Kate's Boreal Blog

Winter 2008
Spring 2009
Summer 2009
Fall 2009

Winter blogging December 2008

December 14
We leave the city at 10 AM, and head north. The roads become narrower and narrower, more and more snaky, into logging country. Passed by logging trucks and little other traffic. We turn off on the gravel roads into the bush. Entering the forest we drive past miles of burned trees, acres burned by forest fire, stumps and skeletons and the vigorous heads of new spruce barely visible, but the forest is rising again. Birch and aspen, spruce, pine. Dark blue spruce. Lace of bare birch. Humps of rock.

In our small cabin at Hollow Water, Sid is reading a Japanese novel, Mandy crochets, Ken plays with his laptop and sound equipment. Janine is reading, writing and talking about food.

They’ve made the fire and it’s crackling in a rusting cast iron stove covered with stones. Oranges on the table, the Den Mother’s gift. I can see the wide white snake of the frozen river, the bush along its banks.

I’ve been here before in a winter bush with that brilliant sky tenting lake and forest. Here what you hear is not stars but the vehicles on the road. You see smoke, the cold river, dogs. Crow feet on the snow. The black sky, trees against it, birch, the conifers, spruce pines and nameless mysterious trees.

The doors of our cabin are hung with cedar for protection and cleanliness. Can spirits pass? Why are we here? To listen and listen, learn the medicines of the river and trees. Roots, leaves, flowers, stems. Have our bodies forgotten how to eat?

Dec 15 2009December 15
It is bitterly cold. Was called outside this morning; small birds singing in the high trees, chickadees, redpolls, jays and the raven passing on the wind. It takes a day to shed the city. Trees are very tall and slender here.

We came to see and listen. Spirits. Dogs. The river vista. Sun rising, bare trees open to the colour bands of dawn. Open for the sunrise – it’s late, after 8 AM this close to Winter Solstice. Wind up, sun in and out. Pale and lovely. Blue of sky almost not there. There is an edge to sound in extreme cold, a “scrunch.” Bird tracks, silence. No sign of deer or moose, of wolves or any other predator.

Fire stoked, Ken is off to hunt sound down by the river. Mandy capturing the sunrise, her fingers and her cameras freezing.

Does the forest welcome us?

Must be 25 years since I’ve been in the winter bush, seen sundogs in the pale blue sky. Annwn, the antechamber to heaven.

Noting the sky at night: Orion and Ursa Major, the Wain. Whole clusters of stars. We forget to live by them. Fire and Ice. Sleep and watching.

BorealDecember 16
Thinking on the place and role of the artist here. Is the forest a sacred text? Singing itself. Is a choir like a stand of trees? An orchestra? A river? A land full of medicines?

Sid finds his feet in the cold and in the making of fire. He hears the melodies already. Everybody blooms in the cold.
Coming to Hollow Water is right. We are just starting. Solstice is coming. Sid walks to the bend in the river. Ken is up at the crack of dawn with his microphones taking the sound of morning birds at the feeder, the far croak of ravens in the woods. Mandy with her camera in plastic, recording the sunrise, playing with the dogs. Janine making twig tea. Land medicine, now there’s a book. Juniper and cedar tea. Root of calamus. Bush food. Garry wants us to do a sweat. Part of the land, the dragon.

Looked out. Sky is dark blue with the coming night. It has started well.

December 17
We are in Bissett, staying at a motel. Oh the pleasure of a shower! In the evening, we attend a school Christmas concert. So few children here they are called up for their gifts by their first names only. Happy. A beautiful wide sparse Christmas tree with garlands and lights. The wideness of it is reassuring and safe in some way, familiar.

This is a small town built on rocks, the Shield. The houses scattered, lit for the coming holiday. Christmas is all about Santa now. Reaching back to the old, but not getting there: elves, Santas, gifts and trees. Something is missing. We celebrate the wobble of the earth. Bjork had given us a description of scaring children at Jol. Children need to be scared, she told us. And she laughed.

Winter Solstice is dark and scary. The glorious sky. A sureness.

BorealDecember 18
We went today to the school. Light, movement, love, and so few children. So much knowledge for them. The school has light airy rooms. Once this school went to Grade 12. The children tell us stories about ice fishing, about bears. Alma tells a story about bears and a tame deer. About mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies. About ice fishing, falling into ice holes. About a bear on the veranda. Alma walked everywhere, and she still walks.

Sid plays piano, and a young girl with braces on her teeth is all agog. Mandy shows how to use a camera. Ken plays with traps and the kids worry he might hurt himself on them. These children learn to shoot bow and arrow, to set traps.
Someone here teaches music. There is a violin, a piano. So few children, such a beauty of a school. The lake is almost idyllic. A slowly dwindling community in a paradisic setting.

We walk the frozen lake, toward lonely islands. The mine is forever beeping. At the school, one child had told of how bright the full moon was once, that you could see the outline of a tree clear across the lake.

We go to the cemetery to find Janine’s mother’s grave. It is tucked off the road, inside the forest, and the snow is so deep we cannot find the grave. Ken takes soundings, Mandy snaps pictures. We all listen for the scuffle and scurry of animals.

December 19
The mine kept me awake all night, and I don’t recall any dreams, but I saw landscapes in a half sleep, snow, rocks, river. Dark blue. The Solstice is coming. Blue energies. Wolf I see. This is the teaching zone.

Spring blogging June 2009

June 2
We are at a very nice motel on the Fisher River reserve, and it comes complete with wireless. We got here about an hour late. This reserve seems to run like clockwork. We met with George Crate at the centre, and got extremely sorted out about itineraries and such. Then came back and got settled into our motel. Then dashed out to have dinner at the cafe which closes at 6, so we had to eat early. Rained all day and evening.

June 3June 3
Morning. Quiet. Bush and gulls outside my window. I take coffee outside and walk to the road that separates the motel from the forest. I stand and look. I know enough not to enter.

