CONFESSIONS OF A WHISTLEBLOWER

Last evening, when I emerged from the fog bank, I almost ran down the road worker holding the stop sign.

Soon after I had left Thunder Bay in late afternoon, driving north, I encountered stretches of fog which sometimes reduced visibility to thirty or forty metres. Otherwise, the highway was mostly clear under low ceilings.

North of Nipigon, when the hilly section began, I heeded the caution to slow down for road construction but there seemed to be no activity. The day before, I had breezed by the same caution going to TBay and there hadn’t been a single construction machine in sight let alone human beings.

So when a figure loomed out of the fog, I braked sharply. I sensed rather than saw the hazy figure waving a sign.

I immediately rolled down the passenger window (if “rolled down” is the term one uses nowadays for opening a car window by pressing a button) and raised my voice: “I didn’t see you! You’re almost invisible,” and in my next breath, “Who’s your boss?”

Surprised out of his stupor, the worker blurted out, “Brad!”

I knew the road worker wasn’t to blame but I had every intention of chewing out Brad, his supervisor.

On the rest of the drive home, I cast my mind over times when I had lodged a complaint about some road hazard or case of dangerous driving or even of dangerous pedestering (if there is such a word).

Not long ago I recalled stopping at the Greenstone OPP detachment to warn of a dangerous practice. Pedestrians were walking on the shoulder, backs to traffic, on a walk to Ottawa. (See my post WALK THE RIGHT WAY, http://bit.ly/2KeceRU ). I approached the constable on duty and pointed out the walkers were breaking the law by not walking on the shoulder facing traffic. The constable responded that he wasn’t aware of any such law. Nevertheless, he said he would monitor the situation. He never got back to me so I don’t know what he did, but anyway, nobody died.

I looked up the Ontario statute with regard to pedestrians and lo and behold, there is such a law.

Another time in stormy winter weather, just south of Beardmore, a semi passed me on a curve and crowded me onto the shoulder. I had to brake hard to avoid mowing down guard rails. I was really scared. So I sped up and followed him in dangerous conditions all the way to Nipigon so that I could report him at the detachment. This is one case when I did get feedback. The OPP said there were two drivers and neither would admit to being behind the wheel. However, later the police told me they had notified their Vancouver-based company and were assured the boss would take action. Again, nobody died on that trip.

On another trip, I almost did die. Just south of Jellicoe, coming around a sharp curve, I met two transports. Together. Side by side. I managed to slip by between the pavement and the guard rails. At the next opportunity I bought a dashcan. I swore that next time my family and friends would have a record of how I died. I fondly believed that my camera would survive any head-on collision with a transport.

I didn’t blow the whistle that time ̶ what was the point? It was all over in seven seconds. (See my post SEVEN SECONDS TO LIVE, http://bit.ly/31V6k0N . This post is my whistle.)

Some years ago, just east of Kenora, I encountered a big truck hauling a big trailer piled high with loose debris. The pile was canted to one side, the side I was meeting the truck on. I pulled over when I could and called the situation in. After the usual barrage of questions about who I was and where I was and what I was complaining about and what was the maiden name of my deceased aunt, I continued my journey. I had a vision of the truck toppling over at a curve, obliterating sundry tourists and the odd Volkswagen.

Over the next twenty-four hours, I monitored the newspapers and broadcasts out of Winnipeg. Not a word. Apparently, nobody died.

So, yesterday, when the road worker gave me the go-head, I drove slowly down the hill towards the flashing lights and the blurry machines and pulled over for a guy in a hard hat. Yes, he was Brad. What did I mean I couldn’t see him. He glanced up the hill where I’m sure he couldn’t even see the worker he was supervising. Oh, he said, the fog. Yes, I said, the fog. Well, he said, we’re just about finished here.

I drove on. He walked on. Ruminating on the incident, I concluded the road worker has not in a fog bank but in a low-lying cloud. For one thing, the mist was lighter in the hollow where the road gang was working, and in my experience, fog congregates in the low spots.

