a big waste, for nothin'." I nodded my head, looked at the night sky. There was a crescent moon, and the clouds skidded by.

We exchanged first names, I shook his hand and thanked him, and walked back to our fire. Dorothy and Sam and my wife were describing and acting out all the night's capers. Sam was all charged up, the night’s events had fired his imagination, and he was excited and happy.

Later, with a cup of cold coffee, I saw the ranger sitting at the couple's deserted picnic table, choosing an item carefully, looking at it, writing something down, and setting the item aside. Still later, he emptied the big dome-tent. Across the roadway I heard the pop-pop-pop of him dismantling the rods that bowed the tent into a dome, and watched him carefully and expertly roll it up. Then he drove away. A few minutes later a big tow-truck came, and hooking up the fancy white four-by-four, rolled away with it down the road, emergency lights flashing.

Before sleep I went back to look at the campsite of the man and woman who had been taken away, and it was completely empty, swept neatly, and except for a faint, angry orange glow and lacy wisp or two of smoke from the fire-pit, was as if they had never been there.
"The coffee boiled as he watched. The lid came up and coffee and grounds ran down the side of the pot. Nick took it off the grill. It was a triumph for Hopkins. He put sugar in the empty apricot cup and poured some of the coffee out to cool. It was too hot to pour and he used his hat to hold the handle of the coffee pot. He would not let it steep in the pot at all. Not the first cup. It should be straight Hopkins all the way. Hop deserved that. He was a very serious coffee drinker."

A LOVER of the moorland bare,
And honest country winds, you were;
The silver-skimming rain you took;
And loved the floodings of the brook,
Dew, frost and mountains, fire and seas,
Tumultuary silences,
Winds that in darkness fifed a tune,
And the high-riding virgin moon.

Robert Louis Stevenson, "IX. To K. De M," from A Child’s Garden of Verses and Underwoods. New York: Current Literature, 1906;, 2000. Visited 11 June 2008.

We worked together at a Chicago nightclub, a comedy place up in Old Town. Arthur was the son of the piano player. I was escorting out the trash and the occasional drunk with another guy, Billy Seven, a Greek lunatic from Detroit, and helping keep order in the room, which could get insanely rowdy, what with the raucous brand of humor coming off the stage, the college-age crowd, and the alcohol being served. Arthur was a bartender. Arthur’s old man and I shared a pretty fierce alcohol, tobacco, pot and cocaine habit, although he was three decades older than me.

A Greek lunatic from Detroit

Somehow, the old man and I had formed a bond on first sight.

As I have said so many times, blogiation is a forced outing of innerness. Dear readers, I had washed out of the traditional news business after a year at a wire-service and a year each at two magazines. Since then, punishing myself for my professional ineptitude and my lack of discipline in journalism school (where I had actually been asked to leave, and did so without a degree) I had been knocking down black-pipe—the black lead pipe that carries waste out of buildings. Since black-pipe is joined by fitting two sections together, and sealed by pouring melted lead into the union, a sledge-hammer is the only way to get it down. In basements all over the Near West side, I worked on the second-lowest rung of the construction-trade ladder. The lowest rung was chipping bricks after a razing, and I had not yet gotten down that low.

As a freelance writer, working with an Olympia manual typewriter my late mother had bought for me in college, I had written some small pieces for the city’s free weeklies, and lately for construction magazines. I made the rounds of every publication in Chicago, one of which was a struggling theatrical journal published as a sideline by this comedy club's box-office manager, Don.

Recently I took a swing at a guy, and instead connected with a door-frame when he ducked, and had broken the third metacarpal in my left hand. When I went to talk to Don about writing for his little journal, I was wearing a filthy tattered cast. I was perpetually pissed off, even without a broken hand, and always ready for more. I met Don down on Wells street, and he gave me a Coke. Don was kind and understanding, and after he told me they were still looking for on-spec work, or work-for-copies, and he had no paying writing work for me, he sat back and crossed his arms, taking me in.

“How would you like to work, here?”

It was 1985, and the Chicago nightclub was “The Second City,” famous for alumni John and Jim Belushi, and Chris Farley, and now for Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and a host of others.

“Doing what,” I said. Jobs! They were all the same, just bossed by assholes with different names. I sometimes walked all night because I hated the crappy, empty apartment I had on Huron and Ashland, the stinking gas space-heater, the neighbors fighting in the other flats, the baseball-bats against the fenders and the skulls out on the street; I was twenty-five and never expected to see thirty. I had lost my family, fucked up college, and had nowhere to go.

