Some of these articles were published in 1951 in North Country Magazine. Sigurd also wrote a couple of hundred short sketches for newspapers; he wrote a few between 1937 and 1939, but most were from 1940 to 1943, and were syndicated to a number of newspapers, mostly in the Midwest. Sigurd’s papers at the Minnesota Historical Society include the manuscript drafts of these articles, but not actual newspaper clippings. A sample of these articles appear below. Many of them probably were published as part of his “America Out of Doors” syndicated column, but there is nothing in his papers to indicate which ones did or did not get printed.
It was the last week in April, the time of year in the north when bears are coming out of hibernation and are interested in only one thing, food to break the long winter’s fast.
I was camped on the north shore of Snowbank Lake just south of the Canadian border and had just come in from some lake trout fishing, when I heard a crashing in back of the tent that sounded as though some big animal was willfully bashing the brush around to make as much noise as possible. At first I thought it might be a bull moose caught in a windfall, but when I heard the rending of a big log I knew it was a bear trying to get a meal of ants or grubs.
Creeping out cautiously, I listened again, but could see nothing. The ripping of wood went on and then, moving back into the trees a short distance, I saw a she bear and two cubs standing at the very end of a log that extended like a giant runway directly to where I stood. It was the butt end of that log they were working on.
The bear saw me just as I saw her and stood up on her hind legs to give me the once over. Knowing that bears in the spring are somewhat uncertain, especially when they happen to be females with cubs, I looked around for a tree that might be worth climbing in case of emergency. Just to one side and about two jumps away, was a scraggly jack pine that might serve.
At that moment the she bear boosted both cubs onto the end of the log and climbed up after them, all three facing me and, I was sure, wondering how best to dispose of the new hazard that had dropped out of nowhere into their hitherto tranquil lives.
For a full minute they stood there looking me over, and then they started down the long runway of that log directly toward me, the mother in the lead, the two cubs following dutifully behind. The bear was a big one, gaunt and emaciated from the winter’s fast, and as she came on her great black head weaved slowly from side to side.
I sat there at the end of the log, fascinated by the sight and my growing predicament. Of course I knew that bears seldom bother humans. But this was spring and the bear had cubs and she was hungry and nervous and there was just a chance I’d be the exception. Swiftly I took stock of the situation, and out of the corner of one eye, saw the jack pine to one side. As a last resort I could scramble up into its branches and, even tough she could come up after me, I would have a chance.
But still I didn’t move. About twenty feet away, she stopped, looked me over slowly, and, just as I was about ready to spring up into the jack, she slipped off the log and headed for the tent. Now I knew what she had in mind. She had smelled the trout in my packsack, had possibly not been aware of me at all.
One slashing rip of a front paw and my precious four-pound lake trout was out on the ground, and my chance of a good supper disappearing fast. The bear sniffed the prize eagerly, then grasped it back of the head and made for the log she had just left. Down the runway, they sped, the mother in the lead, the two cubs waddling along behind her. At the butt end where they had been digging for ants, they slid off into the brush and in a moment were gone from sight.
While I hated to lose that trout, I figured my three visitors could use it much better than I. At least I had eaten that morning, which was more than could be said for the old one whose last full meal was in October. No wonder that trout smelled good to her.
I met Henry the day after beaver season had closed. Henry was seventy-eight and had hiked down from his place on Basswood Lake and it was some fifteen miles of rather tough going with the trail full of muck from the recent rains, but he was fresh and chipper and full of talk of the woods and happy as a man can be at the prospect of making a stake.
Henry was an Indian, a French Indian of the Chippewa band at Lac La Croix, with the blood of the old Voyageurs running in his veins. His hair was long and unkempt, turned up over his short collar, and, with his beard, he looked to me as though he had stepped out of the pages of the past. For that matter, all of Henry’s life had been spent in the wilderness lake country of the Minnesota-Ontario border, and he knew the life of the bush from long before the days of planes and steel.
When he was a young man, the Hudson’s Bay company was still operating on the border and Henry trapped for them and drew his supplies from their trading posts. He was here at the time of the famous Riel Rebellion when General Dawson had led a thousand troops through the wilderness to establish peace in the northwest territories. He had seen the early days and he had seen the late days, but he was still a part of the past, as much a part as though changes had never come. Henry was a living link with the past. But now, instead of trapping entirely for a living, he ran a motor boat on Basswood, transporting parties of canoeists to the jumping off places on the border. Tourists were just another phase in the wilderness life he had known.
But now he was puzzled, for regulations had reached in even to the remote confines of his wilderness cabin. In the first place, he had discovered that he could only take four beaver, that each one had to be tagged, that they must be delivered and checked through the district game warden within a certain number of days of the closing of the season. And now, as though that wasn’t enough, he had also received an application for gas rationing which he had to fill out in order to get gas to run his motorboat during the season to come. He showed me the forms, wrinkled and dirty from much carrying around, and showed me the card on which he was to make application for his food ration book. And for the first time in my life, I saw that Henry was troubled and concerned.
“I know there is a war on,” he said. “Tommy is gone, Vince is somewhere in Australia, Freddie will probably be going soon too and I’ll be all alone up there. I know we’ve got to win, but I can’t understand all of this stuff.” He tapped his papers with a gnarled finger. “I don’t want much stuff, just enough to get along on. The army can take my boat, these hides, the shack on Basswood, everything I’ve got, and I’d rather give it to them than figure out what’s in these papers.”
He shook his grizzled old head despairingly, shoved the papers into his pocket, and went off down the road, the last of the Voyageurs. War and civilization had caught up to him at last.
The tree stood alone, sheltered on all sides by a tall stand of aspen. It was not a large balsam but it was well shaped and on all sides the branches had grown full and thick, and at the top was a cluster of brown, well-opened cones. That I knew was the tree I wanted to take home with me. That little balsam would bring with it the real cheer of Christmas.
I had tramped a long way to find the right tree, and as I tramped I thought of the boy who on other Christmases had been with me. To him the getting of the tree was the most important part of the holiday season, not even second to the gifts on Christmas Eve. In fact all other preparations for Christmas were relatively unimportant. The tree was the climax, and when it came into the house Christmas was there with it.
At first I thought it would be foolish to find a tree for just us, but his mother and I talked it over and decided it would make him happy knowing that we kept Christmas just as he remembered it, that if we didn’t have a tree, he would really miss something even though he was not there to see it. So I went out alone and picked exactly the kind of a tree I knew he would like, brought it home and set it up as we always used to do.
The old decorations came out, the little star with its shiny point that always went on top, the silver birds, the colored glass balls, the hanging tinsel and then the colored lights. I could feel him there with us as we worked, could hear his happy laughter when the lights went on. Though he was far away this Christmas, we knew his spirit was there with us, that in his memories he was reliving on Christmas Eve the many joys of his childhood.
After we had finished, we turned the lights low and listened to the strains of Silent Night over the radio. It was snowing, big soft flakes coming quietly down. In the morning the earth would be clean and white. I sat back and admired the tree and was glad I had brought it in. That tree could serve no more important role than this, and I liked to think it had grown for only one purpose—to give happiness and cheer to us.
How much better than if it had been allowed to grow and then was cut for lumber. In this way the spirit of the tree had been saved. As a symbol it could serve no higher or more exalted purpose. In the morning I must write that boy and tell him all about it, perhaps enclose a spray so that he could rub it in his hands and catch the faint odor of balsam resin. That would bring it back to him and he could close his eyes and remember.
