Great Escapes

It was the green of the first spring morning, innocent and optimistic, the green of all things vital and newborn.
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Lake Michigan beach
Illustration by Glenn Wolff

Now and then we need to escape. It seems to be a basic human impulse. In military terms retreat is disgraceful unless tactical. Ours are tactical. We retreat not from our responsibilities as parents, spouses and citizens, but into our responsibilities as moral beings in need of replenishment. But why?

What are we seeking? From what are we longing to escape? And why do we need it?

In a moment it was on me, one of those instantaneous Niagara downpours that soaks you in seconds. It passed and immediately the sky lightened and the sun started prying the clouds apart.

I was thinking these thoughts one spring afternoon not long ago while walking on a Lake Michigan beach. A mile down the shore was the cottage I was staying in that week, my sanctuary from a period of too much work and too many of human society’s complications. Ahead was a curving shore of sandy beach and low dunes covered with marram grass. The lake was calm and colored a deeper blue than usual.

A rumble of thunder sounded behind me, and I turned and saw dark clouds approaching fast from the west. They were black and formidable and so low they nearly touched the bluffs above the shore. Deep inside were shuddering flashes of lightning. I stood, mesmerized, and watched a silver wall of rain rushing toward me. The drops that fell were so large I could see them kicking up spouts of sand on the beach.

In a moment it was on me, one of those instantaneous Niagara downpours that soaks you in seconds. It passed and immediately the sky lightened and the sun started prying the clouds apart. I turned and watched the backside of the stormwall passing away with the sun on it and thought how strange it appeared, a roiling black wall lit by floodlights, as if it were a dramatic moment on a stage, but over-lit and over-designed.

Suddenly — and nothing could have prepared me for this moment — everything around me became drenched in color. It was drenched from the rain, of course, but the greater drenching came from the light itself. A switch had been flipped and the floor lights and floods had illuminated with a roar. The receding black cloud, the sheet of rain angling beneath it, the pounded pewter surface of the lake, the sand on the beach, the bluffs and dunes — every detail was so bright, so vivid, so clarified, that it was as if I were seeing it for the first time.

Then I noticed the marram grass. It covered the backdunes in a sparse pelt, every blade leaning the same way and drenched in light so rich it seemed unnatural, otherworldly, dreamed, imagined. The light had become a verb: It greened the marram, filled it with liquid light, made it luscious, redolent, ripe, natal, like spring’s fresh growth but seven or eight shades brighter. It was the green of the first spring morning, innocent and optimistic, the green of all things vital and newborn.

Years from now, when I think of my greatest escapes, I’ll remember that greening.


BLUE Reflections columnist and author Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City and has collaborated with fellow regional artist Glenn Wolff on many books.

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