Sunday, 22 February 2015

Deep Time, Thin Ice

Last week I went walking with a friend along the Grand River, which carries the lifeblood of our part of Southwestern Ontario. It was cold, so cold that my eyelashes froze. So did the carrots in my satchel that I'd been saving to eat later. The scarf over my face became a mask of ice as my very breath crystallized and clung to me.

Even the river, which usually remains open at the centre of the current, had closed over at one place where the water bends away from a steep slope of cedars. From a clifftop upstream we looked down on the vastness of snow, ice, and deep water, weeping into the north wind that drove us back before long into the shelter of the forest. Further on, we found a place to descend to the riverbank, where we watched a bald eagle rise out of the willows, cross over the icy water, and disappear into the cedars.

In a place like this, what you want to do is listen. The forest holds still, every waking creature listening with all its strength for sounds of food or of danger. Somewhere nearby, someone is starving. The trees seem to hold the whole weight of the world in their branches, snow like thought falling silently, not even a twig left unconsidered. Your own breath becomes the most important sound in the world.

Or maybe what you want to do is talk, to fend off the stillness with words and thoughts of your own, although you don't know where these came from that are now leaving your lips. Like snow they drifted in from some place outside you, from the north, perhaps, and like snow they will leave you silently, when the time is right. Now they eddy and whirl, words in the white forest sounding out faint and small, like the cries of geese: 'I am here, I am here, I am here.' After a while you fall silent again, drifting.

As far as I know, the Grand River has been here a long, long time. Longer than my people have lived in this land. Longer than it took us to come out of the great dark forests of northern Europe, to open the soil and slay the tree giants, to build the ships that would carry us here. Longer than it took for the Roman Empire before us to rise and fall in majesty and ruin. It is a deep, deep thing, this river.

Down by the bank we broke off chunks from the buckled slabs of ice that thrust upward where they met land. Throwing them, we broke through near the middle of the river, where the new ice was thin and wind-wrinkled. We wondered aloud how animals could survive this season of savagery, even as we gazed across to where a set of tiny footprints led down to the water's edge, over the ice where we could not hope to tread.

There are things I know, and there are things I do not know. I know that it is winter now and that spring will follow shortly, but I do not know exactly when. I know that all the powers in the world are now in a final sprint in their long race to the bottom of the age of oil, but I do not understand why. I know that over the last seven years a great many people and institutions have invested their financial hopes for the future in the promise of fracking and tar sands, enterprises which are now starving under the unbearably low price of crude. I know that it will not be long before the greatest empire the world has ever known, under which I have lived my entire life, makes a fateful move in eastern Ukraine, whether toward catastrophe or toward acceptance and retreat. But I do not know how many. I do not know how long.

One thing there is to know about winter is that it is a time of not knowing. You want to know what the future will hold, and the future says, 'Hold on.' You can't know which of your bird neighbours will live to see the sun return, or what the snowmelt will do to the river that now lies tamely under ice. You don't know whether your own small hopes will come true, or whether they were the right things to hope for in the first place. You don't, and you can't, but you know that you will soon know, and in a way this is more difficult than knowing nothing at all.

This is how you live, in winter. From day to day, silence to silence, listening and watching and resting, readying yourself for the time when you will know.

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