I WAS UP EARLY, but Sarah had been up long before. She was at the water’s edge, sitting on a shoreline boulder, looking out at the little island where the mist shrouded the pines. Sarah was the first one up every morning in the group I was guiding, and she was the last one into the tent at night. She was afraid she might miss something, she told me.
She didn’t want to miss anything. Not the gaudy crimson of a sunset, not a twilight chorus of loons, or the first faint appearance of evening stars. She didn’t want to miss a chance to see the northern lights, or a meteor shower, or maybe even to hear the midnight howl of a wolf.
But especially, Sarah didn’t want to miss the sunrise.
Sarah had never before been on a canoe trip. This was her first visit to the North Woods. Everything, from the fragrance of a balsam fir to the feeling of a canoe on the water, was new and full of wonder. Her sense of awe was contagious and tinged all the old, familiar experiences with a new sense of meaning for me as well. One of the great, endlessly repeated pleasures of guiding is to observe the landscape become new and freshly beautiful once more, as seen through inexperienced eyes. But for Sarah, in addition to the wonder, quite a few things seemed also to be tinged with fear—fears that were perhaps unspoken, unnamed, but real. The new fears of the wilderness—bears, rapids, storms–added themselves to the ones she’d brought with her, and sometimes it was hard for Sarah to laugh, and sometimes she didn’t have much of an appetite.
Still Sarah didn’t want to miss one thing, and especially not the soft blossom of light that meant a new day. During the trip, as I got to know Sarah, I began to sense some of the scars she carried, and the long and difficult journey toward self-realization she had begun. Her world had long been circumscribed and compressed by the uncaring and destructive dominance of others, and by experiences of abuse. Sarah seemed to me like one of the small cedars in the shadows of the forest, trapped in the shade, perhaps caught under the weight of a deadfall, but fighting, struggling, reaching for a little patch of light. Her patch of light. I began to feel that in this daily greeting of the sun was her courage, and her hope. It was a yes to wakening. To growth. To life. And it was a yes to all the pain that living and growing entail.
Sunrise has always held a special import for those who live close to the rhythms of nature. It’s the best time for birding. It’s a time for artists and photographers, when a new and fresh-scrubbed world emerges in soft hues and subtle shadings. To the hunter sunrise brings the long anticipated sound of bluebills or mallards whistling over a marsh, and the crunch of a twig in the diminishing gloom of the forest. To the fisherman it’s the sting of cold spray that chases sleep from the eyes, a gathering of nets or a tight line slicing through black water. Through the centuries, dawn has meant battle for soldiers and prayer for contemplatives.
But for no one, perhaps, is the sunrise more significant than for the soul that is hunting itself. For one fighting a battle within, sunrise has always been a question. What now? What next? How do I live this day?
I sat beside Sarah on the rock. We traded soft good mornings. We listened to the gentle breathing of the lake, watched the orange fireball rise over black spruce and pine. We watched the dawn arrive together—but I did not see the same dawn as Sarah. It is the nature of a sunrise that each person beholds it for themselves, through the lens of a singular consciousness. The experience can’t be given or taken, or even shared. You can sit on a rock together, but you greet the sun in your own mind and heart. Alone.
I sat on the rock with Sarah. Our feet dangled above the still water, just above, not quite touching it. From the woods a white-throated sparrow sang his achingly pure song over and over: O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. Far down the lake a loon launched a half-hearted wail, then stopped in mid-phrase. All around us, the earth awakened, greeting the sunrise.
As we sat, I remembered other sunrises I had known on other canoe trips to wild and far-flung places, and on my own little piece of the earth at home. And I remembered an awakening time of my own.
It had been a period of doubt and inner struggle, as though I were searching for a path through a dark wood. Mornings were a challenge. They cast a relentless light on questions that seemed to grip and wrestle with me day after day. They were bottomless, ageless, human questions Who am I? What is my purpose? What am I going to do with my life?
This was, indeed, a time of awakening, of casting off the half-sleep of old ways of being, and struggling to find a clearer vision. It seemed as if a light was being thrown on everything—on the past, revealing old fears and habits of thought that had often hindered my steps. Light shown on the present as well—on the daunting landscape of Things As They Are, a lingering depression that made every challenge–money, the difficulties of a writing career, the struggle to find publication—seem fierce and unconquerable. The future, too, was illumined, but as a far, misty horizon, the features indistinguishable and shrouded in the fog of doubt.
But gradually, through the struggle, the doubt began to burn away, and an answer emerged; or if not an answer, at least an understanding. That it’s not what you do with your life that matters, at this moment. Because none of us has a life, all at once. We have a day.
And so you do something with your day. Each Day. Again, and again. One after the next. Who you are is what you do with your day. You may set a direction, choose a goal—a point on the dim horizon—but it’s the traveling there, the paying attention to the day’s path and all its footsteps, that’s important. Each sunrise—alone—is the Great Day That Dawns, and its light, illuminating the mind and reflected from the heart, is the “light that fills the world.”
I had found, in the red glow of sunrise, a path through the woods. It was my own path, one that led to innumerable vistas of beauty, to lakes and islands of meaning, and a vision that would guide me if I ever felt lost.
I thought of these things as I sat with Sarah on the rock. I thought of a phrase from a song: “The world is always turning toward the morning…” I thought of a traditional blessing of the Plains Indians: “May the Great Mystery make sunrise in your heart,” of the exquisite beauty and understanding it implied.
I thought of all these things. But I did not speak of them. Sarah was greeting the sunrise. Her own sunrise, in her own way. She would find her own path, and it would not be mine. But for a short time our paths had merged, and had led us to sit on this rock together, to watch the sun climb above the pines and begin to burn the night blanket of mist from the lake.
(Essay excerpt “The Great Day That Dawns,” from my book, Deep Woods, Wild Waters, University of MN Press. All my books available at www.douglaswood.com )