The McGill Report

Thinking About Iraq in the Minnesota Wilderness

Grand Marais, MN, Sept. 3 -- On the shores of Emerald Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, 60 miles north of Grand Marais along the Gunflint Trail, I sat around a campfire with my two best buddies of four decades, eating batter-fried walleye and sipping grape Gatorade.

We talked about the war in Iraq.

It was strange to be imagining that hot, dusty, and wounded Arab land, still so shrouded in violence and grief, while we sat safely in the quiet depths of pristine Minnesota nature.

The call of loons filled the air with mournful echoes.

Was the war in Iraq a good idea or bad idea? We all agreed that things aren't going especially well in post-war Iraq, but on balance, did we think it a good thing the United States had ousted Saddam from power?

My friend Chris, a neurologist at the University of Minnesota, said Americans don't have enough information about what's going on in Iraq to make a good decision about leaving or staying.

The media just isn't giving us enough information, he said, and the reports they do offer often aren't the truth, only sensationalism packaged to sell like entertainment.

Looking Inward

Still, Chris said, it's clear enough that we've gotten ourselves into a quagmire in Iraq, so pulling out is by far the most sensible thing.

The sun slowly fell and the western sky burned a deep, glowing pink at the horizon. A black crow flapped and cawed. Mosquitoes buzzed.

My friend Rick, a Rochester lawyer, fired back.

"Chris, you are expecting the media to give you all the information you need to make a decision. But we'll never have all the information we want. We need to make decisions before that.

"I find myself looking inward and asking 'How would I feel if I were an average Iraqi person? In that case, how would I feel? What would I want?'"

The bottom line for Rick is that Iraqis now have a freedom to make their own future that they didn't have before. They no longer fear execution of their entire families on the basis of mere rumors that they didn't like Saddam.

"If I were an Iraqi, I'd be overjoyed that Saddam was gone," Rick said. "I'd feel that as bad as things might be now, I had new opportunities."

Piney Smells

A fish jumped in the lake, making a loud "plop!" and leaving only ripples by the time we looked. The sweet scent of fried fish mixed with sharp piney smells in the air.

As for myself, I believe in Rick's simple formula, to "look within." We can't learn every language in the world, and each one of us, realistically, can't travel to many places to search out the truth. Surely the Boundary Waters wilderness teaches the wisdom of Rick's path.

Loons and bald eagles, not Fox and CNN, are the authorities in our wilderness. Our imaginations must do the distant travel.

The three of us joked throughout the trip about "being in the now."

"Chris, are you paddling in the present?"

"Rick, are you eating your oatmeal mindfully?"

For six days our eyes saw calm wilderness lakes, rugged rocks and perfect nature, while inside we saw Baghdad. We heard and saw the fireworks of shock and awe. We saw children lying in hospital beds.

Wilderness Lessons

What I want to ask is what lessons the treasure of our northern wilderness, a treasure of the entire world, might hold for the peace of the entire world?

What responsibility, if any, do we have to seek and to share those lessons?

"Harmony of knowledge, will, and feeling toward the earth is wisdom, for it has to do with living at peace with other forms of life," wrote the Minnesota conservationist and writer, Sigurd F. Olson, after one wilderness trip. "Since the beginning of civilization, harmony with nature has been almost disregarded, though it has been recognized by a few great minds as the only solution to the problem of finding peace and contentment."

On the first day of our trip, a giant snapping turtle, floating like an astronaut in two feet of crystalline water, poked his nose above the waterline to peer a few moments at the three of us.

A wise old soul, we decided.

The persistence of our violent inner visions of war shocked us.

All through the trip the loons cried their strange rising whoops and declining sighs, their calls that pierce the heart so directly and so hauntingly, their laughing shrieks and grieving cries of perfect nature.