We are living even now among punishments and ruins. — Wendell Berry
I must admit that I think of Berry’s pronouncement fairly frequently. As a more upbeat counterpoint to it, I think he might agree, on a good day, that we do live also in an age of startling confluences and juxtapositions. Layers upon layers of sometimes comical, sometimes thought-provoking non sequiturs that can pile up thick and fast enough to take your breath away.
For example, try to imagine fitting all of these together in one place, at one moment:
Grizzly bear, Islamic call to prayer, and a constellation of satellites circling the earth. Ski-plane, seismometer, and six solar panels. Glacial esker, Haiti, and a stone spearpoint thousands of years old. Ottawa, Calgary, and Gardenia Lake.
All of these converged for three of us on an afternoon in April 2010, about a hundred miles east of here on the edge of the tundra. Looking back through my journals from that time, I cannot find any reference to that startling day. That lack of reference surprises me, because I still think about that day, and over the years I have regaled many friends with this story.
It was late winter, early spring – April in the far north. I was flying our Bush Hawk on skis for the Geological Survey of Canada. My passengers were Issam, a Syrian-born seismologist living in Vancouver and working for the GSC, and Alex, a native from the Lutsel K’e band of Dene. We were based at the Hoarfrost River, and flying out each day from there to service a string of seismic sensing stations positioned about 25 miles apart. The sensors were positioned to straddle a rift deep down in the earth’s crust. Each station had a small buried box – the seismometer, which was sensitive to nearly imperceptible tremors in the earth – along with an electrical system and a storage computer and an array of solar panels. The major stations also had a satellite dish, through which the data was transmitted in what computer gurus are fond of calling “real time.” (Chew on that phrase next time you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in a line… “Hmm, I wonder if I am in real time right now?”)
Issam is not a happy aviator. He has had some unpleasant experiences, I gather, so I was on my best pilot’s behavior that day – no steep turns, no sudden power changes – with airsickness bags handy in the side pocket next to his seat. He seemed to be doing okay and as we droned along I tried to get him to expound on what we were doing, partly to keep him from reaching for the sick sacks. Over the intercom he happily told Alex and I about the P-waves and S-waves that are generated by earthquakes, and he said that during a recent magnitude-four tremor down in the Andes of Peru, the little buried boxes quivered, way up here beneath the frozen tundra, “a tiny fraction of a millimeter.” Each box registered the waves at a very precise moment, and the differential between each station’s onset of trembling could tell some of Issam’s colleagues about the earth’s crust, 50 kilometers (30 miles) below the surface, (read that again) and whether that structure might have potential to form a diamond-bearing kimberlite.
As we arrive overhead the site at Gardenia Lake, I circle to look at the ice and set up for landing. We touch down and I taxi across lumpy snowdrifts toward shore, and shut down the engine. We get the gear from the plane and walk a short distance up the steep side of the esker to the station. The sidehill up to the esker top is drifted deep with snow. We carry Issam’s toolboxes and gear, and Alex – our official “bear monitor,” without which not much institutional field work seems to take place in the outback of the North nowadays – totes a rifle in a scabbard.
“Oh Gotch” is one of Issam’s favorite exclamations, along with – at times – “I hate my job.” This latter is sometimes, but only sometimes, delivered with a smile. He is in high gear with the “Oh Gotch” line now, because it is clear that the Gardenia Lake seismic station is a real wreck. Within the past few days, a grizzly bear has leaned hard enough on the back side of the big six-panel solar array to topple it forward and lever its aluminum footings out from beneath their ballast of hefty boulders. There is twisted metal and broken wire, and the faces of the big blue solar panels are all opaque with shattered glass. (But the panels remain functional; in fact several are still hard at work here at the Hoarfrost this morning nine years later, turning April sunshine into flowing electrons a few feet from where I sit writing.)
Issam gets out his laptop computer along with a satellite phone, and starts to troubleshoot. First he checks the contents of the station’s main box and all of its components, and tells us that the transmitter dish must be re-aimed. He climbs up on the big support structure with a couple of wrenches in hand. Comes back down, kneels on the gravel and pale green lichen and pulls out a satellite phone. Places a call and pokes his index finger at the computer keyboard while he waits for someone to answer.