“We need a host for the room,” he said, “and maybe some other stuff.” This was the first time I ever heard the place where the stage and audience were called, “the room,” and at first I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I chewed the inside of my cheek, and then said OK.

My first night, Arthur’s old man came wheeling out of the room like he was walking on the deck of a ship at sea, pitch-black Ray-Bans and a fisherman’s cap on his head, and (because I thought I was invisible), I watched him quietly, standing at the end of the bar while he went up to the soda-gun to splash a little ginger ale into his Martell. I was just watching him, like I was in a duck-blind and he was some clueless woodland creature, just a brain-stem, like I thought of everybody else. It never occurred to me this was the place where young actors, comics, and comedians from all over the country came to make connections, get a job, and make a name. To me, it was just another fucking place. Suddenly the black lenses flashed over at me, like the face of Darth Vader, and he growled loudly through his beard:

“You want somethin’ from me?” His shades locked onto my face, and I was caught completely off-guard, which was to me an utterly unfamiliar sensation.

“No, man, I’m cool,” I said, and my insides jumped around in a way they hadn’t since I was a boy. He kept looking at me for a half-second, and then wheeled back into the room.

(In the years that followed, I realized that old man had been exactly right. I had wanted something from him. I had wanted the extension of paternal affection that was taken from me when I was too young, and ultimately the extension of that love into adult friendship. I wanted the respect and comradeship of an older man. I wanted that natural culmination of growing up, for which all of us boys search, until we find it in ourselves).

Naturally, his son Arthur and I became friends. Now, of course, I see how inevitable this was. Arthur’s old man was the kind of guy whose musical talent and its magnetic attraction (like all real talent, to do effortlessly what no one else can do at all), served, too, to keep all those who loved him at arm’s length, and Arthur—and I—were no exceptions.

Arty had been sent up to Quetico Provincial Park, in Ontario, every summer since he was a boy. Now, with his gnarly beard and shoulder-length hair, a little paunch and a smoke-and-coffee habit we both at that time shared, he had brought up to me the idea of splitting the cost of the trip, and heading on up there.


In 1985 the Space Shuttle “Discovery,” crew included Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the first Arab and first Muslim in space, as a Payload Specialist, and Route 66 was officially decommissioned. Later on that year my girlfriend and I moved in together to a roach-infested bungalow on West Division, in one of Nelson Algren’s roughest neighborhoods. Soon after, her sixteen-year-old little brother ran away from home in St. Louis and showed up at our door, and within six weeks tried to slit his wrists.


After a few months, besides working the comedy crowd six nights a week, I spent my days at “the Club,” too, repairing the iconic cane-backed chairs used in the room, and on the stage.

(Arthur’s father’s appellation of “the Club,” for the Second City, was utterly appropriate for those who worked there, on stage and off. It was a club with a limited membership, which the nightly crowds only got to observe. We were all one, in the club, slept with each other, drank and got high with each other, mourned together when one of us died, and fought and hated each other. The Second City is really a place that defies single-word definition. Theater? Yes and no. Nightclub? Yes and no. Haven for the tragically misunderstood, angry, young, overcharged flotsam of small-town ambition tossed up on the shore of the show-business Third Market? Maybe, at that time, yes.)

As a freelance hack, I had written a few largish feature stories for the Chicago “Reader,” encyclopedia entries, and a couple of educational films, and was trying to break into magazine writing. “Outside,” magazine was then based in Chicago, and beginning to attract a loyal readership. The then-
editor, who later went on to develop the now-popular “Men’s Journal,” agreed to help me out with the expenses for a “spec,” article on Quetico, so I agreed with Arthur and we went.

Quetico was famous for cataclysmic thunderstorms, impenetrable clouds of black flies, moody, thousand-foot deep lakes, and challenging and unreliable portages. “Portage,” which Arthur insisted we pronounce “por-tahzh,” its French pronunciation, was the term for carrying your canoe overland from one lake or stream to another. The term originated with the French “voyageurs,” which besides being the French word for traveler, in the era of the fur trade in Canada, meant the canoeists and porters who trapped and sold pelts, starting in the 18th century. Voyageurs National Park, along the Canadian border, was named for these French or French-Canadian (and British, German, Russian and-- in the beginning-- native Iroquois, Ottawa and Ojibwa) businessmen and adventurers.

My hope was for sufficient hardship to make for an exciting story. As it happens, the weather was beautiful, the black flies nonexistent, and the work of canoeing and portaging utterly manageable. Although I strove mightily to cobble together an exciting narrative of north woods adventure, after I got back and wrote it up, in the words of Liz, the editor assigned to me, “nothing happened.”

