Category Archives: Place
It was the middle of May 2018 when I first landed on Isle Royale. That storied island—that mass of rock isolated in northern Lake Superior. So far away it seems logically like it should be part of Canada, yet it belonged to Michigan—the only National Park in my home state. The mystery of that island beckoned me from maps with its geography and isolation. Long had I wanted to discover what this coveted gem had in store.
At long last, I finally visited the island after spending a winter and a spring teaching environmental education in northern Minnesota. By that time, I had become quite familiar with the boreal northwoods from all those hours teaching kids in the wilds. The northern forests, hence, were not all that different from my everyday existence.
Given my years of anticipation, Isle Royale was bound to be something exceptionally different than what one could experience on the mainland, I believed.
As it was, my first trip to the island was a simple, short overnight stay, ferrying in from Grand Portage, Minnesota to the Windigo Visitors Center on the western end of the island. As far as landscapes go, the flat, forested, mixed-conifer forests of Windigo are not spectacularly different than the Minnesota Northwoods I had become accustomed to.
I was a bit underwhelmed.
I didn’t even bother to take any pictures (incidentally, my camera had broken earlier that trip).
I left Isle Royale that trip convinced that I had seen the island in the wrong way. A simple overnight trip was no way to do the island ecosystem justice. If I was ever to return to Isle Royale, I thought, I would do it in the right way: I would hike the island from end to end, slow enough to absorb the ecological transitions, to understand the essence of what makes the place, and to enjoy immersion in the vast isolation of Isle Royale.
As chance would have it, in the summer of 2019 I was selected to take part in a volunteer restoration crew on Isle Royale’s Rock of Ages Lighthouse. I would be returning to Isle Royale sooner than I had thought, and this time, I would be staying on to hike across the island afterwards.
I started my hike on the western end of the Island, at Windigo, the widest part of the island. Here the forest commands the land and the coastline is smoother, less jagged. I made my way to the Greenstone Ridge trail, the hiking path that transects the middle of the island. Despite its name, the Greenstone Ridge at this point isn’t much of a ridge at all. The trail slowly climbs uphill under the cover of a mixed-forest—conifers, but also maples and even the warm-and-dry loving oaks. I spent my first night at the interior campsite of Island Mine, the site of an 1870’s copper mine that peaked and was abandoned in only a few years.
Mining history would be a big theme of the hike, and copper was the resource of value. It wasn’t just white Euro-Americans who were mining the island either: the Ojibwe, the indigenous people of Isle Royale, had mined the island for thousands of years. Archeological evidence suggests that as early as 4500 years ago, indigenous people harvested copper by using stones to hammer off chunks of native copper from outcroppings in the bedrock. As their technology progressed, they began to mine deeper in the bedrock by building large fires over ore deposits, then quickly dousing the fire with water in order to crack the bedrock. Small indigenous mining pits can still be seen throughout Isle Royale today. By the 1840’s the Objibwe had been duped into ceding their lands to settlement and development for the resource-hungry Americans. Speculators flocked to the island to make their riches, but mining on Isle Royale was always boom or bust. Island Mine organized in 1874 and extracted over 200,000 pounds of refined copper. Three years later, the company went bust. All that remains now are scattered pieces of rusting equipment and mounds of tailings.
Day two saw me continue east along the Greenstone Ridge. After a few miles of hiking through the shady canopy, I began to get my first views from the ridge: small, rocky clearings at first with scrubby oaks and small shrubs partly obscuring the views. First the clearings were few and far between, but then they became more abundant. From the ridge one could begin to see some of the inland lakes that dot the island, including the scenic Lake Desor, near the summit of Mount Desor, which at 1,394 feet is the highest point on the island. From clearings further along I could even see Ryan Island in Siskiwit Lake, the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake.
With the gradual opening from shady forest to open ridge, another fun thing happened: berries. Up on the ridge, the sun beats down and the soil becomes dry. The seasons progress quicker than by the lakeshore where Lake Superior tempers the weather. Whereas the thimbleberries at lower elevations were still hard and green, up on the ridge I began to encounter a progression of ripeness: first, an isolated red berry, then a few on a bramble, and finally whole thickets of the bright red berries. Thimbleberries are a thornless, velvety cousin of the raspberry, with shallow bright red berries which are so soft and juicy that they can only survive the journey from the hand to the mouth.
After gorging myself on snacks of thimbleberries and taking a mid-afternoon swim in the cool and clear Lake Desor, I made my campsite at Hatchet Lake.
The clear summer weather finally took a turn for the wet on my second night. It was a constant heavy rain that slowly drenched me. I awoke (did I even sleep?) with about an inch of standing water in my tent. I later learned that at Windigo they recorded nearly two inches of rain in that overnight.
