MY TEETH ARE STRONG

Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land . . .

This sentiment comes to mind because I can hear the harvesting machinery ravaging the bush just across the lake from our home.

We live in Goshen’s rural domain, and if you want to imagine a Canadian’s worst nightmare, it is a feller-buncher loose in cottage country.

The train of thought upon which I now embark began last week, although I had no idea that such was the case until I punched out these words. The mind moves in mysterious ways.

Last week a prospector was trying to convince a group of us resource management advisors that the modern mining industry is a responsible player in the forest. He failed. Entertainingly.

Oh, he was a likeable guy, a very knowledgeable guy, and passionate about his work, but he was Ronald McDonald trying to convince a blue ribbon chef that white wine goes just swell with red meat.

Twenty years ago, he might’ve convinced a short-order cook, but today, in the forest industry, everyone’s a connoisseur.   It is no longer cool to slash truckloads of trees and leave them to rot, to punch heavy machines across water courses without putting in place a barrage of environmental protective measures, and to complain that one can’t barge about parks and preserves anymore, looking to strike it rich. When the guy left, we just shook our heads.   We were not prepared to entrust the living earth, our Grand-Parent, to this guy.

So, I am really not alarmed by the encroachment of feller-bunchers on my peaceable kingdom. I am confident that they are managing the forest as good Grand-Children should. And also, those guys are working, which is not the case for bush workers in the rest of Goshen. And forty years ago, my father might’ve been working with them.

When I was growing up in Quebec, sixty years ago, our household’s income came through my father, who cut wood in the country and hauled it to the city to fuel the wood-burners that heated people’s homes and cooked their food. Mom and dad raised a family of four on his earnings from a forest-based resource. In a sense, every scrap of food we ate, every rag we wore, every gum eraser we bought for school, came from the forest.

I am not going to trade how-poor-I-once-was stories with you – I’m sure you’ve got some doozers – but I often live my life backwards, and I am grappling with the mystery of how my parents found the cash to pamper us kids’s teeth.

I have vivid recollections of regular visits to the dentist, of yards of wire braces and pounds of mercury fillings and a multitude of excruciating extractions.   It had to cost a fortune. And there were then, as now, very few wealthy dealers in firewood.

When I was a teenager, my father was a bush worker in Goshen. My summer jobs were bush jobs, and I remember one day when I walked my legs off to keep pace with a strapping road locator, and that night I told my dad that I would never seek a career in the forest industry – it was just too exhausting.

I hurt him deeply, though he never said so. Yet, since I was a kid, I’d always tramped the bush – I still tramp the bush – in fact, I just read an item today which asserted that any senior who can walk .4 kilometres at one stretch is guaranteed, statistically, to live another six years. Judging by the walking I will have done this week, I will live to be a hundred and two.

I’m committed to walking this weekend. There are some portages to be cleared along a river course, and four of us will spend two nights in the bush to do the job. It will be exhausting work – carrying packs and canoes for a kilometre, and paddling up a lake, and making camp. We will be cutting windfalls and chopping brush and displacing debris that has been accumulating for a decade and a half. In effect, we will be biting the lice from Grand-Parent’s hair, not because we hate the lice, but because we love our Grand-Parent. And then we will be paddling and packing out.

Why the hell are we doing that? Well, we call it fun. And it is a community service – in another month, a high school group will utilize this canoe route. But now I understand that I have another reason – have always had this reason.

It’s no mystery any more. I am honouring my father, and my mother.

How do I know this?

I have my own teeth, and my teeth are strong.

*   *   *

Knowing oneself is a lifetime job. Sometimes it takes more than one lifetime.

Vector of Strong and Healthy Tooth

Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, May 2006

 

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PEACE COMES DROPPING SLOW

Yellow birch

I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.

God, I wish I’d written that. More to the point, I wish I’d done that. And if I had done that, I wish I would have had the courage to write that.

I can conceive of no one in Goshen who has actually done that, let alone written that. I can think of no one in the entire world who has ever done that, except Henry David Thoreau, who not only did that, but wrote that. Such . . . courage. Such strength . . . Such wisdom . . .

What a man . . . What a human being . . . What a model for mankind . . .

I captured a bit of his experience this summer. Olga and I stayed at John and Linda’s B&B in Lanark County, on the Clyde River near Perth, Ontario. In the morning, I announced my intention to take a walk in their woods, and Linda said, “We have a maple, which someone we know, an arborist, has estimated as 425 years old.” Four hundred. Twenty-five. Years. Old.

Maple not yet 400 hundred years old

Following a path, I found the tree. Or it may be that the tree found me. For the first time in my life, I appreciated the full meaning of that phrase “the fear of God”. I entered an alien presence that transcended time, and space, and experience. I heard nothing, saw nothing, but the sacred being. I was not afraid, I was alienated, I was suspended from sense of self, I was disenfranchised from hereditary membership in the human race. I felt the immense strength and wisdom enfold me.

I enfolded the tree. I put my arms around the trunk as far as I could reach, which wasn’t that far.

I say that I was not afraid. I was not afraid of the tree. But I was afraid, of my utter, utter unworthiness. That was the fear of God.

Thoreau took a walk in the woods, once, and stayed two years, and wrote the memoir Walden, which became a bible of environmentalism and alternative spirituality. Thoreau went to jail once, and stayed overnight, and wrote it up as Civil Disobedience, which launched the non-violent resistance movements of our time.   And Thoreau visited trees.

These are not unrelated acts.

Daily we are beseiged by violent images from Lebanon and the ancient land of Palestine. The war there is at least. Four. Thousand. Years. Old. Relieved by intervals of hate and hostility. There is a path to peace. There are multiple paths to peace.

Many lead to trees. Some lead to cedars, and if each belligerent were to pick a path that leads to the highlands of Lebanon, and visit an ancient tree, he or she would find peace. For some it will take a few minutes; and for others, a few days; and for a very few, anywhere up to four hundred years.

Cedars of Lebanon

There is a problem. Once upon a time, the cedars were legion, but the legions are now dead, or scattered. But there are other trees.

