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Looking into the past and the future

“The days they pass so quickly now, nights are seldom long and time around me whispers when it’s cold,” – John Denver

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MARQUETTE — A pale and waning crescent moon hangs low in the morning sky as I’m on my way west and then south, thinking of things that have come and gone over the past several months.

At times like these, I often get to thinking about people.

Like tidewaters, people ebb and flow in and out of our lives. Each season, some arrive, and some depart leaving me with a feeling like I never get to know anyone as much as I’d like before they’re already leaving or gone.

Life slips away on cat’s feet silent it goes without fanfare.

Those scenes often seem to find me wandering alone somewhere along a lonely beach, reaching at the wind for understanding.

Loss is tricky. It can sit quietly on the porch while it seeps poison into your veins.

If you’re not careful, departures can leave a hole smoking right through you and drop you dead – lifeless, like the once green leaves and florid blooms of summer.

The days fall over like dominoes down a spiral staircase, while the nights go even faster, whirring by in a blither of bits and pieces of sound, laughter, light, darkness and so many pictures.

This past year, it seems there has been more than a season’s complement of powerful storms with their angry, howling winds, bared white teeth of snow and ice, dump trucks full of rain and the strength and power to twist, turn and topple mighty maples and oaks.

But like a bad dream, those storms passed by.

Summertime found me in warmer places, walking under the live oak trees and hanging Spanish moss of Georgia, watching tiny crabs digging in and out of the mud, a brilliant red summer tanager singing from a branch.

I had also walked the halls of Congress in that city of wondrous Greek architecture, watched the day’s light go down from the steps Lincoln Memorial and wondered where we’re collectively heading.

It seems like the road is dark and scary, but the sun is shining somewhere.

I also stood on the Gettysburg battlefield and the hallowed final resting place of the Flight 93 passengers in Pennsylvania. In town the next morning, a gray catbird on a park bench let me get quite close, while the ghosts of Union and Confederate soldiers followed me around.

Back at home, I had time to chase a few trout, sit around the campfire ring and get some grass stains on my pants from walking through the tall, wet growth down along the creek.

I sat at the foot of sweeping landscapes stretching out in front of me. There, I felt smaller than a grain of sand, while the glinting constellations in the skies above made me feel close to home.

I saw a flycatcher perch on the back of a deer in a jack pine clear-cut. It was a sight I had never seen before. A week later, I saw it again. In my own backyard.

Then, later in the year in the dusty foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in California, I saw a scrub jay sitting on the back of a young buck that peeked out at me from behind some dry brush.

These three occurrences added up to one strange thing that still makes me feel uneasy. It seems like it was supposed to mean something, but I sure couldn’t say what.

Three more pictures, images flashing by from the faces of shuffled cards, mixed and matched – pairs and deuces, knaves and queens.

I watched pelicans glide over the lagoon at Malibu Beach, while snowy plovers ran across the sand where two young Michigan girls got to stick their toes in the Pacific for the very first time.

The canyons out there were blackened with scars of ravenous fires that scorched anything standing or crawling, right up to the shores of pavement and the concrete.

On a terrace, beside a pretty blue pool, I watched my 2-year-old granddaughter magically work the keys of her daddy’s cellphone to find her favorite animal name learning video.

She pointed and told me the names of a blue stingray and an ostrich. She brushed an incoming text message off the screen with the back of her hand.

I was astounded.

Under that warm September sky, in a golden state, the Queen of Shebis and I were wed in a beautiful garden ceremony one fine Saturday morning. It was Peace Day, the weekend before the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall.

At home, we found the leaves were scorching red and yellow, in a lengthy show I’d hoped for, but didn’t expect to see, especially after the wilds and chills of spring.

Those simple surprises are among the things that help keep me ticking and hopeful inside – the idea that nature always seems to have a pleasant trick tucked up her sleeve to accompany the disastrous hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

I’ve wondered a good deal about missed opportunities lately. Do we realize as many opportunities as we miss? Can we ever know that? In terms of batting average, I wonder where I stack up.

Missed fish, missed birds, missed up. How many times do I go around a corner too soon or too late to see something cool? You shoulda been here earlier, man.

Deer keep coming to paw at the snow underneath the apple trees. At this time in the season, I can scarcely recall the face of a summer bird. I can feel the songs of robins and white-throated sparrows vibrating through my bones, but I can’t see them clearly now in my mind’s eye.

I wonder if this is because my senses are keened on the wintertime and those breathless black skies or is it something our minds do in adjusting to the passage of time on the annual clock – everything, all in good time?

Time and questions, mystery and misunderstanding, people and places, hearts, minds and souls all stirred together in a big pot of life.

My sense of missing those who have faded, strayed or disappeared is a mourning cloak I wear on the inside. It fits me uncomfortably comfortably after all these years.

Looking forward brings more questions than the day before. The more I learn, the more I am aware of the less I know. I keep pushing further, reading, learning.

Someday, does all of this just stop and then you’re gone, or does your mind keep skipping across the waters of time like a flat stone?

These are the things that occupy me in between the buttons of my jacket, the moments I have pushed in together tightly between life and living.

Sometimes, I feel like James Dean in my own Porsche Spyder with time whipping by so fast I’m dizzy.

A dusky orange and black-swirled sky greets me – like a Halloween caramel candy – as I crest the hill. I look down the curving roadway and on into this morning.

I take a deep breath, drawing in the sight. Both hands on the wheel.

A prayer for peace, love and hope never hurts anybody.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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