Ely Part III: In the Presence of The Gods

If I had a blog, today I would write about my life with wolves.

Grizzer

Grizzer

Wolves have been part of my life as long as I can remember. As with many children, thanks to the work of the Brothers Grimm and other authors, I first experienced wolves as villains: Snarling, wicked, green-eyed monsters whose greatest delight was dining on unwary children. Wolves haunted my nightmares and lurked in the shadows of my imagination on camping trips and evening walks in the woods. Fortunately, I had wise parents who saw my distress and quickly intervened. Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs were boxed up for good and out came National Wildlife magazine. In those glossy pages, Mom and Dad read to me stories of an animal that mates for life, loves its children, and fears humans far more than we fear its undeserved reputation. I also learned that humans, not wolves, were the murderous, nightmare beings that nearly wiped the species off the map. I wept for the needless loss of life, the brutal destruction of a breathtaking creature. Within a few weeks, I went from frightened child to junior wolf-activist and my dedication to assuring the survival of the wolf has never waned.

In college, I discovered my version of Mecca: The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota. It was then that I set my sights on visiting Ely and seeing a landscape where wolves had been allowed to flourish. I knew the experience would be one to remember, but I had no idea what lay in store.

October 2, 2006

This evening we attended a program at the Wolf Center. They feed the wolves once a week, to mimic their natural eating patterns, and to give visitors a chance to see the wolves interact at close range.

Maya

Maya

We arrived early and spent almost half-an-hour alone watching the wolves before the other visitors arrived. I have been around many types of animals in my life, but none humble me like the wolf. In their presence, I am compelled to kneel in reverence and awe. Sitting in the viewing window, Maya, one of the Great Plains Grey Wolves, came up close to see what was going on. Her face was inches from mine and she held my gaze for a long time. My heart was racing, but this time, not from fear. In the quiet of that autumn evening, I found myself in the presence of The Gods; beings far older and wiser in spirit than any human has ever been. I was being weighed and measured by this beautiful creature and I prayed I would not be found wanting.

I felt a catch in my throat as I thought of the litany of sins my species has committed against the wolf and I said a silent confession, reciting a poem written by O. Fred Donaldson:

Grey Wolf,
We are sending you to that Great God.
Tell Him that we who invented forgiveness do not forgive;
That we, who speak of trust cannot trust;
That we, who invoke faith would not believe.

I write as though you could read.
But I know you understand.
When you have left the forests and tundras
and no longer leave your sinewy trails within the snows,
Tell Him that you were made on a different day.

Your howls of bewilderment will echo
with the mountain winds.
And your songs will join those of the whales.
Tell Him for me,
“Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” 

Shadow - Arctic Wolf

Shadow – Arctic Wolf

I do not know what conclusions the wolves came to in our brief encounter. Perhaps I was no more than a shadow on the other side of the glass, a likeness of those who haunt their nightmares and lurk in the shadows of the forest as a spectre of doom. If so, I would not blame them. My only hope lies in knowing their spirit is unfettered by the ego-driven concerns of humanity and perhaps that gives them the wisdom to know not all humans are alike. I hope they can sense the spirit of those, like me, who see them as the miraculous creatures they are, who know that in their company, we stand in the presence of The Gods.

Lover of the Wild

If I had a blog, today I would write about being a Lover of the Wild.

Our Charlotte

Our Charlotte

Charlotte arrived yesterday, weaving her great orb in the flower garden, next to the hummingbird feeder. The summer has been good to Charlotte, her yellow and black form is shiny and quite large. She will continue to grow as she dines on the insects who are drawn to the black-eyed Susan’s and phlox that are now in bloom, preparing herself for the day when she creates the silken cocoon in which her babes will grow, safe from winter’s chill.

 

Brother Wolf

Brother Wolf

Charlotte and her predecessors have been a lesson to me in what it means to be a lover of the natural world – a challenge to see the truth of things when my mind turns to superstition and lies. Loving Nature isn’t as easy as it sounds, for along with the astounding beauty and magnificent power lurk the vestiges of our most primal fears. Snakes, spiders, and a host of meat-eating predators have been vilified by humans since the earliest of times. What began as caution borne of  instinct became fodder for horrific tales where any creature that threatened or unsettled us became a demon, intent on destroying human life. Those myths persist today and lead to the needless obliteration of species that couldn’t care less about the existence of our sorry race.

The Web of Life

The Web of Life

To love Nature is to acknowledge all of Her children as part of the web of life. If one thread is plucked from this great tapestry, we all suffer for its loss. At times, when we are truly threatened by The Wild, we have to make hard choices. I can’t let a black widow spider raise her young in the flower pot on my porch. It is too big a risk to take. But when I end her life and see her rush to protect her egg-case from me, I grieve for her loss. She wouldn’t use her venom out of spite or because of some evil intent, she would use it to protect her children the same way I use the killing-spray to protect my loved ones from her dangerous bite. We share the same warp and weft of life.

