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December 18, 2016

In Memory of Murray—Named for the Sea

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Six months prior to the day he passed,
Murray quoted a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden
that he felt described his most recent life path.

I adapt it here in commemoration of Murray’s mystical, Celtic spirit—
now Transcendent
Surely soaring serenely into the nether reaches of Time, Space & Place.

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I went to the Sea

Because I wished to live Deliberately—
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To front only
The Essential Facts of Life,
And See if I could not learn
What it had to teach——

And Not,
When I came to Die—
Discover that I had not Lived.
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In heartfelt commemoration of Murray’s passion for his Woods, his Homeplace, and the Sea,
I offer the following adaptation of a W.B. Yeats poem in his memory:

Who will go with Murray now——
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And Pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,

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And walk along the sandy shore?

Murray rules the shadow of the wood,
The white breast of the dim sea——
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And all the wandering waves.
(Adapted from W.B. Yeats, Who Goes with Fergus?)

While we will sorely miss you,
Murray——Mur, Muir, Murgster——
We take solace in knowing——
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(Image by Isobel Fitzpatrick)

Your spirit soars above and around us——
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Within the Sea & the Place you so loved. . .

Fare thee well, our Dear Friend.
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May our paths cross again. . . upon the Sea.


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December 13, 2014

Vinland-by-the-Sea

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Did The Viking Trail end here—along the sandy shores
of Prince Edward Island?

Icelandic saga scholars seem to think so. Just read any of the impressive & impeccably researched tomes by Dr. Gísli Sigurdsson of Reykjavík, Iceland.
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Islanders believe so as well—judging by the popularity of the new Vínland Society recently formed—not in Newfoundland, where evidence of a Viking presence has been uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows—but in the self-proclaimed heart of Vínland:
Prince Edward Island.

The result? Islanders are busy turning over stones in their back yards and coastlines for evidence of a Viking landing on their shores.

Inspired by my scrutiny of some ancient stones with curious inscriptions, recently uncovered behind the wall of a centuries-old cemetery, I have embarked on my own literary journey—a tale of The Viking Trail.

This past week, I gave a talk to the Vínland Society as well as a reading from my latest novel project, The Vínland Way. (For those of you not fluent in the language of the Vikings, ‘way’ meant road or trail in Old Norse.) I hope the excerpts from the opening pages spark your own interest in uncovering The Viking Trail to Vínland.

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Angus ‘Maccan’ MacDonald stood in the pre-dawn light, alternatively glancing from the construction site to the dark sea beyond, as he tossed his phone nervously from one hand to another. “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” he mumbled.

With a shake of his head, he took a deep breath, and started clicking. “Here goes nothing—or everything.”

Iona MacFarland woke to the insistent ring of her mobile, before it stopped, only to resume again. She stretched out a reluctant hand from under the down quilt.

Maccan’s voice sounded unusually stern, if not outright distraught. “Iona? Look, I know it’s early, but we’ve uncovered something odd, really odd. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but—”

“Umm,” Iona mumbled, her head buried in pillows. She had been immersed in her Viking dream again. In recent days, its equivocal images—like a slideshow flashing recurring scenes in her mind—seemed to occupy her sleeping consciousness with ever-increasing frequency. She shook her head as if to fling the inexplicable images from her thoughts.

Maccan’s tone shifted to an unusually sharp key. “Iona, wake up. This is important.”

Poking her head out from under her covers, she peered through her window to the still deep blue marsh and violet sea beyond. “For God’s sake, Maccan, are you digging in the dark?”
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“Listen, Iona, this is your only chance to see this. I’m sure to get axed for bringing you in on this project, but I’ve not seen anything like them here on the island,” he reported, his voice breathless. “You’ll need to come over right away—if you want to protect them, that is,” he urged.

“What is it you’ve found?” she asked as she leaned on one elbow, her innate sense of curiosity winning out over her sleepiness.

“Something historical, but what exactly, I’m not sure.”

“How historical?” She wasn’t inspired enough to move from her warm bed.

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She glanced outside. The sun was just announcing its imminent arrival by broadcasting swirling streaks of vivid color over the edge of a still darkened sea.

“Some of the boys think it’s Acadian, others maybe Mi’kmaq. Me? I’d say older. Much older.”

Whether the hint of an imminent dawn or the allusion to an obscure antiquity stirred her, Iona instantly shifted from slumbering to professional mode.

