|Photo by US Fish & Wildlife Service|
My parents live on a small, quiet lake in northern Indiana. It’s perfect for fishing and pontooning and watching the riot of birds and other creatures who make its water and shores their home or rest stop.
Some years ago, long before husband and kids, and fresh off a trip to Australia with newly acquired scuba skills, I decided to practice snorkeling and free-diving at my folks’ lake.
I found out that despite its many charms, it’s not really a super place for underwater sightseeing.
Duckweed floats on the surface, swirled about by a meandering current from the river that enters at one corner of the shore and exits another. Reeds and lily pads and thick tangles of water flora rise and fall everywhere around the edge, a paradise of swamp and shadow and feeding-field for insects and amphibians, fish and reptiles.
The floor of the lake swallows your feet and sucks at your ankles if you venture to walk on it. My youngest daughter met her first leech this week after a wade next to Grandpa’s pier. I’m impressed she pulled it off herself. Made of stern stuff, that girl is.
Unlike the Great Barrier Reef’s yards of crystal blue transparency, my parents’ lake offers swimmers just a few inches of brownish fog. A turtle and I came centimeters from bumping noses before either of us saw the other. I think he might’ve soiled himself in his haste to flee, but it’s hard to say, given the general ambiance of the depths.
In the unclouded ocean off Australia’s coast you’ll see man-sized turtles and clamshells; sharks plenty big enough to make a snack of you if they decide you look worth chewing through metal air tanks and neoprene; warm rills of golden sand sprinkled with sea cucumbers; coral forests of hues that make watercolorists salivate; and fish as varied and decorated as a tropical garden sprung magically to life.
The lake holds forests of pondweed and algae, tasty bluegill and perch, frogs and snakes, and an occasional beaver or mink. But you’re unlikely to see much of the flora and fauna on a swim. Your best bet is to sit quietly in a shallow spot, on the dock or in a boat, and wait for something interesting to wander by.
One recent morning I drank my coffee on the pier under a pink and orange sunrise. A turtle, about the size of my hand, surfaced for breath a few feet away.
I felt a bit sorry for the little guy.
If he could swim once in the sparkling, diaphanous seas of a sunny ocean reef, he’d never again be satisfied with murky waters, I thought. Paddling around in a lake can’t hold a candle to exploring the ocean.
I’d like to tell that turtle, “There’s a place, a wide-open expanse, with colors you’ve never seen and creatures you can’t imagine. It’s bright and warm there, and you can see for miles. It’s beautiful, little turtle. You’d love it.”
I suspect my shelled friend would tell me there’s no such thing. He’s seen the world, and this is it. That I’ve fallen for a dream, or a lie. And even if this thing called “ocean” actually exists, lake dwellers can’t live in salt water anyway, so what’s the use knowing about it?
Maybe he has a point. If you’ve never seen the one, the other is all you know, and all you have, and all you live for.
Earth and heaven.
Shadow and light.
The pretty-nice and the perfect.
When you don’t know any different, how could you know the difference? And why should you even want to?
But for those of us who know, who’ve seen the real thing, these shadows, these minor chords and pale reflections serve to remind us: there is more. Earth is just a hazy apparition; heaven is the real deal. That’s where we’re going, and that’s what whispers into our dreams and our hopes and our souls.
Then we can’t help but pity those who’ve never seen it, don’t suspect it, and aren’t interested.
Because we’ve glimpsed it, and it’s breathtaking.