Kayaking in the snow

I must confess that I dedicate no inconsiderable portion of my time to other people’s thoughts. I dream away my life in others’ speculations. I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading, I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.
From “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” by Charles Lamb, 1822

So there we were at the far end of Maligne Lake south of Jasper just last week.

We left on a Monday morning from the boat ramp at the end of the long road from Jasper, the calm water reflecting the stunning mountains that surround the lake. One of the classic images on postcards advertising the beauties of the park. Turquoise water, a tonsure of conifers and the grey stone twisting its way into the sky. Barely any snow.

Maligne day one (600x450)

As we sorted and dithered and stuffed our food, tent, sleeping bags, thermarests, tarps, clothes, camera, books, water bottles, cooking gear and toilet paper into the resistant nooks and crannies only a kayak hatch can create, we worried. The forecast was not good – some sun, yes, but rain, too. And it was cool. About 10 degrees.

Finally loaded, booted, spray-skirted, life-jacketed, a big cooking pot at my feet, a bag of wine between my legs, we departed. There’s a funny weightlessness to kayaking (until you try to haul yourself up and out). You are tucked into a boat loaded with all the stuff you feel you need to survive and you’re floating. The boat becomes your lower body, your arms as long as the paddles. It’s a lovely feeling once you’re underway.

The 24-km trip down to Coronet Creek was long, but uneventful. No rain, little wind and a couple of easy landings for rests and food. The water was so calm, we were able to cut across some of the bays to shorten the paddle. What could be better? Our kayaks floated, our bodies more or less worked, and the weatheLeaving Coronet (600x450)r cooperated. An osprey, a noisy family of Clark’s nutcrackers and those mountains. Here in the Bulkley Valley, the mountains are mostly gentle, rounded by glaciation. A few sharper peaks rise dramatically to heights that weren’t covered by the great ice sheet that filled the valley anywhere from twenty to forty thousand years ago. But those Rockies! Paddling through the jagged explosion of stone, it’s easy to visualize the Pacific Terrane inexorably moving into what is now Alberta, pushing and pushing until the rock shuddered, twisted and shattered, throwing those impossible peaks into the air. About 85 million years ago. Everything is insignificant in the shadow of those mountains.

Of course, it’s still happening – the movement that is. Our continents are really stone plates riding on top of earth’s molten core. Deep in Jules Verne territory. You can believe almost anything geological as you paddle down Maligne Lake, every few kilometres revealing a new view, our heads turning to trace new contours.

 

Maligne Day One through the narrows (600x429)

Coronet Creek itself creates an alluvial fan treed with scrubby conifers, Labrador tea, willow and juniper. We pull ashore, haul ourselves out and begin to set up camp. We’re good at this, each of us doing a series of tasks in sync with the others. The campsite is basic – some tent platforms, an outhouse, a few picnic tables and food lockers (we’re actually more accustomed to wilderness camping, but this is a national park). By the time it starts to rain, we’re all done and gather with the other campers under our tarps: Ontario honeymooners on their third canoe trip here; a grandfather, son and grandson whose family have been fishing the lake for decades; and two mountain guides from Jasper on a busman’s holiday.

Coronet Creek (600x450)We trade stories under the din of rain on tarps, drink a little wine, eat our various dinners and go to bed early, hunkering into the pockets of heat and cold a down sleeping bag creates. We don’t need our head lamps to read because we’re only a week away from the solstice.

It was with some uncertainty I embarked upon the book I’d brought along – Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon, a memoir about life with his severely disabled son: Walker Henry Schneller Brown. I was immediately transplanted into a world whose difficulties made my unease in a tent on the cold shores of Maligne Lake shrink into insignificance. Afflicted with the very rare cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC), Walker is unable to communicate, is fed through a stomach tube and, as he gets older, begins to beat himself so badly he needs to wear a helmet and tubes on his arms that don’t allow him to bend his elbows. Within a few paragraphs, we enter the long dark tunnel of loving this boy.