Fig tree in Israel

On Mount Olivet, in Jerusalem, there are fig trees. There are fig trees in Mesopotamian oases, and fig trees in India, where they are called banyans, and fig trees in Yungaburra, Australia.

And there are thorn trees in Sinai, and in Glastonbury, England, and in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And olive trees, and junipers, and pines, and you name it in Greece or in Greenland or in Goshen. There is no shortage of trees. Yet.

And the more humble the tree that is a visit-ee, the greater the merit of the visit-or.

The National Tree of India – the banyan

 

In sugaring season, John and Linda tap the maples in their woodlot. They also tap the ancient of days. One of their jars is sitting in our pantry. One of these days, I shall break the seal, and I shall drop the serum on my tongue, and I shall let the strength enfold me, and I shall embrace the utter, utter wisdom.

And when I shall have done that, I shall write that.

If I have the courage.

Tapping the sap

 Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, August 2006.

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SO, CROWN ME!

Not without right. So reads the motto on the Shakespearean family’s coat-of-arms. It is the case that William, and his father, John, applied to the Garter King of Arms for an armorial bearing to flaunt their noble antecedents. Some scholars say that the creative William borrowed a few ancestors.

Like a family motto, a city slogan is supposed to make its members feel good.   I grew up in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where the slogan was Queen of the Eastern Townships. I had no idea what townships were, had a somewhat better grasp of the direction east, knew intimately what a city was, but as for a queen, well . . .

As a kid, I knew that a queen was a grand lady, that she wore gowns to cover her wimples, and that, like Jack who fell down the hill, she had a crown. And that she had a helluva temper. “Off with her head!” she screamed at Alice. “Off with her head!” She musta had those townships scared shirtless.

Still, I was pleased with the slogan. But for the luck of the draw, I could’ve been born in Biggar, Saskatchewan, whose slogan is New York is Big But This Is Biggar. Or grown up in, say, Elliston, Newfoundland, Root Cellar Capital of the World. I am serious. Or (Lord love-a-duck!) lived in Linesville, Pennsylvania, Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish. I am not kidding. If you’ve never heard of them, they may not be flaunting it.

As it happens, many cities are partial to the “Queen” in their slogans.   In Canada, we have the Queen Cities of Toronto, and Regina, and Nelson, B.C.   These appellations remind us of our monarchical ties to London, the Queen’s Own City in England. In the Ignited States, there is hot competition for the title of Queen City, no doubt an atavistic response to the days when they clung to the umbilical cord of Mother England.

Lately, some Thunder Bayers have questioned their slogan, Superior by Nature. Perhaps it is too regal for them. Perhaps they’d prefer a more democratic one, like Mediocre by Nature. Personally, I hope that the grumps carry the day, for then Goshen could grab it. Because we know we’re better, and, what’s more, we’re prepared to flaunt it.

And we have a better claim to it. Ninety-nine percent of our land is Crown land, and if you factor in the lakes and waterways and swamps, you’ve got a hundred and ninety-two percent of the region owned by the Queen Herself.

There is a faction in Thunder Bay who support The City with a Giant Heart. I know what you’re thinking ̶ brand new regional health sciences centre, EKGs, and surgeons carving chunks from an enlarged cardiovascular organ. If you’re like me, when you or someone you know gets a gallstone, or passes blood, or needs a colectomy, you think Thunder Bay.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel that a slogan should try to attract visitors, make them want to do business in the city, maybe entice them to move there. It should not be an invitation to pain, anesthesia, and hospital food.

Some Bayers think that a new slogan should allude to the Sleeping Giant, the great rock that protects the Bay from the fury of Superior. “Sleeping” giant? I think not – not for several geologic ages past. Comatose, perhaps. Dead, more likely. Still, let’s go with the sleeping concept, and what do we have?

Thunder Bay, The Place to Shop and Snore. Thunder Bay, Where Fee and Fi Met Fo and Fum. Thunder Bay, Our Goliath Can Kick Your David’s Ass. Hey, I’m not saying I’m happy with these drafts. You try it.

And while you’re at it, mint a slogan for dear old Goshen. I’ll start you off – Goshen, The Gargle Capital of Gingery Ale. Goshen, More Than a Wide Place in the Road. Goshen, Where the Lord Loves a Duck.

You know, a lot of communities play the ecstatic angles. They lure you to a sportsman’s paradise, they promise you an athlete’s heaven, and they claim to be the homes of angels, or saints, or celebrities.

There’s one slogan that I like a lot. It’s The Sweetest Place on Earth. That’s the slogan. For Hershey, Pennsylvannia.

We could steal it. Nah. ‘Tis nobler in the mind to borrow it.

‘Twill not be without precedent.

We are not without right.

*   *   *

At a loss for words? Just keep slogan away.

 Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, May 2006

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HOLY SPIT!

Fuddle duddle! In February 1971, Prime Minister P.E. Trudeau admitted to the press that he had “mouthed” something like those words during an exchange in the House of Commons. Montrealers have always been connaisseurs of blue language.

Today, as you wander about The City of Saints, the bus shelters and the billboards and the very churches vilify you. Tabernacle! they shout. Hostie! Ciboire! Blasphemies greet you at every turn. I am serious.

The poster campaign is authorized by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal. The Cardinal says that the Church is reclaiming from the gutter the holy words of its faith. I am not kidding.

On each sign, the words are holily defined: Tabernacle! (most often seen in print and heard as Tabernac!) is “Small cupboard locked by key on the altar containing the ciborium.”

Quebeckers have specialized in transmuting religious terms into swears. A master of sacrés can string together any number of tabernacs and hosties and ciboires and baptêmes and câlisses and crisses and calvaires and maudits and sacristies, in variable order, in combination with any number of secular terms referring to body parts and sexual acts, and burn the ears off any cardinal within range.

Ethno-linguists tell us that a nation’s swears tend to be drawn from an area of life that dominates it, mentally and emotionally. In Quebec, historically, it has been the Church. In the rest of Canada, judging by the preponderance of sexually based swears, it has been Porn. Or Puritanism. Or Puberty.

