Archive for the ‘Cottage’ Category

Early Morning, Late October

Early morning at the cottage. In summer this time of day is so utterly peaceful, sitting on the porch with coffee, watching the dawn come up slowly. Hearing the birds all around, listening to the water. The smell of pine. The promise of a summer day on the Bay.

But it’s late October and pitch black outside. I opened the back door, went out and checked the temperature (nearly 50°—not bad) on the thermometer that hangs on the pine tree. How long has a thermometer been there? I can’t say; decades at least, maybe longer than I’ve been on the planet. The tree, definitely longer. I measured it two years ago to estimate its age: ninety-something. Only a few feet from the back door, I fear we will have to take it down if we build even a slightly bigger place.

Despite the dark mornings, which do seem sudden and mournful, fall is beautiful here. Driving up to Bellaire yesterday from M72 there was lots of color, bright maples and birches mixed with the dark of pines all along the road. Near Mancelona a small mountain rose from the plain, all covered in red and gold and saddle-brown.

Driving from Bellaire to the cottage up around the end of Torch Lake was even better. The highway twists and turns, rolls up over hills and dips back down, crossing glacial moraines: the piles of silt and stones the glaciers left here as they retreated from what is now Lake Michigan. I had a series of vistas: a carpet of green field running up to a calico frieze of woods; a country lane lined with yellow maples winding away towards a distant, checkered hill; horses grazing behind a ramshackle fence, the trees glowing crimson and yellow beyond them. The road showed me these views and put them away again, like shuffling photographs—such is the speed at which we move, in cars. But even on foot I know the views would change coming around a bend, going up and downhill. I would just have longer to study each picture before it disappears into memory.

Into memory. The sun was out, and even though I was traveling at close to sixty miles an hour, I gathered and will hold onto these images through the long months away from here, the perfect gold of a sugar maple something to gnaw on this winter, like a dried husk or some prize kernel stashed away. (We are more like squirrels than we care to admit, I think.)

I see some light is just now beginning out the picture window, a deep blue color—almost like peering through water. I feel like I’m looking through the glass wall of a big aquarium, as if fish might swim by, darting in and out the trees. There’s still no wind; and I think, why shouldn’t I put my coat on and go out, as in summer? Sit in the half-light (not even—quarter-light) with my coffee and drink in the quiet one more time.

Winter will be long. I will miss this place.


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I went swimming yesterday – a rare occurrence, so late in the year. September 27th. I could hardly believe the calendar read nearly October, and not August.

I walked around in the shallows with my camera first, taking shots of the furrowed sandbars under the clear water, the patterns the light makes, the island with its brushy hairdo in the background, the peninsulas in the far distance. On a calm day, I’m fascinated by the way the water ripples and moves over and around the sandbars. Words from the realm of sound, and music, come to mind: vibration. Resonance. Harmonics. I stood with my camera in the shallows, trying to capture some of it as the minnows pooled around me and nibbled at my feet.

A woman approached on a sit-on-top kayak. I’d seen her dragging it to the water as I walked out, she came from one of the big houses north of us. I wondered which one. Could she be a guest of the people who cut down trees on my sister’s property last spring, without asking?  The trees were right in the sight line to their huge front windows. We had a talk, and they were apologetic afterwards, but still… I’m skeptical. I’m suspicious in general of the “big house” people, they of the expansive landscaping, perpetual lights, wandering chainsaws.

She paddled up to me as I was snapping pictures. I felt annoyed. With an entire Bay to paddle in, why come right by me? Later I realized she wanted to stay in the shallows as she headed south.

“That looks like a nice camera,” she said as she approached.

“I like it,” I said, and shrugged. I was thinking, it’s not a terribly fancy camera. I lined up another landscape in my viewfinder.

She paddled slowly and deliberately – an older woman, probably in her 60s. I noticed her wide-brimmed hat, just like the one I was wearing.

“Are you taking pictures of the island?” she asked.

