Late August

Something urgent in the air.
Where for weeks it’s been sweet
and easy, suddenly it’s exit,
pursued by an earnest arrow
of geese; Go this way
while the going’s good.
Honk off.

Most of us listen,
hitch south, our morel mushroom thumbs
pale fungus from the foliage
of warm clothes; Pick me, pick
me.

Of the ones who stay, half
hunker down; Let’s
hibernate or bust
open the bottle, baby. It doesn’t have
to be love, just let me
warm my cold soles on
your calves…

But the birches on the Midnight Dome
are burning their bridges,
dropping leaves like lovers.
Some of us
wall off the parts of our hearts
we can’t afford to heat, stack
firewood like ammunition, the
crack of the axe a warning shot;
Keep your cold soles
to yourself.

We don’t know what we want.
It’s urgent in the air, but
undirected; Do something
fast, or your face
might freeze that way. September
is a dislocated season ready
to snap into place, and there’s something
you should be doing
first, but
you’ve forgotten.

Burning Bridges

Time is a Leftist Lesbian Mother

clock

I am a leftist feminist poet and time is money – I am stingy with it. I am forever counting the small coins of my hours, scrounging, scrawling, scrimping, saving, short-changing my lover, my dog, myself. Sometimes a house is a home and sometimes it’s a to-do list a hundred pages long and if I’m lucky the margins are wide enough to scribble in.

My sister is a stay-at-home mother-of-three and she keeps time in button-bins and piles by the washing machine and she is a feminist too. She tears her extra minutes down the middle, stashes them in drawers beneath her desk and when she has enough she makes another quilt. Her oldest son likes painting his nails, and I am proud of her.

My cousin is a lesbian and absent-minded – her seconds are thin silk scarves she dresses in and drops, forgotten. She leaves time on buses and boats and planes, and once on the roof of her car as she drove away. She is beautiful and men on trains are always taking her time away – hey gorgeous, what’s happening, where you headed and she pulls her time from their fingers with a smile and spins away.

We are women, and time is what we make it, but it is our own. To waste, to lose, to use to make beautiful things. Or babies. Or mistakes. We do not owe it to you.

It is finite; it is precious; it is ours.

(Also see https://frigidshootingstars.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/on-freedom/)

On Freedom

Yes Man_800

Jim Carrey in ‘Yes Man’

 

“There’s a word you need to learn,” my mother said, “if you want to be serious about your writing.”  We were walking briskly down the wooden boardwalks of my hometown, despite the fact that it was over thirty degrees.  My mother always walks briskly when she’s solving other people’s problems (a thing she does often and well).

We were talking about my current state of frustration; I’ve known that I want to be a writer since I was five years old, but there have always been things to do first.  Highschool, work, travel, university.  At every stage I’ve told myself, “When this is finished, I’ll hole up somewhere and write.” When I started the final year of my degree at VIU I promised myself it was the last hoop.  When I’d jumped through it I was going to be a starving artist until I either starved or started to make money.   I’m young, I thought, unencumbered by debt, dependants, or romantic entanglements; how long is that likely to last?  I’d been waiting eighteen years to seriously write, and by god this was the year to do it.

Degree

This is a very important piece of paper!

Fast forward to that summer: my shiny new degree was wedged under the wobbly leg of my chair, I was working full-time at the library so that I wouldn’t starve over the winter, and – surprise, surprise – I wasn’t getting any writing done.  It’s not that I didn’t want to; just that I had family visiting, and friends, and people kept asking me for favours.  By the time I was alone with my computer it was 11:00 pm and I just lost myself in the internet for an hour and fell asleep.  It was making me miserable.  If I couldn’t do this now, I was telling my mother, if I can’t write when I’m all young and unencumbered, it’s probably never going to happen.

“There’s a word you need to learn,” she told me, “and that word is ‘no’.”

