I was 19 when I saw my first musky. I remember everything: how I was sitting, the time of day, the weather, the boat I was in, the tree composition of the closest shoreline, where the nearest other person to me was, the sediment on the lakebed below, even the density of the rays of sun splitting the water between me and the fish and playing on its brown back and amber striped sides. We could go back to Trout Lake in northern Wisconsin right now and get in canoes and I could paddle us out to the exact point near where the north end of Trout Lake curves away from the narrows and where I was drifting when the head of that 40 inch fish appeared ten feet below me out of the shadow of my canoe. The musky travelled perpendicular to the boat, its body growing slowly and steadily out of the canoe’s silhouette. It seemed to move effortlessly, propelled forward by the slightest undulations in its caudal fin. I made the stealthiest paddle stroke of my life, turned the boat alongside it, and we moved in tandem for maybe 15 feet, and then it sank out of sight. Everything lasted less than 4 seconds. After it disappeared I sat in that boat staring at the water until long after the wind blew me out in the open and the faint lakebed fell away just like the fish. I sat there slumped over like a fool, grasping at mental images, probably white in the face. It’s humbling how a lifetime of intently staring into water searching for just glimpses of fins, camouflaged backs, or even swirls of disturbed sediment can suddenly be defined by four seconds and one fish.
At age 19 the four-second encounter with that musky was in many ways a logical next step on the arc of my life. Growing up I was a nature boy, a fish watcher, a plant lover, an opening sky after the big storm sunset gatherer, a crawling around in the leaves with dirt in his hair, shoes soaked because he chased that frog into the creek again, shins gashed from brambles, shirt ripped from tree-climbing, gonna get chewed out by Mom cause he’s out past dark again, about to bust in the house tracking mud yelling about the biggest owl anyone’s ever seen kind of child. When I was young I had plans for my future but they were not lengthy. On maps Canada looked like the emptiest place on earth. I was going to walk into the middle of it, find a lake, build a cabin, and mostly do the things I listed above. I took steps in that direction. I goaded the family into bigger and bigger summer camping trips, I enrolled in college in small town Minnesota, and I got a job working in my college’s arboretum restoring prairies. But in the end, four-seconds floating over a musky and the surrounding few weeks working at a youth canoe camp were about as far into the wilderness and away from the structures of society that I ever got. I’ll skip the explanation on why things went astray, and settle for the how. I graduated college from rural Minnesota, moved to New York City, met the person I would marry, and now live in Louisville, KY, just a few miles from where I once spent the evenings high in the limbs of sugar maples dreaming about the boreal forest.
I’m not upset about it. Part of growing into adulthood is being humbled and I was humbled to understand that I interpret the outdoors, every sight, smell, and chill up the spine that I recently thought was all I needed in this world, through other people. So it wasn’t with a sense of loss that I moved back to the city I grew up in. In fact, after three years of New York City’s ultimate human created landscape Louisville felt quiet enough to get lost in and full of ground ripe for a new promised land: a community of people with enough space interspersed for natural habitats. In every mowed lawn or sparsely planted garden I saw space for the rebirth of plants long lost from our communal conscious. My own quarter-acre lot represented the worst of urban landscapes. An expanse of turf was broken only by an enormous common juniper and encircled by masses of invasive honeysuckle and vines. As soon as we moved in I set about transforming flat expressionless turf into a landscape of native plants, plants once too common for our gardens and now largely forgotten. I wanted it to be land that would be usable, that would hide things, house things, respond to the seasons, be alive. I bought the highest quality spade I could find and threw myself in. In the sweltering Louisville summer I dug under turf, crawled under the brittle boughs of honeysuckle to grub out the massive networks of ancient porcelain berry vines, and cut and stacked 20-foot Rose-of-Sharons and Chinese Mulberries. I scoured Louisville and collected seeds of oaks: burs, blackjacks, whites and chestnuts, along with ironwoods and hornbeams. I found kindred souls who pointed me to our best native nurseries where I brought home species whose names I hadn’t heard or seen in years; I dug holes and loosened topsoil, gently situated roots, and watered tiny plants no more than 2 or 3 leaves high. In the evenings as the sun fell and the temperature dropped into the 80’s I would stand on our back porch with dirt in my hair, caked on my hands and running down my arms following sweat beads, my legs etched up with blood and my socks packed with burs and seeds and leaves. My wife would stand barring the doorway from the inside and gesture violently at the hose. In short, I felt alive again.
