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What’s your favourite season?

IMG_1583It might have started with Dylan Thomas, or probably before, in that little town lost between fence posts and farm creeks of the Saugeen River Valley – Paisley. It is a question I can’t answer. Each season has its charm, utility, and – lets face it – period of grace (before you say “ok, enough with this, let’s change things up!”) Winter has something else: a sort of magical quality that other seasons lack. (It’s funny what we consider a “magical quality.” Because what do we really have to judge it against except the rest of our life, which is equally bizarre?)

I have known winter just as long as summer, yet I find it somehow more surreal. Perhaps it’s the way when you watch it snow nothing seems to happen, but as soon as you look away there’s a half-foot of it, enough to cover footprints and tire tracks – enough to erase history. As if it had just “shawled out of the ground” as it does in Thomas’ Wales of yore . Or maybe it’s that silence, safety, even warmth of the snow or the wood fire. Of course snow does have an insulating quality (hence the warmth of igloos, quinces etc.) and it dampens sound waves for the same reason. But there is much more to winter’s allure than science. There is a spiritual quality to that silence that anyone who listens long enough will feel. It is the sound of the earth resting, waiting for breath.

Growing up spending Christmases in Paisley I believed there were untouchable places on this earth, ones that would not change, ones where in mid December, there would always be a meter of snow into which you could fling yourself with a satisfying plump and laugh as the sun caught crystals for yellow half seconds against the clear sky. Places where families would spend evenings playing German card games by candle light and laughing into the warm cinnamon air and the smell of clementines and endless treats. And where outside it always snowed at night. Where tomorrow was not weighed by the previous day’s words, where you couldn’t even see your toboggan tracks down “dead man’s hill” because the snow had wiped you off the map along with your voices; where you could start each day anew, breathing into the crisp padding of last night’s blizzard. So I guess it was winter’s cleansing quality that allowed me to believe this place immortal, that it would continue to reset itself day after day, or at least year after year.

Ah, the youthful mind.  I’ve since seen that winter is a lonely and isolating time. Many people are cloistered, sad, filthy. People die at Christmas. Even down on the expanse of farmland and little red brick hamlets that I thought was immune – there are, sometimes, green Christmases.

But winter still retains, for me, some magic. Up here in the north on snowshoes or skis, I leave behind the town and its yelping sled dogs – whose barks sometimes creak and crack like the snow beneath my feet – and after the sun has finished scraping along the frigid white lip of the mountain rimmed bay, finally resting out of purple sight somewhere in the great George River – I stand in the lightly falling snow. I feel my breath, watching the painted and momentary ghosts it expels into the night. I imagine there must be a world out there. All the sounds, all the words, the barking dogs and screaming ski-doo engines; the violence or the ecstasy that I will not hear because it has been consumed by the resting and almost immobile earth. All I can hear is the amnesia of snow that once again erases the trace of lives that dwell upon it so they may start again tomorrow.

Welcome to Kangiqsualujjuaq

It’s not called the Great White North for nothing. Photos can’t recreate what it feels like to look down from a hilltop in Kangiqsualujjuaq. A rugged, a hard, a rocky lichen-covered expanse enters your lungs and it doesn’t go anywhere, it goes on forever. It stays there like an ocean. It rolls lightly and disappears over horizons on all sides. At this time of year it’s speckled black and white, stones breathing their last before being smashed into the oblivion of white blizzards that will wail all winter. The last red berries (tiny juicy cranberries) and blueberries hibernate under the weight of the weather, ready to emerge in 8 months.

It’s mid October and there has been snow here for well over a week. That means what most people in the world would consider “winter” started at the beginning of October. They tell me Easter festivals are routinely postponed for blizzards, and that spring starts in June. That’s almost 8 months of winter! So it’s definitely white here.

And it sure feels north to me, but according to everyone here, it’s not even winter yet. Days seem a relatively normal length and in fact, given Kangiqsualujjuaq’s latitude, I won’t have to suffer the total winter darkness of a place like Pond Inlet, Nunavut. On the other hand what makes a place remote is its inaccessibility. So while I am a few degrees south of places like Yellowknife and even Whitehorse, those cities are accessible by daily Boeing jets.

Here, the largest aircraft to touch down is a 19 seat Twin Otter. Towns and villages up here get power from a diesel-powered generator – diesel shipped up on a container ship (called a sea lift) from “the South.” That boat also brings purchased vehicles and pre-fab houses for understandably exorbitant prices (it’s about $7,000 just to ship a Ford F-150 pickup truck, and one half of a pre-fab unit can go for $500,000 in Kuujjuaq).

