Saturday, August 22, 2009

Square 51: Bloody Lake

Square 051

We have a favourite canoe trip: from our cottage to Bloody Lake. To reach it you have to paddle 45 minutes, then portage across an old beaver dam. Beavers built it decades ago—the dam was there when I was a child—and have maintained it ever since, flooding the area behind and killing trees around the large pond and stream there.

The trunks still stand with branches outstretched, bleached by sun and weather. Great blue herons have colonized them.

Around the verge of the water, wide mats of vegetative matter have spread, creating a bog habitat. Lacking soil, bog plants must resort to unusual mechanisms to obtain nutrition. I have found four species of carnivorous plant. Round-leaved sundew or Drosera rotundifolia captures insects on sticky red threads that cover its leaves. Horned bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta) and purple bladderwort (U. purpurea) capture small underwater creatures with tiny snares. Most imposing, pitcher-plant or Sarracenia purpurea, possesses pitcher-shaped leaves containing water to trap, drown and digest insects. Its maroon clumps are easy to spot on the green sphagnum moss. If you go early in the summer you might be lucky enough to spot flowers of Arethusa bulbosa, which is not carnivorous but a spectacular tiny pink orchid.

Near the dam you will hear tree frogs peeping and see dozens of other frogs of several species in the water. A barred owl, broad-winged hawk or pileated woodpecker might call.

From there you have to poke up a lazy stream choked with waterlilies. The water is dark brown. Finally you reach another larger pond one kilometre long and half as wide. This is Bloody Lake.

It is not spectacular, just a kidney-shaped patch of water with marsh and sparse forest around the edges. The most remarkable thing is that it does not seem to change as the decades pass. There is no sign of human activity, in fact you might imagine no one else has bothered to go there since you saw it last summer. You will find a lone loon or perhaps a family, and a beaver lodge. In the evening I have seen an American bittern making its bizarre call, which it does by shaking the loose skin of its throat. Once twenty years ago a friend and I came upon a moose cow and two calves feeding among the sedges.

Reaching Bloody Lake is not a goal but a journey, one of exertion and observation. Its beauties are not splendid; they are subtle, rich with texture and colour, timeless.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Square 50: Head space

Square 050

I have been reading Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, a series of meditative essays published in 1986 about his experiences in the high north latitudes. It was recommended by my friend Rebecca years ago and I have since read several of Lopez's books, some essays and some short fiction, but finally came across a used copy of the book itself on Bloor Street in Toronto recently. The chapters dwell thoughtfully on the landscape, anthropology and biology of the Arctic. The facts are a little dated; the text makes no reference to climate change or how it is threatening species, such as the polar bear, that depend on ice for habitat. But the writer paints timeless, vivid word pictures of an environment few of us will ever visit yet strangely crucial to life on Earth as we know it. He reflects laterally on human perception and consciousness, which makes the reading deeply engrossing.

I am attracted to Lopez because his life work has successfully explored the border between nature writing and fiction, the two genres that appeal to me most as a writer. His language is elegant and eloquent, elucidating a concept of mind transcending the human, seeping into cosmology. He almost persuades me to resume believing in a higher creative consciousness, though he rarely speaks directly to that matter. He demonstrates that Nature is greater than we can ever fathom, and we meddle with it at our peril. I have always believed that, whether or not I believed in a god.

I used to write more frequently in this same vein, but for some years my mind has been too cluttered. This problem became vividly apparent over the past week's vacation while I delved into more pages of this profound tome. I need to make more room for my own thoughts. The peaceful corners of my new apartment invite me to sit, reflect and write. Now I only have to make time for it. It's so easy to become obsessed with the million urgent and necessary matters that clutter a day.

Thursday evening I drove Marian and Kerri home from the cottage to Port Hope, and made the return journey along a quiet and forsaken road. Highway 35 winds through low hills and dense forest. On humid nights, trees along the roadside always shine as if with frost. About midnight a waning moon rose and began to appear periodically through clefts in the landscape, casting silver light across each lake I passed. It was a rich voyage for the senses.

I wanted to derive cogent insight from that motor pilgrimage, but nothing came to mind. All I knew was, I need to start making space in my head again. Maybe we all do. Are you too busy to look for lessons arising from your daily activities? You only are because, like me, you tell yourself so. Or you're so preoccupied you don't even ask the question.

Moonlight stretches along the road before me. The dotted line curves out of sight like the threads of yarn into future squares. I will continue to follow, and see what I find.