I carried the clipping with me wherever I went, hoping for a chance to sit down alone and read it at my leisure. It was a quotation from an unknown 16th Century saint and because it had seemed to supply a need for the war-torn world of the 20th Century, I had cut it out and kept it with me.
And now the time seemed to have come for its real and final reading. I sat before my fire on the lonely shore of a lake far north in the Canadian wilderness. It was a time for meditation and reflection, a time for thinking long thoughts without interruption. I dug the worn bit of paper out of my wallet and began to read.
“Do not lose your inward peace for anything whatsoever even if the whole world seems upset. Never hurry, do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Maintain a holy simplicity of mind and do not smother yourself with a host of cares, wishes or longings.”
I read those immortal words in the flickering light of my fire with the peace of the Canadian wilderness all about me, with the echoing calls of the loons far out over the water and the white throats and hermits from the woods about me and right then they seemed particularly fitting, but then I thought of the factories running three shifts and of the pressure under which men must prepare for war. I thought of the boys in Sicily, in the Aleutians and the Solomons and wondered if they had any time for calmness or leisure and knew that such a philosophy was not for a time of war.
But I also thought of Thoreau, of Emerson, of the Roman sage and emperor Marcus Aurelius, and knew that their philosophy was the same, that to maintain a holy simplicity of mind was the secret of happiness and contentment, that to keep one’s life uncluttered was the key to successful living, no matter when or how men fared.
The fire had burned down and it was rapidly getting dark. My tent was up, my sleeping bag safely within it. The canoe was overturned on shore with my supplies under its shelter. All of my bodily wants were satisfied and I for one was at peace with myself and my environment.
As I crawled into my sleeping bag, I was still thinking about what I had read and then I began to understand its real meaning and how it could apply no matter where men were. A man did not have to be away from his kind and the many problems that beset civilization. A man if he were big enough could maintain that “holy simplicity of mind” amid the crash of battle, amid the turmoil of great industry, anywhere if he really wished. No one could deprive him of it. The philosophy of four centuries ago was as true today as it was then.
During the past week I was deer hunting and following the trail of a big buck; I found myself in the very center of a great muskeg swamp. There was much snow and the bottom of the bog was unfrozen and soft. Each step went through into the mush and water underneath and with the heavy snow above, progress was difficult. When I had forced my way through several miles of it and found I was as far from my goal as ever, the joy of the chase was gone and I settled down to an afternoon of as soul-killing and desperate effort as I have ever known.
After a time, I found that I could take no more than a few steps without stoppping for breath and rest. There came a time when I seriously wondered if I had lost all of my virility and if it would not be easier to just sit and wait for the swamp to freeze solid before going further. Progress finally became so exhausting and impossible that I doubted if I would ever get through. As the tracks of my buck became more and more vague and illegible under the thawing action of the noonday sun, I began to think longingly of cam and fire and food and rest and dry clothes and companionship, and wondered if the hardship a man went through in trailing a deer was worthwhile.
Several hours later, I did get out of the swamp onto solid ground, but I was so exhausted that I could barely stagger through the woods toward camp. Just at dusk, I found the cabin, sank into a seat by the fireplace, just sat and sat, reveling in the sheer bliss of not having to move at all.
And as I sat there and thought dully about the events of that long day in the bog, it occurred to me that without the misery that I had gone through, I would not be able to appreciate an iota of the warmth and rest that now was mine to enjoy.
Now, from the security and comfort of my study, I can smile at all the agony of that trip, but just the same, I know that without that sort of experience once in a while, a man never does know when he is well off. Without the violence of contrast, life is apt to be drab and colorless, certainly without the vividness of perception that only comes when the senses have been awakened by extremes of feeling.
I remember long trips in the wilderness when food and tobacco were running low, when the weather for a week or a month had been impossible, and the joy that coming back meant in the satisfaction of long-thwarted hunger and comfort. In the light of reflection, that was the real harvest, something to remember whenever the going gets tough.
And that, I believe, is one of the reasons why coming home from any sort of a primitive expedition is a real adventure. Security and routine are always welcome after knowing excitement and the unusual. We need contrast to make us know we are really alive.
of the highlands on either side crowds close. Here I will find my deer.
He is probably lying down in the long grass just below me, but as I work my way down, I see the trail goes right across the swale out in the open. I will have to watch myself, for when he goes that white flag will be flying and he will be making thirty feet at a time.
As I reach the center of the swamp, out in the full flare of the sun, the brush cracks sharply and not a hundred feet away my deer goes out of that swamp as only a whitetail can. Snap shooting, but he keeps going. On the ridge at the other side, I get a broadside view and a perfect shot. He drops with a bullet in his neck and the hunt is over.
I struggle through the long grass and the snow, stumble into a beaver hole and out again, climb breathlessly to the ridge, and there he lies, a great buck, brown and gray against the snow, dead, a trickle of blood coming from his throat. For a moment I stand and look. There is my deer and it seems impossible to think that now I could go up and touch him, now he is mine. Here is the animal I had hunted all morning. Here is the prize I had dreamed of. It doesn’t seem real; it never does when you finally find your deer. It seems as though something impossible has happened, something that you had hoped for but which was in the end unattainable. And there is where part of the thrill of all hunting, and especially big game hunting, lies, the attainment of the impossible.
I clean my deer carefully, take out the intestines, the heart and the liver, the great bulging stomach full of browse, warm my hands against the steaming paunch. The hunt is over and now I have my meat. While I string him up to freeze, I am conscious of a feeling of disappointment that it was over, that I had killed for sport. But as I sat and looked at my kill, I was also conscious of the old thrill that is always mine when I have been successful, the old ancient thrill of getting my game, proving to myself that I am still one with the hunters of the past, that the blood of ancestral hunters of Europe still runs strongly in my veins.
Last night long after dark we were again at Burntside steaming ourselves in the bathhouse of Harry DeWolf. It is not the bath itself which is so important or enjoyable, but the aftermath: after a plunge in the lake, to lie under the birches and look at the stars. There is where the real luxury comes in. All sense of struggle and effort is gone; one is overcome with lassitude and a feeling of contentment and complete relaxation. The stars seem close and the milky way soft and enveloping. The lapping of the waves is a soothing finale and one feels as though nothing in the world could be very disturbing. After a Finnish bath the whole world seems at peace. Events in Europe are far away and impossible.
I lay there under the birches last night, stretching myself, breathing deeply, caressed by the cooling night winds, wondering if the Finnish baths were not responsible for the toughness of the Finnish soldier and the people, their ability to struggle against tremendous odds to face overwhelming force and then after the battle to settle down with renewed courage and optimism to rebuild their world. Perhaps it was the knowledge that there is an escape, that through their ancient custom there are still places in the world where they can find escape and peace.
Perhaps that is the secret, perhaps that what keeps them going. I know this, that as I lay there last night under the trees, watching the stars and listening to the sounds on the lake, that I realized perfect composure, perfect peace and relaxation as seldom is permitted one in this day. No matter what might have happened during the day or what worries confronted on in the future, I knew then that for the moment at least everything was right with me and with the world, and that sometime again I could find it if I wished. Knowing that, having that realization, nothing could completely disrupt my calm or the assurance that there was something worth living for.
