Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What I Did On My Summer Holidays

You may have noticed that things have been kind of quiet at Double Articulation for awhile.

That’s because I’ve been on vacation. What felt like my first real vacation in two years—the highlight of which was nine blissful days with my wife in Northern Ontario, a.k.a. Tom Thomson country: lakes, granite, jack pines, sunshine, and somewhere in there, tucked away in a quiet corner of a quiet lake, The Cabin.

My parents designed it in the late seventies, and it was built over the course of many summers by (mainly) four pairs of hands: my dad’s, my mom’s, my sister’s, and—to my utter amazement—mine. The cabin’s floor plan is basic; its decor, homey; its construction, solid enough to withstand a tornado—if not a nuclear attack. It’s the setting of many of my happiest childhood memories, and today, it is a nearly sacred place of retreat. Practically the only place I go where I genuinely relax.

Anyone who’s experienced it from a young age understands the lure of cottage country, particularly in Canada where “wilderness” and the “return to nature” remain central to the tourist-brochure version of our national mythology that many of us urbanites cling to, even if we feel somewhat sheepish about the privilege entailed in owning a cottage when we think about it too much. I was lucky enough to be immersed in this world of weekend wilderness early, thanks to my sturdy and industrious parents whose Luddite sensibilities crafted a “return to nature” more rigorous than most. Envisioning the good life as a sort of indefinite return to the nineteenth century, my folks developed an austere family version of Canada’s wilderness mythology by building a cabin that defiantly resisted plumbing, electricity, motor boats, and phones for more than 25 years. And am I ever grateful to them for their trouble and foresight. I wouldn’t trade the wooden rowboat my dad built for a motorized version if you paid me. I’ve been able to forgive my parents’ very recent “improvements” to the place—the installation of a solar panel, generator, modest interior lighting, and composting peat toilet—only because these things all hew (albeit barely) to the “right” side of my family’s snobbish line between good old-fashioned rusticity and the creature comforts of modern life.

Unsurprisingly, at the heart of my love of the cabin are satisfactions of simplification: getting around on your own steam, shedding attachments and responsibilities, leaving all the gizmos behind and entering into—if only in moments—a heightened relationship with this thing we call nature. This is never more true than when I take the rowboat across the lake on a calm day.

Ah, rowing. What I love about rowing is how its sheer physicality permits an escape from consciousness, replacing thought with a feeling of Zen-like oneness between you, the boat, the lake, and the landscape that all rowers know. That feeling of giving yourself up to the rhythm of the oars that sets your body rocking like a pendulum. The way the pleasing resistance of the water propels you forward (backward) as the boat cleaves the surface of the lake. Rowing is a heady and hypnotic mode of travel; it sends you forward through space and backwards into the past with every stroke. The rowboat is literally a time machine, your joints, muscles, bone, and heart its moving parts. For me, it is the cottage experience in its purest form. And perhaps its truest form also, because the boat, like the cabin itself, is a machine that interposes itself between you and the ruggedness of the landscape, domesticating it in a way that paradoxically allows you to experience nature more profoundly and more intimately.

In a related way, vacationing at the cottage recreates a pleasurable fantasy of some earlier historical period of settlement—pleasurable because it is obviously much more comfortable than the real thing. (Susanna Moodie didn’t have a cooler full of ice-cold Keith’s to cool off with, much less a composting peat-toilet to piss in. But that’s precisely the beauty of “roughing it,” cottager-style.) My mother’s recent implementation of a cabin “Record” has made this connection to the fantasy of a benign and idyllic settlement even more intense, for the “Record” is a logbook of sorts where such details as the weather, progress on cabin projects, and encounters with nature are lovingly noted for posterity and rainy days. In other words, this wonderful addition to the cabin experience lets you channel your inner Catherine Parr Traill and Ernest Thompson Seton, letting you assume the role of settler diarist and amateur naturalist for the duration of your visit.