Swearologists have written tomes about their specialty. Even the most innocuous words can be swears. They are known as minced oaths, the original oaths having been put through the grinder. For example, flipping heck and holy spit and jiminy cricket. And tabernouche!

The British and Aussies have a monopoly on bloody – Bloody Yanks! and Bloody Canucks! ̶ which can be modified, as occasion demands, to ruddy or blooming – Ruddy Scots! and Blooming Irish! Or bloody can be ground into paste: A bloody good rant, eh, what?

Swears creep into family television programming, and writers are paid big bucks to get them past the censors. For example, The Simpsons. Marge spits out Nutty fudgekins! Bart does a nasty with his Eat my shorts! And Homer, again and again, employs that most expressive of epithets ̶ D’oh!

Which brings me to the swears of Goshen. They are, in descending order of potency, Toronto, Ottawa, and City Hall.

Mention the Municipality of Greater Goshen, and a synapse blows in the mind of every Goshenite. What the bleep are those idiots up to? Where’s the bleeping snowplow? Look at my bleepen tax bill!

The mention of Ottawa has shortened many a Canadian’s life, as stomach acids roil, and adrenalin spurts, and heart valves stick. For example, Ottawa’s long gun registration. Introduced in 1995, Allan Rock, Minister of Justice, put the price tag at $85 million. We are now looking at a billion piastres. Sacristie! Pardon my French.

Any Goshenite can tell you how to cut the costs. All it takes is a call to the local constabulary. List your weapons. One over-and-under, for birds. One AK-47, for bears. And a brace of blunderbusses, for bureaucrats. Case closed. Câlisse.

No registration fees. No forms. No renewals. Finis. Hostie. Merci.

Toronto. Excuse my language, but I am just so exasperated. Toronto. There I go again! Toronto. The most oppressive force in the life of every Goshenite. Sometimes the term is transmuted to Queen’s Park or to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario or to those bleeping bleeps that we bleepen elected, but it’s all the same: Toronto.

Every irreverent phrase can be traced to Toronto:

We been shafted! Shafts: Towers that frame the entry to Queen’s Park.

They got us by the short hairs! Hairs: From moose on the Ontario coat of arms.

Screwed again! Screws: Fasten coat of arms to wall of Legislative Chamber.

But the government is not sitting idly. Well, they are, but I speak metaphorically. They have a plan to reclaim those words from abusive tongues. There will be banners for Ministry offices, and decals for OPP cruisers, and graffiti for highway rock cuts.

The messages are clear.

Queen’s Park: Seat of government, the power behind the shafts.

Coat of Arms: Heralds of promises to come.

Moose: Crossing here. Mighty bull presents horny spectacle.

Neurologists tell us that swears spring from and are received by the human reptilian brain. In fact, other primates are believed to swear, such as chimps, and baboons, and elected officials.

So, let’s not mince words, P.E.T.

If your mouth is full of spit, say so.

*   *   *

Profanity works. You can swear by it.

*   *   *

Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, June 2006.

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HOW TO BOOST TOURISM : A FABLE

A definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Albert Einstein couldn’t have said it better.

We, the residents of Goshen and the rest of the Northwest, face a bleak future. We have lost tens of thousands of jobs in the forest industry, and we feel abandoned by the governments we elected, the corporations we made rich, and the gods we worshipped. There is one star that glimmers faintly in the firmament. Tourism. If only the tourists would come, we would be saved.

What can we offer? “WOW! Fishing, hunting, affordable housing prices, boating, great people, fresh air, and no traffic jams”. Outsiders looking in might describe this as heaven.

These are the words of a marketing consultant. He wrote them to the residents of Thunder Bay a couple months ago. Okay, Thunder Bay has no fish, and no wild game, and no fresh air, so he was really talking about Goshen, and the rest of the Northwest.   And, incidentally, T-Bay does have traffic jams. As well as plum jam. And toe jam.

So, explain me this: (a) Why do we in the Northwest not offer what we have? And (b), Why aren’t we telling everyone we possibly can that we live in a paradise? Let’s study on that awhile.

Literally. Let’s have another study. Let’s think up a modest name for it, such as Premier Ranked Tourist Destination Project – PRTDP ̶ as opposed to our second choice, Another Stupid Study to Win Incredible Prosperity, Eh?

Yes, all levels of government have contributed to PRTDP – a quarter-million dollars. And in two years, when it reports, we will know why we are still poor. Meanwhile, kiss goodbye to more hundreds of businesses and another ten thousand jobs

That marketing guy said that some guy told him about us guys. Some guy had paid us a visit, and he had had a WOW! experience. So the consultant paid us a visit, a year ago, and kept coming back, month after month. He told someone else, who told someone else, and WOW!, now these guys are paying us visits.

Listen, friends, I am not asking for a quarter-million bucks. I’m a writer, not a consultant, so I’ve taken a vow of poverty. I’m going to give you my report, in two minutes, not two years, and it won’t cost you a cent, though it’s worth a hundred, a thousand times that.

Walk into any municipal building or tourism office or development agency in the Northwest, and you will find a shelf lined with studies to boost tourism. Check out the archives, which is always in the basement in a damp and windowless room behind the furnace, and you will find boxes of studies. Check out the studies, and you will run across the familiar names of agents who commissioned them, of consultants who charged for them, and of committees who ignored them.

Or come to Goshen this spring and summer.   We host hundreds of young people from across the nation. They live, total strangers to one another, in tents in the howling wilderness, where they swat blackflies, and eat slop, and plant trees. And every week or so, the tree planters are bussed to town to recover from the ordeal. They just want to wash their socks, and inhale an ice cream, and relate to people who live normal lives.

So, I could tell you that, for hours, these boys and these girls wander aimlessly in their grubbies, shrink under the stony stares of the locals, and gaze at their underwear in the rinse cycle. I could tell you that, but I won’t.