The psychologists can say what they wish about there being no peace except inward, but those of us who have taken a Finnish bath know that this inward peace can be invoked and that the best way to do it is to go to some lakeside for a good steaming and then afterward a dip in the water, then cool off slowly under the trees without anything to keep away the breeze. That is pure physical luxury and one of those things that in the north makes life worth living, and surely one of those things that gives the Finlander his toughness and his devotion to his beloved Finlandia.
In planning my stone walk, I thought I would make it more than just a path, more than something to step upon, rather a walk with personality and character. While I was thinking about these things I became conscious of all the flagstone structures in my neighborhood, how they wound in and out of the shrubbery, how the grass and sometimes the weeds grew between the rocks, how some were winding and graceful and others straight as a die, but I saw nothing that was exactly what I wanted.
Mine was to be different and individual not only as to shape and form but as to material. Not that the other walks were not good and meant as much perhaps to their respective owners, but simply that mine had to embody certain values that perhaps I alone could recognize and appreciate. And that I think is important in planning any sort of a personal structure. Unless it means more than just utility, half of the real value is lost.
I looked everywhere, almost decided at one time to use flat pieces of rosy granite from a cut where the road builders had gone through, but then abandoned the idea because the pieces were too jagged and heavy to handle.
And then, walking along a lakeshore near my home, I found exactly what I wanted. Here were rocks of all shapes and sizes, slates, granites, greenstones and schists, but what intrigued me the most was a shelf of slatey material right at the water’s edge, with what looked very much like ripple marks on each individual surface. I picked up a piece and examined it with interest. Slate, I knew, was at one time mud. If the mud was under water, perhaps the bottom of an ocean or a prehistoric river or a lake, it could easily develop ripple marks that might just as possibly have been set and finally, when exposed to the sun, baked into shape for eternity. At least that was what I chose to believe, and what I believed with respect to the stones going into my walk was more important to me than any geological supposition, verified or not.
That settled the matter of material for me. Here at last was the stuff that would giver character to my path, here was something to think about and ponder as long as I lived. To others, it would be just another flagstone walk with the grass coming up between the stones as it should, but to me it would be different from any other in the world.
I gathered all the flat pieces of shale and slate I could find, and after much labor carried them all into my yard and set them where they belonged.
Now, after a rain, the slate glistens and shines, and the ripple marks look fairly alive, and when I walk down this little path of mine, I can believe if I wish that I am walking on stones which at one time were the bottom of a lake or river, that water once flowed around them, that I actually may have taken for my own a small part of an ancient ocean floor, and that is exactly what I wanted when I first planned my flagstone walk. Each time I see it I know that I have built well.
Clean them well, but don’t cut off the heads. Leave the eyes in though your guests may revolt. Dry them thoroughly, salt and pepper to taste and finish by rolling them in either flour or cornmeal.
Butter the pan and get it just hot enough so that the butter begins to brown, and then drop your fish in one at a time.
Don’t for heaven’s sake dump them all in together or the butter will get cold, and don’t have too much grease, and don’t treat brook trout as though they were ordinary fish. Trout are different and the cooking of them is an art practiced successfully only by those who understand them and who have served a long apprenticeship exploring their haunts.
When you get done, if you have lived right and know the signs, you will have something that you will remember for a thousand meals afterward, a crisp, brown, tender delicacy with a flavor compounded of spring-fed pools, moss-covered rocks, water cress with marsh marigold on the side, deep shadows under the alders and even the sound of whitethroats beside some rapids or the sooming of nighthawks at dusk.
Most people realize at once that no fish can ever measure up to such an outstanding combination of qualities unless the fisherman and cook has through the years endowed some particular species with a proper emotional background. That accomplished—and most trout fishermen have reached that point or they long ago would have abandoned their sport for something much less arduous—then the actual cooking and its technique becomes instinctive procedure.
And when it comes to the serving of trout, the real artist knows that, if possible, it should be the pièce de résistance, should not be served with many other things, should be eaten alone as it deserves with a bit of bread, a pickle and a cup of coffee, that it is not a food to neutralize with a lot of foreign vegetables and gravy and other uncomplementary side dishes, that it tastes best alone where its delicate flavors have no competition.
And the heads—my grandmother, who was a past master at the cooking of trout, told me that they were by far the best part of the fish, that only insane people ever threw them away, that the cheeks and the choice bits of flesh back of the skull were tastier than all the rest, that severing the head meant an irreplaceable loss of juices and certain intangible qualities that only a connoisseur could recognize and appreciate.
Cook a brook trout right and you have a dish worth all the effort, but cook it carelessly without the thought of the aesthetic values and you have a dish that makes you wonder why anyone should go through the hardship necessary to bring in a mess when carp and other rough fish are on the market.
I had been walking along the Moose Lake road for an hour, an hour of dodging the great logging trucks on the way to the camps south of town. Time and again, I had been forced to walk in the soft snow of the shoulder until at last, I gave up entirely trying to follow the open road itself. Each time a truck roared by, the air was white with snow dust and putrid with the smell of burned gasoline and oil. No sooner had I recovered my equilibrium than another would come hurtling down the highway and I began to despair of knowing a single undisturbed moment or enjoying at all what I had really come to see and hear.
It was late afternoon and through the birches and banks of balsam was the afterglow of sunset. Overhead were lingering wisps of pink extending clear to the dusky blue of the horizon. All these things I noticed in spite of the trucks, and there were other things, too: the fact that it was warm for February, there was no wind, and that water had seeped during midday into puddles in the center of the road. But as I walked along, I felt more than saw these things, snatched at them as it were with the senses I had left between the onslaughts of traffic.
And then, while bemoaning my fate at having been born in an age of traffic and speed, I suddenly realized that the trucks had stopped and that it was quiet again, that there were no foreign smells, and that while I had hoped, my wish had been granted. Quickly, I stepped off the shoulder onto the smooth bareness of the road and strode along as softly as though the moment might be taken from me, as though I had no right to enjoy without interruption. For a time, I was skeptical of my good fortune and expected with every breath to hear the old familiar, shattering roar.
Then gradually I began to smell the trees and the freezing wetness in the center of the road and it was so quiet that I found myself skirting cautiously the newly forming crust of ice so I would not crunch it as I stepped. Then, when I was sure the respite was real and lasting, I stopped dead and stood there listening for what the woods might bring.
I had not long to wait, for over the darkening hills came the note of a great horned owl, hoo – hoooo – hoo – hoooooooo — and an answering note much deeper and more resonant than the first, hoo – hooooo – hoo – hooooooooooo. Back and forth went the booming, haunting calls of Bufo virginianus, and with them went the fear of death to the cowering snowshoe hares in the alder swamps, to the budding partridge in the groves of aspen, to countless waiting birds and animals for miles around. That call was the most feared hunting call in the wild. It came again and again and for the moment I was far from the road, and trucks and civilization itself were forgotten. As I listened, a swift vision came to me of big timber and miles of wilderness, lonely valleys bathed in moonlight, rivers and lakeshores where there were still no sounds but those of the wild.
Then I was conscious of a sound as of a great wind coming out of the north, as though a storm was breaking over the country that might tear every tree from its roots, and at that moment the calling of the horned owls stopped. The sound of storm increased until it seemed as though it would engulf me and every living thing on earth. Blinding lights burst over the hill behind me and a hurricane of shrieking metal roared out of the night. Desperately, I sprang for the side of the road as an empty truck sped by. The interval was over.
