By Bradley Carleton

Chris Thayer is on first ice. Photo by Bradley Carleton

Chris Thayer is on first ice. Photo by Bradley Carleton.

As we wind our way toward the end of a year that we will look back on as one of the toughest we have endured as a species, I am inclined to draw some metaphors from the natural world. First, let me say that this is not meant to minimize the tremendous loss of life that we have experienced as a species. Nor do I want to discount the extraordinary struggles we have witnessed in the way we have become so divided as a nation. These are all very true and very painful, no matter your political belief. Nature has a way of calling out the best of us as we find compassion amidst our distrust of one another.

For just as Albert Einstein said, “Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” We learn to be better humans from our struggles, be they surviving a night in the frigid winter wilderness, or the recognition that when deprived of closeness to one another, we long for connection. For hugs, handshakes and kisses on the cheeks of those we cherish. If ever there was time that humanity faced its most painful realization that we need one another to survive and thrive, now is that time.

When I spend time in my tree stand observing the animals, the trees swaying in the breeze, a thunderstorm circling around me, the fragrance of the lake turning over its detritus to be absorbed and released to the surface, I am acutely aware of how important we all are to one another. As you venture into the winter woods surrounded by silence, breathe in the fearsome arctic air, and notice the scent of balsam. Listen for the gentle “dee, dee, dee” of the black capped chickadee. Notice how you are announced to the natural world by these beings who inhabit the realm of our imagination. Watch the doe sneaking through the hemlocks. How she places each foot with conscious movement—now watch someone practice yoga or tai chi and see the similarities of intentional movement. We are not that different from our animal brethren.

Soon, I will be embracing the cold, and with anticipation measured in the same breath as trepidation, I will walk out onto the ice in an attempt to seek my underwater treasure, fishing for panfish. My understanding of “safe ice” is a little different than others. I require four inches of clear black ice as some will say “two inches is all you need.” I will politely disagree and would rather choose to not wind up on the back page of the local publications as a statistic. I have known others who have possessed a different sense of judgment than I, and I respect their choices but will not compromise my own boundaries. Again, more lessons on life. Know your own boundaries and respect others.

After sitting on a pickle bucket with a pad on it to cushion my backside, I hunch over the icy cylinder that I have carved out of the clear surface. I bait my hook with a spike (known to the gentry as the lowly maggot) but even the tiny squirming creature serves its purpose—to entice a larger creature to follow its instinct to feed. Most people would never consider the lowly parasite as worthy of anything but disgust and disdain, but even the little critter has its purpose. And so, I honor the maggot and thread it on to the hook and lower it into the water in the hole. I feel the weight of the lure touch the bottom of the lake and retrieve it up just two turns on the reel, then gently jig the tip of the rod up and down. Within just a few movements, the rod suddenly bends down toward the hole and begins to throb. I can feel the vibration in the palm of my hand and lift quickly to set the hook.

As I reel the big yellow perch upward through the hole and lift it into the bright sunshine, I admire the iridescent gold with the seven vertical brown bars on its sides. The vibrant orange fins tipped with white. The gold and black eye that seems to look at me and wonder, “Who am I to have taken this specimen and shown it a new world of oxygen and blue sky?”

I have a ritual I perform each year with my first catch. I hold the fish by the lower lip and give it a kiss, then release it back to its home.

Bradley Carleton is Executive Director of Sacred Hunter, a non-profit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.