Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Land and Being: by Luanne Armstrong

Land and Being:

Writing about love is hard. A love story tends to always veer into romance, or sentiment, or lyrical grandiloquence. And yet a love story is impossible to avoid. It wants to be told. It trumpets its own eloquence. How can I avoid it?
And yet, I have no idea if that is what I am writing. It's like walking in my own Zen Koan; I go around and around inside this story. What do I love here about this place, and why? How many ways do I see this place? And how many eyes here, also see me? What do they see? How do we see each other? Is this even a relationship? Is it all a one way emotion, and me, the odd human stalker, wandering around wanting to be loved?
I ask myself at odd and various moments, what am I doing here? While I bend over the garden, plantng. In the spring, breathing on tulips. Or listening to a lone frog, both of us awake on a March night; or in August, listening to the Northern harrier crying over the burned-to-golden summer field as I sit peeling peaches in the hot slanting sun. Watching my foolish farmer self, at harvest, harried by nature, wild turkeys in the grapes, deer eating the apple trees, voles eating the garden, small lost bear in the pears. Around and around we go, a palimpsest of footprints telling an infinite number of stories, over my lifetime, over so many lifetimes.
If I put my ear to the ground, if I lie down, can I hear the past banging its way under the grass roots, the tree roots? Can I hear the banging of all those other feet coming by? Can I hold eternity by the hand, like a child with almost no sense of myself, listening, at last, inside this place and so end in dreaming? If I wasn’t walking here, I would be walking somewhere, my head in the sky and my feet shuffling in grass, in leaves, in multitudes. And wondering how to grasp it. The intricate complexity of a field, a patch of moss, a flower opening. What do I really know?
Walking here, listening, every day I grow smaller and larger. Raven comes by on my solitary mornings in the winter, as I throw hay to the cows, which stand ankle deep in yellow mud and manure. At night, the dogs and the coyote yell challenges, or greeting or some other complexity. What do I know? This fall, I missed the swallows leaving and felt an acute sense of loss; I was interrupted by inattention, my being busy. No excuses. And the ospreys left as well, without saying goodbye. No, it was me that didn’t say goodbye, stomping around picking apples and preparing for my own winter. Another year going around; all year we chase each other, the seasons and I, round and round, I am lost inside and lost outside and occasionally, glad to be so lost.
The elements bind me together; fire inside my belly, fire in the sleepy animals, fire in the woodstove, lake always glinting in its cleft home between mountains, my feet banging, banging on the earth while I listen, In love with here, with land and being. And late at night, I curl under many covers, listening to snow hissing at the windows, wind banging the tree branches together, in an odd syncopation, in my bed house, my bed-balloon, my bed cocoon, tethered to the night sky, swinging and whirling in the wind,
Travelling all night; never lost.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December Journal by Luanne Armstrong

December Journal:

And I suppose, also, the end of this year’s journal, typed to a background of an utterly confused and confusing blare of noise from Copenhagen. Only two writers have made any sense of it so far for me, Michael M’Gonigle, writing in the Tyee, and George Monbiot writing in the Guardian. Other than that, the mainstream media is as silly about Copenhagen as it was about H1N1.
It was a good year for me, if not for the planet. My house is full of food from the abundant garden, the chimney is clean, the wood is dry, the house is warm, small things that make a world of difference. And despite the environmental degradation in the world, we see more animals and birds around here, not less. Wolves were here one afternoon, above us on the mountain, howling on their way through from somewhere to somewhere else. A cougar tracked through the pasture. Then the other day my brother came in with a hunk of grey hair. Something had broken the bottom two strands of barbed wire in the north fence and left a chunk of hair behind. We looked at it mystified; not deer, not moose, not anything we knew. The next morning, he came back, gleeful. “A grizzly,” he announced. Not everyone would be thrilled at the sign of such large predators around but we are glad at this sign of a functioning and intact ecosystem.

Partly it is because there are fewer hunters and fewer people here in the winter; driving along the lake road means driving by many huge and shuttered houses. Even the few people that still live year round tend to go away for large chunks of the winter. Even so, many of the house still sport large yard lights and outdoor lights. From my house, at night, in a landscape that was once pristinely dark, I can now see three sets of yard lights. I have no idea what purpose these lights achieve; they burn all night and every night, (one is on an empty house) when I look out, they irritate me like an itch I can’t scratch.
But mostly the farm is quiet; the pigs are gone. The empty pigpen is oddly sad. The garden is asleep under the snow. The greenhouse is shut down. A few birds eat dried Saskatoon berries and rose hips. Flickers occasionally come to drill my house-logs for dinner. An eagle goes by on its way to harass the coots but the ravens don’t chase it as they usually do.
Walking is an experience of black and white and grey stark beauty, grey water sloshing restlessly under the wind, black rocks, black trees, snow layered on every surface. It’s a great time to look for tracks, for the record of the busy restless life that still continues all around me.

