My son Henry and I joined our friend John Latimer for the Grand Rapids area Audubon Christmas Bird Count in December. Our day started at 7 a.m. and 24 degrees below zero. Most birds, obviously smarter than us, huddled somewhere out of sight. We spied a beautiful bevy of ten swans and a lonely goldeneye duck on a small open stretch of the Prairie River but little else.
I’m not a birder. I normally would have slept in. But Henry loves the outdoors and John has been mentoring him in the study of phenology, the biological patterns found in our natural world. My own father was a mechanic and gunsmith when I was growing up. He drove me predawn to catch the speech team bus on winter Saturdays. It’s like this for fathers and sons. We owe it to each other.
The lack of birds didn’t prevent us from learning. John teaches nature just by holding a conversation. Driving along the back road he showed us an example of forest succession. A grove of aspen trees reached their bony fingers to the winter sky while the sharp spears of several balsam fir pierced the spaces in between.
John explained that the balsams can survive the summer shade of the aspens. In the winter they receive plenty of light. By the time the aspens die off, none of their offspring will be able to grow in the shade of the growing balsams. Years from now, whether they like it or not, the aspens will be gone and the balsams will rule this patch of land. Because they survived.
When we got home I received a message from a man I barely knew. He asked about my grandfather Marvin Johnson, who died last April. Apparently, my grandfather and this man’s mother played together when they were growing up in Keewatin.
These kids lived on opposite sides of the Great Northern Railway tracks that ran through town. The sides mattered. My grandfather’s dad worked for the railroad. They had a radio. The family on the other side of the tracks lived a harder life.
The Great Depression lumbered through another winter. His mother said they ran out of firewood.
Each day the trains slowed down coming into Keewatin, puffing clouds of black smoke and white steam in all directions. The crisp, cold air amplified the harsh din of the train engine. And each day the engineer threw coal into the back yard of the family in need.
Was my great-grandfather named Harold Johnson?
Yes, I said.
That was him, he said.
I never met my great-grandfather. Grandpa always described him as gruff. My grandfather was rather gruff himself, so this suggested Harold Johnson was considerably grouchy.
Like my grandfather, my great-grandfather worked hard, drank hard, sobered up but lived the rest of his life tortured by regret. Unfortunately my great-grandfather died of cancer in 1973. I never met him. So all I had was this thin description and a few dour-looking family photos that only seemed to confirm what I was told.
“Thank you for what your family did for my family,” the man wrote.
I feel unworthy to receive a comment like that. What was done but what should have been done? And what a gift to know the capacity for good in a man who never believed he was. It’s like a picture come to life, a frozen frown warmed into a smile.
We don’t get to decide what our purpose in life will be. It may seem so, but it rarely works out that way. We meet tears and frustration as we flail against the wind. But our true purpose reveals itself simple and clear, perhaps found without any thought at all. A kind word. A shovel full of coal.
It takes effort to survive winter in northern Minnesota. For birds and people alike. It’s not impossible. But survival must never be taken for granted. Sometimes we need help. Sometimes we need to help others.
Love like this lasts longer than life.
Aaron J. Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power and early 1900s Hibbing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.