Ghosts

My friend Dave has a cabin on the edge of the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. From Duluth you take Highway 61 — yes, that Highway 61 — north to Grand Marias, a tiny village on the edge of north shore of Lake Superior, and then the Gunflint Trail north and west to Seagull Lake, where the cabin sits overlooking one of the more beautiful spots in all the world.

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My view for the last five days.

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The two of us went up there together last fall. We read and wrote and drank beer and woke at dawn and climbed Blueberry Hill in the mist and cloud.

I had been up there before. Years earlier. The fall I moved in with my now ex-wife. It was a boys trip. Four of us. And it was September but still summer. We canoed and fished and swam. All skinny youth on the edge of a cliff. It was different this last time. Not just because of the weather, and age, and time, but the entire landscape had changed. 10 years earlier the Gunflint Trail burned to the ground. It was May and the timber was dry and the winds picked up and a camper was careless and what would later be called the Ham Lake fire ravaged 7,500 acres of old growth forest. 11 years later the landscape was slowly coming back to life, but the trees were all short pines and some birch. All the big cedar and oaks were long, long gone. Dust and ash in the wind.

There was only one death caused by the fire. Two years after it was put out, the careless camper committed suicide.

My friend’s cabin survived. Somehow. They had a sprinkler system installed that pumped water from the lake and doused the cabin and surrounding land in a constant deluge of water. And it saved the cabin. Despite the fact that most of their neighbors were left with nothing but holes in the ground.

One of those neighbors sold their land to my friend’s family. The cabin had been in the previous owner’s family for almost three generations. But there was nothing left to it. Just a hole, and a concrete slab, and charred land and trees and blackened rock.

On our last day north, we walked over to that new property. We looked at the trees and growth that would need clearing. We walked the rocky shore, slipping on rocks from the basement of time. And then we climbed up to where the cabin had stood. We shuffled down into the hole, walked on the concrete slab, saw the broken glass on the ground where the windows had shattered in the intense and horrible heat of that intense and horrible fire.

“Lots of ghosts,” I said.

“Yeah,” my friend Dave said.

And there were. You could feel them in the air. Whole generations. Maybe not people but ideas and thoughts and love and sadness. It was thick as flies. You felt like you could reach out and shoo them away from your face. They crawled all over your skin. It was hard to breathe. There was this silent intense melancholy to the entire scene. The hole in the ground felt like a burial site, an ancient one, one that had seen thousands of bones and tears. It weighed heavy on your shoulders as you walked the land. The lake still, the trees still, everything still. Except for the ghosts.

There are ghosts everywhere. Not like from the movies or from Unsolved Mysteries or cartoons. Our ghosts are memories, and sometimes they take a physical form, not one that you can see, but one that you can sense, in the air around you. If you listen, if you pay attention, there are always ghosts. It might be easier on the scene of a burned out husk of once loved cabin, but they are still everywhere.

Cricket is an old game. And today as I was reading the scores of the matches playing out all over the world, that thought didn’t leave me. Cricket is old. And everything old has ghosts. There are ghosts in the grounds, in the changing rooms. I can sense them whenever I watch a match, I realized today. And I can only assume that the players see them too, whenever they walk out onto those ancient grounds that have seen so much joy, so much sadness, so much frustration.

I remember going to Fenway Park for the first time. And during the national anthem I thought about all of the countless people who had passed through that old, old ground. And I felt the ghosts of all those people pass through and around me. And I felt the weight of history. And in that weight I felt grounded, whole, a part of something bigger. And there was joy there, but also an almost unbearable sadness, a sadness for the simple passage of time.

And cricket is older than baseball. And it has seen more, been a part of more. Been a colonizer and a weapon of peace. Had its stadiums bombed in wars, lost whole generations of players to those same wars. And with all that hope and tragedy come ghosts, that we can see even on television, thousands of miles away. It’s something I never thought of before. I had thought about cricket’s age, and its role as a witness to history, and how it was something we can all mark time by. But it is an active participant too. Not just the players we see in front of us now, but all that came before them. And not just the players but all of us, in the terraces, on the other side of radios, TVs, computers. We are all wrapped up in it. Cricket’s ghosts are all around us. And maybe that’s what attracts certain people to this game. Those spirits of a long passed age, hanging on, imbuing every ball with meaning, with sadness, with time, with joy.

Cricket is an old game. And with that age comes ghosts. And with those ghosts comes weight, and a sense of belonging to something great. I am not sure what that something is. Whether it is time or history or God or the universe. But when allow ourselves to feel cricket’s ghosts, that is when the game becomes more than a game, and then we have no choice but to keep coming back, to keep that wonderful sense of doleful joy alive in everything we see.

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