I would start my third day soggy. Today I would be leaving the Greenstone Ridge trail for the north shore of Isle Royale and the infamous Minong Ridge. I reached Lake Superior at Todd Harbor, a picturesque cove with a mélange of water-smoothed rocks. I took a short side hike to the former open pit of the Haystack Mine, and then followed a trail just a little bit further to find a small waterfall that was the cause of some bubbling noise off in the distance. From Todd Harbor I took the Minong Trail towards McCargoe Cove. The Minong Trail, though it never reaches as high elevations as the Greenstone Ridge, deserves its reputation as a knee-destroyer. The Minong Ridge is a series of exposed escarpement ridges: a rocky, uneven gradual climb up the bare basalt, followed by a steep dropoff on the backside. Then repeat, again and again. On a hot day, it wears you out, as it wears out your knees.
I reached the deep and slender McCargoe Cove by mid-afternoon, and after such a soggy night, I was eager to rest and dry out. This afternoon, I finally got a shelter at one of the island’s campsites. They are spacious lean-tos, screened-in, and with the perfect combination of both scenic views and isolation. I dried my clothes off and basked in the sun.
Though McCargoe Cove was my favorite campsite of the hike, there were not many people there at all. Isle Royale consistently is the least visited national park in the contiguous 48 states. In 2017, this National Park had only more visitors than Lake Clark, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, all sites in remote interior Alaska. With only 28,196 people even paying a visit in all of 2017, more people visit parks like Yellowstone in a single day than all of Isle Royale in an entire year. The great benefit of Isle Royale’s lack of popularity is its solitude. The trails and campgrounds never feel crowded. With fewer folks around, you also develop good connections with your fellow travelers quite readily. At McCargoe Cove, I spent the evening around the campfire chatting with our only neighbors: a group of fishermen from Chicago and a pair of ladies from the Twin Cities. Trail community seems to come easily here.
McCargoe Cove was also the harbor used for the Minong Mine, the most prolific mine in Isle Royale’s history. Like other island mine sites, indigenous people had harvested surface copper deposits here first. In 1872, modern mining operations had commenced at Minong. This mine produced some incredible finds, such as a 5,720 pound nugget of almost pure copper. Finds like this nugget, and several other massive nuggets, added fuel to the mining fire. Two shafts were dug, up to 300 feet deep, as well as several drift tunnels that followed the ore veins. As tunnels were dug, tailings, or waste rock, began to fill in the adjoining marsh that leads to McCargoe Cove. A boomtown known as Cove sprang up at Minong, housing upwards of 150 people at its peak. Along with its railroad, stamp mill, and blacksmith shop, Cove even boasted a post office. Indeed, the prospect of permanent settlement on Isle Royale seemed so promising that Isle Royale even became its own county in 1875. By 1885, however, all mining operations on Isle Royale came to a halt for good. The grade of the ore dwindled and the price of copper fell; Isle Royale proved to be too isolated and the winters too harsh. Eventually, even though over 4 million pounds of refined copper were removed from the island, all mining ventures proved too non-economical to continue. Island boomtowns were abandoned. By 1897, with no permanent population left, Isle Royale County was re-absorbed into Keweenaw County.
On my fourth day, after very much enjoying my single-night stay in the shelter, I was off to hiking again. This time I decided to traverse the island from north shore to south shore, hiking astride several interior lakes along the way. I had been told that these interior lakes were hotbeds for moose activity. As storied and prolific as the moose population on Isle Royale has been, I had yet to see my first moose on the island. I knew they’d be around, as I had already seen plenty of moose scat and browse sign.
The scenic and shapely-named Chickenbone Lake proved of no avail for moose, though it was a Mecca for giant dragonflies. The next lake over, at Lake Ritchie, I got my first far-off glimpse of a moose browsing in the aquatic vegetation far across the lake. With the gradual decline of the predatory wolf population, the numbers of moose on Isle Royale have skyrocketed in recent years, with an estimated 2,000 moose inhabiting just over 200 square miles of island (learn more about Isle Royale Wolf-Moose dynamics here). I would only end up seeing one other moose on my trip. After losing the hiking trail on some bedrock, I wound up following a moose trail into the woods. The moose trail petered away until I reached a swamp. Suddenly, a large startled moose crashed away from me through the brush!
Though I had seen two moose, as far as their illustrious predator the wolves went, I had yet to see any. When I had visited previously in 2018, there was just a pair of wolves left on the island, simultaneously a brother-sister pair and a father-daughter pair (you do the math on that inbreeding!). In the winter of 2018-2019, four more wolves were introduced to reinvigorate the existing wolf population. For anyone, seeing a wolf is a rare treat. Alas, I never had a wolf encounter on the island; the closest I got to seeing the wolves was the island cabin of well-known wolf-moose researcher Rolf Peterson.