I was familiar with the word, obviously.  It had been part of my internal monologue for a while now “No, I cannot take on your problems, no I cannot hang out with you over the weekend before a submission deadline, no you cannot come to my house and make a mess and leave it for me to clean, no I cannot babysit, no you cannot call me tonight, no I can’t put this off until tomorrow.  No.” but when I opened my mouth to let it out, it morphed.

“Maybe,” I would hear myself say.  “I’m trying to get some writing done, but maybe.  If it’s really important.  If you can’t find anyone else.”

I have never been good at saying no.  I like to help; I hate to disappoint. Partly that’s just my nature (“you’ve always been a people-pleaser,” my mother says, annoyingly) but partly it’s a cultural thing.  “No” is rude.  It’s a show-stopper.

In Improv, saying “yes” is a rule. To keep a scene fluid you’ve got to go with whatever crazy, ridiculous thing the other person comes up with. Saying “no” is blocking.

Sometimes I think that being a woman is like being stuck in an improv scene. “No” is assertive.  It’s masculine.  It’s selfish.

Maybe it is those things, but it is also an absolute, non-negotiable part of being an artist.

no means no

…he doesn’t look as happy here, does he?

 

So I made a decision. A decision I’ve made before and forgotten, a decision I’ll probably have to keep making throughout my life.

I am learning to say, “no.”

No, I do not have the time.  No, I will not allow my passion to fall to the bottom of my list of priorities.  No, unless you are a member of my inner circle of loved ones, I will not take on your problems, and even if you are among my loved ones I will not always put your happiness above my work.

It’s been over a year since that conversation, and I struggle with the yes/no balance constantly. I lost a friend when I told him I didn’t have the time to edit poetry submissions for his start-up magazine. I hurt people’s feelings more than I’d like. But I’ve discovered that most of the people who really love me try their best not to sabotage this. They don’t treat my time like a commodity, my attention like a condiment that has to be extracted from its source by squeezing and pleading and pounding. I lost a friend but I wrote a play. And a half. And a dozen short stories, and enough poems to start a themed anthology. I’m starting a novel. Sometimes I say yes to editing other people’s work, and I do it because I want to, and that’s pretty wonderful.

We like to act like saying “yes” to everything is a form of freedom. We’re rejecting imagined constraints and allowing ourselves to embrace the possibilities of the moment. Allowing ourselves to improvise. Letting the scene take us where it wants to go.

But freedom isn’t always improv. Sometimes freedom is knowing when to block. Knowing when to say no.

 

 

Not a Tame Lion – guest post by Joanne Bell

Joanne standing by a three-person snowtrench – 2009

 

I’m writing this in a dark, one-room log cabin along the bank of one of the Peel Watershed Rivers.  I’m a grandmother, a cancer survivor and completely happy to be here. Much of my life has been spent wandering about these mountains. I breathe better when I’m here.

We’ve just walked for three days through the mountains: three humans, one Newfie-cross and one Newfie pup in a line pulling our sleds: white peaks, white passes, white frost on my eyelashes, frozen white drool from my dog Jed stiffening on my plastic pulque. My daughter, Mary, and her friend, Marlen, walked out of the mountains (with my dog) to meet me at the Dempster. They had already wandered for weeks without any trail, beset by warm rain and slush sticking to their snowshoes, barely able to slog along. They witnessed an exquisite world of hoar frost which briefly blossomed after the thaw and then vanished… a garden of frost flowers in this starkest of landscapes, mile after mile, as they trudged through the slush pulling their wet sleds. This beauty exists in their memories, a few photographs and perhaps the memories of other creatures who call this home.

The first night on the trail, we camp in a snow trench high above tree-line. We drink smoky tea and watch the white peaks brooding over the willow and dwarf birch. Fresh caribou trails have bisected our trail, but it’s hard to see much through ice-fringed eyelashes. Somewhere in the valley, breath from the herd is steaming into the moonlit night. Ptarmigan burst cackling from a patch of brush. By morning, the temperature has dropped. It’s sub forty below.

 

Buckbrush and blue sky – 2009

 

The next afternoon, I fall through overflow ice. Crawling over slabs of broken water-logged ice to the bank, ice instantly stiffens about my body. My hands are warm in boiled wool mittens.

