Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Animals Come Back by K.L.Kivi

I caught the glimpse of black out of the corner of my eye. I spun to where the dark form had likely taken refuge – under the old aluminium canoe painted in faux birch bark – and seeing nothing, I stepped closer. A mere hint of a small nose appeared from under the edge of the boat and quickly withdrew.

“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

Solitude: by Luanne Armstrong

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?

And in all the stories of early pioneer days, there are always stories of hermits, recluses, people who chose to live alone with almost no human contact. On the hill just to the north of our farm are the remains of a man named Bill Haley, who lived very much alone with only a herd of goats for company. But there are lots of other stories in our area of people who had left family or friends to live alone. It was the pioneer era, and so many people were naturally separated from everything they had known.

I have often wondered how that was bearable for some people. What was it like, in the days when a letter took three to six months to arrive, for people to be separated for the rest of their lives from everything they had once known as familiar and dear? And I know it still goes on but at least, e-mail is now almost instantaneous.

Research reports that prisoners stuck in solitary confinement go crazy fairly quickly. What happens to people who voluntarily choose solitude – to monks in caves, hermits in their wilderness? Herd animals in zoos separated from their natural habitat and their natural companions also go crazy pretty quickly – we’re not much different than them.

Human beings are animals who live in groups; we live in families, tribes, clans, communities. The more I read novels, the more convinced I am that the basic human plot, at the centre of all of our stories, is the unbinding and rebinding of a sense of family. John Gardner, a famous novelist and writing teacher, said that there are only two plots in all of literature: someone comes to town or someone leaves town. Very much the same thing. Because human beings desperately need to be with other people and often have an equally hard time getting along with them, the endless human saga is full of the push and pull of people leaving their families and then coming home again or leaving one family and forming another kind of family.

In my case, I have briefly left a very full chaotic, and rewarding life, full of people, animals, plants and community, at my farm, for one that has had mostly only books, words, language and writing in it. Despite all the best gadgets of modern communication: internet, email, Facebook, phone, I still felt alone. Electronic people are not the same as real people. My electronic students, however brilliant, are not the same as living, breathing bodies in a classroom.

It was a productive time, in terms of writing, no question, but one can only live with words and idea for so long. After that, I, at least, need people, need voices, need contact. And I also need to be outside, with animals, plants and the living, breathing world. Here in Saskatchewan, I did go for long walks and soaked up the smells and sights and sounds of the prairie, a place I really only know from stories about it.

The future vision that some science fiction writers have had, of people living in self-contained rooms, surrounded by electronic toys, is so impossible that it is almost funny. People simply wouldn’t survive like that, or at least, not for long. I believe that many of the problems of modern life are caused by sheer human loneliness, people who no longer have sane and structured human contact. By this, I don’t mean the right wing vision of rigid and hierarchical nuclear families, where initiative, ideas and creativity are stifled. But of families that nurture, sustain and care for each other. I am quite sure they exist and they are still the best way for people to live. When they work.

For most of its history, humanity has lived in small groups of two to three hundred people and evolved distinct ways for such groups to get along. The survival of our ancestors depended on such communal understanding. We no longer no know much about this because now because we believe we always have the choice to leave. But for those of us who have chosen to stay in one place, take care of the place we love and the people who live there with us, leaving is never a choice at all. And maybe that is a very good thing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Belonging by Luanne Armstrong

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?