Still, whether in a fog or in a cloud, the worker had been practically invisible.

I’m so glad I stopped in time.

I’m so glad nobody died this time.

And for reporting another dangerous situation, I got, as usual, no feedback.

Call me a Nervous Nellie or just a crank, but . . .

I’m so glad I blew my whistle.

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CANADA’S ALBATROSS

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

The worst nightmare of the Ancient Mariner is being replicated in Canada. I want to understand why.

You know the whine of the Ancient Mariner1 – that he must relive the horror of a sea voyage in which all his shipmates die, and he endures a Life-In-Death afloat upon a Sargasso Sea, parched beyond belief, and . . .

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs

Upon the slimy sea.

I have lived most years of my life upon a Spongy Sea, afloat in the boreal forest of Canada, the wellspring and font and source of one cup in five, of twenty percent of the world’s freshest water. Yet I dare not drink it. Raw.

Full many a time and oft have I plunged my face into a succulent stream and sucked the elixir of life. If bread be the Staff of Life, then water, my friends – water is the CEO and President of the Cutting Board. Without water, my dears, the ship of Earth is an Enron looking for a reef to founder on.

Water. You may remember the days, if you have lived long enough, when as a kid you shucked the sweaty baseball glove and you raced to the fountain and gobbled the mouthpiece. You may remember those days, but you bridle at the memory. You were drinking treated water, raw.

You may remember the days when you filled a glass straight from the tap and swallowed it. I remember the days when I used to dip my cup into the murk of a birch-ringed lake and drink the milky contents. Raw. No, no, never, no more.

One incident, not even ten years ago: I was helping to hustle a passel of feisty teens over a two-plus-mile portage in the Land o’ Goshen, which, in the middle of a two-week carry-your-own-stuff-as-well-as-communal-food-and-camp-gear trip, required several carries. Now, the leader of the canoe trip, whom I shall call John Jay, had a reputation. Part of it stemmed from John Jay’s belief that he was bound to provide a wilderness adventure, especially when things were running smoothly.

So, at lunch break, we learned that our canteens were dry. And it was a dry port, meaning, there was no potable water on the trail. But there were puddles. Puddles of swamp water ̶ black, and brackish, and crawling with slimy things.

Yes, we drank it. Sure, we dissolved a few pounds of chlorine in the stuff, but it was still awful. And when night overtook us, we camped on the trail, and we sent porters ahead to bring back pots of aqua. They found a seasonal stream that had flooded the port. To acquire the aqua, they waded into the muddy mess, dipped the pots, and chucked out the biggest clods. We boiled the stuff, boiled the hell out of it, and quaffed a concoction that had the colour of tea and the texture of 5W-30. Hey, it was an adventure!

No, no, never, no more. In all my excursions now into the Goshen woods, I rely on a lightweight, hand-pumped water purifier. As a departed friend used to say to me, as he bolted a belt of raw scotch, “No water, please. Fish pee in it.” It never bothered me before. It bothers me now.

It bothers me now to drink from South Sea blue waters churned up by the motorboats. It bothers me now to drink from rivers which are still dissolving the products of long ago log drives. It bothers me to drink from natural sources that are laced with beaver spit and duck poop and fiss pish.

But, ladies and germs, this is fresh water, fresh from Canada’s boreal forest, from the largest, the absolutely greatest reservoir of fresh water in the world. What has happened?

Here is what happened. In one word. Walkerton.

In 2000, in Walkerton, Bruce County, Province of Ontario, people watched their family and neighbours sicken and suffer. Many died. Others have never recovered their health.

What happened? Public officials, the people who were charged with treating fresh water and rendering it potable, failed them. Some of those responsible have been punished.

As a consequence, Canada has a dead weight suspended from its national neck. Sure, there has been a flood of clean water legislation, and the whole country has been battered by a tsunami of new regulations, but who trusts the water nowadays? Not me.

Do I blame Walkerton? Not entirely. The Walkerton tragedy could just as well happen in North Battleford, or in Kashechewan, or in Rankin Inlet. Come to think of it, it already did, to some degree. It could happen in Goshen.

