When they said
kill your darlings
they didn’t explain
how they would only ask about the rabbits
so I said
we can just stay here
for a while
so I stretched
& scratched my head
waited until they said
“look what you made us do
we sat just around
what else they were supposed to do
couldn’t soak in
those few moments
before I’m through
& the rabbits burrow away for the winter
The approach of the autumnal equinox seems to usher a familiar feeling. I haven’t totally figured myself out yet, but fall always has some power over me. For one thing, my childhood ensconced September as “back-to-school”. That’s one thing I thought I had moved away from…but this year, I have summoned it back.
Of course, on a subtler note, the earth is tilting. The daylight swings wildly enough where I live that the difference between June’s all-night glow and December’s darkness is noticeable. Already, the days are shorter. The fifty-foot balsam poplar in my neighbourhood that serves as my seasonal barometer showed its first yellowing leaves over a week ago.
There is no burst of colours in the trees. The electric yellow canola fields trail off into a pale green before it’s piled into swaths which accentuate the topography. The other crops turn brown before they disappear. Trees denude back to twisted branches and twigs, their silhouettes etched like lightning against the sky.
I can’t explain why the leading lines make my eyes shiver, or why the smoothed contours soothe me—but there is a certain space I can enter when that certain blend of summer and winter meet on an archetypal autumn day—and even when I’m outside for the briefest moment, there’s a quietness that follows the thought that I lose as it’s whisked away by the nippy breeze.
The geese are in the air, they know what that breeze brings. Soon flocks of hundreds of birds fly overhead, charting a magnetic path they can see with eyes evolved for the task.
Waterfowl move methodically and rhythmically, setting up shop when necessary or where food is available. Warblers are more blindly determined—they only pass through for days, as opposed to the weeks that it takes ducks and geese. Warblers cause tumults in the middle of the night, quite literally warbling like a comet made up of a hundreds-strong (yet short-breathed) church choir.
But I don’t hunt warblers. At least not with anything besides a pair of binoculars. The geese and ducks are not so lucky. Wild waterfowl makes for a delightful meal, which is a foreign concept for someone who was raised in a metropolis (like myself) and saw geese and ducks as companions to pigeons and seagulls (i.e. garbage birds). I had heard of homeless people in Toronto eating goose, and it sounded no different than someone eating a subway rat.
Now that I live in the fly-path between the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico, I think I can appreciate geese and ducks as something more. These birds certainly reside in cities at some point on their journey, but they benefit from a lot more free range than their eastern (or city-bound) counterparts.
(Some of that, I realize, is an idealization; and I am okay with that dissonance because so far, all the meat I have tasted has been delectable, and if it had any garbage-infused flavours they paired perfectly with the heartiness of goose).
Hunting can be a polarizing activity. It’s a complicated issue, and cannot be painted with the broad brush it so often is. It’s not a familial or cultural tradition for me. I have no compulsion or obligation to hunt. However, it seems disingenuous to me to eat and enjoy meat, but refuse to be part of the process.
I say, if you eat apples, go pick apples.
In a similar vein, I enjoy being entertained—therefore, I entertain. I don’t think that’s a comprehensive reason why I write, but it certainly feeds into my overall creative ethos.
Hunting and writing have some parallels for me—they’re done alone; can be fruitless no matter how much time and effort is spent; and, can be done without any instruction.
But the latter is only true if the outcome doesn’t affect your lifestyle. If I dick around in the field for three days and come back without so much as a feather, it’s all good. We go to the grocery store and buy whatever we need.
So far, writing has been similar. If it fails (as it so often does), it doesn’t really matter. I have a job that pays the bills. No one will starve or suffer because my story sucked.
North Korea might force our hand to need to know more about sourcing our food. In the case of creativity, I am being my own North Korea, forcing myself out onto the proverbial gangplank, where I either succeed as a writer or I flounder as a provider for my family.
Just like the apprentice hunter of yesteryear would seek a master to teach the skills needed to excel, I am also seeking out masters to help me excel as a writer. I am super-psyched to have been accepted into Stanford’s Online Writing Course for Novel Writing. It’s a huge opportunity…so huge, it feels too good to be true, like I’ll finally be outed as the impostor I have always been.
Until that happens, I have to trust it’s just a syndrome. An impostor can’t really try. And I am trying. Even if no one knows it—and of course, it’s this chink that my inner critic can still hang out and harangue me.
Because identity is everything—encapsulated in that millennial idiom I’m tired of hearing & writing: “If it can’t be shared, it didn’t happen.”