Instead, I will tell you a fable. These young people, who one day will have hundreds, nay, thousands of cents in their pockets, are embraced by the community of Goshen. They are invited to a fish fry, and they are introduced to the canoe and the ATV and the sauna, and they are transported to lovely lakes to lie in the sun and sand and suck on the ice cubes from their flavoured drinks and they have, well, WOW! experiences.

At the end of the day, they are tucked into their buses with armsful of cokes and glossy mags and warm memories and, fortified for a few more days, returned to a grubby existence.

And if it turns out that these hundreds of youths do have homes to which they will one day return, and that each one will tell a brother or a sister or a mother or a father or a grandparent or a godparent or a college buddy or a significant other or ̶ perishthethought! ̶ a total STRANGER, who, in turn, tells someone else, then before you know it, hundreds, nay, thousands of strangers with tens of thousands of cents in their pockets will descend upon Goshen. There’s a name for this sort of stranger. What is it? Oh yeah. Friend for life.

Okay, this has been a fable. In real life, hundreds of strangers drive through Goshen every day, and can’t wait to leave. Now, you have the brains, for after all, you are reading this. And you have the imagination, for you know the acronym for Another Stupid Study to Win Incredible Prosperity, Eh? So put your brains and your imagination to work.

Fund another study. And above all, do not be nice to strangers.

That would be insane.

A fantasy trip in rural Goshen.

Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, January 2007.

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A TASTE OF HOME

You can get a lot farther with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.

This piece of wisdom is shared by General Al Capone and the gangster Rick Hillier, or have I got that backwards? I’m confused.

So are a lot of Canadians. It seems that for a while now the Canadian Armed Forces have been making foreign policy. In the absence of any government pronouncement, let alone parliamentary debate or public discussion, our military have been transmogrified. They are no longer peacekeepers, they are war-makers.

As Rick Hillier said ̶ Canadian General Rick Hillier said ̶ “We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people.” Excuse me. Isn’t that the job description of terrorists, and of Donald Rumsfeld, and of hurricanes named Katrina?

Maybe I’m wrong, but I sure would like to have an earnest conversation about it with someone who cares. I would like to pretend for a while that I live in a democracy, and that my opinion counts.

The opinions of our soldiers count. For instance, way over in Afghanistan, 10,000 kilometres and 9 time zones away, our soldiers have been griping. Hey, that’s normal. It is the God-given right of a soldier to gripe. God knows I would, if someone were shooting at me, or serving me Green Beans coffee, or depriving me of my daily fix of Judge Judy.

Our soldiers want a taste of home. They have even specified the taste – it is Tim Hortons, coffee and doughnuts and cute girls with perky hats. So the General has arranged it. A Tim Hortons is opening any day now at the Canadian Armed Forces Base at Kandahar airfield.

Canadian applicants hunger for employment in this war-torn country. Some of the cute girls range up to 55 years in age, have previous military experience, and shave (and believe me, it’s not their legs they shave). I am serious.

Candidates undergo rigorous training. They learn how to avoid land mines, how to behave in hostage-taking situations, and how to endure attacks from biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. I am not kidding.

The customer base for the Kandahar Hortons includes some 2,300 Canadian soldiers, and several thousand Americans, Swedes, and, quite possibly, Afghans. The Hortons goodies will be served from a single mobile trailer unit. I’m still not kidding.

The General will enforce a strict policy: “No Guts, No Body Counts, No Coffee.” He has also declared that service will be denied to Osama bin Laden, and, to use his own words, “detestable murderers and scumbags”. Okay, I am kidding now, but only a little.

But I digress. My point is that our country is now embroiled in the most recent war of a series of wars in a country that has never not known war, and no one has asked our opinion about it.   Alright, I no longer buy the bull that we’re the world’s peacekeepers, and that it is our duty to patrol between opposing hostile forces and to use our rifle butts to deflect the bullets.

But I also don’t buy that we are war-makers. We do not have the long and honourable tradition of war-makers. We do not launch pre-emptive strikes against any nation that looks at us cross-eyed; we do not torture justifiably resentful civilians; and we do not carpet bomb their residential neighbourhoods. Let Donald Rumsfeld do all that.

Let me initiate the national debate by stating that there is a third option. We can be peace officers. And that, my friends, is, is a long and honourable Canadian tradition.

It was once an American tradition. Peace officers like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp and Matt Dillon tamed their Wild West with a kind word and a gun, yet rarely drew their guns. Now it is the custom to employ overwhelming force against lightly armed college students, marching mothers, and small countries. Okay, I exaggerate – some of those mothers can be downright evil.

The Canadian tradition of which I speak is the North West Mounted Police. A century and a quarter ago, these peace officers tamed our Wild West.

Always outnumbered, they waded into unruly mobs with a smile and a shoeshine. They faced down drunken whiskey pedlars, and riotous railway workers, and hot-blooded Indians (excuse me   ̶   I mean, of course, justifiably outraged indigenous persons).

They rarely used their rifles or their sidearms, but they were prepared, prepared to use force, and by jiminy, there was many a time when force of arms secured Canada’s internal policy (which, I suggest, could very well serve as the keystone of our foreign policy), and that is “peace, order, and good government”.

Well, we could settle for two out of three.

You know, in two respects, I agree with Al Capone. The kind word and a gun. But, I would add two more respects. Fair play and just cause.

Well, we could settle for three out of four.

Let the debate begin.

*   *   *

If it’s our tradition, then it’s a taste of home.

[Republished from The Gardens of Goshen by this author. This story was originally published in May 2006.]

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HOW THE SMIRK STOLE CHRISTMAS

I – Ka-Ching-a-Ching

              anyone lived in a pretty how town

              (with up so many floating bells down) (1)

And how the Smirk hated Anyone, and how he hated pretty How Town! And there were how so many How Towns in Dis-United States of America. It wasn’t fair.

What reason did Anyone have to be merry, for he was poor enough? And what reason did the Smirk have to be sad, for he was rich enough? How rich was he? Well, he was born not only with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he was born also with silver fondue forks and golden oyster knives and ivory-trimmed platinum corkscrews in every orifice of his body, that’s how rich he was.

