It’s gardening time here in North Saanich on top of other commitments and we are falling behind. A month has gone by since I last put together a post – not good – so here are three short, somewhat related poems written over a 36 year time span. The image, drawn by the young daughter of a friend, is on the cover of a 1993 cassette tape put out by our band of that time, Raspberry Jam (music you can spread around).
The waitress brings neat omelettes, triangles of toast, and jam, sealed in plastic doses. I see your dark hair waving among the raspberries, your fingers red with juice, dancing in a suppertime sun. Moving out from you, I have become a ghost nourished by shadows.
You are standing at the kitchen window trimly dressed for church, attending to a thing you hold hidden from my view. I confess I do enjoy such voyeuristic moments when the multitasking of your tidy ways is calmed while I am looking. Then I see that you are licking syrup that your fingers wiped from the bottom of the jug. Oh, my sticky Honey Bear!
There’s a woman in the hedgerow stretching overhead to reach the fruit. Her lips and hands are stained with juice. Her T-shirt torn, its hem rides above her swollen belly, grown to ripeness, you might say. Her man holds out the basket in the useless way men have assisting women driven by the unrelenting calls of life. Helplessly he understands it was not his to give; her body snatched the seed away as he lay spent and stupid. Today he holds a basket, tomorrow a child. Clueless.
In the early summer of 1989, partly to celebrate my 50th birthday, I joined a canoe trip led by the well-known guide and naturalist , the late Alex Hall. The participants assembled in Fort Smith NWT (Alex’s headquarters) and from there were air-lifted to the Clarke River (tributary of the Thelon River). Two days on the Clarke River took us to its confluence on the powerful Thelon River. After twelve days on the Thelon River we reached the entrance to Beverly Lake where the float planes met us and ferried us back to Fort Smith.
Being part of a small group of people travelling together, isolated from the rest of the world, is uncommon to most of us today. Our expectations were that at the end of our trip we would be smoothly returned to the places from which we departed with little change in either one. But that cannot be guaranteed although I did not mention this to my group at the time. There were some interesting internal dynamics and the one that sticks in my mind is the division around booze. I enjoy my glass of beer with dinner but providing myself with an equivalent supply of alcohol (plus some to share) for two weeks would be awkward so I decided to do without. But some of the party were loth to abstain and so the camp divided into two squads, wet and dry. The wets looked forward to their tipple at the end of the day as dinner was being prepared. The presence of drys at tipple time was awkward because the wets, carefully managing their supply, could not afford to share. I avoided this awkwardness, once camp was set up and firewood gathered, by going for a walk with my sketchbook. At the end of the trip I had accumulated sixty small drawings and paintings.
Evidence of the last glaciation is prominent in the terrain we travelled through on this adventure. Large accumulations of glacial debris (drumlins) occurred frequently along the banks of the river; some of these were over 100 feet high and the summits afforded fine views of the surrounding terrain. Other people had been using them long before us; we often found evidence of the manufacturing of stone arrowheads and spear points. The breezy summit of an esker would be a good place to escape mosquitos and to size up hunting opportunities.
Spruce trees grew in sheltered areas along the river, diminishing in size and number as we moved north. Here and there on the drumlins spruce seeds found marginal footholds and struggled with lack of water and particularly wind erosion. These trees, whose lives were determined by where the seed fell, lay close to the ground because of the winds and those winds also eroded the soil from around the roots, forcing the tree to put down more roots where the trunk lay in contact with the soil. There’s a poem in there somewhere but I have not found it yet.
On 28 April, 1847, the brigantine Carricks of Whitehaven was wrecked in a severe storm off Cap des Rosiers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Of 176 Irish emigrants aboard, 9 died on the voyage, 119 perished in the wreck and only 48 survived. The survivors were sheltered by the local population; many of them re-established themselves in the Gaspe region, and their descendants, now francophones, carried forward their Irish family names.
They dragged me from the surf, draped me in a rough blanket, and left me puking out the bitter salt. Dazed and shivering, I stumbled up the shore, peering at the heaps of sodden rags. But Eileen was nowhere to be found. Next day we loaded corpses on the wagon, many trips to the burying place, and Eileen was nowhere to be found.