Once at the south side of the island, I camped at the large harbor of Moskey Basin. Completely different from the small, sparsely-filled campgrounds I had been staying at, Moskey Basin was filled to capacity with both families and large groups, and its vast expanses of exposed bedrock and its picnic tables made this site feel luxurious and tame. But I should have expected that, visiting in high season after all. Even in high season, though, Isle Royale is not that busy, and getting all of that wilderness ambiance while hiking was a treat not to be taken for granted.
The cove at Moskey Basin was a sight to behold—layers of exposed bedrock outcroppings running right into the water. I hadn’t noticed it too much before, but the island was becoming rockier and rockier the further I traveled east. The exposed rocks left plenty of good places for sunbathing and also proved to be a prime habitat for blueberries (thimbleberries, unfortunately, had all but disappeared after leaving the Greenstone Ridge). Also without my noticing, the broadleaf tree canopy had disappeared too. Thin soils could no longer support the large broadleaf trees seen more westerly on the island. Instead, the forest was becoming more a stunted array of firs and spruces.
With a clear night ahead looking promising, I made a commitment to staying up to see the stars. This being mid-summer in the westernmost Eastern Time Zone, the sun did not set until near 10pm, and the stars did not emerge until well afterwards. After a full day of hiking, I was usually in my tent well before the stars came out in their full glory. But I stayed up tonight and was treated to a show on an absolutely moonless night. Being miles away from any human settlements, the stars on Isle Royale are absolutely amazing!
My last day on Isle Royale would take me into the primary tourist outpost at Rock Harbor. Rather than hugging the shoreline trail to my final destination, I once again went inland to take the Greenstone Ridge home. The trail up to the Mount Ojibway Fire Tower was never too steep, provided uninterrupted views, and proved to be premiere blueberry habitat. The whole climb up I had a constant handful of blueberries as a power snack. The Mount Ojibway Fire Tower, unlike its much squatter kin at Mount Ishpeming, actually provides visitor access to the base. Climbing the tower provides views of the entire island from north to south.
The Greenstone Ridge continued its path northeast across exposed rocky and grassy balds. By the time I reached the Mount Franklin lookout, it was clear I was encountering a different area. The overlook was populated with day-tourists hiking up from their various Rock Harbor lodgings. I left the viewpoint and went on the downhill to Rock Harbor and my hike’s end. At the eastern end of the island, Isle Royale’s tilted geology splits the island into many narrow peninsulas and long bays running towards the northeast. I walked along these deep harbors right along the trails by the edge of Superior’s turquoise waters.
A sign for campsites signaled that I had made it into Rock Harbor. I could now bask in the luxuries of this tourist depot. Modern settlement at Rock Harbor started with a few unsuccessful mining ventures in the 1840’s, then moved into the realm of commercial fishing, as Scandinavian immigrants built their fishing shanties after the copper booms. By the early 1900’s, these fishermen were guiding pleasure-seekers around the island and accommodating throngs of tourists in cabins. Several resorts eventually popped up, having their heyday in the 1920’s. The Great Depression and changing societal tastes caused a drastic decline to tourism in the 1930’s. By 1940, Isle Royale had been declared a National Park, and the National Park Service began the process of buying out and shutting down the remaining tourist resorts and removing fishermen from the island. Gradually, this formerly logged, mined, and settled island would be transformed into a 99% wilderness park with no permanent population.
Today Rock Harbor boasts a store where one can buy fresh vegetables as well as craft beer, hot showers ($6 for a five-minute shower), laundry, a restaurant, rustic cabins, and even a few hotel rooms. For this wilderness traveler, it was a world apart from the Isle Royale I had just experienced. The development at Rock Harbor was a foil to the isolation of the island. Though I milled about the Rock Harbor Village for a while, it just wasn’t what I needed. I made off to a quiet edge of Lake Superior and took a long, cleansing swim in her waters. For me, that is what Isle Royale is about.
A compilation of time-lapse sequences shot in winter in Minnesota. Enjoy!
Sunrise at Grand Marais Harbor, with the schooner Hjordis. December 2018.
Total lunar eclipse of the Super Blood Wolf Moon, January 20, 2019, as seen from West Bearskin Lake, Minnesota.
Sunset at Camp Menogyn Sauna, with Fisheye Lens. January 2019.
Temperance River. December 2018.
Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge at Night. November 2018.
Nightfall over the City of Duluth. November 2018.
Sunrise shadows across Hungry Jack Lake, as seen from Honeymoon Bluff, Superior National Forest. February 2019.
