Saturday, December 4, 2010
On A Friday night, I made it to through slush and a dimming light, to the Kootenay Lake ferry. It was late -- dark and snowing hard. I knew I would have a precarious fifty kilometre drive home. As I rode the ferry, I was reminded about something my sister had said on her last visit, how, every time she rode the ferry, she though about the terrfiying depths of black freezing water beneath her. My sister is the most fearless, intrepid, and amazing woman I know. She trains horses. She rides across country jumping over fences, up and down steep banks and in and out of water. She can walk up to the toughest and scariest horse in the world and make it behave. I was surprised to hear her say this but I understood. Kootenay Lake is big and deep; it has a reputation for eating boats of all sizes. I looked at the black snowy mountains and thought about the creatures there, and the combination of fear, adrenaline, and alertness that kept them alive. I thought about how all of us, human and non-human, ride an edge of awareness and fear, especially in the winter.
I had been teaching all day, my eyes were tired and sore, and I had already been held up on the highway because of an accident. As I drove off the ferry and up the steep hill, I realized he road was even worse than I thought it would be. Because of the thick blowing snow, I couldn’t actually see the highway. Instead, all I could was watch the dim fuzzy line of snowbank beside the right hand of the car. As long as I could see that snowbank, I could assume there was a road. I should have been terrified but as I set off up the hill and into the blackness, I felt an odd sort of exhilaration set in. Perhaps, I thought, it was a small particle of what adventure junkies and risk takers feel.
I had a long drive with a lot of time to think. I wondered if this combination of awareness, exhilaration and hyperalertness is what some people experience in battle. I thought, again, about the mountains above me and the many many inhabitants of those mountains; I wondered about their lives, their careful alertness, their constant awareness of risk, and survival. Did they feel like this all the time or was mine just a human moment?
I have always known that will and determination play a big part in survival. I have always known, since I was a small child, playing by myself in the mountains, riding crazy wild horses, climbing cliffs, that, in risky situations, I could make decisions to survive. I kept this awareness as an adult, I remember once, coming home from a long hike and having to traverse a section of steep hill in the dark. The darkness had come more swiftly than I was prepared for and I couldn’t see where I was going. I decided, very calmly and carefully, that I would feel every step, check every hold, that I would not slip and fall there in the dark and that I would make it home safely. And so I did.
I decided something similar on the way home in the snow. I knew the road. I would drive slowly. I would be alert and cautious and take no chances. It was almost exhilarating. I caught myself driving too fast as I got closer to home and had to make myself slow down. And I made it, came in the warm house, made myself tea, took a while to calm down and get to sleep.
Now, in the mornings, often at first light, the pair of coyotes that live next door are out hunting mice in the tall grass in the field below my house. The black flocks of coots huddle on the lake as the eagles hunt them. Winter, for some creatures, is a time of rest and recuperation, and for others, a time when the odds of surviving are sharpened. Every morning, I silently say hello and send respect to these coyotes, savvy, alert, and secure in their coyote world.
At night, I draw the drapes against the dark, the snow, and the cold. I go to bed under a huddle of quilts. I send my thoughts out to the coyotes in their den, the ravens in their tall trees, the eagles, the coots on the black water, the queen wasps sleeping in the cracks of the logs of my house, the frogs buried in mud, the sleeping bears, all of us, surviving, alert, aware, on edge, but not fearful. This isn’t fear but its opposite, this is calm, alert awareness. The world is not a fearful place but neither is it an easy place. Joy and tragedy, exhilaration and terror, we all ride them, together, on a thin and icy edge.
Friday, November 26, 2010
This line from Solnit’s book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” reached out and grabbed me the other day. Solnit has a knack for a trenchant turn of phrase as was evidenced in the brilliant first essay in her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” as well as in “Wanderlust.” She seems to be preoccupied by similar topics as I am: the way our modern culture has caused us to diverge from a more basic, physical and conscious state of being, the dichotomy of inside/outside being a key concern.
I think myself as a “native of the outside” but not because of traumas suffered within houses. I suppose each of us has our own route to the places we end up. I’d say I’ve had an inexorable draw to the outdoors that is probably encoded in my peasant DNA. That said, I also have felt like an outsider to mainstream culture most of my life. Did that propel me to connect more profoundly with non-human life or was it the other way around. Solnit’s traumatized natives of the outside are people for whom the world is turned upside down; once the notion of safety of home is undermined, then perhaps it’s not difficult to cast off its companion notion that outside is dangerous. Or maybe, the unveiling of the lie of home sweet home puts other mainstream notions in question, creating an easier avenue of exit from said mainstream.
Solnit’s book is certainly good at unveiling aspects of our culture that often remain unexamined. She delves succinctly into the twists and turns of our culture and their impact on us as individuals and communities. I love the way she speaks of the human body as a “sensing, breathing, living moving body (that) can be a primary experience of nature too: new technologies and spaces can bring about alienation from both body and space.” I too have pondered the impact on our psyches of having bodies whose primary functions are recreational rather than utilitarian. Instead of our feet carrying us to gather food and shelter, we now drive to work and take our bodies to specific places for specific activities, be they hiking, soccer, etc, for them/us to get their/our necessary movement. Bitingly, she writes, “the body that used to have the status of a work animal now has the status of a pet;…(it) is exercised as one might walk a dog.”
She goes even further, noting that in our modern car culture, walking could be seen as an “indicator species” for our physical, psychological and psychic health. Walking can be seen as “an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination.” She draws on the relationship between writing and creativity, talking about the walking habits of writers from Dickens to modern day adventurers. When we are no longer able to walk because of a scarcity of time, a scarcity of walking spaces, a scarcity of cultural values that honour walking, the gym becomes “a kind of wildlife preserve for bodily exertion” which accommodates something essential after we abandon the original modes of human physical activity. But what kind of wildlife preserve can a gym be in you think of bodily motion being as much about a beckoning to the imagination and an experience of place as physical exercise? In teasing apart too many strands of this rope, one might end up with a pile of tattered, useless sisal instead of a functioning whole.
I could go on, as this subject has strands that connect to so many other topics. In the meanwhile, I highly recommend Solnit’s work, especially if you’re interested in erudite, thought provoking and well researched non-fiction. But, a better conclusion yet might be to spare your eyes and sitting weary body and get out for a walk.
Monday, November 15, 2010
This naming was released today, as the Ktunaxa Nation of Southeast British Columbia was received by the BC Legislature to make a declaration. Their 50-member delegation was in Victoria to assert the importance of the stewardship of the land in its traditional territory. "I think it's the importance of Qat'muk, the Jumbo area, how important it is to our people, and the animals that live there, the grizzly bear, he holds everything for us," delegation member Herman Alpine told CTV Calgary. Interestingly, this comes on the heels of Friday’s announcement that Canada has finally signed on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And though I cheer on the delegation and applaud the signing of the Declaration, the cynical part of me wonders what these developments add up to.
In the case of the Ktunaxa, they have been left holding some of the few cards that might have any clout in the work to converse the ecological integrity of the Central Purcells. For the past few years, while enviros for Jumbo Wild! have been blocked from any formal process with the government around the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort, the Ktunaxa have been at the table. And although the Ktunaxa Nation Council have been publicly against the Jumbo Glacier Resort development for some time, their alliance with the environmental movement hasn’t always been strong.
I understand this. Or at least I think do. These same environmentalists haven’t often been in the forefront, or even allied, in First Nations struggles for recognition, self-determination and validation of the ongoing cultural genocide of their people. Suddenly, we need them. Suddenly they are useful to us. What’s to say that this relationship, which has never been reciprocal, will suddenly become reciprocal? Colonizers and settler cultures are notorious for using then abusing indigenous peoples world wide. Though it can be agonizing to not be able to reach across this historical gulf, at the same time, I cheer on any First Nation that claims their power. Part of that power is to define the terms of their engagement.
Even so, they still have to deal with the dominant political culture that wishes First Nations would simply shut up or go away. For example, the article in the Toronto Star entitled “Canada endorses indigenous rights” was small and buried deep in the News section. No photo, just three columns of print halfway down the page, with a few quotes from First Nations leaders. This article placement in the main newspaper of Canada’s largest city certainly reflects political attitudes toward the indigenous people of Canada as well.
Canada was one of four countries to vote against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when it passed in the UN General Assembly three years ago. Not that these non-binding “statements of principles” add up to much other than the symbolic, but the lack of even lip service to the symbolic has been a blot on Canada’s once shiny human rights image. Perhaps we should even thank the Harper government for three years of showing their true colours – brown for “we don’t give a shit about Indians.” There is still something to be said for honesty.
I await the unfolding of this story. It feels like, just maybe, First Nations have gained enough strength to rise up out of the wallow colonization has ground them down into. May those of us who honour the importance of land, belonging to land and the role of indigenous people in this connection, have the courage to put our hands paddles and participate in getting this big canoe moving.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Like many people these days, I watch the world with some puzzlement and dismay. This is not the world my generation thought we were making. When we were marching against the Vietnam war, or fighting against nuclear war, or marching for women’s rights, we thought we were working for, and we talked about its coming into being, a bright peaceful future where everyone would be fed, housed, cared for, fulfilled.