The road between me and the forest is a border. What did I hear there? A non-mind language, or communication. I don’t have the words. There may not be any. Did the forest say no, or, what is your name? Or, what right do you have to know me? Do you have permission? What is the magic word? I am too busy now, everyone is waking and growing, feeding and fighting. This is the forest in spring.

This morning we went for the walk by the lake with George. It was a sunny day, and the walk was lovely, through brush and along the beaches. However the lake was very choppy and high, and we got very wet feet. I got poked in the eye by a branch and lost my glasses, found them again, but sans one of the lenses, so they are broken. Have to make do with the naked eye and reading glasses. I am chagrined.

We walk the lakeshore single file, not singing and then singing. Saw the cleaned bones of a raven, eaten by the rez dogs or a lynx. Driftwood staffs present themselves to us, smoothed willow branches. Tangles of roots and fallen trees along the beach. Sand that sucks things down. Out to the point we went, brave city souls. What are we looking for? How land and water merge? How the forest is eaten by the lake, how the forest defies the lake and lays its branches into it?

But this is spring, we are looking and listening. Water everywhere, and it goes on raining, little bogs everywhere. Mosses impossibly green, full of light. The Forest Listeners. Us.
The Lake takes my glasses, sends a leaning willow to push them off into the beach sand, at the juncture of earth, water and air.

It is a lovely evening, Janine wants to go for a walk so I may suit up and go with her. Maybe we will connect up with the forest from across the road.

Eagles, ravens, gulls, pelicans. Crows. And the small songbirds from the south coming home. They are heard. Not seen, hidden in the trees. Their voices only calling. Ravens in the evening forest establishing who rules. Cacophonies. Then silence. Then again. “Quiet,” say the ravens, “our babies are trying to sleep.”

We spent a couple of hours with an Elder, David Murdoch. He was a lovely man, gave some interesting teachings about names and dealing with the natural world, and gifted each of us with an eagle feather.

Elder David Murdoch tells us there is no harvesting of herbs in the spring. Harvest in summer and fall. When you go to harvest, it is your intent that is paramount. The plants need to know why you are harvesting them. Tell them it is to heal.

He tells us about the importance of name. The grass and trees know you by your medicine name. No one gives you a name. You just have it. Someone, an elder or medicine person, can hear it for you. But not give it.
He tells us about the importance of not holding people when they want to leave life.
He gives us each an eagle feather.

I have noticed that Elders make themselves naked. They tell you their lives, they tell you the holes they have dug themselves out of in their lives. So I ask, is the forest naked too like that?

The day was warm and lovely, and we had a picnic with George at the visitors’ centre, then rested, then went for a fantastic pickerel dinner at LorettaLynn’s. Fresh from the lake, with brown and wild rice, fresh veggies and homemade bread.

We come by the Fisher river, visitors. Pelicans fish alongside people, group together on a sandbar. Further up the river there’s shallows, reedy water. The Pelicans glide in, low to the river. We are excited, awed to see them. Not the people living here, they are co-fishers with them. The pelicans aren’t afraid, don’t spook.

Water everywhere. The lake. The river. Creeks. Spring flood, the winter melt off, rain, rain, rain, watering the forest, lake, the fishermen out for spring pickerel. Pelicans on the river, fishing. The fish spawning. The pelicans nesting. The eagles and cormorants fishing.

In the evening we drove up to Fisher Bay and Mandy took photos while Ken took some sound from the forest. Sid found himself a staff and we recited the 23rd Psalm, he said some of it in Hebrew. Then he went into the forest with the staff, like a prophet.

June 4
BorealWe met with the Outdoor Education teacher, toured the school, then went on a very bumpy road out to the "creeks," which is a wetland, and the kids made a fire, and cooked moose meat they had butchered themselves for us. Bannock and moose sandwiches for lunch in the drizzle. The school kids, teenagers too cool to wear the yellow slickers, but proud of their work in carving the moose, cooking it, making a fire in the rain. Meat is tender, tucked into bannock .
Cow tracks. Birds calling on either side, from the reeds, the shores and shallows. Watched muskrats, birds, listened to piping frogs and bird twitters, duck splashes. Walked the muddy road in old sneakers, dressed in the rain poncho and looking like a giant blueberry.

Then we were off to see Elder Elsie Crate. We sat and talked with her for a couple of hours, she is quite political. She showed us her sweat lodge, her trees with coloured cloth offerings, a grove, her piece of land. We had dinner with her at Loretta Lynn’s. Rained most of the day, poured for a bit, then out came the sun. At Elsie’s we saw a small owl on the top of a tree. This owl had been visiting her all day. He was perching on a small tree near her property. She wondered what he wanted. It was a small owl, young. He sat on the treetop chirping, swaying. The day was volatile with rain and not rain, pelting rain. Ken and Sid were drawn to the owl. They stood and watched him until he flew away. Perhaps he told them what he wanted to say.

It turns out that Elsie’s grandfather was a guy named Bookbinder, who was Jewish. Sid figured this out while talking with George and his mother-in-law Hazel.

In the evening I walked out to the road to look at the forest across the way, and a bald eagle wheeled overhead, turned and went back over the forest. I said howdy.

The motel owners’ granddaughter, 17 months, spent the evening toddling the hall and in and out of Janine and Mandy’s room.

June 5
June 5Going home again

After 3 meals of pickerel enthusiastically promoted by Sid, two in Gimli and one at Fisher River, I have chosen to name him Pickerel Sid. We decided to go home by Gimli rather than straight south, and to stop at Beach Boy for lunch. Again, Sid ordered a pickerel dish, which Ken decided to have also. After lunch, the “boys” walked down the road for an espresso, the “girls” went for an alkalizing walk and I sauntered alone to the beach in the cold.

