“You old fool!” These tirades begin the same way every time-a bright smile, a slap on the back; but a tremulous shadow taunts uneasily at the strings of the blithely chiding face; and the words convey more than just a greeting.
“Life, my friend, is no oversized chess game where you can see the end from the beginning, or design strategies, or even take advantage of long, well-contemplated moves. Life, you shall see, (another slap on the back and, for him, a breath grabbing pause); life is the Amazon River in flood, and we are only confused ants caught on a dislodged tree drifting inexorable to the sea. Just because the rest of us keep burrowing in the wood and building nests, quarreling with the colony at the other end of the log; in general, living fairly normal lives-you think we don’t know what’s happening. ‘Help! Help!’ you keep shouting and talking about swimming lessons and pointing across to the banks we can’t even see anymore.
(Another long breath and a forceful hand on my shoulder) You think we’ve forgotten, but we haven’t. No one forgets the dry earth homes, the territories our ancestors scouted and held for generations, the rich succulent jungle vegetation. There’s no one here that hasn’t guessed the fate waiting for us ants in the sea. But you, you old fool, (having seized on the handle he won’t let go) you think just because you know something you have to do something about it, so you keep jumping into the flood swollen river and swimming like hell against the current until you get exhausted and drift back with the current, and we pick you out.
Then, after you’re warm and dry you start talking about the shore and the way it’s supposed to be. Another wink and you’re back in swimming like you’ll make it this time. Why in the name of elementary good sense you choose to spend so much time fruitlessly swimming against the current is entirely beyond me.
What’s really so different on the bank anyway? Even if you somehow make it across all that water (which you most certainly never will) what waits on the far shore other than eating, sleeping, nest building, and dying? That’s all there is here; that’s all that waits on the far shore. What possible reason could one have for voluntarily shouldering the unending labours of a Sisyphus?
Once started, my disgruntled friend can stretch these tirades on for hours. For he has his own streams to swim, and what is addressed to me on one day is, indeed, little more than a small part of a long rancorous internal dialectic to which the old grouser’s answers are as feeble as my own. On another day he, too, will plunge into the stream and swim in confusion toward the distant shore.
Tonight, with all the messy sacks of papers strewn over the table and spilling onto the floor, many years since I have seen my friend or tried ineptly to turn aside his arguments, the old fool label drives deep like an arrow finding its way through the armor. Why I struggle constantly to swim against the stream I really don’t know. I know only of the strange, aberrant dreams that drifted for their own reasons across the dark horizons of my nights. In church the children sang of a loving god that blessed the little ones; by night I saw the face of a wrathful god who tortured the innocent children of unbelieving parents. At times, I cried to be free of the compelling dreams, to be left to drift with the current, to settle comfortably into a dreamless sleep rather than always see things so differently. Still the dreams came unhindered. The friendly voice on the radio spoke eagerly of a patriotic duty, but I dreamed of helpless pawns sacrificed to the greed of profit hungry corporations. I wondered aloud how many people would be called to die for an unprofitable foreign war and nearly lost my job, offending my fellow employees by such strange talk. I dreamed of a world moving to a different beat than the hammering spit-bang of our frenzied industrial world and went to live for three years beyond the end of the road, beyond the last power pole, where no telephone rang and where for whole winters no human step came to blemish the changing patterns of the drifting snow.
“Old fool” I certainly am, and if I lack any in age, I’m foolish enough anyway, but the idea that my foolishness is the consequence of some misadventurous decision to struggle against the current sticks heavily in the craw. Swimming against the stream, yes, but there never been any deciding to it-unless, like Sisyphus, after a long struggle I have learned to chose the going back down, the submitting, the being at home with my own nature.
This most recent controversy over the Mt. Faith wilderness I certainly didn’t choose. When first I set foot in the fecund meadows I came to relax, to enjoy, to be at peace-not to stake a battleground. When the pika shouted out its first shrill warning, what joy it was to soothe his fears. I didn’t come as a predator nor as a plunderer. I came to inhale the delicate scents of a myriad flowers-warm and sun ripened. I came to laugh with the brook that danced happily down aver the rocks. I came as an observer to see and know a world still unhurried by the ambitions of humanity. But standing on the top of Mt. Faith, looking down the long verdant drainages of Lynch Creek, I saw values clinging to the sloping hillsides which society held much higher than any pristine beauty, and I knew the hungry eye of the local sawmill must not be far away.