And the odd thing is, we won most of these battles – sort of—(and they were battles, however peaceful they looked.) The Vietnam war finally ceased; women moved out of their kitchens and into work and jobs; the environmental movement was created; all kinds of social services were also created; nuclear weapons stopped being tested in the South Pacific and in the American desert; the Berlin Wall was torn down; the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War was over. We thought.
But that peaceful global future we envisioned has yet to appear.
I get up every morning and while I am drinking my coffee, I cruise through various websites; what is the price of oil doing, what are people saying about global warming, what is up with those one hundred dolphins being held for slaughter in Taiji, Japan? And so on. Clicking through. Good news and bad. Facebook, where more and more people seem to have taken to putting up links to news stories they deem important. Click. Click.
And then I get on with my day. I’m not marching anymore. But worrying, oh yes, indeedy.
But what is there to march against? And with whom? The problems coming down the pike in some unknowable and largely unvisionable future are so big, so vague that most people don’t talk about them, and don’t even seem able to talk about them. Global warming – what will that do? When will it happen? Is it happening now? Well, sure the Arctic ice is melting, but hey, last winter was really cold. Wasn’t it? Things seem normal? Don’t they?
Peak oil? The oil industry says one thing, the peak oil doomers another. Everyone agrees that oil will get much more expensive in the future but how much, and when? And everyone agrees that the higher price of oil will have a drastic effect on our economy and the North American suburban-drive-everywhere-all-the-time way-of-life, but when and how much and what to do about it is never discussed in the political arena. The only people I really talk to about all this are a few women my own age, in our sixties now, and watching the future for our grandchildren grow darker.
Our children are busy with careers, jobs, bank accounts, school, raising their children, buying houses, mortgages. Busy doesn’t even begin to describe it. They worry sometimes when they have a moment and then they rush off to the next appointment.
And me? I stay put. I grow food. It’s not much and it has no impact on anyone but myself, and the friends and family members I can supply with food. If there were more to do that I thought would be effective, I would do it. If there was a march I thought was heading in the right direction, I might join it. Or not. Maybe I’ve been on too many marches and spent too many hours in meetings to really believe there is a right direction anymore.
I grow food, I read, I write and I worry.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
“What do you see?” my brother Erik asked. He and I were trying to extricate the dock from the swollen lake. Each passing year, as water levels failed to fall to their previous autumn levels, the dock was becoming more difficult to put away for the winter. Climate change was increasing precipitation in this area surrounded by the Great Lakes. This year, the water came so high that the centre support, which I would later find a kilometre away on the other side of the lake, had floated away leaving our old wooden dock submerged and waterlogged.
“It’s black, but I don’t think it’s a squirrel. It didn’t move like a squirrel, and besides, I think that black squirrel you saw at your place was just a fluke. Possibly an urban drop off.” I skirted the canoe and tried to peer under it.
“There it goes! There it goes! Along the shore!” Erik shouted. “What is it?”
I looked up just quickly enough to see the fleeing shiny, dark brown form. “It’s a mustelid - from the weasel family,” I pondered out loud, “but it’s too small and fat to be a marten and too large to be a weasel. Maybe it’s a mink,” I offered, being struck by the lustre of its fur.
“A mink?” His puzzlement held the fact that for almost 50 years, my brother and I have been coming to this Muskoka, Ontario lake, and we’d never seen such an animal before. His puzzlement was just that, and not disbelief. Over the past five years, we’d been surprised by the appearance of too many new species at the lake to be closed to any possibility. The animals that had put in an appearance or reappearance since our childhoods, included otter, wolf, water snake, bear, moose, fisher, turkey, various waterfowl and cougar. As well as the animals known as humans.
In the 60s and 70s, rural areas with marginal farming soils such as Muskoka emptied of year round residents. Yet the newly urbanized generation still had a hankering for nature and thus began the selling off of lakeshore lots for cottages (Ontario equivalent of the BC word, cabin). Mr. Clarke, whose long gone white farm house stood on the shores of McKay Lake and whose sugar shack back in the bush has been converted into someone’s summer abode, subdivided and sold lots at $1500 apiece, a price quite affordable to middle class or working class urbanites like my parents. These same lots now roll over for $200,000 and a Muskoka cottage has once again become the purview of the moneyed. Or, permanent residents.
Whereas no one lived on MacKay Lake year round for all of my childhood, the past decade has seen the return of the year-round resident, usually retirees from either southern cities or northern towns. With them have come more kayaks and canoes, more Muskoka chairs and binoculars and even a sled dog team. On our lake, they are neighbourly people who help each other out and participate in creating a sense of community. They tend to be nature lovers in search of tranquility rather than people with a love for pistons and pistols. Much reduced are the motor boats, dirt bikes and snowmobiles of the 70s and 80s. Instead of driving away the wildlife, they put up bird feeders and get excited when a mammal wanders through their yard. These are obviously people whose survival interests do not lie in safeguarding crops or livestock or providing for themselves through hunting, trapping and gathering. One could argue, as Luanne does in previous blog entries, that their connection to place is less deeply rooted than that of previous residents whose basic needs relied on the land. And I suspect this is true. Nevertheless, I greet the arrival of the wild things with excitement.
I abandon the dock removal operation and go see where the mustelid has gone. I find it crouched at water level under the overhanging roots of a big hemlock. Its shiny black eyes peer out at me every time it bravely thrusts its white chin out of its hidey-hole. We eye each other for a few minutes before I go back to lugging waterlogged pieces of dock to shore. I know that the current state of human/non-human animal balance and our relationship to land, will change again. My hope is that this time around, when we come to need the land again for our basic survival, that we will find a different balance than before, one that understands the value of co-existence.
Friday, October 22, 2010
I have now had three weeks of fairly intense solitude and it has left me wondering how people who sail around the world solo, or row across the ocean, solo, or go on long journeys alone manage. Or what abut all those early European explorers, freezing in the arctic, dying in the jungle, crossing deserts and dying of thirst? Why did they do it? What drove them? How did they cope with the solitude, the loneliness and the absence of their friends and family?
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
by Luanne Armstrong
I got a chance to read my great-aunt, Catherine Armstrong’s diaries the other day. She and her three brothers came west in 1907 to take up land grants in southern Alberta, near the Cypress Hills, and to build lives centred around ranching, cattle, hay, seeding in the spring and harvest in the fall. Her journals, while not detailed by any means, are full of references to visits by friends and relatives, riding to the neighbours, or going to dances. And also references to work; she counted the number of pieces whenever she did a laundry, I presume by hand. One hundred and fifty-one pieces of laundry, she writes one day, or one hundred and thirty, always hundreds of pieces of laundry.
And then there was all the other work, one day, ten loaves of bread, the next day, seven pounds of butter churned, plus whitewashing walls, cleaning the kitchen, riding out to look for stock and all the meals for visitors and her brothers.
And also, occasionally, references to depression, to weeping, to homesickness, or to a day spent reading. And as well, a wonderful romance, buried in this pages; casual reference to “Fred” showing up, to walks and talks and finally, she says, “Well, I guess we will get married.” And so they do and become one of the founding families of an Alberta town called Irvine.
She and her brothers worked the ranch but eventually, one brother bought out the others. After that, my grandfather moved to Saskatchewan, and after his wife died and the drought in the thirties made grain farming impossible, hecame west to BC, and bought the farm where I still live. So that is why I am not an Alberta girl, or a rancher, though when I was a girl, I dreamed of it, wanted to be a cowgirl, and dreamed of the romance of the West.
I read these diaries in the interesting context of staying in a writer’s house, the Wallace Stegner House in a small town in Eastend, Saskatchewan. It’s October, and farmers are still harvesting grain, racing against time to get in a big crop. Too much rain, for a change, instead of too little.
Interesting to be here and reading Wallace Stegner and his take on the romanticism of the American west and how distorted and historically inaccurate it is. Now the west is the land of big trucks, big machines, big harvests, big farms and big skies. It’s very hard not to wonder how will this land, and these people, function in the future? How will global warming, the price of oil, the future of food, the price of land, affect them? Most of them have only been here for three or four generations. This new generation, the children of my cousins out here, are in university or working. Very few of them want to be or are farmers.
This land, this economy, these big ranches and fields and grain farms, are all adaptations to the exploitation of gas and oil. None of this will last forever. As Josh Farley, an ecological economist says:
"Before fossil fuels, when humans lived almost exclusively on the energy of contemporary sunlight, one calorie burned by a worker could create 10 calories of food, but now we use 10 calories from oil to create one calorie of food. And remember that the market has no way to account for the disastrous consequences of burning all those fossil fuels. And we’re increasingly dependent on non-renewable resources for the food we need to live.””
The land here is beautiful and productive but it has also changed before and will change again.
Near Stegner House is a museum containing dinosaur bones that were found near here, laid down 65 million years ago when big parts of North American were under water and the rest was a lush jungle.