After last month’s thaw, the ice consists of thin crusts covering empty air with water far, far beneath. Trying to keep the dogs’ paws dry for an innocuous creek crossing only a few strides wide, I misread the ice.  I’m not cold yet. Mary pats snow over my parka and I know I have to keep moving. There is wood in half a mile and we’ll have to camp there. “He’s not a tame lion,” Mary tells me, referring to one of the Narnia books. No, this is not a tame land, I think, trudging up the trail with my sled, before my core temperature drops, but perhaps it’s a sacred one. My eyelashes are frosted shut. I hold bare fingers over them until I can see again.

Mary and Marlen grew up in the Yukon bush and are competent and unflappable. I gather dead willows as I can’t stop moving. My clothes rustle with ice. I lay out my sleeping pads and bags and activate a body warmer which does not activate at all. It must be too cold. I dry my inner wool layer by the flames without undressing.

Marlen builds a drying rack, Mary chops frozen moose meat and I drape my outer clothes over the poles. My mind feels clear in this extreme cold. There is no room for panic. I get into my bags and listen to the two of them talk as they bake bannock and toast my parka and snow pants.

The moon is almost full, hanging low over a near-by peak. We are high in the pass still, and would have kept walking if I hadn’t been stupid.

“Stick out your hand,” says Mary. I do, and a slice of hot bannock appears. I draw my hand inside my bags and eat. There isn’t room to take off my socks, but there is certainly room to eat. I’ve never been handed food in my winter bags before. I’m grateful and feel like a fool. I kick my feet hard against each other.

My novels have been set in this land. So has my life, but that isn’t important. What is important is the land itself and its inhabitants.

Canada, in the global imagination, embodies the archetype of northern wilderness. Canada is its north and here in this watershed, the north is not yet bisected by usable roads and human settlements. Apart from outfitter’s camps and a few cabins built from materials found on the land itself, the habitations are non-human.

Flying squirrels live out their communal nocturnal lives in the tree-tops here. Nobody thinks much about flying squirrels. They’re not particularly charismatic, and according to the Mammals of the Yukon publications, it’s not really been established that they live this far north. But their tracks when they land, like angel wings in the snow, are unmistakable.

I, too, am lying in the snow. The snow is crusted with ice from this winter’s thaw and not as insulating as usual. I worry about the shrews and voles living between the snow crust and the ground in their tunnels. I worry about myself being bored all these long hours in my bags, but I’m certainly not getting up. In approximately fourteen hours I will emerge from these bags, drink coffee, pack my sled, harness Jed and head off down the valley.

My husband and I were in the Himalayas this winter in a Buddhist state in northern India with villages on the ridge tops and temples on the highest peaks. The people, men and women, old and young, walked up and down the mountain faces between villages. When they spoke of their land, their faces were easy and open and happy.

I find the courage to corkscrew my head from my nest of bags. I rest, watching the moon, the stars, a curtain of light, the peaks barely above our heads, the land that looks stark and empty, but is filled with the lives of wild creatures, each with their own habits and needs and histories. A single fox has walked down the center of our trail for miles ahead of us. Tomorrow, we will be in trees.

This land is, of course, not empty. It’s simply been allowed by humans to breathe. I, though, am having troubles breathing. My throat sears in the cold. I cough and burrow deep into my bags, waiting for morning.

In the moonlight, the landscape is bright as day.

 

DSC01336

Small women and large dogs relaxing after a disastrous few days. Photo credit: Marlen Brunner 2014

Blizzards and Bacon

DSC00866

A wretched morning. Photo credit: Cynthia Hunt

 

Journal Entry – February 6th, 2014

At the highway.  Cold.  Sore.  Gave up on cooking halfway through, the weather was so nasty, and so are eating half-rehydrated chili in our sleeping bags.  Hands were numb for first bit, so had to grip the spoon like a dagger.  Still kind of stiff/rubbery.  Sleep now.

