I wasn’t a kid at the time, not by quite a few years. My brother said, “Believe the compass and you’ll be fine.” I’d never really been in the big woods before, you know, the “up north” forest that held the mystique of deer hunting lore, clouded hidden ponds stuffed with bass, and offered communing with nature. I didn’t have a clue about hunting, didn’t own a rifle, and simply carried a camera to do my shooting. I parked back along a logging trail, a sandy, two rut line cut through pines and scrub, tangles of who knew what, and rocks – big, frame banging, head jerking rocks. I liked the lonesome, old and beleaguered birch and thought it would be a good mark to where I parked. About 35 steps from the car I realized quite a few lonesome, old and beleaguered birch dotted the area. I pulled out the compass, located north, and aimed southwest towards the promised land of photos, the swamp along the edge of Jag Lake and the high ground peninsula that deer travelled to forage and do what deer do. That made northeast the return route – “believe the compass.”
I tucked under a ginormous pine, curved into the sunshine and offering a natural tent of sagging, cone laden and prickly branches. Silence engulfed me, a peace of moment I had never experienced. A squirrel’s scamper across needles and crackled leaves eased into the core of me and chitters of chickadees through the scramble of rays above me seemed to carry far across the mats of bog and cattails. I could barely spy the waters of Jag, just there against the line of scrub oak and poplar. I joined the stillness, unmoving and photographing with my mind’s eye. My thoughts word painted each moment until the inks ran dry of thesaurus searches. I barely moved, just eyes roving left and right, up and down. I thought of spiders and the creep of crawly things that loved the underside of rotting logs, and felt a tug at my pant leg. A stealthy glance revealed a field mouse sitting on my sneaker and gazing up at me, me a strange tree of a being that perhaps could be climbed. My poorly stifled giggle scurried him away, a left-right-left hurtle through and under and over everything. I often wonder why its fear didn’t send it up the inside of my pant leg and equally often am glad it didn’t.
In the peace of midday and a bit of muggy moment drowsiness, I must have dozed. My eyes fluttered open, the rest of me strangely still in a stealth mode, auto pilot. I prayed I had not missed too much, then chilled in the prickle of hair on my neck. Something wiggled my hat – likely a pine snake, probably some enormous insect…. A tail poked out above the brim, a greyish-brown overlay of feathers. The tail widened, twitched, then disappeared as the chickadee spun about to peer at what lay in the precipice below its perch. We eyed each other, it pecked some tuft of something and flutter-stretched what I imagined was its own yawn into the tired time of day. A bumblebee’s buzz spooked me a little and the instant flurry of wings into flight nearly knocked the hat from my head. Sometime later, after I finally decided to pull out the camera, a line of deer ambled along the edge of marsh. They came towards unmoving me, walked within just a few yards of my haven of branches – me too enthralled to click shots. Nine in all, aligned in a hooved crunch breaking the reverie, foot printing a delicately perfect imprint to pencil dance across future pages. By day’s end, I knew. This, my first contact with a different kind of spirit, a spirit away from the Milwaukee’s of life, the have to do’s and wish I’d done’s. Here was God’s creation, here He lived and lives, if I but notice.
In this memory, I find the truth in a lyric sung by Jennifer Nettles. In a song called Unlove You, she sings, “I didn’t know I was lost/’til you found me.” How true, so very true that thought stirs into my life. That day, I believed the compass and it became far easier to read on bended knee, with bowed head looking into the life at the foot of an old pine.