And yet people are smart, and adaptable, and the land has always called people to be farmers. People who feel they belong to this place will adapt, I hope. It was wonderful to spend time with my family here; they know this land in a way I never could and they showed me their parts of it and their understanding of it. If they ever come to my part of the world, could I show them how I now belong there? And what would they then see and understand about me?
Monday, September 27, 2010
This year, full moon and Equinox happened at the same time. For the first two weeks before Equinox and the week after, bad new filtered in from various friends. Many people were ill with deep chest colds; three friends had floods in their houses. One who had a flood also had a beloved family member die suddenly. All kinds of tension and sadness suddenly pervades our lives.
Just coincidence, of course. The moon, the seasons, the rhythms of life don’t affect us anymore. So most people believe. And yet, there are many rhythms in this world and the animals and plants play no attention to human lives and go on living to the rhythms of light and seasons and the turning planet.
I read a sad and moving article this week in New Yorker about the people of a small town in Colorado named Uravan, where once they made a living mining uranimum. The main point of the article was that, even though many former residents of the town had died of lung cancer, and that after uranium mining was shut down and the whole town shredded and stored away as toxic waste, people still missed it, wanted to move back, wanted the mine to re-open. Both the writer and the people he interviewed seemed unable to articulate why the people would miss this place except for the fact that it had once been their home. Once a year, they have a reunion. They press their faces up against the barbed wire fence around their former home and feel nostalgic. They remember the voices of children playing and they long for a place that was never really their home and that killed many of them.
I do something similar to this as well. Five miles from our farm is another farm, known in our family as the Mannarino Place, after Jimmy and Victoria Mannarino, who cleared it and farmed it and then sold it to my grandfather as a wedding present for my mom and dad. We lived there until I was two and then my parents moved away to a small mining town and then to our present farm on Kootenay Lake, where I have now lived since I was five.
And yet, I still miss the Mannarino place. I loved to go there when I was a child. I felt peculiarly at home there and I still do. And I dream about this place. Over and over, I go back there, but it has changed. A strange family is there, a man I hate and despise and try to get rid of. Whenever I come to this place in my dream, I recognize it, even though it is much different than the real farm. There are houses around it; there is mine high on the mountain, there is a deep woods, there is a huge frightening house full of ghosts.
I rarely go there now in reality. The place has been sold and sold again. And still I miss it, long for it, scheme as to how I could get it back. Why? I have no idea, other than in my child’s wild true heart, the place was, is mine.
Once I was riding my mare home from the farm where I had left her to get bred. On the way, we passed through the place where I had bought her. We went by the temporary corral where the owner had housed her with another more. The barbed wire was falling down, the fenceposts were leaning, and yet my mare went eagerly towards this corral. I let her, curious to see what she would do. She went inside, nosed around, sniffed the ground, poked her nose, sniffed the empty feed bin. Then she stopped and relaxed, obviously expecting me to slide to off, take off her saddle and bridle, let her be at home and relax. I disappointed her, made her leave that place she had once felt at home, and continue on to my home.
Do the places we have once lived leave shadows and ghosts within us? Are we, as biological creatures, tuned into these places in ways we don’t understand. Why do my dreams of the Mannarino place haunt me, in particular, the old house, long destroyed and in my dreams, full of terrifying voices from the distant upstairs.
And what scars are left within people torn from their homes and displaced by war, genocide, famine, industrialization or any of the other infinite ways in which people have been shoved around the globe from place to place, particularly in the past two centuries of colonization, exploitation, industrialization and globalization?
Before modern industrialized warfare, there was also war, but a different kind of war – over territory and boundaries and resources but this rarely resulted in a mass displacement of whole peoples. What scars and traumas are left in such people? No one asks this question? Does anyone even want to know?
I am still determined someday to go back to Scotland. I want to find the place from which my ancestors left so long, long ago. I want to imagine myself back into the scene that must have taken place, somehow, when a whole family of Armstrongs, the mother, the father, and their seven children, made the decision to leave for Canada, to leave the place that had been their home for as long as anyone could remember, and make an entirely new life. In my lifetime, I have never been displaced. I have camped in many locations but always lived at ‘home’, at the farm. So it will take a writer’s leap of imagination to sit in that place, with my ancestors’ blood thrummng in my veins, and understand why they did that, and what it meant.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Not knowing what to do: what a familiar feeling. I feel it almost every day and have for many years. It’s not that I don’t do things. I do. I’m active in the campaign to keep the Purcell Mountains wild and keep the Jumbo Glacier Resort at bay. I chair my local watershed committee. Etc, etc. I walk, shout, talk, write and live in protest. All of this activity and the capitalist madness that Luanne describes in her last blog entry has indeed become “normal” for many of us. However, as Bruce Cockburn so aptly sings, “the trouble with normal is that it only gets worse.”
At the same time, I try to live a mindful, conscious life, attempting to embody the values Robert Jensen (previous blog entry) places outside the realm of capitalist culture - solidarity, compassion, creativity, ethics, joy. These things I know how to do, for the most part, at least when it comes to the small world of people, flora, fauna and land that I call my home. But the more the capitalist/industrial/military mindset permeates my homeplace, the more problematic right action becomes. How to express compassion towards those whose only interest is profit? How to participate in a broader culture that is imbued with the ethics of mass consumption and outrageous waste? How to accept what is and lean toward a vision of what could be?
That night, facing the bright, terrified eye of the injured hare, I had to make a quick decision. I decided to step out of the picture and let nature take its course. An animal had attacked the hare, no doubt in hopes of a supper. If it was still around, it may finish its work, eat its meal. I turned my light off and walked away, climbing into my bed, wide awake and trembling, wondering if the hare was in pain. Had I scared the predator away? I could not take my interruption back. Regret would serve no purpose. These are the things I said to myself.
What are the things I say to myself when I don’t know what to do? Last night, I attended the showing of an excellent documentary by Liz Marshall called “Water on the Table.” The film featured Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians in her attempts to establish water as a human right. She leads the campaign for public control over water resources in the face of a push for commercialization and corporate, profit-oriented control. The film was beautiful, poignant, evocative, well-constructed and to the point. Maude Barlow, well, she’s one of a kind. My partner and I walked away energized but, ultimately, despairing. It often feels like the predator has already bitten our neck, severed the flow of democracy, hell in a handbasket and all that stuff. Still, wide in my eyes is the fear, the desire to fight, the desire to claim my rightful space in the world. Tar sands: what more can we do? Water privatization: regardless of my opposition, that beast marches on.
In the morning, I went to the place of the snowshoe hare right away. It was with great sadness that I found the animal still there, prone in the dirt, eyes still open, whiskers still trembling, pieces of its fur torn out and its flesh lightly nibbled. The corners of my mouth turned down in consternation and anguish. I knew what I must do. But I didn’t want to do it. I kneeled down and petted the soft, soft flanks of the still paralysed hare all the while knowing that this would only frighten the animal more and change nothing. I considered getting one of my land mates but this too would only delay the inevitable and drag someone else into the distress I was feeling. I went for the shovel.
Is there a time coming in which I’ll have to make a similar, horribly uncomfortable decision about how to end other, irrevocable pain? What will be the edge, the sharpness that will speed the inevitable? Who will we be? Will we finally know what to do after so many of years of not knowing?
Even with the shovel raised in the air, I hesitated; it is not a simple thing to extinguish a spark of life. I stood over the hare for many minutes, swallowing and swallowing at the lump in my throat, shaking, still looking for a way out. And then I steeled myself. Shovel still in hand, I bowed, honouring the snowshoe hare’s life. The line between compassion and violence blurred. What was I doing? And then I thrust the blade into the ground at the place of its neck. Blood squirted and the body leapt into action, the legs flailing. When all motion quieted, I carried the body into the woods and laid it on the ground. And it stays with me. It all stays with me.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
The other obvious failure of capitalism is its contribution to the erosion of the health of the ecosystem. Humans have been drawing down the ecological capital of the planet since the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, but that process has intensified dramatically in the capitalist/imperialist/industrial era. Our culture is filled with talk about the success of capitalism even though that system degrades our relationships and threatens our existence. That’s an odd definition of success.”
From an interview with Robert Jensen, (journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin.)
The amazing golden beauty and bounty of September has returned again. Really, the only way to eat peaches is to stand under a tree of ripe peaches that the wind has shaken, and eat windfall peaches, one after another, dripping juice down my hands and face. Which I do.
And then later, lying in bed, listening to the wind, and distant rumbles of thunder, of course the worries come in. September, winter coming, work beginning, cold again, how much I dread the cold; it all comes down to fear. Nothing is coming that I can’t cope with, but that thought doesn’t stop the fear coming in the window with the thunder.
Lately, the tune, “Walk Me Out into the Morning Dew,” has been haunting my head. It’s a beautiful song about an unknown doomsday. I even went to ITunes and played three versions to get it to go away but it’s still there. Why is it haunting me so persistently?
