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  • Craig Blacklock

From Acorns to White-Tails: Finding Healing Solace in the Forest

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

The mixed election results and pandemic have left me, like many others, dealing with melancholy and depression–struggling to keep disgust from morphing into contempt. Covid-19 has forced me to close a beloved gallery/store we’ve co-owned for 19 years–taking most of our life’s savings with it. Out of respect for my customers’ and my own health, my photography gallery in Moose Lake remains closed to the public, I am not teaching or lecturing, so my outlets as an artist and my face to face interactions with those who acquire my photographs have all ceased. There are two parts to being an artist—creation and delivery. Without the ability to deliver, there is little purpose in creating.

Even so, I’ve been using this time to develop a new product I feel has promise, but I’m fighting technical issues with laminates and plastics as I sit in a windowless “clean room” with only my computer and phone as ways to reach out for assistance.

The world, it seems, is bound together in a common loneliness — an alone-ness intimately shared with those we cannot safely be with.

My early career as an artist included creating wheel-thrown ceramics. The process begins with centering a ball of clay on the spinning wheel. You can “pull” up a pot before it is perfectly centered, but you will constantly struggle with it becoming asymmetrical — possibly even collapsing. I’m doing that right now — spiraling into an inevitable demise. I need to stop. To start over. To re-center my attitude—my life.

I turn off the outside world and concentrate on the physical now in the forest that surrounds our home. It is late autumn, a time of harvest and preparation for the winter. This is a “mast” year, as the red oaks were heavy with their every-other-year production of acorns—the abundance assuring not all will be consumed. Leaves beneath every oak are churned up by white-tail deer pawing the ground seeking the nutritious nuts.

Several large oaks have blown over, and I head into the woods to harvest them for firewood that will heat our home during the next two winters. I count 120 rings on a cross-section of the largest. Each round splits easily with a ripping pop upon the second strike of my splitting axe. I stack the oak into satisfyingly larger and larger rows.

The opening weekend of deer season is marked by record-breaking warmth, an unwelcome reminder of what we are doing to our planet. A half hour after climbing into my deer stand a small buck trots into the clearing in front of me and stops. Perfect. I peer through my scope and everything is a blur! I’ve forgotten to remove my eye glasses. He spooks as I remove my glasses, chiding myself, but also chuckling at my blunder and how lucky the buck was.

The next day my deer stand, along with the large aspen it leans against, sway to the rhythms of a strong wind. The lack of gunshots confirms few deer are moving, and I see nothing all day. As I am about to pack it in, a large, 10-point buck and doe appear across a ravine—not far, but too far to risk a shot with my stand still rocking in the wind. The pair nearly disappear behind balsams, where I can just make out the buck mounting the doe, passing on his genes to next spring’s fawns. Then they are gone. I swing around to face an opening in the direction they are heading, and hope. The buck reappears, crossing an alder swamp towards me. He is feeding on acorns at the edge of the swamp, ever-so-slowly getting closer and closer, but always behind too many branches for a clean shot. My gun raised, my arms grow weary. He is now so close that any movement will surely alert him to my presence. Only a few more steps and he will reach a clearing 25 yards away. My shot drops him in place. He is a magnificent animal. I feel the primal relief and satisfaction of procuring venison that will provide our family’s meat for the coming year—yet, that feeling, as always, is mixed with a pang of sadness at having taken a life. The naturalist in me repeats the mantra, that without such predation, the deer would overpopulate and starve, degrading the entire forest ecosystem. I envy wolves for their ability to carry out their role as predators without such mixed emotions.

For the next three days, our yellow lab, Ginger, sits at my feet as I process the deer, her gaze intently assessing each motion for the next tidbit I’ll send her way—the long process that turned wolves into labs being reinforced in our kitchen. Every few hours I deposit a bowl of trimmings beneath a balsam outside our home. Almost immediately, the winter birds flock to the growing pile: pileated, red bellied, downy and hairy woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and blue jays, all consuming the energy-rich store of fat the buck had converted from acorns.

As I finish the butchering, the final presidential election results are announced over Minnesota Public Radio, followed by good news about vaccines, along with the horrific projections of how many people will die as we wait for them to become available. I try, unsuccessfully, to not feel hatred towards those still refusing to wear masks.

The world was shifting as I had attended to our family’s needs of warmth and food, and in so doing, tending also to myself. My future as an artist will be different when we re-emerge, and right now, I have little idea what that will look like. But, my time in the forest has been cathartic. I now feel like a newly-kneaded lump of clay, spinning perfectly centered, waiting to be opened into a new creation.

What about my feelings towards my fellow citizens—those who have been indoctrinated by a cult that builds them up by tearing down others, the truth, and the tenants of our country? How do I not feel contempt for those who express nothing but that towards me, for what I believe? That will be a longer, harder process than a couple of weeks in the forest can mend. But, I am now in a place from which I can scan each individual for common ground. Removed from the bolstering reinforcements of a crowd mentality, I trust each of us is more alike than we realize, and hope this new beginning will allow us to rediscover some kernel of goodness in one another. It is a place to start.

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