North Woods of Minnesota
North Woods of Minnesota
Have you ever been to the North Woods of Minnesota way up by the Canadian border in Quetico-Superior Wilderness Area? No? Neither have I, but perhaps I have, vicariously, that is, through the writings of Sigurd Olson. One book in particular is The Singing Wilderness published originally in 1956 (Alfred J.Knopf)and reprinted in 1997 (University of Minnesota Press) and still is in print.
His book begins in Spring and ends in Winter and each chapter brings the reader directly to the woods through description of scents, sights, sounds, taste, and touch. But not only through the five senses does he accomplish his goal but also by philosophical and ecological reflection.
The very strong and rich scent of balsam needs rubbed together in the palm of the hand brings to mind the Minnesota wilderness with its "sparkling lakes, its portages and its campsites." Once, he found an exposed bit of snowy shoreline of a lake with dead leaves and earth-like decay in early spring. He writes, "I wanted to burrow into the crumbling dark humus underneath, feel it, smell it, and steep myself in its warmth." Later on he heard the sound of a killder--"kill-dee-kill-dee-kill-deeee. For me," writes Olson, "no other sound of early spring so completely catches the spirit of thawing earth and running water as this one call."
For him there was no better tonic for the human soul than a summer-time full moon. "At such times I must escape houses and towns and all that is confining, be a part of the moon-drenched landscape and its continual sweep. It is only when the moon is full that I feel this way." He calls it "moon magic." The North Woods are a great placer to fish. Olson watches another fisherman land a big one. A fish rose suddenly and his friend studied the water carefully before casting his fly. "Finally, he made his choice. This time the fly disappeared in a swirl and the trout dashed for protection of the bank...slicing circles near enough to net. A swoop, and the fish was his."
For Olson one of the most sensual sights of autumn was the smoky gold of tamarack trees turning color deep in the bogs of northern Minnesota. One time during a chilly autumn day he discovered a lone mallard hanging around a lake all by himself. The bird had somehow missed the call to migrate southward. Olson deliberately sneaked up to the bird and startled it into flight high in the sky and finally it turned southward to catch up with the flock it somehow got separated from.
Of Northern Lights, he writes, "I like to think of them [not as solar protons and electrons bombarding oxygen atoms] as the ghost dance of the Chippewas. An Indian once told me that when a warrior died, he gathered with his fellows along the northern horizon and danced the war dances they had known on earth." Their giant headdress with its shifting streamers became the Northern Lights.
Winter is a time for reflection and listening to the silence of the wilderness interrupted by the howling of timber wolves at nighttime. He deftly explains how foolish is the extermination of wolves, the creatures who thin out otherwise healthy herds of dying and sick deer or moose. The excuse for extermination is that they over-kill their prey. But a wolf never kills more than it needs and what it does kill is the sick and dying. The practice of poisoning wolf-kill has proven to be foolish. The wolf soon realizes that his stow of deer meat has been poisoned and he is forced to kill yet another animal for its provisions. Then exterminators will then say, see, the wolf over-kills!
Sigurd Olson once had the unforgettable occasion of coming eye to eye with wolves deep in the woods. He writes, "Then, about fifty feet away they stopped and looked me over. In the moonlight their gray hides glistened and I could see the greenish glint of their eyes. Not a movement or a sound. We stood watching each other as though such meetings were expected and commonplace."
© 2013 Richard Francis Fleck