We put our snowshoes on and stepped down the wobbly tree-trunk steps of my brother Mike’s tattered, mouse-infested house, and trudged through the thick snow, past the wood piles and doorless outhouse (always a delight in mid-winter), and over the top of his abandoned vehicles - a few windows or cabs peeking out from under the seven to eight foot base of snow.
His house overlooked a creek, which oozed out of his land in northern Michigan as if it were the origin of the world’s water and all the lush vegetation that followed, born to make everything clean. By the time it neared his house, running down a gentle cascade of mossy rocks, it formed a bathtub-sized pool, where it leveled out next to a rocky platform, but due to unhappiness with his marriage, which eventually led to a divorce, he had moved into a small single-bunk trailer, even further out in the woods, where he had literally nothing but a blanket and matches.
Another foot of fresh snow had fallen the previous night, hiding the creek underneath the path towards his trailer, and after we safely crossed the hidden water and trudged half way up a hill, he paused and turned towards me, breathing deeply, and said, “Something weird happened a few weeks ago.”
“What was that?”
“Well, as I was walking, I found myself talking to Jessica. Remember her?”
“Of course,” I said. Jessica had been his golden retriever, the smartest dog I’ve ever known – more family member than pet. I swear you could have a serious conversation with her. It seemed as if they’d been partners most of his life. When Jessica was old and in pain Mike had to put her down himself to end her misery, walking her out into the woods with a gun because he couldn’t afford the vet’s bill. I’m not sure he had ever figured out how to live with that memory.
He leaned against a tree to rest and patted its trunk. “Boy, that’s a nice cedar,” he said, looking skyward. “Imagine what it’s seen through the years.” He gave it another pat. As always, he spoke with a deep, all-knowing voice, as if trying to emulate god, though it was strained from years of harsh smoke. With his long hair and beard he did bear a resemblance to Moses. “I swear,” he went on, ”Jessica was walking along my side just as she always did, and I went on talking to her for quite a stretch before I finally remembered she was gone. It was weird. I don’t know, maybe I’m going nuts, but I was sure she was here.”
“Maybe she was,” I said. “I miss her.”
He gave me a long look and grinned, squinting through the brightness of sun and snow, and raised his eyebrows as if to say, maybe so.
We continued our ascent to his oval-shaped trailer, a temporary home about the size of a van. We climbed in and he slouched on the bed while I sat at the kitchen table – opposite ends of the trailer – so we were about four or five feet apart.
Talking to my brother had always been similar to talking to my father – all about him – he’d ramble on about his trees or the amount of snow they’d received or the electrical power he was generating from his creek, but here in his trailer we shared one of our first back and forth exchanges.
“I know it doesn’t look like much,” he said, concerned I think, about what I thought of his sober surroundings. “But I’ve never been happier.”
His threadbare sweater hung on his bones like old rags, and he pulled his rusty red hair back into a pony tail, binding it with a rubber band. We’d always been close, and yet, eye contact was fleeting and uncomfortable.
“I’m actually proud of how little I need,” he said. “You know what I mean? I’m just like any other animal. It may look like total isolation and loneliness, but I feel more connected to this land than ever before. It’s like I’m a part of it, you know, you know what I mean, a part of this land. I could stay out here forever and never leave, never have anything else, and be completely content.” With his scruffy look and bony frame he looked as if he were more tree than man, or at least half tree, grown from his own land.
I didn’t know if his isolation was a good thing or not, but my concerns were lessened by the proximity of his closest neighbor and friend, an attractive woman who lived in a quaint, lovely cabin she’d built herself just a short hike away. She played and taught the piano and had once lived with black bears as a biologist. She was just his type. I believe he was in love.
“I just read an article by Rick Bass,” I said. “Have you heard of him?”
He shook his head.
“He lives a similar lifestyle in Montana. He wrote about the power of nature and how pockets of protected wilderness were needed to heal the rest of us, like restorative sources for the planet to tap into. He’s trying to save his area from logging, but I think there’s some truth to that.”
“It’s not anything I’ve ever thought about before,” Mike said, “but it makes sense. We’d lose ourselves without all this.” I could tell he was pleased to be hearing such thoughts from his younger brother.
Eventually we talked about his marriage and the differences between them, especially about raising their kids. Everyone in the family had been questioning his decision to go through with the divorce, but his reasoning seemed well thought out. I’d had my own reservations given his isolation – his house was already the personification of depression – but I’d met his neighbor and understood.
“I got off track a long time ago,” he said. “I finally feel all of my old dreams coming back. I want to install a septic system and plant a garden and get back to the idea of being self-sufficient.”
He reached into a drawer and pulled out his pipe and a small bag of pot. “You don’t mind, do you?” We’d been smoking buddies when I was a teenager but he knew I no longer indulged.
“No,” I said. “I don’t mind.” A part of me did, however, not because I objected to someone smoking the occasional joint, I just knew it would put an end to the best conversation we’d ever had, and it had been obvious for years that the harsh smoke was ravaging his sensitive lungs. He believed it helped his asthma, because like most drugs, it masked his pain with temporary pleasure.