The farm is, as always, beautiful, peaceful, and productive. The world far from the farm is so not peaceful. This year was the hottest summer in the hottest year since weather records have been kept. There were floods in China and Pakistan, fires in Russia, Bolivia, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and unabated war in Afghanistan. I sat on the beach, as I do every summer, and watched the summer people go round and round and round in their boats and seadoos. Long lines of RV’s rolled by on the road. Normal, everything normal. And mad as can be.
Stephen Henighan wrote a great piece in www.thetyee.ca, this week, called The Phony War, comparing this time in history to the time before World War Two began. But this is a very long quiet time and we are protected in North America by the enormous resilience of the ecosystems in which we live. Other places in the world are not so lucky. I have yet to read a comprehensive environmental analysis of the floods in Pakistan, but I am sure someone will do one soon.
But surely and steadily, a kind of ‘war’ is coming to the Kootenays. The proposed Jumbo Ski resort lumbers along, despite the fact that no one wants it, it will cost a small fortune to build, it will probably go broke – eventually, as the price of gas rises and no one will want to drive forty miles into the mountains to ski, it will destroy the grizzly population in the Purcells. What kind of person looks at the pristine mountain valley and decides to build a city there?
And, in addition, the Glacier Howser private power project at the north end of Kootenay Lake is back, a project that will only make money for a few corporate suits and their lackeys, that will destroy two large and beautiful fish bearing creeks that flow into Kootenay Lake, that will bring roads, lights, dynamite, noise, destruction, to a pristine area. And for what?
Yes, anyone who burns gasoline and uses electricity is implicated but corporations and their bought government hacks who make decisions that destroy landscapes and ecosystems in order to only enrich a few, are far more implicated. And yes, many of us will go to the phony ‘public hearings’ and many more of us will protest and some will be arrested but the game is rigged from the beginning and no one in government or industry is listening.
I wish I knew what more to do. I write, I teach, I read, I farm, I grow food and store it away -- I walk through the blazing beauty of September, both joyful and fearful. I stop to pick a windfall Gravenstein apple and go to the beach, sit in the sun, come home in the blue dusk and read some more.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
On the 33 bus, she looks across the aisle and there is a mirror and a laden down old woman looking back at her. Sunglasses, walking stick, keys, purse, bag, computer, books, notebooks, a good pen, eyedrops, heart pills. She wears comfortable shoes and a sun hat. Once she ran outside early, barefoot, cold dew on her feet. She shrugged on a t-shirt and shorts. Into the garden for a few peas, a couple of strawberries, carrots with the dirt rubbed off. And then to the beach in the grey dawn, fishing rod in hand, a line, a small hook, a glass jar of worms.
On the bus to the university, she is the only one without earphones. She looks through her sunglasses at the bright-sun streets. If only she could read on the bus.
As my mother got older, leaving the house got more difficult. Even going for a walk to the beach required remembering. The right shoes. A coat? Was it cold, she would ask me? She was afraid of cold. Even on hot days, she might need a coat at the beach. Or should she change her shoes. Had she turned off the stove? Did she need her glasses? Sunglasses? I was patient; I betrayed my mother in that patience. Once I would have snapped at her. No you don’t need a stupid coat. Now I waited. Behind her fear of cold, her fear of the wrong shoes, was her and my real fear, the forgetting, the losing it, the really getting old fear.
Each morning, for two weeks I ride the #33 to the university. One morning, a woman gets on and drops her bus pass. She lurches into the seat next to me as the bus takes off. “Oh no,” she says, leaning over, scrabbling with her fingers under the seat. The bus pass, impossibly, has slid into a thin heating vent, a slit under the seats. I lean over, lending more if not physical support, as she slowly creaks to her knees, pushes her arm under the seat and retrieves it.
“I have this theory that inanimate objects are out to get us.” I say.
“They certainly are. Last week, just as my neighbour was getting into the elevator in our building, she dropped her keys and they fell through the crack between the elevator floor and the building floor and all the way down the elevator shaft. They had to shut down the elevator. Took two days to retrieve them.”
“Seems whenever I pick something up, a milk jug, a tub of yogurt, it is plotting to spill out of my hands.”
“There’s something to that,” she agrees. We nod, smiling and talking until she gets of the bus, her bus pass now safely contained in her purse.
“Everyone should write a memoir,” I tell my class. “Otherwise personal history, family history, disappears in two or three generations.” Another students says that things that matter, family heirlooms, also lose their meaning in a couple of generations. She is planning on having her name, her mother’s name and her grandmother’s name engraved on an art-deco bracelet given to her by her grandmother. Provenance, the history that things carry with them. When my father died, we threw out all the things he had collected, all his treasures, now junk, the vacuum cleaner that he had wired together so it sparked and shocked anyone but him who used it. The toaster that no longer popped out toast. The record player. The reel to reel tape recorder. Truckloads of his treasured accumulated layered stuff went to the dump. He had spent years going to garage sales, bring home things that almost worked, things that only he could fix.
My daughter and I are talking about this. “After I die, you can throw everything away,” I say, “except my journals and all those bags of letters.” She laughs but her face is suddenly shocked. Her mother’s journals, once private, once books she sneaked into when she was a child to catch a glimpse of her mother’s tortured inner life, will be just more writing. And what will they mean to anyone when I am no longer here to explain what I meant? The one excuse writers can never make – this is what I meant to say.
The things we carry that fill our lives, that stack on shelves and in drawers, markers, records, each with provenance, each sticky with memories and meaning. Some have more meaning than others; old photos, books, journals. But I will never know, now, why my father loved his junk. He was poor his whole life; he hated spending money, he liked to tinker. But the stuff was far more important to him than that.
I am weighted with all the books I have read and stories I know and people I’ve met and things I’ve done and places I’ve seen. I am weighted with letters and conversations and emails and books I’ve written. I am a freighter, low gunneled in heavy seas. I am a walking encyclopedia, I am a freight train going both ways from the past to the future, a muddle of metaphors, walking slow. I carry the world and its many deaths, its huddle of lives.
Animals are without kindness but full of care. As I work, again and again, I pass the new swallow nestlings, silent on the clothesline beside their nest, still being fed by their parents. They watch without fear. I look away. I am not dangerous, I say. I carry pots of plants. I carry seedlings to the garden and weeds away from the garden and mulch to the garden and vegetables to the house sink. I carry the hose and sprinklers from place to place, moving each sprinkler every couple of hourse., I carry a bag of soil to the greenhouse. I carry buckets and baskets and later, I carry raspberries and cherries, caught in plastic, to the freezer.
I had twin daughters. Getting out of the house to go for a walk with them in the stroller always seemed impossibly complicated; like planning a safari, bottles, diapers, toys, crackers, jackets in case it rained, my wallet, my shoes, my own jacket. Going anywhere with children still seems impossibly complicated. But now that I am old, sometimes when my nine year old grandson comes to visit, we get in the car with only money and drive twenty miles to buy a milkshake. When he first arrives at the farm, he takes off his clothes, he jumps on the trampoline naked, he wears the same shirt for two weeks. As he jumps on the trampoline, penis bobbing, he puts his head back, looks at the sky, yells, “I’m free, I’m free.”
On my desk, books and pieces of paper stack up, totter, slip, slide, hide under the printer, accumulate dust, cat hair, dog hair, skin cells, the ones I need most disappear; the ones that hover lose all meaning.
Even at the farm, going to the beach for a lazy afternoon, she carries a bag with: drinks, a towel, a notebook, a paperback, pens, pencils, drawing pad, and once at the beach, she sets up an umbrella, a chair, a table; things from the bag are spread on the table, she sits, her eyes closed against the light.
The summer table. She rests.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Up the tree I climb, straddling the large gaps between the steps in its branches, moving between the trunks until they are too far apart to bridge. Up I go even further, pulling myself up onto the soft springy branches thinner than my wrist. There, I find the small, burgundy black globes of sweetness hanging among the eye-shaped leaves: cherries.
Tonight, as I climbed and reached and picked into the bucket hung from my waist by a leather belt, I said to my friends: I come here as much to climb this tree as I do to pick cherries. Don’t get me wrong - I love the cherries. Every year, I pick honey buckets full of them, rendering them into clafoutis, jams and just plain canned cherries. These are not the firm, large cherries one buys in stores and snacks on like bonbons. This variety, whose name I do not know, it is not one that lends itself to storage or transport. Very quickly, these soft pungently sweet cherries will turn to brown mush. The trick is to act quickly.
I set my two buckets on the fridge in the basement where it is cooler than my house on this hot July night. In the morning, I will begin the process. Some I will can whole, cherries packed into quart jars, covered with boiling water, lidded and processed in a hot canning bath. These I will take to gatherings in the winter, where my friends will sit around eating summer sunlight one red droplet at a time, carefully spitting the pits into a communal spittoon-bowl. We will talk of summer. We will feel warm. I will be in my tree again.
(You could say, that whenever I am not in this tree, I am out of my tree. I once read a very smart response to the accusation, “you’re out of your tree!” “It’s not my tree,” the person replied.)
