Real, Imagined and Otherwise

For me there is very little as exhilirating as turning a wooded corner to find a body of water; a perfect eye reflecting the blue sky after a long walk.  There is just something about lakes.  They are to me not only the epitome of beauty and tranquility but also keepers of secrets and deep mysteries.  Gaze into their clear depths on a hot Summer day and you will see layers of story and history.

When we were children, my sister and I used to spend every Summer weekend at a lake.  It was a large body of gray green water just outside the city, skirted by bulrushes and weeping willows.  It was no where near as pristine or as picture perfect as the Canadian lakes I now fall into nor as remote or hard to get to.  Yet it was our lake.  Our idyllic getaway in what my sister and I liked to think of as ‘the country’.

We grew up swimming and windsurfing and one of our favourite activities was diving for treasure.   The bottom of that lake was strewn with rocks and submersed weeds so we had to ‘hide’ the treasure we hoped to find.  We used to throw marbles in and pretend they were nuggets of gold! As the years went by and my taste in reading material changed from fairy tales to real life mysteries, our expeditions became forensic dives; a fruitless quest for underwater clues.

This is probably why I find it impossible to sit by a lake without wondering if there is a car at the bottom of it or the skeletal remains of fur trapper or a woman spurned by her lover…macabre, I know.

What truly surprises me is how, despite having grown up in a haunted house, we did not believe in lake monsters.  We never hesitated, like our youngest son does, on the water’s edge.  (He is convinced he had an encounter with a snake-like monster in a lake not far from Radium Hot Springs).  Some people look at bodies of water and see danger.  Real, imagined and otherwise.

Photo:  Y McAdam

Photo: Y McAdam

I watched a program recently on Bigfoot ‘hunters’ and what stayed with me was not their unwavering belief in an elusive, ape-like creature but how in this day and age of spy satellites and infrared cameras there are still pockets of unexplored wilderness.

I like living with a few mysteries, don’t you?

Why You Can’t Always Trust Your Feelings

Few things are as creepy as walking in the forest after dark and if you’ve done so, you will undoubtedly have experienced the prickly feeling of being watched.   All manner of creatures can watch AND stalk you if they so wish, here in the Pacific Northwest.  Creatures like bears, wolves, the mythological Sasquatch and even humans with bad intentions can creep up on you but they yet to stop me from trekking through the forests.  However this week I find myself paralyzed by cougar warnings.  Paralyzed, because after one too many clues that cougars are using ‘my’ forest trails, I have not been walking as much as I want to.  There’s a cougar warning in effect for the entire region which is unusual because normally they prowl around in the higher elevations and not so close to, or in, the suburbs.  Although humans are far from their usual prey, we have been cautioned to stay away from the forest at dusk and if you’re a reader of this blog you will know how that saddens me.  I love my forest walks and am not afraid of bumping into a black bear but a cougar…well, they attack from behind, so that’s a whole other story.  A neighbour lost her cat to a cougar earlier this month, and another neighbour complained on national television that their resident raccoon family is ‘missing’.   Let’s hope they just packed their bags and moved to Toronto.

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The sudden onset of cougars, coupled with my fondness of watching ‘survival’ shows like the new one currently on the History channel called ‘Alone’, in which ten guys decide to survive alone, in a remote part of Vancouver Island with only wolves, bears and cougars as company, has done little to abate my anxiety and has me thinking a lot about feelings and how feelings can get in the way of a good time.  If you’re a wilderness camper you will know exactly what I am talking about. There you are lying on your bed of grass, or if you’re lucky in your sleeping bag, in the still dark night listening, because what you hope to do, what you’re trying to do, is to familiarize yourself with the night sounds; the wind moving through the trees, the small night creatures rustling through the leaves and the grass..when suddenly you hear something you ‘feel’ is off – or dead wrong.   You hear what you think is the snapping off and breaking of tree limbs, the screaming of a child, the hollow moans of forest-dwelling ghosts and you’re up and in a frenzy and you’re recording a last message to your loved ones on your mobile because at any moment, a grizzly is going to tear open your tent and sink his teeth into one of your flailing arms or a cougar is going to crash this party and take you by the neck…

And it all started with a feeling which bubbled into a thought generously drizzled with imagination that turned into a negative belief.

Have you had this happen to you?  Have you fled a campsite, a house or an area because of your ‘feelings’ and in hindsight realized you had behaved irrationally? 

I’m not saying ignore your gut feeling about someone or something (I like to think I’m highly intuitive) but don’t confuse feelings with facts.

If you wrestle with anxiety you will know this better than most because when you’re in the grip of a panic attack it feels like you’re going to die and your mind believes it, but it’s not real.  You’re not going to die. What you’re experiencing is a rush of adrenalin and a spike of oxytocin and cortisol and you need to turn that feeling of impending doom on it’s head.   For the science behind this and some helpful tips watch Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk here.

