A cartoon in the New Yorker many years ago showed two men talking at a cocktail party. One says to the other, “I come from Cincinnati, but that’s not where I’m coming from.”
That’s how I felt about Saskatchewan.
When I was sixteen, I drove my grandmother in her white Studebaker from Saskatoon to Vancouver so she could visit her daughter. Saskatchewan was still entombed in mounds of dirty hard snow; we arrived in British Columbia to, good heavens, green grass. I said to myself: I’m going to live here. Why doesn’t everyone live here? It took me five years to achieve my resolve. I still don’t know the answer to the question, though.
Finding home is like going through a series of promising portals. Although Vancouver was the first, I learned there was another more enduring one.
Over a decade ago, sight unseen, a friend made an offer on 10 acres of island property, “subject to inspection.” The realtor arranged for a water taxi to take her to see the land, and she invited me to go along.
The property she’d found was forested waterfront, very lovely. She was going to confirm the offer.
We decided to walk along the shoreline for a while. Putting one foot down, we’d jiggle the rock in front to make sure it would hold, then step on it. Gradually, we rounded a corner where the shoreline descended into a bay.
My boot slipped, my pack flew off, and I fell sideways into shallow, frigid water. As I scrambled back onto the rocks, unhurt, soaked to my waist, the shock of the fall woke me to where I was.
The bay was in the shape of a wishbone. The wind cinched its breath and ribbons of waves urged each other to shore. After the chaos of driftwood on the beach, grey-trunked trees ascended like masts, reaching a crescendo at the top, where a spray of green light firecrackered into the sky. I was claimed by the place.
Although minutes earlier I’d had no desire to own more property, I was now smitten. My friend could see this.
We made our way to the top of the wishbone and into a clearing. The ancient forest floor was dense with moss, so many kinds and colours. I had no names for what I saw.
I better understood my native clients’ views that to own a piece of land was somehow wrong, and a little absurd. Nevertheless, my friend and I bought this part of paradise together.
Later that summer, I decided the next adventure in my romance would be a three-week sleep-over. Although I’m not much of a camper, I had all the gear (an old two-person tent, Coleman stove, large cooler, solar shower bag).
The skipper of the water-taxi took me back to the place where I’d fallen in the water. I stepped out of the boat onto rocks that looked like sleeping sea-lions. After hauling my food and gear to the clearing and setting up the tent, I went exploring.
An opening wound through the woods like smoke. I followed it.
A narrow path was trampled to hardened ground.
Ahead was a deer with twin fawns. The fawns were ripping at the bushes with their tiny mouths. With skittish head movements, the doe took in my shape, but as though she couldn’t quite make me out. She smelled rather than saw me. The deer held, tense and still; the babies felt it, stopped eating, looked up. Then ran. I had never seen such a spring-loaded departure; the mother followed.
I had a strange yearning to live at the edge between the wild and the habitable, without lockdown.
As I walked back along the beach, I noticed a bank of exposed earth about five feet high and ten feet long, filled with broken bits of clams. It was a midden, made by natives through hundreds of years. There must be clams in the bay.
I didn’t have a tide book, but concluded that it rose about six inches every hour. I had to pay attention so I would know when I could walk out on the ocean floor and get clams.
Compelled by my newness and the place itself, I began the task of the first Adam and named the body of water in front of me Wishbone Bay.
As the tide continued to climb, a piece of land which had been attached to the shore became an island. I named it Sometimes Island.
A sound catches my attention; I cock my head the way an animal does, listening, discerning, sorting — for safety or danger or intrusion. It’s the wind. And then it’s the cessation of sound I notice, as the wind calms.
I remembered some lines from Middlemarch: If we had a keen vision and feeling, we could hear the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
I heard a rush of sound, not a roar. I felt certain if I stayed here long enough, I would learn to take in the other side of silence.
In the warmth of my sleeping bag that night, I skimmed across the surface of sleep rather than tuck into it. I was roused from that surface by a twig breaking, a branch falling, the wind picking up. Sleep was a figure of speech. In the city, no noise has anything to do with me; here I was connected to every sound.
In the morning, everything bristled, awake. The gulls made their scattered paper display of whirling and settling, whirling and rising up. The sun on the water glistened like money and rolled like tossed fate. The top of a log bobbed, then dove, a seal.
Some sounds were created by very large wings: the raven above me. I was amazed to hear its effort in flying. The bird then landed on a nearby tree and made a knocking sound in his throat. Knock knock, who’s there? Who, indeed.
At about 9 a.m. it started. Wind here wasn’t like the city’s wind. I didn’t feel it as a pressure against my face. Instead it tossed everything around, making me think of where it originated, a cave where the gods were causing a commotion. Still, the place was not set over against me; it was related to me in every way. I didn’t feel lonely, or even frightened.
The wind moved on the surface of the water like a flock of mergansers taking to the air.
I had an intimation of some possible peace within. It seemed to be a beginning, before we had started to wreck the earth.
I watched a bee land on a dandelion, its weight bending the stalk low. The bee drew in nectar, and then flew to the next dandelion, as the flower wanded and was still. I thought of memory being like that: my past bowed and settled into now.
I ate six Oreo cookies as the sun made its red way down the sky in quantum leaps, inch by inch.
The night seeped in.
Eventually, I made a fire. Sparks streamed up and burned tiny holes in the black sky, thousands upon thousands of them, letting light in.
I turned on my flashlight and followed the beam down to Wishbone Bay.
In a seated position, I moved gingerly to the end of a log which protruded into the water.
Even as a child I could never understand the desire to name the constellations, but I tried to play the game, as though searching for street-signs in a wilderness. I only recognized the Big and Little Dipper, yet was happy to find their reliable, domestic shapes.
And then a falling star. And another. The stars were being routed from their orbits. I wondered where they would land.
Days and nights passed in this way, the rush of silence penetrating and reorganizing my sense of self. I had never felt such consciousness in tranquility. Everything mattered here: that I figured out the tides, that I knew where the weather was coming from. The sun came up more or less in the same place every day, but the moon did whatever it wanted, rising here or there and sometimes not showing up at all. None of this was a strain, but rather a sense of cause and effect which paid out my attention, like a forge-linked chain — an essential, unmediated relationship between myself and place.
Three weeks later, I returned to Vancouver. Having a hot shower was a revelation. I decided that people who shower more than twice a week should pay a shower tax.
In the middle of the night, I awoke and sat up in bed. I recognized where I was: in my bedroom, in Kitsilano. Yet I was looking into this room from Hardy Island. In some strange way, I had ingested the geography of the island. I had become it.
When the same thing happened three nights in a row, I called a real estate agent and put my house up for sale. I was going to build a home on Hardy. The confusion of geographies stopped.