Gaping with Muir on a January Morning


Birch leaves rustle in a light northeasterly breeze. A crisp -35° morning, but I am working (cleaning the dog yard if you must know) and my hat is off.  I pause and listen, struck by such a familiar sound so completely out of season.  A sound of July, the rustle of those leaves – yet no mistake, there it is again. The leaves are all a pale brown, clinging to their branches, toasted and killed by that blast of heat as the fire swept through. They did not drop in autumn, and when they will fall I do not know. They hang suspended, taken aback by the onslaught, as if uncertain what to do next.  Just like us.

January now. We remind each other we said we would take the winter and into spring. No big decisions for a year. Think on it, sleep many nights on it, walk and talk on it. Halifax? Red Lodge? Saskatchewan? Iceland? Stay? Go?

Questions. One is: is it more courageous to stay and re-build, or to find a new chapter in life somewhere else, and leave this place and these years as the treasure they have been, a saga lived and now complete? Hard to say which choice would demand more gumption, but I suspect that all things considered it would be the leaving. Which of course leads to another question: must we always choose the most courageous path in life, the path least traveled? What about that other path – the one of least resistance? The path that is simply more appealing, and never mind all the rah-rah about courage and gumption?

And what about love, and marriage? Our deep love for this place and our long marriage within it and with it bind us to it, scarred and disfigured though it now is. Hills and hollows, trails and shorelines, all so intimately familiar, are now all littered with black and ruin.  But it is still the same place, all the same places, known for years and with their stories dear to us.  Just as the visage of a beautiful loved one, wrecked and mangled in some awful accident, would still be the face and essence of the person we love.

Birches rustling in a January breeze. That’s a new one. I wonder what other surprises are coming. Surely there will be many.  Another one the other day was similarly subtle — the timbre of sounds up in the woods now is different.  “The woods” being now just acre upon acre of spindly charred spruce stems.   I shouted something to the dogs and was struck by the brittle ring of my voice, what with all those echo-dampening spruce needles gone.  A million trees burnt, moss and lichen gone, for miles nothing but clay and ash and rock beneath the snow. Oh yes, there will continue to be surprises, oddities, things never imagined, like the rustle of leaves at 35 below.

On January 6, 1873, John Muir wrote: “Instead of narrowing my attention to bookmaking out of material I have already eaten and drunken, I would rather stand in what all the world would call an idle manner, literally gaping with all the mouths of soul and body, demanding nothing, fearing nothing, but hoping and enjoying enormously. So-called sentimental, transcendental dreaming seems the only sensible and substantial business that one can engage in.”

This morning, a hundred and forty two years on, I concur. I  gape with John Muir for a while, then pick up the pail and shovel and keep scooping the dog yard. (When in doubt, stick with what you know!)    


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