In a dream I met an older version of myself. A figure in the distance, alone on a small rise.  At first I thought it was my father, or my Alabama friend Augustus. But as I walked up  I realized it was me. Tall but a little bent, bald on top and all gray at the sides; glasses. He smiled when he saw me. “Ready to stop trying so hard?”  Yes, I nodded, I am. Good, he said.  He led me down a path through young birches, to a clearing and a chair.  “Come sit.”

Overcast with some snow in the air this morning, minus eight with the trademark northeast breeze flowing down off the barrens. April has been cold and windy here with only one day of real melting, on the 18th.  The inland trails are still in decent shape for sledding and hauling.  Spring is biding its time this year.

I have been thinking about frogs and hot water lately, and the hinterlands of Canada. One of those wonderful old words, hinterland – “From German, hinter, back + land, land; an area far from big cities or towns; back country.” The other day at lunch the three of us – Kristen, Liv and I – were speculating and scheming about the summer ahead, and about supplies and barges.  Avgas in drums, lumber and groceries, bags of cement for new house footings, heavy pails of acrylic chinking slurry, four tons of kibble and rice for the dogs, six cylinders of propane and so on. And vessels to move it — barges and push-boats: waterline length, displacement, hull speed, horsepower. Freight men and barge companies:  Captain Happy, Sean Buckley, Snow King, Mike Whittaker, the Rowe brothers, NTCL. All with an eye to moving some freight while the lake is open, and to another winter, and to re-building, and to more changes afoot and more changes ahead.

As we sat and talked I grew weary.  I remembered my recent dream.  There was no clear path ahead, at least that I could see. Certainly no pleasant path through autumn birches, leading to a sunny clearing and a chair.

It is a hazard of growing older, and of sticking to one place on the planet for decades, that one begins to spend as much time looking back as forward – or so it seems some days.  Such mental strolling back through time is hazardous, because the mood of the journey can change from reflective and inspiring to whiny and resentful, and the trail is bordered by the crevasses of self-pity, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement. No joy and no enlightenment in any of those wallow pits.

My 1994 book North of Reliance, a collection of essays and narratives set in our first years here at the Hoarfrost River, is to come back into print later this year. This second edition is thanks to Raven Productions down in the Minnesota / Ontario border country, where I lived for most of my twenties.  In preparation for a new edition I have been re-reading the book, correcting some of my grammar and fixing small passages that never read very smoothly, while at the same time resisting a strong impulse to edit its tone and alter some of its conclusions. Looking at those chapters again has brought me back in time, and has led me to this metaphor of warming frogs.

I first stood in the narrows at Reliance, first set foot on the ice of McLeod Bay proper, 35 years ago on this date.  April 26, 1981. I was 23. Two of us, Kurt Mitchell and I, along with ten dogs, had just finished a six-week journey, starting from Yellowknife, east four hundred miles or so to Hornby Point on the Thelon River, and back to Reliance.  But that is another story.

Now I am thinking back to that April day. I walked a half mile across the ice from the weather station to the locked-up summer cabin of Roger and Theresa (who in those years, with their two young children, still wintered out at their cabin on the upper Thelon), and continued west from there to stand alongside the narrow strait at the south tip of the Fairchild Peninsula. I remember the wind. It was a westerly that day, and cold.  l remember thinking, “ Wow, it’s still winter up here in late April.” Sentinel Point rose blue-black out in the far distance, and ten miles to the north of where I stood a small river called the Hoarfrost flowed into the bay.  Little did I know…

What strikes me today on this date is how “the country” felt to me that day, a third of a century ago.  “The country” being a vast place, but a somewhat defined place at least to its inhabitants, a smattering of personal fiefdoms and interwoven lives all centered on that little outpost called Reliance.  Call it the Greater Reliance Area.  I’m trying to recall how the place was and how it felt to me then, and how, subtly and steadily over the years, both the place and the feeling of being immersed and at home in it have changed.  This is where the frog comes in.  I have often heard that if you put a frog in a bath of pleasantly tepid water, and then gradually heat the water, the frog will not sense the rising temperature in time to hop out to safety.  Hot frog, hotter frog, boiled frog.

Those who have read my writing elsewhere have run across this quoted phrase before, but I will trot it out again:  “The land lives in its people.”  That was the late John Haines – Alaska woodsman and trapper, acclaimed poet and essayist.  I met John a few times and enjoyed a fleeting correspondence with him. In 1994, coming home from racing, Kristen and I stopped in at his homestead southeast of Fairbanks for a morning visit.  Haines was a serious and deep thinker, who did not think much of sled-dog racing and who would not think much of my flippant title today, but who just might crack an understanding smile at what I am trying to say, having lived a parallel experience along the upper Tanana.

What I realize is that by Haines’ measure the land hereabouts, our hinterland, was much more alive back then than it is now.  In fact by that measure, all of Canada’s back country was more alive 35 years ago than it is today – maybe, but be careful, because that broader statement is not entirely clear of confusion.  I gather from some queries to Mr. Google that in 1981 Canada had a population of about 24.3 million people. 24% of those lived in rural areas, defined as “outside centres with a population of 1,000 AND outside areas with 400 persons per square kilometer.”  (Note here that by this definition, if you live in a village of, say,  350 people, but you rarely if ever go out on the land or turn off the televsion, you are still a “rural person” in the view of Statistics Canada.  So one must tread carefully, as always, in the realm of statistics.)

