On a glittering January afternoon, infusing cold air as energy, I skied a favorite Nordic trail. I approached the top of a hill I’ve swept down several hundred times over 37 winters. The snow was fast, so I didn’t attack the slope. A few years ago I would’ve double-poled the first 20 feet regardless, pounding out velocity, but I’m aware that my skill has eroded.
The trail describes a steep S-curve between crowded trunks of 70-year-old red pines. It’s narrow, and the bottom isn’t visible. I was focused, but almost immediately I was going faster than I wanted. I considered dropping to my derrière, but that’s risky, too — I once broke a ski on a bailout. The tracks were solid, hard-edged, so I hung on. Just past the middle of the S-curve, speed trumped skill. I was snowplowing with one ski, clinging inside the track with the other. But when the latter ski jumped the groove, I lost the edges of both and veered off the trail.
I saw the old pine coming and threw up my left arm just before smacking into the trunk, tempering a “head-on” collision into a violent ricochet. The pain was outstanding, and I yelped as I flopped back onto the trail in a jumble of poles and skis. I laid there and groaned, gingerly moving my wrist to see if it felt fractured. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t snapped a ski or a pole. It took several minutes to rise, a painful struggle to release bindings. Besides hurt, I was also angry. In four decades on skis, logging thousands of miles, I’d never hit a tree.
I felt betrayed. By what? The snow, the tree, the skis were all unbiased and had made no promises. I’m older, yes, but no one had forced me to hit the trail. A squirrel chattered from the canopy as I tested a knee and gingerly clipped boots back into bindings. Its voice sounded mocking, but that was presumptuous — the squirrel was probably paying no mind to a clumsy, non-climbing human. It would be far more attentive to the pine martens or goshawks I’ve seen in those woods.
I pushed off, limping a little — if such can be accomplished on skis — and after a half-mile or so, despite a throbbing wrist, mostly recovered the pleasure of the path. It was too fine a day for quitting. Snow-arched boughs framed transoms of azure sky. Shafts of sunlight glazed the rosy bark of pines. I heard ravens and blue jays.
But the sense of betrayal lingered. I’d recently read a memoir by the novelist Wallace Stegner, where he recalled an episode in school “when I split my thumb down to the first joint on a bench saw in shop, and bled all over the place, and bawled, not so much in pain as in outrage that the world could treat me so.” That was part of it — our intense petulance when an indifferent cosmos fails to consider us as special, neglecting to shield us from authenticity and accident.
An hour later when I glided to the trailhead parking lot and my truck, the feeling was further resolved: I seemed suddenly foreign, even in a cherished locale as familiar as our living room.
I drove home on a road from where, a few seasons earlier, I’d witnessed an arresting episode: a white wolf on black ice. The small kettle lake had been drenched in early spring light, and though April was brand-new, the temperature was 70 degrees. I stopped the truck to stare, and the wolf glanced my way. It was big, probably close to a hundred pounds, and surely the sun-rotted ice was frail. I could see no obvious reason for the wolf to be in the middle of the 8-acre pond — no prey, no carcass, no other wolves. If all background — muskeg, forest, sky — suddenly vanished, the “white wolf on black ice” could be an old lithograph, a stylized illustration of wildness in a 19-century tome.
Six hours later, I happened to pass the lake again, and the ice was gone, replaced by the first blue waves of the new year. The wolf had been playing it very close indeed. I felt a surge of admiration for the animal. He/she had perfectly timed a final foray onto the easy winter route of the ice — or so it appeared to me. Black ice in April would’ve been no good place for a human. On the way home from the ski trail, I wondered: If the wolf had broken through that punky ice, would it have felt betrayed? I doubted it — frigid water is just another place for it to be. The wolf probably would’ve half-paddled, half-bashed its way to shore. If not, if the ice was too firm to break and too slick to scale, and the wolf drowned — well, that too is just another place for it to be. I see no evidence that animals are petulant, or experience “outrage that the world could treat me so.” In their customary habitat, they are always home, and what happens is what should.