Characters That Stay With Us

I have an odd assortment of good friends.  Most of whom are made of flesh and bone but a few are less solid, having been penned to life.  These paper friends visit me in dreams.  Wang Lung, a great-grandfather (at last count he had eighteen grandchildren) still visits tea shops and is able to walk over to his beloved fields. I often find him standing at the top of an emerald hill staring down at the place where he will come to lie below his uncle and his father and not far from his devoted wife, O-lan.  Having worked hard to claim for himself property and success he is still a man humbled by nature. There is so much I want to know, I say, but I dare not ask him. I wonder if he feels bad about the way he treated O-lan? I wonder if he still yearns for Lotus who was far prettier than his wife and slender as bamboo?  Does he, I wonder, still bend down to scoop up earth with his hands.   Does he appreciate each day on the good earth  with his sons and Pear Blossom who remain faithful and attentive?

I know Huck Finn is adventuring in another world but he likes to tell me about his grand adventures in the Wild West after he and Jim parted ways.  He tells me he crossed paths with Pawnee raiders and rescued more than one damsel in distress.  I have Huck to thank for introducing me to the evils of slavery, robbers and conmen and to floating down the Mississippi river on a raft.  Huck Finn is the reason I crave adventure.  He also gave me the courage to plan my own escape when I was seven.   I didn’t follow through with my childish threat to run away but I had a satchel packed and ready just in case my mother threatened to tan my hide again for something my sister did.

I once threatened to ‘tar and feather’ a bully in primary school, thanks to Huck.  She stopped bullying me after that.

Reverend Stephen Kumalo and I still weep for his son Absalom who was found guilty of murder and condemned to die in apartheid-era South Africa.  I wonder if he and James Jarvis have undertaken any new projects? James, who after his own son’s death was forced to face the racial issues that divided his country.  James who tried to make amends. I wonder if the good reverend’s village Ndotsheni has prospered or if the men are still leaving to find work in the big cities?  I think I know the answer to this question but to hear Kumalo speak of these things in person would be a precious gift.

Which book’s character/s continue to live with you? 

Counting Stars

I walked home from work last night and because a clear sky at this time of the year is something of a rarity in Vancouver, I dawdled so I could enjoy the incredible view of burning stars and golden moon.  My slow walk brought home the fact that we are surrounded by awe and wonder.

Take for example Rosetta’s (European spacecraft) successful landing on a speeding comet yesterday.  This is an extraordinary achievement and yet another leap for mankind.

Why should this audacious achievement excite me or you?  Well for one that washing machine- sized explorer is about to help us re-write history and what we know of ourselves.

Images of Rosetta landing on 67P (couldn’t they name it after a nice Greek nymph? one of the many ravaged by the insatiable Zeus? I wonder) are a reminder that we are constantly redefining our limits.

The Night Sky also brought back a flood of memories.  On warm and warm(ish) evenings my sister and I would drag one of our mattresses out into the backyard where we would lie, sometimes in our pyjamas, sometimes in our bathing suits, to watch countless worlds spin and sparkle before our eyes.

Night time was particularly exciting because it was quiet – except for the crickets and cicadas (also known as Christmas beetles) – and the adults were in bed because as everyone knows adults are scared of the dark.  One of my most treasured possessions was an encyclopedia with a map of the Southern Skies.  I would pore over those pages with a torch and read out loud the names of constellations – Canis Major, Scorpius, Centaurus – and we would point to – well, anywhere in the sky – and link random stars and proudly tick off a constellation in my encyclopedia.

The encyclopedia told us stars are balls of gas but that didn’t stop us from imagining they were much more. Many we knew even then, were worlds.  Some undoubtedly inhabited by lizard men and robots.   We wondered if from our small backyard, we could spot the remnants of that great planet Krypton after the explosion.   Wouldn’t pieces of that great planet glow green in our night sky?

We tried counting stars.  But neither one of us could figure out how many zeros fit into a million back then.  Now that I’m older and a little more learned I happen to know words like quadrillion actually exist but I can’t bear to think of all those zeros!

It’s impossible to manipulate stars. You can’t make them explode by willing them to, like you can clouds.  A cloud is a temporary and fluffy thing with no fixed course or firm hold.  We used to lie there, rubbing the sides of our temples and will those stars to go ‘POOF!’ because we imagined we had that power.  The first time we saw a shooting star we ran into the house and hid for cover under the kitchen table.  It was our first experience with God.

And the first time we spotted a satellite tracing it’s slow arc across the sky we shook our mother awake and announced the imminent arrival of Martians.  My mother told us it was way past our bedtime and we had to drag the mattress back inside.

