norbert blei | down to the lake

26 12 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.164 | December 26, 2008

Christmas to New Year (2009)
‘Memoir’ Dispatches, #3

Editor’s Note: This is the third, end-of-the-year/holiday, offering in words to date as I consider the various interpretations of December, winter, Christmas, the coming year. Please check the first, “Carol Ordal”, now archived with the original postcard mentioned in the piece, at, and the second posting, a winter haiku by Imakito Oku at . It’s my hope to send a daily posting in this spirit till (and including) January 1, 2009. Please read, enjoy—and send it around, if you feel so inclined. — Norbert Blei.

P.S. The first jpeg (painted by Charles ‘Chick’ Peterson) remains pretty true-to-form at this winter moment in Door(though deeper in snow); the second is an audio cassette cover ‘a voice’ in winter; the third, the short, complete Epilogue from the book from which the following excerpt was taken



Down to the Lake


He steps into another day much as any other day, looking for something … something to orient himself, re-adjust his presence…something to make the day new, different…something to retrieve out there, bring back to the table. Whatever it is that lies in wait, comes alive inside his own musings, ultimately turns him back on the same path, anxious to begin again.

He walks down the same road toward the same small lake as he has done for years…usually uncertain of the season, the mind busy shuffling images, thoughts, conversations, passages from books, poems… memories of other days walking the same road…the night before, yesterday morning, last week, years ago… his two small children pulling a wooden wagon filled with buckets of bright cherries picked from there across the road, where once an orchard grew … summers in a red rowboat drifting on the small lake, the bobber centered in ripples, the circles widening to infinity, to nothing but smooth water…fishing for bass and perch near the old boathouse, when the old boathouse and the dock were still there to lend a primitive spirit to all the lake touched along its shores …when the lake was mostly unknown, unmarked, hard to find, and quiet but for the wind singing over the water, inside the trees…when the lake took you by surprise in winter, snow-blinded you, held your footprints on ice, encompassed you in an immensity of white merging into the horizon … memories of small, ancient-like bonfires on a winter’s night, townspeople gathering to skate…that time the snowy owl sat for days in the maple there on the way down to the lake.…times of pink prairie rose in bloom along the road in spring… autumns of wild apples and northern lights…the winter his old neighbor crawled through the parlor window, snow drifted so heavily against the door…

doorHe walks in a diminishing darkness toward that moment night recedes behind him, and the slightest glimmer of first light begins spreading over the east, over the road, the woods, the small lake waiting ahead. He has come to love this moment when the night withdraws the darkest mysteries, uncovering the landscapes bare truths—dirt roads, telephone lines, chimney smoke, a black dog watching him from a distance, white birch trees, an entanglement of branches, evergreens, fallen trees…the long history of stone fences.

A day of no particular date but a sense of winter in retreat, the earth turning over on its back…maple sap running. A wake-up feeling of cold upon his face, around his neck, down his shoulders …a comforting cold, flipping his collar up, catching a slap of wind in the eye, loosening a trickle of cold-warm tears upon the cheeks…a tickling sensation of gentle flakes of snow falling invisibly, though the old road appears newer, whiter.

The black dog, catching up with him, running ahead, stopping, turning to gaze at the man, running forward in a frenzy again…the joyousness of dumb animal life, constant curiosity and playfulness, plummeting toward whatever lies ahead, while the man lumbers in the animal’s wake…waiting for the mind to empty…hands curled warmly inside black mittens, snow flakes tickling his face, the wind in play in the tips of the tall pines just ahead, swaying so slightly. He stops to watch the wind in the trees, the towering height of pines and hardwoods on both sides of the road, leading down to the lake–the density and darkness of the woods beyond and within …nowhere he cared to tread. He might never find his way back again.

He comes to the small crest in the road he knows so well…the ‘hill’ where his children went sledding in winter…the hill from which he catches a first glimpse of the small lake…so easy to saunter down in his walk toward the water. More breathtaking to negotiate on his way back.