It was Eileen that said we had to leave; the times hard and getting harder. I often thought of her old parents on the quay smiling through their tears and saying, “Ah, but you’ll do well in Canada.” For Eileen a trust, for them a rainbow of a prayer with Eileen the pot of gold. And me, not having the writing or the lingo of my rescuers, it was a time before I could send word, and none returning, I could not know if they went to their graves in sorrow or with their rainbow’s end still shining, though Eileen could not be found.
Good people sheltered me and gave me work to do and ‘twas their Marie who offered harbour: I learned to say “Je veux bien.” Next spring, seeds planted, Marie and I were married. For an instant, at the back of the church, I thought I saw Eileen standing, face averted, like at her sister’s wedding, a little sad that someone loved was leaving, but hopeful for them, too. Tears blurred my eyes, and though I could not see her, Eileen was somewhere to be found and I knew her crossing was complete.
In 1898, the famed (and now somewhat discredited) Arctic explorer, Robert E. Peary, persuaded six of his Inuit associates to travel with him from Greenland to New York promising that they would be returned to Greenland after a short visit. In this group were Qisuk, Peary’s guide, and Qisuk’s young son, Minik. Peary effectively abandoned the visitors at the doors of the American Museum of Natural History, leaving the Museum responsible for their care. All five adult Inuit soon perished from tuberculosis and other urban diseases. Minik was adopted by a Museum official. The remains of the adult Inuit were treated as scientific specimens and stored in the Museum for 95 years before being returned to Greenland in 1993. Here is a link to a fuller reccounting of this sad story:
Oh and if these bones could walk, shake off museum fug and city’s dust, stride out into the frosty air, walking north.
Head down against the wind, fleshed and robed by driving snow, the lost hunter reforms.
He is heedless of the traffic and the crowds; they watch him at the scrubby edge of things, crossing the littered field, the sluggish creek melting into the thickets.
Farmers at their midnight windows see a figure in the distant pasture. Dogs whine and shake their chains but dare not bark. No prints upon the snowy ground.
A group of hunters at the tundra’s rim tell of a hooded figure at the firelight’s edge, a man who stopped and faced them at their call, stepped nearer to the flickering light. Then with an upraised arm, he turned and strode into the night.
The open ground at last, the clean north wind, the Arctic ice.
Tark Hamilton, the current Artistic Director of the Deep Cove Folk Club, is a geologist by profession and a polymath by inclination. One club evening Tark had occasion to bring up the topic of continental drift, the similarity of rocks on the west coast of Britain and those on the east coast of Canada as well as the growing speculation as to whether there was early (prehistoric) migration of people from Europe to North America along the winter extensions of Arctic ice. Looking around the room, here on the western edge of the continent, I noted that we were a mix of migrants from many different places and that shared music was a powerful integrator.
Deep Cove Folk Club
Along that cold rift, sealed with black waters of Loch Ness, there are stones that link to Canada, once close, now separated by Atlantic interceding.
Here in this room on the western rim we are Scots, Africans, and who knows what other mongrel wanderers, hopping on the stepping stones to distant continents, blown by winds across rough seas. A thin furze on this shifting earth.
Tonight, there is the synergy of music. The murmuration of the notes, welcomes us to shine as one, so that from a distance, our small and spinning world sparkles in the dark places with a pixilation of tiny pulsing lights.
We shared a bottle of wine with friends on a summer evening aboard our sailboat. We knew that our dear friend, Jim Bull, struggling with a serious illness , was running out of time
An Offering (for Jim Bull)
From my glass, I pour some wine into the sea, wine from the earth and sun, revealing the spirit dwelling in all things. The sea, from which our elements are drawn, waits for their return. I do this to acknowledge my acceptance of all that life has brought and will bring to us, sentient fragments of that greatness we are honoured to perceive.
Clouds prowl the hilltops; they are the colours of bruises. Golden light finds the whiteness of three soaring gulls whose circlings trace a script upon the clouds. “Mene, mene…” or “Peace, my friend”? Though I can’t tell, I apprehend there will be beauty at the end.