I stopped to explain a little – the patterns in the sand, the light, the submerged tree trunk I’d seen the day before from my kayak. “It’s around here somewhere,” I said.

“Did you see the eagle on the island this morning?” she asked.

I responded no, not this morning. But, I told her, I’ve seen it out here before. For a quick second I imagined her standing on one of the balconies on one of the big houses, binoculars trained on the island. I felt a strong possessiveness, like a small child with a favorite object – my island, mine! And the urge to say, I’ve been coming to this island since before I could walk… Or was it later that I thought of saying that? I don’t know.

She got just past me with her slow paddle strokes when the trill of a loon floated over the water.

“That’s a loon,” I called from behind her.

“Sounds like it to me,” she said.

It called again. “It sure is,” I repeated.

“Beautiful sound,” she said.

I stood there with my camera as she slowly moved off on the still water.

I walked about, taking more pictures. I thought about the loons. I thought about the woman’s comment: beautiful sound. I thought about avian botulism, the numbers I read this past spring in the newsletter from the Watershed Council. Over 400 dead loons reported last year in Charlevoix and Emmett counties alone, and those are just the birds that volunteers found and tallied. I wanted to tell the woman from the big house, paddling serenely down the Bay, that the beautiful sound of the loons won’t be here for long if we don’t start trying to protect it.

But she was long gone, and I, reluctant if not entirely unfriendly, had not exactly made a friend.

Maybe next time, I thought, while the minnows tickled my toes. Maybe next time I’ll do a better job of connecting. Finished with my photo shoot, I walked back in, off the sandbars onto the clay-like crust that has formed over the pebbly shallows in front of the island, through the mucky patch just off shore where I sink up to my calves in spots, these days. I walked up onto the shore, crossing the gunk-coated stones, thick with dead algae, just at the water’s edge. Less than a decade ago they were clean, their rich colors shining in the sun. When we were small my sister and I spent hours at the water’s edge on a still day, playing with our buckets and shovels, looking at the stones.

I took my camera back up to the cottage, its memory card holding pictures of a rare day in late September: light, pattern, waves of energy through which we, no less than the minnows, move. Next time a kayaker comes out from the big houses up the beach, I hope to remember: at the right frequency, we all resonate together.


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While I work on editing a collection of my “cottage” writing, here’s a bit from 2011:

This morning I paddled north in my kayak, traveling two coves up. After crossing the sandbar at the second point, I found deeper water, and a sudden surprise of stones – big ones, heaped up right beneath me. I paddled around the spot for a minute, looking down at what seemed to be the top of an underwater rock pile, dropped there by the glaciers. Some day when I’m feeling ambitious I may come back with a snorkel and mask and get a closer look.

The air was warm, and still. Lured by the calm weather and the easy paddling I headed out to even deeper water and watched as the color under my bow went from bottle green to a dark, inky hue. The sea floor beneath me started to lose detail until I could see only the murky outlines of plants or stones, and then even those shapes began to disappear and all that remained was the rippled pattern of sunlight, shining dimly on the bottom.

In front of me the peninsula now looked tantalizingly close – as if I could reach and touch its wooded, shadowed slopes, even though I knew it was miles away. I paddled along for a while, enjoying the illusion: the arm of Old Mission a miniature landscape, the white motorboat cruising along its shore just a toy, the distant drone of the motor something I could disregard, like a far-off insect on a lazy summer day.

I turned south and paddled on. Another sandbar appeared suddenly close under the belly of my boat, golden and etched with the sinuous patterns made by the waves. White clouds stretched across the sky and were reflected on the surface of the water in front of me. Feeling suspended between sea and sky, I stopped.

I was looking down the Bay, swinging slowly on the edge where air meets water, hearing not a sound but that distant boat – the mere thrum of an insect. Despite the houses lining the near shore from which I’d launched just a short while ago, I was alone. I could see the neighbor’s big party tent, still standing from Saturday’s event, but like the powerboat, it receded into a different reality: a toy tent, toy houses, a toy road coming down from the hill behind. What was real was being there, rocking gently on the water.