Everywhere throughout the forested country of the mid-central states wind the almost forgotten trails of the loggers of the past, trails that now in many places are almost obliterated, grown over with grass and short brush, hemmed closely on either side by stands of second growth timber. But from the air these old roadways can still be seen lying like a soft grey spider web over the land.
Not long ago, I visited a new logging country where they are still taking out the logs by the old method of sleigh and team. It was a cold morning, 30 below, and I could hear the screeching of the steel runners as they sped over the iced trails down the hills to the streambeds.
I stood to one side and saw the horses with the steam rising above them, the lumberjack skinner sitting astride his dangerously swaying load. I heard his wild calls as he careened around a bend, wondered what would happen should a chain break and that tremendous pile of logs break loose, saw the arrival on the level flat below and the swift unloading at the landing.
All that went on all through the northern states some fifty to one hundred years ago and those old roadways are still in evidence, roadways for all those who wish to travel through the new woods country.
To the skiers, these roads are invaluable, for they mean that cross country trails can be found wherever they wish to go. I know several close to my home, beautiful trails that lead up and down the hills, through swamps and across the valleys, invariably picking the finest routes for travel and grades that are superb for slalom. I sometimes think as I come down some of those grandly winding trails from the ridges to the valley floors below that the old lumberjack swampers must have had skiing in mind when they cut them out. How else could they have gauged to such a nicety just how much room and speed you need to do a Christiana or a Telemark?
To the hunter for grouse or deer, they also mean much, for the partridge still come to them for gravel and for the succulent clover they need for greens. The deer too have learned that feeding is good along them, that they are convenient trails for travel, that on them they invariably find their way to water.
To the trout fisherman, those individuals who are always searching for the headwaters of streams, they are a godsend, for only by following the old logging roads can they reach the back country. What follower of the elusive speckled trout but who remembers long hikes through the dewy brush of some old tote road, and who hasn’t caught a good speckle beneath the timbers of some long-forgotten logging bridge spanning a creek?
We regret the passing of the big timber, but we do have the loggers to thank for a system of primitive forest roadways that gives us a chance to travel on foot, by snowshoe or skis through the hinterlands that otherwise would be closed and inaccessible.
The other day I met my old friend Wallace Kirkland, famed photographer of Life Magazine. Wallace was starting off on a wilderness trip, the first one for three years, for he had spent a lot of time on assignment in the far corners of the earth and was just back from Australia or Pago Pago or some outlandish place and was going up in the canoe country for a crack at the old stuff. For Wallace was an old canoe man, one of the few real cruisers who knew the Hudson’s Bay watershed and the Bay itself. Just as he was taking off he said, “Sig, you haven’t got a little pillow, have you? Just something to tuck under my ear. I can’t sleep like I should unless I have it.”
I looked at him unbelievingly and with great affection, for here was a man after my own heart. During my guiding days I had also had a little pillow, about ten by ten, full of the down from the breasts of wild ducks. I carried that little item of equipment over thousands of miles and as long as I had that tucked under my ear the rest of my body would go to sleep no matter how rough or rocky my bed. I had been laughed at time and again by other guides and chided by my parties who thought no real woodsman should give that much of a concession to comfort. But I also noticed that before a trip was over, they would be trying to get it away from me. And here a real cruiser, a man who had seen more of the wilderness than most men, was asking me for one.
I looked at him and in his eyes I saw understanding and appeal and in mine I know he saw the same plus sympathy, but I had lost my little pillow on some jaunt the year before and had nothing to give him. And then we started to talk about the great comfort in an ear pillow, how much it meant to a man’s peace of mind, how he could forget how cold and bad the weather was, or how damp his blankets were if he just had a pillow. We both agreed that all things being considered a little pillow about ten by ten inches full of the softest duck down was one of the finest bits of equipment a man could take along on any camping trip. For shirts, jumpers, sweaters don’t satisfy, don’t promote pleasant dreams like that handful of down. It doesn’t have to be big, doesn’t have to weigh more than an ounce or half an ounce, can be tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of a pack anywhere, but each night it is there waiting and that is enough to make anyone happy and contented.
Well Wallace went off without his pillow and I could almost see the tears in his eyes, and, knowing what he was going to miss, I felt for him. As he pulled out of the dock, I whispered to him, “Perhaps an owl or a merganzer — you know a rock and a food bag might do the trick.” He looked at me thankfully and I saw him scanning the horizon for wings.
I had walked up the hill the other night for a look at the sunset, and as I stood there steeping my soul in the long streamers of color, the blues and apple greens of background, I thought to myself that this was the sort of a scene Wallace Nutting would have liked, the silvery clumps of birches against the snow, the black rocks rising beside them, sumac twisted and dark against the stone pile, shadows in the valley below, pinnacled spruce on either side.
Yes, he would have made a grand picture out of that, for he loved the loved the New England setting, and if he could have seen what I saw then, the twinkling lights of a town as a background for it all, he surely would have gone to work to capture it forever.
I liked the work he did, the charm of the New England scene that he caught so many times, a charm that existed because men had stepped in and altered the country to their liking. They had taken the primitive and “rock bound coast” and through their occupancy had given it a warmth and beauty different from what it was before.
As I stood on my hilltop here in the middle west, I tried to picture the hills as they must have looked before the logging not fifty hears before. Then they were covered with dense and somber pine, great banks of it, a solid, mysterious wall against the sunset, catching the last gleams of light on the great reddish boles. Yes, that was a picture too, and a beautiful one in its way. But now, instead of a wall of pine, the country was open and bright with clumps of trees here and there. Through the interlacing branches of birch, I could see the white steeple of a church in the little town of the valley below. I could also see the warm reddish glow of neon lights and the cheery twinkle of bright windows, and I pondered which was best.
When the pine stood there, the country was new, harsh and primitive, and though there was a beauty it was often sinister and threatening.
But now as I looked at it I saw light and color and cheer, and I felt then that here man had somehow improved the landscape. By cutting the pine, he had made fields and pastures and meadows. The sunshine had come in and open space and now there were aspen and birch and maple and a new vista had taken the place of the old.
I have often bemoaned the passing of the primitive, for I have long been a lover of wilderness and its way of life, but standing there that night, looking at the fading sunset, I wondered if I was always right, if there wasn’t after all some justification for changing the picture if a new, a different beauty could take the place of the old.
In my heart I knew the answer, for the picture before me, the new vista, could not have been more charming, and had not men come in and occupied the old wilderness, it would have been lost forever.
It was ten below on New Year’s Day and I had gone to the country of my boyhood to get acquainted and to renew old associations. One of the things I knew I must see at once was the river, and though I knew it was frozen throughout most of its course, I also knew that where it ran beneath the old iron bridge, it was free. More than anything else, I wanted to see its water again, the bottom with its familiar stones, to listen to the gurgle as it rippled its way over them. Even though it would be sheathed in ice and the open water shrouded with mist, though there were no birds, no humming hatch of flies, no chance of sky reflections, I still wanted to see it, for the little river meant many things to me.
I hurried along the winter road and the road was beautiful with new snow and the pines along the borders of the fields were laden with it. Even the jack pines looked strange that morning beneath their heavy load, more like spruce trees than pines, but the grandest of all were the white pines with their branches drooping close to the snow, near to breaking with the weight of it.