5.8 million country people in 1981, 24% of 24.3 million.  (The planet in 1981 had about four and a half billion human souls on board.)  We have another accurate five-year National Census coming up in May, but a good estimate puts the total Canadian populace today at just under 36 million. That population is now less rural by percentage, down to 18% by the same definition given above, but in total “rural people” that is nearly six and a half million. And in those 35 years the world’s human population has grown by another three billion.  I didn’t ace my university Statistics class back at Missoula, but these numbers do tell a story that is worth pondering. Any way you cut it, the rural people as a species in Canada are steadily being outnumbered by the city people.  Canada, like the world at large, is becoming predominantly urban.

Here around the far east end of Great Slave Lake, and roaming out onto the barrens nearby, a reasonable population estimate of “the neighborhood,” circa 1981, would seem to be about 20-25.  There were trappers both native and non-native, active hunters on the move, and at least four or five distinct households spread thinly across those miles. Central to this human presence, albeit in an odd way, at Reliance proper there was the Weather Station, with three full-time meteorologists employed 24 /7, year-round, to collect and transmit hourly weather reports.  The reports went out by single-sideband radio, and were re-broadcast on the territorial CBC radio.  The visibility and wind conditions at Reliance were eagerly checked by the pilots who flew east from Yellowknife supplying and servicing various camps, projects, and outposts.  They flew bushplanes on floats and skis, year-round — Cessnas, Otters, Beavers, Twin Otters — and also helicopters.  The weather station and its staff, like the crew at a seasonal mining camp or fishing lodge, do not embody the kind of people that give the land its life in the way Haines meant. But those meteorologists, and all those planes and pilots dropping in on residents to re-fuel or bring mail or have coffee, and the station itself with its tall red-lighted NDB tower (now obsolete in the era of GPS), were certainly a part of the ambience I recall as I think back to standing on the ice in the narrows.

The weather station staff was a fluid entity, with individuals rarely posted to Reliance for more than a few years.  Some are still elsewhere in the North doing other work.  Most are not. The most well-known of them, Claire Martin Morehen, became for years the television “weather personality” on the evening CBC National news, and she would sometimes sneak a passing reference to Reliance into her monologue.  Claire thus ranks as the most nationally famous former denizen of Greater Reliance, with John Hornby a hungry but distant second. Helge Ingstad (Pelsjegerliv Blandt Nord-Kanadas Indianere, 1931, and its English version The Land of Feast and Famine, 1933) would undoubtedly take the honors if the vote was taken today in Norway.  Ingstad trapped and travelled hereabouts in the late 1920’s, and is now nothing short of a national icon over there.

Because “The Station” was there at Reliance, the barge came every summer from Hay River — the massive 5,000 horsepower NTCL barge with its trucks, loaders, bulk fuel and SeaCans stacked on board, its captain and first mate, cook and deckhands. Up top were the office people in lawn chairs and suntan oil who would sign on to the East Arm freight run as the most enticing plum voyage of all the various routes served by the company.  Every summer the barge came.  Groceries, fuel, skidoos, dog kibble, lumber, you name it.  If one managed to get something of any shape, size, or description delivered to the NTCL Terminal before the cut-off date, it would be on the barge.

Every autumn and every winter, with many variations on the theme, the caribou came, and along with them the wolves, the wolverines, the hunters and the trappers.  There was life, there was movement, there was give and take.  People stopped by other people’s camps and cabins, unannounced, for tea or repair parts, or a warm place to throw down a bedroll. There were even feuds — surely, that is some dubious measure of how populated a country is – “are there enough people out there that some of them have decided not to get along?”  Maybe Statistics Canada could probe that line of questioning on their next long form.

And now, these past two winters, there are six of us. Roger, Libby, and Gus at Reliance; Dave and Kristen and Liv at the Hoarfrost.  Six, down from twenty or twenty five (and yes, we are all getting along just fine.)  In those 35 years twelve million more people in Canada, and an additional three billion people in the world.

These years there are no trappers out at distant cabins, no prospecting or drill camps off to the east or northeast, and this year no one is coming out hunting from Lutsel K’e because no caribou have come.  The big NTCL barge ceased service east of Taltheilei Narrows after 2004, when they pushed and broke ice down McLeod Bay for 50 miles on the night of July 15, in the latest spring breakup on record. The weather station was shut down completely by 1994, replaced by an automated box that sends out coded weather information (hard to access and of dubious accuracy) via satellite. The Reliance weather doesn’t come up on the morning CBC, except on weekends when there is less rush for air time — and honestly, why should it? The dilapidated buildings of the station itself are falling down and being carted away as a Federal cleanup project, and the landing of a plane or helicopter is an event to be remarked upon.

Bush planes, you ask?  (This being, after all, the bushedpilot blog.) Two based here, one of those out for overhaul right now, still filling our oddball niche in the mom-and-pop charter business, yes, but these days in Yellowknife (a city of 20,000, up from 9,400 in 1981) there are no single-engine ski planes licensed for charter.  Say that again: There is not one single-engine bush plane for hire in a city of 20,000 people, for eight months of the year.