He lit up and within minutes was reduced to the intellect of a teenager. His eyes glossed over and everything became cool and devoid of substance. He coughed as he talked and released the smoke.
“I had this great talk with Dad,” he said, excitedly. “He told me all about his childhood and how he was emotionally abused by his mother. It was amazing!”
Apparently my father had been making the rounds. “Me, too,” I said. “I had the same conversation.”
“No kidding? That’s great!”
“Yeah,” I said. “But to me it was really just another excuse to talk about himself and get some credit as a father without ever having to acknowledge all the anger he took out on us.”
Mike’s eyes lit up. “Oh man, that is so true! Boy did he have an explosive temper.” He held a lit match to his pipe and took another hit, then talked through the held-in smoke. “He sure loves to talk about himself, too.”
I wondered if my brother’s desire to get along with everyone – as if the summer of love had never ended – was better than my need to analyze every action, and in the name of intellectual curiosity, take out my anger on my father instead of letting it go, but Mike couldn’t see the connection between all that fatherly anger directed at him and how it had impacted who he was.
“He’s always complaining about the egos of other people,” I said, taking it further, “but he’s got quite the ego himself.”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “He’s got a doozy. Once he starts talking, you can’t get in a word.”
When he finished smoking we put our snowshoes back on and took another hike around his land. My brother wore the stain and tiredness of poverty, at least when among the civilized, but in his woods, dressed in grubby blue jeans and heavy boots and a dirty green parka – with his hair and beard sprouting densely underneath a black knit hat – he looked as natural as any animal or old tree thriving in these woods.
The bright sun on fresh snow was blinding. We trudged up and down the hills and valleys of his forty acres as tufts of snow fell all around us. He pointed out his massive trees and patted their huge trunks like old friends. “That’s a nice yellow birch,” he’d say. Or, “You won’t find many white pines like this.” He knew their twenty-plus year history of his stewardship and could describe storms that had taken some of them down, their huge mammoth carcasses still sleeping on hillsides, slowly giving themselves up to new growth. Being far from the creek, we stopped often to listen to the silence. This was no ordinary silence. In the dead of winter, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, deep in the forest, listening to the silence is like trying to understand the dialogue of trees, and for a moment giddily thinking you do whenever a slight breeze rustles a few leaves. You almost feel guilty for breaking the silence with the sound of your own movement or breath, but in this stillness, whenever our eyes met, we would marvel and grin over the beauty and gift of being in this place, recognizing its power to make all we’d ever been through worth the trouble, just for this moment. Life was indeed worth living. As we crossed over a ridge on the way back, we stopped to check out the view. “Ah,” he said, “there’s the house and all of its beeauteeefulness.”
I’d thought about this scene often, searching for some great insight about the healing or spiritual qualities of nature, but my brother died too young there, his lungs worn down by the stressors of life, wishing he could spend all of his time in that peaceful place, more comfortable with his trees and the memory of his old dog than he was with most people. And yet, he had no desire to be a hermit. Quite the opposite. He loved parties in his woods with all of his family and friends, and would have welcomed a much more socially fulfilling life amongst his trees. Perhaps he failed to find true health because part of why he moved there was to escape the demons of the past, rather than to live in balance with nature, and by the time he’d tapped into the power of his land – that physiological and mystical connection to wildness – too much damage had been done, and all of nature’s energy, fully armed and loaded on my brother’s land, failed to overcome the burdens of his emotional past.
By the time he died in his late forties, having put his tail between his legs too many mornings for a dusty job he despised, he looked as if he were in his late seventies, well past his prime and beat down from a harsh life in deep woods. And yet despite his ravaged lungs (and a marriage that no longer inspired), he was still strong, able to take vigorous hikes through his woods. If only he’d had proper therapeutic and medical care, perhaps his house, deteriorating from mold and rot, could have been saved or rebuilt, and a better, more rewarding job found, his marriage fixed or more quickly moved on from, and he’d still be up there because of that confidence, healthy and vibrant, happily living the life of his dreams.
Living in Chicago, the ceaseless noise of traffic, sirens, and honking horns became an almost imperceptible backdrop. I sometimes wished the city would inexplicably become as quiet as my brother’s woods, as a tribute after his death, recognizing that one of the few great woodsman and nature lovers had left us. But in the city, people would go insane from such deafening silence. They’d look at each other and laugh before they broke down and cried. A major terrorist attack would not be as dramatic. The infusion of such silence would signal a supernatural act, and yet all I had to do was take a day’s drive north to find it on my own.
A few years later, while standing on the banks of a river, I began to fully appreciate what my brother had been trying to tell me. “It’s like I’m a part of it,” he’d said, “you know what I mean, a part of this land.” I had nodded admiringly, as if what he’d said sounded cool, but I hadn’t understood it at his level, how he had recognized that he was nature, as much a part of it as any tree or wolf or beetle, depending on each other for survival, and unfortunately, vulnerable to its forces. Other than his children, it was his greatest achievement. Not that he had become an animal or hermit living like an isolated grub; just that for a brief period he had eliminated life’s distractions and fantasies and became one of the few to live harmoniously with the planet. He needed nothing. He took nothing, other than the bare essentials for survival, filling a niche in the ecosystem. He just got to that place too late.