The lake was wild, grey and choppy, slapping up against the sea wall. I looked at the wall paintings done by local artists, depicting the history of Gimli, starting with First Nations, then the Icelandic and Ukrainian settlers. I felt sheltered in the wall, as it enclosed the boats and a calm piece of water. We are still a bit in the bush here, at the edge, trees still muscling into the town, along the beach. Someone said this is the small end of the lake. The stories we heard from Hazel and Elsie about their fathers, fishing in the north of the lake, told us how bountiful the lake had once been: these men had made a good living from the fishing once. Now, Elsie tells us, the southern fish have tumours, she won’t eat them, only fish from the north where the lake is not so polluted.

I am thinking about Elsie’s anger, about her challenge to us to make music out of the slaughter of bears in the spring. Each year about 1800 bears are culled, and the story goes that all of the bear is used. But Elsie doesn’t believe it, she says, just the paws, and I think also the gall bladders, are harvested, perhaps the hide, and the rest is left to rot. Disrespect.

Here the forest is also about the lake, the rivers. No one without the other. I am not clear that the forest wanted us there in its spring excitement, its nesting and jostling, its making of young.

Summer blogging July 2009

July 26
We came up here through the Icelandic corridor – Gimli, Hecla. All names of gods and heroes, and Hecla, the long road town, houses all looking out to the lake. Remnants of boats and fishing life still on the shores. Now the lake is polluted in places. We cannot excuse this.

We spend the night at Hecla Resort. Incongruous hotel rooms like spas. Forest colours now full deep greens. Mosquitoes galore. Soft air. Soft water. A hot day, I swam in the glittering afternoon lake. But there were warnings on the beach about water quality, don’t swallow, it said. Eddies of cold currents in the warm water.

We walk to the lighthouse, through the short forest. Moss on birch, iridescent green on white birch. We pick stones off the pebble beach, all round white limestones. The smooth limestone everywhere. And granite. Squadrons of dragonflies at evening, diving and hovering for mosquitoes. And the swallows diving and swooping for them. Bird voices, unidentifiable, singing. Happy to be in the bush.

Late evening, I’m on the patio of the hotel, drinking vodka and tonic, watching the night come down. The lake with its forest ringing it. Water sounds, small trickles of the artificial waterfalls in the hotel gardens, the lapping of waves on the beaches. Always looking out to the lake. I watch and watch as the dark clouds roll in with night and the thunder comes.

BorealJuly 27
Cloudy, breezy. Rain came in the night. Don’t recall my dreams. Skeeters want to eat me. Swallows dip and dive, eat them. Nice economy.

And we drive up to the ferry dock in the wind. No ferry today, perhaps all week. The weather is too rough. So we come down to Jack Pine Resort and find ourselves accommodated and unaccountably happy. Weather sucks: cold, windy, and wet.

The bush is next to our hotel/motel. The sheltered bay is surrounded by dark green islands of summer forest. Three small planes in the water at the dock. Clouds moving west to east, a procession. Sun cloud, sun cloud. If you walk into the forest the wind quiets. Shelter. On the dock wind, wind. This is summer, and fire now is the wind and rain. Nothing burns. High summer here. Wind makes poplars spill their stories, chatter all at once, are they telling the same tale? Do they gossip?

July 28
July 28We have moved to a small cabin for a couple of days, further into the woods.

Up early, don’t recall dreams, but the lake and forest are beside, around us. The lake is a player in this part of the forest. Lungs, breathing, and water feeding, filtering. Limestone cleaning. And granite of the Shield always around you.
The forest remembers your name. You don’t.

You walk the roads, and by them, there are purple prairie clover and fields of strawberries, raspberries, and the thin yellow clovers of the Plains. Wind and sun take the bugs away, and you are walking free on the hard roads. The forest floor is soft, spongy, crackles a little underfoot from dropped twigs. You might be walking on moss, on rot. Dead trees are ringed up and down with fungi reaching in to break the cellulose down, and who but the fungi can do this? Send their rhizomes deep in, make fungus babies, ring up, little shells on the stump.

We are berry picking again, a feast for breakfast tomorrow. Porridge and berry mush. Ken off with his bug hat and his microphone. Wanting to pick up the songs of the exquisite little birds we cannot see. Mandy always with her cameras, scouring the forest floor.

Saw nuthatches on the trunks of trees out the front of the cabin, their tiny quick movements like the gestures of wrens.
We feed back to the forest with our scraps. Thank you, here is some food for you too. Not that it needs our leavings, but they are degradable, edible. Someone, something can eat them.

So for these few days we are forest people. Trees surround us, the lake in front. A birch hangs over the veranda. We forage for berries. Ken is the fire keeper. Janine the house mother, the organizer. She hearts it. Our house in the forest. Mandy documents us, the house, the forest, her cameras open and snapping.

I am just the old lady here, and a helper. Wood fetcher when there is no wood.

Janine asks what did I want to be when I was a child, what did I want to become, and I said I had once wanted to be a pilot, a healer, a teacher, a priest, a nun. A writer. Yes, but we didn’t speak of that, it was a given. The little airstrip here reminded me of that desire, to fly. How do you fly now?

On the forest floor, the little berries, plants snaking through the underbrush, berry bumps like tiny diamonds on the fruit. Leaves, twigs, mosses, tiny plants, tiny insects. You don’t know what you might step on. But it is always soft, bearing you up as you walk. Renews itself from its own detritus, moss bodies make new moss, tree bodies give life to the shell like fungus, the dropped leaves feed the next tree.

Forest breathes in the carbon dioxide, sucks it in, breathes back oxygen, lungsfull. We know the drill, the cycle. Self organizing, self sustaining, self protecting. Forest invites bears, wolves, coyotes, lynx, to keep out the unwanted. It is not romantic. But it romances itself in spring. It has only a few months to be alive. Half the year it’s under snow, the other half under leaf.

So it’s chilly at the end of July, cool, rainy, windy, little sun, not high summer, no fire, the summer is too cold and wet. Next year, the cycle can wait a year.

