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

Inventing Home

Where are you from? Where do you live? They are the two most popular questions to ask travellers, party guests, and game show contestants. The answer allows a stereotyped categorization. It can spur a conversation or, perhaps, the decision to not bother starting one. It’s odd though, because while often seen as the same question they are two totally different inquiries. Ask yourself the two questions. Do you get two answers?

I am from Hamilton. It is known as Canada’s steel town although with the slow death of the industrial revolution the nickname means less all the time. Home to Huron, then French, and then British settlers, it is named for Robert Hamilton, a War of 1812 veteran, who built his estate at the west end of Lake Ontario. The place grew quickly as railways passed through on their way from the American border to Toronto. The pig iron plant arrived first. Then came the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) and then, the smaller Dominion Foundry and Steel Company (Dofasco).

Dofasco Dofasco

My great grandfather was among Dofasco’s first employees. He got my grandfather into the foundry and he worked there for over 40 years. He never said a bad word about Dofasco. He always spoke of the bosses as Mr. This and Mr. That. My father worked there too. He tells stories of playing in the Dofasco baseball league and bowling league and hockey league. I recall as a child going to the Dofasco Christmas party. It was a massive affair where an entire building was emptied and then opened for the thousands of employee families. There were treats and games and Santa Claus and a wrapped present for every kid.

Stelco is gone now. Dofasco is all but gone too. Their shadows remain but they were bought and sold a couple of times and are now just cogs in transnational corporations with no ties to Canada let alone the city. Corporations may be constitutionally people but they neither have a home nor care much about those who do. With the steel plants went the others. Hamilton is not the same.

Go to any city. Go downtown near the river or the harbour at the lake. You know the places I mean in whatever city has entered your mind. The big old buildings are nearly all empty. Or they have been turned into fancy boutiques, offices, or condominiums. The places to shop and eat are elsewhere and everywhere the same as everywhere else. You can picture that street too can’t you? Walmart, Costco, McDonalds, and the Tims have taken care of it. Online shopping took care of what remained.

So that is where I am from – a ghost. I still have family there, I’m a proud McMaster University alum, and a great deal remains that I find invigorating and beautiful. But it’s a city re-inventing itself as surely as when Robert Hamilton created it in the first place. It will succeed. There are too many good people for it to fail. No one is sure how just yet, but a consensus will grow. It will enable enough people to recognize that a city, like a well-lived life, is not about money and stuff.

A community rests on shared values and the places where people from up and down and across town meet to enjoy the same things at the same time. Hamilton, and for that matter every city that is going through the same period of existential angst, will come out the other side when enough people say enough to driving out of town to have fun and to driving past boarded up shops once owned by folks they knew to stores the size of football fields to save fifty cents on toilet paper. The city will begin to move when people move by getting out of their cars and walking. When people start to walk they will need some place close to walk to and some version of Walmart won’t put a store there, or a book shop, or a pub – but a neighbour might, in an actual neighbourhood. In walking, neighbours will start talking and the rest will take care of itself. It won’t be easy, but then Robert Hamilton didn’t have it easy either.

Where I live is different. I live in a village of 2500 people called Lakefield. Lakefield was created on Ojibwa land just a few years later than Hamilton. It became known not for stinky steel but silent canoes. It was home to several canoe manufacturers including Walter Walker who made canoes and paddles for ordinary folks and royalty with the same dedication to excellence. It has always been an artistic place. Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie lived and wrote in Lakefield as did Margaret Laurence. The Leahy band lives nearby as does Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. First-rate painters, children’s book authors and illustrators, and sculptors call Lakefield home as do highly respected architects and film makers. The Lakefield Literary Festival and world-renowned Lakefield College School are here.

A river runs through the centre of my Village and it is only right that it does. It is a metaphor that speaks of perpetual movement and things that never change. Margaret Laurence wrote The Diviners here and, if you recall, the novel begins by speaking of a river that runs both ways. It does you know. It really does.

Canoe-and-Paddle-e1413940425220

Last week a new pub opened in Lakefield called the Canoe and Paddle. It is fashioned to reflect the look and feel of a pub one might wander into on an English afternoon or Halifax night. It is owned and run by folks from the village. Last Thursday my little rock band played the pub’s first night of music. It was music for neighbours by neighbours. Last night I walked across the bridge to stand with a pint and enjoy a Celtic band play one lively reel after another. The place was packed. As I looked around the room I realized that I knew nearly every face. Everyone glowed with the happiness of a Saturday night among friends, with neighbours, and in a community that understands the meaning of the word. The pub will do well. The Canoe and Paddle has reminded us that we understand what doing well means.

Hamilton is where I am from. Lakefield is where I live. It’s good to be home.

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