Although I have a hard time identifying with any belief system, one’s actions can sometimes categorize one’s self into certain identities. With that said, I guess I’m fairly pagan–as wonderfully nebulous as that is.
I celebrate the solstices and equinoxes. They designate important time periods in my part of the world, and are particularly important as mile posts for the waxing & waning of the unfortunate side effect of northern latitudes: seasonal affective disorder.
That’s not a blanket side effect for everyone on the forehead of the planet. But it sure fucks with me. After floundering for too many years, I have found that observing the points where the sunlight increases or decreases is one small way to acknowledge the cycle.
That way, no surprises. The merry-go-round is there for all to see.
Unfortunately, I was born with a ticket and can’t get off. The freewriting piece below is awkward & unsettling & dizzying, kind of like a merry-go-round. It’s an older piece, but from the same period to come, between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. I don’t think it offers much hope, which is why I felt the need for this preamble.
—And can’t you go for a week without? Look at what you’re doing to yourself—
<<Doing? That’s exactly it, hun. I’m doing>>
—You’re doing nothing—
<<You’re doing nothing>>
—That’s exactly it, hun. I’m doing—
<<What are we doing here?>>
—We’re here again. You ever wonder if it has anything to do with a gain?—
<<It sounds more like a loss. To be anywhere again is only retracing your steps>>
—Unless you took a new way. What are we doing here again?—
<<I wish I knew. You’re no help>>
—No help is right. Look at what we’re doing to ourselves—
<<This is confusing>>
—That’s right. I’m doing—
<<You’re doing it again. We’re here>>
—And can’t you go a week without reminding me? Listen to yourself—
<<I feel it all over again. We’re here again>>
—God fuck it. Krishna suck it. Devil may share. Damn us all to earth for a thousand lifetimes—
<<And you would still just come back here>>
—Probably. I can’t go a week without—
<<What does it taste like?>>
—It tastes like we’re here again. I feel it in every nerve—
<<Must be close>>
—Must be doing nothing—
<<Unless you took a new way>>
—Naw, fuck it. You know it. There is no other way—
<<Did you just feel that?>>
—I think that’s the point—
<<No, it wasn’t sharp. It was full-bodied>>
—Why don’t we forget about it all and get a bottle of Malbec? —
<<Why don’t we just enjoy the tilt of the earth for once?>>
—You know there is no other way—
<<There must be another way around it>>
—Oh sure, we can circle it all day, but we’re just going to up here—
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.
Around this time last year, I was still reeling from a major incident at work. A diluted blend of crude oil had hit the river, and I was part of the scramble to keep it from making too much of a mess.
Of course, it did make a whole lot of mess.
And it’s still going on. A whole new generation of fish have come to spawn in that river, fish who would never know that there was a time when burrowing into this or that sand bar could cause them to become slimed by residual crude oil.
I have had the (mis?)fortune to attend many spill response events. A driver falls asleep at the wheel after too many hours on the road, and your entire weekend is fucked because there are 30,000 L of goopy oil flooding a farmer’s field.
At the very least, sometimes, there is pizza.
But there is rarely a chance that things go smoothly, or efficiently, or effectively. Politicians represent a populace that want corporations to pay for their liability, but that same populace is financially sustained on the notion that corporations must maximize profits and dolla-dolla-bill-y’all or else perish. So oil spill responses, for all their hoopla & huge (insurance-covered) spends, are somewhat of a performance, an exercise in optics and reputational management instead of addressing the real problem.
When the fox is asked to look after the hens, I suppose you can’t blame the fox when you’re left with an empty coop.
Anyway, I wrote about pizza & oil spills for Defenestration, which I promise isn’t as dire as I am above. You can check out right now!
There was a blur preceding the steering wheel. I had been awake nearly thirty hours, with a toddler no less, and I was in and out of airport terminals and darkened airplane cabins from Alberta’s sunset to Newfoundland’s sunrise.
There isn’t a chance for me to do anything more than just sit in an airplane seat as restfully as my poor posture will allow. I obsess about design changes that could actually help me sleep. But I am in the wrong trade for having any influence on in-flight comfort—and I would probably involve a lot more hammock technology than airplane safety rules would allow.
My echo chamber flight was worsened by the fact that I dreaded our landing. Somewhere between securing my luggage at the drop-off and sitting down in my seat, I had lost the key to the luggage. We would land to about two-thirds of our luggage, held hostage by my idiocy (and the key, which probably fell out of my pocket when I dangled in the playground to amuse my child in the Edmonton airport.
