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Column: Between black and white and shades of gray

“Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where paradise lay,” – John Prine

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MARQUETTE — The difference between black and white is a big contrast. It’s easy to see. Hard to forget. It makes a strong and lasting first impression.

I spend most of my time inside the confines of those extremes, where varying shades of gray reside in all their understated wonder. Not so readily put inside a box, understood or appreciated. Tougher to read. Truer to life.

Over the past few days, the black and the white and the grays have all run together under the pink phlox of a supermoon, turning everything to a dark, swirling torrent – like twisting my watercolor paintbrush, to rinse it, in water I’ve been using all afternoon.

And like the moon, I feel the desire to be elevated — to pull myself up and over the bare-branched trees, the still frozen lakes and the houses in these little towns.

I want to transcend the confines of this collapsing rib cage that threatens to crush my heart.

I stood on the desolate bridge, feeling the warmth of the spring afternoon. I had closed my eyes to hear the rushing of the waters below. When I opened them, I saw an eagle gliding overhead. It was one of two I had watched just a few minutes earlier upstream.

I was standing on a bridge there too, in the unsettling dead silence of a late afternoon. I was looking first upriver at the brooding and balding rocks on the cliffs above me. The warm temperatures and spring rains had pushed the creek here far up over its banks.

Tall pines, like sentinels, stood up on top of those hills, looking down, saying nothing. I wished I could have been up there among them. Not today. Still too much snow choking the trails and the two-tracks beyond the rusting gates.

The air remained uncommonly still. Only one sound — the soft lapping of the river passing under the bridge rail. I felt hollow, trying to comprehend the events of the past few weeks. Time has moved like a mountain through these dark days.

And yet the months pass faster all the time, like a galloping horse.

These are the days of miracle and wonder and don’t cry baby, don’t cry, don’t cry.

I walked to the other side of the bridge to see if there might be something on the downstream side to see. The quietness continued, just more water lapping softly, almost imperceptibly and sun-muted, grayed skies. Far in the distance, however, I could hear the place where the creek rushed into the river in a bubbling confluence. A caldron.

Today there is no day or night. Today there is no dark or light. Today there is no black or white, only shades of gray.

I turned back toward the car. I opened the door. Glancing to my left, I saw an eagle gliding low just over the treetops. On a long, slow and upward flight path, it landed on one of the branches of a dead white pine.

The eagle then began calling, the sound was loud enough to hear from where I stood, which was a good distance back into the landscape.

After a moment or two more, another eagle appeared, off to the east. This one too was gliding over the trees above the place where the two streams flowed together.

This second eagle either landed out of sight somewhere or kept on flying, but it disappeared from my view. I could hear it though, calling back and forth with the eagle in the tree. It was like a signal of some kind that seemingly woke the woods.

A robin then began singing too, from a high promontory. Another then perched in the top of a dead spruce tree not far from me. Then a third robin gave a call from the woods nearby.

A blackbird landed near the top of a cedar tree. Meanwhile, the eagles kept talking back and forth. I was lifted and soaring myself after this experience. I drove down the mud-choked dirt road, past snow-covered woodlands and partially exposed rocks.

I passed a cabin along the river’s edge and stopped in the road as I arrived at the bridge. This is where I had gotten out to listen to the now rushing waters of the river, much wider here thanks to the contribution of the swollen creek upstream.

I like to take deep cleansing breaths and close my eyes for a few moments listening to whatever nature has decided to tell me. She speaks to my ears, my heart and my soul.

I was sure the eagle had seen me, just about 20 feet above, but it didn’t flinch. It just kept gliding down along the winding watercourse, toward the big basin backed up behind the dam.

The eagle moved out of sight. I walked over the bridge and down the road a little to see if I could see far enough upstream to spot the tree where the second eagle had been perched.

It was out of sight, around at least a couple of bends in the river.

I had the window down part way on the ride home. The cold air felt good coming into the car. The creeks and rivers I crossed were over their banks. Some racing wildly while others moved slowly in strands and pools of black mercury.

The fresh air had done me good. I was ready to return to the house where I have read every wall, stairstep, floorboard and ceiling more than once, all the way through, over these quarantine days that have passed.

At least I thought I was.

I wasn’t home very long when sad news crept in through the walls, like spilled ink or blood, seeping through the cracks and running across the floor.

It reached me in my seat in the study.

The Illinois songwriter, singer and one-time mailman John Prine had succumbed to complications of the coronavirus. He’d spent his last days in an intensive care unit with pneumonia in both lungs, his family unable to visit.

What a sad and disappointing end for such a powerful and sweet spirit. His honesty, love and humor will be missed profoundly.

People say you should never meet your heroes because they’ll invariably disappoint you. In this case, I’m not so sure. I would have been happy to take the risk.

I got to see him perform live a couple of times, which is a lot more than many people can say. I was lucky. Both times were in Wisconsin. Once was after Prine had battled what he called “neck cancer.”

I will keep those nights and performances wrapped close around me as I move ahead down the dark forest roads of these far north woods to the cold shores of forgotten lakes.

One of the last songs Prine released was one of his most beautiful, called “Summer’s End.”

It seems sadly prescient now.

In it he says, Summer’s end’s around the bend just flying. The swimming suits are on the line just drying. I’ll meet you there per our conversation. I hope I didn’t ruin your whole vacation.

For me, this was one of those songs I knew I would never forget the first time I heard it.

Well you never know how far from home you’re feeling. Until you’ve watched the shadows cross the ceiling. Well I don’t know, but I can see it snowing. In your car, the windows are wide open. Just come on home, come on home.

No, you don’t have to be alone. Just come on home.

— — —

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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