Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Atheism Through The Ages

My research through the past winter was rewarded with some very satisfying corroborations vis a vis some hunches I'd picked up reading Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.

For instance, what is the nature and exact timing of apparent 'long cycles' in human history? Are changing political forms deeply connected with these passages of time, or merely superficial? Most interesting to my mind, how does the spiritual landscape of a culture shift as it moves toward its fulfillment?

A report on my initial findings was published recently on a blog managed by friends. Because the editing style is so different from there to here, I've decided to post a link rather than copying and pasting the whole text here. As always, comments are welcome, and if you have any clues or leads to pass on, even better.

The full text of the article can be found at https://pastorsinexile.org/2017/05/03/atheism-through-the-ages/

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Spring Nights On Air

Coming home over the marshes with the taste of violet on my tongue, the sun glanced off the grey clouds, golden. Everything was fresh and strong after the thunderstorm, and the frogs and blackbirds loud, loud. Last week I ate violets too, but already the lilies-of-the-valley have overtaken them. Things move fast here in the forest, and if you don't keep up you can miss them.

I live in the downtown of a mid-sized Canadian city. The park near my house is part of a water treatment plant, and the marsh with all its glory of bird song is carefully managed by city staff, who cull the buckthorn and build nesting sites for the turtles. The highway is never out of earshot. Dogs run through the trees, and coyotes. The careful prints of deer are clear in the spring mud. This is where I live, and it is beautiful.

Twilight settles in as I sit down to write. The clouds turn gossamer pink, and the last true light glows on  wooden beams and vinyl siding. A turkey vulture soars up over the apartment building next door. From the window of my townhouse I have seen jays tracing each other's footsteps across the air, and heard flickers calling across the cold, clear nights of early spring.

There was an eagle over the water today, a big one. Crows were forcing it down out of the sky, and then up over the treetops, until it vanished somewhere beyond the hospital. It may have been a young golden eagle, going north. Down by the water I've watched grackles hassling crows, and crows hassling hawks, and once, an osprey touch the lake's surface with sure and deadly grace. The ducks are all tame here, but the geese are wild, wild as their great voices echoing ragged through the wood.

Am I at home in the world? I have come to wish it so. But no one is ever at home in springtime. There's always something better coming- you can feel it in the air. Best to linger, and then get home fast.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Midnight


The crowd shuddered and swayed. As the horn blast fell to echoes in the wintry air, four serpentine creatures floated through the gates of the City, hissing and flicking their long purple tails. Beneath them four massive figures made entirely of gleaming metal marched to the pulsing of huge hide drums, their silver faces expressionless. Each bore a jewelled spear whose tip was sheathed in gold where it pierced the woven purple tube undulating high above it in the wind.

Then came four men carrying a litter, and with it a statue of a reclining figure, bearded and draped in purple cloth. Larger than life, carved from black onyx shot through with veins of lightning, it towered over the heads of the crowd. Its stone eyes seemed to stare in all directions at once. For a long moment there was no sound, and then the drums rolled, the pipers burst into wild music, and the crowd erupted. The procession had begun.

Behind the litter came another piled high with caskets, gem-studded amphorae, and exotic weapons inlaid with gold. Then four great white bulls were led through the gates, snorting and tossing their horns, and after them came the prisoners. Yoked and chained, they entered through the high stone arch stumbling as the shock of the crowd’s scorn washed over them. Those that had eyes peered bloodshot into the throng, straining perhaps to distinguish faces and voices amid the torrent of colour and sound. Behind them marched a troop of horn players, the instruments twisting upward like bronze serpents ready to strike. Then more prisoners, white barbarians of the north, broken men bound on a litter with their backs against a bristling sheaf of axes, spears, and shields mounted on pikes. Finally the keepers of the peace marched in a body, each with an axe and a bundle of slender clubs leaning high over his shoulder.

Now a tremor ran through the crowd, and the drums reached a wilder pitch. Four war horses bridled with gold drew a golden chariot, flanked with more dragon banners and faceless men in gleaming armour. In the chariot rode two figures cloaked in purple and crowned with heavy bands of gold. Each held to the chariot with one arm, and with the other gripped his companion’s shoulder in an embrace that held both steady as the chariot jolted and swayed. Their faces were majestic and harsh, their expressions serene.

