In early August, my family and I returned from our annual sojourn to the Minnesota North Woods. Our experience this year dramatically illustrated to me that the two major ingredients of a sense of place are food and sex.
For many years, we have trekked north to the Boundary Waters area. We rent a remote cabin with no running water or electricity on a quiet boreal pond. We love this special place and have grown quite attached to it. Sundew Pond has become an important part of my family’s sense of belonging to the world.
We usually make our trip in June, somewhere between the end of public school and the summer solstice. At this time of year at about 48 degrees north latitude, just a dozen or so miles shy of the Canadian border, it’s really still late spring rather than early summer. As we finish unpacking and sink ourselves into the northern forest, we open ourselves up to the familiar and welcome sights, sounds and smells of the northern forest in June.
Boreal warblers, chickadees, and finches flit about the cabin and sing their high-pitched calls or vibrato-laden melodies. As evening approaches, a chorus of trills and arpeggios crescendos into a full-blown amphibious cantata of spring peepers, leopard and bull frogs, tree frogs and American toads. Our ears are always open for an eerie wolf chorus rising from the dark woods; sometimes we try to start a conversation ourselves from the screen porch or the small dock at the pond. Our eyes are always on the alert for the prized sighting of northern Minnesota’s star megafauna–wolf, bear or moose. We rarely see any in the wild, but we usually head back to Iowa having spotted at least one.
This year, however, because of family members’ schedules, we had to make our trip to Sundew Pond in late July rather than early- to mid-June. That was fine; six weeks makes a huge difference in the unfolding of the natural world and we thought it would be fun to experience the woods at a different time of year. And it was. The underbrush was much taller and brushier, making for even more interesting rides down the fire trail. The wild raspberries were in full bloom and we were able to snack on juicy sweet goodness at almost any point as we walked the greyhounds on the old (and new) logging roads. The pond was exploding in lily pads, their pretty white flowers dotting the water’s surface during the day like a Monet painting.
But one of the biggest differences we noticed this year was the profound quiet. Granted, one of the biggest attractions of our remoteness is the lack of modern-world noise–traffic, sirens, machinery, telephones, televisions. We love to have that technological cacophony replaced by the natural symphonies I detailed earlier, but this year, in July, we barely heard a peep, literally, from any birds. The nights were long and deep with silence, not even a short ditty to be heard from a frog or toad. And our major wildlife spotting list ended up with a grand total of–bupkes. Luckily, we made our annual visits to the captive pack and sloth, respectively, at the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center in Ely. But in our woods walks and drives into town, even the number of deer we saw could be counted on one hand.
This powerful quiet and lassitude of the woods was a new experience. That’s tremendous–new experiences are always good things–but it all made me realize how much my sense of place at Sundew Pond was wrapped up in what we see and hear when we visit there in June rather than July. And the crucial difference in these experiences of place boils down to food and sex.
Late July in the North: The woods are in full bloom, and food is abundant. In the burgeoning of spring, animals are frantically making up for the privations of winter. In deep summer, when the scaling-back of autumn is still far away, bellies are full. There’s much less urgency to fly or prowl around in search of the next meal. In essence, it’s vacation time for the wildlife, too.
Other appetites are satiated as well. Mating season is over for most. Those gorgeous yet sometimes ear-splitting spring frog and toad choruses? Those are mating songs, our amphibious males’ version of Barry White calling out to attract the most fertile females into the watery boudoir. Those wolf howls to warn enemies away from the young‘uns? The pups are already weaned and making their way to rendezvous sites on their own.
I am of the school that place is rooted in the natural world. I define place as our relationship with our web of environments–natural, built, cultural and social. But the natural world, even in the most urban or urbane milieu, is always fundamental. When I’m in wilderness, the differences in the natural world around me as the seasons change will even more profoundly affect my sensibility about where I am and how I am connecting. Those sounds and sights that define my place-connectedness to Sundew Pond? Well, this July I realized they have everything to do with food and sex. If nature is the touchstone for our sense of place, that presents some very interesting food for thought, so to speak, about our relationship to all of the places we love.