The drawing above was made by Cabe, a five-year-old boy living across a busy street from the Broadmead Mall in Victoria, British Columbia. His older sister, Quillan, was responding to a challenge to produce a picture and a story about the wild nature in and around her neighbourhood . Her reward would be a Nature Canada Canoe provided by Nature Canada, the oldest environmental advocacy organization in Canada http://naturecanada.ca. Cabe wanted in.
You can see Quillan’s contribution and those of the other successful participants on the Friends of Shoal Harbour website http://www.shoalharbour.com. Friends of Shoal Harbour have partnered with Nature Canada to promote the concept of “naturehood”, the nature in your neighbourhood, the nature accessible for you to both enjoy and protect and that is how a boxful of canoe toys was available to distribute.
Cabe’s simple and direct response resonates with me. It seems he caught the essence of naturehood: shift your gaze from the bustle of busy streets and you might see wild birds flying. Starting the story with “Once upon a time…” suggests that it is memorable and the story is darkened by the opening’s suggestion that it happened a long time ago. Cabe is still at an age when such observations have not yet become banal. Would that we could retain that freshness of vision as we age. Cabe earned his canoe.
Approaching Roberts Bank
Pale green sea, yellow-bands of Fraser’s silt, blue mountains of the Coast Range, and grey-white clouds ashore… this gentle southwest breeze.
Soapsuds clouds advance above the hills; turbulence and buoyancy and drag, concepts engineers display to justify the architecture of these forms, do not satisfy today.
Let us talk instead of simple beauty, involuntary gasp at revelation, when all we see is marvel.
In my career as a landlocked oceanographer at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters I came to know the Lower Great Lakes (Lake Erie and Lake Ontario) as subjects of scientific study and as familiar places close to home. The Canada Centre for Inland Waters, was intended to produce research that would put Canada on an equal footing with the United States when it came to negotiating international agreements protecting these transboundary waterways. Helping to strengthen Canada’s claim to a fair share of the Great Lakes as a ‘resource’ did not necessarily lead to a deep appreciation of the mystery and beauty of these enormous lakes. It did however lead to an appreciation not only of the of the impact of an industrial society on its surroundings but also of the difficulties of obtaining effective and timely corrective action. I felt a need to break free of this heavy reality once in a while and spend time in a place less threatened.
Having grown up in coastal British Columbia, I enjoyed small boats. Penny’s childhood summers spent on the St. Lawrence River (Lac St. Louis) and on the lakes north of Montreal taught her about sailing and canoeing. In the first few years of our Ontario residency, we acquired both a canoe and a small sailboat. The sailboat, an O’Day Day Sailer, still in active service with our son in Ottawa. This versatile little boat (https://smallboatsmonthly.com/article/oday-day-sailer/) is very suitable for exploring the channels and back bays of Georgian Bay along the north edge of Lake Huron – where the big lake extends into the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. That is exactly what we did in 1970, our third summer in Ontario and we were charmed.
Almost a century had passed since the logging boom on the north shore of Lake Huron. The convoluted foreshore made road access difficult, the backshore was sparsely settled and although there were summer cottages scattered among the islands there were many sheltered places where we could nose in with a Day Sailer, drop a stern anchor, tie the bow line to a tree and step ashore. Here in a small boat, constantly adjusting to the wind and the weather, among some of the oldest, worn-down rocks on the planet I could put aside my professional role as a Jeremiah for a week or so and be refreshed as a participant in the nature around me and share these experiences with my family.
In 1971, my colleague and friend, Noel Burns, learned about properties for sale near the mouth of the Moon River where it flows into Georgian Bay, a place known as Woods Bay. Not very promising for cottage development, the lots were inexpensive, so we bought what would have been an inconvenient cottage lot but which proved to be a fine campsite. This we intended to use as a base camp for enjoying what was then an unspoiled corner of Georgian Bay. We built simple tent platforms, a privy, and a storage box, stuff that would decay to nothing in a few years. Noel, too, bought a sailboat, a small cruising sloop with a fixed keel, much bigger than the Day Sailer and drawing over three feet of water. He and his family soon found that cruising was more to their liking than short excursions from a fixed base camp. Noel’s interests were amicably bought out by some other good friends, Jim and Frances Bull. This partnership endured until 1992, when, our children grown and development encroaching, we sold the property, very little changed from the way we found it.