It was the night before Christmas, and he was deep in the frozen heart of Texas, near Waco, where the Wackos live. It was the state of Dis-Union that believed in revolving credit, and revolving cylinders for guns, and revolving doors for its lethal injection chambers.

It was Christmas Eve, and the FBI surveillance showed that Anyone in How Town was far too happy. The people were joyful and the coloured lights were dancing and even some ecclesiastics were gay.   But what really bothered him was the noise.

THE NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!   The clink of coins on collection plates, and the ka-ching-a-ching-ing of the cash registers, and the swish of visas on the card swipes. It was all about Christmas, and the Smirk, well, he hated Christmas, 165 days a year, or maybe it was 635 days a year, for the Smirk had no head for numbers.

But the Smirk had a very photogenic head, perfect for Mount Rushmore, and he often pictured it up there, carved in stone, with a magnificently low brow, a granite gaze, and a lip so crooked you could hang a skunk from it.

But the NOISE! Oh the NOISE! For it was the noise of people giving and forgiving, of meeting and greeting, of blessing and redressing. And how he hated that! For the Prez (which was the Smirk’s official title) was the master of taking and raking, of holding and hoarding, of grabbing and of stabbing.

So he ran to his vault and he pawed through his outfits. There was the tall ten-gallon hat, which held 430 litres Canadian, for so had he calculated. There was the cutesy vest trimmed with whooping crane feathers and spotted owlskins and parts of other soon-to-be-extinct animals. And there were leggings made from the lovely skins of reindeer, the one chap called Rudolph, and the other, Vixen.

And then the Smirk had a WONDERFUL, just AWFUL IDEA! He had fooled millions of Dis-United people. He could fool Anyone!

He could be Santa Prez!

1 Apologies to e e cummings and to all the other authors and lyricists I plundered.

II – Ring-a-Ding

So Santa Prez hopped into his armoured Humvee and was away like a flash! He whipped up the horses and he spun the wheels in a whirly way and the wind whistled through the longhorns strapped on the hood.   And he chanted, “Here comes Santa Prez, Here comes Santa Prez, Bringing you Santa Prez pain.” And in howtime he was in How Town where Someone and No One and Everyone ran about clinking and chinging and swishing.

Oh what a NOISE! What a NOISE! The kids they were caroling and the bells they were chiming and the snow chains were jingling.   And the chestnuts were roasting and people’s toeses were toasting and the snow it was glistening, so glistening it was hard on the ears.

And the policemen were smiling and the merchants were chuckling and the lovers were laughing, and Santa Prez hated them. He just HATED them! For in his 58 years (2)2 he had managed a snicker, and he had now and then squeezed out a snigger, and had once forced out a chortle, but the height of his mirth was a smirk.

Now, he had spent his years wisely, for at Yale he had learned to pick locks, and at Harvard business he had studied to pick pockets, and in his first months in office he had perfected the art of picking his nose.

So Santa Prez ran through the malls and he snatched up the purses, and he emptied out cash boxes, and he cut up the credit cards. He was on the point of stuffing the last ATM into his Humvee when a small voice spoke to him, but when he whirled about there was No One. There was only an Old Man, begging a penny for his hat, and good King Wenceslas, with faggots for the fire slipping through frozen fingers, and a Mary and a Joseph looking for lodging. So he was right ̶ there was No One.

Then Someone spoke. It was little Sally Ann, in her pretty blue bonnet that she got from the margarine company for sending in three box tops.   And in her hair were scarlet ribbons, scarlet ribbons for her hair, woven from the breadman’s twist-ties.

“Please, Santa,” said Sally Ann. “Please, Santa,” she said, “you forgot these.” And she tipped the few coppers from her kettle into his loot sack.

“I’ll send you a receipt,” said Santa Prez. But he lied. For that was the third thing he was good at.   And as he lied, he scooped the penny from the Old Man’s hat, and he kicked the faggots off the sidewalk, and he directed the lodge-seekers to the Holiday Inn, because he knew it was full.

Oh he was a scraping, scroogey, covetous old sinner, was Smirk, and hard and cold as flint. The cold within him froze his heart and nipped his humanitarian impulses and shriveled his magnanimity. No warmth could warm him, no words could move him, no laughter heal him.

 

But, enough flattery. He had finished the job. He had extracted all the Cheer from Christmas, the Joy from dish soap, and the last Glad from garbage bags.

He had pulled the plug on happiness.

And after he had visited all the other how towns, he looked upon his Creation, and he saw that it was real good.

And silent night came down on How Town, and the sleep of heavenly peace.

2 Coincidentally, George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States, turned 58 on July 6, 2004. But he wasn’t counting.

III – Sing-a-Ling

As the Smirk raced for his ranch, it came upon a midnight clear, and he could hear a noise, a sort of nice noise, a reverential noise, like angels singing, touching their harps of gold which, it seems, he had overlooked in his hurry.

How Town was behind him, its dark streets shining, in everlasting light. He should’ve bought more shares in Con Edison.

And to drown out the singing, he chanted his soul song:

 

 

On the twelfth day of Christmas

Dick and Donald3 sent to me (3)

Twelve oil fields pumping . . .

Eleven pipelines piping . . .

Ten tankers leaking . . .

Nine sheiks a-dancing . . .

Eight maids a-mopping . . .

Seven swans a-dying . . .

Six geese a-praying . . .

Five . . . golden . . . rings . . .

Four oily birds . . .

Three frenched hens . . .

Two mourning doves . . .

And a market in a money tree.

Over the Continental Divide and down the Mississippi Valley and up the Texas Panhandle he raced, thirty-three thousand miles he raced with his load, and it was a quarter past dawn when he dumped it.

Then the Commander-in-Thief consulted his intelligence, which he had done twice before, with mixed results. There was the time he was reading a children’s book, which he never got to finish, because some towers were burning (4).   Then he tackled more challenging material, such as the fiction generated by his disinformation agencies, and more recently, Archie comics.

The electronic bugs recorded a new sound in How Town, but the sound wasn’t sad. It was glad. After all he had taken and raked in and grabbed, could there still be cheer in Christmas?