Brown leaves no emotion – guilt, anger, resentment, joy, awe – unexamined. He explores the ways we deal with such children, the ways they have been cared for, neglected or abused over the centuries, the unlocking of the human genome and what it might mean if all “defective” fetuses can be aborted, theories about how the interrelationship between the brain and the external world produce the mind, strategies to provide for children post parental death. He pins down every sugary sentiment and excoriates it. While he finds that being in the presence of and caring for people with such disabilities does teach us a lot about ourselves, he rejects the idea that these children are somehow “sent” to teach us. Rather, he argues, they are truly human, like all of us. They are on their way to becoming who they are and, like all of us, are vulnerable creatures faced with death. This is why they scare so many of us. They remind us, he says, of our own vulnerability and mortality:

I do not see the face of the Almighty in Walker. Instead, I see the face of my boy; I see what is human, and lovely and flawed at once. Walker is no saint and neither am I. I can’t bear to watch him bash himself every day, but I can try to understand why he does it. The more I struggle to face my limitations as a father, the less I want to trade him. Not just because we have a physical bond, a big simple thing; not just because he’s taught me the difference between a real problem and a mere complaint; not just because he makes me more serious, makes me appreciate time and Hayley and my wife and friends, and all the sweetness that one day ebbs away. I have begun simply to love him as he is, because I’ve discovered I can; because we can be who we are, weary dad and broken boy, without alteration or apology, in the here and now. The relief that comes with such a relationship still surprises me. There is no planning with this boy. I go where he goes.

The questions people with severe disabilities are always asking, he surmises are: Do you consider me human? Can I trust you? Do you love me? The technology most desired are electric wheelchairs, he discovers. Not for the mobility they offer, but because they enable their users to go toward the people they love and stay away from the people they don’t like.

I thought about Brown’s family all the next day as we hiked up to the waterfalls on Coronet Creek, as I baked cinnamon buns over the spirit stove, cooked spinach fettuccine for dinner. The temperature never rose much above 12 degrees and on the few occasions our shadows appeared we stopped and rolled our tired shoulders in delight.

The book finishes with a scene in one of many hospital visits. Brown is waiting with Walker for an MRI appointment when the boy has a seizure.

I held him in my arms as quietly as I could, and I thought: this is what it will be like if he dies. It will be like this. There was nothing much to do. I didn’t fear it. I was already as close as I could be to him; there was no space between my son and me, no gap or air, no expectation or disappointment, no failure or success: only what he was, a swooned boy, my silent sometimes laughing companion, and my son. I knew I loved him, and I knew he knew it. I held that sweetness in my arms, and waited for whatever was going to happen next. We did that together.

Anyone who has an ill child has felt that sweetness, that exhausted ending of fear and the sinking into a place where waiting is all there is. Waiting and love.

The Boy in the Moon is an excruciating book, but as I lay in the tent on our last night at the far end of the lake and listened to snow rustle on the fly, wondering just how difficult the paddle back to the other end of Maligne Lake would be, wondering if we were going to be turned back like the young couple the day before when the waves broke over the gunwales of their canoe, I was strangely comforted by the book. I heard Brown’s voice as I tried to sleep. I heard him as we listened to the wind gusting down from those ragged mountains. As we set out into snow flurries to paddle back.

Leaving Fisherman's Camp (600x450)I thought about Walker as we braced against the headwind that hit us as we tried to paddle through the lake’s narrow waist. I dug in deep, remembering the insights Brown came to on his family’s difficult journey. And the work of paddling was lightened. We laughed when the wind finally turned and we unfurled our umbrellas to sail back to our usual comforts, our familiar thoughts, our ordinary lives. Our journey had been, for us, an adventure with just enough difficulty and uncertainty to give it an edge. But my journey with Ian Brown took me beyond the small difficulties into a wildness as earth-shattering as the mountains themselves.

Like Charles Lamb, I love to lose myself in the minds of others, especially when they contain the fierce and compassionate intellect of a man like Brown, who also happens to write beautifully.

Thank you, Ian Brown. And thank you, Walker.

 

Anne on Day Three (600x450)

 

Revisiting Canyon Creek

For many years now, I’ve been invited to accompany students from Jonathan Boone’s First Nations Studies class at the Bulkley Valley Christian School on a tour  that includes the homesite referenced in Canyon Creek: A Script. We travel a path following the Telkwa-Morictown Highroad (the old Bulkley Valley Road and part of the Collins Overland Telegraph route), dipping down to Canyon Creek, then up Jollymore Road to Jack and Elizabeth Joseph’s old cabin. From there we can look across a big swamp, some aspen bush to the fields below what’s known locally as the Baptiste Reserve, the place where one Wet’suwet’en, John Baptiste, successfully prevented eviction from his homesite.

