A week before Labor Day I went up to the North Woods to gather material for a documentary I was producing on a concert in Boulder Junction that was going to feature the Different Drums of Ireland, a Northern Ireland drum group, and Indian drummers from the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwa reservation.
Boulder Junction and Lac du Flambeau have had strained relations over the past 50 years. Getting the Indian drummers to appear in Boulder Junction for a cultural exchange was pretty unusual, and it raised many interesting questions about what it takes to bring people together.
I hoped to capture the qualities of life on the reservation through the stories of the individual Indian drummers, then go to Northern Ireland and look at the troubled world the Catholic and Protestant drummers in the Irish drum group come from. In the documentary, I would weave them all together, the climax being their concert together.
The actual event was quite beautiful. When they finished playing, the men in the two bands all stood up and embraced. For the drummers and many in the audience of 350, it was a moving moment.
For a variety of reasons, the documentary never came to fruition. But I will always remember a valuable lesson I learned from the experience.
I was interviewing Nick Hockings who runs Waswagoning, an Indian village replica, about how the Ojibwa lived in the North Woods in different seasons; how they hunted, trapped, made maple syrup, where young men went on vision and naming quests, where young women were sheltered when they first menstruated and received the counsel of female elders, etc.
We were in a clearing in the woods and I was seated 6 or 7 feet from Nick with my camera rolling. I looked up and saw what appeared to be a leaf fluttering down from an Oak tree. When it got above my head it exploded in size and became animated and I thought, “Wow … that is the biggest butterfly I’ve ever seen.”
The next instant, it landed on my hand and I discovered it was a small and delicate Downy Woodpecker. It sat on my hand for about three or 4 seconds, then fluttered up and landed on my hat atop my head. Then it jumped onto my camera, rose up and hovered about us for a few more seconds and disappeared back into the woods.
I’d never had anything like this happen to me. I’d been talking to Indians and hearing their emphasis on the various spirits that move through the woods and affect their lives so I naturally thought, “this must have some sort of meaning.”
I brought the incident up at the Headwaters, a local watering hole where the Irish drummers and several of the Indians met for dinner after their performance, and Molly Hegeman who’d spearheaded the concert in Boulder Junction said, “You know, what happened to you is very significant. The woodpecker is Nature’s drummer. If you think about it, the sounds it makes and the rhythm it keeps … and you’re here doing a piece on drummers. It has real meaning. I think it means there’s going to be some very positive change of some kind in your life, and it might come out of this documentary on the drummers.”
That made me feel good.
Or Just Another Drunk Woodpecker
After a while, Molly offered another explanation, one frequently posed by her late husband, Scott Kimball. Toward the end of summer when the berries start to ferment and the birds are still eating them, Scott observed, probably half the birds in the woods are flying around so blitzed they don’t even know what they’re doing.
And then my friend John Bates, a naturalist who’s written a number of books about the rivers and woods in that part of the world, said most of us don’t spend that much time in the woods so we don’t know that a wild animal approaching a human is really less remarkable than it might seem. The fact is, if you’re at peace and sitting quietly, all kinds of things happen. Many people have been visited by birds and butterflies––even bears who are curious and will come up if they feel safe and share a moment with a man.
Consulting The Elders
One of the Indians I’ve been following around, Brandon Thoms, said he thought we should go and tell the story to a tribal elder and see what the elder thought. The next day, he told me he’d set up an interview with Mike Chosa, and we went to the reservation and sat down to speak with him.
Mike Chosa is a name I already knew, and you may remember it as well. He was the Ojibwa Indian who led the band of Indians that took over the Nike Missile Site in Lincoln Park in 1972 to dramatize the plight of Native Americans living in Chicago.
I was introduced to Chosa as we sat down on a bench in front of the senior citizen compound where he lives in Lac du Flambeau. Brandon said, as a sign of respect, we should offer Chosa some tobacco, and he ran back to his car to put a small clump of tobacco into each of our hands.
As I began to tell Chosa about my experience with the Downy woodpecker, Brandon’s kids, who were playing behind us, came running up and said there was a dead bird on the ground. We all got up and looked at it and saw that it was another woodpecker, a flicker, just some 15 feet behind us.
What does this all mean?” I asked Chosa. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s complicated.”
“Well what do you think?” I asked.
“It’s too early to tell,” he said.
We talked about Chicago, but I kept returning to the subject of the bird and he kept avoiding giving me any answer.