He had to see it for himself, so he whizzed back in fright through the bright morning light, and he saw it, boy oh boy oh boy!

In pretty little How Town with up so floating many bells down there was JOY oh JOY oh JOY! The rich and the poor and those with real jobs were embracing One Another as if money didn’t matter. And churchmen were joining temples and templers were visiting mosques and mosquers were plucking banjoes in the subway. Races were blending colours and cultures were breeding harmony and linguists were speaking in tongues. And worst of all, WORST OF ALL, the Republicans and the Democrats were supporting Each Other’s resolutions. It was a NiGhTmArE!

Then the Smirk knew he had missed Something. He hadn’t taken Everything. He had thought they didn’t mean Anything. He had failed to capture all the hearts of Re-United States of America.

The hearts had been on offer, but he had taken only the mean ones, the flinty ones, the ones as small as ice cubes.

And he sensed a change in the air, the peace in the wind, the goodwill settling around him, and some of it touched his cold, cold heart, and thawed it three degrees.

Now, if you think the Smirk gave back his load, if you think he would part with even one sack of his loot on this special day of the year, you’ve been watching too much Disney. This is no fairy tale.

But, as he was leaving, he did put a penny back in the Old Man’s hat.

3 Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld acted as key players in President G.W. Bush’s war on terrorism. Cheney, as Vice-President, fully supported the initiative, and will forever be associated with “enhanced interrogation” techniques against prisoners. Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defense, helped launch the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan which are still playing out today.

4 On September 11, 2001, President G.W. Bush was actually reading a book aloud, which exercise he reluctantly gave up when he learned of the aerial attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City.

#     #     #

[Republished from The Annals of Goshen by this author.  This story originally published in December 2004.}

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AXL, PLATYPUS, AND APPLE TURNOVERS

Tuktoyaktuk is 8,928.64 kilometres from Sydney, Nova Scotia, by road.

He was unshaven, ungroomed, and most unlikely unwashed, so I pulled over, cracked the window, and asked him how long he had been hitching.

Since yesterday, he said. He had stopped thumbing at 5:00 o’clock, and resumed at 9:00 this morning. It was now 5:00, and overcast, and soon darkness would fall. He was positioned on the corner of Pelletier’s Gas Bar on the Lake Helen Reserve, and traffic was heavy. I helped him stow his luggage.

I had passed him on the way to TBay this morning, coincidentally at 9:00 this morning, and he did look familiar: unshaved, ungroomed, and so on. Some mutt was prancing around the car, scratching at the door handles. So it turned out I was dealing with a pair of hitchhikers.

I have a soft spot for hitchhikers. After I graduated high school, I didn’t own a car. I got around by bumming rides. Come summertime, I’d leave my wife and family and bum a ride to Queen’s University to take courses. Many a night I spent on a lonely road before I found a driver with a generous streak. They found it in their hearts to give a lift to a bum who was unshaven, ungroomed, and unwashed. Thanks to them, I am an educated bum today. And today I was in a position to give a pair of scruffy ones a lift.

I told him I could give him a lift to Beardmore, otherwise I’d be letting him off in the middle of the bush when I turned down my road. He accepted by offer. The mutt snuggled up on his lap.

Where was he headed? Labrador, he said. Yes, he’d be cutting away from Highway 11 and heading through Val d’Or. Then through Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. He had an appointment in Sydney, N.S. Well, not an appointment, exactly, but he’d been there before, at Ed’s Books, and he thought there was a good chance that Ed would have a copy, a second-hand copy (for this traveler bought only used books) of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch.

Then, he volunteered, he’d turn around and head back to Whitehorse. And visit the second-best second-hand bookstore in the country, Well Read, in Whitehorse, Yukon.

He didn’t like busy highways. Said he had better luck on lonely roads. And he didn’t like passing through big cities ̶ too much walking to get through them. I pondered this information. The corner at Pelletier’s Gas Bar is one of the busiest stretches on Highway 11. Still, it couldn’t be avoided. He muttered something about there being a better chance of being robbed if you took Highway 17 and got past the Soo. Besides, he was often hassled by cops on busy highways.

So, I said, you live in Whitehorse? No, he said. I don’t live anywhere. He picked up odd jobs for short times but otherwise he was always on the road. Winter and summer.

I asked the name of his mutt, a skinny, friendly, long-haired creature about 25 pounds light, which never stirred from his lap. Platypus, he said. I asked him to repeat the name: Platypus. Had the dog since it was a puppy four years ago. I’m Edgar, I said, and you are . . . ? Axl, he said. That’s the name I use. And he spelled it for me.

So, I said, what’s the name of that bookstore in Sydney again? Ed’s Books and More, he said. There was good chance he could pick up a used copy of The Naked Lunch. His mother, he said, who lived in Montreal, wanted a copy.

No, he never bought books new. And no, he never ordered online. Had never heard of AbeBooks. But his mother might be interested.

What did he expect to find at Well Read Books in Whitehorse? There’s always something by Hunter S. Thompson, he said. Or a Jack Kerouac. Or some other authors and titles I had never heard of.

Where had his hitchhiking taken him? Last month, he said, he had been in Tuktoyaktuk. Last November he had travelled the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. So you saw the Arctic Ocean , I said. No, he said. But since then the road had been extended some 150 klicks to Tuk, which is on the Arctic Ocean, so he went to check it out this past July.

Platypus really enjoyed the Dempster, he could run around the tundra without fear of traffic.

The canyon of the Pijitawabik.

Meanwhile, I volunteered as a tour guide. I extolled the virtues of the Pijitawabik Palisades as we drove through them. Mist had descended, obscuring the peaks. I described how the canyon had carved through the lava flows, creating columnar pillars. I pointed out Pijitawabik Bay, the southeastern arm of Lake Nipigon, the sixth Great Lake. Occasionally my companion emitted an appreciative grunt. That was all the encouragement I needed. I love this country.

Once past Macdiarmid, I swept my arm across the vast area devastated by the Great Beardmore Fire of ’99. Some 50,000 hectares of still-stunted second-growth dominates the landscape. I pointed out my favourite white pine, which still stands head and shoulders above the second-growth. I pulled over at the Beardmore Unconformity.

