High on a hill, at the top of a sloping meadow, relaxed against a spruce tree, sat a boy.
Beside him: three large oatmeal raisin cookies wrapped in waxed paper and a quart canning jar of well water, covered by waxed paper held in place by a screw ring.
An average Northeastern Minnesota August day, which is to say a perfect day. Skies deep blue above, fading to teal at the horizon spread before him. A few clouds drifting from his right to his left, west to east being the prevailing flow of weather in August. The clouds skim-milk white, no trace of cream. The sun falling on his bare arms with appreciable weight, which was how he thought of summer sun, as a weight that held him secured to this ground, which for now was his ground, but not by legal title. The land was owned and ignored by an old man who lived far south. The boy’s arms and face were rich brown from hours spent in the fields of the family farm the other side of the hill behind him. Beneath his faded green t-shirt his Northern European skin was still pale. A mellow breeze blew across him from the southwest, the prevailing direction of wind on August afternoons. The wind eased the weight of the sun from his skin.
His back against the spruce tree, his seat resting in a hollow between its roots. His body fitting the hollow perfectly because his body had shaped it over many sittings. All the lowest branches on the south side of the tree were gone, cut away by him. In his lap his two magical possessions, magical in a real-world sixth-grade-boy sense of magic. His compass and his large atlas of the United States with maps of all the states and territories and a map of North America, to which the atlas lay open. The sun reflected off the white paper, doubling its heat on his face. He opened the compass to align the map and himself to the south, which he did only for the feeling of power derived from his precision. Repetition of the task and the hollow in which he sat faced him south without benefit of his magnetic compass pointing at the Magical Magnetic North Pole. But where he sat, the declination value from True North was irrelevant. He took the word of the magnetized arrow on faith.
His 180 degree field of view ran from northeast to southwest, the direction of Lake Superior’s northern shoreline in Minnesota. Yes, it was a magical place, in a real-world sixth-grade-boy sense of magic. Before him in a sweeping unobstructed view Lake Superior lay wantonly on her back. Only a handful of people knew of this secret magical place, his family and two friends.
With his limited sixth-grade world surrounding him, he oriented himself in the larger world. If you do not understand his magic, you have forgotten when and how childhood melts into adolescence.
In imitation of the geography before him, the map on his lap reclined wantonly upside-down. The compass arrow defined an imaginary south-north line passing through the compass, over the map, and out across the world. To the north the line passed through him and the spruce tree against which he leaned, between and through tall birch and spruce trees, over a steep forested hill descending over the barn and above the kitchen in which his mother worked and the bedroom in which his father slept preparing for the night shift at the railroad roundhouse. Beginning this summer, only he and his parents lived on the farm which sustained them, his sister working for the summer at a resort on the Gunflint Trail before her senior year of college and his brother, a May high school graduate, off in the Navy to “see the world.”
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” according to Leo Tolstoy, which is a foolish statement driven by the penchant for drama and tragedy in Russian writers. What family is only “happy” or “unhappy”? What family, “happy” or “unhappy,” is a duplicate of any other family? What Tolstoy meant was that happy families do not make for tragedy. The family of this farm was happy more often than not, all working for the common good most of the time, which is the lesson of the farm and the gist of happiness in families. The parents of this family raised their children to reach out, to seek, to be independent, to make of themselves what their talents allowed, to be drawn by the allure of maps. Why else would his sister in 1957 be about to receive a degree in biochemistry?
Extend our imaginary north line beyond the small farm and the line will intersect few roads as it passes through thousands of miles of wilderness until it crosses Hudson Bay and back onto tundra. The line will then find the alluring islands where floundered Franklin and other unprepared seekers of the Northwest Passage, where native peoples survived from wisdom of the land and white men perished from ignorance. The farther north you extend the line, the better prepared you must be.
This northern line would make scant contact with what the boy’s textbooks call civilization—civilization, life in the city. Civilization was, the boy realized early, the unnamed center of his six years of school. Civilization was the Pledge of Allegiance, penmanship, standing in line for vaccinations, fairy tales, the timeline of history, Dick and Jane, Laura and Nellie, desks bolted to floors in rigid rows, man-made lines on maps, spelling tests—everywhere the controlling hands of adults could reach, leaving the playground, washrooms, walks to and from school, and bus rides as uncivilized, where children were dependent upon the undependable good will of other children, good will being another term for civilization.
