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Native Son

Heaven & Nature Sing: Eagle Island at midnight

Eagle Island bonfire

There was one year in the 1970s when it got really cold early enough in the winter season so that by holiday vacation the lakes were already frozen solid.

It seemed too good to miss, so we made plans to meet on Christmas night. After all the family duties were wrapped up and we were free to be real for a while, we would make an expedition which was, to us, as sacred as any pilgrimage.

We met in the dark and parked off the side of the road, and when everyone was present, we set off across the lake and walked on the ice to Eagle Island.

None of us could have imagined that night what a rare opportunity we were taking part in. The Charles Mill lake was hardly ever frozen that early in the year, and many successive years pass now when it doesn’t even freeze solid enough to walk on. And the ten of us, who had spent so many nights around a campfire, would disperse to the far ends of the continent, and never again be together after that night.

We built a huge fire up on the hill, and when the blaze was at its billowing peak we all took turns running at the fire and leaping through the wall of flames. It was like a rite of passage to enter the next life, and burn off the residual aura of careless youth.

The party was burning brightly when Tom and I walked out on the lake so we could look back and see the firelight from a distance. It is only from far off that you can recognize the most significant moments of your life. Within a decade Tom would be in the obituary column, and I would be struggling in recovery.

But all the troubles and sadness and disappointments of the world — they are for some other time. They aren’t now. Now is nothing but promise. The only moment that truly exists is exactly now, and that’s why I write this: to take that moment at Eagle Island when all was wholly right with the world and beautiful and full of hope; and make it now.

Because with these words, as we read them, it is now; and my friend is once again re-membered among humanity.

There we were that night, paused between our youth and adulthood; on the frozen line between heaven and earth; and it is preserved forever like a snow globe, in a pristine moment of nothing but possibilities

Walking on the lake was like paying a visit to eternity — the earth reduced to its most essential reality: overhead, the cosmos held in firmament; and underfoot, deep water in suspended animation. And the two of us tentatively walking the flat neutral line between them.

It felt like we could have been the first people to walk into Richland County eleven thousand years ago; sliding north over the glacier. There could not be a setting that was more bleak, more desolate; and yet it was breathtakingly alive and vital.

What I’ll never forget was the sound the glass lake made out in the middle, halfway between the shores: the song that winter sings. It’s like the barely audible music of the spheres ringing just behind the surface of reality. It had a chaotic silent whisper of tiny cracks and snaps like the ice couldn’t contain its brittle excitement; and underneath that textural rhythm, deep and hollow, a symphonic sigh so low and seismic it can be heard only through the soles of your feet.

And then suddenly, these thunderous booms echoed between the hills — ice expanding like shots fired — sounding down the ancient river valley in rolling canon fire of the endless war between the forces of the frigid polar north and the dangerous advancing southern thaw.

Ice walking at Charles Mill

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When the bonfire was spent, and glowing in embers, Tom and I dragged our sleeping bags underneath the lowest branches of a sheltering wide spruce, and huddled up near the trunk where the ground was layered soft with pine thatch. Our talk was quiet and muffled close by pine boughs, and we talked of nothing but the future; nothing but the all the dreams each of us were going to bring to life.

It snowed again during the night, and when we woke the pine branches had filled and sloped to the ground, so we were enclosed under a perfect ceiling and walls of glowing white, like a luminous cocoon; and when we broke out into the early dawn, we found a world without footprints.

It’s funny now to think of how eager we were to race on to the next thing. Your teen years seem to drag on forever as if life will never get into gear; but once it starts rolling away it never comes back. 

The last time I saw Tom was in Palo Alto, which is about as far from the rustic piney ice lake as it is possible to be. That night in California however, we dragged some futons into his living room and slept on the floor like we were camping out.

We agreed that no matter how good life gets, no matter how far you ascend; no matter what of your dreams come to reality, and no matter how your days shine in fulfillment; it is never as good as huddling under a pine tree in the frozen lake and listening to the snow fall.

Eagle Island at midnight

Timothy Brian McKee is a featured columnist on our site every Saturday with a column titled Native SonEvery Tuesday, he taps into his knowledge and collection of historical photos and bring us Then & Now, a brief glance at the way things were.