Spring Time in No-Man's Land
by Alvin B. Carleton
Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1964, Volume 10, Number 1
See the article by Hartwell Bowsfield in this issue of Manitoba Pageant.
I was born in the heart of a northern forest and in all my wanderings my steps have ever gone most willingly back toward the pine-covered hills and the grassy glades that slope down to cool, deep waters. The wander lust has carried me far, but the lakes and waterfalls, the bluffs and the bays of the great northern No-man's-land are my home, and with Mukwa the bear, Mah-en-gin the wolf, Washgish the red deer, and Ah-Meek the beaver, I have much consorted and have found their company quite to my liking.
But the fates have so dealt with me that for two years I have not been able to see the smile of springtime breaking forth upon the rugged face of my northern No-man's-land. I have had glimpses of it, merely, among crowded houses, out of hospital windows. Still, my mind is native to the forest, and my thoughts and fancies, breaking captivity go back, like the free wild things they are, on bright days of springtime to the wild land where the change of season means what it never can mean in the town.
What does spring mean to you town folk anyway? I will tell you. It means lighter clothing, dust instead of sleet, the transfer of your patronage from fuel man to ice man, a few days of slushy streets and baseball instead of hockey.
What does it mean to a man of the woods? That I will try to tell. It means that the deep snow which has mantled hill and valley for five months has melted into brooks and rivulets which are plunging and splashing away to find the ocean from whence they came. It means that the thick ice, which, throughout the long winter has imprisoned the waters of the lake, is now broken, and the waves, incited by the south wind, are wreaking vengeance by beating it upon the rocks of the northern shore, until, subdued and melted, it returns to be a mere part of the waves again. Instead of the hungry winter howl of the wolf or the whining snarl of the sneaking lynx the air is now filled with happier sounds; ducks are quacking; geese are honking; waveys are cackling as they fly northward; squirrels among the spruce trees chatter noisily; on sandy ridges woodchucks whistle excitedly; back deep in the birch thicket partridges are drumming, and all the wood-land is musical with the song of birds.
In the evening, when these sounds are hushed a new choir takes up the refrain. From far out on the lake comes the wild cry of the loon; in the shallows along the shore frogs are croaking to the rattling accompaniment of the bass-voiced toad. Every living thing is giving vocal expression to the joy it feels.
The trees, through whose bare branches the wind all winter has whistled and shrieked, are now sending forth leaves of tender green and the voice of the wind caressing them is softened to a tone as musical as the song of birds. Flowers are springing up, not in the rigid rows or precise squares of a mechanically inclined horticulturist, but surprising one by elbowing themselves out of the narrowest crevices, or peeping bashfully out from behind fallen trees, or clinging almost upside down to the side of an overhanging cliff.
Photo: Rainy River, 1915.
My camp on Rainy Lake faces the south and in front is a little stunted black ash tree, so dwarfed, gnarled, twisted and homely that it is almost pretty. I refrained from cutting it down because of its at-tractive deformity. In the springtime, a few years ago, a pair of robins chose it as their nesting place. One bright Sunday morning as the nest was in course of construction, I was sitting in my doorway watching the pair. The brisk little husband was hurrying toward the nest with a bit of moss; but the mild sun, the crisp air, the sweet breathing earth, the gently whispering trees seemed to make him so very happy he could not but tell of it. Alighting on a twig he dropped the moss, opened his beak, and poured forth in song the joy his little body could no longer contain. That is the joy of a northern No-man's-land in the month of May.
We are so happy in our woodland home that we wish everyone might share it with us, but perhaps some would not enjoy what we enjoy or see what we see and some are prevented from coming by the duties of other callings, and each must follow the pathway his feet are most fitted to tread, but for me I only want my little log cabin with the wild vines climbing over its walls and clinging to the mudchinked crevices, where I can hear the song of wild birds, mingled with the sleepy hum of bees moving from blossom to blossom about the doorway, where I can see the timid red deer, as peeping out of the brush, it hesitates between the fear of man and the temptation of the white clover growing in front of my home and where I can watch the endless processions of waves following each other up the bay. Give me the necessity of working for my daily bread so that I will not feel as though I were a useless cumbrance upon the earth; allow me an opportunity now and then of doing a kindly act, even if it be no more than restoring to the shelter of its mother's breast a fledgling that has fallen from its nest in a tree top. If I may have these I will be happy, and happier still if I could know that when the time comes for me to travel the trail, the sands of which show no imprint of returning footsteps, that I might be put to rest on the southern slope of the ridge beside my camp, where the sunshine chases the shadows around the birch tree, where the murmur of the waves comes in rhythm to the robin's song and where the red deer play on moon-light nights. Neither will I fear the snows of winter that come drifting over the bay, driven by the wind that whines through the naked tree tops, nor the howl of the hungry wolf, for what had no terror for me in life need not have afterward, and if the lessons that I learned at my mother's knee be true, if there be that within me that lives on I am sure that it will be happier in its eternal home if it may look back and know that the body which it had tried to guide through its earthly career was having its long rest in the spot it loved best.
Page revised: 3 September 2020