Another portion of the cherries, I will pit and freeze, and others yet, I will pit and turn into cherry jam. Once the raspberries and Saskatoon berries are ready, I will combine the three to make a concoction that is food and delight and nourishment all in one. You need a cherry pitter, friends have said to me. What do I need another gadget for? Tomorrow morning I will fire up the best, most efficient cherry pitter in the world: my lips. Yes, it is true! With these soft cherries, it is possible to suck the pit out of them and leave all of the flesh and most of the juice behind. Of course, some juice will splatter on the wall behind the sink and another quantity will stream down the outsides of my arms and drip off my elbows, but there’s enough juice in these gems for all that and the jar.
And thus, my love affair with the tree will continue as I place my puckered lips on each cherry, lovingly extracting their pits. Kissing. That’s what I do. Let it be known: I’m an unrepentant cherry kisser.
I kiss many cherries, maybe twenty or thirty, before I spit out a mouthful of the hard seeds. And then I kiss some more. The cherries go into a pie shell to await custard or into the pot to await jamification. I kiss until my lips and chin and cheeks and clothes are smeared with indelible red. I kiss until I burp up red bubbles. And then I kiss some more. At some point, I run out of cherries. Sated for this year, I go up to the garden. The raspberries will be ripe in another week!
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Staying and living in one place runs counter in every way to the North American vision and dream of independence, making lots of money, self-creation, hustling, moving, road movies, re-creation of self and family and onwards. Not that this is a particularly successful vision in some ways. Yes, it lets people get rich and build enormous houses on pieces of land where they have no sense of where they are, it encourages people to wander on and re-create who and what they are over and over until they are so lonely and lost they will hang on to anything that gives them a sense of stability.
What living at the farm for sixty years has taught me, is to love every blade of grass, every insect, every tree, to wander around, to live outside time, to be irritated and suspicious of strange people, to farm, to grow food, to listen to every noise, to live intensely with animals, to listen to swallows and crickets and frogs and ospreys and say hello and goodbye to them at the right times.
And nothing of these is worth any money, nothing is translatable into values recognized by mainstream society. So, I get to go outside and be weird and eccentric and wave at ravens. I get to be poor again and have time to write and dream. I get to live in a world of flowers and plants and gardens and neighbours who are neighbours and come if I need them. I get to think about my grandchildren living here without me. I get to plant trees and wonder what they will look like in a 100 years. I get to dream.
All good and all romantic. And there’s the niche, the rub. It isn’t romantic or idyllic; it isn’t stately mansions. It’s dirt and work and food. It’s ordinary. And it has a price, just not the one people usually imagine.
Friedrich Engels coined the phrase, “the idiocy of rural life,” at a time when poor people who lived rurally were part of a definitive class system. The romance and idyllic ideas of rural life came from poets and the upper class. The two crucial factors in making the difference between idyll and misery were money and education.
These days, when I read many and frequent discussions on the internet about food and agriculture in the days of declining oil supply, I am amazed at how confused and simply ignorant most people are about the nature of small, mixed, sustainable farming. And this is even more surprising given that many people still have at least grandparents who were farmers. And given that both Canada and the United States were pioneered and settled by people who were prepared, who had to be, independent, self-sufficient and skilled in multiple ways. How can we have forgotten this so quickly?
So talking about small farming runs up immediately against the soup of contradictions; it is idyllic, romantic; no, it is backbreaking work, lonely, dirty, smelly, covered with germs, a long fight against the forces of nature; no, it is being one with the land, close to the land, learning from the land.
And of course, as is usual with clichés, all of these contain a small kernel of truth and not much more than that. And in fact, within all these small kernels of truth is the reality that not much has changed in the rural parts of North American and until there is some kind of real apocalyptic crisis, it isn’t likely to.
In both the US and Canada, over the last thirty years, the working-class rural population has mostly fled to the cities. In my community, and in many others, they have been replaced with summer people, or people on vacation or tourists, people for whom the outdoors-rural-wild is a place they can purchase, either by buying land or renting time, to have fun, not a place to live and work. The services, the amenities, the educational facilities, and most of all, the jobs and money, are all still in cities. It is still impossibly difficult to make a living as a small farmer, although a small farmer can live and eat well, and subsist. So for anyone who chooses to stay, who chooses land, who chooses the place they love, who chooses actual rurality, they must and will choose it over a ‘career’, an education, chances to advance up any kind of economic ladder.
Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Bright Sided, about the negative side of positive thinking, writes about the amount of leisure time that people living in medieval villages actually had. Farmers, except at specific times of the year such as planting and harvest, could work three or four days a week and still have time for festivals and celebrations. Village life was often marked by holidays, fetes, celebrations, religious ritual and community events, far more than it is today. In fact, rural life often tended to fairly celebratory. What made it idiotic and difficult wasn’t the nature of rural life but the nature of the class system, that prevented people from getting an education or better health care, or being literate or traveling.
A healthy functioning rural community that has access to good education, where people are socially and communally minded, is still a good place to live, a good place to raise a family, a good place in which to learn and understand the intricate web of economic, cultural and ecological relationships that connect humans to the places where they live. Industrialization, industrial agriculture, urbanization, suburban ecological deserts, have almost destroyed this life but not quite. Many people miss it and they want it back. They may not even know what it is they miss. But the impulse to form community and to love where one lives is a deep and basic a human instinct and won’t ever quite go away.
If any of the multiple apocalyptic catastrophes being proposed come about, then it is indeed possible that small farming and rural community, a return to true ‘peasantry’, meaning, being from a region or a rural district, may again arise, may indeed be the saving of people. But that is all in the future.
For now, I and many other rural people survive in a fragmented and class-driven rural society where, unless someone comes with money and education, opportunities for education, health care, a decent job, and the ability to make any money as a farmer are still very limited. The price is paid in travel, in time, in being split between here and there, in urban and rural, in watching our children and grandchildren go away and be sucked into the busy-ness and madness of cities, of progress, of ‘careers’, all with a price to pay as well.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Small puffs of clouds hang over the mountains that descend in a dark blue swoop to the water’s edge. The paddle’s rounded edge cuts the shining surface, the pull leaving swirling eddies. My hands bring the paddle around again to dip and draw. Again and again. My muscles echo the movements of my companion in the stern and this too is, somehow, part of the core, the radically, wonderful, all consuming simplicity of this moment.
I stop paddling and gaze over the edge of the canoe. My paddling partner keeps the motion alive and we gradually veer toward the forested shore until she too lifts her paddle. The sun shines through the green water revealing the sharply sloping bottom. Among the timbers of a sunken steam boat that once plied this lake, fish linger, probably kokanee, a land-locked salmon. Their speckled flanks gleam in the penetrating sunshine. Is water invisible to the fish, as air is to us? It sustains, upholds and defines their very motion, but what do they perceive of their undulations, water and sunlight through which they move?
What is the movement, what are the substances of my placement on Earth? Air, yes, that is easy to say, but what else defines the context of my being? What are the ways in which I most fundamentally inhabit the substances of home? I catch only glimpses of it, like now, canoeing down Slocan Lake in the sunshine, and reach for words to describe it, the unnameable something when all of me is engaged, all of me aligned with the place and instant at hand: body, heart, mind, spirit. How often does it happen? Here in my home among the Columbia Mountains, it is no longer a rare occasion but, nevertheless, one I always notice and savour. The simplest of sensation, like the part of the paddle shaft where the varnish has worn away and is rough against my meaty pad of my thumb, become me. What is.
Although in retrospect, I’m sure it happened many times before, probably when in bed with a lover, the first time I truly was aware of it happening out in nature, was not here in the landscape with which I am most familiar. My full engagement with place occurred the first time I visited my parents’ homeland of Estonia. It happened precisely twice during that emotionally tumultuous “return” to the homeland that the substance of that place met the gesture of me.
My cousin had taken me berry picking. It was late August or early September and we entered the sun-speckled pine bog with wicker baskets swinging from our hands. Elvi had to show me how to spot the red jewels from among the emerald moss but from there on in, it was as if I was repeating a very ancient gesture. Initially, I crouched but eventually found myself sprawling in the thick moss to get down to eye level with the berries. There the earthy odour of moss added to the pungency of pine. The larger cranberries were easy to distinguish from the smaller lingonberries that hung on stems like ruby lilies of the valley. Lost in some idyll, my fingers danced my basket full. When Elvi returned from her own wanderings - which involved more mushroom hunting than berry picking - she had to repeat my name before I noticed her. And leaving the forest, I lagged behind. When I noticed she was far ahead of me, I decided to take a short cut across a small ditch. It wasn’t until I was in full stride into the ditch that Elvi cried out a warning. But it was too late. I sunk into what had looked like solid green, up to my hip. I instinctively had splayed my other leg across the surface to keep me from sinking deeper. Elvi and I linked arms and she pulled for a full minute before my leg came free in one great sucking sound. Elvi was particularly happy that I’d managed to bring my gumboot up as well, rubber boots a precious commodity in Soviet era Estonia.
