It is ‘greening up’ here rapidly. True darkness is down to around four hours and the ascendant sun is swiftly and efficiently sucking the leaves and shoots out into the open. Suddenly there are bunches of deep purple wild lupins and paler sprays of Jacob’s Ladder bursting out from the most unpromising ground. All the deciduous trees have the tender green that will gradually deepen and toughen up. Best of the lot are the balsam poplars: they have finger-lickin’, voluptuous furls of new leaf, copper-tinged and sticky-moist…all musky scented to the touch and licorice honey to the tongue.
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And yesterday was a 5 bear day. They are very active just now, ranging far and wide for sustenance in the time before the vegetation, berrries, fish and small mammal life are abundant enough for them to browse a more defined territory. In addition to a pepper spray, I now have a small compressed air klaxon for sounding when in dense forest or on trails where there are sharp bends and you don’t know what’s round the corner (bells are so yesterday, my dear).
I sincerely hope that I never have to use the spray in earnest because it would mean a situation was potentially life-threatening. To use the klaxon would be more like death by embarrassment. Everything in the vicinity would imagine that a 40′ motor cruiser was about to appear. So when I remember I give warning by coughing loudly (momma bears might think I have a cold and whisk their cubs off in the opposite direction), banging my stick against a tree (bears are known to be averse to sado-masochistic overtures), or singing (bears appreciate music and my voice would drive them well out of range).
In half a dozen direct and up-close bear encounters in my last 3 trips here, whilst doing all the right things (backing away slowly, making myself look big, radiating calm authority, and fiddling for my bear spray) I have actually sung to them. You are advised to talk to them in a low, reassuring voice. My one last desperate call if drawn into an ill-advised pub karaoke session would be a Johnny Cash song, he’s just about within my limited register. So I have developed a lengthy version of “I Walk the Line” for bear-disengagement purposes. It begins with the real words, then veers off into the surreal territory that all bears find so amusing…singalong to the tune:
“Because you’re mine, I walk the line…
because you’re a bear, I dye my hair…
because you’re hairy, I feel quite wary…
because of your claws, I sit and watch ‘Jaws’…
because you’re huge, I’ll be your stooge…
because you’re growlin’, I’ll throw the towel in…
because I’m your prey, I’ll make your day…
because of the size of your arse, I think I’ll let you pass…”
And so on. If in a group you can take it in turns to contribute verses. Alone you can get into interesting areas of improvisation and obscenity. Bears are, of course, supremely fascinating and beautiful, awe-inspiring creatures – but they are comfortable enough in their own skin and their own reality to allow for a little humour too. The song has worked for me in the Tombstone Mountains, in Bella Coola, off the South Canol, on Mount Edziza and in the Northern Rockies.
Send in your own additions. Like the best oral traditions it is a little different each time and grows incrementally, like a coral reef.
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Speaking of oral traditions, there are currently some 7,000 spoken languages in the world. Roughly half of these are no longer being taught to the next generation, the children born into those cultures. We are rightly active in our concerns for the destruction of the biosphere and the degradation of our environments. However, the elimination of ethnic groupings, with all the attendant cultural and linguistic diversity, is something of a hidden, tragic phenomenon.
The reasons are not hard to define: the sheer speed of technological change; the dominance of corporate, globalised capital; the power base that is contained within the language of the markets; the aggressive drive for control of water, food and energy resources that drives small minority cultures to the absolute margins of the world. As the last of the big land masses to be occupied by humans (only about 13,000 years ago), and as the last of the continents to be thoroughly colonised by white Europeans, North America holds a lot of learning about lost language and culture.
When a language dies, real knowledge is lost. Whole ways of assessing the world and communicating those assessments are gone forever. The science, arts, spiritual insights and traditions of a whole ancestry are mutilated beyond use. The most precious stories are no longer accessible. It is less concrete than the extinction of a snow leopard or a polar bear, but it is even more profound in its impact on what it means to be human.
Narrowing it down to Canada, given the determination and the attention to detail deployed by the conquering Brits, French, Spanish and the rest, it is amazing that some seeds of the aboriginal cultures survived. Hundreds of groupings and languages were destroyed in a sustained political, religious, military and industrial onslaught, backed up by imported disease and alcohol. There was a ‘shock and awe’ period of subjugation on all fronts, followed by a slower, deeper erosion and elimination. In many cases, it has only been the preservation and adaptation of stories that has kept significant threads intact.