I knew they would come; the heavy machinery would gouge into the side of the hills, and crushed stone would be pressed into smooth roadbeds for the lumbering trucks. All day the crying, racing saws would tear at the long ages of silence. The trees would fall to the ground and be carried away. The blood of a less tumultuous age would drain from the veins of the wilderness. As I sat for the first time on the soft, heather covered, shoulders of Mt. Faith, already the mill was drawing the dark outlines of a mainhaul road along the contours of Lynch Creek. That very summer helicopters flew grid patterns over all the fanning drainages of Lynch Creek, but I knew only that they would come someday-not that road construction was scheduled to begin in the fall, or that in government offices the living forest was already reduced to the dead volumes of the cunnit.
Sitting on the soft heather in the middle of July, I turned my back on what was to come and looked across the spreading valley of the Arrow Lakes to the Y shaped field of ice which is Kokanee Glacier-a last vestigial reminder of the vast continental ice sheets that once covered and shaped the mountains and valleys of the Selkirks. Flowing out from these highest heath ridges, the glacier tilled alpine meadows begin a succession of flowers as soon as the snow melts in early summer. Already the ubiquitous white and yellow heads of the Western Anemone have turned into the furry mop heads that carpet the meadows. Among the anemone, the grasses and sedges grow up to mix with the paintbrushes, lupines, daisies, and, columbines in an ever changing array of colour. I feel an overwhelming magnanimity when looking on these whole hillsides of flowers unplanted and untended by human hand. Out of the flowers an occasional gaunt snag stands as an open armed perch of eagles, frozen into its silent vigil by the bewitching spell of one of the periodic fires. Along the ridge tops sparse clumps of broken shrub-like trees cling to a few cracks in the rock before all but the enduring lichens yield to the massive bluffs springing up at the sun.
Here, apart from the noisy world of greed below, a silence begins to grow that spreads through the wilderness. The ghost of vast continental sheets of ice have withdrawn to these high mountain valleys to wait for another age, and they have brought with them a long haunting silence. Perhaps the silence is merely the terror of knowing how delicately all life clings to the indifferent whims of the changing seasons in this foreboding land. But the silence is a different reality than just the absence of noise. From the top of the rock a pika lays out his grasses to dry for the long winter and calls excitedly to a neighbour. The melting snow roars as it cascades from the mountain. The whistler fills the valley with a waking summer song. But the awesome silence of the meadow is no more broken by the call of the whistler or song of the cascading snow than the reverend awe of a mighty cathedral is broken by the singing of hymns. Into this absorbing silence the words of humanity sink like a lost sailor into the bowels of the sea.
Long before even the earliest human or his words the mountain stood broad shouldered and conspired with the sun to nurture the teaming fields of life it raises as its own. And while it may now seem that human culture comes as an end point, as plunderer/destroyer, the mountain breathes a rhythm wholly out of sync with the harried moments of men. In an earlier age when the half naked ape hid in dark caves clutching his heavy, ominous stick, already uttering the guttural beginnings of an insatiable desire, the mountain lay beneath the long fields of ice waiting patiently for the days to grow long and warm, for the ice to retreat, for the flowers to return again to the meadows. In the chill summer breeze that blows over the ridge today there is still a remembrance of long ages that knew only ice. One day the ice will again grow restless on the mountain and crawl back down into the valley homes of the busy, grunting machines. Only the enduring silence will remain.
Over the long winter, the mountain and sun will renew an ancient pact; seeds lost and preserved in the ice will take root in the damp, fecund, finely tilled soil-the bright colours of spring will once again play over the land, but no machines will roam the valley or tear at the mountain. The ponderous words of humanity will be but a voiceless echo ebbing up from the deepening caverns of time.
