I’ve just finished reading Returning To Earth by Jim Harrison. This book effected me in an emotionally implosive way. Like my heart was trying to rip its way loose from a bout of depression I was struggling with. This book effected me at a sensitive point in my life. Three or four weeks ago, it had me wincing and crying on almost every page. That was a really sensitive time for me. It was my first few weeks working a new job downstate after having moved from Leelanau County in Northern Michigan to a small satellite town outside of Detroit. I spent my first few weeks downstate in a crummy, cheap hotel room in Romulus, Michigan. This was a far cry from the lush, calm beauty of Leelanau in June and I actually did cry, feeling utterly cut off from nature and wondering if I was trapped in a network sprawl of mundane, overgrown humanity. Jim Harrison’s book really helped to bring me around.
For weeks, I seemed to be in a hyper-emotional state and while reading Returning, every page in the first half of the book would effect me deeply. The book is full of the character’s connections to nature, and the mystery and power of a wilderness that both dwarfs and includes them. The character Donald’s connection to the wild is especially deep and wide. Donald is a half Finnish and part Chippewa native man who lives with his family in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He has a personal religion which includes native beliefs. He has to face his death after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Maybe this book effected me so thoroughly because I was fearful of losing my connection with nature and my particular connection to homeland (Leelanau County) and this area’s familiar natural world. This is a connection which grows stronger every year for me. I was afraid that it would be lost. I’ve made four weekend trips back up North in the two months since I’ve been working downstate.
I never lost that connection. My love of the land where I’m from was expressed in the sorrow I felt while leaving it. This realization hit me softly through a fog of depression and uncertainty. It was a few weeks of the most powerful and withering homesickness I’ve ever experienced. I also realized that I wouldn’t lose my connectedness at all, but that my life would transform to include yet more width and new connections to new places and lands. My joyful bond with the land existed as the reflection of my temporary sorrow. Four generations of my family farmed, cultivated and loved the land before me. The land is within me; in my blood, in my mind.
In Returning To Earth, the bond that the characters (especially Donald, his daughter Claire and Flower, a native medicine woman) have to their land is both the strongest spiritual medicine and the largest mystery of their lives.
Perhaps since leaving Chicago and returning north to Leelanau a year ago on unpleasant terms, my connection to the land broadened immeasurably in ways and qualities that I can’t completely comprehend. The land and her creatures are also my greatest medicine and mystery, just as the characters in the novel.
Last night, I connected again with the land which surrounds me down here in Gibraltar, Michigan. Outside of town there is a huge park on a piece of land which juts out into the water where the Detroit River empties out into Lake Erie. For the second night in a row, I ran for miles through parkland to the shore of the lake under full moonlight. Took a two track which skirts the edge of a grassy field. There’re woods with cottonwood trees and marshes with tall grasses. The air is full of the repeated choruses of multiple kinds of insects and thousands of frogs. I ran until I was a part of it all, until I was covered in sweat and ecstatic with endorphin-opened senses. I found towering old willows that filtered moonlight through their appendages. I found a footpath covered over with tree boughs, creating a tunnel-effect spotted by softly undulating pools of landed moonlight. Cacophonic frog utterance. Saw a beam of moonlight resting on the flank of a female deer who stared back at me from twenty feet away. We stood at the edge of a low-misted field. I witnessed all this and felt that old connection to earth, in an area new to me. I can feel this bond anywhere. It is my medicine and great mystery, beyond death and yet woven deeply into everyday life.