 ………………………..

The wind is trying to get in.  It paces the perimeter of the trench all night, snuffles and scuffs up the snow like a small dog, then a large dog, then an angry god.

Marlen makes the kind of noise you make when you get up in the night and step on something soft and wet and unidentifiable.

“There’s a snowdrift on my face,” he says.

Every time he moves the tarp rustles above us and frost crystals tinkle down onto my sleeping bag.  From somewhere in the vicinity of my feet, my dog whines.
“There’s a blizzard on my face,” I retort. “Remind me again what we’re doing here.”

‘Here’ is the Dempster Highway.  We’ve spent the last month sleeping in snow trenches all over the Ogilvie Mountains.  Barring three disgustingly wet nights during an unseasonable thaw early on, it’s been gorgeous.

Winter camping, I think, is fast becoming my favourite way to spend the cold months.  I defy anyone to sleep in an open pass while the stars fill the sky in their multitudes and the northern lights pour over the peaks in great ropes of twisting green, and complain about the dark.  I defy anyone to trek through the snow-laden buckbrush, as the ptarmigan chuckle and mutter “go-back, go-back” in their gremlin voices or burst out of previously empty clumps of snow in a panic of wings, and call this place barren.  I have lived here my whole life, and I am still awed by my home.  At its best, it is like religion.  Like living inside a cathedral.

gilles and mary 2009 203

The wind in the mountains – 2009

Or possibly a freezer.

We’re here to pick up my mother, who’s been travelling overseas for part of the winter, and now wants to spend some time at one of our cabins.  She and I share a dog – a large loveable mutt named Jed – and as Marlen and I have been using him to haul gear, it seemed only fair that we deliver him to the highway to meet her.
The plan was to leave with her tomorrow morning, but by the look of the blizzard blowing over our beautiful trail, we’re going to have to go to town for a day or so and wait for better weather.

This, we conclude as we bury our faces in our bags to escape the snow (which is piling treacherously high on top of our tarp), is what we get for coming too close to civilization.

…………………….

Journal Entry – February 7th, 2014

In town.  It’s…surreal.  I honestly don’t feel like any of this is happening.  When we crawled out from under the snowy tarp in the morning the wind was worse and the valleys around us were washed out.  It was honestly the most inhospitable view I’ve ever seen. 

We weren’t sure my mother would be able to make it up the road, but we couldn’t face the thought of spending another night in that trench.  So we hauled ourselves up and pinned our things down and dug a deep hole in the hard snow on the slope by the road.  We settled in there and made tea out of the wind, tried to resign ourselves to spending another night there if we had to. 

My mother showed up around noon, with Marlen’s mother in tow, and this poor Czech fellow named Unkus, who spoke hardly any English and had somehow been roped into driving.  The weather was appalling at this point, so we decided to come here for the night.  We’re going to pack the sleds in the morning, and head out early.   

So we got in the truck, after explaining this at great length to the confused Unkus, and started off.  He had no real idea how to drive the Dempster under those conditions, and we were sliding all over the place.  Marlen and I sat in the backseat, feeling untouchable and warm.  Our mothers kept passing food back to us.  We shed our mittens and coats and munched on various things. It didn’t seem real, any of it.

And then there was a huge semi emerging from the blizzard ahead, and Unkus was pulling off to the side of the road, oblivious to the soft shoulders, and in the slow-motion of winter travel we were off the road. 

Again it didn’t seem real.  Marlen and I helped dig the truck out and then we waited for someone to come pull us out.  He and I sat in the cab and ate oranges and corn muffins full of peppercorn and bacon, honey-garlic chicken wings. 

Eventually we were rescued and made it back here.  My computer’s sitting right in front of me, but I don’t want to check my email.  If something bad has happened I don’t want to know.  I want this brief stop in town to carry on feeling like a dream.

We were packing till about 1:30 in the morning.  Marlen and I ate more oranges and a whole pack of hot dogs, and shared a guiness.  Sleep now.  It’s so warm and comfortable here, and everything is clean.  I miss the sky.  

