Reflections on thankfulness, humility and a coastal island

Posted Nov. 23, 2011, at 2:32 p.m.

Humility is part of thankfulness. To say “thank you” is to acknowledge that you need others to survive in what can be a challenging world. Perhaps this is why I have a special place in my heart for the late fall season and Thanksgiving, when we turn our thoughts to appreciating what we have been given.

In addition to being a time of pumpkin pie, turkey, gravy and deer hunting, late fall is a time when the winds turn cold and ice makes its way back into our world, whether as a heavy coating on dying grass blades or a skim on calm waters. The cold and all the harshness it brings is, like thankfulness, intertwined with humility. Nature has a way of clarifying who is in charge when the skies turn gray, the mercury plummets and a chill sinks into your bones. Nowhere is this clearer than in the wild, exposed places.

It’s no surprise that mountaintops, exposed shores and expansive bogs have a great capacity to humble, especially when the summer gives way to its less-welcoming neighbors, fall and winter. These places may be stunningly beautiful but they also are rough places for both visitors and residents alike.

As a visitor to places such as the alpine ridge atop Mount Abraham, the coastal headlands at Quoddy Head State Park, one of the many islands on the Maine Island Trail or the remote Number Five Bog adjacent to the Moose River Bow canoe trip, you can experience that you are part of an amazing world, but it is not here just to make you comfy and warm. For “permanent residents,” like the stunted mountain spruce able to grow small limbs only to the leeward side of their stems or tough-leafed bog plants making due in acidic soils separated completely from nutrients and groundwater, these places are challenges that deter the vast majority of their fellow plants, let alone animals.

I feel fortunate and thankful to have the opportunity to visit these wild places. They help sustain me spiritually. And though I’ve had this thankfulness for a long time, one recent event put a new spin on all I have to be thankful for.

I was contacted by the Maine Island Trail Association, a group I work with regularly on trail management, regarding a man who they had discovered was on a trail island and was well beyond the stay limit. MITA and my bureau, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, had both winterized all of our boats. With no quick means of accessing the man, who reportedly had stated he intended to stay on the island indefinitely, I turned to the Maine Marine Patrol.

With great professionalism, the Marine Patrol quickly assisted and determined that the man was a homeless veteran with few resources or family to help him out. With some quick phone calls and scurrying, we seemed to find some assistance for the man as the Marine Patrol delivered him back to the mainland.

While I never met that homeless veteran, the incident keeps cycling in my consciousness. I’ve slept on rocks, had icicles hanging from my eyebrows, heard trees groaning and creaking at night as the sub-zero cold settles in and waded through deep, dank bogs till my feet wrinkled as if I had soaked too long in a bathtub.

Every time, though, it has been my choice or perhaps part of a day’s work. I’m typically dressed in Gore-Tex or other technical fabrics and I tend to have good gear — after all, this is my recreational passion. Never do I recall being cold, hungry, tired or in danger because I did not have the resources to feed and clothe myself. I say that not to boast or disparage those less fortunate but to give thanks.

Like most people nowadays, I see those who I assume do not have a home. I see those who make me wonder if they get enough to eat. It took this man on an island in Maine, however, to give me pause when I visit the wonderful wild places I seek. I’m quite sure the next time I feel the bite of ice particles blowing horizontally across a ridge top or feel the wet cold of the Atlantic spraying off rocky headlands, I will remember that I choose to face the cold and wet. I give thanks for that choice. I cherish the opportunity to be humbled by nature, but I now better appreciate that not all people have such a luxury.

I really hesitate to preach — and I hope I’m not — but it seems to me this is yet another reason for folks to venture forth into wild nature, whether in your backyard or a huge piece of conservation land, and to appreciate not only the wildness but also the ability to return with your memories to a warm home and a hot meal. Not all share this opportunity.

Rex Turner is outdoor recreation planner for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

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