We moved to Shoal Lake in 1957 when I was eight and I left for the city at nineteen. Those are formative years when one grows from an egocentric to sociocentric worldview, taking the role of the Other, starting to think about thinking and finally feeling like a citizen of the planet. Just before I left home, my father said that no matter where I roamed or what I accomplished in my life, I would always think of Shoal Lake as my hometown. He was right.
My cathedrals were somewhat more humble than the stone behemoths the word usually conjures. Though it was a town of 800 with five spired churches (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Baptist, Anglican, United), my cathedrals were the movie theatre, the town hall, the high school, the ice rink, the train bridge and the spruce grove by the lake.
The only cathedral left standing today in 2015 is the grove of spruce trees that decorate a slow incline up and away from the water’s edge at the north end of the lake. They were planted in 1928 as part of the village landscaping. The trees wrap around the closest thing the lake ever had to a beach, vulnerable to the prevailing, often harsh, northwest winds. During their eighty-seven years, the trees have adopted a slight lean away from the wind. It’s not a thick grove but an airy and light stand with sky at the top end and water at the bottom. Underfoot lies decades of brown needles thatched in slow decay.
By the 1960s the spruce were at their most verdant, early maturity brought a luscious deep green to the shore when viewed in perfect morning light. It was under these sheltering branches that many rites of passage and epiphanal moments occurred for my friends and me. Here bonding moments so serene, proving moments so intense and our love for the whole wide world, created new beings out of us. Boundless expressions of song sang with spruce gum and lake water in the hot sizzle of the metal camp stove, our incense and laughter echoing beyond the trees into the starry night. Acoustic guitars strummed to bleeding during long rambling confessions of angst, love and guilt, inspired by the Doors’ The End. In this confessional, the trees listened patiently, ever returning each of us to sanctity, to grace.
Today the trees are past maturity; their trunks three-quarters bare of branches, the foliage now a rickety umbrella high overhead. The bare overripe spruce are easy pickings for wind; they creak now even in small breezes. Crushing windstorms from the northwest break off the old trees regularly. Yet they remain my one cathedral, still bending in the wind, becoming more majestic in their age and decline.
To walk among them now is to hear the echoes of old friend’s young voices and see them splashing in the shiny water; it is to hear the blues played on a harmonica at the edge of a prairie lake by a farm boy whose father works him like slave. During spring break-up on the lake there are a few days when tinkling needles of ice produce the sound of delicate wind chimes as they float in the cold water, playing counterpoint to the trees combing sighs from a passing breeze. When I walk among these trees today I am among friends, closer to the wisdom of age and experience that we intuited as youth but only recognize now as we grow long in the tooth.
How we worshiped with vigor and hope at that church of green timber! Confusing, hormone-befuddled days turned into evenings of comradeship, peace and caring, of understandings that curious youth bring only to each other. Spirit lived in my cathedrals then and still does today. The link we share with our past when using the local knowledge of a place and its landmarks allows us to discover Spirit in yet another form.
Even though today grass grows thick over my parent’s graves in Shoal Lake Cemetery and I have few friends left in the town and fewer reasons to return, Shoal Lake is still home in the sense of it being the repository of my growing and changing. It is where memories reside. It will always be home to the cathedrals that played significant roles in my youth, cathedrals that time and progress have taken away. When I left Shoal Lake, I forfeited the right to own my cathedrals anywhere but in memory. As it should be.