And it’s the social time of the year for me as well, and conversely, also the quiet time; time to write, to think, to walk. When I arrived in Vancouver ten years ago, I arrived on the verge of Y2K, and a great chorus of confusion of what might happen. Nothing did, partly because a great many technical people spent a lot of time and money making sure it wouldn’t. But now that the world stands, again, facing a great historical turning point, there is, yet again, great confusion. Despite the many apocalyptic voices around, no one really believes that disaster will come – not yet. Just as people partied in Paris while German troops were marching towards them, and the radio went on announcing that all was well, so we drive and shop and live our lives. I do it as well. I loathe the pressure this time of year to shop but I like the part that is about friends, family, connection, community, making music and art together, catching up after a too busy summer and fall.
Christmas, solstice, the turning of the year, the time when there is still abundance left from harvest, when the freezer, the cupboards, the canning jars, the dried fruits, the boxes of huts and onions and garlic are still here. The hungry time of the year is still to come. No wonder Christmas is a festival of life and Easter is a festival of death. Traditionally, Easter would have come at a time when the cupboard was empty and the garden not grown.

But all is well at Kootenay Lake. I write and listen to the radio and read and study.

And I listen and wait. And while I do that, I plan the next garden.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Idiocy of... by K.Linda Kivi

“We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out.”
Raymond Williams

It is late April. As I make my way up the path to check on our hydro-electric system’s intake, I take in the leaves of the deciduous trees which are opening in a spring chorus of myriad shades of green. Light jumps everywhere: in the froth of the gushing creek, on the black backs of the happy ravens, through the forest’s new beginnings. All I want to be, is outside. Interesting how we “be outside” like being happy or sad, a state of existence rather than how we speak of finding ourselves in places, like “in the house” or “at the beach.”

All of my body wants all of this being: the warming sun, the cool breeze on skin, the fragrance of life, the chatter of squirrels and wrens, my spring song, the textures of last year’s dead greenery against black soil, the itchiness of hands wanting work. The last item, the work, is particularly compelling. Perhaps if I was an urbanite, I’d be itching to go for a cycle or put the canoe in the water, but outside is where a rural person works; and in spite of the repetition and cyclical nature of the work, it is what I most want. Our garden is already turned over, peas and greens planted, beds reinforced, compost distributed, new gate built and hung weeks before the official gardening season begins. My land partner Joe and I have been felling and bucking up dying birch since late March, unable to still our hands any longer. But we are not working regardless of fatigue and weather. We are working because of weather, necessity and glee. The harder times will come later - in the heat of the summer, in the scramble to be ready for winter - but for now we are contented and eager.

Some thinkers claim that modern life can free the human from the “idiocy of rural life”. The idiocy of … I run this phrase through my mind as I continue my way up the path, noting fallen trees that need to be cleared, and try to imagine what they could possibly mean. The OED defines idiocy as “utter foolishness”. How could it be considered foolish to have to go outside? To have to work hard, regardless of how one feels, regardless of the ferocity of the storm, the muck or the numbing cold might be drudgery perhaps, but foolishness?

Last week, I visited with Brenda of Elderbee Greens as she and her daughter pricked tiny seedlings from trays and transferred them into the larger pots they sell each year to legions of dedicated gardeners. There was no idiocy or foolishness or even drudgery there, in the balmy warmth of the greenhouse, the worktable covered with first leaves reaching toward the sunlight, innocent and irresistible as happy puppies. I joined the work, dipping my fingers into potting soil and we talked, conversing about my first novel, which she had recently read, the upcoming elections and the outrageousness of politicians who refuse to understand the perspectives and ways of rural people.

This time last year, I was cycling through the Estonian countryside, the houses streaming past like a scarf of stone, wood and thatch strewn among the tentative green. People were outdoors, raking and digging and puttering for as long as the light would let them. I stopped now and again to chat with someone across a fence, hedge or mossy stone wall, our conversation turning more often than not to European Union politics, the emptying of the countryside, about the impact of capitalism on agriculture and rural life. Only three kinds of people remain in much of the Estonian countryside year round: the elderly, the troubled (alcoholics and crazies), and the very stubborn and brave. Sometimes, the last are grouped in with the second. What grieves rural people is not the idiocy or drudgery of their lives close to the Earth, but rather decisions made by people in far away cities that do not consider their wants or needs.