I sometimes smile.   It’s the water, I chuckle to myself, and it’s heating up.  I am imagining The Big Fella, or a quirky boreal version of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, with a labcoat and a vat and a frog:  “Let’s see what happens if we take away the weather station. OK now stop the barge; now stop the other barge.  Now the caribou.  All right let’s just torch the forest for 30 miles right down to the shoreline.  Hell, burn down the house while we’re at it.  Now build up those dams in B.C. and siphon off more water at the tarsands in Fort Mac, and drop the lake level by three feet. What? They’re still there?  Was that a kick I just saw from those froggy legs?”

Yup.  That was a kick. “Hot frogs in the hinterlands.”  (I’m working out the chords, don’t worry.) Stubborn, and still in love with this place.  Some mornings I find myself half-assed enthused at the prospect of building yet another log house, milling some big burnt timbers, and putting in all those days of honest sweat as I finish out my fifties. But believe me, sometimes we really do wonder.  I imagine there are plenty of other rural frogs, spread right across this second largest country in the world (Russia being the largest), all in that dwindling hinterland percentage of a city-fied and city-fying world, all sitting around the lunch table asking their own variations of the same questions. The gist of which is:  “Where did everybody go? And is it just me, or does it get harder every year to put the pieces of this logistical puzzle together?”

Thank you, if you have stuck with me this far.  I know these blog posts should ideally be shorter.  Let me close this ramble with a passage from the opening chapter of one of my all-time favorite books, Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse, by Paul St. Pierre,a deceptively simple story set in the Chilcotin country of central British Columbia:

“Smith had come into the Namko Country to build a ranch on the four-thousand-foot contour of the fifty-third parallel of north latitude.  One might say that he and men like him should have more sense. One might be right.  Indeed, in the current view of government and industry, such country is better left unsettled until such time as a large corporation is prepared to establish instant towns therein, complete with pre-sliced bread and dripless candles. Nevertheless Smith went there and tried to build up a ranch.”

 

Morning, calm and cold and clear. The equinox a few days ago was the earliest Spring Equinox in 120 years. Curious about this, I learned that this odd timing was the result of a long-ago Papal edict as to which years could be Leap Years. All somewhat arcane, but the result this year was passage directly abeam our star at 04:30 Zulu March 20, or 10:30 p.m. here, on the evening of March nineteenth. (Looked it up on the Inter-tube, as my friend Loren calls it. More on that to follow.)

And no March equinoctial winds! Right from the start back in November, this has been the most windless winter anyone here can recall. Out on the seventy-mile ice sheet of McLeod Bay the surface is just smooth white fluff, mile after mile.

Cold and clear, but nothing unusual about that. In 2004 it was 44 below on this morning in March. It’s 37 below zero here this morning, and the weather soothsayers predict more cold weather here for the coming weeks into April.

Spring Equinox is not a warm day here, but it is a solar event everywhere on the planet, and the sun is streaming through the window already this morning. When I stepped out to the porch earlier, the last white top arc of the full moon was sliding below the burnt spruce tops on the skyline of the Bluefox ridge. Over breakfast yesterday we smugly reminded each other that we are now getting more daylight than anyone at any latitude to the south, and that we will be raking in those golden payback chips for the next six months. We are happily soaking it in as our faces lose that December plate-of cold-pasta pallor and turn browner by the day.

Again and again in recent weeks this end of the big lake and the automatic weather station at Fort Reliance have been pegged as the cold spot in the Northwest Territories, and on some of those mornings Reliance (and by proximity the Hoarfrost valley) have been “the cold spot in Canada.” Which is saying something, and makes me wonder about where the cold spot in the entire world, at a given moment, would be. (But then there are, say, the summits of tall mountains to contend with, and the fact that these various claims all come from just a handful of weather stations, sprinkled here and there around the planet. Still it is amusing, at least to me, to wonder – right now, at this instant, might this be the coldest place on the surface of the planet? – and to think that sometimes maybe it could. I can hear a couple of my more adventurous friends snorting already – “clearly this guy has never been to the South Pole or the summit of Makalu.”)

I digress, as usual. Friends of the young John Muir in Madison Wisconsin used to say that he would start out talking about the weather and carry on to bend their ear for an hour. What a treat that must have been. That rich brogue, rambling on.

“I am of two minds on that.” Sounds like the statement of a powdered-wig Parliamentarian. But a scary thing has happened to me, a dream. It has come more than once, and most recently just a few days ago. I first experienced this maybe eight years ago. Just a guess when that was, but I know we were in the old house, the one we have now lost, because I remember waking up from the dream in that bed. I know we must have had Internet access, which came here via satellite signal in the autumn of 2006. That advent, in this place, given the fact that when we came here our communication with “the outside world” – interesting phrase – was sporadic and unreliable to say the least, was no less than a revolution.

I woke and realized with a jolt that in my dream I had been on the computer. Not just looking at it, or reading something from a screen, but dreaming and at the same time moving the cursor, clicking, opening and closing things, sending and receiving notes and information. And as I said, this same dream-experience has recurred now several times over the years. The other night, or early in the pre-dawn morning of vivid dreaming, it happened again, and got me thinking. I woke up and asked Kristen whether this had ever happened to her. She said it had not. Hmm.

