a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I sit at a table in front of a picture window, gazing out to the glass-like expanse of water broken only by a crooked neon buoy that juts like a clownish sentry in the distance. I am torn between activity and reflection, wanting to run naked through the mossy undergrowth and into the water. Instead I sit in silence, awash in the memory of all the times I have done so before.
I am at the tail end of an epoch, studiously ignoring the For Sale sign that ominously graces the trunk of a large cedar on the shore. When my grandfather purchased the property more than three decades ago, it was meant to be an investment for his daughters. How it has shaped the lives of his grandchildren, myself in particular, he could not have foretold. I have had to swallow the lump of loss in my throat every time my thoughts linger on this transition – a de facto steward of an untamed land becoming landless, shorn of earth for the first time.
I recall the bloodstone pictographs high up on the cliffs of the Narrows, where all four arms of the lake meet, and my loss becomes paltry. The Secwepemec people who lived here long before the settler’s discovery would have honoured the flora and fauna, been immersed in the cycles of the watershed, lake water in their veins. Even unlikely species like the untouchable devil’s club with their thorned stalks that grow up to eight feet tall had dozens of medicinal uses. I would like to think that my lake is similar to theirs, that I have an untouchable reverence that beats in tandem with those long gone, but all I can truly speak of is the love that is my own.
Seymour Arm sits on the North East point of Shuswap Lake, a vaguely H shaped depression eighty-nine kilometers long holding over nineteen cubic kilometers of water. Amidst all its stunning features, the rare old growth forests of the interior with their centuries old pine and fir, the hidden hoodoos and lava columns, lumbering moose and jewel-like hummingbirds, the salmon run stands out as the epitome of nature at its most industrious, resplendent and pure. Millions of garnet-backed monsters race up the rivers to spawn in four year cycles, but they have been ravaged by habitat destruction and all the other ills of a species with a superiority complex. Where the river enters the lake they linger in the fall, too many of them sluggish and diseased from accidental trespass through salmon farms during their younger years in the ocean. I marvel and mourn, and try to refrain from turning this ode into a diatribe. Still, the thoughts creep in like mould, much like we have crept into all the peaks and crevices of the earth. I will avoid over-mention of the clear cuts patched across every single mountain, how the clouds weep upon their scars like a mother must weep into the shaved skull of her post-op child. Instead, I will think of Seymour Falls, the thick moss a sponge on my bare feet, saskatoon and huckleberries that glow in the sun-drenched, dewy morning, the white crash of water and ancient pines like sentries reaching into the sky.
The Secwepemec legend of Shuswap Falls goes something like this: Coyote lived alone and far away from his friends in a beautiful land. Tired of being alone, he decided to invite his friends over for great feast and merriment. He created rapids, and a giant fish trap to catch the salmon on their way up the river. His friends Grizzly, Wolf, Elk, Owl, and many others rejoiced at Coyote’s beautiful land and bounty. They celebrated for two weeks and left with grateful hearts. Every year when the fir buds begin to show they gather again, and some say you can still see the light of their campfires as sounds of rejoicing echo across the mountains. I can see them, gargantuan shadows lounging along the many valleys of the watershed, cumbrous heads resting gently on the Monashee Mountains.
I can’t recall my inaugural arrival, as I have been a citizen of this land from the womb. It is where the lion’s share of my lucid dreams occur. It has been mine, like no other, for my entire life.
Our cabin used to be boat access only. We would race up the blue expanse to greet our home in a quiet corner of the longest arm. There are photos of my squished baby face atop a faded orange life preserve, and I still find bumpy rides soothing – storms and dirt roads my lullaby. Later, we were able to drive to the bay. My father would walk away, deep into the woods, and my sister and I would begin our vigil, listening for the guttural purr of the tin boat returning to fetch us and our gear. Even later still, the muddy trail had planks thrown down so we could walk the last kilometer in. Young and stubby-legged as we were, my sister and I were not exempt from packing duties – often lugging our own packs and pulling a wagon full of food behind us.