And here in North America, where in a mere 50 years the balance of the population has shifted dramatically from rural to urban, how are we seen? Do the majority of Canadians, urban people, understand that being rural means working and that our work brings deep, necessary pleasure; the symphony of muscles stretched and filled, of joints and tendons moving, resisting, giving way, of the heart, lungs and other organs working toward a crescendo? Working the land imbues us with a rightful sense of place, of participating in the living world, of kinship with every other being who must find home ground, harvest food, create shelter, weather the elements, create and raise young, survive. Good work is hard. It asks something of us, whether it is feats of strength, acts of endurance, the union of mind and fingers, focus in spite of repetition and boredom, problem solving skills, calm in the face of calamity or finding harmony and rhythm with co-workers. Hard work demands both courage and humility. A life lived close to the land makes us humble.

As I arrive at the top of the last rise, I look down into the treed gully at the damn that feeds our water intake for both domestic and power use. The water is gushing at full force, up to eighty times its regular volume during the rest of the year, the unnaturally straight line of the waterfall beautiful none the less as it sluices over the entire eight foot width of the metal between two concrete abutments. This hydro-electric system reminds us on a regular basis that although we may have the ingenuity to design and build such a technological wonder, nature is still not under our command. Over the years, our power has gone down over sudden high flows and debris flows that have filled in the small black pool behind the damn to the brim. Months of excavating sand, mud, rocks and logs in chilling spring water is nothing if it is not an exercise in humility. And I like it. I like being reminded that I am but a small part of a much larger entity, a force that encompasses me like a parent, like a teacher, sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce.

I scramble down the steep, snow-pocked slope hanging onto the ropes we have tied to the trees for that very purpose. At this time of year, we check the intake daily in order to adjust the clean out gate/overflow so that the right amount of water – not too much, not too little – flows over the intake screen. Someone must be here in April and May to do this job. Either that or do without electricity for a while. In this way, the choice to live a life tied closely to land does sometimes preclude other choices. The chickens need to be fed, the harvest brought in, the goat milked, a day of work abandoned because, oh well, it’s raining and the intake visited and adjusted accordingly. In North America, we love to love choice. We have been taught that it is a value above all others. Choice implies we are free of necessity, that we have risen above the plain cut of survival. Choice makes us feel powerful. It makes us arrogant.

I pull up the clean out gate another notch and head back up the slope, leaning out as I seize the rope and clamber up like a rock climber. I am full of energy, a veritable spring of vigour, as I run back down the path for the sheer pleasure and challenge of hopping over roots and rocks. There is absolutely nowhere else I would rather be. As I slow down to climb a short snowy section, I wonder which modern thinkers will expound on the idiocy of urban, industrial life?

Agrarian thinkers like Wendell Berry spend much of their energy extolling the virtues of the rural lifestyles that are being abandoned, of the life that is being lost. They write about what they know about – the goodness, the beauty of a life lived close to the land. They respond to the Urbanist attack not by counter attack, but with passionate defense. Humble, they want only to preserve what they cherish, not to force it on everyone else. Yet it bears some consideration: if the problem with rural life is that we have no choice but to go outside, shouldn’t it be equally problematic that most urbanites have no choice but to stay inside? Who in urban settings rejoice at being indoors when the leaves unfurl and shoots push up through greening earth, when the sun is rocketing diamonds out of the new snow, when the heart yearns for the texture of tree or wind or rock? When urban people go outdoors, it is when their work is done. And work, to many of them, is a due they must pay so that they can go outside, when it’s over and rest and recreate. Thus, urban and rural people live their lives in reverse.

But the idiocy of urban life isn’t necessarily in the reversal of the inside/outside situation. It’s more in the disconnection of work from the meeting of basic needs. There is a rightness, a deep satisfaction, about pulling up a carrot that I can’t imagine a bureaucrat feeling as they fill out another form or put in a showing at a meeting. So many of the basic animal tasks of survival have been co-opted. The Belgian/African a cappella group Zap Mama wrote and recorded a song about one of the women’s grandfather who came to visit her from Africa. During the song, we share in his discovery that the modern world has stolen all the tasks of his body. Some machine has cut the bread, leaving his hands bereft. He encounters an escalator, which has stolen the work of his legs. “Escalator, machine encore!” he cries out. The pinnacle of this robbery occurs when he discovers that television wants to do the work of his dreams and imagination. His entire body of work has been robbed, rendering limbs, brain, even him, meaningless.