Maybe this is why it felt so right to sit on the porch all day reading 19th- and early 20th-century classics of Canadian literature, as I did during that nine day sojourn, in preparation for the CanLit survey-course I’m teaching in September. Where better to read Goldsmith’s “The Rising Village,” Sangster’s “Sonnets, Written in the Orillia Woods,” Isabella Valancy Crawford’s “The Dark Stag” and “The Canoe,” anything by Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, D.C. Scott, or Pauline Johnson? Where better to browse through a dog-eared copy of Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known (my dad’s) or be charmed almost to the point of anguish by Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town? And then there’s Martha Ostenso’s flawed masterpiece of prairie titanism, Wild Geese, and F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith’s modernist hymns to the blasted Northern Ontario landscapes of Tom Thomson. Even E.J. Pratt’s somewhat turgid railway epic, Towards the Last Spike, has a special savor out in the bush, since the train tracks pass directly through the community on the other side of the lake and you can hear the VIA’s whistle wail through the jack pines and poplar any night of the week.

The slide from wilderness landscape to wilderness literature to which I’ve just fallen prey (the feedback loop of the wilderness myth) brings me to the second dimension of the cabin experience that makes me so deeply (and compulsively) happy: the bookcase. Our cabin’s bookcase has fourteen shelves, two of which house cashew containers from Costco that are now filled with nails, leaving ten shelves for books and two additional shelves for magazines and (of course) comics. (You knew there had to be comics in this shaggy-dog story somewhere, didn’t you?)

Of the books and magazines, there are many different types, so many, in fact, and of such curious variety, that I am forced to rely on the ingeniously flexible method employed by Borges’s famous “Chinese encyclopaedist” to categorize them all. There are, in no particular order: (a) old books belonging to my parents that intrigue me, but that I am unlikely to read: my father’s Gerald Durrell collection, my mother’s biographies of Louisa May Alcott and Queen Victoria, the toxic and voluminous output of Ayn Rand, for which no one is eager to claim ownership; (b) books belonging to my parents that have forced me to reevaluate my adolescent prejudice that everything they read was boring: my mother’s shelf of Agatha Christie mysteries, my father’s P.G. Wodehouse and Ross MacDonald collections, a stray Ian Fleming novel; (c) classic adventure books that I pick up every time I come, but put down again because “I’m not in the right mood”: Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Cases, The Coral Island, King Solomon’s Mines, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and the like; (d) books I will never read that I acquired at thrift stores and library sales for practically nothing during one of my aggressive “beach reading” campaigns, apparently forgetting that the person supposed to be reading them was me: Night Sins by Tami Hoag and Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, for instance; (e) a small collection of parables and “occult” matter such as Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a Herman Hesse novel, Your Happiness is in the Stars by “Constella” and The Sexual Key to the Tarot (the latter two contributed by, of all people, my late grandmother); (f) capital-L “Literature,” frequently lesser works by great novelists: Dombey & Son, Of Mice and Men, Four Plays by Ibsen, The Tin Drum, Dr. Zhivago, Jacob’s Room, Short Story Masterpieces, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, Vonnegut’s Mother Night, assorted novels by Orwell and Graham Greene, an entry from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet that torments and irritates my wife; (g) my dad’s childhood copy of Pinocchio with disturbing illustrations by Louise Beaujon; (h) books I bought in Kenora: a spy novel by Jack Higgins and Sudanna, Sudanna—funny SF by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian; (i) miscellaneous things that come from god knows where: The Guinness Book of World Records (1973 and 1978 editions), garage sale favorite The Cradle Will Fall by Mary Higgins Clark, a novelization of Flatliners (remember that?), and my personal favorite in this category…Lincoln’s Wit: Humorous Tales and Anecdotes About Our 16th President; (j) theme books of doubtful value with titles like At the Cottage that I for some reason feel compelled to give as gifts to my parents; (k) genuinely useful and oft-consulted guidebooks: Up North: A Guide to Ontario’s Wilderness, Instant Weather Forecasting in Canada, Wildflowers Across the Prairies, Medicine for Mountaineering, Birds of North America, Guide to Animal Tracks, and of course, Hoyle’s Book of Rules; (l) assorted nonfiction with nondescript titles like The Prometheus Project, Overlord (not to be confused with Arthur Hailey’s Overload, on the same shelf), The American Magic (not about magic), and The Challenge; (m) a selection of Soap Opera Digests from 1994 to the present whose presence shall pass without further comment, as will that of several well-thumbed issues of Star, Us, and In Touch, of whose contents I am forced to deny all knowledge, not to mention rather impressive collections of sailing magazines (belonging to my father) and Gourmet magazines from the 70s (belonging to my mother), neither of which tempt me, but whose presence I find reassuring.