Here we eat like health nuts, food all fresh, pure. Too good. But every nutrient must count, be used. So we eat like the forest eats. Waste nothing, no calorie. No junk. No waste.

And we dance with the forest, dance with the mosquitoes. Dance with the heart of it. Find the hum, the beat. Does the forest answer? Listen? Laugh? Ignore you? Does it know your name?

You can ask nicely, you can command. You can bargain with them, make friends with the skeeters. The evening comes and they gather for food again, blood of a mammal, blood of a bird. Air too still, and they dance in the stillness. Dance in the daytime, dance at night. For life. No swallows here to dive for them. Few dragonflies. Who eats them? Frogs? Do fish eat their larvae?

We are preoccupied with these little things. Their sting, their bite, the blood they draw. They will not be ignored. Small things that rule the summer forest. Like ticks in late spring. Skeeter bit me on the ear, drew blood. Listen. Hear. And the drum sings, beat rolls. Builds up the hum. Summer high summer. Fierce summer.

Longing for a thunderstorm. Noise and light. What happens when the clouds explode, when the air ignites. Fire meets water. Fire meets air, fire meets earth. Thunderstorm: all elements in play. Earth grounds the fire and receives the water. Flash of a dream. Summer calls the elements together in this. Explosion of the clouds. Striking the earth. Soaking it.

Teeny tiny ticks.

I sit outside with wine, watch the lake and the dogs. Eagle comes by and wheels into the forest.

July 29
Mandy and Janine battled skeeters all night, it was the night of the bug warriors. This morning we laughed about it. The Ninja warriors killing all night long, trophies on the wall, splatted mosquitoes.

Brief visit from the sun. Then mist again. A fine mist of rain on the lake, can’t see the other side in it. Mandy out shooting in the bush, wearing her bug hat. What will this cantata become? Music, pictures, a log of a journey, four journeys. An observation of one year, a full round of seasons.

We ask ourselves what we are doing, we don’t know, just listening. Letting the forest speak to some part of us, and us making art from it. Is it me, or is it forest that calls for these words, those photos, recording that sound. Making that observation. Learning that lesson.

Janine notes the theme of death for her, and healing for her, learning. We talked of shrouds and green burial. For me, it is all about the name. Who are you? Can you remember?

I can’t ask the others what their journey is. But we are in a work together. Work we may not altogether understand. Journey, travel, destination. Here we are our own spirit leaders, spirit teachers, and the forest itself leads and teaches us. Speaks and sings to us. Elements, circumstance. And me here wanting to drum, but put off by the bugs and the rain. Drum with words.

Ken off with his recorders to tape the rain on leaves. Yes. Mandy knitting. I trusted this, the insight, that we would learn all this together, on the fly, as we went along. How to create together, how to listen, how to know your ear and voice blending with, speaking with, the heart of the forest. What its sacred song is, what text it is. A moving text, a text of the seasons. Too enormous for a few words, but we shall try.

It says, I was here before you, I shall be here after you. Forest comes after glaciers. Peopling and peopling the land. Rock. Nexus, centre, all elements and the axis of spirit, all directions, all seasons. Making life.

Mandy is knitting by the fire. Ken is recording the sound of rain on leaves. Patter. The quiet wind.

First entry for me into this forest at 11 years old. Just as the body begins to move into puberty. Alive with it. The forest then, adventure, a clear lake, sun on the dock, eating the berries like a little bear, crashing through. Scents of that forest like this one. What calls you at that age? The green, the soft moss, the movement of crayfish in the shallows at the dock. Let the adults worry about bears. We are foragers at that age, like them. Fishermen, cooking on a rusty barrel outside. And no fear then. Living teaches it. So here I am again. Calling back something I left there.
Everything tastes better in the forest, says Janine. The Ninja who defeated Mosquito.

On the forest trail: we saw Eagle fly over, and Raven followed us back from the hike. Hike into the forest was short. We sat and listened for a time. To my right there was a portal, a doorway in the trees. Out of the doorway came Deer, with head and antlers and body like a fawn with the markings, but adult. It stayed there, and at one point turned into the head of a black moose. Then Deer again, stag. Visiting us, or telling us something. We sat still for some time. Skeeters ganged us, hands, feet. We sat still. Doorway stayed there for some time. There are always doorways everywhere it seems, or a few, or where you do not expect them. Then Ken says look up, and Eagle circles us and flies on. Raven just above us. Calling to another raven a distance away. Ken records Raven. A small bird sings its way in to the mix.
Each one of us has a journey. For me, the authentic. The wild. Feel insanely happy here.

Sitting on the cabin deck, I am surrounded by small brown twittering birds of different species. So much flitting, Small birds. Small birds.

Trees sprinkling down the leftovers. Dreaminess of the horizon. Mist again on the lake and you know it’s rain. Spruce puts out soft light cones. Wish I had brought a sketchbook. How does the forest heal? Sucks your blood. Pulls out the poison like leeches do. Thins it. The skeeters do the work, the little ticks.

We take a walk to the airstrip to watch a tiny silver plane take off. Pelican lands on the breakwater. Sailboat tacking in the distance. And the trees still talking/taking in the wind.

Wind in forest again, evening wind.

July 30
July 30We take the habit of choosing animal spirit cards together and reading them. Pulled Turkey and Lynx today. A gift, secrets, old knowledge. Today Janine pulls Hummingbird. Joy. Mandy gets Salmon. Wisdom. Ken pulls Lynx. Secrets, something to be known.

Gift of the forest: a brief glimpse of the sun rising. Then cloud again. No wind yet today. A small spider on the table, visiting. Mandy out shooting pictures, Ken off on a hike. Both bug-hatted. I wanted more light and sun, but each glimpse is a gift. Dappling the forest. A bit of time to drum. Sound of the small planes taking off and landing. Some on land, some on the water.

We move back to the motel for one more night here. We have had a couple of lovely days together in this cabin, right on the water. Small brown forest birds. Can’t find their names in my mind.