I fell into the work like a desert survivor gulps down water. I took an entomology class at the local college and started to recognize insects in my growing yard. I watched plants whose roots I had teased into soil I had loosened go from 3 leaves high to knee high and pushing out small flowers. When the sun went down all my little plants caught and split the sunlight just the way I remembered from the prairie in Minnesota. I surveyed my yard and I thought I had moved on to a higher plane of understanding with the natural world. I didn’t need the whole boreal forest with its mysterious and dangerous creatures. For me a seedling tree was becoming an entire world. I was seeing visions of merging human and wild communities into one overlapping canvas. But something started happening that I had no answer for: the musky began appearing to me.
For nine years the four seconds that I floated peacefully over one of North America’s most elusive and beguiling predators had been my fondest and most magical memory. The past several months it has been a phantom, a great leering head that bursts suddenly from a dark silhouette while I attempt the mundane daily tasks of home and land ownership. No longer do I look down from a canoe, now the fish looms over me, an organism perfect in its creation and being taunting my efforts to pull weeds or study the growth on my coffeetree. Along with the musky comes flashes and shouts from the surrounding few months I spent sleeping outside and canoeing the lakes of northern Wisconsin. In a few weeks my yard became a chilling reminder of everything I didn’t have. Depending on the day I saw it as pathetically small or an endless expanse of turf left to dig under. While the coneflowers and milkweeds filled out, my silphiums, babtisias, and hickories hardly grew. It hit me that it would be a decade before many of my plants resembled the specimens I had come to know from my childhood woods and the Minnesota prairies, and it would be decades and decades before my trees formed anything resembling a canopy in my backyard. I was humbled once to realize I couldn’t fully love the outdoors without other people. I was now humbled again to realize there will never be enough natural things for me. I’ve lived here for a year and a half. I have seen a few hawks, a red-bellied woodpecker, a lot of robins rooting for worms, an opossum that comes and goes, countless wasps that I don’t recognize. No amount of my sweat or bleeding knees will ever produce anything in my yard that can compare to such a glorious organism as a shimmering musky suspended in open water on an early summer morning in a jewel of a northern lake embraced by pencil straight white pines, sugar maples, and basswoods.
I quit working for a while. Pokeberries grew in a mass over my small plants. I decided at age 28 it was time to stick to my plans and got back to it. I cleared the pokeberries, carefully enough to find my seedlings, every one of them. They hadn’t grown taller, but they had all filled out in the pokeberry shade, packing on leaves to catch filtered sunlight, fighters. Some days I jump out of bed and attack a project with visions of grandeur, and others I take my list of tasks and fight through it with stoicism. I’m not sure where this ends up now, which is what I’m writing about here. But I learned one more thing, something that inspires a rakish smile and recalls from deep in the past a young boy who considered catching the sun’s last rays from high in a tree a sort of religious obligation. I do a lot of worrying about the future of wilderness. Over the years I’ve grown more and more consumed with attempting to shape an understanding of and relationship with the outdoors that might satisfy 6 billion human demands and preserve some place for natural things in our world. I think I neglected my own relationship. Without my realizing it my yard became a conversation about natural things with just myself. I’ve found myself the participant in a strange ritual, which repeats itself every few weeks. On a day when paperwork or chores or my own sloth keeps me indoors all day, it becomes dusk inside a good hour before it is dusk outside. Time to turn on the lights throughout the time zone. But as I was told as a child dusk plays tricks on the eyes and the trick on me is usually that I don’t realize the light has faded. I find myself sitting in the dark, squinting to see words on a page, filling with frustration. Then if the right inspiration strikes I get off my chair and walk outside off my porch into my backyard. Light! Everywhere it is exploding, careening sideways, the plants are on their tip toes for it, even concrete looks vivid. I’ve made some progress beating back the porcelain vines along my back fence, and some weedy native asters and goldenrods have taken their place. I walk back there and lean on my fence in the same wonderful light as everything else and I can feel my breathing slow and my shoulders drop. A mammoth water maple grows in my neighbor’s yard across the way. Hated by arborists, the water maple grows fast, grows messy, and dies young. In this tree’s short maturity its enormous spread of leaves acts like a photographer’s backdrop, catching all that light and throwing it back into my yard. I lean on my fence, I take deep breaths full of clear air and dirt and fertility and I watch that water maple dance in the light while the darkness creeps up around me.