I am a little scared about this. Not so much because of the dreaming, but because as I considered this turn of my mental events a little further I began to notice some daydreaming of the same kind. I can be running a dogteam, or flying a plane or working on the woodpile, and on some level a part of my mind is doing something on the damned computer. Whoa.

Earlier this winter I spent a long stretch, far too long for my liking, in Yellowknife. Work was of course the reason. The limited daylight and some charter flying had me based there for nearly a week. One afternoon I was piloting my little rental car down the main drag, and I watched with amazement as a fellow on the curb stepped out into the street and crossed – because the light had changed to green for him – four lanes of traffic without ever once looking up from the screen of his phone. It made me wonder when Darwinian reality in the form of a Ford pickup was going to smack into him. Then, telling a pilot buddy about this over coffee or beer, he told me that he had seen a young ramp-hand marshalling in a big plane (I won’t mention the type lest some local airline’s SMS go into spasms over this anecdote) – a turboprop, 50 passengers or so – with his orange light-stick wand in one hand and his beloved phone in the other, his head down and his busy thumb scrolling the screen while the wingtip arced above his head. I don`t know whether the young lad knows how close his phone came to being broken over my friend`s knee that morning, but it was very, very close.

So is this my fate? Our collective fate? Little by little to have these other somewhat mind-like hunks of chips and circuits become a parallel universe to accompany us through our days (and nights)? Will I live with two minds? Can I? Do I want to?

Saw a note on the chalkboard at Boston Pizza in Fort Nelson one night a year or so ago. “NO WI-FI!” it proclaimed in bright blue chalk, “RELAX! TALK TO PEOPLE! DRINK! PRETEND IT’S 1994 – LIVE!”

I’ve tried that “Live!” both ways as I’ve mulled over that message. Both as an imperative and as an adjective. I like it either way.

I was in the electronics store in Yellowknife the other day, to buy a nifty little padded case for my nifty little digital camera. Filling one entire wall were six or seven flat-screen teevees, all state-of-the-art, all filled with absolutely stunning aerial images of the Grand Canyon, shot from a helicopter – swooping, zooming, panning. With that on the wall of the living room, and hey – snacks and a thermostat and a remote control – how oh how could real life, with heat and dust and sunburn, ever possibly match up? Ah hah, I thought – so this is “Eco-Porn!” And of course it is – the parallel is plain. And where will it lead people’s perceptions of the real wilderness, real outdoor life with bugs and headwinds and at any given moment (as in 99.999% of given moments!) no chorus of wolves howling in the distance? The high-definition image on the living room wall will always be so vivid, the soundtrack just right and the colors so rich, and then of course we could always just flip over to check messages, right on the same screen… And reality would be, well, kind of a let-down.

I could go on. Parks Canada is now putting wi-fi into some of our National Parks. Reason stated? People want it, they want to be connected, and this will be welcomed. Without it, people will decide to stay home.

I know, I know. I’m not sure what I am getting at, either. Only that I am concerned about this duality. And by the realization that I am not immune to it, rail against it as I might. I don’t have any answers here, only questions. Maybe most people can handle all this, and it is only I that cannot. If so maybe I should just relax. In North of Reliance oh so many years ago, I wrote: “Where is that fine line I came to tread, deftly balanced at the interface of two worlds?” At that time, immersed here and more or less cut off, I was more concerned about going over the other edge. Now I wonder if I can even see that edge from here anymore.

Wendell Berry admonishes us in his wonderful poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it.

Will I lose one of my minds? Will we all? Which one will we lose, or lose our direct, undivided full-on attention to? Afraid of what I think the answer might be, here I sit, typing. A soft “ping” tells me some message or another has just come in. Might need to check that. Oh and maybe I should scroll over and click and check the Graphic Area Forecast and the winds aloft. Be right back.  

Post script: Another question that troubles and baffles me, along these same lines, is this: given the amount of time each day that is spent on these new ways of being, living for hours in the realm of this parallel mind so to speak, and given that there are still just 24 hours in every day, 365 and a quarter days in each trip around the sun, what has this enormous new time-allotment displaced from our lives? If the answer is “We watch less re-runs of Three’s Company” then maybe we are on to something good here. But if the answer is “I talk to my family less and I don’t walk in the evenings anymore, and I can’t remember the last time I just stood and watched the moon go down,” then, well, Houston We Have a Problem, Over.  

So long. And Happy Spring, wherever this finds you. “Comments” still “closed” – Sorry, I can’t seem to handle that online medium with any measure of aplomb, but I am still at daveolesen@gmail.com  (At least for a time. The time being.)

In February 1979 I was madly in love. I was a new guide for my friend Duncan Storlie, staying alone with a team of dogs for days between trips at a little outpost cabin in the Nemadji forest south of Duluth Minnesota. Starry eyed, dreaming of the future, I wrote a poem. Can’t recall whether I shared it with my sweetheart. (Because, to be honest, thinking back to those days, it seems unlikely that my sweetheart was even yet aware that she was my sweetheart. I was not renowned for my boldness.)