Time is a gift, the “no obligations” factor here at Jackpine gives us all downtime and open space. Yesterday, Eagle circled us in the forest, a salute. Today I hear Raven again, further off in the forest. Calling and calling. Crows hung out in the trees this morning, their beautiful shape silhouetted against the lake.

In the meantime here we are. A small bird chirping above the cabin. We have to leave it in an hour, go back to the motel for our last night here. And trusting we can travel tomorrow home. We are not where we set out to be but we are where we need to be at this point in time. We have loved this time in the cabin. We leave our blood here in the forest, thank you, and our DNA goes into it. Ticks, skeeters, whatever bites and takes blood. So we become part of it.
Connecting again is a bit odd. Emails, Facebook, what is going on in the world. What will the forest tell us, what images, sounds, words? High summer this year is all water. No fires. Swift rains and as swiftly, hot sun, then cold rain again. Air moves very fast. Clouds are on a mission. No notice of the world below, creatures like us.

July 31
Raining lightly. We are going home today. Feeling sorry to leave the bush. It has been generous to us, and so have the people. It was a haven when our plans went south. With the wind.

Last night we made a fire on the breakwater. Told ghost stories, Ken played the jaw harp. Leaving music. Shaman music. Speaking to the spirits he was, or learning to.

Fall blogging October 2009

October 3, 2009
Like coming home; the dusty gravel road, winding, twisting to Bissett, the forest more beautiful, more exotic each mile. A dusting of yellows and buffs on deciduous trees, the conifers deep green. Late fall this year, it should be gone, the foliage. Floor of the forest is light with yellow and red leaves. This trip, my brother Tony Szumigalski and sister-in-law Carla Zelmer are with us, both biologists and boreal enthusiasts, to teach us the science and cycles of the boreal, and the great stone Shield. Already Sid and Jeannette, our hostess at the San Antonio hotel, have had a great teasing set-to. The moose head smiles down at us or scowls from the lobby wall.

We make our first foray to the Bissett cemetery, just west of town. It is a small clearing in the forest, a few headstones sprinkled around in the cut grass. A tall evergreen, its branches dripping with a grey-green lichen that hangs like Spanish moss, presides over this home of the Bissett dead. Under it, a long bench faces a family grave. We came here in the winter to find Janine’s mother’s grave, but it was deep under the snows. Today we find it without trouble, its cement veneer now cracking from weather and age. Janine has not seen it in 30 years.

The cemetery is quiet but for the perpetual rustle of the drying poplar leaves that only stops in winter. Everything is now yellow at the edges, red in places. Small bushes with mostly-eaten berries. Carla and Mandy are photographing a bird kill on the road – something has killed, defeathered and eaten a grouse. I pick up a feather and pocket it. There is a whole wing, now all bones and a few tip feathers. Whoever has eaten it has cleaned the bones well. Carla and Mandy snap the scatter of feathers here, there, along the little trail into the cemetery. Ken is hunting sound on the edges of the bush.

We look at each gravestone. Some names Janine knows, tells a story about the deceased. Some are older than her memory of Bissett. Only one is older than Bissett itself, a small grave of two children who died sometime in the 1930s.
After dinner we take a walk to the lake, just as the sun sets, a little south now, we are past Equinox and moving toward the dark time of the year. The rock is gigantic, and scored deeply by the glacier that passed here some 15,000 or so years ago. It’s cold tonight, too, and I begin to regret not bringing my parka instead of all these layers. Still, I am warm enough for the night.

The town is built on rocks, granite broken and scarred, striated by the glaciers. If you climb high enough you can look over Rice Lake, its far shore almost touchable, and now spattered with patches of yellow over the deep green of the evergreens. The small islands, the still autumn lake. Little float planes tied up at the dock.

I wonder if the stones will keep me awake at night with their hardness, the banging inside them, their density speaking and speaking, stories of their lives, the lives of the trees, lichens, the animals that have passed here, the creatures who have crawled on them, lived in their cracks and crevices, the human lives that have come and gone around them. Carla tells us the soil is young, only a few thousand years old, very thin, the forest grows in the cracks, the fungi and lichens break it down, granite as dense as any stone in the world. These organisms can digest it, slowly, but they do their work. This is the long cycle of the forest, the growing on rock, breaking it into soil, as individual trees, whole stands, come and go in their tens and hundreds of years. The forest cycles of 70 or 80 years of youth, maturity, old age and burn. And the cycles of the years, the seasons. Cycles within cycles. Lives within lives.

As this autumn slowly arrives, I think of the spring forest with its exaltation of nesting and birthing, the bursting of new leaves, the homecoming of birds from the south. I think of the slow summer of insects and fruit, the rains and the deep greens of climax. There is a calm now as the birds gather and feed on their southward migration again, all the young of the year matured. The winter birds, the year-round birds, cluster and quarrel at feeders, in the trees, nabbing the ripe berries that still cling to bushes, picking at seeds close to the ground.

Tomorrow we are going to Wallace Lake. Tony and Carla went there for a field trip as undergrads, and are glad to return these decades later. It has been about twenty years since that forest burned, and we want to see how a new forest grows, what communities it makes, what grows first, the jack pine, the birch bringing its light and short life, the slow spruces, tamaracks.

Carla asks how these visits to the forest have changed our view of it. I can’t say it has changed it, I say, it has opened and expanded memory. We lived in the northern forest for two months the summer I was eleven turning twelve. Half a century ago. But I recall the scents, the height of trees, the heat of clearings, the sound of feet on moss and cracking twigs. Picking berries, listening to the lap of lake against shore stones. Hearing the little float planes take off and land on the lake. The scent of the summer forest. The air full of oxygen. Small dusty roads. The taste of bush food: fresh fish caught off the pier, cooked outdoors in a bit of butter and flour; wild raspberries pulled off the bush and popped into the mouth. Bursting with juice and tasting like rubies. Distant wolf voices. The always frisson of knowing there are bears somewhere around, or moose in their craziness charging out of nowhere. Rain in the trees, dripping after the rain has stopped. Those strange black edges and holes in leaves, bacteria already eating them as they grow. Spindly forest floor plants reaching for what sun they can catch. Treetops tossing with ravens, crows, eagles. Their calls fixing in your heart and memory, your body.