In a few minutes I was at the bridge, and to my joy for a hundred yards the river was open, though crowded by ice above and below. Underneath me, the water was clear and transparent, more crystalline it seemed than ever. Bronze golden nuggets of gravel moved slowly in the sunlight and in between them danced tiny irridescent bits of shell, whirling in the swift undertow, settling for a moment, only to dance again. To one side was a large unbroken clam shell, the polished mother-of-pearl flashing as it also weaved in the current. The larger rocks held their position though the sands eddied impatiently around them. I could hear the soft rippling clearly now, but as an undertone was the constant swish of ice and slush drifting continually from the solid mass above to that below trying, it seemed, to close completely what open water remained.
How alive the river was in this last open space beneath the bridge. Elsewhere it was dead, but here it was as alive as an open wound, alive and full of sound and movement, and I thought as I stood there and watched it that someday I would fulfill my dream and build a house where I could always be near it, close enough so that I could make that perennial aliveness a part of myself, so that when my mind was weary with thinking and my body of work, I could come down to the rapids and watch it and absorb some of its virility and joy.
As I walked away from the river and the swishing of the ice blended at last with the sound of the drifting snow beside the road, I was glad I came, for it did me good to know that it was free beneath the bridge. Somehow, it made me feel that the year was getting off to a good start, that there was much to look forward to, that simple things which had given happiness in the past were unchangeable and true. I went back to the farm house, back to the snow laden pines and the windswept fields I had left.
Yesterday, poking through the rice of Back Bay, flushing mallard and teal and bluebills, the thought came to me that all I wanted out of life was to be left alone somewhere on a point, watching the ducks come in. Alone is what appealed to me, not hunting with a gang. There is something to being on your own, whether in a blind, trout fishing or canoeing. Alone you get close to nature, you can listen, think, feel yourself a part of the water, at one with the trees and grasses, a part of the whole eternal picture. I think this is what many men seek but never find, the sense of being an intimate part of anything they do. So much of a man’s time is spent being a good fellow, trying to be sociable, competing with others, that he does not find the real answer.
This spring in a hole of the Manito River, when the trout were rising, I had that feeling. In the water to my boot tops, the trout rising steadily and savagely for flies, birds singing, flies humming, Burns up the creek ahead, there was nothing to distract me from the pleasure before me. Then, for half an hour, I knew what it was to feel a part of the picture. There I knew was the answer to all my striving, all the longing that had been mine. There was no one there to cheer me on, to yell encouragement when trying to land a pound trout. I didn’t need that, I was content.
I had the same feeling one day in the old mallard hole on Basswood. Alone, watching them wing in to my blind, the whole show mine alone. I brought down five beautiful birds that day, had the time of my life. I was on my own.
I have seen the same thing deer hunting, trailing some big buck up hill and down, watching for the final flash of tail that would mean a shot. Then the final moment. Such a moment was mine one afternoon north of Fall Lake, trailing a deer across a little creek bottom. It was wild, mysterious, camp was far away and here I was alone on the trail. When I jumped that buck and fired away as he bounded across the dried swale into the hills, even though I missed him clean the feeling was there.
I think that here is so much of what a man seeks, here so much the answer of what he needs to give himself contentment that he should try and find more frequently ways of satisfying his need. Once he senses that feeling of utter familiarity, of complete attunement, then he has gone a long way toward counteracting the bleakness of civilized living. We are not so far removed as yet, but what we must satisfy often the urge to be alone, to be a part of our surroundings, of being at one with the earth and sky and water. Here is real satisfaction, here fulfillment of the constant hunger of men for the past and primitive.
I was browsing through the Buffalo Bill museum in Cody one warm summer afternoon a few years ago, enjoying myself, looking over the relics of days long passed and now seemingly improbable. Like so many museum things, they did not seem real any longer, they seemed like artifacts that had never been used. Then over on a wall I saw something that caught my eye; it was a silhouette of a cowpuncher astride his horse, looking over the range. Just a cowpuncher, in black and white, looking over his own familiar country. Most people coming through gave it no more than an occasional glance, spent much more time with the saddles and spurs and Indian relics than bothering with a silhouette of some obscure artist.
But that sketch caught my eye, caught more than that, it caught my imagination, for in it I saw the meaning of the whole West, the mystery and charm of the real country. Here was the feeling that most were missing. That lone cowpuncher typified for me the feeling of men for the open and a life of freedom, the feeling of a man for horseflesh, and smell of leather, the aroma of sagebrush and feeding cattle on a summer night. That man was part of the picture. He typified the real West, the part of the West that tourists never see. Here was reality, here was what a man might find if he lived on the range, learned to love the life, got the feel of it. Here was the real West, not a dessicated museum relic, not just a part of the life that was.
A little later, I was driving through the little cow town of Buffalo, Wyoming. Suddenly I heard a clatter, and down the center of the street came a horse and rider, a cowpuncher fresh from the range, covered with dust, no fancy chaps, no fancy sombrero, just an ordinary cowpuncher taking perhaps a shortcut through town. He rode erect, his horse stepping high, unconscious of the automobile traffic and as foreign to it as the silhouette I had just seen. Here was that same cowpuncher in life. Here was what I had thought of when first I saw the picture. Here again was the real West. And then it occurred to me that as a tourist I could never be a part of it, that unless I came to live and be a part of it I could never hope to achieve that kind of oneness with the country. My home was in the north, there I could be a real part of the life, but not here. That would take time and much living.
Roaring along at three thousand feet, it seemed to me that until then I had travelled like a mole, burrowing through the timber and brush of portages, creeping slowly down the rivers and over wind-roughened lakes, my vision a mole’s vision limited by trees and rocks and rushes with never a vista of more than a mile or two. But now for the first time I saw it as a whole, the wilderness lake country I had explored in the past. From this height I saw it as a hawk might see it, the blue and green lacework of sprawling lakes and their connecting rivers, the level green lawns of muskeg and the tufted roughness of spruce and pine on the uplands. This was new and exciting, different from the close, intimate years when I had known the intricate maze of canoe trails as a mole in its near blindness might know the turnings of its own runways in the turf.
To the east lay Gabemichigami, my destination, to the south, the white, brawling Kawishowa, to the north, the dark virgin timber of the Quetico, behind me, twenty hurtling, noise-packed minutes, the pavements of the town I had left. The entire country seemed to be in flood, the network of interminable waterways running one into the other, filling all the valleys with their blue and green, every sunken spot between the hills.
I glanced at the map and saw that just ahead was Gabemichigami, a tremendous gash between two steep ridges. The plane banked, circled, and then like the hawk it was dropped to its kill, spiralling downward until it swooped close over the reaching tops of the pine trees. It side-slipped between the towering shores and in a moment the pontoons were slapping the water and the plane nosed gently toward shore.
The pilot threw out my pack and I scrambled along the pontoon and jumped for the landing. A farewell push and the wings turned toward the open lake once more. The engine roared and the plane moved out in a cloud of spray. A minute later and it was in the air over the ridges, heading back toward town. I glanced at my watch. Thirty minutes since we had left and here I was alone, deep in the heart of the wilderness, at a point that normally would have taken five days of hard travel by portage and canoe.
After the quiet had come again, I looked around me, found my old campsite, just as I had left it a year ago. The balsam boughs were dry and withered over my bed and the pothooks still in place over the fire. There was the same little creek tumbling down from the rocks in its escape from Little Saganaga to the east, there the same swirling pool with its trout. I had dreamed of this spot, of being here all alone for just a day, of taking one of the beautiful brown trout below the riffles, of enjoying the old wilderness I had known, and here, to my utter amazement, the dream had come true.
