Monday, August 30, 2010

Making Peace with Inter-Tidal Doughnuts

Yesterday I read an article in The Sun Magazine about "acoustic ecology." Who has ever heard of such a thing? I suspect it will become the next trend, alongside "elf-tear" dish soap and organic plastic (and off-the-grid authors). Anyway, Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist. He travels the world recording "soundscapes." He claims: "Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything." He claims that there are less than a dozen places in the United States where one can sit for twenty minutes without hearing noise from some human activity.

Immediately I thought of inviting Gordon Hempton off-the-grid to Haida Gwaii to listen to our silence. Before sending out the invite, however, I thought I'd do a little test. I went to the beach for my daily walk. Immediately, a jet flew overhead emitting a distant rumbling. Next, someone in the vicinity of Rapid Richie's Rustic Rentals Reasonable Rates (RRRRR!) started up a chainsaw. Okay, I thought, two flukes--now let the natural soundscape begin.

Just as I was beginning to enjoy the gentle lap of ocean, I heard the distant whine of a dirt bike. Then another. The grating noise grew louder and louder until they were upon me, waving merrily, as though they'd never heard of acoustic ecology, either. I tried not to wave back and to put my fingers in my ears (as Gordon Hempton suggests doing when confronted by such unbearable assaults), but finally I rose one hand at half-mast, hoping they'd get the hint. They didn't. A few inter-tidal ripping doughnuts later, and they were back, waving even more merrily. I pretended to look at shells even though I was committing a Haida Gwaii sin by not participating in even the faintest semblance of a wave.

No sooner had that roar died down than I spotted the dreaded All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV). It was coming from the direction of the setting sun and I made a run for the dunes before I started pelting the happy driver with rotting seaweed. I began to wonder if our Haida Gwaii acoustic ecology was endangered. I began to wonder if it was always this noisy and I just hadn't noticed until now.This explains everything, I thought: no wonder I'm having troubles writing. Now I can add noise pollution to my procrastination repertoire. I'll add it to my top-ten list that includes kindling splitting, filling the ducks' water containers, outhouse cleaning, petting my cat.

Fellow writers may understand this phenomenon of shaping reality to fit our need to procrastinate. Perhaps a beautiful sunset on the last Sunday of the last week of summer simply attracts humans, and I should just pick up my pen and write despite the state of the acoustic ecology. Perhaps I should write about the soundscape of this Monday night. For the past hour, I've heard nothing but the ebb of the tide, the call of a loon, the gentle fall of raindrops on leaves. Or, as Gordon Hempton would tell me, I've heard everything...

Thank you for reading.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Slime, Guts, and Blood Welcome

Yesterday I went to Old Masset's new laundromat. We've been without one for almost a year now. It closed down because the machines were costly to maintain. This probably happens when treeplanters, fishermen, and people who live off-the-grid load them to the brim with the kind of dirty things the makers of such machines weren't expecting. Moss, sand, fish guts, poopy cloth diapers, twigs. These are just a few of the things that had been causing the owner distress for years.

So I was shocked to meet the husband and wife team of the new laundromat (which, by the way, is one washing machine and one dryer in a private home) and hear them exclaim: "Slime, guts, blood--don't be shy--we've seen it all!" They told me how the nurses always forget dirty band-aids in their pockets--"So, don't worry--we check pockets!" They introduced me to their five cats and showed me the restaurant in their kitchen with hand-written menus and crocheted placemats. I wasn't sure I'd eat there, but they assured me, "We've just finished our training!"

I didn't know whether to be alarmed or enchanted by their enthusiasm for my dirty laundry. They assured me they would wash, dry and fold the mammoth pile for five dollars a load in four hours. "Could you pay us now?" the wife asked. "You know how it is around here." I kind of knew how it was around Old Masset--some of the neighbours' houses had smashed-in windows and vehicles rusting on their lawns. I knew some of them housed drug addicts and sad characters I'd heard stories about during my years working at the transition house a few kilometres away. But I'd learned to overlook all that in favour of looking into people's eyes. I looked into the laundrywoman's eyes and peeled off three fives.

When I returned at the specified time, they were waiting for me. They insisted on carrying my clean laundry to the car and from a distance I could see the perfectly folded dishtowels. "Are you sure I don't owe you more?" I asked. "No honey, not a penny." They were all smiles. Suddenly I felt ashamed for ever doubting them. I wanted to find more dirty laundry to entrust them with. I wanted to attend the loonie auction and ham dinner fundraiser next week they were hosting to fix their collapsing roof.

I drove away, heading back to off-the-grid to ponder this adventure, to realize I'd just fallen in love with this place all over again.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Making the World a Little Homier

Forget about book tours or reading engagements. Forget about "branding" yourself and promoting your work to the unseen masses. Just get a job at your local bakery and bring along a pile of books. Here you will meet a photographer from New York City, a cellist from Scotland, a local fisherman. And all of them will buy your book. While the coffee percolates, they will ask you what your book is about and you will tell them stories about hitchhiking to Mexico with the French Canadian you met while treeplanting, about your thatch cottage on a rocky isle in Ireland. You will talk until interrupted by the next in line asking about the daily soup, or "What kind of muffins are those?"

You will cream butter and sugar, and then you will listen. You'll hear about serving in Vietnam, about guarding a Buddhist monastery carved into stone, a spiral staircase descending into the centre of the Earth. "The monks would go down there for weeks to meditate," they'll tell you. The family from Washington State building a house down the road will tell you about travelling on business to India, Bangladesh, China--about countrysides filled with factories, and entire towns unable to breathe.

The dough will finish its first rising, and when you punch it down for its second, the blue-eyed man who works for the Ministry of Agriculture will peruse the books for sale and notice Susan Musgrave's name. "She just lives down the road," you'll say. "I love this cover," he'll say of a deer lying dead in the snow, of the title When the World is Not Our Home. So do I, you'll agree. And you'll look at one another then, understanding something. And he'll buy your book, too.

After this sale you'll realize you're doing what you've always wanted to do. For a few moments, you're entering the life of another. More importantly, they're allowing you to do so--they're even paying you for it. You'll stand there greasing loaf pans while they read about the little boy tortured in Guatemala, your friend dying of cancer, your heart breaking again and again. After a few minutes, they'll look at you differently. They'll thank you.

And you will want to thank them for much more than their $18.95. You'll want to thank them for making poetry--for what else could this exchange be called? This chance encounter transformed into a moment of shared humanity? You'll want to thank them for making you realize it's possible to feel a little more at home in this world. But they'll leave before you can tell them all this. They'll see you're busy, that there are people waiting in line.