Along the way, I usually pull out the 1913 township map, Canyon Creek Mary’s Wet’suweten family tree, a typed transcript from the 1915 testimony given to the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs by John Baptiste, Tyee Lake David, Big Pierre, Tyee Lake Abraham, Round Lake Tommy, Moose Skin Johnny and Jimmy Thomas, son of Canyon Creek Mary and Thomas (Jack Joseph is listed as the translator) and my notes from interviews done while writing the book.

We read the book together, point out features on the landscape (the path of the old trail the Wet’suwet’en used to connect their properties, the site of the burned-out house, the old root-cellar) and talk. Over those years, Jonathan Boone has made a tremendous effort to inform his mostly non-native students about the history of the Wet’suwet’en upon whose territory our community is built.

This year I was especially pleased to accompany students from the Moricetown
I Count High School on this, what is for me, a pilgrimage.

Icount 1 (600x400)

As we stretched out the very long genealogy chart, some of the students recognized family names. Others remembered stories about Jack Joseph’s capture of the bank robber.

j joseph's cabine 2 (600x400)

 

 

 

We usually end our trip at the old Joseph house, still standing after, I suspect, more than one hundred years. Jack and Elizabeth had thirteen children altogether – let’s hope some of the kids had grown and moved out before the littlest ones came along!

 

 

cabin again (600x400)

Things are definitely changing along the old Bulkley Valley road, slow as those changes might seem. Thanks to the staff and students for asking me to accompany them for a few steps on their journey.

On folding a rowboat

My chapbook of poetry – The Bathymetry of Lax Kwaxl – is being launched, quite literally, into the Bulkley River this coming weekend – the day before Mother’s  Day by chance. We are going to fold the poems into boats and send them down on their way to Prince Rupert. As we made plans for the launch I remembered this piece I wrote many years ago to honour my mother, who still lives beside the beach where we gather to swim – she’s coming up to 92 years old. “On Folding a Rowboat” was published in a Prince Rupert anthology called North Coast Collected (thanks to Jean Rysstad for choosing it) in the early 1990s.

sheila and boys (426x640)I sat at my kitchen table laboriously folding an origami rowboat. I had bought a book demonstrating the nautical equivalent of the art of folding paper airplanes. Ostensibly for my children, the book was really for me. I love following the instructions, figuring out the folds and angles, producing a perfectly engineered ship from a leftover scrap of paper.

I needed an excuse, however. A Mother’s Day present lay waiting to be wrapped, and I decided to decorate it with paper boats. So, naturally, I started thinking about water, my mother, and – inevitably – swimming.

I was a child and the sea was home to my body. Its salt supported me as I thrashed my way to buoyancy; it cleansed my scrapes and cuts; it washed illness away. My mom never took us to the beach and said, “Now, don’t get wet.” Yes, I have seen this, have heard parents tell their children they can’t go swimming because they have a cold. Or it wasn’t warm enough.

Why were they there, I wondered, if not to swim? To torment their children? I was an adult before I understood that people go to the beach for reasons other than swimming.

My family firmlybull kelp (200x300) believed that swimming in the ocean, even in cool water, was a tonic; refreshing and curative. It would certainly never cause any harm.

Perhaps I should clarify here that it was my mom’s family, weaned on North Sea beaches, that made the summer evening trips down the terraced streets of Powell River to the beach. Since we lived farthest away, my mom would begin the walk with just the three of us kids in tow. On the way down towards the water we would pick up Granny, and sometimes Grandpa, and then join our aunt and her three children at the beach just below her house. But the sons-in-law, men who worked outside on log booms summer and winter, day shift and night shift, were intent on keeping their bodies out of the salt chuck; it would take more than a warm, idle summer evening to re-route those neural paths.

Unnecessary modesty was scorned on these outings. We changed behind boulders or the massive roots of beached cedars, struggling to pull clothes over damp salty skin before a shielding towel fell or was blown away. My grandfather would change beneath a towel even at the most public beach on a Saturday afternoon. One summer, while his wife was back in Scotland, my mom had to force him to buy a new bathing suit; his old one was so full of holes it was no longer decent. In his late seventies at that time, thin, wrinkled, and almost blind, he appeared the next day in brilliant blue satin trunks, their cut clearly intended for young hunks. It was, I think, his last bathing suit.

As I grew and was exposed to a wider array of summer social activities, I was astonished to discover that many people didn’t like to swim at all, and of those who did, most preferred lakes. As wealth grew, swimming pools.

