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Column: Sounds of summer are quieting

“Here we go again through the same old misery, look into my eyes and it’s easy to see we can’t undo the distance between me and you,” – Marshall Crenshaw

— — —

MARQUETTE — As I stepped outside the front door, it was immediately noticeable how quiet the nighttime was. It was after midnight. There was no wind.

The skies were clear, with splashes of the Milky Way flowing across a dark bed of sparkling stars. A shooting star, no doubt a remnant from the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, fizzled overhead.

It didn’t seem like anything at all was moving. Not a leaf. Not a blade of grass.

I then heard a sound of something approaching through the trees from across the county road. It was a doe, poking her nose out of the darkness.

She moved slowly and gracefully, certainly in no hurry. She had the donkey head nod as she headed onto the blacktop and out to the centerline. From where I stood, I could hear her hooves clicking on the pavement.

In the streetlight glow I could see her coat was beautifully brown.

Suddenly, the sound of her hoofbeats stopped.

I looked up and saw her stopped in the middle of the road.

A fluffy creature bobbed along its nighttime way, crossing the road in front of her.

It was a skunk, it’s tail wagging like a plume on a lady’s hat from the Gilded Age.

The animal seemed to me to be moving forward on a direct path, knowing where it was going. It came across part of the front lawn and then disappeared into the brush at the base of a stand of cedar trees.

A moment or two later, it popped up and trotted down the neighbor’s driveway and out onto the county road again. It disappeared into the blackness.

Meanwhile, I had lost track of where the deer went, but she was gone.

When I was a young kid, one of our neighbors had a pet skunk. She kept it in the house and petted it like a house cat. The skunk couldn’t spray its owner.

It seemed strange to me why someone would choose a skunk for a pet. It still does, especially given her reaction after a family of wild skunks had somehow gotten into her basement through a damaged storm window.

I recall going over to her house with my mom for coffee and saffron, as was a common occurrence. The entire house smelled horribly from skunk. My eyes felt like they were burning.

The lady who had this beloved pet skunk had the wild ones trapped, except for one that her nephew beat to death with a clothes pole. I remember I was very young, and my mom kept me away.

It was weird when we were kids. You would get reports of dead pigeons, squirrels or rabbits in common conversation.

“I saw a dead pigeon on my way to the playgrounds.”

“Oh yeah, where?”

“On Oak Street before you get to the lake.”

“It had flies on it.”

“I’m going to ride my bike over there after I eat to take a look at it.”

It reminds me of the kids in “Stand by Me” taking a hike down the railroad tracks to see a dead body.

I think death was widely unknown to us then, in any real sense.

Therefore, when someone found a dead dog or a cat that had been struck by a car, it was a happening – something to tell other people about, including parents.

I never would have guessed the world I was growing up in then would be one so well-acquainted with death. I think about death and distance in kind of the same thought -one can beget the other.

People coming together, souls coming apart.

The next morning, I slid the window open to the backyard.

The silence that had cloaked the front yard the previous evening had not dissolved in the morning light. It was cloudy overhead. No whiff of the skunk.

The stillness seemed out of place. The flowers blooming in the rock garden were screaming out their colors in pinks, golds, blues and purples. No sound.

I watched to see if anything would emerge from the greenery thick around the edge of the yard. Maybe a rabbit or another deer.

I noticed one raindrop land on the window, followed by another. Soon, the leaves on the plants in the garden were moving as the raindrops fell against them.

As the rain fell softly, the birds suddenly perked up and began calling. The first I noticed were the blue jays that squawked out what seemed like alarm calls. They were followed by chipping and cheeping of chickadees.

Silence and distance are also kin.

Long distance, distance learning, the distance between me and you.

To find silence, I’m now learning that I often need to put greater and greater distance between myself and almost any city or town dot on my road map. The world seems to be getting smaller and crazier – and that’s saying something.

To make sense of any of it, in any tangible way, I need to be able to think and breathe alone. To listen to the beating of my own heart.

These days, the paths with no footprints are harder to find, be they along the trout streams or on top of the mountains. For me, this makes the silence and the distance that much sweeter to experience when I do encounter it.

I’ve been interested of late in the Japanese concept of forest bathing. It’s probably not what you might think it is. I bought a book on it last year.

According to National Geographic, “The term emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”).

The purpose was twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests. The Japanese quickly embraced this form of eco-therapy.”

I told someone this week that I was going to go forest bathing yesterday, but I forgot my towel. That prompted a smiley-face emoji.

The times we are living in are rife with uncertainty and worry.

Little kids are even scared. I worry about that.

I think the more forest bathing I can do, the better I might feel. With everything happening, it’s harder and harder to unplug – to put that distance behind me and the pandemic blues to find the comfort of the forest.

But that doesn’t deter me. I am driven to find peace and solitude to contemplate and to wonder. I think. I feel. I am determined. I am on a path forward.

The sun crept out from behind the clouds, just briefly. Then the gray clouds wrapped themselves around the rest of the afternoon and the raindrops began to plop into the puddles on the back patio.

The green leaves on the trees are slicked by raindrops. The tree trunks are dark and wet. The sound of the falling rain on the roof calms me and makes me feel warm. I’m dry here inside the house.

In the woods, in the rain, the sound of raindrops against my jacket make me feel colder. The dampness of the air brings a slouch in my resolve. Until I remember that I’m out there in the rain to try to catch fish.

Then I’m back in the game, no matter how hard it rains. It’s funny how that works. It’s mind over matter – as in silence and death and distance.

Once the rain kicks up harder like this, the birds and animals find hiding places. They don’t often sing or talk or come around looking for food – in no hurry to get any place.

Like me, they are waiting for the sun to shine, for the lake to turn blue again.

The sounds of summer are quieting, even the Beach Boys.

Soon they will be a distant memory, fading into the events of another year, harder and harder to recall with reliability.

Resilience is a gift.

— — —

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.

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