Beholder and Beheld

May 5, 2017

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting…(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest”)

The other day a friend and I drove up the highway along the Bitterroot River on the way to a little spring fishing. We spoke about a question that Jedediah Purdy asked in a recent lecture at the university: “What are people for?” This is an old question, older that Wendell Berry’s book of essays on the subject and at least as old as the opinions of people who wrote early catechisms.

My first paddle of the season points toward an answer to this question.

It was very difficult to leave town. So many things clawed for my attention—concerns about one of my sons, a former student who wanted to tell me about her Senior Project, arrangements with a contractor who will rebuild our falling-down deck, the dandelions, oh, the dandelions. And then I hit the going-to-school and work traffic early on Friday morning; and then the tour bus got a flat tire across from the light adjacent Costco. I thought I’d never get out of town.

But I persisted. The weather predictions offered an acceptable level of risk for a solo paddler in cool conditions. If I got off the water before 4 p.m., I might miss the lightning and the sudden gusts accompanying a cold front. After seven months away from the lake it felt good to step into 40-degree water, to drop into the boat, kick off and glide over the concrete boat ramp and into deep blue.

Trusting the cloudy and calm conditions, I paddled across the strait to Wild Horse Island, humbly remembering what the first few thousand strokes of the season feel like. I paddled up the west shore of the island and noticed what I thought was a single Bighorn sheep on a ledge below the highest red crag. I said to myself, You might be able to hike to the top for a closer look.

 I pulled into Skeeko Bay, the only boat in the bay, and hauled Bluebird above the rising level of the lake. I vented my dry suit to help me cool off and started up the trail, pausing to take photographs of big Ponderosa Pines whose cambium layers had been harvested by first peoples visiting the island. I had promised these photos to an archaeologist friend. A winter with ample moisture and now spring rains made the island soft and lush. I found shooting stars all across the forest floor while everything else seemed about to bloom—arrow-leaf balsamroot, some variety of mustard, death camas, lilies, and all the other flowers whose names I seem to forget from one season to the next.

I made my own switchbacks up the steep slope toward the red crag, trying to imagine where the Bighorn might be on the other side of the peak. When I was two strides short of the crest, she suddenly bolted, alarmed either by the vibrations of my soft footsteps through the ground or perhaps my scent. I could only get a glimpse of her back as she fled from me. I took the last two steps more slowly and began to scan the slopes and gullies below me. In only a few seconds she had descended a couple of hundred yards down the steep slope toward the lake. Now, though, I saw a newborn lamb velcroed to her side. The ewe had chosen an incredibly remote and almost inaccessible ledge to give birth to and then protect her lamb. Alarmed, she had retreated to another ledge beyond the range of my basic camera. I simply stood and watched. Besides, as I later discovered, a smudge of sunscreen on the lens compromised all my pictures: I would have to remember what I saw. A couple of wads of shed hair were the only sign of the sheep’s presence on the ledge.

Content with having found the sheep that I first spied from the water, I turned back toward the bay. Simultaneously, an eagle and a pair of geese crossed over the island’s saddle but from opposite directions, the geese just under the eagle. At my feet lay countless mosses and flowers still waiting for that perfect combination of light and warmth to unfold.

As the only person on a 2,100-acre island at least one answer to the old question seemed clear. I felt a duty to behold, to behold each creature in its struggle for existence, and to behold all the living systems that support the living while recycling the dead. We are here to notice the fire scar and the blooming flower, the shotgun shell case and a downy feather on the beach.

Continuing to trust the conditions, I returned to my boat and resumed my paddle. At first I thought I would only paddle to the northern-most tip of the island; but when it seemed I would be allowed more, I continued around the island, down the east side and through the gap past Melita Island. In Osprey cove I found a mature bald eagle in a snag, the brilliant white head and tail giving it away on a cloudy day. Watching the bird, and hoping not to startle it into flight, I realized that we are also the beheld, the rest of creation beholding us to see how we do on the land and water we share.