 

Wake in a room of rough log walls,

Warm and naked under thick light quilts,

Frost lacing the panes,

Breath smoking.

 

Get up and light the fire.

Use paper and a wooden match,

Kindling split the night before,

Solid chunks of birch and maple.

 

Hurry back to the bed – bare feet on dry cold floor boards.

To warm your icy playful hands and toes,

And laugh and laugh and laugh

As the room warms up.

 

No “solid chunks of maple” in the crackling fire this morning; just fire-killed spruce here on the scraggly rim of the taiga. But the workshop walls are rough-cut logs and out in the entryway the inch-thick frost is doing a lot more than delicately “lacing” the panes. Deep cold overnight, somewhere below minus forty for the fourth time this month. Warm beneath the quilts, and bare feet on the scuffed plywood floor, frantically seeking slippers.

Still laughing. Not that same young laugh I dreamt of laughing, tickling under the covers, but after all these years, all those miles, all of it all, I am, we are, mostly still laughing, and yes, still in love.

Happy Valentine’s Day everybody.

Late January. -33 yesterday evening, as we returned home by dogteam from an unsuccessful hunt. This morning another wide front of warm moist air is depicted on the aviation weather chart, my weather forecasting crystal ball. Pushing in from the coast of northern B.C. and southern Yukon, it has already blotted out the crystalline stars and Milky Way we enjoyed last night, and the barometer is in free-fall. The temperature is climbing. In fact, a mile above the lake surface at 6500 feet, the winds aloft forecast predicts a temperature right around the freezing mark — in late January over the Arctic!  Minus 17 at ground level now – just slightly below zero for you Fahrenheit fans. Two hours before sunrise. It has been a winter of many such systems, shouldering in from the west one after another, and thus a winter of poor flying conditions such as we normally endure in November and early December, to happily put behind us as true winter sets in. This year, no true winter. One of those years. Sure is easy on the firewood pile.

Lately I have been pondering the word “indigenous.” A recent column in the Yellowknife paper re-kindled these musings. “To be indigenous, or non-indigenous,” by Walt Humphries. Walt is a long-time Northwest Territories resident – a prospector, pundit, artist, man about town and man about the bush. A fellow who might be irked by the adjective “colorful” but to whom it might still apply. I don’t know Walt but we travel in some shared circles and I enjoy his contributions to the local paper which appear under the title “Tales from the Dump.” (The Yellowknife city dump is a city landmark, part landfill and part barter-and-trade marketplace. It is common for Yellowknifers of a certain stripe to bring a load to the dump, and essentially just exchange it for another load which they then bring home. Thus Walt’s title.)

Walt was pondering aspects of the label “Indigenous” in his January 15 column in the Yellowknifer.  He had recently discovered, in some back alley of bureaucratic rule-making and definition, the interesting – though evidently mostly meaningless – fact that a person in the NWT becomes officially indigenous when more than half of their lifetime has been lived in the NWT.   A quick personal calculation went on as I read his piece, as I am sure it did for many other readers: I am in my 59th year, and this year will mark my 29th anniversary of life on the shores of McLeod Bay, at the mouth of the Hoarfrost River. Yup, I am there. Or I will be in July.

Walt went on to write about the complex bureaucratic labeling that is applied to people’s status and race in the North. This is, as you can probably imagine, a minefield of political correctness, proper-speak, old wounds and new scars, and hot tempers. A place where even many pundits fear to tread. But not Walt. “What bonehead or committee of boneheads came up with the status and non-status categories?” he asks. “I also have similar feeling about the ‘non’ category. In the long run nothing good will come from that designation because it marginalizes and divides people needlessly. It seems odd to classify people by what they are not because a person is not a lot of things including races, religions and cultures.”

Call me timid, but I am going to try to sidestep that minefield, because believe me it is almost literally a minefield hereabouts. Let’s not go there right now, as the cool correct people say these days.  Or let’s go there, but try to do so gently and abstractly.

Indigenous: what say you, Dictionary?

  1. Occurring or living naturally in an area; not introduced; native. From Latin indigena, meaning native.
  2. Intrinsic; innate.

I like this definition, from my old American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition.  (1975!  Off to College he goes… Yikes.) What I like about it is its lack of specific reference to genetics. Because there is the rub, these days, for all denizens of the back-country reaches of the North, and I imagine it is a rub too for others similarly back-of-beyond in other parts of the world.

Are we to divide this entire country forever on the basis of race, or are we to someday, down the long road of progress and enlightenment, going to begin to accept and embrace a casting aside of racial division and racial privilege and racial discrimination? Sometimes, in pondering trends and current affairs, I find it helpful to look farther ahead, and farther back, than our myopic habits usually tend to do. Sometimes it is helpful to look way ahead. (A blink of an eye, a few generations.) Fast forward 200 or 300 years. Rewind 200 or 300 years. Ponder.

Think about this: Is it likely that, in 2216 or 2316, assuming that by miracle and bold action this beleaguered planet still provides a home to this overpopulated and destructive species of ours, we will on a January morning still be parsing out rights and privileges based on the genetic and historical background of individuals and bloodlines, circa 1910 or 1920? Check the rewind, just for perspective. Consider such issues as they were in 1816, or 1716… Yikes again.