Quetico Provincial Park is located just west of the 90th degree of longitude, in Canada, about fifty kilometers above the western toe of Lake Superior. The 4,655 square kilometer park is maintained by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. It is south of Atikokan, between Fort Frances and Thunder Bay. In it are over 14-hundred kilometers of canoe routes.

A map of Quetico leaves you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The waterways dive down to the southwest from the trenches left behind the glaciers, which left big striations in the land throughout Quetico, which lay on the southern extreme of the Precambrian Shield, on the Canadian Shield, one of several remaining segments of the earth's original crust. As the ice retreated, differential uplift created a topography varying from 1000 to 7000 feet above sea level. Tall lean scowling scaffolds of granite, topped and shadowed with trees and underbrush, are everywhere. Because of Quetico's lively seismic past, there are fault lines in the park, primarily in the southeast, near Agnes and Man lakes, adjoining Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota.

Quetico supported a great wealth of trapping, trading, logging and mineral interests since the arrival of the first European settlers in the late 17th century. Logging continued in Quetico until 1971, when public concern for the environment resulted in its ban. In 1973 Quetico was classified as a wilderness park. The water is eminently potable-- anything you could put in it to purify it would pollute it. Motorized boats are prohibited in all but a few of the lakes, on the park’s perimeter.

Arthur and I brought a seventeen foot aluminum Grumman canoe, and three paddles. The third was for fending off rocks, an old unfinished AMF model with someone’s name cut into it with a wood-burning stylus. The other two were sleek, square, and angled at the blade, made out of cedar and hardwood by the Sawyer Company, and laminated with polished fiberglass.

Our first destination was called the Batchewaung Portage, an 840 meter reinforced trail, leading down hand built steps to Batchewaung Lake. The wind was against us through the entire Batchewaung area, Batchewaung Lake, Little Batchewaung Lake, and Batchewaung Bay. The word “O-ba-tchi-wan,” means “a current going through narrows,” in Ojibwa.

We turned north at Mosquito Point and entered the Pickerel Narrows, where we camped on an unnamed island. The Narrows is a system of streams and islands west of Pickerel Lake. Pickerel Lake is thirteen-hundred feet deep. A forty mile-per-hour wind reached around from the east and zoomed through our campsite.


With its surrounding crown of red and white and jack pine, black and white spruce, balsam fir and tamarack, the lake, reflecting the sky, got dark like an auditorium draining of sound and light. The wind disappeared. We saw the aurora borealis in the north, the aurora corona in perfect outline, increasing steadily in movement and intensity until about nine o’clock and then disappearing. Ursa Major and Cassiopeia were visible. Once, when the air was absolutely still, Arty played a light across the fallen spruce we sat upon, and a deer-mouse, eyes and ears disproportionately huge, flickered back at us, a quick little furtive flame of life.

The next day in the water Arty showed me a pictograph he had first encountered on a trip with a group from the Field Museum. He splashed water on the rocks, making the image darken. The pictograph was a stick-man in a canoe, bending back with a weapon in his hands, at the waist, far back toward the stern of his canoe. The pictograph was five feet above water level on a cliff that rose another thirty or forty feet.

At the end of the next portage we found a steam-boiler and screw from a barge dating to Quetico's logging days, buried in white sand. Minnows clouded the water, nosing up to my pants-leg and taking off.

That night we camped on another nameless island south of the dividing point of Twin Lakes, in the southernmost of them. The Deux Rivieres portage prior to this camp was an historic portage of the French traders, 690 meters long, a mastic river of muck that pulled off our shoes and rode up into our pants, leaving us with a lot of weight in mud, and a few leeches.

Ravens were in the sky for a few hours every evening, and we could always hear the call of distant owls. We found masses of moose spoor, cylindrical and fibrous inside and Arty told me, amused, that this was collected and sold in Atikokan for fertilizer.

Mosquitoes were everywhere. Our tent, exhaling gales of carbon dioxide, collected mosquito advance men like crazy. They hot-rodded around the vents like distant racers. The beavers were making a croaking sort of yawp, pleasant in a Marlene Dietrich sort of way. Our slumbers were punctuated by the race of tiny feet on twigs (there are no snakes in Quetico), and the jet like whine of incoming mosquitoes, pulsating with larval energy.