His mind, in every direction this morning …returning to that field of tall pine he passed moments ago…once an open farmland, stone-picked, then gone to weed—fox dens, milkweed, songbirds, mushrooms, wild asparagus. Years later, pine seedlings were planted by the county forester…hundreds of finger-length pines tucked in place, row upon row, up and down the empty field from the road to his old neighbor’s house in the far distance. How long ago was that? He can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Long enough for those seedlings to reach the height of thirty feet or more. Nobody now cares about the open field turned to thick pine, the stone fence that ran forever down the property line, why the old neighbor lived so far in from the road you could barley see light in his windows at night …the sweet strawberries he grew and gave away, the flower garden of huge poppies, orange and pink, he tended in memory of his wife, the birdhouses he made from hollow cedar logs raised on poles high in the air, or nailed to the sides of the barn…how he died one night in his rocking chair a long time ago, looking out the front window, facing the first snowfall upon the new pine seedlings.

It’s still early, still almost dark but growing lighter the closer he moves down to the lake. Another gray-on-white day. Nobody’s about. No one on the road. Nobody on the lake. No light in the few farmhouses he could see. Hardly anyone living here this time of the year— remembering those early years he found himself alone among distant neighbors. He longs to get back to that. A time that occasionally visits him on days like this, early morning. Winter. The land the way it used to be.

He approaches the small lake…that opening at the end of the road, an expanse harboring drifts of snow, wind-swept clearings of pure ice…not a sound but his own breathing.

He takes a tentative first step out, into it all…breaking through the snow crust…punching in footsteps…heading toward the center, the first small clearing, an island of ice.

He hears the wind come up from behind him. Sees morning light, a lighter shade of gray, reaching up into the trees across the white lake. Watercolor gray, a Payne’s Gray an artist might spread in a wet wash…to catch it, hold it…cold, warm… make it all come alive in that moment of absolute solemn, moving light.

If he shuts out everything inside, if he concentrates on only the stillness, he can hear the sound of snow falling. His blood coursing.

He is inside a snow dome. Turned upside down. Under the ice, fish frozen in place, circle the darkness in wonder of water. Above, snow filters down upon the solitary man, alive in a glass ball…vanished upon a small lake.

The center of white. Where the only road leads.

He looks to the heavens, feels the gentlest flakes bless his forehead, nose, eyes… opens his mouth, childlike, in communion, tasting the sacred quiet.

He stays that way a long time…standing on ice… snow coming to an end…lighter, warmer…isolation, loneliness, love. Just being there.

The walk back would come soon enough…turning, retracing his path.

The walk back would be the same.

The clutter would reassert itself. Thoughts invade his steps. Hands on his watch tell time. Somewhere in the distance a truck would start up. A door slam. A dog bark. His own heavy breath, speak to him, as he trudged up the hill.

The light would be behind him now.

There would be sun.

He would be walking into his own shadow.


from MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE, A Door County Classic/New, Expanded Edition, Ellis Press, 2008, $15


Editor’s Note #2 (‘almost’ a commercial): In the spirit of gift-giving, buying, choosing…(BOOKS!)…a fleeting thought… ‘after Christmas’ offer, of sorts. In case you bought the wrong gift for someone, forgot to give someone a gift, want to give a gift to yourself, etc.…MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE has a long record (third printing) as the perfect gift for just about any occasion, especially Christmas. It’s also appropriate for summer visitors to Door County, for people concerned about the preservation of the environment, be it Door County or anywhere else in the world, and for anybody e just trying to get a feel for this unique place. 112 pages. Illustrated—by two of the county’s best artists: Emmett Johns and Charles Peterson.

the-quiet-timeGiven the current economic pressures…How to make $15 (plus $2.50 postage go even further??? Well, until DECEMBER 31, 2008 and/or till the current shipment lasts (ie. the shipment from my publisher, which I help distribute for him to a few stores in the county throughout the year) I will include, at no extra charge, (while the supply lasts) a copy of the audio-cassette (a $10 value) “The Quiet Time—Door County in Winter” (readings by Norb Blei/Music by Jim Spector) which includes one of the most popular, frequently played/read pieces at this time of year: “Christmas Eve in Door.”

