Gary Lawless (Artist-in-Residence, 1997)

A female moose (without antlers) stands on a gravel road several yards away and looks at the camera
A moose near Windigo

NPS/Jim Peaco

Isle Royale Reflection

"As a writer, I have wanted to explore those places Thoreau called “mossy and moosey”—not only in my native state of Maine but also across North America. I have spent time in Newfoundland, Labrador, Alberta, and Alaska. I have wanted to be where the large mammals were—moose, bear, wolf, caribou. From my reading about wolves, and about moose, I had thought of Isle Royale as a kind of fantasy land, an island surrounded by a great expanse of water, somewhere to the west—a place to dream about, but not a place to actually be. A trip out to Isle Royale had never seemed a possibility until I learned of the Park’s Artist-in-Residence Program.

Once on Isle Royale, I wanted to know everything. What the relationship is between moose and wolf and how has this altered the island; what plants were here before the moose and which are endangered; what birds are here, what mushrooms, what butterflies (the pamphlet listing the names of butterflies on Isle Royale is a poem in itself). All of these questions and more brought me to the geology of the island, and the idea of the island rock as a host to other molten rock, to greenstone, to glaciers, copper, caribou, loons, wolves and moose, devil's club, lily, migrating birds, Native Americans, fishermen, tourists. I had to learn about the rock. I had to learn about the plants and animals, about wind, fog, and rain.

I spent most of my days walking or paddling. Only heavy rain or darkness kept me inside the Dassler Cabin, but those times gave me a chance to read the field guides and related texts. I went to the ranger talks and on guided boat trips. Each day I had to decide what I wanted to see, what I wanted to explore. Did I want to visit the moose, or look for greenstones, or hang out with the ducks, or look for that newly opened wildflower, or just walk the ridgeline?

As I moved around the island, I tried to bring the island into my head, into my heart. I breathed the air, drank the water, ate the fish and berries, and the island literally became a part of me. I kept the information gained from looking, hearing, smelling, touching, from my contacts with the island, within me—and this information, these images, emotions, sensations, are worked over inside me and come back to the surface as poems. I believe that in this way I will forever carry the island within, as a part of myself, and that my poems are a way of sharing that connection, that conversation, with others."

- Gary Lawless*

A close up of a flower with four long purple petals on top and a rounded white petal on bottom with some yellow
Calypso orchid

NPS/Paul Brown

"Isle Royale" by Gary Lawless

A place where the wolves are wanted,
where human beings bring our awkward blessings
to moose bone, wolf scat, loon song,
where we allow ourselves to blossom
among marsh marigold, rock harlequin,
Calypso orchid, Labrador tea.
Where we peel back layers of fog, moss, rock itself –
Inside there is sunlight
Inside there is wolf song
the light step of the moose,
berries waiting to ripen
where the light never touches –
all this light
at the heart of things.

(reprinted from Caribou Planet, Blackberry Books, 2015, with permission)


About the Artist*

Gary Lawless was an Isle Royale Artist-in-Residence from June 10th to June 25th, 1997. He says “I have always lived in Maine, where, as a child, I felt a great love for the outdoor world—the woods, the rivers, the ocean.” In high school he started reading poetry about the natural world and trying to write poetry. In college he focused on East Asian Studies, especially Chinese and Japanese poets. Instead of going to graduate school, he went to live at the California home of poet Gary Snyder and worked as his poet’s apprentice.

Homesick for Maine, he returned and has lived there ever since. He co-owns a bookstore with his wife, runs his own book publishing company (Blackberry Books), writes poetry, and teaches creative writing and environmental literature (currently at Bates College). “I have always felt that poetry is a useful way to bring voice back into the community, so I have led long-term writing programs with Maine’s homeless and disabled communities.” He has also worked with refugee families and prisoners and taught in an adult education program for six years.

*[Source for all Gary's page content: Root, Robert and Jill Burkland, editors. (2000). The Island Within Us. Houghton, MI: Isle Royale Natural History Association. p 102. Print.]

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Last updated: December 23, 2019

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