A lifelong gift from the grand shaman

The Grand Shaman always wanted to know what we had observed in the woods that week. It was time for nature reports.

Karen Norris

The grand shaman of Camp Indian Name always requested “reports of nature.” They came after games of skill and before the word of the week. We, his faithful camper constituents, wrapped in our wool blankets and swatting mosquitoes, awaited his arrival at dusk for a piece of theater called the Saturday night council fire.

He came from across the lake to our swimming beach standing, arms akimbo, on a plywood platform lashed between two Grumman aluminum canoes like a catamaran, paddled by four athletic, sinewy chiefs in loin cloths who looked suspiciously like our cabin counselors. The resonant beating of 50-gallon oil drums provided a solemn timbre for his arrival. The drummers had evidently listened to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” many times back in their college dorms.

In fulfillment of camp lore, our shaman made his way from his home on Mount Chocorua each Saturday night, drawn to the sound of the drums. Once he reached shore, he sternly presided.

The grand shaman never spoke. He used sign language. This was translated by White Bear, his chief of staff. The grand shaman had a sign vocabulary like that of a major-league baseball coach signaling his runner to steal second base on the second pitch if it was a fastball. His gestures had gravitas as he patiently dispensed wisdom and high expectations for camp conduct and aspiration in field sports, hiking, riflery, archery, canoeing, and sailing. He also inspired observation of the natural world, public speaking, and sharing. He always wanted to know what we had observed in the woods that week.

“It is time for reports of nature,” White Bear would finally announce. I looked forward to this. Who didn’t want to raise an arm, be recognized, and stand to relate an astounding nature sighting from a week spent on hiking trips or walks down to the lakeside docks? I yearned for sightings of bald eagles, loons, deer, moose, or even, hope of hopes, a bear. 

Alas, chipmunks and garter snakes tended to dominate. The wilder denizens of the forest gave Camp Indian Name a wide berth from June to August.

However, those reports of nature spurred a lifetime of observation and active perception, a Thoreauvian manner of moving through the natural world and paying attention to its signs and wonders. It changed my jaunts through the forest back at my suburban home, across the street and down the path through the white pines to the big pond – a vestigial wilderness full of report potential.

Reports of nature informed my point of view and observational practice on grander hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the western mountains of Maine, the Highlands and Cairngorms of Scotland, and eventually our own 20 acres of pine and cedar woods, a perfect coyote and bear habitat.

Any brief stroll can yield a hoofprint or paw print, a hawk or turkey feather, a flattened snow bed where a herd of deer spent the night.

And so it is even today, just looking out the window in anticipation of another visit from my local fox, or the porcupine, or perhaps the doe leading her fawn through our front meadow. And someday, perhaps, the elusive shy bear that I know is waiting on the forest verge to join this week’s reports of nature. My neighbor, Hannah, just had her beehive ransacked by a bear. 

Dear Bear: We still have a few days before council fire. Please drop by. 

Grand Shaman: I expect to have something to share.

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