The lake languished at twilight, churning out soft ripples that licked the shore. The waters darkened, beckoning my senses to what lurked beneath the surface and in the still of the evening, the plunk of a solitary pike resounded, as if no other creature were alive, except us, to bear witness to its play. We pitched the tent and prepared our sleeping quarters backed up against the woods just before the setting sun withdrew the light. The temperature dropped precipitously and I dug into one of the barrels for my pullover. All the gear that can fit into the middle bulge of our canoe was within close reach on our island beachfront that was just room enough for the stray moose to tiptoe at dusk to the shore for a drink or a bath.
We took on a rhythm that seemed to work in time with the elements, leaving us attuned but in no moment frantic. Striking into the unknown our first night on the lake, we headed in the direction of a clutter of islands in search of a campsite, and the universe conspired in our discovery of a small cove that became home for the night. Even the unexpected, intermittent showers the next day did not hinder us in any way; a restless cloud cover we kept under watch freed us up to read, rest, and dry our towels and tarps before the next flash of rain. I felt a heightened sense of all things being in motion, above us, all around us, and in the lure of the lake. And we too leaned with the wind, the sand, and the water, taking subtle cues for our next move. By day, small rodents and birds darted through the brush and flitted across our path, but by night, the deer, the moose, racoons, and other fauna crept out of their hiding, leaving us privy only to their footsteps. Wholly aware of our presence, they made of their own a mystery.
Our sheltered cove caught the wind and held at bay the mosquitoes that dove in for the kill at dawn when we set up camp the third night on a jutting stretch of beach. Making a fire seemed more ritual than chore that we were re-enacting since the last visitors who left their embers in the makeshift hearth in the sand. Mystery again was evoked in the remnants of a fire – of who had passed, how long they stayed, and why they came. There was a sacredness to the act of lighting a fire and adding this element of nature to our outdoors experience. We became intimate with the land in gathering up twigs, tearing dead wood from its roots, and hauling what we could carry or drag to the fire. We disparaged of the visitors who hacked live trees down to a stump, instead of harvesting the debris a few meters deep into the woods. Starting a fire was a delicate process and our mastery of it would disperse the mosquitoes, keep us warm, heat our food, and keep the forest intact from any wandering embers. I got better each day at “all-in-one-pot” cooking and we lingered by the fire for the evening, enchanted by the loons against a chorus of croaking frogs. The fire kept our conversation focused and, like the food, none of it went to waste.
Our bodies were tired, but our upward gaze initiated our drift into a dream state. The sky with its endless stars has an ecstatic quality and I now miss this spectacle from my urban abode, as if I had lost a part of myself. We can know our coordinates on the earth and name the place where we stand but it is astonishing how easily we ignore the universe to which we belong. How often do we think to glance upwards and take notice of the moon when it is clearly visible in the sky? I recognize in my own experience a facility to fall into a state of wonder over the extraordinary beauty of nature in its surround-effect, on the one hand; and, on the other, to feel usurped by a longing to comprehend this vast and spectacular universe, only to abdicate and stare, bewildered. Gilles and I craned our necks towards a star-studded sky in a timeless gaze with no capacity to grasp the infinity that reflected back on us. We could almost feel the earth turning and the panoramic sky re-positioning itself. We did what humans tend to do – to make sense of it by zooming in. We spotted a shooting star, and picked out red, dying stars; blue stars further away from our galaxy; brilliant, twinkling stars in closer range; the majestic Milky Way; the Big Dipper; and the odd satellite.
Maybe the problem, if there is one, is really rooted in my own anthropocentric view that places me or myself at the center of the universe. Contemplating nature is a profound experience when we cease to draw a separating line between the self, the single human being, and the universe as a whole. Is it not the filter of my own senses – my intellect, emotions and desires – that longing to understand and feel connected – that is both the barrier and the doorway? A barrier because it is the “I” that erects boundaries and a doorway because I must first become aware, through my human experience, that I am and always have been connected to the stars. I in this human form, Gilles, the moose, the lake, and the galaxies all belong to this boundless creation in equal measure. And in between the stars and shapes that can be perceived and named is an un-empty space.
I have spent most of my life accumulating knowledge, a good proportion of which has served my endeavors well; the rest of it has either gone up in smoke or lay latent but ready for decades in closets and bookshelves. Yet this experience in nature was teaching me about myself and my well-disguised ignorance. I was tapping into a new vein of awareness of my environment, beholden to the sway of the wind as we oared up river to our destination, the subtle motion in the line attached to my fishing pole, or the indistinct, rustling sounds that kept my eyes wide open from the interior of our tent. But it wasn’t merely the uncharted territory; I was seeing myself in a different light, coarse and vulnerable, and on the cusp of losing my bearings in one fell swoop, were a sudden storm to bear down on us or a strange animal to catch my eye at the moment I was taking a pee in the brush. Luck was on my side; nothing of the sort happened. But I could discern that the moderated approach I am known for was no guarantee.
My seasoned partner was the quintessential instructor and able to pass on to me the basics of how to row, throw out a fishing line, tie a knot, or start a fire but all else beckoned me to feel, listen, and be wholly present. There was a deeper knowing in the experience that could not be willed and yet establishes one’s self in harmony with our surroundings. I remember once, jogging in a city park, gripped by the sudden realization that the trees, the pond, the ducks and the birds, and the wonderful forms of life that sprouted from the ground, all had in-built intelligences that told them not just how to survive but to adapt and live harmoniously in nature. They loomed back at me like giant columns of information, dwarfing the image of myself, fated to question and labor for the same knowledge that is prescient and transcendent to the different species of animals and plants. Sadly, no matter how much it was possible for our own species to know, we lacked the internal wiring to adapt to, rather than destroy at will, our own environment.
We witnessed the magnificence of this endowment in nature tucked deep into the backwater of a narrow, serpentine stream. No one had come there. It was clear we had stumbled into a well kept secret. The architect beaver built the dam up high and brought the stream to a standstill that gave way to the perfectly sculpted wading pool for him and his family. But one swimming pool was not enough. The second pond generously opened up wider for other four-legged wanderers whose footprints and droppings on the overgrown embankment indicated it was indeed a popular watering hole. And the tall weeds that now grew with abandon where the stream once flowed provided an easy retreat. Stepping in to this unbroken world, we momentarily forgot our own purpose. The beaver needed no words and no instruction manual, as we reverted to our map to continue our journey. I wonder even now, what would it be like to simply know where you had to go, what you had to do, and why you were here? What if we all interacted with the world merely as a form of self-expression, using what we know to express who we are? What if the mind was not capable of fabricating the emotion of fear out of nothing?
Amidst the inspiring beauty of nature on display, unsettling questions arose in me, first as a feeling and later coalescing in the mind. Keeping a clip pace to reach the river’s rapids before dark, Gilles and I both were in for a surprise upon finding the water level too low to canoe the waters. It was a drought year and my heart sank a few inches more in making the mental connection to global warming. The famous biologist Bruce Lipton recently said at a conference in Montreal, “The planet is having a bad case of humans.” The environmental changes reaped by man in a 40-year period were laid bare on Lake Taureau whose ramose character and sandy beaches once held great appeal to canoe adventurers. Against the backdrop of a trailer park that now occupied the long strip of beach and the islands chewed away by the growing presence of skidoos and motorized vehicles, we and our canoe were an anachronism. When we pushed off at the dock on the first day, the comment of a passenger on a passing yacht, “well, at least they’ll never run out of gas” grew louder, as we oared to our night-time shelter.