Of course, that meant as soon as we landed, I got to get smashy. The regional airport we landed in, Deer Lake, was meant to get us as close to the kick-off of the itinerary I had planned. There are many benefits to flying into regional airports…their selection of TSA master keys, the codes for which are clearly marked on most commercial luggage locks, are not one of those benefits.
The key that best fit our suitcase was a flat-headed screwdriver.
I had five hours to forget about the luggage that gaped open in the backseat of our rented minivan (I know: minivans are awful, and awfully practical). Despite my the thirty hour blur that preceded that steering wheel, the next few hours allowed the road to hypnotize me, as it’s done countless times—I was able to lock in, and read the landscape, and not make a chore out of driving but ribbon myself into the route like the gulls threaded in and out of the sea.
The road can do this to me—and Sadhguru put it better in a video published after I returned…I poorly paraphrase his words as my own: essentially, I didn’t need to possess anything to make it mine. (The possessive at the end sounds malicious, but in context, making it mine means capturing it within the boundary of what I consider myself—i.e. oneness. I think I’ve over-explained it now).
The cautious guest
who comes to the table
Listens with ears
learns with eyes.
Such is the seeker of knowledge.
It took a mere four hours to time travel from bustling industrial Newfoundland, to days-gone-by-b’y coastal coves, to the tundra-esque north where my wife swore she saw an albino moose until we reached service and could definitively say we saw a caribou—then finally to Vinland, on the Northern Peninsula’s tip nub (that’s a geological term, I think).
That tip nub was long home to the ancestors of the people we now call First Nations. For a brief time, it fooled the Vikings into thinking it was a promised land, all to themselves. For a while after that, the English and French argued in Versailles over it. Now, it’s hard to say who lives there, because the sea ice was thick and within a week of me standing on an ice floe off the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve the Canadian government would announce $5M in support for fisherpeople and other seafolks who were held up or even trapped by atypical ice conditions.
his knees are numb.
A man who has made
his way over mountains
needs food and fresh linens.
The few people I did encounter were the nicest people I could have encountered after too many hours awake and too many kilometers and a hankering for the slimmest chance to lay horizontally and forget about everything. When we reached our cabin in Raleigh, Nanny & Poppy Hedderson were ready to offer us the comforts of home.
Between the drizzling day, the freezing wind that never fucking stopped, and my third or fourth wind that was threatening to stop at any point, I was just giddy to be able to parade on the roads of Raleigh and fall down if I so pleased, without driving my family into a rocky ditch.
So of course, I didn’t even hesitate when Poppy told me that the LIVE LOBSTER sign out front wasn’t even LIVE so much as it was STRAIGHT FROM THE OCEAN, which wasn’t so passive as it sounded. Poppy drove us out to the dock with a Dutch couple so that we could harvest our very own lobster.
The tourist theatrics were so regular for Poppy that my ego wasn’t stroked when he asked me to help him haul the lobster cage out of the water. But it was hella fun. After the cage was opened, we fished through for the right lobster for each person, like we were fishing Valentine heart candies out of a bowl.
The lobster went straight from the ocean to a pot, and eventually to my plate with the oft-encountered pairing of garlic bread and Caesar salad. A little cod tongue to start, and some Iceberg beer to wash it down, and this is a recipe for making one sleep-deprived dude enter a semi-conscious state.
When I came to the next morning, we ate oatmeal and oranges and tea with a little cannabis honey before heading out to the Viking encampment beside a black beach. More formally, the camp is a National Historic Site. It was just above freezing, with ice stretching out to the horizon. It was surprisingly busy, but then again, national park sites like L’Anse-Aux-Meadows were free for Canadians to celebrate the sesquicentennial [Note: There were more international tourists than Canadians].
On a given June day around 1000 CE, there were alien settlers on those shores. They built angular buildings with vented roofs and forged bog iron. Although tundra now, there’s understood to have been a historically warmer climate, so Leif Erikson and his crew would have found a peninsula rich with timber.
They had already found an endless stretch of precious wood further north, and an endless beach which would later appear in Norse epics. These were men from societies who were spiralling into what we might call intellect—budding into pursuits like cartography, astronomy, literature, architecture, and metallurgy.
None of this was necessary for survival, which was proven by the people the Vikings encountered when they made the first European contact with North America. From Viking sagas we know that there were Native people who visited the Norse Vinland encampment. Trade ensued, although Leif refused to trade their weapons.
watch as you walk on,
inspect as you enter.
It is uncertain
where enemies lurk
or crouch in a dark corner.