Hooking up the dog team during Fall ATV training at Amarok Kennels. November 2018.
An item on many people’s bucket lists, including mine, is to visit every one of the fifty United States. It’s a large task, considering the vast size of our country…but then again, it’s not too challenging when one considers how large most states are and how merely transiting around this country will often result in unintended visits to new states and to new places. As for me, before I reached the age of 27 in 2017, I had already set foot in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Mapped out, it looks like I have visited most of our country:
But for how many people, is visiting every single county in the United States on the bucket list? Instead of a mere 50 states, the total list extends to 3,142 counties*. For fellow alumnus of Calvin College’s Geography Department Tom Byker, this was a very intentional goal. Byker started his earnest quest to visit every single American county after beginning college, and this county-visit project was one highlight on his resume that helped him in landing a job at the navigational company TomTom. Tom recently brought his county visit project to a close after visiting his final county in Hawaii in 2017.
Inspired by the fine-scale travel goals of Tom Byker and the other ‘County Collectors,’ I decided to make my own map of county visits, mainly out of curiosity of where I’ve been in each state. I have never kept a formal list of counties that I have visited, so the entire map is based off memory of past travels I have been on. The majority of county travel has occurred during college and beyond, but I did try and reconstruct the county locations of some early family trips. And yes, I did count driving through a county as adequate for a visit. Here is what my county-scale map looks like:
And what can I learn from the county-level map?
- In total, I have visited 924 of 3,142 counties, which is about 29% of all counties.
- Despite visiting 48 of 50 states, there are still large swaths of the United States that I have not visited, namely the South and the Southeast.
- It becomes quickly apparent in which counties the interstates are. Interstates 94, 90, 80, 70, 44, 40, 35, 55, 57, 65, 69, and 75 all readily pop out, as well as U.S. Highway 2. Can I say, ‘Road Trip?’
- It’s easy to tick off county visits in the Western U.S. Not only is the West a great road trip destination, but the counties are also much larger. For example, Wyoming’s counties average 4,257 square miles while Georgia’s counties average only 373 square miles.
- I have visited every single county in two states: Oregon (completed in 2014 after a 2012 summer internship and lots of Grad School fieldwork in the state) and Massachusetts (completed in 2017, which included visits by ferry to both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands, which are their own respective counties).
- Broken down by counties, the states I have seen the least of are Louisiana (<5%), Arkansas (<3%), and Texas (<2%) (excluding North and South Carolina, which I have not yet visited).
- I have visited less of my own home state of Michigan than many other states. I have visited 71% of all Michigan counties, which ranks my home state as only 12th on my list according to percentage of counties visited.
*Here I use the term county broadly to include all U.S. counties or county equivalents. Most states are divided into counties, but Louisiana is similarly divided into parishes, and Alaska is similarly divided into boroughs. Additionally, several states (although primarily Virginia) have cities that are independent of any county. All of these categories are combined to get the number 3,142.
Maps generated are courtesy of mapchart.net
Here is the state-wide data on visits to each state:
|State||# Counties||# Visited||% Visited|
|District of Columbia||1||1||100.00%|
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Where are you? Do you feel connected to the place you find yourself in this current moment? Do you feel an encompassing sense of belonging here?
There are some places that give you that special feeling. Places that feel qualitatively different to the individual. Places that feel alive and electric, a kind of synchronicity between person and place. Places that are energy-giving. Magical, almost.
I like to refer to these locations as ‘deep places.’ The adjective deep is used to describe the immensity of the feeling the individual has towards the place. It is something felt on a higher level, different from one’s experience of everyday locales. These deep places may be spots you already know, or the feelings may arise the first time you step foot into a new environment. If you’ve ever experienced these magical feelings, then you have discovered a deep place for you.
The North Shore of Minnesota, along the edge of Lake Superior, has been one of those deep places for me. Starting in Duluth and heading northeast towards Thunder Bay, the north shore follows a rocky, rugged, forested line for more than one hundred and fifty miles. Along the coast it is a vast forestland wilderness, punctuated only by small settlements and scattered tourist outposts. It is a place where land meets water, where human meets wild. It is a deep place for me.
My first real venture to the North Shore came in May of 2016, entering Duluth from the south just past sundown, being greeted to the sweeping vistas of the big lake in the fading daylight. The northern drive to Grand Marais that night was illuminated by the blood-red full moon rising to its own reflection on the calm surface of Superior. That night was crisp and cool. The moon was out. The stars were shining brightly. The scent of the boreal forests and the water encompassed my nostrils. It was an entirely magical entrance to the place known as the North Shore.