In Wood Bay our son and daughter, Thomas and Lyse, and Jim and Fran’s son, Alexander learned to swim, manage small boats, fish for bass and pike, cook food on an open fire, and amuse themselves with what they found around them. Evenings, after restoring order to the camp kitchen, we read stories aloud and when it grew dark, we lay on the sun-warmed rocks, counted meteorites and planned the next day’s activities. Some days we elected to laze around the campsite, swim, paddle a canoe, fish for pike or bass. On other “organized days” we loaded up the sailboat and explored the area around us, finding destinations that we returned to many times. A favourite voyage was to thread our way through the inshore channels to Wreck Island in the open waters of Georgian Bay where the Canadian Shield dipped below the surface of the lake to be overlaid by the limestone of the Bruce Peninsula far beyond the watery horizon.
The Woods Bay memories are precious to all of us. During those halcyon years I returned to my professional occupation each September with a refreshed vision of what we scientists were attempting to protect.
Up from the cobbled beach, where languid water laps at ancient stones, across hot rocks, parched lichens, sharp sticks, I rest in a glade of pine and oak, moss-floored and ferned. The wind’s whisper in boughs, resin-scented and cool, calms the babble of the waves, a small, patient and continuing prayer to sun and rain. At my feet each leaf and stalk meditates this dreamy hour of noon.
Small white bones in the moss, traces of an earlier intruder, show how this glade might yet fit me, take me into the quiet seasons of the lonely island.
Scattered in this labyrinth of bays and islands was a small population of year-round inhabitants. In the summer they provided services to cottagers – even a “beer boat” that made the rounds of the cottages on a Friday afternoon, dropping off a weekend supply on the docks and gathering up the empties. I made a couple of late fall painting trips to Woods Bay, once with a friend, Eric Harrison, and a second time with Brioche, our dog, for company. In October you could feel the area withdrawing to its former wildness, the silence broken by sporadic hammering and sawing as the year-rounders prepared for winter.
The gold October sun, reverberating in the yellow of late leaves, has become more personal, less blinding. The compass of our vision narrows.; The land contours firmly on its bones. Down among the roots, the earth pulls inward. Now I feel the shapes of rocks and islands, listen to the water’s whisper, draw breath and know the cool air flows among the trees to meet me.
At ten o’clock I boiled tea at the church landing, sun still fresh in the pine boughs at my back, shadows on the clapboard wall flutter and rest in time with wind’s October whisper. Motorboats are gone, the loons are leaving. Across the bay a handsaw wows, trimming boards to hold back winter’s seep. A wooden skiff comes down the channel, angles to the landing where we chat, the barefoot owner heading to the wharf for shingles, but I ‘ll be on the road tomorrow. I’ll slide under the red-leafed veil that marks this world apart. It readies itself for sleep as first snow sifts into black water.
All day it rained. Then as sun drew low, clouds thinned to stragglers. Lights came on in houses; no one walked the beach. The Inlet, exhaling with the breathing of the sea, laid bare the flats over which the gathered rains and silt meandered to the ocean. The land wears down; the bay fills; mountains heave and sink. The creek, silent all summer, whispers its purpose. Transient, I try – to recall mine.
I wish all the visitors to my blog fmboyce.com a guardedly optimistic but nevertheless happy Christmas Season and I thank those who have demonstrated confidence by choosing to follow it. Penny and I intend to get out of doors, whatever the weather, on Christmas Morning and walk some of the nearby beaches and trails looking for overwintering birds – and when we see some we will thank them for being there.
I have put together a sampling of Christmas materials, some drawing from a collection of home-made Christmas cards I produced over many years. Also included are photographs of Christmas wall installations organized for our church (the First Unitarian Church of Victoria) with the willing help of other members. Among these offerings are scattered a few poems.
The Covid-19 epidemic has spurred personal creativity of all sorts, much of it offered to local communities. I find this very encouraging. I hope this creativity endures both during and after these difficult times.
