The Untold Story

The School of the Wild

By 1920, huge white pine stumps were all that was left of Wisconsin’s Great North Woods. When he seized the opportunity to farm his aunt’s homestead on the south shore of Lake Superior, Bob Carnes had to first clear the land of stumps and rocks.

He dynamited each root of 100 stumps per acre, and then pulled and piled them with the help of teams of workhorses like Star. The big horses pulled the stone boat laden with rocks, and then the plow to work the red clay soil.

Because he wanted everyone to have access to the wilderness, Bob protected and enhanced a stretch of river cascades through the pines now called Bardon State Park. He believed we must cherish the wild and make nature our classroom.

After chores on a magical Wisconsin evening when early icy snow had frosted the meadows, my father said to me “Come on Sudie, the moon is up, lets take the team out.” A full moon on the shining snow made night into day. Lake Superior blackened the horizon, and the lights of Superior and the Duluth hills twinkled above it.
Exhilarated by the brisk air, the horses snorted their excitement at such a light load. They swiftly covered the mile to the far field, loving the night, begging for more rein. Hundreds of grazing white-tailed deer hardly looked up as the stone boat glided between them.
There was only the sound of the jingling harness, and the blowing of the horses as they spoke “wild” to wild. “Tomorrow the deer will be gone, Sudie, gone to the big lake for the winter,” he whispered. We had shared a special moment under a starry sky. We laughed with the joy of it as the horses pulled on the reins, turning for home.

My father still drives his team across the meadows of my memory. That night we entered into another place through magic doors opened for us by the horses. It was a kind of school of the wild—a place of awe and mystery where the secrets of life could be experienced.

Solitude Versus Loneliness

People who read My Champion and look at the pictures often comment on the water everywhere. It is flowing, gurgling, falling, surging, bubbling up and reflecting. The rose, the trees, both growing green and then washed and dissolved by the elements to silver driftwood, the ebb and flow and the sound of the sea, the coming ’round again of the seasons, and the tides of the moon, all are a kind of lyrical language readers learn to speak as they spend time in the school of the wild. As the eagle says, “Those who want to learn great secrets must spend time in school, understand the language, and be ready to learn.”

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Hordes of people go into the wild with cameras to catch on film—that special something! They are after the language that speaks to the soul. They want desperately to record something meaningful. Writing in his solitary cell, alone with his thoughts, St. John of the Cross wrote of what he thought of as precious—”that something—I don’t know—that comes upon me randomly.”

Having spent a lot of time alone out in nature, I think that we are looking to be part of something—connected in. Remember that the eagle settled back into his tree knowing the seeker must be ready and pay attention. I think that is what “comes upon me randomly” means. At first, Tess “just didn’t see.” With her animal friends beside her, she heard what they heard, saw and understood.

My favorite place is beside the river. I spent my young life in Bardon Park waiting while my father tried to save it for everyone to visit. While he talked politics or fixed the bridge, I splashed through the water, sailed pine tree boats over the falls and pretended the recesses behind the rocks were the caves of dragons. I learned to be alone with myself, always ready for that “something that comes upon me” that I know and recognize as real. Lonely has little to do with “being alone”. Lonely is about feeling alone and unconnected to the circle of life. If I feel that way, I head to the river. I let the water wash away the painful illusions and swirl me up in the peace that comes with belonging.

On Blinders, Self Esteem and Stepping Stones

Isn’t it strange that Captains and Kings,
And Clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And common folks like you and me

Are builders for eternity?

To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass, a book of rules.
And each must build ere life has flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone.

R.L. Sharpe 1890

Tess rode a Percheron draft horse to dream and play by the Pacific Ocean. She was rich with courage, desire, and the unconditional love of animals. She had the creativity to build castaway treasures into living art. Star was a plow horse plodding through fields, screened by blinders so he could focus on the furrow ahead.

The truth is that his breed developed around the time of the Crusades. Legend has it that the Great Horses that carried armored knights into battle were mated to the elegant and fleet Arabians of the Moors. His kind “embodies spirit and strength”. As both Star and Tess used their own individual “bags of tools, they came to respect themselves—they developed self esteem.

For Star, the moment that he saw his proud ancestor reflected in the vision on the waters was the moment things changed. He felt a connection with the nobility that was his birthright. He now had a book of rules to follow. He did what a Champion would do. For Tess, self esteem came as she artfully arranged the driftwood. She stopped wanting to be someone else and began to build her artistic and innovative home by the sea. Her connection came as she more and more listened to her own heart. She gave up dreaming of being just like someone else and became who she was.

The miracle of self esteem happens inside and outside. The Islanders saw Star and Tess in a new way because they were different. They no longer were blinded to their own magnificence. They were able to do great things. They were “builders for eternity.”

Like Tess, I was a dreamer. I also dreamed that I would have a champion horse to ride. From the time I was five, I rode Tom, a black Percheron gelding from my father’s team. I now know that my boldness and zest came from being ten feet tall, seeing the world from his broad back. His love empowered me then and thereafter. Eventually, as a school counselor, I understood how important dreams and the companionship of a mighty angel like Tom can be to a child. My drawing and painting was a connection to self very similar to what Tess was feeling as she created her dream home. Those with self-esteem can make their lives count. They do not need to envy the “bag of tools” someone else has. They do with what they’ve got. They are respected for being individuals. They build stepping-stones for themselves and others to use for generations to come.

In my dreams, I am again an enchanted child. I reign with power on a galloping mountaintop throne. I can thunder over the Wisconsin fields, bareback on my black charger, screaming “Hi Ho Silver” in his ear. My champion lives on today in my memories, in what I am able to do, and in who I am.

Susan Carnes, author and illustrator of My Champion.

A coming of age story of a ten year old girl who learns to appreciate who she is and what she has.

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