DSC00863

Packing the sleds. Photo credit: Cynthia Hunt

Schrödinger’s Ptarmigan and How Not to Murder Your Best Mate

5371_114163052882_7548935_n

Schrodinger’s Ptarmigan, exposed.

 

Journal Entry Jan 29, 2014

People think of this landscape as barren but it’s not.  Harsh, yes.  Forbidding, yes.  But barren?  The whole land is alive; when we pass through it clumps of snow detach themselves and streak across the crust as snowshoe hares, or transform into the soft flurried panic of ptarmigan in flight.  As evening falls we hear the ptarmigan chuckling from the buckbrush, muttering in their goblin voices, “go-back, go-back”, but when we look for them we find only shadows. 

Because every odd white blob is equally likely to be either a creature or a piece of snow, I often think that until we touch them, they are both. 

Marlen misses the wooded valleys of his family’s trapline, and we were both relieved when we turned a corner and could see the first trees down and ahead, but…mountain passes will always be sacred places to me, I think. 

IMG_1149

Coming down from the pass to the first of the trees.

That said, this day has been anything but easy

.………………..

Have you heard the old joke about the trapper who had to shoot his bush partner?

We made it to Wrong Turn Creek on the night of the 29th, much later than we expected.  We’d both been thinking of arriving as the end of the day, but of course we still had to make camp.  By the time we had the trees cut and limbed for the walltent frame it was dark.  By the time we actually got to bed the moon was high, high over us and we were too tired to care that the spruce boughs we’d put down were unevenly spaced, and that the tiny box stove smoked appallingly.

IMG_1136

Morning in the spruce tree forest.

IMG_1135

Our cozy home away from home

We spent the 30th relaxing (there was some gorgeous overflow ice on the creek and we went sliding) and making the walltent livable.  That night we heard wolves in the next valley.  I went outside and howled back and forth with them, as Cleo pressed herself nervously against my leg.

On the 31st we crossed the pass again.

So anyway.  This joke.

This fellow comes to town, scruffy and thin and wild about the eyes, and very much alone.  His friends and family, they ask him how his winter went, and he shakes his head.

“Terrible, terrible.”

“What happened?”
“Oh,” he says (and you have to say this bit in an earnest and mournful voice, for the joke to work) “I had to shoot Billy.  He went crazy.  Put the little frying pan on the big frying pan hook!”

I’m not going to shoot Marlen.  He’s my oldest, dearest friend.  I’m not going to shoot him.

We’re crouched behind a tiny clump of black spruce, high on the pass just east of my family’s first cabin.
It’s dark.  The moon is just a sliver in the sky, although you can see the suggestion of its full circle.  “The new moon holds the old moon in its arms,” someone used to say about that.  The stars are out, and the wind is hungry, catching at our loose ends like it wants to unravel us.

We’ve stopped for five minutes to drink the last of the lukewarm tea from our thermos, gnaw at the frozen hunk of dates that’s serving as today’s trail mix, and steel ourselves for the final push to the cabin.

And we’re fighting about grammar.
“It’s not important,” I’m saying.  “I mean, it’s just a double-negative.  I don’t really care.  But you are wrong.”

Marlen nods.  “Right,” he says.  “Right, right.  I see what you mean, generally, but isn’t this the exception?”

Clutched in my numb and mittened hands, the tea is getting cold.  The trail is not getting shorter.  The wind is not getting kinder.  I clutch my snowshoe, unsure whether I want to run Marlen through with the tail end of it, or start diagramming sentences in the snow.

“I had to shoot Billy,” I say.

Marlen grins.  “He couldn’t not keep his double-negatives straight!”

Probably I’m not going to shoot him.

 

IMG_1130

During a long day of breaking trail. Marlen, bless his soul (and his long legs) went first most of the time.

…………………….

Journal Entry – February 1, 2014

Back at the West Hart.  We came all the way from Wrong Turn yesterday, and it took us about nine hours.    