I felt like I had all of east Grand Traverse Bay to myself. And in a way, I did.

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Three Deer

“Nancy, come here!” Sally says in an urgent whisper. “Go slow…”

I creep around the corner from the back door to where she’s standing, eyes trained out the front window.

“See the deer?” she asks. Following her gaze I see a small doe, just a few feet beyond the edge of the mossy bank that is our front yard. “There are two of them,” Sally whispers, and then I see an even smaller deer, so young it still has spots, materialize behind the first. They keep dipping their heads to browse on something growing there along the bank. The larger of the two is aware of us – she faces the window, ears up, each time we speak. Even though we keep our voices low, she can hear us through the single-pane glass of the picture windows. She stamps a couple of times and flicks her tail, but she doesn’t startle, or run.

Seeking a better angle, we move to the far window, walking in slow motion so as not to spook them. (I feel like I’m back in the tai chi class I took years ago). A full-grown doe comes into view from behind the trees, and mama is so much bigger than her fawns that only then do I realize how small and delicate they are.

As we watch, they work their way across our view and down onto the beach to the water. I see the white-spotted fawn sniff at a fish carcass at the water’s edge – which makes her (or him) back up, abruptly. Dead fish is clearly not a pleasant aroma for a deer. The three of them wade a few steps into the Bay, and we watch as they dip their heads and drink. After a moment they turn and bound away, up towards the woods and out of sight.

I have never seen deer from the windows of the cottage before, although we see their tracks every year and know that they cut through our property to go down to the Bay and drink. It’s thrilling, somehow, and I have to think about why. I see deer regularly, downstate – they’re ubiquitous. I see them around here too, standing in the pasture alongside the road, or occasionally back in the woods on the logging trail.

This feels different. For one thing, the scene is exceptionally beautiful: the deer grazing with the pale morning blue of the Bay and the dark green of Old Mission peninsula as a backdrop, then the huge open space of sky and water surrounding them as they wade in and bow their graceful heads to drink. But it’s not only the beauty of the picture that feels so compelling. Watching the deer I have the sense that this beach, this panoramic view of Bay and peninsula, this real estate that we humans so covet, seek out, attempt to possess in whatever way we can –

This too belongs to the wild.

There’s a magic to being in the cottage – a small box set at the edge of the woods – looking out the window at the deer, I think, picking up my coffee and taking a sip. Good morning.



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Sitting on the porch in the mild, fresh air, I hear a cricket chirping rhythmically from the grass on the beach. Out on the water a seagull cries – a plaintive sound, but I know better than to think of it as mournful or lonely. Seagulls are perpetually crying. I think it is their nature.

A crow hops across the yard and from the branches overhead comes the quick, bright call of a chickadee. The air smells moist and clean: sandy, like the Bay. The sun falls in bars between the tree trunks, warming the pine needles blanketing the ground and sending up their scent, too. A squirrel runs headfirst down the trunk of an oak and scurries over to climb another tree. I can’t see his color, in silhouette against the light of the water, faintly blue in the morning sun. Then he appears suddenly on the pine tree at the corner of the porch, peering in at me. He’s golden-brown.

There’s just enough breeze to set the ferns on the front of the bluff dancing, and I see the water moving north, the troughs of waves appearing as tiny, sand-colored lines. No jet skis are out yet, and I can’t even see the neighbor’s boats from here. The seemingly endless fireworks of the 4th and last night’s leftovers, a few stutters of booms and flashes, are a thing of the past. It’s quiet, but for a small plane that comes into hearing and drones into the distance.

This is what I live for: morning coffee on the porch at the cottage. Nothing is happening. Everything is happening.