I went out on the Honda (it seems all quads or ATVs are Hondas, so that’s what they’re called) with the Recreation Director this morning. Those vehicles are pretty handy and actually can go ANYWHERE! We went to what Jeff called the “old airport,” which was effectively a lake, meaning only float planes used to be able to land here. That’s how remote this place is. Admittedly though, I think getting in a small prop plane for any reason is a big deal. But up here that’s how people get around. According to the woman who hired me “it’s like taking the bus, that’s how normal it is; everyone does it all the time.” Those were her conciliatory words for me as I freaked out about having to get on a 9 seat King Air – a significantly smaller aircraft than I had expected.

I don’t want to say too much, because most of what I say is just me regurgitating something I heard once – which is neither reliable nor fair. What I can say though, is that I have one of the best views in town, looking out on the “very big bay,” (the literal meaning of Kangiqsualujjuaq in Inuktitut) the cluster of colourful prefab houses against a steep ridgeline, and the mountains that line the other side of the bay. It’s lump-in-your-throat beautiful.

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Bus ride in thin air

We, the endless flash of a funeral,

our necklace of barbed wire and broken glass

on an empty speckled night

one village born by headlights

dead with the dusty night,

And the marching bands wrapped in brass

sing to the southern cross one unblessed village after another,

one stifled orgasm after another

their voluptuous tones poured

into the swallowing ink of our exodus,

full of metal food stands, stacks of rocks a sloppy chimney,

between painted adobe and glistening tin,

this solitary rain.

We, who pass a colourful rash of fruits

an instant insufficient to bring the horns to life.

Everyone has brought their bodies to our shore,

except where it is bruised by the purple night

A different species

I´ll start with the rooster because that´s the easiest. You walk down the street past the gated doors; you see into peoples lives. You see them gathered around their one concrete floored room. Your eyes intrude on their sweating lives; you see a brown breast feeding a little bundle in the heat; you see kids in the street, running between the parked three-wheeled mototaxis resting in the shade. You see old shirtless men in  spectacles lounging in plastic lawn chairs under their awnings and calling at every woman who passes. You see stray dogs drinking from puddles in the muddy side streets while boys just old enough to read drive their family mototaxi through the falling dark. You see all this. And you even see the little sign for Casa de Begonia hidden under purple plastic – a place to hang your hammock. But you don´t see the rooster. It is behind some wooden fence where it will start its cock-a-doodle-doo, its errrrr-eeee-errrrr not at dawn, but at night. Here in this neighbourhood, the roosters begin around 10pm and go until the rest of the world´s roosters start to crow at sunrise.

Just as the quiet heat – something resembling calm, something that is not screaming children or the tinny pounding of cumbia or regaeton; not the constant chattering and sputtering roar of two-stroke engines – just when you think you can hear crickets and your own thoughts… errr-eee-errrrr!!!!!

A diary entry

Rio Maranon by boat

The jungle birds screech in the mayhem of green. As the boat nears the uncertain shore you can almost distinguish the individual screeches, each bird that will die and decompose somewhere on the aqueous river basin without you ever setting eyes on it.

At sunset the milky brown water of the Rio Maranon creeps in among the deep leaves and pale trunks of its shore. Small leaves start low at the edge and rise up into a towering canopy that touches the pink and yellow smudging sky. As the minutes pass and our lurching rusty barge moves further from the shore, the sky paints itself on the water’s surface. Above the canopy are the almost conical silhouettes of the old ones, the grandfather trees that stand sentinal to the never sleeping jungle.

we stopped in little villages on the way, when houses sat above the water, the streets were the river and where old leathery skinned men or young girls ply the waters in their long narrow boats, like arros through the river in the sky.

They bring boats heavy with bananas, plantains, coconuts, and tied up land turtles to our rusty gunwales to load. off go their fruits and on come cases of every colour of soft drink, crates of beer and chords of rope. Some families stand on the prow of their boats waiting to load. When the rains start they cover themselves with umbrellas.Those loading and unloading in flip flops slip them off and continue their work. engins sputter everywhere as everything becomes blurry with the warm rain.

The barge was filled with boxes and bags of oranges and house-size latices formed by 50kg sacks of rice and corn and beans. Other than some fruit and fish, Iquitos is supplied exclusively by boats and planes. This particular barge might make one to two trips per week, loaded down with cargo, from the hands of sweating men carrying 100kg at a time, all day back and forth. The trucks line up for days while the army of workers pick away at its cargo like ants. Only when all the trucks are empty does the boat sail. If there is enough rain to destabilize the muddy banks of the loading area, everything stops.

There are no mountains here. Just new and old greens, all the way from the milky river, with its pink dolphins to the billowing sky – its shades of black and navy and scorching white.