It was the sort of dawn that made you want to shout. The sun, having tinkered about in the treetops, now shot flat across the lake. The June breeze, which had peeped and muttered all night among the pines, was busy lip-lapping the waves against the canoe. Even the dog, sitting sideways in the prow as I paddled, trembled with expectation, whining impatiently and jangling his license.
It was, after all, the first morning of a new Maine season; and as usual the drive up from the city the night before had seemed not only a journey into another place but almost into another consciousness. When last we had seen the lake, the ice was just going out. Now, striking out across the open water, we slipped through the narrows into the lee of the point, where the coves were adrift with pine pollen. Coasting close to shore to let the dog jump out, I settled back for the year's first slow and thoughtful paddle among the flora and fauna.
Or at least the flora. The dog bashed and rattled through the underbrush: You could hear him for a hundred yards. So, apparently, could the fauna. The only thing on view above songbird size was a duck - which bolted, squawking, before I could discern its markings.
Not that the markings would have helped, I thought uneasily. For all the time I've spent in Maine, I'm not very good at spotting nature's telltales. I know a beaver from a muskrat, and a loon from a Canada goose in good light. But when the conversation shades off into questions of wood ducks and female mallards, I become a mere spectator. I ought to know the differences, just as I ought to know wildflowers. But I don't.
That morning, however, something was different. Maybe it's that the early morning is a time for forgiveness - all that fresh-washed sunlight rinsing away last night's inadequacies. Or maybe it's just that the dog (who by then was standing atop an exposed rock, puffing like a locomotive) left me nothing else to look at but the flora. Whatever the reason, I found myself vowing to pay more attention to the vegetable kingdom - to get to know Maine not only for its exclamatory glimpses of deer and fox but for the stiller voices of the moss and fern.
So I set a course close to the shore and reminded myself to be observant. That much, anyway, I've learned from journalism: that what you see when you're just passing by is nothing compared with what you see when you're consciously watching. So I noticed the catkins on the white birches. I saw last year's leaves still clinging to the oaks, even as this year's squeezed out around them. I saw the white pines and the red pines and the spruce and the firs - and remembered that I did indeed know the differences between them. Maybe, I thought to myself, I know more about Maine than I realize.
Yet it was with a twinge of shame that I recalled something I had blurted out to my wife in the car the night before. ''I'm always slightly embarrassed,'' I had said, ''to have to drive around Maine with Massachusetts license plates!'' I had meant it, too. We'd done a spot of shopping on the trip, and I'd ordered a pair of trousers. ''Where would you like them sent?'' asked the saleswoman in a Down East accent. ''Boston,'' I replied, trying not to sigh. Anywhere in the world, it seems, you can say you're from Boston with ringing pride - except in northern New England. The slight uptick of her chin, the hint of a grin around her lips - ''I suspected as much,'' they seemed to say, even as her pen forgivingly took down the address and her jovial ''Thank you!'' almost hid her sympathetic tone of voice.
Or had I just imagined it? Now, in the morning light, my sensitivities seemed all unworthy. I grew up in Massachusetts, I reasoned: Why should I feel so apologetic? Was I worried about my own credentials, my own license? Did I fear that I, too, was but a tourist?
I had come around a point into the breeze, and had to dig the paddle in hard to keep from being turned around. No, I thought as I made for the next cove, I am not a mere tourist. ''I am a native in this world'' - the words from a Wallace Stevens poem sprang suddenly to mind - ''and think in it as a native thinks.'' A native, yes. To prove it, I feathered the blade, still-paddled noiselessly up to the steep rock ledge, and held the canoe motionless a few inches from the shore.
And suddenly, out of nowhere, came the dog. With a single bound he was down the ledge and into the canoe. We lurched crazily away from the shore, scuffing the bottom on the rocks as we went. ''Knock it off!'' I yelled, ramming the paddle (as no good canoeist ever does) into the graveled lake-bed for support. The dog looked at me indifferently. ''I've had my run,'' he seemed to say with a drenching shake, ''and now I want my breakfast!''
So we turned toward home. And as we made our way back along the shore I remembered the verse from the book of Psalms that Stevens had been echoing. ''I am a stranger in the earth,'' it reads; ''hide not Thy commandments from me.''
Stranger? I suppose so, yes. The native, as it were, knows without having learned. The stranger is always in awe of what remains to be known. No, I thought, I am not native to Maine: There's just too much left to learn.
We were approaching the last point. Ahead lay the rough chop of open water. It would be a vigorous paddle home, and I was feeling strangely deflated. Not a Mainer: I could admit that. But am I any more native to Massachusetts? I wondered. And if not, then where do I belong?
Taking a last glance at the mossed shore, my eye fell on a lady-slipper. Solitary, pink, and rare, it stood quietly in its niche on the ledge. It needs no license to do that, I thought. Yet in its way it, too, was a stranger - not because it came and went or felt itself out of place, but simply by virtue of a design so strange and wonderful that it might have come from another world.
And in that moment I glimpsed something as old as Christianity and as new as a birch leaf. Maybe the trouble with being a native of ''this world,'' I thought , is that it lets one take the world too much for granted. Maybe the world needs more of the ''stranger in the earth'' - more of the awe for all that exceeds the merely worldly, all that lifts humanity above the fauna, all that speaks of reverence for what is yet to be known.
I would have paused longer, but the wind was plucking at the bow. I remembered that I had seen something about lady-slippers in a tourist book on Maine in the cabin. When I get back, I promised myself, I'll look it up.