To the left of the boy under his tree the expanding bulk of Lake Superior fell away, to the east hidden beyond the Apostle Islands. Islands—places alone, separated from the mainland, less civilized. The mainland—where isolation could be more real than on any island, or on any metaphoric island, such as the boy’s secret magical place on his hill.
Off to his right, but south by west, visibly climbing up the side of the line of hills on which the boy sat, hung Duluth. The city’s radio and TV towers fingering into the sky. Civilization.
Lake Superior, dubbed Superior as the highest lake by the French explorers. She was calm today, collecting her energy for another autumn of storms. Giving his faulty eyes time to adjust to color differences, the boy scanned the lake to count ore boats against the southern shore. Boats. A small word for the massive carriers which freighted raw ore by the thousands of tons each trip to the steel mills to the southeast. Two boats in the distant down-bound lanes; three boats in the near up-bound lanes. Even Lake Superior was touched by civilization. When she was not in a rage.
His eyes traced the Wisconsin shoreline. Lake Superior sometimes had an August trick up her sleeve, as she did today. More magic. On clear warm days such as today the shimmer of warmer crystalline air hovering over the cooler water magnified the clay banks of the South Shore to stand taller and redder than they were, even through his thick-lensed glasses. A North Shore boy, he scorned the red clay of the South Shore, which could not stand strong against the lake in rage like the hard rock of the North Shore.
The line of his compass extended south would split the nation down the middle, but not in half. The bulk of the continent stretched to the west. The line would find the Mississippi River and cross and recross it. He looked over Wisconsin as if he could see the line and beneath it the Great Valley of the Great River. The North called to him first. Then the West. Then the River. The East had little appeal. The boy knew what only students of maps know, that his southbound line would miss South America. By a scant measure of Pacific water, the line would pass by the Galapagos Islands. Islands. Islands of magic for Charles Darwin.
The boy also knew a secret of his west-east line. Draw a line straight east from the boy on the hill. Except for a few Apostle Islands of Wisconsin and the Keweenaw Peninsula of of Michigan, the eastern part of the United States was south of the line. Even the mass of population in eastern Canada was south of him. Draw the line west. The only major U.S. cities north of his magic place were Spokane, Tacoma, and Seattle.
He took a fountain pen from his pocket, on loan from his mother, and wrote across the top of the map, with no apology to the state of Washington, “EVERYTHING IS SOUTH OF HERE.” Holding his left hand above the paper to avoid smearing the ink, he wrote his bold proclamation right-side up to himself, upside-down to the civilized world.
It was a powerful thought. Who else could sit above it all? Who else was uncivilized enough to write in a book? He screwed the cap back on the pen and returned it to his pocket. He took it out again to make sure the cap would not fall off. He was civilized enough to take care of his mother’s pen.
He opened the packet of cookies and bit into one. He began counting out loud, waiting for another magic to happen. At “twenty-three” a dog burst out of the trees behind him, licked the boy’s face, sat beside him, and stared at the cookies. The dog was civilized enough to wait for a cookie to be offered. The boy broke off a piece and fed it to the dog. A second piece he gave himself. When they had bite-by-bite finished the cookies, the boy opened the water and drank half. He held the jar before the dog for it to lap up the rest of the water.
The dog rolled on its back. As the boy scratched its stomach, it drifted into ecstasy. It was a border collie—an intelligent, high-energy, hard-working dog, yet a pet, bonded to the boy and the farm. The dog cared not about human notions of civilization. The dog just lived, obeyed instinct, fulfilled his role on the farm and in the family.
The boy had not the luxury of instinct. He had, like all humans, to live by decisions, thousands a day, except when he came here to his “crow’s nest on the land,” as his mother called it. The boy wished to stay here, to avoid civilization, to be above it all. He could not. Soon he had to go back to the farm and the family—civilization’s portal.
The boy would grow, leave the farm, abandon his crow’s nest, stumble, rise again, take his blows, regret, celebrate, commit, grieve, lie, risk, fail, succeed, sin, atone—all the result of his decisions.
No matter where he roamed, this place of his, his sixth-grade real-world magical place, would always be a touchstone in his memory to be visited in visions and dreams.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017