Finally he said, “It’s strange. There are many signs here. You’re name is Aronson. You’re doing a film. Another man named Aronson did a film on me long ago. You saw a woodpecker in the woods. We found a woodpecker here. I have to think about this.”
I didn’t realize until later that he knew very well what he thought it meant, but was reluctant to tell me.
A Woodpecker Double Whammy
After a while, Chosa smiled.
“I’m hungry,” he said. “I just had my medicine. I have to eat. Can you drive me to the Casino?”
I opened my fist and looked down at the tobacco in my hand. “What should I do with this?” I asked.
“It came from the earth,” Chosa said. “You should return it to the earth. You can put it down on the grass over there.”
I deposited the tobacco on the grass and then watched Chosa cleverly turn me into his chauffeur. I drove him to eat, then to a bank in Minocqua to get some money and then to the local Wal-Mart to pay off a credit card debt. All the while, I kept bringing up the woodpeckers.
Finally, he said. “Okay, I’ll tell you what it means. In our culture, when a bird approaches a human being in that way, it usually means that someone close to you is going to die.”
I physically felt my heart sink in my chest. Here Molly said it was going to reflect some wonderful change in my life. And now Chosa is predicting death.
“Is it me?” I asked. “Am I going to die?”
Chosa looked at me and said, “It’s too early to tell. It’s very complicated, Aronson, Aronson, film, film, live woodpecker, dead woodpecker. All I know for sure is that you’ve experienced a ‘Double Woodpecker Whammy!”
“And yesterday, I got a call that my young niece died. Maybe this all was a sign for me.”
“Is there anything I can do about it?”
“Well, one thing you can do is find something that has grown up from the ground. Like a melon, or berries …”
“I have some berries growing right outside my house,” I said.
“Good, that’s perfect. Pick some berries. And what I would do is put the berries on a piece of birch bark, and sprinkle some tobacco on them and then set them out in the woods as a gift to the spirits. Then I would think you’d be okay.”
A Gift to The Spirits
The next day, I bought a cigar and picked some berries and got some bark and set it out in the woods and made a small prayer.
Sunday, I noticed that my 8-year-old Irish Wolfhound Oona was out of sorts. She was losing fluids from both ends, wouldn’t eat and was very lethargic. It was the Sunday before Labor Day and I tried calling a number of vets. They were all closed. Finally I called the Emergency Veterinarian Services number, described my dog’s symptoms. “She sounds sick. Bring her in,” the vet on duty said.
He took an x-ray that showed a huge shadow in her lung, either pneumonia or a tumor, he said. Her blood pressure was so low he could barely get a sample. “We should keep her here overnight and we’ll put in an IV and hydrate her and give her some antibiotics,” he said. “I’ll call you in the morning and let you know how she’s doing.”
I left Oona with him with a sense of optimism, expecting her to improve with all the good care he was giving her. The next morning he called to say “Oona just passed away. Five minutes ago. I’m sorry. She put up a good fight but she was just too far gone.”
Just Another Story?
It was hard to write this story.
I knew I could tell it orally, but I didn’t know if I could ever write it down. Anne, my wife, loved this dog dearly. On more than one occasion, she believed Oona had saved her life: once when Oona awakened her to a candle fire next to a couch where Anne had dozed off; again when she chased a burglar out of our kitchen at 4 a.m.
When Anne heard me telling others the story she said she didn’t want to hear any more about the bird or the Indians. Everything in our lives was not just a “story,” and she felt, I think, that turning Oona’s death into a story in some way trivialized her life.
I understood how she felt. But I didn’t see it that way. I think telling the story, and mulling over the seemingly odd fulfillment of the prophesy that I would be losing someone close to me, helped me deal with the loss. But it didn’t come close to preparing me for that moment when nine months later––five months after our 42nd wedding anniversary and the day after her 68th birthday––Anne, herself, suddenly developed trouble breathing, went to the hospital and five days later died.
Anne and I lived our lives under the shade of an old Cottonwood tree, the endless rustle of whose leaves made us think at times that we lived not on a city street on the north side of Chicago but on the shore of a magical sea. The tree was always filled with birds and brought much joy to our backyard. I never thought about where the birds had come from, or went, but in the year after the bird landed on my hand and the old Indian predicted I would lose someone close to me and I lost my two best friends, my dog and the love of my life, it made me think of many things I’d never thought about before.