Posted tagged ‘family’

A Walk With Hank

October 12, 2018

I invited my friend Henry David Thoreau along for a walk the other day, a bit of a hike actually.  I wanted him to come home with me up north, to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia.  It’s a beautiful place, half-way between the two Princes of George and Rupert.

My two brothers and I, and our mother, lived there once upon a time, in a log cabin not far off the highway, surrounded by a forest and local farmers’ fields.

It was a sizable rural place with a couple of neighbours, where we boys took access to the wild for granted.

There were rolling grassed hills next to wheat fields, poplar, cottonwood and willow along the winding creek, and heavier coniferous forest on the upslope side of our property and down to the Bulkley River.

Henry David Thoreau likes to ramble

Hank likes to ramble through the woods for hours at a time so I invited him along to follow a stream down to its river.  Maybe chat with a neighbour kid going fishing down the creek, if we run across one.  See what else we find.

thoreau.jpg

We start at the Deep Creek Bridge on a gravelled sideroad and walk up our short driveway to the log cabin on a long terraced meadow.  Then we cut across the yard in between the cabin and the big workshed thrown up by a logging contractor one winter.  Then down the slope to the creek’s old floodway and the big dark cottonwoods.  One will have fallen over, bridging the creek.

It was always easier to get down to the river on the other side of the creek, and it was prettier over there too, so that was usually the way we went.

We made our way along the rough bark of the cottonwood and over the creek.  Hank finally managed to throw out a few words.  Whenever we get together, I keep waiting for him to say something, the wiser and more profound the better.  This is hard on him I’ve finally realized.  He looks at me now and again inconclusively, and keeps his mouth shut for long periods of time.  This is something that I feel a little dismayed about.  He could probably cite a few annoying things about me, so I never bring it up.

An early morning walk

At long last he says non-committally,

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

This was good.  Early morning it certainly was, with a golden light and the palest blue sky.  Perhaps the beauty of the day could unleash statements beyond the obvious.  Eventually.

“Hank, come with me over here.  That’s the big pool where I used to fish along the creek below the cabin.  We can just see the roofline from here.

“I believed there was an enormous fish, at least one and probably more, in this deep, deep pool.  I would dream about this fish, so huge and wise, surging from the depths, refusing to take my hook.  It always cheered me enormously.”

Hank took a look at the pool and at me.  He said:  “All good things are wild and free.”

This is why I like to tramp around with Hank.  Eventually, he just can’t help himself.  Get him to open up just a little and before too long he will say something profound in an offhand kind of way.

I hoped he was going to warm up a bit now.  (I’m sure he finds my expectations tiresome.)

I say, “We can follow the creek along here.  There are many great little places, you know, as the creek winds downstream.   Each one unique.  Not just the look of the place.  It’s more the light, the feel.  And changing every year with maybe a different log and a different ripple, and a subtly different bank to form the channel.”

Launch yourself on every wave

Hank said thoughtfully:  “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

I was about to say something snarky about relevance, Hank, really…. but then I thought it over.  Maybe he’s on point.  Everything changes.  The only constant is this moment.

“Does Waldo agree with you entirely on that — although I know you overlap a great deal?”  I ask this due to other infrequent conversations with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hank nodded.  “Mostly.  He likes to fancy it up with high-falutin’ language.”

We pushed away ferns and dead broken hollow-stemmed plants to get to a really special place nestled in a wide curve of creek that amazingly looked exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.

The log was just so, mossy and aslant, and the creek ran over it between the ferns.  The largest part glinted fluid white — a tiny waterfall — while the noisy creek rolled and splashed past us over and through gravel, rocks and boulders.  Drops sprayed on our walking boots where we stood in the shadows.  We both breathed in, deeply.

We went on. But then Hank stopped and turned:

“By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man.  My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.”

Ah, a bit confessional today.  He is a loner, as I have been, but he is much more so.  I feel sad for him although he would reject that.

Hank smiled ruefully and continued to stroll onward over the grassed path in the narrow benched area around the creek below the hills.

On the gentle hills nearby we could see metre-high mounds of anthills, although some were reduced to their grass bases.  Those had the twigs and dark debris of their structure scattered.

“The bears like them,” I said.  “Must be a feast.”

We walked silently side by side for a time.  The grassed floodplain narrowed and we passed through several copses of poplars, their silver leaves shimmering.

Living a sort of border life

We came into a clearing, the rushing creek noisy at our side.  Up ahead we can see Harold, one of the neighbour kids from long ago, with a fishing rod.  Before we got to Harold to say hello, Hank paused our stroll again and said:

“For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the cause-way to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features.”

I musingly repeated, “Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow….”  Hank nodded and made a wry expression.  Not only is he introspective today but serious and unfixed in his mind.

