One late Minnesota afternoon, as summer sanctified the northern latitudes, Secret Lake was inspirited with relentless light. Eleven days before the summer solstice — our seasonal pentecost — my wife, Pam, and I hiked down to the water, paddles in hand. It was 8:30 p.m., but the forest path was warm and enriched, sunlight still penetrating the canopy of leaves and needles at the edge of the bog. The woods were lush, the water tepid and brooding with nutrients and eggs. A squadron of dragonflies patrolled the ripples, hunting mosquitoes, and water striders skittered in the shallows. The head of a turtle submerged at our approach.
We pushed the canoe into the lake and leisurely slid along the southeast shore, scouting for nascent cranberries. We hoped for a bumper crop come October, and were pleased to see it was likely. The moss was laced with cranberry greenery. But something else caught my eye.
“What’s that?” I said, and pointed. “Right off the bow, about 30 yards ahead?”
Pam saw it, too — a bright speck of violet-pink at the rim of the bog. We paddled for it and in a few moments drew abreast of a stunning orchid. Rising from a nest of sphagnum moss bracketed with pitcher plants, a single stem as straight as a ruler supported a regal flower. The labellum was a translucent pink tongue spotted with yellow, drooping elegantly beneath four or five broad, arching petals. We learned later it was a Dragon’s Mouth, and according to our guidebook, rare. In nearly 30 years of living and paddling on Secret Lake we’d never seen one.
We lingered, relishing the gift, and speculating: Why now? What sequence of pollination and seeding had spawned a “new” orchid in our back yard? Did it involve the curious fact that tiny orchid seeds need certain fungi to help them germinate? Had a storm blown in seeds years before? Had heat, moisture and fungus suddenly meshed on June 10th? Nicely done.
At that moment an otter surfaced in front of the canoe, about 40 feet away, and chattered at us — the usual scolding, it sounded like — as if to say the orchid was hers. Or perhaps she meant the lake. In slanted sun, her wet fur was sleek and radiant, fringed with silver light. We laughed, as we always do when otters appear, and she indignantly dived, resurfaced farther out — still scolding — then vanished.
We’ve spent thousands of hours on Secret Lake — paddling, fishing, skating, skiing or just watching — in all seasons, weathers, and times of day and night. We know it as well as our living room. It’s a significant other. We care about the cranberry crop and how the turtles are faring, and whether there seems to be more frog song this year than last; we admire the progress of the birch coppice growing from the abandoned beaver lodge, and how the pitcher plants have spread so magnificently among the cotton flowers; we wonder if many crappies or perch survived the last winter kill, or if only the bullheads are thriving.
It’s not a postcard or calendar-cover Minnesota lake — no beach, ledge rock or towering pines. It’s a 13-acre glacial kettle surrounded by a spruce and tamarack bog that’s gradually closing up. It’s a mosquito nursery and home to impressive leeches. The bottom is a dark gel of muck.
But whenever a visitor sees it for the first time — reflecting sky and hemmed with rosemary in May, or crusted with wind-sculpted snow in January — they marvel at the ragged beauty and unencumbered solitude. Secret Lake is quick to create new devotees. And such are we, even after a third of a century.
No matter how intimate you are with a given landscape, you’ll often be surprised. It’s a product of that very affinity — the more you know, the better you are equipped to appreciate fresh revelations. Humans discover mostly what we’re prepared to find, so it’s wise to be prepared for anything. That is how novelty penetrates our lives and minds, through the cultivation of intimacy. If you believe you know it all, then that is precisely how little you know.
I’m reminded of an anecdote about the famous 19th-century naturalist Louis Agassiz. Upon returning to his Harvard University post one autumn, a colleague asked him what he’d done over the summer. He replied, “I spent the summer traveling; I got halfway across my back yard.”
The Dragon Mouth was an intimate brand of novelty, highlighted by the audacious tune of an otter. Secret Lake was a little less familiar, a touch more exotic, and to our happy amazement we found six more Dragon Mouths before we completed our circuit. As we pulled the canoe out at sunset, I understood that seeing those orchids and being chided by an otter was the most essential thing we’d done that day.
The old lake was something new, and, in a way, we were, too.
You need to trust your observations. It’s also necessary to tap the insight of others, because ours is a vast, complex universe. You can’t go everywhere and do everything, but every back yard is a gateway to the world. Knowledge and wisdom are meant to be shared, but ultimately the only thing you know for sure is that you know.
John Muir, first-rate scientist and adventurer, referencing a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote to a friend: “The water in music the oar forsakes. The air in music the wing forsakes. All things move in music and write it. The mouse, lizard, and grasshopper sing together on the Turlock sands, sing with the morning stars.”
Hearing those melodies requires practice, feeds on perceptions, drinks raw data, inhales memory, and molds reality.
Like this: Another summer evening on Secret Lake, I heard yodels and shifted on the bench to face north. Lifting binoculars, I zeroed in on four loons. Their wings were dark hinges against a pale sky, partially silhouetted by a westering sun. I followed as they tracked south, prepared to watch until they disappeared, but as my view dipped to the tree line, I froze. The loons flashed out of the field.
A great blue heron was perched at the very top of a tall spruce a half-mile distant. I’d glanced that way a minute before but hadn’t noticed it. I lowered the binos and understood why. With naked eyes, the heron looked exactly like a crooked treetop. I’d never seen a heron in such a berth — on limbs of aspen and ash, yes, but not at the apex of a conifer. I admired the tart profile through the lenses, fascinated to note that although this 4-foot tall bird with a 5- to 6-foot wingspan was poised on a rubbery stalk as thin as my little finger, all was stone still — not so much as a tremor from the huge bird or the tiny stem. The balance was exquisite.
As I watched, the heron spread its wings and fell forward, gliding toward the next lake and out of sight. The spruce top did not quiver.
That, I thought, is the way to behave on the planet: Be vibrant and useful, but so smooth that the spruce doesn’t know you’re there. Or that you’re gone.
A week later, I imitated that heron for a moment — easing down the Sturgeon River in a canoe — paddle quiet, disturbing the water only a little. The current gurgled around boulders, supple as the dappled light leaking through the basswoods and spruce. A faint white rhapsody announced rapids a quarter-mile ahead.
I ruddered around a bend and came face-to-face with a great horned owl. It was taloned to a dead alder limb arching over the water, its yellow eyes only a foot or two higher over the stream than mine. We were 10 feet apart. As I floated past, its head swiveled to follow, and so did mine. The balance was exquisite.
It seemed a strange stakeout for an owl — they’re not renowned as anglers — and perhaps the owl thought it a surprising locale for a human, or whatever it perceived me and my canoe to be. Too big to kill, at least.
I smoothly slipped downstream, and just before clearing the bend I saw the owl flap off the alder, cross the river and select a fresh roost in an ash tree that was 15 feet higher up. There, its body language seemed to say, that ought to keep the riffraff at a more appropriate distance.
The owl seemed like aristocracy in that patch of woods. It didn’t call out, but I heard it nevertheless. We had both done well.
Two thousand years ago, a freed slave named Epictetus wrote: “Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand, take a portion of it politely. It passes on; do not detain it.”
As if we could.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground,” “Letters from Side Lake” and other books.