Solace, Solstice and Sophie
“The sun is but a morning star.”
— Henry David Thoreau (the last sentence of Walden)
Drum roll please, for the final solstice of this second decade of these still-infant two-thousands, tonight at 0419 UTC. As we head round the far turn of our annual orbit, this past six months the darkening half-lap in this hemisphere, I am taking my solstice solace in the coming light, and in mystery.
Our touted “brave new world” does on some good days still strike me as truly brave. It always has, and I hope it always will. Living where I do I seem able to find bravery, or some decent allegory for it, without too much effort, almost anytime I need to. There is abundant courage out here in the outback — not in me personally, I hasten to add – but among the finned and feathered and furry and leafy ones. In that realm perhaps it should be called something else, but bravery is such a great word. And there is no shortage of it, or something akin to it, out amongst the critters.
When it comes to humanity, though, the bravery I can discern these days is mostly on the personal level. I take inspiration from brave people doing brave things as they live their lives, get through their days, and play the cards they’ve been dealt as best they can. On a level of society and empire and civilization, though, it is cowardice that has carried the decade. We dither and forestall, postpone and deny, prevaricate and hedge. We spend too much time and energy and verbosity splitting ourselves up and building walls and looking backward, obsequious and apologetic, nasty and arrogant, when we could be picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, shaking hands and peeling off our insignia and labels, and looking forward. Has it always been thus? Not sure, can’t say, wasn’t there.
It’s been a long decade, these twenty-tens. Longer even, in many ways, than the ominous opening stanza of the millenium that got underway almost as soon as the celebratory fireworks had stopped sparkling across the sky. And now it’s farewell to the teens, and bring on the twenty-twenties. (Would it be too corny to ask whether our collective human vision might improve to 20-20 in the twenty-twenties? Yep. It would be corny, and naïve to boot.)
Enough of this. I am not a very good pundit, and this monthly post from McLeod Bay is not written as some sort of half-baked opinion piece, so I will now push the tiller hard over and steer away from that tack.
As I move through my days, up and down, weary and energized, inspired and not, living this odd life out here on this burned-over shoreline in a remarkably uncrowded corner of this seriously overcrowded planet, it is not only the examples of courage that I look to for my inspiration, but examples of utter mystery. Awash in so much confident information, booming cocksure and certain from every quarter, over the radio and across the screen and the page, it is the unknowns, the utterly un-know-ables, that fire my imagination.
There is still plenty of downright mystery in the world. Ask any honest (preferably an older and lifelong) scientist. Ask anyone who has pulled their head out of their tiny little world of easy answers and explanations, and stood for a quiet moment looking up, or out, or in. There are still plenty of things happening around us for which we have absolutely no explanation. Mysteries.
On this Solstice I am taking solace in my personal list of mysteries from this past decade. Including these, listed below – the “short list” in the final draw.
- Who cut that straight line of blazes back through the woods west of the river, forty or fifty years ago? And who left that birchbark canoe in Yearling Bay, and who abandoned the ancient double-barrel percussion cap rifle we once found on the north Twin Island, its one hammer still pulled back, the other down?
- What was the enormous force or pressure or wave that lifted from below and shattered a solid half-acre of shorefast ice, over in Gyrfalcon Cove on the tenth of December 2016? Whatever it was, that force peeled a couple of dozen two-ton blocks of twenty-inch-thick ice right up off the clay bottom and scattered and flipped them like huge cold dice, and it did this in five or six other places up and down the shore of a completely frozen McLeod Bay, all at once.
- When will the caribou commence their natural resurgence, swing through this downturn like the earth swings through its solstices, and start increasing again as the Porcupine herd has done, and as caribou have done again and again over these past tens of thousands of years? Or will they? (They will. I saw some things this autumn, flying alone up north, and that is all I am going to say about that.)
- Where did a rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) come from, in August of 2017, to hover and buzz in front of a bright yellow life-vest that was hung to dry in the morning sun on the south wall of the workshop? Where did it go when it departed from here, a solid 450 miles from the nearest limit of even its “rare” range, a tiny beautiful whirring vision of color and delicacy three feet from my face. And while we’re at it, where will the twenty-year southward march of these ever-increasing muskox herds, now happily at home clear down into the jackpine and aspen forest a hundred miles south of treeline, come to its limit?
- How do fish know what the weather is like up above the water, in the sky and the air, and beyond a layer of solid ice, and how does the lichen reclaim a burned cliff-face of clean white and pink rock and how do wood frogs freeze solid in a layer of fifty-below-zero mud and emerge to hop and feed and breed on a hot July afternoon the very next year, and how do minnows get into a completely landlocked high lake… and, and, and?
As a real show-stopper, anytime and anywhere, and covering all the categories of when and how and what and why and where and who, there is always my old fallback. Just a dark sky chockfull of bright stars on a clear night. I can stand and look up for a few moments and ponder, and I always manage to come up with something eloquent to say, such as “Hmm.” (Long pause.) “Huh.”
And here’s the kicker, for the decade now done, in my own Mysterious Anecdote category. The envelope please.
Our old lead dog Sophie, littermate to Ernie, was in her sixteenth year and failing fast on a bitterly cold night in the final days of December 2015. She was a very shy and wolfish dog who only once in her life, in our collective memory, had ever asked to come into the house. She had been with us in the workshop overnight though, because our daughters had carried her in from the barn at dusk. She was unable to walk. She spent a restless night in a makeshift bed on the floor by the woodstove, and the next day at dawn twilight, at forty-something below zero, she stood up and walked to the door and clearly asked to be let out. I opened the door, and out she went into the morning. In her condition, at that temperature, we did not think she would or could go far, and after a few minutes I went to let her in. She was gone, and at first we could not find her. Her tracks led east, up from the beach and along the summer trail toward the river. The snow there was soft and deep and she was plowing through it breaking trail.
Kristen found her, lying dead and facing east, just as the 1980’s-era Iditarod musher, author Gary Paulsen, claimed that dying dogs and wolves will always do, if allowed to choose their final lie-down unfettered and unrestrained. Face the east, face the rising sun, face the new day.
Well, well. As one of my grandfathers used to say, “put that one in your pipe and smoke it.”
Happy Solstice all.