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Gratitude and Anticipation

The verge of the New Year seems like a good time to both look back and look ahead. As I consult memories of the season past I am grateful for every opportunity I was given to paddle in 2016, whether threading the islands of Flathead Lake, making open-water crossings, paddling solo or as part of a pair. I feel thankful for my Cedar Island overnight, the dramatic storm I witnessed in September and the long, placid reach from Angel Point to Bigfork that followed the storm. But in reflection I am most grateful for something that had little to do with actual paddling.

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On one occasion, described in my post “A Quandary,” a friend and I paddled on the more-protected waters of Lindbergh Lake while a thunder and lightning storm blasted away at the peaks of the Mission Range to the west. Safe below, we were merely soaked in rain. Then, in mid-August my friend Glenn and I paddled among the islands of The Narrows on Flathead Lake during a brief rainstorm. On this occasion we took refuge, appropriately, in Safety Bay. In our shelter from the storm and waves we lay our paddles across our laps and simply listened to rain patter our decks and mark the gray-green water all around us with millions of little crowns. On both of these occasions our kayaks carried us into intimate contact with the return of natural rhythms—a little rain in midsummer, something we no longer take for granted. At a time when we could have turned back or scuttled our trips altogether, we moved into the storm’s darkness and the potential for getting wet. For our modest efforts we were rewarded with exposure to the life-giving gift of rain, its power to recharge aquifers and streams, as well as renew the forest.

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I occasionally need a chance to test myself by means of a long, hard paddle, or simply paddle to somewhere private where I can dive off a rock; but looking back on the year now gone, I am most thankful for rain that assured me that Nature’s rhythms are not irrevocably broken or thrown so badly into disorder that we fear for our lives. The sound of rain and all that it restores climbs now to the top of my list of gratitudes. Believing, at least for now, that I can trust these rhythms, I begin to look forward to the next season. In fact, I go to sleep at night imagining my favorite paddle, the strength and patience to complete it, trusting I may have the chance.

The Gap

Two years in a row we have been fortunate to rent a place near Angel Point on the west shore of Flathead Lake. Staying in a single location for a few days, we can enjoy sunrise over The Missions and sunset in the forest, a waxing or waning moon, and the changing moods of the lake without having to sleep on the ground. Even before we made these arrangements I held an idea in a back pocket: for a few years I have wanted to paddle the gap between Angel Point and the village of Bigfork in the northeast corner of the lake.

When we arrived at the cabin we walked out on the deck to enjoy the view from elevation. In the distance we saw a dark storm system approaching from the north. It descended on the lake with a vengeance. Suddenly shore-side flags stretched taut as military sheets, trains of whitecaps and spray covered the lake, and within ten minutes six-foot waves began to crash onto the rocks and pour across the surface of docks. I did not have time to dig my camera out of luggage in the truck. We stood in awe of what the lake can become. Fortunately, my wife caught the aftermath with her iPad.

The Aftermath

The Aftermath and the Gap

Over the next few days we watched the energy from this autumn storm gradually dissipate and conditions improve. By timing my paddles to coincide with shifting wind directions, I was able to paddle to Somers in the north and Deep Bay in the south. On Thursday I finally saw my opportunity to paddle the gap, the six miles between the point and the far shore. I studied distant peaks above the Jewel Basin until I created a confident triangle between a single mountain, Bigfork, and my starting point. I packed a little food and two water bottles and lifted the boat off the dock and into the water.

The gap is more a mental challenge than a physical one. At first glance the gap seems impossible to cross, but I have paddled more than 12 miles in a single day on many occasions, and am well aware this trip is nothing compared to crossings made by Jon Turk and those who have circumnavigated Ireland or New Zealand. The challenge of the gap comes in the form of questions:

  • What if I am three miles from land and a storm arises like the one that we witnessed on Sunday?
  • What if a big pontoon boat passes too close and casts a wave that rolls the kayak?
  • What if an inattentive or inebriated speedboat driver does not see the flashes of light from my paddle?

