Funny, the books I’m reading this weekend are affirming each other. I suppose this means nothing more than I have consistent taste. I’m now reading The Sound of Mountain Water by Wallace Stegner. He writes about the value of wilderness as more than just a place to hike, ski, photograph, raft, or play. He writes about the value of the idea of wilderness.
Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character of a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there–important, that is, simply as an idea.
Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water pp. 146-7
Over the last few weeks, the importance of Gillies Lake to my family has been brought home to me. Our cabin up north has shaped my life. I chose to move back to Michigan from the East Coast and chose not to move to the West Coast because both coasts were too far from it.
This summer, I watched the next generation play the way we had as kids up there–connecting to each other and connecting to the place. A cohort of cousins ran around, playing in the water, in the hammocks, on the beach, and attaching to each other and to the limestone, cedars, terns, gulls, loons, kingfishers, cormorants, herons, and sunsets up here on the Bruce Peninsula. When my 4-year-old nephew returned to Atlanta after basking in the lake breezes, playing in the water, enjoying the attention of family of all ages, he told my sister, his mom,
“I want to go to the cabin and stay forever”
and then he asked
“Mommy, why did we leave?”
My niece Avery waits patiently all year for her one week at the cabin, swimming all day each day, and then crying when she leaves. I see the magic of this place affecting another generation of Greilings.
I have been thinking about what it is that cements our family to this place, whether it is the white cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, the beauty of the clear waters of Georgian Bay, the sunsets over Gillies Lake, the fact we still encounter bear on the roads and trails now and then, or whether it is simply the shared family time, the stories and the experiences that we have shared here. I suppose it is all of these things.
Paraphrasing Stegner, I could say that the peace we have found here on Gillies Lake is the lodestone on which our family character was formed. I have had some perilous moments here–getting lost in the winter woods, getting lost in the summer woods, driving my boyfriend (now husband) to the hospital after he accidentally stuck a knife into his hand, seeing my cousin dive into a rock, running my father’s car into a bear (the impact was pretty low speed. The bear rolled, scratched his great clawed paws against the pavement to right himself, and then kept running. Amazing). But most of my moments here have been peaceful rather than challenging or dangerous. Maybe that is the difference between the north woods and Stegner’s West, or maybe the times we live in, or maybe our characters. I’m no risk taker.
Here I find some of the silence Stegner writes about in the West. I experience silence walking for hours without encountering another person on a trail, looking down the bluff to see only a lone kayaker and a few cormorants in a wide bay, hearing the sharp winter wind roaring across an empty, frozen lake. Here I experience connection to the larger world–the electric buzz of a hummingbird in the cedar boughs, the scolding I get from the merlin, the quick wheel and dive of the tern on its rounds.
As Stegner says, even the idea of this place makes me more sane. My family and the friends we’ve brought here have the same experience. This is a good thing.
Even when I can’t get to the back country, the thought of the colored deserts of southern Utah, or the reassurance that there are still stretches of prairie where the world can be instantaneously perceived as disk and bowl, and where the little but intensely important human being is exposed to the five directions and the thirty-six winds, is a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me.
Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water p. 150