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Outdoors North: The magic of special places in nature

JOHN PEPIN

“Who are these people? What is this place?” — Tonio K.

The idea of place holds a good deal of intrigue for me.

Pick a place on a map, anyplace, and it’s somewhere that something resides.

Maybe it’s a place somebody was born or grew up or it might simply be a spot where one day a sapling or a plant poked through the earth and grew into a tree or a wildflower – a weeping willow, nodding trillium or a whispering pine.

Maybe it’s a transitionary location where you might stop to watch the river passing by or the geese flying north overhead. Her place. My place. Your place.

Perhaps it’s a time-sensitive point, a specific spot where some occurrence took place at a single moment in time and is otherwise insignificant to most, but still important to someone or something. Historical markers are widespread.

The earth is pocked with craters where meteorites have struck. There are countless landmarks – from geysers, waterfalls and volcanoes to glaciers, caves and canyons -that hold topographic, geomorphological significance.

Unlike trees and rocks, the mobility of humans affords us many places to call our own.

We have places to work, live, play and grow. Why do we do the things we do in those specific places? Most often, the reason is something inherent to that place.

Cities and towns are often situated where they are because of their proximity to natural features like rivers and lakes or natural resources like minerals or fertile soils for farming. Thinking about places can go on and on.

Beyond all of this, most people have a special place, sometimes more than one, maybe even more that a couple. These are places where people go to listen to the silence, watch the sun go down, to contemplate or perhaps to pray.

These are the kind of places I am most drawn to in a deeply significant way.

For me, these places hold a peculiar kind of magic that can’t be diminished. They are ethereal places where my soul touches the universe and vice-versa, places where I find peace and solace or comfort in recollection.

Sometimes, these places – like the first place I can remember fishing – are so deeply ingrained in my being I often don’t recognize or realize the attraction until I find myself driving there for no conscious reason.

At any time of the year, thoughts of sounds, sights and smells of this place and others, pop into my head, seemingly out of nowhere. That generally leads to reflection and remembering, which often leads to feeling a deep satisfaction.

My dad had a special place like that at a place he had his camper parked on leased land. There was a picnic table there he used to sit at. He spent a great deal of time just looking down the river toward the big basin.

When I’d call from California, he’d often tell me about the birds or animals he saw that day while he was sitting there. He’d also mention how nice it was to be there on a warm summer day, or maybe he’d been picking blueberries.

When he’d talk about things like that, I could feel how much the place touched him and was special to him. I could hear that in his voice from more than 2,000 miles away.

Some places have been important to me because they are good places to fish or see wildlife or pick apples or sit on the beach. But these special places I’m talking about hold a much greater fascination.

They are almost holy places in their hierarchy of geographic locales for me. I carry a deep reverence for them. They are mysterious sites that hold power I can’t explain.

I think places like this are very specific and individualized in their attractiveness to people. Any one of these places so dear to me likely would hold no significance whatsoever to someone else.

I wish I could better define this ambiguous quality that at once makes these locations profoundly special and intriguing. I am pulled magnetically there.

That place where I remember I first fished all those years ago isn’t special because of that. It’s something more, roiling in the blackness of the water, or maybe the orange hue to the trees cast by the setting sun.

No. It’s all those things and more, I think.

One thing I have discovered for certain is that for me my special places – like that picnic table at my dad’s campsite – are all found outside in nature somewhere.

They are therefore subject to the changing seasons, but they remain the same in their power and their appeal year-round.

I feel as though it is supposed to be a secret where these places are. I’m not supposed to tell, as somehow that would pop the bubble and the magic would disappear.

Maybe that’s not the case. Maybe that’s just my fear.

Either way, I’m not planning to take the risk of that happening.

Another commonality in these places for me is the presence of water and big wide-open patches of sky. They are places where I can see things coming and going. I think the openness of the skies helps me feel free.

I think the sound of the waters gently lapping up against a shore or swirling on past console me and quell my fears, doubts or anxieties. These are places where it is easy to see inside myself.

These are also soft places in that they are quiet except for the sounds of the birds and the bugs and the winds around me. That lends itself to peaceful and contemplative moods. Here there seems to be next to no negative distractions.

Oddly, even mosquitoes and deer flies, that love to buzz and bite, seem to be kept back from being here somehow. While at the same time, fireflies and beautiful butterflies – mourning cloaks and the elaborate queen monarchs – are often here floating on the breezes or basking in the sunshine.

I think the big skies in these places let the starlight come down all the way to earth. I love to bathe in the light cast by the Milky Way toward these ancient granite boulders where I sit. There is a sharp ruggedness and clarity in these places.

Another thing easy to touch here is the resounding mystery of the universe summed up by whole worlds of questions – above, below and all around me.

In these places it is easy to think, which I count as divine.

As unexpected as a shooting star firing across the shadows of an evening sky, the depth of my wanting and wondering when I’m here comes over me quickly. It burns hot inside me.

Strangely, by the time I am walking away or getting into the car, the feelings stirring inside ebb like a soapy white tide. Until the next time.

It’s as though a trance is broken, and I return to the busy and distracting world around me. But I carry a piece of the peace with me in my back pocket.

It comes to me in my dreams and thoughts, in moments when the phone stops ringing and the television is off, when I can hear the echoes of my experiences at these places resounding off the canyons of my mind.

I hope one day, maybe after this life is over, I’ll better understand the meaning and the attraction of these places that have burned themselves into my heart.

In the meantime, I know it won’t be long before I again return – searching, looking and wondering.

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