The tragedy for me, the personal tragedy for me, is that I can never think of fresh water as I once did in the halcyon days of yore.

I am, now, an Ancient Mariner, and I stoppeth thee in thy happy business, compelled to tell thee this tale. For my dreams, my waking dreams, are haunted . . .

By coldwater streams once kissed by jewelly brook trout . . .

And rushing rivers brushed by the wingtips of osprey . . .

And eye-blue lakes caressed by the bottoms of thin-skinned canoes . . .

Oh, once again, good God, grant me a drop to drink . . .

Raw.

*   *   *

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to trust.

1 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, his longest poem, and published it in 1798. Even today, this tale of man’s sin against Nature has immense power to move the reader.

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

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UNDER ARREST

Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it. In this matter, Stephen Leacock misspoke, for advertising is not a science, it is an art, and art requires imagination.

It is a scientific fact that a municipal councillor has a practical turn of mind. A councillor is a no-nonsense type who, for example, makes note of the streets in his or her ward that need repairs. The councillor prepares a meticulously detailed report, in twenty-five words or less, and submits it to public works. He submits it again four weeks later, or, as the case may be, four years later, with or without revisions. Little has escaped his or her steel-trapped mind.

A councillor must also wrestle with a perennial problem – crime in the streets. The perpetrators are often non-citizens, or, more to the point, non-voters. They will trespass on private property, they will urinate on people’s stoops, and in some flagrant instances, they mate under the street lamps. As a consequence, councillors must devise laws that are increasingly stringent, to curb domestic cats.

A councillor’s mind is focused on practicalities – how to raise taxes, how to raise the community’s profile, how to raise hell at meetings, and, incidentally, how to raise taxes.

Speaking of community profiles, the mayor and council of the Small City of Dryden are taking a break from practical affairs, and are exercising their imaginations. It seems that the community slogan is just too practical: Dryden ̶ Unique, Progressive, Confident, Proud, Ontario’s Leading Small City. I wish I were kidding, but I’m never that funny.

The slogan is not working. Travellers on the TransCanada who must run the Dryden gauntlet think of it as the Small City of the Big Stink. Dryden’s neighbours are more charitable – they think of it as the Big Pew-Pew.

The stink comes from the small city’s big paper mill. Several forests, and generations of new growth, have fed the maws of this mill.   One must travel towards the subarctic regions to find a virgin forest, intermingled with smutty peat bogs, and sensual beds of moss, and woodland caribou wandering about promiscuously.

What has been the result of the council’s exercise of imagination?   It is – please, I am serious here – it is this slogan: Dryden ̶ The Wilderness City.

I know what you’re thinking – that sometimes, sometimes imagination should be exercised regularly, in order to avoid cramps.

Still, Dryden – The Wilderness City is a viable marketing concept. As one councillor said, “It’s kind of down to earth.” Way, way down. It is certain to appeal to visitors and to investors and it is certain to entice professionals to uproot and resettle here.

Wilderness has universal appeal. Just imagine. Imagine tourists who will come to dangle their toes in the acidic lakes. Imagine the firms that will relocate here, such as Air Wick, to name a few.   Imagine doctors attracted by the prospect of chronic respiratory illness and previously undiscovered cancers.

Okay, I’m kidding now. My point is, if you arrest your intelligence, you can see the humour in it, and if you can arrest other people’s intelligence, there may be money in it. Arrestment works, in police work, and in flood control, and in advertising.

Now that candidates are lining up for Goshen’s municipal elections, let’s encourage them to release their imagination. Some may hurt themselves, or pee on someone’s stoop, or mate with each other, but in a democracy, these are acceptable risks. Goshen’s slogan needs work. It is, I believe, We’re Still Here, Eh?

Goshen needs to raise its profile. Lately, as hundreds of forest fires swept the region, we and our neighbours achieved a national prominence. Smoke darkened our days, penetrated our lungs, infiltrated our homes.   But there’s been no money in it. We haven’t arrested anyone’s intelligence yet. So, let’s advertise.