Bringing home the tree (linoleum cut) circa 1980
Before the fireplace (silk screen print) circa 1985
Santa Canoe (linoleum cut) circa 1990
Royal Winter Fair, Toronto, Ontario (silk screen print) circa 1975
A search for clarity admitting flaws allows the truth to glimmer from within.
On your knees, search for broken stars among dried blades of grass
Christmas Wall Decorations at the First Unitarian Church of Victoria BC
These stars and mandalas are made from spilt red cedar, red dogwood twigs and other local natural materials. They have become “traditional” Christmas/Winter Solstice decorations and are installed from mid-December to mid-January each winter.
In the autumn of 2010 an unexpectedly large (over 30 million fish) Sockeye Salmon run entered the Fraser River to spawn upstream in the river itself and its many tributaries. Almost 4 million salmon spawned in the Adams river, a tributary of the South Thompson River system, one of the main tributaries of the Fraser. Many people travelled to the area to view the spectacle of this huge run of brilliantly red spawning salmon. We were among them.
It is not an exaggeration to say that salmon are sacred to many British Columbia residents, both indigenous folks and settlers. It seemed fitting to represent them in a church.
A large silver salmon was included near the front of the shoal of migrating salmon. This fish could be imagined as the guiding salmon spirit. When one of our Ministers asked me about the silver fish I told her it could be the Jesus Fish.
In 2012 we chose snowflakes and stars as emblems of natural beauty at both large and small scales.
Between Stars and Snow
The stars emit a distant light indifferent to worshipful gaze. When snowflakes touch an upturned face they feel like kisses turned to tears but leave no bitter trace.
Oh there is such a gap ‘tween what we think we know and what we know we feel. We’re lost between the stars and snow; we fail to find out proper place. Yet in the dark of Solstice Eve shine glimmerings of grace.
In January 1968 I took up my professional occupation as a Physical Limnologist (landlocked oceanographer) at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters, a newly-formed Government of Canada research institute in Burlington, Ontario. Burlington, located north and east of Hamilton, along the north shore of Lake Ontario, was at that time in transition from a small market town serving a surrounding agricultural community, to an outlying satellite of Toronto. By October Penny and I had acquired a station wagon, a daschund puppy, our first child, Lyse, and a small house on a tree-lined street with a half-acre lot of fertile sandy loam adjacent to a large field. This houe would be our home for the next 31 years.
The Niagara Escarpment with its sporadic outcrops of limestone rock lay a mile to the north. There were parcels of good arable land above the escarpment, but where the impermeable limestone lay near the surface, the land was poorly drained. Below the escarpment and close to Lake Ontario the soils were deep and fertile and much of the land around Burlington was given over to family-operated market gardens, selling produce locally as well as supplying markets along the shore of Lake Ontario between Oshawa and St. Catherines. A kilometer north of our home lay the valley of Grindstone Creek. Grindstone Creek drained land to the north above the Escarpment, plunged over the Escarpment itself in a handsome waterfall and discharged into Hamilton Harbour/Lake Ontario. The Village of Waterdown was established above the escarpment where Grindstone Creek ran fast towards the falls, a good site for water-powered mills. Below the falls, the Grindstone flowed through a kilometer of no-mans’s land, narrow, tangled with vines and other well-watered growth emerging to daylight in a small, confined subdivision adjacent to the major east-west railway line and Higway 403 to Hamilton, Brantford and and beyond. South of the highway and railway, the steep sided creek valley was given over to a largely undeveloped public park where neighbourhood childen including ours patrolled unsupervised like chimpanzees in clothes. We came to know this area intimately.
On the west side of the Grindstone Creek valley Lemoville Road followed the valley’s rim north There were several small market-garden farms on the west side of the road, all of which had been owned at one time by members of the Lemon family. The largest farm was at the north end of the road. It was owned by Archie Lemon and his wife Mrytle. The second farm downhill had been owned by Archie’s brother Murray (now deceased) and his spouse Pearl. I do not know the history but I suspect that the other two farms along the road had been owned by brothers or sisters of Archie and Murray. That would be consistent with what I learned about their autocratic father. Pearl became a good friend and we partnered with her in the restoration of her apple trees, the production of strawberries and sweet corn. Archie & Myrtle became persons of interest and the subjects of a series unpublished poems (Up at Archie’s) about a fading local agriculture and the redevelopment of formerly productive land. Some of these poems are posted here.