October 4, 2009
I brought my drum, to drum with the forest again, Ken his jaw harps. Perhaps we will make some music. Sid is returning to Winnipeg today with Tony and Carla.

Sandy PathBut poetry of the forest will speak. We will learn the names of the plants from Tony and Carla. Their stages of life. Carla spoke yesterday about poison ivy, how dangerous it is in all seasons, even winter, yet the birds can eat its berries, white columns on low stalks. We walked for a bit by the dam at Powerview, into the trail leading south, before turning north and east for Bissett. Leaves of small shrubs, crimson with crimson, pomegranate-coloured berries in clusters at the top of stalks. The deep shiny scarlet of rose hips. Scant leaves on the plants. A lone coot still moving through the reeds behind the dam. Oak trees, young ones, no acorns on them. The road east and north beside us.

Shield country bangs with the energy of the stones, the granite. Grey, pink, covered with lichen and striations, gouges, like trails of animals digging the dirt. The forest is creating soil, homes, food, lives, oxygen. We breathe the forest. It lives like its denizens along rivers, by lakes. Water. Shore birds, water birds. Small song birds. The great predators and scavengers. The eaters of the plenty of insects in the summer. These are now almost gone, though there are a few left, stragglers in the lateness of the fall. Still food, still warm enough for them to feed before flying.

Geological time is short here, everything young in those terms. The rocks may be old, but the landscape is creating itself now. All the creatures and plants together. Bears still roaming, eating, rutting. Soon they will find dens and bury themselves in sleep for the winter. The females pregnant. Still a few berries for them, though not many left.

Guardians of the forest: bears, wolves, ravens, eagles, spirits. In winter just ravens, wolves and spirits. Bears gone to bed, eagles gone south. In the fall, the eagles are still here, they will marshal soon, I am told.

We begin at Wallace Lake, a morning jaunt to the new forest. Much of it is young: jack pine and poplars, birches. Carla says the jack pine is a healer after a burn. Its seeds are hard cased, and need the burn to come open and sprout. We arrive at the lake, and locate a trail. Here the forest is deep in shield country, and as we climb into the forest, we climb the oldest mountains in the world. Pink and grey granite, streaked in places with white quartz. The forest grows on it, out of it, unmaking it into soil.

Boreality ProjectWe walk heads down, it is on the forest floor that the action is. Mosses, lichens, fungi. We find a multitude of late mushrooms. Carla explains them to us. Mosses, Tony knows, and there are mosses we have never seen. Lichens that surprise us – a little red one called British Soldier for its red coat, among the grey and green lichens. The lichens make a living off the rock, break it down for the tiny jack pines growing in the cracks of the old granite mountains. The soil is thin, and the trees spread their roots laterally to hold themselves in place, to find nourishment.

We arrive finally on the shore. Someone has made a fire pit. We lie back in the brief sun and Ken silences us to listen to the fall forest. A distant float plane. A squirrel chattering. A crow somewhere over the trees. The lake barely lapping. Silence. Voices in the distance, someone cracking twigs. We wish we had brought our lunch with us, break silence as a few drops of rain, mist almost, begin to fall. We hike back, hungry now.

The Wallace Lake campground has picnic tables, fire pits. We haul out a smorg of breads, spreads, cheeses, corn chips, cookies, apples. Tony finds wood, Carla and Ken make the fire, Janine and Mandy lay out the lunch. It’s chilly, cloudy. We eat standing around the fire. After lunch Carla demonstrates how to balance a stick on your hand. We play the boreal stick game, everyone having a go, balancing the stick. A ballet (Mandy and Janine), a cha cha (Sid), and a made run (Tony). Ken cheats, balancing it against his hat. We are laughing at our own silliness, at how something as simple as a found stick can provide so much amusement to us (more or less middle-aged) artists and scientists.

We decide to find a hidden falls on the road back, but first stop at a granite quarry just past a small airstrip. Here we feel like we are climbing the ancient mountains again, and find the highest rock to view the forest new forest. The vista is stunning, greens, yellows of fall. On our way out, we find another bird kill. Yesterday we found the remains of a grouse, feathers and bones. Today we find what seems to be a raptor. We don’t know the species, so I take some feathers to identify with my bird book when I get home. I take the feathers also for the bird. You do not know what gifts the forest will give you, sticks, stones, feathers. Today I took a stone shaped like, and sharp as, a knife, a granite shard from the quarry. Perhaps it was dynamited off.

We take photos of ourselves on the rocks, surrounded by the forest. Striated rocks shot through with quartz. Sid wants to know how to identify the trees. Carla and Tony teach him about the jack pine and the birch. Sid is nimble going up and down the rocks, over the stumps and fallen stems of the trees.

Few birds are left to sing in the tree tops. Some whiskey jacks amuse us at the waterfall. So much else is ravens and crows. We end at Birch Falls, at least that’s what Janine thinks it is called.

Still WaterA hidden black winding river, the tall thin trees of old forest lining the banks. We scoot down a steep bank to the first station of this, what comes out to be, a kind of pilgrimage. Discovery. Old Man’s Beard lichen drip from trees like Spanish Moss. We move further down: here, black sharp rocks make a chute, black water funnels, plunges through them, becomes rapids, leaping over unseen dark stones, down to another chute, a fall, foam rusty with tannin. A pooling, then down more rapids, then a short fall into a cauldron of black water.

You know this is a holy spot at the first stop, the winding river in the protection of old trees, some now yellowing with the fall. You know you are in a holy place at the first falls, the white foam on black water. You know you are in a holy place at the third station, the rapids and the black cauldron. The water slips away then almost unseen down a small bed, under an arbour of branches that almost hides it. Another world beyond. Secret and you hardly notice, it goes its own way under this arbour. Black water and white foam. The old trees watching.

