Tuesday, September 27, 2011

the heart of the world

This is my father, and a rainbow trout, somewhere along Carson Creek, in September 1976, when he was 28, the age I am now.

My father passed away a month ago today. He was sick, yes, for years, but this happened suddenly, too swiftly, as unexpected as it could be in this situation.

And that was at the last of the summer, and it's fully autumn now, just like in that photo; the leaves are half-turned, shaking their gold flecks all over the hazy blue stretches of sky between the hills. We've had warm days, too warm for this time of year, everything ripening slowly, bringing a richness that nourishes me but aches more than I can ever remember.

Because it's an Indian summer, a grandmother summer -- but it should be a father's late summer, when he should be standing in a chilly creek somewhere in the northern foothills, rapt with lungfuls of warm juniper-scented air and the sun singeing the back of his neck.

There is a breeze that skims the surface of the flow, over the moss, the steady rush over the quiet rocks. A single shed moose antler tinged red by the tea-coloured water. There is the aspen shake, the flutter of the fishing line, and his unshaven face squinting into the long late light of the afternoon.

I am standing there, knee deep, a little ways off, with my camera, thinking about all the places he has led me, down cut-lines and fire roads, and what he has given me there, what I have inherited, what we have shared.

* * *

There's a strange little song called The Beginning of Memory by Laurie Anderson, in which she narrates a story from Aristophanes 'The Birds'. In the beginning of the earth, all sky and sea, there was no land for the birds to light on, so they simply circled:

...one of these birds was a lark and one day her father died.
[...] what should they do with the body?
there was no place to put the body because there was no earth.

and finally the lark had a solution.
she decided to bury her father in the back of her own head.
and this was the beginning of memory.

It is in this way, through the process of the making of memory, that he lives on; he lives in me, both physically and emotionally. Even in the midst of this surreal month, in this strange liminal space between his presence and his absence, I have felt him in the muscles of my thighs as I ran, I have felt him somewhere in my gut, a melded intuition, when making decisions.

I remember the end of September six years ago when he was first diagnosed with myeloma. The weekend before he started chemo, he wanted to go driving. And so we drove up to Whitecourt, but didn't go fishing; we passed through the town, and he showed me where he'd lived when he first taught there 35 years before. Showed me where he got lost in the bush, where he first explored the trails, rattled down the gravel roads in an old Challenger, blaring the radio when they played Spirit in the Sky. We drove down the forestry exploration roads, rolling with golden larch and aspen, under a sky gone cobalt with a lost late thunderstorm, stopping to photograph things: a bridge canopied by the flight of hundreds of swallows, the swarms of migrating butterflies hovering too low over the roads. We checked the water levels in the braiding streams, investigated the trapper's cabin ruins, stretched our legs.

We'd done this many times before, for years we'd be wandering around here with fishing rods and cameras, but it seemed especially important this time, deliberate even in our ramblings. Though we spoke little, he was telling me stories, telling them once more to himself as he remembered these places and times. This was a conscious remembering, a careful, attentive trampling of a long-worn path to keep it fresh, and to show me that trail's significance so I could re-member it and tread it myself, to understand the way he had experienced it throughout his life but also to illuminate the way we shared it together.

And all I can do now is take what I have dwelling there in the back of my head, all those paths and places and run though them, these memories, to re-member what's there, manifest it as I continue to do the things he loved so much, that he has passed on to me.

* * *

“As long as I live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”

- John Muir, in 'A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf'.