My family doesn’t value creativity, I have no friends to call up about life events, and the place I live & work isn’t a particularly cultured/artsy place. Social media is supposed to be the panacea for my kind of situation, but I can’t help but see it for what it is (a placebo, and not a very good one).
So basically, none of this is happening. My inner critic has a field day with that shit.
Not everyone seems to have the same hang-ups about pride. Anton Chekhov wrote a short story about a man who borrows a medal for a dinner party, only to find out someone is there who knows he didn’t earn that medal—only to later find out both of them are frauds trying to impress the host. Usually we never have that final reveal. Instead, we really buy into our borrowed medal and convince ourselves the illusion is real.
All I can do is give it my best shot, I’ve convinced myself. Until I shoot my eye out or carpel tunnel limits my ability to type, I only have my best shot. (After that, I have pain medication).
As September rolls on, I am re-acquainting myself with that “back-to-school” mentality. I am looking for my fingerless gloves and cleaning my shotgun. I keep one eye on the skies and the other on my prize. And then I put my sunglasses on, because no one can know.
When the heat rose
It brought the ants out with it—
The bedrock slumbers under the shivering topsoil,
All winter huddled up—
Now comes the tilt of the earth—
Now comes hibernation hangovers—
The creak in your elbow
Only you can hear—
Now comes the sun again—
Now the snakes sun on gravel roads—
God is whoever
Will recognize your sacrifice—
So every bud, rosette, and bug eye
Turns to the blinding star—
Half a life
Lived in chrysalis—
Half a life
Lived in fits—
Spring demands stridency,
Summer demands sweat—
Autumn begs for acceptance,
Winter requires sacrifice—
No one pouts as the beetle
Strains over mustard seeds—
Whimpering is pathetic,
Go gnash teeth instead—
For the past couple weeks, in my part of the world, there has been a disheartening deep freeze. That damn “polar vortex”. Or for those whose memories stretch past this decade’s latest fad, or don’t care about feigning a peripheral knowledge of meteorology, it’s more cozily known as a “Canadian winter”.
Nationalities aside, we are talking about temperatures that are unfriendly to a hairless ape. At -25⁰C (-13⁰F) to -40⁰C (-40⁰F), the outside becomes intolerable very quickly. At the bottom of the range, the inside of your nostrils freeze, your eyelids feel cold, and your fingers become utterly useless unless they are bound in mitts or gloves.
The coldest wind chill I personally experienced was just below -50⁰C. But you don’t need to get to those extremes to empathize. The experiential difference between -25⁰C and -50⁰C is often negligible. It’s the difference of a few minutes of toleration. It’s fucking cold.
So when I am out, unable to feel my face, I often wonder what the hell all those pioneers were thinking. Who thought Europeanized “civilization” belonged in a place where the air hurts your skin?
And I think even more fundamentally about all the people who called the northernmost reaches of Turtle Island home for millennia.
For many First Nations, centuries of oppression and white-washing have rendered them not all that different than the paler naked apes who have flung their shit all over the place. Biologically speaking, it is difficult to discern whether aboriginal peoples are better equipped than any other human from any other continent to manage the cold. With that said, I am sure there are some epigenetic triggers from living in the northern environment generation after generation.
But I will assume we are all equitable, from the perspective of the overall energy system we consider an individual human being. I assume there is biological adaptation, but no super-human difference (I am open to compelling evidence otherwise). No difference, particularly after any cultural techniques to bear the cold were forcefully rubbed out by residential schools. Particularly after the environment that influenced those genetics for so long changed so quickly.
But where Wasichu have high-efficiency natural gas furnaces and pink insulation, First Nations often have woodstoves and plywood walls.
segó͔łį gots’ę jo͔ deneilé
“I lived here since I was born”
So my mind, detached from my frostbitten senses, goes to a Dene Tha’ community in northern Alberta, where earlier this year I was wandering around with hurt in my heart and a chill in my bones (my cold tolerance was lower then, the freezing point felt brutal).
I had Meander River, AB specifically marked as a stop on our road trip to the Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. If you are travelling through Alberta, there are two ways into the Territories. The more travelled route is Highway 35. Also known as the Mackenzie Highway, it heads north from High Level, AB (once poised as the new capital city of Canada II), until it turns into Highway 1 at the Territorial border but maintains its moniker until Fort Simpson, NWT.
Even Wikipedia notes Meander River, AB is a highway service centre on that route. Otherwise, there is a stretch of ~175 km (109 mi) between the gas stations in High Level and the gas station at Indian Cabins, which is the last stop for gas before Enterprise, ~100 km (62 mi) north.
If we could gas up in Meander River, we could get to our campsite in the NWT for the night, and gas up in nearby Enterprise the next morning. It was all set.
