The Story Pool – Madonna Hamel
I woke this morning to heavy rainfall. Lying in bed, half asleep, it sounded like a round of applause, or a crackling fire or bacon frying. It brought to mind a canoe trip I took with a boyfriend and another couple. We had strapped two canoes to a float plane and were dropped in the middle of a pristine lake in the middle of the Carmanah Valley, surrounded by first growth trees and waterfalls. One night, from the pier, we started counting waterfalls. We counted nine just from the sound of them alone. The enormous wilderness was breathtaking but, for the other woman in the group, it was too much, overwhelming. I was surprised because she was far more fit than I, and was an accomplished deep sea diver. But this kind of natural setting was way out of her comfort zone. “I can close my eyes and imagine the sound of waterfalls is cars on the highway,” she said. “And then I feel calmer.” Though there are no waterfalls in the Grasslands, I’ve met visitors who have been equally unnerved by the great silence. But this morning the birds were making a racket, so I got up and made breakfast.
The birds have been getting up earlier and earlier, these days. At 4:27 a.m. yesterday I was nudged awake by a steady chunk-a-chunk sound, like the sound of a cash machine tabulating the end of the day’s takings. I lay there for an hour or so, trying to count the various calls and songs, noting how, as the light progressed, the mourning dove took up where the owl left off. Her pitch is doleful, slightly higher than the night bird’s mystery-laden woo, but they both belong to the rhythm section, leave the fancy trills and melodies to the ‘front men.’
Later in the afternoon the grackles hang out in the back yard. They sound like a rusty wheel on a clothesline. The blackbird, when not singing its “sweet music that eases the grief in my heart,” as the old folksong goes, also has ‘clothesline’ in its repertoire, only with a touch of laryngitis. Of course, all these similes are relative. If you’ve never cashed out at the end of a business day, the sound of a point of service machine would not jump to mind when bird identifying. And if you’ve never seen a clothesline, let alone used one, you wouldn’t make the connection. Our reference points reveal a lot about what holds meaning for us, what triggers our brain receptors, what makes sense or nonsense.
Living in Val Marie I’ve come to understand that many of my reference points are urban, having lived in some big cities over the past decades. And while nature is everywhere – there’s always a spider or a crow or dog or a raccoon in the vicinity – structures and machines dominate cities. Whereas, here: birds rule. In cities it’s hard to conceive of our own animal natures, often encumbering our natural animal grace with absurd, awkward and expensive clothing that may say more about the designer’s latest idea of man or woman than our own authentic selves. And the shoes! Don’t get me started on the shoes! If you can’t run for a bus – or your life, if you need an extra set for walking or dancing, if you only wear them while sitting (like Oprah while on camera) what does this say? The first thing that comes to mind is: leg hold trap. Then: who exactly am I wearing these for? Suffice it to say I have no need for stilettos in Val Marie.
Perhaps I seem a tad harsh on the subject of clothing. But, how we ‘present’ in the world is just another way we form connections, ascribe and advertise meaning, develop taste and create neural pathways that, in turn, turns taste to desire. Just as I am learning what I ingest into my body, I am also learning to be careful about what I take in with my eyes and ears. Some things are hard to purge and, once in the brain, are even harder to refrain from projecting onto the world. It’s why I don’t have a TV. I don’t need to see the great big world as a bunch of potential threats, nor do I need to perceive myself nor my fellow humans as victims, terrorists, stalkers, taste treats or toys.
I learned a long time ago that, if I am going to be a woman travelling solo in the world, I will have to be aware of my environment at all times but also aware that, despite the creepiness of some strangers, more strangers are kind. I am also aware that when we watch too many creepy depictions of creepy people we can become creeps ourselves, or, at least, begin to normalize creepy behaviour. While the Grasslands has its share of ‘creepy-crawly’ snakes, lizards, and spiders, they are not out to get us. In fact, any encounter with them is because of happenstance, not them laying in wait for us. And yet, like my friend and the waterfalls, so many of us have grown up more frightened by outdoor critters than the suspicious characters that get access to our rooms via TV and Internet.
My decision to tune out the noisy, distracted world came to full fruition when I moved to Val Marie. But working summers at an eco-museum/coffee shop/gallery/bookstore on the edge of a national park that is steadily getting more well-known for its dramatic, raw beauty and magnificent creatures, means I encounter a lot of people. What we talk about while I make their lattes and butter their bagels is the enormous altering of perspective that the Grasslands affords us. The silence, space and endless living sky, often punctuated by the silhouette of a lone bison atop a butte, or the sudden sweep of a big horned owl or golden eagle, renders our petty worries and compulsions pointless. The heat sucks the agitation out of us and leaves us spent and slow-moving.
Prairie Time isn’t just about the slow pace of rural living. In fact, you have to act fast on a good-weather day and make hay while the sun shines. (Or in my case, work double shifts while the tourists are in town.) It’s about re-ordering your priorities. Resetting your reference points. Considering what has meaning in our lives, and asking how deeply committed we are to maintaining meaningful connections. We sell a t-shirt at the eco-museum that says: “There is no wifi in Grasslands but I promise you’ll find a better connection.” It pretty much says it all, although we probably won’t be able to reprint the shirts once they sell, the pressure to have wifi everywhere is here, too.
Last night I talked to my sisters for hours. Literally ‘until the cows came home’ literally, they were slumping single file back to their home field. Then the birds started up again. Dawn and dusk are magic hours for birdsong, shape shifting hikes, where big stones can suddenly look like turtle’s backs and darting animals mix with shadows. Quebeckers have a colourful term for dusk: “entre chien et loup,”between the dog and the wolf. To live on the edge of a national park – spitting distance from the American border, between farm, ranch and village, among generations of locals and this month’s recent, seasonal ‘blow-in’s, where heaven meets earth – is to live on the hem of the world. To live in a limbo between a hyper-processed reality and a raw, wild, weathered reality where we can still slip through the ‘net’ and become good animals, alert and aware of the slow breaking news from the subtle world.
When I get out onto the land for a day, wandering and sniffing like an animal, I always sleep better. I feel inexplicably closer to my own bones, more aware of my body and my sources of well-being. I am learning to trust what my body feels and says, like the animals and birds around me. And oddly, I come to see others in a fresh light, appreciating their uniqueness, noting degrees of ease in terms of their own sensitivities to the world.
I recently was camping in the park next to a family where a boy of eleven was tossing twig after twig into a campfire and squealing with delight every time the wood flared and crackled.
“Cool! This is just like X-Box!” he yelled.
“You’ll have to forgive him,” his mother said to me. “He’s never seen a real campfire.”
For him the fire was a good reproduction of the ‘real’ thing on X-Box. Maybe the real service we can provide these kids is not ‘free wifi’ but ‘wifi-free’ parks with snakes and bison who rattle and snort warnings, and campfires that actually give off heat, and giant thunderclouds bearing lightning bolts and rain that hammers endlessly, all night, like heaven applauding you to sleep.
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at firstname.lastname@example.org