At first I couldn’t realize the change, so violent had it been. Formerly, with days of travel behind me, by the time I had reached this spot on the map the country had had a chance to soak in and become a part of me, but as I stood there listening to the far drone of the plane I knew I was still a part of the environment I had left and that it would take time for the old feeling of wilderness to come.
I strolled back over the portage to the dead water above the rapids, sat there a long time trying to recapture the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment I had known the last time in, but all that came to me was the violent, throbbing reaction to my flight and a jumble made up of the many things I had done in the last hour of preparation.
In many parts of the country, pine knots are known as fat wood, because of their great amount of resin and their ability to burn with a bright and colorful flame. Resin or fat, whichever it may be, it is the essence of that strange alchemy by which plants and animals are able to concentrate their energies. Both are heat producing, both concentrated forms of the same elements, both gratifying and necessary to man.
What a joy is fat wood to the woodsman when the earth has been submerged for weeks in wetness. He knows that when a fire is needed all he has to do is find a pine knot, or wood close to a knot and he will have tinder dry as a bone and ready to flar into immediate flame. For resin is impervious to moisture and can stand exposure to the elements without giving up its character. Once wood fibre has been impregnated with it, it is practically indestructible.
Wood well filled with the fatty stuff of plants is always the last to go and wherever a great log has lain one can still find the knots, hard and sound and heavy as stone because of the concentration of resin within them. These knots will burn like torches, hold their flame as though unwilling to squander quickly what has been so long within them.
In the fall, I like to gather these blackened old nuggets of energy so that I have a good supply for the long winter evenings ahead. They are far too precious to burn often, and only on special occasions, when a fine bed of coals has formed and friends are sitting around talking and laughing in its glow, do I bring one in, push it carefully into the waiting embers.
For a moment it lays there quietly, licked and caressed by the exploring tongues of flame, and then it begins to burn, the yellows, blues and greens, and reds of burning resin, the accumulated sunlight of bygone days, shining there before us. We watch it burn with pleasure for the burning is so rich and full of energy. In that black and flaming knot burns the stuff of amber, and, had it grown in a different clime, it might have someday been too precious for common use.
There is something primitive and satisfying about pine knots, or resinous wood of any type. Coal is as natural perhaps, and so is gas, but to me it is not as primitive and close to home as the fatty wood itself. We know the trees and how they grow, and what we understand and have lived with always gives the greatest satisfaction. We have seen how the knots form, how where the branches leave the main trunk the vessels for the passing of sap and resin are bent. How because of the bending, the flow of resin is dammed, how through the years of a tree’s growth the impregnation continues until at such a spot the wood fibre and the spaces within it are filled to bursting with the golden fluid.
When a tree decays, these areas of concentration, these pockets of energy remain intact, seem able to resist the agencies of oxidation for centuries. Though a great log may crumble into dust and new trees grown in the resultant humus, the knots remain long after, a mine of energy and richness for those who know their worth.
The seasons were over, the lakes and rivers frozen solid, the ducks far on their way to the south. The pheasants, the quail, the hungarians and all upland game were feeding on the sunny sides of windrows and in the swales. Rabbit hunting, deer hunting, everything was over, just nothing to do but get out and move around and remember.
But this time of the year has its compensations, too–these days when there is nothing much to do in the way of fishing and hunting are the days when you can do the thousand and one things that before you were entirely too busy to even think about.
And so I found myself at the old duck hunting cabin in mid-January, a day when snow was piling up against the windward side and the temperature well down. And even though there was nothing much to do, I looked forward to just puttering around, straightening things out that had long been neglected.
I found the decoys in a sack underneath the eaves. They were frozen solid with ice and lay just where we had thrown them that last wild night before the freezeup.
I took the old blocks inside, started a big fire and began to thaw them out, untangled the strings that were frozen and heavy with ice when we had last taken them up, checked the weights, and when they were dry I rewound them and set them on their shelf where they could look down on us the rest of the year.
It was sort of fun handling those old decoys and remembering where they had been and the shooting we had seen over them, and it seemed good to be able to put them away for another year.
The squirrels, I noticed, had discovered a way into the cabin, a little hole under the southwest corner of the eaves. They had worked their way in a good many times and had a good trail running over from a bunch of jackpine. They had been in the bread box and other places and had sampled everything, including a bit of Ivory Soap. The deer mice had also come in and had a nest under the bunk.
I liked to see them, to know that they too had been enjoying the old cabin. During the hunting seasons we didn’t have time to visit with them or pay them any attention, but now they seemed important, were a part of the sensation of rest and relaxation of the months ahead.
I went out behind the cabin and found a big log there that we hadn’t had time to touch, but now I sawed away slowly and soon had it cut into convenient stove lengths. Soon the box inside was full as well as the space under the south eaves. It was fun working away with nothing more important to do than just that, no deadline of darkness or shooting time to drive me on.
When I was through with the log and had the last chunk split up the way I wanted it, I went inside and cooked dinner, cooked it leisurely and ate it the same way, then settled down on the bunk to read for an hour before going outside, and as I lay there reading slowly and leisurely in the warmth of the barrel stove I wondered if this after all wasn’t a sort of dessert to the main course of the seasons just past, if by neglecting these puttering days I had not actually lost more than I knew.
It was one of those days that duck hunters dread, a quiet, drowsy sort of day, the horizon blue with haze, not a cloud in the sky or a ripple on the water and the rice golden as a field of ripe wheat. Behind the blind, I could hear the soft chirrupings of wrens and chickadees, the lazy drones of insects, for the day was warm and summery as August.
I stood watching the horizon in a doze, a vague golden horizon bejewelled with clumps of yellowing aspen and flaming maple, marvelling how all the colors seemed to fuse one into the other, wondering what would happen should I actually see a flutter of wings.
Gradually I became conscious of a movement far overhead, saw with a corner of my vision the broad black wingspread of a raven, watched it for a time with no apparent consciousness, its lazy, graceful drifting flight.
Though there was not a breath of wind below, the bird seemed to coast unseen air currents, taking advantage of high breezes that did not reach the surface of the earth. Hundreds of feet in long, clean sweeps and interminable spirals up and down, head turning, watching the blue-gold surface of the bay.
Then I knew that it was watching me, that in the back of its mind, it must be hoping that something might happen to the creature far below on the shoreline, hoping that it might have the opportunity of ridding the shore of the resulting offal should fate suddenly strike me low.
Closer and closer came the great bird, watching intently to see if I moved. Suddenly, it spiralled downward, and with a swift circling glide lit in a small pine tree just behind and proceeded to vent its disgust in the most raucous language imaginable, for I was, he found out, very much alive and perhaps exceedingly dangerous.
For a moment it sat there in glistening black, eyeing me deperately. Then, with a great beating of pinions, he took again to the air and disappeared to the south. I thought of the story of Elijah and the ravens and how they appeared to him in the wilderness, and I thought of the time a flock of them followed me down a lake when the ice was softening in the spring and how I saw them circling and went to shore just in time to escape skiing into a treacherous narrows. I thought of Poe and his raven, of the place it has made for itself in our literature. I thought too of the fascination it has to all men who know it, the beauty of its flight, grace itself when soaring high in the heavens, its voice that for sheer ugliness and discord had perhaps no equal on earth.