Tension rippled through the multitude, a yearning that surged toward release. “Lords!” cried a voice, and “Divine Lords!” another. The murmur deepened and grew as more voices rang out. “Seniors of the Four!” “Restorers of the world!” “Founders of eternal peace!” Some were swaying; others lifted their open hands and shouted out the words being tossed like flotsam on a human sea. The wild music swelled and swept through the streets of the City as the chariot rumbled past.

One old man standing at the edge of the crowd turned away. In his deep green eyes was the look of one who had seen more than enough of mirth and sadness and strange fortune. As he raised the hood of his cloak against the cold, a woman caught his eye. She was half his age, lean and sharp-eyed; not beautiful, but possessed of a hard self-assurance that commanded respect. Through the masses of men and women she was looking right at him.

They came together a little distance apart from the crowd, in the mouth of a narrow side street that twisted away from the main thoroughfare. “You couldn’t stay away, could you!” shouted the man, scarce to be heard above the roar. The woman said nothing, but took his arm as they started down the street. Between shops and houses the wall of the City loomed on their right. Gradually the noise died away behind them, and the old man spoke again.

“Did you see the Lord Commanders with their crowns? And the image, and the way the people moved at the summons? Everything so tremendous and strange. It has all changed… I am lost here.”

“You are cold, Father.” She stopped, loosened her shawl from her shoulders, and reached it around his. As she watched him smooth the fine saffron weave against the tattered grey of his cloak she did not smile, but in the steadiness of her gaze there was love and deep regard.

“Your work?” he asked, glancing up from the beautiful garment. She gave a barely perceptible nod as she took his arm again. They continued on their way, moving slowly now.

“This is good,” he said presently, warmed by the movement. “It’s like the old days, when your brother and I would wander the countryside together like beggars. We should celebrate! Let’s get ourselves some of that sweet wine they bring up from the harbour.” He snapped his gnarled fingers gleefully. “Have you tried it before? Delicious and strong.”

“When did you last see my brother?” she asked, giving no sign that she had heard his question.

“Ages past, it seems. He won’t come in from the fields any more. Have you come across him in your travels?”

Again her almost-nod. “He spends the nights with his shepherd friends, or alone under the stars.”

The old man smiled, a faraway look in his eyes. Then his face clouded over suddenly. “No one comes to the City any more. Even that Lord Commander in his chariot, the one they name first among the Four Lords. Twenty years he’s ruled over the whole world, and never once set foot in the Holy City until today. Where is the centre of things now? Do people remember the old ways at all? Do they still go up the mountain to the serpent’s cave?”

“They do.” Her stride was measured, even. “Never have the Four been gathered together in one place, nor will they ever, it is said. They struggle at the ends of the earth to keep its circle unbroken. In such times they do not look to a centre.”

“In such times they have all the more need of one. Fools.” They walked onward as the long light of evening began to lean across the rooftops of the City.

“It’s late,” said the woman after a while. “Let’s find a place to stay before the chill settles in. We could go up to one of the temples and sleep under the entranceway. There will be fires there.”

He waved his hand as if brushing away something unpleasant. “Not there. I feel so small crowded between the columns. Give me the wild groves, and the fields under starlight!”

“Indoors,” she said firmly. “Or somewhere sheltered, with fire to warm our bones.”

“Let’s ask for lodging and a good hearth fire, then. One of my countrymen will take us in.”

They stopped at the next house they came to and knocked. A slave answered, an older, balding man. “We seek the hospitality of your master,” said the aged one. “Is he at home?” The slave bowed and left, and presently a man of middle age came to the door, a minor official or manager of some small business, by the tired, practical look about him.

“Health to you, man of my soil,” said the traveller. “Is there a hearth and a meal in your household for my daughter and I?”

“We have none to spare,” said the master of the house. “There are so many of you coming in from the countryside these days- we cannot give to everyone who asks.”

The stranger was taken aback. “Not even to a woman and an old man, defenceless in the streets?”

“Do you know where the dole office is?” asked the other man patiently. “It’s past time for distribution, but they’ll be able to direct you to someplace warm and safe. One of the temples, maybe.”

“The dole office!” The old man was at a loss for words. He felt his daughter’s hand on his arm, gentle but firm.

“We’ll ask onward then,” she said to the man in the doorway. “A safe night to you and your family.”

“Health and strength to you both,” he responded. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything more.” The door shut quietly behind them as they turned away.