Driving up myself this summer, I have not lost the sense of joy that comes when I turn the last corner to look upon our woodland home. The red-brown building with its pale blue tin roof stands against a sparkling backdrop of water and sky. Closer, there is an empty space where our treehouse used to stand, its blue shag carpet and purple walls only a memory. I see the faded outline of the tetherball court where we played incessant, vicious, lightning fast rounds, and the badminton court, where ghosts of our younger selves still run and dive, scraped and laughing on piles of dried pine needles.
I park and exit, stretching and inhaling deep lungfuls of oxygen-rich, forest air. We used to race around the cabin to burn off pre-dinner energy as the adults cheered us on from the front porch, but I remind myself more of my mother now, savouring the first moments of arrival, quietly strolling around the corner to dip toes in the lake, before even unlocking the door. Gazing across the lake, I see Silver Beach and the floating store, remembering Alf, the friendly but frightening owner with his toothless grin. The water used to lap up between the rotting planks as we picked penny candy, waiting for the boat to be filled with gas from the huge metal pump that jutted from the dock. The store has t-shirts, hot coffee, and wifi now, but the old store with its ancient charms is still there, a ghost in the gentle bay waves.
Memories are everywhere on the lake today. My athletic sister drops a ski with ease, while I relish the violence of the tube as my father and uncle take turns twisting the wheel of the speedboat, trying their best to flip it as I bounce maniacally back and forth across the wake. My cousins and I cover ourselves in sand and clay as warpaint, changing allegiances as fast as clods of lakeweed fly through the air. My mom and her sisters read and tan, while my father labours in the background. I try to hush the sense of nostalgia but it persists.
The cabin used to be powered by propane, and we got water from an old pump that brought water up from the lake. I can barely recall my father teaching me how to start it, but I remember being only twelve or so, yanking the starter cable and jamming a screwdriver into the correct spot – where sparks would fly as the pump took on a life of its own, shuddering and groaning as it heaved water up the bank to the house. Is this memory real? Did I do it myself or only watch? My father’s phantom is no help, he is too busy cutting wood, digging trenches for the pelton wheel, resurrecting a cast iron stove discovered deep in the mountains, sunk into the ground with the rest of a dilapidated farmstead. He ensconced it in a tiny building of cedar and pine, and painted the old door with an ornate handle bright blue – our sauna, which quickly became one of our most cherished features.
From it, we would run naked down the path to the water, carrying flashlights and shouting to watch out for Mr. Toad, the warty creature who joined us for evening fires night after night. The adults would pour watering cans onto the stove, us kids would hold our breath and hide our faces in towels, never wanting to be the first one out as the steam billowed thicker and thicker. When I try to return the favour to my friends it’s like torture for them – the lack of oxygen, the heat and blindness, but for me it is sacred, a rite of passage. The Secwepemec people used to build sweat lodges with fir boughs and earth. Conducting ceremonies for health and healing, prosperity and hunting, giving thanks to ancestors and using natural materials like sage, red willow and rosewater to cleanse themselves. I was once fortunate enough to sit in on a sweat lodge ceremony, and though I would never try to imitate or adopt the sanctity of that ritual, I do feel remnants of the divine as I sit, breathing slowly in the humid air.
I walk up the front stairs to the porch, immersed in hypermnesia, smiling at my chubby baby cousin as a much younger me washes him in a Rubbermaid bin, laughing at my Granny’s cackle as she wins yet another game of crib. I circle around the group of girls that came out for a bachelorette here one year, where we wore our finest dresses and posed like nymphs in the filtered sun. I hear the tinkle of silverware, the nurturing murmur of women in the kitchen, preparing the mass dinners during the two week summer stint with extended family, glasses of wine for the adult’s table that sparkled in the setting sun, and the kids with passion fruit juice from a dark green packet, slurped happily from straws attached to plastic cups. I watch as yet another younger me sings loudly with friends by the firelight, guitar notes meandering through the smoke until, our voices hoarse, dawn draws near.
My mother used to take us out to stargaze when the night was dark, and although I treasure the more boisterous memories, one of the ones I hold most dear are those quiet times, her calm voice pointing out the constellations as my sister and I snuggled under her arms. I wonder if she knows she was more powerful and beautiful than any goddess to me, though I barely recognized those thoughts at the time. I’m sure many children think of their parents like this, but in the way she hauled wood and strode through the forest, cooked dinner while dancing and singing, no one quite compares.