The late 60’s and early 70’s were the years of the “back to the land” movement and we were drawn to its striving for regional independence even as it was being overwhelmed by the commercial logic of long supply chains and industrial food producton. As an environmental scientist (long retired) I came to believe in the validity ( even necessity ) of a bioregional approach to food production and to human cultures in general. Thus we became students and supporters of the small scale local agriculture in our neighbourhood,an agrculture that once supplied a major city like Toronto, even as those traditions faded away.
Looking back on the Ontario years when we were in our youthful primes I am amazed at the energies we possessed and the projects we took on. One of mine was learning to draw and paint through evening classes at the Dundas Valley School of Art. Needing a space where I could lay out my paints and work free of household distractions, I rented an unused portion of Pearl Lemon’s barn, closed it off and added an oil heater. Scenes from the Grindstone Creek valley became favourite subjects. In the 70’s and 80’s I produced little poetry but many drawings and paintings, some of which are reproduced here.
Along the Grindstone
If you start at the concrete silos Near the sewage treatment plant, Step over the bank by the culvert And drop down through the screen of sumacs, You’ll hear the creek below you. The going isn’t easy; There’s deadfalls, clay sidehills, and tangle, And always gravity’s sharp pull. Trees let you walk among them, Indifferent to all except the earth’s slow turn, Watching the light, cloud, rain, wind and snow Come and go Across the valley’s narrow rim.
Here in the gorge, the creek clings with tiny, silver claws, Holds back against relentless pull. Resisting all this time has led to wreckage; Pulling at escarpment’s rim has brought down huge blocks Which, despite their weight have offered only fragile foothold, Focussing the struggle in a new place but with the same old results. Sometimes you can see where the creek has plugged the gaps With whatever came to hand. Jammed among the slabs and boulders, Logs and brush, old timbers, tires, And once the rusting carcass of a car.
Further on it seems the water wearies; There is no longer the purchase on broken rocks. Hawthorns and willows take advantage of the lull, They’re grabby, want all the room, Clutch at strangers with thorny arms. Wet clay underfoot and piles of matted twigs Show where the creek has tried to snatch things back. On the high ground, aloof from this brawling, Maple, oak and beech have slowly gathered On the valley sides, crowding to the skyline. Among them, if you know where to look, You can see Archie’s house and barn Peering over the edge and none too sure of the footing. Down here in the tangle, always the noise, muttering at the edge of comprehension, Water regretful of its turbulent descent, Clawing earth down to stand higher.
(October 1982; revised October 2005)
The gold October sun, Reverberating in the scattered yellows of late leaves, Has become more personal and less blinding. Under his wistful gaze, The compass of our vision narrows, The land contours firmly on old bones. Down among the roots, The earth pulls nearer to its centre. Now I feel the shapes and folds of gullies, Whisper the creeks which way to run, Draw breath and see the cool air Flow among the trees to meet me.
The crew has paused a while, lawnmower resting in the dandelions and grass. Downslope they gather round a toppled headstone, the kid with tummy and cowboy hat, Dad there too – same shape but more, a worried guy who wants to do the right thing, and two old farmers in faded shirts, suspenders and peaked caps, holding a shovel and an iron bar. Henry Truscott, born 1843, died 1921, has fallen down again. Once more his neighbours work to set him straight. On this spring Saturday, they gaze up the churchyard slope where clouds mull over the notion of a sudden shower. All around the smells of grass and spaded earth. “Been looking up this hill for sixty years.” says the old guy with the spade. “Henry too.” says the other, while Dad measures the morning left, the uncut grass. “Tom, that mower’s cooled by now.”