The Beardmore Unconformity is exposed in a rock cut on the east side of Highway 11, with that magnificent white pine as a marker. Here is exposed the basement of the Precambrian Shield, of the earth, actually. They are metasedimentary rocks, 2.7 billion years old. On top of these rocks is a thinner layer of light-coloured rocks covered by dirt and vegetation. These are sandstone rocks, 1.3 billion years old. Between the top and the bottom layer, 1.4 billion years of rocks are missing. Where is the missing middle layer? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, or flowing in the rivers, or being deposited in the Great Lakes or on the continental shelf of North America, long time passing. In other words, who knows?

The Beardmore Unconformity.

It was five minutes to 6:00 when we arrived at Beardmore, just before Beardmore closed for the night.  Axl expected to spend the night in the bush, so he wanted to pick up something from the liquor store to keep him warm. While I unloaded the luggage, Platypus cavorted on a nearby piece of grass. Platypus was a good dog. She never strayed into traffic lanes.

Axl returned with a pint of rye tucked into his elbow. Axl turned down the remnants of a meal of battered fish, and turned his nose up at a tin of cat food for Platypus. I left him my package of apple turnovers.

The two hitchhikers posed for my camera.

As I passed them, Axl was striding down the sidewalk towards to the edge of town, and Platypus was frolicking alongside.

And I’m thinking, Maybe it’s time I renewed by acquaintance with Kerouac. Or maybe even Thompson. Or that Burroughs guy.

Wonder if that guy is related to the author of the Tarzan series.

. . . Still so much to learn.

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IN SYNC WITH SELWYN (Chapter 6 of 6)

Access on foot to the Agawa rock face is a narrow ledge sometimes washed by waves during storms.

Red Ochre

According to Selwyn, in 1957, when he was almost 50 years old, “I finally discovered what I wanted to do when I grew up.”

In the meantime, he had left his high school teaching job, and made a marginal living by illustrating textbooks, teaching landscape painting, doing art therapy, and painting murals on commission. By sheer serendipity (or synchronicity), he landed a super summer job. With his family, exploring by canoe in Quetico Park, he recorded eleven pictograph sites as watercolour paintings. Pictographs became his obsession for the remainder of his life. It is this career which brought him a measure of national and even international fame.

He took photographic slides of sites. By experimenting with rice paper and crayon, he learned to reproduce the exact size and detail of pictographs. His searches took him north to Great Slave Lake, west to the foothills of the Rockies, east to Nova Scotia, and south to Minnesota. Often he travelled by canoe. For the first few years, he was a lone researcher in the field. By the late 1960s, several others had joined him. “I have visited, as of 1978, exactly three hundred and one rock art sites in Canada and the adjacent American states. I have personally recorded all but nine of these.”

His writings on rock art include Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes (1967) and The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway (1975) plus several other published articles. Selwyn died in 1979. A plaque erected near the Agawa pictographs pays tribute to the father of rock art research in Canada.

Who painted these ancient pictographs? And why? Answers are still pending. Who taught the artists that red ochre mixed with fish oil or even spit would bind to rock faces? Pictograph sites are usually associated with near-vertical rock faces beside waterways. What are the subjects of the paintings? Some are obviously representational of people and animals and objects. Others depict mythical creatures (such as Mishipizhiw, the Great Lynx) and supernatural beings (such as Maymaygwayshi, little hairy men sans noses).

Agawa pictographs.

I examined my first rock painting at Terrier Lake while on a canoe trip north of Nakina.

Terrier Lake, north of Nakina.

They were palm prints. Selwyn does not explain how he found this particular site, but he recorded his impressions: “A poor site . . . two handprints, a possible human, a few dots and lichen-spotted abstractions”.

Since then I have heard of other sites within a day’s travel, but I’ve never had the urge to launch my canoe and search for them. Selwyn records sites on Lake Nipigon (in Gull Bay, and at Echo Rock), Red Rock (west shore of Nipigon River), and at Agawa Rock (northeastern shore of Lake Superior).   The Agawa pictographs are a tourist attraction, but the one time I stopped, ice and snow patches covered the path down to the shore, and I didn’t fancy my chances on a slippery ledge. There are rumours of a pictograph site on McKay Lake, southeast of Longlac. And some day I might visit Barbara Lake, east of Beardmore, and look for a site never mentioned by Selwyn.

How did I come upon Selwyn Dewdney’s book Daylight in the Swamp? My next novel (working title The Manitou Firebird) describes an inciting incident on the banks of the Pic River. I had already bushwhacked my way, through swamp and blackflies, to the site. I had discovered a delightful little falls tumbling into a creek leading to the Pic. And my research online had led me to Dewdney’s book and the chapter “Packing on the Pic”.

Synchronicity is a spiritual phenomenon. One looks for and recognizes meaningful coincidences in one’s life. Selwyn and I both had prairie connections, we both learned to love canoeing, and we both felt a strong attraction to the Northern bush. These are mere coincidences.   What are the chances that we were both destined to visit remote Terrier Lake and gaze at red ochre handprints? Strong coincidence, but not necessarily synchronicity.

What are the chances that a book title would forge a bond between by a writer and a reader, and evoke memories of a prairie childhood, of adolescent adventures, and of half a lifetime of researching and writing about the boreal forest?

The title of Dewdney’s memoir came from a “questionable bush poem”. How did it come about that at every turn of a page I found myself in sync with Selwyn, with his thoughts, with his feelings, with his experiences of a lifetime?

Rock art is associated with red ochre. Red ochre is associated with the spirituality of prehistoric artists. Pictographs in red ochre have been painted on rock walls on every continent except Antarctica.

It is fitting that the ashes of Selwyn Dewdney have been committed to Lake Superior by his four sons. Agawa Rock overlooks the spot. On the rock is a huge animal with crested back and horned head.

Mishipizhiw. The Great Lynx.

It is fitting that the pictograph is painted in red ochre.

May he rest forever in sync.