Alex has gone for a walk down the esker, following the gentle curve of the upside-down meltwater river laid down by the Keewatin ice sheet ten thousand years ago. I can see him standing and smoking and looking south over the frozen white expanse of Gardenia Lake and its multitude of odd little circular islands.
Issam says, “OK, I’ll get him on the line too.” He takes out a second phone and makes another call. “Jim?… Right… Yes.” He hands both phones to me. “O.K., Dave, I’ll go up on the dish. Jim is in Calgary and he’s on this phone; Robin is in Ottawa on that one. Just tell me what they say.” I kneel there with a phone in each ear, thinking to myself “Some days I just want to fly the plane.” But hey, I tell myself, this is fun. Stick with it.
Issam with his trusty wrenches goes back up on the dish. Jim, in my right ear, says, “Tell him ‘up a little.’” I tell Issam. “Okay, I see it. Tiny nudge to one side.” I relay. “Okay, I see it. What does Robin say?” Robin, in my left ear, says “It’s getting better.”
“He says it’s getting better,” I tell Jim.
This goes on and on for many minutes, like a space-age version of the old “Who’s on first?” routine. Tweak tweak, nudge nudge, up and down, stronger and weaker, back and forth. Finally, Robin is getting cheerier. Jim too. “Okay, that’s it!” they both say. “Tell him to lock it down!”
“Issam, they say to lock it down!” He does. Calgary and Ottawa both still happy. The dish is aimed at the right point in outer space. Issam comes down and speaks briefly into each phone, and sets them both down. He is just about to go back toward the power supply box when from his laptop computer come the unmistakable strains of a Muslim call to prayer – at a pretty high volume. Issam stops and turns to his computer, as if it is a person: “What? What?” He looks at his watch. I look at mine – it is three o’clock. The wailing continues. He turns down the volume. Then he shuts the lid and the song stops.
“Oh, I know what it is,” he says. “That computer is still on Haiti time for prayers. I was working down there in January with that computer, right after the big earthquake.” He pauses. He seems perplexed. “Okay, I know. I’ll just pray now. Then prayers are done. It’s okay if I do that.” He walks to his knapsack, pulls out a little rug, goes down the esker a few yards, spreads out the rug and kneels on it.
I feel a little awkward and turn away. I see Alex, kneeling down on the esker too, looking closely at something. I stand there in the silence. This is really pretty wild, I’m thinking. But is it?
Issam comes back. We set to work on tipping the panel back up and bracing it, twisting the bent aluminum frame into position. We connect some wires and he checks to see that power is flowing. It is not full power, but it is April and there is plenty of light hitting the damaged panels. He thinks the seismometer and the transmitter will work.
And with the clincher here comes Alex, back from his walk. He is silent, but smiling, as he holds out a perfect four-inch-long stone spearpoint in one gloved hand.
Of course, this would have been a perfect vantage point, to sit and look out and chip points and watch for caribou. I wonder how long that spear point has been lying here. To my untrained eye, it looks identical to one a friend of ours found on the upper Hoarfrost, and we were told that one was four or five thousand years old.
We gather up our gear and walk to the plane. Fire up and fly a hundred miles home. Spring slush along the shore ice, but the ice on the main bay still 45 inches thick.
And that was it. Maybe you are wondering what the point of all this is. Not sure there is one, but I remember that day often, and the memory mostly makes me smile. Maybe it should not. After all, Issam’s homeland has been torn apart by internecine strife. A lot of Haiti is still a wreck after the earthquake of 2010. Alex and his culture are adrift and beleaguered, in a world almost completely out of touch with the world of the hunter who shaped that stone spear point. Still, my wonder, at all those layers of humanity, earth, and space (not to mention a strong brown bear) coalescing on that sunny April afternoon, mostly just makes me smile.
Day after day we weave together so many disparate threads, meanwhile trembling ever so slightly to the “S” waves and “P” waves of distant events. The fabric of our lives becomes – becomes what? More intricate? More perplexing? More sophisticated? More unhinged?
Not sure. No grandiose conclusions here tonight, from this cowboy. Just bemused astonishment.