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Outdoors North

Modern technology gets in way of life

“If not for you, the winter would hold no spring, couldn’t hear a robin sing, I just wouldn’t have a clue.” — Bob Dylan

Today, I caught a glimpse of my shadow on the ground cast by the early afternoon’s sunlight as I walked along. It wasn’t what I expected to see.

The silhouette projected across the road showed a figure with a misshapen head, wildly tossed hair and flannel shirt hanging loose, billowed by the wind.

The sight reminded me of a faded, old field scarecrow or some similar patchwork creation, maybe an old doll, one the dog had played with for too long.

It was one of those moments of revelation, of self-realization, like catching a look at your reflection in the calmness of a pool in the river, or a glimpse in the old, cracked cabin mirror that reminds you you’ve been camping for days without a comb or a razor.

Part of me liked what I saw and part of me didn’t. I liked the idea I had put aside convention in favor of relaxation and repose, but at a cost I wasn’t completely comfortable with.

And yet, when I got to the house after some time outdoors, I did nothing to address the situation. Instead, I put my headphones back on and returned to the nocturnes of Chopin.

I am certain I made the right choice.

These days, the desire and intention to get outside to explore and enjoy the worlds of nature, or to retire indoors to relax peacefully, is more often quashed by the ever-increasing demands of our rapidly spinning modern world and society.

One single smart phone alone could keep a compliant person occupied for every hour of every day for weeks, months or maybe even years on end.

I try to imagine John Muir, John James Audubon or even John Voelker being curtailed in their pursuit of the outdoors by a text, a tweet or a telephone attached to their side as they explored the wilds.

I can’t. It simply wouldn’t happen.

The implied expectation that we all should be available at every given second of any time of day or night — no matter where we are or what we’re doing — to respond to a cellphone seems not only unreasonable, but undoubtedly unhealthy.

We need the exercise, the fresh clean air, the energy acquired from being among the trees, the waters and the plants and animals. We also need peace, quiet, reflection, introspection, time to disconnect, to refresh, replenish and retire.

The strange thing is many of us decide to willingly keep ourselves from these things.

There is so much to find to do outside, even in just a few minutes, with the simplest things often producing some of the greatest joys or profound insights.

Merely taking the time to stop to look outside a window I normally would have passed, often provides unexpected sights and sounds. This is especially true when I open the window a couple of inches, even in the wintertime.

I’ve seen shooting stars and silvery moons, shimmering rainbows, green cloverleafs and other lucky charms, indeed.

Testing this theory just tonight, I stopped by the kitchen window and, even while eating a piece of cold pizza, watched a fox trotting along the bottom of a rock ridge, following the trail out there made by the deer.

The animal was too far away, in fading light, to tell whether it was a red or gray fox. It was the first fox I’d seen since last fall. It was amazingly cool.

A couple nights back, I stood outside the front door and heard a barred owl hooting from across the road, either from the trees at the back of the neighbor’s yard or out across a narrow part of the lake on an island.

I called an imitation back to the owl. The black-eyed bird continued its song for a couple more phrases but was silenced abruptly by a group of coyotes nearby who all at once threw up a loud and boisterous volley of yips that saturated all the airspace.

I called back my own yips to them too. They answered in more spirited yelps. They sounded so close, I expected to see them walking down the road to me any minute. They never came while I was out there. Coolness, nonetheless.

A week or so ago, I stepped barefoot out onto the cold bricks outside the front door, stopping to stand and again listen to the music of the night. The temperature had dropped quite a bit from earlier in the day, when the sun had been bright and warm.

Instead of music, I was confronted with a sound, somewhat unsettling, that I don’t recall having ever heard before.

I couldn’t make it out clearly. It seemed to be a muffled sound, with occasional sharp edges. It was close out in front of me, then far away. Then up-close, far and mid-range all at once.

It was a low and rumbling sound, delivered in short reports. It reminded me of the sound the overloaded sleigh in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” sounded when it inched closer to sliding off the crest of Mount Crumpit.

Some of those listening moments also reminded me of sounds made by slowly boiling mud or oatmeal. My companion under the stars that night suggested it sounded like an animal moving underneath the snow.

In a way, it was.

After standing and listening for a while, I understood the sound to be that of the snow compacting, collapsing on itself, after the warmth of the day. I’ve since heard the rumbling on other nights, but not as prominently as that first time.

I’ve continued to hear the barred owl too, but not the coyotes.

On my scarecrow walk I got to see a long line of a dozen or so deer, of varying ages and heights, running through the tree line over the hard-packed snow.

I wonder if any of them looked down to see their shadows on the snow, thinking to themselves their hair seemed out of place. Doubtful. Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids, kids old enough to know better, tricks done with mirrors and silhouettes.

A stop to rest my elbows on the window sill and look out to the north yielded skies painted with cotton candy hues of pink, blue and purple along the horizon as the sun was falling to the west tonight.

In the chokecherry trees in the backyard yesterday, I saw two brightly-colored male robins. Right on time, following their daylength sensory messages, they came north to find mates and build nests.

We all become the inadvertent beneficiaries of their beautiful songs.

The same day, an hour or so to the south, dozens of robins were spotted along the Garden Peninsula, along with sandhill cranes, red-winged blackbirds and other spring arrivals.

Back in the yard, the melting snow exposed daffodil shoots in the garden beneath the window, along with a dead repoll that had hit the window in the middle of winter.

American goldfinches were drinking and bathing at the roofline where snowmelt water was running over the edge. From the trees their songs were happy and long.

Like those birds triggered by the lengthening days and the joy of spring, I feel the pull on myself to be outside, to experience and explore growing stronger and stronger.

Any day now, I anticipate misplacing my smartphone.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.