Where have I been, all this time? A full revolution of the sun, almost, since I last wrote here. Hard to believe, and yet not. Much has changed, both within and without. Hard changes, necessary changes, changes I worked towards, and changes that caught me unaware, forced me to my knees in humility. Changes that took me on a meandering detour away from the path I thought I was walking. It takes time for things to settle.
I was also working, spending my creativity in other ways. And, I was away too often from the gap. Away from the deep wellspring of inspiration that gave birth to this blog. The outside world beckons constantly. It distracts. But I always come back. To this place, to myself. To home. I will turn my attention back to this space soon. Soon.
In the Sun – Earth – Moon system, the Moon represents the container which makes ordinary life on Earth possible, keeps its rhythms going. But both Earth and Moon are subordinate to the life-giving Sun; must turn towards it, honour it. Without the Sun, neither Moon nor Earth could exist. There could be no life, in the terms in which we understand it.
– Anne Whitaker, “The Moon’s Nodes in Action”
Joni Mitchell called us, prairie folk, “sky oriented.” How could we not be, when the sky is everywhere, everything, always?
I am perhaps a bit more consciously sky oriented than most – a longtime fan of the intricate movements of celestial bodies, adherent to the phases of the moon, natural devotee of eclipses.
So of course I knew about the total solar eclipse set for August 2017, where the totality would be visible across a great swathe of the United States. I had vague plans to make the trip somewhere south to see it. But 2017 turned out to be an exceptionally eventful year for me. Time passed, my schedule filled up, my mind was occupied with other things, and those plans just slipped away, though not without regret.
Then, a mere three days before the eclipse, Annie Dillard’s 35 old essay, “Total Eclipse” cropped up somewhere in my Internet meanderings. The essay in its entirety is a gorgeous thing, but somewhere around this passage:
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
my mind was made up. I was going to see the eclipse, one way or another.
It felt important to go, to just do it, even though I had no time to plan properly, even though I didn’t really have the time to spare to drive nine hundred and some kilometres to the closest site of totality (somewhere around Douglas, Wyoming). And who on earth would be able to drop everything and go with me in no time at all, to be away on a Monday morning, which was when the eclipse was going to be?
I don’t mind long road trips on my own – you could almost say that’s what I do for a living. But planning a 2000 kilometre trip in less than two days was a little much, even for me. And as much as I love solitary experiences (quick note – the “sol” in “solitary” is derived from the Latin word sol – sun), some things are just better with company. So I started calling around. There was lots of interest, but no commitment. Then my friend Eve suggested our mutual friend, Kathryn, who I hadn’t seen for ages since she’s been busy living all over the world, and was in fact set to move to Winnipeg to start graduate school just four days after the eclipse. Knowing this, I hesitated to even ask, but I did anyway. She, a Virgo like me, thought it over quickly, mercurially, creating an instant pros and cons list – the biggest con being that pesky time thing. But then she came back with: “fuck it, let’s do it.” That had been my exact thought partway through Dillard’s essay, and is also my general approach to life. A bosom friend, to be sure.
Kathryn met me in Ceylon on Sunday the 20th of August at about noon. She had brought her mom’s fresh baked muffins, sundry other foodstuffs, an 8-person tent, a one person camp stove, and a pack of CDs (which we never listened to because we talked the entire 20+ hours of driving time). I had brought a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, (I had been prepared to sleep in cheap motels and eat McDonald’s the whole time, but Kathryn is, as I mentioned earlier, a Virgo, and a better prepared one than me, so camping it was). We both had our passports. I had managed to scrounge up some dusty old acetylene goggles from the shop at the farm which, Google told me, should protect our eyes from permanent damage. We weren’t sure, due to the last minute-ness of the trip, if we’d manage to get our hands on proper eclipse viewing glasses. Both of us were worried about sight damage – Kathryn especially as she was about to embark on her studies in landscape architecture and needed to be able to draw.