“How old?” she asked in a now clearly interested voice.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say eight hundred to a thousand years old or so, depending on what I’m looking at.”

Iona bolted upright in bed, now fully alert. “What? What is it you’re looking at?”

“It’s a rock. Well, actually two.”

She leaned forward in anticipation. “Describe them to me then.”

“We dug them out together from the wall at the edge of the cemetery. The small one is almost perfectly round with a hole dug out of the middle, almost like a petrified doughnut.”

“Interesting thing about the stones,” Maccan continued, “is that one is unlike any other rock I’ve seen here on the island.”

“What kind is it?” she asked.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say, though it’s covered in dirt, some kind of special soapstone,” he surmised, “which, you might know, we have none anywhere within hundreds of miles of the island.”

Really?” She was up now.

“I don’t even think the rock is from anywhere in the Maritimes. Never saw that kind in Newfoundland. Or Labrador, for that matter. Something different about it.”

“And what about the other stone?”

Maccan’s voice was barely above a whisper. “That’s where it gets really interesting.”

“Why?” she asked as she filled her kettle with water and placed it on the wood cookstove.

“You don’t have time to make tea,” Maccan said crossly. “Get here right away, Iona, before the others arrive. Have a look at the sticklike markings on the other one.”

“What kind of markings? You mean like the engravings on the tombstones in the cemetery there? They are centuries old, you know.”

“No, these are really different, sticklike as I said, with long lines connecting them, and if I didn’t know any better, would say Celtic or maybe Nordic, as in Viking runes.”

“What?” Iona nearly screamed into the phone. “Are you serious?”

Racing back into her bedroom, she barked out orders as she tugged up her jeans and tied her strands of wavy red hair into a knot. “I’ll be right there. Cover them up and don’t move anything around them.”

_________

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An old colonial cemetery sat to the left of the long entranceway Maccan was constructing to its right from the road through the field to the dunes beyond. The place was in complete upheaval with excavators and other heavy machinery digging here and there, interspersed with piles of rubble and dirt heaped in small hills all about.

Iona rushed over to Maccan. “Where are they?” she demanded.

“Yeah, g’day to you as well,” he said before taking her by the arm to lead her briskly along the way. “Here they are,” he announced as they came to a covered mound.

As she approached it, Maccan said in a sheepish tone, unusual for him, “Some of the big stone got crushed by the excavator.”

“What?” She arched her eyebrow before turning back to the mysterious mound.

He threw up his hands. “Well, we weren’t expecting to unearth something of major archeological significance. We were just opening the wall for the entrance to the new resort.”

Iona rolled her eyes. “If it weren’t bad enough to situate a megaplex resort and casino for the wealthy among sand dunes that should be preserved, don’t you think it’s a bit ominous to have a historical cemetery flanking its entrance?”

Maccan flushed as he shook his head. “We’ve been through this before, Iona,” he muttered, “I can’t stop the government from building here.” He gazed at her with a shrug. “And neither can you, apparently, despite your attempts. I can only ensure that it is built according to code and you, that it limits its imprint on the environment and doesn’t destroy any heritage structures.”

Iona gave him a smirk. “You mean like the stone wall?” She turned away. “Well, if these stones of yours are as historical as you implied, there won’t be any building here, government sanctioned or not.”

Bending down on her knees, Iona stared at the figures seemingly etched in the stone. “It’s all geometric, no rounded characters. And it seems to have the line orientation of runes,” she announced, her tone breathless.
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She shook her head. “But it could be Celtic, as in Ogham script.” She glanced up at him. “Although I did have a few courses in Norse archeology in Edinburgh, we only covered a bit of runic inscriptions, the kind found in the Hebrides, not enough for me to say anything definitively.”

She turned back to the stone. “And it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the gravestones from what I remember of them with their rounded scrolled designs.” Iona just stared down at it, shaking her head gently.

Maccan nodded. “Neither does the smaller stone, which I’d say is a creamy soapstone of sorts, different from anything I’ve encountered.”

“I haven’t even seen that one yet.” Iona looked up at him with dancing eyes. “Let’s have a look.”

He directed her around to the other side of the first stone. “It’s under here,” he announced as he lifted off the tarp.

