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Outdoors North

World filled with startling contrasts

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Bother me tomorrow, today I’ll buy no sorrows.” — John Fogerty

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the tremendous contrast that exists between the world I see on the television news — one of turmoil and transgression, disease and death, lies, deceit and cowardice — and the beauty and wonder of the natural world that exists right outside my own back door.

It reminds me of a commercial from 1965 for a game that Milton Bradley made for young girls. The board game was called Mystery Date. I loved the commercial when I was a kid, mostly for a specific line the announcer spoke and the song for the advertisement.

A singer who sounded like Ricky Nelson, but wasn’t, sang the 1950’s-style Mystery Date song in the commercial: Mystery date. Are you ready for your mystery date? Don’t be late. It could be fate. Open the door for your mystery date.

The gameboard had a door that players would open to find various results, communicated in the form of pictures. Fun and surprises, that’s Mystery Date.

The announcer on the commercial asks the audience, “Will you be ready for swimming, or a dance?” Pictures of dates ready for fun are shown.

Then comes my favorite part of the commercial – the part that reminds me of the difference between what I see on the TV news and the glorious wintry scenes outside my back door.

The announcer asks: “When you open the door, will your mystery date be a dream or a dud?”

I still love that line.

It reminds me very much of those early 1960’s space race days, in the wake of Sputnik, which had flown over our skies just a few years earlier. In those times, the world was focused on moon rockets and Russian missiles.

So, it’s not surprising that the language describing a date in those days might refer to a potential suitor as a “dud.”

Yesterday, I was feeling under the weather and was stuck on the couch for the day, sleeping. Late in the afternoon, I was sitting up with the television news channel on.

While I was listening and watching that, I caught a glimpse of some movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned away from the screen to look out the window.

There, in the sunshine of the afternoon, I saw a bright and beautiful red fox, looking very alert and full of vitality, trotting down the middle of the county road into the sunshine.

What a wonderful sight!

It was the highlight of my day. I wanted to get up and go outside and follow that fox down the road to see where it was going.

A couple of days earlier, I had been out in the woods behind the house walking a trail in the snow. I had seen the tracks of a fox, as well as several deer.

Among the northern hardwood forest there, mixed with a few balsam firs and spruce trees, were the trails and tracks of several animals. Some I could identify, others I could not.

I saw several places where the deer had been pawing at the ground through the snow, disturbing dead and downed leaves that had dropped to the ground last autumn. The deer were likely looking for acorns beneath the snow.

There were tracks here of a good number of deer, which belied the number I am used to seeing around our property.

This winter, the deer activity has been limited to a regular doe and two yearlings, one of which had been absent for a couple of weeks but seems now to have returned.

The afternoon was exquisite. The woods were so quiet. Only the sound of a chickadee was heard occasionally.

These woods were well populated with trees, but they were standing far enough apart that there seemed to be an openness that was very inviting.

I was looking around wondering how this same area would look during late May, with all the new green leaves on the branches and the trees full of singing birds.

The trail here traveled over an incline that led the hiker up over a consistent slope, which then presented a landing or summit of sorts. Here, there were several places visible in the snow where the deer had laid down and slept, sheltered under the trees.

I could see that if I walked down a little draw and up the other side, I would reach a place where I could see out beyond the trees to the countryside beyond.

I headed in that direction.

When I got there, the view was different than I had expected to find. In front of me, the land dropped off significantly through the trees, down along a steep canyon wall. In front of me, there were treetops, bared of leaves, with branches reaching for the sky.

In the distance, I could see cars on the highway, a good distance off. If I listened hard enough, I could hear those vehicles too. I could see familiar intersections and even the golden arches of a McDonalds.

Again, the differences in what I could see looking out in front of me and what I could see if I turned back toward the woods were striking. I stood on a boulder covered with lichen and let the sunlight of the late afternoon warm my face.

The light felt good. If I closed my eyes, I could sense its warmth seeping in through my skin into my body, lifting my spirits up.

Another thing I noticed was the relative lack of snow on the ground for this time of the season. Typically, this would be a deep snow, snowshoe-only trail, but today, I was only wearing mud boots.

Other than a couple of places where the deer tracks had helped soften the snow on the trail into uneven, soft patches of snow, the trail was walkable and solid.

Out there in the woodlands, in places like this hardwood forest, it seems that hope is born. Sitting next to the trees, talking to myself and listening to what those aged and wise ancestors have to say opens my heart.

I feel a healing inside. In addition to hope, there is also an essence of new things good here to experience. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a sense that anything can happen any second. And when it does, it will be good.

Ralph Waldo Emerson urged us to adopt the pace of nature. He said, “Her secret is patience.” Henry David Thoreau said he took a walk in the woods “and came out taller than the trees.”

Albert Einstein said, “We still do not know one thousandth of 1% of what nature has revealed to us.” Socrates said, “He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.”

These quotes strike at the heart of what I am trying to say.

Out there, not far from the back door, in the quiet of a wintry afternoon, in an open woodland, there is incredible wonder to contemplate.

The stillness is a balm for the soul and the persistence of trees to grow toward the sunlight is a testament to what is possible.

It is clear by their tracks that the deer and the fox, the squirrels and weasels and fishers have all found homes here among the ancient rocks and the trees that have stood longer than America herself.

I plan to return to this place again soon, for more respite and replenishment.

My mind and body have grown numb through months of COVID quarantine. The walls of our home have become a prison of the too familiar, while at the same time, those creature comforts have created a false sense of safety, devilishly coaxing and convincing that to stay inside is always what is best.

There are cross ties to walk, trails to hike and cool, crisp air to breathe. I want to be out there to see and to experience these things.

I need to open the door to get outside, to live the fun and surprise.

Don’t be late. It could be fate. Open the door for your mystery date.

Editor’s note: 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.

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