Monday, June 21, 2010


Canadians -- as we will offhandedly, nonchalantly, repeatedly, insistently inform you -- are a modest people. We don't waste our time waving the flag, or plastering the maple leaf onto our rear bumpers. We never brag about the greatness of our vast nation to groups of uncomfortably fidgeting strangers who nod politely, robotically. There is not an iota of hubris or vanity hurtling through our bloodstreams on its way to our underinflated psyches. (Indeed, we may not even be sure what, precisely, 'iota' refers to! No flaunting our intellectual prowess -- not us Canucks.)

We know who we are: simple (though not stupid) people.

Or so we tell ourselves, and often others.

Every country is a world of one. Canada's universe is one that relies on the wilderness to garnish our national myth. Even those us raised in cities, reared in strip malls and concrete, feel an elemental, even mystical pull towards the rivers and the trees, a tug-of-war between who we are becoming in this electronic age, and the past that keeps bringing us back to where we started. (This is what we remind ourselves.)

One wonders if the concrete, physical content of the earth -- its dust and soil, its rock and weed, the sap of its trees and the chill of firm, packed snow -- has somehow been integrated, over time, into our actual DNA. How little we understand of ourselves! It's not outrageous to assume that one sperm and one egg, remnants of even the most lacklustre lay, somehow passed along into each of us some environmental gene that mutated upon itself after generations spent sucking in and breathing out the very air of our Canadian north.

What else, after all, do we have going for us, if not the inherent synthesis of ourselves and our land?

To the outdoors we must return and retreat.

A not altogether ecstatic destination, for us 21st century pioneers, because there is something almost sinister about such a story, the national story, the story of a nation known all around the globe for the beauty of its nature. For if we link ourselves in a chain that extends from coast to coast, wrapping us so tightly in the grip of our outdoors, certain reminders of life's debt to the outdoor life gradually emerge even as we grip each other's hands all the harder.

Is it not to the earth that we return, in the end? Does not the dirt welcome home us home, finally? (Even ashes are inevitably returned to the ground or flung into the sea.) Perhaps our attachment to all things green and brown originates from an earthier, more basic place, that practical aspect of our interior life, our own individual physical plane, that intuitively recognizes that the harshness of a life in the outdoors leads, ultimately, to one place, and one place only.

Americans may have their 'manifest destiny', forever seaching for that bigger, brighter, better place that lies ahead just a little further west, beyond the next mountain, across the higher hill, but we have a destiny that tends to dampen any oversized ambitions. One that instills a kind of modest, morbid, reserved modernity.

We can't get excited about all that much. The dark forest is closer than we know. The wind is fierce. The snow doesn't seem to be stopping. Spring is far off, but it will come, short as it may be. There is that.

Usually, that's enough.