As for myself, I have never trusted fresh water. Not even swimming pools. The sight of small children toddling along the slippery tiles, a stumble away from eight or ten unforgiving feet of bleached water, makes me cringe. What will happen if I leave before their sundazed parents wake up? Or if the lifeguard is distracted by a teenage commotion?

But watching children play beside the ocean is as comforting as seeing tshorebirds (260x300)hem curled up, dozing in the sun against salty women’s skin.

The beach at the bottom of Third Avenue where we used to swim was protected and benign. I could not fall in off the edge; at high tide there were no sudden drops, just enough slope so the water got comfortably deep before I was too far away from my mom for reassurance. The ocean could not carry me off because each wave pushed me back to shore. Its secrets were revealed at every tide’s ebb, its furtive crabs and limp slippery weeds, its smooth stones and gravel washed twice daily, as orderly as my own ablutions.

There were no rip tides, no undercurrents, just waves, logs to ride and dive from, and buoyant salt cradling young bodies. It seemed to me the only people the ocean claimed were those foolish enough to go too far from shore, and then what could you expect? Storms, too much drink, holes in boats, these killed people. Not swimming.

Because we live so far from the ocean now, and my need for immersion is so strong, my children learned to swim in lakes. But growing comfortable with lakes has taken me years. There were oceans for swimming and puddles for puddling. On the clearest calmest day the ocean never reflected anything but fractured light. Lakes, being fresh water, were closer, in my family’s pantheon, to puddles. Not entirely clean and reflecting a different kind of light. A child peering in, wonders how deep is this puddle, are my rubber boots tall enough or will the water rise to slip over the rims? Then seeing the whole sky waiting in that calm reflection, the depth unimaginable, the child teeters terrified at the edge while feeling that pull down, down into the sky.

2013-07-16 Casey at Beaumont Lake 001 (2) (600x400)Haslam Lake, one of the lakes of my childhood, was like that. Still, limpid water reflected trees that crept right up and hung over its edges.

As for unclean, well, it’s not really fair to call Haslam Lake dirty – it supplied much of the town with wonderful drinking water. But when I was younger and still afraid of lakes, its squishy bottom, sludged stones, and logs dead beneath the accumulation of eons sent a ripple of distaste up my spine. Like cold, greasy cutlery at the bottom of a sink full of forgotten dishwater.

To avoid the ooze, we’d swim at a gravelly patch of shoreline resembling the seashore at high tide. And here the lake revealed its true nature; it was a cheap trick, a watery imitation lacking substance and buoyancy. Floating took effort; concentration wavered into floundering panic. All confidence in my fledgling dog paddle dissolved in flailing, sputtering indignity. Because of this, I disliked lakes. As well as muddy, tangled with weeds, hiding leeches of legendary awfulness, they were mean-spirited and dangerous.

Sometimes my mom took us to Haslam Lake fishing – not often, but once or twice. We’d rent a rowboat from a man with goats – the only person who lived on the lake. He must have lived there for years, before people worried about water supplies and had referendums on fluoridation. We rented the rowboat for forty cents an hour, $1 for two and a half hour’s fishing. Plenty of time.

I don’t remember anyone catching fish. Mom would tell one of us to be ready to take her line if the fisheries officers came by, but I never saw a fisheries officer deal with anything as insignificant as fresh water until I moved here to the Bulkley Valley, where salmon and those elusive steelhead battle their way beyond the tides, past the jealousy and treachery of fishermen and sloughing riverbanks.

The road to Haslam Lake was gravel and darkened by overhanging alder and salmonberry bushes. Above this impenetrable barrier the cedar and hemlock pressed in. Other roads led off to marshy Duck Lake and beyond to the preserves of more serious outdoorsmen. But the road to Haslam Lake curved left past the filtration dam, past the goat farm. It wasn’t a real farm, just a shack on a strip of land between the lake and the road, a strip of stumps and logs strewn across bright mossy grass cropped close by the goats. The goats would assume crazy perches on the stumps and run nimbly through the debris as we drove down to the dock of silvered boards.

When we were a little older, we’d ride our bikes up to Haslam Lake to fish or swim on our own. Later still, equipped with driver’s licenses, we’d drive up there in our robin’s egg blue 1960 Vauxhall station wagon with forty (“count them!” we’d laugh) horsepower. It was our first car. My mom and all of us kids learned to drive in it.