On my first visits I stumbled quickly through, Sensing this to be a private place, And possibly abandoned, Yet potent with inhospitable ghosts. Later I surprised them Bending over in a row of weed-choked rhubarb, Myrtle picking and Archie gathering. There was anger in their gestures, Myrtle blaming Archie for letting the weeds grow And Archie sore at the weeds for growing. Words I don’t recall. There may not have been any. I confess to being captured by the quaint While sensing the dark undercurrents I would later see and feel. I returned many times with camera and drawing paper Until, with practice, My pencil plunged beneath the surface of the page And clicked against the bones.
To tell you about this place I have first to map it, shape the hills and hollows, prickle the thickets, scatter the birds, conjure up the visitors, all this underneath the hand of my mind. Later, when the stream has been set in motion, and the dusk falls smoothly, I can tell you about the autumn noon, the sun’s farewell caress on the back of your neck.
There are two books and one song I want to write about in introducing the poems I have chosen for this post: The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club 1988) by theologian Thomas Berry, Climbing Mount Improbable (Viking 1996) by evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins.
My copy of The Dream of the Earth is dog-eared and heavily annotated as a result of my readings in the 1990’s. Berry points out that the behaviour of all living creatures is controlled wholly or in part by genetic “codes” evolved by trial and error over very long periods of time. Of all living creatures, humans are the least constrained by their genetic codes, having developed through the faculty of consciousness, “cultural” codes of behaviour communicated across generations, codes that can accommodate incremental learning appropriate to the climate, terrain or other external conditions people find themselves in. Our cultural codes also include religious and or philosophical beliefs. Although it is assumed that cultural codes are widely shared within societies, they can also be highly individualistic. Because, until recently, our planet seemed vast and essentially unlimited, human cultural codes seem more devoted towards exploitation of the earth as a resource than to living in a harmonious relationship with the non-human parts of the planet.
Berry, as a theologian, believes in a numinous dimension to the Universe and he asks, if this is true, what contributions do conscious creatures like humans make towards confirming or acknowledging this numinous/spiritual quality? The essence of his answer, admittedly dumbed down, is that conscious creatures bearing witness to all they perceive are the Creator’s audience.
One of the defenses of “creationists” against evolutionary science was that the technical elegance of eyes was highly unlikely to have been achieved through a series of random mutations of DNA. The intervention of an intelligent designed was required, that of the Creator.
Richard Dawkins in his splendid book on evolution, Climbing Mount Improbable, shows that no deliberate intervention of an intelligent Creator is needed to build an eye and further, that eyes may have evolved independently more than once in the long passage of time. Because no deliberate designer other than carbon-based organic molecules and time is required to engineer complicated structures Dawkins is convinced that there is no numinous dimension to the Universe, no overseeing god etc. and he has not hesitated to say so.
Enter the contemporary singer-songwriter Iris Dement with a song about religious beliefs entitled “I Think I’ll Just Let the Mystery Be” that I find both funny and wise. One could wave off Dement’s insight as a lazy dismissal of the contrasts exposed by Thomas Berry and Richard Dawkins or one could accept these contrasts as deep, enduring and humbling mysteries.
With regard to my poems, and with particularly the ones I have included in this post, I realize that what inspired me to write them could be a whiff of the numinous that Thomas Berry refers to, an embracing of the possibility that I am, in that instant, part of the Creator’s audience. Feeble as my efforts may be, sometimes a visceral feeling tells me I have landed right, that I am momentarily in tune.
Near noon and the sun full high, though hid by opalescent cloud, a hole is formed, the disc breaks through, light and shadow shower down. The rocks, the sea, forest hills, the frail boat bearing me above dark water, all sheltered in a canopy of blessing.
My worn hands upon the oars – let them fashion praise of all I see. My fading voice in clumsy song honour all while listening still. Protected, might I dare believe These callings manifest your will?
I am looking for Bernadette in the church common-room, after service, a banal errand of keys and thermostats. A wool-capped kid confronts me, with a smile that is a question. He is reaching in his shirt pocket for a folded paper. “Can I give you these prayers?”.
I take his paper and say “Thanks, “I’ll read them later when it’s quiet.” And a woman at my elbow says, “Don’t mind Paul, he’s just a little – “you know – intense.”
It is later now, and quiet. The page of prayers lies on my desk. A “Jesus Christ to Heart” prayer, a prayer for Remorse and Resolve, and one for Mercy and Forgiveness, all calling for the New Jerusalem.