As we float quietly, letting the slight breeze carry us down this mountain cleavage that is lake, I think: the land had laid claim to me. And I was – am – so happy to be claimed, each time it happens. Land does not belong to us, but we belong to land and in recognizing that, we reciprocate and that is where the magic happens. The need to be nowhere else but here, where ever here might be.
The second time it happened was while harvesting potatoes. It was a warm September afternoon and I had eaten well at my friend’s parents dinner table. I was loaned boots and work clothes by Eero’s mother. Feasters were greeted by neighbours outside and we walked to the potato field nearby chatting, some a little too merry from drink. One of merry, a round-bellied, red-nosed man followed with an ancient chugging Soviet tractor with Lenin’s head as the gearshift nob. He turned the rows while the rest of us followed, spreading out to gather the uprooted tubers. Again, something about the motion of stooping and gathering potatoes from the soil, planting footfalls in the dark loam and repeating the gesture was as natural as a baby’s mouth groping for a milky breast. People called to one another across the furrows and laughed, stopping from time to time to straighten and stretch their backs or carry their full baskets over to the trailer where we dumped them into the growing pile.
In my book, The Inner Green, I attempt to describe these experiences, writing that it was as if “I uncovered the passageway home”. But what home are we talking about here? Not a home I have known in my lifetime. These two incidents lead me to wonder about sources, because it’s unlikely that my parents stories of berry picking or potato harvesting, had there been many of them, could inspire such a sense of resonance with a physical act. Or could there be some other explanation for these moments of rightness that I experience from time to time? An evolutionary anthropologist might see some genetic root. Some indigenous cultures may interpret such moments as ancestral memory, others might see them as manifestations of past lives; in any case, the why remains a mystery.
How much of what it is to be human is invisible and unknown to us, I wonder as we take up the rhythm of paddling again. Does the fish know when it has left the water? Is its flopping and flailing in the bare air known to it or does it only remember fluidity when it is righted by water? A fish not righted dies. What happens to us humans? What is the cost of living outside our rightful context, of not being at home in the world? What is the price the individual pays, what is the price the collective pays? What is the destiny of a human culture that is not rooted in place?
As humans, I think we seek that moment of connection, yearn for it without knowing precisely what we are pining for. We seize upon it in whatever form we find it. Maybe the profound draw of sex in Western culture is due to the fact that a union of two bodies may be one of the easiest remaining connections to that sense of physical rightness. That sense of being fully present and completely engaged. Maybe we are always looking for the ultimate partner, being manipulated by its promise, because it is one doorway to our essential selves that we still know how to walk through. Another might be the most banal gestures involved in caring for our children – reaching down for uplifted arms, bringing a baby’s mouth to the breast, clearing snot from a small upturned nose. These are doorways to humanness that we still need.
What gestures of humanness are in the process of being forgotten? The long walk to move camp. Stalking an elusive deer. Carrying wood. Resting one’s head against the flank of the farm animal. Climbing the tree. Digging for roots. Plucking a fowl. Casting a log upon the fire. When my body encounters one of these gestures, it re-members. My limbs and torso think and speak and rejoice. Our bodies do not keep up with time, time creates our bodies. We have evolved for specific tasks, because of specific tasks, in response to specific places. Desert people are often tall, rainforest dwellers often small. Seafaring people do not get seasick, even after many generations of no longer going to sea. And our hands: they need their work and though we provide some, it is often not a re-membering kind of work. I doubt the carpal tunnels of our wrists will begin to want keyboarding after a few generations. So much of what we do now, is de-membering, a forgetting that we are born of generations who knew a specific air, a specific water and a precise place on Earth.
Though I have found my way into these densely forested mountains and made my home here, it is clear to me that the rise and plunge of the land are irrelevant; my fundamental home is among trees and interacting with soil. As an adventurer, I marvel over and even love the tundra, the mountain peak, the prairie, the ocean, but the feeling of rightness that I have chosen to call home is the screen of trunks, limbs, lichens, mosses and fauna upon which the story of growing and gathering food unfolds. It is the odour of coniferous sap, the tang of wild berries, a shaft of wood in my grasped palms, a chorus of wind and birds or the persistent quiet of snow. How would I live without these things? Who would I be?
Could our cultural fascination with vampires and zombies and horror be a reflection of a de-membered culture, trying to understand where bodies lost from their primal context go? What replaces the sense of connection that de-placed people do not experience? I write de-placed, not dis-placed, because displacement implies that there is a place to return to. So many of us are generations lost to a multitude of places that “return” is not an option. Re-membering requires a new process, a modern day quest for that sense of rightness that I have seen many friends and acquaintances embark on. Without being able to articulate precisely what they are looking for, they nevertheless try on places with the persistence of a mountaineer looking for a new pair of boots. As if their lives depended on it. Perhaps this is because their lives, our lives, do depend on it.
I dip my paddle in after a lull and pull. This is who I am. Here. Now. This is my deepest understanding, one of radical simplicity.
Monday, June 14, 2010
At the beginning of June, even though I had promised people I was coming, I resisted going to Kaslo and Nelson to teach, even going so far as to email the organizers to see if they would cancel. But no go.
At the beginning of June, even though I had promised people I was coming, I resisted going to Kaslo and Nelson to teach, even going so far as to email the organizers to see if they would cancel. But no go.
And then I left the farm, got to Nelson, had a good time, and realized that leaving the farm, periodically, is a good thing. Five days of talking and visiting and home again. And of course, things are fine.
And then I left the farm, got to Nelson, had a good time, and realized that leaving the farm, periodically, is a good thing. Five days of talking and visiting and home again. And of course, things are fine.
The garden is in; the ground is weeded, three weeks of rain soaked everything and the fir and cedar have responded with lush electric green tips on their branches. The hot weather plants, tomatoes and eggplants, are sulking and yellow but their turn will come now the sun is back. Right now, they are pushing their root tips into the soggy fertile ground and getting ready to produce mountains of fruit. I planted only the large, purple-black eggplants this year. The smaller eggplants are more productive but I love the colour of the big fat ones. Every year I pick them and stare at them; how can a purple be so black, a black be so iridescent? I have never seen a colour like it anywhere else.
Plus Nelson is a mini-city. So I bought five books, several magazines, looked at hemp shirts and some other lovely and very expensive clothes I would never buy. But I did buy puzzles and toys for Tiger Lily and Tallulah. And I took home a bag of expensive organic food I can’t get in Creston; ate brilliant lunches and even did some writing. What’s not to like? But it’s hard to leave the farm, especially at this time of year. There’s always something that needs doing, something to plant, something to weed, something to water, even something to pick. Even though it is the middle of June, the garden is bursting with spinach, radishes, lettuce, onions, Chinese cabbage, Swiss chard, and even broccoli. Every morning, I wander with my coffee. There is always a new flower opening. When I am there, the farm becomes the world.
And too often, late at night, unable to sleep, I read. I read about the oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico, albatross chicks starving to death after their parents feed them plastic, mistaking it for fish. I read about peak oil and possible food shortages in the future, about global warming, ice sheets melting in Greenland. This fall, I will fill the shelves again with canning, jars full of dried fruit, and a freezer full of vegetables, fruit and meat. Life continues here as it has for ten thousand years.
And yet I am planning on running away from it all again. Not for long and not soon, but the need to finish the two books I have been slowly working on. So I will try to spend some time in the city in the fall. The essays on land are almost done but the ethics book needs some concentration and time. The farm is a difficult place for a writer. A farm needs to be a community; it needs people, it needs parties and dinners and planning and work. And I need solitude and time to walk and think and write. So I will run away again to the smelly city where life is too easy and the grocery story full of expensive fruit that I would never pay for at home and the library is just down the hill and all the tools I need and want as a writer are there; my friends, books, my writer’s life and all the time my heart will be crying, go home, go home, go home.
The weekend after I got home was full of people: sons, friends, and a lovely long leisurely Sunday morning with all sorts of people dropping by, eating raspberry pancakes and apple cake, then coffee or lemonade and sitting in the (finally) hot sun. Then I drove to Creston and did an exhibition ride at the Therapeutic Riding Centre. People cheered and applauded and my riding instructor asked if I would think about going to the National Therapeutic Riding Centre Dressage test sometime in the future. I immediately said yes, even though I have no idea what this means. But it is a goal to ride towards and a new vision of myself, at 61, as a ‘disabled athlete.’ Hilarious. But fun.
The farm has now acquired an old wood cookstove that will eventually become part of the summer kitchen-shower-bathroom building we will one day build at the beach and a relatively new tractor that will be used for many, many things.
Today the clouds are rolling in a bit but the tomatoes are in flower as are the intensely blue Chinese delphiniums, the purple delphiniums, the white miniature roses, and the pink poppies are ready to ‘pop’. I feel like getting a chair and sitting beside them, quietly cheering.
Monday, May 31, 2010
On many days, the farm is a busy place. People come to garden, to pick vegetables, to help with the harvest, with wood, or apple juice making or butchering. Some of the time I am outside and often, I stay in the house and produce coffee and cake and soup and juice. I don’t mind a traditional role as long as it’s an occasional choice.