Iona bent down to examine the small rounded stone. “It has markings on it as well, like the ones on the bigger stone,” she said with clear excitement in her voice.
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“It looks so familiar to me, yet I can’t quite place it.” She continued to stare at it before shifting her widened eyes to Maccan. “You said you found these together?”

He nodded. “That one seemed to roll off the large one.”

Iona turned away, her glance resting on the stone wall behind them. “And that wall,” she said in a pensive tone, “reminds me of something I saw recently in an article.”
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She shook her head with a thoughtful toss. “Maybe Gaelic, something from the Hebridean ruins,” she murmured before lapsing into silence for some minutes.

“Well, decide what you’re looking at before the big boys arrive on the scene,” Maccan said with annoyance.

“Or, maybe,” she said, her tone rising, “I’m thinking about an image from the supposed runestone found in Nova Scotia, down there near Mahone Bay—right on the beach of all places.”

Maccan whistled softly. “Oh boy, the government boys aren’t going to like the sounds of that, I can tell you.” He tossed his head as he bent towards her, “From what I hear,” he said in a whisper, “The Macou investors will withdraw their support if this place isn’t built right here—and right away. Any minute now, they’ll be coming. I’ll leave you to it.”

“Thanks, Maccan,” she said but he had already walked away.

She gently touched the edge of the stone, feeling its cool softness, taking care to avoid the inscription. Iona sat down next to it, her hand remaining where she had placed it. Gazing around, she studied each aspect of the scene—the stone wall, the field beyond, and the sand dunes and beach beyond that still, with the iridescent blue of the sea in the morning light framing the setting.

As she sat staring at the scene, her eyes started to glaze over, as images from her dream floated through her mind. She closed her eyes. A wooden boat with long winding stern among the waves, a grass-covered hut with smoke curling from its roof, a woman bending over her weaving, some men chopping wood.

A voice called out. “Iona?”

Looking up, she saw Maccan almost running towards her. “Hurry, cover the up the stones and leave. The Minister is here. Best to avoid a confrontation until you are sure what you are looking at.”

Grabbing her bag, Iona jogged down the field to the sand dunes and out onto the beach. Gazing around,she could easily see why the government and the Chinese wanted to build here. It was a magnificent stretch of beach.

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Iona stood taking in the pristine scene before her. A gently sweeping beach extended for several kilometers in each direction, banked by hills of sand dunes, covered in sea grass. A cascading series of waves rippled to shore along the curved stretch of sand, while a small rivulet streamed from its inland source out to the sea. A gentle breeze brushed the sea grass, causing it to sway—its long outstretched stalks of grains bending gracefully with each soft gust.

As Iona continued to gaze around at the primal setting about her, she wondered if might have looked exactly the same way to the carver of those stones as it did for her now. As she focused on the mesmerizing waves, thinking about the stones and their significance, she became cognizant of the images from her recurring dream flashing through her. She looked around with a fresh perspective. Could it be possible the Norse came ashore to Prince Edward Island?
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The question pounded through her. And suddenly with a flash, Iona realized that she had seen that smaller rounded stone before. At L’Anse aux Meadows. She closed her eyes to retrieve the mental image.

She bolted upright, staring wildly out to sea.

“Oh, my God,” she exclaimed to the waves. She was sure of it now.

It was a spinning whorl. A woman’s tool.
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A Viking woman’s tool.

She shook her head over the enormity of it all. And here on Prince Edward Island of all places, long buried in a wall for over a millennium.

Iona ran as fast as she could down the length of the beach back to the site to report the discovery—and halt the project.
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Copyright 2014. All Rights Reserved


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October 26, 2014

Romance-by-the-Sea

Romance-by-the-Sea

Come Away—
to the waters and the wild . . . (W.B. Yeats)
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For the sea-seekers among us, nothing quite satiates the soul like crashing waves, rocky cliffs, sand-duned strands, cascading coasts. Sea settings—those places where wild nature embraces raw emotion, where past and present fade into the distant horizon, itself the edge where the finite joins the infinite.
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Who can tell the dancer from the dance? (W.B. Yeats)

The ancient Celts called the edge of the sea a thin place—the site where waves cascade to shore in soul-stirring rhythm, where the sea shifts from hues of green, then blue to glistening white—that transcendent place where the moment and eternity, the literal and the mystical, meld. From here to beyond—