Hardly a bird in the trees, no mammals. You don’t even hear them, though there must be bears in this forest. Weasels, raccoons. Mice. Quiet, like winter, but the colours, the colours! No season for colour like this one.

A few water birds, still hanging on, a flock of coots in the reeds of Rice Lake, a small bird darting into the empty reeds now turning their green into the buff of winter. A few geese. Beaver crossing the unrippled inlet home.

If there is one audible voice that spans the seasons of the forest, it is the voice of the raven. Even in the fall, the winter, you will hear him, hear her. Sentinel in the quiet seasons, in the loud ones.

We walk again through the town of Bissett, now a place of memory, too many decaying houses, doors coming off hinges. Who are the forest people who live, lived here? Miners, opportunists. Like the cemetery, the town is almost empty. Open lots where houses were, where there was a store, a movie theatre. The old mountains still under them, still making soil with the trees. They have to blast through this granite as though it were mountains, and that is because it is, was. Laid on its side, this old range, the whole Precambrian, geological time so long we cannot imagine it. Or we can, or at least put numbers to it. But the slow movement of rock, air, water, fire. Earth making earth. Creatures of air, wind, of water, the rapids, the rain, glaciers, the lakes that come and go. The fire of cleansing and renewal, forest cycles of burn and grow. We saw the new forests today, along with the old.

Voices of the forest: animal, bird, water, wind in trees, cracking of twigs underfoot, the fall of trees, the roar of fire. The patter of rain. The slow, slow groan of rock as it ages, moves, sings in its long geological time. We hardly hear it, but listen, the old mountains call to the trees, the fungi the lichens, the creatures that walk on them with hooves, padded clawed feet, who scratch themselves and wear them down over time.

We had thought to connect, make music, drum and harp, but we fall asleep too early for that, take time alone in our rooms. There is no drumming in a motel, there are other guests.

Tomorrow we go to the petroforms, to look on these ancient sacred sites. What are the animal forms for? Clans? Calling the spirits? Remembering? These old mountains were alive and singing in their prime, there was no bear, no otter, no creatures of the woods as we know them. They had not yet evolved. They had not yet come into being. Just vague forms in the Lower World, that is all. Or were they already there waiting to materialize when the time became right? When the old creatures had run their course, died out, and now where are they? Hanging in museums, their bones only.

What will come after these?

The forest breathes, makes air for the air breathers. Makes soil for plants that feed animals that feed plants.

October 5, 2009
The sacred story of soil making: the “characters” are intrepid plants, fungi, beings who pioneer and prepare the way, make it possible. The lichens. Each being is a community of beings. Co-operatives. Some die along the way. Fungi the decayers. Breaking things down, making possible. We eat these carrion makers who call the food into the tree, break it down when it dies. In the fall you consider the closing, breaking down of things. Bacteria in leaves, fungi in the roots, praise them indeed.

We make our way to Nutimik Lodge in the Whiteshell, settle into comfortable cottages, each facing the creek, each with a fire pit and picnic table. Two of us per cabin. Our first “family” meal of the trip we cook, we sit down together, we do dishes. Tonight is Ukrainian food night, perogies and cabbage rolls, and raw veggies. Some from the garden. We have arranged to meet Ron Bell who will take us to the Bannock Point petroforms this evening, at seven. It will be dark. Ron is the keeper of the petroforms, and is an expert on them.

He comes for us right at seven, and we take my drum. We enter from the highway, it is only a short walk up and into the site. We stop at an entry rock where offerings of tobacco and other gifts cover the rock. We each put our pinch of tobacco on, asking permission to enter. Ron walks us counter clockwise in the dusk. We can make out some of the forms, turtles, snakes, pathways on the rock. He wants to take us finally to the circle, where there is a medicine wheel, and a grove of trees hung with cloths. He tells us the story again of how Turtle became the back of North America, Turtle Island.

There is a stone circle around the grove, and we enter it at his invitation. Ron borrows my drum to sing to the spirits. He tells me to sit down on a flat rock and play my drum. Ken asks permission to play with me on his jaw harp. We play together until we are done. Ron wants the ancestors to come and dance, but the cloths don’t move much. But we see the spirit lights in the grove, in the trees around. Small blue lights winking. They are here, but we are strangers. I would have danced with the drum, but Ron had told me to sit. I am here at the sufferance of those who know it, whose world and structure it is. But I would have danced had it been mine.

By the time we are done it is dark, and Ron takes us out the way we came, careful to say thanks with a pinch of tobacco. We agree to meet the next morning to trek out to the Tie Creek petroforms. He tells us we may dream or have visions from this visit. I sit out before bed for a smoke, watching a beaver wend its way to the docks on the opposite shore.

October 6, 2009
I don’t recall any dreams from the petroform visit, but I wake up worried I won’t be able to walk into Tie Creek, that my knee will give out. Ron has told us it is 3.5 miles into the site by foot, then the same out, and we will be walking the site itself.

It is overcast and cool when we arrive at the pathway in. Ron walks with his eagle wing announcing us. The path is as wide as an ATV can take, and is double rutted, littered with puddles and little bogs, but green still, and bounded by forest on either side. Through the bush we can see Precambrian rocks rising in the forest, still a little bit mountain.
We manage the walk with wet feet, and very muddy shoes. It is not as difficult as I had imagined for my bum knee. It takes us an hour and a half.

Suddenly we come out into a clearing, and it is all rock. We are at the entryway of the petroform site. Big boulders are placed perhaps as sentinels, as welcomers. A buffalo stone. A drumming stone. Ron drums it to see if we can enter the site. Lucky for us, it drums out the affirmative. He tells us that once he took a group of people in, and when he drummed the stone for permission, it was not granted. He trekked the group back out again without them having seen the petroforms they had walked the 3.5 miles to see.