A schizoid boy or an urgent messenger from Value Village? Saying that had you the Resolve and the Mercy and the Accepting Heart so open to the Universe that you could no longer tell inside from out that the New Jerusalem might unfold at your feet as you walked out to West Saanich Road, as the cars sailed by, on this November morning.
Along with poems I have also written many songs. The lyrics of some of these, I feel, stand alone as poems. Here’s a sampling
A Song for Skedans was inspired by a visit to the abandoned Haida village of Skedans on Haida Gwaii. Skedans was depopulated and abandoned in 1862 by the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic among the susceptible First Nations people. I knew about the epidemic through the story of Metlakatla written by Howard White in Raincoast Chronicles, First Five, Collectors Edition (Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park BC, 1976) and it is a dark story conferring shame on the settler society of that time. Reflecting on the visit and the story, and alert to its power, expected to write something dark as well. Instead, these words came to me seemingly unbidden. I wrote them down and never changed a word. I first performed this song at my father’s memorial service.
Who Has Seen he Fitful Wind combines allusions to the four elements and the five senses into a hymn for the inter-relatedness of all life.
Bright With Use celebrates the life of a friend who was a committed environmental activist.
A Song For Skedans
The waves go rolling to the shore, Each one growing, shouting, dying, And the sea pulls back once more, Tumult fades to gentle sighing.
The silent forest is not still; Great trees loom awhile, then fall. Young trees thrust from fallen forebears; From branch to branch, the ravens call.
And so with men, whole villages and towns Proudly rise, make signs, and fade. Canoes, long beached, forget the sea, And houses melt to forest glade.
From somewhere near a new wave swells, And we are wafted in its flow, To dash in angry breakers on the beach, Or like the kelp, wash to and fro.
Out of chaos, silence builds. Out of silence, singing flows.
Oh, who can see the fitful wind? “It’s ev’ry morning,” said the hawk, “I see him in the ripples on the lake, I see the grasses waving on the plain, The sailing clouds upon the valley rim.” And me, I was not looking there But now I see wind everywhere.
And who can smell the gurgling water? “In all my living,” said the fish, “I smell the land washed off the hills by rain, I smell the ocean when the tides are full, I smell the life when sun and wind combine.” I lacked the knowledge to compare; Now I smell water everywhere.
Now who can tell the taste of earth? “I’ve always tasted,” said the worm. “I taste the death of leaves the wind brings low, I taste the grains of sand from snowbound peaks, I taste the wind in the breath of living trees.” And all this time I did not dare But now I taste earth everywhere.
And who among us touches fire? Says the hummingbird, “Once I did.” “I bear its embers on my breast And in my quest for warmth I cannot rest. I suck the blossoms that burn red like me.” Once fearful of the scorching flare, I learned I’m burning everywhere.
And who can hear the beating of my heart? Does it beat all alone, just for my ears? This longing that I feel sets me apart. “But we have hearts!” I heard the creatures say, “As they beat for us, so they beat for you. Your senses freed, you need no longer drift; Your heart will beat for us both night and day, And this longing, once a curse, can be our gift, For where it pulls you, surely we come too.”
This old spade – hickory handled, Oiled and smoothed with heat of many hands, Plough-steel blade – worn smooth by garden scouring, The gravel’s rasp and polish of soft sand. Familiar in my hands, your heft is pleasure, The lift and swing so easy in my arms. Your strength of wood and steel is where my trust is, The bold and cutting cleanliness of justice.
And my good axe – so surely hafted, Well-balanced with no shocks for aging wrists. Honed true – with each sharp blow I twist it; The flying chips are bigger than my fist! With you alone I’d fell the tallest timber, And I admit that I’m the weaker one. With gentle taps we cleave the bolts so pretty, The even splits, a song for equity.
And my friend, although the time has claimed you, God made you for hard work in a hard land, And lifting you, he must have known the pleasure Of tempered steel in an exacting hand. You were not laid aside for want of keenness, Worn down, but with no trace of rust. And I’m praying when time turns my spirit loose, Like you, dear friend, I’ll still be bright with use!