As I write this, I realise I am going into exceptional detail. I didn’t intend this, in fact wanted to avoid it and simply focus on the event itself. But, like Dillard, I find myself wanting/needing to express all the details of the journey and the hours and minutes leading up to the momentous occasion. But, for the sake of brevity, I will restrain myself from describing the whole story – but trust that there is a story. Every hour seemed suspended in time – full to the brim with our conversation, the events – crossing the line and being scolded by border guards for undertaking such a journey, sure to be caught up in huge crowds as we were. Crossing the legendary Missouri River and stopping on the highway to take photos of it. Driving through the hot, dusky Montana evening. Passing a sleepless night in the 8-person tent after laboriously setting it up and eating a dinner of pesto pasta with white wine, cooked over a tiny cookstove. Taking down the 8-person tent in the pre-dawn hours. Watching the sun rise in a glory of crimson and gold outside a greasy spoon diner in southeastern Montana knowing that we would watch it disappear and return once again before sunset that evening. Driving the secondary highways into Wyoming and not running into the hordes of traffic we were warned about – my tendency to take the alternate, backroad route working in my favour once again. Finding the perfect spot to watch the eclipse – on a hill, in a grassy pasture, surrounded by twenty or so friendly and pleasant folks. We didn’t need the acetylene goggles as it turned out, for those same friendly and pleasant folks offered up extra eclipse glasses to us, unasked. The kindly and perhaps lonely sixties-ish gentleman who stood near us, but at a respectful distance, and chatted as we waited for the eclipse. I knew he wanted to share the moment with someone, and was happy to. All of us in that field shared the moment, when it finally came.
And that brings me to it, finally. The eclipse. I knew the crazy last minute drive and the sleepless night and the expense of gas and all of it would be worth it, but I didn’t know how worth it. It’s taken me nearly half a year to write about this, and now I find I still don’t quite know how to do it. Tonight is a full moon, and in a few hours, there will be a total lunar eclipse. I went out for a quick drive earlier to get some thoughts down, because I knew I needed to finally write about the solar eclipse. When I think back to that hot, August day, I get goosebumps. In the months since, every time my mind has returned to that Wyoming pasture, I get goosebumps. It’s not an understatement to say that witnessing the eclipse was life altering. Life goes on, but thoughts of that eclipse always give me pause.
And that’s what it was. A pause. A moment (2 minutes and change, to be exact) I inhabited fully and completely. No other time in my life that I can recall being so. Having driven all that way for those 2 minutes and however many seconds. Anticipating that and being so very ready to be fully present in those 2 minutes. Everything heightened in that anticipation.
It was hot, the sun shining down on the yellowing grass, a haze in the air from all the nearby coal fired power plants we had driven past on the way down. It was like home, but unlike it, too. I wanted it to be as close to home as possible, chose Douglas not only because it was closest, but also because it is the high plains. No mountains to obscure the view. The sky everywhere and everything, always.
We were looking at the sun, carefully, through our gifted eclipse glasses and saw that it had been reduced to a small crescent, and yet the day seemed still to be marching towards high noon. It was still hot, still glaringly bright. It wasn’t until we saw only a tiny fingernail sliver of molten light through the glasses that the world around us noticeably changed. Without the glasses on, it would be hard to notice that an eclipse was underway.
Imperceptibly at first, and then gradually, and then quite obviously, the sky darkened. But before that, the shadows changed. Strange shadows cast across the hills on a cloudless day. The air cooled, suddenly. We put on our jackets – unthinkable a mere moment earlier. The chattering crowd hushed a bit as we all observed these changes in our environment. Knowing they were coming did not make them any less odd. The colour of the grass transformed from golden to silver. And then, beautifully, a bird’s song rang out. This was what I had read about, had hoped for. That confused birds respond to the change in light by singing their evensongs. Since we were in an open field, no tree in sight, I had accepted that we would probably not get to witness that eclipse phenomenon. But somewhere hidden, a grassland bird sang. A lump rose to my throat at the sound, and does again now at the memory. I wish I could recognise bird calls better so I could say what bird it was, but all I know is that it was a prairie bird, one whose call I knew.