At seven o’clock in the morning one day, breakfastless, unwashed, silent, we looped around the island to the southeast into the reedy waterway. We had to lift the canoe over rocks in some spots, and noted a lot of timber wreckage, largely due to beavers. The granite reached out to us and in under the canoe, a restless giant, covered with moss and freshwater mollusks and underwater plants, like a whale’s skin is covered with patches of white barnacles, and orange whale lice. The rock rolls an ancient shoulder, and the trees abandon their moorings.

We meandered up the Deux Rivieres, and at a fork in the stream encountered a small brown duck with a brood. She noticed us, and scolded her ducklings into the reeds. She was completely preoccupied with making us follow her and leading us away from her ducklings, and consequently, after going too far upstream with us, was forced to paddle furiously back to relocate her brood. We travelled the entire length of the river and circled back at Sturgeon Lake.

Upon our entrance to the channel, we again encountered the duck, at least I think it was the same one. Her attitude was quite different. She darted in and out of the reeds, scant feet from our gunwales, occasionally successful in finding a duckling and driving it out into the stream. Bigfoot pointed, I followed, and a little duck, about as big as a girl's fist, tiny wings and body raised in that well-known water-walk webfoot flapping that ducks do, disappeared. Something dragged it beneath the surface. It happened as if the little fowl had been caught in a piece of machinery. Slap, clap, smack, then just a fine trace of bubbles and an angular current toward the reeds.

That night we trolled. I used my dad's old Heddon reel on a collapsible rod, and pulled in a couple of fish. One was a five-pound walleye. A member of the perch family, the walleye is named for its "wall" eyes, which are marble-white, evolved to see and feed in near darkness. He had an undershot jaw, full of sharp teeth at random angles, the line of his mouth in that grim, permanent frown.

The next morning we packed up the canoe, conscious as we tied down the load we were well into the downward glide back. We had some rain chase us, but the weather remained beautiful, and unremarkable.

After a twelve-hour day on the water, we had a night at Voyageur Wilderness Camp to recoup. We had a sauna and a swim and a home-cooked supper prepared by Jean, whom Arty had known for twenty years, spiced by war-stories told by Ed, her husband, who had piloted B-29s in the Second World War and worked in intelligence in South America in the 1950s. The island library was full of ecology books, an edition of the Harvard Classics, a great deal of anthropological material pertaining to native peoples’ literature and history, and a copy of Alan Paton's, “Cry, the Beloved Country,” seventy or so pages of which I read before sleep.

We put the canoe on the car and drove along the Lake Superior height of land to Grand Portage, a culmination point for several historic trapping and fur-trading routes. Customs waved us through.

Copyright Nina Simonowicz & NorthShoreVisitor


The particulars of American experience in the here-and-now float along on the surface of the rest of the world. The brief, shining moment, the flash in the pan, the strictly local phenomenon of several generations of a population of men and women and children growing up in a purely market-driven society, largely without interaction or understanding of the natural or aboriginal world around them, has been the blessing and the damnation of the United States and her people.

As market economies mature, worldwide, the American phenomenon is less spectacular. As the industrial plant of the rest of the world matures, world literature will be widely published and appreciated, and the rest of the world is significantly bigger than the nations of English-speaking people.
English may or may not continue to be the lingua franca of media, and among the premier languages of the arts (think Shakespeare, or Wordsworth, or possibly Steve Martin), but it is a near certainty that in the setting and context of that literature, the books one might have once termed, "great literature," like Tender is the Night, or To Have and Have Not will never again be written in the English language and universally accepted as masterpieces. Maybe another Lost Generation will arise, not in the cafés of Paris, as in the 1920s, but in the jaded ruins of LA, or Haifa. This presupposes English-- or English translation-- will be appreciated as something besides the talk of air traffic controllers.

Once upon a time, history provided a continent to an audacious contingent of intrepid and voracious predatory insects, with all the courage and mechanical efficiency of insects, borne of superior technology and of firepower. Since the laws creating the National Park Service, Americans have been in the interesting position of visiting nature for recreation, instead of having the travails of nature visited upon them, in the manner of the Third World, as crushed and unwitting victims of nature's inhuman power, Nature with a capital "N," the rolling over of the tigress in her lair, who overlays and kills her own cubs. Even
the recent floods in the Midwest, while economically destructive, are viewed by Americans as problems a magnitude greater than usual, to be overcome with a proportionate remediation effort. Where, in the rest of the world, have the predations of nature been so casually managed?