Increasingly, urban people give bodily meaning to being outside through modern activities called exercise and sport. Like work, exercise can bring deep, necessary pleasure; the symphony of muscles stretched and filled, of joints and tendons moving, resisting, giving way, of the heart, lungs and other organs working toward a crescendo. Outdoor exercise can imbue a person with a rightful sense of place, of participating in the living world, of kinship with other beings. Good exercise is hard. It asks something of us, whether it is feats of strength, acts of endurance, the union of mind and fingers, focus in spite of repetition and boredom, calm in the face of calamity or finding harmony and rhythm with one’s companions. Some outdoor sports demand both courage and humility. But, if you don’t feel like going, or the weather is kacky, you don’t have to go. Also, unless you are a professional athlete or a recreational professional (eg. ski guide), when the work of exercise or sport is over, you still have to do the work of feeding yourself, of providing shelter, power and transportation, of fulfilling your need to be productive and contributing to society.

For urban people, outside is a dreamland, especially at this time of year, the yearned for territory of weekend warriors. City people who dream of moving to the country often return to cities when they realize how much work is required. Either that, or they create urban lives in the countryside and hire rural people to do their work. Cycling around the Estonian countryside many of the rural Estonians I encountered working – fixing fences, planting flowers, repairing roofs and outbuildings, airing out houses, raking yards, pruning trees, expelling rodents, cutting firewood – were doing so for absentee landowners. On the island of Saaremaa, many of the people we met were working on the waterfront summer residences of Swedes, Finns and North Americans. The owners often came for only a few weeks in the summer to experience the idyll of country life. If a springtime visit was in the works, the local hirelings would be hurrying to “get the place ready for the owners”. Getting the place ready meant removing the work, especially the outdoor work. These places are, in the words of art critic Lucy R. Lippard, “ landscapes in transition between labor, abandonment and recreation.”

I live on land, in a life, that sits on the active fault line between labour and recreation; these two forces actively battle over my soul and that of this mountainous terrain. In Estonia, these forces are only beginning their struggle as consumer notions of leisure filter into the economy and psyche of the nation. Here in the Columbia Mountains as in Estonia, the forces of labour want to harvest the trees, mine the rocks, exploit the soil, to make things out of resources, to draw material wealth from the bounty of the land. The forces of recreation want to admire the standing forest, swim in the unmarred sea and lakes, to draw solace from the Earth’s grandeur and gifts. Those two desires coexist among traditional rural peoples and both desires are paid their dues. It is only in our modern, industrial society that the two have been separated, that we have been asked to choose one or the other.

Through industrialization, outdoor work and outdoor recreation have been posited as incompatible opposites, and have thus become polarized. Indeed, industrial forestry with its roar of machinery does not know or respect the sacred or ecological necessity. And modern recreation sees wilderness as the place where no people dwell in interchange with the land. In seeing land as a blank slate, it can be as destructive as industry. We understand community best from within; the ecological community is no different. Traditional (as opposed to industrial) rural life, where people live with and inside the land, is the middle ground between these two forces. It is no coincidence that this lifestyle is not just devalued by modern society (try telling city folk you’re a farmer, hunter, trapper or wildcrafter and see how they treat you), but it is often rendered invisible.

In the cusp between rural and urban, half my work is done sitting, often in front of a computer while the other half occurs outside, my body eager to excavate its own true rhythm. Sometimes I relax indoors, sometimes I recreate outdoors, pressing my body into service climbing mountain trails or paddling rivers and lakes. I see my work in front of the computer as a necessary evil, both to provide for myself monetarily but also to participate with my thoughts in a society that no longer provides as many forums for people to meet and discuss ideas in person. I see my outdoor recreation as a social compromise, a way to participate with those who are seeking to know and love the land but are no longer rural. My favourite trips are ones that involve some kind of productive work, be it berry picking, firewood gathering or just salvaging scrap along the way. My favourite work is that which I do outdoors.

From my recent spring hikes, I have come home with bags full of False solomon’s seal, fiddleheads, nettles, watercress, wild salad greens. The forest has been feeding me for weeks now. My body yearns for that: for the emerald food of spring that answers my hunger for its cleansing and renewing properties. On my walks, I have shared my glee about the bounty of the Earth with friends by showing them how to harvest wild ginger without killing the plant, or talking about the plants I will gather for my tea blends when the time is right. Each time I wander, I engage in the work of observing the forest, of noting its steadiness and its changes, of including myself in its beauty. After the winter lull, my energy rises, flaring like an enormous cottonwood full of pungent buds. Outside is not just where I work and survive, it is where I thrive. What’s so idiotic about that?