The lake and its surrounding shore have always held a quiet sanctity for me, as if I was closer to knowing some secret place, where animals speak and trees have names. The night my grandfather passed – we didn’t know it at the time but my mom woke at 1 am to the sound of a loon calling in the darkness. They had been scarce that year, but it called across the lake three times in succession, plaintive and mournful. We found out the next day that that was when he left this earth. A coincidence, surely, but isn’t it much more beautiful to believe otherwise? In this land, with its sand-loam soil and basalt lava cliffs, deer that bolt through birch stands and eagles that wheel through the air, it is not hard to diminish my significance, knowing that as I feel small I can better feel the pulse of existence around me.
Up here now, I find myself in tears at odd moments of the day, faced with the same views I have known from childhood. I run my fingers across the edges of kerosene lamps, my grandfather’s fishing tackle, my grandmother’s paintbrushes. The bellows and cowbell hang silent on the mantle, while croquinole and crib, paperback mysteries from the eighties and so many puzzles call out to be taken from the shelves, to be of use again. I debate tracking down the realtor, to blackmail or bribe him into some sort of nefarious deal to secure my continued patronage of this place, simply because of its sacredness to me. If I can feel this helpless and forlorn by what by all accounts will be a legitimate transaction, I cannot imagine the ravaging of souls that occurred when colonialists took away countless truly sacred spaces from indigenous tribes, decimated all of those who stood to protect their sanctuary, their homes. Utter devastation – to neatly sum up the destruction of one’s entire life experience such as this is inherently faulty. Language has no words for the dark underbelly of history that lurks in this vertiginous expanse. However, not all things are honoured by silence.
I have read the above paragraph many times, debated removing it altogether for it is heavy, a feeling in my gut like a stone dropped into water. Descended from white immigrants, I am a part of something I feel is a disease – just like the smallpox that spread like wildfire throughout the seven different regions of the Shuswap. Settlers with dreams of gold sailed in on steamships that chugged in eighteen knot winds along the lakeshore, took their bateaux boats and skiffs up all the surrounding rivers to trade deliberately infected blankets for animal pelts, afflicting the indigenous population. Many of the first settlers on Shuswap were the second-born of wealthy British families, and I find it easy to imagine their upper class idealism permeating the fabric of the growing Western populations, that and the fervour for religion as a cure given to the ‘untamed savages,’ resulting in the atrocity of residential schools and the disconnect of people from their culture and language. The Canadian Pacific Railway, a testament to industry (and slavery), took fourteen years to be built from Montreal to Shuswap Lake. When the last spike was ceremoniously hammered in in 1885, it would have been a nail on the coffin for many of the indigenous.
An appalling history rests in the Shuswap as it does in many other parts of the world, and to give it a voice is to pay homage to a story that is often overlooked or avoided. I admire the adventurous spirit of settlers, their bravery in venturing into wild lands, chopping massive trees into rough-hewn wagon wheels to carry their lives down rugged trails into nothing but uncertainty. I also respect the mores of indigenous bands, am in awe of their knowledge of healing plants, their sustainable fisheries and culture of trading food and supplies, so not a single person went without. There is a choice in sharing more than one side of a story, and in some cases it is essential.
It would not be fair to speak of the destruction to the wild salmon’s habitat without mentioning Scotty Mitchell, a settler and fishery owner who decried his workers for their wasteful and inconsiderate methods, and wrote detailed and loving passages about the salmon’s majesty and how they were cultivated and protected by indigenous bands. It would not be fair to speak of residential schools without speaking of Dr. Mary Thomas who rose above that experience to become a nationally renowned advocate who worked tirelessly to protect the habitat, forests, culture and children of the Secwepemec people, and made great strides in preserving thousands of different dialects, although there are less than 250 elders alive who can speak any of them fluently. It would be remiss not to mention Chief George Manuel, another residential school victim crippled by tuberculosis, who rose to prominence fighting for Aboriginal rights, even successfully lobbying the UN to support their protection in the Constitution.
