Monday, February 28, 2011

Big Dogs, Shotguns, and CBC

The first thing I unpacked was my portable radio. I searched up and down the dial and finally arrived at a voice I recognized, then settled in for morning tea and toast. But the familiar voice disappeared. It was replaced by static and then a high-pitched buzz. The cats' ears twitched. No problem. I moved the radio from the top of the fridge to the windowsill, then to the counter top. I extended the antenna to its full length. When that didn't work, I changed the batteries. I searched the airwaves—up and down and back again. The voice was gone. My tea was cold. It couldn't be possible, could it? No CBC? No Dispatches or Quirks and Quarks? No As It Happens?

I checked the CBC web site and confirmed the sad truth. "But you can listen to it online," a friend tried to console. But it's not the same. How could it possibly be the same for those of us without wireless or high-tech computer speakers? Radio was meant to be consumed with cups of Earl Grey whilst curled up on a wicker chair looking out at snow-covered hills. It was meant to filter through the room like sunlight, illuminating your mind here and there, filling you with the warmth of knowing you were part of something much larger than yourself. How could this be done while sitting at a desk on the second floor while staring at a screen?

But more importantly, how could a community survive without CBC? I know I was a latecomer to the world of The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I grew up listening to Toronto pop-rock stations, and when my brothers were around, the more hard-core Q107. I wasn't introduced to CBC until I was 20. It became the soundtrack of my six seasons as a treeplanter. We listened religiously in the early morning hours while driving in pick-up trucks to the cutblocks where we'd spend our days. We could avoid talking to one another that way. And later, when alone on an endless clearcut, our minds could linger on what we'd heard rather than on the thousands of times we bent and dug and planted, or the sound of an approaching plague of mosquitoes.

CBC became the soundtrack of anywhere too north, or too remote to receive any other signal—the kinds of places where the vegetarian option was a grilled-cheese sandwich and an iceberg lettuce salad. The kinds of places where people had big dogs and shotguns but listened to Writers and Company every Sunday afternoon. They were the places where you'd stoke the fire in the woodstove and then cozy up with a hand-knitted afghan and listen to Ideas. Sometimes you'd shed a tear. Sometimes you'd laugh. Other times, you'd dance, alone, across the plywood.

It was in one such place I heard that Obama had won. The new president said what I'd always hoped but never been able to voice: "And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world—our stories are singular, but out destiny is shared..." The small radio sat innocently in the corner, transforming a dark autumn night into something infused with promise.

Hope, company, laughter. A lesson in trapping antimatter atoms, or in how bilingualism can reduce the onset of Alzheimer’s. For twenty years, whether in a pick-up truck, cabin in the woods, or apartment block, CBC has followed. Whether in MontrĂ©al or Vancouver, cities where a new language or a new neighbourhood full of yoga wear could cause loneliness, I knew I could search the airwaves and find comfort. Whether returning from six months travelling in India, or two years working on a windswept Irish isle, I knew that with the adjustment of a tiny dial, something as reassuring and Canadian as a Timbit could soon fill the room.

But now every morning as I stir milk and sugar into my tea and look out at the snow-covered hills, I do so in silence. It's not a comfortable silence. It's the silence of the absence of a much older and wiser friend. Who wouldn't mourn such a loss? And I mourn for an entire community, searching the airwaves for something beyond our singular stories, for something of our shared destiny, only to find non-stop classic country.

On this last day of a cold February, I shall push down the antenna rod of my loyal portable radio and finally accept my new CBC-less existence. So, good-bye, Q and In the Field. C'est La Vie. It's time to open The Next Chapter.

Thank you for reading.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Uncommon Primula

"The year started with the commonest of the primulas."
--John Richmond, Gardener, U.K.

Last week, primulas were on sale for sixty-seven cents at The Country Grocer. Twice I passed them by until I could no longer resist. I chose creamy yellow blossoms, the same colour as the wild ones on the Aran Islands where they call them by a more poetic name: primroses.

The first time I noticed the primroses, I was walking across a field of limestone towards the cliffs. Everything, including my mood, was grey. Then I saw the primroses. I was 27 and freshly heart-broken. I'd been wondering if I'd have the nerve to jump off the cliffs and into the churning Atlantic. But the moment I saw the tiny yellow flowers growing in a field of stone something shifted. If they can do it, I thought, so can I.

And they're back again. This time, they're called primulas. This time, I must drive across a field of asphalt to a strip mall to see them. Befitting of all things North American, they come in every shade of one's desire. I bought potting soil. I found terra cotta pots lying abandoned in the garden and scrubbed them clean. Soon the primulas were on the steps of the front porch, ready to greet visitors, I told myself. But now I know they are there for me.