But I knew that nature always balances perfection of one kind with ugliness of another, that she never quite makes the error of achieving perfection.
I saw the raven once more far over the horizon, just a flash of wings as it turned against the sun. Then he was gone in the haze and I was alone once more.
Two young friends of mine were sitting across the campfire talking to me about life and war and hopes for the future. There were seventeen, going on eighteen, and already the army had taken their measure. This was the last year at home, the last year of doing what they wanted to do, their last year of the old freedoms for a while, and naturally they were thinking of many things.
“Do you know,” said one of them, “I wonder how it would feel to go flying over a town and dropping bombs on people you have never seen?”
“I don’t know,” answered the other, “but I imagine it would be much like reading about an accident somewhere a long ways off that happened to people you’ve never heard about.”
And that, I thought, was as good an answer as could be given to the question of impersonal destruction that now is so big a part of modern warfare. Then they began talking about the idea of hating Germany and Japan and I saw in their eyes the same feeling I have seen in the eyes of countless other young fellows going to war. There was no hatred there, no particular resentment or fury, for the war had not touched their homes, or many of their friends and acquaintances as yet. To them it was still big and impersonal. If cities had to be destroyed, if innocent civilians had to be sacrificed, then it was simply a part of a job to be done to make the world a decent place to live in.
And I hoped as I sat there listening to these two youngsters talk that they would never lose the simplicity of their belief, that they would never have to learn to hate as individuals, that they would hate only wrong and evil, would fight only injustice and cruelty, that ideas would be their enemies, not people.
The fire was dying and the stars above were brilliant. Orion was at his best and the Pleiades and Cassiopea and the Great Dipper shone as they only can shine over the woods where there is no dust to fog your vision. The boys lay on their backs watching the heavens and thinking great thoughts and it was then I told them of an idea of mine that explained the relationship of all life. I told them that the same life that flows in a man’s veins flows also in leaves and flowers, that the substance called protoplasm was identical no matter what type of cell sheltered it, that all life was related and possibly started from some central source of creation, that animals, plants or men, Japanese, Germans, Chinese or Americans were all driven by the same primordial force, that underneath there was no difference.
The only difference between men, I told them finally, was the difference in ideas, that wars were always the result of the growth of wrong ways of thinking and evil ideals.
“Ideas!” said one of the boys, sitting bolt upright. “That is what we are fighting about. That is what I wanted to know.”
He lay back once more and looked at the stars and I knew his young soul was abrim with new understanding and peace.
The snow was melting fast and I thought as I came out of the cabin that I smelled something very familiar in the spring air, the unmistakeable and decided tang of skunk. I stood and sniffed the air until I was sure, for it was still rather early for them to be abroad, and then went out for a survey to see which of the tribe had had the courage to break the long hibernation.
I hadn’t gone far before I found a deep, well-beaten trail coming from beneath a pile of old logs, laying where the grass had been deep and still covered with a good drift of snow. The trail led from a sort of burrow going under one end toward a swamp nearby where I knew there were plenty of meadow mice and other things that might be of interest to an animal that hadn’t eaten a good meal for months.
I could see by the trail that the skunk had made the trip from its hideout to the swamp many times, for the runway was well trampled. No doubt the warm nights and the warmer days had had their effect and that hibernation was probably over. On one of his first trips out, when still on edge and nervous, something had frightened him, perhaps the hooting of a horned owl, or a branch creaking back in the woods, just enough for the warning protective odor to be released.
I met a farm boy last fall out digging skunks, so he said. “Easy to get ’em out, before the ground is froze,” he confided to me. “Get a dollar, sometimes three or four if they’re good and black and haven’t got too big a white stripe.”
He had a dog along, who helped him locate the dens, a dog that was no doubt skunk-wise and had finished off a good many. I watched that boy go off down the edge of a field, thought of how many farm boys throughout the country earn themselves a little extra money, thanks to the common skunk.
For the skunk is a prolific chap, has a wide distribution, seems to thrive close to civilization and to hold its own in spite of constant trapping. Great numbers of pelts reach the markets each year, from 75,000 to 125,000 on the average, and most of them caught by farm boys rather than professional trappers.
The fur is durable and beautiful, the best pelts the darkest with a minimum of white. It is used for short jackets and trip and before the war figured largely in the European export trade.
For a very obvious reason, the skunk is not a good pet and possibly will not be one even though it can be deodorized. Neither are they very successful in the fur farming game, so chances are they will play a part in the farm boy income for some time to come.
The skunk will eat almost anything, is insectivorous, will hunt and eat turtle eggs, most anything it can find in the way of food.
And strangely enough, I actually do like the smell of a skunk. The strong musky odor in the air of a spring night is something primitive and virile and I almost said beautiful. But it does bring back memories, for whoever has smelled the skunk can never forget it or the visions of misty meadows in the spring darkness, damp trails and logging roads and country lanes that seem inseparably a part of it.
The trapper’s cabin on Snowbank Lake wasn’t much to look at from the standpoint of construction and architecture, for the logs were unpeeled and roughly chinked, there was no floor and only one small window, but in the light of artistry and atmosphere, it was a dream the way it faded into the tall black spruce of its background. That cabin hadn’t been built for tourists or show. If it had been, it would have been on the lake shore where people could see it, instead of back from the water’s edge in a dense jungle of spruce. It was built for only one purpose: to give shelter at the end of a long day on the trap line with the temperature down to forty below.
The cabin was small even as cabins go in the north country, just big enough for a man and his equipment, a bunk, a table, a stove in the corner, pegs for clothes and packs. That was all, but it was clean and smelled of balsam from the bed, and at night, when the trees cracked with the frost and the north wind whipped the unprotected shore, it was cozy and warm.
The roof was low with the rafters far out from the eaves as though the builder had forgotten to trim them. It gave the effect of the cabin merging with its surroundings, of squatting low beneath the trees, of being as much a part of the forest floor as a moss-covered boulder or an ancient hummock cushioned with duff. Only a few spruce had been cut for logs, and with the passing years the gap that was made filled in with growth until there was no perceptible break between the spreading roof and the low-lying brances of the trees.
But there were other reasons I liked the Snowbank cabin, and one of these was the feeling it gave me of coming down to earth and getting at the real and elemental business of living. Here all sham and superfluity disappeared and I felt as Thoreau did when he said, “Drive life into a corner and reduce it to its simplest terms.” This was no spot for fancy or unnecessary equipment, this was a place for moccasins, buckskin and homespun wool. Nor was this a place for fancy thoughts, for here life was simple and complete and thoughts evolved about the primitive things one had to do in the woods, not with the complicated problems of society. If there was time at the close of day, thoughts sometimes merged with the close-standing spruces and one was conscious only of a communion with them and the wilderness of which they were a part.
I liked to lie on the balsam bunk in the corner and look up at the hewn rafters, at the deer mouse nest in the corner, at the lichens and fungi of various kinds that had taken hold on the shady side. I liked to watch the hole in the corner where a red squirrel sometimes came in to look for crumbs on the table, but most of all, I liked to lie there and listen to the spruces and the way they rubbed against the walls. Somehow, it gave me a sense of security and peace and belonging, for then I too seemed to fit into the background of the cabin on Snowbank Lake.
About the time when the leaves are all gone and the fields are bare and brown, the snowbirds drift in as softly as though their flight was part of the coming snow itself. They come without warning. One day the fields are barren of life and of a sudden the sere brown stretches seem to lift and life is again among them.
