The Ancient Understanding of Water

Dear Canada,

The intrepid explorers who left Quebec’s relative comfort for God and gold did not scar the land. They didn’t bang and clang along in wagons breaking trees and cutting tracks. No, they slipped through in canoes, in silence, leaving not a trace of their passing.

Voyageur_canoe

It’s perhaps this collective memory, this ancient understanding down deep in our souls that urges us to water. We are born of water. Many of us are baptized with water. Water is our playground where we seek sanctuary and salvation in splashing and skiing and paddling and floating. Blessed is the contentment of long, gentle afternoons in hypnotic contemplation of sparkling waves. We bob at dusk in little tin boats with smelly worms and silly hats and silently wish that a splashing bass will not spoil the tranquility. We work fifty weeks to afford a clean and tidy house and then leave it for two to paddle a canoe and haul it over treacherous rocks and roots, and all to live from a sack, sleep on rocks, and eat food we’d send back in the dingiest diner. And we love it all, because we’re on water.

The Atlantic was your welcome mat and the St. Lawrence your doorway. It invited us in. It was your superhighway to your inland seas – the mighty Great Lakes. Settlements grew to towns and then cities along their shores. Without the lakes there would be no Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and the rest.

The lakes are a line. We’re here and the Americans are over there. They always coveted more and once they crossed the lakes to get it. As blood-soaked armies showed neither mercy nor shame, battleship artillery boomed. It drowned out the cries of the poor drowning men. We burned their capital. They returned the favour and burned ours, but we beat them in the end; we beat them 18 to 12. We then agreed to ban the guns on the lakes and try, one more time, to live a hard and bitter peace.

Another war’s end, a couple of wars later, offered its own kind of boom – prosperity and babies. The navy sold out at garage sale prices and shipping companies soon had plenty to ship in their ships. Supply could not meet demand to fill new houses in new neighbourhoods with new stuff. Europe was still bleeding and Canadian wheat, iron, and wood steamed through the lakes to help with the healing.

The big freighters lumbered like slow-moving monsters. They chugged from plants and mills and lake to great lake and on up the St. Lawrence to the sea. Their choking smoke, like the belching factory stacks, were a sign of good times. The depression and war were over and we yearned for order. There was an old man on parliament hill and a young Elvis on TV, well, from the waist up anyway, and the smoke stacks meant there were jobs for everyone. For most of us, it was a Leave it to Beaver world and folks along the lakes were lulled in their beds each night by the freighters’ mournful horns echoing over still and foggy water.

Edmund Fitzgerald

Edmund Fitzgerald

But just like life was not so serene everywhere, the ships were romantic only to those elsewhere. Life was tough and the men tougher. Ships were too often floating sweatshops. Company men and the politicians they bought winked and nodded as captains ignored the imaginary border drawn somewhere on the waves and rival union goons broke skulls and laws.

There were moments of calm amid the chaos. Peaceful nights on watch with no shore in sight allowed a man to imagine himself at sea. The lake’s gentle roll offered time to recall what drew him to that life in the first place. Then, sudden gales could whip up mountainous waves and transform freighters big as towns to bathtub toys. Everyone knew their jobs but when the running lights and radio went out as another wave crashed over the deck there was nothing to do but pray. Like in a battlefield foxhole, there are no atheists aboard freighters locked in the cold embrace of a Superior storm.

The Great Lakes’ beds are rusting, ramshackle naval museums and holy unmarked graves. Canada, your lakes and the rivers both mighty and small are the blood in your veins. Their waves are the rhythm of your soul.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is one of a collection entitled Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you liked it, please share it through social media and see some of the others at johnboyko.com

The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald               © Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below, Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early

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