Book Review: Life Afloat by Don Miller–Lessons learned cruising down northern Illinois rivers
Review by Susan Johnson
In Life Afloat (Stories from the “Notes From the Dells” Newsletter, 1989-2009), Don Miller’s short, lively chapters are vignettes of a life that is never dull. The “launching point” for the book is Miller’s recollections of canoe trips along the Rock, Kishwaukee and Sugar rivers. He gives credit to his parents for starting him on a lifelong interest. He has learned to appreciate the many faces of nature like a jeweler examining the facets of a fine diamond. Fortunate to grow up in a small-town Midwest neighborhood that was close to a wooded area, he never lost “the sense of wonder” that some children do not have a chance to develop today. He’s convinced that the Illinois educational system is deficient because the curriculum doesn’t include skills such as skipping stones across a pond—something he tries to remedy on children’s nature hikes.
You hear about his foibles and misadventures on canoe trips, as well as his dismay at the encroachment of civilization’s high-tech lights into the dark night sky. And anyone who has ever loved and lost a dog—even a cat lover like me—can relate to his grief at having to say a final farewell to a beloved canine friend.
If you have, as Don seems to have, a weird sense of humor, you’ll love his chapter titled “Ticked Off.” I laughed most of the way through it. However, readers who are a bit squeamish about the little creepy-crawlies might be better to do as he suggests and skip that chapter.
Just as there are many types of fishing lures, this book has many “hooks” to grab the reader’s interest. Sports fans will smile at Don Miller’s simile of how nature experiences are like a Cubs baseball game. It’s a very pleasing blend of silly spoofs and serious reflections, old friends and special times remembered. Occasionally, he becomes philosophical. As he says: “There is an inner eye that interconnects us with the greater things that are going on. We all enter into nature through different doors, some birding, others hiking, some canoeing. … We need to open our ‘lenses’ to see all that is there.”
Before I was given this book to read, I was finishing reading an older one that preceded it by a few decades, Seeker at Cassandra Marsh by Olive M. Anderson, published in 1978. This older lady, a nature lover herself, and her retired husband, leased a lakeside cabin in the Minnesota northwoods for more than 20 years. She understood exactly what Miller was talking about, many years before, and she, too, realized that we were in danger of losing something precious. She did some canoeing herself, also boating with her husband, as well as nature hikes with another lady friend, and described some of the hidden treasures she encountered in her hiking and boating jaunts around Sunset Lake. Though decades apart, she would have been a true kindred spirit of Miller, as she described the flora and fauna she saw, noted the inevitable changes that occurred around her precious sanctuary from modern civilization, and included her thoughts and prayers to the Creator.
Her book is out of print by now, but you can pick up Life Afloat at Severson Dells Nature Center. All proceeds from the book will go directly into helping fund their programs.
From the Aug. 4-10, 2010 issue
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