I’ve talked to city people who have a hard time falling asleep without the ambient noise of traffic or the hum of industry. And I know country people who say the same thing about the sounds of nature or wind through the trees.
It’s a misconception that the woods are quieter than the city. True, sometimes the forests of northern Minnesota are dead silent, but more typically they are as busy as the streets of a metropolis. The only difference is the type of sound and where it comes from.
It’s true, I stopped hearing drunk people yell about their relationship status down the full length of a city block after we moved from behind the bar in Hibbing. But that’s not true of crows, chickadees or grouse. I hear them yammering all the time. Caw. Cheep. Thump. “Look at me. I’ll treat you right. You call that a dance. Baby come back. Get off my tree. This is my tree. I am here.”
Does it matter that I don’t speak their language? I think I know what’s going on.
I grew up in the woods, so to speak. It was my family’s junkyard in the Sax-Zim bog and, truth be told, we were belted between Highway 7 and the railroad that connects Duluth and the Iron Range. The soil smelled like oil. The place emitted puffs of foul smoke like an old man three plates into a buffet. But where I live now is, without qualification, deep in the woods. We felled trees to build our house. Birds and animals still seem incredulous at our presence. “When did they get here? I liked it better when this was trees.”
When I attended college I went to school with a lot of people who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. When you asked them where they were from they always said Chicago, but when you went home with them for the weekend they took you to some other place, a concrete abstraction with strip malls and carpool lots. The Sears Tower? Navy Pier? The Picasso sculpture downtown? If they had seen these things they probably only saw them once, and spoke of them as afterthoughts, like misshapen rocks that mark lefts and rights on some trail.
This seemed sacrilege to me at the time, but hark the future present. The most meaningful piece of forest I’ve seen in my new neighborhood is a place I’ve seen just once. Across the lake by my house, lies a stretch of never-developed terrain, a geological moraine set up like a cathedral of tall pines. On a late winter afternoon the western light pours through the bare poplar branches onto a clearing that even a tenderfoot knows is where the ancients would have gathered in a storm.
You can reach this place somewhat easily in the winter if you’re willing to hike a mile across the snow-covered lake. I’ve never tried in the summer because the shore is a rocky, unforgiving bank where landing a boat would be difficult. The brush and wetlands mesh like a wet sponge in the summer, the only openings clogged with mosquitos and the hot air they need to fly. But inside the dense covering rests this sacred valley and sentinel ridge carved 10,000 years ago by the glacier that left behind 1,000 lakes in the small county where I live.
Three years ago the boys and I, pent up with cabin fever, walked to this place in a fit of boredom. And though I think of this place ever time I look across the lake, we’ve yet to go back. It’s right there, under the distant tree where the eagle roosts. Last year the snow was too deep. This year the snow was too wet. Excuses, really.
I suppose it’s not that I go there all the time; the best part about my favorite place in the woods is that I finally know it’s there. Because when I know it’s there, part of my soul can go there any time. I like to think part of my soul will live there always. I think that’s the biggest difference between living in the city and in the country, and the reason I’ve become content to stay in the woods.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 23, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.