Rock art is universal.

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IN SYNC WITH SELWYN (Chapter 5 of 6)

Peninsula Harbour, 1884, during construction of CPR.

Bushed

“Packing on the Pic was, well, no picnic.”

So began Selwyn’s tale of swamps that proved to be the bane of his so-called “summer vacation”. He had landed a job with General Timber Company, packing supplies into bush camps in the valley of the Pic River. The Pic, an Ojibway

Vintage kicker.

name for “mud”, flowed into Lake Superior. It lived up to its name. Boats with small outboard motors (“kickers”) had to dodge hidden deadheads, i.e., submerged waterlogged timbers.

Leaving the river camp, “I would take the first load by kicker down the river to the landing, wrestle the load onto my back, then tote it two miles into the bush camp, or even beyond that to a new advance camp another two miles deeper into the bush. On one typical day, I brought in a thirty pound leg of ham, twenty-five pounds of fresh meat, and thirty pounds of assorted groceries.”

He describes the worst obstacles: cedar swamp and second-growth fire slash. Thickets of cedar produce a multiplicity of low-level branches which, dying out, leave sharp spikes. “They specialize in ripping shirts, pants, socks or skin with equal impartiality.” Deep pockets of muskeg promote many a fall into the muck. In burned-over terrain, encountering barriers of fallen timbers, the packer trips constantly, unable to peer through the opaque leafy screen of young poplar. He was following a line blazed by timber cruisers.

On that first day, returning with an empty pack, rain soaked him thoroughly, and he had to master the art of travelling upstream in an empty vessel, without ballast. “When the base camp came into view I would sometimes burst spontaneously into song. A hearty meal, followed by an evening of drying clothes and washing socks, completed a full day.”

Old-time logging camp in Northern Ontario.

Selwyn did not lack for companionship. Two packers soon joined him in his travails. At the river camp, company included a cook, a clerk, and sundry workers (Selwyn mentions two experienced timber cruisers assisted by two high school kids acting as tally men, and at another time, the head cruiser). Cruisers, by the way, conducted traverses in order to locate merchantable timber and estimate quantities. Such company relieved “the incipient claustrophobia of constant travel through dense forests”.

And he did find free time. He explored the

Nama Creek Falls today.

bush, and sketched. “Sketching bush subjects provided me with occasional hours of pleasant absorption. My oil sketching followed the Group of Seven method then in vogue at the Ontario College of Art.” On one memorable day, he discovered Nama Creek. After a hot and tiring trek through swampy ground, he emerged “on the bare rock to find a cascade of water so refreshing, so beautiful, I knew immediately that I would paint it. I made some sketches and two years later completed a large canvas called Nama Creek.”

Towards the end of summer, he thought more and more of pulling up stakes. “At such times”, he wrote, “the only thing that kept me on the Pic was our need for money. Irene and three little mouths awaited the fruits of my labour.”

Selwyn did see more of the country than swamps and a muddy river. When he had travelled north on the CPR at the beginning of his “vacation”, he dropped off at Heron Bay, “a hotel, a store, and not much else”. Looking for a job, he ended up at Peninsula ̶ “a coaling stop on the CPR with a marvellous view of Lake Superior” ̶ and a bunkhouse for General Timber. “Soon I would be going up Pic River where I would pack grub for the camps at four dollars a day all found . . . ‘All found’ meant that the company would supply food and accommodation.”

It would be years before Selwyn had an opportunity to explore the Lake Superior North Shore. “Whenever I visited these places on the Superior shore, the steep shores, huge hills and vast stretches of open water glimpsed between headlands never failed to impress me.” He would recall the iconic painting by Lawren Harris, one of the Group of Seven, titled North Shore.

Selwyn never mentions the history of logging on the Pic. Logging began in the Lower Pic Valley in 1916, targeting large white spruce. Drives were conducted on the Lower Pic and its tributaries. Different operations began cutting accessible spruce and balsam stands for pulpwood, which were boomed at the mouth of the Pic (Selwyn describes his encounter with rafts of logs) and towed to Wisconsin. In 1937, General Timber Company obtained the cutting rights for the Pic watershed. General Timber was a subsidiary of Marathon Paper Mills of Wisconsin.

River drive near Chapleau.

After spring break-up, supplies reached the bush camps on the Lower Pic by the river, and after freeze-up, by a winter road paralleling the river. Selwyn never mentions the major change in 1943 in cutting operations (which, incidentally, he never described), the year of his memorable vacation. General Timber began operations on the Upper Pic by constructing a supply depot at Stevens on the CNR. The company constructed roads from the railway to access the Upper Pic and its tributaries. In 1944, Marathon Paper Mills acquired the licence for the Big Pic concession on condition that it construct a 250-ton-per-day bleached kraft pulp mill at Peninsula. Thus Peninsula acquired the name Marathon. River drives continued. Thereafter, logging on the Lower Pic was phased out and terminated completely in 1947, the year the new mill began operation.

Storage pond on Pic River near Heron Bay.

You may wonder why, in Chapter 11, titled “Packing on the Pic”, Selwyn never mentions his battles with blackflies and other flying pests. He spends considerable time in Chapter 3, “Bush Apprenticeship” detailing his ordeals. He systematically describes his experiences with sand fleas (a.k.a. no-seeums), mosquitos, blackflies, bulldog flies (a.k.a. moose flies), deer flies, and dogflies.

The bush man lumps all these pests under the rubric of flies. To give you the flavour of his description, here is his account of the dogfly: “Always on the exposed ankle. Invariably you don’t expect it. Invariably the little nipper, a dogfly, escapes. Indistinguishable from a small housefly, the dogfly can bite through heavy bush socks with mysterious ease. There’s no swelling or itching afterwards, just that one absolutely savage and completely uncalled for nip. Being too brief to provide any nourishment for the dogfly, I must assume the nip is just its way of being sociable.”

After spring break-up and until just before fall freeze-up, flies are an inevitable fact of life in the bush.

Hardly worth mentioning.

Afternoon Sun-North Shore-Lake Superior”, by Lawren Harris.

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