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Column: Memories of a little cabin on Lake Superior

“Someday I think I’d like to paint a seascape, if they ever get the ocean to stand still,” – Tom T. Hall

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MARQUETTE — Back in the shadowed corners and cobwebbed shelves of my mind rests a little cabin of modest construction that sat along the sandy shores of Lake Superior.

Beach grass grew up around her. I can’t really recall being there more than once, a long time ago. And yet, the place remains back there in my memory. I was a very young kid at the time.

I think the cabin was being re-opened for the season after a long winter when I was there. I remember the storm windows and a screen door, at least a little rusty, covering a wooden main entry door.

I know it was a cold gray day with sharp winds cutting up off the ice-cold waters of the lake. Too early in the season to really be there, if your plan was to enjoy the seascape. No sitting out in a beach chair that day.

Fall and winter storms had swirled plenty of sand up around this little home away from home. Driftwood adorned the shore. I remember being attracted to the water, bundled up and searching, combing just a few feet of the beach.

This place was high on the north Michigan shore, facing the full brunt of the fetch that cast winds and snow across the water from Canada’s rocky shores.

Other than a smattering of adult voices talking about opening or closing the place, I don’t recall anything else about being there.

This seems like one of those misplaced memories, where my mind has recalled the outlines of a picture but hasn’t painted in the figures or the forms, the feelings.

I often wonder why my brain keeps ahold of these types of things, and why I even recall them at all, especially now.

What attachment now does that wind-blown rugged shore have to me?

I certainly can’t say.

These thoughts and memories are like what I imagine ghosts to be – half here and half gone. Outlines. Shifting shapes.

It would be more understandable to recall the place and the time if it had been a grand summery day, with the sky all full of cotton candy and crying gulls, warm winds holding me up and the water deep blue and crested white.

The Persistence of Memory, surrealistic and sublime, something to ponder, indeed. A beach scene with time folded over the branch of a tree, a clock covered with ants, the decaying and worn headlands.

Thinking about that place today made me long for the sound of waves sloshing up over the sand and rocks. I hope to spend an entire day this summer, just lying back, eyes closed, listening to that sound.

Those beach scenes in my mind also bring to me a hope to one day paint with watercolors, under a filtered afternoon sun.

I am not that kind of an artist, but I just want to face the blank canvas and feel what that feels like – I want to know if it’s different than what a writer feels when confronting a blank page.

I can close my eyes now and see Gauguin’s coastal landscape or Road in Tahiti and the sunflowers and starry nights of Van Gogh. I am silenced in reverence to their work.

I have a Van Gogh book I like to look at, along with another favorite volume depicting the mind-bending geometry of M.C. Escher.

Escher’s lithographs, woodcuts and watercolors are remarkable. From his Waterfall and Metamorphosis to the Magic Mirror, his artwork is incredibly captivating.

I find looking at fine art can transport me from the quiet corners of my study to vast and sweeping vistas on foreign and balmy shores, into the heavenly twilight and beyond the stars.

I feel as though I’m flying, but I’m sitting still.

That kind of thing I also find in countless books and movies. The stuff dreams are made of, maybe, but certainly powerful medicine for just about anybody shut inside in these pandemic days of social distancing.

Standing or sitting and listening to all that’s around us outside, even in your own backyard, can bring beautiful things to mind, prompted by the songs of goldfinches, the sounds of kissing and creaking trees or twittering noice of a leaf rolling end-to-end over a frozen crust of snow.

Today, I noticed a fine assortment of squirrels has appeared in the yard over recent days. I’ve enjoyed watching them – especially the red fox squirrels – running swiftly through the woods, up and back and down and over.

I even saw a chipmunk making a brief and early appearance atop the snow. I imagined he either ran out of food in his underground lair or got to feeling cagey and could no longer stand the thought of being self-quarantined.

The first shoots of early spring flowers, likely daffodils, had pushed through the dirt at the edge of the window garden this week.

Judging by the tracks I saw in the snow nearby, the tender, greenish-yellow shoots were abruptly snipped off close to the ground by a group of wild turkeys. I am thinking of putting a roasting pan or a baster out on the garden wall to scare them off.

Another of my half-torn memories recalls another gray afternoon. This one is again set in my childhood, but along an old railroad line.

The sun was hot that day and we were putting pennies and small stones on the track, waiting for the Soo Line to come through. There were grasshoppers of every stripe jumping in the sparse, sharp grasses.

Not much else to this recollection either, other than the boyhood preoccupation with trains. I always thought back then that engineers had the best job in the world because they got to drive trains.

Before I was old enough to tell time, I knew when I was in the backyard in the morning, on the old metal swing set, it wouldn’t be long after lunchtime, I’d hear the train chugging on into town past the old fire station.

Of course, the tracks are all long gone today, just like the old viaduct, the passenger station, the pennies and even the grasshoppers. There’s pavement there now.

With that memory, I can see why I might remember it from time to time. It represents a call back to much simpler days.

Times when a kid could be preoccupied with grasshoppers and rocks for a good long while just waiting for a train with a penny on the tracks.

Amid a complexity and uncertainty of a global pandemic, it’s hard for me to imagine such simple times even existed. But they did.

In the darkness of the nighttime pines there also resides hope, dreams and tomorrows, along with white-tailed deer nodding off to sleep.

I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt that suggested doing one thing every day that scares you. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.”

American painter Georgia O’Keeffe, lover of New Mexico, revealed she’d been “absolutely terrified” every moment of her life.

But, she said, “I never let it stop me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

The delivery man brought a box to my house today. Inside were the fishing lures I’d ordered to replenish my tackle for the coming spring, summer and fall.

In nature and life, wonder abounds – not even in times of storms, but perhaps, especially within storms.

In the front yard, retrieving that box from the mail, I watched a brown creeper twirl around the trunk of a maple tree and saw the neighbor out walking his dog. The squirrels were still out there too, running across the snow.

I turned to go back inside the house. My mind was floating on the red vineyard, the wheat fields and almond blossoms of Van Gogh.

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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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