Braver now, we’d follow a narrow path to swim back beneath a rocky bluff. This was the place where Neil Mackenzie dove and broke his neck like in a gruesome summer safety film strip. Or was it his back? But he lived and walked and married and has children – I never did understand about broken necks and backs – I always thought it was instant death or paralysis, and yet there are people alive and seemingly well…

We measured our nerve, our maturity, against swimming holes. Powell Lake was a step up. It was a home fit for all the monsters of a child’s imagining. Swollen by a dam and spotted with deadheads, it was deep, prehistorically deep. Some claimed that there was salt water trapped at the bottom beneath layers and layers of unmoving lake water. And I remember hearing there were spots where they couldn’t find the bottom at all. I would imagine skillful, serious men out there in a rowboat, paying out mile after tedious mile of thin line, taut and heavy as it was pulled down into the sky reflected in the lakecalm surface.

Let’s face it. Lakes are creepy.

But they’re amateur freshwater villains compared to silent, sliding rivers. My children play beside and fish in the Bulkley River, one that has claimed many lives on its sweep to Prince Rupert. There are countless stories of fishermen slipping off its treacherous rocks; a mother’s nightmares lurk beneath the mercury sheen of its water.

There is a story of a woman parking on the river bank across the road from a pay phone. Leaving her sleeping two-year-old in the back seat to make a short call, she returned minutes later to find his footprints on the other side of the car, leading to the edge of the ice.

They never found him.

I remember reading another story of a man, helpless, watching his young son slip off a bridge into a river just east of here. He, too, was lost.

I know these sound like stories invented by nervous mothers to frighten children into obedience. But they were reported in the local paper; they are not parents’ imagined terrors. No imaginings can outdo what really happens.

So I clutch my children’s hands as we stand and peer off bridges and cliffs into the river to see spawning salmon. And, as they grow older, I try to swallow my fear and recreate the same waterside peace my mom gave to me. One spring day I had to walk away as their father stood with them on a bridge throwing stones into the creek far below – walk away with my hands shoved deep into pockets to keep from grabbing them, pulling them from the edge.

You see, lakes are bad enough, but I’ve had no practice with real rivers, no practice at all. Powell River, the town, has no seriously moving water. There were only two bridges I can recall, both over rivers dammed to produce hydroelectricity for the pulp and paper mill. One spanned the memory of Powell River itself, swallowed between the dam above the mill and the brooding lake. The other crossed the shrivelled remnants of Eagle River on the south end of the forty miles of highway between Lund and the ferry out of town, the boundaries of our restlessness. Eagle River drained a chain of lakes filled with ghostly trees, erect and dead in the water.

kitselas canyon (450x600)Below the dam, what remained of the river trickled through swimming holes joined by waterfalls, surrounded by cliffs. This is where we came when hormones sent us jangling down the highway on summer afternoons. By then we were crammed into a friend’s Volkswagen, listening to Paul McCartney’s “Lalalalalalalovely Linda.”

It was upstream in this same river, in a frigid pool, in the tumble of huge debris just below the dam, that we proved our sophistication by swimming naked. Perhaps swimming is overstating it. The leap from rocks to water lasted longer than the panicked scramble to reach shore and huddle shivering under towels.

But behind these tame river adventures was the knowledge the warning horn could go off at any second signalling a release of water from the dam, turning the emasculated trickle into its true river self, a spectacle none of us had witnessed.

The fear was real. One time we climbed back through the bush to the dam itself and walked across. No hand railings shielded us from the bulk of water it restrained, from the terror of the long concrete sweep to the sharp jumble of boulder far below. So we played with one ear alert for freshwater treachery.

I never did hear that horn, and I realize now there was little likelihood of ever hearing it in the dryness of summer. But who thought of such things then? The town faced the ocean and its water levels were as predictable as the moon. We had no knowledge of the ways of rivers.

So, the familiar ocean was where we went for safety, to hide from adults, light fires, talk, drink and swim in the warm black summer phosphorescence. The beach was a path you could walk without fear of ever getting lost.

Every family has its rituals for reassurance. In ours, getting dunked is matter of ceremony and virtue. There are clear rules, procedures. If one toe goes in the water, the rest of the body must follow. Or rather, if you get your bathing suit on and go down to the beach, you have to get wet, even if you don’t stay in.