The overwhelming beauty and potency of wind and rain, the massive and ungovernable power of the oceans and the atmosphere, and the mysteries of their interaction are impenetrable to us, a lesson the rest of the world has learned, and continues to learn, perhaps better. Americans' greatest strength may be-- may have always been-- the Yankee determination not to necessarily be uninformed, but if so to take a stubborn pride in being uninformed. In other words, the stoic Iowans who doggedly bailed out their living-rooms uncomplainingly after the June 2008 Midwestern United States floods simply did not know any better. The residents of New Orleans, in the aftermath of the Atlantic hurricane of 2005, being far more cosmopolitan, wisely saved their strength, and waited for their government check (as if they were already part of the EU).

Still, this pioneer spirit and hardness of Americans has been diluted and weakened, not by the hardship of a hundred years of world war, but by its rewards. The American population now, hooked on broadcast reality and cholesterol, has a long trail back. The American culture of "camping out," the Boy Scouts, and the faux "extreme," sports like the ones covered routinely in magazines like "Outside," illustrate eloquently the difference between living in the bush and visiting it for fun, with a boom box (and a Blackberry).

In his masterpiece, "Nostromo," Conrad wrote of his character Charles Gould, the Englishman whose family had been established in the fictional South American nation, "Costaguana," for three generations, and whose mission it is to save a silver mine, there:
"There was no mistaking the growling mutter of the mountain pouring its stream of treasure under the stamps; and it came to his heart with the peculiar force of a proclamation thundered forth over the land and the marvellousness of an accomplished fact fulfilling an audacious desire. He had heard this very sound in his imagination on that far-off evening when his wife and himself, after a tortuous ride through a strip of forest, had reined in their horses near the stream, and had gazed for the first time upon the jungle-grown solitude of the gorge. The head of a palm rose here and there. In a high ravine round the corner of the San Tome mountain (which is square like a blockhouse) the thread of a slender waterfall flashed bright and glassy through the dark green of the heavy fronds of tree-ferns. Don Pepe, in attendance, rode up, and, stretching his arm up the gorge, had declared with mock solemnity, 'Behold the very paradise of snakes, senora.'"
As he wrote in "The National Interest," in the spring of 1998, Robert D. Kaplan, "a contributing editor of 'The Atlantic Monthly,' and author of five books, most recently The Ends of the Earth (Vintage, 1996),'" in the peroration to his excellent exegesis of Nostromo:
" many students who gravitate to political science and journalism these days tend to come from well-off backgrounds and hold idealistic views-- as opposed to other young people I have encountered at universities and in the corporate world, from harsher backgrounds, who are unashamed about just wanting 'to make money.' It is ironically the latter-- those with no interest in political science but who have been conditioned as realists-- who may be better equipped psychologically to comprehend the situation in many troubled places in the world."

Also in "The Best American Essays 1999," on p. 224, "Outside," writer David Quammen, in "Planet of Weeds," says a young Canadian policy analyst named Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, "author of several calm-voiced but frightening articles on the linkage between what he terms 'environmental scarcity,' and global sociopolitical instability," cites a conversation between Homer-Dixon and Kaplan, as quoted in Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth, in which Homer-Dixon said, "Think of a stretch limo in the potholed streets of New York City, where homeless beggars live. Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim, and a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind, going in a completely different direction."


Pickerel Lake, 1985

Hemingway said (infra), "What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know."

At Grand Portage Arty and I walked out onto the dock and met Captain Siebertson, of the “Wacondah,” a glitteringly white-painted diesel cruise vessel about sixty-five feet long, with a bright red-painted waterline. The “Wacondah,” drew eight feet of water, and seemed proportionate to Siebertson himself, a big, wide man with white hair and a red face and a very red nose. He was all alone at the end of a one-hundred foot dock, which looked like bran-new concrete and steel.

When he saw us coming he threaded up his fishing rod and walked back toward us and the gangplank. We talked easily and not too lengthily, three men equally dwarfed by the lake, which was smooth as glass and surrounding us. A mile out a trawler was as small as a toy, halfway to the horizon, the merest chip on the immutable surface of the water.

"People come out here and say, 'Big? What's Big?'" Siebertson said. "'Everybody says it's Big out here. Where are the shopping malls? Where can I buy a souvenir?' I can't understand it," he said. "People figure nothing's big that don't have pavement on it," he said, and shook his head.

We drove one-hundred and ninety miles along the lake to Duluth. Rain was intermittent. A sign on the southbound highway about fifty miles south of Thunder Bay said that thenceforth all waters flowed to the Atlantic watershed, away from the Arctic Circle.