And then the shadows deepened and the sky darkened into a colour Dillard called cobalt blue, and I can find no other description to improve upon hers. It was dusk all around the horizon, that gorgeous prairie horizon that always defines our existence, but had never been seen like this in my years of gazing at it. And of course above us, the sun had become that corona we are familiar with from photographs of total solar eclipses. A stunning sight, yes. But sight was not the only sense engaged. The singing bird had hushed. People gasped and cried out. Goosebumps rose from the sudden drop in temperature. And also, they rose from something else. Another, usually hidden sense suddenly engaged. The one that made the ancients believe that eclipses were portents of momentous events. The one that made the bird sing an evensong in the middle of the day and then go silent just shy of noon. The one that makes me believe in something more.
I was filming the eclipse, so I made a quick, jerky swivel with the camera to take in the scene, but very aware of the 2 minutes ticking away, I didn’t spend any longer than necessary. I wanted to just be. Observe. Feel. I looked at Kathryn and I could see that tears stood out in her eyes, as they did in mine. There were no words that I can remember exchanging, or even thinking. Except, perhaps, “glorious.” But I may have tacked that on afterwards, in the memory of the thing. In the moment itself, I was merely a being witnessing something extraordinary. The moon and the sun together in the sky, bringing dark to the middle of the day. I was so fervently glad I had come.
Then, so soon, the light came back. A joyous moment, that. The sun returns. And yet, a pang of regret that the otherworldly moment had ended already. A strange longing for that surreal midday darkness, the promise it had contained – the promise of something more.
Kathryn and I both felt absolutely, physically awful the moment we got back into my vehicle after packing everything up. The exhilaration was still there, but so too was nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness, to the point where I had to pull over for a moment and lay my head on the steering wheel. We’re both Virgos, so we started to worry, irrationally, that something awful had happened. We were just as susceptible as the ancients to this sort of thinking. But after we had just witnessed something so strange, so mystical, so overwhelmingly beautiful, and so beyond our earthly control, in that moment it seemed entirely possible that the world had been altered in some way.
Later, over ice cream cones at a McDonald’s in Gilette, Wyoming, we could laugh at ourselves. Realized that we had slept so little the night before, had been running on adrenaline and excitement, had been driving so many hours, not to mention had driven up into sudden elevation on the high plains of Wyoming. Altitude can do strange things to a person. But, too, there was the eclipse. The scientific reality of why it happens – the moon moving at astonishing speed to cover the sun and then move on again, exposing us momentarily to the dizzying velocity with which the earth rotates on its axis. And then there was the actual experience of being there and seeing day turn to night in an instant. How strange and unfeeling we would be if that hadn’t physically impacted us.
There was a story to getting home, too. A diversion to sight-see at Devil’s Tower, a quick nap in the grass there, a desperation to get home before midnight, the inability to quite get there, the overnight in a modest Montana motel. The endless conversations. The bond that Kathryn and I will always, always share as a result of this experience. Her emphatic statement that it had been “worth every mile.”
Almost 2500 words and I know I have not managed to find the right ones in the right order to even remotely describe the total solar eclipse. And the video I took that day, it too is nothing compared to the real thing. But still, it is something to see. I filmed it in real time and have presented it as such, no fancy effects or sped up bits. Just what it was like. No sound, either. The light changing is what it shows. And at its most basic, that’s what an eclipse is. The light changing in a way outside the usual pattern of things. I’ve written often about chasing the light – this time I chased after a lack of it. But of course, even in the darkest moment of the total eclipse, the light was still there. Obscured for a brief moment to remind us of its total necessity. The sun and the moon together. Us on earth at their mercy. And within their grace.