I do my best to maintain this tradition, and make a point of swimming wherever I can. I have swum in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, the Aegean and the Andaman, the Gulf of Mexico and the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay and the Adriatic, the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian, the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Malaspina, the Gulf of California whitesand island (300x225)and the Yucatan Canal, Hecate Strait and Desolation Sound. Overcoming my freshwater prejudices, I have swum in Lakes Ontario, Huron, and Superior, though I’m afraid of the polluted soup of Lake Erie. (If its water had been salt, however, I may well have held my nose and swam.) I have shrieked and shivered in countless glacial streams and lakes. I have even swum in back eddies of the Bulkley River, though I cannot bear to watch my family fish at its edge.

I have a friend who shares this desire to swim in every body of water that presents itself. We used to have our most intense conversations treading water out beyond the reach of our children splashing on the shore. But they too are getting old enough to swim out and join us in talk, comfortable even in fresh water.

When we go to visit my mom, who now lives right at the ocean’s edge, I laugh as my children make disgusted faces at the taste of salt; I laugh as they delight in its generous buoyancy, push heavy logs free with the help of the encroaching tide and ride them on the wonderful warm (well, once you get used to it!) southeasterly waves.

All of us go in with my mom, in the evening before dinner. It is ridiculous, this virtue we make of swimming. But we still stand, exhilarated and salty, shaking our heads in astonishment at the fact that although there are dozens of houses along the choice waterfront, the beach is empty. And later, my mom, still in her bathing suit, stands dripping on a towel in the kitchen, mashing the potatoes that boiled while we swam. For a moment, the quiet clutch of fear that underscores all the pleasures of spawning children relaxes in the aftermath of ritual in my mom’s house beside the ocean.

A wonderful community

group with sheila

Shafted: A Mystery launch at the Smithers Art Gallery, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014

In his song, Well May the World Go, Pete Seeger says, “Find a part of the world that you really like and stick to it.” Sometimes it’s tempting to move south, to go back to the coast, to start somewhere completely new. But not last Friday evening when we gathered to celebrate the launch of my latest book, Shafted: A Mystery.

It was so warm, we opened every window and door in the art gallery. Forests to the south and east were on fire and the main highway was closed. People were stocking up on gas and groceries, worried about cell phone service and hydro lines.

When the back country is burning, setting out chairs for a book launch feels frivolous. As people walk out into the warm evening, the sky tinged with smoke, they are worried about the mountain goats living on the mountain that’s on fire, the cattle that graze in the bush, the travellers who can’t get home. We all know someone who’s fighting the spread of flames through the dead pines: dispatching, dropping fire retardant, struggling through the smoke, hauling hoses, cutting firebreaks. People are talking about it as they come in the door. A few drops of rain splatter the sidewalk and we all feel hopeful.

Friends are the first to arrive, bringing plates of beautiful snacks. Karen sets out cherry tarts made with her own cherries; Tonja has made amazing pinwheel sandwiches; Vigil has a dish of bruschetta; Kim brings cinnamon bread. Gail has food and flowers. Pat, as always, takes pictures. A bright punch fills a glass bowl and soon people are drinking and eating and visiting. Dorothy’s cello thrums deep notes below the voices.

perry and dorothy

Dorothy Giesbrecht and Perry Rath

A book launch in a town where you’ve lived for years, a town where the novel you’re launching is set, and a town with gardens full of food and flowers, is a wonderful thing. I love the conversations with people as they bring me books to sign: some are close friends, some are acquaintances I’ve known since I moved here, some are people I haven’t talked to in years. Newcomers. Visitors.

sheila and the haines

Peter Haines, Sheila, and Paulie Haines

richard, mike and harry 1

Mike Shervill, Richard Overstall and Harry Kruisselbrink

It’s wonderful to read aloud something you’ve written in solitude, to hear people fall silent, become attentive, enter into a story and laugh in recognition of a time, a place, a feeling that is home. It is wonderful to be able thank the people who helped bring the book together in a room filled with their friends and acquaintances.

But what goes deeper than that is the sound of a room full of people on a Friday evening telling each other their own stories, sharing their news, making plans, offering to help, making suggestions, hugging and laughing—in other words, doing many of the things that knit a community together.

Writers want their work to contain something of the universal, we want it to speak to people who don’t know us or where we live. But it is a great privilege to have created a sense of a place, a time, and people that in some small way reflect a community back to itself, a community you call home.

sheila and lynn

Sheila Peters and Lynn Shervill

 

We talk as we wash the glasses, sweep the floor and pack away the tables and chairs. These are good friends who have done worked together for years. In small towns, you have to create the events you want to attend. We have become skilled at this, we move in and out of groups that form and dissolve around issues, creative processes and political action, sometimes all at once. We ebb and flow with and among each other.