The conversation is always about people we know and gardens and dogs and weather. Rarely do larger events intrude. I love the sense of neighbourhood, of community, and I understand the limits that this kind of community includes. This isn't about political or cultural sharing; this is about the work.
But living at the farm also includes an uneasy geographical proximity to people with whom I have nothing in common so that geographical proximity breeds an odd contradiction. A truly ironic example of this happend on the first long weekend in May. I was inside listening to a special on CBC radio on the rapidly melting ice sheet in Greenland and the implications of this for the world’s oceasn. When I went outside, all I could hear was machine noise; weed whackers, lawnmowers, boats, seadoos, chain saws, and long lines of motorcyles and RV’s on the highway. The summer people (who are not neighbours) had arrived.
Once rural community was built on a gift economy. When we were kids, and people came to visit our parents, no one ever left without something, a box of apples, a bottle of wine, or some cookies. Neighbours shared work, food, news, and help. This is still true but now not all people who live nearby are actually neighbours.
Good neighbours are the people who show up when your house is on fire, or the forest is on fire, if your pigs get out, or your dog is sick or you need a ride to town. They come to dinner or just for coffee; something they only come occasionally, but you’re are always glad to see them. Good neighbours invite you over for coffee when you need it; their kids play with your kids; they plow your driveway after a big snow, give you their many different colours of iris corms, or their abundance of whatever they have, vegetables or apples or salad greens.
And of course, geographical neighbours can also be the people whose kids roar up and down the nearest road in their ATVs, who have dogs that bark all night or get off the leash and come over and kill chickens; neighbours who have parties, let off fireworks at night when you are in a sound sleep, spray Roundup in the creek that goes through your pasture where you are raising organic beef, use up all the water in the creek in mid summer when it is most dry, light fires despite a ban, they build fences that are five or ten or fifteen feet in on your land. Such neighbours can be an infernal nuisance.
Neighbours is a contradictory word; community is a warm and fuzzy word but often contains the same contradictions. A community is always close-knit in a crisis because crisis creates community. So does hunger and fear, birth and death, joy and grief. Marriage unites a community but so does gossip, and hatred and love. Rural community was always built on sharing, survival, and necessity and underneath the ephemeral chatter of the present day industrialized suburban nonsense, those bonds still, and always will, exist.
Monday, May 24, 2010
As we paddled into the bay below the hillslope, we kept our eyes on a clump of Douglas Firs a few hundred metres above. Every few minutes, the ravens would erupt in a frenzy of feathers, black sparks against the blue sky. I was already guessing at the motivation of the ravens when a deep hooting confirmed my suspicions: they were mobbing an owl. Hoooooo. Hoo-Hoo, Hooo. Hooo. From the throaty depth of the call and its pattern, I knew this was no mere Barred owl.
Mo and I looked at each other, obviously thinking the same thing: let’s go see. We landed and pulled the canoe up onto the fresh greenery that was sprouting there. I was about to examine the plants along the shore when the ravens erupted again, this time flying quickly to a neighbouring clump of evergreens.
The poor owl, I thought, but didn’t say it. Ravens mob owls for a reason.
We hesitated not because of what we might find but because the slope in front of us was so steep and gnarly with fallen limbs and trees. Plus, we were exhausted from a week of the hard physical labour spring inevitably demands. Still, we couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing the owl and ravens close up. We bushwhacked up slope until we stumbled on a well-trod deer trail. The trail zigzagged up, bringing us right to the clump of tall, girthy trees where the ravens had now been keeping up their raucous vigil for at least 20 minutes. The black birds were obvious to see, all motion and noise but we had to peer diligently into the trees, shifting our position a few times, before we finally spotted the large, buffy shape of the owl. A big one!
“It’s a Great horned owl!” Mo whispered. I trained my binoculars on it. I’d never seen a Great horned owl with such a bright rusty colour around its eyes and such distinctive black ear tufts and parentheses around its face. I was in the process of trying to convince myself that we founded something rare, like a Long-eared owl. It wasn’t.
The owl was sitting, seemingly fairly calmly, a foot from the fat trunk of the fir. Apart from the distinctive full swivel of its head as it kept an eye on us as well as the ravens in the branches around it, the big bird was still. This type of mobbing a is regular, perhaps even weekly occurrence in the life of a predatory bird. What did the Great horned owl make of it? Every few minutes, an individual raven would break free of the mob and actually fly at the owl who would fluff its feathers and shake, as if to discourage some pesky insect. Occasionally, it would give its series of low hoots. A quick look in my bird book revealed that they were fairly well matched in size and weight if not in weapons of claw and bill. The ravens, however, had the advantage of numbers.
My initial pity for the owl was subsiding as I thought about what the ravens were doing. I was assuming that their behaviour was an act of protecting their nestlings or even retaliation for a recent attack but was there something going on here that I couldn’t guess at? Is there such thing as raven principles? A code of behaviour that harkens to solidarity in the face of historic enemies? For example, if the ravens were social and environmental activists protesting a G8 summit, would I even pause to wonder how Stephen Harper or other world wrecking leaders were feeling?
We edged closer. Clearly, the owl was as concerned about our presence as it was about its familiar foes, the ravens. It swooped off its limb in a graceful arc into an adjacent clump of firs. The ravens followed. We went back down slope. By the time we were back out on the Slocan Pool, the mob was calming. Had they made their point? The owl continued to be owl, predatory bird of the forest and the ravens continued to be its potential prey. No one was injured in the making of this film.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the intra-species human analogy I made earlier. As much care is needed in animal-morphizing as in anthropomorphizing. Using animal behaviour to justify human interactions can occasionally lead those of interested in what is "natural" seriously off course sometimes. The conflict between ravens and owls is one based in survival. The conflicts between the military industrial consumer complex and the citizens of the world are a different story altogether.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
I am feeling a bit domesticated these days. My house is not really my house; it’s the farm-house and therefore, all kinds of people wander in and out on a daily basis. My family, my friends, visitors, and various dogs; many days, the teapot fills and empties and is filled again. So therefore, I feel it somewhat behooves me to keep the place at least minimally tidy and in working order; consequently I have new drapes, courtesy of my friend, Yvette, a new floor, courtesy of my brother and sister-in-law, and a new lawn mower, courtesy of my son. All a bit amazing to watch!
I have never been a house person. As a child, for me to be given a choice between being outdoors and in was no choice at all. I was almost always outside. The house was a place to eat and sleep and read. My mother looked after the house. Talk of decorating and renovating was an immediate excuse to flee.
But – I have this house. The house seems to always want things, drapes and flooring and cleaning and furniture. Occasionally, on my way home from buying groceries and chicken feed, I wander into the local hardware store and wander, lost and marveling, up and down the aisles. What a lot of stuff one can buy for a house. I stand, marveling, in front of the appliances, coffee maker, blenders and food processors. I can’t believe I am doing this. I hate stuff. I am an anti-consumer. But there I am, staring at stuff. The house is making me do it.
Louis, who is nine, is coming to the farm again for the summer. Lately, he has been talking about a TV show he watches, in which a group of kids are attempting to survive in the wilderness. We have decided we will play survivor on the beach this summer. At night, as he goes to sleep, we have conversations about what we can take with us. Are sleeping bags okay? Yes, he decides. Can I take my Swiss Army knife? A pot, teabags, salt and butter?
I know where this leads. I’ve packed up many a picnic for the beach. The amount of stuff needed to produce just one meal is formidable.
When I was a kid, I loved the idea of surviving outside. I had many and various hideouts on the mountain above the farm. Often, especially in the spring or fall, I would take some matches, a can of beans out of the pantry and my trusty hatchet, and head up there just for the sheer delight of making lunch on my own. There were two books in particular that I loved and read over and over; Two Little Savages, by Ernest Thompson Seton, and My Side of the Mountain, by Julie Craighead George, which were about kids who lived in the woods and did it well. I never quite lived outside, but I always liked to think that I could, if I had to.
But at sixty, a teacher and writer, I find myself stuck in the house far more than I would like. And I am completely amazed to find that I am actually learning to care for this house; learning how much time and energy and stuff it takes to keep a modern house functioning. And this isn’t a big middle class house. This is a small log house on a farm, with a woodstove.
And outside -- lawn, garden, mowing, pruning trimming. Yikes.
I have often said and it is true, that I belong to this place where I live, far more than it belongs to me. It has mothered and fathered me and made me what I am and for that, I am always utterly grateful. But belonging to a place, versus owning a place; belonging to a place versus being owned by a place; or being owned by possessions, being possessed by my sense of ownership, versus simply having enough things to function comfortably, are very, very different ideas and states of being.
I don’t want to own this place, but more than that, I don’t want my sense of connection to be transformed into one where the place owns me. It is a gift from fate that I have the chance to be here in this beauty; to share the gift of the non-human lives around me, to balance my choice to be here with the care that I give the house and the garden in order to maintain them in beauty as well. It’s an enormous and important distinction, a whole universe of value, between belonging, and owning.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Apparently, one of the natural reactions to the death of a loved one is to feel as if you should go looking for them. I think about this, driving to town for groceries. I think, “I should go see my mom,” and then I think, oh no, I lost her. Where did she go?