“Did you hear him?” sputtered the old man. “Flouting the most ancient of laws and all the gods! Have you ever seen such crassness, such impiety? Great thunders, if he knew who he has turned away...”

“Father,” said his companion softly. “How long has the harbour wine been working its spell on you?”

“Let’s forget this one,” said the man, ignoring her. “I am empty of curses tonight. We’ll ask onward, as you say.”

From house to house they went, knocking at doors and windows, and at each house the answer was the same: no room, no food. Night had fallen, a night without moon or stars. Each lighted doorway they passed seethed with the noise and heat of dark passions; each figure that passed them loomed huge and menacing in the shadows cast by torches. The sound of marching feet grew loud and near, and as the two shrank into an alley, the keepers of the peace rounded the corner. The long shadows of their clubs and axes glided across the blank faces of the buildings opposite.

“There burns…” whispered the old man, palm against his chest. She touched his shoulders, his pale forehead, his hand. He drew a sharp breath. “‘There burns a raging greed, which hastens to its own growth and increase without respect for human kind.’ Whose words are these, that come so easily to my lips? What sage foretold this hour of darkness?”

“The First of the Four Lords pronounced them in an edict not three years ago. You must have been half-sober to remember them so well.”

“And now I wish that I was drunk again,” he said bitterly. “Even he, the master of the whole world, cannot quell this evil. He has no command over the souls of men.”

“Surely this place will offer us some room,” said the woman, stopping. “The poor of the City will take in their own.”

It was a tall building, some four stories high, its boxy bulk cut by dozens of windows that flickered with dim and smoky light. Beside the door a torch leaned outward in a copper bracket, and the smear of black that reached up the wall behind it blurred into scrawled graffiti in the flickering glare.

Some minutes after they knocked, a young woman came to the door. Her long, dark hair hung unbound, flowing down her back. Her dress, too, was long and ungirdled, and stirred faintly in the cold air as she greeted them.

“Girl, where is your father?” said the old man sharply. “What will you bring upon your family, coming to the door like a whore? And dressed like that?”

“Do you have business with the master?” she asked placidly. “He won’t be back till morning.”

“We’re looking for a place to stay the night,” the female stranger cut in. “A hearth, a crust of bread, that’s all.”

“Both of you?” replied the girl doubtfully, looking slowly from one to the other. She was younger than she’d seemed at first, they now saw. The torch light gleamed in her black hair. “You’ll have to ask the master. We can’t let anyone in who isn’t here on business.”

“Business be damned,” growled the man. “Don’t you know your master has a sacred duty to travellers and wayfarers?” A chill breeze caught at the edges of her garment again. He noticed her feet, bare and white and perfectly formed. “What has your mother taught you about the ways of our people? Anything?”

She tossed her hair slightly; it might have been a shrug, or maybe it was just a shiver. “You could try the flesh-eaters,” she said, and giggled. “There’s a house of them down the street. They’re strange, but nice.”

Just then an infant ran up from somewhere inside the house and grabbed at her dress. Bending, she lifted the child onto her hip, where it stared wide-eyed at the ragged strangers.

“We’ll do that, thank you,” said the woman. She glanced at her companion, but he was silent, his eyes fixed on the girl with the long dark hair.

“Health and strength,” said the girl softly, and kissed the child as she drew the door shut.

“The flesh-eaters,” said the old man abruptly, turning away from the doorway. “It’s barbarians like them that are the cause of all this degeneration. They swarm into the City from all over, destroying the old ways, leaving no room for the rest of us.”

“Wherever the first ones came from, most of them now are our own people, Father,” said the woman. “And if these ones aren’t, they’ll know a thing or two about a wayfarer’s want.”

The house of the flesh-eaters was a simple place, run-down from want of better fortune, but not shabby. The young man who answered the door seemed civilized enough, and he led them immediately to an inner room where five or six others were eating by the light of a single candle: bread, olives, a bit of cheese, nothing barbaric or strange. “We always set a place for the master of the house, whether he comes to eat with us or not,” explained their host. “Tonight one of you may sit in his place and the other may take my own.” He spread his arm to indicate two empty stools at the long, low table.

“We couldn’t possibly…” began the old man, but the host held up his hand firmly. “It is the custom of this house,” he said. “You are welcome here.” The two sank gratefully into the empty seats and ate silently, while the people of the household conversed together in low voices, taking no more notice of the strangers.