This lake where I have truly lived my best life has inspired these stories and more. Seymour Arm itself, where I am now sitting in a kaleidoscope of history and memory, has its own colorful past. The fall fair on the giant wharf that began in 1915 was probably attended by Alf, the toothless store owner from my childhood. The industries of logging, fishing, mining, and trade that spurred the development of this region to new heights is also tempered greatly by its softer side: the artists and back-to-the-land idealists created thriving communities decades ago that have stood the test of time, evidenced by the robust community theaters, artisan shops, and seasonal festivals. Seymour Arm holds an English estate in its entirety, complete with Tudor-style gardens and priceless artifacts. It was built in 1910 by John Collins, a temperamental artist who escaped here with his pianist wife and two sons. They built the chimney first, and tarps surrounding it for the first winter to keep their beloved piano warm, while they huddled on the outer edges. He developed a unique style of watercolor painting by soaking the paper in water first, and took pride and solace in seeking out landscapes to portray. The tale of their tribulations is related in Jim Cooperman’s wonderful book about the region, and his words are overlaid by my own experience of attending annual summer tea parties there, with ladies in their finery and best pies, hearing the stories of how the two sons quickly incorporated local methodology in their building techniques in order to survive the harsh conditions. Instances of honouring the indigenous are also common here, as many of the navigational signs now include the ancestral Secwepemec terms for the area. There is even a school built in traditional pit-house style where elders come to teach endangered Shuswap dialects to children, and the proceeds from Cooperman’s book go towards educational programs for First Nations children as well.
It is too easy to avoid mentioning a history of privilege and violence in order to appeal to a wider audience. Funny and sentimental are easy wins, and can be full of profound meaning and truth. Once issues like race and colonialism surface, the responses tend to be passionate and heated, often a cue for an argument. This is understandable – systemic issues such as the ones mentioned above are clearly worthy of passion. But this level of emotion encourages silence and avoidance, leaving vast arenas of conversation untouched by something we should be finding ways to talk about more often. I love my cabin on its patch of forested land more than any other place on earth. But I am not honouring it properly if I don’t recognize the history that precedes it. I am not full of answers, simply talking about a place I love in the best way I can.
I have just returned from a walk in which I sought to free the birds of memory from the cage of my heart – to let them flap and glide amidst my forest cathedral, one thousand shades of green. But the day was overcast and muggy. I was attacked by hordes of whining mosquitoes, angry and early for the season. Since talk of selling the property began, violent windstorms had brought down trees in the backyard, narrowly missing the cabin. The same effect was wrought along the entire shore, it seemed. Destroyed windbreak areas, increasingly powerful wind patterns, the age of the forest – whatever the true cause may be, the result is an Escher print of fallen trees like dominoes. I walked up the crest of a hill, slapping furiously at voracious bloodsuckers, met by crumpled piles of downed pines, branches like lances thrust through tangles of finer limbs. I tried to climb over what were no longer trees but not yet succumbed to decay – pale splinters of innards as long as my body and root mounds the size of deluxe RVs. With my grandfather’s antique binoculars and oversized rubber boots, I was sweaty and bloody-palmed by the time I made it through. I looked around, farther towards the bay for that Godlike sense of nature I used to come here to cherish, but only saw wreckage, ruin. I tried to capture the caul of finality with a black and white smartphone pic, then trudged to the shoreline for relief, scattering a family of Canada geese. Although this borders on dangerously anthropomorphic, I was touched by the unerring sense that the forest had called out for me, focused my eyes on its own grief as if to say, “No, child. Nothing ever stays the same; your heart is not a cage. It is the sanctuary in which your best and sunniest days will lay their heads to rest, where your love will keep them warm.”
Mournful yet comforted, I returned again to the perspicuous nature of resilience in the ever-widening gyre of change. To the belief that sharing these stories honours not only myself but the many who have felt the sanctity of this land before. The sun is setting on the lake now, coruscating shards of light stretching across to the mountains on the far side. This reflection has been a treasure trove of love, happiness and sadness, but now it’s time for a swim.