Led by guides, the machine gunners crept out into craters half-way between their own lines and the Germans. There they took cover until dawn. Just before daylight a bold sergeant named Catherwood crawled out to bring them a bottle of rum. A German machine gun crew spotted him creeping back and opened fire, but he managed to roll into his forward trench unharmed.
– Pierre Berton, Vimy, 207.
Imagine if one of those bullets had got him. I wouldn’t be typing this. He would never have met Dorthea Wilson, the Welsh nurse. She would never have agreed to leave her life behind and marry him, taking up a new and entirely foreign life in a small homestead shack in the southern prairies of Saskatchewan.
That “bold sergeant” was my great-grandfather, Sherwood. The one who homesteaded out here in 1905, at age 17. He was 28 at Vimy – the same age I am now. He was born in 1888, one hundred years before I was. I’ve always felt an affinity with this ancestor who died decades before I was born. Perhaps that’s why it was important for me to go to Vimy. Important as a Canadian, yes. But also important for my own roots.
Just a few miles away, in the shadow of the infamous ridge, is the grave of another relative of mine, Reginald Freeman. He died more than a year before Vimy Ridge, his life halted at age 20. I was there to visit him, too, in his eternal resting place far from home. But at Vimy, that splendid monument, the signs warning of mines still buried beneath the strikingly green grass, I realized that if it weren’t for that horrific war, I probably would never have been born.
The Catherwood farm might still be here, but it would be different Catherwoods living on it. Sherwood, without going off to war, probably would have eventually married someone else. So yes, Vimy is important to me, to us. It felt eerie to stand on that ground, on a quiet, hot August day, as tourists (myself included) milled about. To know that Sherwood had been there in entirely different circumstances. No peaceful, green scene for him. No, what he knew of Vimy was blood and muck, those grisly scenes so familiar to us from countless black and white photos.
I remember my dad telling that story mentioned in Berton’s book when I was a kid, though we didn’t know it was noted in the historical record. In my dad’s telling, some of the details were missing, others were added. As I recall, in family folklore, Sherwood went out to do something he wouldn’t expect his men to do. The part about him delivering rum was absent. But the machine gunfire aimed his way and his dive into the trench, that was there.
Years later, as a university student, when I read Pierre Berton’s Vimy, there he was – my grandfather. That story. Meaningful. Something I make sure to mention whenever conversations concerning World War I come up. But now as I sit to write this, I wonder, why, why is it important to me? Because my ancestor was part of something famous? Because the story hinted at his bravery? Because I was proud of his service to his country?
I sometimes grow weary of our society’s endless commemorations of war, even though my family has plenty of reason to remember, to never forget. It wasn’t just Sherwood in those trenches – his brothers were there, too, and Reginald. Sherwood’s son, my grandfather, drove tanks in the Second World War. And it didn’t leave them unscathed. Grandpa Orville would never talk about it, but his years of alcoholism likely came about at least in part because his war experience. We often speak of war in the same sentences as “glory” and “valour.” We speak of sacrifice, too. I think the glory and valour fade away long before the sacrifice does.
Sherwood was shell shocked, as they said back then. How could you not be? So was my other great-grandfather, William (Bill) Cooper. He spoke with a stutter, a legacy of the war, or so I’m told. He served in the British Army. When he returned home to Glossop, Derbyshire afterwards, there was no work for him. So he emigrated, ended up in Saskatchewan, and married a girl named Bernice Freeman. Her brother, Reg, had died in France in 1916. He was to inherit the farm, but now with him never coming home, it was Bill and Bernice who took it over. Their daughter, Joyce, married Orville.
And so again, that war, and how it shaped my family. A sense of pride that my ancestors were part of something so momentous. And the knowledge that, no matter how little they talked about it, the war stayed with them. Had to have. The trauma of it. Clausen and Cashwell, Sherwood’s brothers, were never able to recover. Cashwell ended up in an asylum, and Clausen was a known eccentric, a reclusive bachelor who lived alone in the hills south of our place. Sherwood and Bill managed to go on, to build good lives for themselves and their families. But what demons did they have to face each night when they were alone in the darkness, as we all are in those moments and hours before sleep claims us?