Last night we had guests at our campfire, friends from up the beach. One of them had never been to our place before. At the end of the evening in the light of the flashlight we walked up the stairs to the cottage and our guest looked around the yard, mostly in darkness, at the trees, the hard-packed sand and the moss, the dirt driveway. She said something about it being so unlike her parents’ place, up the beach – no landscaping. This is nice, she said. Rustic.

I said yeah, it’s rustic. She probably couldn’t see the smile on my face, in the dark. What she called “rustic” is what draws me here to sit under the trees, watching the squirrels and the chipmunks run around the pine-needled ground, seeing the ferns and the chokecherry dance in the wind along the bluff, watching as the bands of morning light slip slowly down the tree trunks and the shadows shorten, heading for noon. Hearing the birds call, wondering if I’ll see the mergansers pull up down in front, zipping along the surface of the water, fishing.

Rustic is a word that conjures for me an effect, something to be achieved, purposefully shaped if not contrived. Perhaps that’s only when applied to interior decorating. There’s purpose to the way things are here – but the purpose feels larger than me. I’ve shaped nothing much here; neither did my parents before me. The small things they did to the landscape, the rough stairs my dad built, himself, to get down the bank, the screen porch they added on years after they built their tiny cottage, trees growing mere inches from its screens – these only serve to make the presence of the outdoors even larger.

I don’t think of myself as religious, and I don’t believe in a god with a human-like personality, a king-like “deity.” I never did, despite all the years of church I attended. Something did stay with me from all that time, though. Words from a hymn I’ve always loved:

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies

For the love which from our birth over and around us lies

Rustic. Whose purpose? What purpose? I’m not sure I can define it. But I can feel it, lying “over and around” me – and within me – here.

For the Beauty of the Earth, lyric by Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917.

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I don’t think there is much in the way of old-growth forest anywhere near the cottage. Still, I found an old soul, back in the woods. It stands in a clearing right beside the logging trail, just past the swamp. I first discovered it last fall, on a walk when the trail was dry. I don’t remember it from my youth – we did not often walk so far in this direction, having to cross the edge of a wetland.

But now I keep returning to visit the old tree. Each time as I approach I feel that I come into a great presence. Roots like an elephant’s trunk snake out from its thick base and clasp the earth in a grip the force of which I cannot estimate or even imagine. Pieces of its branches, some of them good-sized logs, litter the ground in a circle around it, lying where they’ve fallen – over how many years, I don’t know. I clamber over them to get close to its scaly bark, growing moss and lichen. The tree is a yellow birch. I think it’s been here for a long, long time.

Surely it was here when the logging crews came through, over a hundred years ago. They made this path, branching from what roads existed then, up on the hill. Their old trail comes right past the cottage and down to the Bay. Years ago my parents heard from the brother of the man who sold my dad our property that he worked on this trail, as a young man. As I think about the yellow birch right beside the trail, and its sister tree close by, I begin to wonder: why did the loggers leave them standing?

I try to imagine what it was like, cutting trees every day until there was no forest and the landscape for miles around looked like a wasteland. That’s how Elk Rapids, five miles away, looked at the end of the 19th century. I’ve seen the old photographs: not a tree in sight, the countryside around the town denuded by the vast tornado that was logging. It’s easy to find accounts of how hard the labor was, with hand tools, the harsh winters in camp, the enormous breakfasts lumberjacks consumed, the terrible dangers they faced cutting and moving the trunks of huge trees, up and down hills, even over waterfalls. There was less written about how the lumberjacks felt about clearing practically every tree in sight. I do find clues in accounts of the time. One man speaks of the “slaughter” of the timber. And when the pines were all down, I read that the financiers built an iron ore furnace at Elk Rapids and started cutting hardwood to fuel it. I wonder: did the lumberjacks sometimes draw a line? Did the foreman sometimes say, “this tree we’ll leave alone” – out of sentiment, or wisdom, or even superstition? Did an occasional grove or a single tree left standing have to assuage their uneasiness at the forest they were leveling?