By this time young Harold looked behind and marched over to us proudly, holding up a very respectably sized Dolly Varden trout.  I mocked astonishment at its size, and Harold and I both laughed.

There were grave congratulations for Harold from Hank too, and the boy beamed at us.  “I want to have this for lunch,” he said shaking the fish by the stick through its gills.  We waved at him and he ran off back towards civilization, upstream.

I wonder whatever happened to him….

“It’s not far now,” I said.

“What’s that?” Hank asked cheerily.  He really doesn’t care where we walk as long as we go.

“Half a mile or so,” I said.  “Where Deep Creek finds the Bulkley River.”

In the old days, with relatives visiting or new friends we wanted to show off to, in the summers we would take them down to the mouth of Deep Creek just as we went now.  Our mother usually acted as the master of ceremonies.  Might take some snacks, but typically we just meandered our way down and back. We would return to the cabin with an appetite.

The path downstream Hank and I followed now became a little tricky as it worked through brush and over deadfalls.

Finally Hank and I could see the wide turbulent river, the dark forest on the other side and the easy loop of sandbars through embedded fallen trees where Deep Creek met its joining.

Drown all our muskrats

Hank said, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”

I wasn’t completely clear what he meant, being unfamiliar with metaphorical muskrats, but it sounded hopeful.

“My mother is here,” I told Hank.  He raised an eyebrow.

“After she died, we brought her ashes to this place, my brothers, our wives.  We said a few words choked with emotion at this spot.  Then one of my brothers took the slick white cardboard container of her remains and released the ashes to the river in a swirl of white and gray powder.”

“You said your good-byes,” Hank said.

“Yes.”

“At death our friends and relations either draw nearer to us and are found out, or depart further from us and are forgotten,” Hank observed.

We watched for awhile where the creek’s clear waters merged into the murkier, swifter river.

“Time to go back.”  Hank nodded.

“Thank you for this,” he said.  “It reminds me of the woods around Concord.”

He said one thing when we walked back to the cabin I remember well.  He commented we shared a common experience when we shook hands just before he departed:

“My imagination, my love and reverence and admiration, my sense of miraculous, is not so excited by any event as by the remembrance of my youth.”

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Notes:  This imagined walk with Henry David Thoreau follows upon something similar I did in a post a few years ago now about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chant the Beauty of the Good.  I finally got around to doing the same thing with Thoreau….

It took a different path than I anticipated.  Thoreau was a serious man and quite distinct in temperament from Emerson, although they shared many of the same views.  They were the Transcendentalists.

A good way to learn about Thoreau and Emerson is by quotations.  The best source I’ve found for Thoreau online was at Henry David Thoreau Quotations Search.  This is part of  the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods site.

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Canadian Summer III

April 18, 2018

We were older then

suddenly

The three boys

growing into men

although very young ones

Our mother

long widowed and

independent

Always ready for a

loud happy party

She loved to

hold court at the

fire pit

a  few yards from our cabin

on the hillside

over the creek

in a balding grove of poplars

The fire pit was half an old cast iron

boiler or other contraption

Go on – stick a log into the open end

into the fire’s hot coals

it saves making firewood

Sparks fly!

Summer twilight

Far enough north to be uncommonly late

our neighbours, friends and

townfolk who knew my mother

pick-ups and sedans in the yard

the noise of the creek

in the oncoming night

All gathered ’round the flames

bright yellow and orange

shimmering white deep down

We sat on logs or planks

Some standing

beer in hand

the firelight gleaming from our eyes and glasses

Chatting and teasing, disputing and agreeing

or not speaking, taking in the summer night

Waving away the firesmoke and mosquitos

Not quite knowing that

This is what endures

 

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Canadian Summer II

April 14, 2018

See

there’s the Old Wagon Road

that went up over our land and

ran off to who knows where

Grassed over

it was a road to nowhere

a remnant of another time

deep into the forest

of our imaginations

cowboys and indians

cops and robbers

no super heroes though

My brothers built

a little house

in the woods

out of poles

by the Old Wagon Road

an echo of

the log cabin in the clearing below us

The little house framed a collection

of cast-off plates spoons and pots

old rusting tools

and a broken down chair

From outside take a look

between

the little green poplar logs

all the wonderful clutter within

I don’t know what it was

But that pretend cabin

stood proud along

the old road

 

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Canadian Summer

April 10, 2018

Canadian Summer

as I lived it

my own particular Canadian summer

you’re there

say 1967

log cabin

central northern bc, canada, north america

the wheat fields next door

provide the burnished light

of summer

on Deep Creek Road

past where that bull was corralled

come on down and

across the Deep Creek bridge

and take the right into our driveway

Go past

that there official welcoming committee

three old black rubber tires

stacked to hold upright

a rag doll man

made out of driftwood

decorated with my brothers’ old

clothes

And roll up the slight rise as the gravel crunches

And stops

There’s that log cabin

That captured my father’s heart

thecabin

 

