When I was living in Winnipeg in the early 1970’s, and friend and I decided we would get out of the city for a day, and drove off in his MGB. He was letting me drive, and I was enjoying the freedom of the road and the (albeit very chilly) autumnal wind as we drove northward from the city. He gave me directions, and after a while I pulled in to the parking lot of what looked like a park of some sort. He didn’t let me know where we were or what to expect, but he did pause for a moment as we got out of the car, turned toward me, and gave me a warning that what I was about to see was quite extraordinary. I could smell water and assumed that we were at a lake. Following my friend up the sand dune from the parking lot, I let my mind wander back to Lake Michigan and what it looked like in the autumn.
We reached the constructed portal at the top of the dune where birch trees stood on each side glimmering white in the sun with leaves that had turned the softest of yellow. Down the other side of the dune, the sand was milky white. Nearer the water the sand was covered in pebbles and it took on a salmon color that became deeper close to the water’s edge. The waves were so slight that the water looked like it showed no motion at all, and the surface was so still that it perfectly reflected the dark, dusty blue sky above it. The horizon was indistinguishable, blending the sky and water so that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. I had the feeling that I wasn’t supposed to move forward. The scene before me looked to me like one of Burt’s sidewalk pastel paintings in Mary Poppins. I felt that to enter it would be to destroy it. My friend was smiling at my reaction. It must have been that way for him the first time, too.
We walked together to the water’s edge. The pebbles were perfect for skipping. Each time one would hit the surface, it would shatter the mirror image only to have it be repaired as the water stilled once again. The entire experience was magical. I was certain that no one else knew of this lake, despite the large parking lot on the other side of the dune. Or, perhaps it was that the rest of the world did not exist as long as we were there.
Time led us to wander down the beach where we came across a resort hotel and we decided that it was time to visit the pub. As we drank our beers, munched pub grub and talked, I spent more time looking out of the window than at my friend. Slowly, the colors were changing in the light and the lake was taking on the appearance of any lake anywhere. By the time we started back down the beach to the car, the sky had turned grey and the water was choppy with little fierce waves. The pebbles looked dark brown, the sand grayish, and the air was filled with the oncoming winter. The spell had been broken but the memory of it still lingers on.
Sometime later, this friend and I were walking through some woods. Not motivated by anything but intuition, I wandered ahead of him and took the lead. When he expressed concern that I didn’t know the woods and wouldn’t know the way to go, I replied that I was following my nose. This required some explanation, and so as we sat leaning up against a tree, I told him the story of The Secret River.
The only children’s story written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Secret River was published posthumously in 1955 and was one of my most favorite books as a child. In it, Rawlings tells the story of Calpurnia, who makes poems to express her feelings, and her dog, Buggy Horse. When Calpurina realizes that they are in “hard times”, she asks the wise woman Mother Albirtha where she and Buggy Horse can go to find fish to feed her family. Instructed to “follow her nose”, Calpurnia finds the Secret River where she catches enough fish to feed her friends and family, but not before sharing part of what she caught with the local wildlife because they also look hungry. Calpurnia is never able to find the Secret River again after that day. It was there when she needed it, and, as magical experiences are wont to do, she was shown where to look and given what she needed in the time that she needed it.
My friend and I continued on our way, with me leading us through the woods. We were well off the path and my friend was beginning to become less skeptical and more concerned that we were indeed lost. And then, there it was: a large, open, perfectly circular clearing in the forest. The grass was knee deep and lush, and the deepest color of green I had ever seen in nature. The trees surrounding the clearing were so close together that they looked like a giant green wall. Some of the trees were willows, the long branches hanging gracefully over the grasses like lace. Autumn had not yet turned any of the leaves. The clearing looked like it was in perpetual spring.
After we had enjoyed the solitude and peacefulness of the clearing for a while, we set upon our way with me in the lead, following my nose to find the way out. It was a much shorter distance to get back to the car than it had been to find the clearing. My friend, who had lived all his life near those woods and had walked through them countless times, had never seen that clearing before. A few days later he told me that he had gone back to the woods to find the clearing again. He had searched for a long time, but wasn’t able to find it. I had the feeling that he would never be able to find it. Like his gift to me of the day at the lake, some gifts are more precious for not having been held, but just to have known them for the moment when they choose to appear.
“Following my nose” became my code for following my intuition. I have had many experiences that were magical enough to give me what I needed in the moment. Thankfully, I have been in many circumstances where I was able to use this intuitive connection to help others, just as Calpurnia understood what the animals needed and was wise enough to leave what she could for them.