Add a rustic cottage, a castle, or an ancient ruin that invites, intrigues, inspires us to be—part of the setting and the story—where we can live and love in ways that transcend our own experiences and expectations.
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The Winter Sea, A Cottage by the Sea, The Wild Irish Sea, Latitudes of Melt —even The Sea Around Us. Whether fictive or not, the passion for seascapes draws us instinctively seaward, all the while progressively deeper and deeper into our own subterranean depths. For author Susana Kearsley, (Sourcebooks, 2009), the castle ruins along the rugged, wild, remote northern Scottish coast beckon her heroine through time to the place of her ancestors—to relive the transformational experience of love and transcendence along The Winter Sea. The very title places the reader in a timeless primeval setting, the realm of the magical, the mystical—the possible. I dwell in Possibility—the words of Emily Dickinson speak to the heart & theme of this romance of the sea.
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For it is, (to borrow from Finnegan’s Wake), “at last, alone, along” the sea where we discover the possibility of transformation. We find our sensibilities shifting from feeling “at sea” to feeling part of the seascape—a new way of being.

The sense of oneness with the sea is described in transcendental language by a wise old woman in my novel, Your Own Ones, set along the ancient coast of Celtic Ireland:

“I am who I am by being Here among me’ own ones. Take me away from my place by the sea, and I am nothing more than a poor, old woman—a sean bhan bocht. But Here on me’ own bit of turf? I am the indomitable mountains above, the fertile fields around, and the endless waves below.”

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For it is here, among the winter seas and latitudes of melt, that we see most clearly, feel most deeply, live most deliberately—and for the romantics among us—dwell in the possibility of finding our “Own Ones”:

“You must look deeply inside, then out to the mountains and water around you to find your other half.
‘Tis only the lucky few who combine such traits with another person—someone part of the land and sea as much as we.”

The sea as the primal life force, as inspiration, as the thin place from which to step into a new world frames the story of Your Own Ones, just as the sea shapes the lives of those who live along her shores. As the heroine’s father remarks,

“Once born in sight of the sea, ye can never shake off the soulful pining to be immersed in the seascape.”

As every romancer (writer or reader) of the sea knows, it is here by the sea that we step into another world, another time, another way. There, we discover our second sight, our place in the universe—and perhaps our soul mate:

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Turning around to take in the entire scene about her, Áine strode over to that part of the strand where the Bradán River folds into the sea. Leaning over to reach in for a small handful of ashes, she stood up, gazed around and chanted lines from Yeats, only fully understanding their meaning in that moment of clarity:

I am of Ireland
And time runs on, cried she.
Come dance with me
In Ireland.

Áine ran along the river’s edge, casting bits of ashes into the flowing waters. She ran and ran and ran until her run had changed to a dance. Dancing along with the waves of the sea, she continued to cast the ashes until there were no more into the now crashing waves.

“I am you, and you are me, and I am of Ireland,”

she cried aloud to the gulls ahead and to the shouting waves about her.

“I am of Ireland, of Ireland.”

Looking about her, she spied a stick, and taking it into her hands, retreated from the ocean’s edge to far inland on the sandy strand where the waves wouldn’t reach. With stick in hand, she wrote in looming letters the word, Maeve, and slowly turning around as she gazed all about, she softly spoke,

“I am of Ireland—
and you are of Ireland—
may you—
and I—
and all of our own ones—
dance here forever—
in Ireland.” (from Your Own Ones)

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Your Own Ones, set in Prince Edward Island & in Ireland, coming out this fall with Green Writers Press.


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October 9, 2014

Beyond Place: Vinland & Walden

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Why is it that certain places along the ‘infinitely wild’, remote, rocky coastlines of Maritime Canada have come to resonate as Waldens-by-the-Sea, inspiring a wide array of deep sea ‘reveries’ among composers, writers, artists, photographers, and other seekers of ‘the farthest reaches of the land’?

It’s a long, well-kept, time-honoured secret. Just ask the Vikings.

Today, 9 October, is celebrated in North America as Leifr Eiríksson Day, or as Viking scholar Nancy Marie Brown persuasively argues, Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day.* In commemoration of the Viking exploration of and (temporary) residence in the now legendary Vinland, we might consider how the allure—then and now—of certain coastal locations throughout Atlantic Canada both reflect & transcend Place.