There lies a difference between us and our animal kin: We must make a home in the world, and we hold firm ideas about what should or should not be. I felt suddenly alien, because in the winter forest, compared to a squirrel, pine marten or goshawk, I am out of place. Sometimes.
In a recent experiment using brain scans and interviews of volunteers before and after a 90-minute walk in the woods, Stanford University researchers sought to determine its effects on anxiety and negative streams of thought. They reported: “This [study] provides robust results for us that nature experience, even of a short duration, can decrease this pattern of thinking that is associated with the onset, in some cases, of mental illness.” The implication being that a nature hike might be an alternative to psychotherapy or pharmacology, and a hell of lot cheaper.
John Muir (1838-1914), scientist, adventurer and a pioneer of American conservation, wrote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Though he’s one of my heroes and was, I think, a genius, I don’t believe that statement is true for most people, especially in the contemporary world. We are as biological as an earthworm or a red pine and emerged from a common pool, but we entertain higher aspirations. As the Stanford psychologists noted, nature has influence. But a forest is more often deemed a “resource” than a portal. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American forests have declined by almost a third since 1630. Muir’s idea seems more apropos for the animals he loved. His fellow humans tend to seek more esoteric ways into the universe, and don’t capitalize the “u.”
One night, I laid flat out in the yard. We enjoy almost-pristine darkness in these northern woods, and as my pupils dilated, I gazed at the rich star fields of the Milky Way, the center of our galaxy. A bright, swiftly proceeding satellite crossed my vision. Then another. How astonished our ancient ancestors would’ve been by that mystery of a purposeful traveling “star.” Wait. Ancient? It occurred to me that this now pedestrian phenomenon began only 58 years ago, within my lifetime.
For a long while after seeing the “white wolf on black ice,” I had a nagging sense of déjà vu. It seemed familiar, but I don’t see wolves every day, and as I scrolled through memory I conjured up the dozen or so times I’ve been close to wolves, and three of those occasions were on an ice sheet, but nothing like the beauty of that scene. Then one day, prompted perhaps by a satellite, it clicked. From our bookshelves I plucked a volume of famous photographs. Some rapid page-flipping, and there it was: astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the surface of the moon in 1969, a human in a white spacesuit amid pitch-black shadows. The mood was summarized by James S. McDonnell, developer of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft: “America is now a space-faring nation … a frontier good for millions of years. … The creative conquest of space will serve as a wonderful substitute for war.”
Alas, if only. But the key word here is “conquest.” The history of our species shows that although we’ve been adept at adaptation, our predilection is dominance, bending nature to our will. Wallace Stegner wrote about how the tide of European settlers and adventurers eventually faced the arid American West: “Instead of adapting, as we began to do, we have tried to make country and climate over to fit our existing habits and desires.” Witness, for example, 1.4 million people living in Phoenix, Ariz., graced with lawns, swimming pools and golf courses. Whether you consider that positive or negative, progress or hubris, it is certainly special. That is our expectation of the universe. We feel destined to be distinguished and preferred, and if we’re not, we should be. If nature won’t cooperate, we’ll conquer it. For our culture, that mission statement was outlined in the first chapter of the book of Genesis.
So my sense of “betrayal” and being “foreign” after colliding with an impartial tree is an emotion driving human life and achievement. A wolf on the ice is diverting; a man on the moon is inspiring. We have rarely restrained ourselves in attempts to transcend nature, and only in the past century or so have recognized earthly limits on our impulse to conquer. Even if the new frontier trumpeted by the erstwhile space race were to be genuinely manifested, we still need to find a balance on this planet — to establish an equilibrium between what we want and what the biosphere requires; a reconciliation of our human petulance and our animal roots.
We can do it if we want. We can make a home here without wrecking everyone else’s. But soon — the ice is getting thinner.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.