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Pairs of Opposites and Finding Silence in the Boundary Waters

My buddy Gerald in the Tennessee BHA chapter calls the Boundary Waters “his Eden.” It’s a metaphor that works on a couple levels. Eden was a space of pure nature. It was also the place we became conscious, became aware of pairs of opposites. Knowledge of this and that. Light and dark. The first wardrobe malfunction when man and woman, noticing they were different, grabbed some fig leaves to cover up.

Our group was in the Boundary Waters last week, and opposites were everywhere. Technology and nature: on our first night, the International Space Station passed over at an angle of 84° — nearly 250 miles straight up, to the sounds of our awe. Later, a wolf howled in the dark, and a chorus of loons responded with something that sounded like jubilance. This exchange happened three times, and I began to suspect we were eavesdropping on a conversation.

Community and solitude: we gathered around fires and told stories and shared food. Later, each would seek out solitude and the deep quiet where one can hear one’s own blood flow.

Tumult versus serenity: A storm threatening, our small squadron of canoes dug hard into a headwind, four miles of a long lake to cover before the real weather hit, and no time to pause for snacks or drinks or rest. We faced a real risk of getting turned sideways like a canoe-shaped sail, and dumping it. But yet on another evening, the water was smooth as window glass. Just after sunset, Jill and I paddled back from the other camp, trying to move without noise. Without any dip, dunk, gulp, swirl, or drip of a paddle. Sig Olson wrote: “At times on quiet waters, one does not speak aloud, but in whispers.”

We were quiet as we paddled, if not silent. I thought about the copper mine 40 miles west of here, on the edge of these waters near Ely and near Sig’s writing shack. We tried to stay present in the moment, present with the flat water and the changing light. But knowing it could change… Knowing there’s work to do, to keep from despoiling Eden a second time. I pulled harder on my paddle, and the water talked back.

This place, I thought, is wilderness for a reason. Aware of opposites, I thought how the BWCA has meaning beyond the value of a Chilean peso, or the dollar value of the metals in the ground. Later, I read some more Sigurd Olson, and came across this:

“In wilderness, people can find the silence and the solitude and the noncivilized surroundings that can connect them once again to their evolutionary heritage, and through an experience of the eternal mystery, can give them a sense of the sacredness of all creation.”

By George, I thought. Sig might be talking about Eden.

by Joe Jansen

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