The Meaning of Place

by Douglas Wood, president of the LPF –

Places can be marvelous things. Strange things. Fragile things.

Sometimes a place is just that—a place to put your keys, hang a picture, park your car. A place to go to work or go out to eat. But sometimes places are a little bit more. Some- times a place is rest for a weary mind, repository for dear memories and deep feelings.

Sometimes a place is a home for the soul.

We all have places that mean something special to us. Although sometimes in the rush and semi-chaos of life we forget about them or lose track of them, still they are there—in some safe and treasured corner of the heart. And when the rush calms just a little, when there is a quiet moment to reflect, we can find the memories, the feelings, that are the residue of place.

It may be a church, a park, or a school remembered from childhood. It may be a hill or a trail or a patch of woods, a favorite shade tree, the site of a first kiss, the scene of some personal triumph, a ball field or a favorite fishing hole.

For many of us, the places that mean the most are out of doors—for all the added meanings the natural world provides. A favorite campsite or trail, a mountain or lake or island, is often remembered and loved as much or more for its own intrinsic qualities and values as for anything that happened there. The sounds, sights and smells of a place can become wedded to particular activities and events so deeply that they are inextricably tied in memory. And when a place is a part of something larger, a landscape of beauty and meaning and integrity, then the entirety of a sense of place is complete.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, along with Quetico Provincial Park, Voyageurs National Park and the entire Quetico Superior country, has long been such a landscape for millions. And within that landscape are countless particular places of profound meaning for countless individuals. It is one of the great mysteries and charms of wilderness and the natural world that each of us has our own pair of eyes and ears, our own mind and heart and life-experience that determines why and how we might fall in love with a place.

As a child, I was introduced and returned every year to a lake called Kabetogama, now a part of Voyageurs National Park. It is a beautiful lake—a lake of white granite shorelines and tall pines, quiet bays of cattails and bulrushes, with long vistas of open water dotted with islands. The names are as familiar and dear to me as family members: Sugarbush and Cutover, Marten and Wolf, the Grassies and Nashota’s Point and Lost Bay. I long dreamed of someday having a place on Kabetogama. But when the opportunity finally arrived with a successful book and a little bit of money, the establishment of the park meant that there was precious little real estate available. Still, I gladly traded the dream of a place on “my lake” for the protection the park provided.

Instead, we found a spot on nearby Rainy Lake—an island with an old, run-down cabin, a floating (sinking) dock and an out- house. And we set about discovering, creating, and enjoying everything about it that would make it our own special place. And so it became, through a combination of sunsets and moonrises, storms and windfalls and hard work, dock repair and cabin repair and late nights of Parcheesi and cut-throat card games. Fawn Island became everything a beloved place can be—as well as a symbol and re- minder of all the campsites, lakes, and islands I had loved in a lifetime of wilderness travel and canoe trips. And through the presence of my family—my wife and children and now grandchildren, it became even more.

Sigurd Olson had found his place many years before, and it was perhaps through his example and my reading of Listening Point— the first Olson book I read and still my favorite—that the dream and later reality of our Fawn Island came to be. On Listening Point, Sig discovered all that he was looking for: the opportunity to tie together his deep feelings for the Canoe Country, his love of wilderness, and his commitment to its preservation. In walking its glaciated bedrock and listening to the wind in the pines, in building his little cabin, woodshed and sauna, in swimming at the little beach and paddling the clear, deep waters of the lake—and in sharing all these joys with his family, Sig was able to forge a powerful connection to this little piece of the Earth. He found a home for his soul. And in writing his book, he gave that gift to countless readers.

Today Sig no longer walks the trail among the bearberry and the corydalis, but of course he is still there. And visitors who come to hear the loons and watch the sunsets feel his presence. They might have read the book or heard the stories, or might feel some vague call for a sense of place and a home for the soul. Such places are forever needed, and forever in need of protection. The integrity of a landscape and all of the magical places within it can never be taken for granted. And such places seem to be endlessly under assault. The siren call of riches and profit, of extraction and exploitation, is as powerful as it ever was. As Sig said, the battle goes on forever.

Places are marvelous things. Strange things. Fragile things.  Sometimes they reside only in memory—in some treasured corner of the heart. But sometimes, with commitment and intent, they can be preserved and given to the future. And there are few greater gifts. For in the love of place can be found solace for the spirit, and strength for the battles to come.

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