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Shanghai Before Christmas 2014

December 29, 2014

“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

I’ve become an old China hand, at least in some superficial ways.  I’ve been to Shanghai a number of times over the years, and less frequently to a few other parts of China.  I’ve seen the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors at Xian, the peculiar karst hills of Guilin, the giant Buddhas of the Longmen Grottoes, and stood with the fighting monks of the Shaolin Temple for a special photo.  But sadly I only am able to speak the most limited of Chinese, in stock phrases to smooth my way, and certainly not to converse at any length.

Mostly we go to Shanghai, because that is where my wife’s family lives.  Shanghai has changed a lot in the 20 years or so I’ve been going there on a semi-regular basis.  It’s now a city of high-rises, high-end shopping centres and high-volume car congestion.  Without the Chinese characters there are many places where if you were set down unexpectedly it could be almost any modern city in the world.

Fortunately for me, my in-laws were always cosmopolitan and well-travelled, especially my wife’s mother and father, unexpectedly so in Chinese of their generation.  This befitted their role as medical doctors in demand at international conferences and other gatherings.

In a way they became my second set of parents, after my own passed on many years ago.  They always welcomed me into their relatively humble apartment, where in any conversation one might hear Mandarin, Shanghainese, English and French.  As a Canadian, my high-school French actually became occasionally useful.  And my wife’s dad spoke passable English, which certainly helped.

The reason we went back for only just over a week this time was the final ceremony to lay to rest the ashes of my wife’s mother, who died earlier in 2014.  She was a social live-wire even as she turned 90 years old, but endings find us all.  It’s been very difficult for her husband of almost 70 years, especially since they were closely together all those years not only as partners in life but colleagues in their profession.

I remember her most fondly for her jolliness, her sincerity and her intelligence.  When they last visited us in Vancouver in Canada back when they were young folks in their late seventies and early eighties, they always seemed such accomplished travellers.  Mom always liked to be photographed in front of every tourist sight-seeing mecca.  Dad worried about plane tickets and travel arrangements.

There were the rituals of packing, going to the airport and final waves as they left us each time.  They weren’t able to visit us in the last decade or so — visas were refused due to their increasingly fragile health.  So we — my wife more often of course — went back to see them in Shanghai.

Her father now copes as best he can after his loss with the assistance of the extended family.  Although his health remains relatively good, he doesn’t smile much any more.

But he’s taken up occasionally singing and humming quietly to himself, whether to lift his spirits or as a way to commune with his wife, I don’t know.

As we packed up to return to Vancouver, as we rolled the luggage into the living room and I worriedly checked that I had my passport and our tickets, Dad looked up at me with a brief, clear smile.  There was acknowledgement of past moments together, of getting ready to go.  We are all just travellers here.

—————

Whenever I go away from home, I’m keen to take photographs.  I always hope that like Chesterton above, I will learn to see the places I know when I return with a little bit of that same exotic feeling and a refreshed eye.

Here are a few photos from our trip.  In Shanghai, there are many locals, such as taxi drivers we ran across, who resent Westerners always looking for the run-down parts of Shanghai to take photographs.  They feel insulted by foreigners who don’t have a proper and respectful attitude towards the modernity of present-day China.

But the older, and not always run-down, streets of Shanghai still embody what all the sterile modernity can never do, a sense of community.

More Shanghai photos will be seen on my photo blog, The Suspended Moment, as time goes by….

One short note about the photos: we came across a park where every day in mid-afternoon there would be community dancing.  The local gossip was that many affairs were initiated at these events….

Stepping Lively

Stepping Lively

Sidewalk Cobbler

Sidewalk Cobbler

Shanghai Santa Claus

Shanghai Santa Claus

Shanghai Alley Fancy Entrance

Shanghai Alley Fancy Entrance

New Mexico Pilgrimage

September 27, 2013

We’ve just returned from a trip to New Mexico.

As recounted elsewhere (Of Money, Marriage, Dogs and the Nahanni Valley), my parents first met while attending classes at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  This was not long after the Second World War, in 1947-48 or so.

My father probably arrived direct from Michigan, where our family on his side were mainly farmers, except in the case of my grandfather, who for a time was the owner of a furniture factory.  There’s still a hamlet in Michigan, Bristol Corners, named after those who lived and died there for a few generations.

Dad had returned home after savage fighting as a Marine in the Pacific against the Japanese.   Before the war, he had painted sensitive oils and hunted with a passion.  After the war, damaged in some ways, I think he returned seeking the most peaceful thing he knew, and tried to study art at the University of New Mexico.