Dark was a few hours away, but it had been dim all day and had rained steady the day before. We woke to more of the same. As we crossed degrees of latitude the air became chillier and some of the rain became sleet. I fueled up in Fort Vermilion, AB and passed clean through bustling High Level.
It started raining again when we detoured off the highway around bridge construction, off the asphalt and onto the red clay that lay underneath the dense forest we were starting to see more regularly. I knew I had 151 km (94 mi) to Meander River. Right around the sign that said 1 km Up Ahead I prepared myself.
And then I saw the 1 km Up Ahead sign again, in my sideview mirror. We passed no gas station, no highway service centre. I pulled over on an approach, rocking our 1973 Boler as I cranked us around to head south. I drove slower this time, and passed both signs for Meander River again without seeing so much as another vehicle on the highway.
I made another U-turn and decided to take the first unmarked road after the sign. There was another unmarked road further north. These were the only access points to the town. I took us on a loop, trying to keep my bearings and hoping I didn’t run into any dead ends–turning the Boler around was a pain in the ass.
Behind an outcrop of trees we started seeing houses. They were large and spaced out. They weren’t surveyed on proper streets, it seemed, but their placements seemed to work. There were outcroppings of the town, undulating westwards to the Meander River.
This reserve was not unlike other reserves I have been on. It appeared neglected, with a noticeable need for up-keep. Siding was missing, windows were busted, shingles peeled, cars rusted, garbage clumped in tall grasses. There were cars at almost all the houses, but it felt like a ghost town.
The road I took looped us back to the Mackenzie Highway. At this northern access, there was the service centre. But where there would have been pavement or gravel or something to drive on, there was grass and weeds. The pumps stood in the middle of the clearing, white and shiny.
I parked on the road and took a walk around the abandoned gas station. The door to the store was locked. The windows were covered with plywood, except one. The interior was gutted. I checked the pumps. Their Measurement Canada inspection was still valid. The pumps looked hardly used.
The cold was making me paranoid. This was no place to spend the night, mostly because it would be below zero that night and we would feel it inside the un-insulated Boler. We would later find out from a woman in Hay River that they didn’t ever want to end up stranded on the Mackenzie Highway. Too many anecdotes of sexual assaults on that long, lonesome highway [Note: I wasn’t able to find anything to link, though].
No gas at Meander River made this leg of the journey ~250 km (155 mi). That doesn’t sound so bad, but on a loaded crossover’s 55 L tank hauling a 1000 lb Boler with headwinds on the western jogs, it was cutting it a little closer than I liked. If there were troubles at Indian Cabins getting gas, we would have another ~100 km (62 mi) to Enterprise which we probably would not make.
Cell coverage was spotty. I could load a map, but not do much with it. I have done most of my travelling without the crutch of everything a Google search away, so it didn’t bother me. I was in a town and there was bound to be someone around that could help me.
So I left the car parked and went for a walk into Meander River. I could go north and check out some houses, but there were some on the same road I was on. So I started for the first house. There were four vehicles parked in front of the house. There was no noise from inside but I knocked anyway. When no one came to the door, I started to the next house.
On my way a black pick-up truck was coming down the road. I made eye contact with the driver and waved to him. He took a corner and disappeared.
Before I reached the next house, I could hear people. That was promising. There were no windows on the top floor, so I could track down the voices to a corner room. There must have been about a half dozen people. They were shouting at each other. Screaming, and it didn’t sound like anyone was listening. The television played infomercials on full blast, filling in the space of what sounded like a party.
There was a thin bed sheet that looked like it was meant to cover the window, but it did nothing. Half of it hung out the window, the rest of it barely attached to the rod. The icy rain blew into the room, and still they all shouted like it was just another Saturday afternoon in Meander River.
I tried to outdo their roar. I shouted Hello! and Yo! and Can I get some help? and Anyone there?
That last question seemed stupid. No one was there. At least not for me.
I eventually found someone on a bicycle, who felt safest shouting at me across a patch of tall grass that was too wet for either of us to cross. She was perfectly fine with me not getting any closer. She was already on her bicycle and heading away before she finished explaining that I couldn’t get gas until Indian Cabins.
On my way back to the vehicle, I passed the house with no windows. They were no quieter. I tried to get their attention again. I wanted to ask them about the windows. If they were planning on replacing them. It was only fall, things would get colder. What would they do in January? What happened to all the snow that came in through the windows? Were they okay? Was there anything I could do?
That last question seemed stupid. Of course they were not okay. And there was nothing I could do.
Things became colder, of course. Like, 40⁰C colder. In that cold, when each icy breath rasps the back of my throat, and my hands became bricks, and frost starts to build on my eyelashes, I think back to that house with no windows in Meander River.