There is a market for smoke. Millions of people. Worldwide. Who disguise their vice with breath mints. Who supplement their highs with arm patches. Who skulk outside of the workplace, puffing away.

Just imagine. Fire season in Goshen. Hundreds, thousands of smoke-deprived tourists, dragging in lungsful of cinders and ash. And imagine the product possibilities – nose filters, and wrinkle cream, and nicotine throat sprays. A new slogan? Goshen – Land of the Big Smoke.

We’d just have to persuade Toronto to release the slogan to us.

There’s just no limit to what imagination can do.

Unless you arrest it.

  *   *   * 

Many people feel like exercising their imagination, but when they start thinking, the feeling passes.

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

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POACHERS, WELCOME TO PARADISE!

Trust, but verify. I love this maxim. People love the truth, love telling the truth, love hearing the truth. And as often as not, people will fudge the truth. People are funny that way.

Tigers aren’t laughing. Tigers are dying from lack of truth. India’s Bengal tigers have been dying for decades, but the people of India trusted that the 4,260 square kilometres of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve was a refuge that would never be violated. They trusted that there would always be tigers.

After all, just recently, the Ministry of Forests had counted 273 tigers there. But some cranks insisted on verification. As if government were ever guilty of creative accounting.

So some people were surprised when an independent agency could verify only 64 tigers in the Reserve. Poachers had accounted for the rest. It seems that the wardens had been covering up for years. Why? Some, to hang on to their jobs. Others, to make a crooked rupee.

This could never happen here. Why? Because the wardens that guard our forests are steadily losing their jobs, and those that still have jobs, are chained to their desks.

Canadians, bless ‘em, have a profound trust in the stewards of our forests, and forests, of course, include wildlife. The forests and wildlife have always been here, will always be here, and if such were not the case, government would tell us. Truthfully.   The woodland caribou, for example.

There is a plan, the plan has been implemented, and the plan is working to preserve the historic numbers of woodland caribou. Right? Ask a Ministry biologist, and he will affirm that we do have a plan to preserve caribou habitat, that the plan to preserve caribou habitat has been implemented, and that the plan to preserve caribou habitat is working.   Trust him. He is absolutely truthful.

Now, read that affirmation again. There is no plan to preserve the historic numbers of caribou. There is, instead, a plan to preserve habitat. So, what does that mean?

What are the historic numbers of caribou? No one knows. How many caribou are there today? No one knows, but someone will guess. What is caribou habitat? Some people claim to know. Is the plan working? Yes. How do they know? Because there are caribou living in the habitat. Do they know how many? No. Do they care? Not much, for as long as there is habitat, and someone can point to the presence of a caribou somewhere in it, the plan is working.

See? No one has lied. If you are not sharp enough to ask the right questions, you just go right on trusting. Canadians are good at that.

Now, back to our wardens – conservation officers, COs, we call ‘em in Goshen.   Yes, they’re chained to their desks, hunched over the phones, and waiting for the forest to talk to them. If there is a problem in the bush, if the trees or the plants or the wildlife need their assistance, surely someone will call.

Meanwhile, their trucks are parked. The CO positions that are vacant will remain vacant. To justify their jobs, COs must lay charges, but the quota has been drastically slashed. Even if the quota reaches zero, there will still be COs ̶ for the optics, you understand.

In India, at the current rate of poaching, there will be no tigers in tens years’ time. In Canada, at the current rate, there will be no . . . Wait! What am I saying? No one’s keeping track. Hard to do when chained to your desk.

Do you think I’m being funny? Well, I try to be, but I am definitely not kidding. The tigers are not laughing. The caribou are not smiling. The fish are not grinning – well, okay, some may be grinning, but that’s an hereditary quirk.

But somebody is laughing. The poachers are laughing. The poachers are having a field day. The poachers have known for years of the budget restraints in the Ministry of Manageable Resources, restraints so stringent that they are short-changing the health of our forests and wildlife.

And now you know. You may also have seen something in the papers, heard something on radio. But now that you have read this, you know. You. Know. You.