When the meal was finished the young man returned with a small stub of a candle, which he lit from the one burning on the table. Then he led his guests into a low, slant-roofed room at the side of the house. “This used to be our stable,” he said as they entered. “I’m sorry there isn’t anywhere better, but there’s straw, and here by the door are clean blankets. We keep them ready in case anyone should need them.” They thanked him, and he left.

“Well, Father, what do you think of the flesh-eaters now?” They had arranged their simple bedding with the little candle between them, and were sitting with their backs against opposite walls of the narrow stable.

He frowned and thought a moment before answering. “They know who they are,” he said at last. “They have virtue in a land that has reduced everything to a value.” He gazed around them slowly. “Look at this room. Bare, penniless, but it doesn’t hold them back from giving what they are. Where are the animals, I wonder?”

“The First Lord issued an edict against these people only a few months past. Many of the leaders are being killed, and across the whole world there is not a judge that will defend them. It’s likely the animals were stolen. Didn’t you know?”

He blinked. “I did not. My, how I’ve dwindled.” He drew his blanket closer around him.

Just then there was a knock at the stable door. “Come in,” the woman called out, and a young man entered whom they had not seen before.

Young, but not youthful, they saw in the candle’s soft light. His dark hair and beard were thickly curled, and in his dark eyes there was both gentleness and sadness. In his hands he carried a bowl of something sweetly fragrant.

“I hope I’m not waking you,” he said quietly. “They told me you were here, and I wanted to greet you myself.”

“Greetings and well met,” said the old one, straightening up. “Is that wine you’ve brought with you?”

“It is,” replied the host gravely, and offered it to him with a smile. “My friends were amiss in their hospitality not to offer it sooner. I’m afraid it’s not as sweet as what you can get down by the harbour- just something I make myself here at home.”

“It’s wonderful,” said the old man, taking a long sip and then another. He offered the bowl to his daughter, who declined, before passing it back to the master of the house, seated now on the dirt floor beside his guests. The younger man took a long, deep drink before he spoke again.

“I hope you’re comfortable, both of you. My heart aches to see you wandering the streets of your own city like this. And your beautiful family, dispersed… Yes, the old law of your people allows me, once I’ve eaten and drunk with my guests, to ask your names and business. But now that I see you I don’t need to ask who you are. I recognized you the moment I came into the room. Among our kind we don’t need introductions, do we?” He passed the wine bowl back across the candle flame, and in the light they saw clearly the deep scar in his wrist.

“So you’re the carpenter’s son?” said the old man, raising an eyebrow as he lifted the bowl to his lips. He swallowed once and lowered the bowl. “I thought you’d be taller.”

At this the host laughed, a bright, clear sound in the dim stable. “You know, I was never much good at the work. I’m a fisherman at heart, always have been. And the journey that led me to these shores has been long. Long and difficult.” His gaze was steady, but as he spoke a shadow passed across his face.

Now the old one set the bowl down on the ground. His frailness had vanished, and in the set of his shoulders there was strength, august and fierce. The stable seemed to shrink around him and his own frame to grow, until in the flickering shadows he loomed like a colossus.

“The way grows steeper as it climbs. Do you not know? Though you recognize us, foolhardy is he that thinks to know us.” The voice that spoke from his mouth was deep and terrible as rolling thunder.

“For we are older and stronger than the seven hills, watchers of the wheeling stars, guardians of the pits of night, wherein lie sleepless the ancient powers of the earth. Beware!” Lightning flashed in the close darkness of the stable. His eyes were blazing globes of light in his storm-dark face. “What comfort for you when the wheel has turned again? When the cities founded in your name teem with the wretched, and your image is borne skyward by tyrants and kings? Who will recognize you then, wandering the streets so worn and weary you hardly know yourself? Try not the patience of those who go before you on the road, for there is strength in us yet.”

“Strength and health,” said the host quietly, forcefully. In the dark wind sweeping outward from the aged one, his whole body shone with a steady white light. “I know what wisdom and life have coursed in the veins of your people. I have felt it too. And I have come to bring them what you could not- the peace and unity they long for.”

“There is no peace in unity!” boomed the voice of thunder. The candle flame lay flat. “Ours was the way of harmony. In our time gods and men flourished, with room for all who did not threaten the whole. But your father’s jealousy knows no bounds, nor his people, who deny the guardians, who would cast us if they could into the pit. What will they do when they learn who they are sheltering tonight? They will throw us into the street again, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Suddenly the room changed. It was a simple stable once more, its bare walls lit by the guttering flame of a single candle. Three people huddled around its feeble light: an old man, a young man, and a woman, who smiled as she flicked her finger through the candle flame a second time.

The host drew a deep breath. “As long as I am master of this house, no one who knocks will be turned away,” he said softly.

The old man nodded once. “It is well said.” His shoulders loosened, and he turned to his daughter with a smile. “We’ve walked a long way today, and the bowl is empty. Shall we sleep?”

“I think I’ll watch a while longer, Father. But rest if you must.”

“Well, midnight is your hour, my child. And my bones have never felt straw so soft. If I don’t see you in the morning, my friend, health and strength to you.”

The host bowed his head. “And also to you. But I think we’ll meet again.”

Together they waited while the old one’s breathing deepened and smoothed into sleep. After a while the woman spoke again.

“Is it true you were born in a place like this?”

“Yes.” He reached his hand up one of the rough beams, smiling softly. “Is it true you burst out of his skull fully formed?”

“Yes.” The candlelight sparkled in her deep eyes.

“I always loved that story. Will you tell it to me?”

“I’ll tell you a better one,” she said, shifting her weight so as to draw nearer to the candle’s glow. From an inner fold of her garment she drew out a spool of golden thread, bit off a length, and wove it deftly between her fingers. As she pulled and teased the gleaming web, fantastic shapes appeared between her palms, shifting and transforming almost as fast as the eye could make them out. When she spoke, her voice seemed to come from far away, somewhere ancient and deep beyond thought.

“The harrowing of your people will last eight years. As the last of the Four lies dying he will call an end to the persecution, in the knowledge that it could not break their resolve. In the ninth year, a soldier on the eve of battle will be told in a dream to paint your sign on the shields of his men, and when he is Lord Commander he will return to your people all that was taken from them. Then their leaders will be given the power of judges, and the dole offices and flophouses will be given over into their charge. After that there will be no more need for little stables like this one, or a seat kept ready at the table, with a candle and a bit of bread. Your people will begin the long road to a place for which they have as yet no name, a place whose horrors are all around us now. You have ten years.”

She leaned away from the candle’s light and wound the thread back around its spool. She looked steadily at her host. “You know it as well as I do. Why are you doing this?”

In his dark eyes there was sorrow and, she thought, a woundedness too deep for words. “I don’t know,” he said simply. “I don’t understand it either. I trust. That’s all.”

Her expression did not flicker as her gaze bore into him. “Look at us. Learn from us. You will have to trust those who take you in, those who will honour you in the weakness of your old age. But will they remember us, on the future’s far shores? Will they remember harmony? Or will the godless make fools of us all?”

He made no movement for a time. “Help me to understand,” he said at last. “Show me-”

She lifted her hand, silencing him. “It cannot be given,” she said. “It must come unlooked-for. Wait with me now. Trust me.”

They sat there together a long time, silent, as the light dimmed and the shadows deepened into midnight.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Something To Look Forward To


Greetings, readers.

I am pleased to say that this story has been selected for publication in Into the Ruins. You can read it in the Spring 2017 edition.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Gift Of Work

After three months of silence I find myself in rural Michigan, entering a still greater silence. The business is on hiatus, my employers have granted me a leave of absence, and I am volunteering at a retreat centre rooted in the Mennonite faith tradition. Pastors come here to rest and pray, church groups too, and now there is one wild man working among them in exchange for room and board.

The work is solitary, and it is exactly what I have been looking for. From the busy streets of downtown, the vibrant inner world of a co-operative housing project, the teeming horizons of entrepreneurship, from the friends, the strangers, the acquaintances, from all these I fled three weeks ago, by Greyhound bus, into the arms of the woods.

I live here now, I say to myself, and the words do not sink in. Certainly I am alive, and certainly I am physically present in this place, but the soul is a strange fish. It lives where it wishes to live, and roams freely from the present to the future and into the past, from homes of long-ago to distant hopes for what may yet be. To be present, to be here, is hard work.

I work five days a week, six hours of the day. The retreat centre property is large, partly meadow and partly forest, and there is lots to do to keep it looking respectable. Trails need to be trimmed, lawns mowed, hedges pruned, gardens mulched. Each morning I fill the bird feeder and hang it in the garden, and each evening I take it indoors again, because there are raccoons about. I sweep the sidewalks. I go to morning prayer. And I share the silence with other retreatants, speaking only with the staff as we plan our work each morning, and twice a week with one of the directors, who listens to the unfolding of my inward journey.

The woods are huge, deep, spacious. Tall cherry trees, oaks, and maples overshadow thickets of raspberry, gooseberry, and autumn olive. Virginia creeper and poison ivy carpet the forest floor. Birds in numbers and varieties I have never seen before swoop between branches, and deer appear almost as often as I am quiet enough to notice them. Once, lying still among the pines, I heard their footsteps close by.

My work is solitary but it is not quiet. When I'm not shredding the silence with a chain saw or weed eater, I am working with an axe and maul. I spent most of last week working on two trees, a cherry and an oak, hauling the sawn rounds out of the undergrowth and splitting them by hand.

There is no work in the world as satisfying as splitting wood. You lift the cross-section of trunk onto the stump you have chosen as your anvil. You take the maul in your two hands, a huge cheese-wedge of steel welded to a long metal handle, unbelievably heavy and strong. You lift it like the hammer of the underworld, raise it to the fierce, bright sky. You let it fall. And the wood cracks, tumbling to either side of the splitting block. If it is oak, you scent the raw, wet musk of the heartwood. If it is old cherry, you see the fine, smooth grain revealed, the blond blending into the red.

Choosing a half, you place it back on the stump and take up your long-handled axe. It is light in your hands, a lithe quick thing that wants to wheel and strike. You can do finer work with it, but the precision takes strength. With the axe it is all one motion, the wheeling high, the striking downward. It's as much in the legs as in the arms, as much in the stomach as in the back. You lead the axe-head with your whole body, training all your power on the one place it should fall. Like lightning. Like doom.

What a young man wants is to be useful. When he stands between the stack of rounds he must split and the pile of firewood that will keep the house warm this winter, he feels his whole body answer the call to excellence, to living, striving presence. Here I am. Here will I stand or fall. Take up thine axe, swing and smite. Beware, for I am set naked upon thy kingdom. If you want to understand the young man in your life, give him an axe and an hour alone in the woodshed. See what kind of creature emerges, whether he is gentler and more sure of himself than before. See if there isn't a silence inside him that grows as the day draws to a close.

Splitting wood is an idealized form of what I have been practicing a long time now. It is the practice of physical work, an ancient art now out of fashion. I have never been much into sports, and exercise for exercise's sake has always felt like a chore to me, albeit one that leaves me feeling better than when I began. But work, whether it be mopping floors or hauling firewood, leaves the world changed. It is a creative act, one I am proud of now matter how mundane the task.

As a city kid transplanted to the country partway through my childhood, I wanted to measure up to the farm kids, who knew what hard work meant and idealized it not at all. They did what they had to do and then went and played hockey- no sweat. I never did learn to play hockey, but I learned to hold my own working under the hot sun. In work as in sports, you have to understand your body in order to do well, pacing yourself. You have to understand your mind too, knowing how to keep it in a steady groove no matter how dull and repetitive the work may be.

As a country kid transplanted back to the city partway through my teens, being able to work was a source of pride. I started working summers at a kid's camp rather than a farm, where both physical and emotional stamina were tested daily. The great release in that line of work, curiously, was the thrice daily task of washing dishes, where only steady, heavy work would get the pots clean and the counters wiped in time for the next round of games. The frenzy of activity in the hot kitchen became a steady buzz, in harmony with the humming of the refrigerator and the dishwasher. You could get into a rhythm, working like that.

And here at the retreat centre, rhythm is everything. The sun rises and sets. You go out into the woods and come back. Your axe rises and falls. You breathe hard, pushing the wheelbarrow stacked with wood out to where the path meets the truck road. And if you are lucky, and have found yourself working in a place that treasures silence, where contemplation is the highest goal, you may find that what you are doing is not so much work as it is an outpouring. As if a great, great sadness, vast beyond words, were flowing out through your muscles and into the wood, into the woods, into the silence. "Sweat is the tears of the body," one of the directors said to me the other day.

So I am happy here.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Crow Moon, Full Sky

The crows are in our neighbourhood tonight. As I went to take out the garbage just now I stopped to admire the clear sky and the bright gibbous moon, letting the night sounds catch me up. Above the slow whoosh of cars passing by, I heard the strange croaking calls sounding high and clear. Across the street, a pale-limbed tree had sprouted dark, dark leaves in its upper tier of branches. But these were no leaves.

They seem to roam about the city in a pattern I don't understand. A couple of times I have tried to track their movements through the neighbouring city of Waterloo, trying to determine whether there's a rhythm to their choice of roosting places. Around here they move in thick, dark flocks that seem to fill the sky with unholy noise, shifting and billowing as evening draws on and they slowly settle in for the night. They like the tall trees, the spruces especially.

Earlier today, in the early afternoon while the sun was bright and the air still, I took a walk up the paved trail that runs along Schneider Creek, going slow and listening. I was struck by how much crow-noise there was ahead of me, upstream- they don't usually visit our part of town in numbers. The second thing that struck me was the deafening silence in my immediate surroundings, and once I had clued in to that I stopped still, listening harder. A small breeze blew, two dry leaves rubbed together, and that was all. I started walking again, looked up, and saw the Cooper's Hawk roosting in a low branch not twenty yards in front of me.

I've written about this terror of the urban woodlands before. Its short, slate-grey wings and long tail are adapted for diving and banking between trees, which means that it can chase down its aerial prey if the element of surprise isn't enough. There could be several patrolling the wooded sidings of the downtown railway tracks, but in my mind there is only one. It was right out in the open this time, facing me and preening its speckled belly. I watched until my attempt to crouch down for a better view unnerved it, and it dropped off its branch and vanished into the trees. I tried to follow, but after a few minutes of turning up nothing but crows I returned to the trail.

Farther along, a guild was working the trunks and low branches at the edge of the treeline- a mixed flock of chickadees, downy woodpeckers, juncos, and cardinals. Their feeding music was sweet to the ear, but before long I heard the clump, scrape, clump, scrape of a human in winter boots approaching. The songbirds fell silent, vanishing one by one, but it was only as the walker passed me with a friendly nod that a cardinal in one of the topmost branches broke the quiet with an alarm call, then again, and again and again. I looked over my shoulder just in time to see the Cooper's Hawk banking away, back into the forest. The cunning bird had shaken me off, then lain in wait for a noisier human to use as cover for its attack on the guild. Now I watched it cross the creek, sure that this time I had lost it for good.

I tell this story partly out of a birder's sense of exultation, and partly as a way of illustrating the ways of crows. I did not think it necessary to mention, throughout this gripping episode, that the crows never let up their noise. Not for one second. As far as I can tell, crows live in a world entirely separate from other birds. They aren't preyed on by hawks and they don't prey on songbirds. They're among the most intelligent of avians, known to gather shiny objects for their pleasure and capable of recognizing individual human faces, and yet they seem to take no part in the subtle, ever-shifting web of intrigue between hawks and songbirds.

As I neared my home end of the creek, I passed through the raucous flock and crossed the footbridge into a residential neighbourhood. Did I mention that I was walking slowly? Very, very slowly, scanning every tree. This was well, for as I started up the street toward my building I saw the hawk a third time, swooping up to perch on a short wire slung between the street line and a house. Its back was to me this time, but it was playing no games. As I approached, it dropped off its perch again, startlingly low, and vanished around the house at the street corner. For the third time, no amount of careful footwork and steady scanning could reveal its hiding place. Eventually I turned homeward, silently radiant. Hunting is a game that only the privileged play for fun, and I consider it a profit to have lost to the master.

Meanwhile, the crows gather. Did I mention their incredible noise? Nature's game is one of balance, diversity, dynamic forces at play, and when you see such a crowd of beings, all the same, all doing the same thing, you know that something is up. These crows come to the city in such numbers because of us. Like dark shadows they follow our crowded movements, and in a very real sense they are hunting us. Feeding off of us. They are aware of our unawareness, and know that they can profit from it. No matter how I track their movements across the stars, I will never know the crows as well as they know me, as I come down from my apartment on a Sunday night to take out the garbage. Almost too easy, they seem to say, laughing their dark and knowing laugh. They'll return to the landfill when morning comes.

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.