Collectively, these books and magazines form what might be considered the crust, or upper layer of the bookcase. They are the stuff of recent, present, and possibly future reading. Below this layer, however, is a maze of deep, interlocking caverns. If you dig a little, you find the teenaged years—only for the stouthearted or the archaeologically curious, I assure you. Appropriately, perhaps, the first thing you’ll hit is a thick vein of horror. Two shelves of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and an embarrassing profusion of paperbacks sporting devils, daggers, and breasts on their covers. Dig a little further and you’ll reach a smattering of fantasy and science fiction novels, most of which were purchased from the old McNally Robinson in Kenaston Village or from Bookfair in downtown Winnipeg between 1984 and 1986. Leigh Brackett’s Skaith novels, for instance. The entire output of Dennis L. McKeirnan. Asimov’s Foundation novels. The first trilogy of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s perfect D&D fantasy. Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series (as usual, I stalled after Book Two). Dig further still and you’ll come to the detritus of puberty: Clan of the Cave Bear and the addictive sleaze of Sidney Sheldon and Lawrence Sanders. Under that, there are the stories and poems of late childhood: Kay Hill’s beautiful collections of Wabanaki legends, Glooscap and His Magic and More Glooscap Stories, a stray Three Investigators novel (I have the rest at home), Aileen Fisher’s Cricket in a Thicket (rhyming nature poems), about two thirds of The Adventures of Tintin, and my favorite Asterix story: Asterix and the Soothsayer. Then there are the picture books that I loved or that my sister loved: Three Little Kittens (wittily illustrated by Lilian Obligado) , Tawny Scrawny Lion, The Hole in the Fence, Richard Scary’s anthropomorphic extravaganzas About Animals and All Day Long, Lamont the Lonely Monster, Angela Banner’s weird and wonderful Ant and Bee books…

Now, finally, we’re getting somewhere—into the muck of real childhood. And it turns out, not coincidentally, that we’re getting back to the wilderness myth with which I began. For at the next level we encounter crumbling stacks of Owl Magazine from 1977, Canada’s answer to National Geographic’s far glossier World Magazine. World is here too, of course. Also making strong showings in this category are a stack of my sister’s Chickadee magazines (Owl for younger children) and an assortment of the National Wildlife Service’s more obscure (to a Canadian kid) and thus clearly hipper nature magazine, Ranger Rick (the gift of a more worldly childhood friend). These other magazines were all great, but in my (so Canadian) childhood, nature was what happened in the pages of Owl: those dusty-looking monochrome photospreads of children picking up leaves, skating on a pond, or building walkie-talkies. The see-through illustrations of logs or snow banks where the exterior was cut away to reveal a teeming (or hibernating) world of animal life. I can’t even calculate the number of hours I spent pouring over Dr. Zed’s science experiments, the comic book adventures of the Mighty Mites (3 kids who shrink), Groan Time (your bad puns), and Hoot (Owl’s backpage “newsletter”). Much of the content was too complicated for a 5-year-old to fathom, but it was all mysterious and fascinating nonetheless.

This, perhaps, is the real bedrock of my Canadian cabin fantasy: the purely innocent and private childhood “nature” of Owl. A nature that is inseparable in my mind from the cozy x-ray drawings of “Animals Underground,” from the micro-pioneering of the Mighty-Mites, and from undemanding lessons about plant and animal names. This is no doubt why I love my mother’s “Cabin Record” and my father’s coverless copy of Seton so much now. They’re all Owl, in different forms.

I haven’t spoken yet about the modest collection of yellowed comic books that sits in a tattered heap on one of the lower shelves. I’ll save that heap for another day. In an act that felt like a true violation of the spirit of the cottage, I brought this pile of comics home with me because I wanted to write about them. And I will. But the enjoyment I’ll get from revisiting them in this context doesn’t dull my sense that a storehouse of ancient relics has been disturbed. That a grave robber in the guise of an archaeologist has been poking around when he should have left well enough alone.

