The Shack and Everything Else

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A path near the Wisconsin River took me to a small wooden shack. I had been there several times before, but never alone. Just a day before, a small group of naturalists drove to the farm and hiked down the trail past the shack, following the distant bugle of a crane. As I approached the shack alone, I felt the need to put my hand upon it and feel its power. It was a momentary urge to bask in the genius and inspiration that surely must flow from that weathered wood, from that simple chicken coop that had been cleaned up to serve as a family’s weekend retreat. Then, as I got nearly close enough to touch it, it occurred to me that it was silly to imbue such power on this tiny old building, or any building, for that matter.

So I put my hand down. I sat for a while against a bur oak.

Maybe this building didn’t have any inherent power, but I felt moved anyway. I always feel moved when I visit the shack. My hero, Aldo Leopold, and his family spent summers and weekends here. He woke in this shack, stepped outside with a cup of coffee and listened to the dawn chorus of birds. “The robin’s insistent caroling awakens the oriole,” he wrote, “who now tells the world of orioles that the pendent branch of the elm belongs to him, together with all the fiber bearing milkweed stalks nearby, all loose strings in the garden, and the exclusive right to flash like a burst of flame from one of these to another.” Just down the road he cut a mighty oak into firewood and suggested that “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm, one is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery and the other that heat comes from a furnace.” Oaks, robins, orioles, rivers and everything else on the farm were transformed into vivid, fascinating characters in his collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac. No reasonable person can read about these characters and still exclude them from a healthy definition of the word community.

But if orioles and oaks and community don’t interest you, there is still a reason to feel the power of the shack. I didn’t get it at first. That’s why I put my hand down when I approached it. I sat under that oak and thought about people who have never heard of Leopold. If I had touched that building and they asked me why, how could I explain? It seemed that my desire to put my hand on that building contradicted my beliefs. Much of the peace I enjoy in my life comes from my interest in Eastern traditions, which seem to always remind us that we give things their power, that we judge and rank, we say this is good and that is bad, we climb mountains and look out over the landscape so that we can feel moved and spiritual, but, as Robert Pirsig wrote “the only zen on mountaintops is the zen you bring up there.”

Pirsig is right. So there is something here in my mind that I must look at.

It would not be enough to simply discuss Leopold’s greatness. I know his greatness is not in that wood. It is not in his canvas chair inside the shack, where I once sat and read The Good Oak, with butterflies in my stomach.

And it would not be enough to talk about the Bird-dogs. Years ago, in a cafe in Baraboo, the power went out during dinner. We kept eating and drinking and telling stories and laughing. Someone had a professor whose discussion of salamander mating was more colorful than scientific, with this salamander trying to bird-dog that salamander’s gal, and that salamander trying to bird-dog this salamander’s gal. A few drinks later bird-dog became our verb of choice.
                         Bird-dog: v. to hunt down every good thing in life.
And a few days after that, Larry, Lisa and I began referring to ourselves as the Bird-dogs. We met at conferences from Albuquerque to Portland, from remote, western Iowa, to right there at the shack. Once, while it poured rain, we drank a few beers and walked past the shack down the sandy path to the river, where we stripped down into our underwear and swam. The next day at dinner I spoke to Nina, Leopold’s daughter. She asked if I had been to the shack. I felt compelled to confess what we had done. I worried that she might feel that we had disrespected this landmark and I suppose I wanted her forgiveness. But she spread a huge smile across her face and said “That’s great!” Then told me stories about swimming there in her youth.

Nina is gone now. And we have all managed to bird-dog the settled lives that we always sought, lives that leave little room for bonding with strangers in swift, rising rivers. So the Bird-dogs are gone too.

I added all of this to that wood, Leopold’s poetry and vision, my own vivid memories of less prudent times, and Nina’s smile.

So, what could be the harm in adding that?

This is where my thoughts got stuck. I kept asking, “What could be the harm in adding that?” I asked until the question faded.

And as it faded, I heard a new idea coming, faint in the distance, like the bugle of a crane.
Yes, Pirsig is right, but it still feels like this shack mountaintop has its own zen.

Wait, that’s not one crane. It sounds like several cranes.
Another person, who has never heard of Leopold, would never add this meaning to this place. Perhaps this hypothetical other person has some other place to which he adds meaning. Everyone does, I suppose.

There must be hundreds of cranes. They must be along the river bank.
If this simple wooden shack can be given such significance, then perhaps any place or anything can be given significance by the right story. Maybe it’s not an author, or a group of friends who get in adventures. Maybe it’s a birth. Maybe it’s the place where you met. Maybe it’s the background of the only photo you have of your mother. Maybe lilacs bloomed on the day your father returned. Yes. Yes it could be all that, really. Couldn’t everything be given significance when some dramatic story is attached to it?

I can’t walk fast enough through the brush and the sand, but I know that a thousand cranes must be just over that bank.
Yes. Everything can be made significant by the right story, and there is one powerful, dramatic chapter that is the same in all of our books.

I stepped out to the edge of the
bank and looked across the river. More than a thousand sandhill cranes, with dozens more coming up the river to meet them.
The final chapter. Death. Our goodbye to all of it. Our last breaths will add poetry to every piece of wood we have ever seen and make us want to touch it. Every moment of life that we thought was good and every moment that we thought was bad will call us like a thousand cranes bugling and our hearts will walk toward it and we will try with all of our being to put our hand on it. People talk of the peace that descends upon a person just before they die. Is this the moment when our mind reaches out and puts a hand on everything?

So we can’t wait for an author, or bird-dogs, or pictures of mothers, or our own last chapter. Surely you know a place, an object, a view, a smell that feels like it has special meaning for you. You will experience a chapter that adds that same kind of powerful meaning to everything: this chair and this lamp and this page. Touch them everyday, as you will when your final chapter has turned them into mountaintops.

I wasn’t wrong when I thought that the shack had such meaning; I was wrong when I thought everything else didn’t.

So, did I get up from my tree and touch the shack? Yes. Every day.

“Some day, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the fullness of geologic time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the baying of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way.” -from Marshland Elegy, Aldo Leopold

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