August Notebook: Waldo Lake

because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.

Robert Hass

Back in my college writing workshops, many poems dealt with the tricky subject of nature – some were good, some dreadful, but the understanding around the table was that writing about nature is really writing about people.  Trees can’t read.

Writing is unnecessary.  It is a cultural invention, not an instinct; it is a skill that is “biologically secondary,” whereas learning to speak – an equally complex process – is largely unconscious.  When I struggle to write, I grapple with this concept, not sure if it’s a comfort or a curse.  Sometimes I can’t tell if my failing to write is an embrace of the present, or a denial.

My first night’s camp on the western shore of the lake.

Last week I drove down to Waldo Lake for a two-night solo kayak-camping adventure.  Both nights I camped right on the water.  There were lots of mosquitoes, but that was the only drawback.  Each day I got in a long paddle, several dips into the clear water (a few of them in the nude!) and positioned myself and the spine of my book according to the path of the sun.  

Waldo Lake is “ultraligotrophic”: its watershed is very small and the shores are bordered by a healthy forest, so the water is exceptionally clear.  According to the .pdf I downloaded, Waldo’s visibility is a world-record 157 feet….


The view from a little cove I explored.
The view from a little cove I explored.

I didn’t feel like writing.  Plenty of time, plenty of opportunities, but writing never felt right.  Whenever I go out camping alone, I always outfit myself like I’m Jack Kerouac or Thoreau or Wendell Berry, a dry bag full of notebooks and pens and books on the craft, eager to transform the world around me into pure, powerful words.  But even those guys ended up at a typewriter or a nice sturdy desk at the end of the day.

Why am I compelled to feel “inspired” by nature?  What’s wrong with just being there?

Lying in a taut hammock I attacked The Hobbit in hearty chunks, but not once did I take my nice little blue Micron pen and touch it to my black letter-sized Moleskin journal.  I was content to – not even observe, but just admire, which means I didn’t return with any good stories.  I’ve tried to relay some of my favorite moments from the trip to my friends, but they either come off as wistful asides, or worse, lame one-ups.  That said, last Thursday night through the mesh fabric of my tent I did spot about a dozen shooting stars and some splotches of the Milky Way….

Hammock, turned sail.
Hammock, turned sail.
....sunrise, or sunset?? (it was sunrise).
….sunrise, or sunset?? (it was sunrise).

The day after I got home I finished The Hobbit and sat on my balcony, admiring Tolkien’s world.  I wonder what he thought about the fallacy of nature writing.  I wonder if he grappled with the natural world so much that he just decided to make his own.  I don’t know where he found the patience.  Whenever I sit down and try to write a story, something that relies entirely on my own imagination, ingenuity, and endurance, I lean back back after twenty minutes and think this is so, so awful…

Alone to my own devices at somewhere like Waldo, somewhere ineffably serene and gorgeous, I somehow believe more in fiction and imaginary places even as they continue to elude me.  The night of the meteor shower, a shadowy four-legged creature crept across the shallow water, about six feet in front of my tent.  I had just woken up.  I could hear faint sniffs and a sure-footed splish splash as it wetted its limbs, and probably its jaw.  I was scared.

It turned out to be a deer: shortly after I woke up in the morning, it crossed back along the same path.  Not a wolf, not a bobcat, not a stray, rabid dog, the immediate conclusions of my half-conscious state.  That moment of fear, though, was the very threshold of Imagination and Reality.  I didn’t unzip the tent and shine a light – I was afraid to, of course, but also I didn’t want to disturb the night world where I was trespassing.  I didn’t want to disrupt its rhythms, having done enough of that during the day.

Instead, I dreamt.


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