Could the magic of my first experience on the North Shore ever be repeated? I have since returned to the North Shore many times, and have found that the magic was not a one-off experience. The feelings I have towards the region have not been diminished through growing familiarity. Every time I return to the North Shore, I am still astonishingly impressed by the astounding physical beauty of the environment. Jutting rusty-color basalt outcroppings, small rivers torrenting their way through deep overlooked canyons, pocket beaches cobbled with a mélange of surf-smoothed rocks. The cultural resources too—lighthouses, cabin complexes, mining history. There is so much to do here—and to keep coming back for more. Every time I would grow claustrophobic from my land-locked residence in inland Minnesota, even a short visit to the shore—to the great lake vistas—would always be the cure I didn’t even realize I needed. My deep place has also served as a restorative space.
The North Shore, for me, is one of those places where I always find more to discover—and upon discovering, find it imperative to come back and revisit again later. Even before I began to explore the region, I had this convincing sentiment that the North Shore would be a special area to me. It is a psychological wonder, how, even upon a first glance at a place, one can feel the initial intimations of inherent belonging and connection to that place. The newly entered deep place is a landscape ever so tantalizingly unknown and discoverable, yet undeniably comfortably welcoming. It’s a place that beckons you to linger on in its space. This sense of fitting into the place is preordained, not earned. You don’t grow to love deep places through familiarity, though they will become increasingly familiar with time. Instead, there is an instinctual, primitive gut feeling that you are part of the place; that you already know and love the area though you have recently arrived.
Everyone has, or should have, a deep place of their own. Maybe you know where it is. Maybe you have one but don’t know that you know it yet. Maybe you’ve revisited your place multiple times, or have even come to live there. Maybe you’ve only ever visited once. Even if physical visits are infrequent, even just thinking about those deep places can still conjure those magical feelings inside of you.
It is possible to have multiple deep places too. How many places exist out there in the world where you would feel this distinct connection if only you could visit? Though the North Shore of Minnesota is perhaps my most apparent deep place and the one I’ve revisited the most, I have others places where I have experienced similar sentiments—the Owens Valley of California, or the island of Tasmania, Australia, for example.
The remarkable thing is that while some deep places are shared with others, a deep place isn’t universal. Everyone will find a different space or landscape that speaks to them so clearly. These spaces are simultaneously yours alone and are shared by a community of others. But no matter how many people claim the same deep space, it always feels unique, as if the area were speaking directly to you.
Find your deep place.
On a recent spring break journey, I drove 3,200 miles across the top the US and Canada—and all I did was take pictures of barns! But the rural country landscape does fascinate me, and I find it particularly compelling to photograph. As I drove across the land, the aesthetics of the structures changed with the landscape. Here is a photographic escapade of the rural journey and what I saw: barns, grain elevators, abandoned homesteads, and more.
And here was the route:
The rural landscape around where I grew up, in Ottawa County, Michigan, never seemed exceptional or particularly noteworthy. The real sites, for me, always laid at the coast, along the sandy wooded shores of Lake Michigan. Only recently, after spending much time away from my hometown, has the rural heritage of my landscape gripped me in a way it hadn’t before. The agricultural scenes that once seemed commonplace and went blithely unnoticed by me now stood out in a conspicuous fashion. I became captivated by my once overlooked surroundings.
Barns, as a subject matter, have long drawn me to capture their images in photography. Now I have felt compelled to turn the cameras towards the barns that I may have seen regularly since childhood, but now notice again with fresh eyes. Winter adds an extra element of beauty to them, lying dormant, coated in a thick veneer of white. They come in many different styles, sizes, and colors. Gambrel roofs, lean-to’s, reds, whites and weathered wood. Some are still working barns, others long since abandoned to the elements. Though common, their ruggedness and utilitarian aesthetic provide an unnoticed kind of beauty.
“There is no such thing as bad weather…only bad preparation.”
* Outdoors Proverb *
It’s %$@&£! cold up here in northern Minnesota in January.
But really, it’s not that bad.
The secret, of course, is preparation. With a healthy dose of realistic expectations. It’s no beach holiday up here.
Winter is not winter the same everywhere. Even though I grew up in the northern tier of states, west Michigan’s persistent 30*F winter temps and perpetually falling wet humid snow is no analog for the -20*F clear sunny days here in northern Minnesota.
The cold here is unparalleled in most of the lower 48 states. Characteristically clear skies during the day sparkle light and shadow brilliantly across the landscape. The Minnesota sun, however, is an illusion; though shining bright, it provides almost no warmth to the day. Clear skies at night open up a fantastic theater for star viewing, yet with no cloud cover, what little daytime heat accumulated readily escapes into the upper atmosphere. Temperatures plunge easily to 30*F below.