 

 

We consider ourselves lucky. We ‘ve found a place we love and we’re sticking with it.

Bravo Guatemala!

Many people have asked me about the chapters of A Taste of Ashes that refer to Guatemala’s political history and its human rights record. Was/is it really that bad? they ask. Having read the testimony of witnesses and survivors, the carefully gathered (often at great risk) forensic evidence, I can unequivocally say yes. Yes, it was bad and still is. But there is some, at least momentarily, good news to report.

The Rights Action Team posted this news a couple of days ago:

At 6:45pm, May 10, 2013, Guatemalan general Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty in a Guatemalan court of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in jail.  This is an extraordinary and precedent setting achievement, all the more so in Guatemala where repression, impunity and racism remain society wide and systemic.

All respect to and admiration for so many people and so many organizations – most particularly Guatemalan survivors of genocide and other crimes against humanity – who braved on-going repression and impunity to keep fighting for over 31 years for this measure of justice.  Deep thanks to so many individual and foundation donors who have, via Rights Action and other groups, supported so many years of courageous, never-ending work for truth, memory and [finally, a bit of] justice.  Gracias.

Cheers, we heard, broke out in the courtroom and I have to report that cheers broke out in my house too. If you know anything about the labyrinthine process that is the justice system in Guatemala (read The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? by Francisco Goldman), you’ll know that this is not likely the end of anything – but it is welcome news to the indigenous people of Guatemala who received the brunt of la violencia during the long civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died. Montt was the country’s leader for part of that time.

Curiously enough, I had just picked up an old copy of Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number and was reading his moving account of his time in detention in Argentina during its military dictatorship in the 1970s. In the beginning of the book, he outlines his ideas of what brought about the end of democracy in his country and the introduction of such violent and brutal repression. In it he quotes a moderate politician – we know who are the killed, but we don’t know who are the killers. And no one seemed willing or able to change that: to find them, name them, and bring them to justice.

This is able to happen, Timerman implies, when the public and politicians raise their hands and say they can’t do anything about it. There’s no point, people say. They’re all the same, people say. Which gets them off the hook. It’s hard to blame people for chickening out when political engagement can mean imprisonment, torture or death. But his words feel especially important this evening as I’m waiting for the results of the provincial election here in British Columbia, where the voter turnout in the last election dropped to 50%, the second lowest in the country.

Maintaining a peaceful society requires hard slogging day after day. It needs us to inform ourselves and raise our voices; it needs politicians who are willing to listen and act. There are no simple answers to complex problems; we must all put in the work to give our politicians understanding and support to find and implement workable solutions. Or we turf them.

Meanwhile – how lovely to think of Efrain Rios Montt named for what he is. Bravo!

Skookum Wawa

On Feb. 2, communities of BC’s northwest will be gathering in Terrace to celebrate the withdrawal of Shell’s plans to drill for coal bed methane in the Sacred Headwaters. Congratulations to all of those who worked so hard to pull this off. And while she’d hate to be singled out, Ali Howard’s swim down the entire length of the Skeena  River drew international attention to the threats Shell’s plans presented.

I wrote this poem to celebrate her achievement. For those of you who might need a bit of background for the Chinook terms in the poem, let me explain. I grew up on the south coast of BC where Chinook terms are commonplace: the ocean is the salt chuck; the wild rapids near Egmont on the Sechelt Peninsula  are called Skookum Chuck, which means powerful water. In 1975, Gary Geddes edited a collection of writing about the northwest, which he fittingly titled Skookum Wawa – powerful talk.

Skookum Wawa

Mountains.
Green meadows.
Spring grizzly grazing
in water welling through rooted sedges.
Waiting water
meanders until flatness finally falls,
falls in three directions.
Water becoming:
becoming Spatsizi, becoming Stikine, becoming Tahltan
becoming Nass, becoming Nisga’a
becoming Skeena, becoming Gitxsan, becoming Tsimshian,
the ancient submerged heart pumping
            oxygen
            salmon
            life into this land.
Bright children leap laughing
to fall, to follow,
to trace in faith one great artery on its way
into the wide arms
of the salt chuck.
Chinook talk
their talk
skookum wawa.