A few days ago, the weather shifted. I awoke to find the yellow blossoms heavy with snow. But they were still alive. I brought them inside and put them near the electric fire. Every day I tend to their blossoms, deadheading the old and watching the new get ready to bloom.

Sometimes I forget my 27 year-old self was wiser than I thought. And so I will say this: The year has started with the commonest of primulas. But there is nothing common about them. Once, they taught a young woman never to underestimate a field of stone. Limestone. Asphalt. A broken heart. Anything can grow between the cracks.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, February 4, 2011

In the Jaws of a Grapple Skidder

You may have noticed I don't talk about my husband very often. It's just that he's not around much. He's an Italian-jazz- musician-Buddhist. He visits between gigs on cruise ships and retreats at monasteries. Also, I've promised to stop writing about him. He doesn't understand how tempting all three of his titles (especially when combined) are for any writer to exploit. Thousands have read about him in The Globe and Mail and other national publications (beware of marrying a writer). In general, Giuseppe has been a good sport. Until now. But now I'm going to have to break my promise.

"I love Canada," Giuseppe said as we rounded the bend on Grants Lake Rd. At that same moment, I was thinking how it was time to move to Italy. "Look at this place," he said. And I did. I looked at the old barn and the horses out to pasture. I looked at the houses with their aluminum siding painted in unobtrusive colours. There were the tall cedars, pine, spruce. There was the glimmer of the lake. Mists rose from the surrounding hills. I could see why he was so enchanted. I could see why someone who'd spent the majority of their life in a cobble-stoned town an hour from Milan might love this place.

But then the mists rose high enough to reveal the clearcuts. "They're beautiful," said Giuseppe as I pointed out the bald patches of deforestation. He thought he was seeing a natural land formation. A large meadow, perhaps. Until I told him otherwise. "Clearcut?" he asked. My explanation was muffled by a half-ton truck roaring past. "They're just evil," I blurted. Suddenly I knew I was failing in my role as Giuseppe's (a recent landed immigrant or "permanent resident") knowledge portal to all things Canadian. I endeavoured to provide unbiased explanations of this new culture we found ourselves in. I'd already explained the terms redneck, logger, and dirt-biker today. Giuseppe had listened patiently. "Those aren't very nice things to call people," he'd concluded.

When I first arrived in our new home, alone, the hills had been snow covered. The air had smelled fresh. The forest had been quiet. It would take a week or so for the snow to melt, for the smell of the pulp mill to waft through the valley, for me to walk downtown and see the logging trucks drive by, piled high with freshly felled trees. The trucks looked as surreal as parade floats and I stopped to watch them pass, a little surprised no one else was doing the same.

I know a little bit about logging and clearcuts from my six seasons as a tree planter. I've stood in clearcuts you can see from outer space. I know that most of British Columbia has been logged at some point. The evidence is never far away. Even pristine Haida Gwaii bears scars. But it's been awhile since I've been on the front lines.

Now I'm on the front lines. Once the snow had fully melted, I realized that the centre of the roundabout leading to Grants Lake Rd. wasn't decorated with the fountain I'd envisioned. It was the jaws of a grapple skidder. Throughout the town, the trend to decorate with logging machinery continued. Logging was indeed alive and well in this town. Even celebrated as an art form. Was this simply the way of The West? How could I explain this to a newcomer to our land?

When I drove Giuseppe to Departure Bay ferry terminal the other morning at 5 am, the empty logging trucks were already heading towards town. Truck after truck. Their headlights blinded us on the dark, twisty road. I didn't have to explain where they were going. "They start early," Giuseppe said, his voice a little flatter than usual. Or maybe it was just the early hour.

It's difficult, though, to get angry about such things when everyone in this town is just so nice. I've mentioned my standing invitation for pie at the Seniors Centre. But there's also the librarian who gave me a tour of the facilities, who wanted to know everything about Haida Gwaii. There's the clerk at Island Savings Credit Union who said without a trace of falseness: "Welcome to the area. We're so happy to have you here." There's the counsellor at the Employment Centre who looked at my resume and told me I must be one of the smartest people in town. There's the people that say hello on the street and the cars that always stop to let you cross the road. Which one of these nice people is destroying the forest? Which redneck, logger, dirt-biker?

We all are, I've concluded.

An Italian immigrant looks up at the mist-covered hills: "I love Canada," he says. On days like these, I wish I could say the same.