March 27, 2023 – The call of the Northwoods? Yes, but which one? Which woodnotes, what northern soundtracks best inform our images and reflect our romance of the Great Northwoods? In my case the list ranges from the classic to what some might consider the obscure: The midnight falsetto of loons. The dissonant harmonies of wolves. That old hoot-owl down on Tidswell Point. The motor-like whine of a quadrillion mosquitoes lifting out of the willows in dinner formation. Wind whipping through the pines. The hollow winnowing of snipe. One white-throated sparrow chanting his Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody mantra. The bellow, come September, of a rutting bull moose, which sounds as though someone were prying open the corroded door hinges of a rusted-out 1967 Dodge Power Wagon. The deep-throated, urgent peals of the mink frog, Rana septentrionalis, “frog of the North,” so rarely acknowledged by my bird-watcher friends. Only the conversations of trout are less discerned. I love them all.
Yet there is another suite of Northwooden sounds just as memorable and appropriate, but which lie outside the purview of this volume—except that I shall invoke a few examples here, to wit: That lovely cadence, echoing from afar, of someone splitting spruce rounds with an axe for her evening fire. Rain—or black flies—ticking against the brim of a felt fedora. The voices of Hastings and Ricardi and their guitars—In the midnight moonlight midnight—mixed with the crackle and splendor of their bonfire, all softly muffled by the surrounding forest. The preprandial clatter and swearing—“Ouch! Hah-damn dat’s hot!”—of my friend Armand Riendeau out by his fire pit on the Rapid River in Maine, as he prepared his infamous poisson fumé avec sauce au brocoli (yellow perch smoked above his campfire in the housing of a discarded water heater with a can of condensed soup for marinade). Like other old-time guides and cooks of the Great Northwoods, Armand is gone now. He was an endangered species when I knew him, rarer than the Kirtland’s wobbler he told me once himself.
And . . . that faint drumming from out across the lake of a trip of canoes paddling in the still of night after spending the day windbound. My own intimate romance of the Northwoods was kindled four decades ago in my earlier, more formative years (all my years are formative years) by this very sound on a dark July night in New York’s Adirondack State Park. Two other staff men and I and nine campers from a venerable canoe camp over in Vermont (wood-canvas canoes, traditional Cree paddling techniques, etc.) had established ourselves on the shore of Waltonian Island. Late in the evening the two senior staff took it upon themselves to paddle to the mainland on a venture about which I was sworn to secrecy (though I still remember the women’s names), leaving me on watch. The night was still, and I let our fire burn down to a few incandescent coals.
Out on the water I heard something, barely audible a first, not a whisper but a heartbeat. The syncopated drumming grew closer, and I soon recognized it as the sound of the two paddlers returning, the shafts of their paddles bumping the gunnels of their canoes with every stroke in true Cree style. Ash to ash, wood to wood, wooden paddle to wooden canoe—the heartbeat on the water. In that moment I came to know that humankind once was and can still be a natural and organic part of these Northwoods, of the real world, wild and beatific.
Twenty years passed, and then one night in a secret and solitary campsite on the shore of Aziscohos Lake in western Maine, I awoke to that same heartbeat again, this time accompanied by the lively tune of a fiddler in one of the canoes. I sat in silence and listened, mesmerized, as the ash and fiddle corps’ music carried across the water for miles. Years later, as I was telling this story, my brand-new friend Bill Zinny would ask, “Was it Saint Anne’s Reel?” When I replied Yes, he said, “That was me.”
The moral I labor toward is that we need not look past our own kind for some of what calls us back to the Northwoods. In fact, until enough of us remember that we are part and participant of the landscapes we love, until we remember how to approach them with respect and reverence, with joy and appreciation and music—there will be no true land ethic, no complete conservation. Participation involves knowledge and understanding, something available from experience, a grandfather, or a field guide. But it also requires an intimate connection, a willingness and desire to romance the land and those who dwell there. That part, dear reader, is up to you.
One more thing. The authors of the little Northwoods primer I’d written this foreword for needed also to limit their geographic purview, but the reader and I do not, and much to be found in the natural history of the northern forest of Maine is applicable far and wide across the northern forests of this continent. For example, here by the Matanuska River in southcentral Alaska, on a distant edge of the boreal forest, I live among spruce and birch, cottonwood and aspen and alder, mountain ash and highbush cranberry, fool hen and hare and hoot owl, red-backed vole and moose and bear. Far away in miles, but not much different in content and spirit from Sigurd Olson’s Northwoods, nor Robert Frost’s.
These woods, too, bring me joy. This afternoon, while the sunset lingered in hot pink and salmon and violet low in the southwestern sky, I watched the ravens wing their way, croaking and clanking, back to a secret roost in the high country. A buzz of boreal chickadees has reappeared at my suet. The ermine who lived with me last winter has moved back under my cabin; I found his signature on the snow today. Now, in the final twilight, that same old fool moon sleds low across Pioneer Peak, silhouetting the steepled spruce and breaking trail for Orion. And what I am privileged to listen to at this moment is the hush of the hoarfrost, the music of the stars—a profound and crystalline silence. One more song not to be found in the field guides, but valid to the human heart as a reminder of a peace, wild and primeval, available to us in the dark and lovely woods. Wherever we may find them.
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