A quick look around would seem to answer my rhetorical question. Today the melting pot is hot, and heating up hotter by the week, fired by rapid worldwide communication, mass migration and jet-speed movement, and a global marketplace of trade and commerce.

Whither, then, Indigenous? Will we someday finally remove our notions of “native” from the boundaries of race, and instead place “native” in the context of a person’s daily – walked and breathed, watered and fed – awareness and way of life? An awareness based in a place, a watershed and an ecosystem, its cycles of food and weather; in a local livelihood, neighborhood barter and trade; in allegiances to place and family, and the care and appreciation of place and family?

Whoa there, Nellie, we’re sliding toward the minefield again – the PC cavalry is mounting up and I don’t mean the Progressive Conservatives.

So let’s go with a poem. A poem by Wallace Stevens nails what I think – and sincerely hope – will come of this clumsy word “Indigenous,” down the long road ahead:

 

Anecdote of Men by the Thousand

 The soul, he said, is composed
Of the external world.

There are men of the East, he said,
Who are the East.
There are men of a province
Who are that province.
There are men of a valley
Who are that valley.

There are men whose words
Are as natural sounds
Of their places
As the cackle of toucans
In the place of toucans.

The mandoline is the instrument
Of a place.

Are there mandolines of western mountains?
Are there mandolines of northern moonlight?

The dress of a woman of Lhassa,
In its place,
Is an invisible element of that place
Made visible.

 

I keep thinking of this:  late last August, up in the high Nahanni, I woke to the roar and rumble of rockfall in the dawn. Poked my head from the tent flap, in time to glimpse a boulder twice the size of a pickup truck, hurtling down the couloir of Lonely Spur – right where we had picked our way across, two days before. A dozen thousand-pounders trailed and flanked that big one. White rock dust, smell of ozone.

Down at the river mouth this morning more overflow, and thin ice where yesterday we crossed so cavalier and confident.  Now those sled tracks just go right under, into flowing water. O.K. then, whoa. Gee over!

Years back that griz standing foursquare in the November trail, facing the lead dogs, then coming fast right past the team. Staggering, waving, I figured it was all over. He bumped me and went by.

 

We clamber among coincidences,

Pick our footfalls, watch our steps.

Try to make each round a dance, of sorts.

Heads up!

This brief life:

            no time for weary shuffle or sheepish march.

No hunkering down in fear.

 

Solstice again.

Some of us, oh so lucky, have made another lap.

Rockfall, ice crack, bear charge.

Clamber on, mes chers copains, clamber on.

Allemande left with the old left hand and grab your partner by the hand.

 

Clear eyed

Stead fast

Clamber on.

“The Way We Live”

  • By John Haines

Having been whipped through Paradise

and seen humanity

strolling like an overfed beast

set loose from its cage,

a man may long for nothing so much

as a house of snow,

a blue stone for a lamp,

and a skin to cover his head.

 

If I was required to pick one month in the year when I would be willing, even happy, to hibernate, it would be November. The first to the thirtieth, full stop. Oh yes, I would miss some things. All the drama of freeze-up on the big lake, ice making and un-making and making again, cold clear nights with a moon coming on, roaring southwesterly gales and the crash of waves in the night; then more nights of deep cold, then another southerly gale. The ice edge advancing and receding; the days steadily shortening as we slide toward Solstice.

The big lake is still open but inland it is Winter, and there are dogs to run and trails to break. Mushing, in this first month of the six or seven we get here, is a sled and bone pounder. A daily or twice-daily or every-other-day ritual: suit up, fire out of the yard behind a team of pent-up berserkers, up the slope, banging and careening, a wild dodge-em course of boulders and burnt stumps. On twilight runs – especially if I have hooked up one or two more dogs than would have been prudent – I find myself reminiscing about 2 a.m. trips through the “buffalo tunnels” of the Farewell Burn behind a big team just coming fresh off their 24-hour layover on the Iditarod. Meeting Robin Jacobson and laughing as he flashed his trademark smile and pointed to his wild fast team and muttered – “these crazy (*&%#*) sonsabitches tried to kill me last night!” and knowing exactly what he was saying.

Gradually, day by day, the dogs settle in, the snow gets deeper after each small layering and the stumps and rocks gradually subside beneath it, not to be seen again until spring. Luckily, so far, no sprains or cuts, nothing but a few aches and twists. Sleds holding up with only the usual minor damage – brush bows, brake claws, stanchion attachments, runner shoes. Early season mushing – yes, it can be done, but really, some days, the question is – must we?

And flying? November takes the cake. This past month there has been almost no flying to be done, and mostly (when I don’t look at the bank account) I have just said “thank goodness for that.” Ice fog rolling off open water, rime on wings and propeller blades, thickening fast (but how fast, and should we turn back or will it get better ahead?), ice beginning to build up on the windshield and – most invisible but most unnerving –the air intake for the engine. Low cloud, gale winds, thin ice or no ice on the lakes below, dusk coming on… Can we land on wheels or should we switch to skis (and thus no brakes)?  Jockeying and side-slipping into narrow strips of ice bounded by freezing water. November aviation in the North, and yes, it can be done, but really, again, on some days the question is – must we?