I’m not proud of Sherwood for happening to be at Vimy. I am proud of his courage, certainly, and grateful that those bullets missed him. This battle looms large in the collective memory of (many) Canadians. It’s one of those historic events that has been told and retold so often that the memory of it is more significant than was the event itself. I’m not sure if Vimy Ridge truly did make Canada what it is, as has been claimed. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Vimy has become a symbol for nationhood – one of those things we’re told so often it must be true, right? But even if Vimy’s actual significance is more myth than history, a symbol is a powerful thing. And in my own life, Vimy, and that war, weren’t just symbols of valor, sacrifice, and duty. That war shaped our family in tangible ways.
That hot August day in Nord-pas-de-Calais, as I gazed over the countryside, I thought of the futility of it all. And yet, the utter predictability. Those blood soaked trenches are on ground that has been bloodied again and again throughout time. War after war fought. This great battle just the most recent, and now a hundred years gone. Humans know nothing so well as war. And as I stood beneath the glorious monument, I was struck most by the feeling of grief. I’m not proud of Sherwood for fighting at Vimy Ridge. But still. were it not for Vimy, and for that war, Sherwood wouldn’t have ended up in that Red Cross hospital in Reading, where he met Dorthea, the bespectacled nurse from Cardiff. She patched him up, and somewhere along the way they fell in love, and because of that, I’m here.
In a way, we’re war children. But I don’t want to be proud of that war. I want to acknowledge that it happened, and that it was important. I would rather be proud that Sherwood managed to keep the farm together during the tough, depression years of the ’30s. That he maintained a reputation as a kind and clever man, despite his shell shock. Mostly, I’m grateful to him – that he homesteaded where he did, stuck it out through all those tough years, and created the home I love. My roots are here in the Gap country, and it was Sherwood who planted them. In the end, the war, and Vimy Ridge, were just something that happened in his life, something he was lucky to survive, and something that brought him to the same place at the same time as Dorthea.
When I called Archie to ask directions to his ranch, they were a bit vague. I was coming from the south, Big Beaver way, I explained. “Oh yes, well take the road up the hill there and then you’ll go through the coulee, and you’ll pass the place that used to be Clarks’, and then take the north-south road for four miles and then take the first east-west road.”
Archie is 95, so you could attribute the ambiguity of these directions to a failing mind. But not so. Archie is sharp as a tack, and as he described the way to his ranch in his careful way, I was picturing the roads in my mind. It’s an area I know pretty well, well enough that I knew to simply keep heading in a northeasterly direction, and somehow, I’d make it.
And I did, without a single wrong turn. Archie’s directions were borne out of a lifetime of living in the same place. And my ability to follow them was based in my short lifetime of getting to know rural southern Saskatchewan – understanding how it’s laid out, patterns of road maintenance, and perhaps a tiny bit of instinctual wisdom. Local directions are often vague like the ones Archie gave me, sometimes almost incomprehensible to a stranger. Last week, when traveling to a northern town, I was told how to get to the venue where I was hosting a workshop: “it’s down where the old hospital used to be.” The old hospital no longer exists in tangible form, and I had never been to this town before. Those directions were almost useless to me. But to the person giving them, the map composed of memory made absolute sense. The place just is where it is.
In rural Saskatchewan, there’s almost no use talking about kilometers. Metric measurements just don’t fit on a landscape that was laid out on the old imperial system. But even so, measuring miles still somehow doesn’t take the amount of time it’s supposed to. Four miles on a straight paved road is not the same as four miles on a twisty-turny up-and-down gravel road. You can set your odometer all you like, but somehow it doesn’t always seem to turn out. As for GPS coordinates – you can give them a try, but I wouldn’t rely on them. It’s almost as if these places move, shift themselves in different types of weather, or sidle back and forth in tune with the rotation of the earth. They just don’t want to seem to line up with maps and measurements -at least not precise ones. Or so it seems to me. I’d rather rely on directions of the type Archie gave. I trust them more.