The memory doesn’t stop the cold. Doesn’t help my sunless mood, either. Whether I shunt reality or try to embrace it, I have to live through it all the same. And maybe that was what they were doing in that house that afternoon. They were living through it, all the same. Heat-trapping windows be damned.
Just trying to break the ice.
That’s the problem with taking too much time, whether it’s away or closer or wherever else we go when we are not present.
I’ve been away. Need to get back into it. But the blank page is a haunted house–the blinking word processor’s line is a reminder that bringing form into formlessness isn’t that hard…it’s only tricky if you want something more than a line.
The line never says enough. That’s where we pick up from.
And that’s where I need to pick up from. That last line, so long ago.
Don’t get me wrong. Been writing as much as ever. Just much more focused, less distracted by this social posturing.
But here I am. Getting back into it all–for posterity, for popularity, for the possibilities we are promised by extroverted polemics.
As simple as taking a solid stem auger to lake ice. Hold steady and let the drill’s teeth do the work.
At least until I break the ice.
Sun’s light bounces off
the moon—bounces off the snow
—shatters my iris.
Let us hide inside
where it is warm and our lips
don’t numb with silence.
It is -21⁰C with the windchill and I am sitting in four layers over a six-inch hole cut into two feet of ice. I am dangling fishing line through my gloved fingers, waiting for that distinctive tug that lets me know something is on the other end of the line.
I am ice-fishing for the first time in my life. As an adult living in the prairies, this is disreputable. I am probably a degenerate. I am probably an invalid who has been kept from the slimmest chance of drowning all my life. These are somewhat true assumptions, because I am an urbanite who went fishing maybe a handful of times with my Dad in the Muskokas before I hit puberty and spent the rest of my time in a disengaged pacifism that would have me do no harm to another sentient creature.
But I’ve come to realize I’m an animal—and just as the bear has no shame about sticking its jaws into a waterfall to pluck out a salmon, and cows don’t think twice about tearing away at grass, I have no qualms about feeding myself. (Moderately and respectfully, of course.)
So I took the opportunity to put the fishing rod back in my hand and try my luck with humanity’s 40,000 year-old activity.
As my feet begin to freeze, I stare into the hole, getting deeper and deeper into a meditative state. Two hours pass and I haven’t caught a damn thing. I could switch bait to go for perch, which my fellow ice fishers are catching (mostly little unkeepable three or four inch things), but I want splake. I just know they are the bigger and more elusive fish and, therefore, the bigger prize.
As I stare into the hole, something begins to happen. I don’t realize it at first, and really only start to understand it the day after. But as I stare into the hole, I can see my line go into the water. A few centimetres below the water, it is too dark to see. So I picture my line, jigging spoon, and hook dangling near the lake bed. As time goes by, I try to imagine fish coming to the line, attracted by my clever jigging. When I feel a tug, I reel in expecting to see a hooked splake, but instead see the minnow’s body chewed off; I bait the hook and start the process again.
By the time I am too cold to bait anymore minnows, I switch to maggots and try for perch. This time the biting comes quicker. I can feel the perch nibbling on the bait. I can imagine them crowding around the hook, trying to decide how to get the maggot without getting caught. If I pull up at the right time and catch their lip, I could bring them above the ice. I use my imaginary underwater mind-camera to tell myself how to jig the line just so, to get a good bite.
It was this process, which must have ancient derivations, that was fascinating in retrospect—it was, in essence, the foundation for imagination. It begins with me, the fisher, observing patterns: when I put the hook into the water, I could pull a fish out. This almost seamlessly leads into anticipation: if I put a hook in, I should pull a fish out. This anticipation, in some amazing evolutionary feat, opens the gates to imagination. I can picture—outside of material reality—in the so-called ‘mind’s eye’—below the ice, removed from my sense perceptions—what might have been happening between the cause and the consequence.
There are lots of treatises on imagination. A lot of work has been done to comprehend it. Einstein famously used his teenage imagination to envision light as both waves and particles—he said, in the bluntest quote on the subject, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Throughout humanity’s history, imagination has played a fundamental role in shaping social and cultural behaviour, whether through myths, assumptions, or hypotheses. And as much as we idolize the ‘greats’ and tell ourselves their imagination is a superior form of genius, I would argue that imagination is a natural function of the mammalian brain that is born out of something as simple as fishing.
And for some anglers, imagination is all they go away with (we all know the cliché ‘fish-this-big’ story). Fortunately for me, it was two decent-sized perch that I filleted and pan-fried to enjoy with some warming wine and pasta.