With the proper equipment and preparation, these polar temperatures can become a comfortable winter playground. With clothing, layering is key. Long underwear, pants, snowpants, sweaters, fleeces, jackets, coats, liner gloves, outer gloves, waterproof boots. All layered one on top of another, overlapping, in a style known as “shingling.” Exposed skin is a recipe for heat loss, especially at the juncture of clothing…not to mention the possibility of getting errant snow down your shirt or in your boots. Even with all these layers of clothes on, the frigid cold still seeps in quickly once you step outside. It’s best to keep moving. Stay active and have your body generate its own heat. When I’m dressed up in all these layers and trudging through a foot of powder snow, I feel like a storm-trooper marching to battle. Bracing for winter is preparing for a war with the cold.
But don’t expect everything to be easy in the cold. Low temperatures have their own way of letting you know they’re around. Frost readily forms on your hair and beard. Your eyelashes start to freeze together. An unprotected water bottle freezes shut. Batteries drain. Lighter flames grow weak and disappear. Knowledge of the extreme cold and its effects goes a long way in prolonging your own survival in these circumstances.
So even though it’s cold outside, go out and enjoy the day. A beautiful winter wonderland awaits for those who are prepared.
“Though your mind continually searches for order and pattern in the ocean waves, there is none to be found. The ocean is perfectly chaotic and achieves a deep sense of beauty which our minds recognize but are scant to understand” —Paraphrased from an Alan Watts Lecture
At times you may find yourself unsettled: angsty, pensive, unsure, angry. These emotions welling up inside of you need a reprieve, an outlet; they need an environment conducive to processing those feelings. Someplace gloomy, foreboding, immense; somewhere to connect with your mood. In times like these, you seek out water, wherever it may be—the beach, on the ocean or a pond, a raging river or gentle stream. Whatever it is, there is something special inherent about that landscape. Something in its sublime beauty eases the tension in your mind. In these over-bearing alien landscapes, there is solace, solitude. Sitting, strolling, or wandering aimlessly lost along the water’s edge, you can feel a change in your psyche. Your anxious thoughts lessen, your mind begins to process what conflicts you. There by yourself, you begin to delve into your inner being. The landscape you have sought has become your conduit towards introspection.
I am one who seeks the water when anxious. The primal nature of the powerful waves awes me, and I feel small and insignificant compared to their might. The calm reflection on a still pond reaches me too, and my mind is soothed by the gently undulating ripples on the surface. Alone in these environs I can recollect myself, dive deeper into myself, come away with a deeper understanding of myself. The water, I have found, is a prime landscape for self-reflection.
Yet angst and anger—that troubling slew of emotions—is not the sole reason one visits the water’s edge. At other times, you will be experiencing different emotions: tranquil, curious, joyful. In those moments you may not be alone, or even want to be alone. You may be with other people. Regardless, the sheer beauty of the waves and water still works on you and those around you. This environment is different, you can tell. You feel something tangibly distinct here, though you cannot name it. Somehow you feel more at ease, like the water is a trusted friend there to support you in your relations. You can feel yourself opening up to the souls of those around you. Maybe those you are with had been introspecting the same as you, and have now became ready to share these quiet ruminations outside of themselves. Whatever the cause, you begin to open up. The landscape has fostered a window of special extroversion among those you are with.
I have had many deep and meaningful conversations by the water. So too I have had many deeply difficult conversations in similar places. On these occasions, the bond between the people involved was challenged—twisted, wrenched—and yet ultimately deepened. It’s not that meaningful conversations happen exclusively by the water—it’s just that this particular landscape seems to coax it out of me more easily. It seems to coax it out of those I’m with as well. These landscapes serve as a catalyst for our human connection.
Maybe different landscapes serve this same purpose for other people—deserts, mountains, forests—all have some sort of special power to connect us. For me, it is the water that is most impactful. It is a landscape that lends itself both to a powerful introspection yet also opens me up to meaningful relationships with others.
To an American, the term Acadia (or in French, Acadie) will likely conjure up notions of an extraordinary national park in eastern Maine, but will prompt little more significance otherwise. However, the term Acadia is much greater than that, referring to a vast and rich cultural region beginning in the south with Maine and extending northeast to the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. But Acadia is more than just a region—it is its own strongly identified culture. From the earliest French colonists in Port Royal on Nova Scotia in 1604, a distinct culture began to develop that is undeniable to the modern traveler today. The Acadians are a people hewn from their landscape of gentle agricultural valleys isolated by rough coastal waters. Their way of life is largely pastoral, tied to the land. Their self-reliance has also produced a culture of folk artists and craftspeople who produced goods for their communities. Indeed, Acadia is a region with its own distinct identity, and traveling around the region one will not fail to notice the abundance of Acadian Flags or hear the French language being spoken.