This is obviously where some sort of rift ensued—or at least, that was what the dramatic video at the National Historic Site insinuated. It’s not understood exactly why the Vikings built buildings, had a couple smelts (100-200 boat nails?), stayed for less than a decade, then burnt it all down and sailed into the sunrise.
My guess is that people lie. Leif had an accident in the rough waters off the North Atlantic and had to post up for a bit to make some nails and rebuild his boat. But the place was bountiful and they had enough grapes to make a lot of wine.
You have a friend
you hardly trust
in whom you cannot confide,
with fair smiles
and false words
repay cunning in kind.
But then again, there were already people here. It was the same problem Christopher Columbus would face. Except he came from a more brutal time and a more brutal place. In the fifteenth century Christianity was reaching its most logical conclusion, the Inquisition, and it probably didn’t seem odd to anyone that there were some things that looked like people but were clearly beasts or demons and could be done away with or used to expand the empire.
Be your friend’s
Return gift for gift.
with laughter again
but betrayal with treachery.
It is odd that the Vikings, otherwise known for slaughters and looting, bowed out from Vinland. The people of Christ who came later did not seem to have the same restraint. [I later learned that the Saga of Erik the Red describes Leif Erikson’s Vinland discovery as an accident while en route to introduce Christianity to Greenland.]
I never cared for the Viking stereotype, because like Mongolians or Berbers there are always exaggerations, no different than more recognizable stigmatization following more modern wars. The tales from the time do tell about violent clashes between the Kavdlunait (Inuit word for foreigner) and the Skraelings (Norse word for savage). Recognizing that a stable community cannot be built while under constant attack, the sagas tell us the Norse simply left.
The Vikings may have had some direction from their Norse philosophers—maybe even Odin himself, contrary to Leif’s new found messiah…or just good common sense, like the complimentary proverbs on respectively cultivating and preserving a friendship:
A true friend
whom you trust well
and wish for his good will:
go to him often
and keep him company.
Go you must.
No guest shall stay
in one place forever.
Love will be lost
if you sit too long
at a friend’s fire.
It was warm inside the re-created halls that Leif and crew burned to the ground a thousand years ago. The site itself is on the tippliest nub of the tip nub—the very northern edge of Newfoundland. The wind carried the cold of the sea ice, and five-foot deep snowpack remained as a reminder of winter. It was near freezing outside, but within the six-foot thick sod walls, we were welcomed and warmed.
Because admission was free and I have made a point of proselytizing why that’s stupid, I wanted to make a point to pay my way and ensure a place like this doesn’t become a red line item in the budget that might as well be cut. Politicians use these sites the way they use anything else in their self-proclaimed jurisdiction. The Norse would have used Leif’s leap of faith to Vinland as a testament to their courage and knowledge of the world—the Trudeau government is using L’Anse-Aux-Meadows National Historic Site as a golden carrot. In two more years, six more years, ten more years (or however the election cycle shifts)…who knows where this tip nub falls.
Anyway, that’s all to say that I bought some shit. And I came away with a treasure: the Havamal, or The Words of the High One (the book itself was titled The Sayings of the Vikings).
If you are a collector of sacred books, or of written wisdom, or of eclectic ancient poetry, this may be the book you are missing. I hadn’t heard of the Havamal, but it has the reputation of being a northern compliment to the Tao Te Ching or the Vedas—so much so that it’s considered the ‘Wisdom of the North’.
That titled could be respectfully matched by the wisdom of the Dene, Inuit, or Sami. I wished I could have found more about the deeper history of the island’s first peoples, but it was sparse and usually more about conflict following contact rather than the ongoing lives of everyday people.
The Vikings made a point to be remembered. I guess that’s why they burned shit down. You know, for posterity.
There is something in the Havamal that goes beyond ethnicity—the blunt, pragmatic proverbs speak to a philosophy coloured by self-reliance, exploration, and presence. It is a philosophy that I may as well have heard from a rig hand in some remote northern camp. The Icelandic literary critic Matthias Vidar Saemundsson summarizes it better than I can:
“The ethics of the Havamal are above all rooted in belief in the value of the individual, who is nonetheless not alone in the world but tied by inextricable bonds to nature and society; to adherents of such a philosophy, the cycle of life was single and indivisible, the living world in all its manifestations formed a harmonious whole. Infringement upon nature struck at the root of a man’s own existence. In the old philosophy of the North, each individual was responsible for his own life, shaped his own fortune or misfortune, and created a life for himself from his own resources.”