Mushing and flying and my other November vocation these days — cold-weather carpentry — would challenge even the most stalwart jackpine savage at this season. But then there is the sleep. Oh, oh, November sleep. On these long November nights my sleep wraps around me like some delicious drug. Up in our half-loft on the high wall of the big cool room, deep in soft piles of quilts, my sweetie warm and smooth at my side, hour after hour I sleep, night after night. Weary after the day spent mostly outdoors in the cold, hours full of chores and the incessant re-building — fumbling with sharp metal, bare fingers, hammer and saw and straightedge. Twilight mushing, as noted above. And finally sleep — delicious, healing, dark, warm.

The world news lately has not helped my eagerness to embrace daytime November realities. We tune it in nearly every evening, and the voices of the BBC or the CBC bring it to us, beamed down from the satellite, which twelve years ago vanquished the long AM antenna wire strung out between two trees. We listen during the hour of making dinner and washing dishes, then gladly we agree to turn it off and instead eat our dinner to some favorite music.

Slaughter, mayhem, chaos, slander, shouting; hatred and reprisal, and re-reprisal, and the inevitable revenge for the re-reprisal. Fanaticism of every stripe. I stand stunned and speechless there some nights, elbow deep in warm dishwater, hearing it all, knowing my children, and all children, are hearing it all. I have nothing to say, and I have nothing to write about it here that will say anything or mean anything. All I know is that every now and then lately, on these November nights, as I hear the “news” I find myself glancing at the clock above the stove.

Nearly eight, I think to myself. In an hour and a half, maybe an hour forty-five, I can be up in bed. Day done, stove fire set till the 3 a.m. stoke and stroll outside, up there with a book, which Kristen will gently close and set to one side when she climbs up a little later, and finds me already far gone with my pal Morpheus, diving deep, off and away, happy to follow my dreams wherever they lead.

Yes, it would be in November that I would be keen to take a lesson from brother bear. He lowers himself gently into his hole sometime around Halloween, his fat rolled around him like a thick white duvet, his belly stuffed with the last of the lingonberries, crowberries, maybe a final snack of caribou or juicy ground squirrel. He makes his careful mattress of heather and willow twigs (Bears do make a mattress. I’ve seen these dens, and I crawled inside a couple one August when their occupants were long gone.  I was with a biologist who knew where they were because he had been tracking grizzlies with radio collars, and he knew where a dozen of them had made their dens.)

He drifts off, his long summer of roaming done. No book even, no dishes to do, no world “news” to try to comprehend. He dives deep, dreaming hard, happy to follow wherever those dreams lead. Months go by. He wakes to spring.

That must be an amazing feeling, to sleep for five months. I don’t want to wake to spring, because I truly would not want to miss the winter. But I would be happy to say “good night” on Halloween some year, and wake to, oh, about the 10th of December. 70 miles of bay all smoothly frozen out front, the snow pillowed deep atop the boulders and stumps on the inland trails, both planes on skis with a wide smooth landing strip marked for them on the ice, clear cold skies and no ice fog. Some year I’d like to try it – just to see how good it could be.

 

For years I kept a little book of quotations, jotted from here and there. Words I found compelling or inspiring, copied by hand or typed out and folded into the binder. They run a wide gamut, from Thomas Merton to Dag Hammarskjöld to Edward Abbey. Looking through it this morning to find an obscure quote, I was surprised to see a long-forgotten passage by Pierre Trudeau, on the topic of canoeing and canoe trips, translated from the French. For those of you south and west or even east of our long border, I point out that this one strikes a timely note since Trudeau’s son Justin and his cadre of “Liberals” (one of the three or four or five major political parties in Canada today – depends on what we want to call “major — there have arguably been only two major federal  parties in Canada over the years) swept back into power on October 19 in an election that ousted the ruling “Conservatives.”

I use quotation marks because “Liberal” and “Conservative” can excite some notions that upon closer examination quickly become untenable, and murky, and well, let’s not go too far down that road right now. Suffice it to say that in my humble opinion it’s still Mr. Big – as in Corporations, Guvmints, Insurance, and Banks – calling the shots and the dance steps.  Red, blue, even orange — slight swings of the big pendulum, all, and certainly a change is welcome from time to time (every political persuasion has a shelf life, like every lump of cheddar) but if you follow the money and blood trails up and down the political food chain, you always come back to various suits and stripes of Mr. Big and his armies and his boardrooms and his markets.  

But hey, my topic today is toilets, not politics. Thankfully, through the serendipity of sloppiness and of having had more than one working desk and overloaded bookshelf in odd corners of our various buildings over the years, my old wire-bound notebook of inspirations survived the wildfire of 2014. In it I found the quote I was looking for. Memory tells me I copied it from a collection of Morning Readings at the Outward Bound School where I worked from 1979 until 1984:

“I like to think that I am sufficiently in tune with the natural world around me that I hear every owl that calls within hearing distance of my house, day or night. Pissing outdoors is essential to this awareness; the invention of indoor plumbing was a monstrous step in the reduction of human awareness of natural phenomena, in the ability to recognize ourselves as earth animals.” — Daniel Kozlovsky