The name ‘Acadia’ derives from the Greek word Arcadia which was applied as a place name to maps of the Atlantic coastline by early European explorers. The early French settlers adopted the name Arcadia for themselves, as in Greek it meant “refuge” or “idyllic place.” As they were far from their native lands and seeking a better life in the New World, these French settlers were able to turn the Atlantic coastline into both their refuge and an idyllic agrarian society for themselves. The letter ‘r’ was gradually lost from the name Arcadia to become what we now refer to as Acadia. The French, relying strongly on the traditional knowledge of the native Mi’kmaq peoples likely adjusted the name of their region to align with the Mi’kmaq suffix -akadie, meaning ‘place of abundance.’ Indeed, the pastoral villages soon became prosperous.
Many of the original settlers to Acadia had been peasants in Europe, seeking a better life in the New World. In the absence of the rigid European social hierarchy, these settlers were able to use to own skills and talents to determine their rank in society. With little material support coming from France, the Acadians had to produce most of their own goods, and the skills and talents of the settlers became the basis of their culture of craftsmanship. Imperial France also showed negligible interest in governing their North American colonies. As a result, Acadian government was a system of village self-rule, where the communities were governed as a society of equals. The isolation of the Acadian villages, along with their essential independence from Imperial France, contributed to an independent spirit and a wariness about outsiders. However, the Acadians relied strongly on the native Mi’kmaq peoples to survive and prosper, using their traditional knowledge, intermarrying, and adopting many of their customs. In time, the population of the Acadians grew rapidly through high fertility rates and agricultural prosperity. Outside travelers to the Acadia region remarked on how tall, strong, and robust the Acadians were, with darker complexions and longer hair symbolizing their biological and cultural inter-connections with the native peoples.
The prosperity and independent spirit of the Acadians, along with their population explosion, soon was viewed as a threat by Imperial Britain. Territorial conflicts marked most of the history of Acadia, and the roots of this conflict stemmed from the long-held rivalry between the French and English, as it was played out in the New World. As early as 1613, a mere nine years after the founding of Acadia’s first permanent settlement, the British sacked and burned Port Royal in a territorial conquest. Decades of conflict would ensue, with the British militarily taking territory and the Acadians attempting to reclaim their lands. The last debate in the matter was the French and Indian war, which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763; that resolution ceded the last French strongholds in Acadia and French Canada to British control. As the British gained control of more and more Acadian territory, they began a program of expelling the Acadians to neutralize any military threat. The Acadians knew this era as Le Grand Dérangement, or the great expulsion. Acadians, who had long since been settled and identified with their landscape, were forcibly deported to places like French Louisiana, the 13 colonies, Britain, or France. However, with their knowledge of the land, many Acadians evaded deportation by seeking refuge in the wilderness. When the culture war on the Acadians gradually faded, the Acadians came out from hiding and some eventually returned to Acadia, creating their own small Acadian communities. Their cultural identity and ties to their land could not be abolished.
Today, Acadia is a peaceful land once again, returning more in-line with its idyllic agrarian beginnings. Acadians still live fruitfully and independently off the land, cultivating their crops and producing their crafts. The region is a mix of cultures—Acadian, English, Native, and others. So too is the Acadian landscape one of contrasts. From the rough rugged shores of Nova Scotia where hardy fisherman eke out a living, to the gentle pastoral landscape of Prince Edward Island where the soils are fertile and the climate is mild. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a few weeks touring around Acadia taking in the sites. Though my focus was on the landscape and not the people, they are a people intricately connected to their land.
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“In such a day, in September or October, Walden is a perfect forest mirror, set round with stones as precious to my eye as if fewer or rarer. Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth.”
On a calm October morning, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” And thus, I went to those particular woods—the ones surrounding Walden Pond—in a sojourn along the path of one of my intellectual forebears, the irascible hermit Henry David Thoreau, to see if I too could eke out the life discoveries which he had made upon the pond’s shores. This unassuming Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s most famous personal (and far-reaching) social experiment, lies an hour west of Boston amidst the regional forests and farmland. It is here where the entirety of the dissertation Walden takes place.
My trip was a pilgrimage to visit the namesake pond to visualize the setting of the lengthy tome I had just finished. “The scenery of Walden,” as Thoreau describes it, “is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach the grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore.” Walden is a simple pond indeed. A mere half mile long and only half as wide. Its perimeter is smooth and predictable; few coves or inlets add dimension to its waters. The landscape surrounding the pond, though hilly and thickly forested, does not strike an air of distinction. But as Thoreau championed in his many intellectual ramblings, “Our life is frittered away by detail…simplify, simplify!” I could picture Thoreau finding no more an ordinary pond home than this.