I worked to control the noise of these questions by concentrating on other things—my alignment in relation to the far shore, evidence of intermediate progress in the form of a yellow cottonwood leaf that had drifted down the river, a cluster of pine needles, or feathers from ring-billed gulls slipping by. I concentrated on smooth, efficient strokes, ones in which I applied force at precisely the right moment after the blade entered the water. I focused on posture. I pondered ways to enjoy the gap, taking pleasure in the sun on one cheek and wind on the other, a visit from what I think were long-legged kittiwakes that hovered above me, and then out of curiosity, settled beside me before flying away. Distant fishing boats drifted past the curvature of the earth or disappeared into shore-side shade. Though I choose another way, I managed to enjoy the sounds of well-tuned engines and a small plane overhead. In a sense paddling the gap is a meditation on calling the mind back from its fears to the qualities of the present moment.

In good time I passed the river delta that extends about a mile and one half into the lake, saw details sharpen, and came ashore opposite a humble cabin made of recycled materials. The owners had created a large heart shape by piling round stones into a pattern that left the center full of water—a beating heart. I ate a snack, drank water and used my cell phone to reassure an anxious spouse. After creating another triangle between my eyes, a spot somewhere just north of Angel Point and a distant hill I settled into my return, committing myself to shorten the long hypotenuse.

The Landing

The Landing

Crossing the gap again I reflected on other gaps in our lives—the gap between loneliness and friendship, the gap between illness and recovery, the gap between a fossil fuel economy and one built on renewable forms of energy. I let my imagination consider the terrible gap between addiction and sobriety, indebtedness and solvency, conflict and reconciliation, complaint before the court and a long-awaited just decree. In truth we live in the gaps, somewhere between setting off in relative uncertainty and the suddenness of arrival. Entering a gap seems vastly different than paddling near shore. For a long time we see no evidence of progress. We have no passing cliff or boathouse or tree by which to measure our advance; we have only the distance to measure, miles in the gap that seem not to close. Paddling offers practice for the larger process and never seems like an end in itself. For the other gaps in my life I gain strength at binding the mind to the present, controlling anxiety, learning to enjoy something as seemingly small as a leaf floating on the surface or a bubble rising from the sediments below.

When I finally reached my original starting point I lifted my boat out of the water, pulled it up my thighs, then lifted it onto my right shoulder. I carried it up the steep steps leading to the driveway and set it in the cradle atop my wooden rack. I cinched down the straps realizing that it would be a long time before I paddled again. Other autumn commitments and then winter will stand between me and my boat. I felt sad knowing I had completed the last paddle of the year. Another gap has appeared. It seems difficult to cross the distance, but I remind myself I have had practice living in the gaps.

Not What I Expected

When I returned from my last paddle, a seventeen-mile solo and overnight from the south end of the lake to Cedar Island, I could not write what I had planned to write. Reminded once again by fires in The Bitterroot that the West is burning, I had intended to write about Cedar Island as a microcosm for the planet, our “fragile island home,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it in Eucharistic Prayer C. But unexpected things happened during the trip that made the original idea less compelling. I came home uninspired and wasn’t going to write anything after the boat came to rest in the rack, but something keeps knocking on the door.

I knew from the weather report and the graphical forecast I always consult that I might run into thunderstorms on this trip. Years ago I got caught out far from shore in such a storm and resolved to be more cautious in these conditions and to take lightning much more seriously. When I drained my shoes, tucked myself in, and secured my skirt clouds were building off to the west, but the conditions did not seem dangerous. I pushed against a hearty headwind on the way to Wild Horse Island. By the time I rounded the point that protects Skeeko Bay the wind gusts were intense. It was as difficult to swing the paddle forward through the air as it was to make a stroke through the water. I paused to check on a couple of people in open cockpit boats who went for a short paddle from their anchored sailboat. Not having far to travel, they assured me they could get back to their boats. I decided to cross the bay and haul out on a gravel beach.

