Saturday, December 21, 2013

Back to the Sublime: "Beauty and Atrocity" all the Time...

Lately, I've been telling my students to try to find a focus or theme for their blogs, and I've noticed that over the course of the last couple months, my focus has shifted a bit. In the beginning, I thought that I'd be writing a bit more about the concept of the Sublime, but other things quickly came to the fore, and I drifted away from that topic. Well, I shouldn't have worried about my inconsistency, because I'm coming back to the Sublime today.
This young tree might survive its trunk-bending
burden of heavy snow...
In my post on Snow Days, I recommended taking walks in wooded parks and along Duluth's many trails.  Today, on the Winter Solstice, I took a very brief walk along a part of the Tischer Creek Trail, between Second St and Fourth St. The trail hadn't been used much since the big snows, and I knew I wouldn't get far because of that, but I just wanted to pop into the woods for a bit, to see what the place looked like. I was expecting the quiet, peaceful beauty of a Robert Frost poem... 
June 21, 2012, Tischer Creek

I grew up walking along Tischer Creek--I know that trail like the back of my hand. I can walk it in my imagination, and sometimes I do that when I can't sleep. Of course, the trail I walk in my imagination is the pre-flood trail...

The Summer Solstice Flood of 2012 tore Tischer Creek to shreds, and it hasn't recovered or been repaired. Ever since the flood, I've avoided Tischer because it breaks my heart to see the damage. I've always thought Tischer was one of the city's most beautiful streams, but it'll never again look the way it used to... Yet, when the snow falls, it covers the wounds, softens the scars, and I can pretend the landscape matches my memory of it.

Tischer Creek, a year or two before the flood
One of the loveliest spots along the trail is a big rock outcropping just below one of the waterfalls. When you stand on those rocks, you can look up at the falls, and on the other side of the stream, growing right out of the rock-face, is a huge White Pine (and of course I can't find a photo of it!). Its roots grip the rocks, and it towers above you, leaning out over the stream. 

Every year I've been alive, the sharpness of that angle has increased. The stream is so narrow, the pine is so tall, and its angle so acute (I hope I'm using the language of geometry correctly here), that I used to think eventually the tree would lean over far enough for me to reach the branches...

Death of an old friend

I was able to touch the old pine's branches today, because it toppled over, probably during the big blizzard. The weight of all that snow was too much for it, and it snapped at the base, falling across the Creek and crushing the trees on the other side of the stream.  

While I was gleefully gloating over our three snow days, this was happening. My heart sank as I got close enough to see where the top of the pine had crashed through other trees, pulling them down with it. How could something so tall, and strong, and old, and beautiful be brought down by snowflakes?! 

I was immediately reminded of other sublimely sudden, severe, and awe-inspiring changes in our landscape over the last several years:  all the damage from the 2012 flood, of course, especially the damage to Jay Cooke State Park, and the collapse of the sea arch at Tettegouche State Park in 2010

Before the fall...

After the fall...
Change, of course, is the only constant, as the physicists say, and one cannot live long at all without experiencing all kinds of loss. Maybe that's one reason I take so many photos. It's a way of preserving things that might seem permanent, like rocks, but are always, in fact, changing.  

As I turned around to head back to my car, parked on Fourth St, I heard a crow cawing. It was quickly joined by several others, all squawking loudly. They were massing in a tree across the stream. The last time I heard a ruckus like that on this trail was back in February of 2010, when I happened upon a Great Horned Owl sitting calmly in a (different!) pine tree while a group of crows harrassed it. (Let's see who's paying attention:  1 extra credit point to the first member of the class of 2014 who knows what you call a group of crows--put your answer in a comment.)
Crows in the distance

I stood there, looking up at the owl for about twenty minutes, while the crows tried to make it move, but it just sat there, unconcerned, unflappable, calm in the midst of chaos. I admired the owl's ability to stand firm and ignore the craziness around it.  Perhaps these crows today were also mobbing an imperturbable owl, but they were too far away, and I couldn't identify the cause of their frenzy.  
So much heavy snow

In spite of all their noise and my sadness over the fallen pine, I was still able to appreciate how lovely the woods were, but I no longer felt like I was walking through a pretty little poem. Every branch of every tree was still dangerously weighed down with its beautiful but deadly burden, weeks after the big storm.  

As I reached my car, I wondered how many other trees will fall under the weight of winter, which officially begins tonight? How many other ancient stones will come tumbling down before the year is out? How much of the beauty around me will soon exist only in memory, only in photographs? In the midst of future chaos, can I remain calm like the owl, untouched by the whirlwind of change?    


  1. Dr N,
    It is sad how much damage the flood of 2012 did to the trail systems in Duluth. The trails in Hartley, my backyard, got hit hard as well. However, the healing process has begun already. I got lost for the first time this past summer because of all the new trails and repairs. It seems like on every walk I can always hear the squawking of a murder of crows all around me. I enjoyed your post!

  2. Thanks, AJ! A murder of crows is indeed what one calls a group of those birds...