Yet at the same time Walden Pond is entirely magnificent. In his personal rhetoric, Thoreau was a fiery exceptionalist, never shy of embellishment or hyperbole. The waters of Walden Pond, he described, were the purist and coldest waters around. He writes about how the quality of Walden’s waters rival the purist known springs. But for his continual exaggerations, he was correct about one superlative; at 102 feet deep, Walden Pond is the deepest inland body of water in the state of Massachusetts. The banks of Walden Pond drop abruptly off into azure oblivion; the water, in this deep watery well, stays cool and refreshing year round.Thoreau knew these depths well, for among his many intermittent occupations, he was a trained land surveyor.
I came to Walden Pond to pay homage to a man who has influenced my own thoughts on life and meaning, if not in words exactly, then by sentiment alone. Intellectually, we share many similar ideas concerning social progress and the higher humanistic yearnings for the species. Thoreau is loud and brash with a pen and passionately rants against the things he disagrees with. His words echo a fiery passion burning deep in his soul. He loathes the nearby railroad and laments material progress for the sake of a dollar. But he also advocates for his better society, seeking to improve the man in the culture; Thoreau preaches continually on freeing mankind from slavery to self and to society. The reclusive Thoreau rants against the ills of contemporary civilization in the mid-18th century and seeks his moral salvation in the woods. Though little appreciated during his own time, and living unwed, unknown, and with his parents until his young demise, Thoreau has become a prophet of the modern day.
Although I feel a tie of kinship to Thoreau, he comes off as a man one would not have wanted to spend time with, myself included. To his village contemporaries, his nature wanderings and isolated hermitage made him appear aloof, yet he was a keen observationist and a scientist at heart, daily making acute observations of the environment and human kind. Though he exquisitely bemoaned the lives of others with his words while simultaneously boosterizing his own noble endeavors—ones that he alone perceived he was discovering in an insipid sea of ignorance—he was quite sociable and gregarious with the right type of company. He lived alone, yet kept three chairs in his house: “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” Though Thoreau the man may have been petulant, his ideas are familiar to anyone seeking self-improvement. His writing is at times very off-putting, egotistical, self-righteous, and even shaming and chastising (with way too many verbose phrases strung together with endless commas), yet his heart and ideals were with the people. His goal: to achieve in humankind a fierce independence and self-reliance to live genuinely and whole-heartedly as one’s best self in society.
I can see a bit of myself in Thoreau. I see a bit of myself in his perpetual longings and desires for something greater and nobler in life, Thoreau’s self-described ‘higher laws’. I see myself wanting to live deliberately and intentionally to the fullest extent, where I can ‘suck out all the marrow of life’.
I can also see myself venturing down the path of Thoreau, whether intentionally or by unplanned drift. Simplify, simplify! A one-room shanty seems plenty accommodating to me. Living independently off the land with little money but lots of means—that too I can see. Work, for Thoreau, was never a major priority either. He spent his days in idle employment ranging the forests, the self-appointed ‘inspector of snowstorms’. At its roots, Thoreau’s Walden experiment cuts to the heart of a desire to break away from society and to live a true and unconstrained life, unhindered by the bonds of artificial society. Like Thoreau, the unpretentiousness of nature provides the means of escape to a better existence.
The Walden Pond of today looks different than in Thoreau’s time. Shortly after moving out of the woods, Thoreau’s shanty was relocated to the village of Concord. The forest lands around the shack as well, harvested many times previous to Thoreau’s day, grew thick and dense, obscuring the very foundations of Thoreau’s presence. Thoreau’s expansive bean field, too, has reverted back to forest. The Fitchburg Railway, the rail-line skirting the pond that Thoreau so loudly laments, has been upgraded to a busy commuter line to Boston. The lands surrounding Walden Pond have become protected as a state reserve. No longer the spot of solitude and isolation, Walden Pond has become a popular destination for recreation in Massachusetts, for both its natural beauty and the outdoor recreation aspects.
Do the many visitors to Walden Pond on a sunny day think about the ideas that were developed here? As they sun-bathe on the beach or swim across the cool waters, do they ponder the intellectual history of this place? Do they know the historical significance of this parcel of land where they are picnicking? Is it perhaps that the modern-day visitor to Walden subconsciously accepts Thoreau’s importance of nature without even realizing it? Surely they must have internalized some of Thoreau’s ideas, given the crowds of people who come to spend time finding themselves in nature.
Alas, after paying my pilgrims’ visit to this important site, the time to leave had come. After all, “I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”