The sky was perfectly dark when we got to That Bloody Hill.  Going up it was impossible to tell how far we’d come, or how far we had to go. I could only (barely) see the ground in front of me, and some vague movement over my shoulder where Marlen was.  Since there was no end in sight I wasn’t as aware of time passing – the moment I was in felt infinite.  There was nothing in the world but the wind and the stars and the next step.  And the next.

And then we were up, and the wind was terrible.  Marlen put his headlamp on and we both sat on our sleds and aimed them into the darkness.  It was the eeriest thing.  All I could see was the thin light from his lamp, disappearing down into the valley ahead of me.  I was braking constantly with my feet, but the crust was so slick that I was out of control half the time.  Every so often a tree would loom up and swoop past, perilously close, or the hill would tip suddenly steeply downward.  There wasn’t any wind on that side of the Hill, so everything was quiet except our breathing and occasional shouts.  Sometimes the crust would vanish and we’d find ourselves floundering in deep snow, or pitched forward into clumps of willow.  It was scary, but it felt so out-of-my-hands that there was no point really worrying.

It was absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had on That Hill. 

And, obviously, we survived.  

This Way and That Way

IMG_1109

January 27th, 2014

Camped in the pass.

I love how stark it is here, whatever the season.  Nothing but trickle creeks and dwarf buckbrush and tiny black spruce clones clinging to the hillsides, all wind-crippled and crooked.  There was so much moisture when the temperature dropped after that thaw that hoar frost formed on every available surface.  Some of the formations are as big as toonies and so delicately filigreed they are like feathered wings, like thousands of tiny spun-glass moths about to take off. 

IMG_1100 IMG_1105

 

There’s an inane song my mother likes to sing when the mood strikes her.  Usually this is when the trail is particularly bad, or things are just generally going sideways.  She sings it jauntily, happily, and repetitively.

“Did you ever see a lassie,” it goes, “Go this way and that way, go this way and that way, go this way and that way?”

I’m sure there’s more to the song, but I’ve only ever heard those two lines, over and over and over again.

I tell her it’s ear poison.  I beg her to stop.  Once I threatened to sit down in the swamp and never move again if she kept it up.  To no avail.

“You just don’t get it,” she always says.  “It’s highly symbolic.  Other people work and buy houses and do sensible things.  I’ve spent my life traipsing through the mountains.  I just go this way and that way.  And this way and that way.”

There’s no arguing with my mother.

So these days the two lines sometimes play in my head (jauntily, inanely, repetitively) when she’s nowhere in sight.

“Did you ever see a lassie…”

The thing is, this leg of the trip is pretty ridiculous.  We’re en route to my family’s second cabin (which is another twenty-three miles from the first one, only with less of a trail) but we’re not actually going to get there.  We only plan to go halfway, set up the walltent we’ve been lugging this whole time, and then turn around and go back over the least pleasant portion of the trip – we’ve got to scale the shoulder of a mountain my family calls ‘That Bloody Hill’ – and eventually all the way back to the highway.

We’re meeting my mother there.  She wants to spend part of the winter at the first cabin, but she needs Jed – the loveable mutt we’ve been using to haul gear – in order to get there.

“This way and that way and this way and that way…”

The ridiculousness of it all brings home a truth I sometimes forget.  I’m not out here to get from one place to another (although I do spend a lot of time longing for the dry warmth of a cabin).  I’m really just here to be here.

I’m not sure what the point of this blog entry is, except that sometimes there isn’t a point, other than the beauty and wretchedness of the land.  And sometimes that’s enough?

IMG_1127

Jan 28, 2014

Stayed up talking late into the night.  Poor Marlen, though.  I gave him the hot water bottle to be kind, and he settled into his bag with a great many sighs of happiness and comfort, and then leapt up cursing.  The thing had burst everywhere.  It didn’t burn him but he was rather wet and unhappy.

In the morning the sun came up over the mountains and we sat with our breakfast in the snow trench and watched it.  I am so lucky. 

IMG_1116

The view from the trench