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I pulled lunch out of my mid-ship hatch, found a log to sit on and decided to wait and watch. Waves continued to build and break in the open water to the north. Thunder boomed and cracked overhead and lightning lashed the hills to the west. No one was waiting for me on Cedar Island. I had made no promises, and knew better than to push willfully toward my destination, no matter how much I wanted to set up my old Sierra Designs “Starlight.” It was warm enough that if I got wet I would be fine. While waiting for the lake to go through its paroxysms I did other things, stalked the island’s mule deer bucks, almost as big as elk, watched a hairy woodpecker ladder its way up a dying cottonwood, found a vicarious joy in watching a fisherman haul in a fat yellow perch. I climbed a bluff so that I could peer into the big gap between islands. Those three miles almost always feel intimidating. I wandered down to the bottom of Skeeko Bay to sign the log so that Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has more information on how people enjoy this area within their care.

After a couple of hours I returned to my boat, found the conditions acceptable and pushed off for Cedar. Not wanting to linger in the opening between islands, I paddled hard, found “the box” of strong, smooth strokes and made very good time despite the headwind that eventually petered out. I dragged Bluebird up over the top of this year’s gray logs and began to imagine how I would arrange my camp and set up a place to make tea the next morning. Almost immediately a bald-faced hornet bit me on my left forearm and then proceeded to wedge itself between my watchband and wrist where it nailed me hard. It took several tries to dislodge the hornet and figure out why I had offended the beast. I stood still and looked around. I had unknowingly crossed the incoming flight path of these critters. They had built a nest under a log and wanted nothing between them and their entryway and escape route. Again, I had to back off my intentions. Yielding to hornets, I moved the boat a few feet north and chose a different route to the wind shelter where I would set up my whisper light stove. Fortunately, I am not allergic to these bites, but it was a long time before I could shake the sting that made my hair stand on end.

During the evening I wandered around the island, found desiccated cherries on the trees of the old orchard, a spot where a falling tree crushed the fence around the old wildlife enclosure, visited with a friendly blended family that had come up the lake by powerboat from Whiskey Bay. Toward dusk I found the almost unknown public access at Zelezney Bay and followed a water snake making its way to shore. Yes, I thought about our fragile island home and this island, deeply in need of rain. But now I think about how we sometimes have to abandon our plans and intentions in order to live with the world as we find it. We are no match for the force of the weather, not even for a hornet determined to protect its approach to this season’s home. In both cases willfulness would have meant trouble. Probably a better observation than the sermon I had planned.

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A Quandary

DSCF0184 Sometimes I paddle alone and sometimes with other people. When alone I like being able to focus my attention on the inner and outer worlds without concern for other people and their experience. When I paddle with friends I take pleasure in helping them discover a new bay or cove, or having the comfort of their presence when making a long crossing. But the two truths create a quandary.

I recently paddled twice in one week, once alone, once with a friend. The juxtaposition clarifies the quandary. In the first case I had a few hours at the end of a day to dash up to a small, nearby lake. Launching from a state campground, I pushed off while most people were settling into lawn chairs, beginning to prepare the evening meal, or as young people, told to entertain themselves, carried their hopes out to a dock to cast a line. I left the crowd and quickly found my way to the corner of an estuary where a mated pair of loons escorted their single offspring beyond the reach of predators and ski boats. The long necks of trumpeter swans stood above the reeds like goal posts, and by averting my eyes and laying down my paddle, I was able to put them at ease until they slipped off the bank and glided into the water. Then, beyond the mouth of the river and past willows full of warblers and flycatchers I was able to catch site of a doe leading her fawn into the lake for an evening’s dessert of water lilies. Alone, I was able to quietly approach wild creatures and slip past their wariness.

