It’s a Wonderful December: A Frank Capraesque Memory

Snowshoeing around Lake Emma.

December 2005 replays in my mind like a Frank Capra movie. The marquee reads: It’s A Wonderful December, but no bank auditors or near-death experiences mar my memory. Time has smoothed the rough edges until all that remains are ski tracks disappearing into deep woods. In my mind, the month was spent on skis, devoid of sleeping, eating or working.

And, based on the snowfall we received, that might have been a possibility. The snow began to fall during early December, leaving our already sleepy corner of northeastern Michigan even drowsier, covered in a thick, white blanket. Ice formed over our inland lake, which moaned and groaned as if protesting the early invasion, and animal tracks crisscrossed our yard.

Cross-country skis leaned against the wall next to the front door, and snow-shoes littered our entryway, slush melting around them. Discarded boots hovered nearby. The snow eased, but the temperatures dipped, preserving our winter wonderland.

One morning, while driving to the Black Mountain Recreation Area outside of Cheboygan, Mich., we took a corner too fast and spun off the icy road. Our car landed in a ditch. Within minutes, a vehicle stopped, and three men tumbled out. Ski boots covered their feet, and they jumped into the ditch with us, pushing and shoving our little car.

Soon the conversation turned to skiing — trail conditions, deep snow and winter’s blessings. Our car was almost forgotten as we swapped stories and shared memories. It seemed as if the early snowfall had infected them the same way it had us, and nothing could damage the cheerful mood. Another Good Samaritan with a truck eventually pulled us out of the ditch. The skiers, their conversation still on snow, clambered back into their vehicle.

Later that month, just before Christmas, we observed Rogers City’s annual holiday celebration. Dozens of trees in Westminster Park brimmed with lights. The moment spun with emotion, and I half-expected Jimmy Stewart to walk down the street, wishing me a happy holiday.

Christmas in the Park, painting by Debbie Stiller.

Then, a few days later, the rain arrived, melting the snow, as well as the magic. It was the moment in a Frank Capra movie when the main character tears up, and the audience leaves with a moral message. December 2005 taught me that when nature beckons, I must stop and listen.  And if she leaves a gift at my doorstep, crooking a finger at me to step outside, then I have no choice but to follow and unwrap it slowly, enjoying the moment while it lasts.

And I hope you too have similar moments during the upcoming season, where the true meaning of Christmas reaches out and holds you, wrapping you in a peaceful embrace that stretches across the winter and into next year.

(A version of this essay first appeared in the “Quiet Sports Colum” of Whisper in the Woods (Winter 2007/2008).)

Caught in a Stop-Motion Spring

My little slice of northeastern Michigan feels like The Year Without Spring–one of those stop-motion holiday specials from the 1960s and 70s. But at this point the Heat Miser would be more than welcome.

So I’ve been dreaming about warm weather, revisiting a sunnier spring and a trip to the Big Island Lake Wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which I wrote about many years ago for Whisper in the Woods–Kimberli Bindschatel‘s gorgeous nature magazine.

SunsetKayakFrom Spring 2006, Territorial Beavers to Cloud Anemones: Water sprayed into the air and tumbled back down again, shattering the quiet. Droplets rolled across the lake like marbles; a stillness followed. A fish, I wondered, or someone throwing a rock? I peered through the woods but saw nothing, only birch trees, their bark peeling in white sheets, and ferns, emerald spikes running along a ridge — the world dyed green, late spring’s gift to summer. Read the rest here.


Exploring the Woods for Undiscovered Creatures: How Nature Influences the Imagination

Lake EmmaThe following essay first appeared in Whisper in the Woods Kimberli Bindschatel’s gorgeous nature magazine that ran from 2004-2008.

I began to notice the figure from about 100 feet away. It rose out of a snowdrift like an ancient statue—northern Michigan’s answer to Easter Island. I clomped forward, my snowshoes sinking into the snow, and saw that it was a crudely carved lumberjack, standing about 7 feet tall. He held a hatchet between his fingers, and his carved hair was gathered at the nape of his neck.

Snow fell in fluffy flakes and the sun hid behind a bank of gray clouds. Shadows hovered beneath towering pines. The day took on an eerie feeling, as if someone watched me from the woods, and I hesitated.

“I’m being silly,” I said. The sound of my voice gave me a burst of confidence, and I took another step. Why was I letting this strange carving scare me? Had I somehow regressed about 30 years, back to my fanciful youth?

Still, the carved giant was unnerving. His uneven eyes seemed to glare, warning me off the two-tracks I was exploring. And I hurried away, thinking about the times where my thoughts have gotten the best of me.

Over the years, my imagination has converted a cluster of turkey vultures leaning over a carcass into a coven of witches. Or once, while on a trail run, a crow seemed to follow me, flying ahead and then landing on nearby branches. I imagined that the bird was not what it seemed. Was something else trapped inside the crow’s body? Would it transform?

I’ve often been amazed at where nature takes my mind. It allows us to think beyond ourselves, to feel how small we are compared to a vast forest or lake. For some, like myself, our thoughts turn to the fantastical, probing the woods for undiscovered creatures. As a writer, I turn these mental ramblings into stories, like in my short-story collection, The Curse of Blackhawk Bay (Sam’s Dot Publishing, December 2008).

Yet, at times, I also find my imagination shifting to a more spiritual path. Although my father has been gone now for almost 20 years, my mind brings him back. I can almost see him at my side, hiking or mountain biking and remarking on the blue sky or a loon’s call. I close my eyes and hear his voice.

And this, I think, among all the gifts that nature gives us is perhaps the greatest. It grants us the space and quiet to allow our minds to wander, whether it be inventing an alternate world existing within the forest or remembering loved ones. I believe these mental gymnastics keep us young, pushing at our minds, allowing them to explore and invent

So on the day I encountered the hatchet man, I quickly left him behind, wondering how he might appear in my next short story. Soon, though, the spooky feeling subsided. A ray of sunshine split through the mass of gray clouds and I struggled to the top of a steep hill. My snowshoes slid backward with each step, and I thought about my father, how much he would have enjoyed the day—the sense of adventure and exploration. I felt his presence and allowed it to fill my mind.

The wind whispered through the pines as I trudged back down the hill toward home. A deer blind, hidden by a log, lurched on the left and animal tracks scampered across the snow. Somewhere a bird called, almost a wail, and immediately my imagination was off again, pushing at its boundaries, wondering what waited in the woods, what stories I could create.