A place is where it is, and it takes as long as it takes to get there.
On the 18 heading east, just out of Big Beaver, and the road drops down into a steep curve. It was icy so I had slowed down, and good thing because as I rounded the curve, a half-dozen prairies chickens and as many mule deer greeted me. Only one deer was actually on the road, and he bounded off quickly into the coulee at the side of the road to join his fellows. But the prairie chickens were in a panic, and one of them slid and skidded on the ice, wings flapping frantically, little legs all askew. It about broke my heart. Who hasn’t looked silly trying to keep upright on a slippery surface? Who hasn’t panicked in the face of something unexpected bearing down upon you? The hen righted herself and scuttled away, perhaps a bit embarrassed, and a lot relieved, to join the rest of her flock.
And I continued on down the highway because what else could I do?
The setting sun had cast a pinkish hue glowing on the hills that I kept driving down and into, and I hope the prairie chickens and the deer managed to find a cozy corner of a coulee to bed down in. As for me, I was driving into my own predicament, little did I know it. One quick decision to go forward when I should have turned back and suddenly, I was stuck in a snowdrift across a gravel road.
As I waited for my help to arrive in the form of a friend who I called upon in my moment of need, my thoughts turned back to rounding that curve, how I had been just as surprised by the deer and the prairie chickens as they were by me. As night fell darker and the cold grew even more bitter, a slight trickle of unease wormed its way down my spine. I had my cell phone, and help was on its way. I knew I would get out of my spot of trouble and get on home to my own warm bed. But sitting there alone in the cold darkness, well in the “middle of nowhere”, sitting in the middle of a road that no one had driven down in a good half hour, I thought about how movement can be arrested so quickly. I thought about how lucky I was. But even more, I thought about how lucky that prairie chicken was that I had slowed rounding the curve.
I remember standing on the summit of some mountain in the Selkirks in BC, looking out over an expanse of snow-capped peaks, a sight so breathtaking as to be almost unbelievable. The air was clean and cold, bracing, and summer wildflowers were blooming in splotches of red and purple low to the ground. I remember how awe-inspiring it was, and I remember how nothing about it spoke to me. It was like listening to poetry in a language unknown to you – you can hear the beauty of it, but there is no meaning.
Just a few weeks ago, I stood in the basin of a desert valley about 300 feet below sea level. About as far from the snow capped peaks of the Selkirks as you can get. The air was hot, so hot it felt almost pure. The sun so bright I could hardly keep my eyes open. It was so far from home, much further than the Selkirks, and it was in a different country, in more ways than one. And yet, it spoke to me, and I could understand it.
I don’t know if it was the glare of the sun or the quality of the heat, or the deceptive emptiness of it, but I recognized it. It spoke to me in my mother tongue.
An old town on the main line, where the trains still whistle through, even if they don’t stop very often or very long any longer. On a walk through unfamiliar streets, I suddenly reach almost the edge of town just as the brash horn blasts into the stillness of the warm end-of-summer evening. The train roars through, its cars illuminated by the streetlights and the stars above. They’re loaded with shipping containers, double decker, the type you see stacked up on the docks of large harbours. Now they’re strung out in a long, seemingly never-ending line charging across the flat landscape. As they flash by, I can see that many read “China Shipping,” a tantalizing cue to their origins and their possible contents. I wonder what’s in them, where they’re bound, from what sort of factory did their contents originate. Whose were the hands who assembled them, and what sort of life did the work of producing goods for insatiable Western consumers permit? I imagine these containers sitting on the docks in Vancouver, being loaded up, precipitously making their way around and through the Rockies, bursting out into the prairie and making a run for it straight through to the bush and muskeg before being unloaded again…where? Toronto? Montreal? To be unloaded, their contents shuttled here and there, probably some loaded on semi-trailers to be brought back West and delivered to various and sundry merchants, from Dollaramas to Wal-Marts to the local hardware store in this very town.
