The Northwest Territory, Act I: My Deep Attraction to Lakes

Posted on August 16, 2012

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I think I’ll break this post into three distinct Acts, as I’ve had three intertwined but separate threads of thought running through my head for the past few days. I’ll post each act within half a day of the last one. In Act I, a note on my current location and what it tells me about my future. In Act II, a note on the lands I’ve been passing through, their history, and the image of America they paint for me. In Act III, a note on the sweep of the land from west to east across the north of the nation and a slight knotting of the prior two threads.

Act I

I usually equate sleep with nightmares. Sad to say, but in order to live a calm and productive life in the day, I suspect that I’ve pushed all of my waking tensions, deepest memories, and looming fears into the mirror abode of my sleep self. At best I don’t remember these dreams, but at worst they manifest as sleep paralysis, which I once discussed in another abortive blog (Somnus Scriptura). But I can remember one recurrent, peaceful dream that has been with me almost as long as I have had memory of the nights:

I’m on a pier, out over some slow-churning grey sea. Cirrus wisps of mist drift over the crooked wooden planks, blending into an uneven fog endlessly forward. The pier follows the fog past the vanishing point, occasionally branching off into a sideway, which in turn meanders ad infinitum into the sea. Every dozen yards or so, a wooden boat is tethered to a soft-splintered, moldering post of the pier, the window from a small cabin opening into a vendor’s stall of sorts. All of the boats are hung with flowers—nothing ostentations; small, dense blooms the color of rust and autumn. There is no one in this boat, nor that, nor any of the others on and on.

Usually I begin the dream walking down the pier with a friend or family member. But then I take a few steps ahead until his or her motion stops blurring into my peripheral vision. They never catch up with me. And when I turn, both they and the shore are gone, and only the wood and the water exist. I worry for a moment, but then I am filled with a warming calmness that flows through my body with the air of a deep breath. I walk on and watch the waves and listen to the groan and clack of the wood under the influence of the salted winds. And then, some infinite time later, I wake and feel so at peace.

Presently, I am in a cabin on the edge of Lake Sylvia in upstate New York, just a little ways past the hamlet of Fowler, New York, which is itself six miles beyond the village of Gouverneur, New York. It’s no sea—I can see all the edges of the lake from a rock just beyond the cabin—but still, this place fills me with the selfsame calm.

The cabin, belonging to my grandfather and his second wife, is made of a knotty pine and cozy with the accumulation of years: racks of matchbooks from various bars and restaurants, Oxbow school paintings (the town itself is not far from here), maps and knickknacks, and right behind the desk where I right this a heavy wooden ship’s wheel. The lake is rocky and clear. Young, supple soft wood trees clump dense just beyond the rock promontories on the lake’s edge. The road back to the nearest highway is gravel and rutted, and this morning I saw two horse-drawn buggies off to its side. These belonged to a couple of Amish who had been hired by a family down the street to raise a new house (and by God, by the evening the morning’s scanty few planks in the ground had become a frame and roof).

I believe that man must cleave to water. As certainly as we are drawn to humanity and the security and life therein, I believe there’s some part in all of us attracted to slow rolling waves, whether that attraction breeds a strange aversion and fear as it often does with human love, or an outright adoration such as I feel. I believe this with no proof or evidence; it is simply a conviction that helps me live my life. It does make sense thought. We seek out other men and women for life and its continuation through the ages, but for the same water has been our more eternal and reliable ally. Yes, it can be equally cruel, binding, and deathly, but the same dread knowledge lives within social organizations. Thanatos and Eros, and all the more reason to love the water.

It’s this belief of mine that causes me to seize up, my teeth clattering softly and my heart beating madly, when I see the parched and godless Great Plains. It’s the reason I can visit and wonder at a desert, but to live in the Mojave just seems to me an utter impossibility. But a place like this, I feel like I could make a life here.

Therein lies a problem, though. Many of my friends will know or remember that I am an inveterate urbanite. I embrace the struggle, confusion, and tyranny of choice that come with a crush of humanity. Perhaps because my own childhood and family were scant on solid social structures and support systems, I lust for the presence of many, many men and women around me at all times, going about their own lives. In cities, I feel far more safe even as I feel far less calm. At times I think I could live out my whole life in a city, but then I remember the calm of a lake in the wilderness and I balk and dream of living out on Lake Sylvia.

I want it both ways. I want to live here and in New York at the same time. Only a great deal of wealth could buy me that simultaneous gratification, and I feel that the lack of tension that would create within me would itself lead to the erosion of a dynamic slow-burn neurosis in my soul that provides me the power and drive to move as I do through life.

Probably, I’ll just keep ping-ponging back and forth from the urban to the rural. I suspect that tension and discrepancy is just a vital part of my humanity, so I’ll embrace that. But while I’m here, I’ll fantasize about settling down in a few years time on a rocky Maine beach, in a battered, tar-shingled home, wrapped in a warm blanket, watching the waves. And I’ll wrap myself in the warmth of that fantasy as I drift off to sleep, totally uncertain as to where life will eventually toss me in fact.

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