Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Northwoods

You can keep your concrete jungle

Someone once said that in every human soul there is a harkening to a particular geography, whether that be seas, mountains, lakes, rivers, wooded highlands, or wide open prairies. I cannot recall where I heard that, but I will never forget it, because I believe it.

I have come to recognize this trait within myself, this gravitation towards a particular shape of nature, and it is now a way in which I identify myself. I have swam in the Atlantic, and I have explored the Rockies from east to west. I've traveled many, many times through the plains of the Dakotas and lived my share of time next to the Mississippi. I have developed an absurd fondness for Lake Superior (which I will always consider a second home), but the one place that keeps me coming back time and time again is the wooded landscape of northern Wisconsin.

Commonly called the Northwoods, this region is known by many as a vacation in the middle of nowhere. To Madison, Milwaukee, and everywhere south of there, this land is sparsely populated, uninfluential, and wild. When you look at a map of our great state, you see the interstate highways end at its midline, and in their place dark green patches that mix with specks of dark blue paint a picture of expansive forests and hidden lakes.

We are protected from the fast-paced, disposable nature of cities. We do not concern ourselves with Foursquare, Mercedes, and industrial-chic lofts. The corner coffee spot is not Starbucks, restaurant reservations do not require being added to a month-long waiting list, and you can actually order fish caught in the lake your table overlooks. Around here we cook with venison, a truly plentiful, natural, healthy, sustainable, and renewable source of local meat. The highways are not filled with outraged drivers burdened with hauling around all their misplaced pride in the back of oversized, underutilized sport utility vehicles.

Northwoods here means home; it means rest and family and bounty. The culture we each contribute to is one of respect for the land. The culture here is slower to react, less mobile. The Chequamegon and Nicolet, the only two national forests in the state, incubate us to the west and east, while Lake Superior and a host of like-minded yoopers insulate the north. We foster an attitude of nature first, of respect for the land. The water is still clean and the air still fresh. Here, people still communicate with people, as opposed to machines. It is a place of respect and tradition; the Northwoods is solidarity.

The woods, for me, provide a sense of identity, of clarity about myself. I do not question where I belong in society, or what my calling is, or what judgment is passed my way. Be it towering hardwoods or low-slung swaths of cedar, the trees protect me; they offer me shelter and resources aplenty. Walking and working in the woods is as honest a blue-color undertaking as I have ever experienced, something that's harder and harder to come by. These forests, hills, creeks, and swamps are well suited to mend the soul.

When I'm in the woods, I feel at ease, playful, open-minded, serene, and focused. I am filled with hope, and wonder, and a multitude of possibilities. I daydream; it's safe to do out there, still allowed, unregulated, and free. I do not ask permission, I do not ask pardon, and I do not fear discrimination. Pettiness, status, and delusions are replaced with gratitude, openness, and grounding.

I call the Northwoods home because this place is an extension of myself. Living here enhances what is already inside, without asking me to change. I love this place because it has always loved me back, always provided a warm hearth, and because I am proud of this culture -- shortcomings and all.

The people who attach themselves to the ocean, the mountains, or even the desert understand this passion, this pride in place. They will stand up just as readily to see their livelihood maintained and respected, and I salute them for it. For those who have a similar affinity to embody a landmark, hats off to you.

The city may have a lot to offer some people, just not me. All the convenience and money, the pace and the lights, all that, pales in comparison to the basic beauty and simple joy of the wild. The Northwoods can’t be reconstructed by landscaping and city parks. It can’t be conveyed in prefab log cabins and hokey, woodland-themed restaurants. Those who vacation here are looking to get away, escape, and experience the woods. We can be grateful we live that escape every day.

“There is a serene and settled majesty to woodland scenery that enters into the soul and delights and elevates it, and fills it with noble inclinations”
- Washington Irving

See you out there,
A woodsman in training

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