Even on the stillest days a gentle breeze stirs along the precipitous ridges running out from Mt. Faith offering welcome respite from the ever present mosquito. Often I seek out the ridge, not just to escape the pesty mosquito, but to unburden myself of some of the cares I bring up from the valley. How easily such heavy concerns seem to waft off on the soaring breezes climbing up from the meadows below. After sitting on the ridge for a long while I feel deeply touched being so close to this creative well spring of life, I feel an intense restfulness I have never known in the valley below.
After the stunning but inevitable news that, indeed, the local mill had plans extending to the very edge of the Mt. Faith alpine, I returned again to these open ridges for solace. A question haunted at the back of my mind and begged for an answer I couldn’t give. “You old fool”‘ he had said, “why do you choose to swim so constantly against the stream?” Now the Amazon on which my friend’s tiny ants drifted seemed immeasurably wide.
Sitting on the ridge my mind wanders to an even more fundamental question: considering the kaleidoscoping patterns of existence over the boundless reaches of time, for what purpose would one choose to resist anything? I cast my thoughts on the wind, but only the disconsolate silence replies.
Beside me I notice a stunted alpine fir-broken, twisted, and dwarfed by its resistance to the wind and snow, it clings relentlessly to the open ridge. Casting my own problems aside for a moment, I wonder at the rash temerity of this stunted fir. Why should it struggle so hard to resist the wind, to put down roots in such barren soil, to cling to life with such a desperate will? Why remain here where its brothers have long since given their seed to the wind and left only a few dried and broken branches to tell they were ever here?
The summer breeze stirs among the branches and straining my ear, I believe I hear a low murmured reply. “The sun is warm in summer; the snow stores I-water for the drought; there is soil below the rock; the view is lovely; life, of-itself, carries a joy and meaning beyond your question.” The heat of the afternoon sun draws the breath of the transpiring needles into a ponderous, certain retort that says much but doesn’t answer the longing that pries at my soul; so I protest tauntingly. “The soil is deep in the meadow, the wind is gentle in the valley, your cousins grow to aver 100 feet, their trunks are straight and their branches whorl in beautiful symmetries. For what possible reason do you cling-to such an inhospitable ridge?
“My cousins do not know the full sun as I do; they see only the other trees; my vision extends to the bluffs; a forest of flowers stretches out from this ridge every year.”
Silence stretches between us again. The grass moves in the gentle breeze. A hawk soars overhead. The air fills with the tiny pollen-seeds of the next season. Over the silence, cascading water streams from the mountain playing a heralding paean song. The green fir needles transpire another long, deep breath.
“I didn’t choose to live here. Before me was the seed and the wind. The germ from which I grew was borne here by the wind. Below the rock there was enough soil, warmth, and moisture that my roots broke from the seed and I grew up to seek the sun. ‘Grow down into the earth, reach up to the sun’ was the seeds only imperative. The rest I have learned for myself. Tree roots run through the soil in search of richer even more secure nutrients. With my roots I cling to the rock. Tree trunks spring up at the sun. I bend from the wind and build stunted, twisted defenses against the winter. No, I didn’t choose to live here. I wasn’t offered a choice. I have but one choice. I can squeeze from these precious moments enough joy to defy the wind, the drought, the meager nutrients, or I can despair of the harsh winter and stinging winds, surrender my will and stand barren and ghost- like while life tries the ridge with some more willing-form.”
The sun burns down brightly overhead. My face grows flush and warm, but at my back there is a chill edge to the breeze. There is more to be said, but I guess that perhaps this final sentence is contained in the silence. I am absorbed by the growing silence. A whistler scurries below a rock. Small patches of last year’s snow warm and sink under the force of the summer sun. The grass whispers the moods of the changing wind. The stone stands immutable. The day moves on, but my thoughts are not on the movement of the day. Suddenly I shake my head and return from the silence. The western ridge is aglow with the last, golden embers of the day. I look once more, respectfully, to the stunted fir and turn from the mountain.
Back in the valley I needn’t ask why for a while. Within me there is an imperative to reach up at the sun to grow down into the earth. I have squeezed enough joy from the mountain. I will defy the wind, swim against the stream to keep my view of the horizons. I will look up an old friend!