I missed the start of the train, but bringing up the rear was the familiar red Canadian Pacific engine, along for the ride this time, but soon enough to be taking on the burden of leading the way. Canadian Pacific. A world of meaning in those two words strung together. The CPR, the CP Line, the Banff Springs Hotel, Rogers Pass, blasting through mountains with nitro-glycerine, brand new towns named by CP surveyors, now towns without any train at all, some of them dead or dying, or maybe even thriving. Ribbons of steel, the last spike at Craigellachie, grand dining cars. All of these random and seemingly unrelated images spring to mind – all united by the CPR.
The whole thing can’t last more than two minutes, and yet so many images and thoughts swirl through my mind. How the quiet of the evening, overly punctuated, like too many commas in a run-on sentence, with the discordant whining of vehicles on the Trans-Canada Highway, was so disturbed by the sudden assault of the train. How I enjoyed the onslaught, how I’ve always loved hearing and watching trains go about their work. How it’s rare, since down in my country, in the Gap, there are no trains anymore, just decaying tracks. I think about how many hands have been involved in the common spectacle unfolding in front of my eyes – from the manufacture of the mysterious contents inside those shipping containers, to the containers themselves, to the people who operated the machines to get them on a train in China, to a dockyards somewhere in Asia, to a ship bound across the Pacific, to be unloaded in Vancouver, probably, to load them onto this Canadian train, and so on and so forth. The engineers, too, who are guiding this train, and the men who laid this track all those years ago, some of them perhaps underpaid, undervalued workers from China. Then there are the workers who maintain those tracks now, and the ones operating the schedules to ensure there’s only one train on any one given stretch of track at any one particular time.
I think all of this, and even more, but most of all I am struck by something powerful in its ordinariness.
Andy — today I went looking for your ghost in Wood Mountain. Rounding the last curve on Highway 18 heading east, it appears suddenly. But without three elevators, without even one to announce itself, it must be content with an oversized sign. A grand introduction, as if to challenge the assumptions of the uninitiated that this tiny place might be unimportant.
Wood Mountain – the overlarge sign proclaims, hinting at a grandeur not immediately obvious. But, with only a smidgen of curiosity, hints of its grandiosity can be found.
First – the land itself. It was one of those days, Andy, when the sky is weighted with scattered, puffy clouds, and the wind is strong enough (stronger than enough) to send them scudding hither and thither, so that their shadows sweep up and down the hills. It’s the time of year when the grass is maturing, ripening into yellow. Even with the abundance of rain this year, the hills mellow to burnished gold. And on them the cattle work at their eternal grazing, as tatanka once did.
The town itself is quiet and I do not linger overlong. I find nothing of you there, except echoes of bits of remembered lines. The closed up Trail’s End with the tree growing right where people used to lounge and smoke and fistfight. The tree is big enough to suggest how long it’s been since a rye and Coke or a Pilsner were last served behind the wall it now leans against.
But just south, where the land drops down into heavily bushed coulee, revealing why the place is named what it is, there is more life, and more whispers that contain your name. The park, with its boughs of browning poplar piled atop the stands – green a few weeks ago when they shaded spectators of the Sports. Yes, Andy, the rodeo continues, when so much else does not.
People are camping in their big trailers tucked awkwardly into niches carved out of the trees. There is a brand new swimming pool, its chlorinated water a startling blue contrast to the yellowing hills and dusty green trees surrounding it. I wonder idly at the volume of water contained within its concrete walls – such a precious thing that people paddle around in. Its newness, and the money it took to build it, seem boastful compared to the aging museum beside it.
