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Outdoors North: A season of remembrance

JOHN PEPIN

“I thought that the rain would cool things down, but it looks like it don’t,” – Bob Dylan

Early this morning, I dreamt that I was out walking in a blustery scene, a time in the fall of blowing dead leaves and bare trees. The trees were maples and oaks, species that grow in this eastern part of the country.

I was walking along a street with an overcoat on with my jeans, boots and dress shirt. In the trees above me, I watched a western screech owl fly up between the branches and perch on a tree limb. It struck me immediately that this bird was out during the daylight hours. It was also a western resident in an eastern setting.

The bird looked right at me. It did not fly away.

Most Native American cultures associate owls with death and the afterlife. Some say they are messengers of the gods of death. Others say the bony circles around an owl’s eyes are made up of the fingernails of ghosts.

The owl in my dream was slightly larger than the screech owls I’ve seen in real life.

To me, I count it as luck anytime I see birds in my dreams. For as much as I love nature and associate myself with it, I don’t often dream about it.

If owls are messengers of the gods of death, maybe the owl in my dream was a communique or some type of obscured dispatch from beyond. This week marks 13 years since my dad died.

It’s interesting to think about people communicating or trying to communicate with the living after death, but I don’t think it’s real. Houdini, who spent a great deal of time exposing fakers who claimed to speak with the dead, including Houdini’s own mother, promised that if there was any way to communicate from beyond the grave, he would.

As far as I know, we haven’t heard anything from him since he died on Halloween in Detroit in 1926, the same year my dad was born.

This sad anniversary seems to be one of those strange kind of things for me. I can recall many things about my dad being here, like it was only yesterday, but at the same time, it is starting to feel like a long time since his death.

I think the things I miss most include joking around, sharing a restaurant meal or pitching horseshoes with him.

He’d often call me when I lived in California, telling me about various television shows he’d seen, or articles he’d read, that I might like to see. Now, I’m having similar conversations with my own kids. They live out west and I’m here.

These days, I wonder about things like whether my dad ever found what he considered to be true happiness or love? Did he think he was successful? Did he enjoy his life? Is he happy now, out there in the ever after?

Does he have any kind of realization that he’s dead? He used to joke that his second wife, who preceded him in death, was reincarnated as a house fly that would buzz around him while he ate.

Questions are boundless, answers are few.

Each year, around this time, when it would also have been his birthday and the Father’s Day commercials cover television screens, I look for quiet spaces outdoors to put myself in.

I think that doing so honors his memory and honors my life too.

So again, I’m walking. Usually through dirt or mud or along the railroad tracks. The smells in my nose include creosote from the railroad ties and a wash of blooming goldenrod and wild roses.

I feel the dampness of the mud and hear the buzz of deer flies and mosquitoes that follow me down past the old junction, over the railroad bridge where the river still runs, but the trains do not.

The trestles, though they were made from stone, concrete and steel, have been razed and have disappeared. The old tracks have been torn up in favor of blacktopped city streets or grown up and over with weeds.

It’s the latter of these conditions that I prefer when it comes to disrepair. There’s something about rust and broken glass from the old signal lights that stirs a kind of kinship in me.

When I was a kid, we used to find old railroad shacks full of spikes, spike plates and sometimes even old schedules and other paperwork. Train boxcars were often parked, in those days, with doors left wide open.

I used to like to sit in the spaciousness of an empty box car or lie down and look up at all that empty space. Because we were kids, it seemed like these railroad cars and buildings belonged to the grown-up world – a universe we were not yet familiar with.

We’d find similar artifacts in an old car garage we knew about. So much of that seemed like we were finding things from ancient history, but in fact, would likely have been heirlooms of a past only a decade or so behind those days in which we were living.

It was the sixties then. If you turned the television on you might think the world was going to explode any day now. But in the tiny kid world of ours, the world seemed too big to ever come to harm.

I wish it felt more like that today.

We were engaged in so many of our own serious endeavors back then like going down to the lake to find frogs and turtles, fishing, riding bikes, going to the tracks to watch the trains go by, “playing outside” or climbing hills.

In addition to all these things, I also loved to go to the “kid’s library” downstairs at the Carnegie Library just a couple blocks down the street from our house.

I read books on Vikings, the Byzantine Empire and Egypt, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and all kinds of nature guides. On Saturday afternoons, the library staged puppet shows.

I think when I was about 13 or so I was able to graduate to “the big library” upstairs, where my reading interests continued. Today, our house is full of books.

My mom didn’t read much, but my dad did. He read the newspaper daily, but he also read books and magazines somewhat regularly.

Today’s dad recollection is how he liked his coffee with cream and sugar. He would have coffee every day, until he was about 80 years old. Then, his dementia helped him claim he didn’t like coffee and had never drank it.

I also remember the last day I saw him, unaware he would be gone hours later, but I don’t want to recall all that much of that. It’s clear as day to me though.

I have often contemplated what the afterlife might be like. If it’s indeed heaven, it will have to be a very big place because heaven would be different for each person.

I hope my dad is in heaven or a place very much like it. Some place where he can fish all day long and his line doesn’t get snagged. His eyesight is good enough for him to tie hooks to his line and he’s got an all-day supply of happiness.

Meanwhile, I am here hoping it will rain. The creeks are getting low already and the woods are dry. A summer rainstorm would be quite lovely.

I’d like to sit down under a tree somewhere and smell it coming in on the wind before I could see it off in the distance. Then the rumbling and flashing, with me watching from my seat under the canopy of an oak or a hemlock.

I would lean back against the tree trunk, close my eyes and feel the tree sway back and forth with the wind.

Maybe after the rain stopped there would be a rainbow. I’d likely look for all the colors in the order we learned them in school so many years ago – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

My favorite part of a rainbow is the latter end. Those colors captivate me, and I feel as though they characterize me and run through my veins.

I’d be alright too if the sun just went on shining like it is right now.

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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