No one had told us we could wish upon a falling star in those early years.  We only found that out later.  Certainly wishing on stars was not a tradition in our family.

How many wishes were lost? Countless.

Interacting Galaxies

Nasa Image of Interacting Galaxies

 I try to make up for it now by watching the Perseids and Leonids (coming soon to a Night Theatre near you Nov 16) meteor showers

 

Do you enjoy the night sky?  

What is your favourite night time memory?

My Sister The Carjacker

My (maternal) grandparents were especially fond of the Great Outdoors and every Sunday my sister and I bustled into their car where we would play a game or two before being lulled to sleep by the car’s engine.  One of our favourite pastimes was waving at other drivers on the highway.  Most people waved back.  Others would smile shyly or nod in acknowledgement.

road and lake

Another favourite was counting cars (how many red ones? how many blue?).  On the longer trips we took to counting windmills and when we ran out of those we counted goats.  (This was in Africa.  There are goats. And sheep but mostly goats)

Eventually – after what felt like hoooours – we would arrive at a park or farm where my gran would take it upon herself to choose the ‘perfect’ picnic spot and we would, after unpacking a small-sized kitchen’s worth of tableware and food, settle down for the first of several meals.  If it was Summer my sister and I wasted no time in changing into our bathing suits and diving into the river/lake/farm dam.  If it was Autumn, we did the same.  It didn’t matter that more than one lake or dam had warnings posted all over the place warning would-be swimmers of bilharzia and other parasites.  My grandparents didn’t read a word of English so if it didn’t bother them it certainly didn’t bother us.

My grandparents had a knack for choosing picturesque places.   Even if we weren’t exactly welcome in some of those places. Once, we settled down to a meal of fried chicken beside a slow moving brown river only to be interrupted by the furious farmer on whose property we found ourselves. I have no idea how my grandfather convinced that farmer to let us spend the rest of our day there under the shadow of a willow tree but we got to stay.  I remember that was the first ever willow tree I climbed.  I tested her fine leafy hair for strength and durability when I swung out and into that lazy brown river.

One day stands out above all the rest.  After our third or fourth meal under a tall and fragrant Eucalyptus my grandparents and parents fell into a deep and sonorous sleep.   My parents were with us that particular day which makes this day not only memorable but also remarkable because they were separated for as long as I remember and rarely took us anywhere.  I believe they had agreed to this outing to try and reconcile but it was like forcing a lion to live with a buffalo.

A cloud burst above the lake forcing my sister to think up of some new activity that did not require wind or water.  I of course, knew exactly what to do.  A new book waited for me in the back seat of my father’s car.  I seem to think it was Wind In The Willows because I can still remember those beautiful illustrations of Rat and Mole and Toad and elusive Badger.  Ignoring my sister’s baying for attention I got into the car, closed the door behind me and in no time was lost in the pages of a book.

My sister is younger than me but as you will come to see she is the more dangerous assertive one.  She got into the driver’s seat and started ‘vooming’ and ‘vrooshing’ behind the steering wheel.  At some point I became aware of motion – the slow, forward rolling of wheels. The car was moving.

This was not my sister’s first attempt at carjacking.  In fact – and yes, I know you are going to find this hard to believe- my sister and I were rescued by a neighbour after my sister released the handbrake on my mother’s car and we went rolling down our street.  I think I was seven years old at the time which means my sister was five. Said kindly neighbour managed to throw himself through the passenger side window (my side) and pull up the brake before we rolled through the Stop sign and into traffic.

I think it was an Act of Grace that woke my father from his afternoon nap that day.  While my sister screeched with delight at the prospect of drowning, my father forced the driver’s door open and saved our lives.

The Bear On The Bridge – Short Story Part II

And here friends and followers is the conclusion… if you have not read Part I please click here.

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I finally caught up with old Baker scratching his back beside a creek.  It was quite something to watch him in broad daylight; so relaxed and at peace in his wilderness.  He was rubbing his back up against the rough bark of a tree; eyes closed, lips curled in satisfaction.  When finally he opened them, our eyes met and I thought I saw in them recognition.  Certainly it was not the first time Baker and I had locked eyes.  I had chased him from my orchards with gunfire and clamoring pans more than a dozen times over the years and always he would amble away with a casual sneer.  He saw me as the two legged apple keeper and I went from seeing him as a nuisance neighbour to a murderer.  I raised my .338 and aimed at that spot between his golden eyes.  He took that bullet with an amicable smile.

I thought of old Baker three months later when my wife and I bumped into Tom Yates having dinner at the only restaurant in town with the deceased’s Mrs Yates’ younger sister Alvira.  I thought of him again when we attended their wedding the following Fall and Alvira wore her older sister’s wedding dress ‘in tribute’  she had said to me but to my wife she had said something else altogether.  She had said her sister had been a ‘large woman’ and so the dress was wide enough to hide her baby bump.