While the concept of Walden as an unspoiled, natural retreat obviously did not yet exist during the Viking era either as a literal place or metaphor, they simply coined their own term, Vinland. Most likely named for the wild grapes they found growing abundantly there, Vinland, like Walden, has transcended its denotative reference to a specific place (or places), evolving into a metaphor for a wild, naturally abundant ‘world elsewhere’, a now legendary Walden-by-the-Sea.

Recorded in the thirteenth-century, the Vinland Sagas (a combination of the independently written Greenlanders’ Saga & Eirík the Red’s Saga) relate the experiences of discovery, exploration and settlement along specific coastal regions in North America. Plunging ‘like fate into the lone Atlantic’, Leif Eiríksson and crew, later followed by Gudriður the Far-Traveler and her families, sailed, landed and explored various coastal places throughout Atlantic Canada (and maybe farther south), experiences forever memorialized in the sagas.

For Gudriður and her two sets of families who accompanied her, Vinland appeared to serve as a Viking-age Walden—a pristine natural place where they could live off the land and maintain a self-sustaining farm. In fact, as Nancy Marie Brown relates in The Far Traveler, a fascinating account of Gudrid’s life and travels to North America, this fearless, exemplary Viking woman actually conceived and gave birth to the first Nordic child (that history records) in this region. Gudrid’s agronomic example is a testimony to a fundamentally different approach to exploration—as well as exemplifies the Waldenesque spirit of living simply and lightly upon the land.

Recent research by Gísli Sigurðsson* suggests that the island province of Prince Edward Island might well have been one of the places experienced by Viking explorers in search of a sustainable environment in which to settle and farm. Of all the places in North America visited by the Vikings, this island (perhaps) became immortalized in the sagas as a bountiful natural paradise offering a dazzling array of food and natural resources. In fact, Prince Edward Island may indeed be Leif Eiríksson’s Vinland.

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Had Henry David Thoreau walked as far as the eastern coast of Prince Edward Island, he would have called this primeval place Walden-by-the-Sea.

I discovered my own Vinland a few short miles along the coast from one of the reputed sites of the Viking landing. There, like the Vikings a millennium before me, I went in search of a primeval setting along the sea, wild and untamable. What I found was a veritable Walden-by-the-Sea—a modern day Vinland, (which has inspired me to combine the two metaphors into a new novel I’m writing, co-incidentally enough called Vinland).

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While the actual place referred to as Vinland remains a source of debate among Saga scholars, the metaphor of Vinland continues after one thousand years to signify a Walden-by-the-Sea—an ‘infinitely wild’ place ‘rife with life’. Vinland appeals to our need ‘to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander’.

In the spirit of Gudriður’s approach to living sustainably and harmoniously with the natural world, let us hope that the various Waldens-by-the-Sea throughout Atlantic Canada remain pristine, natural places respected by their human inhabitants. Though some of us actively seek Thoreau’s and perhaps the Vikings’ ‘tonic of wildness’ by retreating to our own special places, let us never forget that ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world’.

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*For the larger story of Vinland exploration and settlement, see Nancy Marie Brown’s website, www.nancymariebrown.com (where her various books are listed and available for purchase), as well as her most recent blog post on Gudrid the Far-Traveler’s Day www.nancymariebrown.blogspot.com.
For rich analyses of the Vinland sagas and likely locations for Vinland, see Gísli Sigurðsson,Ed. The Vinland Sagas (London: Penguin, 2008); Sigurðsson, The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004) & Sigurðsson, “The Quest for Vinland in Saga Scholarship,” in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga (Washington: Smithsonian, 2000).

Various literary references, denoted with single quotation marks and italics are taken from Moby-Dick and Walden.


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September 7, 2014

Tonic of Wildness

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Welcome to Walden-by-the-Sea—

     A Place, a Feeling, An Experience.

     A Philosophy, World-view, Stance.

     A way of Being in the Moment—

     Deliberateness.

A Joycean epiphany of re-birth—

     Alone, at last, along the

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     Edge of the North Atlantic.

     Past swerve of shore and bend of bay

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A world that exists, thrives, even—despite us.

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An infinitely wild place—

     Mysterious & unexplorable

     Unsurveyed & unfathomed

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Unfathomable.

Walden-by-the-Sea, Tonic of Wildness.


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In Memory of Murray—Named for the Sea
Vinland-by-the-Sea
Romance-by-the-Sea
Beyond Place: Vinland & Walden
Tonic of Wildness