Beautiful birds, these snow buntings with their white flash of wings, their fawn-marked sides and backs, but more delightful than anything else is their ability to take to the air. No effort here whatever, a whole flock taking wing in the most perfect unison imaginable, as though in obeyance to a signal. And then again, after a careening swoop and circling over the ground, they alight as softly as the element for which they are named.
Once I saw a flock of them fly into a patch of tall weeds, bounce their bodies against the dry, brittle, seed-laden stalks, circle once and then drop down to feed on the harvest spread out before them on the crust. When the seeds from this first assault were gone, they took to the air again in mass formation, banked swiftly and once more struch the hedge of weeds. Time and again they did this until the seed pods were empty of their treasure and only then did the birds move on to other pastures.
Many times, I have stood in a duck blind watching the skyline for a sign of wings and suddenly become aware of the flashing flight of the buntings, mistaken them at first for bluebills or buffleheads above the rice and then, without warning, found them on the shore before me feeding on the washed up seeds of sedge on the shallow flats.
And always it has been the same, the feeling of surprise, their almost uncanny way of drifting out of the sky without announcement. No matter how often it happens, they never cease to thrill me, not only because of the way they come in or because they are beautiful and lend a note of color to a landscape rapidly growing drab, but because I have come to expect them as a part of the picture of transition between the late days of autumn and the early ones of coming winter.
Just before the coming of the first real blizzards, they are gone, as swiftly and as silently as they came in, taking with them a certain lightheartedness and joy from the landscape. To me, their cheerful twittering, their airy drifting over the fields and lakeshores seems to be a last gesture of life and gaiety before the onslaught of the cold. I like to see them come in out of the north, and I hate to seem them go, these buntings, forerunners of the drifting snows.
Last night on the road to Tower, the woods were in first bud and the afternoon after a week of rain was light with newness and freshness. On the roadside were the reddish rust of new maple leaves, the old rose of wing petals of the seeds already fast forming and in with them were the new shiny leaves of Balm of Gilead and the pearl gray of the large tooth aspen.
It was the aspen and the maple that made the striking combination. For I thought of the south with its dogwood and red bud, the striking combinations of red and white that cover the hillsides in the spring, and as I went along I felt badly because there was nothing like that here in the north. But as I saw the pearl gray of the aspen, great masses of it on the hillsides, and then against it the soft rose of the maples both in the leaf and in the bud, and I knew then that in its way it was as beautiful–perhaps not as lasting, but in its briefness more beautiful–as the other, and I was vindicated again in my belief that nothing there but can be duplicated in a finer way here in the north.
And I also knew that beauty is always there for the finding if we know what to look for. I saw a clump of plum blossoms, snowy white, peaking out from a dense hedge of balsam, silhouetted perfectly against the dark green of the evergreen. There were also great masses of bloom on the hillsides, masses backed by the nile green of the aspen, quaking aspen coming into full leaf, so much bloom that the whole world seemed decked for the festival of spring.
The ash still brooded cold in their swamps–they would wait until all the hilarity was over before overcoming their reticence.
But all the rest of the woods were out–even a scrub oak in rusty leaf, and long catkins from the alders and cottonwoods, the woods dripping in pollen and freshness. That was what I remembered most, the freshness, the feeling as though the world was made anew, as though for a moment it was the incarnation of youth. A bank of old pines gave a note of permanence and solidity while all around them was the newness of spring and surging life.
For a moment, all thought of war was forgotten, and I knew that no matter what happened here or there, spring would always come to the north in the same way, today and a hundred years from today, and men would always get pleasure from its coming.
“Wild as a March hare,” has long typified the spirit of the month when winds seem to have lost their anchors and the very air has a feeling of expectancy and excitement. Whoever first hinted that the hares in March were wild, knew something of the feelings of all living things during that period of transition between the cold of winter and the warm breezes of spring.
“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” is another of those sayings that all remember and accept as the truth. But March does not always ring true to form and while in most years the winds are abnormally strong, there are times when even from the first they are full of the presage of things to come and soft as the winds of May.
And when Shakespeare said “Beware the Ides of March,” I have a feeling that he knew, too, that he picked a time of uncertainty when most anything might happen, for the downfall of Caesar.
No doubt there are many more sayings of a proverbial slant that betray the character of the month of March, but the one I like best is the first—”Wild as a March hare”—for that seems to indicate the stirring of new life that all things know.
It means that winter is over, that spring is just around the corner, that the sap is beginning to run, that buds are swelling, wild flowers beginning to poke through the mold and duff, that a rejuvenation is in the making and that a thousand things are happening underground that for six long months or more were dead and forgotten.
No wonder the March hares are wild and that they race before the great blustery winds of spring. For surely all of this is enough to turn the heads of much saner folk, let alone the hares. In all creation there is nothing more exhilarating that this rebirth of life and surely there can be nothing more exciting than to be in the open when a gale has a tang of the south in it that seems to be unlocking all the doors of nature.
All life, animals of the wild and men as well, is stirred powerfully by the March winds. Then we feel the need to get into the open at all costs, to travel far and wide and, if nothing else, at least feel the ground under our feet.
So when a day comes along, as it surely will, or a night perhaps when the moon is full and the March winds are whooping it up, take to the open country, hike through the fields and woods, follow the roads and trails away from all the main highways. And if there are no side roads, follow the main arterials themselves, for even there you will feel the surge in the March winds.
You will return with a new feeling, a sensation of having been cleaned and refreshed, and perhaps if you are lucky you might capture some of that elusive insanity and wildness that a winter in town has all but erased from your memory.
The old pine stood near the shore of a wilderness lake. It was old even as pines go in this country, perhaps 300, even 350 years old. It was gnarled and twisted, showed punk knots further up and the scars of fire at the base, but the foliage was heavy and fine and the wind murmurred through its branches and the kinglets and chickadees found refuge there.
“No place for a tree like that in a growing forest,” said the man. “Old trees like that are over ripe, and should be cut to make room for young stuff underneath. Even the seeds are not as good as they should be, and the decay inside–did you notice? It must be a veritable nest for fungus and beetles and borers of all kinds. This sort of tree is dangerous. It ought to come out. People don’t get any more pleasure out of such a tree than a bunch of healthy saplings.
“This is what we call improvement of shoreline timber,” he added, and with his axe he cut a clean white chip to mark it for the logger’s saw.
I tried to argue, but the words stuck in my throat. I tried to tell him that this tree was worth far more just as a landmark than as timber, even though the punk was eating out its heart and it was marked by fire and furnished a breeding place for fungus and grubs. I tried to say that trees centuries old had a value far greater than anyone could possibly estimate, but my arguments seemed empty and weak against the scientific viewpoint of my friend. I was merely old-fashioned and sentimental about these things and knew nothing about modern forestry practices.
I went away saddened by what I had heard, but knew that there were many others who felt as I, who valued a tree not by what it might bring on the market, or what its effect might be on surrounding growth, but rather by their feelings toward it and the associations they had made; that certain trees have an emotional value far in excess of any other consideration.
And knowing that I was not alone I was glad, because I knew that some day and soon, people who loved trees and understood them would make themselves heard, that someday a great shout would go across the land to save forever these ancient landmarks which through many generations have woven themselves into the life of a countryside and into the hearts ot those who have known them.