That is where I finally find you, Andy. In the Rodeo Ranch Museum. They have some of your poems in stock this time – a glossy reprint with a stylized Sitting Bull on the cover. I’m very glad to see it, though I do prefer my own dogeared copy, the one I tracked down with some effort, a retired library book sold online. The Sitting Bull on my copy is faded, like an old photograph. It seems more fitting, somehow. But if people are going to discover your poetry behind a slick, updated cover, there’s no harm in that.
I find you in a few other places, too. But more poignantly, I find the folks who peopled your poems scattered throughout the place, their names as familiar as old friends. Like Vasile Tonita, and some of the other Romanians. I find intimate details about them, like their dates of birth and the number of children they had.
And outside the wind blew through the grass and for all that has changed, I guess that one thing at least has remained the same. I did not find your ghost in Wood Mountain today, Andy.
But I was only passing through. Perhaps if I stayed awhile, let the place seep into me and I into it for a time, I would find your ghost, or it would find me. Or maybe your ghost haunts some other place, Wood Mountain too full of restless spirits already to accommodate another one, even that of a poet.
Like the young man across from me on an airplane, headed west. Overheard snippets of conversation. The man, my age or a bit younger, being asked if he’s from Regina – the polite chit chat of a middle aged couple establishing roots with their seatmate (this happens more often on flights out west, I’ve noticed).
No, the young man is not from Regina. He’s from Cape Breton, and this he says with quiet conviction. And as he continues explaining why he’s out west (work, of course), the proof of his declaration is borne out in his accent, the rolling vowels, the touches of Gaelic which remain in the pronunciation, whether he speaks a word of it or not.
Time passes, the cabin quiets down. Snacks have been munched, drinks sipped, garbage collected, and at one point I glance over and notice that the young man from Cape Breton has fallen asleep, head against the window, hands clasped neatly on the seat tray in front of him. Something about it catches me, enough to write about it. The thought of how homesick he must be right now, how it was revealed in the quick and proud way he placed himself as not from somewhere, from somewhere else. How much he must dread chasing the sunset at 30,000 feet, knowing it takes him away. That perhaps his gently clasped hands would rather be put to work back home, on Cape Breton Island.
How different it feels to be going home. How much you can tell about someone, just from the way they fall asleep on an airplane, quietly taking no more space than needed, hands one on top of the other, as if in prayer. He must be polite, respectful. And what am I, the one sneaking furtive glances from across the aisle in my own chronic wakefulness? Writing on an airplane. But I find the image so striking I can’t help but look again.
Maybe I’m just channeling Alistair MacLeod. Or maybe I recognised something of myself in him, when I used to fly back east, away from home.
It’s like he knew me when he wrote that, me and all the others with that particular kind of restlessness that resists itself. I don’t want to be restless, changeable, mutable. I want to sit tight, burrow in, become part of something permanent. But my very nature rebels against it, especially when I try my hardest to make it so.
What holds me here? Is there anything that anchors me, anything beyond my own will, my own deep-seated conviction that here is where I must be? Even when I do not feel as “here” as I want to, as I used to.
Of course, fickle beings we are, and me as fickle as the rest, can change our minds, can get caught up in flights of fancy which soon depart, borne away by practical words carried on west winds. Or, our fancies are dulled by the routine of getting by, of doing what’s got to be done, or so we’re told, tell ourselves, believe in lieu of the alternative(s).
This land, steady and knowing beneath me, this blanket of blackest night hanging over me, hold a wisdom I want to learn, but they do not give it up easily. I ask what I should I do, where I should go, if I should stay. Not even the omnipresent wind stirs in reply.
Perhaps it’s not the wind’s job, nor the stars, nor the land’s itself to direct my course. Maybe I am not a sparrow in a stormy night, batted about and at the mercy of some force greater than myself. It is a thought both liberating and terrifying.
And what if some energy from some distant place is stirring within me, calling for me? To heed it, or not?
Is it enough to be tethered, rather than anchored?
For me, nothing is ever enough.
I’m still here and what has not changed is
my inability to change
though I’m forever moving on.