This is a crucial aspect of appreciating the richness of the people of whatever origin in an area such as Yukon. The cultural, spiritual and linguistic revival of the remaining clans is a crystalline example of how it is possible to retain and grow that richness. It is important not to duck the facts that the First Nations communities face big challenges with regard to alcohol, drugs, domestic abuse, obesity and the familiar litany of mental health syndromes. There are social tensions over land claims, welfare payments and policing. But if we are clear-eyed about looking for ways to address those matters, it is also helpful to be clear-eyed about the profound wealth of knowledge, culture and learning that the First Nations represent.
I nearly said ‘bring’, but they don’t ‘bring’ any of that because they don’t have to. They have always made it available, and finally others are learning how to learn. Social problems take time but can be worked on from within and from without. And at the other extreme, forget the tourist-Hollywood-Indian-dreamcatcher imagery. There is an essence in between that shares a plateau with all the positive, contributory stories, philosophies, cultures and belief systems of the world. Not a hierarchy of peaks, a plateau.
And on that plateau, yes, many languages. After all, languages are there to be learned and to be made more capable, more nuanced, more precise, more ambiguous, more inspiring.
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English is a great language! Mind you, I worry when I look at even the biggest English dictionary. So few words to give us the ticket to what we need in speech, poetry, science, politics, spirituality, commerce, novels, drama, emails, texts, letters, blogs! And we exist within small hollowed out word-hoards well within the scope of the most basic dictionary.
An email came flooding in mentioning that the sender had to look up the word ‘esker’ after reading an earlier posting. It’s a nice word for the compacted gravel ridges, quite low and narrow, left by glaciers.
Grizzly Bear said to Wolf: “I am going up to the top of the mountain, would you like a lift?” Wolf replied: “No thank you, I’ll take the esker later.”
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Corporate-speak is a growth area in the English language. I suppose that growth areas are to be celebrated and appreciated, even if it does give us abominations like ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘interrogating the data’ etc etc until retching is reached. When travelling it is interesting to note the marketing slogans adopted by the various agencies.
In The Yukon Territory the official phrase is: “Yukon -Larger Than Life!”. You can see what they mean, but it begs more than a few questions. Whose life? What can be larger than life itself (must it be either death or Yukon)?
Even more stimulating to the imagination is the slogan for Air North. “Yukon – North of Ordinary!” Now Air North is a very fine operation, but I wonder how much they paid ad people with red braces and padded shoulders for that one. What happens at the other compass points in relation to Ordinary? Are they saying that Beautiful British Columbia is Ordinary? I think we should be told.
My absolute favourite is the marketing line for Dawson City, the fascinating and characterful town in north Yukon (or should I say North of North of Ordinary?). It is advertised as “One of the Last Imaginary Places on Earth!” Think on that! The Earth was once full of imaginary places, but now there are only a few imaginary places left for us to visit and then find they are not real. And Dawson City is among those illusory locations. I can tell you this, it’s a heck of a long way to drive for an imaginary experience.
Fortunately, Dawson City is very real. In fact the ‘snakepit’ and the ‘armpit’ of the Westminster Bar are as real as you can get this side of that atmospheric bar in Star Wars. Or that bikers’ pub in Wolverhampton.
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Back here North-by-North-West of Ordinary, feeling Larger Than Life in One of the Last Imaginary House-Sits on Earth, I am more and more engaged with the macro and micro delights of Yukon. As a non-birder I continue to be mesmerised and enchanted by the variety and number of the birds. Killdeer, Gray Jays and Northern Harriers have been very present recently, and by Lewes Lake I spent happy minutes in the company of a very curious Belted Kingfisher. They have a tufted top-knot of a permanent bad hair day, a cold shower gel-resistant mohican.
To conclude on a symmetry-conscious green image. Yesterday’s journey to the remote and simply beautiful community of Atlin included a visit to the idyllic hot spring by Warm Bay. The pond and the mildly hot stream that flows from it are surrounded with dense banks of spinachy, crunchy cress, crammed with tiny white star flowers. The warm water flows out just fast enough to stretch the neon green weeds on the bed of the stream into perfect, dreamy skeins of fine, undulating hair, like an invisible, loving, brush.
Atlin is actually in BC, but (unless you have a little float-plane) you can only get to it by first entering Yukon. Atlin is named from the Tlingit term Â Tlèn, meaning ‘big lake’. There is a bay now called Five Mile Bay. The original Tlingit name meant “Just Like a Mother’s Arm Where She Holds Her Baby”.