My mother was there from her home in Illinois, the daughter of an executive who spent the war in Washington, D.C. as a “dollar a year” man, and of a housewife and church organist.  Political science was her major as befitted an opinionated and socially conscious young woman.

My parents met, and decided they wanted to raise a family rather than wait to complete any degrees.  They married and departed New Mexico, poor as winter, drifting first to San Francisco and then eventually to the Pacific Northwest.

But their photos from that time, and the few items of the southwest we had about us as I grew up — a colorful patterned cloth, a rough Navajo rug, the Hopi prints they gave my grandmother — always seemed to me to be of exotic and adventurous origin.

The few black and white photos especially, the stark shadows and brilliant light on adobe walls graced by noir characters in wide-brimmed hats, have always lurked in my memory.

So when casting about for a new place to have a vacation, the thought of New Mexico, and making it a kind of casual pilgrimage to where my parents once found themselves together, made sense to me.  Both my parents are long gone, my father in his forties and my mother in her early sixties.  The trip in part became a way to reconnect with who they were.

Flowers By the RoadI’ve briefly travelled in neighboring Arizona and did not much like it — too hot and desert desolate for me, at least where we crossed.  But New Mexico, as my wife and I started our journey in Albuquerque and eventually travelled to Santa Fe and Taos, seemed  to be an environment of more interest — nubby pines, occasional rock hills in subtle earthen hues with mountains in the distance, even some greenery and flowers from recent heavy rains and careful irrigation.  And the skies!  The big sparkling blue skies, often filled with the most amazing clouds.

We stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of Old Town in Albuquerque, and took a day to visit the University of New Mexico.   I wanted to see if the university could possibly have any record of my parents.

It’s a big, modern campus: young people scurrying to classes in bright sunshine with iPods and smartphones in hand.  We tried to find an administration building, and finally found an office where I was given a phone number and an email address for an assistant registrar.  In a campus Starbucks, I used my wife’s iPad to introduce myself, and hoped he could check the school’s records.  We didn’t hear anything back immediately, and we went on to explore Old Town for the rest of that day.

(If you ever get to Albuquerque’s Old Town and want a meal, be sure to go to the Church Street Cafe — the best southwestern food we found all trip.  Nothing too fancy or trendy, just tasty and reasonably priced.   Huevos rancheros!)

Eventually we ventured by rental car to Santa Fe for a couple of days, then on up to Taos and the pueblo there, and back to Santa Fe, and then Albuquerque for the flight home.   We enjoyed Santa Fe a lot — there’s a surfeit of art galleries everywhere and we even ventured to narrow Canyon Road and its end-to-end galleries. Santa Fe also has an opera house out of town in the desert.  One of our neighbours, an opera buff, recently attended there for a week of performances in August.   It’s not a huge structure but large enough, with open sides that let the audience take in the sunsets as they watch Madame Butterfly or whatever is being performed.  (I’m not an opera buff.)

And Santa Fe also has the Georgia O’Keefe museum.  Its paintings reflect her passion for the New Mexico landscape, which was a coming home for her to a place she had never seen before.

Taos too had its charms, primarily the pueblo which has had people living in it for roughly 1000 years.

Taos PuebloIn Santa Fe we heard by email from the university registrar.  Their electronic records only went back to 1950.  They would have to search hard copies by hand.  What were my parents’ birthdates?  1918 and 1927, I sent back, a little shocked since not really thinking about those dates for many years, how far back they are now surprised me.  I realized that had my father lived until today, he would be 95.

We’ve returned home now and not heard more from the university, although I hope some young assistant continues to burrow diligently through their dusty records.  But whatever they find, or if they don’t, is not so important.

When my father was in art school there, he seems to have been fascinated by Roman Catholic iconography.  He was not a religious man at all, he had no use for organized spirituality — although I remember he always emphasized that he was agnostic rather than an atheist.  But I recall, and my brothers may still have some samples, the stylized and detailed colored woodblock prints of St. Francis of Assisi and the small squared-off sculptures of St. Francis that he had done and kept for years where we lived.  This is interesting to me, given my father’s necessarily cruel and violent life during the war and his pre-war affinity for hunting juxtaposed against St. Francis’s storied love of man and animals.

I too consider organized religion pernicious, although I have Buddhist and Taoist sympathies, but I made it a point to stand next to the ornate doors of the small St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and have my photo taken by my wife.  I’m sure my father and mother must have been there at some time.

I like to think my father stood where I stood, and looked out into the New Mexico sunshine.

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Notes:

Photos from top down —

1) Along the road, driving to Santa Fe.

2) The pueblo at Taos.

I will be posting photos from the trip from time to time on my photography blog, The Suspended Moment.