Thursday, December 8, 2016

And to all a good night

"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

The deep thinker Kierkegaard had that just about perfectly right. As I stumble my way through the final weeks of my seventh decade I find walking more vitally important than ever. I’ve always been a walker-hiker-rambler but as I approach the opening salvos of  decade number eight I am ever more struck by the insight of the sage, Robert Carl Nagel: You don’t wait ‘til your seventy to start looking after yourself. All around me are folks whose knees and hips seem to be crumbling faster than the fond hopes of those who went into U.S. balloting stations November 8 expecting that their fellow citizens would be governed by their better natures. I seek to walk my troubles away.

Some of the best walking Jan and I enjoyed in 2016 was in the hills of Tuscany in May. Apart from the obvious attractions – the regional food and drink – we reveled in a plethora of wildflowers and beautiful birds. We ate up history, culture and ancient architecture. We made new friends. We wore ourselves out, happily, and rationalized that with the daily caloric burn we could reward ourselves with all the gnocchi and gelato we could load on board.

A year ago health issues deprived me of an entire season at the summer Shangri-la in Cape Breton. Jan and I made up for it in 2016. At Big Bras d’Or we typically start our day with a seven-kilometre walk to and around Dalem Lake, relishing the ever-changing scene delivered by the passing seasons.

We enjoyed occasional bike expeditions, entertained visitors at the cabin, exploited Lynn-and-Louise’s willingness to take us into wild, untrampled parts of the Cape Breton highlands. Now we are back at the winter base camp on south Vancouver Island, where there are more hills to explore and other kindred spirits to explore them with. We wear out boot leather with good friends Mike, Mary and Judith – and count ourselves lucky that we’re still able to do so.

The past year delivered a happy event of another, less sweaty sort. On November 12 I launched my book, Remembered in Bronze and Stone, a contemplation of Canadian war memorials. Published by Heritage House, the book is available in stores right across the country. It is early days but the response to the book has been highly gratifying. It makes an excellent Christmas present. No, really.

2016 was a banner year. Mostly. True, not all the passages wrought by time are ones that bring joy. Dan Livingstone departed this mortal coil in March. In June it was Bob Nagel’s turn. Then the great Ron Satterfield took his leaving in August. Though I never knew them personally I also grieved the departures of Muhammad Ali and Leonard Cohen. Happily, life affords plenty of joy to offset periodic stabs of grief. Even with D. Trump in the White House, the sun will likely still shine; warblers will return in May; satinflowers, shooting-stars and calypso orchids will yet bloom in the warmth of another island spring. We shall make a point of reveling in them all. Perhaps everything will be all right.

On my own behalf and Jan’s too: Happy Holidays and our best wishes for a healthy and productive New Year.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Fifty Years in the Making

A peregrination of a different and very exciting sort reached journey’s end yesterday. Before a crowd of eighty at the Victoria Public Library’s main branch I launched my book, Remembered in Bronze and Stone. Though the actual writing of the book took only a couple of months in 2015, in a very real sense Remembered is a book half a century in the making. The book  is dedicated in memory of my great-uncle, Harrison Lincoln Livingstone. In 1964 Harrison acquired a big, beautiful piece of land in Cape Breton: five hundred acres, five miles of shoreline, an island all his own. The acquisition of the land ushered in a period that was the happiest of his long life.

The unhappiest period of Harrison’s life surely occurred in the years 1915 to 1918 when he was a Canadian soldier in the battlefields of Flanders and France. In the spring of 1965, the first spring after he’d acquired his Shangri-la near Marble Mountain I went there with him to take the first steps at rehabilitating the ancient, near-derelict house that had been the lifelong home of the bachelor who lived there all his days and had sold the land and house to Harrison in old age.

In the front room of the dark old house there was a wooden puncheon – a very fragrant one – packed with pickled herring. How long it had been there? The attic was literally knee-deep in the detritus accumulated over decades by old Johnny MacKenzie. Among the 1930s-era issues of Maclean’s magazine and myriad other markers of decades gone by there was a weathered leather jacket. It fit me perfectly. I wore it on campus for a few years as I completed a degree at Dalhousie University then commenced a master’s at the same learned institution.

Apart from cleaning up the house, I helped Harrison cut trails through his land and reduced dense groves of red alder to firewood. Together we found a little forgotten cemetery engulfed in forest of spruce and fir.

Harrison and I were on our own at Marble Mountain: no television, not even a radio I can remember. We only had each other. Circumstances were just right for the momentous event that soon took shape. I managed to get Harrison talking about his experiences in the trenches and battlegrounds of the Great War. His accounts were both horrifying and appalling and at the same time riveting and unforgettable. It was there and then, in the spring of 1965 at Marble Mountain, that my life-long fascination with the Great War was seeded.

In 2005 Jan and I, with good friends Mary and Mike, made our first circuit of the Western Front, by bicycle. We saw the battlefields, visited the graves of six Cape Breton relatives killed in the war. Upon returning home I began in earnest to gather artefacts of Harrison’s war and that of his brothers, cousins and friends: images, documents, memories. I built an online inventory of these items and shared them through the Internet.

In 2010 while on a war history mission in Westville, Nova Scotia, I chanced upon something that literally stopped me in my tracks: the community war memorial. In a green space beside the town post office was a bronze soldier standing on the town cenotaph. The soldier, wearing no helmet, his rifle strapped across his back, stands at the battlefield grave of a comrade. It is a mute essay in loss, regret and contemplation. It was, simply, the finest community war memorial I had ever seen.

