Stopping by woods on a sunny afternoon

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by Steve Young, 8/16/08 • It was a beautiful, really beautiful, August afternoon as my wife Hoa and I were driving home from some days at Elbow Lake east of Cook, Minnesota. As we passed Eveleth with its slightly forlorn Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, I remembered the shock of nearly six years ago when I heard of Paul and Sheila Wellstone dying in a plane crash as they were attempting a landing at the Eveleth air strip. Oh that was a moment when I sensed the very real presence of injustice in the cosmos. A bitter feeling indeed. And one that weakens your resolve and makes you somewhat more afraid of things as they are.

I liked Paul; we disagreed on many things. I felt he was wrong on most of his policy prescriptions – especially his opposition to the Vietnam War, the war I had fought – but he was a good man trying to make things better and he was open and most authentic in a very sound, reassuring way. And I felt that we were drawing closer the longer he was Senator; the gap between our understandings of reality was shrinking it seemed. And I don’t think he was succumbing to “Minnesota Nice” just to avoid confrontation with me.

So when we saw the sign on Highway 53 south of Eveleth pointing to Paul and Sheila’s memorial site, we turned off the main road to pay our respects.

I found the site to be very Japanese and very appropriate for Paul. What was natural seemed to predominate. Dark rocks from iron ore deposits made an entrance. Gravel paths took you into woods. Their memorial was a rock about five feet high, three across and two deep, polished on the front so that the curves and flowing lines could be appreciated. Human hands blending with what nature had intended. No contriving as the Taoists among us would especially appreciate.

The only memorial words, except for the names of Paul, Sheila, their daughter Marcia and three friends who died in the crash with them, were of eagles and their symbolism written by a Native American from Duluth.

No ideology or maudlin intellectual arrogance here. I felt reassured. There were some informative signs giving background on Paul and the accident but they were most matter of fact, even understated.

On the path near the platform facing the location of the crash, some 2,000 feet further into the woods was a fallen tree trunk shoved aside but left where some recent storm had broken it about four feet from the ground. The stub of the trunk showing its white broken wood stood just there, on the right some four feet from the path. A jarring bit of nature; a break, a tear, a tree now dead and never to live again.

But left alone for us to see and to help us sense whatever it is we live in – and die in.

People had left their remembrances. Mostly small stones places on top or at the foot of the stone mounted in Paul and Sheila’s memory. Some plastic roses and some necklaces too. I placed a penny at the base – it had Lincoln’s portrait of course and I thought that was most fitting in memory of Paul Wellstone, an American with vision and compassion.

Hoa left a sprig with a bright red berry taken from a raspberry bush – a small fruit that nonetheless also comes from living and nurturing.

The aspen trees gave gentle voice as the wind touched their leaves; the sky was blue above the pines; ample white clouds rode the air with dignity. But it was time to leave the past behind. I guessed Paul would understand.

We all have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.