What an odd expression for death. We lose our loved ones, they don’t just die, they are lost to us, we can’t find them, they’re not so much dead as wandering in some unknown and unfathomable wilderness and the wilderness itself is lost.
I think about this, wandering the farm. So much is lost, so much is present, so much is being created for the future. It’s always in process.
I walk by the dog graveyard. After I lost my old dog, I had a clear and comforting vision of him running with the other ‘lost dogs’, running and barking at the coyotes, as he used to do, and happy to be out of his crippled body and into one that let him be free. It was comforting because his ghost didn’t hang around, whimpering and scratching at the door, as he did when he began to grow deaf and then blind and then panicky if his head wasn’t right by my foot. Dead, he didn’t seem to need me at all.
When I walk by the chicken shed my father built, I think of my dad and his endless work, and now my father is ‘lost’ too, although his voice stays in my head and his influence still shapes the whole family.
The old paths in the pasture are still faintly there, lost here as well, my childhood, there is the rock where I used to lead Lady, my stubborn barely trained first horse, so I could leap on her back and we could pretend to lead galloping cavalry charges up the hill. Lost now to the new pond and trees is the big rock that was once an elephant I could ride on, or a castle or even a spaceship. Wandering the pasture is always an exercise in nostalgia.
The difficulty with staying in one place for so long is this overlaying of the past and the present; when our dad died and my brother and I began rebuilding the farm, we agreed that it was hard for us to see what could be changed, because of these layers of memory, this sense of what our grandfather and our father had laid down as templates. Although it’s easier for my brother; his giant machines can wipe out years of memories in a few moments but both he and I see things as they were as well as how they are and that can be more than a little confusing sometimes for outsiders.
Walking here, I am always a little bit lost in time. Some days I walk with my mother at my shoulder. Every day, she and I walked to the lake together and home again for tea. Now, I walk with my grandchildren, who will make their own memories in whatever form they want. It is odd for me to think that they will not know my parents, who are still so present for me, and how easily lost are the stories and memories and history even of this place, where I work at maintaining our history, and where every family dinner is an occasion for the same stories to be recounted over and over, each time with a new layer added.
But that’s why I am a writer and that is the gift of this great circular grief and joy of lost and found, lost loved ones, found memories, found stories, levels and layers and the ground of history.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Like Luanne Armstrong, in her blog entry “Beat,” I’ve been listening to my heart as well. But it isn’t the physical heart that I’m trying to tune into, it’s that metaphorical heart, the one Reverend Master Koten alludes to, the one that supposed to let me know how to make the appropriate decisions in life. After seven months in Ontario, caring for my ailing elderly parents, I returned home to these Columbia mountains that shelter my kind, and collapsed. I felt like a sheaf of wheat that had had its string cut; the pieces of me have been strewn about ever since, pell mell, in the sun and in the rain. I putter around the land, stopping to catch my breath, wondering at my exhaustion and then remembering: we’re at elevation here and everywhere the paths are steep. Seven months: was that all it took for my body to forget what it takes to live in these mountains? And though my body is out of practice, it’s really my mind that’s given way, relaxed the tight string of the daily demands on a caregiver.
And mostly, it’s okay. This piece of Earth has always received me well. But sometimes
I pause and think: I should start picking up those sprigs of wheat soon, make up the sheaf again. It was in one of those moments that I wrote the Reverend Master. Ten days of wandering from land partner’s house to land partner’s house mewing to be fed started feeling uncomfortable. The least I could do is make meals for myself again. I picked up that sprig of wheat but continued to look at the rest of them with bewilderment. What do I want to pick up? What of my old life feels appropriate? I feel paralysed to make decisions. How does one tell the difference between the desire of the heart and those of “emotions, wishes or ideals” anyway?
And so I listen, not quite sure what I’m listening for. My heart feels naked and lost, bobbing out in the sea with no land or ships in sight. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lostness is a place of fertile possibility if one can avoid panic. Knowing why I’m lost is helpful. There’s nothing quite as disorienting, as heartbreaking, as watching a parent lose their mind and turn into a kind of child before one’s very eyes. Dementia calls for very concrete action in terms of care, but subconsciously, another process is taking place, re-ordering the known world of my psyche.
Rebecca Solnit writes in her “Field Guide to Getting Lost” that “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery…And one does not get lost but loses oneself… a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.” So, basically, I’ve come home to the piece of the Earth I know the most intimately in order to get lost. Here, I realize, it feels safe to be lost. Each tree seems like an old, kindly friend. There were very nice trees – oaks, maples, hemlocks, ash, pines - in Ontario; why does this particular forest possess such nurturing benevolence for me?
And so, I give myself over to lostness. Simply. And try to pacify my mind that wants to command this situation – well, to be perfectly honest, every situation. I practice listening, waiting for the metaphorical thumps that make up the beat.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
It shouldn’t keep me awake but it does. Thump, thump, thump, ka-thump. Regular, still regular. I check it. I have spent the last year and a half with a heartbeat that went ka-thump, rrr, ka-ka-ka, thump,thump, ka-thump and other variations. If I walked up a hill, even a tiny one, I stopped, waited for my racing heart to catch up to itself.
It’s called atrial fibrillation; it’s surprisingly common, especially among older people. Some people even have it without knowing. Atrial fibrillation is also easy to fix but because I live in the country, because waiting lists for minor stuff are now lengthy in Canadian medicine, and because, the last time it happened, it looked from the outside anyway, as if I could at least still function, it took far too long to get into an emergency ward where under the supervision of a cardiologist, they could attach defibrillation paddles and shock my heart back into regularity.
And then finally they did and I could go back to having my life again.
But now I wait with some trepidation for the damn thing to unshock itself, and go back into stuttering and blipping and stumbling along.
And I listen to it. I would rather not. I lie in bed at night and I can feel my body vibrating in different places. I can hear the blood squishing through various veins and arteries. I don’t know why it bangs so hard at night or even at various times during the day. I talk to my heart; I want it to be contented and even and regular. I soothe it. Things are fine, I say. Life is good. Dear heart, I am happy. (sometimes true, sometimes a lie. I lie to my heart.) I tell my heart anyway, hoping to pacify it. Calm, I think, easy there, like soothing a horse.
The first time it happened to me, I was working at a difficult job and in the middle of a difficult separation. My life was a mess. My kids were almost grown up and leaving home, leaving me. When my heart started blipping and stuttering, I ignored it. I felt it was right I should have a broken heart. In fact, I did have a broken heart. Someone finally dragged me off to Emergency, where they stuck me in a bed, stuck electrodes all over me and forbid me to move. I slept for a while and once the electrodes were off, spent most of my time in the cafeteria, drinking coffee and noodling miserably in my journal until after four or five days, they fixed it and sent me home.
I wrote that experience off until the next time, ten years later. This time I was lying in bed, in the middle of the night, wide awake, worrying about my family, my parents, our farm, which was for sale, my children, and my complicated future. This time my heart gave a sudden lurch and began to stutter and blip like a motor that wouldn’t quite start. Resignedly, I went off to the city, wandered into the local Emergency Ward. There was far less fuss this time, they slapped the electrodes on, knocked me, and sent me home. I walked home and slept for a couple of hours, got up and went back to work for the rest of the day.
This last time, it happened as I was getting out of bed. I was feeling fine. Everything was fine except my heart wouldn’t work. It was November. I had now been at the farm, now my farm, for three years. Every morning, I got up, dizzy, waited for the dizziness to pass, went and lit the fire, fed the cows, came in, sat down, still dizzy, reluctant to move. But then it was spring and then it was summer. There were things to do, things that had to be done, no matter how down-hearted I might be.
All summer, while I stumbled up hills and tried to keep up with the garden, too tired at night sometimes to even be alive, my heart and I discussed metaphors. Weak hearted, I scolded it, half-hearted, broken hearted. It’s my heart, I thought. Why doesn’t it hear me? Why won’t it fix itself?
I wanted to have a full heart, a strong heart, a brave heart, not this foolish stuttering heart that quailed at every effort. I wanted to have my heart in my work, not avoiding it. Somehow I couldn’t keep my mind on work when my heart wasn’t inside it somewhere, chugging sturdily along. I wanted to have the heart of a lion, not the heart of a lettuce.
And then finally, the hospital in Vancouver called, and off I went, yet again, to the smiling busy nurses and the brisk cardiologist and then zap, and home I went with a high head and a heart of what? My heart leapt up—my heart was cast down, a heart made of elastic and electricity. Heart like a wheel on fire. Heart of my heart.
It’s odd to be aware of my heart, as I am, like always sitting in a silent room with a ticking clock, not only time ticking away but the endless motion of things inside me that I would rather take for granted, breath and blood and muscles and decay. In bed at night, I turn over and no matter how I arrange myself, my errant treacherous heart beats in my fingertips, my neck, my legs, swooshes in my ears, whispers, I am here, I am still here.
And so we are.