How did the cabin bookcase come to acquire such absurdly mythic dimensions in my mind? It isn’t just that it’s become the dumping ground for so much of my childhood reading matter, though that is certainly a big part of it. The more important reason, though, is that the cabin bookcase has become a concrete microcosm of my family’s collective reading experiences—of our intellectual adventures and obsessions. And it’s an extremely rare and precious object because it is, in truth, the only physical place where all of our reading pleasures, past and present, meet and mingle. What a marvelous thing it is to think of the shared experiences that occur at that bookcase in the wilderness when my sister or I read one of my mom’s Agatha Christies, when my wife reads one of my dad’s P.G. Wodehouses, when my dad picks up a science fiction book, or when my mom pores over my old copies of Man-Wolf and Magnus Robot Fighter. Okay, I’m lying about that last example. But make no mistake: the bookcase too is a kind of wilderness. A wilderness of memory, for one thing. And an anarchic no-man’s-land of the family, for another. A place where all the familiar roles and rules of family are suspended. A place where adult children recover traces of their parents’ childhoods and youth, where comic books rub covers with biographies, and where the solitary act of reading turns out not to be so solitary after all.


Matthew E said...

That bookshelf sounds a lot like my bookshelves. I could make a number of comments on the books you list, but I'll restrict myself to the most important one: try the Gerald Durrell! Durrell is great. He's basically got three kinds of books: a) books about growing up in Corfu, which are idyllic in just the right way, b) books about running his zoo, which have lots of interesting stuff about animals, and c) books about his animal-collecting expeditions, which are like b) but with travel. He's a very engaging writer, good sense of humour.

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful. Just beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Jim: have you read E.B. White's short essay, "Once More to the Lake"? (From the early 40s, I think)
You brought White's work to mind, since his essay shares much of the intergenerational backward/forward-ness of your own piece. And the last line is one of the most poignant things I've ever read (it's like a pinprick to your heart if you've got kids and have tried to share elements of your own youth with them)

Anonymous said...

"What I love about rowing is how its sheer physicality permits an escape from consciousness, replacing thought with a feeling of Zen-like oneness between you, the boat, the lake, and the landscape that all rowers know."

This sentence is the perfect example of what happens when brilliant intellectuals actually get exercise!

Great essau, Roeg.

Jim Roeg said...

Thanks for that Durrell overview, Matthew. I once made the mistake of (quite inadvertently!) insulting someone's academic research into animal stories by folks like Seton and Roberts, and have since learned the error of my ways. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before my resistance to Durrell breaks down too--and I'll no doubt remember your recommendation when I scan those shelves next summer!

joe - thanks so much for that E. B. White reference. I've never read it but will absolutely seek it out. A pinprick to your heart, you say? Sounds like my kind of essay.

Thanks, thomas - too bad it happens so rarely! I don't know about the brilliant intellectual part, but I definitely need more zen-like oneness...

Jim Roeg said...

You're too kind, plok--I'm blushing! And you're most welcome--I'm glad that my lakeside musings captured something of your experience too. (I wrote most of this one out at the cottage and tweaked it once back in the city. I'd intended to post it immediately upon returning, but the best laid plans...) At any rate, I really look forward to the epic on that amazing bibliography you cite--autobibliography, that is!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Reminds me of my few visits to a lake(s) in Canada north of Michigan.

Rowing took me a few hundred yards of getting used to, but once I got the hang of it, it felt like a breeze (granted, by the time I had gotten the hang of it I had built up some momentum).

The best part for me the first time I rowed across the lake(s) was getting to the island in the middle of the big one (I guess I should mention that this was two lakes connected by a small channel--hence the "(s)" ) and just breaking out a one person tent and camping out for the night with my then girlfriend. you never realize how loud the night really is till you've left the quieter night noise of urbania.

And dark too--except on the lake outside the confines of the trees where the city lights don't get in the way of the stars.


Thanks for bringing back some of my memories, Jim.

Jim Roeg said...

You're most welcome, jon, and thanks for sharing yours. I always wished that there was an island on my lake. On "the best camping trip ever" a group of us swam to a largish island in the middle of an empty lake (we wore life jackets) and spent the day exploring it. There's just something about islands...