To makes things easier (worse?) I’m prepared to help out the economy be even extending a little credit—should you need it. (I’m a trusting soul.) Send $17.50. When you can. (The sooner the better.) But please, send it by the end of January, 2009.

In the meantime/for now: If you would like a copy of the book and tape, just e-mail me your address or the address you would like it sent to. I will put both in the mail…well, as early as tomorrow, for any orders coming in before tomorrow’s post dispatch from Ellison Bay (11:30 A.M.) If you would like the book signed or inscribed, please include the name(s).



In the forty years since Chicago writer Norbert Blei bought an old farmhouse and settled into northern Door County to live and write, he has built a considerable body of work (stories, essays, poems, public/commercial radio commentaries, public television programs, newspaper columns, magazine articles, online writing, and books) devoted to his adopted landscape, expressing both his love and concern for the stark beauty of this fragile,Wisconsin peninsula.

While the writer continues to address the loss of rural character and community in print media, online writing (www., and books, this new, expanded third reprint of his 1987 bestselling book, Meditations on a Small Lake, remains a testament to the changing times—informative and thoughtful in its defense of the preservation of the natural landscape, be it Door County or any rural landscape threatened by over development and crass commerce as “place” attempts to retain some sense of history and spirit.

The author has added three new essays to Meditations on a Small Lake, and substituted the original photographs of the first two printings with drawings by artist Emmett Johns, casting a whole new light and feeling to the book’ interior.The quiet, starkly beautiful and arresting cover drawing by Charles Peterson of Ephraim continues to retain its remarkable force in drawing the reader into the book upon a single glance.

I reveled in sunrises, sunsets, the eerie but welcome approach of fog…the fields so freshly washed after a thunderstorm, the serene secrecy of snow falling all night while one slept deeply through it, then awoke the next morning to the wondrous transformation of the landscape, a work of art in progress only partially recognizable, finding myself whispering through the windowpane lest I disturb the white world outside, speaking openly of it.

“Silence is the only voice of our God,” said Melville.

He walks in a diminishing darkness toward that moment night recedes behind him, and the slightest glimmer of first light begins spreading over the east, over the road, the woods, the small lake waiting ahead. He has come to love this moment when the night withdraws the darkest mysteries, uncovering the landscapes bare truths—dirt roads, telephone lines, chimney smoke, a black dog watching him from a distance, white birch trees, an entanglement of branches, evergreens, fallen trees…the long history of stone fences.

Meditations on a Small Lake, Ellis Press, 2008, Illustrated, 112 pp.




One response

2 01 2009
Jeffrey Winke

Woke early this morn — had a headache and needed to piss. Filled the bowl and popped a couple of advil. Wandered out to the living room and could see the crimson beginnings of day over the lake out the window. Settled down on the couch … old-man blanket on my lap. Buttercup, who has always had identity issues, did his best impersonation of a dog by jumping up on my lap, sniffing my face and a quick lick of my nose before settling down into a tight curl beside me. Pathetic old cat.

Reached for Norb Blei’s Meditations on a Small Lake — reprinted after 15 years being out of print. This is Norb at his best. Soothing country eco-writing with a simmering undercurrent of frustration and anger over the inevitable destruction of solitude and desolate living on the Door Peninsula. Meditations is both a contemplative reader and a manifesto for reactive action. During one of his beautifully-written passages about moonlight twinkling serenely on the black rippling water, I dozed off. I am certain I was in a row boat alone gazing at an irregular-shaped full moon wondering how many days before the perfect circle will be seen in the sky. I am feeling lucky that Meditations had arrived a couple days earlier and that I had finished the last couple of pages of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks the night before. The Kerouac / Burroughs novel based on the Lucien Carr incident would have transported me to a hot summer early 1940’s Greenwich Village walk-up where I’d be reaching for a bottle or a pack of smokes. The lake is more soothing than the echoes of unfulfilled yearnings.


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