Later in the week I traveled with a friend to a different lake. Somewhat practiced at the ritual, and grateful for it, we helped each other with the loading and unloading of the boats, reminded each other about car keys and paddle floats. It was a pleasure to show him a hidden trailhead, an overgrown campsite, the way into a river mouth. Early in the paddle he pointed out a beaver lodge I might have missed, and together, we laughed at how the beavers saw fit to decorate their lodge with a crowning piece of green slate. Late in the paddle we approached a bald eagle and enjoyed watching it bend its bright white head around a branch so as to keep us in view. On the way home we pulled into a ramshackle ice cream station and enjoyed sweet treats at a picnic table. At the same time, drawn to conversation, I missed being able to pause and adequately consider the way rain drops, after they splash to the surface of the lake, create a bubble on the black surface, a metaphoric reminder that each of us is little more than a short-lived and bright bubble of awareness on a dark sea. Wanting to stay present to my friend’s experience I risked losing aspects of my own. Hence, the quandary.

At this stage of my life I know better than to resolve the tension too easily. I want neither to abandon the artist’s solitary way, nor will I cut myself off from the necessary stimulation and benefit of learning from others. People who are artistically inclined are often radically open to the world and how it registers in consciousness while at the same time being sensitive to others. It is not easy to maintain awareness of both simultaneously. Therefore, artists must continually navigate the tension. We strive to experience all we can and render it in words or paint or pixels, moving alone through the world where the perceptions are sharp, clear and undivided; at other times we carry on this practice the best we can in the company of other people without whom we would miss some of what the world calls to us to see. I know no other way than to paddle somewhere between the near point of solitude and the distant point of community.

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People Are the Thing

I did not see my father very often during his later years. I lived in Montana and he lived on Cape Cod. Transportation logistics and schedules combined to keep us apart, but toward what would turn out to be the end of his life I made a couple of visits. With multiple arms of the family at his house one summer in East Harwich, he and I used “walk into town for donuts” as an excuse to have some time with each other. As we walked in the deep grass of the borrow pit he said, “People are the thing.”

I often wonder what he meant and continue to speculate about the timing of his remark. His observation came back to me yesterday, the day after Memorial Day, when I paddled out to Wild Horse Island alone. Wind out of the northeast generated small white caps in the strait between Melita and Wild Horse Islands. I made the crossing into a quartering head wind, felt relief in the lee between Cromwell and Wild Horse, and then rounded the corner into Skeeko Bay. I thought I would have it to myself but found a cabin cruiser, bow to the gravel.

I checked the box where Fish Wildlife and Parks keeps the trail roster and saw that the boat belonged to a family of four from South Dakota. Bless the person who put a working pen in the box. I headed up the trail to the saddle that overlooks the strait to the south and The Mission Range beyond. When I stopped to take a photograph of a tight, new, and passionately purple pinecone DSCF0160

I was startled by a boy who suddenly approached me from behind. He was very anxious and his Down’s-affected speech made it hard for me to understand him. I took time to learn that he was looking for his sister and did not know where she was. Together we found her kneeling in the fresh grass by the old homestead cabins. As she tried to soothe and quiet him I took off for the ridgeline topped by the two pine trees where I often find Bitterroot flowers blooming in the hard scrabble. Clad in neoprene booties and bib, I must have been an odd looking pilgrim as I made my way up the slope and found the flowers that grow, improbably, out of rock on a southwest-facing slope. I took time to admire them individually and in clusters, looked out toward The Missions that, thankfully, still wear some snow and then scanned the open slopes for Bighorn sheep. Because I wanted to circle the island during the rest of the day I did not take time to sneak up on the sheep for a closer look.