White Iron Lake

White Iron Lake – Ely, MN

If we are true in our love of the natural world, we must not stand apart from it. We must return to being one with all that lives and breathes and shares our bit of Earth. I don’t want to study Nature as much as I want to become part of Her. I want the thread of my life to intertwine with those of the spider and the snake;  the rabbit and the fox; the raven and the wolf. I want to enter the woods and experience the honor shared by naturalist Sigurd Olson when he wrote, “Then a great peace came over me…and I seemed to hear the pines and the wind and the rocky shores say to me, ‘You… lover of the wild, are part of us…’ ” On that day I will know my journey has not been in vain.

Serendipity

If I had a blog, today I would write about serendipity.

White-Tailed Deer Fawn

White-Tailed Deer Fawn

I have been a nature photographer for more than twenty years and while I do take credit for my technical skill with a camera, many of my best photographs are the result of serendipity. While serendipity can be defined as pure good luck, I have a different theory. I believe this kind of “fortunate happenstance” occurs when I am as one with the world around me. When I am in harmony with nature, something amazing is just around the corner.

This morning I was getting ready to go to town and had gone into the storage room, when twin white-tailed deer fawns emerged from the woods.

White-Tailed Deer Fawn II

White-Tailed Deer Fawn II

Because I carry a camera with me everywhere I go, I had it at the ready and was able to get several photos of these delicate beauties before they vanished back into the forest. It was a much needed pick-me-up after a bit of a creative dry spell. Thank you Brother and Sister White-Tail.

 

Before the Storm

After the Storm

When I took this photograph, I was pleased to catch the colors of sunset on the towering cumulonimbus cloud to our east, but had no idea this little hummer had flown into the photo until I looked at it on my computer later that evening. Thank you Brother Hummingbird.

 

The Gift

The Gift

I took this photograph on a holiday trip to Northern Minnesota in 1997. We rented a small cabin on a remote lake north of Ely and spent a week cross-country skiing, dogsledding, and reveling in the savage beauty of this wild country. My birthday is December 27th and when asked what gift I wanted, I said, “I want a wolf.”  Even though we saw wolf tracks on the frozen lake almost every day, I knew the chances of seeing and photographing on was a one-in-a-million chance. The 27th was our last day at Lark Lake Cabin and our spirits were a little low as we snowshoed the 4-miles back to our car. Then. as we came to the woods on the edge of Triangle Lake, a movement in the brush caught our eye and out of the forest stepped a huge wolf. We froze. He froze. For five minutes he let me take one photo after another before he turned and loped off into the bush. “Happy Birthday,” Mom said. Thank  you Brother Wolf.

Pine Marten

Pine Marten

Almost every year, Mom and I often rent a cabin just outside of Ely, Minnesota for an autumn retreat and every year we talk about what animal we want to see the most. In 2007, I wanted to see a pine marten. These elusive members of the weasel family are fairly common in Northern Minnesota, but they prefer to stay invisible to the human eye. As I wandered down the woodland path to our cabin one evening, I said aloud, “Come Brother Marten, I’m here waiting for you.  Please pay us a visit.”

A few days passed and I had forgotten my invocation. Mom and I were eating breakfast when something big hit the window. We thought it was a raven or even a hawk, but when we looked out, it was the Marten. He was sitting beneath the window, as if to say, “Hello! You wanted me to visit you and now you aren’t even paying attention!” I apologized profusely and was able to take several great pictures of our honored guest before he went his way. Thank you Brother Marten.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Where owls are concerned, one needs a lot of serendipity. Denizens of the night, they are seldom available for photo-ops  and their shy nature generally keeps them just out of reach. This owl, however, was waiting for me one evening as I went out to do chores. I was driving the four-wheeler between the house and dairy-barn that evening and when I passed the hay-barn, there she was: Familiar of Athena, the Barred Owl. I stopped the four-wheeler and slowly, oh so slowly, lifted my camera. Birds like owls and hawks tend to think the lifting motion means a gun, so I’ve learned to move gently in their presence. I took several photos from about 30 yards away, then began to move forward, a little at a time, taking pictures as I drew closer. In the end, I she let me come within about ten feet and when she departed, it was with grace and aplomb, not fear. Thank you Sister Owl.

Experiences like these reinforce my belief that Nature is willing to communicate with us, but only if we come into Her world with respect. When I go into the woods, I am walking into a holy place. If I hope to become part of that sacred world, I must abandon all pride and enter as humbly as a sinner going to confession, “Forgive me Mother and Father, for my people and I have sinned.” If I am sincere, Nature will share Her mysteries, open Her secret doors, and let me stand in the presence of the gods.