Students from the Spiritual Life Center theme house first guided me through the woods south of campus, along Bay City Creek to the Grandfather Tree. It was the fall of 1996, my first year as the College chaplain, and I had asked them to tell me what made Northland special.
They responded, “to tell you, we have to show you.” What they showed me was a massive eighty-to-one-hundred-year-old white pine, arisen from the great cutover. Its wild shape indicated it was open grown, finding its way between fields, and hidden from hungry grazers, now towering over the waters of the creek. I remember one of my guides saying, “I think this is our spirit tree,” an avatar of the Northland spirit.
Dictionaries define spirit as “a particular way of thinking, feeling, or behaving, especially a way that is typical of a particular group of people, an activity, a time, or a place that animates.”
The Northland Spirit seems to express a unity of thought, feeling, experiences and place that finds its way deep into the heart of those who love this little college college by the big lake. Located at the margins of the larger culture and world, Northland continues to endow people with a deep and animating sense of connection between self, community, and nature.
Charlie Krysinski ’16 describes this animating spirit as a continuing dialogue. Krysinski, back at Northland as a visiting professor, said, “The Northland spirit is grounded in a sustained dialogue between people and place. At Northland, we find a place where we are called to be transformed through the spirit of dialogue.”
That dialogue connects Northlanders to the spiritual depths of this place. Nathaniel Dexter begins his history of Northland by noting that the College was named not for a denomination or a founder, but for a region—a place. This place was the land of great white pines and cedars, red sandstone cliffs, and the deep, blue waters of Anishinaabewi-gichigami. This was a spirit-filled place. A place of destiny, created by Kitchi-Manitou, the “Great Mystery.”
People who find a home here today can still sense that depth of spirit and discover what Parker Palmer called a “hidden wholeness.” Standing at the foot of a century-old white pine, a survivor of human greed, now loved by the young. Feeling the cold mist in the face of a storm-driven surf at the shore of the lake, or savoring a handful of wild blueberries picked from the barrens, one discovers a source of wholeness and belonging. Here, I feel the spirit of nature, and I learn that I am part of rather than estranged from nature.
The College nurtures the many ways we transform those raw experiences into meaning. That integrating process of connecting experience with knowledge defines the Northland Spirit. We learn the thoughts and methods of those who have gone before us and we learn to make new connections. We learn to stretch and develop our imagination. And we learn to struggle. Out of our struggles, discoveries, and experiences, we are transformed.
Director of Alumni Relations Jackie Moore ’05 calls this the real spirit of Northland. “Northland is a place where people can struggle and come find themselves in this particular place, a struggle that creates a deep caring for who we are and where we are.”
And, Moore notes, “you can take that wherever you go.”
There is one thing more—friendship. Friendship with the those who share the journey, friendship with knowledge and wisdom, and friendship with the world and the places we call home. In the end, these deep friendships become forms of love, love that completes the Northland Spirit.