At the base of this compelling figure was a mark identifying the sculptor and the year he produced his work: Emanuel Hahn, 1921. A new mission was born: I decided I had to learn more about Hahn and the life work he had accomplished. The following year Jan and I embarked on an ambitious plan: we mapped a journey across Canada aimed at delivering us to other memorials featuring a bronze or stone soldier, not just those conceived by Emanuel Hahn but the whole works: all the memorial soldiers we could arrange to see. We followed the 2011 transcontinental journey with another in 2012. This time a west-to-east quest along a different route, to other soldiers on other monuments. Further, regional journeys occurred in 2013 and 2014.  Eventually we managed to see, study and photograph a big majority of Canada’s stone and metal soldiers.

In the spring of 2014 I gave a presentation on the country’s war memorial statuary to the west coast branch of the Western Front Association. It was wonderfully well received. I was urged to write a book. I dodged the task for a while. Who would be interested in such a book? Who would publish it? Then in 2015 a new imperative arose: health issues compelled me to forgo an entire season in Cape Breton. My friend Ron Caplan said I had to make worthy use of the time I would otherwise be in Cape Breton. I had to write the book. I did. Though the treatment I underwent was sometimes distinctly unpleasant, I wrote. I never felt more alive. I completed a manuscript.

It took three months but I found a publisher who liked the manuscript and wanted to publish it. The publisher, Rodger Touchie, and his able staff at Heritage House did a marvelous job: they turned my manuscript into a finished work I consider beautiful – and while they were at it commanded the attention of media far and wide, CBC Radio from Victoria and Vancouver to Cape Breton, stories in print media in Victoria, Vancouver and Halifax.

Yesterday was the official book launch: eighty attended, I spoke about my book. People lined up to acquire a copy. I signed at least fifty.

The past week has been the best and worst of times. Leonard Cohen departed this mortal coil. Somehow, unbelievably, D. J. Trump was elected leader of the free world. And yesterday, at Victoria’s main library, a journey commenced fifty years ago at Marble Mountain in Cape Breton reached its destination.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Going Where No One Goes

My mum, bless her tender heart, saw to it that she raised a son who counts his blessings. I consider myself lucky that she did so. Being mindful of one’s good fortune, it seems to me, makes good things all the more golden.

For the first time since we teamed up two decades ago Jan and I are, only for a while, doing our own thing as summer turns to autumn. After three months at the summer shack it was time for her to return to her musical passions on the west coast and to Victoria’s myriad charms and attractions. A year ago health problems cost me the entire season at Bigador – I felt robbed – so I am hell-bent on making up the loss this year: I am intent on spending my full four-month entitlement here – and reveling in Cape Breton’s October allure for the next two weeks.

Yes, I miss my mate but I am determined to confound those – my dear old Mum in particular – who fear that left to my own devices I may starve or accidentally burn the cabin down or perhaps chainsaw off a leg. When I last glimpsed Jan beyond the security line at Sydney’s McCurdy airport I admit to having felt more than a little sentimental but I quickly decided that the best way to fend off lonesomeness is by maximizing busyness and productivity. I do the pre-breakfast Dalem walk just as I did in Jan’s company. I conduct selective tree-cutting, make firewood, enjoy small projects around the Bigador compound. I don’t waste time. If the rain stays away I spent almost all the daylight hours outdoors; after dark I produce a proper supper; CBC Radio is my constant companion.

One of my top blessings is that despite my advanced age and lack of personal charm, Lynn and Louise continue to allow me to join them on their expeditions into the untraveled Cape Breton hinterland. I describe my twin cousins – with no exaggeration or lazy bias – as the most formidable backcountry people Cape Breton has to offer. 

Do you want to join us for an off-trail ramble in the hills above the Cheticamp River canyon, they asked. Absolutely, I answered. The collected me early Saturday morning and by mid-morning we were at the trailhead on Cape Breton`s opposite coast. ‘Trailhead’ is perhaps a misleading term: the twins don`t much like prepared trails. As soon as it can be arranged they like to get away from the road well traveled and head for places no one ever goes.

Saturday morning was a case in point. For a short time we followed a route that had been a formal national park trail until it was decommissioned at some point in the 1980s. Soon enough, as a steep hill loomed to our right Lynn spotted a grazing cow moose. I managed to get an excellent shot of its butt end before the cow realized our presence and skedaddled. We followed the big beast up the slope, through mature forest, over and around fallen logs.

Moose signs proliferated as we approached the summit: moose trails, moose-browsed trees, pressed-down spots marking places where cow or bull had chosen to bed down for the night, frequent piles of moose pellets. What there wasn’t was any sign of human presence: no beer cans, candy wrappers, or old campfire sites. 

We climbed to the summit of the twins’ mountain, a mountain that has no name on topographical maps so I cannot tell you it. At a rocky promontory overlooking the Cheticamp River gorge and the village of Cheticamp on the distant horizon, I asked Lynn and Louise to make an educated guess: when was the last time a person other than themselves had been in this spot? They gave the question careful consideration before Lynn ventured this: perhaps the 1930s. How marvelous it was to imagine that she might be right, that we could briefly visit a spot sufficiently remote that no one else had trod in eighty years. 

Which is not to say we were devoid of company. Selecting another promontory overlooking the deep Cheticamp Valley we settled in for a hawk watch. Only a few songbirds remained in this place on the first day of October, most of their kind having departed for points south but we did see birds, big ones: several bald eagles, a merlin, and two individuals of a species the twins could not remember ever having seen before in Cape Breton – peregrine falcon. Yahoo.

I am grateful to Doris Irene, my friend and mother, for bestowing upon me a constitution decent enough that I can still bushwhack up trackless mountains in my seventieth year – and of course a clear sense of how lucky I am that that is so.