Wild waters

Earlier this month a friend and I hiked the Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen state park. During the descent through Ganoga Glen, we paused to watch a feeder stream rush down the steep hillside into Kitchen Creek. Although dwarfed by the spectacular falls along Kitchen Creek, the small cataract on this feeder stream exhibited a charm of its own. We debated a name. “Let’s call it ‘No-Name Falls,'” I suggested. “How about ‘Imagination Falls?'” my friend said. I’m unsure what name stuck, but I shall always recall the vibrancy of the clear white water as it tumbled down over the rocks beneath the small wooden footbridge on which we stood.

2016 Ricketts Glen

“Wild water left to itself can never fail to be beautiful,” Odell Shepard writes in his treatise on angling Thy Rod and Thy Creel; “and it will not endure the slightest ugliness about it.”

As I look back over my youth, I am struck by the number of creeks, streams and rivers that formed and deepened my appreciation of the natural world. “We need the tonic of wildness,” Thoreau writes, and what can be more wild in the eyes of a boy than a stretch of free-flowing natural water?

I think back to the streams of my Pennsylvania childhood: Echo Valley Brook, Trout Run, Indiantown Run, Stony Brook, Swatara Creek, Quittapahilla Creek (the Quittie) — streams in which we played and fished and swam and paddled. Later the circle would be expanded to include others: Broad Creek in Stroudsburg, Pine Creek in Wellsboro; the Musketaquid in Concord; Riga Brook, Salmon Brook, the west branch of the Upper Farmington; and the Rio Sor, which cascades down through the mountains of northern Spain where a good friend from long ago and I fished one summer.

I think of them now with a certain warmth and pleasure, thankful that I had the chance to know them intimately, as a lover knows his beloved.

In the final pages of his boyhood memoir The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark lovingly relates the final trek home back to North Carolina with his aging grandfather:

When we got to a place called Jackie’s Creek, where we had seen turkeys and shot quail, the Old Man said, “Stop the car. I want to took at it.”

When we got to a place called Allen’s Creek, and Moore’s Creek, he said the same thing. We stopped and we looked. The Old Man nodded his head, and said, for no reason at all that I could think of, “I’m satisfied. Nobody owes me nothin’.”

As I look back on these streams, the streams of my youth, the streams of my middle years and those of my older age, I find myself thinking the same thing.

"Galicia Bridge" © Brian T. Maurer

“Galicia Bridge” © Brian T. Maurer

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A primeval scream

Lost in thought, I sauntered along on my morning walk, when out of the corner of my eye suddenly I caught movement. I looked up to the left and there they were: two red foxes romping in the grassy expanse by the forest.

One turned tail and disappeared straightaway into the wood; the second stood stock still in profile — triangular ears, pointy snout, long white-tipped tail.

Immediately, I hunkered down and froze, never taking my eyes off the sleek form.

The fox stared at me momentarily, then opened his mouth and emitted a sound like nothing I had ever heard before: a loud short raspy scream.

The sound brought to mind Dylan Thomas’s description of “noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves”— or

…a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time…a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.

Shortly, I heard several distinct distant barks from the wood where the other fox had gone. Then this fox responded with a series of short, high-pitched barks before turning tail and trotting down along the tree line toward the river.

Mysteries abound in the forest, of which we seldom catch but a glimpse: here, a phrase or two uttered in an unknown tongue, surging up from the wildness of nature to touch the core of our primeval being.

A walk in the park

In wildness is the preservation of the world. —Thoreau

We had gotten our first taste of Ontario’s Frontenac Park the day before.

The ranger at the main office on Salmon Lake Road suggested several easy walks close by. We studied the display of two stuffed fisher cats and admired the century-old dugout canoe mounted on the wall in the information center before heading out on the Doe Lake Trail. An hour later, back at the base, we explored the Arab Lake Gorge loop, meandering along the boardwalk by the beaver dam.

That evening back at the cottage we decided to hike the Slide Lake Trail the next day.

I took my day pack with a map and compass, binoculars, Swiss Army knife, matches, a 2-quart canteen and a first-aid kit. We drove to the Rideau trailhead and followed the orange triangle blaze marks to the southeastern Slide Lake Trail. We crossed through an extensive meadow knee-deep in September wildflowers: asters, goldenrod and milkweed gone to seed. Leaves on a stand of tall aspen rustling in the air brought to mind brushstrokes on a Monet canvas.

We passed by a small marsh peppered with decayed stumps of dead trees and entered the woods. The wings of a grouse drummed the afternoon air. Shortly, we caught our first glimpse of Buck Lake to the east. A bit further along the trail brought us to a marshy inlet of Slide Lake on the west.

A marshy inlet on Slide Lake, Frontenac ParkSlide Lake got its name from the log slide constructed by 19th century loggers. Logs harvested at Big Clear Lake and Lake Labelle were floated into this narrow pristine lake, then driven down through a narrow ravine into Buck Lake. From there they were transported north again to the mills of Massassauga Creek — a roundabout way of moving lumber, but easier than hauling it overland.

