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40 every form: motor, pontoon, plastic kayak, traditional paddlecraft. Beautiful bronze-skinned women in white jogging bras paddle a red canoe with Connecticut numbers on the bow. Jim notices them after they look away, and waves to the backs of their heads. “It never used to be like this,” I say. “Perhaps you’d rather see jet skis,” says Jim. To be honest, I tell him, I’d rather see a single old skiff with a fisherman or two who actually give a damn about the area. In his usual, soft, considerate way, Jim argues that we need places like this for people to discover the natural world, learn of its beauty and value, form their own ethics. True enough, I say, but are you sure that’s what all these people are doing? Half a mile upstream where the rivers join—my preferred site for traditional ceremonies—I count seven more boats loitering about. So we take our communion here instead, beneath the outstretched benedictory wings of an osprey soaring overhead, in the company of loons. It breaks my heart to see so many people here after all the time we have both spent drumming up protection for the place in order to keep it like it is. Or as it was, to be exact. Lake Umbagog has been discovered by commercial recreationists, the local chambers of commerce, throngs of innocent souls from Down Below seeking a taste of the northwoods, and perhaps most fearsome and hopeful of all, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Where once was timelessness, we see only a matter of time now until the press of human recreation, commerce, and bureaucracy infiltrates and overtakes what peace is left. Ah well, I tell my friend, this only makes it easier for me to leave, move on, retreat toward a wild and emptier place. Yarnell is right, too, and I know it. We must provide introduction to wild places for the growing masses who are bound to overtake them anyway. If they learn to appreciate it, better chance they’ll take care of it. But too many people on a delicate landscape is dangerous too. The logic circles back upon itself. The modern paradox of wild places. To hell with it for now. We roar off onto the lake, our Elysium, our workplace. What we do out there is not important. Think of visiting friends, old places, old stories, the laughter of loons and cognac, the smell of warm pine needles on a dank lakeside breeze. Keeping tabs on the spirit of the place—that’s my job. In the evening we motor back across in the cool breath

CIRQUE of early autumn. Yarnell is mumbling again in his soft gravelly voice, inaudible over the whine of the outboard. For the hundredth time today, I throttle back to hear him repeat himself. “This may be our last one of these rides,” he says, pretending to peer off into the wind. “Good chance I won’t be around next year.” I shut off the motor. The empty lake, gray and huge and quiet, rolls beneath us. On the gentle ridges beyond, a few of the hardwoods are already showing color, the promise of the passage of seasons. I look around me, full circle. The lay of the land is comfortable, familiar to my eyes. Inlet Ridge, Metallak Island, Moll’s Rock, Leonard Marsh, Aziscohos Mountain, Carry Ridge, Pine Point. I know it well. Yet as I sit here, poised in my farewells, my knowledge of it seems suddenly frail and insignificant. I know so little of it, so few of its secrets, really. I want to embrace it all once more, relive its many moods and stories, learn again more deeply. I see it as any home place is seen, comprehended, more fully appreciated, more deeply loved, at the moment of separation. Life, I trust, is much the same. “Are you doing OK with that?” I ask my friend. He pauses to consider. “Not really,” he says with a fragile smile. “You see, life’s been good . . . .” Life, most sacred of landscapes. Our ultimate home, as seen from the end of the trail, I suspect, is life itself. Impossible to stay, so difficult to leave. Did I say it would be easy to leave this place? If so, I was mistaken. Despite the traffic, the crowds, the mutability of my comrades, I could no more leave this place behind than I could the spirit of a dear friend. A part of my own spirit, rooted in the rich soil of joy and memory, will always dwell here. The wind lifts our hair and moves us in silence across the broad face of Umbagog, toward the eagle tree, back toward where the rivers meet. “Yarnell,” I tell him, “next year don’t forget your fishing rod. And bring some beer.” “I may not be here.” “I’ll find you.” “Good,” he says. “You’re on.” “Leaving” appeared previously in Appalachia (1998)