Monday, February 6, 2017

Shangri-La

Here are some Polaroids (that got a little bit messed up in the cold weather, but are still nice to look at) and a short piece I wrote while visiting St. Germain, WI, over the weekend. 








I am told that St. Germain, Wisconsin was once solely inhabited by Native peoples, but this is all I know. I do not ask more because to me St. Germain is a place that was inhabited by my grandparents, is the place where my parents will retire, and the place where I come when I need refuge from the world.
It is also a place where I learned to drive, had my first job, woke up to fresh doughnuts in the mornings, caught toads in my grandmother’s garden, hiked in every season, went to flea markets in the summer, and played on the playground at the school with my brother.
It is also the place that taught me to love nature, and the place that taught me to love a place.
It is also where I sit as I write this, on a blustery night in the month of February, in a small cabin on a lake, listening to the sounds outside my window. There is a ghostly vibration in the air that cuts the night like a knife in this land of unusual quiet. It’s the snowmobiles. They’ve taken over the area for the weekend. To them, St. Germain is the place to commune with their snowmobiling friends, to drink at the bars on the main street, and to release dormant energy on the network of trails that cuts through the town.
Earlier in the day I went for a walk to escape their noise. I walked on a deserted trail on the edge of a lake that wound through the oldest hemlock forests in the Midwest. The sun cast long shadows on the snow from the trees, and I stopped at intervals to listen to the sound they made as they blew in the wind. I come to this trail in every season, and in every season it shows me something new about itself. This time I am struck by the permanent feel of the landscape around me, even though I know that nature is not permanent; it is constantly changing and being changed.  
After the hike I drove back to town. I saw a gathering of snowmobiles on the frozen Little St. Germain Lake for an annual snowmobiling competition. The event doesn’t interest me, but I thought I would walk down to the lake to observe the frenzy. As I walked I was assaulted by the thick, cloying scent of gasoline in the air. I felt dizzy. The group on the lake blasted music, tossed Frisbees to their dogs, and threw their trash onto the snow, waiting for the event to start. To me it disrupted the tranquility of the area, but they were very happy.
In moments like these I am confronted with the paradox of nature. Lawmakers, mostly conservative ones, would like to sell all of the places that we call wilderness: our public lands, parks, and forests. Yet everyone from snowmobilers to Satanic cults enjoys the use of these areas. Fossil fuels continuously disrupt the systems that keep nature intact. Yet most people need to use fossil fuels to get to nature. And repeatedly, those who visit our parks, public lands, and wild places, abuse them beyond recognition. Yet without visitors, these places would be forgotten and sold in the blink of an eye.
I am often depressed, dismayed, and anxious about these realities. In my mind, this place where I spent much of my childhood, this place that I consider to be beautiful, this place that forms much of my identity, is mine - even if snowmobilers invade it or lawmakers try to sell it. 
Yet every time I visit St. Germain I remember that it was once inhabited by Native peoples. I am reminded of this when I go to town to run errands and see the statue of Chief St. Germain standing with his arms crossed in the town center, watching the snowmobiles as they tear up the town under his nose. Tonight, neither the Chief nor I can deny that the town is inhabited by snowmobilers. 
When I finish my errands, I go back to the cabin and turn on the radio to block out their noise.