At the northern tip of Slide Lake we took a short break to consider whether we should push on to the scenic overlook at Mink Lake (another 45-minute walk) or continue on our way down the northwestern side of Slide Lake. We had been hiking steadily for two hours. From our current location it would be another two and a half hours back to the trailhead. We decided to continue on the Slide Lake Trail, leaving Mink Lake for another day.

The northwestern side of Slide Lake provides a panoramic view of the country from the rocky ridge christened the Whale Back. Here we sat, looking out over the extensive body of water glistening in the afternoon sun. A big red-tailed hawk soared above the tops of the pines. At our feet a garter snake darted through a crevice in the rock and disappeared into the bush.

We proceeded down the ridge to a pine-covered peninsula. One of my companions, studying the bank, pointed out several bass hovering over a submerged log near the shore.

Slide Lake, northwestern ridgeOnce again we began our ascent to higher ground, following the trail along the high rock formations to the southern end of the lake. We paused for a final vista before beginning the descent into the woods. Soon we were back on the Rideau Trail, retracing our steps past the meadows of old 19th century farms to the trailhead where our vehicle awaited our return.

It had taken us four and half hours to traverse the circumference of Slide Lake, roughly ten kilometers of mountainous trail and meadow.

It was only after we returned to the cottage that I read that we had trekked through some of the most rugged country in this 12,900 acre wilderness park.

But more than that, we had touched the wildness that rejuvenates the soul.

Fundamental Questions

Since the beginning of recorded history philosophers have postulated our origins and reasons for our existence.  More recently, they have highlighted concerns for the survival of our species as well.  Their inquiries can be distilled down to three fundamental questions: Where have we come from, what is the nature of our essence, and what is our destiny?

Modern scientists have attempted to answer these questions through empirical research.  Although the Darwinian theory of natural selection is now universally accepted within the scientific community, in itself it can not address the ultimate origin of our species any more than it is capable of predicting our future evolution.  As to the nature of our essence — what it means to be human — the most Darwinian theory can offer is that we exist in order to reproduce, thereby insuring the survival of our genes.

As Darwinian thought was being formulated in the 19th century, two philosophers — one a transcendental naturalist, the other an avant-garde artist — continued to explore these same questions.  Curiously, though their lives overlapped by a span of some fourteen years, and chances are that neither knew of the other’s work; both formulated similar, if not identical, fundamental queries.

In 1846 Henry David Thoreau encountered what he would allude to as the wildness of nature on his first excursion to Maine’s Mount Katahdin.  In what scholars refer to as the “Contact!” passage in his essay Ktaadn, Thoreau attempts to elucidate the mystical experience he had while standing “deep within the hostile ranks of clouds” on the summit:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,—that my body might,—but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

Who are we? Where are we? Thoreau ponders, echoing the cry of the natural philosopher.  What are our origins, our nature, our destiny?

Unable to articulate a precise response, Thoreau resorts to poetic prose in an attempt to explain his experience.  Astute readers recognize that Thoreau has passed through some sort of transcendental boundary, although it remains mostly undefined.  As Thoreau scholar Bradley Dean has written:

“The carefully crafted prose of the ‘Contact!’ passage reflects not emotional turmoil but the finer frenzy of Thoreau the transcendentalist prophet straining the capabilities of language to describe the ‘original relation to the universe’ he experienced atop the mountain.”

Dean continues: “A seemingly paradoxical sentence in Walden precisely explains his experience on the mountain: ‘Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations’ (my emphases). The mountain taught him what he clearly believed all of nature teaches if properly perceived: that each of us is a spirit in a world of matter that we have contact with through the agency of a body. This trinity of spirit, matter, and body — and ‘the infinite extent’ of the relations between them — comprises for Thoreau the Great Mystery.”

In contrast to Thoreau’s excursions from Massachusetts to Maine, the French artist Paul Gauguin traveled half way round the world to paint the colors of Tahiti. In what is perhaps his most celebrated work — certainly the one he regarded as his best — Gauguin inscribed these words in the upper left-hand corner of the canvas: “D’où venons-nous?  Que sommes-nous?  Où allons-nous?” (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?) — questions similar to those posed by Thoreau on his Katahdin ascent.

Gauguin was introduced to a variation of these queries during the his formative years at the Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin by his teacher, Bishop of Orléans, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup.  Dupanloup’s three fundamental questions were: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?”  “How does humanity proceed?”  Evidently, Gauguin revisited these queries throughout his life, electing to record them at last in his masterpiece D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous.

In his description of the painting, Gauguin indicated that he intended it to be viewed from right to left.  The three major figure groups illustrate the questions posed in the title.  According Gauguin, the white bird at the feet of the old woman at the left of the canvas “represents the futility of words,” inferring that written or spoken language is apt to fail us when we attempt to explain those mystical moments we encounter in our lives.

After his experience on Mt.Katahdin, Thoreau determined to dedicate his life to “detect some trace of the Ineffable” in his daily saunterings; Gauguin elected to capture such “traces” in color on canvas.  Both attempted to realize the same end through the use of different media.

What is required to achieve these ends, of course, is attentiveness to the moment in the natural world.  Gauguin found the wild in Tahiti; Thoreau encountered it atop Mt.Katahdin.