Walk with me for a minute. I want to talk about the Wanugi.
I am sitting on top of Carlton Peak on the North Shore of Lake Superior watching the sun go down. From here I can see the forest stretch out for miles to the horizon. Fall has brushed a ridge of maples in red and yellow, and I can see the curve of the earth on the edge of our inland sea.
I like coming here at dusk. There are no fellow hikers, and the world starts to quiet. I can watch the stars come out or the moon rise. I don’t use a headlamp, so walking at night means I have to hike a couple of miles down the mountain in the dark. I’ve memorized the trail. One of my best memories is of picking wild raspberries in the moonlight next to a glade of glowing bear grass.
I like to hike at night. I overcame our primitive fear of things that go bump in the night as a kid, and don’t really believe in bigfoot, though the cracked twig can still make me pause. You need to walk a little slower at night. The animals come out.
This last year, as I finished my walk in the gloaming, I stepped onto the Sawbill Trail road and looked north and south. To my south a gray wolf emerged from the woods forty yards away. We looked at each other, each passing through, and matched each other step for step as we crossed the road. Like a ghost he disappeared into the woods again. He must have been walking a game path that parallels the hiking trail. Perhaps he was keeping me company. The year before this I was accompanied by a fox in a similar manner, and the year before that, a young bear.
Seeing these animals seems like a sign. Rationally, I don’t believe in signs. Only that I am comforted in some way and that there still seems to be wild in the world. Can I save the world if I can not savor it?
In August, I am speaking to a Lakota woman at Standing Rock and tell her this story. She is a buffalo whisperer and goes around the country helping first nations and ranchers improve their herds. We talk of animals and the spirit world.
When she hears my story she cautions me. Everyone, she says, is connected to another spirit creature. She is not sure if mine is a winged animal or a four-legged animal. However, she warns, there are “Wanugi” (Wa-nu-gee) or spirits that roam the earth after dark which have never lived on earth before. They can give “unfair and bad consequences” and can cause problems such as the palsy her brother suffered after going out alone at night. She is concerned, and her story stays with me. I imagine them as black smoke. Things you may or may not see out of the corner of your eye but nevertheless sense their presence.
Later, I think about the Wanugi. I am never afraid in the woods at night. I come into the woods partly to renew my connection to the natural world that seems lost in the chaos of our modern life. I also think about these animals and the forests and the lakes. They are disappearing. Do we have a moral obligation to protect them?
A sulfide-ore copper and nickel mine is proposed on the doorstep of the Quetico Superior Boundary Waters just miles from this location. This is some of the most pristine country left on earth. As a kid, I saw my first eagle here in an area that hadn’t been polluted with DDT. We drank directly from the lakes and caught walleye as we canoed dozens of miles without seeing another human. They say the mine, if approved, will need to contain toxic tailings in ponds for 500 years so they don’t pollute the waters. I think about our ability to build anything that lasts that long. It is hubris.
There is moral value in preserving the wild. Not only for our sake, but for its intrinsic beauty. Were we not here as humans, I believe the earth still has value. I come to this, because we are “of this world,” not separate or above it. We are part of it. The world does not exist for us alone. We did not create it, and we are not its master. I believe everything is connected. And a connection with the earth renews us, and provides for reverence of its existence. Like the concept of sin, as distance from ourselves, or whatever gods you believe, distance from the earth is a form of diminishment. We must preserve it, or we diminish ourselves.
Have we lived on earth? Are we connected to a spirit animal? Or are we the Wanugi? Spirits that roam after dark and create bad consequences because we are not part of the earth? We have a choice. We can restore the earth. We can say no to copper mines and pipelines. If we don’t, then I am afraid, and not of the dark, but what awaits us as humans.
Savor the Earth!
L. Hobart Stocking
PS: If you believe the boundary waters are worth saving you may want to connect and donate here.
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