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Column: If we could keep summer in a bottle

“On a clear day rise and look around you, and you’ll see who you are,” – Alan Jay Lerner

— — —

MARQUETTE — The bright afternoon sunshine made me squint, while a warm breeze pushed up dirt from this rocky road, tucked into a wild section of the countryside filled with the sounds of the bugs and birds.

These are the kind of halcyon days I always wish I could somehow catch in a bottle, like a grasshopper, and save, all corked up, until a bleak February afternoon.

Then, from the top of the tallest snowbank, in the teeth of a howling winter wind, I imagine I could release the bottle’s contents into the air.

I can envision myself sitting back and watching the beautiful, radiant colors of the green grass, the pink and white apple and cherry blossoms of June and the clear, azure of the summery skies flowing out over the landscape – like a bottle of swirled and colorful paint spilling over a black-and-white scene.

The ice would melt, the snow dissolve and the creeks would rise, heralding the arrival of not only an early summer, but quite an early spring.

But, of course, all of this is a daydream.

The truth often eludes me, if I don’t stop to think.

The time to experience these kinds of gorgeous days is when they are happening, before they’re gone again.

Wishing and dreaming won’t ever make my bottled-up wintertime fantasy come true. There’s no sense in waiting. I’ve got to live in the now.

That truth, though clear and revealing, is easy to forget. It can slip away quickly while the dizzying pace of days keeps leaning full on the throttle.

I sometimes feel as though I’m rushing breathless to keep my feet lifting ahead of an approaching locomotive. Running faster all the time.

I guess I don’t understand the simple answer would be to get off the damned tracks.

It’s an often-made remark to not take things for granted, or to live “in the moment” and try to practice “mindfulness.”

To me, these notions are powerful things that somehow seem concealed behind bland or opaque wrappers – like ammonia in a plain white, plastic container. These terms are light and airy but carry a heavy weight.

I could easily drift out of this moment to realize I am likely taking countless things for granted on a very regular basis.

It’s hard to be mindful deliberately and to always remain present through each moment of life. It’s harder to do if I don’t practice it and almost impossible if I don’t remind myself.

I sometimes discover I’ve been too complacent in my thoughts, or rooted in perspective, unable to see what’s before me when it’s there to see – thinking about tomorrow or yesterday today.

Meanwhile, another day slips past like rushing water that’s never coming back.

The answer is at once simple and completely complicated – the time to act is now. But you can often only do one thing at a time. So, you must choose wisely.

Time and circumstance are slippery and deceitful.

They not only allow me to forget, sometimes they seem to help push me along that path. I forget that some things that might have always been will change and perhaps never, ever be again.

When I was a kid in summertime, the springtime arrival of purple martins to my neighbor’s birdhouse always made me happy. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to see martin motel birdhouses without vacancy, in backyards and farmhouse fields.

I always thought the martins would always be here, like the bats and the frogs.

However, those beautiful purplish-blue birds have since all but disappeared from this part of the country. I haven’t seen one in years.

There are people like that too. Here and then gone too soon, like money and vacation.

I struggle with all of this, but I do think I am getting better at it.

A couple of years ago I couldn’t have even told you what mindfulness was. I am now mindful of how clueless that seems.

So, this sunny day was a particularly pretty one, with the winds warm, pleasant and gusting up and over the banks of the river where we fished.

This was a day when it was easy for me to be mindful, easy to be present, grateful and happy.

It seemed like more than a combination of a nice, warm day, good company and being out fishing. There was something else I couldn’t quite discern from the woods or the winds around me.

But I could feel it strong and true. I knew, as the afternoon wore on, that I would likely tuck this experience away in the back of my mind – maybe for a cold February night.

We had walked in along a muddy deer trail, pushed past tag alders and willows to get to the riverbank. The deer flies knew we were there right away.

We hadn’t been there all that long and we already had fish in our bags.

I was sort of working like a guide on this trip. I really wanted my buddy to bring home a limit catch of fish. I really didn’t care if I got any. I had been out fishing more often than he had this year, with more than a little luck.

Meanwhile, he hadn’t caught a legal-sized fish so far this season.

In less that two hours, I had encountered several line snarls and snags, but I wasn’t discouraged. My buddy had almost filled out his daily limit. I had caught two nice trout myself.

He was using worms for bait and he was almost out of them.

I had worked my way downstream through a thick stand of trees to a big corner where the water was deep, a likely hiding spot for trout. I tossed a lure down past the big hole a few times and reeled it back up.

About the third time through, a big trout lifted off the bottom of the stream and chased my lure. I tried another cast and he failed to rise again.

I called my friend down to where I was fishing to toss his crawler into the hole.

After just a couple of casts, he started getting little tugs on his line. The fish seemed to be nibbling, not biting hard as brook trout often will.

The fish tugged a bit harder and my buddy started reeling. The fish was coming in toward the edge of the steep riverbank, but it dropped off the line.

Another cast and the fish bit hard.

I knelt low in the tall green grass, perched myself over the deep water, and waited with a net for the fish to tire.

This biggest fish caught on the day was the last my buddy needed for his limit.

“This right here is the kind of fishing I love,” he said. “This is what I grew up on.”

Later, at home, he tipped his worm container to dump out the rest of his crawlers.

He didn’t have any left.

The last fish was caught on his last worm.

Not a tremendous occurrence in life as circumstances go, but in my mind another example of how perfect the day had been.

I remain confident this experience will rank as one of the best days of not only this summer, but of any summer. Again, it was palpable, something I could feel in the warm wind, something special to sense in the sweet smell of the air and the sway of the trees.

Something seemingly intangible, but nonetheless real.

Maybe part of it was indeed the feeling of being so wrapped up in every minute of the afternoon, the awareness, the mindfulness.

Whatever it was, it’s still out there and I hope to find it again soon.

— — —

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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