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DSCF0159I headed down the trail, satisfied that I had visited what feels like a sacred site, but also excited about the rest of my paddle. On the way down, stepping carefully so as not to bruise a heel, I spotted the boy, his sister, and now his parents perched on a rocky promontory at the bottom of the ridge. Assuming that they might be strangers to the island, and thinking I might be able to orient them, I left the trail and waded through the grass to their perch. Approaching from below, I noticed a water bottle at the base of the rock pile. I looked up and said to the sister/daughter, “Is this your water bottle?” She responded, “Yes, I was just climbing down to get it.” “Shall I toss it to you?” “Sure” she replied. I made a good toss and she made a good catch.

Having now had two brief encounters I decided to climb up to their lookout. On the way I noticed more Bitterroots and pointed out that this was our state flower. We had a brief discussion about how native peoples used the roots and where the family might find the Bighorn sheep, if they felt inclined to seek them out. All the while I felt for the appropriate interpersonal distance in this encounter. Looking at them with a minimum of eye contact, it seemed to me as if they were almost stunned by the spaciousness around them, the light in the air, the mountains in the distance, the flowers at their feet. After a few more words I wished them well and slipped away. Though people are the thing I did not take a photo of this family; I believe it would have felt like a violation. Instead, I picked up the trail again and descended to my boat in the piles of storm-driven driftwood.

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The rest of the day, paddling across the mouth of some of my favorite coves, taking time to explore the northernmost tip of the island, pausing to eat a plastic container full of rhubarb crisp, picking up speed in the subtle current along the east shore of the island, I thought about this encounter and my father’s assertion. What would the flowers be without our admiration? What would the sheep be without us as they ruminate on the slopes made lush by recent rain? What would the eagle be, nearly hidden inside a willow, without my quiet visual intrusion into its green roost? Of course the world would be fine without us, and in many cases would be much better without us. But potentially we are here as perceivers of what we find. The world offers itself to our imagination, as Oliver says, but first to our observation. It gives itself so that we take notice. It may even need us, the most transient of all, so that we will praise it, or so thought Rilke in his ninth Elegy. People are the thing because of our capacity to be aware, to recognize patterns, make connections, and see relationships between things.

So often paddling alone, at home by myself out in the wind and the waves, I find that these human encounters register on my consciousness with surprising force. I felt the boy’s desperation as he searched for his sister somewhere on the big and strange island. I felt for his sister as she became separated from her water bottle and struggled with ambivalence about her brother. I felt for their mother as she admired the Bitterroots and wondered at their place in native culture and history, a history that may have been her own. I felt for the father as he carried responsibility for conducting his family safely through this new world. And as we all do, we feel for the strands of connection and the right forms of distance, our capacity for this subtle awareness equally amazing.

On the way to donuts, craving our own quiet conversation, my father tells me that people are the thing. It falls to me to figure out what he meant. I get to finish the puzzle. A few pieces begin to fit together like bracts on the cone.

The Tender Time

I find that perfect pair of days in early May when I can leave town in good conscience, pack minimally for an overnight, and drive up to the lake. This is the tender time.DSCF0121

The lake lies down and does not flash its summer sword of wind and waves. The grasses are soft and supple. I can walk barefoot between campsite and picnic table where I fix evening tea and morning coffee. In a cove I find an osprey nest and a fallen feather from one of the two birds overhead as they make banking turns through the trees, testing each others desire.DSCF0129

Arnica and balsamroot are in full bloom and their leaves do not crackle underfoot. Western Serviceberry wears its wedding dress.DSCF0118

One evening I paddle from Finley Point out to Black Point and then around the corner to what the old map calls Matterhorn Point. I look across the strait to Wild Horse Island, but do not cross: on the first paddle of the season muscles are also tender and do not yet have the hardness I associate with late summer or early fall. The next morning I paddle to the end of Finley Point, round its tip shaped like an adolescent molar, descend deep into the calm water of Skidoo Bay and return. The few other campers in the quiet campground must have been watching me return from the islands and points. After I lift my boat onto the grass, straighten my back and sigh with satisfaction, they say, “Welcome back.” Even the people are tender at this time of the year.