My favorite things — the ones you experience in nature
MARQUETTE — “Come on the risin’ wind, we’re going up around the bend,” – John Fogerty
I have always been interested in the idea of harbingers – indicators or signals of things up the road, coming around the bend – things we can’t see today, maybe not even tomorrow, but eventually.
There are various types of these soothsayers, from those who claim to have psychic powers and visions, to necromancers, fortune tellers, prophets and the Oracle at Delphi from the Greeks’ Temple of Apollo.
Houdini spent a good deal of his time discrediting these folks after the death of his mother. Some speculate his challenging these spiritualist figures, including Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, led to his death by homicide.
Since I first saw the movie years ago, I have been intrigued with the incredible phenomenon depicted in The Mothman Prophecies, which was based on a true story of reported sightings of a humanoid “mothman” creature seen during 1966-67 in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
The idea is that the sighting of the creature predicts disaster, such as the Silver Bridge collapse on the Ohio River in that town, which claimed 46 lives in December 1967.
American Indians had similar ideas, like the sighting of an owl portending death. Other Indian signs included snakes symbolizing healing, cacti connotating protection and dragonflies signifying freedom.
To consider all these things, one must mentally walk a thin, figurative line that separates faith from current reality, fakers and thieves from true unexplained occurrence and science from myth and superstition.
Even deciding to put your plans for the day aside on the advice of a weather forecaster requires a walk along this line.
My favorite types of these things are the ones you can experience in nature, like leaves turning upward to catch rain or the songs of robins before a rainstorm arrives, red skies at dusk and dawn predicting the weather or an icy ring around the moon foretelling snowfall.
I was thinking about these things this week as I headed to the woods for a look around now that spring had reluctantly begun to do its thing here in the north woods.
I saw many tiny buds on trees ushering in what will eventually be the arrival of summer leaves, and later, berry crops.
I heard the drumming of a male ruffed grouse from a log downed on a wet forest floor, portending the hatching of grouse chicks later this spring. Nature anticipates that many of these chicks will not survive, so grouse have developed large clutch sizes to compensate for the losses.
These things are easy to understand, though they do involve a learning and a reading of signs. These are things we learned all the time as kids, some through our own empirical experiences outdoors, others at the teaching of our parents, siblings, school instructors and scouting leaders.
Though these things are simple, they hopefully will endure in the curious minds of children forever. I hope it will always be fun for kids to explore the woods in springtime, getting wet and muddy, but finding frog eggs and turtles and fresh, green plants sprouting through last year’s browned, dead and withered autumn leaves.
I hope they will not only hear a grouse drum but learn to know what it is. Though I never could really imagine my youthful years without experiencing all these things and hundreds more with a zest to learn and understand, I am uncertain that these things will always endure outside the virtual realm.
I have lived long enough to know that if you live long enough, you will see shocking things you never thought possible – good and bad – come to pass.
I don’t know whether nature will always exist for kids and adults in much the same way it does today, but I am standing on the faith and hope side of the figurative line.
This past weekend, I ventured to Chicago for a couple of days. By the time I got back, my travel experiences made me feel like a predictor of things to come myself.
It was as though I had gone to the Emerald City.
The things I saw were almost unimaginable to a northern Michigan denizen wrestling with a lagging springtime at the close of a longer than usual winter.
Along the streets of the city’s residential neighborhoods, gorgeous trees folded their branches like hands overhead, covered in flowering blooms.
Shocking pinks, purples, white, reds and magenta adorned the branches of these trees, which seemed to be everywhere.
There were large playgrounds with bright, green lawns of grass and yellow tulips blooming and nodding in gardens along the sidewalks. It was tremendous to see and smell these delights.
Even in places, like a wet and gritty parking lot, in the heart of a bustling commercial district, signs of nature revealing itself in springtime glory were evident.
Walking out of a drugstore, I heard the high chattering sounds of chimney swifts on the wing. As one of my favorite bird species, I recognized their songs immediately and looked skyward toward the sound.
Banking and dipping, a group of less than a dozen, but more than six presented themselves in aerial formations, chittering and chattering as they probed the open skies for insects to eat.
Travelers like me, they were heading back from wintertime in South America, returning to the north. I can predict with a good level of certainty that they will arrive here among us in a couple more weeks, if not sooner.
They will then build their half-cup nests, attaching them to the bricks inside chimneys and fly our skies overhead eating insects and playing their formation flying games.
My travel north returned me, slow but sure, to the frozen lakes and snow-covered forest floors of this fine, true region.
Passing over a highway bridge in Green Bay, white pelicans were in the skies over Lake Michigan, punctuating the view on an otherwise gray and dreary day.
Rain sprinkled off and on as the crop fields slowly turned from green to brown and then gray that farther I went north.
It was somewhere around the peninsular divide, where the streams figure out which way they are going to drain, that the conditions began to shift markedly toward the remaining wintry sights.
Ducks floated in rafts between floes of moving ice on patches of open water. On the sides of the road, especially in places not exposed to a great deal of sunshine, piles of snow, most with winter’s road sand covering them, remained.
Side roads were muddy and many streams held ice.
Among the trees themselves, much larger patches of snow extended into the background of my viewpoint. The ground beneath my feet, where there wasn’t snow, was soaking wet.
It would likely be at least a couple of weeks yet before the forecasted summery temperatures would be able to melt all this.
Back out in the woods on my morning constitution, I discovered fresh tracks from two moose alongside the roadway where I walked. One of the animals was much larger than the other. Both had walked here only moments before me.
I wondered whether they had been made aware of my upcoming presence somehow and they wandered off before I arrived. Was there a sign of some kind they could sense to let them know what was headed their way from up the road a bit?
There certainly was nothing I could sense of their presence except for the potential of their being there based on habitat, known existence of moose in this area and the possibility of sightings based on my experience teaching me that they often use roadways to make their way.
I didn’t find the moose, only evidence of their presence. Just like the springtime unfolding slowly before me. I didn’t find it either necessarily, only indicators that it was approaching, like the first song I heard of a winter wren.
The whole magic of signs, prediction, this perspective of viewpoint and the possibility of being able to maintain a vantage point that affords just a little better look down or up the road ahead is hard to grasp fully or handily.
Whether elusive or not, I know it contains the stuff of cosmic dust and dreams, of miracles and meditation, science and probability, the crossing of figures in the hinterlands of my world of understanding, of the very nature of who we are and what this fascinating and frustrating life thing is all about.
And therefore, for me, it must be pursued. Will I one day discover the answers I am seeking? I don’t think I can predict that either way.
I watch for signs, learn what I can and feel my way forward with my walking stick, trying to nudge my human blindfold up off my eyes.
The road to complete understanding is rugged, winding and uncertain.
Faith is a comfort and a guide to help me find my way.
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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.