Yesterday evening a front muscled down from the north, plunging temperatures twenty degrees in less than five minutes. An atmospheric battle raged overnight as the north wind frothed swells on big lake into whitecaps while stubborn southern clouds spat rain and hail. This morning I awoke to a murky down jagged with streaks of lightning.
The sand on the beach is dark, so firmly compressed by the rain that fell during the night that my boot heels leave barely an imprint. I zip my waxed cotton parka around the camera to protect it from the sporadic drizzle. The sinuous lines of detritus left on the beach by receding waves, like a horizon of smoothly rounded hills, cover the entire stretch of sand from water's edge to the clay cliffs: although it is rough now, the lake must have been even higher and wilder during the night. A yellow and orange sulfur butterfly, spent and half drowned, punctuates one thin black wave-line. I hover solicitously above the fragile form, hoping for some sign of life, but observe no movement. I lift the butterfly by its wings and nestle its limp body among the spare vegetation at the base of the clay cliff, a safe distance from all but the most vicious of waves. My fingertips where I touched the wings are dusted with a silky yellow powder that resembles pollen.
On my next step, I encounter two more shipwrecked sulfurs, then a disheveled monarch and a broken-winged swallowtail. The beach is littered with water-logged butterflies. In the half-light, each discovery is abrupt, isolated. I can't decide if the individuality of each tragedy intensifies the horror or numbs it. I wonder where these poor creatures came from, if they were blow into the water at this beach or rode in from another shore. How long were these weightless flecks of life tossed and bruised in the smothering waves? I wonder if any will survive their ordeal, and if the survivors will carry the memory of the pain and horror of this night in their simple insect brains. Do butterflies even experience pain, fear, or joy?
Farther down the beach, I discover a Mylar balloon, its gay yellow smiling faces mocking the dying butterflies. The balloon probably met its fate due to the same physics as the butterflies: forced by the wind to hover low over the lake, it was then overwhelmed and pulled underwater by a high swell. I know that this balloon did not originate on this beach: the nearest human habitation along the shore is located in the city of Duluth. If the butterflies followed a similar route, they would have ridden the crushing surf for over ten miles. I rip a hole in the balloon's tough Mylar hide with my teeth to evacuate the remaining helium, then stuff the sandy shell in my coat pocket. The gay pink ribbon tether trails behind me as I walk.
The gulls along the shore seem to have been grounded by the weather: usually at dawn they are wheeling low above the surface of the lake. Perhaps they are cautious, wary of suffering the same fate as the balloon and butterflies in this heavy surf. I do see a duck, or maybe two of them, riding the waves about twenty-five yards from shore. In this murky light, I can't make out any details: all I can distinguish is a dark object bobbing like a cork between white-capped waves.
But wait: the shape of that object is all wrong for a duck and it is moving -- slowly but with apparent purpose, parallel to shore. I open my coat, raise the camera to my eye, extend the telephoto lens, and focus. It's a deer, swimming for all that it's worth, battling the waves and the rough water in a no man's land of gray sky and even grayer, icy water.
As a human, when I see the struggling deer I immediately experience two emotions: concern and guilt. Did my presence drive that deer, panicked, into the water? What should I do to help it? We've all seen those heart-warming scenes on the 6 o'clock news of extravagantly choreographed deer rescues -- from lakes or ice floes or rock slides -- by teams of well-meaning, self-congratulating humans. These feel-good stories always beg one simple question: what drove the deer into the lake or onto the shaky ice in the first place?
The swimming deer and I pass each other, each proceeding in opposite directions. Periodically as I head forward I turn back to check on the deer's progress. I see the head bobbing among the waves, slowly continuing east through the choppy water.
At the mouth of Hanson Creek, the mystery of the swimming deer is explained. The sandbar is pocked with wolf tracks, the individual paw prints dwarfing those of my hundred pound Labrador retriever. At one place on the bar, it appears that several wolves abruptly stopped running: the sand is ridged and feathered at the water line. I scour the entire sandbar but cannot locate a single deer track.
The deer finally dares to venture back onto dry land nearly a mile from where I saw the fresh wolf tracks. By the time the deer emerges from the lake, dripping and unsteady, I have nearly overtaken it on my return trip along the beach. In the sand at my feet, a few yellow butterflies tentatively flutter their water-logged wings as the overcast gloom brightens with dawn.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources