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.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Shape of Our Time

My readers may know that I volunteer with a grassroots organization called Transition KW. The story of our era's 'Transition', as it's called by the international Transition Network, is one that isn’t widely known. Most people will tell you that our world is changing, even that it’s changing faster than ever before, but few will be willing to say exactly where that change is headed. The narratives of peak oil and climate change provide clues as to what kind of story we’re living today and where the present moment fits in the overall plot, but even then it can be hard to fit the news flashes into a meaningful picture of the shape of our time.

When I watch four sparrows dive low across Queen Street and hook upward into the small tree next to the yoga studio, for example, I know by the shape of their flight that something has spooked them. I crane my head for some sign of a hawk or other predator casting its ripple of tension across the downtown landscape, but my skill as a bird tracker isn’t sharp enough yet to know where or even whether a bird of prey has staked its perch in my vicinity.

Similarly, the shape of the land beneath my feet has a meaning I’m beginning to comprehend, but only gradually. My walking route to a friend’s house traverses the geological wonder that is Cedar Hill, a region of downtown Kitchener roughly bounded by Queen, Courtland, Stirling, and Charles Streets. Somewhere in the unfathomable depths of time, glaciers left behind this mountain of sandy soil to tower over the swamp that became Victoria Park and Schneider Creek.

When I walk up the west face of the hill toward my friend’s house, the words ‘over the mountain, over the mountain’ echo in my head to the rhythm of my footfalls. When I reach the summit and look down from Cameron Heights on the high school football field and the distant reaches of southeast Kitchener, I feel I’ve been granted the rare gift of perspective. As I descend toward Charles Street, this busy city become my reality once more; it environs me and shapes what I see or don’t see, underfoot and overhead.

Both our immediate environment and the history we live from day to day have a shape, a meaning, and a story. They make sense in a way that we may not understand until we walk them, or live them out, provided we’re paying attention as we go. Like any good story, they contain multiple perspectives; Cedar Hill has a long history as a low-income neighbourhood, with a strong sense of community identity that escapes my immediate attention as I walk its streets. Likewise, as my awareness of bird movements increases, so does my awe at the complexity of their perpetually shifting game of hide and seek, life and death.

Meanwhile the news marches on. We hear confusing, conflicting stories about extreme weather events and the price of oil. We struggle to understand the violence that seems to spring up in unexpected places. But these things too have an underlying shape, and like a geologist or a tracker reading the landscape, we can read the shape of our time if we look with the perspective that history gives us: our own history as a civilization and the history of the Earth itself.

We know that industrialization has depleted the most accessible deposits of fossil fuels in the earth’s crust, and at the same time converted those fuels into dangerous greenhouse gases. We know that the choices of our forebears have forced us to choose between ever more costly and toxic fuel sources, on the one hand, or a steep decrease in the amount of energy we use. No market fluctuation or innovative drilling technology will save us from this fact. And as a global political order built on oil extraction is strained to its limits, the old fault lines of that order will show the stresses in ways that will seem sudden and inexplicable if we haven’t been paying attention to the underlying story.

As for the meaning of that story? It’s not an easy question. I may as well ask, does Cedar Hill have a meaning? What about the flight of birds? Why should the shape of our time need a meaning, when it simply is, founded in the unfathomable past and stretching into the unknowable future?

But I’m only human. I need meaning. Just as ancient priests read meaning in the movements of birds, just as ancient peoples read meaning in the mountains that shaped their worlds, naming them and walking their steep paths slowly and reverently, I need to make sense of what’s happening around me. I know I won’t find it by reading internet forums, helpful as those may be. I’ll find it by paying attention, walking slowly, and opening my awareness to the things and people that environ me. These are the things that are meaningful. These are the things that have shaped me, and will continue to do so as we descend from the peak together.