Are you mad? Don’t be mad. Be smart. Ask some sharp questions. You can trust the Ministry to answer truthfully, or to fudge the truth, expertly. The truth is still there, somewhere.

And you are smarter than any bureaucrat. Trust me. Canadians are good at trusting.

But verify.

* * *

Truth is like fudge – sweet, and sticky, and, in large chunks, hard to swallow.

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

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GIANTS OF OLD

Surely we ought to be giants, living in such a country as this. The playwright, Anton Chekhov, was remarking on his own country. He prefaced the remark with The Lord God has given us vast forests, immense fields, wide horizons . . .

Such a country is Russia. Such is Canada. Such is Goshen, where the immense fields are clear cuts, and yet the moral imperative applies: We ought to be giants.

We ought to be giants because we live in a land peopled by giants. By children who aspire to greater heights. By fathers who stick to their dead-end jobs and support their families and shoulder a mountain of debt. By mothers who slave at McJobs and return to McClosets to raise their McBrats as they wait for their McPrince to close the bars. Still, they do not cut the throats of their employers nor drown their children nor poison their spouses at an unreasonable rate. They exercise a gigantic restraint.

Besides, we need giants. The other day, six of us set out to recover the artifacts of Goshen’s giants of old. We travelled for hours. We plunged into vast forests. We traversed mile after mile of logged-over wilderness.   And as for the horizons, while they weren’t especially wide, they were muscular. Like the shoulders of giants.

We found the old-time horse-drawn logging sleighs where they had been bulldozed into roadside dumps to clear the way for logging trucks. Two bunks, each with a pair of runners, would have constituted a sleigh. We found five bunks, wreckages of iron and rotting wood. And each bunk was . . . HEAVY.

To one bunk we applied our combined weight of muscle and bone, well over a thousand pounds, and barely budged it. Okay, there may have been some fatty tissue involved, and arthritic joints, and twinges of angina pectoris, but still.

So we applied our minds to the challenge, close to three centuries of brains and experience, and we wrestled each bunk into a trailer.   How the devil did a horse, or a team of horses, or a herd of horses move these contrivances, loaded with timber, over ice roads in the dead of winter?

It had to be Paul who logged these woods. It had to be Gin Jammer Johan who loaded the timber, and Cross-Chain Charlie who secured the load, and Gee-Haw Gustav who steered the horse, and don’t you forget Hayburner Hercules, that gallant steed, who drew the sleigh. The giants of old.

There was an item the other day, in the paper, about the excavation of old Paul’s grave at East Haddam, Connecticut. Well, it was actually the grave of Venture Smith, “the black Paul Bunyan”, as they call him. Born in Africa in 1729, Venture was sold into slavery at the age of six, served an American master, married Meg at age twenty-two, was sold again, separated from his wife, worked from dawn to dusk for nothing and then worked from dusk to dawn for cash until, at age thirty-six, he bought his freedom, and over several years, bought the freedom of his wife and his children, and worked his tireless brains and his legendary brawn from dawn to dawn as he accumulated a private fortune. There is a story of his shouldering a nine-pound axe and hewing seven cords of wood in a single day.

The logging artifacts that we recovered have been relocated to Goshen Museum, and now the task is to find the memories and the skills that can convert them into respectable exhibits. We are searching for the descendants of cross-cut engineers and coal forge blacksmiths and hand-augur carpenters. We need the sons and the grandsons of Sidney Sawyer and Samuel Smithy and Sheldon Shaver.

It seems that they were excavating Venture’s grave to secure some genetic evidence of his origins, but all that they found were some artifacts that were consistent with his existence. His marvelous mental strength and his stupendous spirit and his preternatural stature, they still belong to legend.

It was Paul Bunyan’s boys, and the girls who loved them and supported them, who built an industry that spanned a continent. It was the brains and muscles of the loggers, and the fibre and fecundity of the trees, and the sweat and the sacrifice of the horses that created legends. Giants, they were.

To be esteemed.

We ought to be giants.

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

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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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