Permission granted, we leave our offering of tobacco in the hollow of the stone, then walk in. The site is a rolling sea of boulder punctuated by standing rocks, tree clumps, lichens and mosses.

We enter a portal between two stones, into the land of the ancestors. We are walking west. The petroform site itself is now bounded by a huge chain link fence 10 kilometres around. This became necessary to prevent people from running over the stones in ATVs and snowmobiles. Ron has the key to the fence. We finally enter the site of the petroforms.

Snake PetroformHow ancient it feels here. One estimate for the age of the forms, or some of them, is about 10,000 years. After the last Ice Age. If that is the case, then some forms were laid down before there was a boreal forest here. Given the amount of time it takes to generate soil enough for the trees to get purchase and food, the forest is young, perhaps in comparison to these forms. I think about Carla and Tony telling us, showing us, how the soil is created, slowly, bit by bit, by lichens eating the rock, mosses, fungi, the litter of vegetation, animal droppings. On the site, and throughout the forest, tipped trees show us exactly how thin the soil is, even after 10,000 years, the roots growing outward, not down. Soil holding these trees cannot be more than about 4 to 6 inches deep. The soil is made on, and partly out of, the old mountains of the Precambrian. The forest grows on it, and breaks it down.

Like the Bannock Point site, this one also is hung everywhere with coloured cloths dangling from the trees. Ron blows his eagle whistle to let the ancestors and other spirits know we are here. We have been walking a long time, so we pick a spot out of the wind and build a small fire, and eat a backpack lunch. The rock is blackening with new soil, and with age. Perhaps pollution. While we rest, Ron pulls out his drum and sings the welcome song. I am happy that I can sing along with him. He goes to the nearest and biggest form, and speaks to the directions, calling with his drum.

Ron with featherWe are in a slightly different dimension. The place is heavy with the age of itself, its energies upon energies making dense the air, and we are all knocked a bit off world. We walk them all, these forms, and we see that the stones are now overtaken by lichens, forest beginning to claim the site. What can you do? I think of the knowledge stored in the stones, and in the huge worn-down mountains we are standing, walking, sitting on. It is all stone.

Ken wanders off to take some sound, and Ron amuses us by making us sing songs. Ken gives up, we are too noisy. Ron fills and lights his pipe and we smoke to the ancient spirits here. They are everywhere with their ancient languages, their old knowledge, of stars, land, rivers, lakes, ceremonies, magic. Teachings of how to live. Animal energies. Clan totems. A gathering centre of generation upon generation. Here there is still knowledge of how to speak with the ancestors, how to dance with them. Call them to your ceremony, your dreams.

There is a petroform that Ron tells us is a Thunderbird, with the outline of a sweat lodge inside it. This one he says is the most potent.

Before we leave, Ron gives us a tied red and white cloth to hang in the trees for our project. We put our hands on it, put our hopes and wishes into it. Janine and Ken hang it in a pine tree, high.

The rocks of each petroform are not large, but are arranged in patterns. Some are animal shapes, some are oblongs, straight lines, some are piled on each other. Stones all mottled now with grey-green lichens.

When we entered the site the sun came out, and while the wind moves constantly on the big rocks, the rocks reflect back the sun’s heat, and we look into blue sky as we walk the range of the site.

This is fall, quiet in the forest, and very quiet here at the site. A few whiskey jacks squealing. The ever present sentinel, the raven, calling from time to time. Patter of the drying leaves of the birch, the poplar. Yellow everywhere in the green. We walked in on a highway of stone. We walk back out on the same highway. It has been walked for so many centuries it is almost as though it had been built that way, but you know that the ancients found it, recognized it, and walked it the way it led them.

As we trek back through the forest to our parked van, the light of the afternoon sun shafts through the trees, pools along the path. It is easier to see into the forest with this much light. Ron spots some wild ginger and stops to harvest it. We take a rest on the still-soft and moist mosses along the road. I can’t remember the names of all the plants. He has been instructing us along the way which lichens are good for which illnesses, how a certain bracket fungus can be lit and inhaled to cure a headache.

By the time we arrive at the van, my knees are aching, I just want to sit down. But we are deliriously happy, and we do not know yet how the ancients may have spoken to us, or not, and we don’t know what dreams may come after.
We make a fire in our fire pit after dinner, chat a little. My body tells me to lie down now. But not before I see Beaver swimming in for the night from somewhere down the creek.

October 7, 2009
I am stiff this morning from the long walk to the petroforms. The walk in was long and delicious, the walk through the forest to them, the portals in, the highway of stone taking us to somewhere very sacred. It turns you inside out. It is a way in to speak to the ancestors, to learn the stars. The forest is encroaching. Why now? Something has happened, as it should. The knowledge must come out.

Today we are leaving the Whiteshell, the forest, and we have done our year of seasons in the boreal. The last trip of this phase. We make a daylight visit to the Bannock Point site, by ourselves, and walk it this time clockwise. First to the big circle with the medicine wheel, then around to the animal forms, making a circle back. Snakes, frogs, turtles, no end of turtles here. Mandy snaps some pictures in daylight, permission granted for this by Ron. We leave the site and head down through the Whiteshell, out of the forest for home.

Along the way we see more eagles than we had seen all three previous trips. Wheeling over a goose sanctuary, two of them. Then about ten scattered up from a road kill as we drove by. Then two more from another road kill. I had seen one from our Nutimik cabin while watching the creek. It flew over, carrying a fish in its talons. Forest life. Geese come home at dusk, the beaver too. Silence of the autumn all around us. The sweet scent of leaf decay. Sun further south as it rises and falls. When we arrived at Nutimik I bought a bottle of good Cabernet Sauvignon, knowing I could not finish it. Before we leave I give the rest to the land, the forest, in four directions, as thanks for the year, the four trips out, the learning and listening, the pleasure and danger of the boreal.