This is not to say that Vikings were self-sustaining saints. They were brutal in their expansion efforts and enslaved people and generally made use of Europe’s most outstanding gift to humanity, their institutional inability to give a fuck, as long as they were getting what they felt entitled to. But the weather is brutal too. At these northern climates, it’s a challenge for naked apes. We all bow to the wind.
As I continued exploring Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, I was reminded of the philosophy of the North that Saemundsson refers to. I’ve seen it across Canada…progressively more pronounced as you get away from the southern centres that measure their success by looking further southward.
Nanny & Poppy Hedderson knew that philosophy without ever having to crack open a book. It’s writ in the way the wind cuts through you. Or in the way that no one hears you scream out at sea. Or in the way that snow doesn’t care what you consider driveway or ditch. Or the way a stomach growls if the roads are closed and the grocery truck can’t visit your hamlet.
I am no Viking. I am native to nowhere. I can’t smelt bog iron and I can’t skin a caribou with nothing more than a sliver of rock. We are in a blessed time when so many of our survival needs are taken care of. We live in comfort, and as a result, we have time to quibble about identity politics. Which is fine on certain levels—however, the North reminds me that identity in itself is useless. You have to simply be capable and present. Anything else is a luxury.
The only luxury item I had was the broken suitcase in the van’s back seat. Not even realizing it until later, we approached this minor setback with the same fundamental approach used to get on when life was hard by the Natives, and the Vikings, and seemingly everyone before the most recent generations.
Back in Deer Lake the night before our flight, I made a trip to a hardware store to buy nylon rope and Gorilla tape. Like the Viking smelter who sat over the bog fire in Vinland, I sweated over my suitcase, reviewing my bondage knots and generously applying the tape like a cast.
It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. At the luggage carousel upon our return, as others impatiently huffed and begrudgingly hoisted their luggage off the conveyor, I jumped in joy that my suitcase emerged in one piece. It was the smallest, most privileged victory for self-reliance. No one else cared.
I don’t particularly like to write in books. I know people who keep Foster Wallace footnotes in the margins of all their books.
Like most things, I have an exception: my Nietzsche books. They are fair game. Friedrich Nietzsche’s works, when not aphorisms, are dense–they are difficult to scan.
I read and re-read Nietzsche, the same way I mull Patañjali or the Bhagavad-Gita or Kerouac or Baudelaire.
The passage below struck me when I read it last night. It was hard not feel a it like Nietzsche was sitting on the other side of the sofa, sunk and uncomfortable in his Bismarck-era get-up, smoking all my ganja and rambling about decadence.
This excerpt is Section 242, in ‘Part Eight: Peoples and Fatherlands’, from Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1886 work, Beyond Good and Evil. This translation is by Michael Tanner in 1973; the italics are Nietzsche’s, the underlining is mine.
“Whether that which now distinguishes the European be called ‘civilization’ or ‘humanization’ or ‘progress’; whether one calls it simply, without implying any praise or blame, the democratic movement in Europe: behind all the moral and political foregrounds indicated by such formulas a great physiological process is taking place and gathering greater and ever greater impetus–the process of the assimilation of all Europeans, their growing detachment from the conditions under which races independent on climate and class originate, their increasing independence of any definite milieu which, through making the same demands for centuries, would like to inscribe itself on soil and body–that is today, the slow emergence of an essentially supra-national and nomadic type of man which, physiologically speaking, possesses as its typical distinction a maximum of the art and power of adaptation. This process of the becoming European, the tempo of which can be retarded by great relapses but which will perhaps precisely through them gain in vehemence and depth–the still-raging storm and stress of ‘national’ feelings belongs here, likewise the anarchism now emerging–: this process will probably lead to results which its naïve propagators and panegyrists, the apostles of ‘modern ideas’, would be at least inclined to anticipate. The same novel conditions which will on average create a levelling and mediocritizing of man–a useful, industrious, highly serviceable and able herd-animal–are adapted in the highest degree to giving rise to exceptional men of the most dangerous and enticing quality. For while that power of adaptation which continually tries out changing conditions and begins a new labour with every new generation, almost with every new decade, cannot make possible the powerfulness of the type; while the total impression produced by such future Europeans will probably be that of multifarious, garrulous, weak-willed and highly employable workers who need a master, a commander, as they need their daily bread; while, therefore, the democratization of Europe will lead to the production of a type prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense: in individual and exceptional cases the strong man will be found to turn out stronger and richer than has perhaps ever happened before–thanks to the unprejudiced nature of his schooling, thanks to the tremendous multiplicity of practice, art and mask. What I mean to say is that the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the breeding of tyrants–in every sense of that word, including the most spiritual.”