We lose everything, but make harvest
of the consequences it was to us. Memory
builds this kingdom from the fragments
and approximation. We are gleaners who fill
the barn for the winter that comes on.
–Jack Gilbert, “Moreover”
This is the time of year when ranchers in Montana pull stored sunlight out of their barns and spread it on frozen fields for hungry animals. This is the time of year when Blackfeet, Salish and Crow pull stories out of ancient storehouses and remind each other who they are and where they came from. Memories are the feast of the season.
At this time of the year a paddler builds a kingdom out of remembered fragments and approximations of the season past. In many cases the memories are composed only of images—a wave that caught my brother on the upwind side of a dock, lifted him on its crest and almost set him down on its deck; a wall of stone where water flowed out of cracks and created a bank that overflowed with green and living things; an encounter with an eagle where the air flowing over its feathers was felt on my skin; a vast space of open water with the paddler a mere speck in the blue distance. And sometimes the memories take the form of a story. Like a tool in a cabinet, we keep pulling it out of the drawer where it is stored, handle it, turn it, reflect on its significance and use to us.
Though I could pull open any of several drawers of stored memories, this winter I feel drawn to return to a day in September a few years ago. Having begun the semester but not yet burdened with the first batch of student essays, I drove up to Finley Point. Drawing on the strength of a full season of paddles, I wanted to depart from the state campground and stroke my way to Wild Horse Island on as direct a line as possible. But I hesitated as I stood on the concrete abutment that helps to form the marina. Breaking waves flowed down the fetch from north to south. Would it be foolish to paddle alone on such a day, on a day when no one else was on the lake and available to render aid if I got in trouble? Was I willing to take the risk?
Trying to quiet these questions in my mind, I slid Bluebird into the channel between the bobbing docks. The moment I passed the mouth of the marina I felt the full force of the waves running down the lake and striking the starboard quarter of my boat. I committed myself to the process of meeting each wave as an individual, rose in the crests, dropped into the troughs, and adjusted to each push and slap with more or less forceful strokes. I maintained this focused attention for about two hours before I began to realize the true danger of my situation. If my attention faltered or wandered even slightly, as fatigue began to pervade my body, I might lose my balance in the waves and find myself in grave danger. This realization tapped the last measure of my strength and allowed me to reach the island safely. I hauled Bluebird out of the waves on the backs of some drift logs, climbed the bluff and drank all my water. I rested, waited, watched. I needed time to recover.
I wandered around the island’s east shore, grateful for the stability of rock and earth beneath my feet. When I eventually returned to my overlook I realized that the wind was beginning to drop. The waves no longer broke, though swells swept the surface of the lake. These were safe enough conditions for me to paddle back across the lake to another island and then the last three miles home.
I continue to reflect on this day. At times I think I was willful in relation to far greater powers and that my safe arrival and return were less a matter of skill and strength and more a matter of luck. Other times I feel the exhilaration that this day brought me, recalling, as Mihaly Csikszentymihayi said of happiness:
Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives are not passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can be enjoyable if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.
As near as I can tell, we live somewhere between the stone, feather, or spring that we happen upon and the happiness we “make happen.” If this is true, then I strive for consciousness not only of the wave as it surges toward me and the exhilaration of meeting it, but of the space between forcing my will upon the world and simply receiving its inexplicable gifts. I want to be aware of the edge of each, the things we make happen and the things we receptively receive. In this consciousness we make a way in the world.
I know I will lose the ability to make such paddles as I lean into the middle of my late decades. But between now and then I want to glean my experiences from the field of the lake and its islands; I want to harvest the consequences of memories, and fill the barn as long as I can. On a winter day I open the drawer where they are stored, pull them into the light and turn them in my hands.