Now I have no idea who Daniel Kozlovsky is, or where he was writing, and a brief search this morning did not turn up any useful clues, but in my notebook that passage is noted as his. Whoever he is, I heartily agree with his line of thinking there. At the annual birthday milestone just marked, 58 years and counting, I count myself lucky that I have never lived for long with “indoor plumbing,” that is, an indoor flush toilet (and don’t get me going on indoor composting toilets either.)  In fact I have now lived far longer without this sacrosanct modern “convenience” than I lived, in those first 21 years of my life, with it. And I am thankful for that, because I know that not everyone is so lucky.   If you live in a city you must of course make other arrangements for this most fundamental animal necessity. Clearly the urban life, zippy and hopping and inspiring as it is (or at least as it can appear from this remove, on a quiet early-winter night – it’s quarter to nine already? Geez, I’m heading up to bed…) does not lend itself to a scenario of citizens casually strolling out to the deck and standing for a few moments there to “water the petunias,” or strolling up the hill to a quiet timber-frame outhouse to sit for a while and read poetry with the door open.

Last night, as every night, I did just that, the watering the petunias part.  As I stood out there at the edge of the creek bottom and beyond the pool of light from the workshop window, stars bright above on the coldest night of the autumn so far, I watched a big bird fly a straight course east, in absolute silence, at treetop level. By that time of night (ravens all gone to roost I would think), and since its wing strokes were so silent and powerful, I think it had to be one of the big owls – a Great Gray or a Great Horned. So I thought of Kozlovsky’s passage and this morning went searching for the old binder. His words ring true, and that traipsing out and back, out and back, out and back, in all weathers and all seasons and in every temperature from warm to mild to deeply cold, in mosquito season and wind and rain and sun, does help us to recognize ourselves as earth animals. It also contributes to a steadily refreshed awareness, renewed every 4 or 5 hours around the clock (male aging being what it is), of wind direction, sky cover, precipitation, ice noises, and on and on, year in year out. And that, I am saying, is important, and welcome. At least to me.

This line of reflection calls to mind a long-ago exchange with a friend in town, a city woman not much taken with bush life. We were chatting 20 years ago about the new log house Kristen and I were building out at the Hoarfrost. She worked the conversation around to plumbing and then asked whether we might at last be taking some step forward from the little brown shack out back, when it came to, well, toilets.

No, I said, we would be sticking with the outhouse, and with our eminently successful Precambrian Shield variation on that age-old edifice. To wit, the outhouse with no pit.   A 5-gallon pail, handily and frequently changed, with moist sawdust (in summer) and dry wood ash (in winter) close at hand, to cover, cat-like, one’s contribution. Alongside the seat, and alongside the pail of ash or sawdust with its handy scoop, a metal pail for toilet paper, to be burnt on a weekly basis. (This detail is important.)  

We have used this system for years and it continues to elicit rave reviews from city folk whose notion of an outhouse is the typical yawning hole and rickety wooden bench, perched atop a reeking cesspool of unpleasantness.

And what, you may ask, becomes of that pail of wood-ash and “night soil,” or sawdust and same, when it is swapped out? Here again the main thing is to avoid the pit. A simple mound out in the open air, atop solid granite maybe 60 yards up the hill, supporting a thick patch of raspberry and fireweed. Nearly odorless even in thawing springtime, frozen and snow-covered all winter, innocuous and blooming through the summers. Sunlight, you see, and the marvelous antiseptic qualities of dry moving air and ultraviolet radiation. Those are the secrets. And again, of course, this won’t work in the city, and I realize it wouldn’t even pass muster under the modern government “land-use” permit. (And maybe I am foolish to detail this here, lest the land-use boys show up and mandate some alternative to this eminently clean, time-tested, practical, raspberry-and-fireweed-festooned “system.”)

Visitors have even come back indoors and brought this up directly — “you know, that is the nicest outhouse I have ever used.” I suspect they might want to go so far as to say, “the nicest toilet I have ever used,” but I suppose that would take a few years. A few spring days with the door wide open, a good book at hand, the view out into the wide sun-washed world, where birds sing and a cool breeze wafts past… the Earth Animal at his or her ease. Which brings me to my twist on my friend’s query, and one I still trot out whenever I can.

“Oh, I don’t think I could ever do that – I mean, live with an outhouse,” she said.

“Oh,” said I, “I see. Yes. I understand. You really have no choice, living where you do, but to have one of those ghastly little rooms right inside your house, even right alongside your dining room or kitchen or bedroom, with one of those flimsy thin doors and a loud fan and a bright light, where you have to lock yourself in and go about your earthly animal rituals, fervently hoping that the gutless flush mechanism doesn’t clog up this time, sitting there alone yet almost still in the same room as your house-guests and family just a few feet away…

Yeah, I don’t think I could do that.”

So, no sympathy please. In fact, quite the opposite, thank you. And now excuse me, I need to step outside and check the weather and wind for a moment, and take a look off to the northwest to see whether the setting moon is visible. I’ll be right back.

And digging through the quotes book some more, there was this one. Comes across as a bit too feisty and Outlaw Country for my tastes these days, but Abbey had that streak, didn’t he?  And sometimes I do too.  Maybe we need a little more of it now and then, just to keep that pendulum swinging.

“How to Overthrow the System: brew your own beer; kick in your Tee Vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.”
Edward Abbey

    

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