It may be a fanciful notion. Instead it could be as simple as this: yellow birch was wood they didn’t want. I don’t know. I do know the list of creatures a yellow birch helps support is impressive. Deer, moose and snowshoe hare browse its seedlings and green leaves. Songbirds and mice eat its seeds, ruffed grouse and squirrel its catkins, and beaver and porcupine chew its bark. You can even make syrup from its sap. It is hard to replace a tree like that. Come to think of it, it is hard to replace a tree.

I’ve read that in parts of Japan, tradition holds that some trees house a spirit, and there are places where you can still find carefully tended shrines at the bases of trees. This does not seem strange to me at all, thinking of the roots of the old yellow birch, running into the ground like the cables of a bridge, reaching for the sky. I don’t know why the lumberjacks spared it – but I’m glad they did.


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Water is everywhere, this spring, pooled in the ditch beside the road and flooding the trail leading into the woods. As I start down the path, I see that the cedar swamps back here are not just moist and muddy, but pond-like, their mirror surfaces reflecting patches of sky.

I usually think of swamp water as stagnant, lying still. But deep in the woods where the trail hits wetland I find a small stream enthusiastically running over the path. I watch its ripples as it goes, answering the call of gravity, working around hummocks and trees and old logs, finding a course down to the Bay. It feels odd, to see the swamp streaming steadily across the path, but of course it’s on the move. That’s what water does, especially in spring, after snowmelt. And it occurs to me that this subtle movement, the washing of this gentle current across the muddy chocolate of the trail is how some great rivers begin. This is what headwaters look like.

A humble origin for a river, trickling its way out of the swamp. At the corner of this marsh alongside the trail lies a small jumble of junk, dumped here many decades ago – the refuse of the people who once farmed the land up on the hilltop. When I was a kid we poked around in this rusty trash heap, looking for treasure, and came away with a few antique bottles. One or two are still on the mantel in the cottage.

Usually we walked here in the fall, when all the bugs were gone. But I remember excursions in early spring too, before the mosquitoes hatched. One year I went with my dad and my sister to a meadow Dad located on an old aerial photo. It was a good-sized clearing, just far enough off the road to be hidden in the trees, thick with long grass and completely under water. Dad called it the “Secret Meadow.”

I don’t remember who found the eggs at the meadow. I remember crawling out on a tree trunk that jutted out over the water, so maybe I saw them. Or maybe Dad or Linda spotted them, and I shinnied out to get them. It was Dad’s idea that we gather them so I could take them to science class.

I was in seventh grade, and for the first time went to separate classes for my subjects. Science was taught by Mr. Strauss. He seemed like an ok guy, but compared to my elementary school teachers I found him kind of cynical. I remember we were all a little scandalized when he told us that in centuries past people built observatories in their houses to look at the stars because they had few forms of entertainment, other than sex.

When I came through the door with my jar of eggs Mr. Strauss greeted me with “Ah, frog eggs!” in the stagey kind of voice he often used with the class. It sometimes signaled he was about to make a joke, or ridicule something. But he put the eggs on the windowsill, where we could keep watch on what was happening inside their transparent membranes.

Class went on as usual for a while. Then one morning when I came in Mr. Strauss took me aside and led me over to the window to look at the eggs. Curled inside each of them I saw what looked like a tiny lizard. “They’re salamanders,” he said, without a hint of his usual vaudevillian bravado. It may have been the only time I saw wonder in his expression. I think now that possibly it was also the only time I saw the real Mr. Strauss. The following Monday he reported to me that over the weekend, he’d taken the salamanders out to the woods and released them.

This year as I make my way along the sodden path, trying to keep my boots out of the worst of the muck, I am not deceived by humble appearances. The swamp may be soggy, muddy, frequented by bugs and sprinkled here and there with the castoffs from old farms, but appearances are deceiving. I know what else is here, clustered against an old log or clinging to the base of some thorn-laden shrub. The salamanders are just one kind of wonder that lies below the surface. From tiny streams and cedar swamps, great rivers of life begin.

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