Baker started visiting soon after the wedding.  I’d wake up to the sound of falling apples and munching and when I looked out my bedroom window and down into our small orchard he would be there reaching for those apples, the bullet hole clearly visible in the moonlight.

I started doubting myself.  I woke my wife up more than once and asked her to take a look when the munching roused me from my restless sleep in those predawn hours but the occasional bear she spotted she said, was nowhere near old Baker’s size.  Besides she didn’t believe in ghosts especially not in the ghosts of animals coming back to haunt their killers. She said she worried about me and that I should go see a head doctor. Instead I took to checking on Baker’s remains in the post office and was not comforted by the fact that he was still there.  After I had shot him, Tom had Baker mounted as a ‘man-killer’ and put on display at the post office.  Such a big bear the townspeople said would draw in crowds of visitors.  But very few crossed the bridge to come and stare at Baker.

Earlier this year Baker caught up with me on the bridge.  I had been standing there in the half-light of dusk with my hands in my pockets staring down at those two rivers running side by side, wanting to think of trout and pink salmon but instead thinking of Tom Yates and his second wife and their three sons when Baker made his presence known.  He was on all fours, panting and heaving on the town side of the bridge.  I think I laughed at him.  I remember bending down to pick up a small stone and throwing it at him.  I told him I was an old man now.  I told him to leave me alone.  But Baker just kept on staring at me with those golden eyes.  When I tired of waving my fist at him I got into my truck and drove through him and into the wide cedar that stood behind him.

The Bear On The Bridge – A Short Story Part I

A Halloween week treat friends and followers. I wanted to write a different kind of ghost story.  I suppose you are the Beta readers as I have not shown it to anyone else.  I hope you like it.

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I moved to this valley in my twenties to help build the bridge that spans the two rivers we  locals call ‘The Sisters’ but in truth they are nothing more than noisy rivals, eyeing each other, as they incise their way down to the coast.   Back then the belief was ‘build the bridge and the people will come’ but our young town failed to draw in the people despite the promise of potash and a possible mine.

Occasionally we are graced with the presence of scientists and the like who come to count grizzlies and steelhead trout.  We like to regale them with tales of close encounters with bears and man-eating cougars and moose as tall as houses; stories we tell our own children to keep them from wandering deep into the forest.    But mostly this beautiful valley is ours and the bridge is a quiet place.

When I am not home, on the farm with my wife (our only daughter has long since flown the coop and now lives with her accountant husband in Vancouver) I like to stop here on the bridge.

I like it here.  I like it far better than I ever liked living in the city where I grew up.  I like the smell of glaciers and tart berries.  I like the heady odour of rotting vegetation on the forest floors and the green smell of scraggly Douglas fir.  Nothing much ever happens in our town or in the surrounding farms but from time to time the local newspaper will remind us that tragedy strikes unexpectedly and that darkness has the potential to snuff out the light.  Darkness descended when Mrs Yates was taken while hanging out her laundry.  I was interviewed by not only by the local newspaper but later by a national newspaper for my side of the story.  This happened back in the eighties when her husband Tom and I were like bobcats.   Tom was adamant that old Baker had taken her.  Baker was what we like to call around these parts a ‘trouble bear’.  He got his name because of his fondness for eating pie crust from kitchens and fruit from our orchards.  When Tom asked for my help in tracking Baker down I had my doubts.  I couldn’t understand why Baker would take Mrs Yates.  It wasn’t, as they say in those crime stories my wife likes to read, his ‘modus operandi’.  Baker ate pies and apples throughout the valley.  He didn’t take nice ladies doing the laundry.

Sure enough I found tracks leading to and away from the Yates farmhouse but I wasn’t sure they were Baker’s and I told Tom Yates so. But Tom insisted. He said it was Baker because no other bear had Baker’s massive girth or thick auburn coat.  We lost the tracks at the point where The Sisters hold hands to form a formidable bond of gushing water before going their separate ways again two miles south and had to head back the way we came and then east towards the mountains.

There was blood, here and there, dark but tiny amounts spattered on the mushy ground, but not enough I imagined to indicate Baker was chewing on one of Mrs Yates’ limbs as he ambled along.   We finally stumbled upon Mrs Yates body about three days after her abduction lying beside a fallen spruce.  She was partially covered by moss and leaves.  It was like someone had tried to keep her warm and not necessarily hidden.   But it was that surprise- filled expression – those wide empty eyes – staring up at the forest canopy and the sunlight filtering through it that still haunts me.   Her throat had been slashed, possibly by a bear or a jagged knife but otherwise she was remarkably intact.  I wanted to comment on that, but Tom Yates was groaning beside her like a wounded animal so I pressed on and alone.